The mishandling of Bryce Harper.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The Washington Nationals went a little off the board this winter with the hiring of manager Matt Williams, a respected coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks and former All-Star who had a grand total of zero games of professional managerial experience.
That inexperience has shown all over the place, as Williams has demonstrated that he's in way over his head so far -- never more so than in his mishandling of the team's most talented player, Bryce Harper, who is now headed for surgery on his thumb and will be lost until at least early July.
Leaders do not make their points at the expense of their best subordinates, but that is exactly what Williams did when he chose to pull Harper from a game on April 19 because Harper didn't fully run out a routine ground ball back to the pitcher. Harper was coming off an injured quad and, from what I'm told, battling the flu on the day when he chose, wisely, not to run out a ground ball so routine that had the pitcher rolled the ball to first base he still would have had beaten Harper by a few feet. Asking any player to run that ball out shows an emphasis on superficial, meaningless behavior over actions that actually increase the team's chances of winning a game. No one ever scored an extra run by showboating for the cameras, but that is exactly what Williams wanted Harper -- who was injured and sick -- to do.
Harper singled out
Williams' tirade on "lack of hustle," directed at a player who is hustle incarnate, was a low point for the Nationals this season, but Harper's injury, which came as he tried to stretch a double into a triple by -- wait for it -- hustling, is a new nadir. It's bad enough that the inexperienced manager felt the need to heap dispraise on Harper in a public forum; it's worse that those empty criticisms might in any way have led to Harper taking more of a risk than usual and tearing that thumb ligament.
AP Photo/Nick Wass
An injury suffered on a bases-clearing triple against the Padres on Friday will hold Bryce Harper out until at least early July, according to multiple sources.
On top of that, Williams seems to have it in for Harper, treating him more harshly than he has treated other players who've committed similar or graver mistakes. On April 18, the Nationals played an ugly game, making three errors -- two by Ian Desmond -- and misplaying several others. Williams didn't bench anyone during the game for sloppiness or lack of focus, and more importantly, he didn't throw any of his players under the bus after the game, refusing to even tell the media what he'd said to them after the shoddy performance. “That's for me and my team, and nobody else's business,” he told reporters. So why did Williams feel so willing to degrade Harper to the media after Harper's perceived lack of hustle?
On April 20, a day after The Benching, Jayson Werth batted with two outs in the bottom of the first inning, checked his swing, and grounded out to first base … but clearly gave up on the play before first baseman Matt Adams threw the ball to pitcher Shelby Miller. Williams didn't bench Werth, didn't call him out during or after the game, didn't do anything. Why is Werth immune to criticism for failure to false-hustle but Harper gets publicly shamed for it?
Of course, after Harper's injury, Williams was quick to point out that Harper "plays the game hard." But that was always the case; it's just that Harper also plays it smart, and doesn't waste time with false hustle -- probably because false hustle has yet to win any team a ballgame. The entire incident has highlighted that the Nationals organization made a mistake in hiring a manager with zero experience in Williams, who spent the first few weeks of the season trying to figure out how far down in the lineup he could bury Harper.
Source of injuries
The Nationals took a calculated risk in 2010 when they chose to move Harper, who played catcher as an amateur, out from behind the plate immediately after signing him, removing him from the middle of the field and from a position he'd played since childhood -- and a position he played well. Although catcher is normally a more injury-prone position than the outfield, Harper's unfamilarity with the outfield and with playing on a corner could have been a factor in several of his injuries in pro ball, including his collision with the outfield wall in Los Angeles last April.
The move to right field may have gotten Harper to the majors faster, but it put him at a position with a much higher baseline (replacement-level) against which we measure his performance, meaning that the Nationals may have left a lot of value on the table by shifting him to the outfield. It's probably too late to return Harper to catching -- although I don't doubt that Harper could do it, as he still has the athleticism and the arm -- so why are the Nationals so willing to further devalue the guy who should be the franchise player by claiming he doesn't hustle and perhaps driving him to overdo it in response?
Washington has to do without Harper for at least the next two months now, and there's no internal replacement likely to come close to his level of production. Before he returns, however, the organization has to come up with a better plan for managing their most valuable asset -- and if that means finding a manager better able to do that, so be it.
Jose Abreu's record pace.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Jose Abreu took back sole custody of first place in the majors in home runs Sunday afternoon, slugging his 10th off David Price in a 9-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays. Hitting .262/.330/.631 with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs, Abreu has had an initial month in the majors that represents one of the best debuts in baseball history. He's not done yet either.
There has been little adjustment period for Cuban émigré Abreu, going straight from Cienfuegos to Chicago without any intermediate stop in the minor leagues or, apparently, any steepness in his learning curve. That in itself is an impressive feat. The best players in Cuba's Serie Nacional can compete side-by-side with major leaguers, but the league's closed nature means it doesn't have the same kind of depth from top to bottom as MLB or Nippon Professional Baseball. When translating Cuban stats to project players coming to the U.S., the translations that are most accurate place the Serie Nacional at roughly the level of the California League, a high-Class A minor league.
Not surprisingly, the Cuban players who are MLB-level talent tend to put up about the numbers you'd expect a major league star to put up playing teams like the Lake Elsinore Storm and Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. Abreu hit .382/.527/.735, video game numbers, while leading the league with 13 homers in 2013. That was even a decline from his previous two seasons, .394/.526/.837 in 2012 and a mind-shattering .453/.597/.986 in 2011. Those are not typos that you're reading; that's the kind of havoc Abreu wrought upon Cuban pitchers.
