• FanGraphs Audio: Kiley McDaniel Doesn’t Care for Cats

    Posted sometime

    Episode 866

    Prospect analyst Kiley McDaniel returns to the program to discuss the recently concluded Trade Value Series. We discuss Kiley’s process for generating the list, a few players he expects to move into and out of the top 50 next year, the most difficult guys to place on this year’s iteration, and the curious case of Wander Franco. We also React to the trailer for the upcoming movie musical Cats.

    For prospect-related tweets, be sure to follow Kiley and the FanGraphs Prospects account. And as always, you can find Kiley and Eric’s latest rankings and reports on THE BOARD.

    Don’t hesitate to direct pod-related correspondence to @megrowler on Twitter.

    You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or other feeder things.

    Audio after the jump. (Approximate 1 hour and 6 min play time.)

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  • Alex Showin’ Pop; Go Ahead, Girl, Don’t You Stop

    Posted 1 hour ago

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    Yesterday, Alex Verdugo went 1-for-4 and his 12th homer.  Were there guys who had better games yesterday? It’s not a rhetorical question. I want a typewritten response, notarized at my doorstep by 5 o’clock today. Reminds me of a joke. Father interrogating a suitor, “So, my daughter says you’re Irish. That’s important to us.” A little panicked, not really Irish, but lying through teeth, the young man says, “Yes, that’s right.”  The father quickly snaps, “What’s your last name?”  “Uh… O…clock.” Any hoo! Check out Little Daddy Smooth, Alex Verdugo’s last 30 days stats from the 30-day Player Rater:

    That’s good for approximately top 25 overall for the last month. He’s owned in almost 100% of RCL leagues, as you see photo op, but he’s owned in less than 50% of ESPN leagues, which is why he’ll be in this afternoon’s Buy column, but, if he’s out there in your league, no one said you can’t grab him now. *listens for a moment* Okay, nope, no one said it. Was double checking. Anyway, here’s what else I saw yesterday in fantasy baseball:

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  • Sonny Gray is the best (trade chip) he’s ever been

    Posted 4 hours ago

    Getty Images

    The Reds’ righthander has Sonny skies ahead. Take that, Jay Jaffe!

    The story of erstwhile Oakland-cum-Cincinnati ace Sonny Gray is by now well-known to pretty much everyone who follows baseball, courtesy of a brief but by no means pleasant stop in Yankees pinstripes. Gray spent his first three seasons in Oakland, emerging as one of the best young starters in the American League. Despite a limited ability to miss bats, Gray rode a wide repertoire, elite ground ball rates, and excellent pitch movement to a 2.88 ERA (133 ERA+) and 3.36 FIP across 74 starts and 491 innings between 2013 and 2015.

    Injuries derailed his 2016, and he slumped to a homer-plagued 5.69 ERA (139 ERA-), essentially being as bad in 2016 as he had been good the previous three seasons. But despite concerns that Gray was just a redux of Matt Cain, another FIP-beating right-hander who outperformed his peripherals until he didn’t, Sonny rebounded in the first half of 2017.

    With a 3.59 FIP (75 FIP-) and 3.42 xFIP (75 xFIP-) across 78.2 innings. Gray was back to his ground-ball generating, dinger-suppressing ways, and the Yankees surrendered three young prospects to get him at the 2017 trade deadline.

    But as we all know by now, Sonny’s skies turned grayer in New York. Gray’s 2016 home run problems returned with a vengeance, as he surrendered 25 home runs in just 195.2 innings across a year and a half in the Bronx. Worse, Gray suddenly began to lose command of the strike zone, with his walk rate ballooning to 9.8% (3.9 BB/9) in 2018. Gray tossed just 130 innings in 2018 as all the walks drove up his pitch count, and the team threw up its hands in the offseason and shipped Gray off to Cincinnati, who promptly handed the righty a three-year extension that now looks like the coup of the offseason.

    What did the Reds see that the Yankees didn’t? The “can’t handle New York” refrain gets tossed around a lot, and Gray was no exception. Yet unlike, say, Javier Vazquez, another talented and enigmatic right-hander who struggled in the Bronx despite success elsewhere, there’s tangible evidence that the Yankees broke Gray rather than the other way around. As I wrote last year, the Yankees’ famed pitching-backwards approach—ditching fastballs in favor of breaking balls and off-speed pitches—was most likely what hurt Gray.

    “The missing swings are concentrated both at the top of the zone and inside to left-handers — where his fastball and two-seamer, respectively, tend to be most effective. Without the fastball to tempt swings in those difficult regions, Gray has fallen behind as a result — and that creates two problems. One, it leads to walks. Two, it puts hitters in advantageous counts.”

