Nick Anderson is Breaking Baseball

It’s no secret that Nick Anderson is one of my favorite pitchers. When he ran a near-50% strikeout rate for the first month or two of the year, only months removed from being traded by the Twins to avoid a roster crunch, I was hooked by the story. More than the story, I was hooked by his curveball, a mid-80s, 12-6 snapping thing that ate batters alive:

Of course, I wasn’t the only person to notice, not by a long shot: the 37% strikeout rate he ran with the Marlins was a top-10 rate in baseball, and that’s not exactly easy to fake. The curve clearly played, getting whiffs on 53.7% of swings, third-highest in baseball for a curveball, and it wasn’t just numbers on a spreadsheet either — you can’t watch that pitch to Carson Kelly above and not say “ooh that’s nasty.”

When the Rays traded for Anderson at the deadline, I was elated. Anderson wasn’t exactly a household name, but he is in my household, and it was quite a thrill seeing a playoff-contending team, one who employs a noted reliever discoverer, concur with me that Anderson was a monster. The Rays don’t quite have the same reputation as the Astros for improving pitchers, but they do have a reputation for getting the most out of relievers, and an unlocked Nick Anderson sounded amazing to me. Read the rest of this entry »

Craig Edwards FanGraphs Chat–8/15/2019

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The Twins’ Two-Headed Catching Monster

It’s a rough time to be a catcher. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen catcher offensive production drop to extreme lows. Last year, major league backstops compiled 49.9 WAR, the lowest total since 2004, and their collective wRC+ was just 84, the lowest mark since 2002. In this day and age, it’s not uncommon to see teams select their starting backstops based on their defensive prowess and ability to handle a pitching staff rather than their ability to contribute offensively. That’s the only explanation for why Jeff Mathis continues to receive plate appearances despite a running a wRC+ that’s in the single digits.

For most teams, the backup catcher is an afterthought on the roster, selected for his ability to competently go about his duties without hurting the team too much. Most backup catchers see the field once or twice a week, three times if they’re lucky, so their effect on the overall production of the lineup is rather minimal. But there are a few squads this year who have been blessed with an abundance of catching riches.

Five teams have received more than three wins from their catching corps in 2019:

Team Catching, 2019
Brewers 113 29.35% 17.6 4.6
Phillies 97 40.48% 6.5 4.2
Diamondbacks 109 40.38% 9.4 3.8
Twins 116 21.54% 3.7 3.8
Red Sox 84 31.88% 14.4 3.1

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The Tigers Might Be Historically Bad

As we’re reminded every time they face the Yankees and give up homers by the half-dozen, the Orioles are a very bad baseball team. At 39-82, they’re 41 1/2 games out of first place, and on pace for 52 wins, which means they could lose more than two-thirds of their games for the second season in a row. They’re just nine homers away from breaking the single-season record for dingers allowed (258). And yet they’re not even the majors’ worst team. Neither are the Marlins, who through the first 41 games of the season slipped below the Throneberry Line by losing 31 games.

That so much attention has been paid to those bad ballclubs might be chalked up to yet another instance of East Coast Bias, because tucked away in the more wholesome Midwest are the Detroit Tigers, who are doing things (and not doing things) to rekindle memories of their 2003 squad, which gave Throneberry’s 1962 Mets a run for their money by losing 119 games. At 36-81, these Tigers are on pace to go 50-112, but a slight slippage could send them past last year’s 115-loss Orioles. In the words of James Brown, “People, it’s bad.”

This — what’s the opposite of web gem? — might be the 2019 squad’s signature play (h/t @suss2hyphens):

The Tigers were a competitive concern as recently as 2016, when they went 86-75 but slid out of a Wild Card spot in late September. That was the last gasp of the core that won four straight AL Central titles from 2011-14, and one that probably should have begun scattering to the four winds earlier. As it was, general manager Al Avila — who replaced Dave Dombrowski in late 2015 — traded Alex Avila (his own son!), J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Justin Verlander, and Justin Wilson in a six-week span in mid-2017, as the team was en route to 98 losses.

The Tigers are rebuilding, but their rebuild has been hampered by a farm system weakened by years of bad drafts and repeated mining to keep their competitive window open. One has to dial back to 2011 to find a year in which the Tigers’ top draft pick (James McCann, who was a second-rounder) ever suited up for the team in the regular season, and 2012 (Jake Thompson) for one who even played in the majors. Baseball America’s annual organizational rankings placed their system between 26th and 30th annually from 2014-17. That’s a lousy platform from which to launch a rebuild, and it’s shown. Last year’s Tigers lost 98 games under new manager Ron Gardenhire, and this year’s crop is worse. Much, much worse.

