How would you judge a pitch? How would you determine the best pitch in baseball?
By velocity? It’s tempting, because every mile per hour of velocity does add effectiveness to a fastball. But movement is important, and release point, or deception. Consider that Darren O’Day’s rising 87 mph four-seam fastball had the highest whiff rate of any four-seamer in baseball last year. Probably because they were expecting more sink from his arm slot, at least that was his theory.
By movement? Also tempting, movement provides us the easiest visuals. And movement is also linked to good outcomes for changeups and curves. Brett Cecil’s curve got more whiffs than any other curve, all while having three inches less horizontal movement and six inches less drop than your average curve. Weird.
So we’re left looking at results in order to judge pitches. Which results we look at are important, and how we look at them of course. Let’s set up a way to judge pitches simply and look at how they rank.
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Wei-Yin Chen just got a contract that could bring him just shy of nine figures by the time he’s done. If he doesn’t opt out, and the sixth year vests, he gets $96 million.
Here are some other facts about the new Marlins’ lefty. By strikeout rate, he’s 79th out of 132 qualified starters over the last three years. He’s 112th in home runs per nine innings over that same time frame. He’s no sinkerballer that gets by on worm-burning ground balls, either: He’s 110th in ground balls since 2013 began.
But there are a few spots where Chen rates much more highly. And it’s because he sits atop those leaderboards that makes him a good value signing for the Marlins, even at what seems like a hefty price to some.
Chen doesn’t walk batters. He’s 20th of 132 in that statistic over the last three years, and he’s actually improved the last few years as he’s gotten to know the strike zone here. He’s tenth since 2014 began.
Of course, walk rate is not all command. Sometimes pitchers throw the ball outside the zone on purpose, after all. But there are other ways to try and measure the ability to repeat pitches.
One way is to look at breaking balls in counts where the pitcher is looking for a swing as I did for this year’s Hardball Times Annual. In counts like 2-1 and 1-1, batters are looking for a pitch to hit, and that’s the time to bury a breaking ball and get a swing and miss. “The well-commanded breaking ball comes out in the 2-1 count, makes the hitter think fastball, and then bottom drops out,” according to Dodgers starter Brandon McCarthy.
If you judge Chen’s command by his ability to keep his curve low in the zone in those counts, he does well. Only Zach Duke and Will Harris threw more than 50 curves over the last three years in those counts and have kept the ball lower on average.
Another way to look at command is to look at the ability of a pitcher to hit the strike zone in a three balls and no strikes count, when all they want to do is get the free strike. Chen is 32nd out of 111 qualified pitchers over the last three years in that statistic. By all accounts, he can command the ball.
Sort the FanGraphs leaderboards for soft contact, and you’ll find Chen 36th out of 132 qualified pitchers over the last three years. It gets more impressive if you actually look at the last two years, once again — he’s 17th in Soft% since 2014 started.
Soft contact is judged by human eyes, by someone watching the game. Maybe a better judge is the Statcast system, put in place this last year in all ballparks to judge more advanced statistics. By exit velocity on balls in play, Chen did very well last year — by BaseballSavant.com, he was 25th with an average of 87.6 mph, right between Jacob deGrom and Carlos Martinez.
But even that measure isn’t complete without one more piece of information. A softly hit ball at the right angle can still be a hit. Which brings us to Chen’s last, best skill.
There’s a way that Chen uses his command to get that weak contact. His fastball has an inch more rise than the average four-seamer, meaning it falls an inch less than batters expect it to, due to backspin mostly. That movement, plus where he puts it, elicits pop-ups. Look at where Chen throws his fastball to right-handed hitters.
That’s a lot of high and tight for a fastball. Joey Votto once told me about the pitch that creates the pop-up: “It’s got to be the perfect sliver of the strike zone, up and in-ish, and I have to take the wrong swing, and I have to swing at it.”
And so we get to Chen’s best spot on any leaderboard: He’s fifth in baseball in pop-up percentage since 2013, right behind Marco Estrada, Hector Santiago, Max Scherzer, and Trevor Bauer. At 5.6%, he’s almost two standard deviations above the mean (3.2%), so he’s good at what he does.
