Is Matt Davidson just one adjustment away?

646064030.0.jpg

Lisa Blumenfeld (Getty Images)

Perhaps it’s a miracle that people are even talking about Matt Davidson in late March 2018, just days before his 27th birthday. The right-handed hitting third baseman spent the better part of eight years in the minors prior to getting his first real taste of MLB action last year with the White Sox. Along the way there were numerous points where Davidson seemed destined to spend the remainder of his professional career taking bus trips to cities like Lehigh Valley and Gwinnett.

Davidson was drafted in the first round by Arizona all the way back in 2009, and it took him four years to record his first MLB at bats (all 76 of them) with the Diamondbacks in 2013. Davidson was then dealt to the White Sox after the 2013 season and spent two full seasons in Triple AAA with the Charlotte Knights in 2014 and 2015.

Davidson’s career appeared to be sputtering at this point, as the formerly adept minor league hitter posted back-to-back seasons with wRC+ scores well below 100. His batting average over those two years was a meager .201 and his slugging percentages were struggling to reach the high 300s. But fortunately something clicked for Davidson in 2016. His strikeout rate went down, power went up and overall production soared, with a 128 wRC+ in 326 plate appearances in the first half with Charlotte.

Davidson’s strong play was rewarded with a mid-season call-up to Chicago. His debut came in a June 30th game against Minnesota. Davidson earned a hit on his second at bat and, while rounding first base, tripped and broke his right foot. Out of the rest of the season. Ouch.

After an off-season of recovery Davidson came to 2017 spring training with something to prove and earned a starting spot out of the gate. He then proceeded to dazzle (/befuddle) with one of the most all or nothing approaches in all of baseball. The guy swung hard. When he made contact, the ball went far, evidenced by his 26 home runs in 443 plate appearances. But he didn’t make contact nearly enough, with the second highest strikeout rate in baseball at 37.2%.

Players like Chris Davis and Joey Gallo strike out a ton but manage to maintain productivity by walking a lot. Not Davidson. His walk rate was a measly 4.3%, and his 0.12 BB/K ratio was the second worst in baseball behind teammate Tim Anderson. When you rarely walk and strike out a ton, you need to be really good at something else. Fortunately Davidson is really good at making at hitting the ball hard when he does hit it.

Davidson’s 38.2% hard hit rate was 43rd among 216 hitters (~80th percentile) with at least 400 plate appearances last year. More impressively, his barrel rate per batted ball event of 15.4% was ninth among hitters with at least 100 batted balls. That, combined with his 46.5% flyball rate last season, led to a lot of hits to deep parts of the ballpark.

davidson spray.PNG

Baseball Savant (Guaranteed Rate Field Overlay)

As we can see by the above spray chart, Davidson didn’t have very many cheapies. Most of his 26 home runs cleared the fence with room to spare, and he had quite a few warning track flies that could have been something more if the weather conditions or the stadium were slightly different. Over a full season of plate appearances I would feel confident in projecting Davidson for 35 home runs (he was on pace for 37 over 630 plate appearances last season) given his inclination for flyballs and the authority with which he hits the ball.

Davidson is definitely a subscriber to the “flyball revolution”, highlighted by players changing their swing plane to induce more flyballs. They often accomplish this by shifting their swings to an uppercut trajectory, thus increasing the launch angle of the ball off the bat. The upshot to this method is that it allows players to drive pitches in the middle to lower part of the strike zone out of the ballpark. Fangraphs writer Jeff Sullivan discovered that all of the home run gains in 2016 compared to 2008-15 came in the middle to lower part of the strike zone, while home runs per swing actually decreased in the upper third of the plate.

This is pretty logical. Taking an uppercut swing approach will naturally take the path of the bat through the lower part of the zone. However, it can potentially make hitting pitches up in the zone more awkward.

gettyimages-686146790-e1496206310603

Matt Davidson is a test case example of this phenomenon. The still image to your right is how Davidson typically finishes his swing, with the bat head far above his own head. Davidson hit a home run against the Chicago Cubs earlier this spring displaying a perfect example of his signature swing. This home run from last season is another great example. Notice that, in addition to his uppercut swing, Davidson brings his hands back as the ball is being delivered. This motion creates additional torque and allows for greater force at the point of impact.

Let’s take a look at Davidson’s distribution of home runs around the plate last season. The below image is from the catcher’s perspective:

davidson hr bip.PNG

Notice how 23 of Davidson’s 26 home runs came in the lower two thirds of the strike zone. One came in the upper third! In particular, Davidson displayed a distinct inability to homer on up-and-in pitches, going 0/14. Theoretically this makes perfect sense, as it would be very difficult to hit a high and tight fastball with a looping, uppercut swing.

It’s here where the problems in Davidson’s approach develop. Not only is he not generating power on pitches up in the zone, he is often not hitting them at all. Based on the image below, Davidson’s whiff rate is healthily above 20% in each quadrant in the upper third of the strike zone as well as the areas directly above the strike zone. Conversely, he is fairly adept at making contact at pitches low in the zone, particularly those on the inside part of the plate.

davidson whiffs.PNG

Recall that Davidson had the second worst strikeout rate in baseball last season. The reasons why are starting to become clear: he can’t hit pitches up in the strike zone. More specifically, he can’t hit fastballs thrown up in the zone.

That’s kind of funny to think about it, because high fastballs are usually thought of as some of the easiest pitches to crank out of the yard. Quite the opposite for Davidson. He whiffed on 17% of fourseamers thrown his way in 2017 and had a brutal 161 batting average and 329 slugging percentage against them. When you combine that with already above average whiff rates on breaking pitches, you get a hitter that is really making life difficult for himself.

Davidson is a very one dimensional hitter. At one point he learned that selling out for hard contact on pitches low in the zone was an easy way to get home runs. Kudos to him, because not every player can do that. However, at his current strikeout and walk rates, Davidson is not a viable MLB hitter, even with his 35-home run power (his wRC+ last year was 83). He needs to bring that BB/K ratio from the low 0.10s to 0.25-0.30 range before being taken seriously overall and in fantasy.

I don’t suspect that a swing overhaul will do Davidson much good. He’s been a high strikeout rate, high flyball guy going well back into his minor league years. But a keener eye at the plate could do him wonders. While he’ll always struggle with fastballs in the upper third of the zone, he needs to start laying off the ones that are would-be balls. Consider that in the quadrants directly above the strike zone, Davidson swung at 66 of 119 pitches in 2017. That’s a chase rate of 55%. Turning those inevitable swinging strikes into balls would help his plate discipline immeasurable, and likely result in better pitches to hit later in the at bat.

davidson swing rate.PNG

To leave this post with a hopeful tinge, Davidson is having an insane spring training. In 60 plate appearances over 17 games he’s slashing 358 / 433 / 679 and he leads the league with 18 RBIs. Most importantly, his plate discipline looks good with only 12 strikeouts (20% rate) and seven walks (12%). Considering that there wasn’t a single 17-game stretch where Davidson’s strikeout rate went below 25% last year, I’m hopeful that he’s turned the corner somewhat.

If Davidson can bring his strikeout rate down the to 30% range, and bump his walks into the high single digits, he becomes a very intriguing fantasy player, as few can inflict damage to baseballs like he can. Think Khris Davis-like upside if everything goes well. Otherwise he’s the AL version of Keon Broxton, just without the speed. Interested fantasy minds should track his plate discipline going forward, particularly on pitches above the zone. If Davidson is going to improve his game, it will have to come there.

Advertisements

Fungraphs Funcast, Episode 3 (8/25/17)

Third episode of the Fungraphs Funcast. Enjoy yourselves!

