Don't yell at me, CP. More Correa stuff!
Sneaking Up on the Competition With Carlos Correa.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Astros shortstop Carlos Correa turned 21 years old just three days ago. That would have been a much more dramatic opening line if we weren’t living through the Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado Era, but it’s a relatively dramatic opening nonetheless. Correa has looked like one of MLB’s premier players over his first 90 games and 390 plate appearances all while being younger than Bryce Harper. And Bryce Harper is very young.
It’s not much of a surprise that Carlos Correa is a great baseball player. In fact, Correa was supposed to be a great player. He was taken first overall by the Astros in 2012, and while some people saw it as a way to free up money for later picks, no one disputed him as a top-level draft target. Correa’s been an elite prospect his entire career, occupying the fifth spot on Kiley’s Top 200 entering the season, and the third spot on the Baseball Prospectus and ESPN (Insider) lists.
The particularly remarkable aspect of Correa’s 2015 season is not that he’s hitting 32% better than league average or that he’s gathered 3.1 WAR in under 400 plate appearances; the remarkable part is that he’s doing so in 2015. While Correa’s potential was widely acknowledged, no one really seemed to expect it to arrive so soon. Kiley filed a report on him in October of 2014, giving him present Hit and Game Power grades of 20 to go along with a “2017 ETA.”
It’s easy to forget that Correa fractured his fibula last June, and while his recovery seemed to be on track, he hadn’t spent a single day in Double-A when the 2015 season started and only had 1,016 professional plate appearances to his name. Even if you loved Correa as a prospect, you probably didn’t expect that he’d tear up the majors at age 20 just one year after breaking his leg. That’s just not a very likely path.
I want to make sure you’re clear that even some of our most trusted public scouts didn’t really see Correa as a big contributor for 2015, mostly because I’m about to show you his preseason ZiPS projection which is laughable next to his actual line. Over 431 plate appearances, ZiPS projected a .247/.311/.357 slash line, amounting to a 91 wRC+ and 1.6 WAR. That’s a perfectly fine age-20 season for a guy who hadn’t played above High-A.
We’re all on board with the idea that projection systems are a little less useful when it comes to predicting young players with very little MLB experience, but ZiPS said almost exactly what Kiley did: “Not this year, kid.”
Of course, you know that both assessments were incorrect. Correa has taken the league by storm and his 132 wRC+ and 3.1 WAR tell plenty of the story, but I also can’t seem to go an entire day on Twitter without seeing a tweet that features some comment about Correa’s exit velocity or a hard hit ball that he recently struck. An example, literally from yesterday:
Carlos Correa has more batted balls w\ an exit velocity of 110MPH+ (12) than the Braves as a team have had all year (9). Hes played 90 games
— Daren Willman (@darenw) September 24, 2015
He’s dominating way ahead of schedule. The projection systems are improving their forecasts, albeit slowly, and Kiley has even bumped him up from a 65 future value player to a 75 future value player after seeing the first few months of the year, essentially elevating him to match Kris Bryant as the best graduating prospect.
To summarize, Correa was a good prospect that people didn’t expect to see for at least another year. He played so well in the minors to start the season that he earned a post-Super Two promotion to help the Astros make a run at the postseason. By the time he was called up, everyone was in agreement that we was close to ready, but there wasn’t necessarily a sense that he was ready to be a star player in his first year. He was probably going to be good enough to help the Astros fill a big hole at short, but I don’t think many people really expected All-Star caliber play immediately.
Correa was good right away. Not only were the numbers good, but he did impressive things like hitting an inside pitch extremely hard. And then he did more things, leading Jeff to wonder if he was already the best shortstop in baseball. One season of data doesn’t define an entire position, but the only primary shorstop with a higher wRC+ this year than Correa (minimum zero plate appearances) is Corey Seager who is at 193 wRC+ in 81 PA. Correa is fifth in WAR among shortstops, trailing Xander Bogaerts, Brandon Crawford, Jung-ho Kang, and fellow exciting rookie Francisco Lindor. And our WAR value treats Correa as a slightly below average defender at the position, which may not be the case.
I find Correa’s season to be particularly interesting because Correa turned out to be ahead of everyone’s expectations. When Kris Bryant was called up in April, there seemed to be a consensus that he was ready to be a force at the plate, and pitchers treated him like one. Correa seemed to sort of sneak up on everyone despite his name recognition.
In his first four games, he hit sixth, sixth, fifth, and sixth. He had a 189 wRC+in 16 PA with no walks. Not that you should care about 16 PA, but after those four games he moved to the second spot in the order and has hit second or third in every game since. That’s one small sign that someone took notice that Correa was beyond his years.
But most interestingly, you can also see the league catching on to “Carlos Correa, Already Good Hitter,” as well. Observe some selected splits for the first half of the season and the second half.
Carlos Correa 2015
Split PA BB% K% ISO wRC+ Zone%
1st Half 141 5.0% 19.9% .231 123 45.6%
2nd Half 249 12.0% 15.7% .223 137 41.8%
The walk column and Zone% column stand out. It’s nice to see the drop in strikeouts, but it’s really hard to miss the fact that pitchers seem to be approaching Correa much more carefully as the season goes on. At first, he was a prospect who was called up early because the Astros, as a team, were ahead of schedule and needed a shortstop, but the league has quickly learned that he’s already a bona fide hitter.
Admittedly, dropping a dividing line at the All-Star Game is arbitrary and was done mostly out of convenience. You can observe the same phenomenon in this graph of his cumulative walk rate. He doesn’t walk much at first, then they start walking him around game 25 and his rate climbs until about game 57 when it starts to settle in. Three stages: ignorance, “we just realized he’s amazing,” and equilibrium.
