As we all know, this has been a long, frustrating, mostly inactive offseason for the Mets. After a 92-loss season, they have done little to improve a pitching staff that finished with the second-worst ERA in the National League last year, other than the fairly risky signing of 32-year-old Anthony Swarzak.
They have holes or uncertainties at every position in the infield to some degree and have created a five-man outfield logjam with five starting-caliber, but injury-prone outfielders outside of Jay Bruce.
There are countless paths the Mets could take to try and build a competitive roster, but that’s a topic for another time. What I want to get into is a certain player who must be given a fair chance at a starting role, and that is 24-year-old outfielder Brandon Nimmo.
A first-round pick from 2013, some considered Nimmo a disappointment due to his lack of flashy tools, despite solid numbers throughout the minors. He always maintained a healthy OBP due to his high walk rate and solid contact ability. After a great 2016 season in Triple-A where he put all his tools together to hit .352/.423/.541, he put up a sub-par but not horrible 88 wRC+ in his first 80 plate appearances in the Majors.
Nimmo started to swing the bat more that year, so while his walk rate decreased a little bit, he hit a career-best .352 and still had a spectacular .423 OBP. He also hit for the most power he had ever hit for in a minor league season, and while some of that may be attributed to the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, it was still very encouraging and suggested that Nimmo could develop into a quality Major Leaguer.
With the Mets having a rough 2017 season, Nimmo’s playing time began to increase more and more throughout the year, and he made the most of it. The main thing about Nimmo that was so impressive was his consistent ability to have good at-bats. He has an elite eye at the plate and a unique ability to lay off almost any pitch outside the strike zone.
In fact, among hitters with at least 210 PA last year, Nimmo had the fifth lowest O-Swing percent in all of baseball. He also had the 10th best walk percentage in baseball, behind names such as Joey Votto, Aaron Judge and Mike Trout, and ahead of names such as Josh Donaldson, Kris Bryant and Paul Goldschmidt. He quietly was one of the most disciplined hitters in the league.
Another encouraging sign for Nimmo is how his power developed as the year went on. Never known as a slugger, he showed very little power in his brief 2016 stint with the Mets, and that continued into 2017 as he had just one extra-base hit in his first 25 plate appearances.
His power started to rise in August when he recorded a more respectable .100 ISO while hitting his second career home run (first of the year) along with three doubles, but his power output really started to rise in September and October, when he got the chance to play every day and put up a .219 ISO, which is not only respectable but above average.
To put that into perspective, Chris Davis, Justin Turner and Jose Altuve all had ISOs lower than .210 in 2017. Now, I’m not saying that Nimmo will ever have as much power as those guys, but it’s really encouraging to see how his power developed as he got more comfortable with major league pitching, and is a sign of his potential for the future.
One thing that could be improved about Nimmo’s game is his tendency to strike out. He struck out 27.9 percent of the time, which isn’t terrible, but it is high, and improving this facet of his game would make a huge improvement overall. He didn’t strike out because he was chasing pitches or swinging wildly.
As I mentioned earlier, Nimmo has one of the best eyes at the plate in all of baseball and has a simple, compact swing. The fact of the matter is that Nimmo may have actually been somewhat too selective, as he swung at only 59.3 percent of pitches inside the strike zone, compared to the league average 66.7 percent.
In the rare times that he did swing outside of the strike zone, he made contact 7.6 percent below average. When he swung at pitches in the zone, he made contact at roughly a league average rate, so there’s some room for improvement there as well.
While Nimmo does have some strikeout problems, his are much more easily fixed than the typical young player who comes up and slashes at everything in the dirt since Nimmo already has a great knowledge of the strike zone.
Contact isn’t a huge problem, his contact rate was one percent above average, it’s really just knowing when to take a hack at a hittable pitch, which is something that can definitely improve over time, especially for a hard-working, intelligent young hitter such as Nimmo.
With an improved strikeout rate, I could see Nimmo hitting for a higher average in 2018 even if his BABIP dips, which would add to his already impressive OBP.
But now to get to my main point, which is that the Mets need to give Nimmo a chance at an everyday role despite having five capable outfielders on their team. In his 215 PA last year, he hit .260/.379/.418 with a 117 wRC+.
Granted, he did have a somewhat high .360 BABIP that will likely regress, but Nimmo is someone who has been able to post high BABIPs in the minors, so maintaining an above-average BABIP is certainly feasible.
His .158 ISO is only slightly below league average, and the improvements he showed throughout the season suggest that he may even be able to add a little power in the future. Add league-average power to a great OBP, decent baserunning and passable defense, and you’ve got a starting caliber player.
Something that I think is getting overlooked, however (besides his surprisingly not-awful power), is just how valuable his ability to get on base is, and why the Mets need this guy at the top of the lineup consistently.
