The Progression of Brandon Belt (and other notes from 8/11/15)

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In the pre-season, I suggested that Brandon Belt, first baseman of the San Francisco Giants, would be “This Year’s Todd Frazier.” I didn’t truly believe that he would be able to step into the ring be the Ali to this Frazier and go toe to toe with him to match all of Frazier’s 2014 stats, especially in the stolen base category, but Belt did appear to be in a great position to post the best season of his career with something along the lines of a .270 AVG with 25 HR and 10 SB (my actual pre-season projection for Belt was: 266 AVG, 27 HR, 88 RBI, 82 R, 11 SB, 149 K, 58 BB in 580 AB).

Belt started the season off really poorly as he struggled to hit for a .200 AVG for most of April, and he didn’t hit his first HR of the season until May 15 (his 31st game played). But Belt worked through his issues and has put together some hot streaks that have left him with a rather productive stat line. Belt’s most recent hot streak has seen him hit 7 HR in 10 games in August, which includes a 2 HR performance on Tuesday night where he did a couple things that he has failed to do well all season: hit for power at home and produce against left-handed pitching. Both of Belt’s Tuesday night long balls were off Scott Kazmir fastballs that he crushed — one deep to center field and one to the opposite field at AT&T Park.

The big day brought Belt’s season stat line up to a .272 AVG with 17 HR, 52 RBI, 54 R, and 5 SB. Previously, just 2 of 15 of Belt’s home runs this season came against left-handed pitching (with a .205 AVG), and also just 2 of 15 of Belt’s home runs this season had come at his home park. With that incredibly deep corner in the right-center field gap at AT&T Park, left-handed power production is suppressed a lot — that is of course unless you take a little somethin’ somethin’ like one former Giants player with the same initials as Belt used to do, and I’m not talking about taking Wheaties and I’m not taking about Bud Black.

So with the big day of countering some of his weaknesses, it’s worth taking a closer look at Belt to see how he has progressed this season. The first thing that jumps out when digging deeper into Belt’s season is that he has a relatively high .344 BABIP. With the league average BABIP this season sitting at .297, the initial thought may be that Belt has been getting pretty fortunate with the balls that he has been putting into play. However, he’s got a laundry list of things to back up his high BABIP.

Belt has always shown the ability to hit a lot of line drives with a rate as high as 25.6% in 2012 and 24.3% in 2013, but this season he’s taken it up a notch to 29.2%, which is the tops in the Majors. Hitting a lot of line drives usually means a lot of hits from those line drives, and it also can translate to a high hard hit rate. In Belt’s case, it indeed does translate that way as his 42.1% hard hit rate is 2nd best in the Majors. Belt is just one of 3 players that appears in the top 10 in both line drive rate and hard hit rate (Chris Davis and Ryan Howard), but he’s the only player who is ranking at or near the top in each, which truly shows how dangerous of a hitter that he has been and can continue to be.

Also factoring into Belt’s performance at the plate is the way that he is spraying the ball to all fields. Let’s take a look at his spray charts by percentages over the last few seasons.

  • 2013: Pull 43.3%, Center 33.2%, Opposite 23.5%
  • 2014: Pull 48.3%, Center 30.5%, Opposite 21.2%
  • 2015: Pull 36.4%, Center 34.5%, Opposite 29.1%

So as you can see, this season he has become much less pull happy and taking the ball the other way as defenses began to employ defensive shifts on him in the recent years, which had an adverse effect on his BABIP and batting average. By going to the opposite field more, he is keeping opposing teams on their toes and giving them second thoughts on when and how much to shift against him.

Also worth noting is that Belt has yet to hit an infield fly ball this season. Fellow National League first baseman and a player that Belt received some comparisons to when he came up, Joey Votto, has always shown the great ability to avoid hitting infield fly balls as his career infield fly ball rate is a minuscule 1.4%. Infield fly balls are a very bad thing to hit because they will not end up going for a hit in the box score 99% of the time and they also do not generate any type of run production or simply just moving a base runner over. It’s something that Votto has mastered over his career and now Belt seemingly has matured in that same fashion this season, which is just another positive effect on his BABIP and batting average.

As for Belt’s power, he is definitely taking steps forward in that department as well. His total of 17 HR already this season matches a career high that he set in 2013 in 46 more games played and his average distance on home runs and fly balls has shot up from 279 feet last season to 296 feet this season (38th in the Majors).