The ZiPS projection system had Abreu at a healthy .273/.364/.494 with 26 homers and 85 RBIs (538 projected PA), numbers that are now looking conservative. ZiPS does in-season projections by incorporating new data and now projects Abreu to finish at .269/.349/.537 with 35 home runs and 97 RBIs, numbers that would almost certainly guarantee Abreu the Rookie of the Year award and clearly establish him as Paul Konerko's deserving heir in Chicago, which he's arguably already done.
TOP ROOKIE HR PERFORMANCE
Player Year HR
Mark McGwire 1987 49
Frank Robinson 1956 38
Wally Berger 1930 38
Albert Pujols 2001 37
Al Rosen 1950 37
Mike Piazza 1993 35
Ron Kittle 1983 35
Rudy York 1937 35
Hal Trosky 1934 35
Ryan Braun 2007 34
Walt Dropo 1950 34
Jose Canseco 1986 33
Earl Williams 1971 33
Jimmie Hall 1963 33
Abreu already has the April records for homers and RBIs among rookies, but with his hitting talents, he can shoot even higher in the rookie record book. Only one rookie in MLB history has ever finished above 40 home runs, Mark McGwire with his 49 in the original Year of the Homer, 1987. Using the full ZiPS model for Abreu's in-season performance (the FanGraphs one is simplified so that it can run 2,000 players every morning), Abreu has a 40 percent shot at joining McGwire in the Rookie 40 HR club and a 17 percent at catching Mac at 49.
What makes his assault on the record books even more likely is the very real possibility that ZiPS is being too conservative with the playing time. Due to the short seasons in Cuba, ZiPS is still predicting Abreu to amass only 510 at-bats in 138 games. His current playing time pace puts Abreu at just under 650 at-bats in almost 700 plate appearances. At 650 plate appearances, his updated final ZiPS projection comes in at 41 homers and 114 RBIs, giving him a 1-in-3 shot at catching McGwire's 49 dingers. On the RBI front, that's enough for Abreu to have a 40 percent chance to become the sixth rookie in history to drive in 120 runs and just the second since Walt Dropo way back in 1950 (the other one was Albert Pujols in 2001).
[+] EnlargeJose Abreu
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports
ZiPS projects a .270/.359/.524 line with 99 home runs in the next three years.
Suffice it to say, the White Sox's signing of Abreu to a six-year, $68 million contract is looking quite pretty at the moment. Over the next three years, before Abreu has the option to opt-in to the arbitration system and void the remaining guaranteed years, ZiPS projects a .270/.359/.524 line with 99 home runs. At 10.2 total projected WAR, that amount of performance is expected to cost around $58 million on the free-agent market, meaning that Abreu can pay for most of his six-year guaranteed cash halfway through his deal. If Abreu doesn't void the last three years of his deal, the White Sox project to get $117 million in performance from their $68 million investment.
Can Abreu catch McGwire for the rookie home run record? That 49 is a tough number, but the thing about top talent is that it tends to knock over the obstacles you set for it. Even if Abreu is "merely" the second-best rookie home run hitter ever, he remains a big part of why the 2014 White Sox are a far more interesting team to watch than the moribund 2013 edition.
Pirates in serious trouble.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates came within one win of the National League Championship Series, and their star center fielder Andrew McCutchen took home the National League Most Valuable Player award. It was an amazing season, but thus far the success has not carried over to 2014.
After winning five of its first seven games, Pittsburgh has dropped 14 of its past 19 contests, to fall to fourth place. As a result, the Bucs dropped 11 spots in the ESPN Power Rankings this week, all the way back to 24th place. And this isn't some short-term overreaction. The Pirates are in real trouble.
When looking at the team level, one of the first things we look to is runs scored versus runs allowed. And just looking at that, we see the Pirates have scored 96 runs against 104 runs allowed (minus-
. No big deal -- that should put them close to .500. But Pittsburgh is actually plus-13 runs in blowout games (games decided by five runs or more), which suggests their run differential is a bit misleading. The season is young, and we don't want to give them too much credit for a couple of blowout wins. Furthermore, they are 7-6 in one-run games, a figure that doesn't paint them as unfortunate.
We also could look at the team's opponents, to see if they had been lined up against a murderers' row of opponents in the early going. And the answer here is ... sort of.
[+] EnlargeIke Davis
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports
Ike Davis has just one homer since arriving from the Mets.
The Pirates have played only fellow NL Central teams so far, and in the Brewers and Cardinals, the division has two of the better teams in the NL (and the Reds have played decently as well). So, while these may be tough opponents, the Pirates aren't going anywhere if they can't beat them. They have taken four of six from Chicago, but are just 3-3 against St. Louis, 2-5 against Cincinnati and 1-6 against Milwaukee. There's no way you can put a rosy face on those deficits, especially when you consider that the team has played more home games than away games.
The team is not built to be carried by its offense, but the offense needs to do better than it has. They have scored three runs or fewer in 15 of their 26 games. At the moment, they have posted a 91 wRC+ as a team, which is good for just 11th place out of 15 NL squads. Starling Marte's ground ball/fly ball ratio is much higher this season, and as a result he's slugging just .317. New first baseman Ike Davis is hitting just .208 since joining the club, while third baseman Pedro Alvarez is hitting .169. And the shortstops, Clint Barmes and Jordy Mercer, forget about it. Entering Sunday's action, they were hitting .167/.228/.179, "good" for a 10 wRC+. Yes, the Pirates' shortstops have been 90 percent worse than league average.
