MLB The Show 21 Is Being Released to Its Widest Audience Ever

This is Luke’s first piece as a FanGraphs contributor. Luke has been a graphic designer in the golf industry for the last five years, though he’s never truly enjoyed that particular “swing at a ball” sport. Rather, it’s baseball that provides the proper amount of weirdness for him. Umpires ringing up hitters. Gold Glovers awkwardly squirming under wind-blown popups. Sluggers whiffing on 88 mph fastballs. That stuff is Luke’s wheelhouse, and he explores those interests on his site, The Pop Up Dance. He lives in Portland and is on a never ending quest to find the mythical Jeff Sullivan. You can purchase the new FanGraphs t-shirts he designed here.

For its entire 15-year history, MLB The Show has been exclusive to Sony consoles, from the PlayStation 2 up to the current era PlayStation 5. The reason for that is simple: Sony owns San Diego Studio, the creators of the game. But this year, a whole new group of gamers will be able to join in the digital action, as MLB The Show 21 will be released on Microsoft’s Xbox consoles for the first time; it’ll also be a part of the company’s subscription service with millions of active subscribers. This move allows for casual or new baseball fans to enjoy the acclaimed video game series without the barrier of it being full-priced. Increasing the accessibility of MLB The Show is a great way to get new fans interested in not just the video game, but the sport of baseball itself. There is a lot to parse here, so a little background should help us fully understand the baseball ramifications.

At the time, San Diego Studio was fairly small compared to some of the other sports video game studios, such as EA Sports (the makers of Madden and FIFA) and 2K Sports (NBA 2K). 2K Sports even had a licensed baseball game of their own that was released yearly on multiple consoles, including PlayStation.

San Diego Studio began releasing their MLB The Show series in 2006 to immediate praise. Focused on a revolutionary “Road To The Show” mode in which one could create a player and play their way up through the minors, MLB The Show quickly became the game that baseball fans wanted to have. Year after year it racked up high review scores for its polished and innovative releases — the funny commercials were just a bonus. San Diego Studio was making their rival obsolete.
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Loss of Strasburg Is Just One of Nationals’ Rotation Problems

The Nationals can’t seem to buy a break. After the start of their season was delayed by a COVID-19 outbreak that sent nine players to the injured list, they’ve gone just 5-9, sliding into last place in the NL East and posting the league’s second-worst record and run differential (-22). A rotation that was supposed to be one of the majors’ best has instead been the worst, with Patrick Corbin looking for answers, Jon Lester set back multiple times, and Stephen Strasburg now sidelined due to shoulder inflammation.

As a unit, the Nationals’ rotation has the majors’ highest ERA (5.34), FIP (5.36), and home run rate (1.91 per nine), as well as the lowest WAR (-0.4). Those numbers look even worse without Max Scherzer: 7.80 ERA, 6.58 FIP, 2.7 HR/9, -0.7 WAR. Throw in lousy work by the bullpen (4.18 ERA, 4.64 FIP, -0.2 WAR) and a moribund offense that has scored just 3.64 runs per game (11th in the NL) while being shut out three times (tied for the major league high) and you have a recipe for yet another cold start by Washington.

Forced to wait five days by an outbreak that postponed their entire season-opening series against the Mets, the Nationals hit a high note in their first game of 2021, overcoming a rocky Scherzer start to come from behind and beat the Braves in their April 6 season opener on a walk-off RBI single by Juan Soto. From there, however, they proceeded to lose five straight to the Braves and Dodgers before rebounding to take two out of three from the Cardinals in St. Louis, and split a four-game series against Arizona.

An offense that has scored just 3.64 runs per game (11th in the NL) has been a concern, but the bigger one has been the ineffectiveness of both Strasburg and Corbin, the other two-thirds of a trio that propelled the team to its 2019 World Series win as well as the number five ranking among rotations in our preseason Positional Power Rankings. Read the rest of this entry »

Michael Wacha and All the Small Things

The Rays aren’t a mess at the moment, but at 9-8, they aren’t great, either. For an explanation, look no further than their starting rotation. Chris Archer is on the Injured List with a right forearm strain, Ryan Yarbrough has been BABIP’d to death, and veteran Rich Hill isn’t racking up strikeouts like he used to. Tyler Glasnow is doing, well, Glasnow things, but he alone can’t fix the Rays’ pitching woes.

