Archive for the ‘Baseball’ Category

Before I get to the NFL stuff, I wanted to touch on the World Series, for obvious reasons. Heading into the series, I must say I had no idea what to expect. On the one hand, I believed that the Dodgers were the better all-around team without the clear weakness that Houston had in its bullpen. But on the other hand, I had been confident in the Astros all season long, and Houston had just outlasted a really good Yankees team. My lack of a feel is one of the reasons I didn’t make a prediction before the series — the main reason being a lack of time, of course. But the World Series obviously wildly exceeded my expectations, which were high coming in. There were two games that became instant classics — back-and-forth extra innings affairs in Games 2 and 5 that, unsurprisingly, featured a ton of homers. This was a series between two titans duking it out, which is how it should be. In the end, the difference was that Houston’s stars contributed more than LA’s did in a series that outside of the aforementioned crazy games had very little offense. Game 7 wasn’t the barnburner that previous games in the series had been, but the Astros played mistake-free baseball and fully deserved to win. What more can you ask for in a Game 7 than a clean, well-played game?

NFL Week 8 was neither clean nor particularly well-played. There were very few good games, and even most of the closer ones were sloppy and sometimes hard to watch. There was one big exception, of course, to a week without much in the way of exciting football. That was the Texans-Seahawks game, which takes a commanding league in the “Game of the Season” sweepstakes. The final score — 41-38 Seahawks — indicates that it was a terrific game, but I don’t even think that does it justice. What made this game remarkable was the quarterback play. We’ve seen jaw-dropping performances from Russell Wilson before, but this may have been his best one yet. Time and time again, he transcends a leaky offensive line and dominates defenses. It’s long past time to consider Wilson an elite quarterback. Who’s better than he is? With Aaron Rodgers injured and Drew Brees beginning to slow down, I think Wilson may be second-best to Tom Brady. But the real story is Deshaun Watson. I picked the Seahawks to win but not cover, and the biggest reason I picked against the Texans was that I didn’t think Watson would play well against a tough Seattle defense on the road. I was right about the outcome but dead wrong about Watson, who threw for 402 yards and four scores and added 67 rushing yards. I’m fully sold on Watson — he can do everything. He’ll still make the inevitable mistakes that come from trying to do too much sometimes, but I think we can forgive him for that. By the way, the Texans should have won this game. The pivotal moment came late, when the Texans, up 38-34, had a third-and-short and could have ended the game with a conversion. Instead of trusting their quarterback, the Texans simply handed the ball to Lamar Miller, who was stopped short of the line to gain. Houston had to punt back to Seattle, and Russell Wilson took over. If you’re the Texans, you have to put the ball in Watson’s hands there. As I write this, news has come out of Houston practice that Watson has torn his ACL in practice today. That’s obviously huge and devastating news for Watson and the Texans (obviously) and for fans of the league. I guess Houston can’t have all the nice sports things.

Here are my other big takeaways from Week 8 (and the trades that followed it):