Now, that should come up obviously, but the reality is that the team has been below average at most positions. The team ranks just 21st in left field wRC+, 22nd at catcher, 23rd at first base, 24th in right field and dead last at shortstop. If you're scoring at home, that's just three of eight positions where they have an above-average offensive performer, and it could get worse. Russell Martin landed on the disabled list this weekend, and his replacements -- Chris Stewart and Tony Sanchez -- are unlikely to equal Martin's modest offensive production. Top prospect Gregory Polanco -- who had been tearing up Triple-A -- has been billed as a savior, but FanGraphs projects him for a modest .309 wOBA, which wouldn't be much better than the production they are currently getting in right field.
Pitching isn't any better
While the hitting has been subpar, the pitching has been even worse. By FIP-, the Pirates (at 118, 18 percent worse than league average) have the worst pitching staff in the game. Part of that woeful performance is from Wandy Rodriguez and Jason Grilli, and both have landed on the disabled list. As bad as they were, the Bucs were counting on them. And the club's best hope for improvement, prospect Jameson Taillon, underwent Tommy John surgery earlier this month, and won't be a factor for the team this season.
Last year, everything was in harmony and the team was able to put together a very successful season, particularly on defense, where their use of shifts put them in a great position to win. But it's hard to consistently get everyone performing at a high level, and the Pirates' start is a prime example of what happens when key regulars underperform.
The Bucs' playoff odds have already taken a hit, and when you consider the strength of their division, a return to the postseason is looking unlikely.
A record-setting day for pitchers.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
There had never been a day in which at least eight different Major League Baseball starters each threw at least seven innings while allowing no more than three hits. Well, on Sunday, this happened a record 10 times.
From ESPN Stats and Info, how history was made:
Johnny Cueto: Hitters were 1-for-8 with five strikeouts in at-bats ending in his cutter, the most strikeouts he's had with that pitch in any start in his career.
Just one problem for Cueto and the Reds: They lost 1-0 in extra innings. Afterward, Bryan Price said the Reds aren't going to take this.
Julio Teheran: Of his pitches, 40.4 percent were in the upper third of the strike zone or further, the third-highest rate of his career. Hitters were 1-for-10 with three strikeouts in at-bats ending with a pitch up.
Teheran didn't get the win, but the Braves won on a walk-off.
James Shields: Hitters were 0-for-9 with five strikeouts in at-bats ending in his fastball, the third-most strikeouts he's had with his fastball since the start of 2009. He got some backing from Omar Infante, as Andy McCullough writes.
Dillon Gee: Gee's changeup and slider were at their best on Sunday. He threw them a combined 27 times, netting 20 strikes and 10 outs (including five strikeouts) without yielding a baserunner. Confidence is on the rise for Gee and the Mets, Tim Rohan writes.
As old friend Peter Gammons noted on Twitter this morning: The Mets are currently on pace for 91 wins, precisely the number that became so controversial in the spring.
Collin McHugh: McHugh dominated Oakland's lefty-laden lineup with fastballs away and sliders in. He got seven outs apiece with fastballs on the outer half (or off the outside corner) and seven with sliders on the inner half (or off the inside corner). McHugh dominated, as Evan Drellich writes.
Ian Kennedy: He fell behind 1-0 to 10 of the 25 hitters he faced, but those 10 hitters when 0-for-10 with five strikeouts. Kennedy made it easy for the Padres, said teammate Cameron Maybin.
Adam Wainwright: Typically Adam Wainwright's most successful pitch is his breaking ball, but on Sunday it was his fastball, which yielded no hits and netted 10 outs on the 43 he threw. It's the second time in the last six seasons that Wainwright netted at least 10 outs without allowing a hit with his fastball. The other instance was August 6, 2010, against the Marlins.
He increased his run of scoreless innings, as Rick Hummel writes.
Ryan Vogelsong: He generated 15 swings and misses, the second most he's had in a start since returning to MLB in 2011. Nine came on his fastball, the third most he's had with that pitch in that time. Hitters were 1-for-13 with four strikeouts in at-bats ending with his heater.
He knows the pitfalls of a struggling fifth starter, writes Henry Schulman.
Jason Hammel: He generated eight chases with his slider, tied for his second-most since 2009. Hitters were 2-for-11 with four strikeouts in at-bats ending in his slider, tied for the second-most Ks he's had with that pitch since 2009.
Hammel shut down a first-place team, writes Gordon Wittenmyer.
Garrett Richards: An impressive 57.1 percent of his pitches were in the lower third of the strike zone or lower, the second-highest rate in any start of his career. Yankees hitters were 0-for-15 with six strikeouts in at-bats ending with a pitch down. We had Richards on Sunday Night Baseball, and his stuff was absolutely ridiculous; before the game, Jered Weaver mentioned that a good comparable for him might be a young A.J. Burnett.
But in the end, the Angels' bullpen gave away another game, as Mike DiGiovanna writes.
Oh, yes, that Masahiro Tanaka guy was pretty good last night, too, striking out 11 and allowing just two runs in 6 1/3 innings.
Around the league
As the Chicago White Sox closed in on their $68 million agreement with Jose Abreu last fall, I recall talking with evaluators from different teams who shared the same concern: Would Abreu have the necessary bat speed to be successful, to deal with fastballs on the inner half of the strike zone? They liked Abreu a lot, but a $68 million investment made them a little queasy because of that one issue.
