Pablo Sandoval’s Happy Place.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
A lot of people think Pablo Sandoval is back. I don’t know if I agree.
In a lot of minds, baseball players are constantly coming and going, and it seems like that shouldn’t be true. Results waver; ability doesn’t — at least not so much. I don’t think Pablo Sandoval was ever gone, but what we can say with certainty is that early 2014 Sandoval didn’t look right. Recent 2014 Sandoval has looked a lot better. He’s looked a lot more familiar. He seems to be back on track to be one of the Giants’ positional leaders.
And there’s an interesting thing about that. In April, Sandoval drew 10 unintentional walks. In May, he’s drawn zero. In April, Sandoval swung at an above-average rate of pitches. In May, he’s swung at more pitches. This is what writers call an “understatement.” It’s what non-writers also would call an understatement, because that’s a everyday word.
I pulled every regular and semi-regular who’s batted at least 50 times in both April and May. This gave me a sample of 224 different players, and I wanted to take a look at their monthly swing rates. In April, Sandoval swung 50% of the time. In May, he’s swung 65% of the time. As it turns out, his change of 15 percentage points has been the biggest change in baseball, in either direction. Only five players have had swing-rate changes in the double digits, and only two have had increases in the double digits. Relative to the rest of the league, Sandoval was pretty aggressive in April. In May, he’s been aggressive to an extreme, and the results have followed.
Swing rate doesn’t change very much because discipline and aggressiveness are parts of a hitter’s identity. A hitter will want to swing at a certain number of pitches, and these tend to be numbers that stabilize fast. So it’s interesting when they’re unstable, and from the Sandoval case, we might infer that something was wrong in April that caused him to turtle, relative to himself. The assertion is Sandoval’s mechanics were messed up. This is often the belief when a hitter isn’t hitting, but it’s clear now that Sandoval is batting with a lot more confidence than he was previously.
Sandoval’s 50% April swing rate was the lowest monthly rate of his career. It wasn’t the lowest by much, but he’s never before had a swing rate beginning with a 4.
Meanwhile, Sandoval’s 65% May swing rate is nearly the highest monthly swing rate of his career. It’s off by a few tenths of a percentage point, and May doesn’t end until Saturday. There’s still an opportunity for Sandoval to follow one extreme with the other.
Sandoval has swung a lot. The last qualified batter to post a swing rate of at least 65% in a month was Vladimir Guerrero, and that was in April 2011. Prior to that, you have Bengie Molina and Josh Hamilton in April 2009. Then you have Molina in August 2008, then Sandoval himself in September 2008. May Sandoval has hit like Sandoval in his rookie days. And while that includes swinging at more than half of the pitches outside the strike zone, Sandoval is among the best bad-ball hitters in the game. He has to be, otherwise he wouldn’t have made it this far. Pablo Sandoval is why you always treat plate-discipline statistics on a case-by-case basis, because general rules don’t apply to every player.
There are other indicators that April Sandoval was off, and that May Sandoval is on. Over his career, Sandoval has swung at 43% of first pitches. In April, he swung at 27% of first pitches. In May, he’s at 51%. Beyond that, in his last game of April, Sandoval swung at three of eight pitches. In no game since has Sandoval swung at fewer than half of all pitches. Almost overnight, he started to feel good enough to swing away. Almost overnight, he got over his mechanical complications.
Of some interest is this is the reverse of what we’ve seen from Sandoval previously. Two other times he’s had monthly swing-rate changes in the double digits. Between April and June 2011 (he was injured that May), Sandoval increased his rate 12 percentage points, and his wRC+ tumbled. Between June and July 2013, Sandoval decreased his rate 13 percentage points, and his wRC+ took off. There’s no positive correlation between Sandoval’s monthly swing rates and his monthly wRC+ figures, so it’s not like the latter automatically follows the former. Sometimes, Sandoval is over-aggressive. Sometimes, there are stretches where he can take walks without getting too passive in the box.
So it’s not like Pablo Sandoval is going to be swinging at 65% of all pitches forever. And it’s not like Sandoval can have great success swinging at this many pitches forever. Pitchers will adjust back to Sandoval’s adjustment, and then Sandoval will have to adjust again. This might help explain why his swing rates have fluctuated in the past. The most stable players can have a lot of moving bits underneath, and there are pitches Sandoval ought to stay away from. Pitchers will probably throw more of them, and he’ll either lay off or he’ll make mistakes.
But the big thing about Sandoval’s May isn’t that it’s sustainable as is. The big thing is Sandoval feels good enough and confident enough to be swinging this aggressively, especially after an unusually passive first month in which he struggled to find his routine. Now Sandoval seems to have his swings, and subsequent adjustments should be made.
It shouldn’t be about whether Pablo Sandoval feels right and locked in, though. It should only be about his pitch selection. Of course, that’ll never be normal — but that’s Pablo Sandoval’s normal. He’s ready now for a normal season, at least by his standards.
The Other Dallas Keuchel.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Before the season started, we had the Astros projected for the worst starting rotation in baseball, by a good margin. It was simultaneously embarrassing and expected, as one Scott Feldman can do only so much. Yet, as I write this, the Astros’ rotation ranks ninth in baseball in WAR, having been more of a strength than a weakness. A lot of this has to do with the development of Dallas Keuchel, who Mike Petriello wrote about. Out of nowhere, Keuchel has blossomed into a possible no. 1, and recently there was a little controversy when Lloyd McClendon spoke in less-than-glowing terms after watching his team get shut down.
