Projecting the Best Case Scenario of Murderer’s Row 2.0

The 1927 Yankees are widely considered one of the greatest teams of all time. The term Murderers Row was coined by a sportswriter in the pre-Babe Ruth era, but once Ruth and Lou Gehrig came into the fold, the term was much more appropriate. After an expedited rebuild, the Yankees have created a somewhat-cloned lineup 91 years later. They have built, as Brian Cashman would say, the Golden State Warriors of baseball. With the acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton, the Yankees are the first team to lead the Majors in home runs and then acquire that season’s individual homer champ since they purchased Babe Ruth from the Red Sox way back in 1919. But how good can this lineup be? With a world of potential, I decided to look at what optimal production could be for this team. This is NOT a projection. This is the BEST CASE SCENARIO. Most likely, their wOBA’s will be around .02 lower than I have projected (wOBA credits a hitter for the value of each outcome (1B, 2B, HR) rather than treating all times on base equally, like OBP). So let’s take a look at what could be the best Yankees lineup since Ruth and Gehrig.

 

Photo Credits: New York Times

 

Giancarlo Stanton:

Travis Sawchick wrote an excellent piece on FanGraphs this past August about how Stanton’s closed stance has impacted his game. Private swing instructor Bobby Tewksbary noted “Stanton has always been a classic Pull Pattern hitter. This means he’ll create separation between his hips and shoulders, but his hands would come forward with his shoulders. He would close off in his stride, but he wasn’t able to delay the hands.” The article mainly pointed out that since about the end of June, the closed stance saw his production go crazy. From June 29th until the end of the season, Stanton, with a career 28.5 K%, struck out only 23.6% of his AB’s and raised his BB% by a significant 2.1%. Stanton had a 178 wRC+, including a .712 SLG%. He put together one of the greatest stretches in history. With 39 (!) home runs during this 84 game stretch, that projects to 74 over a full season. With some regression bound to hit, I say best case scenario is ¾ of what Stanton delivered after his stance change. AKA, a season for the ages.

.290/.380/.660 62 Home Runs, .440 wOBA

 

Photo Credits: AP Images

 

Aaron Judge:

In a vacuum, Judge had an MVP caliber season, finishing with the highest wOBA in the sport. Oh, and he was a rookie. It was a season of streaks for Judge. From the start of the season until the All-Star Break, he hit .329 with a 197 wRC+. Unsustainable, obviously. From the ASB to September 1st, he hit a putrid .181 with an 86 wRC+. However, he made his final MVP push in the last month+ of the season, slugging .889 while hitting .311 up until the Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs. Now, Judge isn’t either of these extremes, but it’s clear that he is closer to the MVP version. We have to account for a few things when it relates to Judge. First, he is still developing, so his game should naturally improve just based on the aging curve of great young players. Second, Stanton will create massive protection for Judge and in turn get more pitches to hit. Third, Judge was so god awful for a stretch, that if those numbers are even slightly better, he wins MVP.

.280/.410/.650 58 Home Runs .440 wOBA

 

Photo Credits: Sports Illustrated

 

Gary Sanchez:

Despite playing in only 122 games, El Gary hit 33 bombs. Assuming he plays a full season, accounting for days off, he should hit around 40. Again, a better lineup around the star catcher will give him more pitches to hit, so expect fewer walks and more contact. In addition, Gary raised his launch angle 5.4 degrees from his rookie year, and I expect that number to rise even more as he matures. Gary was fairly level-headed for the season, meaning he didn’t have any awful stretches or monstrous ones, so his projection is a bit easier than Judge’s. He is arguably a better hitter than Jorge Posada ever was.

.290/.350/.550 42 Home Runs .380 wOBA

 

Photo Credits: Getty Images

 

Greg Bird:

Bird… is the word. Unlike the other members of Murderers Row 2.0, Bird isn’t as popular a name. But check out this graphic via FanGraphs on Bird’s numbers since coming off the DL with a nagging foot injury.

 

Bird, Since Coming off DL

Bird PA BA OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
2nd Half 98 0.253 0.316 0.575 0.365 128
Postseason 17 0.308 0.471 0.769 0.501 221
Total 115 0.261 0.339 0.604 0.385 142

“In his pre-DL performance, Bird averaged 87.7 mph exit velocity on his batted balls, but since returning, that mark has jumped to 91.1 mph. For reference, only 13 hitters with at least 100 batted balls averaged 91 mph in exit velocity this year.”

Bird has played in 108 games in his career and hit 23 home runs. Over a full season, that projects to 34 home runs. However, these numbers include the 19 games he played injured this past season. Over the stretch, he hit .100/.250/.200 with 1 homer. Taking those games out, his full-season Home Run projection is 39 long balls. The guy has not played 160 Major League games, so he’s still learning the nuances of the majors. Bird doesn’t have to be the stud everyone projected him to be last March. Instead, he can thrive as the forgotten man in this death lineup.

