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Is Yoan Moncada’s Breakout Coming?

Yoan Moncada has frustrated talent evaluators over the past two years. He’s about as physically talented as a baseball player can be; while still a prospect, the team here at FanGraphs thought he merited future grades of 60 hit, 60 power, 70 speed, 50 field, and 70 throw, with an OFP of 70 good for No. 1 overall prospect status. Prospects don’t get evaluated much better than that; in fact, a 70 OVR on a position player is as good as it gets. He was the kind of prospect that could headline a trade for a top-five starting pitcher, a bonafide ace, in his prime on a team-friendly contract with three years left.

Flash forward two years, about a year and a half into Moncada’s major league career, and he hasn’t performed quite as billed. Instead, in 901 career plate appearances before Opening Day 2019, he posted a 97 career wRC+ and 3.1 total fWAR, almost exactly league-average or slightly below. His defense at second base has not impressed, and so he’s being moved to the hot corner in the wake of 1) the White Sox whiffing on Manny Machado, and 2) the White Sox drafting “future Gold Glove second sacker” Nick Madrigal with the 4th overall pick in 2018. If nothing changes, he’s be in danger of becoming a utilityman.

Moncada’s offensive struggles are a little unusual. He has two traits required to be an offensive monster — power and patience — in abundance. Last year, his average exit velo of 90.6 mph was in the 86th percentile, while his 4.12 pitches seen per PA was in the 81st percentile. However, those positive traits were offset by the modern game’s bugaboo — strikeouts. Moncada struck out in an ugly 33.4% of his PAs last year, behind only Chris Davis and Joey Gallo, and his career K rate sat at 33.6% this offseason. This is very concerning, as contact issues are a flaw that are difficult to resolve.

The profile above seems to describe a three-true-outcomes hitter like the aforementioned Gallo. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that how Moncada struck out that often is not normal, and in a sense he doesn’t actually have contact issues, at least not 33.4% bad. He didn’t chase many pitches out of the zone last year — only 23.3% — sitting in the 87th percentile of qualified hitters. Neither does his whiff rate of 12.2% (league average in 2018 was 10.7%) jibe with that huge strikeout rate. Taken together, we can conclude that while Moncada’s contact ability may be somewhat below-average, he limits how much he swings-and-misses by rarely chasing pitches out of the zone. So if Moncada doesn’t chase much, and doesn’t swing and miss that much, how is he striking out so much? Read the rest of this entry »

The White Sox Might Have Found A No. 2 Starter For Nothing

The White Sox’ rotation this year can charitably be described as “rocky”. They began the year projected to have the worst rotation in the majors by WAR and thus far they’ve ranked 28th, between the Jeter-decimated Marlins and the aging Rangers. That’s not terribly surprising considering they’ve given out the most walks by far at 4.61 BB/9; besides them, only the Cubs’ rotation is over 4 at 4.21. The White Sox’ rotation also has the lowest strikeout rate in the majors this year at 6.20 K/9. The only thing preventing them from having the worst FIP of any team’s starters is middle-of-pack home run prevention, but their home field is a launching pad come summer.

As I stated before, they weren’t expected to have a good roster of starters, but being a rebuilding club filled with young and therefore volatile players, there was at least theoretically the chance that they made the jump to competence and beyond earlier than expected and surprise people like the Braves have this year. That obviously has not happened, but back in February, when everything is possible, Rian Watt took a look at the surprisingly large error bars in the projections for Chicago’s starters. The backstories of their projected starters agreed with what those large error bars said about a wide range of outcomes.

Lucas Giolito, a former No. 1 global prospect traded to the Sox last year from the Nationals, looked very sharp in spring training, having apparently rediscovered the massive 12-6 curve and some of the fastball velocity that had made him such a vaunted prospect and pairing it with newly found command and an improving, fading changeup. Reynaldo Lopez, fellow right-hander and former top-100 prospect who came over from the Nationals, had disappointing strikeout numbers despite big stuff, between a fastball that averaged 95 MPH, above-average curve and average slider and change– perhaps an improvement in sequencing or location would tap into the strikeouts he clearly had the talent to produce. Carson Fulmer, former No. 7; overall draft pick, has a lively arsenal in which everything moves in unpredictable ways that hitters dislike, albeit unpredictable to him too; perhaps he could make a mechanical adjustment and find the control and therefore success he had in college. Carlos Rodon, former No. 3 overall pick, was out with minor shoulder surgery (bursitis) until June but can flash complete dominance with his overpowering fastball/slider combo from the left side. Everyone knows about the world-class talent of Michael Kopech, who is currently stuck vaporizing poor saps in Triple-A (12.13 K/9!) until he limits his walks to acceptable levels. Bringing up the rear were Miguel Gonzalez, Hector Santiago, and James Shields, three veterans for whom the reasonable hopes were “eat innings better than cannon fodder”.

