The Most Interesting Non-Tendered Players
Many players were non-tendered before this year’s December 2nd deadline, meaning their clubs declined to offer them a contract. Some of these players played poorly, while others were projected to make more in arbitration than their clubs thought they were worth. I went through the list and identified five players that make some sense for the Cubs to sign, in order of feasibility and how much I think the player could improve the team. Feasibility is particularly important, as Ken Rosenthal reported today that “club officials are telling representatives of even low-budget free agents that they need to clear money before engaging in serious negotiations.” (What payroll the Cubs could move is a topic for another time, though that could indicate they’re more inclined to move Kris Bryant than Willson Contreras.) None of the players below should command a large salary commitment, but since ownership seems to have imposed an unreasonably tight budget, we have to take it into consideration here.
It’s not hard to see why the Reds non-tendered a pitcher with a 5.72 ERA who was projected to earn over $10M in 2020. A deeper dive into the numbers, however, reveals an intriguing pitcher. In 21 innings as a reliever last year, Gausman struck out 27 batters and walked just five, allowing a 3.10 ERA and a 2.72 FIP. His numbers as a starter weren’t as bad as they seem, and it’s possible Gausman is looking for a team that will allow him to start, but I think his ceiling there is a two-times-through-the-order guy, whereas as a reliever he could be a dynamic, multi-inning weapon.
Gausman has always had a great splitter but a limited repertoire overall, leading to difficulties going deeper in games. In September, when he made seven relief appearances and one start, his whiff rate went up to a near career-high 39.6%. His FIP in relief last season was lower than any Cub who pitched at least 15 innings. With Tyler Chatwood on the trading block for budgetary reasons, Gausman makes sense as a replacement–he should be both cheaper and better than Chatwood, while serving as a fine starter in a pinch. Gausman made $9.36M in 2019, and I would expect any relief contract he signed to be for two years and a smaller average annual value. It may seem like a hefty investment for a reliever, but it’s the type of risk the Cubs may need to take.
At first glance, Hernández looks like a perfect fit for the Cubs. He can play second base! Over his major league career he’s gotten on base about as much as Willson Contreras did last year! He provided positive baserunning and defensive value last year!
Of course, Hernández is coming off a 92 wRC+ in 2019, and his plate discipline regressed quite a bit. Despite this, he still struck out less than every Cubs regular except for Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist. By sprint speed, he was the 80th-fastest player in the majors last year, faster than every Cub besides Javier Báez despite being 29. There are certainly warning signs with Hernández, but I believe he’ll be an above-average second baseman for some team in 2020, and he has the type of on-base potential and speed that would look good at the top of the Cubs' lineup. If the Cubs don’t sign Hernández, it’s probably because another team has offered him more money or guaranteed him the role of starting second baseman.
Pillar was still an above-average defender last year, but his days of being one of the best defensive center fielders in the game are behind him, and he has a career 86 wRC+. As an everyday center fielder for the Giants last year he put up 1.8 WAR, and it’s clear why the Giants didn’t want to pay him over $10M next season. I would hesitate to have him be Chicago’s starting center fielder, but Pillar was a slightly-above-average hitter against lefties, and a slightly-above-average defender in center field, two things which would have benefited the Cubs greatly in 2018. He could be platooned with Ian Happ, as Pillar hit lefties better and Happ hit righties better. Pillar shouldn’t be starting for the Cubs, but he would be an upgrade over Albert Almora, and I doubt he’ll be too expensive.
The main reason Treinen is this low on the list is that he’s probably out of the Cubs' price range. I doubt Treinen will ever repeat his 2018 season, when he put up 3.6 fWAR with a 0.78 ERA and a 1.82 FIP in 80.1 innings (somehow, the Athletics managed to get even more production out of Liam Hendriks this season; 3.8 fWAR, a 1.80 ERA and a 1.87 FIP in 85 innings). I’m not sure what exactly went wrong with Treinen in 2019, but the Yankees were reportedly interested in trading for him before he was non-tendered, so teams must have some idea how to bring him back closer to his 2018 form. Pretty much every contender has reason to be interested in Treinen, which unfortunately means he’s probably out of the Cubs' price range, unless the Cubs firmly believe their player development staff can turn him back into the best reliever in the game and are willing to pay him like it.
Shaw is at the bottom of this list for a reason. He’s best suited to third base or first base, positions at which the Cubs are set for now, and he had a wRC+ of 47 in 2019. However, Shaw was good enough in 2017 and 2018 to justify moving Bryant to the outfield, or perhaps to have Shaw play second base on occasion. Shaw had a 120 wRC+ in 2017 and 119 in 2018, to go with 3.5 and 3.6 WAR. Last year went very badly, but it’s hard to believe that Shaw completely forgot to hit at the age of 29. Shaw seems like a perfect change of scenery candidate, and while I doubt he’ll sign with the Cubs, it could be worth taking a chance on him, especially if the Cubs were to trade Kyle Schwarber or Happ, or if they end up trading Bryant to cut payroll. Shaw may not outhit any of those three players, but he hit so well in two of the past three years that some team will take a chance on him.
That brings us to the end of another post. Hopefully the Winter Meetings bring some interesting news this week–if anything big happens with the Cubs, you can be sure I’ll have some thoughts soon.
That Trent Grisham Trade
On Wednesday, the Brewers and Padres made the first big trade of the offseason.
The Brewers got:
- Infielder Luis Urías
- Starter Eric Lauer
- A player to be named later or cash considerations
The Padres got:
- Outfielder Trent Grisham
- Starter Zach Davies
As others have written, this is an unusual trade. All the players involved played in the majors in 2019, and both teams are trying to compete in 2020. It all comes down to each team believing they have more accurately evaluated the players of the other team, which is a little rare these days, when most major leaguers involved in trades come from rebuilding teams.
To start with, here’s a table showing the 2019, career, and 2020 Steamer-projected Fangraphs WAR of each player involved in the trade:
It seems like the player with the least current career WAR has the highest ceiling (Urías), but the Padres obviously soured on him. It’s not usually a good sign when a team is willing to trade a top prospect, especially when they’re not exactly a World Series contender at the moment. Urías has been a well-above-average hitter at Triple-A the last two seasons despite being younger than most of the competition.
Meanwhile, Davies has had the longest and most-productive major league career, but the projections aren’t high on him for 2019. Davies is a sort of Kyle Hendricks-lite, a soft-tossing righty who relies primarily on his sinker and changeup to get soft contact. His results haven’t been nearly as good as Hendricks', but it’s possible he’ll pitch better in San Diego.
From the Brewers' point of view, they traded an outfielder who had a breakout season in the high minors and a low-strikeout pitcher with two, more expensive years of team control for a good defender with All-Star upside and a durable pitcher with double the team control.
From the Padres' point of view, they traded a prospect who hadn’t proven himself in the majors and a non-dominant starter for a more established starter and an outfielder who has shown more promise at the big-league level.
Personally, I would tend to take Grisham over Urías, and Lauer over Davies. The fact that the Padres were willing to part with Urías, a highly-touted prospect coming into the season, for Grisham, is a red flag (you could make the same argument against Grisham, but he doesn’t have the same prospect pedigree). On the pitching side, I think Lauer could have some untapped upside, and he was the more durable pitcher last year. In combination with the extra team control, I think that’s enough to sway the trade in the Brewers' favor for me, but the fascinating part about this trade is that either team could very quickly come to regret it, and it’s not clear which team that would be.
In other news, on Wednesday the Padres also signed Drew Pomeranz to a four-year, $34M contract. This initially seemed like a huge overpay to me, despite how much I believe in Pomeranz' small-sample relief success. However, the more I think about it, the more reasonable it seems. Pomeranz was one of the best relievers in baseball, and the underlying numbers backed up his improved performance. Four years sounds like a lot, but a three-year, $27M contract wouldn’t have seemed too excessive (that’s how much the Cubs were paying Brandon Morrow each year). Adding on an additional $7M to that won’t break the Padres budget, and it’s possible they just signed the best reliever available this offseason. I don’t think this would have been the right move for the Cubs to make, but I don’t think it’s a bad risk for the Padres.
On Wednesday, the Brewers made a risky trade, and the Padres made a risky signing that the Cubs could have made. It’s very possible that neither aggressive move works out for the teams involved, but it’s also possible that Cubs fans will look back at this set of moves and wish neither had happened.
Finally, the Cubs claimed hard-throwing lefty CD Pelham off of waivers. Pelham has a great fastball, but not much else, and doesn’t seem to have the ability to locate it well. Still, I’m a fan of the move—it can’t hurt to get Pelham into the pitch lab and see what he can do.
That’s all for this week. I’ll be back here again next time, probably with some analysis of players non-tendered on the non-tender deadline. Until then!
Finding the Next Pomeranz
I’ve mentioned Drew Pomeranz more than is probably necessary over the last several posts, but there’s something so compelling about the potential of a starter who converts to a reliever. Pomeranz' transition isn’t a new phenomenon. Andrew Miller went from being a bad starter to a shutdown reliever, as did Wade Davis. The logic is pretty simple: moving to the bullpen allows a pitcher to throw closer to their max-effort, and they don’t need to mix their pitches as much, so they can heavily rely on their best pitches. According to research by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, the average starter working in relief (for an appearance of five or fewer batters) sees their fastball velocity increase from 91.7 to 93.6 MPH, and their strikeout rate increase from 19.9% to 23.9%.
One reason more starters don’t move to the bullpen is that a league-average starter is more valuable by WAR than a good reliever. Josh Hader was the third-best reliever by fWAR in 2019, but he was only worth 2.3 wins. Starters who were worth around that much include Reynaldo López, Sandy Alcantara, and Brad Keller. In looking for the next Drew Pomeranz, I came up with a few general criteria:
They should have been worth less than two WAR.
They should have at least one really good pitch that they don’t use as much as they could if they were a reliever.
They shouldn’t be highly-valued, either as a prospect or by their contract. Jon Lester could make a good reliever, but you’re not going to move him to the bullpen.
Using these criteria and Baseball Savant, I’ve identified two starting pitchers from 2019 who could be worth trying as relievers in 2020.
Junis has spent the last two seasons in the Royals' rotation. By fWAR, 2019 was actually his best season. Unfortunately, he still had a 4.82 FIP and a 5.24 ERA, and it doesn’t take much research to figure out why: Junis' fastball is really bad. He allowed the eighth-highest xWOBA on his four-seam fastball of any starter in 2019 at .444, and it has really low spin while coming in at 91.7 MPH.