.275/.370/.550 40 Home Runs .390 wOBA

 

This lineup is set to mash. This is not a scenario in which the window of excellence is closing. These guys are all either in their prime or are yet to enter it. Combine this with the consistent Brett Gardner, high ceiling Aaron Hicks, and top prospect Gleyber Torres, the Yankees are ready to mash. The 1927 Yankees could have company.

 

Data courtesy of ESPN, Baseball Reference, Five ThirtyEight, and MLB.com.

Article written by Cameron Levy

Cover Photo Credits: AP Images

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My Hall of Fame Ballot

How do I measure baseball greatness?

What defines a Hall of Famer? In my opinion, the two most important characteristics of baseball immortals are longevity and relative excellency. To measure both of these, I am going to use career WAR (based on the FanGraphs formula) as a reference point. Career WAR takes into account longevity, as it is a cumulative statistic, and it takes into account relative excellency, as it is adjusted based on how well the league itself performed each year.

Chipper Jones (Career WAR–84.6)

Chipper owns the highest career WAR out of any player on the ballot this year who didn’t take steroids. His 84.6 career WAR ranks sixth all-time amongst third basemen. He averaged 4.7 WAR in his eighteen years as a regular. Some might suggest this was the product of playing a lot of games and getting a lot of PAs. Although he was durable–Chipper averaged 138 games and 589 PAs in those eighteen years–he also was excellent; his career wRC+ of 141 ranks tied for ninth all-time amongst the 588 third basemen with at least 1000 PAs. Keep in mind the fact that Chipper did it for longer than most on that list, with 10614 PAs–in fact, he had the most PAs of the top 17, discounting A-Rod, a steroid user. One of the players he is tied with is A-Rod. Furthermore, he is behind Edgar Martinez, who only started 533 games at third base (as opposed to Chipper’s 1970). He has the second highest offensive runs above average, behind only A-Rod, in that group, and there is an argument to be made that using offensive runs above average is the best all-around measure because defensive statistics can be unreliable. Some other stats of note: for his career, Chipper walked more than 1000 times more than he struck out, and had a .401 career on-base percentage. He stole 150 bases at a 76.5% success rate. Chipper Jones is a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Mike Mussina (Career WAR–82.2)

Mussina has the next highest career WAR total on this year’s ballot. His total of 82.2 WAR ranks 16th all-time amongst pitchers (15th if you discount Roger Clemens, who probably used steroids). This is especially telling of Mussina’s excellency because he has the lowest career innings total amongst those 16. This is not due to durability issues, either: Mussina averaged 31 starts (and 4.7 WAR) during his seventeen full seasons. Rather, it is a matter of the era that he pitched in, which saw pitchers accruing fewer starts. The era he pitched in has adversely affected him in other ways, too. I think that the reason Mussina hasn’t received much love on the ballot is because his career ERA of 3.68 (FIP of 3.57) is considered underwhelming. I think the higher ERA is also a product of the era in which Mussina pitched: the steroid era. ERA is not a good measurement in this sense. Instead, league adjusted stats (like WAR), which take into account the higher offensive output of the era, should be used.

Jim Thome (Career WAR–69.0), Edgar Martinez (Career WAR–65.5)

I lumped these two guys together because they were incredible hitters, but poor defenders. As I said previously, though, I weigh offensive metrics for hitters much more heavily than defensive ones. The reason for this is that most, if not all, offensive events in baseball are discrete and can be measured probabilistically. Defensive events, however, are not. A player’s defensive value is determined based on the plays he made and the plays he could have made. “The plays he could have made” has always been a relatively subjective way of measurement. Some people might think it was possible for him to make that play, while others may not. However, statistics like wRC+, used to quantify offense, are purely objective. While I don’t think that defense should be entirely ignored, I think that it should be weighed far less significantly than offense.

All of that being said, we have two of the best pure hitters ever on the ballot this year.

Of the 431 players with at least 7000 PAs (longevity!), Martinez ranks 25th and Thome ranks 30th in terms of wRC+ (relative excellency!).

Thome was one of the greatest home run hitters of all time. His 612 dingers places him 8th on the list. His career OBP was .402. His career ISO of .278 ranks seventh out of those 431. Thome is a first-ballot Hall of Famer by tradition means and by advanced measures.

Martinez is different. He is adored by Sabermetricians for walking more than he struck out in his career, his astounding wRC+ of 147 (higher than even Thome’s 145), and his incredible career OBP of .418. However, he is not loved by traditional statisticians, since he was a DH for a while, has a middling home run total, and limited accolades. Nevertheless, I think he deserves to be in the Hall.