This article is not about any of the eight pitchers above, or their struggles with control (Giolito, Fulmer), relative successes (Shields), or weirdness (Lopez, who is having some success despite still not getting many strikeouts). Instead, it’s… Dylan Covey?

Yes, the Dylan Covey who ran both an ERA and FIP over seven last year in seventy innings as a rookie, good for -1.1 WAR. Pitching like, well, cannon fodder is not exactly an auspicious start to one’s major league career. Brief background of Covey: He was considered an elite high school arm, the riskiest category of draft picks, thought of high enough to be selected fourteenth overall in 2010 by Milwaukee– one pick after the White Sox selected a certain stick-figure lefty at a little-known Florida college whom Covey out-dueled earlier this June. During his pre-signing medicals, though, Covey was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and he decided not to sign in order to learn how to deal with the disease before the stresses of pro ball. He chose to attend San Diego State and three years later was selected in the fourth round by Oakland.

After another three years of middling results hampered by injuries, Oakland left him off the 40-man roster despite an encouraging AFL and Chicago pounced in the Rule V draft. It was a bit of an unusual choice in that Covey was quite raw, almost akin to the Padres’ Rule V hijacking of prospects straight from A-ball, because Covey had thrown all of six starts at his highest level (Double-A). After hearing that, it probably makes a lot more sense why A) he got rocked the way he did last year and B) there was and is still hope for him. Although he was 25, the rawness showed, but the White Sox were entirely alright with absorbing the losses, as they would only help them pick higher in the 2018 Draft anyways (Nick Madrigal says hello).

Ironically, when he was drafted fourteenth overall in 2010, he was considered as safe as any high school arm could possibly be, on the basis of a low to mid-nineties sinker, above-average curve, ideal workhorse frame (currently listed at 6-2/195), and remarkably clean mechanics for his age. Ground balls, control, good health, and a reasonable number of strikeouts sounds like the perfect profile of a high-floor starter prospect. Of course, it didn’t work out that way in 2010, nor did he really come around while with Oakland. Thus, one might reasonably conclude, this article is being written because he appears to be finally delivering on his talent in his second year with the White Sox.

And so he has. Of course, the disclaimer of “small-sample size” applies here, as Covey has seven starts, and 35.1 innings total in those starts this year, but still, those 35.1 innings have been a complete reversal from his performance in 2017. He’s gotten a shot only because two rotation spots needed filling before Kopech was ready (i.e. past his Super Two deadline). First, Gonzalez went down with a shoulder injury in mid-April; that spot was filled by Santiago sliding from the bullpen into the rotation as he was signed to do. By mid-May, Fulmer’s wildness became too much to bear, and he was sent down to Triple-A to work on that, and Covey was called up to Chicago to get his second shot in the bigs. He’s taken that chance and run with it.

Thus far this year, Covey is the proud owner of a 2.29 ERA, 2.17 FIP, 3.31 xFIP, and 3.48 SIERA, good for a 1.3 fWAR (!) that currently leads all White Sox pitchers. No, I don’t think Covey is suddenly the third-best pitcher in baseball, and yes, that SIERA is a over a run higher than the FIP, and that’s because Covey has yet to give up a home run. That SIERA is still really good, though: among starters this year with at least 30 IP, the highest bar Covey clears, that would be good for 29th, slotting between Blake Snell and Alex Wood. Other pitcher evaluation metrics mostly agree: Baseball Savant’s xwOBA-against judges him at .293, 21st-best among starters. Baseball Prospectus’ DRA, how ever, does not like what he’s done, as his DRA this year is 5.38. There have been 4 unearned runs against him this year, so BBRef’s RA/9 dings him for that but still evaluates him well at 3.31 (Note: two of those unearned runs scored as inherited runners off a reliever). I cannot say why DRA hates him, but when a black-box statistic is in complete disagreement with literally every other ERA estimator, I have to ignore it.