However, Junis has a secret weapon in his slider. According to Baseball Savant, Junis' slider has a movement profile similar to that of Mike Clevinger and Trevor Bauer, which is good company for slider movement. He gets the 25th-most active spin percentage on the pitch, and allowed just a .217 xWOBA on his slider in 2019, the 16th-lowest among major league starters (tied with Gerrit Cole).
Despite this, Junis only threw his slider 29.6% of the time, 24th-most among starters. Chris Sale threw it 38.4% of the time, and six relievers threw their sliders more than 60% of the time. If Junis threw his best pitch as much as some relievers and his fastball played up a bit, it’s not hard to imagine him playing a role in the bullpen of a contending team.
Eickhoff was part of the Phillies' return in the Cole Hamels trade. He had a good 2015, and a pretty good 2016, but had a 5.71 ERA in 2019 and, as a result, is currently a free-agent at the age of 29.
Eickhoff had a good curveball this year by Fangraphs' pitch values, and the underlying Statcast numbers back that up. He was in the 82nd percentile in curveball spin and in the 84th percentile in fastball spin. However, his four-seam fastball was crushed in 2019—he allowed the tenth-highest xWOBA on his four-seam fastball of any starter at .439. In contrast, he allowed just a .239 xWOBA on his curveball, 37th-lowest in the majors, right below Mike Clevinger and Yu Darvish.
Even though Eickhoff threw his fastball less than in 2018, he still threw it 36.7% of the time, more than any other pitch. Meanwhile, while his curveball rate of 31.5% was high, 11 curveball-heavy relievers threw their curveball at least 40% of the time.
Eickhoff has lost over 2 MPH on his fastball since 2015, and he could make up most of that if he got the standard velocity boost from moving to the bullpen. His fastball still wouldn’t be great in all likelihood, but paired with his good curveball, I think Eickhoff could be an effective reliever.
Other starters I considered for this list but decided not to include:
Michael Wacha had a very bad year as a starter, but still has a great changeup. However, he doesn’t seem to have much to pair it with—he allowed a .400 xWOBA or higher on his curve, cutter, and four-seamer in 2019.
Julio Teheran has good spin numbers on both his fastball and curveball, but he was successful enough last year that I would expect him to get a starting job somewhere.
Chase Anderson has a couple of pitches that rate quite well, but he was also good enough as a starter last year to continue as one.
Dylan Bundy has struggled off and on and hasn’t met his top-prospect potential. While I think there are underlying indicators that show he could be better next season, it’s hard to imagine him providing more WAR as a reliever than he did as a starter this season (2.5).
Several of Chris Bassitt’s pitches also have great underlying spin and movement numbers, and I think he’ll be better as a starter next year anyway, or a great reliever, especially if he continues the trend of increasing his four-seamer usage (.277 xWOBA allowed) and decreasing his sinker usage (.341 xWOBA allowed).
I believe most of these starters could be good relievers (perhaps with the exception of Wacha), but according to traditional WAR models it’s hard for me to see them providing more value as a reliever than as a starter. It’s important to remember that even though using starters out of the bullpen has become a popular playoff strategy, it’s not guaranteed to make a pitcher more valuable over the course of a full season.
P.S. Here’s something interesting—the biggest moves of the offseason have been made by the Braves and White Sox, and all five have been announced directly by the teams themselves instead of through reporters. I’ll be interested to see if this is a new trend that will continue.
Recalibrating the Stove
We’re still several weeks away from the Winter Meetings, which means we remain in the liminal period of the offseason. Rumors have started to trickle out, but (outside of a surprise Will Smith signing) nothing major has happened, nor will anything likely happen for a while yet. Since there’s not much to write about besides rumors (and the Astros sign-stealing scandal, which has been covered in great detail elsewhere), I decided to look at three free agents I’ve seen linked to the Cubs that I’d like to lower expectations on, and three free agents that I’d like to draw peoples' attention to.
FanGraphs contract estimations in parentheses when available, MLB Trade Rumors predictions otherwise (years/total value).
Shogo Akiyama (2/$6M)
Reports have recently surfaced that the Cubs are one of several teams interested in Japanese center fielder Shogo Akiyama. If you look just at Akiyama’s raw stats, they certainly impress. However, fans shouldn’t expect expect him to maintain his NPB numbers. Players from overseas usually see a drop-off in stats when they change leagues, and while I’d certainly have more faith in a hitter translating well than a pitcher right now due to the different baseball, I’d caution against making a signing like this out to be the highlight of the offseason. Clay Davenport’s translated stats for Akiyama put him at only a .779 OPS which would have him just .007 higher than Jason Heyward, who had a 98 OPS+ last year. So, the stat translations suggest he would be a roughly league-average hitter.
Heyward put up a 101 wRC+ according to FanGraphs, and had 2.0 bWAR and 1.9 fWAR while splitting time in center and right. I haven’t heard anything particularly striking either way about Akiyama’s defense, so if we assume he’s a league-average center fielder he would probably put up around 2 WAR in a season. This would be very valuable, especially considering there isn’t really another average center fielder on the market, outside of Jarrod Dyson. At MLB Trade Rumors' prediction of 2/$6M, he’s a relative steal and certainly worth the risk. That being said, even an average player is worth around 2 WAR, which would be a 2.7 WAR improvement on Albert Almora’s 2019. Akiyama would be a great signing for the Cubs, but fans shouldn’t rely on him to be the savior of the team’s offense.
Nicholas Castellanos (4/$56M)
Castellanos was nothing short of amazing after coming over to the Cubs via trade at the end of July, hitting .321/.356/.646, good for a 154 wRC+ and 2.0 fWAR. However, his walk rate was identical to Albert Almora’s, and it’s difficult to imagine him sustaining his post-trade level of production for long. The Cubs also reasonably don’t want to regularly play both Kyle Schwarber and Castellanos. If we assume that signing Castellanos would mean trading Schwarber, it’s hard to imagine a reunion working out.
The Cubs still seem higher on Schwarber than the rest of the league, and Schwarber finally looked like he was coming into his own at the end of the 2019 season, actually outhitting Castellanos by slashing .304/.394/.649 for a 163 wRC+ over the final two months of the season. Schwarber also has two more arbitration years, and would be much cheaper. Castellanos gave the Cubs more than they could have asked for, but with the team trying to save money, bringing him back doesn’t seem like the best move.
Cole Hamels (2/$28M)
As someone who loves changeups, I loved watching Cole Hamels pitch while he was with the Cubs, but a reunion here doesn’t make much sense to me. Hamels won’t be terribly expensive, but some combination of Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Colin Rea, and Adbert Alzolay should be able to fill the fifth-starter spot. If the Cubs feel they do need another starter, they would probably be better-served going after one of the higher-level options available. Additionally, others seem much more bullish on Hamels than I do after he struggled mightily with his command due to an oblique injury (although his final start of the season was very impressive). I don’t doubt that Hamels will be a cromulent starter next season, but I don’t think this is the right kind of risk for the Cubs to take while they have other candidates waiting for a chance to prove themselves.
Drew Pomeranz (2/$16M)
I would really like to see Pomeranz with the Cubs next season. As a reliever in 2019, he struck out 47.2% of the batters he faced, with a 1.92 FIP and 1.88 ERA. Pomeranz' strikeout rate in relief was second only to Josh Hader among relievers with at least 20 innings pitched in 2019. It seems aggressive to sign a pitcher solely on a sample of only 106 batters faced, but while Pomeranz will almost certainly regress somewhat, his breakout doesn’t seem like a fluke. Rather, it’s a classic: a once-highly-touted starting-pitcher prospect went to the bullpen, found an extra couple ticks on his fastball, and threw his bad pitches less. There are probably many teams interested in Pomeranz, who may be the best reliever left on the market now that Will Smith signed with the Braves. I wouldn’t be surprised if he parlays his success into a larger contract than many predicted, but it won’t be a bank-breaking amount. Pomeranz would provide something the Cubs desperately need: a dominant lefty who could go multiple innings when necessary.
Mike Moustakas (2/$32M)
Another former Brewer, Moustakas is the kind of above-average player the Cubs were missing last season. Combined with the fact that he can play both second and third-base, providing new manager David Ross with some matchup flexibility, I think he could be a great fit for the Cubs. Age is a slight concern here, but if he were willing to accept a two-year deal that would line up with the expiration of many of the Cubs' current contracts, it’s hard to imagine this signing coming back to bite them.
Will Harris (2/$20M)
Yes, he gave up two of the biggest home runs of the World Series, but Harris has been better over the last several years than any Cubs reliever. He has the 17th-lowest FIP of any reliever who pitched at least 120 innings over the last three seasons, slightly lower than Craig Kimbrel. He just pitched his age-35 season, so there’s risk involved in signing him to a longer deal, but it’s the type of risk a team like the Cubs should be able to take given their market size. The Cubs lost Steve Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, and Pedro Strop to free agency, which means they need relief help from somewhere. Harris is about as good as you can get.
The Cubs May Need to Make a Big Trade
As the offseason has begun so have rumors that the Cubs are open to trading pretty much anyone on their roster. Let me preface this by saying that I don’t think the team should need to trade any of their core players. The Cubs should be able to afford to keep their core intact past their arbitration years and into free agency. But, like with many big-market teams around baseball, it seems the front office is under a mandate to decrease salary and make more longer-term moves. Assuming this is the case…
Trading Bryant would be incredibly difficult. Teams know he’s likely to want to test free agency, and he’s projected to make around $40M over his final two years of arbitration. The front office would need to find a team that’s willing to pay Bryant’s salary and give up several top-tier prospects for him. With Bryant’s nagging injuries over the past two years, it seems like many teams would balk at the Cubs' asking price, instead opting to sign Anthony Rendon or Josh Donaldson without giving up any prospects.
While trading Rizzo would make sense in that Bryant and Caratini have both played first well in his absence, it would be aggressive to trade a clubhouse leader right after hiring a rookie manager. I’m not necessarily a fan of giving Rizzo a huge extension since he’ll be a 32-year-old first baseman with back issues, but I’m fairly certain the Cubs will keep him around until then, and maybe for the rest of his career.
The Cubs could trade Javier Báez, but he seems to be the most likely candidate out of the core four (Contreras, Báez, Bryant, and Rizzo) to sign an extension. He’s blossomed as a shortstop the past two seasons and provided the second-most Fangraphs WAR on the team despite dealing with a couple injuries which affected his performance.
I’m sure the Cubs are open to trading Kyle Schwarber, but I doubt they would be able to get a return large enough that would make them comfortable doing so. There are other defensively-limited corner outfielders on the free agent market, and I would expect the Cubs to value Schwarber’s scorching-hot end to the season more than other teams. It doesn’t help that there aren’t many competitive American League teams that are looking for a designated hitter, where his value would be highest.