Topics include:
i.) Working the corner
ii.) Fitbit Alta Software Update
iii.) Fight Night (by Migos)
iv.) Fenway security guards
v.) Adonis Chapman
vi.) Rich Hill
vii.) Much more!

Fight Night: 01:50
AL EAST RUNDOWN (& Wild Card Discussion): 19:40
HOT DISH: 30:07
-Dave, Gary, & Nick

Who are baseball’s most majestic home run hitters?

usa-today-8608603.0.jpg

Tim Heitman (USA Today)

There are few visceral thrills quite like watching a man crush a nine-inch circumference baseball with a 2.5-inch diameter baseball bat out of the ballpark. The crack off the bat, the trajectory of the ball and its final landing spot, more than a football field away from home plate, are one of the most satisfying things to watch in sports. Fortunately, baseball is in the midst of a golden age of home runs, with an average of 1.27 home runs hit per game this season, easily a record high. While doctored baseballs certainly seem to have a hand in that figure, the MLB’s current surplus of young, power hitters like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Gallo are a primary driving factor.

While players like Judge and Stanton get all the fanfare for their tap measure bombs, I thought it would be interesting to explore which players actually hit the furthest, most majestic home runs. Sure enough, Judge and Stanton are towards the top of the list, however there are some surprising names, both young and old, that also make an appearance.

How to quantify home run quality?

The fabulous ESPN Home Run Tracker website catalogs every home run, showing it’s exit velocity, estimated distance, apex and any atmospheric conditions that may have affected its flight. “True Distance” measures how far the ball traveled, or how far the ball would have traveled if it wasn’t stopped mid-flight by stands, fans or walls. The website also tracks “Standard Distance”, which adjusts the True Distance by atmospheric factors like wind, temperature and altitude. Clearly, a wind blowing out to center will aid balls in traveling further, while the cold, frigid temperatures or early April tend to suppress the bounce of the ball off the bat. The altitude adjustment is negligible in most ballparks, but very significant in Coors, revising the True Distance down anywhere from 15 to 25 feet because of Denver’s thin, Rocky Mountain air.

So we’ll be ranking players by their average Standard Distance (SD). We’ll also exclude any players with less than 20 home runs for sample size reasons. As a result, guys like Avisail Garcia, Chad Pinder and Mitch Moreland are excluded from the following discussion. As you’ll notice, hitting majestic blasts is largely a young man’s game, but a couple grizzled vets make an appearance in the top half of the list.

10. Ryon Healy  – 409.0 SD

ryon healy.PNG

Healy_Ryon_2017_scatterOakland third baseman Ryon Healy has carved out a nice niche for himself as a power hitter at the MLB level, swatting 34 home runs in 188 games since a mid-season 2016 call-up. The 6’5″ righty, like so many of his teammates, strikes out a lot and rarely walks, but manages to hit majestic dongs when he does connect. Healy is more of a straight-away home run hitter, golfing most his 21 jacks to left-center / center. His 409.0 Standard Distance is 10th in baseball, while his 104.8 exit velocity ranks last of the players on this list.

09. Kyle Schwarber – 410.0 SD

kyle schwarber

Kyle Schwarber and his .204 batting average have had a down season. Things got so bad by late June that Schwarber was demoted to the Cubs’ AAA squad in Iowa. Since his early-July recall, Schwarber has been much improved, smashing eight of his 20 home runs. And many of them have been absolute bombs, with his 410 SD ranking ninth. Schwarber is definitely more  of a pull hitter, with 55% of his home runs going out to right field. He’s hit 13 of his 20 coming in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.

08. Miguel Sano – 411.4 SD

miguel sano.PNG

Sano, one of the trailblazers of the three true outcomes approach to hitting, ranks eighth on our list with a Standard Distance of 411.4 feet. His presence on this list should surprise few, as Sano has been one of the premier power hitters in baseball since his 2015 debut. Sano particularly loves hitting in Minnesota’s Target Field and other AL Central ballparks, as 21 of 28 home runs have come from a ballpark within the division.

07. Gary Sanchez – 411.9 SD

gary sanchez

Gary Sanchez has had a pretty good start to his career, huh?. In his first 143 games, which is essentially a full season for a catcher, Sanchez has blasted 43 home runs and accrued a .576 slugging percentage. While his home run rate was due to regress a bit in 2017 from his blistering pace as a rookie, he’s still slugged 23 home runs on the campaign, and most of them have been no-doubters. His 411.9 SD is 7th and his 107.3 exit velocity is tied for third. Sanchez is primarily a pull hitter, so it’s not surprising that 57% of his home runs have gone to left field.

06. Marcell Ozuna – 412.4 SD

marcell ozuna

Ozuna has teased his talents over the last three seasons, but 2017 is serving as his real breakout, with 27 home runs and 91 RBIs through 119 games. Ozuna has always been known as someone who hits the ball hard, a trait plainly evident in his 2017 home runs. At 412.4 SD and 106.7 exit velocity, the ball leaves Ozuna’s bat in a violent fashion. Impressively, 20 of Ozuna’s 27 home runs would have been gone in at least 28 of the 30 MLB ballparks, further displaying that he doesn’t get any cheapies.

05. Nelson Cruz – 413.1 SD

nelson cruz

Finally a wily old veteran on the list! Cruz is 11 years the elder of the the next oldest player presented thus far, however the 37-year old is still swatting home runs with the best of them. Cruz uses primarily left and center field to inflict damage, with only two home runs going opposite field thus far. His 413.1 Standard Distance ranks 5th, while his 31 home runs is 10th in the majors and 7th in the AL.

04. Aaron Judge – 414.1 SD

aaron judge.PNG

Judge’s inclusion on this list certainly isn’t a surprise, but I bet most people would haveJudge_Aaron_2017_scatter expected him to rank higher than 4th. What is truly special about Judge’s home run hitting ability is his ability to go to all fields with pull, center and opposite field jacks occupying a relatively equal percentage of his AL-leading 37 home runs. His 414.1 standard distance ranks 4th and his 107.3 exit velocity is tied for third alongside his battery-mate Gary Sanchez. Judge’s pure strength allows him to flick balls out of the park all over the field. Judge also owns the longest home run in the MLB this year, with his 496-foot shot off Logan Verrett of the Baltimore Orioles on June 11th.

03. Giancarlo Stanton – 414.7 SD

stanton.PNG

Here’s probably the least surprising thing you’ve heard all day: Giancarlo Stanton is top three in the majors when it comes to hitting long home runs. Stanton’s chiseled physique and violent swing propel baseballs far distances, with most of his damage coming to left and center field. Stanton is also getting better as the season goes along, with all of his last 19 home runs being considered homers in 22 ballparks and 17 and those 19 being home runs in at least 27 ballparks.

02. Joey Gallo – 415.2 SD

joey gallo.PNG

Gallo_Joey_2017_scatterGallo, at 23, is the youngest player to grace the list. The typification of a three true outcome player, Gallo strikes out a whopping 37% of the time, but when he does make contact with the baseball it goes really, really far. He does most of his swatting to center / right-center, where Gallo has hit a myriad of tape-measure blasts, including four over 450 feet in the month of August. Impressively, 22 of Gallo’s 35 home runs (63%) would have been out in any ballpark in baseball, the highest percentage of anyone on this list.