His 117 wRC+ was identical to Carlos Santana, Trey Mancini and Yasiel Puig, and was just one point behind Jay Bruce and Francisco Lindor. It was also higher than players such as Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Neil Walker, Lucas Duda and Ryan Braun. Getting on base is one of if not the most valuable skill there is to have as a hitter, and it is something in which Nimmo excels.
Watching him for the past couple years now, he seems to be constantly improving, leading us to believe that there is more in store for the soon-to-be 25-year-old. His 1.1 WAR stretched out to 550 PA equates to a 2.8 WAR, which is above average for a starter and greater than what the recently re-signed Bruce put up last year in 619 PA.
In fact, an argument could be made for starting Nimmo over Bruce, due to the fact that Nimmo provides much better value on the bases and in the field, where he can play all three outfield positions.
Regardless, the Mets need to realize that they have a quality player developing here, and in my opinion, it would not be wise to trade him considering his potential and five years of control left. If I were the Mets right now, I would have him be my Opening Day center fielder.
The Mets need to play Nimmo, and they need to bat him leadoff. Michael Conforto is a great hitter, but he’s not a leadoff hitter. Amed Rosario is not a leadoff hitter. Asdrubal Cabrera is not a leadoff hitter. Nimmo, however, is the embodiment of an ideal leadoff hitter which is someone who works the count consistently and gets on base.
They may platoon him with Juan Lagares, which is understandable considering Nimmo has struggled against lefties so far in his career and Lagares brings elite defense to the table, but no matter what, Nimmo has done more than an adequate job of proving that he is someone worth giving a chance to. Let’s hope for even more improvement from Nimmo in 2018.
Thanks for reading! If you liked this article, you can follow me on Twitter for Tweets about all things baseball, largely including but not limited to the Dodgers and the Mets. I am also a writer for MetsMerizedOnline.com, MetsMinors.net and The K Zone, where this article originally appeared.
If you could pick any catcher to have on your team for the next, say, five years, who would you pick?
The first name that probably comes to most baseball fans’ minds is Buster Posey, who has been the undisputed best all-around catcher in the game for the past several years. Additionally one might think of rising stars such as Gary Sanchez, Willson Contreras and J.T. Realmuto. One is not wrong for doing so, as the four names I mentioned are all fantastic players and certainly deserve credit for being some of the top catchers in the game. But if I had to choose just one catcher to have on my team for the next five years, I would not pick any of those guys.
I would pick Austin Barnes.
Some might think I’d be crazy for picking a guy who was a backup catcher for almost all of last year. But Barnes was, in my opinion, the Dodgers’ deadliest secret weapon. Everyone knew about the sudden emergence of Chris Taylor and Cody Bellinger, but Barnes often got lost in that conversation. While he didn’t receive as much playing time as the average starting catcher, he was one of, if not the best catcher in baseball in the playing time that he did receive. Among catchers with at least 250 PA (Barnes had 262), he ranked first in wRC+ with 142, ahead of Sanchez’s 130, Kurt Suzuki’s 129 and Posey’s 128. Relatively small sample size aside, Barnes was the best hitting catcher in baseball last year.
So if Barnes was the best hitting catcher in baseball, why did he spend almost the entire year as a backup? Well, we can’t blame Dave Roberts too much for that one, considering that they also had Yasmani Grandal, a guy who has established himself as one of the best catchers in baseball with his elite framing skills and power. However, while being a switch hitter, Grandal has always been worse as a right-handed batter than as a left-handed batter, (106 wRC+ vs. 117) and had considerably less power against lefties (.138 ISO vs. 211), so Barnes was used mostly against lefties while Grandal played most games where the Dodgers faced a right-hander. And while one could argue that Barnes’s success was a product of playing against more favorable matchups, he actually had a reverse platoon split, hitting worse against lefties than he did against righties (136 wRC+ vs. 147).
In the middle of the season while Barnes was posting better numbers than Grandal and the Dodgers were in the division race, I do think that it was actually smart of the Dodgers to continue playing Grandal over Barnes the majority of the time, since Grandal was an established player and there was understandable skepticism that Barnes would maintain these numbers. It’s not uncommon for mediocre players to ride an insane BABIP-fueled hot streak for a month or two before regressing back into mediocrity. Just look at Sandy Leon’s 2016. But as Barnes started to get more at-bats and Grandal started to regress in the second half, it became clear that Barnes was not just a fluke, but a legitimately really good player.
First, the offensive side of things. As mentioned earlier, Barnes had the best wRC+ among catchers with at least 250 plate appearances. He hit .289 with a .329 BABIP, which is a little high but certainly not unsustainable considering his above-average batted ball profile. His quality of contact percentages were all roughly or slightly below league average, but what sticks out is that he hit line drives 6% above league average, and instead of strictly pulling the ball, he went up the middle and used the opposite field a lot. Barnes maintaining a .289 average in the future is a completely reasonable proposition.
