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The Weekend Takeaway

On Saturday, it happened.

On Sunday, Harper went 2-for-4 with a double and Trout went 1-for-3, putting an extra run on Harper's WARP lead. As for the huge gap in fWAR, FanGraphs likes Trout more at the plate more on the basepaths, and a LOT more in the field. BP, on the other hand, gives Harper the edge in TAv, VORP and FRAA, and consequently the edge in WARP.

Now, the most valuable question: How real has Harper’s performance been this season?

In a philosophical sense, completely real, because the things he’s done that have gone into his statistics did happen in the real world, unless they didn’t, and Harper is only leading baseball in WARP in my specific version of the multiverse, and then every interaction I’ve had, every achievement I’ve made, every relationship I’ve formed, only exists in a metaphysical vacuum and that maybe in Sam’s version of the universe Dan Uggla is the best hitt—

Sorry, that got real existential for a second there.

Judging by Harper’s performance this weekend, the inevitable (or not) decline hasn’t arrived yet. On Friday, he hit two home runs and drove in five runs against the Braves.

On Saturday, against the Braves, he had two more hits with one of them being a walk-off shot in the 10th inning.

The stats are there for Harper: The aforementioned WARP, a NL-leading 11 home runs, 28 RBI, a 1.089 OPS. He’s been good, yeah, and was particularly good this weekend.

Is Harper’s run of success sustainable, though? ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, which is current through Saturday night, has Harper’s hardest-hit home run as the 49th hardest-hit dinger of the year by exit speed. Harper’s average exit speed is basically right at league average, and his average distance is 12.6 feet longer than league average, which speaks to the lift and leverage in Harper’s swing.

So those are the dingers. Overall, per FanGraphs’ batted ball classifications from data provided by Baseball Info Solutions, Harper is 17th in the majors on hard-hit percentage, placing him just behind Todd Frazier and just ahead of Marcell Ozuna. Trout was sixth in the majors. But still, Harper is hitting more balls “hard” than he has in any other season of his career. In 2014, 30.2 percent of his hits were classified as such.

Another interesting shift: Harper is hitting more fly balls then ever: his mark as of Sunday was 42.6 percent, which is a full eight points more than last season. His groundball percentage is also 9.8 points lower than it was in 2014. He’s pulling the ball more, walking more, and striking out at the same higher-than-he’d-like-it rate. Basically, Bryce Harper looks more like a “three true outcomes” hitter than he ever has before. And he’s swinging less than ever and making more contact than ever (44.8 and 77.8 percent of the time, respectively, both career bests), so that could dispel a lot of the negatives associated with that profile.

A possible weakness is the inside part of the zone. Though both of his hits on Sunday were in the up-and-in part of the zone—not yet reflected in the zones below—Harper has overall been pretty useless on pitches that really get in on him.

This hasn’t been a problem in the past for Harper, and bat speed is the very least of his concerns. He’s not standing closer to the plate or anything: I checked. It’s most likely random variance, and just because I’m writing this, he’s probably going to hit a dinger on Monday on a pitch heading at his back knee. But still, it’s something that pitchers might want to try, because nothing else is working so far!

One more thought: Look at how much lower Harper gets in his load. The picture on top is from this year, and the one on the bottom is from 2014.

Could that be helping Harper channel more of the energy in his swing to hitting balls at more of an angle? Possibly! Could it be a totally inconsequential mechanical tweak? Possibly! That’s the great thing about baseball: Saying "Who knows?" all the time!

Quick Hits from the weekend

White Sox superprospect Carlos Rodon (also one of the most legendary pitchers in college baseball history) made his first career start on Saturday, against the Reds in the second game of a doubleheader. The outing began quite inauspiciously, as Rodon walked leadoff hitter Billy Hamilton. Then Geovany Soto allowed a passed ball that allowed Hamilton, who was running on the pitch, to advance all the way to third. Billy Hamilton’s fast. Did you know that? You probably knew that. Then Rodon walked Marlon Byrd.

But the Rodon struck Joey Votto out on a tremendously ugly swing on a slider…

…and then got Todd Frazier to pop a slider up on the infield, and Byrd, who was running on the play, got doubled up to end the inning.

In the third, Rodon loaded the bases on two soft singles and a walk, and Joey Votto singled two runs home to tie the game at 2-2. But after that, it was pretty smooth going for Rodon. He racked up eight strikeouts in six innings, and six of those whiffs came on Rodon’s slider, which sat in the upper 80s and touched 90. He also hit as high as 99 mph with his four-seamer as late as the sixth inning.