01. Kendrys Morales – 421.7 SD

morales.PNG

Kudos to anyone who saw this one coming. Morales, the only player along with Cruz over the age of 27 on this list, has paced baseball this year in home run authority. His 421.7 SD is over six feet longer than second place, while his exit velocity of 107.9 MPH is easily number one. Only three of Morales’ 21 home runs have traveled less than 400 feet, and all but one would be homers in at least 23 ballparks. Kendrys is also definitely enjoying his time in the AL East, with 16 of his home runs coming in intra-division ballparks.

Is Giancarlo Stanton worth his contract?

826780686.0

Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham (Getty Images)

Giancarlo Stanton is baseball’s best power hitter. That statement doesn’t ring as particularly bold right now, however many questioned if peak Stanton had come and gone after an injury-riddled 2016 season where he posted a career low OPS of .815 and wRC+ of 114. But Giancarlo, now healthy and in peak prime at 27 years old, is having arguably the best season of his career in 2017. His 44 home runs leads the majors by seven over second place Aaron Judge, while his .645 slugging percentage is 21 points higher than runner-up Cody Bellinger. His home run total is already a career-best, while his slugging percentage, isolated slugging percentage and OPS are all career highs as well.

Yet, despite 2017 serving as the apogee of Stanton’s on-field performance, it seems like the Miami Marlins might be ready to part ways with their franchise player. Trade rumors have swirled around Stanton all season and have recently intensified with the impending sale of the team to a conglomerate headed by Derek Jeter. Stanton was even placed on revocable waivers and cleared earlier this week, allowing him to be dealt after the July 31st deadline. Does new ownership want to keep the face of the franchise and one of the best power hitters in baseball? Or do they want to rid themselves of a $310 million contract liability and start fresh?

stanton historical value

Giancarlo Stanton’s career to date, despite injury issues, has been a smashing success for the Miami Marlins. By the end of this season Stanton will have earned $38.4 million in his playing career, but provided $234 million in value based on his on-field performance (side note: to determine Stanton’s value, we’re simply multiplying his wins above replacement – WAR – by the cost of what one WAR was in that given season). That’s $196 million in surplus value that Stanton provided to the Marlins, excluding any consideration for his ability to draw fans into the seats and sell jerseys on South Beach.

But the key to Stanton’s potential trade value is how much value he’ll provide relative to his contract going forward. Unfortunately for the Marlins, the prognosis doesn’t look good.

The contract

stanton contract.PNGAssessing the value of a baseball player is a complex process. On-field ability, age and contract status are all equally relevant variables in the equation. Stanton is currently three years into a 13-year, $325 million contract that contains a club option for a 14th year at $25 million. The first three years of Stanton’s deal featured marginal salaries of $6.6 million, $9.0 million and $14.5 million this season, but the cost quickly ramps up starting in 2018 to $25 million. By 2023, when Stanton is 33 years old, he’ll earn $32 million per season. Beginning in 2018, Stanton will be set to earn a whopping $310 million through the 2028 season. Note that Stanton has the right to opt out of this deal after the 2020 season, while the 2028 season is a club option that features a $10 million buyout if they don’t wish to retain him.

As FunGraphs explored in early June, these type of contracts rarely tend to work out well for the teams involved. Generally speaking, teams tend to pay players in the future based on past performance. Stanton’s contract fits this concept to a tee, as his highest earning years are from 2023 to 2025, when he’s entering his mid-30s. Given that very few people have Adrian Beltre’s inverted aging curve, I think it’s reasonable to expect Stanton to be an inferior player at that juncture, and for some team to be writing checks to Stanton for more than he’s worth at the time.

So the central questions are 1) can Stanton produce enough surplus value in the beginning of his contract to justify the end and 2) how sharply will his production drop as he ages?

The first key: Health

Given Stanton’s injury prone past, his health going forward will be a major determining factor in his future worth. Thus far Stanton has played in 76% of potential games in his career, which averages to 123 per season. Stanton has battled all variety of injuries in his eight-year career, including a hamstring strain, quadriceps strain, groin strain, sore shoulder, facial fracture and hand fracture. Some of these injuries, like a fractured cheek bone from getting hit in the face with a pitch, are freak of nature. But the consistent presence of lower body strains probably indicates that Stanton is injury prone.

stanton gp projectionAnd would it really be that surprising? Stanton is 6’6″, 245lbs, and patrols left field night in and night out. Someone with that size and muscle mass is likely more apt to get injured than someone with a slimmer, more wiry frame. The concern going forward is that if Stanton has only been able to average 123 games through 27, how many games will he end up missing as his body begins to decline?

I crafted a largely arbitrary projection of Stanton’s future games played, starting at 140 in 2018 and 2019 and declining to 115 in 2028 in his age-38 season. Obviously his actual games played over the next 11 years won’t follow such a linear pattern, but it’s probably fair to assume he’ll tend to miss more games with age. The projection totals 129 games per season on average, or 79% of games played, which is actually higher than his aged 20 to 27 seasons! This is based on the fact that some of Stanton’s freak injuries are unlikely to reoccur.

How much and how fast will he decline?

war-barPlayers tend to put up a majority of their career WAR in their age 27 through 29 seasons, with a swift drop occurring once the early 30s hit. Stanton has totaled 10.2 WAR in 310 games played since 2015, which extrapolates to 4.9 per 150 games. His poor 2016 season drags this number down a bit while his fantastic 2015 and 2017 seasons pull it up. All in all I think using 5.0 WAR per 150 games is a fair place to start for Stanton’s “peak” ability in his age-28 season in 2018.

stanton WAR project.PNGFrom there we need to discount Stanton’s peak WAR/150 for aging effects. I assumed fairly consistent production from 2018 to 2021, but as you can see in the accompanying chart, 32 is an age where players really start to regress. The downswing only gets worse year after year. Of course, not every player ages this way. But I think it’s reasonable to expect a large, injury prone player who strikes out a lot to perform at the standard aging curve for MLB players. In total, I expect Stanton to be worth 29.5 WAR for the rest of his contract. His average WAR/150 for the contract duration is 3.3.

Putting it all together

With Stanton’s WAR projections in hand, as well as assumptions for how much one WAR will cost moving forward, we can building a schedule of Stanton’s expected value. The cost of one WAR in 2018 is pegged to $8.2 million, which is slightly above where it is in 2017, and grown by a 2.0% inflation factor each season.

stanton value

Under these assumptions, Stanton will be worth $263 million for the remainder of his contract. He will continue to produce surplus value through 2021, but after that point he will begin costing his team. All told, Stanton’s value relative to his contract would be negative $47.2 million. Theoretically whatever team has Stanton at that point would buy out the last year of his contract for $10 million rather than pay $25 million for $7.2 million worth of production, so perhaps the negative value goes down from $47.2 million to roughly $40 million in that scenario.

Based purely on on-field performance, it seems like any team looking to acquire Stanton will want Miami to hold back substantial salary in order to make the deal works. And if Miami wants a significant prospect in return, they’ll likely need to hold even more salary back.

A word of caution

In case you couldn’t tell, there were a lot of semi-arbitrary assumptions in this analysis. In particular, Stanton’s average games played will have a very large impact on his value going forward. If he manages to play in more than 79% of games, then he could be worth his contract. Of course, advanced age could also could show 79% to be an optimistic assumption.

The other variable that has a significant impact on Stanton’s value is the cost of a win. Since Stanton’s contract is fixed, his contract will become less onerous as player salaries in the MLB grow. The underlying assumption of 2.0% annual growth in cost per win, which can basically be thought of as growth in player salaries, might be higher, in which case Stanton’s contract will look better.

stanton senstivity.PNG

The issue is that Stanton will need to average close to 150 games played and player salaries will need to grow at 3.0% annually for his contract to come close to breaking even. While the latter might happen, I see no way that the former does.