Perhaps the most undervalued part of Barnes’s game was his above average power. He had a .197 ISO, so he wasn’t just some singles-only slap hitter. To put that into context, Barnes had more power than Corey Seager, Hanley Ramirez and Joc Pederson. So while he hit line drives to all fields and was no slouch in terms of power, probably the most impressive part of his offensive profile is his plate discipline. Barnes walked 14.9% of the time while striking out only 16.4% of the time. His BB/K of 0.91 was second among catchers behind only Posey’s 0.92, and 11th in all of baseball. This was due to his tremendous plate discipline and selectivity. He swung at only 17.4% pitches outside of the strike zone, whereas the average MLB batter swung at 29.9%. And when he did swing at pitches outside of the zone, he made contact 7.8% more often than the average batter. While he did swing at pitches in the zone at a below average rate, due to his selectiveness, he made contact with the pitches he did swing at in the zone 7.3% above league average at 92.8%. This is the sign of a batter with a truly great eye, swinging at the pitches he was confident he could hit while laying off the ones he couldn’t. As a result, he swung and missed only 4.7% of the time.
But let’s get back to the original question that I’m trying to answer: why I would pick Barnes over any other catcher to have for the next five years. A lot of people might pick Posey due to his track record, but I would pick Barnes because, as I’ve explained, I believe he can sustain the numbers he put up this year. Plus, Posey has been declining in the last few years, specifically in his isolated power, which has been worse than Barnes’ ISO in every year of Posey’s career except in 2012 when he won MVP. One could technically argue that Posey is still better than Barnes due to the tiny edge in BB/K, but while Posey has similar overall plate discipline, he also walks 4.2% less than Barnes and has been experiencing a power decline as he’s gotten older. His ISO last year was .142, .055 lower than Barnes. Plus, he’s three years older and on the wrong side of 30. Plate discipline is a skill that ages well, but power is not, and the fact that Posey has about equal plate discipline and significantly worse and declining power easily puts Barnes over the edge for me. I’m a believer in the notion that strikeouts don’t matter that much as long as you walk a lot, so I’ll gladly take Barnes’ extra walks over Posey’s lower strikeout rate, meaning I prefer Barnes’s plate discipline and power over Posey’s. Posey’s career accomplishments can’t be denied, and I’m sure he’ll still be great in the next few years, but I would much rather take my chances with a less-proven Barnes.
Defense (which is also extremely important for catchers) is a whole other story I’ll get to after I wrap up my analysis of his offense. But as far as offense is concerned, Barnes simply has a much more impressive and well-rounded offensive profile than any other catcher in the game today. Does he do everything better than everyone? No. Sanchez has more power and Realmuto is a better baserunner. But Barnes is the best overall hitter among them, walks more than all of them except for Alex Avila and Andrew Knapp (who are clearly worse catchers than Barnes for a myriad of other reasons), strikes out less than most of them, has above average power, and has speed. Using Bill James’s Speed rating, or “Spd,” Barnes gets a 4.9, which puts him 4th among catchers, a tick behind Realmuto and Chris Hermann (5.0) and Christian Vazquez (5.1). Catchers have always been notoriously slow, so to have a serviceable runner who can steal bases and take an extra base from the catcher position is extremely valuable, especially considering how awful most other catchers are at running. His baserunning is admittedly far from perfect, as evidenced by his -1.6 BsR, but he definitely has the speed and athleticism to steal more than the four bases he stole this year, and really anything you can get out of the catcher position in terms of baserunning is valuable, considering that there are MLB catchers who go multiple seasons without even attempting to steal a base. Barnes’s combination of contact, plate discipline, power and speed are the most well-rounded of any catcher in baseball, and it’s a coach’s dream to have a player with the amount of tools that he has.
Of course, these offensive tools would be valuable at any position. But what really makes Barnes special is that he’s additionally a fantastic fielding catcher. In Baseball Prospectus’s Fielding Runs Above Average, which combines framing runs, blocking runs, throwing runs, and basic defensive components such as fielding ground balls, Barnes ranked 9th among all catchers and 8th in FRAA_ADJ, which takes out the “normal” FRAA components that are included in all players’ FRAA and instead focuses just on a catcher’s framing runs, blocking runs and throwing runs. If Barnes had played the same amount of innings at catcher that Grandal played, while defending at the same level, he would have had 23.7 FRAA, which would have been 2nd among catchers behind only Austin Hedges, and 25.5 FRAA_ADJ, which would have led baseball. Barnes is an elite defensive catcher. To say exactly how good he is would be tough due to the imperfectness of these fairly new defensive statistics and the relatively small sample size. But another argument one could make for starting Grandal over Barnes could be that Grandal is a great defensive catcher, which he undoubtedly is, but Barnes is just as good if not better. Additionally, Grandal had an alarming 16 passed balls in 2017, his second straight year leading the league in passed balls, while Barnes had just three. While Barnes is a fantastic defensive catcher, he’s also shown that he can play a serviceable second base as well due to his agility and athleticism that few catchers have.
