The Cincinnati Reds were behind the curve in terms of analytics. And while the club’s primary catcher wasn’t fully aware of that — he did have an inkling — he’s certainly aware now. A lot changed when David Bell was hired as manager, and Derek Johnson, Lee Tunnell, and Caleb Cotham came on board to lead the pithing staff.
These aren’t your father’s Reds, and quite frankly they aren’t your older brother’s [or older sister’s] either. That became clear when I asked Tucker Barnhart how his conversations with coaches compare to previous seasons’.
“I would say they’re more numbers-driven now,” the backstop told me. “They’re more percentage-driven, and more based on exit velocities and probable outcomes. Things like that. I still trust my eyes, but in the back of my mind there are always the percentages of what’s supposed to work. You’d be naive not to fall back on that, especially if you’re stuck calling a pitch.”
With the caveat that we’re dealing with a small sample size, and cause and effect can be difficult to determine, the results have been positive. Last year’s 4.65 team ERA ranked seventh from the bottom in MLB. So far this season, it ranks third from the top, at 3.16. And while Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark are new additions, it’s not as though we’re talking about Jose Rijo and Mario Soto.
Barnhart brought up a pitcher with a Soto-like changeup when asked for an example of the data he’s been perusing.
“You can put in a database, ‘Luis Castillo versus hitter A’ and come up with his mix, and what’s been successful against that specific guy,” Barnhart told me. “You can find which pitchers in the league are as close as possible to him, and look at their history against certain guys. There are a lot of things out there that I wasn’t privy to until fairly recently.”
Which isn’t to suggest that a deep dive is necessary before putting down fingers for Castillo’s best pitch. Common sense doesn’t go out the door just because a better brand of hitter data enters the equation.
“His changeup is exceptional,” Barnhart stated. “We use it a lot [30.8% of the time so far this season]. “He’s one of those guys where you don’t really care who the hitter is, what kind of pitches he hits well. We can go to that changeup any time and take our chances.”
But again, chance-taking is now an option, not a near-necessity. Barnhart has a boatload of information at his disposal. And to the credit of a brain trust that recognizes the value of a veteran catcher’s intuitions, it’s not being handed to him with an iron fist.
“They don’t say we need to do anything,” explained Barnhart, who allowed that many of the metrics are new to him. “They give us good reasoning — really good evidence — of why we should do some things, but it’s never, ‘It’s this way or no way.’ They don’t do that at all.”
At the risk of sounding repetitive, what matters is that it’s at his disposal. Analytic information of this ilk isn’t exactly a 2019 phenomenon — not for most teams — but for the Reds, it kind of is.
“I knew it was out there,” said Barnhart. “But it was something we didn’t really get. Now we’re getting all of it. It’s awesome. I enjoy it a lot.”
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde spent last season as Joe Maddon’s bench coach in Chicago, and prior to that he was the team’s first base coach. With that in mind, I asked the first-year skipper if he ever finds himself thinking, “What would Joe do here?”
His response suggests that he’s not going to manage scared.
“It goes through my head sometimes,” Hyde admitted. “I still stay in close contact with Joe, and a lot of those guys over there. We talk game-situation stuff. Joe is incredible, because has zero fear. He doesn’t care about what things look like. He’s always going to do what he thinks is right. That’s what I love about him. He manages to win the game the way he thinks it’s going to play out. Some guys manage conservatively. Joe goes for it a lot of the time. Sometimes I think along those lines.”
I followed up by asking Hyde how often he’s found his gut doing battle with his mind. In other words, his instincts are saying one thing, and statistical probabilities are saying another.
“It happens quite a bit,” Hyde said. “More than you might think.”
Such conundrums are understandable. The Orioles roster is populated with young players who have relatively little data to draw upon. Once that begins to change — and as a nascent analytics department becomes more robust — a more streamlined decision-making process should emerge. In the meantime, any mirroring of Maddon that occurs will include a certain amount of guesswork.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Twice recently we’ve had a pitcher respond in retaliatory fashion after allowing a home run. A few days ago, Brad Keller plunked Tim Anderson. Two weekends ago, Chris Archer threw behind Derek Dietrich. Both episodes led to suspensions, with the biggest difference being that Keller was ejected, and Archer was allowed to stay in the game. Cincinnati manager David Bell was apoplectic following Archer’s non-ouster, and his actions earned both a fine and a suspension.
