• Astros’ Advantage Against Breaking Balls Could Be Key

    Posted sometime

    Strong pitching — aided, perhaps, by a less lively baseball — has been the predominant story of this postseason, and given the pair of rotations lined up for the the World Series, it may well continue to be. The Nationals’ Max Scherzer and the Astros’ Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke own five Cy Young awards between them, and all are likely bound for the Hall of Fame someday. If Verlander doesn’t win this year’s AL Cy Young award, teammate Gerrit Cole quite likely will, and both Scherzer and his teammate Stephen Strasburg are contenders for the NL award (though they may take a back seat to Jacob deGrom). Oh, and if that’s not enough talent, the Nationals’ Patrick Corbin, who signed last winter’s largest free agent contract, and Aníbal Sánchez, who took a no-hitter into the eighth inning of the NLCS opener against the Cardinals, are here as well. As Craig Edwards wrote, this is one of the greatest pairings of rotations for the Fall Classic since at least 1947.

    With that out of the way, a few additional thoughts about pitching, starting and otherwise, as Game 1 approaches.

    Breaking Stuff Could Be the Key

    As with the ALCS against the Yankees, the Astros appear to have an edge on the Nationals when it comes to matching up against certain pitch types. In terms of pitchers’ wOBAs allowed, the two teams are actually very close except for one pitch type:

    Pitcher wOBA Allowed by Pitch Type
    Pitch FF FF 95+ FT/SI CU SL CH
    Astros .346 .298 .343 .257 .221 .252
    Nationals .349 .295 .374 .267 .237 .241
    MLB Avg .359 .324 .361 .281 .278 .290
    SOURCE: Baseball Savant

    This will be a series of hellacious sliders, given that the Astros and Nationals ranked first and second in terms of lowest wOBAs allowed on the pitch; good luck hitting those of Verlander (.164, the majors’ lowest mark), Scherzer (.169, second-lowest), Corbin (.202, sixth-lowest), or Cole (.224, 13th-lowest). Likewise, the Nationals had the majors’ second-lowest mark and the Astros the fourth-lowest on changeups, with Strasburg (an MLB-low .190), Greinke (.224, fifth-lowest), Sánchez (.271, 23rd-lowest), and Scherzer (.286, 28th-lowest) the ones to watch out for. Greinke was the majors’ best when it came to curves (.179), with Strasburg (.202, fifth) and Verlander (.222, sixth) near the head of the class.

    The biggest difference here is on two-seamers and sinkers, which Baseball Savant tracks separately; I’ve grouped them, as Pitch Info does. Corbin (.338) and Strasburg (.342) were still better than average with the offering; the former throws his nearly 35% of the time, the latter about half that, and Sánchez (.387) just under 10%. Greinke, the only Astros starter who ever throws the pitch with any real frequency, did so just 6.5% of the time (including his work with the Diamondbacks), and it got tattooed (.458 wOBA), though it’s a key offering from relievers Joe Smith (32.3%) and Brad Peacock (30.7%).

    Turning to the hitters:

    Hitter wOBA Against by Pitch Type
    Hit FF FF 95+ FT/SI CU SL CH
    Astros .389 .326 .382 .325 .343 .307
    Nationals .358 .332 .419 .274 .273 .312
    MLB Avg .359 .324 .361 .281 .278 .290
    SOURCE: Baseball Savant

    The Nationals punished the aforementioned sinkers at the majors’ most proficient clip, so if Greinke keeps that pitch in his pocket, that advantage will be neutralized. Astros hitters were the majors’ second-best against four-seam fastballs, while the Nationals ranked just 17th in that category, though on the ones that registered 95 mph or higher — most notably the province of Scherzer (.187 against on such pitches), Strasburg (.220), Verlander (.253), Cole (.257), and relievers Sean Doolittle (.190), Roberto Osuna (.302), Hector Rondon (.329), Daniel Hudson (.333), Ryan Pressly (.334), and Josh James (.334) — Washington was slightly better. It appears they’re likely to face more of them, particularly in the late innings. That said, Astros hitters George Springer (.558), Alex Bregman (.478), and Jose Altuve (.411) were all better at the high-velo stuff than any Nationals regular, with Juan Soto (.392), Howie Kendrick (.373), and Anthony Rendon (.370) leading the team.

