I think there are too many home runs. That’s an aesthetic preference, of course, and one you don’t necessarily need to share to continue with this article. I mention it only to help you understand why I became interested in how many multi-homer games the 2019 season has brought us so far, and whether that number was unusual. The reason is simple: I got sick of hearing about them. One of the first things I do each morning, at least with respect to baseball, is fire up At Bat and watch the first 10-15 highlights of the previous day’s games. I find it’s a good way of keeping up to date, if not with the broad trends shaping the game, then at least with the moments driving that day’s news. And almost every day, I’ll see something like this at or near the top of the highlights list:
Or, at least, I thought it was almost every day. It certainly seemed that way to me. But maybe I’d just developed a severe case of early-onset grumpy-old-man-itis. Maybe my aesthetic preference for fewer home runs was bleeding into my perception of the quantity of multi-home run games. When you hate something, everything about it annoys you, including how much it’s around. So I asked my colleague Sean Dolinar to run some numbers for me (all 2019 stats in this piece are through August 23) and set me straight. And it turns out that even though I absolutely do suffer from grumpy-old-man-itis, I’m not wrong about the number of multi-home run games this year. They’re up — by a lot:
For a losing team, the Cincinnati Reds have been busy. It’s not just trading players either, as Cincinnati made one of the biggest deadline moves while many contenders slumbered in near-stasis, picking up Trevor Bauer with an eye towards retooling for the 2020 season. Only three of the eight players in Wednesday’s lineup were also in the lineup on Opening Day: Tucker Barnhart, Eugenio Suárez, and José Iglesias. Chief among the new additions is the recently called-up Aristides Aquino, a big slugger lurking far back from the head of the team prospect lists coming into the season. After a fairly unimpressive minor league career, Aquino has feasted on the major league bouncy ball in 2019, slugging 28 homers in 294 AB in the formerly pitcher-friendly International League and then a shocking 11 homers in just 20 major league games.
Aquino was not some elite prospect finally being called up. The Reds have only received the benefit of getting a look at Aquino because they decided to use their ABs in a now-lost season in a productive way. If the team hadn’t dropped Matt Kemp or traded Yasiel Puig, choosing to go with the known quantity in a mistaken attempt to goose attendance (there’s no evidence this actually works), there wouldn’t have been as many opportunities to assess Aquino or Josh VanMeter or Phil Ervin in the majors. They now have more information on these players — how they’ve played at the big league level — and that information can have a positive effect on the decisions they make on how to win the NL Central or a wild card spot in 2020. Even picking up veteran Freddy Galvis, a 2.0 WAR player, for free has a value to a team like the Reds given his one-year, $5-million option for 2020. Scooter Gennett was always likely to be gone, but Galvis may not be, and now the Reds have another player who they can choose to start in 2020 or trade over the winter.
The Reds have been fortunate in these decisions, but I would have been in favor of this calculus even if Aquino/VanMeter/Ervin had been terrible. My fundamental belief is that among hitters and pitchers, teams have roughly a combined 12,000 plate appearances/batters faced to work with every year, and as many of them should be devoted to trying to win games as possible. Maybe they’re not 2019 wins — maybe they’re wins in 2020 or 2023 or 2026. But even players not working out gives you information; if Aquino came to the majors and hit like Lewis Brinson, it would still give the Reds data they didn’t have before. You don’t acquire that kind of knowledge when you’re a 90-loss team still penciling Billy Hamilton or Chris Davis into the lineup on a daily basis. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s Logan Morrison’s birthday today. Now 32 years young, “LoMo” is in his tenth big-league season… albeit just barely. He’s seen action in just seven games this summer, having toiled exclusively in Triple-A prior to being called up by the Phillies on August 14. Two years removed from a 38-home-run campaign with the Tampa Bay Rays, Morrison has essentially morphed from a bona fide slugger into a player barely hanging on.
His winter had been a waiting game. A free agent as of Halloween, Morrison received a few non-roster invites, but coming off of hip surgery he didn’t want to risk “showing up and then getting cut from camp.” In search of more security, he bided his time.
Morrison eventually signed with the Yankees in mid-April, joined Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre in early May, and played there until July 1. At that point, with his chances of a promotion seemingly scant — this despite a healthy .999 OPS — he executed the opt-out clause in his contract. He then hooked on with the Phillies following the All-Star break.
