We likely already know who is going to make the playoffs. Is there still reason to watch?
This will be painful for some of you, but cast your mind back, if you can, to the baseball standings as they looked a year ago today. Behold: a wondrous world where the White Sox are in first place, the Giants are 16 games over .500, the Nationals are the best team in baseball, and the Orioles are a half-game up on the Rays for the second AL Wild Card spot (like that will last). The names of some of the teams at the top look strange, in light of what’s transpired this season, but I spy something even stranger: pennant races. Pennant races, as far as the eye can see.
On the morning of August 30, 2012, five of the six divisions had separations of five games or fewer between first and second place. Only in the NL Central, where the Reds had an eight-game lead over St. Louis and a nine-game cushion over the collapsing Pirates, was the division title all but awarded. According to our Playoff Odds Report for that day, there were four teams with playoff percentages of over 95 percent: the Reds, the Nats, the Rangers, and the Yankees. But there were a few tiers of lesser, but still strong contenders below that: the Braves and White Sox (oops) over 80 percent; the Cardinals, at just over 60 percent; the Tigers, Rays, and A’s between 50 and 60; the Angels, Pirates, and Dodgers clustered right around 30. And the odds weren’t buying the run differential-defying Orioles, whom PECOTA gave a 20 percent chance to claim the Wild Card they eventually won. In other words, there was an awful lot still at stake.
Why "be quiet" might be the best advice for backstops.
Catchers’ contributions, more so than those of players at any other position, defy—or at least strongly resist—quantification. We’ve long had a handle on backstops’ ability to prevent stolen bases, block pitches in the dirt, and field batted balls. But that’s the low-hanging fruit and, unfortunately, a little less juicy than the revelations hiding on the higher branches.
We have made major strides in assessing receiving, which was almost impossible (statistically) before PITCHf/x, though some aspects of that skill remain tough to untangle. But there are still some significant unknowns. Game-calling, of course. Defensive positioning. And the nebulous, but probably important, art of “working with pitchers,” which can encompass everything from recognizing when a guy is gassed to knowing how and when to boost a batterymate’s confidence. (Confidence, of course, is another intangible quality, although if Gabe Kapleris correct, “there isn’t a factor more responsible for success.”)
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Ranking closers based on how bad they've looked at the plate.
On Wednesday night, Aroldis Chapman entered an 8-6 game in relief of an injured Jonathan Broxton, who faced two batters in the top of the eighth before his elbow cut his outing short. It was the first time Chapman had been asked to get more than three outs all season. And because a “distraught” Dusty Bakerscrewed up the double switch, Chapman also made his first major-league plate appearance in the bottom of the inning.
Chapman got a standing ovation from a super-excited Cincinnati crowd when he came to the plate. And unlike some closers who rarely hit—and whose health is much more important than the outcome of any one plate appearance—he wasn’t instructed not to swing. Chapman, who played first base in Cuba before he pitched and showed a decent swing, ran the count full and took two big cuts en route to a predictable strikeout. And then the fans sat back down.
An object lesson in implementing the shift drawn from two consecutive plate appearances.
Out here on the internet, the things we know for sure about defensive shifts are easily outnumbered by the unknowns. We’re still mostly in the dark about some pretty fundamental information: how often shifts are used, how effectively they’re implemented, and how much hitters can alter their approach to combat them. What data we do have indicates that shifting is becoming more common, and some anecdotalevidence suggests that it works. But there’s still considerable cause for skepticism and, judging by the dramatic team-by-team differences in the rates at which shifts are applied, nothing close to an industry consensus.
One thing we know with some certainty is that the shift can be almost as frustrating for defenders as it is for batters who have to hit into it. Earlier this year, Astros starter Lucas Harrellexpressed frustration after a loss in which he felt that the shift had hurt him, saying,
Even a less-than-perfect replay plan is a big success for baseball.
On Thursday, Major League Baseball ended a five-year wait for the expansion of instant replay review. You’ve already read about the details, but the proposal cooked up by Bud Selig’s replay committee comes down to this: managers will be allowed one challenge of a reviewable play from the first inning through the sixth, and two more from the seventh inning on (challenges that prove successful won’t subtract from those totals). We don’t know exactly which plays are part of the plan, but we do know that reviewable plays will cover 89 percent of past incorrect calls, excluding balls and strikes. When a challenge is issued, an on-field umpire will contact a fifth umpire at MLBAM headquarters in New York, who’ll have access to every available video feed and who’ll quickly confirm or overturn the original ruling.
