Game 42, White Sox at Mariners

May 18, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 18 Comments 

Sam Gaviglio vs. Dylan Covey, 7:10pm

Sam Gaviglio’s about to turn 27, and was *just* added to the 40-man a week or two back. He’s broken free from the “organizational depth” tag that had been dropped on him, but he had some help in the form of a plague of injuries to M’s pitchers. Christian Bergman was in much the same place (though he had plenty of MLB experience), and he certainly looked great yesterday. Still, the point I want to make is that Gaviglio may be the most unlikely starting pitcher ever to be a 2:1 favorite in Fangraphs’ game odds. They may change when the line-ups come in, but as of this writing, the M’s have a 66.3% chance of winning a game started by Sam Gaviglio. Why would a non-roster invitee to spring training have that kind of odds? Because he’s matched up with a Rule 5 pick who’s being beaten like a metal band’s kick drum.

Dylan Covey was an A’s farmhand for several years, but was known well before that as an elite prep arm. He was drafted #14 overall in 2010, one pick after Chris Sale. He’d been unreal as a junior, and even going at #14 overall seemed like a bit of a disappointment – a reaction to slightly lower velo in his senior year. Thus, Covey spurned the Brewers and enrolled at the University of San Diego, hoping to rebuild his draft stock. It…didn’t work out that way. His command left him, and his velocity never returned, so in his draft year, he gave up 90 hits in 76 2/3 IP and walked another 43. His ERA of 5.05 was artificially suppressed by the *11* unearned runs he gave up. Given all of that, it’s somewhat amazing that he went in the 4th round, but that’s where the A’s grabbed him. His MiLB career has been underwhelming, too, but at least it was trending up despite an injury-plagued 2016.

The Sox grabbed him in Rule 5, and have plopped him into their rotation. At this point, he’s given up 9 HRs in less than 30 IP. Armed with a 92 MPH four-seam and sinker, a rarely-used change and a slider-y cutter, he’s supposed to be a command/control guy, but it hasn’t happened quite yet. His K-BB% of 5% is less than half of the league average, and an ERA of about 8 and a FIP over 7 are similarly poor marks. Essentially, this is a long bet on the ability of pitching coach Don Cooper to work his magic once again. The Sox big haul in the Adam Eaton trade, Lucas Giolito, is struggling in AAA. One of the big names from the Chris Sale deal, Michael Kopech, has been solid in AA, but is still struggling with walks. If Cooper can turn 2 of these guys back into legitimate MLB starters, he’ll have produced a ton of value. Clearly, Kopech/Giolito are far ahead of Covey in the prospect world, but Covey is yet another lottery ticket, and Covey still has more prospect sheen than Jose Quintana had.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cruz, DH
4: Seager, 3B
5: Valencia, 1B
6: Powell, LF
7: Motter, 2B
8: Dyson, CF
9: Ruiz, C
SP: Gaviglio

Didn’t mention it yesterday, but the M’s made yet another transaction, optioning Chase de Jong back to Tacoma and recalling recently-acquired pitcher Casey Lawrence. Lawrence has been roughly as bad as Covey this year, but has been solid for the Jays’ AAA team in 2016-17.

Tacoma got a split of a doubleheader yesterday in Omaha, winning the first 7-2 before dropping the nightcap 4-2. Kyle Hunter pitched well in Game 1, and Chris Heston pitched 4 solid innings in Game 2, but the bats were held in check. Danny Muno, yet *another* new face, homered in Game 2, and the R’s got HRs from Vogelbach/Pizzano/Martin in game 1. They’re playing *another* doubleheader today. Game 1’s started by newcomer Tyler Cloyd, who faces off with Royals prospect Josh Staumont. Cloyd’s coming off TJ surgery, and is limited to 45 pitches, per Mike Curto. Game 2’s starter’s still TBD, so we could have a loooong bullpen day in Omaha.

NW Arkansas is still perfect against regular, vanilla Arkansas. NWA (not THAT NWA) beat Dylan Unsworth and the Travs 4-1. Unsworth gave up all 4 runs in the 2nd IP, but was solid after that, working 6 innings. Zac Curtis was great in relief, buoyed by his success in the big leagues, no doubt. Tyler Herb tries to turn the tide for Arkansas against Corey Ray and the Naturals.

Lancaster beat Modesto 9-5, as Pablo Lopez gave up 8 runs in 4 2/3 IP. Joe DeCarlo and Logan Taylor homered for the Nuts, and Braden Bishop had a standard Bishop game with one hit and two walks; his OBP is now .407. Nick Neidert starts tonight opposite Trey Killian of the JetHawks.

Clinton lost a pitcher’s duel to Wisconsin 2-1. Ljay Newsome gave up 2 runs on 5 H and 1 BB in 5 2/3 IP, striking out 4. But the Lumberkings couldn’t figure out Thomas Jankins, who went 7 2/3 IP in what was by far his longest outing as a professional. OK, Nick Zammarelli did, as he homered, but the L-Kings managed just three singles outside of that blast. Clinton kicks off a series with Burlington tonight; Danny Garcia takes the mound for Clinton.

Four-Seam Fastballs and the Home Run Tidal Wave

May 18, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

David Laurila posted another of his typically excellent interviews this morning at Fangraphs, and it’s especially of interest for M’s fans. He interviewed OF prospect Gareth Morgan, the Canadian power prodigy I’ve talked about frequently here – the guy whose inability to make contact look like an absolutely fatal flaw, one that might end his career before he got to full-season ball, but who’s now having a nice spring for Clinton in the MWL…despite a K rate that’s down to “only” 39.3%. Asked what he’s doing differently now than in previous years, Morgan responded, “I’ve simplified my approach to where I’m just looking for a fastball to drive to the middle of the field.” You hear echoes of that from other players, including many big leaguers: you simply can’t adapt to everything, so many players simply look for a pitch – preferably a “fastball to drive” – in a specific zone, and swing like hell at it. Other pitches, even pitches that they know may be called strikes, they watch.

This got me to thinking about a throwaway line in my post about bullpens the other day. No, not the one about how the M’s should go to the bullpen rather than let Christian Bergman pitch 7 innings…that was just…forget about that. I was trying to figure out why batters were hitting more HRs and just generally hitting better against relievers this year, and wondered, “Maybe the fact that relievers throw more four-seam fastballs matters.” Put it together with Morgan’s quote above, and you’ve got something to look into. Two things, actually. First, are batters hitting more HRs off of four-seam fastballs than other kinds of pitches (and a higher percentage than in recent years)? And if so, does that mean that pitchers should throw different pitches?

