Adrian Beltre Leaves the Ballpark on His Tri-Cycle (and other notes from 8/3/15)

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Inhabitants of the west coast of the U.S. have long been enjoying the tastings of In-N-Out Burger. Pretty much any highway or boulevard you drive down, you will at some point see the classic In-N-Out Burger logo to lure you in for arguably the best fast food burger that your lips will ever touch. Being a left coaster myself, I enjoyed a cheeseburger with grilled and raw onions and chopped chilis just last week (if you like your food with a little kick, then you have to get it with the chopped chilis off their “secret menu”).

A while back, my brother went to In-N-Out Burger and did something that I wouldn’t have thought possible out of a 145 lb. man with hardly an ounce of body fat on him. He ordered a cheeseburger, a double double, a 3×3, and a 4×4 — and he ate it all in one sitting. That is some ridiculous eating talent right there and we like to say that he “ate for the cycle.”

On Monday, Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre did something that is probably a bit more impressive than my brother “eating for the cycle,” as he hit for the cycle (single, double, triple, and home run all in one game) for the third time in his career. Beltre became just the 4th player to hit for the cycle three times. He joined John Reilly (no, not the dude from the movie Step Brothers), Babe Herman (not to be confused with George Herman “Babe” Ruth), and Bob Meusel (I have no actual parenthetical blurb to say about him). Hitting for the cycle just once in a career is pretty nice, but to do it three times is quite the accomplishment, especially when you’re like Beltre and don’t have the wheels to leg out a lot of triples. Beltre’s tripled just 34 times in his 18-year career, so he hits for the cycle 9% of the time that he gets a triple. That’s a pretty high rate if you think about it.

With In-N-Out Burgers popping up all over Texas now, and there’s even one in the city of Arlington where the Rangers play their home games, I now issue a public challenge to Mr. Beltre to eat for the cycle. And in the same vein, I also issue a public challenge to my brother, Kameron, to eat for the cycle two more times to bring his total up to three to match Beltre’s number of cycles. What do you say, gentlemen?

Now let’s take a look at the rest of Monday’s action.

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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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Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense (and other notes from 6/23/15)

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After Danny Salazar suffered a meltdown in the 5th inning against the Tigers on Tuesday and I was simultaneously being asked by my brother what is wrong with Carlos Carrasco this season, I thought about both of those Indians pitchers, as well as rotation mates Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, and did a little digging and and discovered some interesting things.

Here is a look at each of these four Indians starting pitchers numbers in line drive rate (LD%), ground ball rate (GB%), fly ball rate (FB%), hard hit rate (Hard%), BABIP, ERA, and xFIP this season (I’m not including a 5th Indians SP because that 5th spot for them has been in flux all season long):

Salazar: 18.8 LD%, 45.2 GB%, 36.0 FB%, 30.7 Hard%, .323 BABIP, 4.06 ERA, 2.81 xFIP

Carrasco: 20.8 LD%, 46.6 GB%, 32.6 FB%, 33.5 Hard%, .347 BABIP, 4.35 ERA, 2.87 xFIP

Kluber: 22.2 LD%, 46.2 GB%, 31.6 FB%, 27.7 Hard%, .335 BABIP, 3.65 ERA, 2.80 xFIP

Bauer: 18.1 LD%, 37.2 GB%, 44.7 FB%, 29.4 Hard%, .283 BABIP, 3.86 ERA, 4.27 xFIP

So what we see here is that Salazar, Carrasco, and Kluber are all more on the ground ball side of things while Bauer is a flyball pitcher.  So we would expect the first three guys to to have higher batting average on balls in play (BABIP) marks because ground ball pitchers tend to almost always have higher marks than fly ball pitchers, because balls that are hit in the air for fly balls have a greater chance of being recorded for an out as long as it doesn’t leave the park.  But what is odd is how high those marks are for those first three pitchers listed and it poses the question if there is something outside of their control that is affecting them since it is odd to see three pitchers from the same team with such inflated BABIP marks.