Let’s try the same thing, but in heat map form. We’ll use games 1-25, 26-57, and 58-90 as our splits because the graph just told us to:
Again, somewhat arbitrary, but the point holds. Correa saw a lot more pitchers in the zone, especially inside, when he got to the majors and then pitchers stayed away for about a month before coming back into the zone to some extent.
What we have here is a pretty tidy story about Correa’s rise. We all thought he’d be great, but we didn’t expect him to be great right away. As a result, the scouts, projections, and pitchers treated his 2015 season as if he was in the majors ahead of his time and was just hoping to out perform Marwin Gonzalez and Jonathan Villar. But not long after his debut, Kiley gave him a 65 present value grade with the potential to be a 75 future value player. His projections have improved. And pitchers started pitching him much more carefully.
The fun part about the story is that Correa didn’t really “get better.” A lot of what we write is about players who start performing differently with the authors looking to find an explanation. Correa just crushed his way through the minors and, despite a serious injury a year ago, was able to translate that into major league success right away. Nothing changed for Correa, he just didn’t take as long to arrive as we all expected.
This remains one of the more fascinating parts of the game for me. It doesn’t surprise me that some players are better than others age 20, but figuring out how to distinguish similar players is challenging. There are some players who own the minors just like Correa did through age 19 and arrive in the show at 20 or 21 and aren’t yet up to the task. That’s the norm. But sometimes you wind up with a Trout, Harper, Correa, etc., who don’t need more seasoning and don’t miss a beat.
I’m not sure we have a good way to predict which players are which, but it’s also not likely to be related to luck if they’re given more than a cup of coffee. Some players dominate in the minors and struggle in the majors while some players are unimpressive in the minors and perform well in the majors. Past isn’t always prologue for baseball players, but separating players with similar pasts is difficult. What made Correa succeed right away when many others, as we know from the projection Correa received, were mediocre to start?
I often advocate for giving those mediocre young players time to figure it out, but what qualities produce a player who is great right away compared to one who is eventually great after a significant adjustment period?
No matter the cause, the Astros have to be thrilled they made the call when they did. Correa is likely heading toward a Rookie of the Year award, and if his team makes the postseason, his three-to-four wins will certainly prove critical. There was a period of time in which choosing Correa over Byron Buxton in the draft looked like a mistake, but after an amazing 2015 season, it looks like the choice was a wise one.
The 2015 season started with the world talking about Kris Bryant, but it’s likely that Bryant and Correa will wind up both winning Rookies of the Year in the Year of the Rookie. Everyone expected Bryant to headline the class, but Correa has emerged nearly to the same extent. Bryant was supposed to be well ahead of Correa, but it turns out we got that one wrong and it was a matter of months, not years.
Looking for More Cy Young Separators.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
As I wrote yesterday, I have an NL Cy Young vote this year. It is a remarkably tough year to pick a winner, as there are three pitchers having award-worthy seasons; you can make a really good argument for any of the three. The reality is that those of us with votes are going to have to split the slimmest of hairs in order to sort out the top three spots on the ballot, and yesterday, I tackled the question of catcher influence.
In response, someone left this comment.
This is a great suggestion; when the overall influence of combined season numbers are this close, looking at the individual distribution absolutely could be a source of differentiation. And since I know at least one other puzzled Cy Young voter read yesterday’s piece, I figured it was worth exploring this idea, plus a couple others by the responses to the piece.
The easiest way to measure consistency within performance is to measure the standard deviation of a pitcher’s game score from their game logs at Baseball Reference. Game Score isn’t a perfect measure of pitcher performance — most notably, it makes zero attempt to account for the impact of defense — but it does give us a single measure of a pitcher’s results and puts everyone on the same scale, so for comparison purposes, it works okay for this idea.
To compare the game-to-game consistency of the three pitchers in the race, I took the game logs for each pitcher, dumped them into excel, and then ran the =StDev function on their game score columns. The results.
Game Score Deviation
Pitcher Average Game Score Standard Deviation
Zack Greinke 66.8 11.8
Jake Arrieta 66.5 15.3
Clayton Kershaw 67.2 15.5
By average game score, there’s basically nothing to separate these three, as we’d expect from looking at their overall lines. However, Greinke has definitely been the most consistent of the three, with less variance between his outings. He’s been the epitome of a consistent ace, rolling out something like a 7 IP/1 ER performance every five days all season long.
However, before we can conclude that’s an edge for Greinke, we should note that a lower standard deviation isn’t definitively better. Matt Hunter explored this idea in some depth a few years ago, and his findings actually showed that more consistent pitchers were slightly less valuable than inconsistent pitchers. And part of the reason Greinke has posted a lower standard deviation is that he simply hasn’t had as many overwhelming dominating outings as either Kershaw or Arrieta.
To visualize this, Here are the distributions for each of the three pitchers, graphed.
You can see that Greinke’s starts are almost entirely bunched up in that 6-8 inning, 0-3 runs allowed window, with just two exceptions, where he gave up five runs once and six runs once. Both Kershaw and Arrieta have more bubbles to the right side, as they’ve had more games with higher runs allowed totals, but then, both have also thrown complete game shutouts, and complete games where they’ve allowed just one run. So Greinke’s consistency comes with a trade-off, as he has had fewer overall dominating starts, and has required his bullpen to finish out every game he’s started, which isn’t true of either Kershaw or Arrieta.