As you can see in this post from ESPN Stats & Info, Abreu is destroying everything on the outer half of the plate at a record-setting pace.
From Elias: Abreu -- who has 10 homers and 31 RBIs -- is the first rookie with 10 homers and 30 RBIs in a calendar month since Luke Easter and Al Rosen for the 1950 Indians (both in June of that season).
So, in other words, the Abreu deal is working pretty well for the White Sox, so far. We'll have White Sox GM Rick Hahn on the podcast to talk about the team's pursuit of Abreu.
• After Michael Pineda finished his bullpen session early Sunday afternoon, on Day 4 of his 10-game suspension, he and teammate Preston Claiborne went through some fielding drills with pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Having completed all of his assigned tasks, Pineda ambled off the field, with almost all of his work for the day done.
He has been leaving the ballpark before the games, by rule, and said he has been watching the games at his place in Fort Lee, N.J. In conversation, Pineda recounted that moment when he put pine tar on his neck: It was just so dark in the visitors' dugout in Fenway Park -- where there are no mirrors -- that he had no idea what the substance looked like.
After Pineda's suspension, the Yankees were left to scramble with their roster, sending shortstop Dean Anna to the minor leagues and juggling their relievers, and some of Pineda's teammates say he was devastated that others were affected by the penalty rendered on him.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi says that Pineda has been reassured: "It's OK, we'll get through this."
Moves, deals and decisions
1. A young Texas player was sent to the minors with a parting gift.
2. Some roster decisions loom for the Orioles.
3. A Tigers pitcher was sent down and called back up on the same day.
4. Kolten Wong was sent back to the minors.
Dings and dents
1. Yoenis Cespedes was out of the starting lineup again.
2. The Dodgers are being cautious with Clayton Kershaw.
3. Cameron Maybin was activated.
4. A nagging injury is not new for Russell Martin.
5. Anibal Sanchez is dealing with some blisters.
6. Ryan Braun and Jean Segura have avoided the DL, for now.
• Matt Harrison came back, but the Rangers blew a five-run lead.
• A relief prospect is working his way toward Comerica Park, writes Lynn Henning.
• The Indians were swept.
• Scott Carroll won his debut at age 29.
• The Twins should have kept Torii Hunter, writes Patrick Reusse.
• The Rays have a new piece of equipment in their dugout.
• David Price struggled.
• For Jon Lester, the beat goes on.
• There have been hits and misses for Xander Bogaerts.
• R.A. Dickey returned to form.
• Martin Prado puts too much pressure on himself, says Kirk Gibson.
• Nolan Arenado's defense was a difference-maker. Here are the plays he made.
• B.J. Upton savors 1,000 hits, as Carroll Rogers writes.
• Adam Kilgore writes that the Nationals need Nate McLouth, given the injury to Bryce Harper.
• Nick Francona, son of Terry Francona, works for the Angels, and on Tuesday, Terry Francona and the Indians begin a series in Anaheim. Nick, who is now coordinator of major league player information for Los Angeles, commanded a sniper unit in Afghanistan. Here is the piece that Mike DiGiovanna did on Nick earlier this spring.
• Chris Archer mentors troubled juveniles.
• Robinson Cano will appear on Jimmy Fallon's show tonight. The Yankees have only praise for him.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Carlos Rodon makes a statement.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
It was another fascinating week of baseball for fans of the draft, and this week's highlights includes another dominating -- and controversial -- effort from the top college pitcher in the draft, a massive hurler from Texas looking like a top five selection, and a prep shortstop from Florida making a case to b the first high school position player selected.
Rodon dominates, but at a cost
For the second time in three weeks, there was good news and bad news coming from a start for N.C. State left-hander Carlos Rodon. The good news is that Rodon had easily his best start of the 2014 season, giving up just one run on six hits in a complete game loss to Georgia Tech, walking one and striking out 15.
The Wolfpack ace was particularly dominant early on; touching 97 mph with his fastball and striking out eight over the first three innings; but outside of the sixth, where he gave up three hits and the only run of the game, Rodon was outstanding, with several sliders that would grade 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale.
2014 Draft Order
1. Houston Astros
2. Miami Marlins
3. Chicago White Sox
4. Chicago Cubs
5. Minnesota Twins
6. Seattle Mariners
7. Philadelphia Phillies
8. Colorado Rockies
9. Toronto Blue Jays
10. New York Mets
11. Toronto Blue Jays*
12. Milwaukee Brewers
13. San Diego Padres
14. San Francisco Giants
15. Los Angeles Angels
16. Arizona Diamondbacks
17. Kansas City Royals
18. Washington Nationals
19. Cincinnati Reds
20. Tampa Bay Rays
21. Cleveland Indians
22. Los Angeles Dodgers
23. Detroit Tigers
24. Pittsburgh Pirates
25. Oakland Athletics
26. Boston Red Sox
27. St. Louis Cardinals
*Comp pick for failing to sign 2013 first-rounder Phil Bickford.
Unfortunately, for the second time in three weeks, Rodon had an outrageously high pitch count, needing 131 pitches to get through the afternoon. That total means that Rodon has now thrown 379 pitches over his last three starts, and while the improved results have certainly gotten the notice of teams selecting early this June, the amount of stress N.C. State has put on his left arm hasn't gone unnoticed, either.
"Once again, a lot of positives and the huge negative [for Rodon]," an AL crosschecker said. "I love seeing that he held his velocity throughout the game; that was something we were concerned about as we hadn't seen it on a consistent basis. The command was better, and the slider was an unhittable pitch with two strikes.