    The big difference, and I think one of the major keys to the series, is that the Nationals just don’t match up very well when it comes to the breaking stuff, ranking 17th against sliders (the Astros were first) and 19th against curves (the Astros were third). As noted, the Astros can offer some of the majors’ elites in that area, and very few Nationals hit well against such pitches:

    Nationals Hitters Against Breaking Pitches
    Player wOBA vs SL wOBA vs CU
    Anthony Rendon .358 .331
    Howie Kendrick .344 .415
    Ryan Zimmerman .330 .067
    Kurt Suzuki .299 .234
    Brian Dozier .280 .070
    Michael A. Taylor .273 .263
    Victor Robles .265 .456
    Juan Soto .262 .420
    Trea Turner .261 .338
    Adam Eaton .250 .319
    Yan Gomes .232 .238
    SOURCE: Baseball Savant

    Some of the Nationals did at least do well against curves, but some are particularly vulnerable. By comparison, most of the Astros are at least competent on sliders, and some of them feast. Likewise on curves:

    Astros Hitters Against Breaking Pitches
    Player wOBA vs SL wOBA vs CU
    Yordan Alvarez .458 .256
    George Springer .457 .383
    Martin Maldonado .399 .000
    Jake Marisnick .368 .312
    Alex Bregman .366 .471
    Josh Reddick .366 .373
    Michael Brantley .361 .301
    Yuli Gurriel .329 .380
    Jose Altuve .323 .248
    Robinson Chirinos .285 .410
    Carlos Correa .280 .307
    SOURCE: Baseball Savant

    This is definitely something to watch as the series progresses.

    Starting Pitching Is Back in Style

    By multiple measures, this has been the best postseason for starting pitching in several years, reversing a few recent trends. Let’s start with ERA and FIP:

    By ERA, the starters’ 3.20 mark is the lowest since 2012, the year that a Tigers rotation featuring Verlander, Scherzer, and Sanchez reached the World Series; postseason starters as a group posted a 3.04 ERA that year, the lowest mark since 2001. That aforementioned trio and Doug Fister combined for a 1.30 ERA in the Division Series against the A’s and then an 0.66 mark (two runs in 27.1 innings) against the Yankees in the ALCS. In the World Series, they ran into a very good Madison Bumgarner-led rotation Giants rotation, which delivered a 1.42 ERA across a four-game sweep.

    By FIP (using postseason-specific constants that are generally around 3.00, a bit lower than the regular-season ones), this year’s starters’ 3.43 mark is the lowest since 2013, which also featured the aforementioned Tigers (Verlander allowed one run in 23 innings while striking out 31 and walking just three, for a 1.32 FIP to go alongside his 0.39 ERA) as well as Greinke (1.86 FIP) with the Dodgers.

    Those dueling bullpens in ALCS Game 6, which gave us the Yankees’ Chad Green (one inning) and the Astros’ Peacock (1.2 innings) as the first pitchers out of the gate, pushed the average start length from 5.11 innings — right where it was in 2016, the last time it was above 5.0 — to 4.97 in one night. That’s still up from the 4.7ish averages of the past two Octobers, and given the aforementioned frontliners, we should see that number get above 5.0 again.

    Meanwhile, the share of innings thrown by starters thus far is 56.0%, down from 59.0% through Division Series Game 3 and about two points below the regular season average of 59.9%, the first time it had ever dipped below 60%. As with the aforementioned innings per start stat, it’s still as high as it’s been since 2016 (56.8%), and it’s not hard to imagine it getting an additional boost over the next four-to-seven games.

    As for the two participating teams and their small-sample performances, the Nationals’ rotation owns the postseason’s lowest team ERA and FIP (2.04 and 2.57, respectively) as well as the highest average innings per start (6.17); the first two figures don’t include those pitchers’ work in relief, which has generally been stellar save for Corbin’s six-run debacle in NLDS Game 3. The Astros’ rotation has delivered a 3.33 ERA and 3.79 FIP while averaging 5.7 innings per start; home runs (11 in 62.2 innings, 1.6 per nine) have been a problem, particularly for Verlander and Greinke, who have allowed five apiece. Cole (0.40 ERA, 1.78 FIP), Sanchez (0.71 ERA, 2.50 FIP), and Strasburg (1.89 EA, 1.45 FIP) have put up the most stellar stats; Scherzer (1.89 ERA, 3.76 FIP) and Verlander (3.70 ERA, 4.25 FIP) have certainly had their moments but have hit the occasional bump, and Greinke (6.43 ERA, 6.40 FIP while averaging just 4.67 innings per start) has been shaky.