Thus far this season, four-seamers have been hit for HRs at a greater rate than any other pitch. I don’t think this is all that shocking, but I’ll admit to some surprise at just how different contact on four-seamers is compared with other pitches. There have been 581 HRs on four-seamers, and 500 on every other type of fastball, plus off-speed pitches. Now, of course, we should control for swings and the number of pitches thrown. On a per-swing basis, we get the following:

Pitch Type HRs per Swing
4-Sm 2.00%
SI/2-Sm 1.72%
SL 1.58%
CH/SPL 1.56%
CU 1.37%

No matter how you look at it, four-seamers are more likely to end up in the seats. The reason’s pretty clear, too: batters hit them harder and hit them in the air. Here’s another, very similar, table which looks at the average exit velocity off the bat and the launch angle by pitch type for 2017:

Pitch Type Exit Vel. Launch Ang.
4-Sm 88.4 15.7
SI/2-Sm 88.2 6
SL 85.2 11.4
CH/SPL 84.6 7.6
CU 85.4 8.5

It’s no wonder batters hit proportionally more HRs on four-seamers than 2-seam/sinkers: their launch angle is about *10 degrees* higher! They hit the average four-seamer 3 MPH harder than curves, and about 4 MPH harder than offspeed pitches.

This year, batters share of HRs coming on four-seamers is up slightly compared to 2015, the last year before this current wave of HRs. Thus far, 41.26% of all HRs have come on 4-SM fastballs, compared to 39.69% in 2015. That’s a tiny change, but of course the percentages are multiplied against several thousand HRs. Of note: the real shift we’ve seen since 2015 is a *decline* in the share of NON-4-SM fastballs. The “all other fastballs” category accounted for 28% of all HRs in 2015, but 25% this year. All breaking balls plus knuckleballs have accounted for fractionally more HRs this year, but the sheer numbers are greatest with four-seamers. The easiest way to see the change is by looking at how HRs per swing has changed over the Statcast era:

4-SM HRs per Swing
2015 1.66%
2016 1.83%
2017 2.00%

Remember, the denominator here is swings on four-seam fastballs, so the numbers really add up. There were well over 100,000 swings in 2015 and 2016. If you applied 2017’s HR/SW percentage to 2015’s number of swings, you’d have *400* more HRs hit, just on four-seamers. The entire HR surge of 2016 produced 700 (ok, 701) more HRs than 2015. The difference between 2016 and 2017’s rate would account for about 200 of those HRs. The fact that it’s still going up so much from 2016 to 2017 seems to highlight the degree to which batters are keying in on four-seamers, and that’s before we’ve even gotten to the warmer months, when HRs typically rise. However you look at it, a good chunk of this big wave of HRs washing over the league is the result of much better contact on four-seam fastballs.

So pitchers should throw sinkers instead, right? Well, we haven’t proved that. There are plenty of other reasons to throw four-seamers, like a higher whiff rate and potentially a lower BABIP. There’s a reason why teams like the Tigers, Red Sox and Nationals are throwing more four-seamers and throwing more of them up in the zone. Pitchers like Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer are great not in spite of their four-seam usage, but because of it. Both of them are reliably among the leaders in HRs-allowed, but this doesn’t make them ineffective.

Baseball’s strikeout rate has been rising for a long time, and it’s at least in part due to the fact that teams are no longer scared off of high strikeout totals. Once teams stopped selecting for contact and started selecting for a broader measure of offense, the strikeout rate was bound to go up. Teams have also selected for strikeout pitchers, and thus the trend got another boost. As strikeouts rose, a player with a high K rate was no longer freakishly abnormal. What’s this have to do with HRs? I wonder if we’re at a point where teams will look past a high HR rate if a pitcher’s overall effectiveness looks decent. Obviously, it’s harder to do this with relievers, as old friend Shawn Kelley’s now discovering. He’s given up 5 HRs on four-seamers this year, and even with a positive WPA and a sky-high K rate, he’s losing his closer job in Washington, DC. But Max Scherzer? While he gives up plenty of HRs, he’s still one of the better starters in the National League.

The best of both worlds, of course, would be the benefits of the four-seamer without its loud side effect. This was Chris Young’s M.O. for some time, and it’s worked for others here and there. Only a few have had the command necessary to pull it off for a long time (longer than a season or two). Chris Young’s trick was to locate the ball very precisely up in the one to make batters hit underneath the ball. He could do it (until he couldn’t), but while high pitches have lower SLG%-against in recent years than low fastballs, it’s not like throwing high FBs is some sort of HR-prevention trick: a higher percentage of HIGH four-seamers has been converted into souvenirs than low ones.

Knowing this, and I’m sure teams do, there are two possible responses. One is to all but abandon the four-seam, especially high ones, and just throw a million low sinkers or a blizzard of breaking balls. The Houston Astros exemplify this, as Dallas Keuchel and company lead the majors both in the percentage of low pitches thrown, and they’re throwing a ton of breaking balls+change-ups, too. More interesting in light of all of this is the Colorado Rockies. They play at altitude, and batters have long hit more HRs in Denver than elsewhere. Breaking balls don’t break the same, etc. It’s no surprise then that they’ve emphasized ground ball contact; they were 3rd in MLB in GB/FB ratio in 2015, 2nd in 2016, and are #1 (easily) this year. What’s more interesting is that they’ve taken the opposite approach to the Astros. In 2015, the Rockies threw four-seamers 36.6% of the time, 12th highest in the league, but far, far below the Rays, who were nearly at 50% (49.34%). The following year, the Rockies moved up to 4th in four-seam percentage, clocking in at around 43%. This year, they’re #1 by over 2 full percentage points. The numbers have all come down as fastball usage overall drops, but the Rockies are still climbing: they’re at 46.6% four-seamers, and lead the league in swings and balls in play off of four-seamers. Given everything we’ve talked about, you’d expect the Rockies are playing 2000-style baseball again, but they’re not. Their HR rate is much lower than average, and waaaaay below the Mariners’. How’s this possible? I don’t know, I’m sorry…I’ve let you down again. What I can say is that they’re getting the lowest average launch angle on four-seamers, and again, it’s not particularly close. They’re giving up well-below-average exit velocities on them as well. They don’t appear to be pitching up, or down, or anything, as you can see from this heatmap showing all four-seamers put in play (it looks pretty similar to the heatmap of all four-seamers thrown, too):
Rockies heatmap

I get what the Astros are doing, and why they’re doing it. I don’t quite understand what the Rockies are doing, or rather, why what Colorado’s doing seems to be working, and I would really, really like to know. In summary, four-seamers are going for HRs more these days, and that’s part of the reason for the HR barrage league wide. It seems like batters are waiting for specific pitches and then jumping on them, ala Gareth Morgan’s quote to David Laurila. This explains why HRs are going up along with K rate, and potentially why relievers (who throw more four-seamers) are giving up more runs. It’s not necessarily the case that teams should just swap out four-seamers for sinkers, though, as teams like the Nationals and Rockies illustrate.

