The Not So Lean Jean as a Save Machi-ne? (and other notes from 8/10/15)

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Over the weekend, Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara suffered a non-displaced fracture in his right wrist and he will miss the rest of the season. Usually in these types of situations where a team makes a voluntary switch at closer or if their closer suffers an injury that is severe enough to land him on the DL, the team will hand closing duties over to their primary 8th inning guy.

For the Red Sox, it’s been Junichi Tazawa who has been working that 8th inning, and he’s done his best Uehara impression this season as a fly ball pitcher that induces a lot of weak infield flies and maintains a strikeout per inning with exceptional control. Overall this season, Tazawa has a 3.19 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 48 K/7 BB in 48 IP, and the Japanese import has been very functional for the Red Sox in a relief role since 2012.

However, Red Sox manager Jon Farrell is reportedly content with keeping Tazawa in a setup role and will not (at least for now) be the man to close out the majority of games for the team. Tazawa doesn’t have egregious lefty/righty splits in his career, but lefties are hitting .276/.295/.421 against him this season while righties are hitting .227/.267/.364. So perhaps Farrell is hesitant that he wouldn’t succeed when big bopping lefties are to scheduled face him in a save opportunity. Keeping him in a setup role, Farrell would have more control over utilizing him against the types of batters that he wants to. Last year when Uehara hit the DL, Tazawa was also passed up for save opportunities in favor of Edward Mujica.

The Red Sox plan to use Jean Machi as their primary closer for the time being. Machi recently joined the Red Sox after they claimed him off waivers from the Giants in late July. Machi debuted in the Majors in 2012 and has been a mainstay as a Major Leaguer since 2013 where he was a solid middle reliever for the Giants. However, for the Giants this season, Machi had a 5.14 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, and 22 K/14 BB in 35 IP.

Machi has past closing experience in the Minors, but he’s never had the look of a prototypical closer with his lack of strikeout potential. So it is surprising that the Red Sox are so willing to install one team’s sloppy seconds as their new closer when they seemingly have a more viable option that has been with them for years in Tazawa. Considering that there are more right-handed bats than left-handed in the league, and that righties have hurt Machi a lot more this year (.343/.400/.606 vs. righties, .105/.219/.143 vs. lefties) and throughout his career (.244/.303/.396 vs. righties, .196/.259/.308 vs. lefties), it makes the move to turn to Machi even more curious.

Given Machi’s current form and the profile that we have on him from past performance in both the Majors and Minors, Machi could end up struggling in the role as closer and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him not last in the 9th inning for the remainder of the season. He is the guy to own for now, but a close eye should be kept on Tazawa as he probably would have more likelihood of getting the job done.

Let’s take a look at what else happened on Monday now.

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Soft Hit Rate Leaders (and other notes from 7/19/15)

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Sunday’s matinee slate of games included a slew of ace pitchers taking the hill, but by the end of the day there were two performances that stood tall from all the others, and they were Zack Greinke shutting down the Nationals and Dallas Keuchel reigning supreme in Texas.  Greinke was masterful in 8 shutout innings of work and a season high 11 strikeouts, as he extended his scoreless innings streak to an outstanding 43.2 innings over the last 6 starts.  Keuchel was just as untouchable as he worked 7 shutout innings with a career high 13 strikeouts.  These two pitchers have been getting the job done all season long and each of them leads their respective league in ERA.  They also have another thing in common, and that is they both appear among the league leaders in soft hit rate.

A few weeks ago in “When the Hard Hit Rate Doesn’t Match the BABIP,” I examined some pitchers who had very high BABIP (batting average on balls in play) marks but who also held lower than average hard hit rates.  That particular scenario would suggest that those pitchers were either the victims of poor luck or poor defenses, or both.  So now we will take a look at the league’s best in allowing soft contact on batted balls and see what we can find in the results.

According to FanGraphs, entering Sunday, the top 15 in soft hit rate are as follows along with their BABIP:

  1. Francisco Liriano – 28.8% soft hit rate, .248 BABIP
  2. Dallas Keuchel – 24.8% soft hit rate, .255 BABIP
  3. Brett Anderson – 24.6% soft hit rate, .318 BABIP
  4. Cole Hamels – 24.0% soft hit rate, .297 BABIP
  5. Jeff Locke – 23.8% soft hit rate, .315 BABIP
  6. Max Scherzer – 22.9% soft hit rate, .242 BABIP
  7. Chris Sale – 22.8% soft hit rate, .292 BABIP
  8. Drew Hutchison – 22.8% soft hit rate, .350 BABIP
  9. Carlos Martinez – 22.3% soft hit rate, .287 BABIP
  10. Zack Greinke – 22.3% soft hit rate, .233 BABIP
  11. Trevor Bauer – 22.0% soft hit rate, .268 BABIP
  12. Wei-Yin Chen – 21.7% soft hit rate, .255 BABIP
  13. Chris Archer – 21.5% soft hit rate, .287 BABIP
  14. Gerrit Cole – 21.4% soft hit rate, .305 BABIP
  15. Shelby Miller – 21.4% soft hit rate, .276 BABIP