The pop-up is an automatic out. If you add it to the other automatic out, the strikeout, and subtract the only other automatic play that a pitcher can influence all by himself — the walk — you get a good measure of a pitcher’s quality. Here, then, are the top 30 pitchers since 2013 in strikeouts plus pop-ups minus walks.
Suddenly, Wei-Yin Chen is a top-25 starter. He doesn’t have the velocity or strikeout rates of an ace, and he’s not an upper-tier ace even on this final leaderboard.
But there he is, a rank above Jordan Zimmermann, a pitcher who just this season cost millions more. Given that more of Chen’s long fly balls will die in the park this season in Miami, and he’s demonstrated the ability to limit the walks, coax the pop-up, and strike out just enough guys to be a force in a tougher park and a tougher league, maybe the Marlins actually got a steal with their big signing.
If the playoffs had never happened, you might scoff at the idea that Jorge Soler is a foundational piece for the Chicago Cubs.
Soler? The guy that was one of the thirty worst players in baseball last year? The guy that couldn’t make contact, couldn’t take a walk, didn’t show the power he was supposed to show, and then ran circles in the outfield? That guy?
Yes, that guy. He’s one of next year’s best break-out candidates. Because of his age, and demonstrated skills to date, Soler is in a group that does well. And his biggest hurdle? He’s jumped it before.
Baseball keeps getting younger, but at 23, Soler was still young for a young league. Only 21 players managed 400 plate appearances last year, and the list reads like a who’s who of young stars.
Just the fact that he’s played so much at a young age and hasn’t been worse than replacement means that he’s got a great chance at a future. Of the 221 players that came to the plate at least 400 times before they turned 24 and were above replacement, 181 managed to average a win per season over the rest of their career. That means Soler has an 82% chance of being a regular.
Two wins per year makes you an average major leaguer, and 60% of those 221 young players were average major leaguers for their careers. Four wins makes you an All Star, on average. 18% of that group ended up averaging four wins a season.
So Soler, just by doing what he’s done so far, is very likely to be a regular, better than a coin flip to be an average major leaguer, and still has a one in five chance of being a star. Those rates compare favorably to a top ten prospect who has been unsullied by major league time. Recent research suggests that top ten position player prospects have a 53% chance of being regulars, and a 35% chance of being superior.
Maybe the shine has come off of Soler’s upside. Major league regulars on cheap deals are still worth something. And then there’s the particular way Soler has played so far.
He Has an Up the Middle Approach
In a long conversation I had with Joey Votto about aging, he said that he concentrated on having an up the middle approach, one that concentrated on hitting balls to the middle part of the field, because that would put him in the best position to have a long, productive career.
The aging curve we created to try and show how up-the-middle players aged compared to pull-happy players didn’t show what Votto thought it might. It looks like pull-happy players might even age a little better than the alternative. But there was an unexpected quirk! Young up-the-middle players surged forward and improved mightily until they hit 25 years old.
It’s an old-school truth, that going up the middle is the best approach, and now it pairs with numbers that prove that it’s really great for young players.
Last year, 40% of Soler’s balls in play went up the middle, compared to 35% of the league’s average. And his contact wasn’t soft. In fact, if you look at a list of guys younger than 25 that showed an up the middle approach but not as much power as they showed in the minor leagues, Soler hit the ball almost as hard as anyone. (Isolated slugging percentage is slugging percentage minus batting average, or a ratio that shows how many extra base hits a player hits.)
Kris Bryant may have already finished breaking out, but the rest of the list is still exciting despite some hiccups along the way. They’re all young players that hit the ball hard up the middle and have showed better results in the past, and Soler checks those boxes harder than any of them.
He’s Fixed His Plate Discipline Before
Speaking of Soler’s minor league numbers, there’s another gem hidden within that should give the Cubs hope about his future.
As a Cuban teenager, Soler was forced to wait for his playing time. Then he had to get to America to get into organized baseball. At twenty years old, he was thrown into rookie ball, and he’d never really seen pitchers throw breaking balls with that kind of velocity and command before. The team was content to let him get acclimated to the American culture and game before asking him to do much those first two years.
Then they asked him to be more patient in 2014. He went from walking 8% of the time in his first two years to walking 14% of the time combined in 2014 — which included his first looks at Double- and Triple-A, at 22 years old. He almost doubled his walk rate from year to year, and did so at harder levels — that’s an impressive feat.