I hadn’t noticed Greinke’s lack of complete games until I started looking at the game logs, and in doing so, I also noticed that the Dodgers have had a much quicker hook with Greinke than they have had with Kershaw, or that the Cubs have had with Arrieta. For comparison, here are the total number of batters each pitcher has faced while going a fourth time through the batting order this season:
With only a few exceptions, the Dodgers have almost always removed Greinke from the game after he’s faced 27 batters, so his exposure to hitters in situations where they’d be most likely to perform well against him has been significantly limited compared to his peers. And in the 14 at-bats where Greinke has faced hitters for a fourth time within the same game, they’ve hit .308/.357/.538 against him, which is likely what has prompted Mattingly to use a quicker hook. Kershaw (.184/.225/.316) and Arrieta (.115/.115/.154) have been excellent even when facing hitters a fourth time, which is why they’ve thrown complete games, and Greinke hasn’t.
And this is one of the areas where Greinke’s low ERA is probably a bit deceptive, because despite the fact that he’s struggled a bit when the Dodgers have pushed him to try and give the bullpen a night off, the only one of the five baserunners he allowed in those 14 plate appearances scored when they hit a home run off Greinke. The other four? They were all stranded by Dodger relievers taking over after he allowed a rally to begin.
In fact, as another commenter noted yesterday, Greinke and Arrieta have both received much more help from their bullpens than Kershaw has. Number of inherited runners, and how many have scored, for each pitcher:
Greinke: 7 inherited runners, 1 scored
Arrieta: 8 inherited runners, 2 scored
Kershaw: 9 inherited runners, 6 scored
On average, 29% of inherited runners in the National League have scored this year, so relievers have shaved one run off Greinke’s total, while costing Kershaw an extra 3.5 runs compared to what he would have allowed had he gotten average runner stranding after he left the game. When a race is this tight, and much of Greinke’s case rests on his advantage in runs allowed, this actually looks like a pretty interesting fact to consider. And this is yet another reason why simply looking at ERA and calling it a day is not good enough, especially when trying to decide on the winner of a postseason award.
In the end, I don’t know that any of these small things really helps us decide who the winner should be either. Greinke has been more consistent, but there’s not actually a lot of clear evidence that consistency is a huge benefit, especially because part of the reason for that consistency has been a reduced workload late in games. Both Kershaw and Arrieta have been tasked with pitching more regularly with the times-through-the-order penalty working against them, and have succeeded in spite of being put in a more difficult position to succeed, while Greinke has been more often rescued by his relievers when he started to get into trouble in late-game situations.
When you look at a measure like RE24, which counts expected runs against a pitcher for leaving baserunners on for another pitcher to inherit, Greinke’s still in first place, but by a smaller margin over Arrieta than if you look at overall runs allowed, and Kershaw is closer to Greinke than ERA would suggest as well.
I don’t know that I’m any closer to figuring out who to vote for, but walking through these processes has definitely helped clarify some things. If you value consistency, bump Greinke up a notch or so. If you value pitching deep into games, bump him down relative to the other two. And if you’re going to just quote ERA and call it a day, at least remember to adjust for the fact that Kershaw has been screwed over by Dodger relievers. These are the hairs that are worth splitting in a race this close.
THE ATTEMPTED REINVENTION OF ELVIS ANDRUS.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
There's no simple explanation for why the Rangers are in first place in the AL West. I mean, there kind of is, if you accept "they have the best record" as an explanation, but for explaining that record -- it's complicated. And the Rangers, of course, didn't even look like a fringe contender for months. They've mostly come on strong since the All-Star break, and some of that's because of Shin-Soo Choo. Some of that's because of Adrian Beltre. Some of that's because of a much-improved bullpen. And some of that's because of Elvis Andrus.
This might be the easiest way to lay things out. You know Wins Above Replacement, or WAR? Famous statistic. Flawed statistic, but famous and useful statistic. Andrus, this year, has been worth 1.1 WAR. Here's a neat little breakdown of that:
First Half: 0.0 WAR Second Half: 1.1 WAR
It's not that Andrus literally didn't do anything in the first half, but if you're looking for when he's been valuable, it's almost all about the past couple months. As he's come on, the Rangers have come on. And though Andrus still hasn't been a great hitter, he's certainly been a lot better. He's always been able to handle himself in the field. More recently, he's been someone to pay attention to at the plate.
If you're looking for something that's changed, nothing too dramatic happened midseason. It's incredibly difficult to work in big changes on the fly, with games every day, and midseason work is mostly about tweaks. Andrus, though, has been tinkering. He's made little modifications to his hands and to his leg kick. He says he's starting to feel comfortable. And that's where it gets particularly interesting because the big change didn't happen two months ago. It happened between seasons.
Andrus has been through a number of hitting coaches. So his swing developed changes over time, and his offensive productivity dipped. Before this year, Dave Magadan wanted to see Andrus pick one swing to stick with consistently. And he wanted to see Andrus sting the ball a little more, instead of so often slapping it the other way. In short: Magadan and Andrus wanted to see Andrus as more of a gap hitter. Less of a groundball hitter. Andrus remains a work in progress, but the signs of change are undeniable.
Below is a graph, with three lines, covering Andrus' entire major-league career. The lines correspond to three statistics: groundball rate, pull rate, and pulled-groundball rate. So, you can see how often Andrus put the ball on the ground, how often he pulled the ball toward the left side, and how often he pulled his grounders toward the left side. That last one is a less obvious statistic, but I like the way it can indicate swing changes. Swings tend to have their own pulled-grounder rates, and if you don't make a swing change, your pulled-grounder rate shouldn't change very much.