It’s not as if the Rays are average by intent, though. They’d ideally have held onto Snell and Morton, but budgetary constraints led them to make odd transactions in hopes of remaining competitive. Trying to squeeze out one more quality year from Rich Hill? Definitely a Rays move. Bringing back Chris Archer? Ditto. So is signing… Michael Wacha?

One is unlike the others. There’s clear upside in Hill and Archer, but during the offseason, Wacha seemed like a run-of-the-mill option. He had a career-worst 6.62 ERA in 2020, and while his peripherals were better (a 5.25 FIP, a 4.30 xFIP, a 3.99 SIERA), they aren’t exactly admirable numbers. Yet, the Rays stuck with him. And after two rough starts, Wacha managed to shut out the Yankees over six frames with nine strikeouts last Friday.

Lucky? Maybe. The Yankees’ offense is struggling, after all. But the Michael Wacha of now is the result of a few refinements to his game. They aren’t as noticeable as Tyler Glasnow adding a slider, but they’re there, and I suppose someone needs to write about them. Read the rest of this entry »

FanGraphs Live: OOTP 22 Perfect Draft (Today 11:30 PT/2:30 ET)

Do you like historical baseball players? Do you like current baseball players? Do you like assembling a mixture of historical and current baseball players into teams, perhaps with some constraints around which ones you can use? You’re in luck, because today at 11:30 AM PT/2:30 PM PT on FanGraphs Live and the FanGraphs homepage, Paul Sporer and I are drafting a squad in Out Of The Park Baseball 22 Perfect Draft, hopefully a treasure trove of Remember Those Guys and former legends.

Will we aim for a team of sluggers and skimp on pitching? Will we focus on up-the-middle defense and try to manufacture runs? How important are backups in a contest between similarly-assembled teams? And what is Perfect Draft, anyway?

Join us as we try to answer those questions in OOTP 22 and chat about the 2021 season while we do it.

Kevin Goldstein FanGraphs Chat – 4/20/2021

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What’s Going On With Ian Anderson?

Ian Anderson was one of the better stories of the 2020 season. Entering the year as the No. 3 prospect in the Braves’ system and the No. 44 prospect in all of baseball, he was seen as a future mid-rotation starter who could help quickly. He did just that and more: Added to the rotation in late August, Anderson finished seventh in the NL Rookie of the Year voting despite making just six starts. He put up a 1.95 ERA in those outings, and while the supporting data said he wasn’t the Cy Young-level pitcher that number might suggest, he was still awfully good. He was even better in the postseason, allowing just two runs over 18 innings, striking out 24 and giving up just 11 hits.

Anderson maintained his rookie eligibility entering 2021 and earned the No. 2 ranking in Atlanta’s system (Eric Longenhagen and I discussed putting him at No. 1 ahead of Cristian Pache) and the No. 13 spot in this year’s Top 100 list. He looked like the cornerstone of a young Braves rotation that would help lead them to National League East title contention.

His first start of the year was vintage Anderson (or at least as vintage as you can get for a guy who is still a rookie), as he gave up one run over five innings and struck out seven. His next two were far from it: 11 hits and seven runs allowed over 10.1 innings. Game score is far from a perfect measure, but it’s a simple and quick look at a start, and Anderson’s game scores of 47 and 45 in his last two outings represent the two worst marks of his career. This could be a blip, or there could be some tough luck in there. But a closer look at the data shows that this is more than just a randomly-generated bad run.

When asked to evaluate a pitcher not living up to expectations, these are the first three questions I try to answer.

  • Without knowing anything internally, is there anything to worry about in terms of health?
  • Has the pitcher changed anything in terms of usage and location?
  • Has the pitcher seen his pitch shapes change due to alterations in his mechanics or spin rate?