So Belt has all these great things working in his favor, things that he has likely put a lot of effort into changing, but he does have a few flaws that are preventing him from taking one more further step forward. As mentioned previously, he has not hit lefties well this season nor has he hit for much power at home. The missing power at home can’t really be faulted towards Belt himself, as the park dimensions and outfield fence configuration in San Francisco are just hell for lefties. If Belt were to ever leave the Giants and hit in a hitters park, he could surely threaten to be a 30 HR type of hitter in his prime years. But hitting lefties better is definitely something that he has control over, and over the course of his career so far he actually hasn’t hit lefties much worse than righties. So the ability is there, it’s just not working out for him so far this season. But he has been showing improvements with the 2 HR off Kazmir on Tuesday, and he also had a 2 HR game in Texas this month where he took lefties Cole Hamels and Sam Freeman deep. So perhaps he’s coming around in that regard.

But the one thing that is probably hindering him the most in his offensive performance is his relatively high strikeout rate. His strikeout rate this season sits at 27.1%, but he’s finished a season with a rate as low as 21.9% in 2013. And Belt’s career rate in the Minor Leagues before coming a fixture on the Major League roster was 18.5%. So the potential to cut down on his strikeouts appears to be there, but he’s going to have to do some work to tap into it — and it is against lefties where he does struggle the most as he has a 32.3% strikeout rate against them this season. It’s this high strikeout rate that is preventing him from being a .300 type of hitter. He’s got all the tools (high line drive rate, high hard hit rate, utilizing all directions of the field, low infield fly ball rate) to gets hits, but you can’t get hits when you don’t put the ball in play.

So while maybe Belt doesn’t fulfill the pre-season prediction of being “This Year’s Todd Frazier” (statistically, that would probably be Manny Machado this season), he’s still enjoying a season that will likely turn out to be the best of his career so far and he’s made some very great strides while doing it. A strong finish to this season will give him some nice momentum for his age 28 season in 2016. And one thing’s certain: his stock is definitely higher now than it was at the beginning of May.

Now let’s check out the rest of Tuesday’s action.

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Mining for Cole in Texas (and other notes from 7/29/15)

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The next big name on the move as the trade deadline nears is set to be Cole Hamels who will be heading to the Texas Rangers along with reliever Jake Diekman in exchange for starting pitcher Matt Harrison and a barrage of prospects that includes Jorge AlfaroAlec AsherJerad EickhoffNick Williams, and Jake Thompson.

The Philadelphia Phillies were in a good position to land a package that they wanted because Hamels is not just a 2-3 month rental for the remainder of this season. Instead, he is under contract through 2018 with a vesting option for 2019, so that meant that even non-contending teams could make a run for the 31-year old lefty and that’s exactly what happened with the 3rd place Rangers landing him. However, the Rangers are just 4 games back of the second AL Wildcard spot, so perhaps they even think that they could potentially contend for a post-season berth.

Hamels moves from the hitter friendly Citizens Bank Park to another hitter friendly stadium at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas. So there’s no real win or loss with the home park switch, but switching leagues from the National League to the American League should be perceived as a negative impact for Hamels’ fantasy value. His ERA, WHIP, and strikeout rate should all be expected to move in wrong directions, but that doesn’t mean that he still won’t be valuable. And there are some occasions where the NL pitcher moving to the AL doesn’t really see his stats suffer all that much, if at all.

The Rangers have had to endure a lot of injuries to their pitching staff this season, which kind of had them doomed from the get go once it was determined that their ace Yu Darvish needed to undergo Tommy John surgery before the season even began. So they likely have their sights set more on next season when Darvish hopefully returns before the All-Star break sometime. They hope that Hamels and Darvish can form a great 1-2 punch, though serious doubts should be had regarding Darvish and his control once he returns. All in all, it was a bold move for the Rangers who are starved for pitching, and Hamels will try to take the Rangers to the next level just like he did with the Phillies during the mid 2000’s when they had a great run.

Diekman, a left-handed reliever, has a poor 5.15 ERA and 1.75 WHIP this season, but he’s a power lefty that has some big time strikeout abilities and is under club control for a couple more years. He has the chance to develop into a nice bullpen piece for the Rangers if he can improve his walk rate.

Harrison should step right into the Phillies rotation, but his outlook shouldn’t really change a whole lot since he’s just rather mediocre and has been a walking injury the last two seasons. Three of the five prospects that the Phillies are receiving from the Rangers were ranked in the pre-season top 10 Rangers prospect list by Baseball America, so it appears that the Phillies did well and received a decent haul in return. But we’ll have to wait and see how they pan out. Continue reading

Attention C-Mart Shoppers (and other notes from 6/28/15)

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Cardinals 23-year old righty Carlos Martinez has been enjoying a wonderful season in his sophomore year and first year as a full-time member of the starting rotation.  He had a meeting with the division rival Cubs on Sunday night baseball, the same dynamic young Cubs offense that handed him his worst start of the season back on May 4 when they touched him up for 7 runs on 9 hits and 4 walks in just 3.2 innings.  So Martinez was out for some revenge on the nationally televised game and he earned it with a line of 6 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 6 K with the victory to improve to 9-3 with a 2.80 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 100 K/39 BB in 93.1 IP.