Scott Rolen (Career WAR–70.1)

While Rolen’s eight Gold Gloves signify that he was known primarily as a glove-first third baseman, he also should have been know for his offensive prowess and longevity. Don’t get me wrong, he was an excellent defender, posting positive defensive runs above average in every year except his rookie year in which he played only 37 games. But he also had a career wRC+ of 122 and an ISO of .210. He’s tied for 20th on the all-time home run list for third basemen (Chipper is fifth, by the way). Discounting his rookie audition, Rolen averaged 4.4 WAR over 16 years. Excellence and longevity.

 

That’s it for my ballot. I’ll write a post soon talking about my snubs, don’t worry! If you want to read some more about the unreliability of defensive metrics and attempts to better quantify defense, try this link:

http://www-stat.wharton.upenn.edu/~stjensen/research/safe.html

Data from FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. Picture from MLB.com. Thanks for reading!

Bread and Butter

Whether it’s Britton’s cutter, Kershaw’s curve, or Sale’s slider, every pitcher has their bread and butter pitch. It’s their version of the one play you run in Madden that nobody can stop. No matter how often you run “PA F Slide,” those chains keep moving until you’re in the end zone. We all hate that “one-play” guy. But if it helps me win then, hey, I too would run it every damn time. Using the same methodology for baseball, one would assume a pitcher should throw his best pitch a lot. Right? Who wouldn’t want to score a touchdown (or in this case, a whiff) on every play? Fangraphs developed a stat called “Pitch Values” which tries to quantify how good a pitcher has performed when using a particular pitch. If a pitcher whiffs on Aroldis Chapman’s fastball often (well, not this year), those numbers will be reflected in their wFB number. This stat is “the total runs saved by a pitcher using that pitch.” A problem arises, however, due to some pitchers throwing different amounts of each pitch. Therefore, Fangraphs created another category that standardizes the values on a per 100 pitch basis. Who are the pitchers that aren’t throwing that nasty cheese often enough? Using pitch values, let’s dive in.

 

Fastball—Jeremy Hellickson
wFB/C–.54 (16th among 63 qualified pitchers)
FB%-47.4% (58th among qualified)

Jeremy Hellickson was once a phenom. The former Rookie of the Year was supposed to be the next young pitcher the Rays somehow always seem to discover. David Price, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Matt Moore all have had successful careers with the Rays. None of them won ROY. Hellickson’s career has significantly fallen off, however. He has bounced around the NL since returning to the AL East in a July acquisition by the Orioles. With a 5.26 ERA, nobody was expecting the rookie version of Hellickson to step on the mound. With the Orioles, he has a 6.87 ERA. Hellickson’s fastball has been underutilized. Rather, he has been changeup heavy, tossing it 28.7% of the time (3rd most) but with a -1.78 wCH/C. He can throw the fastball more. Not asking for much, here. My mom can throw a fastball.

 

Slider–Lance Lynn
wSl/C—1.44 (10th among 46 qualified pitchers)
Sl%–12.4%(39th among qualified)

It’s fitting that Lynn plays for one of the most consistent franchises in sports. With an ERA under 4.00 every year of his career, Lance has been a rock for the Cardinals. Lynn started off with a repertoire guided by his curveball in 2012, where he threw it 17.8% of the time. Since then, those breaking balls have been substituted for fastballs with his slider staying around 10%. Previous to his Tommy John surgery, the slider was ineffective. He posted negative wSl/C every year of his career. However, this year his slider has been stronger than the ones of Severino, Darvish, and even Chris Sale. If he can keep this trend up, Lynn could become a more than reliable option behind Carlos Martinez.

 

Curveball–Masahiro Tanaka
wCB/C–1.63 (7th among 52 qualified pitchers)
CB%–6.2% (46th among qualified)

To succeed at Yankee Stadium, you better not hang your curveballs. That short porch in right field will rough you up. Masahiro Tanaka knows this all too well, as he has been somewhat home run happy this year with a 20.3 HR/FB %. Tanaka is an interesting case. His velocity is up on all of his pitches by a significant factor. This demonstrates the idea that velocity and results don’t always have a direct relationship. Despite its velocity jump, his fastball has been awful. His -2.24 wFB/C is the worst in the league by a healthy margin. Tanaka lives on his off-speed stuff. His sinker is what brought him to America, and now it’s time he implements the curveball more often.