The Health Question

It’s impossible to know how a player is feeling without direct access to both the individual as well as the training staff. The good news here is that there is nothing in the data to suggest Anderson might be dealing with arm issues. As an outsider, the best analogue to pitcher arm health is velocity, and he is in-line with his 2020 data.

Ian Anderson Velocity
2020 94.1 80.1
2021 94.3 80.2
SOURCE: Statcast

Usage and Location

Anderson has never been knows for his precision, but his walk rate of 10.4% through his first three starts is a near match for his 10.1% mark from 2020. His stuff really moves, and the combination of big movement and plus command is for unicorns like Gerrit Cole. Anderson’s command is far from ideal, but there’s nothing in the data showing a decline from what we are used to. His usage remains roughly the same as well.

Ian Anderson Pitch Usage
2020 48.3% 20.8% 30.8%
2021 46.9% 22.5% 30.5%
SOURCE: Statcast

It’s a slight uptick in offspeed usage, but that should be a good thing; those are this pitches that perform the best. There’s nothing to see here, which leaves us with just one more option.

Changes to Shape and Spin Rate

There is where we actually find something. Anderson’s high release point serves him well in terms of pitch shape, allowing him to generate a classic rising four-seamer and contributing to his ability to get plus depth on his curveball despite below-average spin rates. But something has happened to his release point in 2021, and it’s not something we normally see in pitchers: He has gotten both higher and wider with it. You can see the difference in this animated GIF that shows the contrast between last year and now.

This is not an easy combination to achieve. Grab a baseball off your desk (or a coffee cup or anything roughly baseball sized). Slowly mimic your natural throwing motion and stop at your release point. Now widen your release point. The most obvious way to do that is to lower the angle, which creates more distance from your frame.

Without ultra high-speed video available to the common person, it’s hard to say how exactly Anderson is achieving both a higher and wider release point. It could be in his wrist load, or his body position, as he’s always relied on a body lean to create his angles. Or it could be greater extension of the elbow joint to create a longer fulcrum.

That should be a good thing. As I discussed in my piece on pitch shapes, the shapes pitchers generate are greatly dependent on arm angles. Anderson’s fastball already has plus shape, and adding both rise and run to the pitch should make it even better, but that’s not what’s happening.

As you can see, Anderson’s fastball does have a bit of extra run to it from what we’ve seen in the past, but more importantly, and more troubling, is that the pitch flattened out a bit in terms of verticality. What was once 12% more vertical movement than average for pitchers with similar velocity, release point and extension is now 1% less. Less rise means more hard contact, and Anderson’s barrel rate has gone from a minuscule 1.2% in 2020 to 12.2% this year.

So what’s going on here? My theory is that the wider release point is affecting Anderson’s grip on the baseball and impeding his ability to stay on top of the ball, keeping him from producing the kind of spin shapes that are necessary for his signature vertical attack. It’s hard to corroborate this without the kind of high-speed video that only teams have access to, but that belief is buoyed by Anderson’s curveball, which has lost about an inch of depth and more than 100 rpm, or roughly 7%.

Throwing a baseball with the kind of velocity and spin we see from major league pitchers requires remarkable mechanical consistency. Anderson’s recent performances are not the result of bad dice rolls, but of a small yet significant mechanical difference that has made him a less effective pitcher. This is far from some kind of nightmare scenario or forecast for doom, but it is something that needs to be addressed if he is to return to his 2020 form, as well as the future projected for him.

The Blue Jays’ Ross Atkins on a Day in the Life of a GM

Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins was the featured guest on episode 918 of FanGraphs Audio, which aired Friday. Here is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.


David Laurila: Ross, thanks for coming on FanGraphs Audio.

Ross Atkins: “Thank you for having me on. It’s good to be here with you.”

Laurila: We haven’t seen each other for a few years, but in this crazy pandemic world, I guess that’s maybe not much of a surprise.

Atkins: “I’m surprised we haven’t been on a Zoom call together. It is an interesting existence that we have, seemingly with some light at the end of the tunnel.”

Laurila: I should start by congratulating you for signing a five-year contract extension, which you did last week.

