Baseball Musings from Week 4
Welcome to Week 4 of my various musings and ramblings on fantasy baseball, fandom, and the sport as a whole! This week, The thoughts abounded for sure. Let me know what you think, and please don’t hesitate to reach out to me in the comments or on Twitter if you want to continue the conversation on any of these topics! With that, let’s jump right in!
1. Rethinking How We Look At HRs
Last week we talked about the incomplete manner in which we evaluate walks and perhaps more importantly, how we then present those walks solely as a negative event without context. It skews our ability to properly evaluate a pitcher’s ability: Often a walk can be a sound strategic decision or taken out of the pitcher’s hands by the umpire making a bad call or the catcher doing a poor job framing the pitcher. It just doesn’t make any sense that the pitcher is negatively evaluated for every single walk he issues. This week I want to take that same mentality and apply it to when a pitcher gives up a home run. Oftentimes — likely most of the time — a home run is the result of a mistake pitch. It catches too much of the plate or doesn’t have its normal velocity or movement and the hitter takes advantage. In that situation, the resulting home run is absolutely on the pitcher; what about when the pitcher gives up a home run when he makes a good pitch? It happens more often than you think. According to Baseball Savant’s Pitch Location data, 72 of the 818 home runs hit so far this season were on pitches that were either out of the zone or in what they call the “shadow zones,” which I love (it makes me think I’m back in one of my Forgotten Realms DnD campaigns from college or something). Baseball Savant uses this terminology to refer to the zones surrounding the outskirts of the strike zone. This is where we want a pitcher to live. Yet, so far in 2019, 8.9% of home runs hit this season were in these zones. Last year it happened 447 times, or right around 8.0%, so this year is pretty on point. Miles Mikolas has given up five home runs this season and two of them were hit on pitches either out of the zone or in the shadow zones. He made what was likely a good, or at least pretty safe, pitch and the hitter knocked it out of the park anyways. It just doesn’t make any sense that those home runs are lumped together in the same category with the mistake pitches. It is also worth considering the effect the weather and elevation have on a fly ball. If you pitch in Wrigley on a day that is blowing out, you could easily give up a home run that on any other day would be fly ball at the warning track. The pitcher should still get some blame for the contact and for the home run, but shouldn’t it count less than a mistake pitch home run? With Exit Velocity and Launch Angle data we have to ability to determine whether or not a ball hit by batter SHOULD have been a home run, perhaps it’s about time we start using that data to determine how much of an effect outside factors have on whether or not a ball ends up in the stands or not. Lastly, shouldn’t home run distance also be a factor? 15% of the home runs hit this year traveled less than 375 feet. Depending on where in the park such a ball is hit, it could end up being caught harmlessly in the middle of centerfield. Should we be looking at those home runs differently than home runs hit over 400 feet? This isn’t to say that I think pitchers aren’t at fault for giving up a home run; all I’m saying is that maybe it’s worth getting an idea of what home runs are the result of the pitcher’s talent (or lack thereof), which ones are the result of the hitter’s talent, and which ones got a little bit of a boost from other factors.