 

Changeup—Gerrit Cole
wCH/C–1.30 (12th among 59 qualified pitchers)
CH%–10.8%(31st among qualified)

Gerrit Cole has been the subject of many trade rumors. A young, controllable starter like Cole should warrant the same kind of package the A’s got for Sonny Gray. He is the perfect candidate to throw his off-speed pitches more. Cole’s fastball ranks 2nd in velocity behind Luis Severino. Throwing the changeup more often would set hitters up for failure when they expect a pitch 8 MPH slower. Cole has been good this year, but not special. His HR/9 has more than doubled since last year, despite his peripheral stats staying essentially the same. Cole has also doubled his changeup usage, so he is on the right track. He recognizes the problem and has started to go after it. If he keeps using his secondary pitches to set up the fastball, Cole will rebuild his trade value and could find himself in a new uniform (Pinstripes? Please?!) soon.

It’s a Rocky Road

The Colorado Rockies are forced to play in the shadow of the same storyline that analysts slap on them every Spring Training. It goes something like: “Coors is a hitter’s park. The pitching won’t hold up in that thin air.” It seems a bit tired. The narrative never changes. However, the start of this season brought some promise. Nolan Arenado, DJ LeMahieu and Charlie Blackmon were already established stars. Trevor Story was returning from a thumb injury that ended his 2016 campaign in which he set a record for the most home runs (7) in a team’s first six games. Throw in newly signed Ian Desmond, and there was some buzz in baseball about the Rockies potential for a dominant lineup. The starting rotation, however, had question marks. Coming into opening day, the staff would be rookie heavy. The kids responded, having pitched more than 60% of the Rockies starts and innings. The rookies — Kyle Freeland, 24; Antonio Senzatela, 22; German Marquez, 22; and Jeff Hoffman, 24 carried the load. Tyler Chatwood, the relative old man on the staff, pitched to a solid 4.08 ERA. Greg Holland re-discovered his Royal glory days, capping off the formation of a nice bullpen. After taking 3 of 4 at Wrigley on June 10th, the Rockies found themselves 2.5 games up in the division. Have the Rockies figured out Coors Field? How are they pulling this off? Well, 11 games against the San Francisco Giants could have something to do with it. The Rockies had the luxury of beating up on the Giants, with a 10-1 record. That was until last week, when the decrepit Giants swept the Rockies.

 

The façade of excellence ended the week before, actually. The Mark Reynolds renaissance and the consistency of Blackmon and Arenado kept the team afloat, but after losing their last two series to the D Backs and being swept by the Dodgers, the Rockies undisputable deficiencies have come to light. Their run has stopped, mainly because said run was unsustainable. The Rockies are 11-4 in one run games. Although their bullpen has been effective, this is a sign of some luck. For perspective, the Dodgers are 8-9 in one run games despite being arguably the best team in baseball. Moreover, the Rockies had the 4th best record in baseball before this rough stretch. However, if you look deeper, they had the 7th best run differential, a sign of unsustainability.

 

Speaking of unsustainability, let’s talk a bit about these rookie pitchers.  Kyle Freeland threw a career high 162 innings last year in AA and AAA, he is at 93.2 already. He sure won’t be giving the team 7+ innings of 2 run ball in September. Antonio Senzatela threw a career high 154 innings in 2015 at Class A Advanced (nowhere near the majors) and in 2016 he was riddled with a shoulder injury. The expectation for him to throw 150+ innings of sub 4 ERA ball is absurd. Tyler Chatwood threw a career high 158 innings with the Rockies last year and was solid, posting a 2-win season. This year, however, his HR/FB % is up more than 12 percentage points. Their upstart rotation is showing signs of slowing down, posting a 5.11 ERA over the last 30 days (7th worst in baseball over that time), and a 6.75 ERA the last 14 days (by far the worst).

 

When the casual fan hears the Rockies are winning games, their mind immediately turns to hitting. The Rockies must be mashing, right? Right?! No. In fact, the last 30 days, the team has produced a putrid wRC+ of 77, tied with the Phillies for last in baseball over that time. And over the past two weeks, they have a wRC+ of 46! Trevor Story cannot regain the phenom status, hitting only 11 home runs so far this season while striking out 34.4 % of the time, by far the most among shortstops. Pitchers have clearly adjusted to him and despite his elevation in launch angle, he is slugging behind “defensive” shortstops such as Orlando Arcia, Andrelton Simmons and Tim Beckham. His 71WRC+ is 16th worst in baseball.  Ian Desmond isn’t living up to his $70 million contract, walking only 3.8 % of the time and striking out 25% of the time. He is on a hot streak, but he and Carlos Gonzalez still have a wOBA under .305, putting them next to names such as Buxton, Schwarber and Hamilton. Let’s not get into Gonzalez. To put it simply, CarGo is CarGoing through something bad.

