Sunday Notes: Michael Girsch Avoids Analytics’ Big Old Hole of Nothingness

We’ll learn more about what the 30 teams have in store for the offseason in the coming days. Not in any great detail (and some subterfuge is inevitable), but with varying degrees of forthcomingness, information will indeed be shared. The GM meetings begin tomorrow, in Scottsdale, with media sessions scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.

Will your favorite team actively pursue a trade for Mookie Betts? Do they have their eyes trained, and checkbooks already open, on free agents such as Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon… or perhaps Andrew Cashner or Jordy Mercer? Answers to those kinds of questions are reliably vague at best, but inquiries of a different ilk often elicit thoughtful responses.

I got a head start on the executive-Q&A front during last month’s NLCS. Eschewing anything roster-related — not the right time and place — I asked St. Louis Cardinals Vice President/General Manager Michael Girsch if he and his front office cohorts had anything cooking behind the scenes. His answer reflected just how much the game continues to evolve.

“We’re kind of reorganizing our baseball development group a little bit,” said Girsch. “The amount of data keeps increasing exponentially. It’s gone from your basic back of a baseball card, 10 or 15 years ago, to TrackMan, to StatCast, and beyond. The infrastructure that worked at one point doesn’t work anymore. When I started, everything was in Excel, on my laptop. That became nonviable pretty quickly, and now we’re moving beyond the servers we have, to other issues.”

Is keeping up more a matter of adding staff, or streamlining the process already in place? Girsch’s response reflected the fact that bigger fish — relative to the here and now — still needed to be fried.

“It’s a little bit of both,” answered the exec, one eye trained on his team taking BP at Nationals Park.”There’s new technology to handle larger queries, and larger data sets, than in the past. But you add people, too. We’ve posted a bunch of jobs. That was… a week or two ago, maybe? Time is a circle at this point.”

A final question elicited an equally distracted, yet acutely insightful, reply. Is the majority of new information valuable, or is it necessary to meticulously dig through it in order to find something particularly meaningful?

“Again, a little bit of both,” answered Girsch. “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can get lost in it. There’s a ton of good information in all the new tracking stuff that’s available, but you can’t just go in looking to be inspired. You kind of need to have a question you’re trying to answer, otherwise you can dig yourself a big old hole of nothingness.”

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Minnesota’s pitching staff was markedly better in 2019 than it was in 2018. The team’s earned run average dropped from 4.50 to 4.18, its FIP from 4.39 to 4.03. Walk and strikeout rates likewise went in the correct directions. The former fell from 3.57 to 2.78, while the latter climbed from 8.59 to 9.00.

Notable in those numbers is the fact that they came with many of the same names and faces on the mound. This wasn’t a team that improved on the pitching side thanks to an influx of additions. The Twins were buoyed by better performances from numerous holdovers, Jake Odorizzi, Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, and Zack Littell among them.

There was an impactful addition, but he didn’t toe the rubber. One year ago this month, Minnesota hired Wes Johnson as their new pitching coach. It would be hyperbole to say that the biomechanically-inclined pitching guru magically transformed every member of the staff, but he did implement changes. They didn’t come in the form of overhauls, but rather as meaningful tweaks.

“The smallest change can propel a pitcher to really good things,” Johnson told me in October. “Looking around the room, I don’t know if there were any big changes, but there were a lot of guys where I identified small things. Those can affect big things, right?”

Upon concurring, I asked for a few examples.

Trevor May,” responded Johnson. “We needed to get him a little more hip mobility. We needed to create hip speed. When you look at Trevor’s biomechanics, he has a really fast arm. From a recovery standpoint… if we could get more body involved in his delivery, he could recover better. And we’ve seen that. Command played a part in it, as well.

“Tyler Duffey is an easy one. We talked about hips, as well. A lot of these guys were throwing with a not-very-aggressive lower half. There’s Jose Berrios. One of the challenges with him was his changeup. We had to do a couple of little things in his delivery, with his lower half, so that he could throw his changeup right-on-right. I could keep going around the room. Jake Odorizzi, continuing to get separation. Kyle Gibson getting more separation between his upper and lower half. There have been a lot of little tweaks.”

Odorizzi addressed separation in the interview that ran here on the eve of the postseason. The righty spent last winter working with Randy Sullivan at the Florida Baseball Ranch, and the adjustments he made there played a big role in this year’s success. Knowing Sullivan’s methods and philosophies like the back of his hand, Johnson simply had to keep an eye out for signs of slippage.

“People think these guys are robots,” said Johnson. “They think we put them on a path, and they’re just going to stay on that path the whole year. Well, it doesn’t work that way. They’re going to get out of sync. They’re going to need an occasional tuneup. One of the great things about our ‘Simi’ — our biomechanical system in the stadium — is that we’re constantly seeing who needs that tuneup.

