Scouting the Prospects Acquired for Jameson Taillon

Sunday, the Pirates traded starter Jameson Taillon to the Yankees for a package of four prospects. Dan Szymborksi will provide in-depth analysis of the deal as it pertains to the Yankees soon, though I’ll note to start that with the return of Luis Severino and Domingo Germán and the additions of Corey Kluber and now Taillon, the Yankees rotation will be reliant on several high-risk, high-reward starters this season.

Of course, nobody likes trading away good big leaguers, especially those who the club and city care about for reasons beyond their on-field performance. Taillon has persevered through a lot, including testicular cancer and an August 2019 Tommy John, the second such surgery of his career. When he next steps on a big league mound, it will have been nearly two years since he last did so. That layoff (he has been throwing live BP to hitters since late last summer and has been throwing bullpens during the offseason) creates volatility that mirrors the added volatility of this particular prospect package. Taillon could be an anchor of the Yankees rotation next year or might be a shell of himself. Regardless of which he would have been in Pittsburgh, the Pirates are not ready to compete and so I think they did well to trade him for four good prospects today, acquiring upside but also mitigating risk by getting several players in return.

On to those prospects. The quartet heading back to Pittsburgh — righties Miguel Yajure (age 22) and Roansy Contreras (21), 21-year-old outfielder Canaan Smith-Njigba, and 18-year-old shortstop Maikol Escotto — is a pretty exciting. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunday Notes: Mitch Keller Bows to the BABIP Gods

Mitch Keller has only thrown 69-and-a-third big-league innings, and he’s already had a remarkable career. The baseball gods are a big reason why. In his 2019 rookie season, the now-24-year-old Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander had a 7.13 ERA to go with a 3.19 FIP, and this past season he had a 2.91 ERA to go with a 6.75 FIP.

Hello, BABIP.

In an almost-inexplicable quirk of fate, Keller followed up a .475 BABIP — the highest one-season mark in MLB history — with a .104 BABIP in 2020. No pitcher who threw 20-or-more innings in last year’s pandemic-truncated campaign had a smaller percentage of balls put in play against him fall safely to the turf. This happened with an average exit velocity of 88.5 mph, which was higher than the 87.6 he’d allowed in 2019.

Ben Lindbergh wrote about Keller’s snake-bit season for The Ringer last spring, and the conversation they had prior to publication is what brought the data to the fore.

“I remember getting off that phone call and looking it up myself,” said Keller. “I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness. That’s crazy.’ I knew that I had a high BABIP, but I had no idea it was the highest in history. Once he told me, it wasn’t like I was coming back to the dugout thinking, ‘Man, I think I’m having some bad luck.’ It was actually on paper, as a stat. It was, ‘No, seriously. I was having bad luck.” Read the rest of this entry »


Reds Add Bullpen Depth in Trades With Blue Jays, Astros

Over the last two days, the Reds have made a couple of small trades — acquiring Hector Perez from Toronto for a PTBNL or cash and Cionel Pérez from Houston for former South Carolina catcher Luke Berryhill — to bolster their bullpen depth. These are the latest in a series of transactions that are part of an obvious effort to pick up change of scenery candidates (Jeff Hoffman, the Perez(s), Art Warren), or players falling off the bottom of other rosters (Edgar Ernesto Garcia, Brandon Bailey) to try to create an above-replacement injury/COVID safety valve at the bottom of Cincinnati’s active roster and in the upper minors. This might prove especially important if the team’s 2021 innings are spread across more pitchers to prevent huge workload increases after the shortened season. Read the rest of this entry »


Effectively Wild Episode 1646: Farewell to 44

EWFI
Ben Lindbergh and Meg Rowley reflect on the on-field feats, statistical records, and larger legacy of baseball icon Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron, who died on Friday at age 86. Then (25:47) they talk to Joe Lowry of Prospects Live about the ongoing boom in baseball cards, touching on why 2020 fueled a surge in sports-card collecting, how baseball cards have changed since the ’80s and ’90s, the finer points of breaking, box wars, and prospect cards, the demographics of current card collectors, digital cards, how to get back into baseball cards after a hiatus from the hobby, and more.