The other variable is of course Stanton’s actual on-field performance, measured by WAR. The assumptions had Stanton averaging a WAR/150 of 3.3 for his age 28 through 38 seasons. That’s an extremely aggressive assumption. Not only will Stanton’s hit tool need to stay close to where it is now, his defense must also stay at a passable level.

For some perspective, only four players 35 or older had 3.0+ WAR in 2016. The amount of 37-year old players with a WAR over 2.5 last season was two: David Ortiz and Adrian Beltre. The amount of 37-year old players who even had over 250 plate appearances? Eight.

All in all, Stanton’s contract seems like a loser based on purely baseball performance. A player of his magnitude does bring star power that will fill seats, sell jerseys and bring in advertising revenue, but that was outside of the purview of this analysis.

 

Evaluating the American League playoff race

AL_EAST_LOGO_2Where did the baseball season go? Here we are, firmly entrenched in the sticky dog days of August, with only about one quarter of the schedule left to play and opening day still seems like yesterday. I find myself saying that every season at this juncture, yet my perception of the passage of time gets no better.

The playoff push is now upon us with about 40-45 games remaining on most team’s schedules. Unlike the National League, which is largely devoid of interesting playoff races, the American League is fairly open in terms of Wild Card placement and divisional winners. Below is a breakdown of how I see each division shaking out as well as the wild card positions.

AL East – New York Yankees

I make this prediction with some caution, as the Yankees and their 62-55 record are currently 4.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox. While 4.5 games doesn’t seem like a lot, it is in the context of a mere 45 games left. But the Yankees are due for some good fortune in the near future, as their AL East-worst 13-21 record in one-run games is likely to revert closer to .500 as the season winds down. As a result of their poor performance in one-run games, New York’s run differential to date of +112 doesn’t square with their 62-55 record, and actually suggests a true talent record closer to 70-47.  So, without consideration for improvements to the team roster, we might expect more wins in the Yankees’ future purely on the basis of improved luck.

However, the Yankees also added some big reinforcements at the trade deadline, acquiring Sonny Gray to headline their rotation and Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson to reinforce their bullpen. Health will also be key to a late season resurgence by New York. Outfielder Aaron Hicks, who was having a career year prior to suffering an oblique injury in late-June, has looked great since returning a week ago. First baseman Greg Bird and second baseman Starlin Castro are also set to start minor league rehab assignments this week and should be back with the team prior to the end of the month.

4.5 games is a tall task in 45 games, however a re-loaded Yankees roster and some good fortune should erase that deficit.

AL Central – Cleveland Indians

Almost all of Cleveland’s current roster was on the squad for last season’s World Series run, so if playoff experience and hunger to win count for anything then Cleveland has it in spades. Beyond that, the Indians are one of the most well-rounded teams in baseball, and their current 64-52 record compared to a 70-46 BaseRuns record suggests they’ve even been unlucky to date.

Want starting pitching? Cleveland has the second best pitcher in the AL in Corey Kluber and some outstanding rotation depth by way of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Want a bullpen? Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Nick Goody headline a relief staff that has an MLB-low 2.97 ERA. Hitting? The Indians’ have a deep and balanced lineup that boasts the fifth-best wRC+ in baseball. Outside of catcher Yan Gomes and a likely still injured Jason Kipnis, every regular hitter in their lineup is a consistently tough out. They’re a team that definitely gets by on offensive depth more so than top-heavy punch, with the likes of Carlos Santana, Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley, Jay Bruce and Bradley Zimmer falling into the “good but not great” category.

The Indians have a five game divisional lead over both Minnesota and Kansas City, but it probably should be much more. For some perspective, Cleveland’s run differential is 158 runs better than the Twins and 124 better than Royals. Expect the Indians to secure the AL Central title fairly easily.

AL West – Houston Astros

While the Astros were the darling pick of many preseason pundits, few saw this kind of offensive explosion coming. Houston’s wRC+ of 126 is the best of all-time, supported by nine offensive regulars with figures above 112. Superstar performances from the likes of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer strike fear into opposing pitchers at the top of the batting order while career years from utility players like Marwin Gonzalez and Jake Marisnick have provided abundant depth. With the recently called up Derek Fisher taking the place of Nori Aoki, and Alex Bregman improving after a slow first half, there isn’t a single weak link in Houston’s lineup.

Pitching has been a bit more touch and go. The rotation’s 4.23 ERA is 10th in the majors and is led by Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, both of whom who have had great years while simultaneously struggling with injuries. Charlie Morton has served as a solid third starter, while reliever turned starter Brad Peacock looks like he’s cemented his spot in the rotation. Colin McHugh, who missed more than half the season with arm fatigue, is now back and looks solid. All in all it comes down to Keuchel and McCullers though. If they are healthy, then the rotation will look good in October. If they suffer from lingering injury issues then it will struggle.

Houston’s 72-46 record and +152 run differential both pace the American League by a wide margin. They should secure home field in the ALDS, if they make it, the ALCS, with relative ease. The offense is the best in the majors by a country mile and their pitching, if healthy, is well above average. It will be a major disappoint for the Houston faithful if they don’t make it to the World Series.

Wild Card 1 – Boston Red Sox

Boston was a team that looked dead in the water two weeks ago. They ceded control of the AL East to the Yankees while reports of clubhouse issues swirled in response to yet another Dave Price blowup. And speaking of Price, he went back on the DL with left elbow issues.

But the arrival of super-prospect Rafael Devers from AAA and utility infielder Eduardo Nunez from San Francisco ignited a squad that is 9-2 in the month of August and 67-51 on the season. Devers has a 1.074 OPS since being called up on July 25th, while Nunez is boasting a .382 / .417 / .647 triple slash since being dealt to Boston. The combined offensive outburst from Devers and Nunez also woke the bats of Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts, who have looked more like their 2016-selves in recent weeks.

Despite their newfound offensive prowess, Boston’s lineup is singles driven and lacks the power needed to compete with the Astros and Yankees of the world, and Devers and particularly Nunez are due to come back down to earth at some point. But where the Red Sox really have a competitive advantage is in their starting pitching. Chris Sale has been the best pitcher in baseball this season and is the shoe-in AL Cy Young winner at this point. Drew Pomeranz has shown that 2016 wasn’t a fluke, pitching to a 3.39 ERA this season and refining his control, while Eduardo Rodriguez has taken a big step forward this season. Porcello is obviously having a down season after his 2016 Cy Young campaign, but is still a serviceable #3 / 4 starter.

Boston’s BaseRuns record of 65-53 is six games worse than the Yankees’ 71-46 BaseRuns record. The Red Sox are surely a playoff team, but they’re fairly fortunate to be in front of the Yankees as it is.

Wild Card 2 – Texas Rangers

Very few people are talking about the Texas Rangers right now. And for potentially good reasons. They’re a lowly fourth in the AL West and three games out of a wild card birth with the Angels, Twins, Royals, Orioles, Mariners and Rays all ahead in the pecking order. They traded Yu Darvish to the Dodgers at the deadline.

But did you know that Texas is the only team outside of a wild card berth in the American League to have a positive run differential? 2016 and 2017 couldn’t be more diametrically opposed from Texas’ point of view. In 2016 Texas finished at 96-57 and won the AL West on the back of an absolutely absurd 36-11 record in one run games. Meanwhile, in 2017 their record in one run games is a lowly 10-19, and a primary reason why their +14 run differential hasn’t translated into a better record, which stands at 57-60.