    Gray, for his part, seemed to agree with my conclusion. And our very own Kenny Kelly wrote earlier this year that the Reds took a very different approach to the righty’s fastball:

    “In the same interview with Eno Sarris, Gray talked about how the Reds introduced him to spin efficiency. Gray has one of the best fastball spin rates in baseball, but because of his arm slot, his spin efficiency is lower. High spin fastballs resist gravity better than low spin heaters, but only if thrown just so. Gray’s fastball is thrown in a way that’s more conducive to cutting action. Rather than changing his arm slot, Gray has embraced this.”

    Looking at the Statcast data, the Reds have completely revamped Gray’s repertoire, returning him to a pitch mix very similar to what Gray used in his Oakland salad days. Gray’s four-seam fastball, tossed just 26% of the time in 2018 with New York, is now his most common offering, being used nearly a third of the time. His sinker is now a distant third in his pitch mix after being used over 30% of the time in New York, and Gray has replaced those sinkers with hard sliders and changeups, two pitches that the Yankees had shelved almost entirely.

    Sonny Gray’s repertoire has changed a great deal from 2018 to 2019.

    This change—reverting to his Oakland roots—has led Gray to perhaps his finest season. Through 97.1 innings this season, Gray has the highest strikeout rate of his career (10.36 K/9, 28.1% K%), the second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career (3.11 K/BB; 19.0% K%-BB%), and the second-best ground ball rate of his career (55.1%). As a result, Gray has a 3.42 ERA (76 ERA-), 3.24 FIP (72 FIP-), and 3.44 xFIP (78 xFIP-), all the second-best marks of his career.

    Pitching half his starts in the launching pad that is Great American Ball Park, Gray is twentieth among all qualified MLB starting pitchers in ERA (ahead of Stephen Strasburg, Aaron Nola, Walker Buehler, and Trevor Bauer), twelfth in FIP (ahead of Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Matthew Boyd, and Kyle Hendricks), and thirteenth in xFIP (ahead of Patrick Corbin, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke. Overall, Gray is 20th among MLB starting pitchers in fWAR (+2.5, ahead of Verlander and Noah Syndergaard).

    To show just how good Gray has been, here’s another chart:

    This is a chart I love because it’s pretty wild. All three pitchers here are about even in terms of run prevention and missing bats. Gray is the best at inducing grounders, by not a small margin. So who are the other two pitchers? Mystery ace is Jacob deGrom, and yes, Gray has been as good as deGrom at preventing runs this year, and FIP and xFIP suggests that’s real. Sonny Gray has been deGrom with a few more walks and a lot more grounders. The Mystery Millionaire is Nationals southpaw Patrick Corbin, who has pitched well in the first year of a six year, $140 million megadeal. Gray has pitched just as well as Corbin, if not better – and he’s on a three-year, $30 million deal that now looks incredibly team-friendly.

    If you’re the Reds, the question is what to do with Gray—but not in the way the Yankees had in mind. The Reds evidently fancy themselves a contender, and the impulse to buy is logical given the team’s deals for Yasiel Puig and Tanner Roark in the offseason, among others. At the same time, Cincinnati has faced injuries (Scooter Gennett) and under-performance (Joey Votto) from key members of the offense, resulting in a mediocre offensive showing; with an 85 wRC+, the Reds are 26th in MLB in offense despite playing in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the league.

    How bad is it? The Reds’ offense is just one point ahead of the Baltimore Orioles in wRC+. The Reds have scored just 387 runs this year, fewer than the Indians and Royals, and only two more than the Orioles. With an offense that bad, the pitching, whilst excellent, hasn’t been enough to keep them in the thick of the race. The Reds entered play Monday in last place, 6.5 games out of first in the loaded NL Central, where three teams are all above .500. The Wild Card isn’t that much more promising; though the team is just 4.5 games out of the second spot, they’re behind eight other teams, including the San Francisco Giants. In other words, the Reds are closer to the Mets in the standings than they are to a playoff berth.

    So, should the Reds sell? A legitimate top-20 starting pitcher with multiple years of team control remaining on a reasonable contract doesn’t come along very often, and that means that it has to be tempting to Cincinnati to cash in Gray for a king’s ransom. Last year, the Pirates acquired Chris Archer, an inferior pitcher to Gray with similar team control on a similar contract, for Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow. Justin Verlander, who at 34 was five years older than Gray is now, fetched three of the Astros’ top 11 prospects (Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron, Jake Rogers) in a loaded system.