Overall, there really just isn’t anything Barnes can’t do. He hits for average, gets on base, has great plate discipline, can hit for power, plays a great defensive catcher, and can even play second base. He’s a little old for a rising star, but still relatively young as he’ll be playing his age-28 season in 2018, and I would prefer to have him on my team than a younger catcher like Sanchez, Realmuto or Contreras. Posey’s entering a power and age decline, and while Sanchez and Contreras may be “flashier” with their towering home runs, I believe Barnes has a more well-rounded toolset that will age well and provide value even if he does happen to struggle with the bat, which I don’t think he will due to the reasons explained earlier. Realmuto is basically Barnes with slightly less power and far worse plate discipline, but is more well known by most fans, mostly due to him having already established a starting role. A case could certainly be made for any of these guys over Barnes, but after looking at the strengths, weaknesses, and tools of each player, I would be extremely confident to pick Barnes over star catchers such as Posey, Sanchez, Contreras, Realmuto, Grandal, Mike Zunino, and any other active catcher. Am I overreacting to 262 plate appearances? Maybe. But after looking closely at the stats and watching Barnes develop as a player, I am fully confident that he will blossom into one of the best if not the best catcher in the game over the next five years.
In the middle of the 2017 season, it looked as though the New York Mets were in dire need of a serviceable catcher. Now, heading into the offseason, it looks as though the position will actually be one of their last priorities.
For the past four seasons, the Mets’ catchers have been led by the inconsistent and oft-injured Travis d’Arnaud. d’Arnaud was called up in 2013 and struggled mightily right out of the gate with a 60 wRC+, but figured things out a bit in 2014 when he played in 108 games while providing roughly league-average offense and an overall 1.3 WAR season. He had his best offensive season in 2015, but he missed a lot of time due to injuries, playing in only 67 games with an impressive 130 wRC+. 2016 was a down year for him as he played in only 75 games and had a down year at the plate. 2017 was the best year for him health-wise, as he set career highs in most counting stats. However, he had a mediocre and inconsistent year at the plate, and until August 19th, he was batting just .231/.279/.400 (76 wRC+). d’Arnaud was once a well-regarded prospect, but he seemed to molding into an inconsistent mediocre offensive catcher. And this doesn’t even include his struggles with throwing out runners.
And the problem was, there was nobody behind him who could do a serviceable job at catcher every day. d’Arnaud’s offense may have been underwhelming, but it was at least good enough to keep him in the lineup regularly. From 2014-2016, the Mets ranked 26th of the 30 teams in cumulative catcher wRC+ and 27th in cumulative catcher WAR. d’Arnaud was mediocre and oft-injured while the six other catchers who filled in for him in that time frame ranged from bad to downright awful. Five of those six were veteran backup/minor-league catchers who you shouldn’t have expected much from, but one of them was particularly disappointing, and that was former 2012 2nd round pick Kevin Plawecki. Like d’Arnaud, the Mets once viewed Plawecki as a potential future franchise catcher, and while Plawecki did prove to be better defensively than d’Arnaud, with a much better arm and better pitch-framing, his hitting was unfortunately pathetic, as in this three-year time span he collected 409 plate appearances and a terrible .211/.287/.285 batting line. Unsurprisingly, Plawecki also collected a lot of time in Triple-A during this time, and he continued to mash down in the hitter-friendly environment of Las Vegas, but he just could never things out with the bat at the major-league level.
Plawecki started the 2017 season in the majors, and through May 21 he collected 28 plate appearances and batted just .125/.214/.167. One noticeable thing about his offense despite his struggles was that he continued to post a pretty good walk rate of 8.2% and a surprisingly respectable 22.1% strikeout rate. His overall batting profile looked pretty mediocre, and his batted-ball direction profile was pretty even in terms of using all fields. The main problem for Plawecki was that he just wasn’t hitting the ball hard enough or hitting enough line drives.
Plawecki then spent a huge chunk of the season in Triple-A, where, as always, he hit really well, and then he returned on August 19th and completely turned things around. The sample size was still relatively small, but in the 90 plate appearances Plawecki had to close out the season, he hit .303/.411/.474, good for a 137 wRC+, and he did this while posting a fairly normal .333 BABIP. His walk rate went from good to great, as he walked 13.3% of the time while striking out only slightly more at 14.4% of the time. This is a manager’s dream nowadays, in an era where hitters are striking out more than ever, and Plawecki managed to do this while improving greatly in the contact he made, the quality of contact and most importantly, his power. Until his late-season turnaround, he had always had an ISO far below .100, which is awful, and he improved that mark to an above-average .170. Plawecki had finally converted his success in the minors to the majors, and it’s really impressive how he improved in every area of his game. He increased walks, decreased strikeouts, increased contact and increased power. Obviously he still has a little ways to go before he establishes himself as a reliable starting catcher, but if this hot streak proves to be more than just a fluke, Plawecki could actually blossom into one of the most well-rounded catchers in the game. The charts below show how significant and surprising Plawecki’s resurgence was.
