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

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Severino Looks Good In Pinstripes (and other notes from 8/5/15)

Embed from Getty Images

The New York Yankees weren’t exactly expected by many to be legitimate contenders this season as they were considered to be too old (average age of opening day lineup 33-34 years old), they had question marks revolving around some of their key players (Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira), and their starting pitching staff lacked depth and stability. But despite their age, the offense has performed very well on the heels of the resurgence of Rodriguez coming back from his long suspension and Teixeira swinging a healthy bat. The strong Yankee offense has been able to give the team a lot of leads and then the dominant back end of the bullpen, featuring the combination of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, has been a nearly unbreakable unit. This fierce combination of solid offense and a dominant bullpen has led to a current 1st place position in the AL East standings. However, one pre-season notion has been right — the Yankees starting pitching has been very underwhelming overall.

Yankees starting pitching ranks 23rd in the Majors in ERA at 4.35, which is the lowest ranking of any team that is currently locked into a playoff spot if the season were to end today. Masahiro Tanaka has performed pretty well, but he spent some time on the DL and is not nearly as dominant as last season. C.C. Sabathia is not earning his pinstripes as he is statistically one of the worst pitchers in the league. Nathan Eovaldi, in his first year in the Bronx, has failed to have his breakout season once again. And a carousel of pitchers in the #5 spot have not been giving the Yankees the strongest of performances.

The most consistent starting pitcher for the Yankees up to this point, both performance and health wise, has been Michael Pineda who owns a 9-7 record, 3.97 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 117 K/15 BB in 118 IP.  But last week, Pineda was scratched from his scheduled start and was placed on the DL with tightness in his pitching elbow and he is is expected to miss all of August. So without making a move at the trading deadline for a starting pitcher, the Yankees appeared to be in a heap of trouble and that left them to promote their top pitching prospect, Luis Severino, to start Wednesday’s game against the Red Sox.

Severino is a long, wiry pitcher at the age of 21 and he has progressed very well through the Minors, pitching at AAA before his promotion. Severino throws an electric fastball that reaches the upper 90’s and he complements it with an above average changeup and a developing slider. There have been concerns about his small size making him more suitable as a relief pitcher down the road, but there are some reports that believe Severino can make it as a starting pitcher and the Yankees appear to be content to give him a try in that role.

Throughout his Minor League career, Severino has posted a 2.30 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 2.27 BB/9, and 9.06 K/9. He possesses great strikeout potential that is matched with very good control for a pitcher that is at such a tender age. This combination of qualities is something that should bode well for him as he makes his first tour through the league as the fill-in for Pineda, which could lead to a permanent stay, even after Pineda returns, should he impress the Yankees brass.

Severino’s debut went about as well as it could’ve despite being charged with a loss. The young righty posted a line of 5 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, and 7 K on 94 pitches. His pitch count ran a little high, but the upside is easy to see and he turned a lot of heads in this divisional matchup.

Severino is the type of pitcher that clearly needs to be owned in all dynasty/keeper leagues and he should also be owned in a large majority of redraft leagues due the type of immediate upside that he possesses as a high strikeout, low walk pitcher. And Severino could prove to be quite the difference maker for both the Yankees and fantasy squads down the stretch as the playoffs approach. Don’t sleep too long on him.

Let’s check out the rest of Wednesday’s action…  Continue reading

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

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Continue reading

Miguel Cabrera to the DL for First Time (and other notes from 7/5/15)

Embed from Getty Images

For the first time ever in his 13-year career, on the 4th of July, Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera has landed on the DL with a calf strain that he suffered as a base runner taking off from first to second base.  The injury is expected to sideline Cabrera for 6 weeks.  It’s nothing short of amazing how Cabrera has gone so long without ever incurring an injury that he was unable to play through, but he is now 32 years old and with this calf injury and the ankle injury that he played through for a good portion of the 2014 season, there appear to be some chinks in his armor at a time where we should be expecting him to exit his offensive prime anyway.