This leaves Willson Contreras. There are a couple of teams that could use a catcher (besides the Reds and the Brewers, who don’t seem like likely trade partners). Contreras is one of the best offensive catchers in baseball, and has a great arm behind the plate. Concerns about his framing and hamstring injury concerns are the main things that would decrease his trade value, but there are signs that he improved his framing in the second half of 2019.
This seems the most likely to me. The Rangers and Cubs have a history of making trades under these front offices, and the Rangers currently have the worst catching in baseball as it stands. They’ll be opening a new stadium, too, so maybe they’ll want to make a splashy trade in addition to any free agent acquisitions. Jeff Mathis (star of this tweet) got entirely too much playing time last season for the Rangers. Fangraphs ranks their farm system just ahead of the Cubs'. Possible trade candidates include:
2B/3B Nick Solak — Acquired from the Rays for a low price likely due to their 40-man roster crunch. Fangraphs ranks him as the organization’s top prospect (104th in the MLB). Solak could be an interesting Ben Zobrist replacement, though if he primarily played second base Nico Hoerner would have to move to center field. In 33 games with the Rangers, he slashed .293/.393/.491 for a 126 wRC+.
RP José Leclerc — A very good reliever with a team-friendly contract (with two club options in 2023 and 2024). Leclerc had a much worse 2019 than 2018, but still put up 0.4 more fWAR than any Cubs reliever.
RP Emmanuel Clase — A young fireballing reliever with natural cutting action on his fastball. Clase doesn’t have much of a major-league track record, but he’s the type of reliever that the Cubs have failed to develop under Theo Epstein.
Lance Lynn had one of the best seasons of any pitcher in 2019, but with two more cheap years on his contract it seems unlikely that the Rangers would want to trade him. Mike Minor had a nice season but ended up with a FIP only .01 less than Jon Lester. Combined with the fact that he only has one year left on his contract, I would guess the Rangers value him more highly than other teams do. The Rangers also have a couple of starting pitchers in their farm system, but they’re riskier types, and don’t seem like a great match for this trade.
The Rays lost catcher Travis d’Arnaud to free agency, and they have the highest-ranked farm system in baseball according to Fangraphs. Potential trade targets here include a whole swath of bullpen arms that would appeal to the Cubs, as well as some less-traditional starters in the minors. If the team was willing to part with one of their “bulk guys” like Ryan Yarbrough or Yonny Chirinos in addition to one of their lower-leverage relievers like Oliver Drake, the Cubs would surely be interested, though I can’t tell how much the Rays are willing to give up.
I don’t particularly want to see Contreras on the Astros, but they did just lose both their catchers to free agency. I see the Astros as a less-likely fit mainly because they’re a more plausible opponent for the Cubs in the playoffs in the next two years (though the Rays aren’t far behind), and their farm isn’t quite what it used to be. Catcher is one of the main holes in their roster, though, and any pitchers they did give the Cubs wouldn’t be too difficult for their player development machine to replace. However, I doubt the Astros would give up top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley for Contreras, even after a down year. I’m sure World Series phenom Jose Urquidy would intrigue the Cubs, but after such a successful major league debut and Gerrit Cole departing in free agency it seems unlikely that the Astros would be willing to part with a promising young starter.
What a Game It Was
The World Series is over, and with it, the 2019 baseball season. What started as a relatively lackluster series was salvaged by an exciting two games. Here, I’d like to go through some of the pivotal decisions made in Game 7 inning by inning. This will be a bit of a long one, but there’s a lot to cover in this game! Starting with…
Bottom of the 2nd
Robinson Chirinos bunts
This was an uncharacteristic decision by the Astros. A successful bunt would have put runners on second and third with one out, and would have decreased the Astros' win expectancy by 1.75%. Chirinos' unsuccessful bunt lowered the Astros' win expectancy by 2.68% in a context-neutral simulation, and 4.6% according to Fangraphs' situational win expectancy. Hinch later said that the Astros wanted to play for one run there, and a successful bunt would have slightly increased their odds of scoring one run, but with how shaky Scherzer was looking it seems like a curious call.
Bottom of the 5th
Scherzer pitches the entire inning
During this inning, Patrick Corbin appeared in the bullpen, but by the time Scherzer’s night was done, the Nationals' win expectancy was down to 22.1%, and it felt lower with the way Greinke was pitching.
Scherzer threw 7 of the 10-fastest pitches thrown all night, but all of those came in the first two innings. By the fifth inning, his average fastball and slider velocities had both dropped 3 MPH from the second inning. Scherzer was laboring to some extent all, but by the final innings of his start, he was clearly tiring. While his overall average velocity wasn’t much different from his previous World Series start, it was down a tick from the Wild Card game.
Martinez could have brought in Corbin, Sanchez, Doolittle or Hudson earlier, or even Rainey if someone was ready to come in after. I understand why he did it, but letting Scherzer struggle for so long without having anyone ready to relieve him seemed irresponsible to me.
Bottom of the 6th
Corbin relieves Scherzer
Martinez went to Corbin after it was clear Scherzer’s night was done. Corbin had mixed results this postseason to go along with his mixed role: he made three starts and five relief appearances. Overall, the numbers don’t look good (a 5.79 ERA), but they’re inflated by an unlucky relief outing against the Dodgers. Outside of that, he looked solid in a relief role and okay as a starter. This was a good decision.
Top of the 7th
The pivotal seventh inning had three key decision points:
Leaving Greinke in
I don’t have a problem with this…Greinke was pitching great, and matches up well against Soto.
Taking Greinke out after the Rendon homer and walk to Soto
Again, this seems fine—while Greinke had been cruising, the seventh inning is not too late to take out a starter in an elimination game when you have so many options at your disposal.
Bringing in Will Harris
I still believe this was a good decision. Harris has been one of the best relievers in baseball for the last several years, and had been even better in the postseason until he surrendered a home run to Rendon in Game 6. The only problem I have with Hinch’s choice here is that the manager did mention Harris was in need of a day off after Game 5, and he didn’t pitch great in Game 6, so it’s possible he was tiring and less effective than usual. Still, Howie Kendrick’s home run barely got out, and the pitch from Harris wasn’t bad.
The main alternative to Harris at this point would have been Osuna or Gerrit Cole. Cole’s last relief appearance was in college, so Hinch wanted to bring him in to a clean inning. I haven’t seen any studies proving that starters don’t fare as well in relief when they’re brought into a situation with runners on base, but it does seem to be the conventional wisdom. If we accept that premise, then the main alternative to Harris is Osuna. On the surface level, it would make sense to put Osuna, the Astros' best reliever, into this high-leverage situation of the game, especially knowing you have Cole and other capable relievers as backup. But Hinch didn’t seem to think Osuna was the team’s best reliever at the moment, saying “if things start to go south for Zack, I had our best reliever (Harris) this postseason ready to go.” If Hinch believed that, bringing in Harris makes sense.
Top of the 8th
Leaving Osuna in
You can explain this by saying that Osuna is one of the Astros' best pitchers, and he hadn’t pitched much in the series, so he should be available for a long appearance. However, Osuna had pitched more than one inning only three times this season. He ended up throwing 36 pitches in Game 7, 9 more than his season high, and 13 more than any outing in September. After giving up a run and another hit in the 8th, though, he had to be relieved by Ryan Pressly.
If Hinch had taken out Osuna to start the inning to give Cole a clean inning, he ran the risk of taking out a pitcher possibly better than Cole, as well as Cole not having it and forcing Hinch to go to a lesser pitcher (though he had to do that anyway when Osuna struggled).
According to Hinch,
The two scenarios were Gerrit goes out (in the eighth) and Osuna protects him in case he’s not at his best or Osuna goes out and then I read Osuna’s inning to see if it’s a two-inning save or do I go to Gerrit Cole in the ninth? Those were the scenarios.
The first scenario was eliminated by Osuna pitching in the seventh. Still, you could definitely make an argument for taking Osuna out of the game after he escaped the seventh inning. Osuna hadn’t been particularly sharp all postseason, and it didn’t seem like him pitching two innings would necessarily be an advantage. Then, Hinch would have been able to push Gerrit Cole as far as you can starting in the eighth, with Joe Smith ready to back him up if necessary. Still, if we assume that Osuna is a better reliever than Cole on two days rest, the decision to leave him in makes sense.
Top of the 9th
Bringing in Joe Smith and Jose Urquidy instead of Gerrit Cole
This is where it gets confusing for me. The odds of the Astros coming back from a two-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth were remote (7.6%), but those odds were much better than they were after the Nationals were done hitting (1.9%). Even here, putting in Smith instead of Cole seems reasonable, since Smith is tough on righties.
Each individual point when Hinch didn’t bring Cole in from the bullpen is perfectly defensible. But when you zoom out, it comes down to the fact that the Astros had the current best pitcher in baseball on their roster, and, despite being available, he didn’t pitch in the most important game of the season.
The only reason I can find to fault Hinch’s decision making regarding Cole is that he seemed reluctant to bring him in when the Astros were trailing, a very un-Astros-like stance. While postgame reports were initially that Cole was only available to pitch in the ninth with an Astros lead, that condition soon got expanded to Cole only being available to pitch with the lead. In Hinch’s interview with The Athletic’s Jake Kaplan, Hinch seems to have reservations about pitching Cole in a “down game,” which doesn’t really make sense to me except from a sentimental point of view. If Hinch thought that Cole was good enough to pitch in the late innings with an Astros lead, then he should have been good enough to pitch in the late innings even though they trailed. If Hinch thinks the combination of Joe Smith and Jose Urquidy are better-suited to face the top of the Nationals' order than Gerrit Cole, then Cole shouldn’t have been an option with a lead either.
The situation becomes clouded more when you consider that Cole is soon to be a free agent. Cole didn’t seem particularly pleased with the way the game played out, distancing himself from the team immediately after the game and giving his postgame interview in a Boras Corp hat. Something here doesn’t make sense: either Cole asked to only be used when the Astros were ahead (but that makes his disappointment after the game curious), or Hinch wanted to save his possible best pitcher for when his team was ahead, regardless of leverage (which is an uncharacteristic decision). Either situation is confusing, and I suspect we’ll never hear the full story.