Kevin Plawecki From 4/21/15 to 5/21/17
Kevin Plawecki from 8/19/17 to 10/1/17
Relatively small sample size aside, this was still extremely encouraging of someone who was seemingly molding into a classic AAAA hitter and disappointing prospect. He looked like a completely different hitter when he came back, as he was more selective and had a quality at-bat seemingly every time he came to the plate. So all hope is in fact not lost for Kevin Plawecki.
But what’s just as notable about Plawecki’s hot streak is that it must have fired some competition into d’Arnaud, who turned his season around with an even hotter streak of his own in this time period. From when Plawecki returned from the minors, August 19th, until the end of the season, d’Arnaud slashed an impressive .297/.350/.571 (141 wRC+) after that bad start I mentioned earlier of only a 76 wRC+ until that point. Like Plawecki, d’Arnaud accomplished this new level with a sustainable BABIP (.279). Here’s a chart of what d’Arnaud did through August 19th vs. what he did after.
Travis d’Arnaud From 4/3/17 to 8/19/17
Travis d’Arnaud From 8/20/17 to 10/1/17
Like Plawecki, d’Arnaud began walking more, striking out less, and hitting for power, all extremely good signs. d’Arnaud is more of a power-hitting catcher than Plawecki, as he is below average in drawing walks, while Plawecki is more of an OBP-centered player who also happens to have an above-average amount of power with his big, muscular body type. If they can really use these tools to their full potentials like they did in their late-season surges, they can both be quality starting catchers or at the very least, one can be a solid backup for the other.
In addition to d’Arnaud and Plawecki, the Mets also have a catcher rising through their farm system to keep an eye on named Tomas Nido, an eighth-round pick in the 2012 draft (the same draft that Plawecki was picked in). Nido’s not a huge prospect, but the Mets are still excited and optimistic with him and believe that he has the tools to be a starting catcher. Nido is described by fangragsports.com as “a very strong and powerful catcher. He has an ideal frame to be a catcher in professional baseball.” The 23-year-old is 6’0′ and 210 lbs, so he has the frame and strength, but it is also mentioned that he has an aggressive approach at the plate and has a long swing that he uses to try and blast home runs, and scouts wish he could tame that swing a little to try and hit for a better average. Nido didn’t hit much in rookie ball or A-ball, but he hit very well in High-A ball in 2016 when he hit .320/.357/.429. Unfortunately, he didn’t make a great transition to Double-A this year, where he hit just .232/.287/.354. He got a late September call-up to the majors at the end of the season and got three hits in his first six at-bats before collecting a tough 0-4 day in the final game of the season, so he ultimately went 3-10 at the highest level. Nido is a good defensive catcher, and figures to spend all or most of 2018 in Triple-A Las Vegas, where hopefully the hitter-friendly environment will allow him to really find his swing and have a chance to produce at the major-league level. Nido has no one tool that overwhelms, but if he puts it all together he has a chance to be a solid major-league catcher.
Overall it seems as though the Mets have more depth at the catcher position than they realized if d’Arnaud and Plawecki’s late-season surges mean anything. d’Arnaud is an established mediocre starting catcher with potential for much more, while Plawecki and Nido are still yet to really establish themselves in the majors and are going to need a little more development before the Mets can commit to either one of them as a starting catcher. But these hot streaks and the continued development of Nido should leave Mets fans excited for the potential of a great major-league catching tandem. And due to this newly realized depth at the position, it would no longer make sense to spend money on someone like Jonathan Lucroy in free agency, as it may have made sense three months ago. At this point in Lucroy’s career, the extra money spent wouldn’t be worth the slight upgrade, or possibly even downgrade, of Lucroy compared to what they have now. What the Mets need to do next season is give both d’Arnaud and Plawecki a fair shot, and whoever hits more gets to play more, while keeping note of Nido’s development in case he is needed at the major-league level. But the Mets should feel fairly comfortable with their in-house catching options and it should be one of their last priorities heading into the 2017-2018 offseason.
T.J. Rivera has had a remarkably unlikely path to the majors, going from an undrafted free agent to now the Mets’ starting third baseman. He has always had his doubters, and still does, but he got to the majors by consistently putting up around a .300 average in the minors with an above-average OPS despite his lack of walks and power. In 2016, a hitter-friendly park helped him enjoy a career year in Triple-A, winning the PCL batting title with a .353 average, a .909 OPS, a 142 wRC+ and a promotion to the majors for the first time in his career at the age of 27. He continued his success into the majors, where he was a key piece in the Mets’ 2016 Wild Card run. He was able to replicate the numbers he had put up during his entire minors career, batting .333/.345/.443 with a 119 wRC+ in 113 plate appearances.
