Mark Canha’s 2019 is No Laughing Matter

(This piece originally ran at BTBNL.com on June 8)

It’s hard to believe that former Marlins prospect and current Athletics 1B/OF Mark Canha has only played 356 MLB games headed into tonight’s action. At 30 years old, he’s technically one-fifth through his third full season. He’s logged major league at-bats since 2015, a season in which he played his most games (124), but hasn’t taken a big leap forward until now.

Don’t scoff at the .247 batting average until looking under the hood. The San Jose product and Billy Bean project boasts a robust .383 OBP, and a man oft touted as a power-hitting prospect put up gaudy OBP numbers at all stops. At age 23, Canha reached base at a .371 clip at Double-A in the Marlins system. The next season at Triple-A, he improved to .384, and he logged over 500 plate appearances in both seasons. In 2017 at Triple-A, this time in the Oakland system, Canha did it again in a new league with a .373 rate in 75 games. Fast-forward to 122 major league games in 2018 and Canha, with 197 games of big league action under his belt, demonstrated his ability to produce with a .328 OBP and 17 homers in 411 plate appearances — close to a 30-homer pace.

That brings me to 2019. Canha is not only displaying career-bests in OBP and walk rate (15% BB, 8.3% in 2018), but he has also vastly improved his approach. In 2015 and 2018 (the two biggest samples), he swung at 32.9% and 31.1% of pitches outside the strike zone (O-Swing%) respectively. In those same two years, he swung and missed (SwStr%) at 9.8% and 8.1% of strikes. Now in 2019, he’s drastically reduced his O-Swing to 22.4% (!), good for the 19th-lowest mark in MLB (min. 120 PA), and is in the company of Anthony Rendon (22%), George Springer (21.4%) and Joey Votto (20.3%). When it comes to plate discipline for a “power prospect,” that’s extraordinary company. Furthermore, his 75.4% O-Contact rate in 2019 is a career-best, and his career-low 7.5% SwStr% is tied for 45th-lowest in MLB, well below the 10.4% MLB average. Read the rest of this entry »


Peter Alonso Has Adjusted — And Fast

Peter Alonso began 2019 by pummeling a belt-high fastball over the center field wall on the first pitch he saw in Spring Training. He has not stopped hitting since. Over his first 66 games in the regular season, he has slashed .254/.337/.596 with 22 homers and a .382 wOBA. The stats are impressive, but perhaps the most notable aspect of his success has been his ability to modify his approach in short order.

Over the first few weeks of the season, Alonso built an early reputation as a low-ball hitter. Even pitches well below the strike zone were getting sent over the fence. His slugging percentage per pitch by zone reflect this low-ball dominance:

Luckily for Alonso, pitchers had not yet caught on to his affinity for the low pitch. The pitch distribution chart below reveals that he was seeing a plurality of pitches at or below the middle of the zone.

This proved a lethal combination, as Alonso steamrolled his way through April. Read the rest of this entry »


Will the Real Brad Keller Please Stand Up?

I met Brad Keller when I was pitching in the Royals organization. He was the new face that everybody was talking during the first few weeks of spring training 2018. He’s a large guy, can drive a golf ball a mile, and seems like a genuinely good person. Here’s my take on him as a pitcher.

Overview

The Rule 5 draft is one of the most fascinating storylines to follow each season. It is a chance, in the most unadulterated sense, for one organization to dominate another in a lopsided transaction. Of course, the idea at the heart of the Rule 5 is to reward players talented enough to play in the major leagues who may not have a clear path to the bigs in their own organization — but this is a fun little side effect. After one team deems a player not valuable enough to protect from the Rule 5 draft, other scouting departments have the chance to evaluate whether this player could be of service to their major league team now and in the future. Most times, the player is returned to the original team and not much of note occurs. However, every so often, something remarkable happens, and an under-appreciated player gets his opportunity and makes the most of it. That is the case with the Royals and Brad Keller, their de facto ace.

Taken with the fifth pick in the 2017 Rule 5 draft, Keller was a revelation last year, giving the Royals a reason to smile while they trudged through a 104-loss season. Keller made 20 starts for the Royals in 2018 after earning a spot in the rotation following a solid stint in the bullpen. He worked 140.1 innings to the tune of a 3.08 ERA and 2.6 wins above replacement. Not bad for someone who hadn’t pitched above Double-A prior to making his major league debut.