Game 41, Athletics at Mariners

May 17, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 23 Comments 

Christian Bergman vs. Jesse Hahn, 7:10pm

With the M’s bullpen still in free-fall, we’re perilously close to calling an end to the M’s playoff chances in 2017. They’re not far below .500, and hey, look, the Cubs are struggling, but the M’s chances were always based on a number of things going right, and not enough of those things show signs of happening. As I mentioned yesterday, that’s not to say it’s been a total bust; this season’s been awesome for you if you’re in the physical therapy business, of course.

The growth/development of the M’s newcomers may be the most important thing to come out of 2017, and that’s why it’s important that the M’s really see where they are in July. As I’ve mentioned, the M’s don’t have much to sell, but if they really saw the situation as bleak, I wonder if they’d take calls on Jean Segura? Segura’s proven that his 2016 wasn’t a fluke, and wouldn’t be a rental – he’s signed through 2018. The problem is, the likely buyers at the deadline don’t need shortstops. The Venn diagram of the best clubs in baseball and teams with awesome young shortstops is essentially a circle. The M’s/Reds have a great SS, but aren’t competing, while the surprising Brewers and D-Backs are competing despite poor SS production.* There’s also too much supply, as former M’s target Zack Cozart is finally hitting on a go-nowhere Reds club. As such, there’s no compelling reason to move Jean, and thus the M’s need to think about how to carve out some money to extend him this off-season. That’s going to be tough, given the clear need for more pitching depth, but hopefully the M’s can get it done. A core of Segura and Haniger isn’t ideal, but it’s a very good start.

Jeff Sullivan had a good article about the dearth of high fastballs in a league that’s seen batters change their approach to hit *low* fastballs in recent years. Over time, the percentage of all pitches that are high fastballs has dropped, and the percentage of *fastballs* that are thrown up in the zone has also dipped, although it’s ticked upwards a bit over the last year plus. This year, the Twins and Red Sox are throwing a lot more high fastballs, but the real story – it jumps off the page in Jeff’s graphs – is the Astros all but abandoning the pitch, and locking in on the bottom of the zone. That’s a big reason why Dallas Keuchel’s GB% – which was already very high – has risen by over 10 percentage points this year. As I mentioned the other day, one factor that might be keeping the league GB% steady even as hitters like Ben Gamel, Francisco Lindor and Yonder Alonso hit far more fly balls, is this monomania for low pitches.

That’s all a fairly long prologue for this somewhat mundane observation: Christian Bergman turned himself into a ground ball pitcher. As a guy with well below average velocity and pitching in Colorado, being a fly-ball pitcher would seem to complete the trifecta of woe, and indeed, Bergman struggled there. But immediately after latching on with Tacoma, he started producing ground ball rates unlike any he’d shown in the high minors or in Colorado. He’s maintained them thus far in Seattle, as he’s essentially been the anti-Gamel. Bergman’s average launch angle has dropped by over 10 degrees from 2015-16, and his GB% has skyrocketed by about 16 percentage points. Remember, Gamel *increased* his launch angle by 10 degrees, cutting his GB% by around 18 percentage points.

Part of the reason is, yes, that he’s throwing more low fastballs. He threw 16-19% of his fastballs (four-seam, cutter, sinker, whatever) in the upper third of the zone and above in Colorado. In his brief time with Seattle, that figure’s dropped to 8%. That’s significant, I guess, but it’s not like Bergman’s pitching like Keuchel now; he’s not filling the bottom of the zone with fastballs. He’s thrown a few more low pitches, but his zone profile doesn’t look that different.

The same’s true of his pitch movement. He’s always had lower vertical “rise” on his four-seam, cutter, and sinker, and he still does. He HAS made a slight tweak to his release point, dropping it down a bit and lowering his vertical movement and increasing his armside run. That alone should increase his GB%, but we’re talking about fractional/marginal changes. Maybe this is all a fluke, and he’ll settle in with GB rates in the low 40s again, but that wouldn’t explain his very high AAA GB%. Maybe the big change has something to do with Colorado’s thinner air, but that hasn’t stopped the now-Bergman-less Rockies from posting baseball’s highest GB%. The takeaway here once again is just how mutable players are. One of sabermetrics important insights has been that some statistics are less volatile than others, and that a player’s results may differ quite a bit from his “true talent” this or that. It started with velocity, where pitchers just started picking up 3 MPH right when received wisdom would predict a decline. You had hitters whose batted ball profile seemed very, very steady suddenly turn themselves into completely different guys. And while different pitches or arm slot changes can transform a pitcher, some guys seem to milk fairly radical changes to some pretty key, fundamental attributes – things I might’ve assumed were more innate a few years ago.

I don’t know if Bergman can keep this up, and worse, I don’t know that it’ll matter. At some point, if you throw a lot of 84-85 MPH cutters, you run the risk of blending in with a Jered Weaver or 2017 Hisashi Iwakuma. Those two had interesting secondaries and lots of experience, too. Still, running a very high GB% might be a way to make it as an underpowered righty in a homer-happy league.

I should point out that after a somewhat slow start, Safeco hit the league average for total HRs per game at 2.39. Back to back nights of 4 and then 5 HRs will do that for a park. Safeco may still be something of a pitcher’s park, but its days as a HR-suppressing park really do appear to be over.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cruz, DH
4: Seager, 3B
5: Valencia, 1B
6: Motter, 2B
7: Powell, LF
8: Heredia, CF
9: Gosewisch, C
SP: Bergman

Tacoma was rained out in Omaha yesterday, so they’re playing two today. Kyle Hunter pitched the R’s to a Game 1 win with 5 IP of 1 run ball, and Dan Vogelbach, Dario Pizzano and Leonys Martin homered in a 7-2 win. Chris Heston starts the nightcap.

Arkansas lost to NW Arkansas 7-6, as Max Povse got knocked out after 2 innings, giving up 5 hits and 3 runs. New/returning pitcher Justin DeFratus gave up 4 runs in 5 2/3 of long relief. NW Arkansas is now 6-0 against plain ol’ Arkansas. Dylan Unsworth tries to change that tonight.

Lancaster jumped all over Modesto starter Nathan Bannister, scoring 9 runs in 5 1/3 off of him in their 9-5 win. Chris Mariscal had 2 hits and 2 walks, and Braden Bishop and Jordan Cowan each doubled and walked. No word on tonight’s starter.

Clinton, as mentioned yesterday, won 15-3 against Wisconsin. They’re back at it tonight, with Ljay Newome matching up with Thomas Jankins of the Timber Rattlers.

* The Orioles have received nothing from the SS position, but they wouldn’t trade much for a SS, as they employ Manny Machado, whom they can move to the position and instantly have one of the best SS – maybe THE best – in the game.