    Oh, and if you’re wondering about the count of seven-inning starts, which was just nine last year — the lowest total since 2007 — it’s already at 14, the highest since 2015 (16). The Astros (three from Cole, one from Verlander) and Nationals (two from Scherzer, one apiece from Strasburg and Sanchez) have each tallied four, with three of Washington’s coming in the NLCS. The Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright is the only pitcher besides Scherzer and Cole to throw multiple starts of seven innings thus far; each came opposite another seven-inning start (the Braves’ Mike Soroka in NLDS Game 3 and Scherzer in NLCS Game 2). Teams are 10-4 in those games, with Wainwright’s pair accounting for two of those losses.

    The Bullpens, They Have Been (Mostly) Bad

    While rotations have largely delivered the goods in the postseason, bullpens have been shakier. Their collective 4.08 ERA is higher than in any postseason since 2011; that’s just the second time it’s been above 4.0 since 2004. Their 3.77 FIP has been exceeded three times since then, however.

    That FIP reflects a delicate balance between two trends that have dominated recent regular seasons, namely high home run and strikeout rates. Their current 1.27 homers per nine is the third-highest of the millennium, trailing the 2017 (1.32) and 2004 (1.29) postseasons; recall that this year’s regular season home run record broke that of 2017. Meanwhile, this year’s reliever strikeout rate (26.4%) trails only last year’s (27.2%).

    The bullpens of both the Astros (4.08 ERA, 4.14 FIP) and Nationals (4.76 ERA, 3.86 FIP) have had their ups and downs, though to be fair, the latter’s marks are distorted by the aforementioned NLDS Game 3, when they yielded nine of their 15 runs in just four innings; in their other eight games, they’ve delivered a 2.22 ERA and 3.34 FIP. The Astros’ bullpen has allowed four runs in a game twice (ALDS 3 and ALCS 1), but Wade Miley, who yielded three of the four in the former game, isn’t on the World Series roster.

    An undeniable bounty of good pitching awaits, starting with Cole and Scherzer for Game 1 and then Verlander and Strasburg for Game 2.

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  • The World Series’ focus will be on controversy instead of baseball

    Posted 4 hours ago

    Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    The start of the Fall Classic begins amid controversy as an Astros AGM is under fire.

    Just like the story of the ball overshadowed the story of player performance throughout the postseason, a worse and darker story has overtaken the ball as the main narrative heading into the World Series.

    When the Astros were clinching their pennant against the Yankees, it was reported by Sports Illustrated, and corroborated by two other Houston Chronicle reporters present, that assistant general manager Brandon Taubman turned to three female reporters, one wearing a bracelet about domestic violence awareness, and yelled, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so f—— glad we got Osuna!” referring to the formerly suspended closer Roberto Osuna.

    The Astros could have apologized, or even made no comment, but instead went as far to refute the statement and cry Fake News:

    https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

    This isn’t the Astros’ first brush with controversy, as we all know. In acquiring Osuna they made it clear that the PR hit was something they didn’t much care about, even going as far to say that it could be a “positive” in bringing awareness to domestic violence. When the team made the World Series back in 2017, Yuli Gurriel was suspended (in the next season, remember) for engaging in a racist taunt of Yu Darvish.

    That’s the difficulty in writing, covering, and watching sports: life rarely escapes. We would prefer to talk about the real story here, which is that during a time when teams have focused on bullpens, that this World Series could feature two of the best rotations we have ever seen in a World Series in our lifetime—Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin—up to five of those could be Hall of Famers—will square off in a battle not of whose Opener will be better, but whose starter will actually go the distance.

    Instead, we’re talking about an incredibly disturbing topic, in which a high-ranking Astros employee not only decided to dismiss domestic violence—that would have been the case if the Yankees made the series, for example—but took that trauma and rubbed it into peoples’ noses, and then argued that it was never actually said.