 

 

Let’s look at the Rockies in a historical context. For the year, the Rockies have the worst wRC+ in baseball at 78. Since 2000, only 3 teams have ever made the postseason with a wRC+ 90 or lower. The 2007 Cubs, 2005 Astros, and 2001 Braves. If we go team by team, it’s clear that these teams had elite pitching and/or defense to carry the offense. The Cubs had the 2nd highest UZR in the league, 5th most valuable bullpen by WAR, and produced the weakest contact among all starting staffs in the league. Consequently, they sported the lowest BABIP in the league by 8 percentage points. The Astros had one of the greatest rotations since the turn of the century. Their big three of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, and Roy Oswalt created the 2nd most valuable rotation by WAR. All three hurlers had sub 3 ERA’s, with Clemens at a miniscule 1.87. And subtracting their defense, the staff had the best xFIP- in the league. The Braves also had a great rotation. They had 3 pitchers over 219 innings pitched with names like Maddux and Glavine spearheading the rotation to the 4th best WAR. These teams all made the playoffs with a wRC+ above 88, and quite frankly, the Rox don’t have any Clemens walking through the clubhouse. Given, all these teams played in the one wild card team era. Still, the Rockies are nowhere near these teams.

 

 

The Dodgers, Nationals and Diamondbacks aren’t going anywhere. Once the Cubs figure things out, they will handle the Central. That leaves one wild card spot open. Hopefully the following week can put the Rockies back into legitimacy, as they play the Reds and the White Sox at home. If not, the Rockies will be the official overachievers of 2017 and they will hear the Coors Field narrative all of March 2018.

 

Picture from MLB.com. Thanks for reading!

Chad Kuhl is Throwing Heat

On the surface, Pirates’ starter Chad Kuhl appears to be having a disappointing season. However, there is more to it than just that.

Generally speaking, a slash line (ERA/FIP/xFIP/SIERA) of 5.58/4.28/4.77/4.80 isn’t very encouraging. These are the numbers that Pirates’ starter Chad Kuhl has put up to date this season through 69.1 innings. Last year, he threw 70.2 MLB innings, so we have comparable sample sizes. Yet, he seemingly hasn’t improved upon last years numbers. Yes, the strikeouts are up, from a 17.6% K-rate to a 19% this year. However, the walk rate is also up (6.6% to 9%), the ground balls are down (44.3% to 41.8%), and the home run rate has risen accordingly (0.89 HR/9 to 1.04). What, you may be wondering, do I see in this guy?

Check out his plate discipline stats.

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact%
2016 26.40% 68.80% 45.00% 65.70%
2017 30.50% 65.90% 46.40% 57.40%
Season Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2016 87.50% 80.30% 43.90% 57.10% 8.90%
2017 85.30% 75.20% 45.00% 59.40% 11.40%

Improvements across the board. His chase rate has gone up while his in-zone swing rate has gone down. Hitters are making far less contact on pitches out of the zone, and even a bit less on pitches within the zone. This explains the increase in strikeouts. The walks shouldn’t be increasing, unless hitters are really going much deeper into counts, since they are making less contact. Nonetheless, this should change if Kuhl keeps things the same, because he’s throwing in the zone more often and getting more swings outside of the zone. Of the 118 pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings this year, Kuhl’s chase rate ranks 43rd, his in-zone swing rate is tied for 48th lowest, his z-swing minus o-swing ranks 37th, and most impressive, his swinging strike rate is tied for 26th. In fact, his swinging strike rate is the same as Yu Darvish–he even has a higher chase rate than him (30.5% and 29.3%), and Darvish has a superb 26.9% strikeout rate. The underlying statistics are optimistic, so if Kuhl keeps pitching this way, the strikeouts will increase and the walks will decrease. The bigger question is, what is the driving force behind these improvements?

According to PITCHf/x data on FanGraphs, Kuhl’s average 4-seam fastball velocity has jumped from 93 last year to 95.5 this year, touching 99. Contrary to what his name might suggest, Chad Kuhl is throwing heat. In fact, all of his pitches have seen an increase in velocity (and he’s added a curveball, but he’s only thrown 38 of them and they have been largely ineffective):

Season Pitch minVel maxVel Vel
2016 SI 83.3 96.5 92.7
2016 SL 81.6 89.5 86.6
2016 FA 87.4 96.1 93
2016 CH 81.6 88.3 85.1
2017 SI 88.6 99.5 94.1
2017 FA 90.2 99.4 95.5
2017 SL 77.2 91.8 88.5
2017 CH 81.7 90.7 88
2017 CU 79.7 86.4 82.7

The velocity increase has given Kuhl more confidence in his four-seamer, and his usage of the pitch has risen to 29% this year, up from a mere 10% last year. This explains part of why the ground ball rate is dropping–the uptick in four-seamer usage has caused a drop in sinker usage (down from 57% last year to 37% this year).