It looked like Keller had all the makings of a quality major league starter after being raved about by the Royals for his work effort and competitiveness. Here’s what Royals backstop Martin Maldonado had to say to the Kansas City Star about the 2019 Opening Day starter: “He’s a guy that goes out there and competes. Every pitch that he throws is with meaning. He’s got that mentality of go get ‘em. That’s a guy you can see in his face when he’s about to throw a pitch that he’s locked in to execute a pitch.”

If that’s the case, then where’s the disconnect? Why hasn’t Keller been able to replicate his success from 2018 so far this season? Is he actually a quality No. 2 or No. 3 starter, or is he destined for the back end of the rotation or a spot in the bullpen? Let’s dive a little deeper into Keller’s numbers to see if we can find out what’s different this year. Read the rest of this entry »


Zack Britton’s Improved Sinker is Driving His Recent Success

When the Yankees re-signed Zack Britton as a free agent during this past offseason, there were some questioning if it made sense to bring back a 31-year-old reliever whose best days looked well behind him. Britton was good for the Yankees after being acquired from the Orioles in July 2018, posting a 2.88 ERA in 25 appearances, but his fielding-independent measures left more to be desired with a 4.08 FIP and lower strikeout numbers than what he posted during his dominant 2015 and 2016 seasons, performances that saw him emerge as the best relief pitcher in baseball.

Britton got off to a slow start in 2019, raising more questions about his long-term status and the Yankees’ decision to give him a large contract. He ended April with a 3.00 ERA, but his primary pitch, the sinker, did not have the same life on it that it did back in his prime years. The pitch sat mostly below 95 mph in April, and his FIP peaked at 3.93 on May 3rd, when he gave up two runs by issuing a walk and surrendering a home run in one inning against the Minnesota Twins. Since that point, Britton has issued five walks while striking out 12 in 16.1 innings and has only allowed three runs, coming courtesy of a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. home run on June 5th that was literally the first home run to be hit off a Britton sinker that was outside of the zone. That lone blemish aside, I noticed that his sinker has returned closer to its peak during this stretch, likely the best its been while Britton has worn a Yankees uniform.

To show that I am not making this up, here is a chart showing the average velocity of Britton’s sinker in every game this season:

june_brittonupdate1

According to Brooks Baseball, since his outing against the Giants on April 26th (in which he issued three walks), there has been an increase in average velocity each outing before a couple of drop-offs, but it has consistently been at around 95 mph and has averaged 96 multiple times since. The recent Vlad Jr. hiccup skews some of the numbers a bit, but during this period, Britton saw his ERA and FIP drop to their lowest marks of the season at 2.05 and 3.00 respectively before rising again after that June 5th game against Toronto. His strikeout rate also has risen to 22.3%, the best mark for Britton since his remarkable 2016 season. Also according to Brooks Baseball, the 95.52 average sinker velocity he recorded in May 2019 is the highest for Britton in a single month since September 2017. These are all good signs that suggest Britton’s progress in his road back to being an elite reliever. Read the rest of this entry »


Fun Numbers Through the First Two Months

SNELL THE GLOVE

Since 2002, when the stat began being recorded, the top three swinging strike percentages for pitchers through June 1st of a season (minimum 60 innings) are…

1. Blake Snell (2019) – 19.1%
2. Max Scherzer (2018) – 17.5%
3. Curt Schilling (2002) – 16.8%

To say that Snell has been in fine form the first two months of the season would be a massive understatement, as he’s in historic form according to this metric. The reigning AL Cy Young winner’s surface numbers may not look as incredible as they did last year, but his talent is still off the charts.

RYU READY TO ROCK?

When facing lefties, there is an offense that ranks first in ISO, second in wOBA, third in wRC+, and possesses the eighth-lowest strikeout rate this season. It’s not the Twins, who have caught the serious attention of the baseball world. It’s not the Astros, who have had quite the reputation of being death to lefties for the past few years. It’s also not the other teams (the Dodgers, Mariners, Braves, Cardinals, etc.) you would normally suspect…

Yep, you didn’t guess it!