Audio intro: The Baseball Project, "They Don’t Know Henry"
Audio interstitial: Chuck D, "It’s So Hard to See My Baseball Cards Move On"
Audio outro: Gene Clark, "Home Run King"

Link to New York Times Aaron obit
Link to Washington Post Aaron obit
Link to Howard Bryant’s Aaron obit
Link to Claire Smith on Aaron
Link to Joe Posnanski on Aaron
Link to Michael Baumann on Aaron
Link to Zach Kram on Aaron’s stats
Link to Neil Paine on Aaron’s stats
Link to Posnanski’s Baseball 100 entry on Aaron
Link to Dayn Perry on Aaron
Link to Matt Trueblood on Aaron’s mid-career shift
Link to Jay Jaffe on Aaron’s home-run rate
Link to Aaron’s neutralized stats
Link to story about Aaron’s philanthropy
Link to Craig Wright on Aaron as a second baseman
Link to Wright on the last Negro Leaguer to make MLB
Link to story on record Mantle card sale
Link to Emma Baccellieri on the baseball-card boom
Link to Andy McCullough on Phil Hughes
Link to Joe on card collecting in 2020
Link to Joe on prospect cards
Link to Joe on Jasson Dominguez
Link to Joe on card breaking
Link to Joe on box wars
Link to Slate on digital baseball cards

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Digital Love: Why ZiPS Thinks Lucas Giolito is Top of the Charts

In the 2021 ZiPS projections that are live on this very website, Lucas Giolito is projected with the most WAR of any pitcher in baseball. If my social media is any indication, this projection is, so far at least, the source for the most joy and the most consternation. What is it about Chicago’s young ace that gives him such an aggressively optimistic projection?

One of the common complaints you see from readers about projections is that they don’t go out on a limb very often. To me, this makes perfect sense: when talking about the mean projections, massive performance changes should rarely be the player’s typical expectation. Think back on José Bautista back in 2010. At the time, Joey Bats was a player pushing 30 who had hit .238/.329/.400 in the majors in more than 2,000 plate appearances for five major league teams. As we now know, his destiny was to explode on the scene, slugging .617 for the Blue Jays, resulting in the first of his eventual six All-Star appearances. But that doesn’t mean that his baseline projection going into 2010 should have reflected that result; that unlikely things happen doesn’t mean that they weren’t unlikely.

Projections do go out on a limb, but in a conservative sort of way. One of the more notable examples in recent years is the 2019 ZiPS projection for Shane Bieber. With a 4.55 career ERA (but a 3.23 FIP!) in just 114 2/3 major league innings entering the season, ZiPS gave Bieber an optimistic projection as the 14th most valuable pitcher in baseball with a 3.71 ERA over 187 innings for 3.8 WAR. That was enough to put him just behind Clayton Kershaw and ahead of notables such as Zack Greinke, Noah Syndergaard, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. Not only did Bieber meet this projection, but he also exceeded it, finishing eighth in WAR among pitchers at 5.6.

But why did ZiPS love the Beebs so much? It wasn’t one factor. Instead, it was an accumulation of smaller positive factors that significantly outnumbered the negative ones. Bieber was only 24. He had a record in the minors and majors that suggested he could avoid lofty gopher ball totals. His BABIP in his rookie year was extremely high. From his quality-of-contact data, ZiPS thought that batters “should have” hit .252 and slugged .415 against him in 2018 when the actual numbers were .285 and .467. And so on.

It’s the same thing for Giolito entering the 2021 season. No, he isn’t in the same position as Bieber was entering 2019, given that he’s already received Cy Young votes in two seasons. But it does take something special to get ranked No. 1 with a bullet. His top-notch projection doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen, only that it’s more likely to occur than the downside scenarios. And the latter do exist: ZiPS projects a 15% chance that Giolito will be worse than a league-average starter and about a 7% chance he’ll have an ERA on the wrong side of five, both things that would have a very negative effect on Chicago’s 2021 fate.

