• Alex Bregman is in the zone

    Posted 1 day ago

    Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

    Or more accurately, he doesn’t go out of the zone nearly at all.

    The Houston Astros are just an incredible team. From MVPs to rookie phenoms to Cy Young caliber pitchers by the handful, they have everything a team could possibly want to win a title. Amid all this ridiculous, chart-topping talent lies perhaps their most skilled, polished hitter: Alex Bregman.

    He’s not as quite the spark plug as Jose Altuve, not as frightfully, obviously powerful as Yordan Alvarez, but he’s amazing, and feared, in his own right. This was on raw display in last year’s ALCS, when he walked five times in the first two games, the Red Sox just avoiding his bat. More than anything, he’s disciplined. At just 18.1 percent, no qualified hitter in baseball swings at balls out of the zone less often than Bregman. He simply doesn’t chase. When he does though, what’s happening?

    In raw numbers, we’re talking about 180 out-of-the-zone pitches that Bregman thought was a good pitch to hit. they look like this:


    The locations of the various pitches make sense – high fastballs, sliders down and in or away, curves burying themselves in the dirt in front of the plate. The type of pitches that even the best of hitters get tricked into going after. More explicitly, Bregman’s breakdown features a pretty even spread of pitches:


    Of note are the large number of fastball variants he goes after— including the changeup, which is just a fastball that’s lying to you— which tells a tale of Bregman hunting for the fastball but perhaps guessing wrong on which type was coming from the pitcher’s hand. In general it’s the same type of pitches he goes after anyway:


    That’s every pitch Bregman has swung at this year, throwing into even more stark relief his hunting of the fastball, and the power of the slider to fool even the finest of hitters.

    That mark, 18.1 percent O-Swing rate, is very good, a testament to Bregman’s patience. It’s a drop of nearly two points from a year ago, roughly matching his overall drop in swing rate from 37.1 percent to 35 percent. It’s also more than 13 points below the league average 31.5 percent O-Swing rate. He is a superlative hitter in this respect.

    What’s truly interesting though, as Bregman’s league-leading rate settles in at the 18ish percent mark, is seeing what’s happened to that same mark league-wide since we starting tracking plate discipline stats in 2002. That year, the league average O-Swing rate was precisely where Bergman sits, 18.1 percent. Since 2002, the lowest mark set by a qualified hitter was John Olerud, when he swung at just 8.5 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, compared to an astounding 60.3 percent within it. If you want to talk about plate discipline kings, that’s a great conversation starter.

    SO what are we to glean from this? Obviously, tracking technology has gotten better, so it’s possible that Olerud is getting the benefit of less accurate radar to boost his numbers. Another data point deserves attention though. Since 2002, average fastball velocity has risen from 89 mph to 93.1 this season.

    Never mind the ever evolving world of pitch design. the massive spike in slider usage, setting another record this year at 18.2 percent across baseball, up from 16.9 last year, 14.8 in 2015 and just 12.1 in 2002. Things have changed in baseball. Pitches are more and more absurd, batters just swing at pitches that are strikes for 55 feet, then collapse into the dirt in that last little bit. So maybe it makes sense that chase rates have gone up so precipitously.

    That comes through in Bregman’s own O-Zone pitch chart. It’s not the sliders he’s chasing or curves in the dirt. It’s mostly fastballs— high ones with big time spin rates that deceive the eye into thinking it’s going to drop more than it is, or cutters and two-seams that move like sliders and screwballs. These pitchers are doing things their ancestors couldn’t dream of. The rabbit ball we’re dealing with today is all that’s standing between us and another deadball era.

    For Bregman, it could be that the rate he’s charting on balls out of the zone is simply the best we can hope for. Just last year the leader was Joey Votto at 16.4 percent, Andrew McCutchen second at 19.4. This year Bregman is the only guy under 20. Hitters are swinging harder and harder, not caring about missing if they can do big damage once or twice a game. He’s the best at not being pulled out of the zone, and with a 4.6 percent swinging strike rate one of the best at not swinging and missing. That, along with the power and the patience, makes him a supremely valuable player, and increasingly unique. Baseball today is about the dinger, the walk, and the strikeout. With that in mind, Bregman looks like nothing short of a demigod, and we’re just here enjoying it.


    Merritt Rohlfing writes baseball at Let’s Go Tribe and Beyond the Box Score, and would love to hear from you. Nice words. @MerrillLunch.

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  • Rolling In The Deep: Is Rojas Just Josh(ing) With Us?