It’s the Arizona Diamondbacks. Granted, two months of data may still be leaning on the short side of sample sizes when it comes to team trends. Their BABIP indicates at least some bit of good fortune, and they currently sit with the third-lowest walk rate. However, none of this mattered against Hyun-Jin Ryu in his last outing on June 4. The Dodgers southpaw continued his stellar campaign by firing seven scoreless innings against the D-backs, allowing just three hits to move to 9-1 in 12 starts. Ryu now holds a 1.35 ERA, 2.6 fWAR, and has allowed just five walks to 71 strikeouts in 80 innings.

It’s worth noting that the matchup took place at Chase Field, where they’ve been conveniently keeping the roof open for night games, which in turn mitigates the effects of the humidor system they installed before the 2018 season. That said, Ryu is doing something truly remarkable and seems capable of silencing just about any lineup in MLB. Read the rest of this entry »


“Stuff” and Father Time

The question of how pitchers age is paramount to players and front offices. “Stuff,” the colloquial term for raw talent throwing the baseball, can really be boiled down to velocity and movement (if we really wanted to oversimplify things). PITCHf/x gives us an opportunity to use big data to estimate “stuff” by looking at measurements of velocity and movement. We can use the copious data collected to estimate what “stuff” we can expect from pitchers as they pass the dreaded 30-years-old mark and beyond.

PITCHf/x reports movement in horizontal and vertical vectors. Horizontal movement (Hmov) is the right or left movement of the pitch compared to the expected trajectory without air resistance. A positive value is away from a right-handed batter. Vertical movement (Vmov) is the amount the ball moves up or down relative to the expected drop in a vacuum. A positive value means the ball dropped less than would be expected without effective spin.

It has been established that fastball velocity tends to decrease with age, but movement trends haven’t been looked at before. Might aging pitchers compensate their decrease in velocity with an increase in movement? Or does time steal away effective spin as well?

Let’s find out.

Methods:

I collected all PITCHf/x data from every pitcher with at least 300 innings pitched from 2007 to 2018 (n=537). Data was aged based on the age of the player on April 1st of the corresponding season. Velocity, horizontal movement, and vertical movement were averaged for each age and graphed. The horizontal axis of left-handed pitchers was flipped so right and left-handed data could be analyzed together.

I then took out the top starters by WAR (n=63), according to FanGraphs, from 2007 to 2018 and graphed their data separately.

Results/Discussion: Graphs are available by clicking on the links below, and raw data available in tables at the end of this post. Read the rest of this entry »


Taking a Deeper Look at Derek Dietrich

Did you know that when Derek Dietrich is not occupied with his beekeeping business, he moonlights as a baseball player?

In fact, he has seen remarkable improvements in his side gig this year. After being released by the Marlins in the offseason, Dietrich accepted a minor league offer with the Reds. A variety of injuries and under-performers opened the door for Dietrich, who has made the most of his opportunity. Through 56 games this season, Dietrich has already hit 17 home runs, surpassing his previous career high of 16, set last year. On the same note, Dietrich currently has a 169 wRC+ which, if he was qualified, would tie for 9th in baseball. In many cases where a player experiences such a sudden and extreme breakout, it is common for him to experience luck with batted balls. Remarkably, Dietrich has excelled this season despite a .220 average on balls in play.

This year, Dietrich, like many before him, has made a conscious effort to hit the ball in the air. According to Baseball Savant, Dietrich has increased his average launch angle from 15.7 to 20.0. Furthermore, 17.2% of Dietrich’s batted balls have been hit “on the barrel,” which ranks 14th in MLB and three spots ahead of Christian Yelich. Paired with a lessening tendency to offer at pitches outside of the strike zone, Dietrich’s new swing has prompted his breakout despite minimal luck on balls that did not leave the park. Read the rest of this entry »


Frankie Montas Splits His Way to Success

Frankie Montas has seemingly been around forever, first signing at age 16 with the Boston Red Sox in 2009. He was then traded, going from Red Sox to White Sox, along with Cleuluis Rondon and Jeffrey Wendelken as part of the Jake Peavy trade in 2012, which seems like an eternity ago. He quickly emerged as one of the top pitching prospects in the White Sox system and was promoted directly from Double-A to throw 15 innings in the majors in 2015, with his final two appearances being as a starter. Those would be his only two starts for the White Sox however, because Montas was then traded to the Dodgers in a three-team deal that most notably sent Todd Frazier to the White Sox and Jose Peraza to the Reds.

Once again, Montas barely pitched in the Dodgers organization as he underwent rib resection surgery, forcing him to miss four months of the season. Shortly after his surgery and returning to the field, Montas broke his rib, costing him nearly the rest of the 2016 campaign. Before the season ended, Montas was on the move again, this time to Oakland along with Grant Holmes and Jharel Cotton as part of the trade that sent Josh Reddick and Rich Hill to the Dodgers.

In 2017, Montas got to start his season in the majors with Oakland, but oh boy did he struggle. In 32 relief innings, Montas posted a 7.03 ERA and 7.13 FIP, partially due to a terrible 1.8 K:BB ratio and a inflated 26.3% HR/FB rate, forcing him back down to Triple-A Nashville. Despite concerns that Montas’s lack of a quality secondary pitch and questionable control might limit him to a high-leverage relief role, the A’s decided to stretch Montas out as a starter. Montas would join the rotation in late May 2018 until late July, when he posted a respectable 3.88 ERA with a matching FIP despite an underwhelming K-rate of 15.2%.

Montas showed enough to gain a slot in the 2019 rotation, and he has taken off so far. This season, Montas has produced a 2.81 ERA, a 2.88 FIP, and a solid 3.67 K:BB ratio, producing 2.0 fWAR in 64 IP. By fWAR, Montas has been the 9th-most valuable starter in the majors in 2019. Has Montas truly emerged as a legit front-line starter? If so, how has he taken this leap forward? Read the rest of this entry »


Patrick Murphy Is in a Rhythm at New Hampshire

Prior to his start on Tuesday night when he allowed seven earned runs, Blue Jays No. 26 prospect Patrick Murphy was mowing down opponents in the Double-A Eastern League.

After allowing 12 earned runs through his first four starts of the season, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-hander really turned things around, dropping his ERA from 6.11 to 3.14 before Tuesday’s game. In three of his six starts since, he had gone seven innings while allowing one or zero runs.

Here is a comparison of his first four starts compared to the five that followed:

First four starts: 17.2 IP, 19 H, 12 ER, 8 BB, 18 K

Following five starts: 34 IP, 17 H, 6 ER, 4 BB, 39 K

The bottom numbers are the Patrick Murphy Dunedin fans became accustomed to watching last season when he posted some of the best stats in the organization among pitchers.

He started 26 games in Dunedin last year, throwing 146.2 innings with an ERA of 2.64, and he even got a start in Double-A New Hampshire, where he allowed two runs and struck out six over six innings. Read the rest of this entry »


Do Higher Signing Bonuses Help Players Advance?

A lot has been written over the past year about pay at the minor league level and attempts to fix things, and with good reason — it’s a pretty bad situation, and with fundamental decency in mind, it is certainly a good thing that it may be changing.

But alongside that discussion, I’ve been kind of curious of how changing minor league pay would actually change performance. In theory, paying players more could let them focus on baseball, translating to better performance. If that’s the case, it’s even possible that paying players more could actually “pay for itself” if the value of the extra wins players generate outweighs the costs of paying them more. In a perfect world, to test that, you could randomly pay some players more than others and see which group does better.

We don’t live in a perfect world, but we do live in one where signing bonuses are still pretty random. Yes, obviously players drafted higher receive higher bonuses on average, but there’s still pretty significant variation across the board, especially when you get into later rounds. In 2015, for example, there were 105 players drafted who had assigned “slot values” of between $130,000 and $200,000, and their bonuses were anywhere from $2,000 to $1,000,000. While in general higher bonuses should go to more talented prospects, it also stands to reason that two players drafted around the same time with around the same slot values should have around the same talent level and chances to make the majors.

With that in mind, I took a look at a couple different ways of seeing how well players with much lower bonuses progressed. Using 2014-16 draft data from SBN, I had a set of all players drafted in the first 10 rounds along with their signing bonuses and slot values, which I then matched with FanGraphs’ data on player appearances at either the Triple-A or major league level from 2014 to 2019. In total, this left me with 922 players, of whom 319 (~35%) made a Triple-A or MLB appearance and 144 (~16%) that made an MLB appearance. 153 (~17%) had a signing bonus of $50,000 or lower. I looked at two different ways to see how signing bonuses varied with advancement. Read the rest of this entry »