Never a shrinking violet when it comes to expressing an opinion, LoMo was candid when addressing the limited interest he received over the offseason. Read the rest of this entry »
Ben Lindbergh and Meg Rowley banter about beer and the mercy rule, a 12-minute game finish at Fenway, whether baseball players have high job satisfaction, compelling playoff races and especially lucky and unlucky contending teams, robot ump implications (including measuring player heights, determining the shape of the zone, and preserving receivers’ sense of self-worth), and the Angels’ unorthodox rotation and the future of pitching staffs and Shohei Ohtani.
Link to Freaks and Geeks beer scene
Link to happiness study
Link to cluster luck rankings
Link to USA Today Atlantic League article
Link to Baseball America Atlantic League article
Link to Baseball Prospectus Atlantic League article
Link to info on online dating and height
Link to study on sock height and the strike zone
Link to Ben on Kratz and catchers making noise
Link to order The MVP Machine
As we approach the 2019 minor league season’s September epilogue, we’re making our last few changes to THE BOARD before cementing the rankings until offseason lists start rolling out. We focused this week on curating the top 100’s midsection, which resulted in us moving around about 10% of 50 FV and above players, which we’ve found to be typical each time we’ve made a concerted effort to refine the very top of the roughly 1250 pro players on THE BOARD on whom we have thoughts. Note that most of the action is taking place on the seam between the 50 and 55 FV tier, a sort of weigh station for rising potential stars, and players with issues exposed at the upper levels.
Let’s quickly touch on the handful of players in this area who have moved down from the 55 FV tier into the 50s. Recent Marlins RF acquisition Jesus Sanchez continues to have below average discipline and trouble lifting the ball consistently. Perhaps a change of scenery will prove meaningful for one or both of these traits, but they’re relevant issues for a corner outfield prospect.
We also dropped some players who we consider higher probability, lower impact types — like New York’s Andres Gimenez, Washington’s Luis Garcia, Philly’s Adonis Medina, Baltimore’s Yusniel Diaz, and Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner — down below 50 FVs who we think have a wider range of potential outcomes, and more ceiling. Their FVs didn’t change at all, but we prefer players who have more obvious growth potential due to bigger tools, more projectable frames, and other physical traits almost always present in top big leaguers. Read the rest of this entry »
The Los Angeles Dodgers, at one point, had a weakness. Not a glaring one, and not one that was going to single-handedly derail their World Series hopes, but a weakness nonetheless. As of July 26, their catchers had combined for a ghastly 69 wRC+. Even considering the skid catcher offense has experienced in recent seasons, that’s a bad number, ranking 24th in baseball at the time. Because they were worth the sixth-best defensive rating in baseball, they sat firmly in the middle of the pack at 1.1 WAR. But their performance still represented a hole in a lineup that was otherwise loaded. The Dodgers could have attempted to trade for a catcher, but the market lacked an obvious J.T. Realmuto-esque candidate, with James McCann standing as seemingly the best option. Instead, the Dodgers promoted Will Smith from Triple-A. Smith, 24, had played in just nine big league games before being called up. A month later, he might be the best offensive catcher in baseball.
That sounds jarring until you look at his numbers. In 102 plate appearances, Smith is hitting .318/.392/.818 with 12 homers and a 197 wRC+. In just 28 games, he already leads all catchers in offensive runs above average (Off). That is a counting stat.
In a fraction of the time any other catcher has had in the majors, Smith has surpassed the field in total offensive production. The catcher position is notoriously shallow in terms of hitting talent across the majors, but the best of the bunch is still an impressive group. Sánchez is a barrels machine, Realmuto is the best overall catcher in the game, and Yasmani Grandal and Willson Contreras are both incredibly talented players. And yet, Smith has generated more value at the plate than any of them, in nowhere near their number of plate appearances.
That production has boosted a Dodgers lineup that almost certainly could have survived without the added help, but has gotten it anyway. The team entered the 2019 season with veterans Austin Barnes and Russell Martin plugged into the catching position. Barnes, 29, had a breakout season in 2017 when he put together a 142 wRC+ in 102 games while playing excellent defense, but his offense cratered in 2018 when he produced just a 78 wRC+. Martin, meanwhile, was acquired from Toronto in the offseason before playing the last year of a 5-year, $82-million contract he signed after the 2014 season. This season, both Barnes and Martin have experienced career-worst seasons at the plate, paving the way for the organization to promote Smith, who ranked as the 80th-best prospect in baseball on Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel’s preseason Top 100 list. In less than a month, Smith has rocketed Los Angeles from 24th to 10th in catcher wRC+, and from 15th to 8th in catcher WAR.