The biggest knock against Rodon in the start would have to be his control, which wasn’t great: 67 strikes in 108 pitches, with four walks. But the stuff looked extremely live, and the fact that he held and even gained velocity as the start went on speaks well of Rodon’s strength and endurance. White Sox manager Robin Ventura was mum on Rodon’s future status as a starter for the team, but the lefty certainly didn’t hurt his cause on Saturday.

The White Sox lost 10-4 in the day’s first game, but won Rodon’s start 8-2 with the help of dingers from Alexei Ramírez, Avisail García and Gordon Beckham. On Sunday, David Robertson allowed two runs in the top of the ninth to blow the save and allow the Reds to tie the game at 3-3, but Aroldis Chapman allowed three consecutive singles with two outs and Chicago walked off with a 4-3 win. Happy Mother’s Day, Gordon Beckham’s Mom!

Also, I wonder what ever became of this ball.

It’s probably still sitting out there, all cold and lonely. I told myself I wouldn’t cry when writing this…

***

The Pirates turned a 4-5-4 triple play on Saturday, and it was the first time in MLB history any team completed such a play in that sequence.

Weird stuff, huh? So let’s try to recap: Neil Walker snares Yadier Molina’s liner, runs to second to double off Jason Heyward, sees that he doesn’t have time to do that AND get Jhonny Peralta wandering off third, so he throws there. However, Heyward doesn’t seem to register that Walker didn’t touch second, so he kind of chills between second and third, which gives Jung-Ho Kang (who also seemed to think that Peralta was the third out of the inning, so maybe from his point of view it looked like Walker touched the bag) time to throw back to Walker and complete the triple play.

Good Lord. Also, it could have easily been shortstop Jordy Mercer catching the throw from Kang, which would have made it a 4-5-6 triple play, but I can’t find record of that ever happening in the majors either. It did, however, happen in a high school game in 2004 in Agoura Hills, Calif., which is also the hometown of Hoobastank, so I guess things balance out in the end. Also, playing in that game was Robert Stock, the Cardinals second-round pick in 2009 who began his college career at USC when he was just 16 years old.

The Cardinals-Pirates series this weekend was another tightly contested installment of the rivalry Matthew Trueblood detailed last week. The teams were never separated by more than one hit in all three games, and the Pirates came back with wins on Saturday and Sunday after dropping Friday’s contest. It was the Cardinals’ first series loss of the season, but they still have what looks to be a very comfortable 6 ½ game lead in the division.

***

Michael Pineda had the best outing of the weekend, whiffing 16 Orioles in seven innings.

The strikeout total was a career high for Pineda, and he also didn’t walk anybody, boosting his K:BB ratio to a sensational 54:3, which is second in the majors to Bartolo Colón, but I think we can all agree that he doesn’t really count. Pineda split the strikeouts pretty evenly between hard and off-speed stuff: Eight came on four-seamers or cutters, and the rest were on his mid-80s slider.

Furthermore, Pineda’s BABIP as of Sunday was .321, and a high-strikeout performance won’t put much of a dent in that, so it’s likely that he will only get better in the coming months. I think the Yankees won the Pinero-Montero trade, you guys.

Also, this:

***

Garrett Richards has been getting progressively better since his first start of the season on April 19th, and Sunday showed us Richards at his most dominant. He allowed just one hit, which came in his last inning of work, and struck out 10 in 6 2/3 innings.

Richards’ velocity has been ticking up since that first start, and on Sunday he maintained his progress, throwing only one fastball below 95 mph, per the classifications in MLB.com’s play-by-play of the game. Richards’ slider also sat in the upper 80s and touched 90 mph once.

However, per those same classifications, Richards didn’t throw a single curveball, and I believe them, because that pitch tends to sit low-80s and Richards didn’t throw anything slower than 84 mph yesterday. That could be the continuation of a trend for Richards: He started throwing the pitch in earnest late in 2013, when he began starting games, and threw it as much as 12 times in a game in 2014, according to brooksbaseball.net. This season, however, he’s thrown it five times at most. The last game before Sunday where Richards didn’t throw a single curveball was against the A’s on May 30, 2014, a start in which he only threw 37 pitches total and gave up five runs in 2/3 of an inning.

The 10 strikeouts were one short of a career high for Richards; he whiffed 11 Astros on July 6th last season. The Angels won Sunday’s game 3-1, which sent the Astros to their fifth loss in six games since completing a sweep of the Mariners last Sunday. Houston still holds a five-game lead in the division, though, with the 15-17 Angels being the closest team to .500 behind them.

***

The Brewers and the Phillies are bringing up the rear in the majors winning percentage-wise, each with 11-21 records. This isn’t a huge surprise: They were expected to be terrible. But right in front of them, at 12-21, are…the A’s?