  • Everyone was thrilled about all the big deals that were completed at the deadline: Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo, Duane Brown to Seattle, Jay Ajayi to Philadelphia, Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco. I was also happy that teams were actually trading good players, but I also think it’s worth tempering expectations about the instant impact those said players will have on their new teams. Benjamin joins a team that has consistently won without utilizing receivers. I doubt he’ll transcend a run-heavy scheme and become a stud in Buffalo. Brown’s immediately the best lineman on the Seahawks, but line play is so chemistry-oriented that plugging in an All-Pro at left tackle won’t necessarily solve that much. Let’s just say I don’t expect the run game to become existent overnight. Ajayi’s a good running back, but he’s not going to get 20+ carries per game on a team that has four other running backs. And the Garoppolo move should be put in a different category altogether. It’s probably the biggest one, but will also have little to no impact this season.
  • After another bad game from Ben Roethlisberger, I think it’s fair to call the Steelers a rich man’s Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s not a bad thing. Both teams have excellent defenses and are probably favorites to win their respective traditions. And Pittsburgh especially has a real chance to make a deep playoff run simply because there isn’t much in the way of scary competition in the AFC. The Patriots are worse than they’ve been in recent years, and the Steelers have had the Chiefs’ number. Neither Pittsburgh nor Jacksonville is getting consistent quarterback play, and that’s often a death knell, but it may not be this season.
  • How quickly things change. At the beginning of the season, and even a few weeks ago, the AFC West looked like a strong division that would certainly get at least two teams into the playoffs. Now? Denver’s offense has fallen apart to the point that the Broncos are starting Brock Osweiler this week. Oakland looks like one of the biggest disappointments in football, and the Chargers still can’t get over the hump. Not only is it KC’s division to lose, but it seems unlikely that there will be a wild card team in the division.
  • Speaking of AFC wild cards, who the heck is going to win them? It seems like the Bills are heavy favorites to take one home, especially since they’ve already banked five wins. But the Bills have a tough remaining schedule, and the other wild card spot in completely up for grabs. The Watson injury figures to remove the Texans from the conversation, but Tennessee and Jacksonville (whichever finishes second in the division) will be in the mix, along with… who, exactly? The Ravens? The Dolphins? Both of those teams have records that would indicate they’d be in the mix, but both have been really bad this season. I may have to recant my previous statement that the AFC West is unlikely to get a wild card team. I could easily see any of the three struggling AFC West teams putting things together and rallying to 9-7 and a wild card.
  • In my mind, there’s a clear favorite to win six of the eight divisions. The two exceptions are the South divisions. The Saints, Falcons, and Panthers all have a chance to finish on top and have played just one out of six games against each other. In the AFC, it should come down to Tennessee and Jacksonville. They have matching records and the Titans already have a head-to-head win, but the Jags have an easier remaining schedule and have looked better. Should be interesting.

I went 11-2 straight up, although the two losses were two of my three upset picks. By my math, that means there was only one upset last week! I’m 74-45 straight up on the year.
8-5 against the spread.. 60-56-3
7-5-1 on over/unders… 61-55-3

1-2 on upset picks, moving to 15-15.

Buffalo Bills (5-2, 6-1) at New York Jets (3-5, 5-2-1):
Spread: Bills favored by 3
Over/under: 42.5
My prediction: There are good reasons to be worried about Buffalo’s offense on the road. They’ve averaged just 14 points per game in three road games, and both of their losses have come away from home against teams that shut down their run game and thus their offense. That’s the key for the Jets here. If they can slow down LeSean McCoy and make Tyrod Taylor a pocket passer, they have a good chance to win this game. In past years, this would have been a good matchup for their defense. Not so this season. The Jets have given up 1,026 yards on the ground, fifth-most in the league. They’re also in the bottom third of the league in yards per carry allowed (4.3) and are 18th in DVOA against the run after finishing in first by a decent margin last season. The losses of Sheldon Richardson and David Harris, among others, have hurt the run defense. To make matters worse, Muhammad Wilkerson, perhaps the best player left on the defense, is banged up and may miss this game. Top cornerback, Morris Claiborne, will also miss this game, which means Kelvin Benjamin may have a good chance to make an impact in his debut. But the Jets have been good at home this year, going 4-0 against the spread after keeping it close against the Patriots and Falcons. This is a tough game to pick, but I definitely expect it to be close. I’m going to do something that I rarely do, which is to pick a field goal underdog to lose but cover. Gives me a very low chance at a sweep of straight up/spread/total, but I’m genuinely torn about the pick here, because the Jets have been feisty at home but the Bills have the talent advantage. Bills win 21-20.
Jets cover
Under

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As Always, the MLB Playoffs Are Wide Open