"But, the 131 pitches is the major takeaway from the evening. I realize N.C. State needs every win they can right now if they want to get into the tournament, but risking a kid's future is never worth it. This idea that these young pitchers can go 120-140 pitches because they have two extra days off is so excruciatingly inaccurate, but that's their thought process. I feel bad because it's the coaches who should be accountable, but it absolutely plays a factor in how we make decisions."
Rodon is still a candidate to be the first selection of the 2014 draft by the Houston Astros, but it shouldn't surprise anyone if concerns over his inconsistent performances and high pitch counts over the last two seasons see him drop, perhaps to a team like the Chicago Cubs or Seattle Mariners.
Kolek's run of dominance continues
Of all the pitchers who have been mentioned as potential high draft picks in this year's draft, very few have shown more consistency than Shepherd (Texas) High School right-hander Tyler Kolek, and that run continued in his regular season finale against Splendora High School.
Kolek struck out 17 on Friday in his seven innings of work, giving up just two runs and one walk in the 3-2 victory. Those totals give the right-hander an impressive 102-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season, and the right-hander has continued to impress scouts not only with his impressive fastball, but his ability to pitch as well.
"I think the common misconception about Kolek is that he's just a pitcher and not a thrower," an AL area scout said. "I'm not saying he's a finished product, but even though the breaking ball is slurvy, I think it can cause swings and misses at the next level, and it doesn't have to be a plus-plus offering when you're consistently throwing in the high 90s.
"Do I think he's got the potential to be one of the best right-handed pitchers in all of baseball? No, but I think he's a potential top-of-the-rotation arm, and if he's not taken in the first seven or eight picks of the first round I'd be very surprised."
Kolek is a lock for the top 10 assuming there are no medical or financial issues, and he's most commonly linked with the Miami Marlins, Chicago Cubs and Minnesota Twins who all pick in the top five this year.
SEC arms see reversal of fortune
Vanderbilt's Tyler Beede and LSU's Aaron Nola have been heading in opposite directions over the last month, but they reverse roles on Friday.
Beede has struggled with command throughout the month of April, and while it was far from perfect, it was substantially better Friday night against Georgia. The Commodore ace went just five innings as the game was shortened due to power outages, but he gave up just two hits and no runs over his work, walking three and striking out seven.
The three walks are more than scouts would like to see -- especially in that short of a start -- but he did a better job of working ahead of hitters, and only one out on the evening was via fly ball. It wasn't a perfect effort, but it's a promising start towards rebuilding his potential top 10 stock.
On the other side of the spectrum, Nola had been one of the most consistent starters in all of college baseball coming into his start on Tennessee, but his outing on Friday left much to be desired. Nola gave up eight hits and four runs over his five innings of work, and his usual plus command was nowhere to be found, as he walked four batters and needed 115 pitches to get through his start.
"One bad start isn't going to make you not take a guy," an NL West scout said. "But it is a reminder that the margin of error for pitchers who rely more on command than dominating stuff is thin, and that's the case with [Nola]. I still think he's one of the safest college pitchers in this year's class, but if you're expecting anything more than a low-end third starter, you are setting your expectations too high, in my opinion."
Gordon making case for best prep bat
All year long, Alex Jackson (Rancho Bernardo HS, San Diego) has been considered by most to be the top prep position player of the 2014 class. While that still appears to be the case, he has a formidable challenger in Olympia High School (Orlando, Fla.) shortstop Nick Gordon, who has been red hot with both the bat and the glove.
Gordon went 3-for-3 with his a homer as Olympia beat Apopka HS 11-0 in the 8A, District 3 championship game on Friday; his third homer in his last seven games. For the season, the left-handed hitting shortstop has posted a .507/.620/.870 line, and he's done it while displaying a plus-plus throwing arm and well above-average range at shortstop.
"To me, it's not even close [that Gordon is the best shortstop in this year's draft]," an NL West scout said. "And that includes both the college and high school side. The swing isn't perfect, but he's got quality bat speed and his bat-to-ball skills are well above-average. Add in the defensive ability, and you get a guy who has a chance to be a top-10 shortstop, maybe even better if everything goes right in his development."
Gordon will almost assuredly go in the first 20 selections come June, and could be a target of a team like the Toronto Blue Jays, Colorado Rockies or San Diego Padres.
Fisher comes back strong
Last week, we talked about how Virginia's Derek Fisher had the most to gain of any collegiate hitter in the 2014 draft. There's still a lot of baseball to be played, but his efforts against Florida State this weekend was a promising first step.
Fisher went 4-for-9 against the Seminoles over Friday and Saturday; including a 3-for-5 game against FSU ace and potential first-round pick Luke Weaver, with all three of the hits being doubles.
"I thought he looked healthy," an AL Central scout said. "Anytime you see a guy hit against a pitcher of Weaver's quality -- inferior breaking-ball or not -- you have to take notice of that. When he's seeing the ball well, he's as good as any outfielder as I've seen this year, and he could absolutely be a .280 guy who can give you 20-25 homers as well. His health is a welcome sight."
More than likely Fisher goes in the compensation portion of the draft, right after the first round, but if teams believe that Fisher has recovered from his hamate injury that sidelined him for over a month, he could go late in the first round to a team like the Oakland Athletics or Tampa Bay Rays.
