COVID-19 Update: Changing Plans, Inconclusive Tests

To the surprise of no one, COVID-19 continues to affect the baseball season. Plans have changed and re-changed as two teams have seen clusters of positive tests. While this news is, as always, subject to change, here’s our most recent update.

The Marlins In Purgatory

As of now, the Marlins are scheduled for a Tuesday game in Baltimore. There is, as yet, no information on which players will be available, but the Marlins are behaving as if they’ll need some new blood: they’ve acquired Justin Shafer, Josh Smith, Mike Morin, and Richard Bleier in the last week, and signed Logan Forsythe. Given that the league’s testing protocol requires two negative tests more than 24 hours apart before a player can return to the field, they may need even more reinforcements on the hitting side as well.

The Marlins players who tested positive for COVID-19 took the bus back to Miami. That group comprises 18 players, which left 12 of the initial 30-man roster in Philadelphia awaiting their next move — minus Isan Díaz, who opted out of the season over the weekend. Those 11, plus the four new pitchers, will join players from the 60-man player pool to form what passes for a major league roster and play against the Orioles.

The long-term effects of the last week’s postponements will be harder to plan. The Marlins have played only three games this year, which leaves them with a lot of ground to make up. They were originally scheduled to play Philadelphia in Miami this week before the Orioles and Yankees played an impromptu series to minimize cancelations. At some point, the team will be more or less back to its initial form, and they’ll have a lot of games to play. Read the rest of this entry »

Ben Clemens FanGraphs Chat – 8/3/20

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As the Coronavirus Halts Teams, Cain, Céspedes, and Others Opt Out

As the 2020 baseball season seemed to teeter on the brink of collapse this weekend in light of the news of an outbreak on the Cardinals, the comments of commissioner Rob Manfred, and the inactivity of six teams, four players — three of them former All-Stars — opted out of the 2020 season: Brewers center fielder Lorenzo Cain, Mets outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, Marlins second baseman Isan Díaz, and free agent lefty Francisco Liriano. Nokyne of them are known to be in high-risk groups themselves, meaning that they’ll forfeit the remainder of their salaries. The departure of Cain is likely the most impactful from a competitive standpoint, and that of Díaz the most understandable given his proximity to the largest outbreak to date. All of those were overshadowed by the drama surrounding Céspedes and the Mets, who together turned the announcement of an opt-out decision into a bizarre spectacle that unfolded over the course of a few hours on Sunday afternoon.

We’ll get to Céspedes, but first is Cain. Although he had played just five games this season, the 34-year-old two-time All-Star was off to a promising start, going 6-for-18 with a double and three walks. A speedy, savvy baserunner, he pulled off an entertaining escape from a rundown against the Cubs on July 25, a clip that made the rounds:

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Shane Bieber’s New Old Curve

It’s the beginning of August, and one only one pitcher is on pace for a 6 WAR season. In a normal year, that would be disappointing; there are usually something like four or five of them. In this short year, on the other hand, it’s downright amazing, and I don’t know a better way to say it than that: right now, Shane Bieber is downright amazing.

Through two starts, Bieber is putting up numbers like peak Craig Kimbrel, only he’s doing it as a starter. You’ve seen individual games like this before, so the numbers might not sound completely wild to you, but they’re wild. A 54% strikeout rate and 2% walk rate, a 0 ERA, a -0.36 FIP; that’s all obviously excellent in an abstract sense. To truly understand it, however, you have to take a closer look at Bieber’s stuff. He’s absolutely bullied his way through two straight dominant performances, and there’s no better way to do it than to take a trip through his overpowering secondary stuff. Watch hitters flail, and you can get a better sense of how thoroughly masterful Bieber has been this year.

In 2018 and 2019, Bieber’s calling card was his wipeout slider. He threw it 23% of the time in 2018 and 26% of the time in 2019, and hitters simply couldn’t do anything with it. They whiffed on roughly 43% of their swings against the pitch in both years, often looking foolish:

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Anyone Can Strike Out Nine Batters in a Row

Since he was drafted in the second round in 2015, Tigers left-hander Tyler Alexander barely needs two hands to count the number of times he’s struck out nine batters in a game. There was the first time, on April 23, 2016, when he was in High-A. There were two other nine-strikeout performances in 2017, and two more in the minors in 2019, along with one occasion in the majors in just his third big league appearance. That’s six instances of at least nine strikeouts in 126 career appearances as a pro, each one coming in a game he started.