After the Astros [and Keuchel] beat the Mariners 4-1, McClendon said: “I saw average stuff. We didn’t swing the bats very good. At some point you’ve got to stop giving credit to average pitchers.”
Now I get to check this off the list of sentences I never thought I’d write: it’s not all about Keuchel, though, as his success has overshadowed the similarly surprising success of an unheralded teammate. ZiPS projected Dallas Keuchel for a 5.02 ERA. It projected Collin McHugh for a 5.25 ERA. Both have instead been absolutely phenomenal, and if you want to stretch the comparison further, let’s go back to the end of April:
After the Astros took their second in a row from the A’s on Sunday – the teams split a four-game series – A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson suggested that McHugh wasn’t flashing elite stuff.
“Stuff-wise, I thought he was OK,” said Donaldson, who went 0-for-3 with a walk. “I don’t think it was anything special. But he changed speeds well and pitched to his game plan.”
Keuchel doesn’t blow people away, but he’s blown people away. McHugh doesn’t blow people away, but he’s blown people away. In a world in which Dallas Keuchel is attracting positive attention, it’s time to divert some of that to another guy, who might be even more of a shock.
One of the things about McHugh: the Astros wanted him before they got him. They tried to pick him up a couple times last year, but didn’t try hard enough. Members of the front office liked what McHugh had done in the minors, and what’s suggested is that the Astros knew there might be some upside.
Another one of the things about McHugh: the Astros didn’t want him badly enough last year to get him. They ultimately grabbed him off waivers after the Rockies let him go to make room for Boone Logan, and when McHugh was promoted to the bigs in April, the Astros assumed he’d be little more than a stopgap. Maybe the Astros saw more upside in McHugh than other teams, but even the Astros are surprised by this. I should tell you a little more about what “this” is, as McHugh has completed seven starts as of Tuesday.
If you set a minimum of 40 innings for starting pitchers, McHugh presently ranks 14th in xFIP-, between Adam Wainwright and Madison Bumgarner.
Additionally, McHugh presently ranks 14th in FIP-, between Stephen Strasburg and Keuchel.
And maybe most impressively, McHugh ranks fourth in strikeout rate, between Yu Darvish and Max Scherzer.
There are the best strikeout pitchers in baseball, and there is Collin McHugh, pitching a little like old Justin Verlander with Verlander pitching something like old Collin McHugh. Before this year, McHugh had more big-league runs allowed than innings pitched. His peripherals, also, were garbage. Now McHugh has one quarter of one season of pitching like an ace, and as much as he’s presumably not an ace, it’s hard to fake this. It’s pretty easy to fake a low ERA, all things considered. It’s harder to fake domination of the world’s most talented bats.
When a pitcher changes his performance, you look for changes in his pitching. McHugh, absolutely, has made some changes, because the old status quo wasn’t cutting it. When McHugh first arrived with the Astros, he was throwing a lot of his sinker, over and over and over again. He’s since all but ditched the pitch, throwing more of a full complement of four-seamers. He always had a curve, a cutter, and a changeup, but the sinker’s basically gone, and it’s worth noting McHugh’s groundball rate is actually up. McHugh never did get a hang of the pitch; he threw almost half of his sinkers for balls.
Another tweak is that McHugh moved over on the rubber, as seems to be a common theme with pitchers these days. A graph taken from Brooks Baseball, showing McHugh’s horizontal release point relative to the center of the mound:
McHugh is more toward the first-base side now, and that might help to explain some trends. He’s thrown 25% of pitches inside to righties, after throwing 39% of pitches inside to righties before. He’s also increased his rate of inside pitches to lefties, suggesting that the shift gives McHugh more of an even angle. Some of this is position on the mound, and some of this is just the result of the change in McHugh’s repertoire.
Yet perhaps things are as simple as this. Average pitch velocities, taken from Brooks Baseball:
Pitch 2012/13 2014 Difference
Four-seam 90.8 92.9 2.1
Sinker 91.3 92.8 1.5
Cutter 85.3 87.2 1.9
Curveball 71.5 74.2 2.7
Changeup 83.8 85.0 1.2
McHugh, now, is just throwing harder, even though some of his previous track record included time in relief. His straight fastball is up more than two ticks. His curveball is up almost three ticks, and his change and cutter have also moved forward. I don’t know how to explain McHugh’s velocity gains. It might be something subtle and mechanical. But the What is more important than the Why, and of course throwing harder makes a hittable pitcher better. McHugh has been good in the minors before, with his old repertoire. Maybe the key to translating that to the majors was gaining a couple miles of strength.