In addition, while his sinker has seen an increase in arm-side run (1.6 inches more), the ground ball rate is also dropping because the sinker has seen a decrease in drop (1.1 inches less). While the drop on his sinker has decreased, the rise on his four-seamer has increased. It is now above average, ranking 52nd out of the 118 pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings as of morning June 27th. This is in part due to a slight change in vertical release point:Brooksbaseball-Chart-16.png

This year, Kuhl is throwing more over the top with all of his pitches. This graph shows that, for his sinker, he is on average releasing the ball about two inches higher. Now, Pitch Info (which powers this graph) says that Kuhl doesn’t throw a four-seamer at all, only sinkers, as opposed to PITCHf/x. Either way, at this point, Kuhl’s “sinkers” don’t sink very much. Using Pitch Info’s data, Kuhl’s sinker has the eighth worst drop amongst the 87 starters who have thrown at least 200 sinkers this year. In that same group, the ground ball rate on Kuhl’s sinker is also eighth worst. Coincidence? I think not. His overall ground ball rate of 41.8% this year is below average, ranking 78th-lowest of the 118 pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings this year.

All of his pitches are generating more whiffs, looking at both Pitch Info and PITCHf/x. This is probably due to the improved velocity. Using Pitch Info’s data, his slider ranks 15th in whiffs per swing out of the 87 starters who have thrown 100 sliders this year (not to mention, it ranks 10th in average velocity), and his sinker ranks 17th out of the 87 starters who have thrown 200 sinkers this year. However, his changeup still gets whiffs at a below average rate: it ranks 71st out of the 92 starters who have thrown 100 changeups this year. Although the changeup has gotten more run this year, it too has lost vertical drop and the velocity gap between it and the fastball has closed a bit. Generally, changeups are used to sit down batters of the opposite handedness, because they have arm-side run. Kuhl, a righty, has struggled against lefties this year, as they have a .445 wOBA against him, while righties have a mere .286 wOBA. At the same time though, he has gotten more strikeouts against lefties (30) than righties (29), despite having faced fewer lefties (147) than righties (163). Also, I’m not too worried that Kuhl will have struggles against lefties in the long run because his sinker has great arm-side run.

The fact that Kuhl has a diminished ability to get ground balls doesn’t bode well for his old skill set, where he relied on his control and inducing weak contact, but with an increased penchant for strikeouts, backed by improving velocity, it shouldn’t matter that much. I would still take a flyer on him; the strikeouts, walks, and platoon splits should improve, along with his ERA.

Data from FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus. Picture from MLB.com. Thanks for reading!

Some Preseason Thoughts: American League

An in-depth look at the favorites to win each division and each wildcard.

So here we are, in the midst of opening week. I’m going to outline the favorites for this season, based on who was truly good last year and who made the best win-now moves this past offseason.

AL East

Favorite: Boston Red Sox

Mookie Betts accumulated 7.8 WAR and Xander Bogaerts had a career-best walk rate and ISO in their age-23 seasons. Andrew Benintendi is healthy and geared up for his first full season in the majors. Dustin Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez enjoyed bounce-back campaigns, the former garnering 5.2 WAR and playing 160 games, the latter with a 127 wRC+. Jackie Bradley Jr. proved his 2015 success was no fluke. The acquisition of Chris Sale offsets the injuries to David Price and Drew Pomeranz. They have plenty of rotation depth: Rick Porcello is a solid presence (although, some regression is to be expected) and both Eduardo Rodriquez and Steven Wright offer some sneaky upside.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that last year, although they won 93 games, Baseball Prospectus said that they should have won 103 games (more than anyone else in the AL) based on runs scored and runs allowed, amongst other underlying statistics, and adjusted for strength of schedule. FanGraphs projects them to tie with the Astros for most wins in 2017.

AL Central

Favorite: Cleveland Indians

Carrying over from last year is a solid young core of Francisco Lindor, Tyler Naquin, and Jose Ramirez, backed by consistent veterans Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis. The signing of Edwin Encarnacion and the return Michael Brantley further boosts this offense. As for the pitching, the big three of Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, and Danny Salazar are returning, fully healthy. They are backed by a couple of solid arms in Trevor Bauer (whose excellent stuff still offers upside in his age-26 season) and Josh Tomlin. Furthermore, there are two solid prospects with major league experience: Mike Clevinger struck out more than a batter per inning in Triple-A last year, and Ryan Merritt was a postseason hero. Not to mention, a very strong bullpen composed of Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and the newly signed Boone Logan.