    The late-2010s will be considered a lot of things, and forward likely won’t be one of them. This half-decade has been completely defined by those who not only defy peoples’ basic expectations of decency and fairness, but take pure enjoyment in the suffering of others. This—let’s call it “boarding school mindset”—is still an ever-present feature of elite institutions. Entertainment, media, and political life has become not about people running away from their flaws, but instead wearing flaw like a virtue, and an alleged curse of victim-hood.

    It’s not all lost, of course. On the other side of the field is someone like Sean Doolittle, who has made compassion and solidarity a feature of his stardom—ranging from defending Derby, NY union workers in MLB’s attempt to outsource cap manufacturing, to speaking out on behalf of the LGBTQ community in Oakland, to defending Daniel Hudson for the criticism made when he missed a postseason game for his child’s birth. In sports, like in all social life, there is still a shared, common humanity to be found.

    It’s hard to live this way as a fan of sport, but the only way not to live this way is to wear a mask, to deny what is actually in front of you and play pretend, which is acceptable when you’re a child and don’t know better, but more difficult when, as an adult, it’s just the bare minimum to think critically for more than two seconds about the product you’re consuming.

    Does that mean this can’t be entertaining in a vacuum? Of course not. Beyond the rotation you have an Astros club that has struggled offensively and has a pretty tired bullpen with the long series, and the Nationals are completely well-rested. Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon have been revelations, putting up the biggest plays by cWPA this postseason. There are narratives I’d prefer to be focusing on. Yet compartmentalization is an unfortunate feature of baseball in 2019, and no matter who wins or loses, we will still have plenty of time to dissect and discuss these issues come one week from now.

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  • Sabermetrics news: Max Scherzer is searching for his first title

    Posted 6 hours ago

    Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

    The best World Series rotations; Gerrit Cole’s curve; Max Scherzer’s chase for a ring

    FanGraphs | Craig Edwards: In an age of bullpens, this is actually one of the best rotation matchups in the World Series of all-time. It’s nearly as good as the Yankees/Marlins face-off in 2003 which featured Mike Mussina, Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis, and Roger Clemens, and it’s the best single rotation (the Astros are that single one) in the World Series since at least 1947. I predict, then, that there will ironically be a blow-out or two.

    Baseball Prospectus | Matthew Trueblood ($): Most of the attention given to Gerrit Cole has been towards his fastball and slider, but his curve has been his best pitch in the second half, in fact. About a quarter of them dropped in for called strikes, and in totality, have formed to make his highest strike percentage of any pitch.

    The Ringer | Claire McNear: At 35 years-old, Max Scherzer is getting another chance at a title, after a few false starts with the Nationals and some close chances with the Tigers. Though his endurance has been otherworldly at times, it has been tested in 2019, and he likely won’t look the same if or when he’s in the Fall Classic again. For baseball’s sake, it would be cool to see one of the better pitchers of this decade to get a ring.

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  • Jo Adell, 2020 Fantasy Outlook

    Posted 9 hours ago

    Something I didn’t mention the other day in my Luis Robert fantasy when I was going on about how Luis Robert was my number one fantasy baseball prospect for 2020 is how close Jo Adell was to him. I don’t remember two prospects being as close any other year. Sure, last year Vlad Jr. and Eloy were 1A and 1B, but I felt like 1A was way over 1B even though 1B ended up above 1A at the end of the year. I’m talking perspective more than reality, and hindsight is 20/20, but that doesn’t apply simply because we’re talking about 2020. I’ve just confused myself, tee bee aitch. Maybe Adell can squeeze out Lou Bob this year like Eloy squeezed out Vlad Jr. last year, but my money’s on Robert, though my money is currently tied up in Beanie Babies. Anyway, what can we expect from Jo Adell for 2020 fantasy baseball?

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  • Gavin Lux, 2020 Fantasy Outlook

    Posted 13 hours ago

    In the hot, steamy sweat of August, while the summer was bumping its uglies against us without our permission, Gavin Lux looked like the best player since Sliced Bread. You might remember, Sliced Bread was a Triple-A standout, hitting .350 with 34 homers in 78 games, but never caught on in the majors, and is now a third base coach for the Winnipeg Sweater Puppies. Sliced Bread is a cautionary stale, er, tale, and Lux doesn’t need to go that route. Looking at Lux in the cold dankness of the offseason, he doesn’t look as hump-worthy and more like a pump and dump scheme. What were we thinking then and can we start thinking it again? I.e., make me delusional again about Gavin Lux I want to put my heels under my head and go whee. Anyway, what can we expect from Gavin Lux in 2020 fantasy baseball?