The league average BABIP is usually around .300 and the league average hard hit rate is around 30%.  Salazar, Carrasco, and Kluber all rank in the top 20 in highest BABIP, but it is only Carrasco that appears in the top 20 highest hard hit rates and none of them appear in the top 20 highest line drive rates.  Line drives account for a good portion of hard hit balls, and hard hit balls have a greater chance to fall in for hits, which would increase a pitcher’s BABIP.  But if none of these three guys are really giving up a ton of line drives and it’s only really Carrasco who is getting hit harder than the average pitcher, why are their BABIP’s so much higher than the league average?

The answer here is the Indians team defense as a whole is just not very good and is costing these pitchers in ERA and WHIP.  According to ratings, the Indians rank 27th in the Majors in defensive efficiency as their defense has cost them 13.8 runs so far this season, and their defense is likely the reason why the Indians have the 3rd highest team BABIP in baseball. It’s not that the Indians defense makes a lot of errors, but it’s more the fact that they lack range, defensive prowess, and the ability to prevent hits from getting in and runs from scoring.  It could be attributed to poor defensive players, but it also could be attributed to poor defensive alignments set by the coaching staff and/or inefficient use of defensive shifts. Whatever it may be, the Indians had the same bad defense last year, but this year it seems to be affecting their starting pitchers more negatively.

What this means for the Indians pitchers (not named Bauer) going forward is that even though they have excellent xFIP marks (expected fielding independent ERA — measures what a pitcher’s ERA should be if defense was not a factor), huge improvements in ERA and WHIP in the near future are not necessarily a given.  Yes, they all should receive some better fortune and see their numbers regress at least somewhat toward the mean, but a complete 180 turnaround may not be in the cards and it cannot be expected that their ERA’s get as low as their xFIP’s.  However, something that may help is the recent promotion of defensive wizard Francisco Lindor to play shortstop for the Indians.  One player isn’t likely to turn around the whole defense, but Lindor has always been praised for his glove work and can at least provide some positive value in helping to prevent hits and runs.

Two other teams that have high team BABIP marks that also rank very poorly defensively are the White Sox and Padres. The White Sox have the highest BABIP in all of baseball and have the lowest defensive rating to coincide with it.  So this hurts guys like Jose QuintanaJeff Samardzija, John Danks, and Carlos Rodon who all are more on the ground ball side of things.  However, ace Chris Sale and his .283 BABIP appears to be skating by just fine (and should continue to) because he has been getting a lot of fly balls.  As for the Padres, we knew going into the season that their defense would be questionable all around with a completely revamped outfield that consisted of some poorly rated defensive players, and an infield that also looked like it was going to have some issues.  The Padres currently have the 6th highest team BABIP and rank 29th in defensive rating, so it should come as no surprise that heavy ground ball pitchers Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner are having such abysmal seasons so far.

So these are examples of how a poor defense can affect a pitching staff, or more specifically individual pitchers with ground ball tendencies, and it should give some pause to whether or not these aforementioned pitchers can truly turn things around and post numbers to what their “expected” stats say that they should.  I like Salazar, Carrasco, and Kluber, but this revelation does shine some poor light on their outlooks for the remainder of the season.

Now let’s take a look at the rest of Tuesday’s action. 

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Do You Smell What The Brock Is Cooking? (and other notes from 6/16/15)

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Brock Holt came on for the Red Sox last year in a super utility role and finished the season hitting .281 with 4 HR, 29 RBI, 68 R, and 12 SB in 106 games.  From a season long viewpoint, those stats aren’t anything special, but his worth to the team was invaluable and he made for a decent spot starter for fantasy squads with his extreme multi-position eligibility.

This season Holt has been doing much of the same, playing all over the field — he has started at least 1 game at every position except pitcher and catcher — and coming up with some big hits.  Holt has been collecting more starts as of late, starting 13 of the Red Sox 15 games in June so far, filling in all over the diamond as the Red Sox have been dealing with some slumping players and minor injuries.  On Tuesday, Holt showcased his talents by hitting for the cycle to bring his season line up to a .309 AVG with 2 HR, 15 RBI, 20 R, and 3 SB in 49 games.