Of course, the instinct of any saber-savvy fan is dismiss this as a fluke, small sample, etc. Anything can happen in small samples– once upon a time, Philip Humber threw a perfect game! That’s what I said, so when I trawled through Covey’s peripherals just to make sure this was a fluke, I kept expecting to find something or another that screamed regression. If there is a statistical red flag for harsh regression beyond his steadfast refusal to give up a home run, it remains as elusive to me as the average Bigfoot. His K% is a bit above average at 22.2% (starters’ average this year is 21.7%), his walk rate is a little better than average at 7.4% (avg is 8.2%), for a just above average K-BB% of 14.8% (avg of 13.6%). His LOB% is a bit low at 71.1% (avg 73.0%), and his BABIP-against is maybe a touch unlucky at .333 (avg .288). His WHIP is a smidge worse than average at 1.30 (avg 1.28). There is, in sum, absolutely nothing out of the ordinary there; by those measures he looks like a league average or slightly above starter. Which isn’t bad, as it suggests that his floor is that of a perfectly cromulent major-league starter, which is already a great outcome for a Rule V pick and vast improvement over last year.

Where Covey starts getting real interesting is when you start looking at the ways in which he might be suppressing home runs. I already told you that Covey’s primary pitch as a high schooler was a heavy sinker, and he’s gone back to his roots with it this year. In 2017, he threw fastballs about 60% of the time, splitting usage about evenly between his sinker and a four-seam. This year, he’s throwing even more fastballs, up to 68.3%, but he’s ditched the four-seam almost entirely; those are nearly exclusively sinkers he’s thrown. The point of a sinker is to get ground balls, and boy oh boy has his sinker done so.

Put simply, Covey’s been a ground ball machine. Among all starters with at least 30 IP this year, he’s tops in ground ball rate at 61.0%. The sinker has done most of that work; when batters put it in play, they beat it into the ground 68.1% of the time, 8th among starters. As one would expect, he’s also not allowed many fly balls; his FB% is a tiny 23.5%, seventh-lowest among his peers. Also unsurprisingly, he’s got the fourth-highest GB/FB, at 2.56, of starters. If his FIP is low because he’s not allowed a home run, well, it’s at least in part because it’s rather difficult to get a home run out of a grounder. When examined more closely, the metrics on his sinker back up its excellent results.

First of all, he’s added some velocity to it. This year his sinker is averaging 94.4 MPH, compared to last year’s 92.9 MPH. The addition of 1.5 to 2 MPH this year versus last is found in all his other pitches, too. Throwing harder across the board: always a good sign! It’s more than just respectably hard. Although Statcast classifies it as a 2-seamer, the pitch has the 29th-lowest average spin rate among either sinkers or 2-seamers this year.

While that and the velocity of the pitch (26th-fastest in the same mix of starters’ 2-seams & sinkers) are both good-not-great numbers, the combination of the two is actually pretty unusual– fastball velocity and spin rate usually have a positive correlation. Less spin is good in this case; the spin is mostly backspin, and the less backspin on a sinker, the more it sinks and (probably) the better it is. Of the 25 starters that throw their 2-seamers/sinkers harder than Covey does, only two– Erick Fedde and Fernando Romero, both rookies with small sample sizes themselves, also have lower spin rates. Stephen Strasburg and Sal Romano also throw harder and barely missed the spin rate cutoff. For comparison, the 2018 preview on Fedde’s FG page describes his sinker as “potentially premium”, Romano and Romero both have their fastballs graded by the FG prospect experts as 70s (plus-plus), and Strasburg rarely throws his 2-seamer.

In short, his sinker is elite for the sum of its parts. It’s generated an exactly league-average 6.8% whiff rate, which doesn’t sound special, but when it’s put in play, hitters can’t help but beat it into the ground. Its grounder/ball in play rate is an incredible 68.1%, 4th among starters and 10th among all pitchers this year. As would be expected, hitters haven’t done too well against it, with a xwOBA against of 0.324, checking in at 13th of all starters’ sinkers/2-seamers.