Enough of that; time for this:
There you see Andrus, every season. Obviously, this doesn't split between halves or anything -- this year's first half is mixed right in with this year's second half. But look at what there is to see. Start with groundball rate. Why not? Andrus used to hover in the mid-50s, sometimes brushing close to 60%. This year, there's a big drop, with Andrus now putting fewer than half his balls in play on the ground. Out of 227 qualified players to have gotten enough playing time in each of the past two seasons, Andrus' groundball-rate drop is the third-biggest in baseball, behind a couple of Dodgers.
Now move on to pull rate. Rookie Andrus pulled a decent amount of baseballs, but he dropped off from there. He spent most of his career in the mid-30s. Now this year he's up past 40%. Again, we can examine that same pool of 227 players who played enough the past two years. Andrus has increased his pull rate by nearly 11 percentage points. It's the biggest such increase in baseball. No one has changed more in this regard.
Finally, the related-but-different grounder-pull rate. Andrus used to stay around the mid-40s. That is, fewer than half of his groundballs were pulled toward left field. He had a swing frequently geared to go up the middle or the other way. Now this year, he's at almost 60%. Once more, that's the biggest such change in baseball, between 2014 and 2015. Not long ago, Dave Cameron wrote here about Matt Carpenter trading some contact for power. Carpenter is No. 2 on this list, behind Andrus. Carpenter, clearly, has made a more concerted effort to pull the ball in the air with authority. A side effect of that is also more pulled grounders. So it is with Carpenter, and so it is with Andrus. That something has changed goes without question.
Of course, there's no getting around the fact that, overall, Andrus' offense hasn't gotten better. Include the first half and his season numbers look strikingly similar to last season's numbers. He does have a career-high seven home runs, but that's sort of damning with faint praise; Andrus hasn't been on fire since altering his swing and approach. He was a relatively unhelpful player for a number of months. Only more recently has he joined the Rangers' parade.
But then, perhaps it makes sense to be patient. Perhaps it makes sense that it took Andrus some time to find himself. Perhaps recent Andrus is an indication that he's getting familiar with this, comfortable with this, and that he'll be a decent hitter going forward. He chose a gap-power swing, but that isn't how he built a career, so it can take some getting used to. Andrus isn't a little man. There should be some power in there. And it has been a better second half, by any metric. Contact quality has been there, and he hasn't even sacrificed contact ability.
We'll just have to see where this goes for Andrus. The talent is there, he's only 27, and the recent signs are good. The bigger-picture signs are less positive, but what Andrus was doing before wasn't working, so it made sense for him to mix things up somehow. This is a man getting paid a lot of money for a lot of time, and he became someone you thought about as a potential salary dump. His career was headed in the wrong direction, and now there's again a glimmer of hope, with Andrus finding some more consistent offensive success. Could be, this is a mirage, and Andrus is actually better off trying to go to center and right. But he should be strong enough to hit with pop. Lately, the pop has been there. Elvis Andrus, the hitter, has been reinvented. Reinventions aren't always improvements, but the intentions, at least, are usually good.
Projecting Milwaukee’s Slew of Late-September Call-Ups.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
On Monday night, the Biloxi Shuckers, the Brewers Double-A affiliate, fell to Chattanooga in the Southern League championship. Following the loss, the Brewers rewarded several members of the Biloxi squad with promotions to the big leagues. Among Tuesday’s call-ups were: outfielder Michael Reed, infielder Yadiel Rivera, and right-handed pitchers Yhonathan Barrios, Adrian Houser, Jorge Lopez and Tyler Wagner. Let’s have a look at what the data have to say about these prospects. (Note: WAR figures represent projected WAR totals through age-28 season, according to KATOH system.)
Michael Reed, 4.5 WAR
Michael Reed opened the year with Double-A Biloxi, and was promoted to Triple-A on August 1st. He was later reassigned to Double-A for the playoffs to get a few more reps. All told, the 22-year-old hit a respectable .270/.377/.408 on the year with an impressive 27 stolen bases.
As you likely inferred from his triple slash line, Reed draws lots of walks. Specifically, he walked in 14% of his plate appearances this season. But he’s not one of those hitters whose minor league success is entirely driven by his copious walk totals. Reed complemented those walks with a healthy amount of power, belting 47 extra-base hits this year. Let’s look at some Mahalanobis distance comps for Reed’s somewhat rare combination of power, speed and walks.
Michael Reed’s Mahalanobis Comps
Rank Mah Dist Name PA thru 28 WAR thru 28
1 1.07 Cesar Crespo 291 0.0
2 1.30 Aaron Hicks* 886 1.4
3 1.51 Eric Young Jr.* 1,273 2.1
4 1.52 Esteban German 444 0.9
5 1.83 Ray McDavid 48 0.0
6 1.83 Jarred Ball 0 0.0
7 1.83 Andy Machado 81 0.0
8 1.96 Sheldon Fulse 0 0.0
9 2.15 Dante Powell 85 0.0
10 2.18 Prentice Redman 27 0.0
11 2.24 Bert Hunter 0 0.0
12 2.25 Jeremy Hazelbaker* 0 0.0
13 2.36 Chuck Carr 1,648 3.9
14 2.38 Blake Tekotte 91 0.0
15 2.54 Ray Holbert 229 0.0
16 2.78 Delino DeShields Jr.* 443 0.9
17 2.94 Peter Bourjos* 1,649 10.3
18 2.96 Dave Krynzel 54 0.0
19 2.98 Bernie Williams 3,650 23.2
20 3.06 Tyler Saladino* 235 0.5
*Yet to play age-28 season
Outfielders colored in blue
Jorge Lopez, 3.1 WAR
Jorge Lopez was rock solid for Biloxi this year. He posted a sparkling 2.26 ERA in 24 regular season starts, and somehow managed to top that figure with a 2.16 mark in the playoffs. His 3.36 FIP suggests his true talent level isn’t quite as amazing, but even so, his 24% strikeout rate bodes very well for the future. Overall, not too shabby for a 22-year-old in Double-A.
