May 8, 2017
Ryan Schimpf and Ernesto Frieri Walk Into a Coal Mine
Ryan Schimpf hit a home run against Clayton Kershaw this weekend. A 28-year-old rookie last year, the Padres infielder has now cracked 28 bombs (and 51 total extra-base hits) in under 450 career plate appearances. He’s drawn 62 walks and struck out 141 times in that short period. He’s an adequate fielder, so although all he really has at the plate is a powerful uppercut swing and the willingness to reserve it for pitches he can hit, he’s been worth an impressive 3.9 WARP.
About five years ago, Rob Neyer wrote an offhand (or maybe that’s just Neyer’s unfailingly accessible style; he was quite thoughtful about it) but prophetic post on SB Nation’s MLB page. The title is the thing I’ve remembered ever since: “Ernesto Frieri: Canary in the Coal Mine.”
The gist was that Ernesto Frieri, who had been traded to the Angels four weeks earlier and was yet to allow a hit to American League batters, would normally have been one of the biggest stories in baseball. Neyer noted that Frieri had 23 strikeouts in 11 innings of work with Anaheim, while allowing only eight walks and a hit batsman. Frieri’s streak of total dominance would stretch, by the way, to 13 hitless frames, and to 27 strikeouts by the first 50 AL hitters to face him. By the All-Star break, Frieri’s overall ERA was 0.71, and he was still yet to allow a run with the Angels. At that point, he’d fanned 45 of 105 opposing hitters, with zero extra-base hits.
Neyer’s broader point was that Frieri was on the leading edge of what he called the two worst trends in MLB at the time—too many strikeouts, and too many pitching changes. Neyer cited the then-novel observation that baseball’s global strikeout rate had risen in each of the previous seven seasons. In the years since, of course, that trend has only accelerated, and in fact, it’s accelerated so much that objections from five years ago look simultaneously prescient and quaint. Neyer also noted that relievers were pitching in shorter busts than ever, more effectively than ever, and in relief of starters who departed earlier than ever. Again, nothing has changed on that front.
The reason Neyer identified Frieri, specifically, as the sign that these trends had gone too far (and that they would eventually compel MLB to proactively reverse them) was the hurler’s anonymity. He’d come up at 24 years old, as a middling middle reliever (although even in his earliest MLB looks, he missed a lot of bats). His splashy start with the Angels hadn’t vaulted him onto the covers of Sports Illustrated, or even the cover of the sports section of the local paper on most days. When such dominance can be achieved by so mere a mortal, and when that kind of transcendence isn’t even considered newsworthy, the rubicon has been crossed.
There are a couple of things we can see, with hindsight, that Neyer may not have been able to see. For one thing, maybe Frieri wasn’t as mere a mortal as we believed. I don’t know how well you remember Peak Frieri, but he basically did the same thing over and over: throw high fastballs past people’s bats. At his best, he threw in the mid-90s, and he threw his four-seam heat roughly 75 percent of the time.
We didn’t have Statcast during those dominant Frieri seasons. We do, however, have it for 2015, when the shriveled husk of Frieri (throwing about two miles per hour slower) pitched 23 forgettable innings for the Rays. That season, of the 420 pitchers who threw at least 150 four-seam fastballs, Frieri ranked 22nd in spin rate. It’s possible that, when he was leaving hitters checking their bats for holes after 40 percent of their plate appearances, Frieri was doing it using honest-to-god elite fastball spin and top-shelf velocity, the kind that lets you throw the ball just about anywhere in the zone and get easy outs.
Still, there’s a lot of truth to what Neyer said. Frieri happened because MLB allowed him to happen. The league swerved toward strikeouts and one-inning relief specialists, and everything we’ve seen since has been partially a product of that general drift. In 2014, things bottomed out for hitters. The global walk rate reached its lowest point since 1968. The global isolated power figure fell to its lowest point since 1992. The global ground-ball rate peaked, either that season or the year after, as the bottom of the strike zone fell to its lowest level since PITCHf/x allowed us to start measuring that well. Runs were scarcer than they had been in almost a quarter-century, and it seemed like the ways in which those runs might come back were dwindling.
Neyer was right. Something was eventually going to change, and something did. Neyer was wrong, though, about what would change. The strikeouts didn’t stop, and the pitching changes didn’t stop. Baseball did nothing to slow either trend, and the evolution of the game has continued along that path, because there’s been no natural competitive incentive to change that course.
It took until the middle of the following season, but baseball finally took action. They juiced the baseball. They just did. We can hem and haw about the lack of perfect evidence, and we certainly aren’t going to get commissioner Rob Manfred to admit it or anything, but the league juiced the baseball in the summer of 2015, and they haven’t unjuiced it. At the same time, or at about the same time, hitters’ slow movement toward swings geared to trade contact for damage on contact accelerated. More and more batters focused on swinging early in the count, and swinging on a plane that would allow them to drive the ball in the air.
That’s how Ryan Schimpf became the new Ernesto Frieri. Schimpf has always had good power. For all of the 3,000 plate appearance he piled up in the minor leagues, he was what he is now: a guy who hits the ball hard and hits it in the air, and who draws walks, but who also whiffs at an alarming rate. He was always this player, but this player wasn’t a viable big leaguer until about 22 months ago. Yet, the game hasn’t surrendered itself to him. He’s not breaking baseball. He’s extreme, and novel, and formerly impossible, but really, he’s still barely notable.
Something different needs to change. The juicing of the ball was ill-considered, at least as a solitary adjustment. There has to be a next step, and it needs to be more progressive and more proactive. Otherwise, the next guy to join Frieri and Schmipf will be an even deader canary.