Why Jacob deGrom is Better Than We Thought.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
During his minor league career, Jacob deGrom had a 3.62 ERA and struck out batters at about a league-average rate. Those are OK numbers, but without the context of his actual stuff, it’s not surprising he’d never been featured on Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list — or that he’d rated no higher on the New York Mets’ prospect list than Marc Hulet’s No. 7 ranking coming into this season.
Now that the pitcher with the hair and the command and the fastball and the changeup is dominating the major leagues, it’s fair to ask: How did we miss this?
The first answer is Tommy John surgery. At least that’s why the 26-year-old made his debut later than most pitchers. Surgery claimed his 2011 and kept his innings down, which lengthened his development process. Age-at-level analysis would have questioned whether deGrom was an older pitcher beating up on younger competition.
The rest of the answer is more complicated, but there’s a common theme that will emerge quickly. “I was still learning in rookie ball,” deGrom said before a game against the A’s. “I am still learning.”
A big part of the process has been his changing pitching mix. Coming out of Stetson University, deGrom showed mostly fastball gas as a converted closer and shortstop. He only racked up 83.1 innings for the Hatters. “I threw a fastball, slider and change,” deGrom said of his college experience. “But the change was different then.”
He didn’t get to pitch much before surgery, but during rehab, he talked to a legend and learned two very important grips: Johan Santana taught deGrom his two-seam and changeup grips one day. That was a big deal for deGrom, as you can here from the clips on the excellent Mostly Mets podcast on the subject.
DeGrom went from Johan’s four-seam change to his own two-seam change because he throws a two-seam fastball so often.
Since then, deGrom has made some changes to Santana’s vaunted change. “I messed with it, made it mine,” he said. “I still work on it all the time because I get under it.” You can still see he hangs it from time to time, but when it’s on, deGrom said “it’s a fun pitch to throw.” It ranks 12th among starting pitchers in swinging strike percentage (21.2%).
Working on the fastball and changeup, deGrom got a lot of easy outs in A-ball. His ERA that year was a combined 2.43, and his ground-ball rate was slightly above average. But his strikeout rate was only around league average, and he was still old for his level.
Last year brought a new pitch. Pitching coordinator Ron Romanick thought it was time for a different breaking pitch, and started working with the pitcher on a curve. He told Toby Hyde about the moment the idea struck:
“His slider, I like it more as a curveball. The last time I was in Vegas, he threw some on the side – basically, the same grip, but just throw it like a curveball. And deGrom, he threw it, and I’m like, “that’s a curveball, I like how that comes out of your hand. It looks natural.”
Then deGrom spent the season getting a handle on his new mix of breaking balls. By his own account, he didn’t throw the curve this spring, and then began throwing it again in Triple-A at the start of the regular season.
Very similar finger placements, deGrom’s slider (left) and curve (right) produce very different movement based on mechanics.
His mechanics made him both well-suited for the pitch, but it also made the pitch difficult for him. Hyde said deGrom “drives hard toward home plate, but his forearm is tall (almost vertical) near his release,” which that suits him to a curveball release. And yet, the pitcher thinks his release point makes it difficult sometimes. “I’m kind of a three-quarters guy,” he says. “Whenever I was learning the curve, it was tough for me to stay on top of it. I kind of cast it up and get underneath it.”
The pitch has come a long way, even this year. It currently ranks eighth among starters in swinging strike rate with a 17.6% number.
Next stop: no more high curves.
Maybe we should have noticed this pitcher with mid-90s velocity, great command, a strong changeup and a developing curve in the high minors — especially since his ground-ball rate surged, from around league average to 55% in Las Vegas this year. Still, he didn’t have the strikeout rate he’s shown in the big leagues.
The missing piece might be his slider. It’s changed along with the rest of his mix. “It’s been quite a bit harder than it has been,” deGrom said. The slider now hums along at 87 mph to 88 mph instead of 84 mph to 85 mph. “I’m fine with the slider being that hard, it’s almost like a cutter. It’s still different from my fastball speed-wise.”