If I were to guess, however, I think it comes down to a disconnect between how we see Cole and how Hinch saw him. We see Hinch being unable to pull the trigger and put his best pitcher into the most important game, but Hinch doesn’t seem to think Cole would have been his best pitcher (emphasis added):
…I wanted to make sure that I could utilize our other guys and have Gerrit as a backup plan rather than have Gerrit as the primary reason…Will Harris, Joe Smith, Roberto Osuna were most likely always going to pitch in front of Gerrit on two days' rest. And I felt like they had earned that based on how they had pitched during the World Series.
I believe we have to take Hinch at his word. If he truly thought that Cole was his fourth-best relief option, then he managed the game well. It just didn’t work out.
Bottom of the 9th
Daniel Hudson over leaving Corbin in or bringing in Doolittle
Doolittle has been much better against lefties than righties in his career and in 2019, whereas Hudson has had a nearly neutral platoon split, so it makes sense to bring in Hudson to face Springer and Altuve, both righties. Despite Doolittle being the Nationals' closer for much of the season, Martinez played the matchups here and it secured the Nationals' first title.
Dave Martinez gambled on Scherzer and won. He managed to get the Nationals all the way through the postseason, despite their bullpen deficiencies. A.J. Hinch made a couple of uncharacteristic decisions and lost, despite his team being one of the best we’ve seen. That’s baseball, and that’s why we like it.
A Cubs Free Agent Shopping List
The Cubs seem poised to be more active this offseason than last, and for that we’re all thankful. It remains to be seen how willing the team will be to spend, and it’s possible that all of their big moves will come via trade. If the Cubs do want to venture into the free agent market, however, I’ve identified several intriguing candidates in each area.
The Cubs have a great infield, except for second base which was a problem spot last season. Not all of these free agents fill that hole, but the ones that don’t provide enough upside that I think they’re worth considering.
Josh Donaldson — had a wRC+ only three points worse than Bryant this year while providing positive defensive value at third base. Durability is a concern in the long term, but he was healthy enough this season to potentially price himself out of the Cubs' budget. Adding his bat to the lineup and moving Bryant to the outfield would be huge, though, and it’s more likely the Cubs could sign him to a shorter, higher-salary deal as opposed to someone like Rendon.
Mike Moustakas — averaged 2.6 fWAR over the last two seasons while playing both second and third base. He bounced back from a down year with a 113 wRC+ for the Brewers last season. Moustakas likely wouldn’t be very expensive and would provide solid depth at 2B and 3B (when Bryant plays the outfield), but I have a feeling he may re-sign with his current club.
Howie Kendrick — had a higher full-season wRC+ than every Cub this year. NLCS MVP, and a great hitter and veteran presence. Unfortunately, Kendrick seems to be moving down the defensive spectrum quickly, and played most at first base last season, where the Cubs are set. He played some second base (and actually rated better there than at first last season), and I think he’s a great fit otherwise, so it’s possible the Cubs could risk the defense, but it seems unlikely.
Anthony Rendon — had a better year by fWAR than any Cub and is by far the best position player free agent available this offseason. The only way this would seem to fit into the Cubs' “constrained budget” is if they traded Kris Bryant, and going by this year’s stats, that would turn Rendon into just a 2.2 WAR upgrade, probably not worth the contract difference.
Yasmani Grandal — the Cubs would have to trade Willson Contreras for this to make sense, but a shorter-term, higher-AAV deal could work while they wait for Miguel Amaya to be ready. Grandal is a much better defender than Contreras, and only a slightly worse hitter. He is admittedly three years older, but was worth almost twice as many wins as Contreras last season. Plus, you would keep him from the Brewers, for whatever that’s worth. I don’t see the Cubs making this move, as Contreras provides a lot of energy to the team, and it seems like the Cubs may value him more than other front offices around the league.
Eric Sogard — not much of a track record, but had a 115 wRC+ this season while playing a slightly below-average second base. He had an on-base percentage close to Ben Zobrist’s this season with some pop to go along with it, and would probably be pretty cheap. However, there are some warning signs—Sogard’s wRC+ in the second half was only 103, and his profile certainly seems to suggest that his breakout could be a result of the ball last season. If he falls into the Cubs' lap, I would like to see them take a chance, but I don’t think they’ll aggressively pursue him.
Brock Holt — plays second base and had the 43rd-highest OBP among hitters with at least 100 PA last season despite only having a 103 wRC+. Probably not worth a lot of money, but I could see a team signing him to a Descalso-esque contract. Holt would be good depth at second, but I doubt the Cubs would sign him unless it was a minor-league deal.
José Iglesias — not a great hitter, but a great shortstop. I wanted the Cubs to sign Iglesias last offseason for insurance should Russell not perform well, and Iglesias ended up with a slightly higher wRC+ and less off-the-field issues while making less money. Iglesias shouldn’t be anyone’s starting shortstop, but he was one win better than Russell last year. If the Cubs can convince him to sign knowing he won’t get nearly as much playing time as he has the last two seasons (he averaged almost 500 plate appearances), I think it would be a great pick-up.
Adeiny Hechavarría — had a breakout year offensively…with a 93 wRC+. I wouldn’t put much stock in his numbers from last season, but he could be just as good as Iglesias both offensively and defensively while being more accepting of a backup role.
The Cubs have a fair amount of depth at the corners, and the available free agents here aren’t great. Of course, if they want to spend here, the big name in this category is…
Nicholas Castellanos — impressed in his time with the Cubs, but it’s hard to stomach the idea of fielding both Schwarber and Castellanos in the same outfield on a daily basis. That said, I don’t think he’ll get a huge contract given how players with his profile (sluggers with subpar defense) have performed in recent winters. He doesn’t have the same pop as Schwarber, but he has enough, and provides a more contact-driven approach. If the Cubs do sign him, I would expect it to signal a Schwarber trade.
Outside of Castellanos, the Cubs desperately need a center fielder (unless Heyward moves there more permanently), but none of the upcoming free agents are great fits. Jarrod Dyson is a great player, but not a great hitter. Cameron Maybin had a great year with the Yankees but he seems to have been relegated to a corner outfield role. If the Cubs really want to address this hole in their roster, they’ll have to do it via trade.
I doubt the Cubs are going to sign any starters this offseason, despite losing Cole Hamels to free agency. I think they believe they have enough candidates for fourth and fifth starters between Tyler Chatwood, Alec Mills, Adbert Alzolay, and other minor-leaguers. However, I wouldn’t mind seeing them sign…
Zack Wheeler — tantalizing stuff, the type of pitcher the Astros could probably turn into a Cy Young candidate. A little higher ERA and FIP this year (3.96/3.48) than last (3.31/3.25), but he’s put up 8.9 fWAR over the last two seasons and has been surprisingly durable considering his injury history. The main issue with Wheeler would be his asking price, as he’s sure to be in high demand, particularly among player-development powerhouses.
Jake Odorizzi — had a great year with the Twins, actually outpitching Wheeler by both ERA and FIP. However, this was Odorizzi’s career year so far, so teams will have to decide how much they trust his breakout. Because of this, Odorizzi may be more affordable than Wheeler, though there are reasons to expect him to successfully follow up his 2019.
If the only available options are worse than either of these, I would think the Cubs go into the season hoping the depth they built last year is sufficient, and supplement the rotation at the trade deadline if not.
The Cubs probably can’t afford to sign another big-name closer after the Brandon Morrow incident and with Craig Kimbrel already under contract. The team also probably feels they have some interesting internal candidates for bullpen depth. However, the Cubs are losing Brandon Kintzler, Steve Cishek, and Pedro Strop to free agency, so one would hope the team isn’t assuming all three can be replaced with Pitch Lab graduates. Here, I’m looking for a couple seventh/eighth-inning arms to complement Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan, and Brad Wieck.
Will Smith — pitched very well for the Giants, though he was actually even better in 2018 in less innings, mainly due to a bit of a home run problem this year. He’s a lefty, and would fit very well as a setup man for Kimbrel or a lefty fireman. However, I get the feeling his services will cost more than the Cubs are comfortable with.
Will Harris — despite what Joe Girardi may think, decidedly not Will Smith. Harris seems to be the Astros' most-trusted reliever right now, and, despite being a righty, is good at getting lefties out due to his pitch mix. He was more valuable than any Cubs reliever this season, and has been durable the last two years. The main concern with Harris is his age (35), but that may lower his contract demand enough that he would be in the Cubs' price range. Plus, it can’t hurt to get someone who’s familiar with the way the Astros develop pitchers.
Drew Pomeranz — posted a 2.39 ERA and 2.68 FIP in relief for the Brewers down the stretch. Signing Pomeranz would be a risk given his lack of track record as a dominant reliever, but the Cubs quickly became all-too-familiar with the way his stuff played up in relief. Considering Pomeranz made just $2M last season, he makes sense as a calculated risk. The upside is a pitcher who would have had the lowest ERA and FIP of any Cubs reliever last season.
Again, it remains to be seen how active the Cubs will be this offseason, as well as where the Ricketts family sets the budget. In my ideal, somewhat-reasonable world, the Cubs would sign Donaldson, Iglesias, and Pomeranz. There are a lot of great options out there, though, and I look forward to seeing how the roster comes together over the winter.
Theo vs. the Juiced Ball
Are the Cubs disproportionately affected by the juiced ball?
The Cubs have a lot of players with big-time raw power. Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, and Ian Happ all fall into this category. Javy Báez does to an extent as well, though with his more opposite-field focused approach this season he could be playing into the juiced ball more than his teammates. The Cubs have a lot of players who have already maximized their power, so they’ve missed opportunities to go after hitters who can barely get the ball over the fence in the juiced ball era. Players with warning-track power like Scooter Gennett can take more advantage of the juiced ball because the extra feet it affords can turn balls that would have been flyouts into home runs. Bryant gets a similar advantage on balls that he didn’t hit very well, but most of his home runs would be home runs regardless of a few feet of extra distance.
The Cubs also have a lot of pitchers who don’t miss bats. This works great when batters are hitting the ball on the ground, when the Cubs could rely on their previously-excellent infield defense, but it doesn’t work nearly as well when batters are pulling the ball in the air. The front office has tried to remedy this over the last couple of seasons, but their track record of signing pitchers with swing-and-miss stuff has been iffy at best. Yu Darvish turned his season around, but signings like Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel, and Tyler Chatwood haven’t exactly paid off yet—although none of those deals on their own are terrible, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cubs regret all of them.
The Cubs have accomplished quite a bit under the current regime, but they have also had some trouble adapting to changes in the way the game is played. It will be interesting to see how Theo Epstein and his team try to remedy this issue.
