Archive for the ‘Baseball’ Category

Don’t Sleep on the Houston Astros

Posted: 09/13/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

In September, baseball tends to be temporarily forgotten as football ramps up and jockeying for MLB’s playoffs is pretty minimal. This September, thanks to two very notable teams, there’ve been a few more headlines than usual. Almost all of those national headlines have been about the Cleveland Indians and the Los Angeles Dodgers. There’s good reason for that, obviously. As of today, the Indians are tied for the record for most consecutive wins in baseball history at 21. Baseball’s been around for a long time, so that’s impressive. During the winning streak, they’ve trailed for four cumulative innings (out of 189). They have a +104 run differential, as they’ve scored 139 runs and given up 35. They’ve hit 40 homers, five more bombs than total runs allowed. Corey Kluber’s been incredible, and the entire rotation has been incredible. It’s an unbelievable streak, and one that has seemingly been lost on the people of Cleveland (today, on their record-tying day, they had just 29,000 fans, which is actually almost 5,000 more than they had yesterday, when Kluber was on the mound).

The Dodgers, meanwhile, are making headlines for the opposite reason. They started the season 91-36 and seemed to be well on their way to 110+ wins. Since then, they’re 2-16, and 0-15 in games not started by Clayton Kershaw. This, too, is an incredible stretch for a team that looked invincible. But everyone’s talking about Los Angeles and about Cleveland. I want to write about another excellent team, one that’s gone under the radar both because everyone’s focused on the Dodgers and Indians and because they’ve been in a prolonged stretch of mediocrity.

The Houston Astros entered the All-Star break 60-29. Since, they’re 27-28. Before they won 1-0 yesterday, they had been swept in a four game series in Oakland by a cumulative 26 runs. That pretty much sums up the way the last few months have gone for Houston. But I’m here to tell you that the Astros should be taken seriously as World Series contenders.

Astros fans were mad when the team didn’t make a single trade at the July 31st deadline. Heck, even the players weren’t thrilled. Ace Dallas Keuchel said that “disappointment [about the lack of a move] is a little bit of an understatement.” I’d imagine that Keuchel’s opinion was shared by a lot of other players in the clubhouse, because the Astros clearly needed something and didn’t get it at the July 31st deadline.

They did, however, eventually get the missing piece. When nobody was paying attention, as time ran out on August 31st (the last day a player can be added to the 40-man roster and then be eligible for the playoffs), the Astros nabbed Justin Verlander from the Tigers. Verlander had cleared waivers, which meant he was eligible for a trade after July 31st. A Verlander to Houston deal had always seemed reasonable, both because the Astros needed a starting pitcher and because the Tigers were obvious sellers. The Astros dealt a lot away to get Verlander — three prospects, including Franklin Perez, a top-50 guy. All three are now top-10 prospects for the Tigers — but it was a move they had to make. In his first two starts for the Astros, Verlander has looked like the missing piece. He’s given up one run in 14 innings in a pair of wins. He’s been flat out dominant since the end of July, going 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA in nine starts. He started slowly this season, but a return to form was always coming. He hasn’t lost velocity, and he has continued to strike batters out at an elite level. It seems safe to say that, at the very least, he’s solidified Houston’s likely playoff rotation.

A major reason that the Astros have struggled is that they — and their rotation especially — have been riddled with injuries all season long. Keuchel and Lance McCullers have both made just 20 starts. Collin McHugh has been out for most of the season and has started just nine times. That’s three-fourths of the likely playoff rotation, and the fourth guy has been on the team for less than two weeks. It’s not easy to win games when Mike Fiers (27 starts, 4.78 ERA) and Joe Musgrove (15, 6.12) are starting every fifth day. And the hitters haven’t avoided the injury bug. Starters Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, and George Springer have all hit the DL. And star shortstop Carlos Correa missed about six weeks with a torn ligament in his left thumb (the ‘Stros were 20-22 with Correa on the DL). Now, everyone’s healthy. McHugh and McCullers are getting maintenance days, but that’s just to keep them fresh for the playoffs. The Astros have just three players on the DL, and none were likely to make the playoff roster anyway.

So the Astros are healthy now, and their roster looks pretty darned stacked. This team leads baseball in runs scored for a reason. It’s the deepest and strongest lineup in baseball. Jose Altuve is the favorite to take home the AL MVP, as he’s hitting .349/.408/.561 with 23 homers and 31 steals. Correa and Springer both have OPSs north of .900. Springer’s slumped of late, but he’s a leadoff hitter with 31 homers and a .373 OBP. Pretty darn good. But this isn’t a three-man offense. 12 players have at least 200 plate appearances, and 10 have an OPS north of .750. The exceptions are Nori Aoki, who’s no longer on the team, and Carlos Beltran. Alex Bregman, the second overall pick in 2015, has the third most PAs on the team (behind Altuve and Springer) and is hitting .284/.354/.471 while playing good defense at third. Solid. First baseman Yuli Gurriel, who was signed from Cuba last year, is hitting .290/.322/.477, which is pretty good for a six-hole hitter. Reddick is hitting .312/.359/.481, and thanks to Houston’s exceptional depth he can now play almost exclusively against righties, against whom he’s hitting .311/.359/.506. McCann and Evan Gattis are platooning at catcher, and each player has an OPS north of .750. Jake Marisnick starts maybe three games a week, but he too has been great, slashing .240/.316/.493. And I haven’t even mentioned super-utility player Marwin Gonzalez, who has seen significant time at every infield position (barring catcher) and left field. Gonzalez is slashing .292/.365/.515, which means he’s been one of the best hitters on the team.

The starting pitching has long been the biggest concern, which is why the Verlander move was necessary. JV certainly solidifies the rotation, but the Astros will still have to rely on three pitchers who have been on and off the injury report this season. Keuchel was cruising before he got hurt but has a 5.02 ERA and a 4.86 FIP in his first nine post-injury starts. McCullers, too, was tremendous to start the season but has been shaky of late. He’s had two separate DL stints for lower back discomfort and has a 7.08 ERA in seven starts since he first hit the DL. And McHugh is out right now with a fingernail injury, and I’m not sure the Astros can or will trust him to start a playoff game, as his nine starts have totaled just 47.1 innings. Luckily, the ‘Stros have a solid fallback option in Charlie Morton, who’s been rock solid as a starter all year. And I do trust that Keuchel and Verlander will form an acceptable 1-2 combo in the playoffs. But the rotation is definitely the likeliest part of the team to hold them back in October.