    Posted 1 day ago

    Greetings, deep-leaguers!  We’ve now officially hit mid-August, and if you’re fighting for a money spot in one of your fantasy baseball leagues, every decision you make and every day’s worth of stats probably seem magnified.  One or two bad starts (thanks, Trevor Bauer and Cole Hamels!) can cost you crucial ERA and WHIP points that you’ve been slowing but surely building up in a roto league, or sink your head-to-head week completely.  You may not be able to control how major league baseball players pitch, but it’s as important as ever to try to keep your team as strong as possible and to take advantage of trying to grab a few counting stats where you can.  On that note, let’s look at a few players that might be of interest in NL-only, AL-only, and other deep leagues.

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  • César Hernández has grown impatient

    Posted 1 day ago

    Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    The Phillies second baseman has seen his walk rate cut in half.

    César Hernández has never been a major offensive threat. In 2017, his best offensive season, he posted a .346 wOBA and 112 wRC+, and over his career he’s been just about average. The past three years, though, he’s put up above-average walk rates including a 13.4 percent mark last year. That was good for 16th among qualified hitters. In 2019, Hernández has walked just 5.6 percent of the time.

    Hernández’s 7.9 percent year-to-year drop is the largest among hitters with at least 300 plate appearances this year, and there’s a considerable gap between Hernández and José Ramírez and his 5.7 percent drop.


    FanGraphs

    A .331 on base percentage is perfectly average, but this would be his worst OBP in a full season. Overall, Hernández is hitting .285/.331/.403 for a 90 wRC+. Without power, Hernández needs the bases on balls to keep him productive, so going from the top-20 to the bottom 20 is an alarming development.

    For Hernández, the usual suspects are bringing down his walk rate. He’s been far more aggressive on the first pitch, and he’s chasing out of the strike zone at a career-high rate.

    Hernández has gone back to 2015 and 2016 levels of aggression after exhibiting more patience the last two years. The results haven’t exactly been poor, but they haven’t been as good as in the years he was more selective.

    Hernández has already put more first pitches in play this year (64) than he had in 2017 or 2018 (52 and 60 respectively). He’s also putting the ball in play in all counts, and if he’s putting the ball in play, he’s obviously not drawing a walk. His propensity to ambush early is also keeping his strikeout rate down to a career-best 14.0 percent, but putting the ball in play is a dubious endeavor for a guy whose exit velocity and hard-hit rates rank in the 10th and 8th percentiles.

    It’s not so simple as to tell Hernández to stop swinging at the first pitch so often. That might the only time he’s likely to see a fastball. Pitchers across the league are throwing more breaking balls, but César Hernández has seen a disproportionate increase.


    Baseball Savant

    More specifically, he’s seeing far fewer sinkers, as well as more sliders, curves, and changeups. Hernández, like most hitters, has fared better against heaters so his newfound aggression might have been a reaction to how pitchers are approaching him.

    Now that he’s getting more breaking balls, it makes sense that his chase rate would rise. More sliders and curves mean that he’s seeing more pitches designed to get him to chase. Still, Hernández is chasing more fastballs out of the zone than ever before.

    It’s rare to see a player’s walk rate plummet the way Hernández’s has. While pitchers are approaching him a little differently, this is mostly self-inflicted. Maybe after putting up a career-high 15 homers in 2018, Hernández got a taste of power and that’s been driving the aggression. Whatever it is, Hernández has grown impatient and his discipline is what made him a productive hitter in the first place.


    Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.

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  • In 2019, Team Payroll and Wins Are Closely Linked

    Posted 1 day ago

    Over the last decade, we’ve seen a change in the demographics of baseball, with playing time shifting away from older, declining veterans toward younger players still in their prime. There’s a good reason for that, as each new generation of player entering the majors has been getting better and better relative to their older peers. Baseball’s owners have capitalized on this development — those younger, better players are also much cheaper. And teams have not reinvested those gains elsewhere on their rosters, as major league payrolls have stagnated the last few seasons while amateur talent expenditures have become hard-capped. Given the emphasis on younger players, it might be reasonable to believe that when it comes to fielding a winning team, payroll matters less than ever. But that hasn’t been the case this season.

    This piece marks the fifth season during which I’ve taken a look at the standings in August and compared them to Opening Day payrolls (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018) and for the most part, the relationship between Opening Day payrolls and wins has been relatively low. I’ve used the Pearson correlation coefficient “r” to track the strength of the relationship between the two and from the end of the strike through 2011, the average correlation per year was .45. In the last seven seasons heading into this season, though, the correlation coefficient between the two was higher than .31 only once, when it was a high .62 back in 2016.