Andrew Miller’s ranks amongst the 133 qualified relievers last year:

K% BB% SIERA ERA FIP xFIP
1st 2nd 1st 2nd 3rd 1st
WAR O-Swing% Z-Swing%
2nd 2nd 1st (Lowest)

AL West

Favorite: Houston Astros

Despite a disappointing season last year, the Astros have an improving young core. Carlos Correa just put up 4.9 WAR in his first full season, which he seemed to be playing injured throughout. And he’s only 22! They’re getting a full season of Alex Bregman, who put up a 112 wRC+ in his first big league action. Jose Altuve, still only 26, had a career year, posting bests in walk rate, ISO, WAR, wRC+, OBP, Slugging, and more. George Springer, still only 27, played a full season for the first time, putting up a 124 wRC+ for the third straight season and garnering 4.5 WAR. The Astros don’t only have youngsters, though; they also improved their catching with the acquisition of veteran Brian McCann, and now have a respectable tandem of McCann and Evan Gattis. They’re set for their first full season of Yulieski Gurriel, the 32-year-old Cuban. They also signed three more solid veterans this offseason: Nori Aoki (career .353 OBP), Carlos Beltran (124 wRC+ last year), and Josh Reddick (career wRC+ of  105 and positive defensive marks).

On the pitching side of things, after struggling with shoulder issues for the last couple of years, Lance McCullers (30.1% K-rate last year) is healthy to begin the year. While Dallas Keuchel disappointed last year, his underlying metrics (3.87 FIP, 3.53 xFIP, 3.77 SIERA) suggest that he suffered from some bad luck. Joe Musgrove provided 62 solid innings in his MLB debut last year, and still has room to grow at age 24. Charlie Morton, the oft-injured veteran, showed much improved velocity last year in a small-sample and topped out at 97 this spring (he sat 91-92 in previous years) with his sinker, so he offers some sneaky upside. Collin McHugh is starting the season on the DL, but he has garnered at least 3 WAR in each of the last three seasons. The ‘Stros have some depth beyond those five: Mike Fiers can be an innings eater with the potential to showcase the swing-and-miss stuff that he showed before last year, Brad Peacock struck out a batter per inning in 117 Triple-A innings last year, and Chris Devenski, bullpen ace, started five games last year, putting up a 2.16 ERA in 108.1 innings (mostly in relief).

The bullpen is loaded. Luke Gregerson led the MLB in swinging strike rate last year, Ken Giles has a career 34% K-rate and an only 8.2% walk-rate, Will Harris and Tony Sipp are two lefties who have struck out more than a batter per inning in their careers, James Hoyt had a 2.96 SIERA last year and Michael Feliz had a 2.45. Not to mention, Chris Devenski.

Beyond the obvious depth on the MLB team, the Astros have a solid farm system. They have 9 top-100 prospects, according to KATOH, the stat-based prospect ranking system on FanGraphs. Among them are familiar names such as outfielder Kyle Tucker (119 wRC+ in A-ball last year, 188 in 69 PAs in High-A), David Paulino (1.83 ERA in 64 Double-A innings last year), Francis Martes (3.33 ERA, 2.73 FIP in 125.1 Double-A innings last year), and A.J. Reed (142 wRC+ in 296 Triple-A PAs last year).

Wildcard

Favorite: Toronto Blue Jays

While they lost Edwin Encarnacion, much firepower remains. Josh Donaldson is still Josh Donaldson. Kevin Pillar is one of the best defenders in baseball, accumulating the most defensive runs saved above average out of every outfielder the last two years. I’m expecting a bounce-back from Jose Bautista, who played through injury last season. Devon Travis, who has 4.8 WAR in only 163 career games, is fully healthy to start the season. Russell Martin provides a steady presence behind the plate. Even though his offense has declined over the last two years, Troy Tulowitzki still provides upside at shortstop and defends well. The signings of Steve Pearce (136 wRC+ last year) and Kendrys Morales (whose homerun power should play up  at Rogers Centre) should help offset the loss of Encarnacion.

Their stellar rotation from last year remains intact. Although J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, and Aaron Sanchez are due for some regression, Marcus Stroman was unlucky last year (his ERA-FIP was the 10th highest amongst qualified pitchers last season). It’s also worth noting that Estrada, with a superb rising fastball, is known to defy his peripherals by inducing popups at a high rate. Sanchez is still young (24), so he can improve his skills before regression catches him. Either way, he led the AL in ERA in his second year in the majors and features an excellent sinker. Francisco Liriano provides some sneaky strikeout upside at the back-end of the rotation.

The bullpen is solid too, headed by Roberto Osuna, Joe Biagini (who I profiled last year), and Jason Grilli (who rebounded nicely last year).

Second Wildcard

Favorite: Seattle Mariners

 The Mariners have some upside (Mike Zunino, Mitch Haniger, and Dan Vogelbach are all former top prospects still under 27 years old), but their aging stars (Nelson Cruz is 36, Hisashi Iwakuma is 35, and Robinson Cano is 34) will have to remain effective in order for them to catch the Blue Jays. The ineffectiveness of Felix Hernandez and the injury to Drew Smyly mean the M’s will have to lean heavily on the injury-prone but high-upside James Paxton for innings.