So what are some of the reasons for this digital love?

Lucas Giolito is Still Relatively Young

Pitchers don’t have a typical age curve, but it’s still preferable to be in your twenties than in your thirties. Like Bieber, the height of Giolito’s ceiling remains an unknown. Both Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom are amazing pitchers, but after a few more years in the majors, there’s less uncertainty about their remaining upside. Superstars in their mid-20s, on the other hand, frequently have another gear or two remaining. Among Giolito’s top comparables were a multitude of youngish pitchers who were already stars and did have such performance bumps remaining: Greg Maddux, Jose Rijo, Dave Stieb, Brandon Webb, and so on.

Of the top 50 most comparable pitchers in Giolito’s cohort, 32 of them beat their baseline performance estimates over the following three seasons — an astounding rate of success given how attrition claims pitchers. For Cole, that number is only 23; for deGrom, 26; and for Max Scherzer, 19.

Lucas Giolito is Well-Suited for his Home Park

Home run rates for pitchers are volatile, but they’re not random. Giolito fares well in velocity and barrel-based numbers and was in the top-tier in most of these measures in 2020. Among the pitchers projected in the top 10 overall in ZiPS, only Luis Castillo consistently beat him. And this is especially important because of the characteristics of the park. Guaranteed Rate Field (that name still makes me cringe) is a bit of an unusual bird, a homer-friendly park that tends to be neutral overall. For a pitcher with an elite ability to avoid batters crushing his pitches, this provides an opportunity to squeeze out a little more value. In other words, while Guaranteed Rate is a neutral park for everyone, Giolito’s homer-avoiding tendency makes it a de facto pitchers’ park for him. This one of the reasons ZiPS liked Dallas Keuchel’s chances at a bounceback season in 2020 and continues to think he’ll be very productive for the Sox. Were this a neutral park, Giolito would lose just enough in his projection to drop him to third in the league in WAR.

Lucas Giolito Left Some Strikeouts on the Table

At a 33.7% strikeout rate, Giolito certainly wasn’t struggling to punch out batters. But from the across-the-board improvement in his contact numbers in 2020, ZiPS thinks that he should have seen a larger bump in his strikeout rate from 2019’s 32.3% rate.

As part of its model for calculating baseline expectations, ZiPS has a measurement that I’ve dubbed zSO. (The Z stands for ZiPS, as you may have guessed.) Using contact data, velocity numbers, and the like, ZiPS makes an estimate from how many strikeouts a pitcher “should” have ended up with. It’s not a number I pulled out of my hat but one used as part of the model because it has more predictive value than actual strikeouts. Going back to 2002, if all you knew about a pitcher was his strikeout rate and his zSO rate, you’d have predicted the following year’s strikeout rate most accurately with a mix that was 82% zSO and 18% actual.

ZiPS Strikeout Underachievers (min. 500 TBF)
Pitcher Year Actual K% zSO% Difference Following Season
Francisco Liriano 2011 19.0% 24.4% 5.4% 24.1%
Mike Pelfrey 2016 10.4% 15.6% 5.2% 14.5%
Martín Pérez 2013 15.9% 21.1% 5.2% 16.9%
Martín Pérez 2017 13.1% 18.2% 5.1% 18.3%
Luis Castillo 2018 23.3% 28.3% 5.0% 28.9%
Jeff Fassero 2004 11.8% 16.8% 5.0% 15.6%
CC Sabathia 2008 24.5% 29.5% 5.0% 21.0%
Jeremy Hellickson 2011 15.1% 20.0% 4.9% 16.7%
Jason Vargas 2017 17.7% 22.6% 4.9% 20.8%
Craig Stammen 2010 15.1% 20.0% 4.9% 31.6%
John Smoltz 2007 23.1% 27.7% 4.6% 30.8%
Kelvim Escobar 2006 18.6% 23.1% 4.5% 19.7%
Kevin Correia 2008 12.8% 17.2% 4.4% 17.1%
Jon Lieber 2004 13.6% 17.8% 4.2% 16.3%
Kyle Gibson 2017 17.5% 21.6% 4.1% 21.7%