Hey, look at this reliever
Aaron Bummer not only has one of the best names in baseball, he also has one of the best sinkers. He has the second-lowest sweet spot batted-ball rate of any pitcher in baseball, as well as the second-lowest batted-ball distance (second in both only to Zack Britton). Unlike other relievers featured in this section, his fastball spin rate is only in the 12th percentile of major league pitchers, and his strikeout rate is only slightly above average. It’s nice to see relievers that can have great success by getting ground balls, even in today’s game.
Some observations from the Cubs end-of-season WAR and wRC+ leaderboards (all stats before Sunday’s game)…
- Nicholas Castellanos will end the season with a 154 wRC+ as a Cub, which would be the highest on the team.
- Ian Happ has a higher wRC+ (barely) than both Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber.
- Victor Caratini (108 wRC+ and 1.5 fWAR) and David Bote (107, 1.4 fWAR) were valuable depth pieces this season. Albert Almora (64, -0.7) and Daniel Descalso (43, -0.8) were not.
Please, No More Extra Innings
The Cubs are not set to make the playoffs for a variety of reasons, but one of them is their record in extra-inning games (4-9). The Cubs lost two games in the tenth inning this past week. In extra innings, their hitters have slashed .191/.305/.371 (15% worse than league average), while their pitchers have allowed a .269/.409/.516 line to opposing batters (53% worse).
Part of this is due to bad luck, though the Cubs' odd bullpen struggles certainly play a part. After Saturday’s game, Craig Kimbrel is now the least valuable Cub of the season by fWAR (passing Daniel Descalso). Before Kimbrel was signed, Pedro Strop and Steve Cishek got many of the late-inning opportunities, and did alright, though not well enough to convince Cubs officials that the bullpen didn’t need reinforcements. Injuries to members of the bullpen have weakened its depth too, leading to situations like James Norwood pitching in the tenth inning.
Of course, you can’t deny the role luck has in one-run and extra-inning results. And to be clear, I love extra-inning baseball—it’s some of my favorite baseball to watch (more on that this offseason, maybe). This Cubs team, however, has not been fun to watch after the ninth inning.
Hey, look at this reliever
I’ve written about Tyler Chatwood before, but after what he’s done the last two months, I can’t resist writing about him again.
Since August 1st, Chatwood has the 24th-lowest FIP in baseball among relievers. The name right below him is Rowan Wick, who Chatwood has actually slightly out-pitched according to the advanced numbers.
According to Statcast, Chatwood has allowed “barrels” on only 1.9% of plate appearances this season, which is the 12th-lowest mark in the majors (the only Cub with a lower rate is Kyle Ryan at 1.6%).
On September 18th, Chatwood hit 99.2 MPH on his fastball, his highest mark of the year. He blew his next pitch by Eugenio Suárez at 99.0 MPH for a strikeout. Chatwood’s stuff has unquestionably played up out of the bullpen, and it was already superlative before. His sinker has the tenth-highest spin rate of any pitcher (minimum 100 pitches), his cutter ranks fifth, and his curveball ranks seventh.
Here he is striking out a lot of hitters:
Breaking Up the Big Four?
With talk of big changes coming to the Cubs next season, I thought it would be interesting to take a break from the pennant race and see how the Cubs could reshape their roster during the offseason. I’m not suggesting the Cubs should trade any of these players (trading any of them would be painful), but it could be necessary to get the type of roster shakeup the front office seems to want.
The Baseball Trade Values site assigns low, median, and high estimates of trade value for players. I looked up their estimations for the Cubs' four core players.
Willson Contreras: 3 arbitration years (1-3), 19.1, 22.1, 25.2
Kris Bryant: 2 arbitration years (3-4), 18.7, 22.2, 25.6
Anthony Rizzo: 2 14.5M team options, 22.2, 29.1, 36.1
Javier Báez: 2 arbitration years (2-3), 35.6, 42.6, 49.7
There are so many things to consider when deciding which player would be best to trade. All the players have intangible value to the Cubs: It’s hard to account for what Anthony Rizzo brings to the team as the unofficial captain. Kris Bryant and Javy Báez are faces of the franchise, and Contreras is the heartbeat of the team.
If you want to consider contracts, Bryant will be the most expensive player, which is reflected in the value estimates. Contreras has the most years of team control left, while Rizzo has two team options before he’ll get a large pay-day after previously signing a club-friendly extension. Báez seems like the best and most likely candidate for an extension, but the team hasn’t been able to get it done yet.
All four have had injuries this year, some more concerning than others. Báez' aggressive play style is always concerning, and this season he’s dealt with a recurring heal injury. Bryant is going through his second year of a recurring injury that’s kept him from reaching his MVP ceiling again, though his knee injury this season seems much less problematic than last year’s shoulder injury. Rizzo has missed time with a back injury for the last few years, and Contreras has hurt his hamstring a couple times as well.
It may come down to who is available on the free agent market to replace the traded player. Brewers catcher Yasmani Grandal could be a good fit for the Cubs—he can play at first base or catcher. Anthony Rendon will be one of the best free agents of the offseason, and it seems unlikely the Cubs are a good fit for him, though they could opt for trading Bryant to restock the farm system and signing Rendon as a replacement.
There’s no clear answer as to which of these four players the Cubs would or should trade, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of them traded this offseason. Theo Epstein seems desperate to restructure the organization, and it could take a dramatic trade to do it.
Hey, look at this reliever
A little over a year ago, Fangraphs alumnus Jeff Sullivan called Colin Poche the most unhittable arm in the minors. This was just after Poche was traded to the Rays. So far this season, he has a 4.96 ERA, with a 4.32 FIP. While those numbers are certainly not great, the more granular numbers suggest he’s been a bit unlucky; his xWOBA allowed is the 19th-lowest in baseball (minimum 100 batters faced). Looking at his individual pitches, it seems that his fastball is the key to his success. According to Statcast, it has the most “rise” of any four-seam fastball, and it shows:
Similar to Josh Hader, it seems like hitters can’t pick up the fastball out of his hand. The results haven’t quite caught up to the underlying numbers yet, but Poche has one of the best rising fastballs in the game, and at this rate he’ll be deceiving hitters with high heat for seasons to come.
I was browsing the WAR leaderboard since August 1st to see where Nicholas Castellanos ranked (18th), when I saw something surprising: Alex Bregman has produced 3.2 wins above replacement in the last 1.5 months. The next three highest are Marcus Semien, Anthony Rendon, and Nolan Arenado, all tied at 2.5 fWAR. To put that in perspective, the difference between Bregman and the next best player since 8/1 is the same as the difference between the second-best and fifteenth-best players since that date. I still believe Mike Trout should be the American League MVP, but it’s impressive that Bregman has overtaken Cody Bellinger in just a few months.
The Gio Effect
As the Cubs prepared to face Gio Gonzalez for the fifth time this season Saturday night, I was reminded of this quote from a recent piece by Jesse Rogers at ESPN:
Chicago’s hitters don’t hit the poorer starters in the league much better than they do top arms. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cubs have a .261 batting average and .814 OPS against starting pitchers who entered the game against them with a 4.00 ERA or higher. Against sub-4.00 ERA hurlers? It’s not that different: .258 batting average and .794 OPS.
Obviously, this statistic can be misleading. Poor performances against bad pitchers will stick out more in a fan’s mind than when the offense is stifled by someone like Max Scherzer, and ERA isn’t a perfect measure of a pitcher’s true talent, particularly early in the season. However, the Cubs only having a .020 higher OPS against bad pitchers lines up with the confusing nature of the team’s offense, and Saturday’s matchup was a prime example.
Gonzalez has faced the Cubs five times this season, including Saturday night’s game. He has a 3.98 ERA on the season, but only a 1.48 ERA against the Cubs compared to a 5.25 ERA against everyone else. Gio shut down the Cubs yet again last night.
This is the same offense that put up 18 runs against Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard, and Jacob deGrom just days after getting one hit against Anibal Sanchez. It’s not like the Cubs are just better against power pitchers, though. According to Baseball Reference, the 2019 team has been 14% worse than the rest of the league against power pitchers, and 6% better against finesse pitchers.
I’m not sure what the solution is to this issue. It could be chalked up to a small sample, or it could be a problem with the way the team plans their approach against a certain subgroup of pitchers, or maybe they get too confident and expand their strike zone. Regardless, it’s nice to have confirmation that we haven’t been imagining things when it feels like the quality of the opposite team’s starter has little effect on the Cubs' offensive output in a game.
Hey, look at this reliever
I can’t resist highlighting Brad Wieck here this week. If you’re a Cubs fan, you’ve probably seen this GIF:
Brad Wieck, Soul Stealing 74mph Curveball. 😱👻— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 2, 2019
[H/T pretty much every cubs fan] pic.twitter.com/Sb0agGivOQ
But Wieck has more to give this Cubs team than pitching GIFs.
Just a month after coming over in the Carl Edwards Jr. trade, the large lefty seems to have already taken up residence in Joe Maddon’s circle of trust. He joins fellow former Padre and last-name-soundalike Rowan Wick in the Cubs bullpen. Both pitchers changed their curveballs in the Cubs' pitch lab, though Wieck throws his fastball a bit slower than Wick, and as a 6'9" lefty provides a much different look to the hitter than the 6'3" righty.
Wieck throws his new curveball, which Statcast classifies as a knuckle curve, about half a mile-per-hour faster than his old one, but where it really differentiates itself is its spin rate, which is 215 RPM higher. You can see that the Cubs version of the pitch has more depth to it:
The pitch lab’s newest project still has some kinks to work out over the offseason, but the early returns on the spiked curveball are very intriguing.
This Anthony Rendon fellow is pretty good, isn’t he?
As Devan Fink wrote at Fangraphs this week, Rendon has pushed himself into the MVP conversation. You don’t have to look much further than second-half wRC+:
Cody Bellinger: 135
Christian Yelich: 156
Anthony Rendon: 181
Ketel Marte: 186 (!)
All four are currently the top four in the National League in wRC+ for the whole season. After years of being one of the most underrated players in baseball, Rendon may finally get recognized for his tremendous production.
Are the Cubs Good?
After winning the 2016 World Series, it seemed like the Cubs were set up to be the next baseball dynasty. They had a young core of players that were only expected to get better, and enough high-level prospects waiting in the minor leagues as reinforcements. What happened?
Well, for one, nearly every member of the World Series roster has, if not regressed, not improved. Of that 25-man roster, only 12 remain on the Cubs, and of those 13, only Javy Baez, Willson Contreras, and Jason Heyward have been better this year than in 2016. The team’s veterans have aged as well as one could hope, but their young core hasn’t developed the way many expected.