Texas has a very well-rounded offense, with Adrian Beltre, Joey Gallo, Elvis Andrus, Carlos Gomez, Robinson Chirinos and Shin-Soo Choo all swinging the bat in an above average to very good manner. The issue with Texas is pitching. With Darvish gone, the rotation is anchored by Andrew Cashner and Cole Hamels, both of whom have K/9 rates below 6.00. The rest of the staff features Martin Perez, Nick Martinez and AJ Griffin, all of whom have ERAs north of 5.00. On the bright side, the Rangers have a strong bullpen, with Alex Claudio, Keone Kela and Matt Bush all posting sub-3.00 ERAs.

If Cashner and Hamels can continue pulling a Houdini act by pitching to 3.30 ERAs with horrible peripherals, Texas has a shot at leapfrogging some teams. The key will be some fortuitous sequencing luck from the baseball gods and continued poor play from the teams surrounding them in the standings. If that happens, Texas might just stumble their way into the playoffs.

A Calm, Rational Discussion About Aroldis Chapman

15yankgame-web1-master768

The Yankees’ $86M closer has been anything but a certainty in the first year of his record-setting 5-year contract. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

The Yankees face a steeper uphill battle in their quest for the American League East crown, as they lost two out of three to their division rival Red Sox at home over the weekend, to fall a whopping 5.5 games back. The rivalry appears to be gaining steam and relevance once again with the emergence of all of their talented, young stars, and several of the games have been nothing short of dramatic. The Yankees stole a win on Friday with a come-from-behind victory, but not before closer Aroldis Chapman made things interesting in the ninth, with three walks and a run allowed before “nailing down” a 5-4 victory.

The Yankees appeared on their way to another stolen victory (and series win) on Sunday, with a tenuous 2-1 lead against likely AL Cy Young winner Chris Sale headed into the ninth. Although manager Joe Girardi has mixed and matched his star-studded relief corps into various innings, Chapman is fully entrenched as his closer and Ninth Inning Guy (TM). So, on he came to face Hanley Ramirez, and three 100+ MPH fastballs and loss of helmet later, he was down on strikes. Chapman appeared locked in. He then faced 20-year-old (!) rookie phenom Rafael Devers, who Nick has gushed about before. Devers did what only one lefty (lol, Luke Scott in 2011) had done prior in Chapman’s entire career: He took him deep. It was an impressive piece of hitting to the opposite field, and the fastest pitch (102.8 MPH) to be taken deep since at least 2008 (when those statistics were routinely tracked). It stunned Yankees fans. Alas, the home run tied the game and pushed it into extra innings. Girardi stuck with his closer, who promptly hit Jackie Bradley Jr. and walked Eduardo Nunez (and his 3.9% walk rate) before being replaced by Tommy Kahnle. Kahnle walked the bases loaded before Andrew Benintendi singled in the eventual winning run.

It was the 20th blown save for the Yankees this year (2nd-most in baseball to the Mariners’ 22), and the fourth for Chapman. It was also their AL-leading 21st 1-run loss this year, after losing just 12 such games all of last year. The Yankees still have a grip on the 1st Wild Card spot, and still own the 2nd-best run differential in the AL, but the 2017 Yankees have had their share of deflating, gut-wrenching losses.

Any Yankees fan can attest that Chapman just has not been his usual, dominant self since signing in the offseason. He still lights up the radar gun routinely over 100 MPH, but he is no doubt more hittable this year, and the numbers back this up.

Brooksbaseball-Chart

Average pitch velocity for Chapman’s pitches since 2010 (via BrooksBaseball).

Chapman’s average fastball velocity has been over 100 MPH every year since 2014. Of note, he did drop 1 MPH from 101.1 to 100.1 MPH (lol), but for the most part, his elite velocity has been intact.

Despite maintaining his velocity, his batting average against (BAA) on both his fastball and slider have jumped up to career-highs of .217 and .214, respectively. As a result, his fastball and slider pitch values are both at career lows (but still slightly above average).

Why is he getting hit more often? His horizontal pitch movement is roughly the same on his pitches over the years, while he seems to have an extra 1.5 inches of vertical movement on his slider this year compared to last. His fastball spin rate appears within his usual, above-average range, which should generally correlate with strikeouts. He is throwing the ball in the strike zone at just about the same rate as last year (51.5%), but this year, opponents are swinging 10% less often at these pitches (64%) and making contact 10% more often (79%). In other words, batters have become more selective with their swings in the strike zone, and when they do swing, they have been making more contact.

In fact, they have been making contact at a career-high rate this year, both inside the strike zone and overall. His contact rates are all still above the MLB average, but they have continued to trend closer to the average with each passing year.

Of most concern is Chapman’s dwindling swinging strike rate. For the fourth consecutive year, his SwStr% (and, as a result, K%) are both on the downswing, as illustrated below:

Chapman 2012-17 SwStr and K rates

Chapman’s SwStr% and K% compared to MLB average since 2012. (FanGraphs)

His strikeout rates are coming down at the same time MLB hitters are swinging and missing more often. His SwStr%, once elite and otherworldly, is now slightly above average and more ordinary. He ranked first in MLB in 2014 and 2015, third in 2016, and is now 71st (among RP w/ at least 30 IP). For comparison, Chapman’s SwStr% is in the same ballpark as ex-Yankee Chase Whitley and current Yankee shuttle reliever Jonathan Holder.

In essence, Chapman is getting fewer strikeouts and allowing more contact than ever, all the while his velocity, spin rate, and movement appear roughly in line with his previous, more dominant years.

So, what gives? It could be a variety of factors. Chapman did miss over a month from left rotator cuff inflammation earlier in the year, and he could still be recovering from that. Usually, injuries (particularly related to the elbow) lead to a decline in velocity or something regarding his “stuff”, but we don’t really see that with Chapman. He was also worked hard and often during the Cubs’ postseason run, throwing 73.2 IP between the regular and postseason (one inning shy of his career-high in 2012). He also had less time than usual to recover from all of those high-stress innings, which could be contributing to a proverbial “World Series hangover”. Given the inherent volatility of relief pitchers, it could just be a slump, but the underlying worry is that this also could be Chapman’s inevitable decline. The data do not support a reduction in his stuff per se, but he is undoubtedly fooling less batters and his results bear that out. The Yankees, their fans, and Chapman himself have to hope he rights himself quick, otherwise their playoff aspirations will inevitably get stalled and the team and fans will be on the hook for four more years of continually declining back-end relief.

 

Ketel Marte is on the rise

Rockies Diamondbacks Spring Baseball

Photo Credit: Chris Carlson (Associated Press)

You could be forgiven for thinking that Ketel “One” Marte is older than 23. After all, he’s been around for a while. Marte, hailing from the Dominican Republic, signed with the Seattle Mariners as an international free agent at the age of 16 and made his professional debut in 2012 as an 18-year old. He spent the next four years traversing the Mariners minor league ladder before hitting a respectable .283 in his 219 at bat MLB debut in 2015.

Marte opened the 2016 season at Seattle’s starting shortstop, however a combination of poor performance and injuries resulted in a middling .259 / .287 / .323 batting line and 66 wRC+. With the luster wiped off the once tantalizing prospect, Seattle dealt Marte to Arizona in the offseason along with pitcher Taijuan Walker in return for shortstop Jean Segura and outfielder Mitch Haniger. Walker and Segura were the focal points of the transaction, while baseball pundits salivated about the upside of Haniger. But Marte’s inclusion was largely lost in the shuffle.