Watch the velocity on deGrom’s slider rise this year.
What that last development has given him is five pitches with different movement and different velocities: two 93 mph fastballs, an 87 mph slider, an 84 mph change and a 79 mph curve. Since his four seam (9.8% whiffs), curve and change are all above-average when it comes to swinging strikes, it’s (finally?) not surprising he’s hasn’t flashed a great strikeout rate (25th among starters).
We might have missed that Jacob deGrom had all of this upside. We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. Hyde remembers a shared beverage with the pitcher in 2012 when he told deGrom that the pitcher “didn’t know how special his right arm could be.” All it took to refine the natural athleticism and command was his dedication to a learning process that tweaked his grips and his mix.
The Devastation of Losing Garrett Richards.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
It doesn’t take a statistical expert to recognize that Garrett Richards has been an outstanding starting pitcher this season. He’s been great by the numbers that everyone knows, and he’s been great by the numbers that fewer people know, and when all the indicators agree, there’s no doubting the conclusion. Garrett Richards has been awesome. And it doesn’t take a medical expert to recognize that Garrett Richards’ 2014 season is in jeopardy after the events of Wednesday night.
As I write this, there isn’t a timetable. Maybe Richards is going to turn out to be one of the lucky ones. But there’s a little over a month remaining in the regular season, and then there’s October, and it sure seems to me like Richards isn’t going to pitch again any time soon. Right now we can’t even be sure about April 2015. Recently, the Angels have started to get talked up as potentially the best team in the major leagues, given that they’ve passed by the A’s. There was a strong argument for that being the case. It’s almost certainly not the case without Garrett Richards.
This post is going to contain an assumption, and that assumption is that Richards is finished. I don’t yet know what happened in his leg, but I feel like it’s probably the sort of thing that’ll take a while to get better. Scheduling posts leaves me vulnerable to looking like an idiot after news gets spread that I couldn’t foresee, but, again, assumptions. So, what’s the effect of this injury? That’s what everyone wants to know about, right?
I opened a tab with our Playoff Odds page before updating the Angels’ depth chart, then I refreshed after replacing Richards in the Angels’ rotation with Wade LeBlanc. Maybe the Angels don’t turn to LeBlanc, but the identity doesn’t really matter — it’s not going to be anyone good. The Angels have a depth problem, being already without Tyler Skaggs, and now that could be exposed. Here now is what happened to the Angels’ projection, on account of Richards’ absence alone:
Rest of season win%: -0.019
Division odds: -7.5 percentage points
Wild card odds: +6.8
Playoff odds: -0.7
Division series odds: -4.4
Win ALDS odds: -5.7
Win ALCS odds: -4.8
Win WS odds: -3.7
Predictably, everything gets worse. There’s not a whole lot of damage done to the Angels’ overall playoff odds, because they already have built up such a significant lead, but they lose a step in the division, making it more likely they’re eliminated before the ALDS in a one-game playoff. And then their odds get worse in each series, as well, because Richards is the best starter they’ve got, and losing him hurts. Maybe you think these changes are too small. I’ll provide you a reason that might be true, and a reason that might not be true.
As far as the former is concerned, the projections are based on a ZiPS/Steamer blend, and for Richards this has been a breakout season. So the projections are going to be a little skeptical, and sure enough, Richards was projected to be worse. The projections foresaw a drop in strikeouts and a gain in home runs, and if you’re a more full believer in Richards’ 2014 improvement, then this is a bigger deal. Not that the Angels are left in a worse place, but they would’ve been dropping from a higher place. If you think Richards is really so good, then you can increase the numbers you see above a little.