On Sunday, Alexander struck out nine batters in a row. Not over the course of six or seven innings — just one right after another. Entering as a reliever in the third inning of the first game of Detroit’s doubleheader against the Reds, Alexander set the record for consecutive strikeouts in a relief appearance, and tied the American League record for consecutive strikeouts by any pitcher. And a two-strike fastball that drilled Mike Moustakas on his left arm is all that stopped Alexander from tying Tom Seaver for MLB’s all-time record. Actually, because he struck out Eugenio Suárez immediately after plunking Moustakas, that stray heater is all that stopped Alexander from having the longest strikeout streak in baseball history.

By any definition, it will go down as one of the most dominant relief appearances of the season. Of the 55 pitches Alexander threw on Sunday, 16 were called strikes, while 22 induced swings. Of those 22 swings, 11 were whiffs, and none resulted in a ball put in play. For 3.2 innings, Alexander was untouchable. That’s unquestionably a great day for him, and to a lesser extent, it’s also a good day for every other pitcher in baseball, because Alexander’s performance shows this is probably something any pitcher in baseball could achieve.

This isn’t to take anything away from Alexander. Every pitcher on earth would love to simply strike out every hitter he faces without ever allowing the ball to be put in play — that doesn’t mean anyone ever actually accomplishes it. It’s one thing to try to strike out nine guys in a row, and another to actually do it. In order to close that gap, one would think a pitcher would need to be working with some truly elite, lights-out stuff. Read the rest of this entry »

Tyler Chatwood and Strikeouts Have a Meet Cute

If you’re a fan of the Chicago Cubs, it would not be surprising if you describe your feelings about Tyler Chatwood as some kind of frustrated exasperation. Able to survive in the mile-high environment of Coors Field despite occasionally spotty control and an inability to punch out batters, the Cubs expected that Chatwood would do even better in the friendly confines of Wrigley; the days when the wind is blowing out in Chicago weren’t supposed to be much of a problem for a pitcher who largely avoided giving up big home run totals in Colorado. On that assumption, the Cubs signed Chatwood to a three-year, $38 million contract before the 2018 season.

Suffice it to say, 2018 did not go as anyone predicted or hoped, except maybe Cardinals fans. Chatwood’s season started deceptively well, with a 2.83 ERA in April, but 22 walks in 28 2/3 innings suggested trouble. After throwing seven shutout innings against the Brewers on April 29 of that year, he went three months without a single quality start and walked at least two batters in every game. The team’s acquisition of Cole Hamels resulted in Chatwood’s exile to the bullpen, where he was little-used until injuring his hip in an emergency start as a replacement for Mike Montgomery. A non-factor in the pennant race that September, Chatwood’s 103 2/3 innings of work for the season was still enough time to amass a league-leading 95 walks.

2019 went better, but Chatwood’s role was mostly that of a fill-in starter and low-leverage reliever and mop-up guy. His 4.28 FIP in relief didn’t send a tingle down anyone’s spine, and his decision to largely abandon his secondary stuff didn’t seem like a likely ticket back to the rotation. However in the second half, he did tinker with his cutter’s grip after recognizing an issue with the pitch, which he had largely moved away from in 2019:

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Sunday Notes: Buck Showalter Admired Don Cooper’s Curveball (and Mo’s Cutter)

Don Cooper’s playing career wasn’t anyhing to write home about. The longtime Chicago White Sox pitching coach made 44 appearances, and threw 85-and-a-third innings, for the Twins, Blue Jays, and Yankees from 1981-1985. His won-lost record was an undistinguished 1-6, his ERA an untenable 5.27. The bulk of his time was spent down on the farm.

He did have a good Uncle Charlie.

“Coop had one of the best curveballs I ever saw,” said Showalter, who was Cooper’s teammate for a pair of Double-A seasons. “He had one of those curveballs you could hear coming out of the hand. We used to call it ‘the bowel locker’ — it would lock your bowels up. He’d sit in the dugout between outings, and all he’d do is flip a ball; he was always trying to get the right spin on it. You could hear it snap. Man, could he spin a curveball. Holy [crap]. It was tight.”

Showalter chose not to compare Cooper’s curveball to that of any particular pitchers, but he did throw out some names when I asked who else stood out for the quality of his hook.