Just like last season, those numbers are not that great overall in the grand scheme of things when viewing it from a fantasy perspective.  But for season long fantasy leagues, his ability to be slotted into a variety of positions can be extremely helpful, especially in leagues that allow daily changes — check out “Fantasy Baseball Strategy: Player Multi-Functionality” for an in depth look at how someone like Holt can help fantasy teams win championships.  And in daily fantasy sports (DFS), Holt can make for an excellent plug in as a cheap option at different positions whenever he is in the starting lineup, especially when he is slotted into a prime spot in the lineup like he was on Tuesday in the leadoff spot.  The sample size is small, but he has hit for a .391 AVG in 64 AB this season when he has hit 1st or 2nd in the order.

We can’t expect Holt to continue to start in games at the rate that he has lately, but he’s still going to get his fair share of starts and deserves fantasy consideration for his multi-position eligibility and perhaps he does eventually ascend to full-time starter status if there is a long term injury for one of his teammates.  However, because he doesn’t start everyday, his value is maximized in leagues that allow daily lineup changes.

Let’s see what else happened on Tuesday!

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Max Is A Scher Thing (and other notes from 6/14/15)

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When the Nationals handed out a 7-year/$210 million contract to Max Scherzer, it definitely raised some eyebrows.  Scherzer’s contract was only $5 million less than 2-time reigning NL Cy Young, Clayton Kershaw, but though Scherzer was obviously a great pitcher in his own right, he did not have the same dominant track record as Kershaw.  Also, Kershaw was 26 years old when he signed his mega deal, while Scherzer was 30.  So the Dodgers figure to get all of Kershaw’s best years in this contract (and already have received one of his best), but the Nationals will have Scherzer, barring a trade, through his age 36 season and he could very well begin to digress in a couple seasons.

But for the time being, Scherzer has been worth every penny and it is best exemplified in his near perfect start on Sunday at Milwaukee.  Scherzer had a perfect game through 6 innings until Carlos Gomez hit a bloop single that barely got over the glove of a leaping Anthony Rendon at second base.  Scherzer did not let that phase him though, as he went on to finish the rest of the game for a complete game 1-hit shutout with an amazing 16 strikeouts.  If you’re into the game score stat, Scherzer finished with a game score of 100, which is the best pitching game of the season (Corey Kluber and Chris Heston both had 98) and it is the highest score since Kershaw’s score of 102 nearly one year ago when he pitched a no-hitter with 15 strikeouts.  For the season, Scherzer is now 7-5 with a 1.93 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and 113 K/14 BB in 93.1 IP.

We all knew that Scherzer was one of the best pitchers in the game coming into the year, but let’s take a look at what is making him even more amazing this season.  First, and probably most important, is his huge improvement in his walk rate.  Coming up through the Diamondbacks Minor League system, Scherzer was the typical hard throwing prospect with some control issues and he compiled a walk rate of 4.13 BB/9.  When he first entered the Majors, he had a little bit below average control, but steadily improved over the years to be above average in the area, and his career best came in his 2013 AL Cy Young season with 2.35 BB/9.  But this season, he has taken it to the next level with a current 1.35 BB/9.  He is doing so by throwing a first pitch strike a whopping 70.3% of the time, which is the third highest in the league and is shattering his previous career best of 64.5%.

Another reason for his continued dominance is that he is working with a lowered BABIP of .268, but even though that mark is much lower than his career rate of .303, there is some belief to it given that he is inducing more fly balls than ever this season being in the top 5 in the Majors in fly ball rate and fly ball/ground ball ratio.  Fly ball pitchers are able to maintain a lower BABIP than ground ball pitchers because fly balls are more easily caught for sure outs.  And even though he is allowing more fly balls, not many of them are leaving the stadium for home runs as he has allowed only 6 in 13 starts.

With these improvements this year, Scherzer is going to be able to continue to baffle hitters in his first season in the National League and is looking like as “Scher” of a thing as any pitcher out there.  It is going to be a great race for the NL Cy Young.

Let’s check in on the rest of the Sunday card of games!

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Houston’s Astronomical Promotion: Carlos Correa (and other notes from 6/7/15)

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With the Astros having gotten swept by the Blue Jays over the weekend, they still hold a 3.5 game lead in the AL West over the Rangers.  But being in contention for a playoff spot for the first time in years, they are not settling for anything less than putting the best team that they can on the field and they are calling up top prospect Carlos Correa to be their everyday shortstop.  The move to call him up is earlier than I would have anticipated, but it was something that I said should happen with Jed Lowrie and Luis Valbuena forming a strong platoon at third base once Lowrie returns from the DL to make room for Correa and allow him to showcase his elite talent on an everyday basis.