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  • A Conversation with Red Sox Analytics Department Overseer Zack Scott

    Posted 15 hours ago

    Zack Scott is currently one of four people running Boston’s baseball operations department. Along with Raquel Ferreira, Brian O’Halloran, and Eddie Romero Jr, the 16-year member of the team’s front office is keeping a chair warm while the search for Dave Dombrowski’s replacement continues. His core responsibilities remain largely the same. Scott’s title is Senior Vice President/Assistant General Manager, and per the Red Sox media guide, he “oversees the club’s Baseball Analytics and Baseball Systems departments.”

    What is the current state of Boston’s analytics department, and how much has it changed since the University of Vermont graduate (B.S. in Mathematics) joined the organization in 2004? I addressed those questions with Scott following the completion of the Red Sox season.

    ———

    David Laurila: How much has the Red Sox analytics department grown over the years?

    Zack Scott: “There’s been a lot of growth, not just with us, but in the industry. As you know, there’s been an explosion of data. Throwing out round-number estimates, when I started there were around 10,000 data points, and now it’s more like 10 billion data points. And a lot of that has been the last five years. So the need to grow is apparent; there’s only so much you can do with a short staff.”

    Laurila: How many people are currently in the department?

    Scott: “We added five new employees last offseason. Overall, our R&D team is 15 people. It’s around half analysts, half software developers/technology-implementation.”

    Laurila: There’s a perception that the Red Sox went from one of the top analytics teams in baseball to one that is below the top tier. Is that accurate?

    Scott: “I’d say that early on the Red Sox were considered ahead of the curve. We had people like Bill James and Tom Tippett. I was doing some analytical work, and we had consultants. We did stay kind of stagnant for awhile, while a lot of the industry grew and got ahead of us. But I feel like in the last few years — three to five years — we’ve caught up, and that we’re in a really good spot. I think we have outstanding, brilliant minds on our analytics staff. I look back and laugh at the type of analytical work I was doing in 2004. It’s just so much more advanced now.”

    Laurila: Was the period of stagnation a matter of complacency?

    Scott: “I think it’s more that there are a lot of decisions that have to be made on staffs, and you can’t always do everything at once. For instance, we increased our scouting staff in a big way. And for awhile, because of the kind of data that was out there, we didn’t really need to [grow the department]. Then, when we were late, when we should have been more aggressively growing… I wouldn’t say it was complacency. Again, it was more of where you’re picking and choosing to invest your resources. So we did want to invest in this area, it just took a little more time than we’d hoped.”

    Laurila: What changed when Dave Dombrowski came on board [as President of Baseball Operations, in August 2015]?

    Scott: “We actually grew on his watch more than on any GM’s watch, in terms of size of our department. Dave came from a much smaller front office. He’d be the first one to admit that they weren’t doing a lot analytically with the Tigers. But he was very open to learning, so they were just slightly different conversations, with a different level of engagement. There was a different comfort level with him. That said, it’s our job as [an analytics department] to make everything we do digestible for any audience. That was true when it with was Ben [Cherington] and Theo [Epstein]. They just had a different level of interest, and understanding. So in the end it wasn’t all that different, it was just a different audience.”

    Laurila: What about after Alex Cora took over as manager [in November 2017]?

    Scott: “I was part of the team that interviewed him [for the job], and right away in the interview it was clear that he wanted to do a lot analytically in the big-league clubhouse. Coming from Houston, an analytically forward-thinking organization, he’d been exposed to that, and very much valued the information he’d been getting. I credit him a lot for us advancing quite a bit in the last two years. It was out of necessity, because with Alex there was a demand for the information. We had to step up and deliver.”

    Laurila: The Astros, Dodgers, Rays, and Yankees probably have the most robust analytics departments in the game, and not only are all four in the postseason, two of them are in your division. Does your department need to grow even more, simply to keep up?

    Scott: “We’re always continuing to evolve and get better in every aspect of the baseball operation. Again, I feel that in the last two years, especially, we’ve caught up. I would agree with you that those teams are the cream of the crop in the industry, but we’re right there. Where we’re really trying to improve now is on the implementation side. When you grow rapidly, like we did, there are a lot of tools you need to create, and a lot of analysis you need to perform. From that standpoint I feel we’re loaded and ready to go.