 

ZiPS Strikeout Overachievers (min. 500 TBF)
Pitcher Year Actual K% zSO% Difference Following Season
JA Happ 2018 26.3% 19.7% -6.6% 20.6%
Stephen Strasburg 2016 30.6% 24.0% -6.6% 29.1%
Erik Bedard 2007 30.2% 23.6% -6.6% 20.7%
Lance Lynn 2013 23.1% 16.7% -6.4% 20.9%
Zack Greinke 2011 28.1% 22.5% -5.6% 23.0%
Tanner Roark 2019 21.9% 16.3% -5.6% 18.6%
Mike Fiers 2012 25.0% 19.6% -5.4% 14.6%
Mike Mussina 2003 22.8% 17.5% -5.3% 18.9%
José Quintana 2017 26.2% 20.9% -5.3% 21.4%
Tim Lincecum 2009 28.8% 23.7% -5.1% 25.8%
Eduardo Rodriguez 2018 26.4% 21.5% -4.9% 24.8%
Gerrit Cole 2019 39.9% 35.0% -4.9% 32.6%
Rick Porcello 2018 23.5% 18.7% -4.8% 18.6%
Yovani Gallardo 2012 23.7% 19.0% -4.7% 18.6%
Jon Lester 2019 21.6% 16.9% -4.7% 15.8%

Looking at the top 15, while zSO is far from infallible — all models are wrong, but some are useful — it had a solid record at identifying the strikeout outliers correctly. So what about the 2020 season? There’s a lower minimum batters faced here (200 batters faced) because of the short season, so you’ll see some larger-than-typical variations between actual strikeout rate and zSO.

2020 ZiPS Strikeout Underachievers
Pitcher Actual K Rate zSO Rate Difference
Ryan Yarbrough 18.8% 25.6% 6.8%
Dylan Cease 17.3% 23.8% 6.5%
Tyler Anderson 15.8% 22.1% 6.4%
Julio Urias 20.1% 24.8% 4.7%
Alex Cobb 16.8% 21.4% 4.6%
Alex Young 19.1% 23.0% 3.9%
David Peterson 19.5% 23.4% 3.9%
German Marquez 21.2% 24.9% 3.6%
Anibal Sanchez 17.6% 21.1% 3.5%
Tanner Roark 18.6% 21.9% 3.3%
Zack Wheeler 18.4% 21.6% 3.2%
Jesus Luzardo 23.8% 27.0% 3.2%
Brett Anderson 15.8% 19.0% 3.2%
Antonio Senzatela 13.5% 16.5% 3.0%
Randy Dobnak 13.5% 16.5% 3.0%

 

2020 ZiPS Strikeout Overachievers
Pitcher Actual K Rate zSO Rate Difference
Trevor Bauer 36.0% 26.1% -9.9%
Shane Bieber 41.1% 31.9% -9.2%
Tyler Glasnow 38.2% 30.4% -7.8%
Cristian Javier 25.2% 17.5% -7.7%
Rick Porcello 20.7% 13.1% -7.6%
Zach Eflin 28.6% 21.8% -6.8%
Corbin Burnes 36.7% 30.4% -6.2%
Marco Gonzales 23.1% 17.6% -5.5%
Taijuan Walker 22.2% 17.2% -5.1%
Hyun-Jin Ryu 26.2% 21.3% -4.8%
Aaron Nola 33.2% 28.4% -4.8%
Kevin Gausman 32.2% 27.8% -4.4%
Framber Valdez 26.4% 22.3% -4.1%
Johnny Cueto 20.2% 16.1% -4.1%
Sonny Gray 30.6% 26.5% -4.1%

No, Giolito doesn’t make the top 15 of underachievers, but he’s close. Compared to his 33.7% strikeout rate, ZiPS thought he “should have” been at 35.7. And that’s unusual, as leaders in anything in baseball are more likely to have overachieved than underachieved. Of the top 20 strikeout pitchers in 2020, ZiPS thinks that only four pitchers actually underachieved: deGrom (0.2%), Tyler Mahle (0.3%), Castillo (0.6%), and Giolito (2.0%).