2. Is Joey Gallo putting it all together?
Every single year we’ve said if Joey Gallo could ever hit even .230 he’d be a fantasy stud and every year he ends up falling short. So how about 2019? Look way behind Joey Gallo and you’ll see .230 in his rearview mirror as he’s hitting .262 so far this season while still clubbing eight home runs! His BB% is up to an insane 15.6% and, while he still strikes out a ton, when he makes contact he is absolutely clobbering the ball. So what has changed so far this season to spur on this success? There are some extreme numbers at work here that give me pause in terms of sustainability but they’re pretty remarkable. For one thing, Gallo is exchanging flyballs for line drives so far, as his FB% is down all the way to 36.1% from the high 40s while his LD% is up 7.2% to a fantastic 27.8%. The other thing is that he is pulling the ball more than ever, as his Pull% is up to all the way to 58.3%. He is absolutely crushing the ball. So far this season Gallo is barreling the ball 33.3% of the time! Overall he is sporting an average Exit Velocity of 97.8 MPH with a 63.6 Hard Hit %, which is incomprehensibly hard. Here’s where things get interesting. His Average Launch is down nearly five degrees to 16.7, which would help explain the improved LD%. His xStats are what is really making me swoon though. Currently, his xBA sits at .317, while his xSLG and xwOBA sit almost 100 points and 80 points, respectively, from what his batted ball data says he should have gotten. There’s a good chance he’s actually gotten a bit UNLUCKY this season which just blows my mind. Now, is all of this sustainable? I have no idea. I don’t know if we’ve ever really seen a player like Gallo before outside of Adam Dunn. My guess is either the FB% has to go back up (and therefore likely hurt his AVG) or the HRs will not be there, as his current HR/FB% of 61.5% is more than double what even peak Barry Bonds was able to put up. Perhaps if you can take the HR hit it might be worth shopping Gallo around to see if there are any takers who fully believe this is the new norm for him and are willing to pay a premium for him. However, it might not be worth risking missing out on the Gallo breakout, because even if he falls closer to .240 and manages 40+ HRs again than we could be in for a fun and wild ride. Either way, Gallo is easily the player with the most interesting peripheral stats so far this season and if you don’t think I will be monitoring them closely then you clearly don’t know me very well.
3. Yu Darvish’s Home Run Problem
As most of you pretty well know by now many of us here at Pitcher List are Yu Darvish believers, but so far his season hasn’t gone according to plan. After yesterday’s decidedly meh start I decided to take a look at Darvish’s stats and see if I could figure out what was up. Two numbers stood out right away to me: the first being his astronomical 17.1 BB%, which is six percent higher than last year’s injury affected season and nearly 10.0% higher than any other season of his career. The second number was his incomprehensible 31.6% HR/FB%, which is nearly double his previous career high. So why am I preaching patience then — this sounds pretty bad right? Obviously, some of my optimism is based in a belief in Darvish’s talents and the Law of Large Numbers. The second reason is because of where Darvish’s injury occurred, namely his elbow. Back in the preseason, I wrote about Anthony Desclafani’s comeback potential from his myriad of elbow injuries; in studying the effects those injuries had on Desclafani, I noticed that for other pitchers who had suffered major injuries to their throwing arm, the last thing that came back for them was their control and HR suppression. This seems to be a pretty solid explanation for Darvish’s early season struggles so far and now it’s way easier to know when he jumps back into must-start status because we know what numbers to keep an eye on. For now, with Darvish, I recommend holding on to him and monitoring these two stats as he makes more starts. I think you will see these two issues improve with every start as Darvish regains a feel for pitching again.
4. Bat Flips, Throwing at Players, and Basketball
I have a lot of thoughts about bat flips. They are one of my favorite things in all of the sports and in my opinion they are good for baseball. Jose Bautista’s epic bat flip in the 2015 ALDS was one the most exciting and fun moments I have ever watched in baseball and here’s the thing. The crowd ate it up. Watch the highlight and listen to that crowd.
That is going to go down as one of the most iconic moments in modern baseball, and if you don’t think the bat flip is the main reason everyone remembers that moment than I don’t know what to tell you. I think about this in terms of my other favorite sport: basketball. Showing other players up is a part of the sport and it’s fantastic. Do you know how the great players handle when someone shows them up? They don’t try to hurt the other player or start fights (I mean sometimes they do but still). Usually, they do this.
This came after Steph had trashed talked Lebron all season and started showing him up on a few shots — Lebron showed him who was boss with his play and with his words, not with his fists. I don’t understand why pitchers can’t do the same thing. You’re upset that a batter showed you up after a home run? Great. Strike him out the next time. Jaw at him or celebrate if you want. That’s fun; a rivalry is fun. Two of the worlds best players trying to one-up each other is the kind of thing baseball needs. Instead, we get petulant temper tantrums that end up just making everyone involved look really, really dumb and to blame the situation on the hitter is just wrong. Especially when you consider that in a bat flip nobody gets hurt (other than the pitcher’s feelings). So the pitcher retaliates by assaulting the hitter with baseball usually moving at speeds higher than 90 MPH. In what world does that makes sense? I love bat flips. I love when pitchers roar and fist pump after a big strikeout. I love the showmanship of it.