I really like what I think is an underrated bullpen. It’s underrated because it hasn’t been that good as a whole, with a 4.47 ERA this season. But in the playoffs, you need just two or three guys who can be relied upon in high-leverage situations and another few who can serve as effective innings eaters if the starters run into trouble. Of Houston’s 13 relievers who have thrown at least 10 innings from the pen, just five have had an ERA lower than 4.00 (hence the team’s subpar overall bullpen ERA). Those five, along with Luke Gregerson, who’s been reliable in the past but has had a down year, will be the relievers who are called upon in the postseason. Ken Giles has a 2.59 ERA and 2.47 FIP as the closer. Chris Devenski can go multiple innings and has a career 2.36 ERA and .92 WHIP. Will Harris, who was injured earlier in the season, is healthy now and is a reliable setup man (3.05 ERA, .99 WHIP this year; 2.28 and .98 since the start of 2015). Brad Peacock, who has swung between the bullpen and rotation throughout the year, racks up strikeouts and has a 1.77 ERA when he’s coming from the bullpen. And Joe Musgrove, the guy I mentioned earlier who has a 6.12 ERA in 15 starts? Well, his stuff plays a lot better from the bullpen. In 18 relief appearances, he has a 1.38 ERA and has walked almost nobody. Harris and Giles are the classic eighth and ninth inning guys. Devenski is the closest thing the Astros have to Andrew Miller, at least workload and usage wise. And Peacock and Musgrove are converted starters who can work multiple innings of relief (Charlie Morton could also fit the bill, but I still think he may start a game or two in the playoffs).

Bottom Line: From top to bottom, the Astros clearly have a better roster than the Red Sox and have a lineup that’s superior to Cleveland’s. If Keuchel and McCullers can return to their early-season forms, this team has about as good of a chance to win it all as the Indians do. I can understand why you may be wary about the rotation; I am too. But it’s dangerous to sleep on a team with this much talent.

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Marcus Stroman and Nick Vincent

Posted: 08/26/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

I’m ending this look at a few successful low-K pitchers with two more American League hurlers. That means that four of the five pitchers (Cole Hamels and Michael Fulmer being the other two) are AL pitchers. The fifth, Brandon Kintzler, started the season in Minnesota before being traded to the National League in July. I thought that might be indicative of a league-wide split, especially since National League pitchers get to pitch to opposing pitchers, but the difference is minimal: NL pitchers are striking out 8.33 batters per nine innings, while AL pitchers have struck out 8.29 hitters per nine frames. Actually, the two leagues are pretty close across the board, which is unexpected given that the AL has a DH. The AL has a 4.37 ERA, and the NL has a 4.36 ERA. There was a bit more of a difference last year, when the NL had an 8.19 K/9 and the AL was at 8.01. There’s been some separation between the two leagues in past years, too, so this seems like a bit of an anomaly. The DH seems like it should make a big difference, but it hasn’t this year. Anyway, time to move on to those last two AL pitchers.

In his MiLB career, Marcus Stroman struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings. His fastball averages 94 and hits 96. And yet… he’s striking out just 7.38 batters per nine innings this year, and his career average is 7.35. Why doesn’t he strike more guys out? Well, because he doesn’t really want to. Since his MLB debut, Stroman has added a sinker to his repertoire. He didn’t throw a single sinker in his first handful of starts. He threw it 18% of the time in 2014, his first season (he threw his four seam fastball 36% of the time). Now, Stroman throws his sinker almost 60% of the time and his fastball 6.6%. Stroman gets fewer whiffs on his sinker than he does on any other pitch. And make no mistake about it, this is a guy with a lot of options. Along with his fastball and sinker, he throws a cutter, a change, a slider, and a curveball. But he throws his sinker almost 60% of the time, and when he throws it, hitters don’t swing and miss. What they do is put it on the ground. When his sinker is put in play, it’s hit on the ground 72.2% of the time. That’s what he wants, and that’s what he gets. Among qualified starters, Stroman’s 62.2% ground ball rate is second to only Luis Perdomo. If Stroman wanted to get more swings and misses, he’d mix in his slider more often. He seems to recognize that, as he throws his slider twice as often with two strikes (about 40% of the time) as he normally does. And the slider’s a good two strike pitch. About half of his punchouts have come with it. Stroman knows how to ring up a hitter when there are two strikes. But he’d rather the hitter put the ball in play earlier in the at-bat. He throws it more than 70% of the time on the first pitch, and more than 70% of the time when the hitter is ahead in the count. He does it so he can stay in the game longer, and it works. Stroman’s averaging 6.33 innings per start despite averaging just 98.3 pitches.

Verdict: This all sounds fine and dandy, and for the most part, it’s worked for Stroman, who has a 3.17 ERA this year. But the problem with striking out relatively few batters is that there’s a lot more luck involved. This year, Stroman’s gotten good luck. 77.7% of batters who have reached base have been stranded. That’s in the top fifth of qualifiers. But in a different, less lucky year, his stats could look very different. Case-in-point: last year. The K rate, BABIP, and homer rate were all almost exactly the same. Stroman’s FIP (3.71) was actually slightly lower than it is this year (3.87) because he walked fewer batters. His WHIP was two ticks lower. But his ERA was 4.37, and that was largely because his strand rate was just 68.6%. When you give up a hit per inning, as Stroman does, it’s hard to close the gap on the league’s elite pitchers, who allow far fewer hits (Max Scherzer paces the league at 5.4 hits allowed per nine innings, which is remarkable). Stroman’s a good pitcher who should continue to put up ERAs in the mid-high 3s if he continues to feature his sinker. But I still think he has the potential to be a dominant hurler, and that’ll only happen if he sprinkles in his off-speed pitches more often and generates more swings and misses.