Back to the minors

With several incumbent options at shortstop, including slick-fielding Nick Ahmed and the versatile Chris Owings, Marte didn’t have an immediate place on Arizona’s roster and was sent to the AAA Reno Aces to start the season. While he undoubtedly benefited from Reno’s offense-friendly scoring environment, Marte exceeded expectations, hitting .338 over 70 games, good for the second best batting average in the Pacific Coast League among players under 25. His elite plate discipline, evidenced by a 7.4% walk rate, 10.1% strikeout rate and 0.74 walk to strikeout rate, ranked third among players under 25.

Marte’s breakout did not go unnoticed, however the surprise Diamondbacks couldn’t call him up since Owings, Ahmed and Brandon Drury were all covering the middle infield positions with aplomb with the big club. It took a Nick Ahmed wrist fracture in late June for Marte to get his chance, and now Chris Owings is out for two months with a fractured finger as well. One man’s tragedy is another’s opportunity, and unfortunately for Ahmed, it looks like Marte might be Arizona’s shortstop of the future.

A different type of hitter

marte mlb.PNG

Prior to this season, Marte never displayed much power, in the minors or the majors. His strong MLB debut was built on solid plate discipline skills as well as a strong batting average, fueled by an unsustainable .341 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). 2016 was an unmitigated disaster, as Marte’s patience at the plate evaporated and his BABIP regressed to more normal levels.

Marte has regained his plate discipline in 2017, however the rest of his profile looks markedly different. A .500 slugging percentage and .258 isolated slugging rate are by far career highs, while his BABIP is at a career low of .245. Ketel One looks more like a power hitter this time around. Of course, 75 plate appearances is a scant sample size, so we need to dig into the numbers further to see if this is the result of random variance or something real.

marte batted ball

In 2015 and 2016 Marte’s batted profile matched up with the general perception of him as a slap hitter. Groundball rates north of 50% and flyball rates south of 30%. Most of his batted ball authority was of the soft to medium variety. He was a player that opposingmarte graph pitchers could attack without much fear.

Thus far in 2017 Marte brings a much more balanced approach. He’s cut his groundball rate from 52.0% to 39.6% and increased his flyball rate to 35.8%, lowering his groundball to flyball ratio by almost 50% from 2.0 to 1.1.

More balls in the air means more opportunity to hit for power, but only if the balls in the air are hit hard. Luckily Marte is doing that as well. He’s significantly cut down on his infield fly balls and increased his hard contact rate from the low 20%s to 34.0%. And while the sample size is still small in 2017, looking at Marte’s rolling 30-game average shows that he’s never experienced this type of combined surge in flyball and hard hit rate.

Let’s get a bit more in-depth

marte fb ld.PNGSo we know Marte is hitting more balls in the air and he’s hitting balls harder in general. But what is he doing exactly on those flyballs and line drives? Luckily Fangraphs’ splits tool is a terrific feature for this type of forensic research.

It’s not enough to simply hit more flyballs and line drives. If a player wants to inflict maximum damage, he should hit those balls hard and pull them more (unless you’re a psycho like Aaron Judge who can flick balls to second deck opposite field with ease). Marte is doing that in spades, increasing his pull rate on flyballs from 8.9% in 2015 to 52.6% in 2017. He’s also almost doubled his flyball hard hit rate in the same span, going from 22.2% to 42.1%. And not surprisingly, Marte’s slug rate and wRC+ on flyballs has gone berserk in the process.

It’s a similar story on line drives. Marte’s hard hit rate has increased from 32.4% to 53.8% over the last two years, while his pull rate went up from 26.7% in 2016 to 46.2% this season. But there’s hidden upside here. Marte’s BABIP on line drives in 2015 and 2016 was roughly league average around the .670 mark, but it’s down to .462 this season, which would actually be the worst result in the majors if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. Given that Marte’s hitting line drives harder than he ever has, and that his 53.8% line drive hard hit rate ranks as above average, I suspect he’ll be garnering more line drive hits shortly.

Wrapping it up

What have we learned? The 23-year old Marte had a banner year in AAA and is hitting the ball harder than ever before in his 75 MLB plate appearances this season. His .500 slugging rate and .258 isolated slugging percentage are easily career highs. He’s hitting more flyballs and line drives, and hitting those flyballs and line drives harder than ever before. The improvements in Marte’s batted ball profile recall the changes behind Scooter Gennett’s career season with the Reds. Marte has a clear path to at bats for the rest of the season with Nick Ahmed’s wrist fracture and Chris Owing’s finger fracture, so act now in fantasy leagues before it’s too late.

Tim Tebow might actually be good at baseball

When Tim Tebow announced that he was pursuing a baseball career roughly one year ago most of the sports world, including myself, snickered or sneered. What did a 28-year old who hadn’t played competitive baseball in over a decade think he can accomplish, outside of boosting his brand and endorsement dollars? Tebow held an open workout on August 30th, 2016 that was attended by scouts from 28 MLB teams. Despite some rough reviews, the New York Mets liked what they saw and signed Tebow to a minor league contract in September.

Many professional players were insulted that Tebow would pull such a stunt, with Orioles’ center fielder Adam Jones tweeting that he was now going to try out for NFL career and a host of current and former minor league players openly resenting that Tebow would take a roster spot from a “real” baseball player.

While the initial skepticism was understandable, Tim Tebow’s first year as a professional baseball player is a great lesson in the folly of rushing to judgment. After a slow start, Tebow has improved by leaps and bounds, more than vindicating his controversial decision to start a professional baseball career.

tim-tebow-101116.jpg

A good metaphor for the beginning of Tebow’s baseball career.

But things were slow out of the gate. After signing with the Mets, Tebow made his professional debut in the Arizona Fall League with a miserable .194 / .296 / .242 batting line in 70 plate appearances. His strikeout rate was a deplorable 30% and his .538 OPS was sixth worst among fall league regulars.

After hitting a meager .235 in spring training, Tebow was sent to the Columbia Fireflies in A ball to start the season, where the struggles continued. Despite hitting a home run in his first at bat with Columbia, Tebow quickly looked overmatched at the plate, striking out in close to 30% of his plate appearances and struggling to hit for power. Tebow’s triple slash line of .156 / .224 / .289 over the first two weeks of the season was even worse than his AFL performance. And not only that, his play in the field was equally poor, with the novice left fielder struggling to find efficient routes to fly balls and sporting a surprisingly poor arm for a former NFL quarterback. Prior to a mid-May game against the Lakewood Blue Claws, Tebow was playing catch and overthrew his teammate so badly that the ball sailed into the stands and hit a fan in the groin region.

The pitchforks were out in full force as Tebow’s first month in Columbia drew to a close, but the Mets stuck with him. And for good reason. One aspect of Tebow’s baseball career that is oft overlooked is just how good he was in high school. He hit for a .494 batting average in is junior season at Nease High School in Pointe Verde, Florida. His high school baseball coach asserts that if Tebow committed to baseball and played his senior season in full that he would have been drafted in the seventh to 12th round of the 40-round MLB entry draft. Obviously the decade long layoff took its toll, but the base talent level certainly seemed to be there.

Tebow began to show marginal improvement in May and June, but was still the owner of a meager .220 / .311 / .336 batting line upon his surprise June 25th call-up to high-A St Lucie. Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson was candid in his lack of a real reason for Tebow’s call-up, explaining that “He’s not really tearing up the league” but that “…it was the right time for him to move up to high A.”

tim tebow minors

But maybe Tebow just needed more of a challenge. Since his promotion to high A Tebow has silenced his critics, hitting for a robust .808 OPS and improving on all of his peripheral statistics in the process. Further analysis points to Tebow making some subtle improvements in his final 10 or so games in Columbia. Tebow cut his strikeout rate, which was at 29.7% over the first 50 games in Columbia, down to 23.1% in his final 43 at bats with the team. Meanwhile, his patience at the plate also improved, with his walk rate increasing from 8.9% to 13.5% in that same span.