Kris Bryant has been much better than some fans think, but it’s hard to replicate an MVP season like 2016. Kyle Hendricks has continued to pitch very well, but you can’t expect him to lead the league in ERA like he did the year of the World Series run. Before rebounding this year, Anthony Rizzo’s wRC+ had decreased every year since 2014. Addison Russell served a domestic violence suspension and (less importantly) hasn’t posted a wRC+ above 85 since 2016. Albert Almora was worth one win more in 2016 than 2019, despite getting only 117 plate appearances that year. Kyle Schwarber has improved defensively since his rookie season, but his highest wRC+ since was 115 last year.
The Cubs are good, to be sure. But they’re not the Cubs that we thought they would be. Some fans will blame inefficient free agent signings or bullpen inconsistencies for this team’s failure to repeat, but to me the fault lies mostly with the offense. By this point, it doesn’t feel like this group of players can be the offensive force they were in 2016. I can’t place the exact problem (and if it were that simple the front office would have fixed it by now), but the team just doesn’t have the same feel around it that other “super teams” around the league do. It’s hard to reconcile this feeling with the feeling that watching that 2016 team gave you. The Cubs are disappointing in that they’re not a super team, but it’s hard to be too disappointed in a team that’s still putting up the win totals they are.
Yes, the Cubs are good, but they’re not great.
Hey, look at this reliever
The Giants called up submariner Tyler Rogers. He has thrown 24 pitches in the majors, all classified as curveballs by Statcast, though Brooks Baseball says he throws a sinker and a slider. He’s the twin brother of Twins reliever Taylor Rogers, which is a nice story. I’m also fascinated by his delivery.
If I had to guess, I don’t think Tyler will be as good as Taylor. But it sure is fun to watch him pitch.
WAR leaderboard check-in
The National League Cy Young race has heated up due to Hyun-Jin Ryu’s ERA continuing to rise due to allowing 18 runs over his last three starts. Ryu still has the best ERA in the NL, but it’s only 0.09 runs better than the next best, Mike Soroka. Without such a large ERA gap, many voters will look to more advanced metrics to cast their ballots.
Jacob deGrom is only 0.2 Fangraphs WAR behind Max Scherzer, who leads the National League with 5.8 (and trails only Lance Lynn). The next five pitchers on the list are in the American League, and Ryu’s rotation-mate Walker Buehler is third in the NL in WAR while Ryu is only sixth.
Right now, I’d probably give my vote to Scherzer, but I’m curious to see how the rest of the season plays out.
Good baseball writing
Ben Clemens on the “incomparable” Javy Báez:
This package shouldn’t work. Mixing the swing tendencies of a slap hitter with the contact rate and power of a slugger is a recipe for disaster. Incredibly, though, it all plays…It looks impossible, looks unsustainable — and yet, for the second year in a row, it’s working.
Meg Rowley on a very short baseball game:
It isn’t necessarily a bad way to celebrate — nude is the best way to commemorate being in love — but when Janet in sales lands a new account, her co-workers generally let her keep her blouse…The game was all fretting and uncertainty before, and then, with one crack of the bat, in one mighty swell of relief, things settle in your favor; you were anxious, in pain even, and now you are content. Also? Somewhat nude.
The Case for Keeping Hottovy
With their third pitching coach in as many seasons, the Cubs may have found something special.
The Cubs succeeded in 2016 for several reasons, but the most important may have been their starting pitching. Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks finished second and third (respectively) in Cy Young voting. After a less-successful 2017, the team fired pitching coach Chris Bosio at the behest of Joe Maddon. After parting ways with Bosio, the Cubs brought in Jim Hickey who had previously worked with Joe Maddon in his time with the Rays. Hickey seemed to do a fine job in 2018, but he resigned for personal reasons at the end of the season, going on to join the Dodgers' front office under fellow ex-Ray Andrew Friedman. Left without a pitching coach during the 2018-2019 offseason, the Cubs looked within and promoted their “Run Prevention Coordinator” Tommy Hottovy.
In many ways, Hottovy previously filled the “conduit” role mentioned in Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik’s The MVP Machine. Along with catching/strategy/assistant-pitching coach Mike Borzello, Hottovy acted as a liaison between the front office and the dugout, synthesizing data and player feedback to improve the Cubs' pitching strategy. This season, though, Hottovy was moved from his secret weapon role into the spotlight, and the results have been impressive. Although the Cubs' bullpen has struggled as a unit at times, individual pitchers have made significant strides forward. Hottovy has helped the pitching staff make a plethora of changes, but three in particular stand out.
José Quintana is currently putting together his best stretch of starts as a Cub, and possibly one of the best of his career. In his last four starts before Saturday, he struck out 33 and walked only one.
The reason? He’s been throwing his sinker higher in the zone. This sounds counterintuitive, but Hottovy is encouraging rotation-mate Kyle Hendricks to do the same. This has allowed Quintana’s changeup and curveball to play up, and seems to be confounding hitters thus far.
Kyle Ryan has a 3.21 ERA (matched by a 3.20 FIP) over 47.2 innings, good for the most WAR by a non-starter on the Cubs pitching staff. Ryan serves an important role as the only remaining non-Derek-Holland lefty in the bullpen, but he doesn’t just get lefties out. He’s posted the 15th-highest groundball rate among qualified relievers.
Ryan credits a lot of his success to the Cubs' new Pitch Lab and Tommy Hottovy. They identified that his release point had slipped and implemented a change. Ryan now has the left-most release point in the league, and it’s led to him becoming a reliable force in a shaky bullpen.
Only half of the Cubs' opening-day bullpen remains with the team. Wick was initially called on to fill one of the gaps left by injuries and underperformance, but since coming up from AAA Iowa on July 23rd, he’s impressed with the following line:
12.1 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 BB, 16 K, .311 OPS
Wick been the fifth-most valuable reliever by WAR in all of baseball since that date while generating the sixth-highest groundball rate (minimum 10 IP).
When you look at Wick’s stuff, you’ll be reminded of a typical good reliever in 2019: a hard fastball thrown high in the zone and a nasty curveball. The improved curveball is a result of a change in grip suggested by Hottovy.
Of course, Hottovy and Borzello had success in previous years. But having Hottovy in the driver’s seat in the dugout has greatly improved the flow of information from the front office to individual pitchers. In an organization that has failed to develop pitchers as well as they would like, the successes of Wick and Ryan are particularly encouraging. This could be Joe Maddon’s last season as the Cubs' manager. If that is the case, Cubs fans should hope the new manager keeps Hottovy in his current role so they can continue to watch their pitchers thrive.
Hey, look at this reliever
Meet Reds reliever Lucas Sims. A former first-round draft pick of the Braves in 2012, Sims has struggled as a starter in the majors. He recently joined the Reds bullpen, though, and he came to my attention during a Statcast search. Sims has…(minimum 100 pitches)
- The fourth-highest curveball spin rate
- The fourth-highest slider spin rate
- The eighth-highest four-seamer spin rate
- The third-highest sinker spin rate
Sims' best pitch may be his curveball, which can make great hitters like Ronald Acuña look like this:
The Reds' righty might not be a shutdown reliever just yet (he still has some walk issues, which can be compounded by the occasional home run) but he certainly has the makings of one.
WAR leaderboard check-in
We all know how good Mike Trout is by now. There’s an argument to be made that we are witnessing his best season.
Of course, we’ve heard a lot about Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich this year, and rightfully so, but in terms of Fangraphs WAR, they’re not dominating their league anywhere close to the same extent Trout is dominating the AL.
Bellinger has 0.4 wins on Yelich, and Yelich has 0.8 wins on Ketel Marte. Most columnists seem to agree that the NL MVP race is between Bellinger and Yelich.
According to Fangraphs, Trout has been worth 2.8 wins more than the next best player in the American League. Not only that, he has a 1.5 win advantage over Bellinger, and nearly two wins on Yelich. Even if you discount defense and baserunning, Trout still has the highest wRC+ among all qualified hitters at 184.
Bellinger and Yelich are having incredible seasons, but Trout still reigns.
Yu Darvish Threw a Chatwood
Tyler Chatwood had a very unique 2018 season, which I have previously written about on this site. Later in the season, Chatwood’s luck worsened and he was pushed into the bullpen, but not before he had established a distinctive pitching line profile: short innings totals, high pitch counts, a lot of walks, but few runs.
The outing that spurred this post was Yu Darvish’s start on May 9th of this year, in which he pitched four innings, gave up one hit and one run, walked six batters, and struck out seven, adding up to 97 pitches. It seemed familiar, so I ran a Play Index query to confirm my suspicions: this was something that Tyler Chatwood did quite a bit in 2018. I’ll walk you through the results of this query shortly, but first I should define the parameters of this type of outing: an outing in which the pitcher throws 85+ pitches in five or fewer innings, while giving up three or fewer earned runs and walking five or more batters. We’ll call this a “Chatwood,” and you’ll see why shortly.
Tyler Chatwood leads the league in such games since he debuted in 2011, and it’s not particularly close despite Chatwood only starting the 107th-most games in that period:
Sandy Alcantara could be a name to watch since he’s amassed four Chatwoods in only 23 starts at the major league level.
Barry Zito is the leader in Chatwoods since 1987, but Chatwood is only two behind, and seems to have the best chance to overtake Zito out of his nearest competitors, who are mostly retired or nearing the end of their careers:
Chatwood didn’t always have such a knack for this type of outing, however. Before 2018, he had only thrown three such games in his career. He then proceeded to double the amount of Chatwoods any pitcher had thrown in a single season since 2011:
Not only that, he’s the only pitcher with more than four such games in a season since 1987:
Yu Darvish’s command has improved significantly since his “Chatwood” start, and Chatwood himself hasn’t thrown a game which satisfies these criteria in his three starts this season. Despite taxing the bullpen, pitchers who throw these games aren’t even necessarily hurting their teams chances to win since they’re only giving up a few runs. As Chatwood’s second half of 2018 showed, throwing a lot of these games is not an inspiring sign, but it’s a feat nonetheless .
Cubs Splurge on Whiffs
Unlike several other teams considered to be forward-thinking, the Cubs have preferred to have one reliever at the back of their bullpen that gets most of their save chances. In spite of this preference, they have had a different closer every year since 2015. Rule-5 draft pick Héctor Rondón got most of the save chances from 2014 through the 2016 trade deadline, when the Cubs traded for Aroldis Chapman. Before the 2017 season, they traded outfielder Jorge Soler for one year of Wade Davis. After a heroic effort in a wild game 5 of the NLDS, Davis departed over the offseason for the Rockies and became the highest paid reliever ever (by yearly salary). To fill the void left behind by Davis, the Cubs signed Brandon Morrow who had dominated them in the NLCS. Morrow was dominant when healthy, but did not throw a pitch for the Cubs since July 15th, 2018, leaving underrated setup-man Pedro Strop as the de-facto closer.