In summation, ZiPS sees Giolito as a nearly perfect storm of awesomeness and one of the top Cy Young contenders in the American League. With Cleveland reeling, the White Sox have an excellent shot at taking the division and going deep into the playoffs. If the White Sox raise a world championship banner in 2021, the right arm of Giolito will likely be responsible for a great deal of the hoisting.


Remembering Durable Don Sutton (1945-2021), the Ultimate Compiler

Don Sutton did not have the flash of Sandy Koufax, or the intimidating presence of Don Drysdale. He lacked the overpowering fastball of Nolan Ryan, and didn’t fill his mantel with Cy Young awards the way that Tom Seaver or Steve Carlton did. He never won a World Series or threw a no-hitter. Yet Sutton earned a spot in the Hall of Fame alongside those more celebrated hurlers just the same. He was one of the most durable pitchers in baseball history, as dependable as a Swiss watch.

Alas, durability does not confer immortality. Sutton died on Monday at the age of 75, after a long battle with cancer. Son Daron Sutton, a former pitcher and broadcaster in his own right, shared the news on Twitter on Tuesday:

Sutton is already the second Hall of Famer to pass away in 2021. His former manager, Tommy Lasorda, died on January 7. Both deaths follow a year in which a record seven Hall of Famers died. Friends, we’ve got to stop meeting like this.

In a career that spanned 23 years and was bookended by stints with the Dodgers (1966-80, ’88), with detours to the Astros (’81-82), Brewers (’82-84), A’s (’85), and Angels (’85-87), Sutton started 756 games, more than any pitcher besides Young or Ryan. The wiry, frizzy-haired righty listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds not only avoided the Disabled List until his final season at age 43, he never missed a turn due to injury or illness until a sore elbow sidelined him after his penultimate start in the summer of 1988. Upon retiring, he went on to a successful second career as a broadcaster, primarily with the Braves.

Like Lasorda, Sutton occupied a special place in this young Dodger fan’s life. I was nine years old and riding in the way-back of my family’s maroon-and-faux-wood-panel Chevy Caprice station wagon on a road trip to California on August 10, 1979 when my father conjured up a radio broadcast of the Dodgers game. It was my introduction to the golden voice of Vin Scully, who shared booth duties with Jerry Doggett, calling Sutton’s franchise record-setting 50th shutout, a 9-0 victory over the Giants fueled by a Derrel Thomas grand slam and Mickey Hatcher’s first career homer. You could look it up. Thereafter, no matter where he roamed, I always rooted for Sutton, and grew to love the wit and brutal honesty that accompanied his workmanlike approach and made him eminently quotable, during and after his career.

“Comparing me to Sandy Koufax is like comparing Earl Scheib to Michelangelo,” he once said after surpassing his former teammate on some franchise record list. Read the rest of this entry »


The Seam-Shifted Revolution Is Headed for the Mainstream

Hey there! I want to give you a heads up about this article, because it doesn’t fit into a normal genre I write. Today, I won’t be telling you some new insight about a player you like, or creating some new nonsense statistic that tries to pull meaning from noise. This is a story about how baseball analysis is changing right before our eyes. A group of scientists and baseball thinkers are redefining the way we think about pitch movement, and I think it’s worth highlighting even if I don’t have anything to add to the conversation yet, because this new avenue of research is going to be front and center in Statcast-based analysis over the next few years.

“Seam-shifted wake,” as Andrew Smith, a student of Dr. Barton Smith (no relation) coined it, is a source of pitch movement that the first attempts at understanding the physics of a pitched baseball overlooked. It has already changed the way that coaches and pitchers approach pitch design, and due to recent data advances, it’s about to be everywhere. So let’s go over how we got here, to this newly observable way that pitchers deceive hitters, by starting at the beginning and working forward.