Then we can get to the latter. The point here would be the same point as usual: Richards is one player, and one player can mean only so much. The Angels lead baseball in position-player WAR. The Angels are projected to lead baseball in position-player WAR the rest of the way. Richards was one of the most important players on the roster, but his contribution is dwarfed by the collective contribution of the bats and the gloves, and of course, the other starters are decent and the bullpen has been improved. Nothing was totally hanging on Richards’ health. The Angels remain a legitimate World Series contender, because they’re able to hit the crap out of the ball.
But still, given the Angels’ lack of organizational depth, it’s hard to imagine a more devastating pitching injury. Not that Richards was the best pitcher in baseball, but he was among them, and the Angels are poorly equipped to deal with his absence. Jered Weaver remains both adequate and declining. The team’s fighting to get C.J. Wilson to throw 60% strikes. Matt Shoemaker‘s running some sexy strikeout-to-walk numbers, but he has a long-standing dinger problem. Before I removed Richards from the Angels’ depth chart, they projected to have baseball’s No. 16 starting rotation the rest of the way. After I removed Richards, they dropped to No. 30. I don’t know if the Angels truly have the worst rotation in the majors, now, but they’re suddenly in the argument, which is what happens when you lose a bonafide flame-throwing ace.
The Tigers would be hurt if they lost David Price, but they at least have Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, and an eventually-returning Anibal Sanchez. The A’s have plenty of rotation depth, and behind Felix Hernandez the Mariners have Hisashi Iwakuma, Chris Young, and an assortment of young skill. The Orioles could survive any pitching injury because none of their pitchers are really all that good. In the other league, there are similar stories, and even in the awful event of Clayton Kershaw going down, the Dodgers do have other starters they could put together to form a legitimate postseason rotation. The Angels now are going to be left scrambling, which brings us to perhaps the silver lining.
If nothing else, at least, this happened while the front office can still modify the postseason roster. So the Angels don’t necessarily have to run with LeBlanc or Randy Wolf or Chris Volstad or whoever — they could conceivably get in the mix for Bartolo Colon, should the Mets place him on waivers. They could conceivably get in the mix for A.J. Burnett, or a handful of other options. Good pitchers aren’t out there, since good pitchers on reasonable contracts don’t make it through waivers, but even decent could be an upgrade, both now and potentially in October. The front office has time to evaluate its options, and the Angels’ lead in the playoff race allows for there to be a little less sense of urgency.
But while there are going to be options, none of those options are going to resemble Garrett Richards. Entering Wednesday, the Angels might’ve been the best team in baseball. Now they’re presumably down their staff ace, and it’s too late to get meaningfully better. With one wrong step in the vicinity of first base, the Angels lost a few percentage points of World Series odds. That might not sound all that significant, but that’s not because it’s not significant. It’s because it’s hard to have a bigger impact on those odds in the last stretch of August.
Has Mike Trout Gotten Slower?.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Let’s talk about the narrative. Are we over the use of the word “narrative”? Let’s talk about the narrative. We can worry about our term usage later. Mike Trout remains, to this day, an amazing baseball player. But he seems to be something of a changing baseball player. And the theory that I’ve heard seems to be that Trout has focused on trying to develop his power, and he’s lost some of his athleticism. Basically, he’s gotten bigger, and we can see some supporting evidence. He’s dramatically increased his rate of fly balls, and he’s pulling the ball more than ever. He isn’t stealing very many bases anymore, and his baserunning value is down, and his defensive value is way down. That last bit troubles some people. In Trout’s first full season, batting runs were responsible for 52% of his runs above replacement. This year, that’s shot up to 77%. The numbers indicate that Trout is morphing into someone who’s bat-first, and this seems early for a guy who just turned 23 a couple weeks ago.
But what’s really happened to Trout’s foot speed? To what extent can we blame reduced baserunning and allegedly worse defense on just no longer running as fast? We have a lot of information here, but when it comes to speed, the information serves as a set of proxies. Best to go into the games themselves and try to figure out how quickly Trout still moves around.