Strop has fared well when not dealing with hamstring issues, and Steve Cishek has acquitted himself well as the backup-backup closer, but the Cubs bullpen has struggled as a whole. It was always assumed that the team would pursue bullpen help at the trade deadline if they were in contention, especially if Morrow experienced a setback (he did), but it was not clear what form that bullpen help would take. As bullpen-related losses piled up in a tight NL Central race, it felt as if the Cubs would have to do something soon to stop the bleeding. On June 5th, they signed Craig Kimbrel.
Now, the Cubs' bullpen has not performed especially poorly on the surface. They have blown a lot of saves, but that can partially be attributed to unlucky sequencing. Over a short stretch, they had the best ERA in the National League. However, that stretch covered up some ominous indicators.
The Cubs' bullpen has one glaring weakness: getting whiffs. They are currently tied with the Orioles with the second-worst whiff rate in the majors (10.4%), ahead of only the Rangers, making them last in the National League. Overall, they’re 16th in FIP and 11th in ERA. They’re first in ground ball rate, which helps, but they also have the third-highest walk rate and only the 18th-highest strikeout rate. Not only are they not getting many whiffs, they’re also only 23rd in zone-rate, meaning they aren’t throwing enough strikes.
Even if you exclude the earliest part of the season in which the Cubs' bullpen struggled mightily (before Carl Edwards Jr. was sent down on April 6th to find his delivery again), they remain at the same rank in whiff rate, with a rate of 10.6%. They have a slightly better zone-rate ranking (22nd), but remain at the third-worst walk rate. They have also cut down on strikeouts, sinking to the 22nd-highest strikeout rate. Despite all this, in that stretch they have the fourth-lowest ERA and the 12th-lowest FIP.
The Cubs' pitching staff as a whole is not built for generating swings-and-misses (with the exception of Yu Darvish and select others)—they’re 25th overall—but it’s particularly a concern in the bullpen, where the ability to miss bats matters more due to the situations relievers are used in. Whiff rate is generally less luck-driven than things like ground ball rate—swings and misses never turn into baserunners, as opposed to balls in play, which often do. Not having a reliever who can get swings and misses leaves a hole in a bullpen and makes it difficult for a team to escape a situation with runners in scoring position. Low whiff rates have not always been an issue with recent Cubs teams; in 2016, their bullpen ranked a formidable fifth in whiff rate. However, that ranking has declined each year since.
As league-wide bullpen whiff-rate has risen since 2016, the Cubs' bullpen whiff-rate has fallen.
Even with Morrow on the IL, the Cubs have several relief options that have generated above-average whiff rates this season, but most have issues. James Norwood and Rowan Wick are AAA call-ups that have pitched two innings combined in the majors this year. Allen Webster pitched 11 innings before going on the IL himself, and Dillon Maples, while he has electric stuff, has yet to get the chance to prove that his command is Major-League ready. Outside of these pitchers, Pedro Strop is the only Cubs reliever with an above-average whiff rate. Normally Carl Edwards Jr. would be on the list as well, but he struggled early in the season and did not throw quite as hard between coming back from AAA and being placed on the IL.1 In 2018, Brandon Morrow had a rate of 12.9%, which would be above average in 2019, but he’s been unavailable due to injury. In 2018, Kimbrel had the sixth-highest (17.2%) whiff rate among relievers who threw at least 20 innings last year.
A bullpen does not need to survive on whiffs to be playoff-caliber, but the Cubs are currently relying on a combination of high walk rates, low strikeout rates, and unsustainably high ground-ball rates. It was obvious that the Cubs needed bullpen help throughout the offseason, but it wasn’t clear what shape the bullpen reinforcements would take. While the move to sign Kimbrel certainly carries a fair amount of risk, the upside is obvious. While the Cubs' bullpen has performed admirably considering their difficulties, it became clear that the club couldn’t rely on their in-house options for getting strikeouts in high-leverage situations. So, they paid Craig Kimbrel for his ability to miss bats.
Despite his lack of whiffs, Edwards was largely excellent during this time period. ↩︎
Tyler Chatwood Is a Reliever Now
Tyler Chatwood had a 2018 to remember, but not one that he’ll want to remember. He received the first black ink1 of his career, leading the league with 95 walks on his way to a 5.30 ERA and a 5.50 FIP.
During the first few starts of his new contract, Chatwood outperformed his peripherals, allowing him to post a 2.83 ERA through the first month of the season. However, that number regressed quickly, as he allowed a 5.92 ERA through the next three months, largely due to his command vanishing. Chatwood was relegated to bullpen duty after the Cubs acquired Cole Hamels on the eve of the August 1st waiver trade deadline in 2018. In limited time as a mop-up reliever, he did not pitch well, allowing ten walks, ten hits, and nine runs in just 9.2 innings of work.
The Cubs would have loved to move Chatwood’s contract ($25.5M remaining after 2018) before the start of the 2019 season, but understandably could not find any takers for the righty after his lost season. Many wondered if the team would have to eat his contract and cut him loose or work out an agreement to send him to the minor leagues to try and find an answer to his command troubles.
On May 25th, he got his first save for the Cubs. If you were to tell a Cubs fan this before spring training, they would assume that something had gone horribly wrong in the Cubs bullpen. In some ways, it has—several relievers have fallen prey to injury, some to bouts of ineffectiveness, and the rest to overuse. Tyler Chatwood, however, has been a bright spot.
|Zone Whiff %||62.3%||58.8%|
In 2018, 55.9% of Chatwood’s pitches ended up out of the zone. He has managed to lower that rate to 52.9% in 2019, his lowest since 2013. Hitters are whiffing on 20.3% of their swings at pitches in the zone, compared to just 15.1% in 2018. Chatwood is hitting the edges of the strike zone at his highest rate since 2016. His walk rate is still too high, but it’s down four percentage points from 2018, and his strikeout rate is up by nearly three percentage points. When Chatwood missed the zone in 2018, it was often by a great amount. In 2019, it seems as though he’s missing closer to the edges of the zone, instead of just throwing non-competitive pitches. Chatwood also has the ability to generate soft contact—he cut his barrel rate in half between seasons. While it isn’t something one can rely on consistently, the weak contact does help negate some of the walk issues.
In concert with his improved command, Chatwood’s stuff has played up in relief. He was always someone with notable stuff (it’s the reason the Cubs signed him in the first place), but in relief this season it’s been even more impressive.
His curveball is breaking more than it ever has…
…and he’s throwing the hardest he ever has:
Perhaps because he’s throwing harder, he’s getting more spin on all of his pitches.
He’s throwing his sinker and four-seam fastball much more than he did last season, and he’s relegated his cutter to about the same usage as his curve and changeup. In relief, he has featured a four-seam/two-seam mix with three tertiary pitches.
Chatwood’s best pitch may be his two-seam fastball:
This pitch, in combination with the rest of his high-spin arsenal, makes for an uncomfortable at-bat for hitters and provides the basis for a dominant reliever.
Now, Chatwood’s FIP remains high at 5.12. He’s the type of pitcher that I would expect to outperform his FIP slightly, but he’s certainly not “fixed” yet. However, the Cubs have to be pleased with what they’ve gotten out of Chatwood this season, and the peripheral numbers are trending in the right direction.
Despite all this, Chatwood’s future with the Cubs remains cloudy. He’s still owed $13M next season, plus the remainder of this year’s salary. The Cubs seem like a lock to add a couple relievers to their bullpen before the trade deadline, but they are also apparently nearing their budget cap. Chatwood is not the only reliever who can provide depth in the Cubs bullpen, as Mike Montgomery is there as well. This could mean that either long man is available to appear in shorter, higher-leverage spots, or it could make one of them redundant.
If the Cubs do end up trading one of Montgomery or Chatwood, there are cases to be made for both. Because of the Cubs' current roster situation, it would make sense if the team tried to move Chatwood this July due to his contract and their budgetary constraints. Even if they do decide to trade their high-spin long man, the Cubs may still have to eat some money; Chatwood is making more money than most teams would want to pay for a long man or middle reliever, and he has not yet proven he can be a consistently dominant back-of-the-bullpen arm. Joe Maddon is definitely a circle-of-trust bullpen manager,2 and it doesn’t seem that Chatwood has made his way into that circle just yet. Because of Chatwood’s residual walk issues, Maddon often seems to feel the need to have a reliever warming up behind Chatwood in case he gets into trouble, which is a limiting factor in an overworked bullpen.
A Chatwood trade, then, seems unlikely. However, with Chatwood’s improved stuff and Montgomery’s cheaper contract and previously-expressed desire to be a starter, it could end up making more sense for the Cubs to trade Montgomery instead. Either way, due to his contract and the struggles of other bullpen arms, the Cubs may have no choice but to keep betting on Tyler Chatwood.
Why I Love the Changeup
To watch San Diego’s Chris Paddack throw his changeup is to watch a hitter realize that his world is made of lies. Of course, this is the measure of any good changeup; it is wholly different from the straightforward humiliation of being overpowered by a fastball or the understandable failure to grasp the geometry of a curveball. Instead, it is something much more bleak, more personal, more insidious: you believed you knew what you were seeing, you thought you could trust yourself, and, oh, look how wrong you were.
— Emma Baccellieri on Chris Paddack’s changeup
Chris Paddack was not a lock to make the Padres' opening day roster. He has rewarded the Padres' faith in him by dominating National League hitters six innings at a time. Paddack has been a joy to watch, with an entertaining mix of stuff, command, and personality. Paddack has thrown his changeup around 31% of the time thus far, and it’s been stumping hitters.
The Reds' Luis Castillo has been nearly as good as Paddack, with an ERA of 1.90 and a 2.65 FIP. also on the back of the changeup. These are much closer to the numbers analysts always thought the young Reds pitcher was capable of. Castillo’s changeup usage has increased from 26% in 2018 to 32% in 2019 to this point, and it’s a beauty.
Kyle Hendricks has always been one of my favorite pitchers to watch, partially because of his changeup, which he has thrown around 29% of the time this year. Hendricks succeeds by keeping hitters off balance through command and pitch tunneling. Hitters have trouble distinguishing his fastball from his changeup before it’s too late, and they’ll reward him with awkward swings and takes.