Nick Vincent has been a good relief pitcher for his entire career, which dates back to 2012. Through his first five years, he had a 2.94 ERA and a 9.6 K/9 ratio. Pretty normal numbers for a good reliever. This year, though, his ERA has dropped to 1.98, while his K/9 ratio has dropped to 6.91. That’s… less normal. Like Marcus Stroman, Nick Vincent has a sinker. Unlike Stroman, Vincent doesn’t throw his sinker very often (about 7% of the time). And unlike Stroman, Vincent doesn’t force many ground balls. His ground ball rate is 33.3%, which is 15th-lowest among 163 qualified relievers. He allows significantly more fly balls than ground balls, which is generally not a recipe for success, especially not in the year of the homer. So is his 1.98 ERA a fluke? Well, his 2.7% HR/FB rate would suggest yes. Vincent’s given up 74 fly balls and allowed homers on just two. That’s the lowest rate in the league. But that’s not an accident. Vincent allows the second lowest hard contact rate on balls hit in the air. That would suggest that this isn’t luck.

Vincent primarily throws a four seam fastball and a cutter, which is par for the course for him. His fastball hovers around 90 miles per hour, same as it has always been. With two strikes, he throws his four seamer a lot more than his cutter, while early in the count he throws the cut fastball (I’ve been calling it a cutter, but it may also be a slider. The differences are subtle). The problem seems to be that Vincent’s four seamer — his out pitch — doesn’t generate as many swings and misses as it used to. This seems to date back to an injury Vincent suffered last year. Before the injury, pounded the zone with cutters before throwing high fastballs that hitters rarely laid off. After the injury, he couldn’t locate the cutter, so he had to throw the fastball for strikes more often. This year, Vincent’s been able to locate his cutter again, which is why he has a career-low 1.48 BB/9 ratio. Only five relievers have been better at avoiding walks. But Vincent’s fastball hasn’t regained its magic, as it has generated only a 14% swing and miss rate with two strikes, down from 22% from 2012-16.

Verdict: There’s no way that Nick Vincent is really good enough to carry a sub-2 ERA. Soft contact or not, he’s bound to give up more homers, especially considering how many fly balls he allows. The fact that he has cut his walk rate and continues to do a good job at stranding runners (career 79% strand rate) definitely gives him more room for error, but not enough to allow me to consider him an elite relief pitcher. Is Nick Vincent for real? If “for real” means a good reliever who can be useful even without a high strikeout rate, yes. If “for real” means good enough to be considered one of the best relief pitchers in baseball, no.

Yesterday, I wrote about Michael Fulmer and how he’s managed to be a very good pitcher without racking up a huge number of strikeouts. Today, I’m going to focus on a few other pitchers who have the same general profiles: low K rate, low ERA. I concluded that Fulmer’s success has been more a product of skill than luck, and predicted that he’ll grow into a bonafide Cy Young candidate if and when he begins to strike out more hitters. Can the same be said for these pitchers?

Cole Hamels is 33-years-old and has a lot of miles on his left arm. This’ll be the first time since 2007 that Hamels will have failed to make at least 30 starts, and he’s started 354 games in his career and thrown 2319.2 innings. With that being said, Hamels has managed to remain relatively effective, going 9-1 with a 3.42 ERA in 16 starts. If he stays on course, this’ll be his eighth straight season with a sub-3.65 ERA, and his 1.08 WHIP is actually his lowest since 2011. So all’s normal in Hamels-ville, right? Well, not so fast. Hamels’ strikeout rate has plummeted to 5.55 per nine innings. That’s 101st among 106 pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings. It’s also easily Hamels’ career low; his K/9 had never been lower than 7.76, and it had been over 8.00 for seven consecutive seasons. The loss in strikeouts has coincided with a decrease in velocity, as Hamels’ average fastball velo has dropped from about 93.5 to 92. For years, his fastball could touch 97 when he needed it to; this year, he hasn’t thrown a single 95 mile-per-hour pitch. That drop-off has seemed to really hurt him. In past years, Hamels consistently generated swings and misses on about 12% of his pitches. This year, that rate is down to 8.7%. Hamels is actually throwing his fastball and sinker more often than he did last year (about 50% of the time, up from 45%). And he’s getting more hitters out with his four-seamer. Batters hit .290 with a .438 SLG% against the pitch last year and are down to .214 with a .348 SLG% this year. Unfortunately, I think that has to be attributed more to luck than skill.

The biggest reason to believe that Hamels’ low ERA and shiny win-loss record are a mirage is his BABIP. Opposing hitters are hitting .230 on balls in play against him. That’s the lowest mark in MLB. And unlike Fulmer, Hamels hasn’t proven to be better than average at getting outs on balls in play. His BABIP was between .290 and .300 every year from 2012 to 2016, which fits in well with the league average of .297. 305 batters have put the ball in play against Hamels. 70 have recorded hits. If his BABIP were in the same range as it always had been prior to this year, that number would be about 90. Add those 20 hits and his WHIP balloons to 1.27 and his ERA goes up who knows how much. This really reminds me of Felix Hernandez’s performance last year. Hernandez failed to make 30 starts for the first time since 2005, had easily the lowest strikeout rate of his career, and had a relatively low BABIP that fueled his 3.82 ERA (his FIP was 4.63). This came as he lost between one and two miles per hour on his fastball. This year, Felix has a 4.28 ERA. Hamels has a 4.45 FIP this year, so the similarities are evident. Hamels’ strikeout-walk rate is 7.6%, one of the lowest marks in baseball. The same was true for Hernandez last year (8.7%). It’s hard to be effective when you’re striking out nobody and walking even an average number of hitters.

Verdict: Unless King Cole regains some of his fastball velocity or learns how to pitch differently (maybe by throwing more offspeed pitches. Hamels’s changeup has long been one of the best pitches in baseball, although that’s largely because it’s been set up by his fastball), I fear that his ERA will balloon next year, much like Hernandez’s did this year. The low ERA is almost entirely a result of his low BABIP, and specifically the low BABIP on his fastball (.221, down from .333 last year).