Prior to this year, Lopez’s numbers had been largely mediocre. His 4.81 ERA suggested he was destined for a career as a high-minors pitcher. But following a 2015 breakout, it seems the lanky right-hander might ultimately carve out a role in the big leagues, even if its in a bullpen capacity. Here are his comps.
Jorge Lopez’s Mahalanobis Comps
Rank Mah Dist Name IP thru 28 WAR thru 28
1 0.46 Keyvius Sampson* 44 0.3
2 0.49 Anthony Ranaudo* 54 0.0
3 0.59 Esmerling Vasquez 168 0.1
4 0.60 Steve Montgomery 84 0.0
5 0.74 Tyler Clippard 420 4.6
6 0.76 Jordan Zimmermann 892 17.3
7 0.87 Brian Bevil 67 0.5
8 0.90 Micah Bowie 71 0.0
9 0.90 James Baldwin 920 9.3
10 0.92 Jesus Colome 251 0.0
11 0.93 Cedrick Bowers 0 0.0
12 0.94 Justin Miller 40 0.7
13 0.94 Henry Owens* 51 0.4
14 0.94 Victor Santos 423 2.5
15 0.95 Donnie Elliott 35 0.0
16 0.96 Kip Yaughn 0 0.0
17 0.98 Ed Martel 0 0.0
18 1.02 Eric Ludwick 74 0.0
19 1.18 Jorge DePaula 27 0.1
20 1.18 Gary Rath 8 0.0
*Yet to play age-28 season
Yadiel Rivera, 1.4 WAR
Yadiel Rivera split 2015 between Double-A and Triple-A, where he hit a punchless .263/.306/.343 with 12 steals. Defensively, he split time between second base, third base and shortstop. Frankly, Rivera isn’t much to get excited about. He can make some flashy plays on defense, but lacks the contact, power and speed to make any sort of impact offensively.
Adrian Houser, 1.3 WAR
Adrian Houser, 22, was one of the players who came over from the Astros in the Carlos Gomez blockbuster. He split the year between High-A and Double-A, where he pitched to a 4.31 ERA and 4.28 FIP. Houser struggled a bit following his promotion to Double-A, but pitched markedly better once he joined the Brewers organization at the trade deadline. In seven starts with his new organization, Houser turned in a 2.92 ERA and 3.55 FIP on the strength of a 21% strikeout rate and 4% walk rate.
Houser throws in the mid- to high-90s, which automatically makes him interesting. But his stats to date don’t suggest he’s destined for very great things. When I wrote up Houser two months ago at the time of the trade, his list of comps wasn’t pretty — It was basically Bryan Shaw, Matt Perisho and a bunch of career minor leaguers. I’m saying this because I’m too lazy to run his data through the Mahalanobis machine again and format the results. But I’d bet his list of comps would likely look very similar, even following his uptick in performance.
Tyler Wagner, 1.3 WAR
Save for one spot start with Milwaukee back in May, Tyler Wagner pitched exclusively at Double-A this season. Like Lopez, he recorded an excellent ERA (2.25) and slightly less excellent FIP (3.27) in a full season of work. But unlike Lopez, Wagner, 24, was a little old for the Double-A level — and, more importantly, he didn’t achieve his success by way of an above-average strikeout rate. Wagner’s Double-A numbers weren’t bad. In fact, they were pretty good. But you expect to see a little more from a 24-year-old pitching in Double-A, especially in the strikeout department.
Yhonathan Barrios, 0.6 WAR
The Brewers acquired Yhonathan Barrios in July in the trade that brought Aramis Ramirez back to Pittsburgh. Barrios has been known to touch 100 mph on occasion, but you’d never know it by looking at his strikeout numbers. For a 23-year-old Double-A reliever, that doesn’t bode well.
Chris Young on Working Up (and Down) in the Zone.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Chris Young, of the Kansas City Royals, is known for both his Princeton pedigree and his height. The 6-foot-10 right-hander is also known for getting outs up in the zone, with a slow fastball. Young’s four-seamer averages 86.4 mph, and he has the highest FB% (58.2) and the lowest BABiP (.217) among pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings. The velocity and fly balls are in line with his career norms; his probability defying BABiP is even more striking than the .248 he’s registered during parts of 11 seasons.
Thanks in large part to his frame, Young has a deceptive delivery. He also has a high spin rate on his lukewarm heater. It’s not elite, but it ranks among the top 20% of hurlers and contributes to his above-the-belt success. The 35-year-old has appeared in 32 games this year — half of them starts — and has a 10-6 record to go with a 3.29 ERA and a 4.71 FIP.
Young on spin rate: “I haven’t heard about my spin rate being high – nobody has said a word to me about that – but I do understand how it works. Spin rate creates the rise, the life on the ball. For me, the intent is there, but I wasn’t aware of the result. Maybe that quantifies my deception, or whatever it is that you want to call it.