Balls that have softer impact off a hitter’s bat are more likely to go for easy outs, whether it is a lazy fly ball or a slow rolling ground ball, which will prevent base hits and also prevent runs from scoring.  So it should come as no surprise that on this list we find several pitchers who have been among the league’s best this season, and it includes 7 pitchers who appear in the current top 15 in ERA and 6 pitchers who appear in the current top 15 in WHIP in the Majors.  So clearly there is at least some correlation with higher soft hit rates translating to better overall stats.

Because balls that are softly hit generally go for easier outs more often, that should also translate to pitchers with higher soft hit rates to also have lower BABIP marks.  This is reflected in the list above where 11 of the 15 pitchers all have BABIP marks that are under .300, and 5 of the pitchers appear in the top 15 of lowest BABIP’s in the league.  So this provides some validation to the low BABIP’s of many of these pitchers and suggests that we shouldn’t necessarily expect a whole lot of regression for these players.

On the flip side, there are a few player on this list that have higher than average BABIP marks.  So let’s look at those players and see if maybe we can expect some overall improvement from them as we are progress into the second half of the season.

First up is Brett Anderson of the Dodgers.  Anderson’s high soft hit rate is backed up by the fact that he also has the lowest line drive rate in the league at 13.5%.  Line drives are usually categorized as hard hit balls, so the less line drives a pitcher allows, the higher his soft hit rate should be.  But despite having the knack of preventing line drives and inducing soft contact a lot, Anderson’s BABIP is a bit inflated at .318, which is higher than his career mark at .309.  The Dodgers defense ranks 13th in the league in DEF rating, so they aren’t a bad defensive team by any means, which gives even more curiosity as to why Anderson would be stuck with the higher BABIP.  So it would be reasonable to expect that Anderson can improve over the rest of the season if he can continue pitching the way that he has so far.  He currently has a 3.17 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, but he may be more deserving of an ERA under 3.00 and a WHIP closer to 1.20.  He’s not a huge strikeout pitcher (6.42 K/9) and he has a long history of injuries, but he could make for a nice trade target in season long fantasy leagues due to this discovery.

Next up is Jeff Locke of the Pirates.  Locke has a decent 3.68 ERA, but his 1.42 WHIP is a bit brutal and it is odd to see him currently posting a career high BABIP at .315 despite also currently having a career best soft hit rate.  His line drive rate at 22.9% is one of the highest out of the pitchers on the above list and is the 20th highest in the league, so that could be a stumbling block for him and a reason why he has the higher BABIP despite the good soft hit rate.  While Locke could be in for some better fortune in hit prevention, it probably should not be expected.

Drew Hutchison of the Blue Jays is an interesting case here.  He has the 8th best soft hit rate in the league, yet he has the 2nd highest BABIP.  Immediately it might be assumed that Hutchison has just been a victim of bad luck to have a BABIP at .350, but looking further into it, Hutchison also has the 4th highest line drive rate in the league at 25.0% and his hard hit rate of 31.1% is on the higher side as well at 24th highest in the league.  So despite being among the leaders in soft hit rate, he does appear to be giving up his fair share of well struck balls as well.  He should improve on his 5.19 ERA and 1.47 WHIP, but he’s no slam dunk to have a complete turnaround in the second half.

Finally, there is Pirates ace Gerrit Cole who has a .305 BABIP despite ranking 14th in soft hit rate.  Both Cole’s line drive rate at 21.1% and his hard hit rate at 25.8% are not very high marks, so the thought would be that he should be able to post a lower BABIP having one of the better soft hit rates in the league.  But his defense ranks 25th in DEF rating, so that could be the primary reason why his BABIP is a tad higher than average.  However, Cole has been able to pitch very effectively as one of the better pitchers in the league up to this point in the season, and he should continue to.  But there is room for more upside if he can get some better defense behind him.

So all in all, it appears that Anderson is the lone pitcher on this list that we could reasonably say has been on the unlucky side of things and could see some overall improvements as the season goes on.  And all the other pitchers on the list should all be considered candidates to maintain their current performance level, though some regression will come for some of these pitchers.

Let’s take a look at the rest of Sunday’s slate now.