    If the Reds decided to make Gray available, history suggests he’d bring a potentially organization-altering return. The Astros, for example, have both history getting the best out of fastball-heavy pitchers like Gray (see: Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton) and have a long-term need in their rotation. If they offered Kyle Tucker and Forrest Whitley or Josh James, a package analogous to what the Pirates gave up for Archer, could the Reds really say no?

    The Reds have an opportunity here to add top-end talent to a future which already features future superstar Nick Senzel and top-tier starter Luis Castillo. As tempting as it might be to try and shove open a window for Joey Votto, the first baseman’s decline has continued unabated this season and the team’s offense without him just isn’t good enough for the team to make a run.

    Granted, the team may well decide to reload the offense in the offseason and try again; after all, Gray is just 29, and forms a potent one-two punch at the top of the rotation with Castillo. At the same time, the Mets have shown that building a team around a super-rotation can be risky business. If a contender comes calling, the Reds may well be right to listen.

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  • Jorge Soler has shown his true potential recently

    Posted 5 hours ago

    Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    The talent has always been there, the question has been about sustaining it.

    About two months ago, Jorge Soler had ridden a career filled with ups and downs to a crossroad. He was hitting a very pedestrian .236/.287/.491 for a designated hitter, equating to a 98 wRC+ that ranked ninth out of 15 qualified designated hitters in the American League. He was striking out at an absurd 30 percent rate and had seen a dip in his walk-rate, giving him a 0.20 BB/K ratio that flirted with last place among his positional peers. The subpar .287 on-base percentage loomed over his profile so much that even his elite-level of power couldn’t cover it up. His lack of offensive production combined with his negative value in the field and on the bases put him near replacement level with an fWAR of 0.2.

    If Soler continued at his current pace, he would have probably been playing himself closer to being non-tendered than extended. At 27 years old with almost 1,500 plate appearances of average-ish offensive production under his belt, he was running shorter and shorter on time to pick things up.

    Luckily for Soler, his performance has taken a full-180. Since the beginning of June, he’s slashing a much improved .246/.354/.536, good for a 133 wRC+ (fourth among designated hitters). Driving the increased production has been a considerable jump in his walk-rate and dip in his strikeout-rate, as for the past six weeks he’s been working with a much more manageable 0.44 BB/K ratio (sixth among designated hitters). In terms of Statcast data, it would not be an understatement to say he’s been one of the hottest hitters in baseball for a fourth of the season. Among 81 hitters with at least 150 plate appearances since the beginning of June, his xwOBA ranks sixth. His xSLG ranks seventh, fueled by a stellar exit velocity of 93.4 miles per hour.

    Focusing on a smaller but more recent sample size, it’s apparent that Soler is only trending upwards at the plate. Among 138 hitters with at least 40 plate appearances since the beginning of July, Soler ranks third in xwOBA, trailing only Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson.

    So what has changed for Soler? For starters, it’s been improvements in both his plate discipline and quality of contact. Starting with his plate skills, which were horrendous to begin the season, he’s shown some steady strides in some key areas. Earlier in the season, much of Soler’s struggles had to do with swinging too often outside the zone and making little contact on those swings. His outside-zone swing percentage ranked into the top half of qualified hitters (74th of 167) in the months of April and May, while his outside-zone contact percentage was the third worst rate in baseball, higher than only Joey Gallo and Brandon Lowe. Not an ideal combination.

    But for June and July, Soler has made adjustments for the better. Out of 173 qualified hitters during this time, his outside-zone swing percentage is the 18th lowest. The few times he does swing outside the zone, his contact rate on those pitches, while still bad, has moved up to only the 20th worst rate in baseball. Throw this all together and you get improvements in both the walk and strikeout departments.

    As for the month of July, Soler’s outside-zone swing percentage has dipped to an even lower 22.3 percent and his outside-zone contact percentage has jumped into the top half of baseball.

    Of course, when you take more pitches outside the zone and do more damage when you swing at them, that will cause pitchers to go after you more often. Well… that hasn’t exactly been the case with Soler. As a matter of fact, they’re going after him less often and so far, and he hasn’t taken the bait.


    I honestly can’t find a clear explanation as to why this is happening. For now, my best guess is his improvements in quality-of-contact on pitches located inside the zone. The league-average xwOBA for a pitch inside the zone in 2019 is .339. The average barrel percentage is 7.3 percent. For the months of April and May, Soler sat with respectable marks of .375 and 10.6 percent in those categories. For June and July, he’s posted elite marks of .450 and 17.5 percent. Not to mention, his third rank in the American League home run standings (25) could have something to do with him scaring pitchers off.