With the shiny 2.80 ERA, Martinez is outpitching his xFIP of 3.17 and his SIERA of 3.36.  It would appear that he is getting a bit of fortune on his side with a .284 BABIP and 83.3% strand rate.  The BABIP isn’t low enough where we would think that he is in for a huge regression though, because he has a solid defense behind him and he has been adept at limiting hard contact this year at 25.7% (23rd lowest in the league).  However, the strand rate sits at 3rd best in the league and that should begin to regress at least a little bit, which would negatively affect his ERA.  But overall, it is hard to believe that this breakout performance is a fluke.  More likely, it is a case of a young talented pitcher with electric stuff learning how to pitch at the Major League level.

Where Martinez has improved the most over last year is in his ability to get left-handed hitters out.  Last season, working mostly as a relief pitcher, Martinez gave up a .297 AVG and .462 SLG to lefties and a .244 AVG and .301 SLG to righties. So far this season, lefties are still hitting for more power against him, but the hits are coming at a far less rate.  He’s holding lefties to a .221 AVG and .393 SLG this season, and righties are at a .223 AVG and .313 SLG.

The weapon that has been effective for him in guiding him toward this improvement against lefty bats is the development of his changeup.  According to PITCHf/x data, Martinez threw a changeup just 2.9% of the time in 2014, but this year he is going to that offspeed pitch 15.6% of the time.  And it’s the changeup that is inducing both ground balls (66.7%) and swinging strikes (19.5%) at the highest rate of any pitch for him.

Martinez’ 2015 campaign has been more than the Cardinals could have asked for, but early on in the season I suggested that Martinez would probably be put on some sort of innings cap since he only pitched 99.2 innings last season and his career high for a single season is only 108 innings from 2013.  Cardinals management recently came out and said they believe Martinez could exceed 170 innings this year, which is a higher limit than I would have thought because often time teams don’t like their young, inexperienced pitchers to have much more than a 30-40 inning increase from either the previous season or their career high.  But if he does exceed 170 innings, I wouldn’t imagine that he goes too much higher than that.

This would mean that the Cardinals may have to get creative in the second half to limit his innings and to have him available for the post-season.  But with the 9 game lead that the Cardinals currently have in their division, if they can maintain it, then they could afford to skip Martinez’ start when they have an off day scheduled and/or put him in the bullpen in September.  Doing so, also could work out in the team’s benefit because after the All-Star break when Martinez is in uncharted territory for himself in innings pitched, he could begin to show signs of wearing down — poorer command, decreased velocity, etc.  So extra rest or a shift to the pen could be beneficial on both ends if that happens.

So if you own Martinez, then it could be a sneaky move to begin to shop him around for another piece that could help your fantasy team.  Because if/when Martinez begins to display any sort of fatigue in the second half of the season, then other fantasy owners are not going to find him as attractive and they will hear rumblings from larger media outlets (or perhaps the Cardinals organization themselves) that Martinez will be treated more carefully with skipping his turn in the rotation or moving to the pen.  Besides being completely shut down for the year, being moved to the pen would be the worst case scenario, unless it is to close games due to a Trevor Rosenthal injury.  If Martinez is in the pen as a setup man in September then he will not be doing much to help any fantasy squads, especially for the playoffs in head-to-head leagues. So I would say that it is okay to ride him while he’s going well, but just beware of the events that may unfold and to be open minded about trading him away in season long redraft leagues.

Now let’s check out what else happened during Sunday baseball!  Continue reading

J.D. (Just Dongs) Martinez Goes Yard Thrice (and other notes from 6/21/15)

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J.D. Martinez spent parts of three seasons on the Major League squad for the Astros and he never was able to compile a full season of success.  The Astros then released him before the start of the 2014 season and the Tigers picked him up and he ended up breaking out for a real surprise season with a .315 AVG, 23 HR, 76 RBI, 57 R, and 6 SB in 123 games. Martinez was able to complete this transformation and breakout by completely retooling the mechanics of his whole swing, and it’s always nice to know that there are actual tangible reasons as to why a player finally has a breakout season.  The high batting average of .300 wasn’t necessarily going to be there this season given that his .315 AVG from last year was driven by a likely unsustainable .389 BABIP, but it was reasonable to expect that this season he would be able to put up similar power production with the maintaining of his new swing mechanics.