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Car-Car Finally Goes Vroom-Vroom With a Near No-No (and other notes from 7/1/15)

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My pre-season love for Indians pitcher Carlos Carrasco was no secret as I tabbed him to be “This Year’s Corey Kluber,” but it just has not been happening for the 28-year old.  Despite elite strikeout (9.85 K/9) and walk (1.93 BB/9) rates that were the big factors toward his great SIERA (2.89) and xFIP (2.85) entering Wednesday’s action, Carrasco was the owner of a mediocre 4.16 ERA and 1.22 WHIP.  So he was hardly Kluber-izing the baseball nation and there is one key reason with a couple of causal secondary reasons that was preventing him from the big breakout.

The main reason that he’s been underwhelming and not meeting expectations this year lies in his BABIP (batting average on balls in play — measures the rate at which balls in the field of play go for hits), which sat at .336 coming into Wednesday. Then there are two reasons why his BABIP has been so high.  The first reason being that his 32.8% hard hit rate entering the day was the 12th highest in baseball and much higher than his mark of 24.6% last season, which would suggest that he has been struggling with hitting his location a lot and the batters just mash it hard somewhere.  The second reason why his BABIP has been so high is that the defense behind him rates very poorly as the 27th ranked team in both DEF and UZR. With a poor defense behind him, a pitcher is more likely to have a higher BABIP as balls get by defenders with lack of range, hits get by defenders because of the failure/misuse of a shift, or some combination of both.  And this can be seen in more detail in “Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense.”

On Wednesday though, Carrasco finally had his big breakout game of the season where he came within one strike of completing a no-hitter before Joey Butler roped a single over the second baseman’s head that drove in a run for the Rays. Carrasco ended up being removed from the game after the hit since his pitch count was pretty high, but he finished the game with a spectacular line of 8.2 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 13 K with the W.

I think that Carrasco learned in order to avoid all the hits and high BABIP, he had to take things into his own hands and that the best way to combat having a bad defense is to just record a strikeout for half the outs to limit the defense’s opportunity to mess things up.  And that’s what he did with exactly half of the 26 outs he got being of the strikeout variety.  The 1-hit performance brought Carrasco’s BABIP down from .336 to .323.  Carrasco figures to continue to improve his overall numbers over the second half of the season and be a fantasy asset, but it may not be to the extent that we hope for if he keeps on getting some bad defense behind him.  Carrasco is now 10-6 with a 3.88 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 110 K/21 BB in 97.1 IP.

Let’s take a look at the rest of Wednesday’s notables:

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Rodney’s Reprise? (and other notes from 6/26/15)

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About six weeks ago is when I first began suggesting that Fernando Rodney be removed from the closer’s role to make way for the young and more talented Carson Smith, and then I gave it a full rundown in the “BLOW-PEN Report” on May 23.  Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon ended up giving Rodney a lot of leash because he likely didn’t want to have to remove Rodney as his closer, but McClendon finally saw enough.  On June 6, Smith recorded his first career save in perfect fashion.

Since Smith took over as the team’s closer, entering Friday’s game, he had converted 5 straight save opportunities by pitching 5.2 innings allowing 2 runs on 2 hits and no walks while striking out 8.  So he has been having little issue in finishing games stress free.

Since Rodney lost the closer’s role, entering Friday’s game, he has done much better, only being scored upon once in 5 outings for 1 run in 5.2 IP with 4 K/3 BB.  In that small sample, it hadn’t been the best of performances, but clearly it was much better than what he had been doing in the 9th inning trying to close out games previously.

Friday night presented an interesting situation for the Mariners though as Smith was brought on in the middle of the 8th inning where he let Mike Trout and Albert Pujols reach base before getting a double play to end the inning for a total of 10 pitches thrown.  And then Rodney was brought in for the 9th inning to try and close the game against the bottom part of the Angels order, and he successfully did so after allowing one hit.

Initially when I first called for the switch of closers in Seattle, I had said that Smith was the better pitcher but that McClendon would probably eventually give Rodney another opportunity to close if he proved that he was able to work out his issues in lower leverage situations.  But then when Smith began to have so much success and displayed that he could potentially handle 9th inning duties with ease, I thought that Rodney would never be getting his job back.  So the way things played out on Friday is a bit peculiar to me since Smith did nothing in the way of performance to give back the job.

However, in this game, the higher leverage situation was actually in the 8th inning with the Angels best hitters (and two of the best in the AL so far this season), Trout and Pujols due up.  So the thought process for McClendon could have been that they really needed to get by Trout and Pujols before even thinking about seeing a save opportunity for the game, which meant that they needed to go to their best option.  So then McClendon might have thought that once Smith got by the heart of the order, then Rodney could come in to a more ideal situation to face the weaker hitters and possibly instill some confidence in him should he finish the game cleanly.