Swinging Out of the Zone and Really Swinging Out of the Zone.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
A few years ago — unfortunately I don’t remember where — I remember seeing an article beginning with the premise that not all pitches out of the strike zone are alike. What we offer here on FanGraphs is O-Swing%, a rate of swings at pitches out of the PITCHf/x zone. Yet this groups all such swings and pitches together, and for a hitter, swinging at a pitch an inch outside is different from swinging at a pitch a foot outside. One might indicate a little better discipline than the other. The author decided to see if there were cases where O-Swing% was misleading, given the distribution of swings at balls. What he found was, no, it’s fine. Over full seasons, there’s no need to get more granular. But what about when you’re short of full seasons?
This little study was inspired by Jose Abreu, and a hunch. Abreu, right now, owns a 152 wRC+ in his first-ever exposure to the bigs, and his isolated slugging percentage is an impossible .369. He’s already been everything the White Sox could’ve dreamed of. Abreu also owns one of baseball’s higher O-Swing% rates, at 39%. He’s been fed a lot of pitches out of the zone, and he’s swung at a lot of pitches out of the zone, and that trait and success don’t always go hand in hand. What I wondered was: has Abreu been swinging at borderline balls, or has he really been fishing? He’s already demonstrated that he can drive pitches on any of the edges. His functional zone might just be bigger than the average zone. To what degree has his zone really expanded?
I decided to look at the 225 hitters who, so far this year, have seen at least 250 pitches. On average, they’ve seen more than 360. Our version of O-Swing% uses the PITCHf/x strike zone. I decided to create a box bigger than the PITCHf/x strike zone, to include those more borderline balls, which make for more forgivable swings. Laterally, I set thresholds of a foot from the center of the plate, and vertically, the box stretches from 1.5 feet off the ground to 3.5 feet off the ground. So we have a box, two feet by two feet. Within the box is the strike zone, and some area outside of the strike zone. I was wondering about the pitches outside of this larger box.
If you’re curious, 56% of pitches so far to Pablo Sandoval and Freddie Freeman have been outside of that box. Right behind are Yasiel Puig, Gerardo Parra, and Abreu, at 55%. At the other end, David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud are tied at 36%. Anthony Rendon‘s at 37%, Andrelton Simmons is at 38%, and Eric Young, Ruben Tejada, and Dustin Pedroia are at 39%. It would appear, at a glance, the Mets have been seeing a lot of strikes, but that’s a separate investigation.
Shin-Soo Choo and Matt Joyce have swung at just 9% of pitches outside of the larger box. Those are the lowest rates in baseball, with Trevor Plouffe in third at 11%. The highest rate belongs to Mike Zunino, at 47%. This probably isn’t a surprise — Zunino has baseball’s highest overall swing rate, and he’s swung at nearly half of the obvious balls he’s been thrown. No one else is within six percentage points of Zunino, with Jonathan Schoop and Brandon Phillips equal at 41%.
But this is less about an alternative O-Swing%, and more about the difference between this version of O-Swing% and the FanGraphs version of O-Swing%. Let’s look at a couple tables, shall we? First, the ten guys with the greatest positive difference between this O-Swing% and the familiar O-Swing%. That is, these guys have swung at more obvious balls than borderline balls. Keep in mind this is relative to a league average of -3%. This actually measures percentage points, not percent.
Brandon Moss 4%
Juan Uribe 4%
Yasiel Puig 4%
Mark Trumbo 4%
Andre Ethier 3%
Gerardo Parra 3%
Brad Miller 2%
Erick Aybar 2%
Coco Crisp 2%
Michael Cuddyer 2%
Brandon Moss has a regular O-Swing% of 32%. Yet he’s swung at 36% of pitches outside of the larger box, which seems to be more bad than good. That difference ties Moss with a couple of Dodgers and one injured Diamondback. There’s another Dodger right behind Trumbo. Personally, however, I’m more interested in this second table, capturing the other end of the data:
Marc Krauss -10%
Travis Snider -9%
Brandon Belt -8%
Alex Gordon -8%
Nick Swisher -8%
Alex Avila -8%
Charlie Blackmon -7%
Justin Morneau -7%
Zack Cozart -7%
Nick Castellanos -7%
My Abreu hunch is only partially true, meaning it’s hardly true at all — his adjusted O-Swing% is four percentage points lower than his regular O-Swing%. Marc Krauss, though, shows up at ten percentage points lower, suggesting he’s been less willing to chase than his O-Swing% would otherwise indicate. Ditto Travis Snider, and Brandon Belt is interesting because while he’s been unwilling to chase, he’s been very aggressive at obvious down-the-middle strikes. Belt has baseball’s third-highest rate of swings at pitches inside the box, and so it could be that he’s selectively aggressive, instead of just regular aggressive. He does presently own a career-best ISO, which could be a coincidence, or a non-coincidence.
I’m hesitant to make too much of this, in no small part because I don’t know how to make too much of this, but I wonder if this might be a decent indication of “true” O-Swing%. I wonder if the guys in the first table might have their O-Swing% rates regress up, while the guys in the second table have their rates regress down. That’s nothing I can figure out today. And another thing I’ve figured out today is that, no, Jose Abreu hasn’t necessarily been swinging with controlled aggression. He has been willing to chase, particularly down and just above the dirt. It could be that’s going to prove to be Abreu’s downfall. Or it could be Abreu’s too good at converting a lot of his swings into value, and pitchers trying to get him to chase will make mistakes. It’s true that not all pitches out of the zone are created alike, and you might just have to stray pretty far from the zone to consistently get Abreu out.