Rivera’s impressive and somewhat surprising debut stint in the majors eased some of the concerns scouts had with his game, but plenty of people still had their doubts. The expectation was that Rivera would not be able to hit for a .300+ batting average in the majors like he did in the minors due to the tougher competition and better defenses. Rivera proved them wrong by hitting .333, although he was admittedly helped out by an unsustainable but certainly not outrageous .360 BABIP. Rivera posted BABIPs comfortably over .300 in the minors, so while some regression seemed to be in store for his future, it was certainly not crazy to predict that Rivera would still be able to hold a .300 average in the majors. If he had any chance of becoming a full-time starter at the highest level, he was going to need to keep that batting average in the vicinity of .300 to make up for his lack of other skills, such as patience, power, and defensive ability.
Rivera has always been known as a line-drive hitter with an aggressive approach at the plate. He likes to swing early in counts, and as a result he doesn’t walk much, but at the same time he is a contact hitter and doesn’t let his aggressive approach negatively affect his strikeouts. He doesn’t have much natural power, so for him to be successful, he just has to continue focusing on trying to hit line drives to the gaps and swinging at the right pitches.
In his first sample of major-league pitching, he was able to hit line drives at an above-average rate of 23.9%, compared to the MLB average rate of about 21%. It’s worth mentioning that this rate was higher than his typical LD% in the minors, showing that he was actually hitting more line drives vs. major-league pitching than minor-league pitching. He hit ground balls at a rate of 42.4%, which was also lower than he generally hit in the minors, and of course, preventing the amount of ground balls you hit leads to more success at the highest level, especially when you’re hitting them to the best infielders in the world. This GB% was slightly lower than the MLB average of about 45%, showing that some work could still be done on his GB% but that it wasn’t a serious problem. He also may have been helped about by a bit of luck on some of these ground balls, as he had a .360 BABIP that was sure to regress a little. Rather than hitting ground balls, the thing he needed to work on was hitting fly balls, which he did at a slightly below-average rate of 33.7%. For someone with not a lot of raw power, hitting more fly balls would be beneficial to making the most of whatever power he did have.
Overall, Rivera’s results in the majors had been a very pleasant surprise, don’t get me wrong. The key thing he showed in his 2016 debut is that he was not over-matched by major-league pitching, continuing to do the same things that made him successful in the minors. But in 113 plate appearances, he drew a grand total of three walks, which won’t quite cut it if you want to be an everyday starter. In addition to that, he was only making hard contact (according to FanGraphs) 27.2% of the time, below the MLB average of about 31%. Being the line-drive hitter that he was, he had the ability to hit the ball harder, and the thing he needed to do was to focus on hitting more fly balls and improving his launch angle by just a tick. This doesn’t mean that he needed to become a completely different hitter, but hitting the ball a little higher in the air more rather than on the ground or in a straight line would benefit him in not only his average but his isolated power, and also help him hit for a BABIP that would be less likely to regress.
Things got off to a bit of a slow start in 2017 due to lack of playing time and a short stint in Triple-A, but as injuries have befuddled the Mets, he has received more and more playing time, and at this point has basically hit himself into a starting role at third base.
As of July 15th, Rivera has hit .304/.350/.464. A chunk of this production has come in his last 10 games, where he’s hit nearly .500 en route to a 10-game hitting streak. Still, that batting line is “classic T.J.” At first glance it might seem like a small drop-off from last year, but if you look a little deeper, Rivera has actually improved in quite a few areas compared to last year.
First off, he has slightly decreased his soft-contact rate since last year by 2% while increasing his hard-contact rate by 4.2%. Immediately this looks like a recipe for success; hitting the ball harder more often and softer less often cannot be a bad thing.
While hitting the ball harder compared to last year, he’s also hit more fly balls, improving from a slightly below-average 33.7% last year to an above-average 40.1% this year, while also decreasing his GB% by 6.9%. So he’s hitting the ball harder, he’s hitting more fly balls, and he’s hitting fewer ground balls. These were all little things that I mentioned earlier that he could tweak to become a more polished hitter, and he has improved slowly but surely in these minor aspects of his game.
But at heart, Rivera is still the same hitter, just a better version of himself. He’s still a line-drive machine, with an LD% just a tiny bit higher this year compared to last year (24.3 vs.23.9). This shows that he has improved on hitting the ball harder and in the air while still playing his usual game. And, as it should, hitting the ball harder has caused his ISO to increase from .143 to .160, meaning that he’s taking better advantage of the power he has.
While he is still aggressive and still likes to swing early in counts, he’s also improved his walk rate slightly, from a measly 2.7% to a still below-average 4.5%, as Rivera’s plate discipline has slightly improved this year. Here’s a graph of his amount of pitches swung at outside the zone (blue), inside the zone (red), and overall (yellow).
He’s become slightly more patient and selective, swinging at more pitches in the zone and fewer pitches out of the zone. The data also shows that he’s swinging at the right pitches, as here’s a graph of his contact rate outside the zone (blue), inside the zone (red), and overall (yellow).
As you can see, he’s making contact at about the same rate on pitches in the zone, while the pitches he’s going after that are outside the zone have generally been better pitches to hit, as you can see by his increased O-Contact%. Even more importantly, he’s swinging and missing less, as last year he swung and missed an above-average 12.1% of the time while this year he’s swinging and missing at a slightly below-average rate of 10.2%. Rivera will always be a contact-first type hitter, but he’s tweaked some minor flaws in his game and is actually molding into more of an all-around hitter than people may think.
So why is his batting line appear slightly worse than last year, if he’s doing so many things better? Well, it’s really only his batting average that has declined, and that’s mostly due to a BABIP .024 lower than last year. In the minors, Rivera had always been able to keep a BABIP in the mid-.300s, so with a BABIP of .336 this year and the fact that he’s hitting the ball harder and in the air, there shouldn’t be any regression this year; in fact, his batting average is more likely to go slightly up than down. He’s improved his on-base skill and power to the point where they are still below-average skills, but they are respectable enough that his excellence in hitting for average and hitting line drives outweighs them.
So T.J. Rivera really seems like a major-league starter this year, proving that his amazingly consistent minor-league numbers and impressive MLB debut were not flukes. His defense is admittedly mediocre, as he’s accumulated -2.0 defensive runs in his career according to FanGraphs. But there really is no doubt that he can hit. This guy now has a .322/.367/.439 batting line in 3,225 professional plate appearances, so I think it’s time to stop doubting what he can do and let him play every day, because with the improvements he’s made in his game and the way he’s been able to adjust to major-league pitching, he absolutely deserves it.
Dodgers superstar ace Clayton Kershaw has already cemented himself as the greatest starting pitcher of this generation and could go down as one of the best of all time. Despite all his tremendous regular-season success, an ongoing narrative has haunted him throughout most of his career, a well-known theory that Kershaw chokes in the postseason and can’t pitch in big games.
But in reality, this actually hasn’t been the case, and the fact that so many people consider Kershaw to be a choke artist speaks more to his amazing regular-season dominance than any struggles he’s had in the playoffs. Through 282 starts in the regular season, Kershaw has an outstanding 2.35 ERA and 0.998 WHIP, so anything worse than that in the postseason is going to feel like a disappointment.
The main argument defending Kershaw’s postseason woes for awhile now has been lack of sample size. As Kershaw has reached the playoffs more and more this argument has weakened a little bit but is still relevant, as his 89 total postseason innings pitched is less than half of what Kershaw pitches in a typical regular season. It’s a large enough sample size that we can make some conclusions about how Kershaw has pitched in the playoffs, but not enough that we can judge his true-talent level. We have 1892.1 innings of regular-season data to judge his true-talent level.
Let’s start with the basic statistics. In 18 games (14 starts), Kershaw is 4-7 with a 4.55 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP. At first glance these numbers seem not horrific, but very underwhelming for what we’ve come to expect from Kershaw. This ERA is a mix of some very good starts and some not so good ones that evens out to a mediocre 4.55.
But as we start delving into the advanced statistics, Kershaw doesn’t look so bad. His FIP is a very good 3.13, with his xFIP about the same at 3.17. These stats take into account the things the pitcher can mostly control — strikeouts, walks and home runs — in an attempt to gauge a pitcher’s true-talent level in the sample size given, and are on the same scale as ERA. So in a sense, Kershaw has had some bad luck in the playoffs, and while the results still haven’t been as great as his regular-season results, he has still mostly pitched like himself.
But where does this FIP come from, and why is it so much lower than his ERA? FIP takes into account strikeouts, an area in which Kershaw has actually performed better in the postseason than in the regular season. In the regular season, he has averaged 9.88 K/9, while in the postseason, he has averaged 10.72 K/9. He has also kept his walks down in the playoffs, averaging 2.73 BB/9, which is only a little bit worse than his regular season 2.37. As a result, his 21.5 K-BB% in the postseason is nearly identical to his 21.2 regular season K-BB%. So the problems he’s had in the postseason haven’t had to do with walking too many hitters or not striking out any batters. In that regard, he’s still pitched like the Clayton Kershaw we know and love. So where have his issues come from?
The answer to that is a higher average on balls in play, a higher HR/FB%, and a bad bullpen coming in to relieve him. FIP also takes into account home runs, and he has allowed more home runs in the postseason, averaging 1.01 HR/9 (which is still good, just not Kershaw good) versus an outstanding 0.58 HR/9 in the regular season. It’s really not fair to criticize him too much for this since his postseason sample size is still less than half of a regular season. In fact, that 1.01 HR/9 is actually better than his 2017 regular season HR/9 so far, which is a very uncharacteristic 1.22 in a year where he’s been neck-and-neck with Max Scherzer for the Cy Young award. Kershaw has allowed more home runs in the postseason as a result of not only a slightly higher fly ball% but also a higher HR/FB%, 10.9 versus 7.7 in the regular season. While this doesn’t mean that he’s been unlucky, it does mean that his HR/FB% is likely to regress closer to his career norms. xFIP takes this into account and the number ends up being virtually the same as his FIP.
In addition to the extra home runs, Kershaw hasn’t been as lucky on balls in play as he has in his career. In the regular season, he’s held a .269 BABIP, which for most pitchers would be thought to be unsustainable, but Kershaw’s pitched for so long now that it’s become clear that he’s just that good. He hasn’t been quite as lucky in the postseason, where he’s allowed a .295 BABIP. And it’s not like Kershaw has allowed way more hard-hit balls in the playoffs than in the regular season, although he has allowed slightly more. He has a 20.1 line-drive rate in the playoffs, which is just slightly higher but very similar to his 19.8% in the regular season. Pitchers obviously try to prevent line drives, as they often result in hits, and Kershaw has prevented line drives from being hit about as well in the playoffs as in the regular season. So that’s not the problem.
Kershaw has allowed slightly more fly balls — 40.2 FB% versus 34.3% — and this, paired with the higher HR/FB%, makes for a bad combination and more home runs. He’s still allowed ground balls at a similar rate, only slightly less, at 39.7% versus 45.9%. So has Kershaw allowed more well-hit balls in the postseason than in the regular season? Yes, but only slightly, and not enough that he should be considered a choker. The only slight increase in line drives shouldn’t result in as big a gap in BABIP as it actually does, meaning that luck has not quite been on Kershaw’s side the way it has been in the regular season. He’s struck people out like regular-season Kershaw, he’s prevented walks like regular-season Kershaw, and he’s prevented balls from being well hit only slightly less than regular-season Kershaw. That, in addition to slightly more fly balls leaving the ballpark, has resulted in a really good pitcher that maybe is not quite as good as regular-season Kershaw, but still very good, and it certainly doesn’t warrant calling him a “choke artist.”
It can also be argued that Kershaw has been overused and over-pressured to do well. He’s been so ridiculously good in the regular season that the expectations are for him to be just as good in the playoffs and to do it practically every three or four days against the best teams in baseball. Anything less and he seem like a disappointment. People often overlook the great moments he’s had in the playoffs, like when he came out of the bullpen against the Nationals to save a tight game or when he dominated the eventual World Champion Cubs in Game 2 of the 2016 NLCS. As a result of high expectations and trust in Kershaw, he has perhaps been left in games slightly longer than he maybe should have.
An occurrence that has plagued Kershaw in the postseason a few times is going deep into games and then getting hit around before his exit from the game. He’s often left with men on base, and the relievers coming in after him haven’t exactly been kind to him, allowing nine of the 14 runners he’s left on base to score. Let’s say the bullpen comes in and dominates, stranding all 14 of those runners, and his postseason ERA drops from 4.55 all the way down to 3.64.
Also remember that in the playoffs, teams are in their full strength and effort, doing everything they possibly can to try and win. These are the best teams in baseball, the teams that had everything working well enough for 162 games to make it past all the other teams and into the playoffs. The offenses Kershaw has to face in the playoffs are going to generally be better than the average offense he might face throughout the season. It is not uncommon for great pitchers to have slightly worse results in the playoffs. Madison Bumgarner, a famous “postseason hero” for the Giants, has a postseason FIP only 0.02 better than Kershaw’s and an xFIP 0.43 worse than Kershaw’s. Luck can go in very different directions for some pitchers in small sample sizes, and this is a perfect example.
Look at Pedro Martinez. In more postseason innings pitched than Kershaw, he has a significantly worse FIP/xFIP (3.75/4.31) despite an unsustainable low BABIP of .257, lower than his regular season .279. And no one thinks of him as a postseason “choker.” Greg Maddux, another all-time great, also has a worse FIP/xFIP (3.66/4.45) than Kershaw in even more innings pitched (198). And nobody considers him a postseason choker. Roger Clemens is the same deal. 3.52 FIP, 3.91 xFIP in 199 innings pitched. These pitchers are still considered all-time greats despite having postseason numbers that are arguably worse than Kershaw’s.
This really goes to show just how good Kershaw has been in the regular season. He puts up godlike numbers and then when he puts up “only” good numbers in the playoffs, it seems like he’s bad in comparison. When you look at the aforementioned fellow all-time greats, it’s clear that Kershaw is not the first great pitcher to have a little trouble in the playoffs.
So has Kershaw been as utterly dominant in the playoffs as in the regular season? No. But has he been a choke artist who gives up eight runs every time he’s put under pressure? No, not at all. He has had some rough outings in the postseason, particularly against the Cardinals, where he hasn’t been able to dominate and take control of the game quite like normal, but he has also had plenty of good moments of great pitching and when he’s left with runners on base, his bullpen has mostly let him down. All he really needs is one great World Series run to erase this ongoing narrative once and for all. No matter what, these small hiccups in the playoffs shouldn’t diminish the legendary career that Clayton Kershaw is in the midst of.