Pennant

Favorite: Houston Astros

With unmatched depth and a stat-savvy UPenn and Northwestern educated GM in Jeff Lunhow, I pick the ‘Stros over the Red Sox (whose depth is rapidly disappearing under old-school president of baseball operations Dave Dumbrowski) and the defending pennant winners (Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are too injury-prone for my liking, and their depth pales in comparison to the Astros).

About those Yankees:

The young trio of Greg Bird, Gary Sanchez, and Aaron Judge will have to really wow in order to make them a contender :(.

Data from Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs. Picture from wordpress.com.

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Starlin has Really not Been Sterling

A common misconception amongst casual baseball fans is that Starlin Castro is a solid player. I’m here to debunk that myth.

Twenty-one homers, a career-high by seven. A .270 batting average. Only 118 strikeouts in 610 PAs. So, Starlin Castro is back on the map, right?

Not so fast. Castro did not just experience a sweet power-surge, as some may think. He greatly benefitted from an inflated HR/FB rate. Last year, his 15% rate was way higher than his previous career high (10.1%). Some may dismiss this stat and say that the move to Yankee Stadium helped him out, but in fact, the park factors on FanGraphs list Wrigley (106) as an easier venue for righties to hit homers than Yankee Stadium (105). As was often discussed amongst the Sabermetric community, last year the number of homers skyrocketed all around the MLB (possibly due to the balls being “juiced”), so take that with Castro’s inflated HR/FB rate and the most PAs he saw in a year since 2013, and we have a career-high in homers, even though Castro posted a fly ball rate lower than his career average and a popup rate higher than his career average. All of these homers helped lead to a career-high ISO, at .163. Because I don’t think the home run increase is sustainable, I don’t think the ISO increase is, either. He only hit 29 doubles, tying him for 51st out of the 88 players with at least 600 PAs last year. He also only hit one triple. Further undermining his ISO explosion, the league average ISO also ran up to its highest in ten years, fifth highest all-time, at .162. This was only the second time in Castro’s career that he had bested the league average ISO in a season (and he barely did so in 2016).

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Accompanying this power surge was an erosion of plate discipline. Castro posted the second-worst walk rate of his career, at 3.9%. This was the third-lowest walk rate amongst the 88 hitters with at least 600 PAs last year. To make matters worse, his strikeout rate (19.3%) was the worst of his career. His swinging strike rate ballooned to 11.3%, way higher than his previous career-high (9%), and firmly below average. His chase rate was its worst since 2012, ranking 11th highest in the group of 88. If there is one good thing here, he also swung at pitches in the zone at the highest rate in his career. However, this could just be a function of Castro seeing a career-high number of strikes and him choosing to have a more aggressive approach (career-high overall swing rate as well, ranking 12th in the group of 88). Yet, he still made contact on pitches in the zone at the lowest rate in his career. Either way, Castro’s .300 OBP last year undermined his improvements in the power department, and he ended up with a below-average 94 wRC+. That OBP was the seventh-lowest amongst the 88 hitters with at least 600 PAs.

Noted for his speed as a prospect, Castro never actually posted a positive BsR (base-running runs above average) value in a season. His base stealing days appear to be over, as he only attempted to steal four times last year. Although he wasn’t caught once, he still posted a -1.6 BsR.

Did he at least hit the ball hard? Well, his Hard% was the second highest of his career, but it was still just below league average. His Soft% was a couple percentage points below league average, at least. His line drive rate was the second highest of his career (right around league average). But did his exit velocity improve? Of the 61 hitters with at least 400 batted ball events last year, Castro had the 43rd highest average exit velocity, at 89 MPH. The prior year, he ranked 44/55 amongst the hitters with at least 400 batted ball events, with an 86.5 average exit velocity. While Castro experienced quite a jump there, the average of the first group was 89.9 and the average of the second group was 88.9 MPH, so the entire league experienced a jump, and Castro ended up below average both years.

Starlin Castro is definitely a below average hitter. There are certainly some good things about him, but when he has a down year on defense, like last season, his offense isn’t enough to bank on–he only accumulated 1.1 fWAR in 151 games. This was the 11th worst amongst the 88 hitters with at least 600 PAs, and the worst amongst the second basemen in that group. Despite an uptick in homers, I don’t see enough of a skills improvement for Castro to maintain a 20-per season pace. I would expect something more along the lines of 15-per season, with his increased aggressiveness giving him more shots to lift the ball out of the park. This aggressiveness, however, can be his downfall: he doesn’t walk often and he doesn’t hit the ball hard, so some bad luck on balls in play could lead to a horrific OBP.

Data from FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Graph made courtesy of https://nces.ed.gov/. Picture: USA TODAY NETWORK/USA TODAY NETWORK/SIPA USA–via nydailynews.com

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