It’s not a perfect plan, and the internet was quick to focus on the flaws. But there’s a lot here to be happy about, and amidst all the fault-finding, I’m not sure the real significance of the proposed system has sunk in. So I’m going to give you the glass-half-full perspective, as opposed to the glass-half-shattered, shards-embedded-in-eyeballs perspective that seemed to take over Twitter when the news was announced.
How Yasiel Puig is proving that he isn't just another Jeff Francoeur.
In week one, we knew that Yasiel Puig could hit a baseball well over 400 feet, that he could cover the outside part of the plate, that he could throw from the warning track in right field to first base on the fly. We also knew that it would take a while to find out what he was. His obvious tools and talent were only part of the picture. His weaknesses were just as important, but they took more time to get a feel for. Tim Hudson spoke for all of us when he said, “We’ll see how he does six or eight weeks into the season, see what kind of adjustments people make to him and he makes to them.”
It’s now been nine weeks since Hudson said “we’ll see,” and 10 weeks since Puig made his major-league debut. We’ve watched pitchers adjust to Puig, and Puig adjust to pitchers. And while we’re still in small-sample territory, we can start to say with more certainty what kind of player Puig will be.
How the Mets became by far the best baserunning team in baseball.
It’s a few hours before first pitch at Citi Field, and for now, at least, the National League’s best baserunner is standing still. But in his head, he’s already on the lookout for empty bases to annex. “There is no reason to ever check into a bag,” Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy says. “You always come around every bag trying to get the extra base. It’s kind of the mindset we’ve taken as an offense. When we get on the basepaths, we want to get the extra 90 feet.”
The clubhouse is still almost empty, though batting practice has yet to begin. It’s Wednesday afternoon, and the Mets are only about 18 hours removed from their latest demonstration of what Murphy means. With the team tied 2-2 against the Rockies on Tuesday night, left fielder Eric Young led off the eighth with a single. After the next batter, Daniel Murphy, flied out and failed to advance him, Young got himself to second, tagging up and advancing on another fly to center hit by Marlon Byrd.
Well, that was underwhelming. According to Retrosheet transaction logs and MLBAM’s count of this year’s crop, there were fewer big-league trades made this July (19) than in any other season since 1996. Prior to this year, the average number of July trades per seasons the last round of expansion was 30.
The best and worst receivers of the week and season so far.
We were off last week because of the All-Star break, so this edition will cover the two weeks since last time.
I did a guest spot on the Blue Jays Plus podcast to talk about J.P. Arencibia's receiving skills. As you'll probably recall from his previous appearances at BP, Arencibia rated very poorly over the past two seasons, and at the beginning of this season. But in mid-June, he worked with Blue Jays roving catching instructor Sal Fasano, and since then he's rated quite well. Small sample, of course, but the statistical improvement seems to be backed up by mechanical improvements. I might write more about this soon, but for now you can hear me talk about it if you're so inclined. The moral of the story is that Sal Fasano is still the best possible person.
How does the first calendar year of Matt Harvey's career stack up to those of other fast starters?
On Friday night, Matt Harvey held the Nationals to one unearned run over eight innings, walking one and striking out seven to lower his ERA to 2.11. That outing closed the book on his first calendar year in the majors; the previous July 26th, Harvey had debuted against the Diamondbacks, holding them scoreless for 5 1/3 and fanning 11. There’s no particular reason to draw a line after a pitcher’s first calendar year—it’s not a completely arbitrary endpoint, but it’s close—but compartmentalizing helps us humans make sense of things. So with Matt Harvey mania in full swing, the one-year mark seems like as good a time as any to see how Harvey stacks up historically, and what that might mean.
This is a list of the best first calendar years for pitchers since 1950, sorted by PWARP. That’s just the pitching component of WARP, so Harvey doesn’t get credit for the extra half win or so he earned by going 6-for-18 at the plate last season. (He’s 5-for-48 this year.) Debut year age is seasonal age, or age as of July 1 of each player's rookie season. Fair RA is a measure of pitching quality scaled to run average, not ERA, and considers sequencing, base-out state, batted-ball distribution, and team defense. Fair RA+ is Fair RA relative to the league; 100 is league average, so the higher the number, the better. Each pitcher’s career PWARP is included on the right.