“Early in my career, I had a chance to talk to Curt Schilling. I looked up to him because he was a four-seam fastball guy. He told me that the one thing he wants to feel on his fastball is the backspin off of his fingers. He wants to feel that action, that whip, that finish. That’s the same thing I’m trying to do on my fastball. I don’t throw as hard as Schilling — or as hard as a lot of guys — but it’s the same mentality of wanting to get through the ball to rotate it, to really backspin it. I want to create life on the ball. That said, it’s not something where I can consciously say, ‘I want to make this ball spin more than another pitch.’”
On learning he could work effectively up in the zone: “It’s the way I’ve pitched my whole life. When I was 14, 15 years old and getting into high school, I was the same way. I’d change eye levels. I’d work down in the zone and pitch up in the zone. Back then, it happened more by accident than intent, but it was effective. Over time, I recognized how to do it intentionally, and how it played in terms of hitters’ swings.
“I remember having a Double-A pitching coach saying to me, ‘You won’t be ready for the big leagues until you learn to pitch down in the zone.’ It almost had the opposite effect. When I moved up to Triple-A, I had better results, because all those pitches that were foul balls at the lower levels became pop ups. They became outs. I realized, ‘This is an effective pitch.’”
On conviction and changing eye levels:“It’s not like I try to throw every pitch up in the zone. You have to work down in the zone, and you don’t want to throw down in the zone without life. I’m trying to throw every pitch with 100-percent conviction. If I do that – whether it’s down or up – I feel that it results in better action. It’s the conviction behind a pitch that leads to a more-favorable result.
“Sometimes you can read a hitter – you can read their swings or how they take a pitch – and see if they’re trying to get you down, or trying to get you up. I’ll try to adjust accordingly. It’s equally important for me to be able work down as it is for me to work up.
“High and low play off of each other. If a hitter is laying off a pitch that’s up, it probably makes him more susceptible to swing at a pitch down. For the same reason, he’s not swinging at a breaking ball in the dirt because he’s trying to make you get the ball up – he wants to see a ball higher in the zone. Pitches up and down are correlated, certainly. I try to establish both.”
On data and preparation: “Every series, I have a PDF sent to me from the Royals scouting department with the data I want from them. Then I look at video and match it up with heat maps. I determine my game plan from there.
“The stuff I look at is maybe a little more in depth than your basic scouting report. It helps me determine what type of hitter someone is and what his game plan is. I match up the statistics with what I’m seeing on video. More often than not it matches up, but there are times my eyes get deceived a little bit and I need to check out the data more closely. The sample size matters, too. The bigger it is, the better idea you have of what he likes and what his approach is.
“When I look at heat maps, it’s against right-handed pitchers and whether he’s more of a high-ball hitter or more of a low-ball hitter. That’s the main thing with heat maps, but I also look at whether he covers away or in better. In certain situations, that gives me a visualization of, ‘OK, this is where I want to throw the ball.’”
On velocity and the non-quantifiable: “Pitching is so much more than velocity. It’s about deception, it’s about movement, it’s about location. Then there are the intangibles. There is the mental toughness, the conviction, the poise, the thought process, the intent, the ability to read swings. All of that goes into making a pitcher successful. You can look around baseball and find so many guys throwing 98 mph – guys all over the minor leagues who aren’t ready for the big leagues, many who will never play in the big leagues. That shows how important the other aspects are.
“Velocity is the most quantifiable thing, but now we’re reaching some other forms – some other measurements – that are allowing people to evaluate differently. But in the end, I think the biggest thing is between the ears, and that’s something you can’t quantify.”
On the mental component: “There’s obviously physical talent involved, but I think what makes pitchers successful is the mental component – the ability to process information and to compete with conviction. Knowing you can get a hitter out is a belief. It’s a feeling – a confidence you have – whether you’re throwing 80 mph or 100 mph. If you lose that, hitters will sense it and jump on it. It’s like a dog sensing fear.
“It exists and it’s tangible. It’s what separates average from good, and good from great. Show me a pitcher with brains, heart and balls, and I’ll show you a winner. That’s the hardest thing to quantify, and it’s probably the most important.”
The Yankees Saw a Different Marcus Stroman.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Marcus Stroman isn’t David Price. Maybe, if Stroman had been healthy all year, the Jays wouldn’t have gotten Price at the deadline, so Stroman would be their No. 1, but that isn’t how things went, so Price is No. 1, and Stroman’s looking to be No. 2. Stroman himself would happily concede that Price is on another level, but then, just about every World Series-winning team ever has needed more than one starting pitcher, and this is where Stroman becomes important. It’s a minor miracle to just see Stroman already back on the field, but his own focus is on starting and helping. It’s gone beyond just getting healthy. And if Wednesday’s any indication, Stroman’s rounding into top form with the playoffs coming up.
Stroman has made three big-league starts since returning, pushing his pitch count close to 100. His first start came in New York, and he managed a half-decent five innings. Wednesday, he faced the Yankees again, only this time in Toronto, and he worked his way through seven, allowing no runs while striking out five. In easily the biggest game of his life, Stroman rose to the occasion, reducing any doubts he might not be ready to help. And it’s interesting to note just how Stroman looked. Two times out of three, Stroman has faced the Yankees. And the second time, owing in part to Stroman’s broad repertoire, the hitters saw a different pitcher.
In keeping with habits, we’ll borrow again from Brooks Baseball. Below, every game of Stroman’s big-league career, and his rate of pitches in each game against left-handed batters. Stroman is right-handed!
You see Wednesday’s game there at the end. The plot doesn’t make it perfectly clear whether this was Stroman’s highest-ever rate of pitches to lefties, but the point doesn’t have to be that specific. More generally, he just saw a bunch of lefties. Of all the Yankees Stroman pitched against, only Alex Rodriguez was batting righty. Rodriguez batted three times. The other 23 plate appearances gave the hitters the platoon advantage.