Game 40, Athletics at Mariners

May 16, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 14 Comments 

Chase de Jong vs. Andrew Triggs, 7:10pm

As we approach the quarter mark on the season, the M’s playoff odds rest between 15% (Fangraphs) and 25% (BP). That sounds more optimistic than it should, considering the glut of teams in their way. Click to Fangraphs Wildcard Odds graphs, and…the M’s don’t appear, as there are six teams with better chances. There are a number of reasons for this state of affairs, from the horror-movie like injury rate amongst pitchers to the fact that Baltimore/New York and especially Houston have already booked a ton of wins. It looks bleak, friends. And yet the news that Mitch Haniger is nearing his return and was doing agility and sprint drills in the OF today has me feeling, well, no, not optimistic (that would be weird and off-brand), but something like curious. For a long, long time, we’ve seen a train wreck approaching. The M’s had guaranteed hundreds of millions to their aging core plus Kyle Seager, and struggled to find anything like a competent supporting cast. Their window to contend seemed – seems – to be closing pretty soon, and if they *really* fall out of this, there’s not much they can DO. They can’t sell high on Nelson Cruz, because his surplus value and age mean he’s not going to command the kind of prospect haul that other teams, even those selling baseball players who aren’t as good, netted in return. They closed the book on selling Felix in a rebuild when they signed him to a market value contract (and once again: I’m really glad they did), and then injuries came along and burned the book. You get the argument here.

Without a big-time trade, the M’s would have to either land a Kris Bryant-type in the draft, which hasn’t happened to date, *and* find young, could-be-superstars some other way. International free agency worked for the M’s a long time ago (when they found Felix, for example), but Jerry Dipoto hasn’t seemed all that interested in that realm, so you’re down to the draft (and the non-rebuilding M’s aren’t going to have #1-#3 picks) or comparatively minor trades. If Jean Segura keeps this up, and if Mitch Haniger is anywhere close to as good as he’s shown, they may have done so. I don’t want to sugarcoat this: Segura’s a free agent soon, and Haniger’s been amazing at the big league level for something like 72 hours. But those two plus Gamel start to look intriguing, and cost the M’s a few seasons of an enigmatic starter and the desiccated husk of Dustin Ackley. Baseball is strange.

Wanted to follow up a bit on my musings about the rise in home runs and fly balls a bit. Travis Sawchick quoted the piece in a typically great article at Fangraphs, and today Russell Carleton shows some intriguing data over at BP. It’s a fascinating topic, and I’m especially interested in Carleton’s graphs showing the percentage of HRs that have come against fastballs in recent times. Are batters simply better at hitting fastballs now? Are they simply looking for fastballs and just about ignoring everything else? That’s one of the reasons Carleton links the surge in HRs to the ever-growing strikeout rate. If true, we should see a drop in batting average, and we do, somewhat. We should also see some effect from the fact that fastball usage is declining, though, and I’m not sure we do.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cruz, DH
4: Seager, 3B
5: Valencia, 1B
6: Motter, 2B
7: Heredia, LF
8: Dyson, CF
9: Ruiz, C
SP: de Jong

Robinson Cano was supposed to start yesterday, but was pulled back, and may miss another few days. It’s not another DL trip, but it’s still frustrating. [Edit] Ha ha ha ha…not another DL trip, says the guy who’s learned enough this season to avoid tempting fate. Actually, Cano HAS JUST BEEN PLACED ON THE DL thanks to his hurting quad. The M’s have recalled Boog Powell. We need to bring back code words for players, though of course, that wasn’t enough to save Chris Snelling all those years ago.

The M’s bullpen nearly blew another lead last night, and we’ll probably see some changes at the ends of games. Edwin Diaz’s struggles this year have been immensely frustrating, as his command seems to come and go (and mostly go). Getting him right again is crucial for this team, which honestly hasn’t had a tremendous amount of success with pitchers at the big league level recently (with the possible exception of Yovani Gallardo).

Gallardo’s fastball command wasn’t great last night, and he gave up a loooong HR on one, but it still enabled him to work out of trouble and log another quality start.

Tacoma’s in Omaha to start a series with the Stormchasers tonight. Chris Heston takes the ball for the Rainiers.

Arkansas gave up 3 in the first to NW Arkansas and couldn’t overcome it, dropping a 6-2 decision in the end. Lindsey Caughel went 7, and then Thyago Vieira had another ugly outing in relief; there’ve been a number of disappointing performances in the early going this year, but Vieira’s stands out given his light-speed improvements last year. Max Povse starts for the Travelers tonight.

Modesto beat Cal Quantrill and Lake Elsinore 4-3, with Reggie McClain getting his 5th win and dropping his ERA to 2.59. He’s struck out 17 and walked 1 in his last 3 starts, covering 19 innings. Braden Bishop and Chris Mariscal were both on base 3 times from the 1-2 spots (respectively) in the line-up. No word on tonight’s starter.

Clinton dominated Wisconsin, winning 10-3, as Tim Viehoff started the game with 7 consecutive K’s. He finished the game with..uh, just those 7 Ks in 5 innings. Joe Rizzo had a double and 3 RBIs and Anthony Jimenez had 3 hits for the Lumberkings. The TimberRattlers looked for revenge today, but found an even worse beating, as Clinton won 15-3. 2 Lumberkings had 4 hits each, but the star of the game was clearly Gareth Morgan, who homered twice. The K rate is still nauseating, and he’s not walking quite enough, but he’s somehow upped his slash line to .299/.361/.486, which is very good for the Midwest League. He’s definitely a most improved player candidate.

Game 39, Athletics at Mariners

May 15, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 27 Comments 

Yovani Gallardo vs. Sean Manaea, 7:10pm

The M’s return home to face the Athletics, who are now just a half game behind the M’s in 4th position in the division. The pitching probables after today are Chase de Jong, Christian Bergman, then TBD and TBD. The M’s desperately need to string together some wins against the A’s and White Sox, particularly with a tough road trip looming on the horizon, but the injury plague to their rotation makes that difficult.

For all of the rotation’s problems, Yovani Gallardo’s already surpassed M’s fans’ expectations, I’d think. Gallardo’s FIP of 3.77 would be his best mark since 2011 if he can sustain it, and to his credit, he’s been improving throughout April and into May. Early in the season, his fastball command wasn’t great, as his four-seamer couldn’t generate strikes (called or swinging) and was hit hard when it was put in play. Since his start on April 23rd, his four-seam’s been a very good pitch; batters have zero extra-base hits against it, he’s thrown fewer balls with it, and he’s actually getting some strikeouts. He seems to have a very different approach depending on the handedness of the batter. Here’s a heatmap of his fastballs (combining sinkers/four-seam now) to left-handers, and here’s his fastballs to righties. To southpaws, he’s throwing the ball up and out of the zone, trying to get whiffs and pop-ups. To righties, he’s focused down and away, trying to prevent hitters from pulling the ball. Righties are hitting a few more GBs, and they’re not pulling the ball much. They’re also not striking out, but Gallardo seems content with that trade-off. He’s by no means an ace, but it’s been good to see how Gallardo’s made adjustments and improved his game as the season’s gone on…and as the M’s have come to depend on him more and more.