Tebow carried over this newfound plate discipline to St. Lucie, sporting a manageable 21.7% strikeout rate in his 137 plate appearances with the team. With a more selective approach also came more batted ball authority, as Tebow increased his HR/AB, XBH/AB and slugging percentage across the board.

In fact, Tebow has been one of the best power hitters in the Florida high A league. tebow A+Tebow’s .463 slugging percentage ranks in the 90th percentile of 155 hitters with at least 130 plate appearances. His isolated slugging rate of .190 is in the 94th percentile. His overall offensive performance resulting in a 137 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), meaning that he’s performed 37% better than league average, is in the 84th percentile. The raw power potential made possible by Tebow’s muscular, 255-pound frame is actually being achieved.

Due to the paucity of batted ball and plate discipline data available in the minors it’s difficult to delve further into the reasons for Tebow’s improvements. When asked about his sudden surge, Tebow responds with a list of standard baseball platitudes: “I’m working hard every day”, “learning a lot” and “getting more comfortable at the plate.” Such responses don’t satiate the analytical baseball mind, however in this case maybe we should accept them. Tebow is nearing his 30th birthday and spent over a decade away from the game of baseball. It’s not unreasonable to expect a steep learning curve and subsequent improvement from an athlete in that situation.

What Tebow’s done since his promotion to St. Lucie has undoubtedly silenced all the critics who laughed off his foray into baseball as a sideshow act. However, he will need to continue to learn and adapt to stay relevant, and the looming promotion to the Binghamton Rumble Ponies of AA will be the real test to see if Tebow’s baseball career can grow from a successful experiment to a sustainable career.

Joey Gallo is having one of the best ‘pure power’ seasons of all-time

usa-today-8610426.0

MLB scouts decided a long time ago to rate prospect attributes like speed, hitting ability, power and arm strength on a scale of 20 to 80, with the latter being the best score someone can achieve. A player’s power is actually broken into two sub-categories, dubbed “raw power” and “game power”. Raw power correlates highly to overall strength, and top scores are usually reserved for burly sluggers with intimidating frames. Game power measures how a player is able to utilize their strength in game situations, and high rankings do not necessarily tie to physical strength. For instance, someone like the 5’9″, 180lbs Jose Ramirez would not grade highly on raw power, but is able to effectively hit for power in game situations due to terrific bat speed and strong mechanics.

Joey Gallo, a third baseman by trade who also plays first and left field for the Texas Rangers, was one of the  few prospects to receive an 80 grade raw power score prior to being drafted. His hulking, 6’5″ frame, combined with a advanced body control and athleticism that enables a simultaneously smooth and destructive swing, had scouts frothing at the mouth. The Texas Rangers selected Gallo 39th overall in the 2012 draft, and he wasted little time in proving the scouts right, cruising to slugging rates in the .500s, .600s and .700s across  the minors. Now, with 150 MLB games to his name, Gallo is delivering on his 80-grade raw power and quickly becoming one of the preeminent power hitters in the game.

When he hits the ball, it goes far

Gallo had  his first MLB cup of Starbucks in 2015, coming to the plate 123 times across 36 games for Texas as a 21-year old. While Gallo struck out an unsightly 46% of the time, the power potential was immediately on display with six home runs, three doubles and a triple. He spent most of the 2016 season in AAA Round Rock further refining his approach, with a disastrous 30-plate appearance MLB call-up mixed in.

gallo hr-bbe.PNGGallo was set to start 2017 with Round Rock again, however an injury to Adrian Beltre in spring training propelled him into the starting third base slot to open the season. Joey hasn’t looked back since, seizing the opportunity and accruing 28 home runs, 52 RBIs and a .542 slugging percentage while typically  batting in the eighth or ninth spot in Texas’ lineup. But Gallo’s 28 home runs are tied with Logan Morrison and Khris Davis for seventh in the MLB, which, while impressive, doesn’t really support the thesis of  Gallo having one of the best power seasons of all-time.

However, considering that Gallo’s plate appearances are restricted due to his place in the batting order, and that Gallo walks and strikes out a lot, a nominal home run count of 28 looks more impressive. To get a gauge of a Gallo’s ‘pure power’ this season, I divided his home runs by his batted ball events (BBE), which are simply all the balls off Gallo’s bat that results in hits or outs (at bats – strikeouts + sacrifices). The resulting 17.2%  HR/BBE rate  means that Gallo hits a home run more than 1/6 of the  time when he makes non-foul contact with the ball.

That seemed high. Turns out it’s not just high, it’s bordering on statistically improbable. Gallo’s 17.2% rate is by far the highest in the MLB (compared to players  with at least 200 PA), with Aaron Judge in second at 14.7%. The z-score, which measures the amount of standard deviations an observation lands from the mean, of Gallo’s 17.2% HR/BBE rate is 4.2. This means that if hitting a home run on a batted ball were a purely  random process (which it’s not, but go with it), a rate of 17.2% would be attainable in one out of roughly 10,000 player seasons, or about once every 25 years.

Mark McGwire and Joey Gallo

It’s one thing to compare Gallo’s ability to hit home runs against his peers in a givengallo all-time.PNG season. But how about against every hitter season since 1913? Gallo’s 2017 performance in turning batted balls into home runs ranks fourth all-time, alongside names like Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Jim Thome.

(Before discussing Gallo more, let’s take a moment to appreciate Mark “Big Mac” McGwire’s ability to murder baseballs. He owns seven of the 10 best HR/BBE seasons ever, and he accomplished all of them in consecutive seasons from 1995 to 2001.)

Clearly there is some bias in this list. Home runs peaked in the mid-90s to early-00s, and are re-peaking in 2016 and 2017. So naturally, any list that purely focuses on unadjusted home run rate as a proxy for power will favor players who played in these seasons. I’m sure there were a lot of  players in the dead ball era of the 1960s, or back when Babe Ruth played, that are underrepresented. But who really cares? Home runs and are sexy and majestic, and what people pay to go see.

While Gallo still has another 150-200 plate appearances to go in this season, he has a good shot at rubbing shoulders with the all-time greats in terms of power output if he can maintain his current pace.

How does Gallo do it?

At this juncture it’s obvious that Gallo absolutely destroys baseballs in a way that no one else in the league does currently and that few have ever done. But how does he manage it? As FunGraphs explored in early May, Joey Gallo’s approach is one of the most unique in baseball history, leading to three outcomes roughly 60% of his plate appearances: either strikeout, walk and home run.

Gallo is a selective hitter, evidenced by his double digit minor league walk rates andgallo pd.PNG 12.8% walk rate in 2017. However, when he does choose to swing, he swings hard. And he swings with a massive uppercut. The results are twofold: Gallo often swings right through the ball and misses, but when he does make contact,  the ball gets propelled in the air at far distances. Plenty of players have a similar style to Gallo, he just does it at the most extreme levels. His 12.8% walk rate is in the 87th percentile of the league, while his 38.4% strikeout rate is 100th (meaning he has the highest strikeout rate in baseball).