Why Challenge The Royals, When They’ll Just Help You Out?Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The Royals, as you most likely know, are something far from a powerful team. It took them until April 9 to hit their first homer of the year, an Alex Gordon shot that likely wouldn’t have made it out of any ballpark in the big leagues had it not been wind-aided. It took them until April 15 to hit their second. Even now, 24 games into the season, they have only 10, four coming in the span of a week from Mike Moustakas, who has just 13 total hits — and a .159/.213/.354 line — all year. They have as many homers as a team as Jose Abreu does on his own. Their isolated power is .001 better than that of the Mets, and is in shouting distance of the worst mark we’ve seen in decades. They’re on pace for 67 homers. No one has hit fewer than 70 since the 1991 St. Louis Cardinals, who had only Todd Zeile break into double-digits with 11.
This isn’t a surprise. The Royals hit the fewest homers in the American League last year, and they tied with Minnesota for the fewest in 2012. This wasn’t built to be a powerful team, and it’s not.
This is a surprise, at least it was when I first saw it: Pitchers aren’t challenging the Royals hitters in the way that you’d think. Kansas City’s Zone% is 44.7. That’s the lowest in baseball. Every other team in the game sees a higher percentage of their pitches in the strike zone. Not the Royals. It’s almost as though pitchers are afraid of them. Rather than being pitched like Marco Scutaro, Zack Cozart or Darwin Barney (all among the 10 leaders in Zone% last year), they’re being avoided like they’re Prince Fielder, Giancarlo Stanton or Josh Hamilton (among the 10 trailers).
That is, of course, beyond counter-intuitive. The Royals as a whole are hitting something like 2012 Barney, when it comes to power. (He had a .100 ISO and a .354 SLG; the Royals are at .101 and .361.) This is not something to aspire to. One would think that with offense like that, with so little chance of being burned by a homer or even an extra-base hit, pitchers would do almost nothing but throw strikes. Why not?
Well, there’s this: They don’t need to.
That’s a visual representation of the current O-Contact% numbers, which shows you how often a team makes contact on a pitch outside the zone. Needless to say, the Royals are the only team over 70%, all the way up at 74.5%. This isn’t exactly a new thing, either. Since 2010, 10 teams have had an O-Contact% north of 70%. The 2014 Royals sit atop that list too, but they’re also joined by the 2010 Royals… and the 2011 Royals… and the 2012 Royals… and the 2013 Royals. Whether it’s organizational mandate or the players they’ve collected — likely a bit of both — these Royals love to swing outside the zone, and they’re good at making contact with those pitches. They’re so good at it, in fact, that no team since 2002, when this data goes back to, tops them. (The only one that comes close: the 2011 Royals. Of course.)
Usually making contact is good, but suddenly, you understand why pitchers don’t necessarily feel the need to throw strikes to the Royals. Why give them something worth hitting, when they’ll go out of their way to hit balls out of the zone? It’s not that the Royals swing at pitches outside the zone at a fantastically high rate — 30.4 percent, seventh in the bigs and above the 28.8 percent league average — but they do make contact, overall, at a much above-average rate. Right now, the Royals have a 6.9% swinging-strike percentage. It’s not only the lowest in the bigs, it’s one of just eight team seasons since 2002 to be less than seven percent — and remember, as the game continues to strike out more and more, that’s a lot more impressive than it was when the 2007 Yankees had a 6.8% mark. (Unsurprisingly, the 2014 Royals have the sixth-best contact rate since 2002.)
So what the Royals have managed to come up with is a team that rarely swings and misses, also likes to swing at pitches outside the zone, and, understandably, makes more contact outside the zone. This is, of course, the problem: unless you’re Vladimir Guerrero, those are very rarely the kinds of pitches you want to be making contact with. Sure, you can hit them, but can you really hit them? It’s the kind of thing that seems so obvious that you shouldn’t need the numbers, but here are the numbers:
Hits on pitches marked as balls by PITCHf/x
2014 — 1.84 percent
2008-14 — 2.00 percent
Hits on pitches marked as strikes by PITCHf/x
2014 — 4.39 percent
2008-14 — 4.47 percent
You’re more likely to get a hit on a ball in the zone than not. Obviously. And now looking at just hits as a percentage of swings, not all pitches:
Hits on swings marked as balls by PITCHf/x
2014 — 10.0 percent
2008-14 – 10.4 percent
Hits on swings marked as strikes by PITCHf/x
2014 –17.0 percent
2008-14 – 17.3 percent
Sometimes, the thing that seems really obvious and the numbers work in concert. There doesn’t always have to be a disagreement between the old and the new. When you swing at a pitch outside the zone, you’re absolutely less likely to see a positive outcome. That’s one of the reasons the best pitchers are the best; just look at the names on the top of the O-Swing% list. You see Masahiro Tanaka, you see Zack Greinke, and Felix Hernandez, and Stephen Strasburg, and Jose Fernandez. (And, for some reason, Phil Hughes.) This isn’t really an accident. If you’re a pitcher, and you can get a hitter to swing at your pitch, then you’ve done your job. Even if the batter gets wood on it, he’s not likely to be in position to do anything particularly valuable with it.
A few days ago, Dave Cameron looked at how the Twins, a team pretty devoid of elite offensive talent outside of Joe Mauer, have managed to score runs and win games by swinging less, increasing their walk rate — and their runners on base, of course — and decreasing their swing rate outside the zone. The Royals have managed to do the exact opposite. They’re not patient. They’re not powerful. They’re not swinging at the right pitches. And they’re sitting at .500, despite a pitching staff that really has been very good.