With his ankle injury last year, he still was able to hit .313 with 25 HR, 109 RBI, and 101 R, but remarkably, that was his lowest batting average since 2009 and his lowest HR total since 2006.  This season he is batting what would be a career best of .350, but with just 15 HR before the injury, he was once again on pace for one of his lowest HR totals and with the injury, it’s all but guaranteed that it will be one of his worst HR outputs of his career.

Cabrera is still obviously a great hitter and he will have several more years left in the league where he will produce much better than the average player.  But here is what I said about him in the pre-season rankings:

“You know how we saw the beginning of the decline of Albert Pujols in his age 31 season in 2011 when he “only” hit .299/.366/.541 with 37 HR, 99 RBI, and 105 R?  Well, we saw something similar from M-Cab last year in his age 31 season.  Perhaps it can be contributed to the bum foot that he was playing on, which has since been surgically repaired.  Even so, there is a decent chance that he continues to experience an assortment of injuries as he is now on the wrong side of 30.   So I’m pretty sure his best days are behind him, but of course he still is a better hitter than most of the league.”

So let’s go ahead and categorize this into the “assortment of injuries” column.

The Tigers will surely miss his bat, and it will be interesting to see how the offense responds to Cabrera’s absence.  With J.D. Martinez so hot right now, it’s possible that he can shoulder the load to carry the team.  But at some point, the Tigers offense should experience some rough times without Cabrera.

For fantasy squads, it’s nothing short of heartbreaking to lose a 1st round pick to the DL for a significant amount of time. First it was Giancarlo Stanton a couple weeks ago and now it’s Cabrera.  Their production simply can’t be replicated, so you just have to make due with what you can.

Let’s check out Sunday’s action now.

Continue reading

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

Embed from Getty Images

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!

Continue reading

C. Heston From the NRA to the NHA? (and other notes from 6/9/15)

Embed from Getty Images

So we know that Hollywood legend Charleton Heston was the president of the NRA (National Rifle Association), but there’s a new Heston in town by the name of Chris Heston who became the 238th member of the NHA (No-Hitter Association) on Tuesday.  Heston of the Giants managed to no-hit the Mets while recording 11 strikeouts in the process.  What spoiled the perfect game wasn’t a walk or an error, but rather Heston beaned three separate batters.  This sounds like a job for the Elias Sports Bureau, but this might be the most hit batsmen recorded by a pitcher who completed a no-hitter.  Whoever had Heston in the “first no-hitter of the season” pool has to be a rich person, but one sick individual to make such an adventurous pick.

Heston is a 27-year old rookie and he has been one extremely tough pitcher to figure out this season.  It seems as though he is either really good or really bad.  He has 5 starts this season where he has given up at least 5 earned runs, but then the other 7 starts he has made he has gone at least 6 innings allowing either 0 or 1 earned run.

Initially, I thought that maybe he was just a pitcher who did some really good home cookin’ while struggling on the road, but with his clunker last week at home versus the Pirates and this no hitter on the road versus the Mets, that theory can be safely laid to rest.  The fact of the matter is that Heston has just had a couple really bad starts at Coors Field that have negatively skewed his overall stat line.  I hate to cherry pick certain games out of a player’s stat line, but taking those Coors Field games out does make a big difference as he would have a 2.71 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 60 K/15 BB in 63 IP (compared to a 3.77 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 66 K/18 BB in 74 IP including the Coors Field starts).

Heston doesn’t come as heralded as some of the other rookie pitchers because of his age and the fact that he’s not a hard thrower topping out around 90 MPH.  But with a sinker, curveball, and changeup arsenal, he is able to generate a ton of ground balls at 56.2%, which is the 6th highest in the league, and he also has above average control with sneaky strikeout potential (career rate of 7.96 K/9 in the Minors).

Earlier in the season when I was still trying to figure out what to make of Heston, I suggested the possibility of him being this year’s Matt Shoemaker as the old, non-glamorous rookie pitcher who falls into a rotation spot and outperforms expectations with great control and the sneaky strikeout potential.  The more I see of him, the more I think that Heston will be that pitcher and he is worthy of a fantasy play as long as he’s not playing at Coors Field.

Let’s see what else occurred on a full Tuesday slate of action…

Continue reading