After a month of the 2015 season, Martinez was hitting just .216 on May 8 but the 6 HR that he had at that point were respectable.  The culprit of the low batting average was the fact that his BABIP was much lower than last season (which was expected) and he was also striking out at a much higher rate.  However, over the last couple weeks, Martinez has really trimmed down his strikeout rate to a nearly identical mark that he was at last season.  With the decrease in strikeouts, Martinez’ batting average has gone up a lot and now sits at .275 after his big day on Sunday, and his .325 BABIP is a much more realistic mark to suggest that this could be the area in AVG that he finishes the season with.

His game on Sunday consisted of a 3 HR and 6 RBI performance to give him 16 HR and 41 RBI for the season so far to put him on pace to do even better than last year in those areas.  Also, his ISO is now up to .240, which is right in line with his last year’s mark of .238 to further prove that his power is legitimate and for real.  The triple dong outburst from Sunday has me believing that the J.D. stands for Just Dongs.  Expect to see him continue his power stroke as the season goes on, and he makes for a good play as a part of a Tigers offense that can do very dangerous things.

Now let’s check out what else happened on Sunday!

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Built Crawford Tough (and other notes from 5/31/15)

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Coming up through the Minors, Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford seemed to be a relatively light hitting, low batting average shortstop with some great glove work, and in his first 3.5 seasons in the Majors since coming up in 2011 he had shown exactly that.  He has slowly progressed though in his time in the Majors, as his ISO climbed from .092 to .101 to .114 to .143 last year.

But whether it’s due to a change in his swing mechanics, maturing as a hitter in his age 28 season, or some combination of both, Crawford has legitimately taken big strides this season as he now has a .207 ISO after hitting his 8th HR of the season on Sunday.  What can deem this power surge as legitimate?  Well, did you know that Crawford’s average distance on his HR and fly balls is 4th in the league at 314 feet?  That’s a huge improvement over the 278 feet he averaged last year and the fact that he sits amongst the league leaders in that category provides validity to the power stats.

I originally had said a bit ago that I didn’t think Crawford would get to 20 HR, but I now have to change my stance on that with the revelation of this stat.  He’s now hitting .299 with 7 HR, 34 RBI, 26 R, and 3 SB on his way to a career year.

Let’s review the rest of Sunday baseball action.

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Hitters Feasting on Some Strasburgers (and other notes from 5/12/15)

Stephen Strasburg pitched at Arizona on Tuesday night and was handed a beat down in one of the worst outings of his career as he only lasted 3.1 IP while allowing 8 runs (7 ER).  On the season, Strasburg is now 2-4 with a 6.06 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, and 35 K/11 BB in 35.2 IP.

I am not sure what exactly is the cause of his putrid performance, but clearly he isn’t doing much right.  Strasburg did leave his previous start with some shoulder irritation, so maybe that played a part in Tuesday’s nightmare, but he hadn’t exactly been sharp in his 6 starts before Tuesday either.  Yeah, he has an incredibly high .398 BABIP and a horrible 60.2% strand rate, but there comes a point where you examine things and just have to say that perhaps he is creating his own bad luck.

There’s not much in his velocity or pitch selection that jumps out in a negative light, besides the fact that his velocity on his fastball has been down 0.4 MPH from last year, but that’s not that great of a difference to think that it is the primary factor in his awful season thus far.  But examining his plate discipline numbers, there are a few stats that stand out (the following stats do not include data from Tuesday night’s game).  First, hitters have been making contact off Strasburg at a rate (84.3%) that is way higher than his career rate (75.9%).  Coincidentally, Strasburg also has been inducing swinging strikes at a rate (7.0%) that is much lower than his career rate (10.9%).  Next, Strasburg is throwing pitches in the strike zone way more than usual (54.2% this year vs. 45.3% career).  And then Strasburg is getting much fewer swings on pitches out of the zone (28.0% this year vs. 32.8% career) and when hitters are swinging on pitches out of the zone, they are making contact on them a lot (73.2% this year vs. 60.0% career).  To me, all this data would suggest that he is creating his own bad luck by just grooving a lot of pitches that batters can easily handle since he is working within the strike zone so much more than he has in the past.  The plummeting swinging strike rate though is a big concern and possibly could be indicative of just losing his stuff so to speak.

Another possible explanation could be he has been pitching with an injury all along, even before the previous start that he left with shoulder irritation.  A possible injury could cause loss of command of pitches, which leads to the pitch grooving.  Also remember that Strasburg did undergo Tommy John surgery in August of 2010, and somewhere I read that the average threshold for a pitcher to have to undergo Tommy John surgery a second time is around 650 innings pitched.  Now I am not sure where I read that or what statistical analysis was used to back up that claim, but I know that I did read it.  So if we want to believe that, Strasburg has now pitched 637.1 innings since his Tommy John surgery.  Perhaps he is due for another surgery, or perhaps it is something else.  Either way, something is not right for Strasburg and he could be in for a long season.

Let’s see what else happened in Tuesday night action… Continue reading