Meanwhile, the looping uppercut swing that Gallo utilizes results in a flyball rate of 60.1%, which is also the highest the league…by a lot. Gallo’s teammate Mike Napoli is second with a 52.8% flyball rate. The corollary to hitting that many flyballs is that few are hit on the ground,  with Gallo’s 25.2% groundball rate scoring as the MLB’s lowest. Since a groundball has never gone over the fence, Gallo’s heavy flyball approach is ideal for home-run hitting.

gallo barrels.PNGNow, lazy flyballs to short-right field, despite being hit in the air, are not very valuable. Consistent  home run hitting requires a steady diet of hard-hit flyballs, and Gallo grades out positively here as well, with his 44.2% hard-hit rate is in the 97th percentile in baseball. Gallo’s hard-hit rate is supported by propensity to hit ‘barrels’ (Brls). Barrels, as measured by Statcast, are batted balls hit at the ideal exit velocity and launch angle to produce extra-base hits (more specifically, Statcast defines barrels as balls that result in a batting average of over .500 and slugging percentage of over 1.000). Gallo’s 36 barrels in 163 batted ball events results in a 22.1% Brls/BBE rate, which is second in the league to Aaron Judge.

The next steps

At this point in his career Gallo is a bit of a one-trick pony. Typically, hitters that strike out in over 35% of their plate appearances are not viable MLB hitters. But Gallo is so damn good at his one trick – hitting the ball hard in the air – that’s he’s able to overcome his league worst swing and miss tendencies with his prodigious “pure power”.

Despite improved front office and fan baseball education, it will be difficult for Gallo to be taken seriously with a 38% strikeout rate and a batting average that hovers below .200. And, in reality, MLB pitchers will likely begin to adapt and figure new ways to prevent Gallo from hitting so many home runs. So if Gallo wants to graduate from a player that is viewed as a part of a Circus act to a legitimate MLB hitter, and if he wants to maintain his viability in the MLB, he’ll need to diversify his approach and cut down on strikeouts.

If that happens? Gallo can be one of the best hitters in baseball, up there with Aaron Judge and Mike Trout. If it doesn’t? Gallo’s raw power tool is so good that he can likely craft a career for himself as a one-dimensional home run hitter. Either way, he’s one of the most interesting players in baseball and worth watching on any given night.

Evaluating the reasons behind 2017’s numerous sophomore slumps

819979322.0

Glove-eating is the new slump-busting ritual sweeping the MLB. Unfortunately it didn’t work for Swanson, who was recently optioned to AAA.     Photo Credit: Harry How (Getty Images)

The term ‘sophomore slump’ originated in educational circles to highlight the tendency for second-year college students to regress academically from their freshman year. The standard explanation argues that the unfettered excitement and adrenaline brought about by the new experiences of freshman year motivates pupils to feel more engaged in class and study harder. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm turns to a malaise by their second year, dragging down morale, work ethic and eventually academic performance.

Sophomore slump also gets used in sports to describe the difficulties that many players face transitioning from their rookie into their second seasons. While a decreased work ethic might be part of the cause, sports throws in an additional quirk with opponents that continually look to adapt to exploit weaknesses. So not only do second-year players need to maintain their work ethic, they must adapt with their competition.

Every MLB season features a multitude of sophomore players who regress significantly from their rookie seasons. 2017 is no different, headlined by seven players who probably wish they could turn the clock back 12 months (or 24 months in one case): Aledmys Diaz, Andrew Benintendi, Dansby Swanson, Keon Broxton, Kyle Schwarber, Ryan Schmipf and Trevor Story.

How the mighty have fallen

sophomore slumps.PNG

At this point last season most of the aforementioned players were riding high. Diaz was in the midst of a tremendous rookie season with St. Louis, while Benintendi and Swanson were having great minor league seasons and on the precipice of major league call-ups. Trevor Story had the best first week of any player ever, setting the record for most home runs in a team’s first six games of the season. Ryan Schimpf, after spending years toiling in the minors for the Blue Jays and Padres, broke out in a big way with San Diego. Kyle Schwarber, having ruptured his ACL in LCL in the second game of the 2016 season, smacked 16 home runs in 69 games in his 2015 rookie season.

In terms of aggregate numbers, the septet slugged their way to a .266 / .353 / .506 triple slash line in their rookie campaigns. Their .858 OPS led to a Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) of 124, which means that their rookie offensive production was 24% better than league average. Expectations were high for each of the seven heading into the 2017 season.

But boy have they disappointed. Diaz, Swanson, Broxton, Schwarber and Schimpf were all demoted to the minors at one point or another, while Story has started losing at bats to backup Pat Valailka. Benitendi has performed the best of the bunch with a nearly average 97 wRC+, but has still disappointed relative to his 2016 numbers and the expectations heading into this season. All told, the group has managed a putrid .224 / .305 / .398 triple slash in 2017, with a 79 wRC+ (21% below league average).

Is poor plate discipline to blame?

While the aforementioned players are all different ages, have different pedigrees and bring vastly different approaches to the plate, I wanted to see if there were any commonalities in why this group was suffering from a prolonged sophomore slump.

plate discipline.PNG

The first place to look when discussing why relatively young players would start to struggle in their sophomore seasons is plate discipline. The thought is that as pitchers begin to adapt to a hitters’ tendencies, they become more adept at striking them out and avoiding walks.

However, the general plate discipline metrics of the seven hitters more or less stayed the same. The walk rate of the group went down from 10.8% to 9.9%, while the strikeout rate increased from 26.2% to 26.6%. In aggregate, the walk-to-strikeout ratio of the group went down from 0.45 to 0.40, which isn’t much of an overall change.

Swanson, Schwarber, Schimpf and Story maintained nearly identical numbers from season to season. With that said, there were some obvious divergences within the group. Andrew Benitendi dramatically increased his plate discipline year to year, while Aledmys Diaz and Keon Broxton saw dramatic decreases.

Based on four of the seven players in the group maintaining their plate discipline metrics, and Andrew Benintendi dramatically improving his, it’s safe to rule out increased strikeouts and or decreased walks as a primary factor in their regression.

Batted ball distribution

After dealing with what happens when the ball isn’t hit into the play, the next step is to evaluate what happens when contact is made. Although this is an oversimplification of things, consider line drives, flyballs and hard hit balls as good, and groundballs and infield flyballs as bad.

batted ball

Now we’re getting somewhere. Five of the seven players experienced reductions in line drive rate, with average line drive rate decreasing from 19.4% to 18.5%. Average flyball rate went down significantly from 43.2% to 40.6%. And, most alarmingly, six of the seven players felt a drop in hard hit rate, with average hard hit rate going down significantly from 37.9% to 31.4%.

Moreover, the percentage of infield flyballs went up for six of the seven players, with the overall average moving from 9.8% to 11.2%. Infield flyballs are essentially the same as strikeouts in terms of providing zero offensive value, so a sharp increase in their prevalence is bad news for the hitter.

An across the board decrease in line drives, flyballs and overall hard hit balls paints a clear picture of diminished batted ball authority. With softer contact comes a lower batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which is exactly what happened to every player, with average BABIP going down from .323 to a decrepit .274.

BABIP, especially in samples of less than one season, can be very prone to luck-based fluctuations. While an aggregate 37.9% hard hit rate is good, it likely isn’t good enough to sustainability produce a .323 BABIP. Likewise, a .274 BABIP does not necessarily conflate with a 31.4% hard hit rate either, so there is some bad luck going around in the sophomore campaign. But any way you slice, the line drive and hard hit data clearly demonstrates reduced ability to square up the ball.

So what happened?

The next step is to evaluate why the batted ball authority of our seven sophomore slumpers went down so precipitously. Unfortunately this is a complicated question to answer and outside the purview of this post. However, my working yet unsubstantiated theory is that while the hitters’ basic plate discipline stats looked similar (strikeouts and walks), we’ll find that they get behind in more counts and swing at more bad pitches outside of the strike zone, leading to weaker contact. Stay tuned for a future post on the topic.