5. Traveling Beer and Ballparks
One thing that drives me crazy is MLB’s obsession with trying to make games shorter. They believe that game length is the main thing keeping Millenials and young people away from baseball, as if their slow, interminable off-seasons or indefensible attitudes towards fun things like bat flips weren’t the problems. With that being said, one thing that MLB has gotten right is the massive improvements that they have made to ballparks and the ballpark experience. When done right it’s really fun to be a part of when a team or ballpark seemingly understands what local fans want and what they identify with. For example, I live in Denver, essentially across the street from Coors Field. My girlfriend and I love baseball and most of the time if we have a free night on a weekend you can find us at the ballpark. Here’s the funny thing: It’s really easy for us to get our non-baseball friends to come to the games with us because of Coors Field itself, mainly because of the food and the beer located in the park. There are ballpark exclusive beers from Coors and Blue Moon and they will often have other craft beers from other breweries on tap there as well. The food is pretty solid too and covers a wide variety of options and are pretty unique. My friends are like “sure we’ll watch baseball if it means we get to spend the day in the sun eating cool food and drinking unique beers.” In fact, several of them have become baseball fans because of their ballpark experience and this got me thinking of ways to do this even better. Live baseball is the best and oftentimes the key to pulling a fan into baseball is just getting them through the door for a live game. Next thing you know, they have a beer in one hand and a hot dog in the other and they’re hooked. Now, Denver is a craft beer town, I believe it has the highest amount of breweries per capita in the country and people will pour in from all over to any local bar if they have a rare beer on tap, especially if it is from out of town. The food scene here is pretty rapidly catching up as well. The thing is, Denver is not unique — almost every major MLB city has a beloved local brewery and good food. This gave me an idea. What if at every ballpark the visiting team brought in a couple of local beers from their city and one or two of the exclusive foods from their ballparks. The Mariners could bring in Fremont Brewing’s beers and the fried grasshoppers; the Indians could bring grilled cheese from The Melt and beers from Great Lakes Brewing Company; the Red Sox could do Sam Adams and Lobster Poutine. There are 162 games a season and oftentimes it’s really hard to choose which games to go to and why. This could be the perfect gateway to being more deliberate about which games they choose to go to. They might even end up secondary fans of that team or in some cases becoming baseball fans. This seems like a no-brainer to me. What food or beer would you want to see your team bring?
6. Monitoring Slow Starters
I’ve talked about this a lot so far this season but I think it’s really important. Figuring what is legit or not about a player’s slow start can and will make or break your season. Drop the wrong guy and weep as he wins someone else their league; hold onto a guy too long and watch as he drags your team straight to the basement. Last week I talked about BABIP and looking at batted ball and Statcast data to try and interpret what is going on with the player’s slow start, but I also wanted to touch on an idea that seemingly fantasy writers and experts this season seem to ignore and that’s the player’s track record. With seasoned players, you can’t view this year in a vacuum. There are a ton of players we are classic slow starters. If you check out my follow up article from yesterday on BABIP and players due for positive regression, you can see some really great examples in Anthony Rizzo and Jose Abreu. Their April numbers are pretty much in line with most Aprils over their entire career. That has to be taken into consideration when evaluating a player. Eventually, I want to do a deep dive into what kind of player profile tends to start slowly, but those two examples I just cited are considered two of the most dependable hitters in baseball year after year so you shouldn’t panic about them yet. Fangraphs’ splits tool allows you to find a player’s stats for any date range your heart may desire, and I have found this tool invaluable for evaluating a veteran player’s struggle in a specific category — is this new, or do they always struggle in April for any myriad of reasons and display no evidence of a decline? It’s not definitive and obviously doesn’t guarantee a rebound (and you have to keep an eye on the player to make sure he is following his history), but it can be a really useful tool to have in your toolbox this early in the season.