I’ll warn you right away that the information that’s going to follow is imperfect and incomplete. I don’t know Trout’s top speed, I don’t know Trout’s old top speed, and my estimates that you’re going to see are based on my own judgment, which comes with certain errors. As far as being incomplete is concerned, I couldn’t reasonably watch every play in which Trout’s ever been involved, so I had to narrow things down. Let’s just look at what fell out of the study.
I first looked at infield singles. I decided to watch five of them from 2012, 2013, and 2014. Five isn’t very many, but speed also shouldn’t fluctuate very much, so we don’t need a massive sample size. All 15 of the infield singles were hit on the ground to the left side, and they all generated throws to first that allowed me to time Trout from contact to the base. You should know that I prepared .gifs. You should also know that I decided against including the .gifs because we all know what an infield single looks like, and in full speed there’s no way to visually see a meaningful difference.
Average times from contact to the bag:
2012: 3.95 seconds
It’s also of some interest — maybe more interest — to look at the best times from contact to the bag:
2012: 3.83 seconds
Based just on that, Trout’s fastest observed sprint last year wasn’t any slower than his fastest observed sprint in 2012. This year, though, none of the five infield singles I watched eclipsed four seconds, so maybe there’s a hint of something there. A fraction of a second seems somewhat insignificant, but then again the difference between the fastest and the slowest players in baseball is something like one second to first base, so everything is about fractions. This doesn’t not support the theory.
On a whim, I also decided to watch some Trout groundball double plays, although this time I only compared 2012 and 2014. Again, I watched five each; this season, there have only been five. Average times from contact to the bag:
2012: 4.00 seconds
Best times from contact to the bag:
2012: 3.97 seconds
I don’t know what this means. The problem with looking at one guy in this way is that you have no idea of the greater context or significance. It would appear that Trout might no longer possess his old top sprinting speed, but he’s definitely still quick, and he’s still getting hits on infield groundballs. He’s still forcing opponents to rush. But, I am willing to buy that Trout is a touch slower. And to be honest, you’d expect as much, because the average player starts losing his athleticism early, and because Trout probably reached his athletic peak sooner than most. I don’t know the particulars of his individual physiology, but he looked decently bulky when he first came up.
It was a bit of a thing when, prior to spring training 2013, Trout said he added weight. The Angels, however, downplayed the significance, and Trout explained that he wanted to show up a little heavier because he tends to lose some pounds in February and March. This year, Trout showed up a little down from where he was at the end of the 2013 season. Yet his baserunning value has further declined, and his defense, statistically, has further declined.
Maybe we can blame the hamstring that has given Trout some issues. That would be an easy answer. I don’t know if it’s still a problem, and I don’t know if it ever was a big problem, but it could help explain taking fewer chances on the bases, and maybe taking fewer chances in the field. It would also, in a way, be encouraging, because hamstrings recover, and if Trout’s performing worse because of a lingering injury, then health could bring improvement. That still wouldn’t explain why Trout’s defense was so much worse last year compared to the year before, but maybe it’s a lot of noise. In 2012, Trout robbed something like four home runs. That’s super valuable, but those are also rare opportunities that you can’t count on repeating.
Here’s the theory: Trout is focusing on becoming more bat-first. With added bulk, he’s losing some ground in the field and on the bases, but he ought to blossom into an even better sort of slugger. I can see changes he’s making at the plate, but they seem largely independent of changes elsewhere. He’s a little bigger than he was in 2012, and he might indeed run a little slower than he did in 2012, but it doesn’t seem like that should cause such a swing in baserunning and defensive valuation. His speed is still well above-average, so that can’t fully explain a below-average DRS and UZR. It seems like Trout should still qualify as an all-around player. One shouldn’t exaggerate the physical changes that are taking place, and one shouldn’t exaggerate their effects. Is Trout really just not a good defensive center field anymore? I mean, maybe, but the reasons are likely to be complicated.
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 current season’s 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.