    But in looking at quality-of-contact as a whole, Soler has made more key improvements across the board. Overall, he’s doing more damage on contact thanks in part to an increased barrel rate and a large jump in exit velocity in the ideal launch angle range (I set it at 10 to 30 degrees).

    This certainly isn’t the first time we’ve seen a hot streak from Jorge Soler. In the past, most of these instances have been followed with disappointment. But we haven’t seen a streak this good from yet and it’s almost getting to the point to where it isn’t such a small sample size. Soler has the talent to be one of the more fearsome hitters at the plate in all of baseball and his numbers in this current streak suggest only that. He just needs to find more consistency.

    Patrick Brennan loves to research pitchers and minor leaguers with data. You can find additional work of his at Royals Review and Royals Farm Report. You can also find him on Twitter @paintingcorner.

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  • The Rangers Should Make a Major Minor Move

    Posted 13 hours ago

    In a year not otherwise flowing with surprises on the team level, the Texas Rangers have been a big one. A 50-46 record isn’t one that’s dominating the American League or the AL West but it’s good enough that if the season ended today, the Rangers would finish 16 games ahead of their preseason ZiPS projections on a seasonal basis. One of the players most responsible for Texas’s surprise prediction-rebellion is Mike Minor. At 8-4 with a 2.73 ERA — even his 3.82 FIP is just fine in 2019’s Sillyball environment — Minor made his first All-Star Game. From missing two seasons with shoulder problems to becoming a successful Royals reclamation projection to growing into a solid No. 2 starter to being named an All-Star, Minor’s emergence has been one of the best stories in baseball in 2019. And sports being cruel sometimes, the Rangers may very well be best-served by allowing Minor to wear another uniform in the denouement.

    Coming into 2019, the computer’s reasons for Rangers skepticism were straightforward: Texas had some interesting, top-tier talent but also a stunning lack of depth around the diamond. Not a single Ranger had a three-WAR season in 2018 and the team’s WAR leader, Jurickson Profar, was an Oakland Athletic. Even the team’s most interesting talent had questions, whether it was Joey Gallo‘s batting average, Jose Leclerc‘s sustainability, Rougned Odor alternating between being Jeff Kent and Clark Kent, or Nomar Mazara’s puzzling lack of development. On some level, ZiPS wasn’t wrong, as the Rangers still lack depth, but it missed out on the magnitude of their good performances. Mike Minor and Lance Lynn look like pitchers you’d actually like pitching in a playoff game, Joey Gallo has spent much of the season challenging the Alomar Line instead of the Mendoza, and Hunter Pence is having one of the wildest, out-of-nowhere offensive comebacks that I can remember.

    So, given all these happy surprises, which have led to real playoff contention, why should they explore a Minor trade?

    The Overall Playoff Odds Remain Long

    If the Texas Rangers played in the National League, I think I’d feel differently, given the general average-ness of most of the teams. If the National League is brimming with egalité, the American League is all royals and sans-culottes. The buy-in for the American League playoffs is quite high. While talking selling instead of buying is psychologically difficult when you’re actually holding a playoff spot, the Rangers have fallen five games back after losing 10 of 14 since hitting their late-June high-water mark. In a two-team race, that might be alarming, but to make the playoffs, they have to leap frog three of four very good teams.

    ZiPS Mean Projected Standings – AL West – 7/18/19
    Team W L GB PCT Div % WC % Playoff % WS Win % No. 1 Pick Avg Draft Pos
    Houston Astros 101 61 .623 97.9% 1.6% 99.6% 19.0% 0.0% 28.6
    Oakland A’s 90 72 11 .556 2.1% 33.2% 35.3% 1.9% 0.0% 22.3
    Texas Rangers 83 79 18 .512 0.0% 1.5% 1.5% 0.1% 0.0% 16.7
    Los Angeles Angels 80 82 21 .494 0.0% 0.3% 0.3% 0.0% 0.0% 14.5
    Seattle Mariners 69 93 32 .426 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 6.4

    At 1.5% to make the playoffs, let’s just say that ZiPS isn’t bullish on the Rangers. And that isn’t with ZiPS still thinking that Texas is a 68-94 team, but with ZiPS believing that the teams is, on average, about a .500 team now. Given that the Rangers are at exactly .500 in Pythagorean winning percentage, and flipping two actual wins into losses also puts them at .500, I don’t think it’s an unrealistic estimation. The team’s depth is still a problem and the offense is riding on just a few players. .500 isn’t terrible, but ZiPS estimates Tampa Bay’s roster strength at .589, Boston’s at .580, Cleveland’s at .560, and Oakland’s at .534.