What we already know is that Stroman was effective anyway. Seven shutout innings and all that. As you see in the plot above, he threw more pitches to lefties than he did in his first turn against New York. But now look at how Stroman pitched to the lefties. Here, again, are all of Stroman’s games. Isolating just at-bats against lefties, you see his game-to-game rates of sliders and changeups:
This is where the different-pitcher stuff comes from. Wednesday, Stroman threw more changeups than usual. And he threw way more sliders than usual. Over Stroman’s career, before yesterday, he threw a total of 27 sliders to left-handed hitters. On Wednesday alone, he threw 26. That’s a stark and meaningful change, and while Stroman says he just goes out there and pitches based on feel, this isn’t the sort of thing just any pitcher can do. When your average pitcher isn’t feeling one or two of his pitches, that can be a problem. Stroman has six pitches at his disposal, though, so he can give the same exact team a very different look start to start.
Focusing for a minute on the two Yankees starts — in the first one, Stroman leaned heavily on his curveball. It’s a good curveball, and Stroman threw it more than a fifth of the time. Out of the gate, he threw a few changeups, but then he progressively phased the pitch out. The slider seldom showed up. Compare to the second start. Wednesday, Stroman almost never went to his curve. The first time through the order, he threw 39% sliders; the third time through, he threw 35% changeups. This time, the slider was his breaking ball of choice, and he progressively folded in the changeup more. At some point, hitters saw all six pitches, but they arrived in varying amounts. The first start couldn’t have allowed the Yankees to prepare very well for the second.
A year ago, Stroman’s curve was responsible for more strikeouts than any of his other pitches. His four-seam fastball was second. Wednesday, Stroman got four of his five strikeouts on the slider, and the other came on a cutter, which sort of overlaps. As you might recall, sliders historically have shown some pretty significant platoon splits, favoring same-sidedness, but Stroman’s slider is a little different — relative to most sliders, it gets more drop. And that makes it harder for lefties to track, especially when they have so many other pitches somewhere in mind.
Because we need some fun visuals, here’s an early successful slider:
Here’s one from the next inning:
You can see the drop — you can see that this isn’t a conventional slider. This is a slider Stroman can use against lefties, and he and Russell Martin clearly figured that out. Those same lefties don’t know when they might see a curve, which Stroman throws with a ton of lateral break. And then there’s the changeup, which Stroman hasn’t always thrown with the same conviction. He came to believe in it Wednesday, and it helped him to get out of a minor jam:
Kept low, it can be a groundball pitch. Stroman already has a groundball pitch in his dynamite sinker, but this all allows him to keep feeling fresh as the batting orders turn over. With this many pitches, Stroman shouldn’t ever fall into a pattern. Maybe he still will, since he’s only human, but even on an off day, he might have three of six pitches working well enough.
Getting back to Wednesday, it’s not like every pitch was perfect. Here’s the slider that ended the seventh inning:
Bad location, good swing, good contact. That was a mistake, and as Stroman neared the end of his outing, he did seem to leave a few more pitches than usual up. It’s the only sign of potential fatigue I could recognize, but then maybe that wouldn’t be a shock, since Stroman is still trying to build up his arm strength. Wednesday might’ve helped Stroman get stretched out. It’s possible he tired in the seventh, but that experience might keep him from tiring in similar situations in the weeks ahead.
That much is nit-picking. Stroman, like all good pitchers, got away with a few, but he threw most of his pitches effectively, and he gave the Yankees a whole different look from the previous game. He also gave them a different look each time through the order, so there just haven’t been any patterns. If Stroman does have a pattern, it’s of working quickly, which helps him blend in with a pitching staff that averages baseball’s fastest pace. Price aside, Blue Jays pitchers aren’t much for delays, and Stroman is no exception, throwing a pitch Wednesday about every 18 seconds. Stroman, of course, is beyond excited to be pitching again, and it’s like he can’t wait to see what the next pitch does. In that regard, he’s not alone.
Trying to Find Meaning in Exit Velocity for Pitchers.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
An increase in publicly available data can often help our understanding of the sport. The rollout of Statcast data has been fascinating. Learning how hard Giancarlo Stanton hits a ball, how fast baserunners and fielders move to steal bases and make catches, and how hard outfielders and catchers throw the ball is all very interesting information. Up to this point, it can be tough to determine if the information is useful or if it is more akin to trivia knowledge, like batting average on Wednesdays or pitcher wins. An examination of the batted ball velocity against pitchers provides some hope of providing potentially important information, but until we have more data — and more accurate data — conclusions will be difficult.
Looking at the top of the leaderboard in exit velocity, it is easy to see why linking a low exit velocity with good performance is enticing. I looked at all pitchers with at least 150 batted balls in the first half and 100 batted balls in the second half. Here are the top-five pitchers in batted-ball exit velocity this season, per Baseball Savant, along with their ERA and FIP.
Batted Ball Exit Velocity Leaders for Pitchers
Exit Velocity (MPH) Batted Balls FIP ERA
Clayton Kershaw 84.86 382 2.09 2.18
Jake Arrieta 85.50 433 2.44 1.88
Chris Sale 85.71 344 2.67 3.47
Dallas Keuchel 85.91 505 2.89 2.51
Collin McHugh 85.92 475 3.65 3.93
Looks like a pretty good list with some of the very best pitchers in baseball on it. Here are the next five.