Austin Barnes, C/2B, Miami (Profile)
Barnes makes his third appearance in this weekly column over the last four editions of same not due to an exceptionally strong week, per se, but rather to a moderately strong week which, with its resemblance to Barnes’ full-season numbers, serves to reiterate how excellent those full-season numbers are. By way of illustration, here’s that last week rendered quantitatively: 34 PA, 14.7% BB, 8.8% K, .286/.394/.393 (.320 BABIP). And here’s the full season: 293 PA, 14.3% BB, 10.6% K, .286/.400/.445 (.299 BABIP).
Finally, here’s a very small GIF of Barnes, who’s capable of playing catcher, recording a triple this week:
Dario Pizzano, OF, Seattle (Profile)
There are a number of reasons to suppose that Dario Pizzano won’t be even an average major leaguer. Like, he was drafted in the 15th round, for example. And he’s limited to left field, probably. And, at under six feet, he lacks the physicality necessary to compensate for his defensive shortcomings by means of power. All reasonable points, those. Nor is it the author’s intention to announce that Pizzano definitely will be even an average major leaguer. As Kiley McDaniel noted in these pages on Monday, not even the very best scouting sorts are qualified to make such pronouncements. What Pizzano has done this year, however, is to produce surprisingly capable offensive skills. After posting a walk-to-strikeout ratio above 1.0 in the California League, Pizzano has replicated that achievement in the Double-A Southern League — while also producing home runs at a faster rate.
Giovanny Urshela, 3B, Cleveland (Profile)
While he’s never appeared among the Five, Cleveland third-base prospect Giovanny Urshela — owing to his combination of performance relative to position and age and level — has more than once been the last player cut, as it were, from this recurring exercise. Now, though, after a week in which he’s hit three home runs — and recorded an entirely serviceable 3:4 walk-to-strikeout ratio — he makes his debut. Absent entirely from Baseball America’s top-30 organizational list entering the season, the Colombian has ascended to Triple-A as a 22-year-old. By way of illustrating the significance of that accomplishment, note that only 11 of the 151 qualified batters in the International and Pacific Coast Leagues combined are 22 or younger. Of those 11, only Dodgers outfield prospect Joc Pederson has produced a better batting line relative to league than Urshela.
Here’s Urshela’s most recent home run, from this Monday:
And here’s a slow motion version of that same thing, for some reason:
Dixon Machado, SS, Detroit (Profile)
Players who possess Tommy La Stella’s skill set — which is to say, those whose main and/or only offensive asset is controlling the hell out of the strike zone — players who possess that offensive skill set whilst also playing corner outfield are unlikely to produce much in the way of wins at the major-league level. Players who do that while demonstrating come competence at a more challenging position, like second base or third base or center — those players are Tommy La Stella. Meanwhile, those players who capable more or less of approximating La Stella’s offensive approach while also playing above-average shortstop — those are talented players. That said regard these two lines:
PA BB K
323 11.5% 10.5%
288 11.5% 10.1%
One of them is La Stella’s age-24 line at Double-A Mississippi; the other, Machado’s age-22 (i.e. current) line at Double-A Erie. It isn’t necessary to indicate which is which. They’re similar, is the point. The other point is that, should he continue to demonstrate this level of competence offensively, Machado is nearly certain to find himself on a major-league roster.
Here’s a modestly informative GIF featuring Machado’s most recent hit:
Blayne Weller, RHP, Arizona (Profile)
All of the facts previous reported in this column regarding Weller remain true. He remains 24 years old. He definitely was signed out of the independent Frontier League. He does still throw 94-95 mph. And he has recorded 12- and 16-strikeout games this year. A new thing is now true of him, too: since last week’s appearance among the Five, Weller made a start in which he recorded a 7:0 strikeout-to-walk ratio against 24 batters over 6.0 innnings (box).
The Next Five
These are players on whom the author might potentially become fixated.