Posted: 10/04/2017 by levcohen in Baseball

Sometimes, over the course of Major League Baseball’s six-month long regular season, we forget some things about the playoffs. Number one on that list, I think, is the fact that anybody who makes the playoffs has a legitimate shot to win it. When teams are on unprecedented winning streaks (see: Indians, Cleveland) or start the year with 121 games of .719 baseball (see: Dodgers, Los Angeles), it’s human nature to gravitate towards those teams, to think they are odds-on favorites to win their respective leagues. And it’s easy to overlook teams that go 43-45 before the All-Star break (see: Cubs, Chicago) or play inconsistently throughout the year. But now that the playoffs have started, none of that matters. After the Diamondbacks and Rockies face off in the Wild Card game tonight, there will be eight teams still standing, and I won’t be shocked if any of those eight teams win it all. That’s not to say that some teams aren’t better set up to win it all than others; on the contrary, I think it’s pretty clear that the Indians have the best overall roster talent and the best chance to win the World Series. But the differences in talent between teams don’t always shine through in short, five or seven game series’. A seven game series in baseball is not like a seven game series in basketball. In the NBA, the better team usually ends up winning most seven game sets, no matter how poorly they play in any given game. In MLB, where the talent difference is much less vast, that’s far from the case. Every playoff team has gone through a stretch this season that’s been bad enough that it would cost them a series against any other playoff team. Baseball’s a game of hot streaks and cold streaks, and the team that wins it all isn’t always the best team in baseball (last year’s Cubs are an example of a team that was the best team in baseball AND won it all). What’s each playoff team’s recipe for success in October? I’m going to run through all nine remaining teams in order of how bullish I am on their World Series chances.

Cleveland Indians: This one’s easy, because the answer is simple: the Indians just have to keep playing the way they’ve played over their last 50 games, a span in which they’ve notched 42 victories. They have one of the best pitching staffs of all-time. Their pitchers racked up 31.7 WAR, which is not only easily the best in baseball but also easily best in baseball history. The staff doesn’t have Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz firepower, but it does have certain AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, and it has Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin filling out the playoff rotation. This is a much healthier rotation than the cobbled-together one that nearly won the World Series last year. If Kluber (1.77 ERA post-ASB; .84 in September), Carrasco (3.12, 1.48), Tomlin (3.19, 3.52), and Bauer (3.01, 2.90) keep pitching the way they’ve been pitching, the Indians will win the World Series. That’s especially true given the fact that they also have the best relief pitcher in baseball in Andrew Miller. I’m not going to write about the lineup, because I don’t think they need big offensive numbers to win it all. But guess what? They also have one of the best lineups in baseball, which is why they had a +254 run differential. The bad news: they drew the Yankees, who had the second-best run differential in baseball at +198. That’s a tough ALDS draw for the Indians, but it doesn’t change the bottom line. If the Indians just keep playing the way they’ve been playing, they’ll win it all.

Houston Astros: I may have foreshadowed this in my post about the Astros about three weeks ago, but I’m very bullish on this team. Now that they’re healthy, I think they have the best lineup in baseball by a decent margin. They’ll only win the World Series, though, if they get good outings from Justin Verlander, Brad Peacock, and Dallas Keuchel. I don’t think any of those guys need to be lights out for Houston to win it all. Verlander’s been unbelievable as an Astro (five starts, 34 innings, four runs allowed, five wins), but the bullpen is deep enough that those three starters are only going to be asked to pitch, say, five or six innings. I think everyone has confidence in Verlander at this point, but both Peacock and Keuchel have also been very good down the stretch, especially early in outings. Peacock, who’s the biggest unknown of the three, has a .92 ERA this season in his first time through the order, and hitters are slashing just .145/.222/.198 against him. That ERA rises to 3.35 the second time around and 8.84 the third time. That’s a good sign that he’ll be able to consistently give five-ish really effective innings. To me, Keuchel is the biggest X-factor. Houston’s #2 starter was dominant to start the season and then got hurt and struggled for a number of starts before closing the season strong. Which Dallas Keuchel does Houston get? If it’s the dominant, Cy Young-award-winning one, I think we’ll be crowning the Astros World Series champions in a few weeks.