The three guys ahead of him on the starter list– Trevor Cahill, J.A. Happ, and Marcus Stroman— are interesting for comps, too. None strike out a ton of guys– all have career K/9s under eight– and none walk too many either, like Covey. Unsurprisingly, Stroman and Cahill, sinker/slider righties like Covey, are No. 2 and  No. 3 in starter GB% after Covey. Cahill’s having his best year yet in the A’s rotation, having upped his strikeouts to almost 9 K/9, cut his walks to 2 BB/9, and limiting home runs enough that ERA & ERA estimators are all around 3. Stroman, though he’s been hurt and not pitched well this year, has a track record of four years of being a solid No. 2 starter, especially according to SIERA.

Covey’s secondary pitches– slider (15.6% usage), curve (8.2%) and split-finger changeup (8.7%)– are all about average or better. The slider’s whiff rate is 13.5%, not spectacular but solidly above the league-average slider whiff of 9.0%. It’s not been murdered when it gets hit, either; Statcast’s xwOBA against the pitch is a pitiful .209, good for 16th among starters’ sliders. The change is an effective swing-and-miss pitch too, also with an above-average whiff rate at 15.6%. Hitters haven’t hit the change well either, with a xwOBA against of just .220, 16th among starters’ changeups. The curve hasn’t generated many swings-and-misses (just 2 out of 44 thrown, 4.5%) but hasn’t killed him at an xwOBA of .273, about middle of the pack for starters.

Baseball Savant sure doesn’t think that Covey’s just been extremely lucky in home-run suppression, but just to be sure, I went to go see what thought of him. It thinks he should have given up 1.5 homers so far. Ignoring for a moment the fact that one cannot in fact hit half a home run, although a ground rule double seems close to it, that works out to a deserved rate of 0.382 HR/9. Which, in case you’re wondering, would still be good for fourth-lowest HR/9 of starters— Covey of course currently has the lowest of all at 0. Not perfect, then, but damn close to it. The other names in the top 10 lowest HR/9 are unsurprisingly for the most part really good to great pitchers: Arrieta, Nola, Severino, Bauer, Chatwood (???), deGrom, Buehler, Cueto, and Carlos Martinez, in ascending (towards lowest) order.

So that’s Dylan Covey in 2018: a pitcher with an excellent bread-and-butter sinker, two very good secondaries, and a passable fourth pitch. He’s not walking many, striking out close to a batter per inning, getting ground balls like they’re going out of fashion, and bucking the home run trend. I’m particularly reminded of Stroman in overall profile, but Covey has the advantages of size, a bit of youth, a home field with dirt instead of turf (grounders come off turf faster, meaning more hits), and a considerably younger and rangier infield behind him. He’s also got Don Cooper and Herm Schnieder on his coaching staff, which makes it less likely that he’ll be derailed by either mechanical or health issues. I for one didn’t see this coming, but the White Sox’ patience has already been rewarded with an unexpected breakout by Matt Davidson, so why couldn’t they have found another post-prospect gem? It’s at least interesting to note that Dallas Keuchel and Jake Arrieta, probably the best examples of guys who became great pitchers out of more or less nowhere after given time to reinvent themselves on rebuilding squads, are both in the top 20 in ground ball rate for starters– the category, of course, wherein Covey currently reigns supreme. I don’t really know what more to say. Small sample size notwithstanding, how about Dylan Covey, No. 2 starter?

Notes on process: with a small sample size of just seven starts at time of writing, the minimum cutoffs I employed to compare Covey to other pitchers were usually the minimum that he himself cleared– 30 IP with his 35.1 IP, 10 PA for his xwOBA against his curveball that has 13 PAs, etc. As he gets more starts, the exact numbers and rankings will of course change; the rankings are there not to be exact but rather to give some context for the raw numbers, most of which are obscure enough that the average reader likely cannot evaluate how “good” it is. Everyone knows a 2.29 ERA & 2.16 FIP are great, but I doubt many readers can instantly discern how good, say, a xwOBA of .220 against a certain pitcher’s changeup is. I also made the decision to evaluate almost exclusively against other starters’ 2018 years, as the baseball is again different this year and relievers are increasingly a different, turbo-powered breed of pitcher that cannot fairly be compared to starters.

Reason For Optimism For… Matt Davidson?

Matt Davidson was not good last year. He got 443 plate appearances in his first full MLB year on a rebuilding White Sox club, and it didn’t go well as he posted a WAR of -0.9. That mark was seventh-worse in MLB for position players with at least 400 PA. There’s little mystery how he got there, as he combined DH-only caliber defense with a paltry 83 wRC+.