Gavin Cecchini, SS, New York NL (High-A Florida State League)
Jharel Cotton, RHP, Los Angeles NL (High-A California League)
Yandy Diaz, 3B, Cleveland (High-A Carolina League)
Sherman Johnson, IF, Los Angeles AL (High-A California League)
Glenn Sparkman, RHP, Kansas City (High-A Carolina League)
Fringe Five Scoreboard
Here are the top-10 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
1 Taylor Cole Blue Jays RHP 6 2 20
2 Thomas Shirley Astros LHP 6 1 19
3 Jace Peterson Padres SS 5 2 17
4 Dario Pizzano Mariners OF 4 4 16
5 Jose Ramirez Indians 2B 5 1 16
6 Ben Lively Reds RHP 4 3 15
7 Billy Mckinney Cubs OF 3 5 14
8 Josh Hader Astros LHP 4 2 14
9 Michael Reed Brewers OF 4 2 14
10 Robert Kral Padres C 3 5 14
Corey Kluber as a Cy Young Candidate.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
A little over a week ago, we discussed Felix Hernandez as a candidate for the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. We can make this pretty simple: if you have a pitcher who might indeed qualify as the league’s MVP, that guy’s going to be your Cy Young frontrunner, because the MVP voting includes everybody and the Cy Young voting includes only pitchers. Absolutely, if the voting were to take place right now, Felix would claim the Cy Young, because he’s having one of the better seasons in a hell of a long time. He just concluded an impressive consecutive-starts streak that set a new baseball record.
But the season isn’t over yet, and because the season isn’t over yet, Felix doesn’t have the award locked up. Plenty can happen in the weeks ahead, and Corey Kluber has been making a charge that’s drawn him more and more attention. Over Kluber’s last five starts, stretching back to July 24, he’s allowed a total of three runs, without a single dinger. In three of those starts he’s struck out ten batters. Kluber’s the Cy Young frontrunner in a league in which Felix isn’t the Cy Young frontrunner, so it seems worthwhile to spend a little time talking about Kluber’s award case and his chances. As impossible as it seems, Kluber could emerge looking like the best starter in the league.
Why the odds are against him
This isn’t hard. Felix Hernandez currently owns a 1.99 ERA. That is an ERA that begins with a 1. Corey Kluber currently owns a 2.41 ERA. That is an ERA that begins with a 2. Felix’s ERA is just barely in the 1′s, and Kluber’s ERA is in the lower half of the 2′s, but voters just aren’t going to be able to ignore an ERA of 1.xx. That’s automatic, and even if Felix’s ERA were to climb in the weeks ahead, that’s still a 42-point gap that Kluber would need to at least mostly overcome, because the voting pool continues to vote a lot like the voting pool you imagine.
And while Kluber has a good record of 13-6, Felix has a better record of 13-4, with people having paid attention to his quality starts in which he wound up with a no-decision. Posts like this get kind of messy; you have to talk about how people vote, and you also have to talk about how people maybe ought to vote, and there’s only so much overlap. For our purposes, the records are completely irrelevant, but the records will have an effect on the voting results and Felix plays for a better baseball team. Kluber can’t win this if he has a worse ERA and a worse record. There’s just no precedent for that happening.
Let’s say some voters take a quick glance at some more advanced leaderboards. Felix leads Kluber in WAR by 0.6. He leads in RA9-WAR by 1.4. He leads in Baseball-Reference’s WAR by 0.6. That’s Felix’s case: he’s been the league’s most valuable pitcher. Nowhere can you find that Kluber has a lead.
Making the best case for Kluber I can
To make a current case for Corey Kluber, you have to consider areas the voting pool is unlikely to consider in depth. That is, you have to consider elements over which Kluber doesn’t really have any control.