Sean Manaea remains an intriguing enigma, a pitcher with tremendous talent who doesn’t quite seem to know what he wants to be when he grows up. With a hard four-seamer with plenty of “rise,” Manaea impressed in the second half of 2016, posting low HR and walk totals. This year, his control’s all over the place, but his HRs-allowed have plummetted thanks in part to a ground ball rate that’s nearly *20 percentage points higher* than last year’s. He hasn’t changed arm slot or anything, and his four-seamer seems to have MORE rise than last year. He’s shifted how he pitches to righties (and nearly everyone he faces has been righty) a bit, taking a page out of Gallardo’s book and keeping his fastball away. But unlike Gallardo, that hasn’t shown up in his batted ball profile – they’re still pulling the ball, they’re just doing so on the ground.

Part of his command problems may be due to the shoulder discomfort that sent him to the disabled list in April. He’s been activated for this start, so we’ll see if he’s a bit rusty. This might be a good day to have a patient approach, as the A’s bullpen’s been poor (again) this year.

1: Segura, SS
2: Heredia, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Motter, LF
8: Gamel, RF
9: Gosewisch, C
SP: Gallardo

I joked that I didn’t write anything yesterday because every time I write something, a Mariner gets hurt. How’d that go? Well, the M’s transaction today is activating Steve Cishek from the DL, and optioning Zac Curtis back to Arkansas. Not only that, but Robbie Cano’s back in the line-up. I stop writing and the number of hurt Mariners actually drops…:kisses fingers:

Tacoma kept on winning, taking a 6-4 decision from Round Rock and winning their 4th straight series. Andrew Moore went 6 strong innings, giving up 2 runs on 3 hits and 3 walks, while striking out 5. Tyler Smith and Dan Vogelbach homered and Tyler O’Neill tripled off the big wall in CF. The Rainiers are off today.

Arkansas got a walk-off single from Ian Miller to down Springfield 8-7. The Travs couldn’t hold leads of 5-2 and 7-4, but all’s well that ends well. Miller had 3 hits, and SS Joey Wong went 4-4. New pick-up Austin Kubitza (brother of long time Angels prospect Kyle Kubitza) debuted with an inning of 2 H, one HBP, one K ball, giving up a run, and Peter Tago K’d 6 in two scoreless IP. Lindsey Caughel leads the Travs against Northwest Arkansas tonight.

Lake Elsinore downed Modesto 7-5 thanks to a 4-run 6th, as starter Anthony Misiewicz ran into trouble, and reliever Lukas Schiraldi couldn’t get out of it. Eric Filia had four hits for the Nuts, and CF Braden Bishop doubled and walked. The two teams are back at it tonight, with the Storm sending top prospect Cal Quantrill to the mound.

Clinton starts a series with Wisconsin tonight up in Appleton, facing Nattino Diplan of the TimberRattlers. This isn’t Brewers prospect Marcos Diplan, who’s now in AA, and who pitched for Wisconsin last year, but rather more of an org depth type who’s been hit hard in the MWL (at age 23).

Have We Hit ‘Peak Reliever?’

May 15, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

The M’s lost yesterday, painfully, on a Kevin Pillar walk-off HR off of an Edwin Diaz slider. Diaz’s FIP is now 3 runs higher than it was last year, and around 2.8 runs higher than his pre-season projections. The M’s bats were awful in the four-game sweep in Toronto, but as Bob Dutton notes, they’d have won a game or two – despite the offensive woes – with better relief pitching. That’s the context in which I read this article at BaseballProspects about the potentially historic performances (in a bad way) by several bullpens this year. The M’s bullpen has an ERA of 5.22 and a FIP of 4.75, and they’re just dishonorable mentions when discussing the worst ‘pens of 2017. What’s going on here?

Two trends in baseball are more reliable: over time, MLB bullpens pitch more innings and strike out more batters. In 10 years between 2007 and 2016, reliever K/9 went up every single year, and is now essentially at 9, or a K per inning. As the *league average.* Those raised on baseball in the 1980s will never fully be able to comprehend that statistic, but we’ve eased our way to it with small gains every year. At the same time, reliever innings pitched has gone up too, albeit in a slightly different fashion. Reliever’s share of total innings pitched dipped a bit in 2010 and 2011, as the drop in run scoring made starters look better, but it’s risen every year since then. By 2015-16, reliever share of total innings had blown past where it was in 2007-8, and it doesn’t show signs of stopping now.

This makes some sense, given the shift in recent years to building super-pens with two or three dominant set-up men, often highly compensated. This is what I talked about before the 2016 season, when the Yankees assembled Champman/Betances/Miller, and the Royals were coming off a WS win headlined by their pen (Davis/Holland/Herrera). However, despite the big increase in valuation and yet another increase in workload, relievers, as a group, didn’t pitch any better. After bottoming out in 2014, reliever ERA rose in 2015 and 2016, and is higher still thus far in 2017 – same with FIP. The share of inherited runners that score has increased in each year since 2014, when relievers let only 28% of runners score. It was 30% last year and 31% this year, a figure not seen since 2010. Relievers are giving up more runs themselves, and giving up more that are charged to others. That’s not ideal.

It could be a consequence of the growth in workload, though. With more innings to go around, maybe teams are giving more appearances to guys who simply aren’t MLB quality. If *that* were true, we’d probably see each team’s context stats stay the same or improve while the overall run totals and averages declined. It’s one thing to give the last man in the bullpen some garbage time when leverage is lowest, but it’d not like those guys are poaching closers’ innings. This is much tougher to show, as stats like RE24 and RE Wins are much, much more volatile. However, it’s worth noting that bullpens have averaged 269 runs above average in bullpen RE24, or about 29 wins per year from 2007-2016. This year, they’re on pace for 94 runs and 8 wins, respectively. Their context stats have fallen through the floor, implying that this reliever swoon we’ve seen extends far past the Overtons of the world.

As Rob Mains wrote in that BP piece I linked above, he noted that bullpen ERA’s advantage over starter ERA is down this year, and while traditionally a bit less than 1/4 of teams have a bullpen ERA higher than their starters’, 12 out of 30 do this year. I’ve done some of my own digging, and can say that relievers’ share of total runs allowed is higher this year than it’s been since 2007, and presumably a lot longer ago than that. Same with their share of total HRs-allowed. That may be due to increasing usage, of course, so I tried to correct for that by taking the ratio of the pen’s share of runs allowed to their share of IP. When we do, we see that relievers’ share of runs allowed, controlling (poorly, probably) for IP has generally ticked up since 2012.