Batted Ball Exit Velocity Leaders for Pitchers (6-10)
Exit Velocity (MPH) Batted Balls FIP ERA
Jorge De La Rosa 86.07 335 4.20 4.17
Francisco Liriano 86.25 356 3.23 3.41
Jered Weaver 86.51 370 4.84 4.86
Jimmy Nelson 86.62 381 4.11 4.11
John Danks 86.72 407 4.56 4.59
The above charts only contain ten pitchers, and Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Michael Wacha, and Shelby Miller are all among the next group of pitchers, but Chris Archer and Gerrit Cole are both in the bottom 20 of exit velocity. That does not make the data useless, but making conclusions is going to be difficult when trying to determine if there are outliers or if the data is simply more random than we would like to see.
To get a better sense of what’s going, I separated this season’s starting pitchers into three groups: those whose average exit velocity on batted balls is under 87.5 mph (21 of 91 pitchers), those whose exit velicoty sits somewhere between 87.5 mph and 89.2 mph (constituting 51 of 91 pitchers), and a final group of 19 pitchers who’ve allowed an average batted-ball exit velocity greater than 89.2 mph this season. The initial analysis appears to show some effect on ERA and FIP depending on the batted ball velocities.
There is roughly a half-run difference between the high and low groups, with the middle group falling squarely in between. There looks to be a bit of a difference between the two groups. We, or at least I, would assume that there would not be a great relationship between exit velocity and individual pitcher ERA or FIP given how many other variables go into determining those statistics. Given that, an r of .33 for ERA and an r of .40 for FIP seem surprisingly high.
Given FIP’s slightly stronger relationship with exit velocity, a look at the components of FIP could shed some light on their relationship. The chart below shows the same groups from the graph above using proxies for the FIP components in strikeouts, walks, and home runs per nine innings (K/9, BB/9, and HR/9, respectively) depending on the average exit velocity.
FIP Components by Batted Ball Exit Velocity
K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Exit Velocity <87.5 (n=21) 7.9 2.5 0.92
Exit Velocity 87.5-89.2 (n=51) 7.6 2.7 0.99
Exit Velocity >89.2 (n=19) 7.4 2.5 1.19
While walks and strikeouts never happen at the same time as a batted ball, it is possible that exit velocity might be some proxy for a pitcher’s stuff that would show up in strikeout and walk rates. Given the size of the sample, it does not look like exit velocity plays much of a role in the number of walks given up as it fluctuates by group and the r was a very small .15 between walks and exit velocity. Looking at the raw numbers, it looks like K/9 might have some relationship with exit velocity. The r is a little stronger at -.25, but when calculating FIP, that .5 difference in K/9 accounts for only a one-tenth difference in FIP.
The strongest relationship among the FIP components is HR/9: the r is .34 and the data moves in a linear fashion. The .27 difference between the extreme groups makes a big difference in FIP, as it moves the FIP by roughly four-tenths. These relationships mirror the one between the FIP components and FIP itself, but with a much stronger relationship with FIP, as would be expected. Surprisingly, the correlation coefficient between exit velocity and FIP at .40 is roughly the same (.37) as walks and FIP.
FIP is a very good statistic to use because it takes BABIP and defense out of the value equation. While pitchers do exhibit some BABIP skill, it requires a large sample to ascertain. In the case of defense, that’s simply not the pitcher’s responsibility. Attempting to tie a pitcher’s skill to BABIP suppression is incredibly difficult. We know that there is little to no relationship between BABIP and the Hard, Medium, Soft designations used on FanGraphs, and this data supports the notion that average exit velocity for pitchers and BABIP have almost no relationship. There is virtually no relationship between BABIP and home runs for pitchers this season, and there is also no relationship between BABIP and exit velocity for pitchers. If we were hoping to get closer to BABIP as skill, this data gets us no closer, and if we believe that suppressing exit velocity is a skill (which is up for debate), this actually lends support for the argument that pitchers have little control over BABIP.
At this point — or perhaps it would have been better to do it earlier — it seems appropriate to acknowledge the limitations of the data we have available. Tony Blengino discussed the issues earlier in the summer, determining that roughly one-quarter of all the batted ball data is unavailable, and that the numbers which are available are the product more often of positive outcomes (because Statcast has trouble recording weakly hit balls). Blengino concluded:
Don’t get me wrong… Statcast is a great thing, and we are only scratching the surface of what it can eventually become. The sample generated for this article yielded some benchmarks which will serve as the foundation for some analysis you will see here in the coming weeks. Still, when one is faced with a data set, one must put it into some sort of context, while acknowledging its limitations. In many of my previous articles here, I have warned readers to never take pure average velocity data at face value; launch angles, BIP type frequencies, pull percentages, etc., significantly affect hitter and pitcher performance, and can be easily be overlooked. For this year, at least, we should additionally be aware of the Statcast data set’s unique shortcomings, which adjust the context within which analysis takes place.
So it seems like there might be some sort of relationship with production (FIP) and exit velocity, and most of this relationship is due to home runs, but this is where it starts to get difficult between what we have and what we want. We know that home runs are hit very hard. We know that limiting home runs leads to a lower ERA and FIP. In a small sample, it appears that pitchers with lower-than-average exit velocities succeed in limiting home runs as comparted to their brethren on the other end of the spectrum — and removing home runs from the seasonal exit velocities results in essentially the same exit velocities overall. What we really want to know is if lower exit velocities are a repeatable skill. If they are — and if we were able to solidify the link between those velocities and home runs — we could identify pitchers we might expect to allow fewer home runs in the future. We are not there yet. There is some indication that batted ball velocities are at least a portion of the pitcher’s responsibility and that they stabilize, but more research, more data, and more accurate data is necessary before we can get to the bottom of this.