Felix and Kluber have both started 26 games. Felix has thrown six more innings, but Kluber has faced ten more batters. They’re exactly tied in strikeouts. Felix has six fewer walks. Felix has allowed seven fewer earned runs, and six fewer total runs. We can start by pointing out that Felix has started half the time in a more pitcher-friendly ballpark than Cleveland’s. Felix isn’t Chris Young — he isn’t engineered to get the maximum benefit out of Safeco’s dimensions and air — but pitcher-friendly is pitcher-friendly. And speaking of pitcher-friendliness and unfriendliness, we’ve got to look at team defenses.
Felix has allowed fewer hits than Kluber, and that’s shown by a large separation in BABIP. But, by UZR, the Mariners have had a better defense than the Indians by 90 runs. By DRS, the difference is 85 runs. Some measures call the Mariners roughly average, and some say they’ve been better than that. All agree that the Indians have been a defensive disaster, and there’s no reason to think Kluber has been immune to that. To some extent he’s been hurt by the players behind him, and that’s going to change his runs-allowed total. Even if you stop short of plugging in a number, this is something that reduces the gap between the league’s top two starters.
And there’s no way we’re getting out of this without mentioning pitch-framing catchers. Good pitch-framers have an effect on numbers we long thought to be fielding-independent. Kluber has mostly pitched to Yan Gomes, and Gomes is fine behind the plate, but Felix has almost exclusively worked with Mike Zunino, and Zunino rates as outstanding. Remember that, on the year, Felix has allowed six fewer runs than Kluber has. According to Baseball Prospectus, Felix’s catchers have been worth +6.6 runs in his starts. By the same source, Kluber’s catchers have been worth +0.4 runs in his starts. By raw extra calls, Felix has gotten 22 more. These numbers are a little bit theoretical, and they might not do a perfect job of stripping away the pitcher’s role in getting his own calls, but there’s reason to believe Zunino has helped Felix get strikeouts and avoid walks. It’s a further reduction of that gap. It might even erase the gap entirely. The framing difference is estimated to be six runs. The runs difference is observed to be six runs.
How Kluber can win this
Unfortunately for Kluber, if he cares about these things, voters aren’t going to think about things like pitch-framing effects. They are aware of park effects and they might factor defense in a little bit, so that’s something, but really, Kluber needs to out-perform Felix down the stretch. He needs to shrink that ERA gap, and he could use a higher wins total. These points are obvious, but I’ll note that Kluber has already been better since the All-Star break. His 0.76 ERA is half of Felix’s remarkable 1.54, and Kluber’s doubled Felix’s WAR. If what’s happened since the break were to keep up, Kluber would finish with a very strong case, and all that requires is for him to continue keeping an ERA under 1.
It’s worth noting that Felix struggled to finish 2011. He struggled again to finish 2012, and last year Felix’s ERA over his last eight starts was close to 6. I’m not comfortable thinking of that as a pattern, but it would only take one or two bad starts on Felix’s part to give Kluber his necessary boost. Kluber needs to out-perform Felix any way he can. That could be by being more better, or by being less worse.
At this writing, Kluber is the No. 2 contender behind the King, who’s the far-and-away favorite. But, the Dodgers are the far-and-away favorite in the NL West, and our playoff odds page gives the Giants a 10% chance at first place anyway. Kluber probably has a 10-20% chance of winning the Cy Young, and considering the main guy against whom he’s contending, that says a hell of a lot about Corey Kluber’s 2014 season.
The Marlins’ Young Outfield One of Baseball’s Best.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The National League Wild Card race is hardly a race at all. It feels as though the teams vying for the playoffs’ back door don’t actually want to claim the prize, struggling as the contenders have in recent months.
There is another team on the outside of that cohort or recent playoff squads, something of a darkhorse that sits just 2.5 games out of the Wild Card slots. A team that lost 100 games last year, the Miami Marlins. They sat in first place in the NL East as recently as June 8th, only to slip well below .500 in July. They’re a puzzle, an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a blood orange.