Brandon Kintzler is a rare breed, a relief pitcher who’s been around and effective for a long time despite failing to notch many strikeouts. Among the 105 relievers who have thrown at least 200 innings since 2013 (Kintzler’s first full season), just six have struck out fewer batters per nine innings than he has. Kintzler has a career 3.15 ERA, and he’s in the midst of his best season yet. He saved 28 games for the Twins and made the All-Star team before being dealt to the Nationals. Since relocating to DC, Kintzler’s given up a single run in 11 appearances. He has a 2.40 ERA this season and a 1.08 WHIP. But he’s far from the typical closer. His 5.43 K/9 rate ranks 155th among 160 qualified relievers. Among closers, who usually throw super fast, that’s by far the lowest mark (Alex Colome at 7.44 and Kelvin Herrera at 8.69 are the next two). I know Kintzler’s K/9 rate is barely lower than Hamels’s, but if we take into account the fact that Brandon is a reliever, it’s much more striking. The average reliever strikes out 8.97 batters per nine innings, while the average starter puts away 7.89 per nine innings. How has Kintzler been so solid despite striking out about half as many batters as most other closers?

One word: grounders. As a sinkerballer, it’s no surprise that Kintzler has always been an extreme ground ball pitcher. His GB% this year — 56.5% — is actually a bit lower than his career average of 58.2%. Kintzler forces a lot of soft contact, and the ball is usually hit on the ground when he throws his sinker, which he does about 73% of the time. Opposing hitters are hitting just .224 against the sinker with eight extra base hits in 152 at bats. He doesn’t miss a lot of bats, but hitters don’t do a lot of damage against him. Against righties, the only pitch he throws consistently besides his sinker is a slider that is pretty fast (averaging about 87 miles per hour) and doesn’t have much break on it. That’s really where he differentiates himself from most relievers: Kintzler doesn’t really have an offspeed pitch he can call his out pitch. He also occasionally throws a changeup (31 times all season, per Brooks Baseball), but it’s only about five miles per hour slower than his sinker.

Kintzler’s team switch should help allow him to maintain his success, even if he starts getting a little less lucky. There’s no doubt that he’s gotten lucky, with a .256 BABIP and a 82.2% strand rate, both of which are far better than league average. Given that he’s allowing a few more fly balls this year, it’d also be fair to expect him to give up a few more homers down the stretch. But he’s now on a team that should better support him given his tendencies to force grounders to short and third. Anthony Rendon is one of the best and rangiest third basemen in the league, and the shortstop combination of Trea Turner (who should return from injury soon) and Wilmer Difo has been just as effective. Rendon and Turner should help Kintzler improve against right-handers, against whom he’s always been worse. It’s definitely better than having Miguel Sano at third and Jorge Polanco at short.

Verdict: Is Kintzler really a 2.40 ERA-type pitcher? No, probably not. But he has an effective sinker and is a successful ground ball pitcher. There’s a reason the average ball comes off the bat against Kintzler at just 85.1 miles per hour, more than three ticks better than the average pitcher. He likely won’t keep being this lucky in terms of balls in play, but some of that regression should be slowed by Washington’s infield defense (excluding the plodding Ryan Zimmerman at first). At the very least, Brandon Kintzler is a rock solid reliever. And a reliever who can be relied upon to come on and force a groundout is really valuable. That’s why the Nationals traded for him, and that’s why I believe Kintzler’s success this season has been due more to skill than luck.

Still to come: Nick Vincent and Marcus Stroman

Michael Fulmer — Excelling Without Ks

Posted: 08/22/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

This is the list of the 15 best starters in baseball this year, per Fangraphs:

 

All 15 have been worth at least 3.3 WAR, with Sale lapping the field at 7.4 (Kluber’s second at 5.1). But I don’t want to talk about WAR. I want to talk about the number that’s unlike any of those other numbers. 14 of these 15 aces have struck out at least a batter an inning. Sale will almost certainly strike out more than 300 batters this year, and Scherzer may come close. And the list of the pitchers with the most strikeouts in baseball — Sale, Scherzer, Archer, Kluber, DeGrom — is a who’s who of the best pitchers in baseball this year. That’s not a surprise. The league has become more and more strikeout-oriented. Since 2013, the K/9 rate has gone from 7.57 to 7.73 to 7.76 to 8.1 to a shocking 8.3 this year. Now, starters strike out “only” 7.89 batters per nine innings (relievers punch out almost exactly a batter an inning), but that number was just 7.14 five years ago. Everyone’s striking out more hitters, and that’s been most evident among the top echelon of pitchers. But then there’s that outlier. Not only is Michael Fulmer not striking out a batter an inning; his 6.38 K/9 rate ranks 86th of 103 pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings. And yet, he’s still pitching pretty well, as he boasts a 3.60 ERA and underlying numbers that suggest he’s likely better than that ERA would indicate. And he’s not the only one. Cole Hamels (3.42 ERA, 5.55 K/9) and Marcus Stroman (2.99 ERA, 7.4 K/9) are other examples of starters who have excelled despite subpar strikeout numbers. Among relief pitchers, Brandon Kintzler (2.44 ERA, 5.53 K/9, 28 saves) and Nick Vincent (1.88 ERA, 7.01 K/9, 1.6 WAR, making him the one relief pitcher in the top-23 in WAR to strike out fewer than a batter per inning) have bucked the recent trend and pitched well despite pitching to contact. How much of it has been luck, and how much is skill? That depends on the pitcher. Let’s start with the inspiration for this post, Michael Fulmer.

Fulmer’s in the second year of what’s shaping up to be a very good career. He nearly swept the AL Rookie of the Year voting last year, winning 26 of 30 first place votes after he posted a 3.06 ERA in 26 starts. He struck out 7.47 batters per nine innings, a perfectly adequate number but again not what you’d expect from a Rookie of the Year or someone with an ERA so low. How did he succeed? Well, part of it was good luck. His FIP (fielding independent pitching) was 3.76, still good but closer to average than elite. Among the 84 pitchers who threw at least 150 innings, his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) against was 15th-lowest at .268. That’s 30 points below the league average. He stranded 79% of batters who reached base, 16th-highest. But there was evidence that Fulmer, whose fastball averaged 94.8 miles per hour last season and who throws only three pitches — fastball, slider, change — made his own luck last season. He was in the top third of the league in terms of GB:FB ratio, meaning that he generally kept the ball on the ground. The .91 HR/9 he allowed was 12th-best among the 84 qualifiers, and he only got average luck on fly balls. His walk rate — 2.38 per nine innings — was also fairly low. And this from a rookie who, in his minor league career, consistently flashed both good command and the ability to rack up strikeouts. After all, this was the Tigers’ #1 prospect heading into last season. Fulmer averages about 96 miles per hour on his fastball and has an effective 88 mile per hour changeup and a slider that should serve as a devastating out pitch. All signs pointed to him racking up more strikeouts and building on his stellar rookie season.