“We had to go back to the stuff Jake had done over the offseason. This was right after the All-Star break. He kind of hit a little lull. But you get the data back, and see that the separation isn’t as good. Again, they’re not robots. Right? Thirty-two starts, every five days… they’re going to get out of whack. Pick any sport where you’re playing a lot of game. Guys get hiccups. A back gets out of line. A knee, an ankle, a hip, a shoulder. Little things. Our job is to get them back on track.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Brett Butler went 8 for 22 against Kevin Ritz.

Chili Davis went 1 for 3 against Mickey Weston.

Dave Hilton wet 0 for 3 against Tom House.

Ham Hyatt went 3 for 4 against Hub Perdue.

William Marriott went 4 for 7 against Bill Hubbell.

———

J.P. Feyereisen is one of 15 pitchers on the roster as Team USA competes in the ongoing Premier 12 tournament. The 26-year-old right-hander is doing so on the heels of a breakout season. Working out of the bullpen for Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre, Feyereisen fanned 94, and allowed just 37 hits, in 61-and-a-third innings. His 3.23 ERA was augmented by an equally-exemplary 10-2 won-lost record.

Despite — and also because of — that success, Feyereisen found himself changing organizations at season’s end. In early September, the Milwaukee Brewers acquired the River Falls, Wisconsin native from the New York Yankees in exchange for Brenny Escanio and international signing bonus pool money.

His arrival on the doorstep of a big-league career couldn’t have been predicted when he first stepped onto the campus of the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. He’d been recruited by just two Division III schools — the other was the University of Wisconsin Stout — and his plan at the time was to “enjoy baseball as long as I could, then become a teacher.” Feyereisen minored in health, with a double major in special education and physical education.

His approach to pitching has become increasingly mental. When I mentioned the word “analytics,” his response was that of someone who’s been doing his homework.

“I’m kind of basing my attack off of that,” Feyereisen said. “I’ve always had a fastball, but this year I’ve had a better breaking ball that I can work off of it. More than anything, I‘ve been going with four-seam fastballs up in the zone, with some ride, and then breaking balls. Or maybe a changeup.”

Feyereisen told me that the spin rate on his “slurve” ranges between 3,000 and 3,100 rpm, and that his changeup “is 87-89 [mph] and moves kind of like a two-seamer, into righties.”

His fastball, which spins “anywhere from 2,600 to 2,700, depending on the outing,” moves in the opposite direction.

“I get what you might call cut-ride,” explained Feyereisen, whose heater sits 93-96. “From what I’ve seen throwing on a Rhapsodo, and a Yakkertech, is that I’m like a 90% spin-efficiency guy. I’m not actually a true four-seam. The movement isn’t true cut, but there is some horizontal away from a righty. I get that, along with a little ride.”

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NEWS NOTES

Bob Lozinak, owner of the Altoona Curve (Pirates, Double-A), has been named the 2019 King of Baseball. The award recognizes a veteran of professional baseball for longtime dedication and service, and has been given out since 1951.

Daisuke Matsuzaka will reportedly sign with the Seibu Lions. The 39-year-right-hander appeared in two games this year with the Chunichi Dragons, and was released after allowing 10 runs in five-and-a-third innings.

The Hiroshima Toyo Carp have agreed to post Ryosuke Kikuchi. The 29-year-old second baseman, a .271/.315/.391 hitter in eight NPB seasons, has won seven Gold Gloves in Japan.

Pete Woodworth will be Seattle’s pitching coach next season, replacing Paul Davis, who has been reassigned as the organization’s chief pitching strategist. Woodworth played one professional season, appearing in 17 games for Tampa Bay’s Gulf Coast League affiliate in 2010.

Alex Hassan will be Minnesota’s director of player development, replacing Jeremy Zoll, who has been promoted to assistant GM. Drafted as a pitcher by the Red Sox out of Duke University in 2009, Hassan made it to the big leagues as an outfielder five years later. Between November 17, 2014 and May 2, 2015, he was claimed off waivers five times. On three of those occasions it was by Oakland.

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Lester Strode won’t be returning as the Cubs’ bullpen coach next year. After 13 years in that role he’s being replaced by former Phillies pitching coach Chris Young. Strode has reportedly been offered another position with the organization he’s been a part of for three decades.

Upon hearing the news, I went to my unused-quotes folder, recalling that I’d once spoken to Strode about bullpen sessions. Our exchange, brief as it was, gleaned the following.

“They’re not only keeping the rhythm and timing of their pitches, they’re also going through the lineup,” Strode told me. “It’s about how they’re going to execute their pitches, so there’s quite a bit of mental, as well as physical, preparation. We go into our pen work with a good idea of what we’re going to do in the next start.”

I asked if the pitcher will sequence as though he’s throwing to a specific hitter. For instance, if the game plan against his next opponent’s hottest bat will be to follow breaking balls with fastballs in, will he sequence that way in the session?