At its core, baseball is a game about one person trying to throw a ball past another person. There are other trappings — bases and baserunners, umpires, a strike zone, the mythology of Babe Ruth, and a million other sundry things. At the end of the day, though, everything starts with the pitcher trying to throw a ball past the batter.

Accordingly, baseball analysis over the years has focused on describing the flight of that ball. For a time, that simply meant describing the shape of pitches — they don’t call them curveballs for nothing. The next step was velocity — radar guns let us appreciate fastballs numerically rather than merely aesthetically.

In the past 15 years, the amount and scope of pitch-level analytical data has exploded. First, PITCHf/x quantified pitch location and movement. When we report a pitcher’s chase rate or how often a batter swings at pitches in the strike zone, it’s because the location where each pitch crosses the plate is recorded and logged. When we say a pitcher has eight inches of horizontal break on their slider, it’s because new technology allows us to measure it.

When Statcast debuted in 2015, it added another wrinkle: radar tracked the spin rate of each pitch in flight, putting a numerical value on something that had previously been only qualitative; a pitcher’s ability to generate movement through spin. Doctor Alan Nathan has written several authoritative studies discussing the value of this spin data. Read the rest of this entry »


FanGraphs Audio: Chris Perez Brought Stories

Episode 906

On the latest episode of FanGraphs Audio, the crew continues to marvel at the impressive squad being assembling in San Diego before a former major league closer joins the podcast to share his tales.

  • At the top of the show, Ben Clemens sits down with resident Padres fan Jason Martinez to talk about the team that won’t stop adding. Just last October, the Padres were forced to start a reliever in a crucial playoff game; now their rotation is simply overflowing. Ben and Jason discuss not taking half measures in roster construction, the concept of having too much depth, and how A.J. Preller has kept the winter exciting. [2:10]
  • After that, David Laurila talks to Chris Perez about his eventful career in the majors. Perez is at times remembered more for what occurred away from the mound, and shares what it was like to be traded to Cleveland, selected to two All-Star teams, and, eventually, suspended. The retired closer is also candid about being the first player fined under MLB’s Twitter policy, his criticisms of fans, and that story you’ve heard about getting in trouble for mailing something to his dog. [27:41]

Read the rest of this entry »


The Astros Reunite With Old Friend Jason Castro

As the most physically demanding position on the diamond, catcher is fundamentally different than the other non-pitching positions. Combine the need for frequent rest and the higher likelihood of injury, and every team is always in search of more catcher depth. There’s a corollary to that, though: because catching exacts such a toll on the body, few catchers are truly standout stars in the same way that infielders and outfielders are. As an idle example, four catchers were worth 3 WAR or more in 2019, and 66 non-catcher position players crested that mark.

Why bring up this fact? Part of the reason is that it’s interesting to me, and I get to pick what I write about most of the time. The bigger part, though, is that I don’t always get to pick what I write about, and this one happens to be a fortuitous combination of the two: the Astros signed Jason Castro to a two-year, $7 million dollar deal with incentives that could tack on $2 million, and somebody needs to write it up.

At first glance, Castro is exactly the kind of catcher that teams always need: he may not be an All-Star (though he was in 2013), but he’s someone you can count on to punch the clock roughly every other day, delivering enough receiving, enough hitting, and enough being-there-ness to fill roughly half of a catcher platoon. Deals like this are evergreen — heck, Martín Maldonado signed roughly the same deal in Houston last year, and he’ll be Castro’s platoon partner. That said, Castro carries a few interesting notes that give him a chance to be more than just another faceless backstop.

First and foremost, Castro is a lefty. That’s not exactly breaking news — stop the presses, I watched a Jason Castro at-bat and found something new — but it’s indisputably valuable. There simply aren’t many left-handed catchers, even if you count switch hitters; lefties made 1,399 plate appearances at catcher in 2020, as compared to 5,272 right-handed plate appearances. That’s a 21% share of PAs, as compared to a 43% share for lefties in the league as a whole. Read the rest of this entry »


Craig Edwards FanGraphs Chat – 1/21/2021

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