As it turns out, the strikeouts have gotten even rarer, dropping from 7.47 per nine to 6.38. And Fulmer’s ERA has risen to 3.60 as his record has dropped below .500. Historically, this would unequivocally be considered a disappointing second season. But has he really been worse this year? Fulmer’s FIP has actually dropped below his ERA, to 3.50. It seems that he’s doubled down on what worked for him last year, which is pitching to contact. He’s getting even fewer swings and misses this year, and as a result more balls have been hit in play. Most of the peripheral numbers look as good or better than they did last year. His walk rate has dropped from 2.38 to 2.13 per nine innings, a mark that ranks ninth among qualified starters. He’s giving up just .65 bops per nine innings, as he’s managed to escape the homer woes that have befallen most of his colleagues this season. As you might expect, that number paces the major leagues, and it isn’t even close (Chad Kuhl is second at .72). Some of that is undoubtedly due to luck, but Fulmer kept the ball in the park throughout his minor league career and has continued to keep it in the park in MLB, so I’m willing to give him some credit. Even the BABIP has stayed fairly level, rising to just .274, still much slower than baseball’s average (another sign that Fulmer could be one of the rare pitchers who can consistently limit the damage on balls hit in play). Most of the reason Fulmer’s ERA has gone up is that he’s now letting almost a third of batters who reach base to score. His LOB% has fallen from 79% (remember, 16th-highest last year) to 66.8%, which is sixth-lowest. In almost the same number of innings, after having allowed almost the same number of baserunners and giving up five fewer homers, more runners are scoring. Per Fangraphs’ “Clutch” rating, which is almost entirely driven by luck, Fulmer’s now been the second least “Clutch” pitcher in MLB. He’s giving up hits at the wrong time, and I believe that’s all driven by bad luck.

Verdict: Fulmer’s strong first two seasons are far more due to skill than luck. He doesn’t walk many batters, he keeps the ball in the park, and he generally pitches to harmless contact. I do believe that he’ll need to up his strikeout rate to become one of baseball’s elite pitchers, because the beauty of the strikeout is that it doesn’t allow for any bad luck or bad fielding. And there are signs that Fulmer’s working to whiff more hitters. He’s thrown only 12 curveballs in his career, but all have come since June 29th. Maybe he’ll work the curve into his repertoire next season. He’s throwing them at about 79 miles per hour, 17 mph slower than his average fastball and sinker. Maybe it’ll help him get out lefty hitters, who are teeing off on his sinker (.300 average, although just a .390 SLG%). He’s also starting to throw sliders more often than he did at the beginning of the season. His slider has been arguably his most effective pitch this season. It’s not hard to envision a world in which Fulmer strikes out about a batter an inning. He does throw the ball quite hard, after all.

All of this would just be icing on the cake. Fulmer has already proven to be a very good pitcher, as he usually pounds the bottom of the zone and forces hitters to hit his pitches on the ground. I know his 3.60 ERA isn’t sparkling, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s his highest ERA in quite some time.

Still to come: Cole Hamels, Marco Estrada, Brandon Kintzler, and Nick Vincent

Aaron Judge has now struck out in 36 consecutive games, a new record. Strikeouts are the result of 32.1% of his plate appearances, which tellingly is nowhere near the highest in baseball (Joey Gallo strikes out 37.1% of the time). Judge also walks 17.4% of the time and homers 7.2% of the time. That means 56.7% of his plate appearances end in a strikeout, walk, or homer — also known as the three true outcomes, which in other words means a PA that ends without a ball being hit in play. Gallo’s TTO% is 59.7%, and Miguel Sano’s is 53.1%. Those three guys lead the league, and they also have more in common. Gallo is 23-years-old, Sano is 24, and Judge is 25. That’s indicative of a league-wide trend of young players with hitting styles that try to maximize homers and walks at the expense of an increase in whiffs. Why is MLB becoming more and more K, BB, and HR happy? Well, just look at the results. Judge has been one of the best hitters in baseball, with a 1.015 OPS and 165 wRC+. Gallo and Sano have been 28% and 27% better than the average hitter, and they’ve posted a .893 and .870 OPS respectively. It’s not just those three, either. Seven of the 12 most strikeout-prone batters have posted at least a 120 wRC+ this season. Just four of the 12 least strikeout-prone hitters have done the same. Overall, high TTO players have been more effective hitters, which explains why the TTO% has exploded from 30.7% to 33.5% in just the last two years. Gone are the days that Adam Dunn (long the TTO king) can lead baseball with a 48% TTO%, as he did in 2005.

I’m not going to argue with the data. I recognize that hitting more homers and drawing more walks (batting average and K-rate be damned) is a good way for hitters to provide value for their teams. I also don’t see this strategy changing anytime soon, both because the hitters are seeing good results from it and because the increased velocity and strikeout stuff that most young pitchers have necessitates it. That’s a shame, because I think it takes away from MLB’s overall product. Sure, homers are exciting, but long plate appearances and tons of walks and strikeouts aren’t. The average hitter sees 3.9 pitches per plate appearance, up from 3.75 in 2005. That adds up over the course of a game and a season. I’m also a fan of amazing defensive plays and hilarious gaffes, both of which come less often with fewer balls hit in play. Speed and baserunning strategy are also marginalized without, well, baserunners. So I want to take some time to celebrate the exceptions, the players who have been tremendous players despite hitting for contact and not always power. I’m not talking about the Ben Revere type (as you may expect, Revere laps the field with a 12.8% TTO%). I’m talking about guys who could be legitimate MVP candidates. In particular, I’m talking about Justin Turner, Daniel Murphy, and Jose Altuve.