“Absolutely,” answered Strode. “That’s the approach he’s going to take into the game.”

——

New York Mets slugger Peter Alonso will almost assuredly be named the National League Rookie of the Year tomorrow. But is he a better choice than Michael Soroka? I’m not sold on that being the case.

Alonso hit a rookie record 53 home runs, and that while that number stands out like a sore thumb, let’s not forget that long balls were a dime a dozen in 2019. MLB players combined to bash 6,776 dingers, eclipsing the old record by 600-plus. A total of 129 batsmen went deep 20 or more times, and 273 reached double figures. By comparison, in 1969 — the first year with the current mound height — those numbers were 45 and 116.

Alonso slashed .260/.358/.583, and was worth 4.8 WAR.

Given this year’s juiced-ball, long-ball explosion, was Soroka even better? WAR says no — the Atlanta Braves righty finished with 4.0 — but his numbers across the board were nothing short of stellar. His 2.68 ERA was third-best among all qualified pitchers in the senior circuit, while his 3.45 FIP was seventh-best. He topped all rookies in those categories, and in another as well: Soroka surrendered 14 home runs in 174-and-two-thirds innings, which equated to a rookie-best 0.72 per nine innings.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At Sportsnet Canada, Shi Davidi opined that while there is tension between owners and players, Alex Anthopoulos’s recent comments about free agency are innocuous, not a smoking gun of collusion.

At USA Today, Christine Brennan wrote about how the Washington Nationals swung and missed with a partisan play at their White House celebration.

Junior Noboa is the recipient of the 2019 Sheldon “Chief” Bender Award, which is presented annually to an individual with distinguished service who has been instrumental in player development. Jose M. Romero wrote about Noboa — the VP of Latin Operation for the Arizona Diamondbacks — for La Vida Baseball.

Over at McCovey Chronicles, Brady Klopfer weighed in on how Donovan Solano, against all odds, was one of the Giants’ best players.

A total of 510 minor-league players became free agents on November 4. Baseball America listed all of them, team by team, here.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Philadelphia Phillies pitchers threw the highest percentage of curveballs this year (14.3%). Baltimore Orioles pitchers threw the lowest percentage of curveballs (4.8%).

At 18.1, Oakland Athletics pitchers had the greatest speed differential between fastballs (92.9 mph) and curveballs (75.8 mph). The Pittsburgh Pirates had the lowest speed differential, 12.2, with fastballs averaging 93.4 mph, and curveballs averaging 81.2 mph.

James Karinchak logged eight strikeouts in five-and-a-third innings after making his MLB debut with the Cleveland Indians in September. The 24-year-old right-hander, a 2017 ninth-round pick out of Bryant University, has 194 strikeouts in 107-and-two-thirds professional innings.

Brad Radke pitched in 378 games, all with the Twins, and his only relief appearance came in his MLB debut. Minnesota’s starter that day was LaTroy Hawkins, whose final 943 appearances were out of the bullpen.

Carlton Fisk played in 2,499 games and had 3,999 total bases. Rod Carew played in 2,469 games and had 3,998 total bases.

Don Mattingly had 2,153 hits and 3,301 total bases. Victor Martinez had 2,153 hits and 3,320 total bases.

Ted Simmons had a .437 slugging percentage batting right-handed and a .437 slugging percentage batting left-handed.

Baltimore Orioles infielder Hughie Jennings batted .401, with 125 runs scored and 121 RBIs, in 1896. The Hall of Famer walked 19 times. He reached via HBP another 51 times.

On this date in 1948, the Detroit Tigers traded left-hander Billy Pierce to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for catcher Aaron Robinson. The latter proceeded to play three more seasons and accumulate 4.7 WAR. Pierce played 16 more seasons and accumulate 52.9 WAR.

Philadelphia Phillies infielder Eddie Waitkus was named Comeback Player of the Year on this date in 1950. Waitkus had been shot in the chest by a woman, in a Chicago hotel room, midway through the 1949 season.

Ducky Hemp, Dad Lytle, Doggie Miller, Crazy Schmit, Phenomenal Smith, and Peek-a-Boo Veach all played for the 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys. The Guy Hecker-managed squad finished last in the National League with a record of 23-113.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Michael Girsch Avoids Analytics’ Big Old Hole of Nothingness by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Twitchy
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Twitchy

Soroka’s fWAR doesn’t suggest he’s better, but his RA/9 WAR does. His RA/9 WAR is 6.1, and THAT is better than Alonso’s WAR.

Rollie's Mustache
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If we look at another Soroka run prevention stat (his 169 ERA+) in historical context, it supports his case even more.

In the Live Ball Era, the only qualified NL rookie pitcher to post a better single-season ERA+ was Jose Fernandez in 2013. (thank you to B-R’s Play Index for that nugget). Simply remarkable.