In contrast to these three starters, picture the stereotypical 2019 middle reliever. He throws a fastball in the mid-90s with above-average spin, and a wipeout slider. If he gets blown up in an outing, he’ll probably be sent down to Triple-A for a brief stint, or placed on the 10-day IL with some form of tightness or discomfort, only to be replaced by someone with a similar repertoire. Maybe a team will catch lightning in a bottle and he’ll have a season that nets him a two-year extension or free-agent deal, during which he’ll underperform fan expectations despite the peripherals only being slightly worse. This reliever’s arsenal seems to defy physics, with the fastball that seems to rise and a slider that moves in ways that don’t seem possible.
The slider may be the defining pitch of the current era of baseball. It’s easily gif-able; the movement is a spectacle in and of itself. Adam Ottavino’s wiffle-ball slider, known for its hypothetical ability to strike out Babe Ruth, is designed to get hitters out, yes, but it’s also designed (albeit unintentionally) to be passed around for all to see on the internet.
Changeups, on the other hand, may be the most frustrating pitch for hitters. It’s easy enough to get beat by a slider with great movement and tip your cap. It’s harder when, as Baccellieri writes, the changeup makes you beat yourself.
The changeup is not a devastating tool that works on its own, it needs to be set up by other pitches in a pitcher’s arsenal. It speaks to the fabled “pitchability,” that oft-mentioned trait that pitchers like Hendricks possess.
As one might guess from the three starters featured above, the changeup is having a bit of a breakout in 2019. Pitchers are throwing changeups (blue) at a higher rate than they have since at least 2013, but the rate pales in comparison to that of sliders (red). This is the era of the slider, but the changeup is making a stand.
Fangraphs calculates “pitch values” for each type of pitch. These give a rough idea of how valuable different pitches have been based on how well they have performed compared to expectations in any given situation. In a small sample this season, the changeup (blue) has been worth the most per 100 pitches it’s been since at least 2013, and the slider (red) is at its least valuable since then. These numbers are potentially skewed by the early success of changeup-heavy pitchers, but it is still a trend worth watching.
I enjoy watching sliders and high-speed fastballs, but for me, nothing beats the subtlety of the changeup. I’m looking forward to watching more pitchers fool hitters with changeups in 2019, and do it better than they ever have.
Let's Watch Dillon Maples Make People Uncomfortable
Dillon Maples is not yet a great major league pitcher. On April 28th, he walked the bases loaded, forcing manager Joe Maddon to bring in Tyler Chatwood, who was apparently deemed more likely to throw strikes.
Like Chatwood, Maples is a Cubs pitcher with a high-spin repertoire and command issues. He consistently ranks near the top of the majors in both spin rate and walk rate. Watching this archetype of pitcher is a frustrating experience for fans, but for hitters it can be downright disconcerting.
When Maples is off, it often resembles this:
When he’s on, though, it can look like this:
Hitters have good reason to fear Maples, considering his frequent lack of command and his high velocity. Here are two at-bats from a game against the Brewers from last year.
These two pitches have the highest spin rates of any pitches that Maples has thrown, and one of them hit Aguilar in a dangerous area:
But the high-octane fastball and lack of command aren’t the only reason Maples scares hitters. The more entertaining and less dangerous reason is the incredible movement on his slider. Right-handed hitters in particular seem unable to pick it up out of his hand. This often causes a flinch-and-turn motion even when the pitch is a strike, sometimes even in the middle of the zone. These three at-bats nicely exhibit the effect Maples' slider has on hitters:
I’ve saved the best for last, though. On Wednesday’s game against the Mariners, Maples was asked to get the last three outs of a blowout win. He struck out the side, ending with this sequence to renowned slugger Edwin Encarnación:
Encarnación looks uncomfortable throughout the entire at-bat, and doesn’t come particularly close to taking a threatening pass at any pitch. As it has always been with Maples, the stuff is there. We get to watch him take hitters out of their comfort zones, even if he isn’t able to become a shutdown reliever.
Jose Quintana Is Sinking His Way to Success
Last season was a concerning one for Jose Quintana. The consistent lefty came with lofty expectations to the Cubs in a trade for top prospect Eloy Jimenez in 2017, and largely lived up to them. However, 2018 was a different story. Quintana struggled with fastball command for a large part of the season, resulting in a career-high 9.2% walk rate. In combination with his lowest strikeout rate since 2015, this led to his lowest strikeout-minus-walk rate since his 2012 rookie season. His 14.7% home run per fly ball rate was a career high, despite the league home run rate taking a slight downtick from record highs last year.
Quintana also greatly struggled the third time through the order in 2018, allowing a .934 OPS compared to his career mark of .770. This makes sense, as Quintana was mostly a two-pitch pitcher, throwing mostly his fastball and curveball. Because neither was an especially dominant pitch, he struggled to be effective when hitters saw him the third time. He was also slightly worse against righties compared to lefties than he has been over his career so far.
In Quintana’s last three starts, though, he’s pitched the best he has in a Cubs uniform. Outside of an early relief appearance and a bad start against Milwaukee, he’s been outstanding this season. So what changed?
The main difference appears to be Quintana’s increased confidence in his changeup. As Sahadev Sharma writes at The Athletic:
In his first two outings, a four-inning relief appearance and a three-inning disastrous start in Milwaukee, Quintana combined to use his changeup just nine times (5.7 percent of the time). In his three starts since, he’s gone to it 35 times (11.5 percent) and gotten nine swings and misses, including three on the 13 he threw Tuesday night.
Using the changeup more and establishing it as a potential weapon should help to alleviate some of Quintana’s issues facing hitters a third time. It should also help him quiet right-handed bats a bit–Quintana is throwing his changeup to left-handed hitters only 0.1% more than last season (3.8)%, but against righties his changeup usage has gone from 7.6% to 12.3%. That’s not the only change he’s made to his pitch mix, however. Quintana has also been relying on his sinker more this year, especially against lefties–he didn’t throw a single four-seam fastball to a lefty in his most recent two starts.
While Quintana’s altered pitch usage is likely the predominant factor in his recent success, there are others that stand out as well.
Quintana has been throwing his pitches in the zone one percentage point higher than in 2018. On the first pitch of each at bat, hitters are swinging two percentage points less (Quintana’s lowest rate since at least 2015), but first pitch strike rate is up by nearly the same amount. This pattern of hitters being less aggressive and Quintana being more aggressive is demonstrated elsewhere, too. Quintana has the tenth lowest in-zone swing rate among qualified starters so far this season, meaning he’s getting a lot of called strikes (despite the lack of assistance from Cubs catchers). Why aren’t hitters swinging?
It’s most likely a combination of two things: 1) Quintana is hitting the edges of the zone a little more, and 2) batters are expecting him to be more wild because of his lack of command last year, so they’re being more patient. Quintana is also tunneling his pitches better than he has since 2013, according to Baseball Prospectus' pitch tunneling data, meaning hitters could be having greater difficulty distinguishing pitches that tend to be in the zone from pitches that often fall below the zone.
Not only are hitters not swinging at hittable pitches from Quintana as much, they’re also swinging and missing much more (nine percentage points) than they were last year, which would be the highest whiff rate of Quintana’s career.
So, Quintana is throwing more strikes, and hitters are swinging less in the zone and more outside the zone. Not only that, they’re making way less contact when they do swing outside the zone and slightly less contact on pitches in the zone. When hitters have made contact off of Quintana this season, they’ve been hitting the ball into the ground. Quintana is known as more of a fly-ball pitcher, but so far this season his fly-ball rate is way down from his Statcast-era high of 23.7% to 16.4%, while his ground-ball rate is up six points to 50.7%.
All these changes have combined for a great stretch of pitching. The results? Quintana has produced half as much fWAR (0.8) as last year (1.6) in about 16% of the innings. He’s on pace for 224 strikeouts in 174 innings, compared to 158 last year.
There could be an adjustment coming if hitters start being more aggressive with Quintana, or if his command wavers. For now, though, Cubs fans should enjoy the ride and hope Quintana continues to push Eloy Jimenez farther from their minds.
Matthew Boyd Is Turning Himself Into a Trade Candidate
As I write this, Tigers starter Matthew Boyd sits atop the Fangraphs pitching WAR leaderboard with 1.2 fWAR so far this season. Among starters, he ranks second in strikeout rate, fourth in swinging strike rate, and fifth in in-zone whiff rate. In short, he’s been really good!
Of course, I’m far from the first to notice Boyd’s breakout. In early 2017, Fangraphs' Jeff Sullivan suggested that Boyd’s slider could be the key to a breakout. While the slider did end up being the key to Boyd’s success, it was a new, slower version, not the faster version that Sullivan was excited about.
After the end of the 2018 season, Michael Ajeto wrote on Boyd at PitcherList, comparing him to fellow surprise Patrick Corbin, noting his increased slider usage.
Before spring training, Jason Beck wrote about Boyd using a data-driven routine to improve his health, positioning him as a prime “best shape of his life” candidate for the season.
After Boyd’s second start of 2019, Brandon Day wrote about Boyd’s surprising whiff rate at Bless You Boys, drawing attention to the new form Boyd’s slider has taken.
Most recently, Fangraphs' Sung Min Kim wrote a few things about Boyd, focusing on where the Tigers starter was locating his pitches and how well he tunnels his fastball and slider.
I think Boyd’s breakout can be summed up in five graphs and four gifs. Since 2017, Boyd’s slider and curveball have gained more (negative) horizontal break:
Since that same year, Boyd’s slider and curveball have both gained more vertical break as well:
He’s started using his slider and four-seam fastball a lot more, and made his curveball his primary tertiary offering:
But Boyd’s breakout isn’t due to increased velocity–both his four-seam fastball and slider have decreased from their 2017 peaks:
However, despite the decrease in velocity, the spin rate of his four-seamer has increased substantially since 2017, making it harder to square up:
Now that we’ve seen how Boyd’s repertoire has changed, we can look at some of his actual pitches from this year.
First, the high-spin four-seam fastball:
Next, two of Boyd’s best pitch, the slow slider:
Finally, two curveballs:
And an overlay of both breaking pitches:
Notice how similar the curveballs and sliders look. Not only do hitters have to deal with Boyd’s well-tunneled fastball and slider combination, but even if they identify that a breaking pitch is coming, the curve and the slider move similarly enough that it’s hard to differentiate before it’s too late. There is only a 4 MPH difference in velocity between the pitches in the gif, but the curve has more depth to it.
Matthew Boyd probably won’t keep dominating hitters at the rate he has been so far this season, but if he does keep it up he might find himself traded to a contender before long.