For opposing pitchers, it’s a win/win. The Royals won’t make you pay if you come into the zone, and they won’t lay off the bad pitch if you don’t. That’s a great combination if you’re going against them. It’s not if you’re a Kansas City fan.
Swing less to hit more? Fielder continues to adjust to new ballparks.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Sometimes hitters are terse about their craft. They aren't all Joey Votto, after all. But if you can pry a few thoughts from them, you'll still find multitudes underneath seemingly simple statements. At least, that's what happened after a conversation I had with Prince Fielder last week.
Before a game against the Athletics on April 22nd, I pointed out to the Rangers slugger that he makes more contact than most power hitters. "I'm making more contact on pitches that I want to swing at," Fielder said of maturing as a hitter. The average top-30 home run hitter since 2011 has swung and missed at nearly 11 percent of the pitches he's seen. Fielder's swinging strike rate over the same time frame is 8.7 percent.
But things have changed in this regard over his career. Over his first four seasons, he struck out 19 percent of the time and swung and missed more than 11 percent of the time. Over his last four seasons, he's struck out 14.5 percent of the time, thanks to that reduced swinging strike rate.
AROUND THE HORN
Leading off: Ken Rosenthal
Batting second: Jon Paul Morosi
Batting third: Rob Neyer
Cleanup hitter: Gabe Kapler
Batting fifth: Baseball Prospectus
Batting sixth: FanGraphs
Jeter 'Farewell Tour' in pictures
Ask the slugger, and the answer why seems so simple: "Trying to be ready to hit," he offered with a shrug before asking: "Being more selective?" His reach rates haven't improved much, though. In the first four years of his career, he swung at 27.4 percent of pitches outside the zone and 69.1 percent of pitches inside the zone. The last four years, he's swung at 30.4 percent of pitches outside the zone and 67.7 percent of pitches inside the zone. Strange way to become more selective.
What Fielder has done is swung less as he's aged -- down from 47-48 percent to around 44-45 percent. There's some evidence that swinging less is good for you, even without slicing it into swinging more at pitches inside the zone and less at pitches outside the zone. The Twins are trying this approach out currently.
But let's look at this brute force stat -- swing% -- on an individual level. Since 2011, there have been 233 qualified batters. Take a look at how the top 50 and bottom 50 in swing percentage have done against each over that time frame.
OBP SLG wRC+ BB%
Top 50 swing% 0.323 0.444 108 6.50%
Bottom 50 swing% 0.347 0.426 113 10.60%
Swinging less often is better for your walk rate, and therefore your overall production, but only given equal amounts of power; It is possible that hitters who swing less often, in order to draw more walks, are giving up the chance to hit extra base hits in the process. Or perhaps they just aren't capable of driving the ball, as Fielder is.
Interestingly, during the time that Fielder has reduced his swing rate, he's both 1) moved from a hitter's park in Milwaukee to a pitcher's park in Detroit (relatively), and 2) lost power. Asked about the relationship between those two things, Fielder admitted that Detroit's larger park meant he had to change:
You definitely have to change your swing up a little bit. At least I did. Bigger park, you can't be hitting fly balls to center all day, because you'll probably won't have as much success as you would somewhere else. Try to do different things, try to hit line drives. Had to change up just a little bit.
THE 500-HOME RUN CLUB
Ernie Banks and Mickey Mantle are two members of the elite group. Who are the other 24?
Once again, Fielder doesn't say anything you've never heard before. But there's a lot behind these statements.
For one, did Fielder change the angle on his balls in play when he went to Detroit? Detroit's park plays neutral for lefties, but Milwaukee was much friendlier according to FanGraphs' park factors. Take a look at his pull, center and opposite field percentages in Milwaukee, Detroit and Texas:
Pull% Center% Opposite%
Milwaukee 41.5% 37.1% 21.4%
Detroit 35.0% 40.8% 24.2%
Texas 41.9% 35.4% 22.4%
Well that seems fairly stark. It might be a little early to say he's changed his approach in Texas, but it's not that early. Consider the fact that the player himself made reference to making this change on purpose, and then consider that other batted ball information like this -- ground-ball rate -- becomes meaningful around 150 plate appearances. Fielder's not too far away.
Speaking of ground-ball and fly-ball rates, that's the other way a player can change their swing to accommodate their park. Let's look at that other aspect of his swing in each uniform:
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Some of this could be aging. You do hit more ground balls as you age. But the difference between Milwaukee and Detroit was fairly stark -- he'd spent all those years in Milwaukee hitting almost exactly one ground ball for every fly ball and then it looks like he decided to hit more ground balls in a park that was less friendly to fly balls. The result was exactly what the slugger wanted: the two best line drive rates of his career came in Detroit.
Let's see if we can spot the difference. On the left is a swing when the slugger was with Milwaukee in late 2011. On the right is a swing from Detroit last year.
Whether or not our untrained eyes can spot it in two random plate appearances set two years apart, and whether or not he'll put the exact mechanical changes into words for us, it looks like Fielder has spent his time adjusting: adjusting to how pitchers want to throw him, and to the peculiarities of his home park. If that trend continues, expect him to pull more fly balls and begin to take more advantage of his home park in Texas.
"That's the key -- not missing the pitch you want to take an aggressive swing at," the slugger said. Another seemingly straightforward statement that hides the complexity that is being a high-contact slugger in professional baseball.