    “One thing that happens when grow really quickly is that implementation becomes more of a challenge. When you’re trying to do stuff really fast, and roll it out to the proper audiences — whether it’s on the evaluation side, or the on-field strategy side — there are going to be hiccups along the way. We’ve experienced that. So for us, it’s about implementation. The teams that have been doing this longer, like the ones you mentioned… that’s where they’re probably ahead of us in some ways. The size of the staff for some of those teams — I’d say three of them — is significantly larger, as well.

    Laurila: How large are their respective departments?

    Scott: “It’s hard to know exactly from what’s out there publicly — media guides, online, etcetera — but for the Yankees, Dodgers, and Rays it’s around 25 people. Like I said, we’re at 15. The Astros are around where we are in terms of numbers.”

    Laurila: Is it possible to have too large of a department?

    Scott: “Yes. When you increase the size of a team it becomes a management challenge. It becomes a challenge to make sure everyone is on the same page, and that everyone is functioning optimally. We want to be as efficient as we can. Some organizations that have larger numbers have found ways to utilize those folks, but again, you can’t add everywhere, all the time. So yeah, I would worry that having too many people would create some challenges for us.”

    Laurila: Do the people in your department work primarily on their own projects, or is the structure more collaborative in nature?

    Scott: “They collaborate a lot. We try to leverage the different skills, different strengths, of different analysts. This is the first year we had each analyst be a liaison to a different branch of baseball operations. For example, our player development point person wouldn’t just work on player development analysis, he was the point person for coaches and staff to talk to. Same thing with amateur scouting. Both domestic and international had a point person. Pro had a point person. We also had an analyst in the clubhouse this year, with Alex, for the first time. That was Jeb Clark, who came over to us from the Cincinnati Reds.

    “That’s how we changed our structure this year. It was to improve communication. And I think there is more area of opportunity for us improve there. We have a lot of ideas on how we can do that going into next year, from what we’ve learned from that process this year.”

    Laurila: What role is technology playing in your efforts?

    Scott: “There is so much technology out there. We hear from vendors all the time, trying to pitch us on things. When that happens, you need to have a really good process to vet the different types of technologies. Sports science alone… I heard a basketball sports scientist talking last year about how she wanted to bring in a wearable technology that would monitor heart rate variability, and there are a number of those. She had to figure out which is the best. What are the pros and cons of each one? What was going to be right for this organization as they try to implement it?

    “We’re trying to do things on the field — in-game, in a practice setting… there’s a lot we want to do. Players are coming in hungry for that sort of information. There’s a lot of it that goes on in colleges, so when you draft players some have already been exposed to it to a certain degree.”

    Laurila: Technology aside, how much are you trying to predict the future? I’m thinking primarily of trends within the game.

    Scott: “That’s something we’re always trying to stay ahead of. It’s nothing new. I can recall talking to Theo, way back when, about anticipating different trends. That conversation took place when we drafted Jacoby Ellsbury. We were feeling like the game was trending toward his skill set becoming more valuable. Power had dipped for a little bit, and we thought that might continue to happen. So we’re always trying to stay on top of trends, but it’s not easy. It’s hard for us to know what’s going to happen with the baseball, and all these different things.”

    Laurila: The team will soon be hiring a new President of Baseball Operations, and/or new General Manager. How important will it be for Dave Dombrowski’s replacement to be heavily invested in analytics?

    Scott: “I expect that this organization will be bringing in someone who shares a lot of the values of John Henry and the rest of our ownership group. John is very generous in investing in my department, and values the kind of work we’re doing, so I fully expect that whoever comes in will share those values. The relationship I have [with the new GM] will thus be important.

    “Right before Dave came on, there were several meetings and discussions where [Henry] expressed a concern that we had lagged behind the rest of the industry. It was a great opportunity for me to present to him where we were at that time, where we wanted to be, and how I thought we could get there. He was extremely supportive, and we put together a multi-year plan to grow the department. We didn’t want to just hire 10 people right away. We wanted to have a good hiring process, and make sure we brought on board high-quality people. We wanted to bring them into the fold in a systematic way, so that we weren’t throwing too much against the wall and creating the management challenge I referred to. I think we’ve done a good job with that. Like I said, we’re continuing to grow the department, but we need to do so the right way.”