Smith, of course, could always hit some. A first round selection (No. 32 overall) by the Dodgers out of Louisville in 2016, he did modestly well at the plate over his first two seasons of pro ball, largely boosted by good walk rates of well over 10%. He showed power for the first time in a 72-game stint with Rancho Cucamonga in the hitter-friendly California League in 2017, boosting his ISO from .103 in the previous season to .216. He continued to add power at the Double-A level in 2018, again raising his ISO to .268 while maintaining a steady walk rate over 11%, but he struggled mightily after a promotion to Triple-A, finishing 25 games with a wRC+ of 8.
He was called up for the first time on May 28, though only briefly. He played six games over the next week or so, and hit a pair of homers while slashing .286/.348/619. His first career home run was a walk-off against the Phillies.
He was sent back to the minors with an OPS of .967. It hasn’t been that low since. He came back to the majors for three games at the end of the month and homered again, this time in a pinch hit spot. It was another walk-off.
Smith went on the injured list because of an oblique on June 26, and remained in Triple-A Oklahoma City until the Dodgers brought him back in late July; if his play is any indication, it seems unlikely he’ll return to the minors anytime soon. In Smith’s first game back in the majors on July 27, he went 3-for-3 with a homer and two doubles, driving in six runs. He hasn’t slowed down since then, hitting safely in 16 of the 19 games he’s played since his last call-up, with a total of 16 extra-base hits. His .548 ISO in that span is first in the majors, while his 216 wRC+ is third and his 1.5 WAR is seventh.
You might skeptical of how sustainable his numbers are, and after just 28 games, you’d be right to be. Smith likely isn’t a true talent 197 wRC+ hitter, nor is he going to keep up a nearly 12-WAR pace over a full season. But there’s evidence to support the notion that he’s a top-tier catcher bat. With 64 batted ball events under his belt, his barrel rate is 9.8%. For reference, Peter Alonso’s barrel rate is 9.9%, and those rates tend to stabilize faster than others. He also has an xSLG of .558 — well below his absurd current figure, but still an indication that his power numbers aren’t a total mirage, even if his average home run distance of 396 feet doesn’t quite match up with the very best of the best.
It’s great news for the Dodgers that they have a sweet-swinging catcher on their roster now, but does that mean he’s a step below the others on defense? Not necessarily. In 28 games behind the plate, he’s accumulated 3.0 defensive runs saved. That doesn’t place much of a gap between him and Barnes (9.5 defensive runs saved in 70 games) or Martin (7.6 in 68 games). He hasn’t played nearly enough games for his defensive metrics to stabilize enough to be trustworthy, but the fact that the early returns seem to be so positive can only be a good sign for his presence behind the plate.
Smith is likely going to regress, be it in the next couple of weeks or sometime next year. Fortunately, there’s so much space between his offensive numbers and the rest of the catching field that it will take a bit for the pack to catch up with him. He had solid hitting pedigree as a prospect, but I don’t know that anyone could have expected this. The juiced ball can take some shine off of any great power tear we’ve seen this season, rookie or not. But it isn’t as though every other backstop isn’t getting to swing at the same ball. Smith just happens to be hitting it better than anyone else. He’s the best hitting catcher in baseball right now. Finally, the hard-luck Dodgers get a break.
Earlier this month, Jake Mailhot looked at one of the Yankees’ big breakout stories, Gio Urshela. Today, we’ll examine another. If you told many Yankees fans before the season that the majority of Miguel Andújar and Giancarlo Stanton’s playing time would be occupied by Urshela and Mike Tauchman, a lot of them would have thrown in the towel. Of course, that’s when you’d have looked deeper into our crystal ball, and informed them that by August 23, the Yankees would have an 83-43 record with near-certain playoff odds while Urshela and Tauchman have combined for a 5.7 WAR.