Before I get to the stats, let’s talk narrative. All three infielders have something in common: they were relatively unheralded. Altuve, who at 5’6″ is the shortest player in baseball, was signed by the Astros in 2007 as an undrafted free agent. His signing bonus was $15,000. Turner and Murphy were seventh and 13th round picks respectively and are both Mets castoffs. It really is quite incredible that New York managed to lose — for nothing — two players who are now among the best infielders in baseball. Murphy left after 2015, a 30-year-old with a career .755 OPS, a statistic that’s misleading because it doesn’t include Murphy’s 1.115 postseason OPS in 2015, when he powered the Mets to the World Series and parlayed his postseason into a three year deal with the Nationals. He went to Washington and immediately slashed .347/.390/.595, finishing second in the NL MVP voting (and posting a glorious 20.1% TTO%). His OPS is close to .950 this season. Turner left New York as a free agent after 2013. He was 28-years-old and had a career .684 OPS. In his four years in LA, he’s hit .307/.380/.507 and is now the three-hole hitter on one of the best teams in baseball’s history. The three players have all taken unconventional routes to stardom, so it’s no surprise that they have unconventional approaches in the era of Ks, BBs, and HRs.

Here’s a chart of the three players’ TTO breakdown:

K% BB% HR% TTO%
Murphy 10% 7.8% 4.3% 23.1%
Altuve 12.4% 8.6% 3.6% 24.6%
Turner 9.5% 11.4% 4.2% 25.1%

As you can see, it’s not like any of the three players lack power. They’re all going to end up hitting somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 homers, which in most eras would be an excellent total for a second baseman (as Murphy and Altuve are) or a third baseman (as Turner is). And they all walk at least a respectable amount.

Murphy isn’t even that selective. He swings at 30.6% of pitches that are outside the zone (per Baseball Info Solutions), a rate that ranks him 88th of 152 qualified hitters, right behind Yasiel Puig. And he’s in the top half of the league in terms of total swing percentage at 47.1%. What makes Murphy special is that he just doesn’t whiff. He has a beautiful and short swing which becomes even shorter with two strikes. His contact rate on pitches outside the zone is 81%, third in baseball. On pitches inside the zone, it’s 93.6%. With two strikes, he’s seen 401 pitches and swung and missed at 40 of them. That 10% rate is lower than the total swing and miss rate of more than half of qualified hitters. His swing and miss rate overall ranks 146th of 152 qualified hitters. Even the pitch that strikes him out the most (the slider) is a dangerous one to throw. Murphy’s slugging .533 against the slider, although he’s struggled against a slider with two strikes (he’s seen 72 two-strike sliders, striking out 14 times and notching just eight hits). First and foremost, though, Murphy is still a fastball hitter who is really good at fighting off changeups. Last year, he was one of the best fastball hitters in the game. He’s seen a bit of regression this year, which is to be expected, but he’s remained frighteningly good at teeing off on fastballs.

This is the point where I would usually nitpick Murphy and say that he should really draw more walks. He’s walked 36 times this year, but even that number’s misleading, as a third of them have been intentional free passes. But because this post is about finding the best anti TTO players, I’m going to give Daniel a free pass (get it?). Overall, he has one of the most interesting profiles in the league, simply because he swings at a lot of pitches and hits almost everything. When he puts it in play, he sprays it around the ballpark, hitting line drives to all areas of the field. He really is a refreshing counter to pull-happy, strikeout-heavy sluggers like Judge, Sano, and Gallo.

Jose Altuve’s probably the favorite for AL MVP, and he’d be a deserving winner. He’s hitting .364/.425/.572 with 19 homers and 28 steals, a type of line you rarely see. I know the season isn’t over yet, but nobody’s hit .350 since Josh Hamilton did it in 2010. Add in the type of power/speed combo Altuve has (at 5’6″!) and you have a unique player. As you would expect of a player with such a high average, Altuve’s BABIP is sky-high at .390. That’s partly because he hits the ball to all fields, partly because he’s fast. His homer/FB% of 14.2% is about average, which means he’s hitting about as many homers as would be expected given how many fly balls he’s hitting. Altuve strikes out significantly more than the other two, but still not very much. He’s also even more aggressive on balls outside the zone than Murphy is. He swings at 34.2% of pitches outside the zone, putting him in the bottom quartile of the league in terms of laying off pitches. That’s why he sees only 3.46 pitches per plate appearances, fifth fewest in baseball. He’s fairly good at laying off of high pitches, but he does chase low pitches, although he’s good at fouling them off. Altuve swings and misses more than Murphy and Turner do, but not much more. He’s actually a normal hitter in that two strike sliders devastate him. 46 of his at-bats have ended on a slider with two strikes, and half of those resulted in strikeouts (five were singles and one a double). Luckily, Altuve doesn’t need to have much of a two strike approach because he rarely lets a PA get that far. In fact, 109 of his at-bats have ended with a swing on the first pitch. Of those 109 balls put in play (or over the fence), Altuve is 53-for-109 (.486) with nine homers and 21 extra base hits, which is good for a .862 SLG%. That’s where so much of his power comes from (and, thus, where his status as a low TTO player is endangered), because he really shortens his swing with two strikes, when he hasn’t hit a single homer. It’s true that Jose struggles with two strikes — Altuve’s hitting .234 with a .311 OBP with two strikes, and he’s striking out 32.8% of the time. So Jose’s strategy is understandably to jump on the first pitch he can hit. By the way, want the difference between Judge and Altuve (approach-wise) in a nutshell?

0-0 Count 3-2 Count
Judge 37 ABs (.405 AVG, .730 SLG) 126 PAs (38.1% K, 35.7% BB)
Altuve 109 ABs (.486 AVG, .862 SLG) 55 PAs (20% K, 38.2% BB)

Overall, Altuve’s been seemingly impossible to get out, especially against righties, against whom he’s hitting .372. Per Brooks Baseball, Altuve’s hitting at least .300 against every single pitch thrown by a righty, which is really unbelievable given that he’s a right-handed hitter. According to Fangraphs, on a per-pitch basis he’s the third best hitter against fastballs, top-20 against sliders, top-30 against curves, and top-30 against changeups. No wonder he’s on the AL MVP shortlist.