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  • Jose Altuve Has Gotten His Groove Back

    Posted 20 hours ago

    With one swing of his bat on a hanging slider from Aroldis Chapman, José Altuve untied Game 6 of the ALCS and sent the Astros to their second World Series in three years. In doing so, he joined some select company, becoming the fifth player in 50 years worth of League Championship Series to hit a pennant-winning walk-off home run, after current Yankees manager Aaron Boone (2003 against the Red Sox) as well as the Yankees’ Chris Chambliss (1976 against the Royals), the Tigers’ Magglio Ordonez (2006 against the A’s), and the Giants’ Travis Ishikawa (2014 against the Cardinals).

    Altuve’s shot had an air of inevitability about it. While he has been surpassed by Alex Bregman as the team’s top position player — the two-year WAR totals for the pair are 16.1 for Bregman, 8.4 for Altuve — even at just 29 years old, he’s become something an elder statesman as well as a leader. He’s the longest-tenured Astro, having debuted in 2011, when the team was still in the National League and before Jeff Luhnow was general manager. His first three seasons featured a combined total of 324 losses, and while he was spared the first half of 2011 (he debuted on July 20), that’s a lot of losing for one person to endure, regardless of how one feels about the team’s choice of rebuilding strategies. Now he’s been part of teams that have won a combined total of 311 games over the past three years.

    Altuve was by far the team’s best hitter during the ALCS, batting .348/.444/.652 with two homers (the other was off Luis Severino in Game 3) en route to MVP honors. His 1.097 OPS was 317 points higher than second-ranked Carlos Correa’s (.780, via a .182/.280/.500 line); Michael Brantley (.712, via a .304/.407/.304 line) was the only other Astro with an OPS of at least .700. The team hit a meager .179/.281/.318 for the series (by comparison, the Yankees hit .214/.289/.383), meaning that aside from Altuve, the rest of the Astros hit all of .157/.260/.275, a batting line that would embarrass Zack Greinke (.225/.263/.337 career). Actually, Greinke’s line bears a pretty strong resemblance to what the other Astros besides Altuve hit during the Division Series against the Rays (.228/.282/.338) while the second baseman was going bananas (.350/.381/.900 with three homers). At least in that series, he had a bit more help, as Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, and the catching tandem of Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldonado all had an OPS of .800 or better.

    All of which is to say that 1) after a relatively down season, Altuve is in the midst of one of the best postseasons in recent memory, adding to an already impressive body of October work; and 2) despite an historic offense during the regular season, the Astros have not been particularly productive in the postseason, a thought worth bearing in mind as the World Series opens.

    First, Altuve. Though he set a career high with 31 home runs, the pint-sized second baseman did not have his typically awesome year. His 3.5 WAR was his lowest total since 2013, as was his .298 batting average, while his .353 on-base percentage was his lowest since 2015. He played in just 124 games, his lowest mark since his rookie season. An early season slump that featured atypical contact woes — particularly on pitches outside the strike zone — culminated in Altuve taking a May 11 trip to the injured list for a left hamstring strain that was initially considered “slight,” though he wound up sidelined for 39 days. He struggled initially upon returning, but was generally much more Altuve-like:

    Jose Altuve Before and After 2019 Injured List Stint
    Split PA HR BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
    Through May 10 164 9 11.0% 15.2% .234 .243 .329 .472 113
    June 19 onwards 384 22 6.0% 14.8% .330 .320 .363 .581 149
    Overall 548 31 7.5% 15.0% .303 .298 .353 .550 138

    Early in the year, Altuve was walking a lot — remember, he owns just a 6.6% career rate, with a high of 9.2% last year and a mark of 8.7% from 2016-18 — and hitting for power, but not much else. His .234 BABIP was 118 points below last year’s mark and 103 points below his current career mark. He was hitting the ball in the air much more often:

    Altuve Batted Balls Before and After 2019 IL Stint
    Split GB/FB GB% FB% EV LA wOBA xwOBA
    Through May 10 1.18 45.3% 38.5% 87.3 13.7 .341 .346
    June 19 onwards 1.72 51.7% 30.1% 85.6 6.9 .395 .346
    Total 1.53 49.9% 32.5% 86.1 8.8 .379 .349
    SOURCE: Baseball Savant

    Altuve has never been king of the exit velos; his best mark from the Statcast era is just 87.5 mph, set in 2016. His average launch angles have generally been around 10.0, with groundball rates in the high 40s and fly ball rates in the low 30s; as you can see, things were askew. Thanks to the home runs, his xwOBA was unchanged across the two periods, but his wOBA was much higher in the second because he was able to utilize his speed (his sprint speed ranks in the 86th percentile).