Scott Sanderson had a great curveball,” said Showalter. “Dwight Gooden had a great curveball; you could hear that one coming. Jimmy Key had a great curveball, although his was bigger. Mike Mussina used to invent pitches. One common thing about all those pitchers is that they had a great hand. If you said that to a scout, he’d know exactly what you were talking about. Mariano Rivera had a great hand. He could manipulate the ball. David Cone had a great hand. Curt Schilling. Kevin Millwood is another. He could do things with a baseball; his hands were huge.” Read the rest of this entry »

Effectively Wild Episode 1572: Baseball on Borrowed Time

Ben Lindbergh and Meg Rowley discuss the coronavirus spreading to the NL Central, the difficulties MLB faces compared to other sports leagues, the dramatic changes that the pandemic has imposed on the sport, why robot umps aren’t part of the pandemic makeover, the jarring visuals of virtual fans, the promotion of Nick Madrigal and the overlap of good and bad baseball news, the latest vexing comments by Astros owner Jim Crane, the power of pitcher deception and the potential to quantify it, and reports that the season could soon cease if conditions don’t improve, plus a follow-up addendum about why the automatic-runner rule shortens games.

Audio intro: John Lennon, "Borrowed Time"
Audio outro: Dr. Feelgood, "One Weekend"

Link to Jay Jaffe on the latest positive tests
Link to Ben Clemens on a baseball bubble
Link to GIF of Nelson Cruz and virtual fans
Link to Jim Crane article
Link to Josh Flowerman on reliever sequencing
Link to Hareeb al-Saq on reliever sequencing
Link to Ben on the knuckleball hangover effect
Link to Ben on perceived velocity
Link to Jon Anderson on quantifying pitcher deception
Link to Jeff Long on pitcher deception
Link to Eno Sarris on pitcher deception
Link to Eno on Yusmeiro Petit’s invisiball
Link to Johnny Cueto Statcast wireframe shimmy
Link to Passan report
Link to Ben Clemens on Passan’s report
Link to Ben on Nick Madrigal

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Manfred to Clark: The Season is in Jeopardy

In case it wasn’t clear from the fact that six different teams, a full 20% of the league, have already faced cancelations due to positive COVID-19 tests on the Marlins, Phillies, and Cardinals, Rob Manfred put it in plain terms today:

While the specifics of his call with Clark haven’t been made public, the broad strokes are known. If positive tests jump, and particularly if there is another Marlins-like outbreak, the season will likely end. Given that the second round of Cardinals’ testing hasn’t come back, that could happen as soon as Monday.

There’s no sugar coating it: everyone has to do better. Public health officials have confronted the league about players ignoring its own protocols. Watch a game, and you’ll see a hodgepodge of masked and unmasked players, plenty of finger-licking, and about as much spitting as you would see in the pre-pandemic world. It’s fair to say that players also haven’t taken social distancing and self-enforced isolation as seriously as many hoped when the plan for the season went ahead. Passan quotes one high-ranking official as saying, “There are some bad decisions being made.” Meanwhile, Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller reported that Marlins players went out and visited the hotel bar while in Atlanta. Read the rest of this entry »

Kyle Lewis Is Proving It

Take a glance at the early season position player WAR leaders and you’ll find Mike Yastrzemski leading all of MLB, making his grandfather proud. Next you’ll find José Ramirez on his quest to show that last year’s struggles were just a blip. The player with the third-highest WAR in this young campaign is Mariners center fielder Kyle Lewis, who was leading the category yesterday. After a sparkling debut last September, Lewis is proving that his hot start wasn’t a fluke.

With another two yesterday, Lewis has now collected hits in all seven games this season and has strung together five multi-hit performances in a row. All told, he’s hit .448/.500/.655 this year and owns a .320/.355/.610 line in his young career. His historic September included blasting home runs in his first three major league games, becoming just the second player in history to accomplish the feat. He would go on to hit three more through the first 10 games of his career.

But that success came with some glaring red flags. He posted a 38.7% strikeout rate last year, and it is only a touch lower so far this season. His tendency to swing and miss often only confirmed the skepticism some had about his hit tool. His swinging strike rate is a bit lower this year (from 17.7% to 15.2%), and his underlying plate discipline stats look a little better — a lower overall swing rate, particularly on pitches out of the zone — but his high strikeout rate will likely follow him throughout his career. Thriving in the majors with such a high swinging strike rate is difficult but not impossible. Bryce Harper ran a 15.3% swinging strike rate last season while posting a 125 wRC+. The difference for Lewis is that many of those whiffs are coming with two strikes, driving up his strikeout rate. Harper can survive with such a high swinging strike rate because he’s aggressive early in the count but adjusts his approach with two strikes. Read the rest of this entry »