Share of Runs (Cont.)  
2012 91.6%  
2013 92.9%  
2014 95.6%  
2015 95.2%  
2016 94.1%  
2017 97.7%

By ERA, RE24, FIP, whatever, that 2012 year stands out as a local maximum for bullpen performance. Yes, overall run scoring was lower then, but even still, relievers were dominant vis a vis starters. The gap between relief and starting ERA peaked that year, and the share of runs attributed to the bullpen – accounting for IP – was the lowest in our 2007-2017 sample. Since that time, K rates have gone up, and we keep talking about giving even more innings to the most dominant pitchers of their era (Miller, Betances, etc.), and yet the group keeps slipping. It’s possible that this is a fluke; WPA and context metrics are volatile, after all, and FIP likes the 2017 bullpen crew a lot better than ERA and RE24. Further, the delta between starters’ OPS-against and relievers is unchanged (and higher than it was a few years back). But what if there’s signal hidden in the noise of the context stats? Given that ERA has been rising along with the share of runs allowed, what if hitters are simply better at hitting relievers, even as they’re still more likely to strike out? What if it’s harder to sustain excellent relief pitching performance, and thus relievers really are more volatile than we thought – look at Edwin Diaz, or Darren O’Day, or Sam Dyson, etc? If it *is,* then baseball looks a bit different. It was just a few years ago that we were worried that we’d see fewer and fewer lead changes late in games. That doesn’t seem to be happening.

Ultimately, this may be more of an issue for front offices and how they assign a dollar value to relievers than it is about how teams should utilize their players. The times-through-the-order penalty hasn’t gone away, and it’s madness to suggest the M’s stick with :checks notepad: Christian…Bergman? through the 7th inning rather than handing the ball to the pen and, yes, Diaz. But a year or two after thinking that relievers were still undervalued and that the future of baseball would look more like the 2016 playoffs, I wonder if we might have hit Peak Reliever. The more batters react to and adjust to guys who pop up with dominant reliever seasons, the harder it is to sustain that level of success (even accounting for regression), as you can see by looking at last year’s fWAR leaderboard. Addison Reed, Seung-Hwan Oh, Jeurys Familia and Kyle Barraclough have been replaced by the likes of Corey Knebel, Tommy Kahnle and Ross Stripling. Sure, your name brand guys like Miller, Kimbrel and Jansen remain, but there’s a lot of churn outside that group. Managers need to figure out – quickly – if this is bad luck or batters “booking” certain relievers. Maybe they’re becoming more used to elite velocity thanks to seeing the likes of Noah Syndergaard and James Paxton as starters. Maybe the fact that relievers throw more four-seam fastballs matters, or maybe it’s pure coincidence. I don’t know. But it’s not just Mariner fans who think that the bullpen’s been worse this year, and the implications of that could be far-reaching.

Game 37, Mariners at Blue Jays

May 13, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 37 Comments 

Ryan Weber vs. Marcus Stroman, 10:07 am

The logic imposed by MLB roster rules is unforgiving. Given the scale of the M’s injury problems, a remarkable number of players who opened the year on minor league contracts or off of the 40-man roster have gotten a chance to play in the big leagues. But as the M’s search for starters has deepened (Hisashi Iwakuma is now out for 4-6 weeks, not 10 days), other non-roster players are getting squeezed. To make room for Ryan Weber on the 25- and 40-man, the M’s DFA’d RP Jean Machi. Machi had pitched pretty well, but can’t pitch again this weekend after a long stint yesterday. They can’t recall Dan Altavilla after just sending him down, and can’t cycle through back end starters anymore, because all of them are needed. Hence, Machi may leave a pitching-starved org after pitching reasonably well.

Ryan Weber pitched for Atlanta last year, but seems to have refined his command in Tacoma, as he’s been great for the Rainiers. The low arm-slot righty has been a ground ball machine in AAA, and has posted a low walk rate and hit rate, too. As with Christian Bergman, he seemed to be on the outside looking in, frozen behind starters on the 40-man like Dillon Overton and Chase de Jong, even while comprehensively outpitching them in AAA. Injuries have democratized opportunities, though, and now everyone gets a turn.

The M’s face Marcus Stroman, who’s somehow making his first start against them. The undersized RHP has a great sinker at about 94 MPH and some serious sink. It’s made Stroman a ground ball pitcher, which has in turn allowed him to keep his HRs-allowed pretty low for given he pitches in Toronto in 2016-17. He throws a slider, too, but doesn’t exhibit huge platoon splits.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cruz, DH
4: Seager, 3B
5: Valencia, 1B
6: Motter, 2B
7: Heredia, LF
8: Dyson, CF
9: Gosewisch, C

Game 36, Mariners at Blue Jays

May 12, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Christian Bergman vs. Joe Biagini, 4:00

I’m off in Eastern Washington this weekend, so we’re going to be light on details. That’s probably ok for a match up featuring a minor league signing in Bergman and a 2015 Rule 5 reliever in Biagini.

Biagini, whom the Jays plucked from the Giants org, was fantastic last year out of the pen, finishing with a sub-3.00. He’s been great this year too, but the Jays rotation is as best up as the M’s, and Biagini has three/four pitches, so they’re giving a chance to start. This’ll be his second big league start. The first lasted ~50 pitches, and this one’s scheduled for about 70.

Biagini throws in the low 90s, and has a real over the top delivery, though he gets a bit more run than you’d think, given his release point. Whether it’s the armside run or the vaunted ‘downward plane,’ Biagini is a real ground ball maven, despite above average ‘rise.’

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cruz, DH
4: Seager, 3B
5: Valencia, 1B
6: Heredia, LF
7: Motter, 2B
8: Ruiz, C
9: Dyson, CF

Game 35, Mariners at Blue Jays

May 11, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 7 Comments 

Chase de Jong vs. Marco Estrada, 4:00pm

Ok, so let’s get to today’s transactions! The M’s have sent down Dan Altavilla and recalled reliever Zac Curtis, who’s been with Arkansas this year. Curtis is a lefty the M’s got from Arizona as the third piece of the huge Haniger/Segura/Walker/Marte trade. He throws about 91, and has a very low arm slot, leading to some sink on his four-seam fastball. He has a change-up and slider, as well. The change is thrown hard, at 85-86, while the slider has a more traditional separation in velocity from his fastball. The diminutive Curtis struck out 13 and walked 5 in his 14 IP thus far with the Travelers. He pitched roughly the same amount for the Diamondbacks last year, and while it was generally unimpressive, he did post some oddly reversed splits. I didn’t think much of it, but he seems to have done that in the minors as well. His K rate’s generally been higher against righties than lefties. That might indicate his change is a bit better than his slider at this point, or it may have something to do with some deception in his delivery. Or maybe it’s nothing! Just striking to see a side-arming sinking fastball/slider guy have reverse splits over any length of time.

The M’s also picked up a right-handed reliever in Casey Lawrence, whom the Blue Jays DFA’d 2 days ago. Lawrence has been a starting pitcher in his minor league career, and made 2 starts for the Jays here in 2017, but a move to the pen hasn’t helped him. He’s given up 11 walks (3 intentional) against just 7 Ks in 13+ innings, and has been hit hard. Unlike Curtis, Lawrence’s platoon splits are a bit easier to understand. He has a sinker with lots of armside run, a slider and a change, all thrown from a low 3/4 arm slot. That seems like it’d be good news for lefty batters, and they’ve annihilated Lawrence this year. He’ll head to Tacoma, and take the 40-man spot of Evan Scribner, who’s been moved to the 60-day DL.