Justin Turner’s been quite good throughout his tenure with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but this year’s been way different from any of the ones that have preceded it. From 2014-16, Turner struck out roughly one every six times he came to the plate and walked about one every 12 times. The average strikeout percentage is 21.5% and walks come 8.5% of the time, so Turner struck out a fair amount less and walked a smidge less than the average player. As you saw in the table above, this year Turner’s walking 11.4% of the time and striking out on 9.5% of his plate appearances. He’s walking 1.2 times for each strikeout, a ratio that ranks second in baseball to the unmatched Joey Votto (1.54 BB:K ratio). That’s where he distances himself from Murphy (.71) and Altuve (.69). He also is tied with Dustin Pedroia for the lowest strikeout rate among qualified players, which really burnishes his TTO resume. Turner swings at 26.2% of pitches that are outside of the zone, which is a meaningfully lower percentage than both Murphy and Altuve. His overall swing rate of 44.4% is in the league’s 35th percentile. So he’s a more patient hitter than the other two, which helps explain why he walks more often. He’s also significantly more comfortable with two strikes than Altuve (who, remember, hits .234/.311/.297 with two strikes) and Murphy (.223/.253/.417). When there are two strikes against him, Turner’s hitting .292/.390/.380, so he’s a good example of someone who can shorten up his swing and make contact with two strikes.

 

Turner’s been a good fastball hitter throughout his Dodgers career, so it’s no surprise that he’s hitting .357 against fastballs (also, it’s hard to hit .344 overall and not be seeing fastballs well). The cutter has historically hurt Turner, and he’s only hitting .250 against it this year, but I’m really picking nits here. Turner has been one of the best, purest hitters in baseball this year. He’s hitting .344/.434/.561, and it’s not a fluke. His two strike hitting and ability to put the ball in play have been the catalysts for his career season.

So there you have it: Justin Turner, Jose Altuve, and Daniel Murphy are your low TTO kings. In terms of pure TTO%, here’s the bottom 10 of qualified hitters (Ben Revere and others do not have enough PAs to qualify):

Eduardo Nunez (16%)
Yuli Gurriel (17.1%)
Dee Gordon (17.3%)
Brandon Phillips (17.5%)
Jose Iglesias (18%)
Jose Peraza (18.3%)
Jonathan Lucroy (18.6%) * – not qualified but almost so why not
Andrelton Simmons (19.6%)
DJ LeMahieu (20.1%)
Joe Panik (20.2%)

So yes, the original point is correct: most good hitters hit a lot of homers, draw a lot of walks, and strike out a lot. But that makes Turner, Murphy, and Altuve that much more impressive.

Giancarlo Stanton has been in the news recently for a few reasons. The first and most obvious catalyst has been his play on the field. Stanton has 11 homers in 15 August games and 23 bombs in his last 36 games. In that span, he’s hitting .338/.447/.925. For the season, he now has hit 44 homers, seven more than second-best Aaron Judge (it’s clear that Stanton isn’t going to relinquish the king of homers moniker anytime soon). He’s driven in 94 runs. His OPS is 1.023, fourth in baseball. He’s been worth 4.6 WAR, 10th best among position players. We know Stanton is an offensive stud. He has been his entire career. But he’s also had a career littered with injuries, as would be expected of a guy who is listed at 6’6″, 250 pounds. He’s played in more than three-quarters of his team’s games just three times in eight seasons, and one of those times he played in just 76%. This year, he’s already racked up 505 plate appearances, which ranks third in his career. He’s played in 117 of Miami’s 119 games. As a result, he’s on pace to have his best season so far and to clear 55 homers and make a run at 60.

Stanton’s power surge is the first reason he’s been making waves (and challenging my statement that Paul Goldschmidt should be home scot-free for NL MVP). The second reason is that the Marlins recently put him on waivers. This seems shocking, and in fact MVP candidates aren’t often put on waivers. What should seem even more shocking is that nobody claimed Stanton off waivers. Even if they had, the Marlins probably would have pulled him off waivers (they’re called revocable waivers for a reason, folks). So no team was willing to take Stanton, an MVP candidate, for free! That means the Marlins are free to trade him to whatever team they want before August 31st. How could Stanton possibly clear waivers? Well, because he’s getting paid quite a bit. To be exact, he signed a 13-year, $325 million deal that could run until 2028. I say “could” because Stanton could also opt out after 2020. So if Stanton’s struggling with his health, he’ll likely opt in. If he’s raking, he could opt out and seek an even bigger deal. It’s definitely a very player-friendly contract.

The latest reports have been that the Marlins are “willing to engage” in trades, a fact that was evident when they placed him on waivers. Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports has reported that at least four teams have talked to the Marlins about Stanton, although it’s unclear how far those talks have gone. I don’t think the Marlins will trade Stanton this month, but they’re definitely considering it. Should they be?

The reasons to trade Stanton are pretty obvious. There have been reports about him being “unhappy” throughout his career, including but not limited to in 2012, 2014, and this season. Some of those quotes in those articles are not good. So reason one is that the player is unhappy. Reasons two and three are that Stanton’s contract is huge and that he’s unlikely to stay healthy in the longterm (the same reasons that he went unclaimed on waivers). Reason four, and this links to reason one, is that the Marlins are seemingly going nowhere with Stanton as their cornerstone. They haven’t made a single playoff appearance since Giancarlo debuted in 2010. Heck, they haven’t even gone .500 since Stanton joined the team. The Marlins are 28th in average attendance this year at 20,671, ahead of only Oakland and Tampa Bay. After finishing a sterling 18th in home attendance in their new park’s debut season (2012), they’ve been bottom five every year since. Half the park is consistently empty. Something needs to change, and that something will probably only be accomplished with a full rebuild that necessitates the trade of Stanton for prospects. And reason five is that it’s hard to imagine Stanton’s value climbing higher than it is right now. He’s healthy, he’s raking, and playoff teams are desperate for immediate offensive help. A lot of teams aren’t fond of buying rentals, so how about the polar opposite? This guy’s only 27-years-old, he’s hitting for average and power, and he would immediately transform any lineup. You would think that the Marlins would be able to get a lot for him right now, wouldn’t you? Well, no. That’s where the argument to hold onto Stanton begins.