The number one overall pick in the 2012 draft, Correa missed a good chunk of the 2014 season due to an injury, but he has been tearing it up this season.  He began the year at AA and received a recent promotion to AAA and he has a combined line of .332/.402/.602 with 10 HR, 43 RBI, and 18 SB in 52 games between the two levels.  His production began to tail off once he reached AAA, but there’s no denying his talent and how he can help this Astros ball club.  With Lowrie being on the DL, the Astros have been using a combination of Marwin Gonzalez and Jonathan Villar at shortstop who have not been getting the job done.

Expectations for Correa, who will be 21 years old in September, need to be kept in check, but the fantasy baseball community cannot help but to be extremely excited over this promotion.  Correa definitely needs to be picked up in any league format because the shortstop position is so thing that he could realistically be a top 8 option at the position the rest of the way.

For the rest of the season I am going to project him for:  .267/.338/.384 with 7 HR, 44 RBI, 48 R, 15 SB, 77 K, 33 BB in 352 AB

Let’s take a look at what else happened on Sunday!

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Archer Hits the Bullseye (and other notes from 6/2/15)

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Chris Archer of the Rays flashed nice potential since becoming a mainstay in the rotation in 2013, but he has really taken things to a whole new level this season and this Archer keeps on hitting that bullseye each time he toes the rubber every fifth day.  His latest gem was a 15 strikeout performance on the road at Angel Stadium on Tuesday evening to bring his record to 6-4 with a 2.01 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and 92 K/20 BB in 76 IP.

I have been expecting some regression to happen for Archer, but it just isn’t happening and he is looking stronger with each successive start.  A little regression should still be on its way, but Archer is pitching like a true ace and it’s time to examine what has changed from the previous seasons to spark this transformation.

First, we will look at his control.  In 8 seasons of Minor League work, Archer posted a hideous walk rate of 5.00 BB/9, so the natural thought was that this was going to be a large obstacle for him to overcome once he reached the Majors.  Archer got a taste of the Majors at the end of 2012 and then became a mainstay in the Rays rotation in the middle of the 2013 season.  Since he broke into the Majors from 2012 through 2014, his walk rate was not spectacular but it was respectable at 3.13 BB/9, which was a large improvement from his Minor League performance.  This season he has taken his control to a whole new level with at a very good mark of 2.37 BB/9, which can be largely attributed to his new found ability to throw first pitch strikes.  In 2013, Archer threw first pitch strikes 58.1% of the time, and it was very similar in 2014 at 57.5%.  Now this season, he has bumped that all the way up to 64.0% to back up his solid walk rate.

The next thing that has changed for Archer appears in his pitch data.  According to PITCHf/x, the past two seasons he has utilized both a four-seam and a two-seam fastball, but this year he has nearly ditched the two-seamer and is pitching the four-seamer 48.6% of the time.  Also, he is using his slider nearly 10% more than last season at a 37.7% clip so far, and that slider pitch is also 1.5 MPH greater in velocity than last year.  It would also appear that this year Archer’s release point on all of his pitches has been a bit higher.  And with the slider in particular, his release point has been higher and it has also shifted to the right a little (from the catcher’s point a view) so it resembles the release point of his fastball more, which is probably making it very difficult for hitters to pick up what the pitch is when it is coming out of his hand.  Combine this with the greater velocity and the higher usage of the pitch, and it is no surprise that he is generating swinging strikes on the slider 21.9% of the time (compared to 17.3% last year).

One last thing just for kicks, Archer has also been able to induce more ground balls on all his pitches this season.  Overall, his ground ball rate is at 50.3% as opposed to 46.5% last year.  Great control, lots of swinging strikes, and inducing ground balls in bunches — sounds like a recipe for success to me.  You have to expect his ERA to rise some, but it is becoming more and more apparent that Archer’s improvements surely have validity to them and he should go on to finish the 2015 season pitching at a high level.

Now let’s take a look at the rest of Tuesday’s MLB slate…

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