Atkins: “Thank you very much. You know what, it’s nice to reflect on the people that I’ve learned from, and grown from, and have heard from recently — the congratulatory remarks. It’s really exciting for me to think about how fortunate I have been, and I am, to be working with the people I’m with, from Charlie Montoyo and Joe Sheehan and Tony Lacava and Mike Murov. There are so many people that I could list, including some that aren’t here with Toronto anymore.”

Laurila: When I interviewed you two years ago, we talked a lot about process and infrastructure. Today I want to talk more about players, but before we do that, let’s touch on the life of a big-league GM. What does your typical day look like? Read the rest of this entry »

Julio Urías, (Breaking Ball) Fusion Scientist

Julio Urías is only 24, but it feels like he’s been in the big leagues for a decade. Called to the majors at only 19 in the 2016 season, he’s been a part of the Dodgers’ future and present for a half-decade. When you start that young, much of your development happens at the major league level. In Urías’ case, that means all kinds of changes. Today, though, I want to focus on one: a curveball that has shape-shifted over time before arriving at a tremendously interesting final form.

When Urías came up, he threw a curve with two-plane break, something between a curve and a slurve. As you can see on our handy Pitch Type Splits, it featured 7.4 inches of horizontal break and only 2.9 inches of drop. In his next three seasons, all injury-affected, he turned the pitch into more of a classic curve — more drop than horizontal movement. 2020 saw a return to his original curveball shape. 2021? Well, it’s weird:

Curveball Movement by Year
Year H Mov (in) V Mov (in)
2016 -7.4 -2.9
2017 -4.2 -5.5
2018 -4.5 -5.7
2019 -4.2 -6.5
2020 -9.1 -4.1
2021 -8.6 -1.4

Is it a return to his old form? Is it an acceleration of his old form? Is it something else entirely? Let’s delve too deeply into some gifs and math and find out. Read the rest of this entry »

Take Me Out to the (Socially Distanced) Ballgame

Even after baseball returned in 2020, a walk around Wrigleyville was anything but normal. The sounds of the Lowery organ, the players’ walkup music, and the fake crowd noise pumping out of the empty ballpark made the streets felt haunted. There were a handful of ballhawks at the corner of Kenmore and Waveland, and a few adventurous souls watched the games from the limited capacity rooftops across the street. But vendors were nowhere to be seen, and most of the nearby pubs and taverns were shuttered. A neighborhood that welcomes more than three million fans annually to the majors’ second oldest park felt like a ghost town.

Ten and a half months later, baseball and fans have returned to Wrigley Field, and so did I. Though I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect as I joined the 25% capacity crowd during the Cubs’ first home stand, I braced myself for that same feeling I experienced so many times walking through the neighborhood in 2020. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised that the sense of desertion had been replaced by one of cautious renewal. Pandemic baseball isn’t the same as the standing-room-only crowds I remember from 2019, but it isn’t the shell we saw last season, either.

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Trevor Rogers: Overlooked, or Over-Performing?

When the Marlins beat the Mets on April 10th, most of the post-game focus was on Jacob deGrom. The Mets’ ace had pitched a gem: eight innings, five hits, 14 strikeouts, and no walks, with the only run coming on a towering Jazz Chisholm homer in the second inning. And while the indignation on deGrom’s behalf was not unwarranted, it ironically created a smaller, secondary injustice in its wake, obscuring from view the other stellar pitching performance of the day.

Miami’s starter that afternoon was Trevor Rogers, making his second start of the 2021 season. In his outing, he allowed three hits, walked two, and struck out 10 batters over the course of six scoreless innings – a pitching line that undoubtedly would have been the headline story from the game, were it not for deGrom’s dominant, yet unsupported performance.

But being overlooked is nothing new for Rogers. Skepticism has been a running theme in his career since even before he was drafted, when he was an old-for-his-class high schooler (he graduated at 19) in New Mexico, an area of the country that doesn’t always get the same robust coverage of other parts of the Four Corners region. Could scouts really trust the dominant numbers of a player who was so much older than anyone else on the field?

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