7. Corey Kluber
I want to talk specifically about a certain pitcher that seemingly everyone has already written off. There are plenty of reasons for concern ranging from his age, to his declining fastball, to his absolutely horrible April so far. Don’t get me wrong: He’s got me nervous too, but some of it isn’t completely fair, especially when it comes to drawing any conclusions about his April. I watched his start yesterday in which he gave up four earned runs and three home runs and he was cruising until Terry Francona brought him out for the seventh inning despite being at 100 pitches and then he gave up back to back home runs. His manager didn’t really set him up in a good place for success. His numbers look much better if he hadn’t come out for that 7th inning. The main reason that I’m not concerned about Corey Kluber is that he’s always terrible in April. Over his six-year career he has always gotten off to slow starts and I think it’s premature to panic over his season yet when we have a pretty clear pattern for Kluber getting off to slow starts and then dominating the rest of the season. Take a look at his career stats broken down month.
As you can see, Kluber is a typical slow-starter who gets things going once things warm up and the calendar gets to May. Now last year a lot of these numbers were worse than his career norms as well, but they still followed the same seasonal pattern. While I’m not entirely sure we see completely dominant, destroyer of worlds Corey Kluber, I definitely expect him to get a lot better starting in May and June and he’ll be a top-15 pitcher ROS. This is a perfect example of a player you’ll regret later if you give on him now.
8. Separate Broadcasts
The more and more I watch baseball, the more and more I really want multiple different broadcasts to choose from for each team. At the end of the day, I get really turned off by a broadcast team snidely dismiss advanced statistics or preach about “playing the game the right way” or the unwritten rules. It makes me feel unwanted as a fan and I find it alienating. I also figure it could be really the kind of thing that can turn kids of math or science (or even baseball) to hear this kind of discussion. I also totally appreciate that there are plenty of fans that don’t want the stats and science and the analytics and just want to watch baseball. They should have the opportunity to also get to enjoy baseball the way that they want to. What I want is separate broadcasts, one traditional broadcast, one analytics based (with perhaps a younger broadcast team but that’s not a dealbreaker), and a third broadcast that is geared towards a younger audience, especially children. Sure MLB teams would balk at having to pay for three broadcast teams, but if it brings more fans to the game or makes borderline fans feel more welcome in the sport, wouldn’t it money well spent? If nothing else, I hope I then wouldn’t have to sit around during my favorite sport and listen my local broadcaster tell me how dumb everything is that I love and find most interesting about the sport. It also opens up more opportunities for people to break into the sport, which I hope would allow teams to find more unique voices (perhaps some women or people of color perchance… hint, hint MLB) that would potentially allow more and more people to feel welcome and represented. I just don’t see how that could possibly be a bad thing for the sport.
9. Baseball as a Vehicle for Teaching The Sciences
On that note, one of the most fun things about the future of the sport is how math and science are becoming a quintessential part of both understanding the sport and for becoming the best player you can be. When I hear about Driveline or a pitcher talking about revolutions per minute or using Magnus force to manipulate how a pitch moves, I see an opportunity for the STEM world (especially for those at a younger age or for those who are intimidated by the traditional math and science avenues). For my other career, I work as a brewer here in Denver and one of the most interesting aspects of the workforce is how so very many brewers have backgrounds in chemistry, biology, or engineering, but didn’t really fit in with the usual science settings. Many brewers I know cite the job as the perfect blend of creative expression and scientific discovery. Due to this, I have long been an advocate for brewers speaking at schools about math and science and art as a way of showing students that there were avenues for enjoying STEM subjects outside of the academic settings (but I often run into issues for obvious reasons with talking about making alcohol in a school). I realize now baseball might be the perfect avenue for accomplishing the same thing in a more age and setting-appropriate manner. We could be finding the next generation of baseball minds AND would be providing an avenue for STEM students who are either intimidated by the traditional avenues or would like to find a better blend of all their interests. It could honestly help radically shape the game and transform the STEM world for children, current scientists, and mathematicians alike.
Thanks so much, everyone, that’s it for Week 4! I’ll see you next week!
(Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire)