Archive for January, 2016

Last Year’s Best Pitch By the Numbers

How would you judge a pitch? How would you determine the best pitch in baseball?

By velocity? It’s tempting, because every mile per hour of velocity does add effectiveness to a fastball. But movement is important, and release point, or deception. Consider that Darren O’Day’s rising 87 mph four-seam fastball had the highest whiff rate of any four-seamer in baseball last year. Probably because they were expecting more sink from his arm slot, at least that was his theory.

By movement? Also tempting, movement provides us the easiest visuals. And movement is also linked to good outcomes for changeups and curves. Brett Cecil’s curve got more whiffs than any other curve, all while having three inches less horizontal movement and six inches less drop than your average curve. Weird.

So we’re left looking at results in order to judge pitches. Which results we look at are important, and how we look at them of course. Let’s set up a way to judge pitches simply and look at how they rank.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wei-Yin Chen’s semi-secret (and valuable) skills

Wei-Yin Chen just got a contract that could bring him just shy of nine figures by the time he’s done. If he doesn’t opt out, and the sixth year vests, he gets $96 million.

Here are some other facts about the new Marlins’ lefty. By strikeout rate, he’s 79th out of 132 qualified starters over the last three years. He’s 112th in home runs per nine innings over that same time frame. He’s no sinkerballer that gets by on worm-burning ground balls, either: He’s 110th in ground balls since 2013 began.

But there are a few spots where Chen rates much more highly. And it’s because he sits atop those leaderboards that makes him a good value signing for the Marlins, even at what seems like a hefty price to some.


Chen doesn’t walk batters. He’s 20th of 132 in that statistic over the last three years, and he’s actually improved the last few years as he’s gotten to know the strike zone here. He’s tenth since 2014 began.

Of course, walk rate is not all command. Sometimes pitchers throw the ball outside the zone on purpose, after all. But there are other ways to try and measure the ability to repeat pitches.

One way is to look at breaking balls in counts where the pitcher is looking for a swing as I did for this year’s Hardball Times Annual. In counts like 2-1 and 1-1, batters are looking for a pitch to hit, and that’s the time to bury a breaking ball and get a swing and miss. “The well-commanded breaking ball comes out in the 2-1 count, makes the hitter think fastball, and then bottom drops out,” according to Dodgers starter Brandon McCarthy.

If you judge Chen’s command by his ability to keep his curve low in the zone in those counts, he does well. Only Zach Duke and Will Harris threw more than 50 curves over the last three years in those counts and have kept the ball lower on average.

Another way to look at command is to look at the ability of a pitcher to hit the strike zone in a three balls and no strikes count, when all they want to do is get the free strike. Chen is 32nd out of 111 qualified pitchers over the last three years in that statistic. By all accounts, he can command the ball.

Soft Contact

Sort the FanGraphs leaderboards for soft contact, and you’ll find Chen 36th out of 132 qualified pitchers over the last three years. It gets more impressive if you actually look at the last two years, once again — he’s 17th in Soft% since 2014 started.

Soft contact is judged by human eyes, by someone watching the game. Maybe a better judge is the Statcast system, put in place this last year in all ballparks to judge more advanced statistics. By exit velocity on balls in play, Chen did very well last year — by, he was 25th with an average of 87.6 mph, right between Jacob deGrom and Carlos Martinez.

But even that measure isn’t complete without one more piece of information. A softly hit ball at the right angle can still be a hit. Which brings us to Chen’s last, best skill.

The Pop-Up

There’s a way that Chen uses his command to get that weak contact. His fastball has an inch more rise than the average four-seamer, meaning it falls an inch less than batters expect it to, due to backspin mostly. That movement, plus where he puts it, elicits pop-ups. Look at where Chen throws his fastball to right-handed hitters.


That’s a lot of high and tight for a fastball. Joey Votto once told me about the pitch that creates the pop-up: “It’s got to be the perfect sliver of the strike zone, up and in-ish, and I have to take the wrong swing, and I have to swing at it.”

And so we get to Chen’s best spot on any leaderboard: He’s fifth in baseball in pop-up percentage since 2013, right behind Marco Estrada, Hector Santiago, Max Scherzer, and Trevor Bauer. At 5.6%, he’s almost two standard deviations above the mean (3.2%), so he’s good at what he does.

The pop-up is an automatic out. If you add it to the other automatic out, the strikeout, and subtract the only other automatic play that a pitcher can influence all by himself — the walk — you get a good measure of a pitcher’s quality. Here, then, are the top 30 pitchers since 2013 in strikeouts plus pop-ups minus walks.

Strikeouts and Pop-ups Minus Walks Leaders
Name K% BB% PU% KPU-BB%
Max Scherzer 30.7% 3.8% 5.9% 32.8%
Clayton Kershaw 33.8% 4.7% 2.7% 31.8%
Chris Sale 32.1% 4.9% 3.5% 30.7%
Madison Bumgarner 26.9% 4.5% 4.3% 26.7%
Carlos Carrasco 29.6% 5.9% 2.0% 25.7%
Corey Kluber 27.7% 5.1% 2.8% 25.4%
Jacob deGrom 27.3% 5.1% 3.1% 25.3%
Chris Archer 29.0% 7.6% 2.6% 24.0%
David Price 25.3% 5.3% 4.0% 24.0%
Jake Arrieta 27.1% 5.5% 2.1% 23.7%
Matt Harvey 24.9% 4.9% 3.5% 23.5%
Zack Greinke 23.7% 4.7% 3.1% 22.1%
Jon Lester 25.0% 5.7% 2.5% 21.8%
Cole Hamels 24.4% 7.1% 3.8% 21.1%
Danny Salazar 25.8% 7.0% 2.2% 21.0%
Gerrit Cole 24.3% 5.3% 1.8% 20.8%
Mike Fiers 23.7% 8.4% 5.3% 20.6%
Dallas Keuchel 23.7% 5.6% 2.4% 20.5%
Taijuan Walker 22.2% 5.7% 3.9% 20.4%
Ian Kennedy 24.4% 7.3% 3.0% 20.1%
Jason Hammel 24.2% 5.6% 1.5% 20.1%
Francisco Liriano 26.5% 9.1% 2.5% 19.9%
Wei-Yin Chen 19.3% 5.2% 5.5% 19.6%
Jordan Zimmermann 19.7% 4.7% 4.5% 19.5%
Johnny Cueto 20.3% 5.3% 4.3% 19.3%
PU% = IFFB% * FB%
PU% has a .67 year to year correlation

Suddenly, Wei-Yin Chen is a top-25 starter. He doesn’t have the velocity or strikeout rates of an ace, and he’s not an upper-tier ace even on this final leaderboard.

But there he is, a rank above Jordan Zimmermann, a pitcher who just this season cost millions more. Given that more of Chen’s long fly balls will die in the park this season in Miami, and he’s demonstrated the ability to limit the walks, coax the pop-up, and strike out just enough guys to be a force in a tougher park and a tougher league, maybe the Marlins actually got a steal with their big signing.

Why the Cubs shouldn’t trade Jorge Soler

If the playoffs had never happened, you might scoff at the idea that Jorge Soler is a foundational piece for the Chicago Cubs.

Soler? The guy that was one of the thirty worst players in baseball last year? The guy that couldn’t make contact, couldn’t take a walk, didn’t show the power he was supposed to show, and then ran circles in the outfield? That guy?

Yes, that guy. He’s one of next year’s best break-out candidates. Because of his age, and demonstrated skills to date, Soler is in a group that does well. And his biggest hurdle? He’s jumped it before.

He’s Young

Baseball keeps getting younger, but at 23, Soler was still young for a young league. Only 21 players managed 400 plate appearances last year, and the list reads like a who’s who of young stars.

Just the fact that he’s played so much at a young age and hasn’t been worse than replacement means that he’s got a great chance at a future. Of the 221 players that came to the plate at least 400 times before they turned 24 and were above replacement, 181 managed to average a win per season over the rest of their career. That means Soler has an 82% chance of being a regular.

Two wins per year makes you an average major leaguer, and 60% of those 221 young players were average major leaguers for their careers. Four wins makes you an All Star, on average. 18% of that group ended up averaging four wins a season.

So Soler, just by doing what he’s done so far, is very likely to be a regular, better than a coin flip to be an average major leaguer, and still has a one in five chance of being a star. Those rates compare favorably to a top ten prospect who has been unsullied by major league time. Recent research suggests that top ten position player prospects have a 53% chance of being regulars, and a 35% chance of being superior.

Maybe the shine has come off of Soler’s upside. Major league regulars on cheap deals are still worth something. And then there’s the particular way Soler has played so far.

He Has an Up the Middle Approach

In a long conversation I had with Joey Votto about aging, he said that he concentrated on having an up the middle approach, one that concentrated on hitting balls to the middle part of the field, because that would put him in the best position to have a long, productive career.

The aging curve we created to try and show how up-the-middle players aged compared to pull-happy players didn’t show what Votto thought it might. It looks like pull-happy players might even age a little better than the alternative. But there was an unexpected quirk! Young up-the-middle players surged forward and improved mightily until they hit 25 years old.

It’s an old-school truth, that going up the middle is the best approach, and now it pairs with numbers that prove that it’s really great for young players.

Last year, 40% of Soler’s balls in play went up the middle, compared to 35% of the league’s average. And his contact wasn’t soft. In fact, if you look at a list of guys younger than 25 that showed an up the middle approach but not as much power as they showed in the minor leagues, Soler hit the ball almost as hard as anyone. (Isolated slugging percentage is slugging percentage minus batting average, or a ratio that shows how many extra base hits a player hits.)

Hard, Up-The-Middle, Contact from Young Batters
Name Age Center% Hard% MiLB-MLB ISO
Jorge Soler 23 39.5% 35.6% 0.209
Marcell Ozuna 24 35.0% 35.7% 0.113
Yasiel Puig 24 37.8% 31.9% 0.102
Kris Bryant 23 34.5% 36.5% 0.101
Jake Lamb 24 34.8% 36.8% 0.099
Marcus Semien 24 33.3% 27.5% 0.097
Addison Russell 21 32.8% 27.5% 0.089
Yasmany Tomas 24 39.4% 31.2% 0.063

Kris Bryant may have already finished breaking out, but the rest of the list is still exciting despite some hiccups along the way. They’re all young players that hit the ball hard up the middle and have showed better results in the past, and Soler checks those boxes harder than any of them.

He’s Fixed His Plate Discipline Before

Speaking of Soler’s minor league numbers, there’s another gem hidden within that should give the Cubs hope about his future.

As a Cuban teenager, Soler was forced to wait for his playing time. Then he had to get to America to get into organized baseball. At twenty years old, he was thrown into rookie ball, and he’d never really seen pitchers throw breaking balls with that kind of velocity and command before. The team was content to let him get acclimated to the American culture and game before asking him to do much those first two years.

Then they asked him to be more patient in 2014. He went from walking 8% of the time in his first two years to walking 14% of the time combined in 2014 — which included his first looks at Double- and Triple-A, at 22 years old. He almost doubled his walk rate from year to year, and did so at harder levels — that’s an impressive feat.

Jorge Soler had the seventh-worst strikeout rate in baseball last year — it just seemed like he couldn’t make contact. He didn’t walk much, either. Or show power, as his isolated slugging percentage was below the league average.

But he did hit the ball hard, up the middle, at a young age, and with a minor league track record that showed the capacity to make adjustments and hit for power. All of these things say that he’s likely to much better in the future.

Oh yeah, that, and the fact that he hit .474/.600/1.105 with three homers in 25 postseason plate appearances, and showed us what it can look like when he puts it all together: scary good.