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Jay Jaffe FanGraphs Chat – 8/15/19

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Good afternoon and welcome to my “Ides of August” chat! Today is the third anniversary of my daughter’s due date; she put off her arrival for another 11 days while we tore our hair out, in marked contrast to the way her two writer-parents approach deadlines.

Anyhoo, my piece staring into the heart of darkness that is the 2019 Tigers just went live

And in honor of getting to use the phrase “heart of darkness” into my work, I’m spinning the Peter Laughner box set this afternoon. Laughner was the original guitar player for Pere Ubu when they did their first two singles (“30 Seconds over Tokyo” b/w “Heart of Darkness” came first) and left behind an incredible legacy for somebody who died young at age 24.

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Anyway… on with the show.

Ay Ay Ron: Hi, Jay.  Who do you greatly helped their HOF case the most based on their 2019 performance?  Who do you think hurt it the most?

Avatar Jay Jaffe: This is quite likely my next article, so look for it either tomorrow or early next week at FG.

nibbish: In your recent article, you mentioned that the Twins could have upgraded at first by trading for Tyler White or Miguel Andújar. Could you elaborate about that? Neither of them (particularly White) seem to be upgrades, or at least not enough to actually *trade* for.

nibbish: I mean “Jesús Aguilar” my mistake, sorry.

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Tom Tango’s Triple-Slash Conundrum

MLB Senior Data Architect Tom Tango posed an interesting question on Twitter today:

The best questions are usually simple, and this one is perfect. What does average matter? What does slugging percentage mean in the context of two different batting averages? If your OBP and slugging are the same, does it even matter how you get to them?

The first-level answer is “give me the average.” If I’m going to get the same OBP and slug, I’ll do it with extra hits, because hits advance more runners. As you can see, that was the most common answer on the poll.

Go a level up, and you might end up where I was at first. With a lower batting average but the same slugging percentage, Player B is hitting for a ton of power. An easy way to think about the trade-off is that Player B is getting the same number of bases per at-bat (slugging percentage) and reaching base as often (on-base percentage), which means there’s an exchange where Player B adds a base to a hit (stretching a single into a double or a double into a triple) and converts a single to a walk. Read the rest of this entry »

Effectively Wild Episode 1417: Defining Fun Facts

Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller banter about how Gleyber Torres’s ownership of the Orioles and Aristides Aquino’s home-run spree are emblematic of 2019, fun facts about players’ accomplishments in their first X games, home-run fun facts and the juiced ball, Juan Soto vs. Ronald Acuña, Jr., two recent Scott Boras quotes, the Dodgers’ near-record extra-base-hits game, and Jeff Mathis’s offensive ineptitude and defensive prowess, then discuss an ESPN oral history of the 1994 strike, touching on whether the sport would have survived the extensive use of replacement players, the change in media coverage of baseball labor issues, what the biggest loss would be if the rest of the 2019 season were canceled, and more.

Audio intro: Chance The Rapper, "Juice"
Audio outro: The Rock*A*Teens, "Pretty Thoughts Strike Down the Band"

Link to story on Torres and the Orioles
Link to Ben on breakout batters
Link to Jay Jaffe on Aquino
Link to C. Trent Rosecrans on Aquino’s swing change
Link to list of players with most batting runs through age 20
Link to Sam on Scioscia, Mathis, and Napoli
Link to Sam on Scioscia and defense again
Link to R.J. Anderson on Jeff Mathis’s game-calling
Link to worst offensive careers (min. 2500 PA)
Link to worst offensive single seasons (min. 200 PA)
Link to Tim Kurkjian’s oral history of the strike
Link to Ben on Lords of the Realm
Link to the book Baseball’s Power Shift
Link to Emma Baccellieri on players’ social media advocacy
Link to Evan Drellich’s oral history of the strike
Link to Bryan Curtis on the liberalization of sportswriting
Link to order The MVP Machine

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Ronald Acuña and the 40-40 Club

Ronald Acuña Jr., with 34 home runs, 28 stolen bases, and six weeks left in the season, has a chance to become the fifth player to join Major League Baseball’s 40-40 Club. If Acuña’s membership application is approved by feats of baseballing, he’ll join an exclusive fraternity of Jose Canseco, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, and Alfonso Soriano. Okay, mostly elite.