Where, before, McHugh threw 27% of his pitches with two strikes, this season that’s up to 30%. But that isn’t the big change. Before, 13% of those two-strike pitches resulted in strikeouts. This season, that’s up to 24%. He’s almost doubled his two-strike strikeout efficiency, and when you combine that with an increased ability to get to two strikes in the first place, you can see how this is happening. The following .gif sequence won’t capture McHugh in a nutshell, because no pitcher is as good as a three-pitch strikeout, but here’s a sense of things, featuring Omar Infante in Tuesday’s first inning:
McHugh has a functional high fastball, and it’s made his low breaking stuff lethal. Over his first two years, McHugh got 83 swings at pitches down below the zone, and hitters whiffed 24% of the time. This year, he’s gotten 63 swings at pitches down below the zone, and hitters have whiffed 59% of the time. Little has changed about McHugh’s zone rate. Little has changed about his zone swing rate, or his out-of-zone swing rate, or his zone contact rate. The huge change is in out-of-zone contact rate, as hitters have been punished for chasing. The better velocity, and the better fastball, have improved everything, and now McHugh pitches like a strikeout pitcher with a power curve. It resembles a power curve to the eye, and to this point McHugh’s curveball has been one of the most effective individual pitches in the league.
McHugh’s getting surprising results — results surprising even his own employer. Behind the results are changes in approach and changes in stuff, and maybe it’s as simple as saying that McHugh just throws harder now than before. Whatever the causes, McHugh has come out of nowhere to be one of the best, a lot like his teammate. And where all surprises need to be regressed as you look toward the future, McHugh has an awful long way to fall before he’d get to be the kind of pitcher you don’t want to start. A couple months ago, Collin McHugh didn’t make the starting rotation of the Houston Astros. Now one can’t imagine McHugh being removed. Secret organizational Astros genius? Maybe. Or maybe pitching is just the weirdest damned thing.
Mike Trout’s “Struggles”, Graphed.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Mike Trout has a .386 wOBA and a 151 wRC+. He’s not exactly hitting poorly, but he is striking out a lot more than he has previously, and relative to his own previous performances, a .386 wOBA is perhaps a minor disappointment. Now that David Appelman has released our fancy new heatmaps, we can see exactly where Trout’s trouble areas have been.
First, here’s Trout’s contact rate map for 2013.
And now here’s that contact rate map for 2014.
Look at the upper half of the strike zone. Last year, he was making contact on pitches towards the top of the zone at around an 80% clip, and when pitchers elevated in, his contact rates were in the 90% range. This year, he’s in the 70% contact range on pitches towards the top of the zone, and pitches up and in have been especially problematic.
Of course, a lower contact rate isn’t necessarily worse, depending on what kind of contact a hitter makes when he does hit the ball. In reality, what you really want to look at is total production in a location, taking into account both the negative outcomes like swinging strikes and the positive outcomes on balls in play.
And that’s why I love one of our new heat maps in particular. You’ll find it labeled as “RAA/100P”, which stands for Runs Above Average per 100 pitches, but essentially, it’s a linear weights metric that gives you the sum of a batters outcomes in a specific zone.
If a batter never swings at a pitch out of the zone, he may be hitting .000/.000/.000 on pitches in that area, but it’s still a very high reward location for him because of the large numbers of called balls, which generate value for the hitter. By adding up the values of not just the balls in play, or even just the swings, but of all pitches in that specific area, we can see where each hitter (or pitcher) is generating most of their value.
Here are Trout’s heat maps again, but this time, we’re looking at the linear weights value of these locations.
Here is 2013.
And now 2014.
Trout is an absolute monster on pitches down and in, and that hasn’t changed this year. If you pitch him in that low-and-in part of the zone, or even if you get it in off the plate a little bit, he’s going to crush you.
But look at the top of the zone this year compared to last year. He’s getting eaten up — relative to 2013 Mike Trout, anyway — on pitches up in the zone, and particularly that up-and-in area where his contact rate has really dropped. Previously, Trout was making pitchers pay for attacking the top end of the zone, but this year, they’re getting those pitches by him.
Why that’s become a weak spot for him this year is a question for Trout and the Angels hitting coaches, and not one we can answer. But, thanks to these RAA/100 heat maps, we can now identify where in the zone a hitter is having success or failure. And that’s why I’m going to be using these all the time.
The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, introduced last April by the present author, wherein that same ridiculous author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own heart to identify and/or continue monitoring the most compelling fringe prospects in all of baseball.
Central to the exercise, of course, is a definition of the word fringe, a term which possesses different connotations for different sorts of readers. For the purposes of the column this year, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion in the Five) is any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above both (a) absent from all of three notable preseason top-100 prospect lists* and also (b) not currently playing in the majors. Players appearing on the midseason prospect lists produced by those same notable sources or, otherwise, selected in the first round of the amateur draft will also be excluded from eligibility.
*In this case, those produced by Baseball America, ESPN’s Keith Law, and our own Marc Hulet.
In the final analysis, the basic idea is this: to recognize those prospects who are perhaps receiving less notoriety than their talents or performance might otherwise warrant.
Taylor Cole, RHP, Toronto (Profile)
Photographic evidence suggests that right-handed Toronto prospect Taylor Cole is not an actual white whale. For the purposes of this weekly column, however, he is a figurative one — insofar, that is, as he’s recorded perhaps the best strikeout and walk figures among all qualified minor-league pitchers (31.3% and 6.0%, respectively, in 59.1 innings) and yet there appear to be zero reports concerning his repertoire specifically. One finds that Cole threw 95 mph as a high-school student in Las Vegas and only 87-88 mph last year at around this same time. One finds more recent pieces that suggest Cole has found some success in throwing his fastball more often and also snarling while he throws it. With regard to the velocity or shape of his pitches, however, this is a mystery. What’s not a mystery is the stat line from his most recent start, which is this stat line (box): 6.2 IP, 24 TBF, 10 K, 1 BB, 6:1 GO:FO.
Seth Mejias-Brean, 3B, Cincinnati (Profile)
An eighth-round selection by Cincinnati in 2012 out of the University of Arizona, Mejias-Brean produced a walk rate of about 10% and strikeout rate of about 15% during each of his first two minor-league seasons. In this, his third, he’s retained almost that identical strikeout rate while simultaneously drawing more walks. Those two basic skills — i.e. avoiding strikeouts while collecting walks — are valuable in concert. Moreover, players who possess both also tend to swing at the right pitches, which allows them to avoid terrible contact. A reasonable concern regarding Mejias-Brean is his age (23) relative to level. That concern is mitigated in part, however, by the fact that he’s always produced wherever he’s played.
For the pleasure of the reader, here’s nearly relevant footage of Mejia-Brean hitting a home run last July in Dayton:
Francellis Montas, RHP, Chicago AL (Profile)
One of the prospects acquired by the White Sox in the trade that sent Jake Peavy to Boston last summer, Montas was ranked 29th by Baseball America this offseason within a system that itself was ranked 24th among the league’s 30 organizations in terms of future talent. That typically isn’t the case for prospects, like Montas, who’ve touched 100 mph (while sitting in the mid-90s) during the last calendar year. The problem with Montas, it seems, has been one of command. Command at this point, however, doesn’t seem to be an issue for that giant, young man. The 21-year-old right-hander has recorded a 30:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio over five starts and 30.0 innings with High-A Winston-Salem. Most intelligent things that could be said about him have been said about him by Nathaniel Stolz about three weeks ago.
In the meantime, here’s a breaking ball from his most recent game:
Jace Peterson, SS, San Diego (Profile)
While his slash stats (.357/.455/.607) have been excellent in 34 plate appearances since then, Peterson’s (probably more telling) defense-independent numbers haven’t been as impressive since the most recent edition of the Five as they had been the week prior. At this point, however, Peterson’s inclusion within the present column remains less informed by the precise content of his weekly production and more by his membership to a club identified by the present, idiot author about two months ago. The club: those players who, since 2005, have been named the top-hitting, most-disciplined, best-fielding prospects in their respective organizations by Baseball America. The discovery: that those prospects, regardless of rank on preseason lists, have almost uniformly become above-average major leaguers. This offseason, Peterson joined Michael Bourn as the only two players to have earned all three aforementioned distinctions within their respective organizations, and yet to have been omitted from Baseball America’s overall top-100 prospect list.
Here are the 2014 stats for Peterson, along with the two other newest members of the club in question — all of whom appear to be producing admirable numbers:
Name Org Lev Age PA BB% K% HR AVG OBP SLG BABIP wRC+
J.P. Crawford Phillies A 19 187 13.4% 12.8% 3 .344 .435 .488 .391 164
Jace Peterson Padres AA, AAA 24 163 14.1% 15.3% 3 .321 .420 .482 .373 150
Francisco Lindor Indians AA 20 206 11.2% 15.5% 4 .289 .371 .417 .331 123
Average — — — 185 12.9% 14.5% 3 .318 .409 .462 .365 146
Tommy Shirley, LHP, Houston (Profile)
It’s perhaps true that all one needs is love. Two things that aren’t so awful to have in addition to love, however, are a fastball that reaches 95 mph and a changeup that serves as an outpitch. Internet coverage of Houston prospect Tommy Shirley cited within previous edition of this column reveals that the aforementioned left-hander possesses both of those things (i.e. the hard fastball and effective changeup). Footage of Shirley’s fastball has appeared elsewhere in the Five. What hasn’t appeared, though, is footage of the changeup — which omission the author has taken steps to rectify post-haste.
Like by means of this GIF, for example, in which Shirley is striking out Brian Bixler:
And by means of this other GIF, too, in which Shirley is also striking out out Austin Hedges:
The Next Five
These are players on whom the author might potentially become fixated.
Robert Kral, C, San Diego (Double-A Texas League)
Billy McKinney, OF, Oakland (High-A California League)
Bryan Mitchell, RHP, New York AL (Double-A Eastern League)
Wesley Parsons, RHP, Atlanta (High-A Carolina League)
Jose Ramirez, MI, Cleveland (Triple-A International League)
Fringe Five Scoreboard
Here are all the players to have appeared among either the Fringe Five (FF) or Next Five (NF) so far this season. For mostly arbitrary reasons, players are assessed three points for each week they’ve appeared among the Fringe Five; a single point, for each week among the Next Five.
Name Team POS FF NF PTS
Jace Peterson Padres SS 5 1 16
Thomas Shirley Astros LHP 5 0 15
Robert Kral Padres C 3 5 14
Josh Hader Astros LHP 4 1 13
Ben Lively Reds RHP 3 1 10
Billy Mckinney Athletics OF 2 3 9
Jose Ramirez Indians 2B/SS 2 1 7
Andrew Aplin Astros OF 1 3 6
Bryan Mitchell Yankees RHP 1 3 6
Michael Reed Brewers OF 2 0 6
Taylor Cole Blue Jays RHP 2 0 6
Aaron West Astros RHP 1 2 5
Adam Duvall Giants 3B 1 2 5
Wesley Parsons Braves RHP 1 2 5
Seth Mejias-Brean Reds 3B 1 1 4
Cameron Rupp Phillies C 1 0 3
Dario Pizzano Mariners OF 1 0 3
Francellis Montas White Sox RHP 1 0 3
Kyle Hendricks Cubs RHP 1 0 3
Ryan Rua Rangers 3B 1 0 3
Tsuyoshi Wada Cubs LHP 1 0 3
Brian Johnson Red Sox LHP 0 2 2
Roberto Perez Indians C 0 2 2
Tommy La Stella Braves 2B 0 2 2
Billy Burns Athletics OF 0 1 1
Brett Eibner Royals OF 0 1 1
Chris Taylor Mariners SS 0 1 1
Danny Winkler Rockies RHP 0 1 1
Darnell Sweeney Dodgers MI 0 1 1
Edwar Cabrera Rangers LHP 0 1 1
Stephen Landazuri Mariners RHP 0 1 1
Tim Cooney Cardinals LHP 0 1 1
Tyler Goeddel Rays 3B 0 1 1
Trevor Plouffe and the Dangers of Good Results.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Trevor Plouffe had a good June 2012 — he hit .327/.391/.735 with 11 home runs — and announced himself to the baseball world in his third season. Unfortunately for him, though, those were good results after a process that didn’t fit him best. It was the slump that came after (.226/.279/.381 with eight home runs) that taught the Minnesota Twins third baseman the tools he needed to become a better player.
“In 2012, I had some success pulling the ball, and maybe I got a little pull happy,” Plouffe admitted before a game with the San Francisco Giants in late May. “When that happens, and you get those results, and you’re younger, you want more results.” Plouffe did indeed pull the ball some in 2012, and has stepped off the gas since:
The league average is 25.1%, but relatively, Plouffe is now much more balanced in his approach at the plate this year. And that’s important to him. “When you look at guys that drive in runs year in and year out, they use the whole field, they’re not guys that just go up there and pull homers,” Plouffe said, then mentioned Miguel Cabrera, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer as role models in that way. Spraying to all fields means you don’t get shifted much; Mauer and his ridiculously high 44% opposite-field percentage is the least-shifted person in the game, actually.
But that’s not the only reason why going the other way is helpful. “Letting the ball get deeper, while knowing that I have the ability to use the whole field, allows me to see it longer,” Plouffe says. This helps him make more contact, and his current swinging strike rate is the best of his career.
Plouffe also thinks that waiting longer and letting the ball get deeper into the zone allows him to lay off bad pitches. That, and maturity. “As you get a little bit more time and a few more at-bats up here, you tend to understand what kind of hitter you are and what brings success,” he said. He’s seeing the most pitches of his career, and reaching the least, and these things are all tied into his ability to go the other way in his mind.
2010 3.30 46.0%
2011 3.98 29.4%
2012 3.79 26.8%
2013 3.69 26.2%
2014 4.05 18.2%
But he still didn’t take that big leap in patience at the plate until this season, despite slowly going opposite field more every year. He came to a sort of understanding. “For me, a big thing was not being afraid to get deep into counts,” Plouffe said. He knows that with the extra pitches come strikeouts as well as walks, but he’s not afraid of those situations. More pitches leads to better outcomes for the batter, which leads to better outcomes for his teammates. “You can’t be afraid to get to two strikes,” he added. “Once you get afraid of that, you start swinging those questionable pitches early in the count.”
Plouffe has tinkered some. Take a look at his different batting stances over time (detailed well by Parker Hageman here), and you’ll see he’s had to change things. “It’s about getting comfortable and realizing what kind of hitter you are and what kind of role you have to play,” Plouffe says of those stances, but says it’s not as bad as it used to be. In the minor leagues, he changed stances more often and was “hearing it all over the place” about what he should do and when. Now? “I’m more focused on my process.”
Process is huge for Plouffe. The best swinging strike rate of his career, the best reach rate of his career, the best walk rate of his career, the highest line-drive rate of his career — and an average under .250. “If you’re a sabermetrics guy, you know that batting average is one of the last things you worry about,” Plouffe laughed, pointing out that a bad day or two this early in the season can tank a batting average.
“Once you get a little more confident in routine, you stop focusing on results, more on process,” Plouffe said. That’s good, because a little too much focus on a month’s worth of results almost set him on the wrong path. Now he’s got peripherals that back his process and suggest that he’s close to getting the most out of his skillset.
Northern track: Staying course paying off for Blue Jays so far.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Last year, the Toronto Blue Jays were supposed to be contenders.
They were crowned the winners of the offseason after acquiring Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, and Melky Cabrera in the same winter, giving their roster a big boost on paper. On the field, though, it didn't work.
Johnson was lousy and injured, while Buehrle and Dickey failed to improve the rotation much even though they avoided the DL. Reyes and Cabrera both struggled with injury issues of their own, with Cabrera performing as one of the worst players in baseball when he did play. Instead of joining the A's, Indians and Pirates in the "Postseason of the Upstarts," the 2013 Blue Jays instead became another reminder of the perils of trying to build a team around splashy, big-name acquisitions.
Coming off a miserable season, the Blue Jays backed off from aggressive offseason upgrades. They signed one free agent to a major-league contract: Dioner Navarro, a part-time catcher signed for part-time money. Despite being linked to big names like Jeff Samardzija, the team's most notable trade involved reliever Brad Lincoln going to Philadelphia for backup catcher Erik Kratz. Basically, the Blue Jays stood pat, despite what looked to be glaring holes in the rotation and at second base, not to mention all the questions about the big-names who disappointed so dramatically a year ago.
Put it all together, and you have a last-place team that made no substantial upgrades over the winter, built around a core group of players that are almost universally on the wrong side of 30. That's not a classic recipe for success, but as we head towards June, the Blue Jays are alone atop the American League East, and they now look like the prohibitive favorites to win the division.
How did the Blue Jays fix themselves by doing nothing? There are two primary, obvious differences between this year's model and last year's version.
1. The 2013 Blue Jays sent a position player to the plate 6,125 times, and 1,881 of those — a whopping 31 percent — went to players who performed below replacement level on the season. Maicer Izturis was the chief offender, posting an MLB-worst -2.1 WAR on the season, meaning that the Blue Jays would have been two wins better had Iztruis been replaced by a generic Triple-A infielder. Izturis wasn't alone, however; along with Cabrera, J.P. Arencibia, Josh Thole, Emilio Bonifacio, Anthony Gose, Henry Blanco, and Andy LaRoche, the Blue Jays had eight players combine for a whopping -5.1 WAR.
This year, only 286 of the team's 1,980 plate appearances by position players — only 14 percent, less than half of last year's rate — have been given to players who currently have a negative WAR, and those five players have combined for just -1.0 WAR. One of those five players — center fielder Colby Rasmus — was among the team's best players last year, and has a track record that suggests he won't keep performing this poorly all year. If he improves as expected, the team is only really giving away at-bats at second base, and that's the kind of weakness that can be improved at the trade deadline.
Last year, the Blue Jays gave away three full-time players' worth of at-bats to below replacement level performances. While there's a heavy emphasis on the top of a team's roster when projecting future performances, the Blue Jays are a great reminder that avoiding terrible performances from the end of the roster is just as important.
2. Their starting pitching has stopped giving up home runs. The debacle that was their 2013 rotation was due in large part to a ridiculous rate of home run allowance: 1.36 homers-per-nine-innings, second worst in baseball. This year, that rate is just 0.82 HR/9, sixth best in baseball. And that single change is driving the entirety of the one-run decrease in their rotation ERA. See for yourself.
Season K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP xFIP
2013 6.99 3.02 1.36 0.302 70.50% 4.81 4.59 4.23
2014 6.96 3.63 0.82 0.293 75.00% 3.75 4.01 4.35
The strikeouts are essentially the same, while the walks are actually up a lot, which isn't a great sign, but the increase in walk rate is dwarfed by the decrease in home runs allowed. By measures of expected performance, Toronto's rotation hasn't really been that much better this year than it was a year ago, but the huge change in homers allowed has driven its ERA way down, and allowed the team to remain competitive.
The problem for the Blue Jays is that the 4.35 xFIP is more representative of what they should expect from their starters over the rest of the year, as the 3.75 ERA is a bit of a mirage. While the 2013 Blue Jays were certainly underachievers, the 2014 Blue Jays are likely overachieving, with some regression almost certain to come from the team's starting rotation.
But even with that coming regression, the Blue Jays still have to be considered the favorites to take the AL East. The division isn't the behemoth it once was, and supposed-to-be contenders in Tampa Bay and Boston have dug themselves holes large enough to make comebacks difficult. The Yankees and Orioles aren't anything special, and the Blue Jays' early lead gives them a leg up on both. As it currently stands, the FanGraphs Playoff Odds projection has the Blue Jays winning the division with an 87-75 record, and no other team in the division finishing better than 82-80. Even if the Blue Jays just play .500 ball the rest of the year, their 31-22 start should be enough to give them a real chance to win the division.
But the time for sitting by and letting positive regression work its magic has come and gone. With the expectation of contention comes a requirement to upgrade when possible, and no contender in baseball has a more obvious weakness than the Blue Jays have at second base. They could use another starting pitcher, but fixing the second base hole should be priority No. 1.
Victor Martinez’s Unlikely and Unique Comeback.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Victor Martinez is in his age-35 season. He spent nearly a decade in the majors playing catcher, the most physically demanding position for a hitter to play. He missed the entire 2012 season after tearing his ACL. Things like these are not exactly a recipe for success with regards to potential comeback scenarios for your typical hitter. Victor Martinez is not your a typical hitter.
In terms of just hitting, Martinez has been the best player in the American League this season. His .417 wOBA and 166 wRC+ are seventh-best in the entire MLB. Both his Steamer and ZiPS updated full-season projections have him finishing with the highest wRC+ of his career. This is pretty interesting, given the circumstances laid out above.
What’s even more interesting is how he’s doing it.
You might have come across a stat over the last couple weeks concerning Victor Martinez’s number of home runs compared to strikeouts. If I would have written this article sometime before Sunday, I could have written that Victor Martinez had an equal number of home runs and strikeouts. For a little while there, Victor Martinez actually had more home runs than strikeouts. As of this moment, he has 13 strikeouts and 12 homers, which doesn’t sound as cool but is still amazing when you consider that the average player strikes out about eight times as often as he hits a home run. Needless to say, that 13:12 ratio of whiffs to dingers leads the Major Leagues by a considerable margin. The next best is Albert Pujols, who has 26 strikeouts and 14 homers.
At 32 years old, before knee surgery, Martinez hit just 12 homers. At 34 years old, after knee surgery, Martinez hit 14. It seemed like Victor’s days as a home run hitter were as good as done. But this season, Martinez, at 35 years old, has already hit 12 home runs in 47 games — less than a third of the total he played in last year. And he’s done it the old-fashioned way: by just crushing fastballs. 10 of his 12 homers this season have come by means of the fastball.
Consider this table, containing the 10 players in the MLB with the highest isolated slugging percentages against fastballs and their respective strikeout percentages for the season:
Player ISO vs. FB K%
Troy Tulowitzki .424 13.4%
Nelson Cruz .392 21.9%
Jose Abreu .388 26.5%
Mark Reynolds .368 33.7%
Adam Dunn .360 28.3%
Victor Martinez .359 6.5%
Brandon Moss .333 19.6%
Edwin Encarnacion .328 16.0%
Yasiel Puig .319 19.1%
Carlos Gomez .316 26.0%
At the top of this table is Troy Tulowitzki, who has been a superhuman this season and leads the MLB not only in ISO, but just about every offensive category and also some of the defensive ones, too. What one finds in the next seven players are some of the game’s elite pure-power bats in Cruz, Abreu, Reynolds, Dunn, Moss and Encarnacion. These are guys who, especially in the case of Dunn, Reynolds and Abreu, make their multi-million dollar salary by hitting the crap out of fastballs and basically doing nothing else. It is not surprising to find names like these on this list. It is surprising to find Martinez on this list.
Though Martinez has always had some pop in his bat, he has made his career by being one of the game’s best contact hitters. While guys like Dunn, Reynolds and Abreu sacrifice contact for power, as evidenced by their high strikeout rates in the table above, Martinez has crushed heaters on par with the game’s top sluggers while actually reducing his whiffs, as evidenced by his laughably out-of-place 6.5% strikeout rate, the lowest in the entire MLB. This has helped lead to a .368 batting average on fastballs, matching his ISO as the sixth-best figure in the MLB.
Sometimes, you worry about players losing bat speed as they age. When pitchers are throwing 95+ miles per hour, the margin of error is small. Mere fractions of a second in a hitter’s bat speed can be the difference between hitting a ball out of the park and swinging right through it. And when an aging hitter has lost that bat speed, it’s gone.
If it hasn’t been made clear already, Victor Martinez is not losing his bat speed. To help make that point even more clear comes a tweet from from Beyond the Box Score:
Victor Martinez has a .857 ISO (Isolated Power) against pitches that are 95+ mph. Second place is Michael Bourn with a .571 mark. #Tigers
— Beyond the Box Score (@BtBScore) May 26, 2014
It would be one thing if Martinez were simply punishing over-the-middle, low-90′s mistake fastballs. What’s more impressive about what Victor Martinez is doing is that he’s still got the bat speed to punish fastballs with elite velocity.
Visual learner? Observe:
By this point I’d say it’s pretty well established what Victor Martinez is doing to fastballs this season and how it’s turned him into a power hitter. But let’s go back to that strikeout rate and plate discipline for a second. As I mentioned earlier, Martinez has the best strikeout to home run ratio in the MLB, by a pretty considerable margin. What he also has is the MLB’s best walk to strikeout ratio, also by a pretty considerable margin. Martinez has 18 walks to his 13 strikeouts this year, making him one of just 10 players to have walked more than he’s struck out. Oh, and don’t forget about that thing where he never strikes out looking.
Martinez has always had elite plate discipline and contact skills. This year, he’s figured out how to hit for power while actually improving his contact and plate discipline skills. Throw him a breaking pitch out of the strike zone and he just won’t swing at it. Throw him a fastball in the strike zone and he’ll make you pay. It’s tough to get Victor Martinez out. Almost every player in baseball would love to walk and hit dingers more often than they strike out. But only Victor Martinez, at 35, is actually doing it.
Prospect Watch: NL Central Prospects.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
National League Central
The 2014 amateur draft is less than two weeks away but the Cubs are reaping the benefits from their second overall selection in the ’13 draft. Third baseman Kris Bryant is mashing at the Double-A level. The University of San Diego alum is both getting on base (.474 OBP) and hitting for power (.299 ISO). Current Cubs rookie third baseman Mike Olt — along with his 82 wRC+ and 32.3 K% — certainly doesn’t appear to be the answer, so there is a clear path to the future hot corner gig (Luis Valbuena is hitting OK but he’s not the long-term guy). The big question for Chicago, though, is how soon do they want Bryant’s arbitration clock to start ticking when the big league team is so far away from being competitive?