The M’s are at .500 again despite a plague of injuries. Their offense is now legitimately scary, and it’s quite novel to go into a match-up with Toronto and compare line-ups and almost feel sorry for the Jays. Toronto’s been one of the most disappointing teams in baseball, and they may be better than their record, but wwwwwoooowww today’s line-up looks bad. Justin Smoak, clean-up hitter! 6 hitters in their line-up have an OBP under .300 on the year, and Jose Bautista, who’s OBP is just barely above .300, has a SLG% under .300. On the other side, the M’s first 7 hitters are all above league average, most of them way, way above. We started the year talking about the middle of the order, the 3-4-5 core of Cano/Cruz/Seager, but the top of the line-up has been ridiculous all year, and their 1+2 hitters have been an OPS+ 96% higher than league average. Thank you, Jean, Mitch, and Ben. And yes, yes, I know it’s silly to look at early season stats instead of looking at the player’s career; I’m aware Jose Bautista doesn’t actually suck. But even doing that, would anyone take the Jays line-up over the M’s? Forget club control or how they’d age; the M’s line-up is flat out better, and I can’t remember the last time I could’ve said that before a game in Toronto.

You’ll notice that this line-up does not include Guillermo Heredia. Bob Dutton reports that this is due to a delay at the border, where Canadian officials wanted to take a closer look at the paperwork of Heredia and Ariel Miranda (the two Cuban defectors). They’re supposed to arrive later, likely when the game’s underway. Taylor Motter’s the beneficiary today, as he’ll make the start in LF.

1: Segura, SS
2: Gamel, RF
3: Cano, 2B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Seager, 3B
5: Valencia, 1B
6: Motter, LF
7: Freeman, 2B
8: Gosewisch, C
9: Dyson, CF

[Edit] Looks like Robbie Cano’s quad injury’s sidelined him today. Mike Freeman will take his spot today.

Marco Estrada’s the Toronto starter, and he’s one of the unlikeliest stars in the game. For years, he’s gotten away with a flurry of slow, elevated fastballs. This approach caused serious HR problems in Milwaukee, but he’s been even better since his move to the AL. This year, his K rate’s at a career high, and his HR rate continues to fall. He’s been underrated for years by Fangraphs’ WAR, as his approach produced a consistently low BABIP, something fWAR didn’t take into account. But this year, even his FIP looks well above average. He’s pitched some good games against the M’s in the past, but this year’s club is really hammering high pitches. Using the 5-zone gameday definition of a high pitch, the M’s have the 3rd best wOBA in baseball against high pitches, trailing only the Yankees and Nationals.

Tacoma hosts Round Rock tonight, with Kyle Hunter on the mound for the Rainiers against knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa. Casey Lawrence is heading to Tacoma, and may fill the void created when the M’s called up Sam Gaviglio.

Arkansas faces Springfield again, with Dylan Unsworth facing off with Jack Flaherty, who’s held the Travelers to 1 run in 11 IP over 2 starts this year.

Modesto’s at Lancaster, where Nathan Bannister – who filled in admirably for Tacoma – faces off against Jesus Tinoco of the Jethawks. Lancaster beat Modesto 5-3 last night, scoring 4 off starter Reggie McClain, who’s been very good for the Nuts this year.

Clinton was rained out yesterday, but they’ll host Great Lakes today to kick off a new series. Ljay Newsome takes the mound for the Lumberkings against Devin Smeltzer of the Loons. Smeltzer has 39 Ks and just 3 walks thus far in 27 1/3 IP. It’s not common for someone to even approach Newsome in the K:BB ratio category (Ljay stands at 34:2), but here we are. Should be a good game.

Ben Gamel, Another Fly Ball Revolutionary

May 11, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners · 6 Comments 

After yesterday’s game, Ben Gamel’s slash line is up to .363/.475/.588. A hitter I thought might wash out due to an overly passive approach combined with remarkably little power for his position has turned into a dominant hitter. Will this last? No, not THIS level, but he’s done enough to show that he’s fundamentally different from the hitter we saw last year, and, from the looks of things, different from the guy who came up in the Yankees system.

This is a familiar refrain this year. I mentioned Taylor Motter’s transformation in April, and while the guy still can’t quite get regular playing time, he’s still been a solid hitter. Jean Segura’s metamorphosis happened last year in Arizona, and Mitch Haniger’s happened in Arizona’s minor league system.

Looking out beyond our local team, the talk of baseball has been the remarkable starts for Yonder Alonso and Ryan Zimmerman, two 1Bs who put up atrocious lines last year, and seemed like candidates for DFAs (Alonso) or cautionary tales about contract extensions (Zimmerman) instead of All Star/MVP votes. All of these sudden changes affect more than the player’s batting average of course. With Statcast data, we can now document that a change in swing path has occurred, or added batted ball speed, or see the effects in ground ball rate and the like. Alonso and Zimmerman have been the poster boys for the fly ball revolution, or adding loft to their swings and going from under-powered disappointments to home run mashing monsters. This stuff is everywhere; I was watching a Dodgers game the other day, and the broadcast was talking about Chris Taylor trying to elevate the ball more. I mentioned it with Cesar Hernandez, and Ryan Schimpf in San Diego’s another light-weight example. It’s not just for hulking 1Bs.

Ben Gamel’s doing much the same thing here in Seattle, and while he’s not producing tons of home runs, the changes in his swing are generating positive returns in other ways. But the more you look at Gamel and Motter (or the more you look at Alonso and Zimmerman for that matter) the more you see the differences in their changes. Yes, many players have manifestly different outcomes this year, and yes, those results seem to be the product of altered swings and approaches to at-bats, but there are many roads to excellent statcast numbers. In this post, I wanted to highlight what Gamel’s doing, and how different it is to what Motter was and is doing, and highlight how subtle some of these adjustments are. Then, I want to talk a bit about why we don’t see a lot more league-wide evidence of a “revolution” when more and more players are changing their swing paths, and more and more teams are preaching the gospel of fly balls.

A year ago, the average batted ball came off the bat at an angle of 10.8 degrees and at a speed of 87.6 MPH. That angle’s actually pretty good, as, according to MLB’s Tom Tango, batters maximize their expected batting average at around 12 degrees (you won’t hit HRs at that angle, but you can get plenty of base hits). Batters with average launch angles lower than average are, in general, going to hit a lot of grounders and not much power. Those with angles above the average *could* hit for power, but only if they hit the ball hard enough. This is intuitive, but important: a low average exit speed combined with a higher launch angle – even if that higher launch angle is often seen as ideal for others – is a terrible combination. Each batter can try and alter one or both variables – angle and speed.