As someone who apparently became a “veteran” baseball analyst at some point, I’m not always sure if the game has changed or if I have. When I was a kid, there’d be talk of 20-20 clubs, 30 HR/100 RBI guys, and scores of home run milestones. But you don’t hear about these baseball clubs as often as you used to. Has fandom changed this much or have I become jaded about these kinds of statistically interesting accomplishments? Or is that some of the older markers for performance, such as the 400 Homer Club, have become less exclusive institutions to join than a sandwich shop that give you a 10th sub free after buying nine?

The 40-40 Club, on the other hand, still excites me. Part of it could be that Jose Canseco’s charge on his way to becoming the founding member of this fraternity in 1988 was still very early in my Serious Baseball Fandom phase. I’ve loved watching baseball from the age of three, but it wasn’t until a few years later I really became a serious fan of the game, aided by my grandfather getting me a subscription to Sports Illustrated in 1986, a bit before my eighth birthday. While I watched the 1983-1985 World Series games, the 1986 World Series was the first one where I really followed every pitch, watching to the end even on school nights. I can still remember Tim Teufel‘s error as much as Bill Buckner‘s more famous one, and am able to exactly replicate Marty Barrett‘s closed stance and Sid Fernandez’s three-quarters delivery.

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Fernando Tatis Jr. Continues to Astound

Fernando Tatis Jr. has been one of the most exciting players in baseball this year. I get giddy when he does things like this:

Or like this:

Despite that, I haven’t written about Tatis. It’s not that he wasn’t interesting enough. To paraphrase Taylor Swift, he should take it as a compliment that I’ve been writing about everyone in the league but him. I simply couldn’t find an angle that I felt captured what’s so awesome about Tatis. I still don’t have that angle, but I don’t care anymore. Fernando Tatis Jr. is the best, and it pains me that he’s day-to-day with a back injury right now. Let’s talk about him, because no day should go by without a Tatis highlight. Read the rest of this entry »

The Old School Approach Failed José Ramírez

Nearly three months into this season, José Ramírez was one of the worst hitters in the game. On June 24, Ramírez had played in 77 games, come to the plate 328 times, and put up a 66 wRC+ which ranked 153rd out of 160 qualified batters. Only good baserunning and decent defense kept Ramírez above replacement level. Since June 25, Ramírez has come to bat 172 times and put up a 143 wRC+ and 1.8 WAR, with both figures ranking among the top 25 players in the game. Before the season, Ramírez was projected for a 138 wRC+ and 6.3 WAR, so he went from one of the worst hitters in baseball for half a season to nearly the exact player he was projected for the last quarter of a season. While slumps and streaks invariably have a lot of contributing factors, it certainly seems like Ramírez spent the first part of the season not trying to crush the game and simply flipped a switch in late June.

The dates used above aren’t exactly arbitrary. On June 25, I wrote a post entitled José Ramirez Isn’t That Far Off. In that piece, I discussed a few different theories behind Ramírez’s struggles, including too many fly balls at poor angles and failures in attempting to adjust to the shift. Ultimately, I went down a plate approach rabbit hole and concluded Ramírez was swinging and making contact on too many pitches when behind in the count instead of just looking and swinging at pitches he could drive. I concluded with this:

Ramírez simply isn’t commanding the strike zone like he used to, and it is showing up in increased swings on breaking and offspeed pitches out of the zone. Ramírez needs to be able to hunt for those fastballs in the plate, and to do so, he has to be able to avoid the breaking stuff. He hasn’t done a poor job of that relative to other players, but part of what made Ramírez a very good hitter was getting in favorable counts and taking advantage. The league might have caught up to him a little bit, but the problem appears to be more on Ramírez’s end and swinging at pitches he didn’t used to. That also means the issue could be fixable. Bad luck has certainly played some role in Ramírez’s big drop, as it might not be as bad as it appears, and if Ramírez can control the plate like he has in seasons past, he just might turn things around.

Ramírez has certainly made me look good over the past couple months, but we can take a closer look at the analysis from June and see if the reasoning still fits. First, let’s look at Ramírez’s swings by count type compared to last year, the early part of this season, and his recent hot streak. Read the rest of this entry »