Are the Marlins good? Are they a legit Wild Card contender? Maybe not. One thing that isn’t up for debate is the strongest part of this Marlins team – their outfield is one of the best in baseball and could stay that way for a long while.
Not only is the Marlins outfield one of the best in the game, it’s also one of the youngest. Only five players have outfield starts for them this year: Giancarlo Stanton (24), Christian Yelich (22), Marcell Ozuna, (23), Jake Marisnick (23), and Reed Johnson (37). One of these things is not like the others, though that one thing only has 152 plate appearances in 2014. Marisnick went to the Astros in a deadline day trade that brought Jarred Cosart to South Florida.
The Marlins are young and they are also good, very good. The Marlins outfielders rank third in baseball with a collective 121 wRC+ and are the seventh-most valuable outfield by WAR (second by rWAR.) Stanton is an MVP candidate in the National League, showcasing the unbelievable power while staying healthy for the first time since 2011. He cut his strikeouts to a career low rate (25.5%) while still walking as much as ever, though his 20 intentional walks inflate his rate stats slightly. His 32 home runs lead the league and his 163 wRC+ is a career high and in a dead heat for best in the NL.
Beyond his home run highlights, Stanton turns heads in the field as well. His big body gets around just fine, netting him eight Defensive Runs Saved, though UZR rates his play as average. According to Inside Edge, his ability to track down tougher balls puts him in the upper levels of regular right fielders.
Stanton is the known commodity, the Marlin we all know best. Despite not getting nearly as much publicity as some other teams trumpeting a player development model, it is the immediate and overwhelming success of Christian Yelich that suggests Sports Illustrated misfired on their 2017 World Series prediction.
Yelich pings the “pure hitter” radar, with a level swing and ability to spray the ball from foul line to foul line. His rail-thin build isn’t producing much extra base pop right now, yet Yelich owns a .284/.361/.421 line this year, with 16 steals and nine home runs, good for a 121 wRC+.
Like Stanton, Yelich looks the part in the field, saving nine runs via DRS and +10 by UZR. He makes all the plays and uses his legs to track down extra outs, though he doesn’t boast a strong throwing arm. Yelich’s age-22 season figures to produce 4 WAR, all without the benefit of much extra base power.
With Yelich in left and Stanton in right, the Marlins all but handed the center fielder’s job to Marcell Ozuna for the foreseeable future when they moved Marisnick. Ozuna might not be as polished or powerful as the players flanking him, but he’s another solid to above-average major leaguer making the minimum and producing after very little seasoning in the minor leagues (just 47 plate appearances above Double-A).
Ozuna probably doesn’t walk enough and might strike out too much, but he claims nice pop and plays at least a passable center field in an enormous ballpark. His 17 home runs this season place him fifth among qualified center fielders, his ISO seventh. Even if his ceiling isn’t as high as that of his teammates, he remains a valued contributor to this Marlins team and a piece they can count on for cheap production in the future.
There is an elephant in this room, of course. As great as the Marlins outfield looks right now and as much promise as it holds for the future, the spectre of a Giancarlo Stanton trade hangs over the proceedings. Adding an MVP-calibre season on top of his already strong arbitration case means things are dicey in Lorialand, as his arb reward for 2015 — coupled with the unlikelihood of a long term extension — could push him beyond the means of the frugal Florida franchise, though the front office said all the right things recently.
Sadly, nothing is ever simple for Marlins fans. Enjoy this exciting, promising outfield and it’s playoff push now, it could all disappear by the Winter Meetings. The Marlins are always going to be the Marlins, so the depressing trade options feels all but inevitable, with the emergence of Yelich and Ozuna perhaps fueling a belief they can compete without Stanton.
Should they buck the trend, should they dig in, spend some money and a make some key improvements, they might have the makings of a very good club next season. A club ready to challenge the Braves and Nats for the NL East crown and one that might use their pitching depth to bolster an otherwise weak infield. The Marlins have options. Hey, uncertainty is an option too, right?