    Note from the first table that Altuve’s strikeout rate was more or less unchanged across the split. His overall 15.0% mark was a career high, and while some of that was environmental — the result of a season with record strikeout rates, his normalized rate of 65 K%+ was a career high as well, four points above last year, five points above 2017, and nine points above his career mark, which is the majors’ ninth-lowest among players with at least 2000 PA since the start of 2011. This year’s strikeout rate remained more or less constant despite the fact that he actually went outside the zone more often after coming back from the injury. This time around, I’m including multiple years of his performance for context:

    Altuve Plate Discipline Before and After 2019 IL Stint
    Split O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
    2015 35.6% 71.9% 52.1% 81.7% 94.6% 89.8% 45.5% 5.3%
    2016 32.7% 71.2% 49.1% 77.7% 91.3% 86.1% 42.6% 6.7%
    2017 33.1% 67.8% 47.6% 74.9% 91.7% 84.9% 41.7% 7.2%
    2018 33.3% 68.7% 47.3% 73.5% 91.0% 83.6% 39.6% 7.7%
    Through May 10 25.9% 65.6% 41.9% 66.0% 88.1% 79.9% 40.2% 8.4%
    June 19 onwards 35.7% 69.2% 49.0% 74.5% 86.4% 81.2% 39.7% 9.2%
    2019 32.7% 68.1% 46.8% 72.5% 86.9% 80.8% 39.9% 9.0%

    After returning, Altuve had far more success while going after such balls:

    Altuve In and Out of Zone Before and After 2019 IL Stint
    Split Z-AVG Z-SLG Z-wOBA O-AVG O-SLG O-wOBA
    2015 .355 .551 .385 .218 .249 .270
    2016 .367 .595 .404 .266 .378 .364
    2017 .385 .653 .434 .258 .317 .356
    2018 .337 .495 .356 .266 .344 .378
    Through May 10 .280 .590 .364 .135 .135 .284
    June 19 onwards .330 .631 .400 .280 .458 .370
    2019 .315 .619 .388 .245 .381 .347
    SOURCE: Baseball Savant

    As Craig Edwards pointed out in mid-August, Altuve’s pre-slump woes probably owed something to a slow recovery from offseason surgery on his right knee, an injury that I had forgotten about at the time; he suffered an avulsion fracture of his right kneecap on July 25, 2018 while sliding into second base in Colorado, leading to a 26-game absence for what was then termed right knee soreness.

    But now Altuve is back on the good foot, and burnishing his postseason credentials. Already, his 13 postseason home runs from the 2015, ’17, ’18, and ’19 postseasons are more than any other middle infielder save for Derek Jeter. Among players with at least 40 PA in one postseason during the Wild Card era, this year’s .767 slugging percentage ranks 10th (Carlos Beltran’s 1.022 mark with the Astros in 2004 is first), while his 1.184 OPS is 16th (Barry Bonds‘ 1.559 mark from 2002 is first). His five home runs are tied for 21st in that span, trailing teammate George Springer (six in 2017), his own 2017 mark (seven), and Beltran (eight in 2004) among others. With the World Series yet to play, he could add to those numbers and improve his standing, though doing so against the likes of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg will make that no easy task.

    He’ll need plenty of help from his teammates, however. While the Astros’ team wRC+ of 125 trailed only the 1927 Yankees’ 126 for the best since 1901, and while their .495 slugging percentage is tops during that span, they’ve hit .208/.287/.358 in October overall, numbers that respectively rank seventh, seventh, and eighth among the eight teams that reached the Division Series. For as much a juggernaut as they have been in 2019, they will have their hands quite full starting on Tuesday night, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that their six-time All-Star second baseman is back in the swing of things.

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