Jorge Soler had the seventh-worst strikeout rate in baseball last year — it just seemed like he couldn’t make contact. He didn’t walk much, either. Or show power, as his isolated slugging percentage was below the league average.
But he did hit the ball hard, up the middle, at a young age, and with a minor league track record that showed the capacity to make adjustments and hit for power. All of these things say that he’s likely to much better in the future.
Oh yeah, that, and the fact that he hit .474/.600/1.105 with three homers in 25 postseason plate appearances, and showed us what it can look like when he puts it all together: scary good.
Normally, we spend this time of the year thinking about good things. The Baby New Year brings with it a fresh outlook. We look excitedly upon our team’s signings and dream of the upcoming season. We hope.
And yet, this is also the time of year when projections come out. Dark, foreboding things, those projections. Rooted only in the harsh reality of numbers, they are a sobering dash of cold water.
Those projections have a particularly tough message of Yoenis Cespedes and his fans. The flashy, powerful outfielder has the biggest gap between last year’s production and next year’s projections. He’s supposed to fall off nearly four wins in production next year by FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement statistic, as projected by Steamer. As a free agent, that’s rough thing to be known for.
But the harder you look at this fact, the more it tells you about what Cespedes does well, what he doesn’t do well, and how those strengths line up with how projections work.
The Houston Astros seem to have struck gold with a great young shortstop in Carlos Correa, who was a perfect midseason addition to the Astros’ young, talented lineup as the team rode its power and 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner to a playoff berth. The Chicago Cubs have great young position players popping up left and right, and have spent good money in the past 12 or so months to add some reliable veterans to that core. Both teams appear to have very bright futures.
The Oakland Athletics, meanwhile, just signed a reliever with a lengthy injury history to a three-year deal (Ryan Madson) and traded away their 25-year-old third baseman (Brett Lawrie) for two mid-level pitching prospects.
It’s fair to question those moves. It’s fair to wonder why they seem to be moving in two directions at once. In fact, it’s fair to ask where the team is headed, to ask what in the world A’s executive VP of baseball operations Billy Beane is up to now.
So I did.
At last week’s baseball winter meetings, I asked Beane, he of the “Moneyball” fame (book and movie), why he wouldn’t do a tear-it-down, sell-all-assets rebuild like the Cubs and Astros did, like the Braves and Brewers appear to be doing now, and maybe what the Reds are in the early stages of doing. Doesn’t that approach help you get higher draft picks and collect talent for your next run? Doesn’t that help you find those young, cost-controlled players that drive winning teams?
Beane saw things differently — and uniquely, of course.
It took five years and $110 million for the Detroit Tigers to bring right-handed starter Jordan Zimmermann into the fold. That’s hardly a small token, though these days, that still qualifies as a second-tier contract among starting pitchers. If you look at traditional rate stats — strikeouts and walks, for example — Zimmermann clearly belongs in that second tier; he’s not the pitcher guys like Cole Hamels and Jon Lester have been over the past five years. He also doesn’t have their stuff, at least not when judged by the strikeout. What Zimmermann does have is much harder to get a handle on. The basic term would probably be his unique command, but it’s not an easy thing to put your finger on when it comes to stats.
A pitcher with great command might intentionally throw a ball outside the zone — even at the risk of walking a hitter — on purpose. So we can’t just use walk rate to determine command. But pitchers with great command also have a tendency to get to two strikes quickly without being damaged as hitters sit back and look for better pitches to hit. Elite pitchers also can do this, but more because hitters can’t hit their pitches, and the elite guys can also finish off hitters with that stuff. But in many cases, what makes a second-tier pitcher just that is they don’t have that put-away stuff.
That definitely describes Zimmermann, whose 7.32 K/9 rate ranked 50th of 78 qualifying pitchers. But here’s the thing about the Wisconsin native: When it comes to getting to two strikes, Zimmermann is among the elite. And though the swinging (or called) strike three is a lot more glorious, as it’s the surest way to get the out, Zimmermann has proven just as effective as getting hitters out once he gets two strikes.