Los Angeles Dodgers: LA’s slump to end the season took the shine off their roster, but this team is still plenty good enough to win the World Series. The “Clayton Kershaw can’t pitch in the playoffs” argument is obviously moronic, but it would be cheap and insufficient to put “a dominant Kershaw” as LA’s recipe for postseason success. Sure, the Dodgers need a dominant Kershaw, but they need more than that. I feel pretty good about Kershaw, Rich Hill, and Yu Darvish atop the playoff rotation, although I think it’s worth noting that among those three (and Alex Wood, who should be #4), only Darvish is a righty. That could come back to haunt LA against a righty-heavy team like the Diamondbacks, a potential first round opponent. But for the most part, I think Kershaw and Hill are good enough to shut down lefties and righties. What the Dodgers really need is a return to form from the left side of their infield, also known as two-hole and three-hole hitters Corey Seager and Justin Turner. It’s really nice for the Dodgers to get contributions from guys like Chris Taylor and Yasiel Puig, but none of it matters unless both Seager and Turner improve on their second-half splits. Turner slashed .266/.357/.476 after the All-Star break while Seager slashed .292/.348/.450. They were both fine, but neither was the stud that the Dodgers had become accustomed to having at the heart of their lineup. For what it’s worth, the pair went in opposite directions in September. Turner hit .291/.394/.519, while Seager slumped to .179/.261/.321. The good news — and the reason I still consider the Dodgers to be a slight NL favorite — is that Seager’s struggles may be attributed to lingering injuries he had. I say had, because in his last five games he was 6-for-17 with a couple of homers. The Dodgers need both Seager and Turner to be hot, because I think it’s fair to expect a drop-off in play from the Taylor’s and Puig’s of the world.

Chicago Cubs: The Cubs just need their rotation to get its mojo back. Everything is in place for a return to the World Series. The lineup is deep and has studs Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo as its linchpins. This is probably the best defensive team in baseball and certainly has the edge over the Nationals, their NLDS opponent. The bullpen is probably slightly better than it was last year. The only thing that’s missing is the dominant starting pitching Chicago got last season. Kyle Hendricks is back to the guy he was last year — he has a 2.19 ERA in 13 starts since coming off the DL in July. He’ll start Game 1. And Jake Arrieta, assuming his hamstring is healthy, is back to his former dominant self. He had a 1.69 ERA in July and August. I’m not worried about either of those guys. But Jon Lester, one of the best playoff pitchers in recent memory, had easily his worst regular season since 2012. Can he flip a switch in October and become the guy who has a 2.63 career playoff ERA and a 1.03 WHIP? If so, the Cubs will be right back in the catbird seat. Then there’s Jose Quintana, who has flashed moments of brilliance since being acquired from the White Sox (three scoreless starts out of 14) but has also had some shaky outings (two with six runs allowed). I put the Cubs ahead of the Nationals because I think they have a higher ceiling thanks to the versatility and depth of their lineup. But Washington was the better team all year long, so it’s going to take a transformation from Lester and consistency from Quintana for the Cubs to get out of the first round, let alone win it all.

Washington Nationals: The second-best team in the NL all season long, is this the year the Nats finally get over their postseason bugaboos? It could be, but they’re going to need more than dominant Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer performances. First of all, it’s unbelievable how good Strasburg has been since coming off the DL in August. In eight starts, he’s thrown 53.2 innings and given up 32 hits and five earned runs (.84 ERA). He’s struck out 63 and walked 10. It’s the best stretch of his career, and that’s saying something. But again, the Nats are going to need more than Strasburg and Scherzer, especially since Scherzer is nursing a hamstring injury and probably will only start one game in the NLDS. I know people are going to point to Gio Gonzalez, because he has a shiny sub-3 ERA, but that’s a mirage. He out-pitched his peripheral stats all year, and the walks and lack of strikeouts started to come back to haunt him late in the season (5.85 ERA in his last six starts). Gonzalez isn’t Washington’s X-factor; Trea Turner and Ryan Zimmerman are. I think we all know who Daniel Murphy is at this point — a very good hitter who gives back a lot of his value on the field. Same goes for Bryce Harper (a total stud, and if he’s not fully recovered from his injury, the Nats are screwed) and Anthony Rendon (all-around star). But for the Nationals to be successful this postseason, they’re going to need strong performances from their fourth and fifth most important offensive players. The bottom of their lineup is fairly weak, which means that prolonged slumps from Turner and Zimmerman would likely be fatal. I’m not saying that either the shortstop or the first baseman needs to repeat the numbers they put up in September (.284/.354/.500 for Turner, .329/.368/.659 for Zimmerman), just that both need to avoid the slumps they’ve been known to struggle through, because in the end, the offense is going to need to be good enough to lift the team in games not started by either Scherzer or Strasburg.