So I am still going to have to believe that Smith is the closer until he blows some saves (fingers crossed that he doesn’t). Maybe Rodney will snipe some opportunities away like he did on Friday, but I see little reason why Smith shouldn’t remain the man for the job and I would be shocked and lose any faith I had in McClendon as a manager if he were to switch things back with no probable cause.  But we will have to wait and see just what happens next.

Let’s check out the rest of Friday baseball.
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Is Bolsinger a Bullsh**ter?

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The grand question that Dodgers fans and the baseball community want to know, is Mike Bolsinger a bullshooter?  Yes, that’s what I meant the article headline as.  Bolsinger was raised in McKinney, Texas, so it is reasonable to assume that he has encountered some bulls in his life, and I want to know if he shot any.  Sounds like a valid wonder to me!

Every now and again there comes along a pitcher who has never been thought of as a high prospect but finally gets his chance in the Majors when he is passed his mid-20’s, and he ends up dazzling to become a mainstay in his team’s rotation.  Last year, Matt Shoemaker of the Angels, at age 27, was one to accomplish it as he made the opening day roster as a relief pitcher but worked his way into some spot starts due to injuries in the Angels rotation and was able to parlay it into a full-time gig.  Shoemaker finished the season going 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 124 K/24 BB in 136 IP on his way to finishing 2nd in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.

There is a pitcher from Shoemaker’s crosstown rival who is making a bid to have the same sort of breakout at the age of 27, and that is the previously mentioned Bolsinger of the Dodgers.  Bolsinger originally came up with the Diamondbacks and spent the 2010-14 seasons in their Minor League system where he compiled a 3.48 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 8.25 K/9, and 3.19 BB/9 over 465 IP.  Those are not overly impressive, but certainly serviceable.  Bolsinger also spent some time on the Diamondbacks Major League roster in 2014, making 9 starts and 1 relief appearance.  But after he posted a 5.50 ERA and 1.59 WHIP, they apparently had seen enough and shipped him to Los Angeles in the off-season for cash considerations. Continue reading

Tulo Hitting Too Low (and other notes from 5/14/15)

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Heading into each and every fantasy year is an adventure with Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.  He is like that super hot, yet somehow kind of trashy, girl you meet at the bar that is all over you and you so badly want to take her back to her home (because hey, you don’t want her knowing where you live, right?) to have some silly bedtime fun with, but you know that maybe you shouldn’t because she might be carrying three different kinds of STI’s (yes, STI is the more proper abbreviation/term than STD with the “I” standing for infection — cue the jingle ***The more you know).  When pondering on whether or not to draft Tulo, even if he falls to you at a value spot, you know that he will provide some great production (the amazing bedtime fun), but later on down the road he is going to hit the DL with some season-ending injury (the discovery of the contraction of multiple STI’s).

This season though, Tulo is not even providing that instant gratification.  On the bright side of things though, he isn’t giving anyone any STI’s either.  He’s just vomiting all over you after having one too many cosmos.  After Thursday night’s ugly 0 for 5 with 3 K performance, he is hitting .289 with 2 HR, 11 RBI, 16 R, and 0 SB through 31 games played.  And there were rumblings of Tulo wanting to request a trade, but if you are the brave soul who took a chance on this super hot yet kind of trashy player, you don’t want him to get traded.  You want him to stay where the air is thin in Colorado as he has a career home line of .322/.395/.563 versus a career road line of .275/.347/.468.  Thankfully, Tulo shut down those rumors by saying he is not demanding a trade at this time.  However, that does not mean he will not demand one later this season.

But what is going on with the All-Star shortstop?  How come Tulo is hitting too low?  Well for starters, that abysmal strikeout to walk ratio of 28 K/2 BB is doing him no favors.  Tulo is a hitter that has displayed above average walk rates in his career with a career walk rate of 9.9%, and even more so in recent years with 11.1% and 13.3% in 2013-14.  But he appears to be jumping out of his cleats to swing at the ball, and when he is swinging at the ball he is failing to make contact like he has in the past.  Additionally, he is pulling the ball a lot more than usual at 52.3% versus 41.2% career rate, instead of using all parts of the field.

So in a nutshell, Tulo is being overly aggressive at the plate, which is putting himself into some poor hitter’s counts that he is failing to do anything with.  In terms of AVG and lack of HR, Tulo has endured poor streaks like this before, but he’s never had such a stretch where his strikeout and walk rates have been so bad, and that is what worries me the most about Tulo going forward.  The Rockies do have an 8-game homestand hosting the Phillies and Giants beginning next week, so if he cannot get things going by the end of that then it’ll be even more troubling.  Own him in fantasy at your own risk.

Now let’s take a look at other action from Thursday. Continue reading