I posed this question to Pirates manager Clint Hurdle following the fracas:
“David Bell presumably has a very different — and every bit as valid — take on what happened today. With that in mind, do you think umpires, and MLB in general, handle those types of situations — retaliatory situations — well, and should they do anything differently?”
Here is Hurdle’s lengthy response:
“That’s a great question. The last thing I’m going to do is try to give you some kind of answer that defines what went on out there. But I think one thing people look for in these situations is intent. I think [umpire] Jeff [Kellogg] obviously felt there was enough intent to offer a warning. The pitch wasn’t anywhere near anybody’s head. Sometimes I’ve seen those things happen, where it’s up near the head and it’s an automatic ejection.
“And there are times when, as a manager, whatever behavior you bring to the table can add or subtract from whatever goes on. Then, obviously players get involved, and their behavior can either add or subtract. At the end of the day, we’re always fortunate nobody got hurt.
“There were four ejections. I’m sure [MLB] will mandate the discipline. They’ll have their view on it, from the commentary from the umpires. As long as you’re playing a game, there are going to be situations that maybe get outside the normalcy of a game. At the end of the day, I think they did what they thought was best. I didn’t have any pushback when told about Keone [Kela] or Felipe [Vazquez]. There wasn’t any pushback on their side about [Yasiel] Puig and [Amir] Garrett. We’ll see what happens.”
Which is preferable for a radio broadcast of a baseball game, a two-person booth, or a three -person booth? I asked that question in a Twitter poll a few days ago, and it wasn’t a close contest. Of the 471 people who weighed in, a whopping 87% went with the two-person booth. I’m with the majority. A third voice rarely adds value, and often detracts.
Indians outfield prospect Will Benson had a four-home-run game with the Lake County Captains on Thursday. The last Cleveland minor-leaguer to have turned that trick was Leonard Cross, with the Spartanburg Peaches in 1948.
Going into yesterday, two members of the Washington Nationals system shared the minor-league lead in home runs. Jacob Wilson, a 28-year-old infielder, and Rhett Wiseman, a 25-year-old outfielder, had eight each, in an identical 56 plate appearances. Wilson was slashing .447/.509/1.043 for the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies, Wiseman .396/.464/1.00 for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators.
Tyler Phillips, a 21-year-old right-hander in the Texas Rangers system, has pitched 19 innings and has yet to allow a run. He’s walked one and fanned 13 for the Down East Wood Ducks, in the high-A Carolina League.
Over in NPB, 23-year-old Rakuten Golden Eagles southpaw Yuki Matsui has allowed five hits, and one earned run, in 13 relief innings. He has 23 strikeouts and seven saves.
The independent Atlantic League has a number of notable names dotting its eight rosters. Among them are Vic Black and Richie Shaffer [High Point Rockers], James Loney and Ryan Schimpf [Sugar Land Skeeters], Jon Niese and Kirk Nieuwenhuis [Long Island Ducks], and Mat Latos [Southern Maryland Blue Crabs].
Most of you are aware that a home run Rowdy Tellez hit at Fenway Park last weekend was miscalculated at 505 feet. It didn’t go nearly that far, and to their credit, our friends at Statcast were quick to put a kibosh on any plans for a blue seat that might have been afoot. The Splendid Splinter’s red seat — 502 feet from home plate — remains safe from interlopers.
How far did Tellez’s ball actually go? My educated guess that day was 425 feet, and a handful of other press-box denizens offered similar estimates. The blast was likely a bit longer, though. I was later told by a borderline-irrefutable source that 445 feet is likely closer to the truth.