As we discussed earlier, Motter’s launch angle hasn’t changed all that much from 2016. It was 11.6 last year, and it’s 15 degrees now. His 2016 average was higher than our other “fly ball revolutionaries” (Gamel, Alonso, Zimmerman), but he was still awful because he combined that angle with well below average exit velocity. He elevated weakly hit balls, and that’s a recipe for disaster. Statcast now has an “Expected wOBA” measure using angle/speed, and by that metric, Motter deserved his crappy 2016 line; given his balls in play, we would expect them to produce a wOBA of .282, pretty close to his actual line of .267. Gamel was even worse. His average launch angle was just 3.7 degrees, less than half of Ryan Zimmerman’s 2016 rate, and a third of Motter’s. He hit the ball about as hard as Motter – his average was just a fraction higher than his future teammate’s. Add those to ingredients together, and Gamel’s expected wOBA was .270, which, for a corner OF, is about 2 steps below replacement level.

This season, Motter’s hitting the ball much, much harder. In our group of four, his year over year increase in batted ball speed dwarfs the rest. This focus on power has produced a big change in the percentage of the balls he pulls. In fact, Motter leads all of MLB in pull percentage. He’s lost some ground balls in the process, but he’s also avoiding infield fly balls.

Gamel’s increased his batted ball speed too, to around 90 MPH, or above the league average. It’s not up with Motter or Ryan Zimmerman, but it’s playable. The big change with Gamel is his launch angle, which went from 3.7 to 11.8 degrees. Now, what used to be ground balls are turning into line drives. He’s shaved 15 percentage points off of his ground ball rate, and he’s yet to hit an infield pop-up, meaning those grounders are now LDs and fly balls. Here’s a visualization of his batted balls via Statcast.
Gamel exit veloEssentially everything he hits is between 0 and 40 degrees, with maximum velocity at around 20 degrees. That’s a recipe for gap power, and it’s pushed Gamel’s xwOBA to .415, close-ish to his off-the-charts actual wOBA of .457. Gamel’s the guy who’s actually altered his swing path. Motter left his essentially unchanged, but is selling out for power, looking for balls to turn on and then swinging like hell at them. Gamel’s using more of the field, but avoiding mis-angled hits like the plague.

Gamel’s closer to what Yonder Alonso’s done. Alonso had a launch angle of around 10 degrees last year, a touch below average (and Motter), and an average exit speed right around league average (a touch above). This year, he’s *doubled* his average launch angle. It’s now 21.6 degrees, by far the highest of our group. He and Gamel have very similar exit velocities now, and both trail Motter/Zimmerman by a few ticks. His batted ball profile is totally different now, with a shift of about *20 percentage points* moving from the ground ball column over into fly balls. This is how a guy who hit 12 HRs across *934 PAs* from 2015-2016 now has 11 HRs in 113 2017 PAs.

So if Gamel’s a subtler, more line-drivey, version of Alonso’s changes, are there similarities between Motter and Zimmerman? No. As you’ve probably heard, Zimmerman already hit the ball hard – far above average in 2016, and far, far ahead of anyone else in our group. His average launch angle wasn’t great, at just 9 degrees, but it wasn’t *that* different from Alonso’s or Motter’s. He was unlucky to be sure, but he wasn’t going to be great with that combination of angle/speed.

One thing that’s kind of interesting about Zimmerman is the distribution of his batted balls. Last year, his modal batted ball was right around 0, hence his nearly 50% ground ball rate. He hit a few fly balls, and hit a few chopped grounders, but the distribution looks tighter than it does for most hitters:
Zimmerman 2016

This year, Zimmerman’s launch angle has moved from 9 degrees waaaay up to…11 degrees. As far as revolutionary changes go, this leaves a little to be desired. Our poster boy for the fly ball revolution has the lowest average launch angle in the group. Luckily for him, changes don’t need to be sweeping to produce sweeping effects. He’s still got that tightly-bunched distribution of batted balls, but instead of centering below the average, it’s right on it. He’s hitting ton of balls at ~ 10 degrees:
Ryan Zimmerman(1)

Even better, his *best* contact, the balls hit the hardest, have been those hit between about 15-25 degrees. That’s why he’s slugging .820 at the moment.
Ryan Zimmerman(2)

Zimmerman’s seemingly subtle changes have transformed him. Gamel’s changes have taken him from someone I considered a lost cause to an eye-opening story. Especially at this point in the year, I’m sympathetic to charges that this is all small sample noise. Gamel doesn’t have much of a big league track record, after all. But over the course of several MiLB seasons, he’d shown he was a reliably under-powered hitter, with ISOs under .100 in a couple of full seasons, and ground ball rates from 45-50%. Even in a small sample, what he’s showing this year is radically different. He may not be able to keep up this pace, but he’s shown that just applying an MLE to his minor league numbers isn’t going to work.

So we’ve seen a number of different hitters tweak a couple of different variables. They’ve changed their batted ball profiles and become much, much better hitters, but they’ve taken different paths. There may BE a wrong way to go about this, but there are clearly several right ways. Teams see this, and players see this (Zimmerman may have talked to teammate Daniel Murphy for some advice in his swing path), and players from Josh Donaldson to Murphy have gone from average or fringe big leaguers to highly paid superstars. So is the league as a whole hitting more fly balls and fewer grounders? No, it’s not.

The league-wide GB% is 44.5% this year. It was 44.3% in 2010, and 44.7% last year. There’s simply no evidence of a clear and obvious shift here. Why not? This reminds me a bit of the talk around infield shifts the past few years. At first it was just the Rays, but then more and more teams started doing it, and league-wide shifts soared, doubling or tripling several years in a row. And league-wide BABIPs…didn’t budge. As revolutions go, the fly ball revolution – like ShiftMania – has been remarkably quiet.

I have no idea, really, but I’ll put up a hypotheses. My idea is that we have two large-scale trends that may be counteracting each other. The past several years have seen more and more low pitches thrown, as the strike zone expanded downward. This year, 54.9% of pitches are in the bottom third of the zone or below. Last year, it was 51.3%,* and in 2015, 51.2%. Back in 2012? Just 48%. Pitch height and ground balls are correlated; throwing a pitch lower makes it more likely to be hit on the ground. This study by Gerald Schifman goes into a lot of detail, but for now, the point is that with more and more low pitches (and more and more non-fastballs), we should be seeing a spike in ground balls. As we just saw, we’re not. Pitchers are doing everything they can to generate MORE grounders, while batters seem to be tweaking their swing plane to add loft**, and the two seem to be almost exactly canceling each other out. For every Zimmerman, a Keuchel; for every Gamel, a Stroman.

What do you think? Will we eventually see an uptick in fly balls, especially now that the strike zone isn’t growing any more (and may be shrinking)?

* I know pitch velocity measurement changed between 2016 and 2017, as MLB shifted from pitch fx to statcast, but I don’t know if these location data also changed. I don’t think so, but if they did, then this may not be as dramatic a shift.

** Remember, the big increase in HRs league wide isn’t coming on high pitches…it’s happening on low pitches.

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