Selected 41st overall in the 2013 draft, Rob Zastryzny has been roughed up in High-A ball this season. The Canadian southpaw, who was selected out of the University of Missouri, has allowed 48 hits in 32.0 innings. Chicago’s weak spot in its development program over the past few years has been its inability to develop high-ceiling pitching talent so this slow start hasn’t done the organization any favors. On the plus side, Zastryzny may be pulling out of his funk; he hasn’t allowed a run in his last two appearances (totalling 5.0 innings).
After a slow start to his career, a young hurler from the 2012 amateur draft is starting to see some results. Paul Blackburn — selected 56th overall out of a California HS — has walked just eight batters in 49.1 innings of work and has been inducing ground-ball outs at a high rate. He struggled with his control in 2013 in the Northwest League, a short-season league, with 29 free passes in 46.0 innings. With his new-found ability to pound the strike zone, the right-hander could develop into an innings-eating, middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Selected in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, Ben Lively is turning out to be quite the steal for the Reds. The right-hander — who was ranked at FanGraphs as the 11th best prospect in the system prior to the ’14 season — has produced video game numbers since turning pro despite solid-but-unspectacular stuff. The right-hander has struck out 73 batters (with nine walks) with just 36 hits allowed in 61.0 innings of work — thanks to his ability to command a four-pitch repertoire.
I’ve been a fan of Seth Mejias-Brean‘s for a while now and he’s having another solid season in the minors. Currently playing in the California League (High-A), he’s taken advantage of his potent surroundings and slugged eight home runs — including five in his last 10 contests. Last season, he went deep just 11 times in 130 games. More impressively, he has an on-base percentage of .383 and a BB/K rate of 32/35. In a small-sample size, the right-handed hitter is killing southpaw hurlers to the tune of a 1.055 OPS (in 35 at-bats).
Formerly one of the Reds’ best pitching prospects, Daniel Corcino‘s decline continues… The right-hander posted an ERA near 6.00 in 2013 at the Triple-A level. As a result, he was demoted to Double-A to begin the 2014 season. His ERA currently sits at 3.91 but it’s deceiving and his FIP is 5.65. His walk rate has been identical over the past two years at 5.09 BB/9 and his strikeout rate has dwindled over the past three seasons from 10.08 to 7.91 to 6.28 to 5.94 K/9.
Despite their success at the big league level in 2014, the Brewers have one of the weakest minor league systems in the game. As a result, the system’s top prospect entering the season — outfielder Tyrone Taylor — was not exactly the most well known player. Currently in High-A ball, the 20-year-old California native isn’t exactly tearing the cover off the ball (.762 OPS, .255 average) but 25 of his 47 hits have gone for extra bases — including 20 doubles — and hint at his developing power potential.
The 27th overall selection in the 2012 draft, Clint Coulter hit well in his debut season at the Rookie ball level but his offence dried up in ’13 and he produced an OPS below .650 in both the Midwest League (A-ball) and, after a demotion, the Pioneer League (Advanced Rookie ball). This season, though, the young catcher has a .988 OPS with nine home runs in 44 games back in the Midwest League. He’s also shown more patience with 28 walks (versus 32 Ks) after taking just 20 free passes in 70 games last year.
Selected in the second round of the 2012 amateur draft, Wyatt Mathisen was expected to develop into the Pirates’ catcher of the future. However, his inexperience showed behind the plate early in his career (He was mainly a pitcher and shortstop in high school) and the addition of ’13 first round pick Reese McGuire, also a backstop, sealed the former’s fate behind the dish. Mathisen, now a third baseman, has struggled with the transition both at the plate (.666 OPS) and in the field (.887 fielding percentage). McGuire, meanwhile, has flourished in the field with a 50% caught-stealing rate and he’s holding his own as a teenager in Low-A ball (.358 OBP, 15 Ks in 122 ABs).
The organization has dealt with a significant amount of bad luck in early going of 2014 with its young pitching. Jameson Taillon — whom I ranked as the club’s second-best prospect in the system prior to the start of the year — has been lost to Tommy John surgery. And Tyler Glasnow — a young hurler who slotted in right behind Taillon in the third hole — opened the year on the disabled list. Now healthy, the right-hander has pitched OK but his control has been noticeably off. He’s walked 20 batters in 27.0 innings. When he finds the plate, though, he’s been tough to hit with just 18 base knocks and 25 strikeouts.
St. Louis Cardinals
Selected 19th overall in the 2013 draft, Marco Gonzales was expected to be a fast-moving college product with a modest ceiling (read: No. 3/4 starter). The lefty hurler needed just six starts in High-A ball this year to earn a promotion to Double-A. Since the promotion the southpaw has allowed just one earned run through his first two starts. Gonzales, 22, could have a similar rise to the Majors as former No. 1 pick Michael Wacha, although the right-hander has a lot more giddy-up on his heater.
Carson Kelly has gone in the opposite direction of the Pirates’ Wyatt Mathisen. Also a second round pick from 2012, the Cardinals prospect opened his career at the hot corner before moving behind the plate on a full-time basis in 2014. He’s struggled with the bat so far but the 19-year-old is making strides behind the dish with a caught-stealing rate of 44%. Unfortunately, he’s also allowed six passed balls in 29 games.