As for the mistaken 505… Statcast is invaluable, but it’s not perfect. [Keep in mind that we’re getting the data in real time.] The flight of a home run ball isn’t tracked to its full distance — an algorithm finishes the job — and where that algorithm takes over varies, depending on height and direction [foul pole to foul pole]. In other words, Statcast home-run distances are reliably accurate — the Tellez bomb being an outlier — but they’re not exact.
Dan Straily threw far more changeups than usual this past Monday. Facing the Red Sox at Fenway Park, the Orioles right-hander tossed 37 of them [that’s the number he gave me; PITCHf/x had him with 32]. That’s a whopping 43% [or 37%] of his deliveries on the day.
After the game, I asked him why he threw so many.
“It was just really good out in the bullpen,” said Straily. “We were like, ‘Let’s just use this until it goes away.’ The kind of changeup I had today, I don’t have every day… You could tell when we were warming up that [Jesus] Sucre was really digging the changeup, so we kept going with it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Right?”
Straily told me the pitch was moving like a splitter that afternoon. He doesn’t use a splitter grip, but when his changeup is at its best, he gets that kind of diving action. My FanGraphs colleague Devan Fink wrote about Straily’s change-of-pace pitch a few weeks ago.
Corey Kluber threw seven workmanlike innings as the Cleveland Indians beat the Atlanta Braves 8-4 in the first game of a doubleheader yesterday. Afterwards, I asked the 33-year-old hurler if he’s doing anything different this year in terms of pitch mixes or sequencing.
“Nothing that’s a concerted-effort thing,” responded Kluber. “I don’t necessarily have a stock approach to sequencing pitches. The way I look at it is that each hitter is different, so I’m going to attack each hitter differently. I know where my strengths are, and I try to use my strengths, but my approach is still individual to each hitter. I’m trying to exploit hitters the best way I can, set up hitters the best way I can.”
Hall of Fame left-hander Steve Carlton threw his first-ever slider to Sadaharu Oh. He did so in 1968, as a young member of the St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff, during a 1968 exhibition series in Japan. It was far from his last. The slider went on become Carlton’s signature pitch.
I learned the above fact — and much more — in the first chapter of Tyler Kepner’s new book, K: A History of Baseball in 10 Pitches. If you’re at all a pitching nerd, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At Medium, Ethan Moore wrote about how Marlins lefty Adam Conley is getting more depth on his slider.
At The Winchester [Virginia] Star, Brian Brehm told us about Spottswood Poles, a Negro league player who became a hero on ballfields and battlefields alike.
A new ball is sparking an offensive explosion in Triple-A, and J.J. Cooper delved into it at Baseball America.
“Baseball Brit” is traveling to see 162 baseball games this season, and Jacob Bogage wrote about him at The Washington Post.
Over at SportsNet Canada, Ben Nicholson-Smith wrote about Jonathan Erlichman, who went from Toronto to Princeton to his current position: process-and-analytics coach for the Tampa Bay Rays.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
The Houston Astros are have played 14 of their 20 games on the road this season. They are a perfect 6-0 at home.
Through Friday, the Seattle Mariners had played 19 games lasting three-or-more hours, the most in the majors. [Per Mark Simon of Sports Info Solutions.]
On Thursday, Felix Hernandez [2,480] passed Jack Morris [2,478] on the all-time strikeouts list. He now ranks 37th. The duo’s combined total of 4,958 is 756 fewer than the 5,714 strikeouts Nolan Ryan logged in his career.
Minnie Minoso made his MLB debut on April 19, 1949. He played his last game on October 5, 1980.
On April 22, 1959, the White Sox scored 11 times in the seventh inning on their way to a 20-6 win over the Kansas City Athletics. Two of the 11 runs came on Chicago’s only hit of the inning, while another scored on a bases-loaded HBP, and eight more came via bases-loaded walks.
Seattle’s Chris Bosio no-hit the Red Sox on April 22, 1993.
The 1914 Boston “Miracle” Braves started the season 4-17. They finished with a record of 94-59, then swept the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series.
Rabbit Maranville played in two World Series, each of which went four games. In 1914, he went 4 for 13 with the Boston Braves. In 1928, he went 4 for 13 with the St. Louis Cardinals.
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.