It’s no secret that we at FanGraphs like Tauchman; our own Alex Chamberlain has had eyes on the former Rockies outfielder for awhile. Tauchman displayed unique power-contact skills in the high minors similar to those of hitters like Rhys Hoskins and Daniel Vogelbach. But Tauchman is 28 years old, too advanced in age to be considered a bona fide prospect. Prior to 2019, he struggled in his brief major league cameos. Between 2017 and 2018, he hit for a paltry .153/.265/.203 with no home runs in 69 plate appearances. With Colorado grooming younger outfielders like David Dahl and Raimel Tapia for the future, and with Charlie Blackmon solidly entrenched in a starting spot (not to mention Ian Desmond), Tauchman didn’t seem to have a future with the Rockies. Read the rest of this entry »
FanGraphs contains multitudes. Multiple flavors of Wins Above Replacement — one in which the pitching component is driven by FIP, the other by actual runs allowed (RA9-WAR) — for one thing. Multiple projection systems (Steamer and ZiPS) and ERA estimators (FIP, xFIP, SIERA). Multiple measures for defense, pitch selection, and plate discipline, borne of different data feeds. Multiple ways of measuring playoff odds and projected won-loss records. Multiple depth charts, now that we’ve brought Roster Resource on board. There’s a lot of cool stuff… if you know where to look.
One of the cool but relatively new and lesser-known features is our Season Stat Grid, introduced just over a year ago, and in the planning stages for longer (I know that I’m one of the people who lobbied for the tool). The grid allows the user to view 11 year worth of data in a single category, and to track and rank year-to-year totals and changes based on thresholds of plate appearances and innings. It’s hours of fun, and occasionally fuel for an article. So after highlighting the exceptional, breakout season of Rafael Devers and noting that — at the time it was written, at least — he had the majors’ largest year-over-year improvements in batting average, on-base percentage, and WAR, while ranking second in his gains in wRC+ and fourth in slugging percentage, I figured the topic was worth a league-wide look.
Towards that end, I chose 10 statistical categories where we might look for significant changes, namely the aforementioned five plus walk and strikeout rates, out-of-zone swing rate, fielding (UZR plus positional adjustment, if any) and, for a nod towards win expectancy, Clutch. To qualify, players had to reach 400 plate appearances last year and 300 thus far this year. I then took the top 30 players whose changes went in the right direction (higher in all cases except for strikeout and chase rates), awarding 30 points for first place, 29 for second, and so on. When two or more players were tied — even if it was just a virtual tie, where we can’t see what’s to the right of the displayed decimals — I split the points evenly among the tied; for example, James McCann and Yoán Moncada, who have increased their batting average by 66 points apiece, occupy the third and fourth spots and thus each get 27.5 points. I doubled the impact of WAR and wRC+ (60 points maximum), even though components of those are included elsewhere within the survey, on the belief that those two stats drive the lion’s share of our understanding as to who has improved.
Every year, the Orioles and Nationals play games against one another, though the number actually varies depending on baseball’s rotational interleague schedule. These meetings are referred to as the “Beltway Series,” paying homage to the defining characteristic of the region: traffic on I-495 (the Capital Beltway) and I-695 (the Baltimore Beltway). While I am (mostly) kidding, I still sometimes wonder why there isn’t a better name for this geographical rivalry.
Set to factor in that series is Renato Núñez. The Orioles’ slugging designated hitter is having quite the year. Through games on Wednesday, he has more home runs than Bryce Harper, having hit 28 through his first 488 plate appearances. There’s not much beyond the power, though. He’s slashing .240/.309/.478 with a 103 wRC+, and due to his defensive limitations, he’s been held to just 0.7 WAR.
As we know, the Orioles are not in a position of contention this season, which is exactly why a guy like Renato Núñez can get play in the range of 150 games. All teams look for players with untapped potential. Not all teams, however, can give these players the plate appearances necessary to grow into the productivity that potential suggests. But the Orioles can, and Núñez is the beneficiary.
Núñez’s seemingly odd season had me hunting for a comp. What might a player with this skillset — good power, not a lot of contact, below-average discipline — look like in the future? What can the Orioles expect from Núñez in three, four, or five years?
To answer this question, I downloaded every individual player season with at least 300 plate appearances over the last five years, including 2019. I filtered my search using three conditions: a walk rate between 7-8%, an isolated power above .200, and a batting average between .230 and .250. In my mind, these three results-based constraints accomplish two goals: they limit my search to just a handful individual player seasons and allow me to find players who have similar intrinsic characteristics to Núñez’s. Read the rest of this entry »