    Just to illustrate how difficult it is for Texas to move up from the back of the pack, let’s simply tell ZiPS that the Rangers are a .550 team, not a .500. I can tell my computer what to do, after all. That only gets the Rangers to a 9% playoff shot. The magic number for a 10% shot is .554 (89.7 wins per 162) and .600 only moves them to one-in-four. It would be hard to overrate just how damaging Texas’s recent run has been to their playoff scenarios as getting to just 90 wins requires a 40-26 record (.606).

    Winning the Division Isn’t Impossible, But It’s Implausible

    When a second-tier contender has to decide whether to push in their chips or fold, their standing in their division has to play a role in that decision. Teams like the Brewers, Cardinals, or Indians aren’t setting the league on fire, but they’re also not fighting just for the wild card. Under baseball’s current playoff structure, having a chance to make the playoffs proper rather than doing so via a one-game wild card playoff is a tremendous boon to the team’s World Series odds. 9 1/2 games isn’t an impossible margin by any means, but Oakland is a serious complicating factor. In a three-team race, the leader collapsing may be necessary for a team this far out, but it’s not sufficient; if Houston collapses in legendary fashion, Oakland would also have to cooperate for the Rangers to benefit. Having lots of in-division games helps the Rangers control their destiny, but it also puts a floor on how many losses Oakland and Houston can combine for.

    Mike Minor’s Value Will Never, Ever Be Higher

    One of the things I found while developing in-season projections was that in-season performance is rather “sticky” in nature. In other words, players tend to regress less in-season than one would expect from the regression model for the normal seasonal projections. According to ZiPS’s zHR, which estimates how many homers a pitcher “should” allow given their advanced data, Minor has allowed eight fewer homers than you would expect, the sixth-largest over-performance in baseball in 2019. But that’s a larger concern for 2020 than 2019. Minor’s 4.43 xFIP isn’t just that stat being grumpy. I should note that the full-on ZiPS model is more optimistic than the in-season model, as it sees Minor’s continued improvement in exit velocity and contact data and thinks those numbers suggest a lower walk rate.

    Teams are aware of these things, so Minor is an interesting gamble for a team in the right spot that can leverage that performance right now. Minor’s signed for the 2020 season for under $10 million, and if there’s one things teams like better than above-average pitchers, it’s above-average pitchers they don’t have to pay like above-average pitchers.

    ZiPS Projection – Mike Minor
    2020 11 7 0 4.00 26 26 155.3 145 69 20 50 143 116 3.0

    There Are More Buyers Than Sellers

    While some of the more-marginal contenders in the National League may engage in some light selling (Arizona, Cincinnati, the Mess, er Mets), it’s not inevitable. San Francisco’s recent surprising competence may even push Madison Bumgarner back into the hold column, leaving Marcus Stroman as the only big-name starter who is definitely available. The American League’s basement dwellers have largely shed their talent already, leaving the other-than-Stroman market a flurry of might-be-availables like Matt Boyd, Robbie Ray, Zack Greinke, and Trevor Bauer. That leaves the Rangers with an opportunity to close a beneficial Minor trade with a team that doesn’t want to wait around and see which players teams are actually willing to move for reasonable prices.

    Texas’s Windows is Opening, Not Closing

    If this were the last gasp of the Rangers, like the Tigers or Orioles of a few years ago, I’d be arguing it’s time to batten down the hatches and make additions in an attempt to grab that last playoff appearance. The real Rangers rise is largely in the future, not the present, like the Twins a couple of years ago. Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen rated 10 Rangers prospects as being 45 future value or better, and while that’s not in the same league as the Rays or Padres, it’s on an even keel with the Astros or Dodgers. They even picked up a 50 recently in Nick Solak, one of my favorite under-the-radar trades this year. Texas is not a poor team (they have a $3 billion TV deal) and Globe Life Park opens in 2020, meaning that like the Phillies, they’re in a position to go after whoever they want in free agency. When the Rangers are better equipped for a playoff run, in 2020 or 2021 or 2022, they have the ability to splash cash in a world where other teams have mostly played Scrooge.

    Do the Rangers have to trade Mike Minor? Absolutely not, and I wouldn’t suggest they settle for a Kerry Ligtenberg-level haul. But the rumors that they’re willing to deal him make perfect sense and is something Texas should strongly be looking at. The smart bet in Texas remains the future more than the present.

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