It’s worth reiterating that Stanton wasn’t claimed off waivers, which means that teams are clearly concerned by his contract, injury history, and the likelihood that his prime won’t last that long considering his profile. His contract is such an albatross that the Marlins would be unlikely to receive a single blue chip prospect in return — unless they also include someone like coveted outfielder Christian Yelich in the same trade or agree to eat a huge portion of Stanton’s salary. I don’t know if they would be able to stomach that at this point. There’s also the fact that the Marlins are currently a club in turmoil. They’re in the midst of a sale to a group featuring Derek Jeter (and headed by venture capitalist Bruce Sherman). Marlins fans will be happy to be done with Jeffrey Loria, but the Sherman-Jeter group probably won’t take over the team before the end of the regular season, and it’s tough to imagine a lame duck owner making such a franchise-altering trade. Finally, the Marlins have an abysmal TV deal that runs through 2020. It’s hard to overstate how bad the deal is — I consider it the primary reason that the team is so cash-strapped. Miami makes only $20 million per year in annual local TV money, tied with the Rays for worst in baseball. Miami’s a big market! Teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, and Phillies all make well over $100 million per year, and even clubs like the Mariners, Rangers, and Padres lap the Marlins. When the Marlins go to the negotiating table, they’re going to want a few big names in their back pocket. Ever since the tragic death of Jose Fernandez last year, Stanton has been their marquee attraction, the only guy who can put butts in seats. Sure, the Marlins need to rebuild in order to reenergize their fan base, but why not rebuild around Stanton? He might be unhappy, but the guy’s making so much money that I’m sure he’ll get over it. And while it would be a shame to see Stanton’s prime years come on a floundering team, it’s vital for a team like the Marlins to have some marketable players to sell to their disgruntled fans.

If the potential return for Stanton were higher, a trade would make more sense to me. But given that they won’t likely get a good haul of prospects unless they eat a lot of money or add someone like Yelich, it makes more sense for Miami to hold on to their stud, at least until the team sale is finalized and the TV deal renewed.

Since the start of 2013, the WAR leaders are as follows: Mike Trout (42), Clayton Kershaw (33.8), Josh Donaldson (32.9), Chris Sale (28.5), Max Scherzer (28), and Paul Goldschmidt (27.9). Nobody else is within two wins of those six. Trout obviously laps the rest of the field, but I don’t need to talk about that anymore, at least not yet (we could have an interesting MVP discussion brewing in the AL). Anyway, Trout has two MVPs (both since 2013), Kershaw has three Cy Young awards and an MVP (two and the MVP since 2013), Donaldson has an MVP, Sale will likely win a Cy Young this year and has finished in the top-6 every year since 2012, and Scherzer has two Cy Young awards (both since 2013). What about Goldschmidt? He has no silverware and just two top-10 MVP finishes (runner-up both times). This despite ranking second in both runs scored and RBI, top-20 in both homers and steals, third in walk rate, sixth in average, third in OBP, fourth in SLG, and third in OPS in all of baseball since the start of 2013. And yet Goldschmidt has been putting up these numbers quietly and without much fanfare, at least outside of Arizona. I think there are a few reasons for this, some of which are non factors this year. First of all, the Diamondbacks haven’t been particularly good since 2013, with records ranging between 64-98 and 81-81. This year, they’re 65-52 with a +108 run differential. Second of all, Goldschmidt has never had a truly monster season, a la Bryce Harper in 2015. Since 2013, his OPS has never been below .899, but it’s also never been above 1.005 (in 2015, when he was overshadowed by Harper). He’s in the midst of his best overall season, with a 1.031 OPS and a career high .598 SLG%. Third of all, Goldschmidt has never had eye-opening homer numbers, especially for a first baseman. He’s never hit more than 36 homers and averaged just 28 over the past four seasons. This year, he’s already hit 28, with a clear chance to flirt with 40 for the first time in his career. Fourth of all, he’s faded down the stretch each season. Between 2013-16, his average wRC+ in the first half was 159.3 (59.3% better than the average hitter). In the second half, it was 137.3. It’s hard to stay excited for someone who ends each season with a relative whimper. This year, his OPS is above 1.100 since the break, and his numbers have improved across the board. Something has always gotten in the way of Goldschmidt’s MVP candidacy. Not this year. Even with a healthy Harper in the race, I think the award would have been Goldy’s to lose this season. After Harper’s cringe-worthy (but apparently not season-ending) knee injury, Goldschmidt should cruise to the MVP award, as long as voters keep ignoring another oft-forgotten stud first baseman — Joey Votto. Votto’s been even better offensively than Goldschmidt this year, but his candidacy is hurt among traditional voters by his team’s struggles and among younger voters by his lesser all-around profile (namely, the fact that he’s a clear negative on the base paths while Goldschmidt is a clear positive).

Because Goldschmidt got started relatively late (he made his debut about a month before his 24th birthday), it’s tough to envision him putting up good enough numbers to make a Hall of Fame push. But he is inarguably a special player, one who should be rewarded with an MVP. His 115 career stolen bases rank first among first basemen since his debut, and it isn’t close. In fact, Goldschmidt has the second-most steals among first basemen since the turn of the century, behind only Darin Erstad, who played in about 300 more games. The eye test and the stats disagree when it comes to Goldy’s defense, but because the defensive metrics we currently have are so limited, I’m more willing to side with the scouts and casual viewers than I would be about a player’s offensive value. It’s true that Goldschmidt plays at a relatively unimportant defensive position (where it’s hard for anyone to add value), but defense is another box he fills. I understand why Goldschmidt has never won an MVP award, but it’s very hard to question his accolades as an elite player. His home/road splits are rock solid (he’s actually been slightly better on the road), so it’s implausible to attribute his success to his friendly home park. He’s been caught stealing just 27 times (81% success rate), so he’s not just active on the base paths but also efficient. He strikes out a lot, but he also walks a lot, so his BB/K rate is actually pretty impressive. Pitchers clearly respect him, as he leads baseball with 86 intentional walks since the start of 2013 (David Ortiz is the only other guy with more than 64). It’s time for baseball fans to give Paul Goldschmidt his due, and it’s time for the MVP voters to do the same and award Goldy his first piece of silverware.