    In past years, I’ve noted that while individual season correlations have remained low, looking at either sustained spending or using Forbes franchise valuations to gauge a team’s overall financial might tends to show that the relationship between spending, wealth, and winning remains strong. That logic remains for this season, and indeed, the relationship between wins and payroll trails only that of 2016 season this decade:

    While it’s possible that relationship could dip back down next season, or could even drop some by the end of this season, this year looks a lot more like the late-90s and early 2000s than the rest of the current decade. Two years ago, I wondered if the leveling of the front office playing field resulting from more teams becoming analytically-minded might lead to money playing a bigger role:

    The biggest correlation with wins is always going to be talent, and there are a lot of ways to amass talent, but it certainly seems possible that, as teams reach a sort of analytical parity, that money can help be a deciding factor.

    At the time, I also believed that increased salaries would mean more teams approaching the luxury tax threshold, which would result in an even more level playing field. But the leveling off of all salaries has still meant a disparity between teams. One standard deviation among major league Opening Day payrolls this season was $44 million, which is no different than it was back in 2013 and 2014. Perhaps because payrolls have remained so far apart, even with declining salaries and a greater emphasis on analytics in the front office, we are seeing money play a bigger factor in wins and losses.

    This is what the scatter plot of wins and payroll for this season looks like:

    With only 30 data points, it might be hard to make out, but there’s a general trajectory up and to the right. To put a greater emphasis on these data points, I’ll take the same plot and highlight two squares. One highlighted square will be teams at roughly a .500 or better winning percentage and a higher than average payroll. The second square will have teams under .500 with a below average payroll. If money matters, we’d expect more data points in the highlighted squares and fewer outliers outside of the boxes:

    There are 18 points in the squares, 10 outside the squares (Minnesota and Cleveland overlap each other), and two that are on the line. What’s interesting here is that there are a decent number of good teams with low payrolls; teams don’t have to spend money to win. Tampa Bay, Oakland, and Cleveland are all pretty good examples of this. The outliers in the upper left are the teams the Commissioner points to when he tries to claim that payroll doesn’t matter. But when we look at the bottom right portion of the graph, that argument rings a little hollow. If money didn’t matter, shouldn’t there be a lot more bad teams spending money? Of the 13 teams with payrolls above average, only two are actually bad this year (Seattle and Colorado), and they are only a little above the average. Every other above-average spender has put together an at least average team. You might not need to spend money to win in the current environment, but it is hard to spend money and lose.

    When we look at the trends over the past few years, the relationship between payroll and wins is even more apparent:

    Over the last four years, there are seven franchises that have continually fielded very good teams. Six of those seven have had above-average payrolls, and five of those teams are among the top six spenders in the game. There are 17 teams above that have averaged under $140 million in payroll over the last four seasons. Two of those teams were good, another eight were in the 76-86 win-range, and seven teams were bad-to-terrible during those years. Of the 13 teams with payrolls above $140 million, five were good, seven were in that 76-86 win-range, and only the Tigers were awful.

    The data looks the same when we factor in Forbes’ franchise valuations:

    The most valuable franchises in the sport comprise four of the six top spots when it comes to wins over the last four years. The valuations are a bit jumbled in the middle with so may teams in the $1 billion to $2 billion range, but the overall relationship is present. The information above isn’t meant to pit smaller market teams against bigger market teams. With teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, and Cubs all artificially lowering their spending to the competitive balance tax threshold or around it, the great middle class of teams easily could have increased their spending to get closer to the tax amount and win more games. We’ve seen Houston sustaining their success by increasing payroll while Philadelphia is winning more games in part because they’ve increased payroll back to the levels where they were nearly a decade ago.

    Most teams have opted to stay in their same spending zone relative to the top spenders. It is harder to find good players in free agency, but teams that are successful in free agency win more games than those that avoid it. Whatever the reasons behind a team spending or not spending money, the teams that spend more win more, and that’s been more true this season than in nearly every year this decade despite the rise of more young and inexpensive talent.

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  • Sabermetrics news: Jake Arrieta is likely to have season-ending surgery

    Posted 1 day ago

    Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

    Nick Anderson’s hot August; Atlantic League rule change effects; Jake Arrieta’s surgery decision

    FanGraphs | Ben Clemens: Nick Anderson is having an incredible stretch of a negative FIP over the last two weeks, and his blazing fastball/snapping curve combo is the source of it. Can it continue forever? Of course not. But it’s clear that the Rays have found another diamond in the rough.

    Baseball Prospectus | Rob Arthur ($): Changes like the robot ump have come to the Atlantic League, and the effects are… modest. Walks are down, steals are up, and strikeouts are down. That may be evidence that it won’t affect the big leagues that much, but it’s clear that if it moves the needle at all in an Indy league, you can imagine weird changes when front offices get their hands on it.

    ESPN Insider | Buster Olney ($): Jake Arrieta is at a crossroads: he can pitch through his bone spur with more limited effectiveness until he has offseason surgery, or pull the trigger now to give him a better shot at his 2020 walk year. The Phillies, with their playoff chances on the line and have eyes on 2020 as well, just hope he’s OK.

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