New York Yankees: In recent years, relief pitchers have become more and more important in the playoffs. The Yankees have the best and deepest bullpen in baseball this year, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. You saw what happened last night against the Twins. Starter Luis Severino, who was one of the best starters in the AL this year, struggled mightily, giving up two homers and leaving the game with runners on second and third with one out down 3-0 in the top of the first. Most teams wouldn’t have been able to overcome that start, but the Yanks overcame it with ease. Chad Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, and Aroldis Chapman combined for 8.2 innings of five hit, one run ball, striking out 13. In addition to those four, who have all been tremendous, the Yankees also have Dellin Betances and Adam Warren, who had 2.87 and 2.35 ERAs respectively this season. That’s five guys with sub-3 ERAs and Chapman, who has been dominant since being reinstated as the closer. Given the number of rest days there are between games, the Yankees can count on a lot of innings from those six, which means they don’t have to rely heavily upon their rotation. New York’s recipe for success, then, is this: get five serviceable innings from the starter (Severino, Sonny Gray, Masahiro Tanaka, or C.C. Sabathia), hit a few bombs (they led the league in homers with 241), and hand it over to the bullpen. It’s pretty compelling, and I’d have ranked the Yankees much higher if they weren’t playing the Indians in round one.

Boston Red Sox: I’m not high on the Red Sox. Their offense has been very disappointing, the bullpen is good but not great, and I don’t trust a single starter other than Chris Sale. But to discount the Sox would be to undermine the entire premise of this post, so here goes… The formula is simple: Boston’s four 25-and-under stars — or at least three of them — need to play to their potential. Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, and Rafael Devers were all once top prospects and all may end up being superstars. But they haven’t played like superstars this year, which is why the Sox have been a bit of a disappointment. They all hit between .264 and .284 and had an OPS between .746 and .819. That’s fine, but unless some of those guys break out in the playoffs, it’s going to end in a first round loss to the Astros.

Arizona Diamondbacks: For the Diamondbacks, who’ve been a better team than the Red Sox by run differential (and identical by record), the recipe is simple: the rotation has to outperform expectations, because the bullpen has one reliable arm, and that’s Archie Bradley, who has a 1.73 ERA but who is a clear candidate to wear down over the course of a playoff series. The rotation was one of baseball’s biggest surprises, finishing second in WAR. Zack Greinke has returned to form after a down 2016, but that’s not the surprise. The surprises are Zack Godley (3.37 ERA, 3.41 FIP in 155 innings this year; 6.39, 4.97 in 74.2 innings last year) and Robbie Ray (2.89 ERA, 3.72 FIP in 162 innings this year; 4.90 ERA, 3.76 FIP in 174.1 innings last year). I’m not convinced that either performance is for real, but if they are, the Diamondbacks have a real chance to get past the Rockies tonight and then the Dodgers, especially now that they have J.D. Martinez (.302/.366/.741 with 29 homers in 232 ABs with the Diamondbacks) hitting in the middle of the order. Paul Goldschmidt, Martinez, and Jake Lamb form a potent 3-4-5 combination, and all they need is to be supported by tremendous starting pitching.

Colorado Rockies: The Rockies have two MVP candidates in Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon and one of the best pitching staffs in franchise history (led by Jon Gray, who has the potential to be the best pitcher in franchise history). Ironically, it’s really the offense that has let them down, as they scored “just” 824 runs this year, which ranks third in baseball but is significantly worse than they did last year, when they went 75-87. Everyone’s numbers look better at Coors Field, and the fact is that, when adjusted for ballpark, nobody other than Arenado and Blackmon has been all that great. The Rockies need their supporting cast to explode. I’m talking about Carlos Gonzalez, DJ LeMahieu, Gerardo Parra, Trevor Story, etc. After hitting .377/.484/.766 in September, CarGo may be all the way back. The Rockies need the others to be back, too.

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.

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.