Yup, the very same team projected for an 84-78 record by PECOTA. So far, the A’s are hitting fine, but not great; pitching at a below-average, but not terrible level; and fielding like absolute crap. Their .973 fielding percentage, as of Sunday, was good for dead last in the majors. Their defensive efficiency rating was 16th in MLB, but that doesn’t really tell us much because, uh, it doesn’t count errors.

The A’s have given 20 unearned runs this season, second only to the Nationals, and yeah, I know that sort of stat contains an absolute ton of noise pertaining to the pitcher performance, but I think there’s something to be taken from the fact that both of those teams have underperformed significantly so far.

FanGraphs’ team UZR rankings have the A’s at 29th through Sunday, trailed only by the Padres, who have Wil Myers playing center field, for chrissakes. UZR doesn’t like the A’s outfield much either, though: Craig Gentry, Sam Fuld and Josh Reddick all rank negatively in UZR, and pretty much the entire infield has been stinking it up as well, with shortstop Marcus Semien and his -4.4 UZR as of Sunday being the worst offender. Semien also has a .932 fielding percentage, so he’s been pretty bad no matter how you look at it.

The A’s continued to play in a manner fitting the O.co Coliseum’s plumbing this weekend as they got swept by the Mariners, and Saturday’s four-error performance was particularly ugly. After doubling in Robinson Cano with two outs in the first inning, Nelson Cruz scored when Logan Morrison’s grounder went right through Marcus Semien’s five-hole.

Semien was also charged with a throwing error on the play. In the fifth, Cruz ripped a hard grounder at Brett Lawrie, who made a diving stop but proceeded to send the throw to second baseman Eric Sogard into right field, turning what might have been a double play into two runs.


Just because I’m trying to be constructive here: Does this have a chance to get any better? Well, from an upward regression standpoint, yeah, but it’s not like the A’s have any defensive whizzes on the DL, and while early returns on rookie Billy Burns have been promising, he’s still just one dude, and he can’t really hit.

However, the A’s haven’t even been in the top half of MLB clubs in fielding percentage since 2010, so a lackluster defense has been something they’ve dealt with in the past. But with a still-suspect offense and a pitching staff lacking Sean Doolittle and reeling from a recent setback in Jarrod Parker’s rehab, it might be a bit harder.

Also, Felix Hernandez struck out his 2,000th hitter on Sunday. Per reddit user /u/ritchey_ryan, Nolan Ryan, Bob Feller and Sandy Koufax are the only other pitchers to reach 2,000 Ks before turning 30 or making 310 starts.

Defensive play of the weekend

I’m dipping back into the college ranks this week, because while objectively it’s not very good baseball — they can’t really throw strikes, are prone to boneheaded baserunning and have an overall difficult time dealing with anything over 90 mph — those dudes make some absolutely crazy plays sometimes. Like this one!

Your eyes do not deceive you: Conner Hale, while leaning over the dugout railing, caught the ball, then didn’t catch it, then caught it again. Truly absurd.

LSU won that game behind another sterling performance from likely 2017 first-round pick Alex Lange, and swept my soon-to-be alma mater Missouri in three games. They currently sit a game and half clear of Vanderbilt in the overall conference standings and further solidified their case as the top team in the country.

What to watch on Monday

White Sox pitcher Jeff Samardzija is set to return from his suspension for his role in the team’s April 23th fight against the Royals. He’ll face the offensively-challenged Brewers, which is good news for Samardzija, who has yet to give up fewer hits than innings pitched in any start this season. Samardzija’s struggles haven’t just been bad luck: He has a 4.05 FIP, and his 4.10 DRA is 169th in the majors. The right-hander’s just been mediocre across the board: Fewer strikeouts, fewer grounders, more dingers. And the White Sox, who are fourth in the A.L. Central at 12-6, very badly need him to be not mediocre.

***

The Nationals surged above .500 with a sweep of the Braves this weekend, and they head to Arizona to face off against the Diamondbacks. Max Scherzer will oppose Josh Collmenter, and judging by Sherzer’s 2-3 record, he’s been very pedestrian, but judging by literally any other statistic (like his astounding 49:5 K/BB ratio, for instance) he’s been fantastic. Maybe this whole “sabermetrics” business has some value!

***

Dee Gordon will try to continue his so-far otherworldly season at the plate — a .439 average on a totally sustainable .491 (as of Sunday) BABIP — against Zack Greinke, who had been very, very good himself. So far, Gordon has struggled the most against sliders, and Greinke is someone who can throw a very good slider, so it wouldn’t be entirely inconceivable for Greinke to throw Gordon nothing but sliders. Thank me later, Zack.