Adam Dunn, David Ortiz, and others are doing their best to make defenders abandon the ever-more-popular over-shift.
A few minutes into the bottom of the first inning of Sunday night’s game between the Red Sox and Yankees, a Dustin Pedroia groundout and a Daniel Nava double brought up David Ortiz.
“He’s made a concerted effort to hit the ball the other way a lot more this season, that’s why the average is so high,” said ESPN’s Dan Shulman. Before he could finish the sentence, Ortiz grounded a single to left. “And there he goes,” Shulman said.
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Are the struggles of erstwhile ace Ubaldo Jimenez over?
Just over a month ago on Effectively Wild, Sam Miller and I surveyed the 2014 options that teams would have to decide to pick up or pass on at the end of this season. When we came to the Indians’ $8 mutual million option on Ubaldo Jimenez, we very nearly dismissed it without saying what it was.
Me: Ubaldo Jimenez. Sam: Pass. Me: You don’t even want to hear the amount? Sam: Well, what is the amount? Me: The amount is $8 million. Sam: Given who’s a free agent starter this winter, it wouldn’t kill me if a team did that at all. I would pass, but it wouldn’t break my heart.
The authors of Baseball Prospectus 2014, the 19th edition of our annual book, are a couple weeks away from submitting player lists to the editing team. Generally, it’s pretty easy to compile a complete count of players who deserve to be profiled. Anyone who played for the big club and is still in the organization merits a mention, as do recent top draft picks and other minor leaguers who appear on top prospect lists. But there’s always a player who resists easy assignment—someone whose stats stand out but whose name is unknown.
At BP, we believe in blending stats and scouting information to get the most accurate picture of a player, so when those of us who mainly watch major-league action come across one of these enigmas, we seek out our colleagues on the scouting side. “Is this a prospect?” we ask, and often the answer is, “No.” “But he slugged .600!” our inner triple-slash-line lover says, before being drowned out by the evidence against him: he’s old for his level, or he plays in High Desert, or he has the sort of swing that won’t work well against advanced pitching. Put it all together, and the player’s projection is too fringy for the book.
Think your team has trouble against rookie starters whom they should have no trouble hitting? That's what they all say.
Earlier this year, I wrote an article about internet commenters' attempts to concoct trades for Giancarlo Stanton. The Marlins right fielder had reportedly been put on the block, and while the price in prospects was believed to be steep, not even fans of the organizations with the worst farm systems were willing to concede that their team couldn’t get a deal done. Every fan base, it turned out, had at least one blogging, tweeting, or commenting member who didn’t see any problem putting a persuasive package together. “Ultimately,” I concluded, “we’re all convinced that we’re above-average drivers, and that we’re better looking than we actually are, and that our teams would have no trouble trading for Stanton.” In reality, of course, we can’t all be above average at anything, and most of the proposed trades were preposterous. Stanton is still in Miami.
Rooting for baseball teams isn’t a totally rational activity, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the people who do it are laboring under a different delusion. This one, almost as widespread as Stantonitis, pertains to what Cliff Corcoran once dubbed “getting URPed”—shut down or beaten by an Unfamiliar Rookie Pitcher. Over the past nine-plus seasons, rookie starters, in close to 40,000 innings, have posted a 4.76 ERA. Non-rookie starters, in over 240,000 innings, have recorded a collective 4.30. Veterans have outperformed rookies in every season from 2004 through 2013, so clearly someone has to be hitting rookie pitchers. But you can find a fan of (almost) every team who’ll tell you that it must be someone else.
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.”)
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.