The relative lack of K’s, the “second-tier” label … these are reasons Zimmermann, still in the prime of his career at age 29, could be had for $22 million per year versus the bigger dollar figures we’ve seen in recent years. But here’s the thing: He’s a better value than many of those making more money, including the aforementioned Hamels and Lester, and here’s why:
As we approached the 2015 season, who could have foreseen Chicago Cubs 29-year-old right-hander Jake Arrieta — and his 34-32 career record and 4.48 career ERA — being even in sniffing distance of a Cy Young Award? Few people, if anyone, can honestly claim to have felt that would be the case.
However, sabermetrically speaking, there were at least indications as far back as June 2014 that Arrieta would have a breakthrough season in 2015. He did. Magic was made. He was nearly unhittable the last two months of the season. Which leads me to ponder this question on the day the 2015 Cy Young Award winners are announced: Who is next year’s Arrieta?
I’m talking about a pitcher who is nowhere near Cy Young consideration this year but has at least offered indications that a giant step forward is possible.
The first thing that’s necessary in an exercise like this is to learn from history, so I looked at Steamer projections for past Cy Young winners headed into their award-winning seasons, then compared their actual results to their projected numbers. That juxtaposition gives us some facts about past winners, and those facts might give us a road map to find future winners. First, let’s look at what past award winners have taught us.
Someone is going to win the nine-figure lottery this offseason.
Every offseason for the past 10 years, at least one MLB player has signed a contract for at $100 million-plus. Some of those players have actually proved to be worth the lofty dollar figure; others haven’t. Thus, the focus for every team is determining which guys to pay big money to.
We know, at least generally, that giving a pitcher nine figures usually doesn’t work out well. Both Barry Svrluga at the Washington Post and Ted Berg at USAToday have looked at those contracts and didn’t like what they found.
But position players are a slightly better bet. Of the 12 $100 million contracts that have been handed out to position players, either via free agency or as extensions, and have run their course by now, six of them actually turned out to be bargains compared to the open market. Another couple were relatively decent deals, and only three of them were absolute disasters.
(Quick aside: To judge these contracts, I summed up the player’s wins above replacement over the life of the contract, divided that number by the salary, then took the cost of a win on the open market over the life of the contract and compared the two. If the player was cheaper than the average win, he was a “good contract.”)
Even if you add in the contracts that expire after next year — meaning Ryan Howard is in the mix — teams spent less per win above replacement on those 15 players with $100 million contracts than the open market spent on all wins above replacement during those years. So there’s really nothing wrong with signing a position player to $100 million — as long as it’s the right player.
The best $100 million position players can provide us some guidelines for this year’s free-agent class and also for players who aren’t even free agents yet.
With that, let’s build the $100 million man.
The 2015 season didn’t go quite as planned in Beantown. A Boston Red Sox team that many expected to win the division — and perhaps have a nice playoff run — instead finished dead last in the AL East.
But they had their moments, and a 78-84 record isn’t exactly horrific. And now as we look forward, there’s still a lot of promise with this franchise, as indicated by their still-favorable No. 3 ranking in ESPN Insider’s MLB Future Power Rankings, posted Wednesday. Not only do they have the most talent among MLB teams in their minor league system, according to our survey, but they still have established, veteran, major league talent and are still in a very good position financially.
And you know who, according to our early FanGraphs projections, will key the Red Sox’s bounce-back 2016 campaign? None other than two of the three worst regulars in baseball this year: Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Let’s take a closer look at those two players from a historical context.
When Jacob deGrom was drafted by the Mets out of Stetson University in the ninth round of the 2010 draft, he was a 22-year-old shortstop that sometimes flashed a plus fastball as the closer. Then he only pitched 26 innings in the Mets organization before he needed Tommy John surgery. When he arrived back in camp in 2012, he was a blank slate.
So, when he walks to the mound in the deciding Game Five against the Dodgers today, after sporting the sixth-best ERA among qualified starters this year, he is the product of the Mets organization. The team’s development system helped add the curveball, and the slider, and the changeup, and he brought that plus fastball (with a slight tweak) and great command.
A pitcher is only as good as the sum of his parts, and in this case, each part is as impressive as the whole. In the spirit of that development, let’s compare deGrom’s pitches to the models of yesterday’s game, and to the best of today’s game.