Davidson achieved that uninspiring number by hitting like a three-true-outcomes guy without the walks, more or less a poor man’s Chris Carter. Good news first: last year, he ran a pretty decent ISO of .232, putting him close to good-to-great hitters like Francisco Lindor, Anthony Rendon, and Anthony Rizzo, cracking 26 homers along the way. His raw strength is very real: he blasted a tape-measure 476-foot moonshot out of Wrigley with a 111MPH exit velocity in July. Big power is a good trait to have, but it’s been devalued in today’s game, where guys like Carter and Logan Morrison can hit 35+ homers in a year and then can’t find contracts of even $5M the following offseason.

Still, significant pop is necessary for a high offensive ceiling, so what’s holding Davidson back? In a word, strikeouts. He struck out a horrifying 37.2% of the time in 2017, second-most in the majors.  Unsurprisingly, his whiff rate was a scary 16.3%, sixth-highest among his peers; for reference, that’s identical to how often hitters swung and missed against Andrew Miller last year. The walk rate that keeps most K-prone sluggers’ OBP somewhat afloat wasn’t in evidence, as Davidson walked only 4.3% of the time. You won’t be shocked to find that he finished second-worst in K/BB with an ugly 0.12. Although he did hit the ball hard (we’ll come back to that), his flyball-heavy batted ball profile and below-average speed kept his BABIP suppressed to .285. That mark was in close agreement with his xBABIP of .283.

The astronomical K% and below-average BABIP held him to an ugly .220 AVG, which combined with the poor BB% led to a truly abysmal OBP of .260, second-worst among hitters with 400+ PAs. The only guy worse in that column was Rougned Odor, who has a similar offensive profile, but at least he can partially blame a particularly unlucky .224 BABIP.

Looking at last year’s stats, there appears to be approximately zero reason for optimism for Matt Davidson. He hit for power well, but was near the top of all the peripheral leaderboards that you really don’t want to be at the top of.  So why is this post being written at all? In short, Davidson seems to have turned over a new leaf this spring.

Now, I know the sabermetric kneejerk reaction to that last sentence: spring training means nothing and spring training stats mean less than that. But that’s not entirely true, as this excellent piece in the Economist way back in 2015 details. If you don’t want to read the whole piece, that’s fine, because it can be summed up very briefly: a hitter’s strikeout rate in spring training actually has a pretty high correlation with their strikeout rate in the regular season. Of course, one of the chief objections to drawing conclusions from spring training stats is the tiny sample sizes with which we’re working. Fortunately, strikeout rate is one of the fastest-stabilizing peripheral rates there is; Fangraphs itself puts the threshold for stabilization of strikeout rate at about 60 PA.

That piece was linked somewhere recently and I read it for the first time. A couple days later, being entirely starved for any form of baseball through this long winter, I reached the rock bottom of scouring the spring training stats of the team I supported, the White Sox. To my own surprise, there was actually something interesting buried there; as you might guess, it was in Matt Davidson’s stat line.

Luckily for us, and this piece, Davidson’s played the most of any White Sox this spring, totaling 60 PA as of March 20. He’s struck out twelve times, a K rate of 20%. He has walked seven times, for a walk rate of 11.7%. In this small sample, he’s almost halved his strikeout rate and nearly tripled his walk rate from 2017. On the one hand, that sounds like an insane improvement that cannot possibly be maintained; on the other, those rates from spring training are by themselves quite unremarkable for a major league hitter. Using BBRef’s summed 2017 stats to calculate league-wide rates, 20% K and 11% BB would have both been slightly better than average league-wide in 2017.

A significant walk rate improvement wouldn’t actually be terribly surprising. If you peruse Davidson’s player page, you’ll find that before last year he never posted a BB% worse than 9.1%, ranging up to 12.0%, from Double-A onwards, a total of five seasons spent mostly at Triple-A plus a month in the majors with Arizona. His walk rate at least doubling this coming year wouldn’t be coming out of left field; rather, it would be him returning to the player he has been in that sense for pretty much his entire professional career minus last year. It will probably come down from 11.7%, given that MLB pitchers likely have better control than those he’s faced this spring, but still, a big jump in walk rate seems likely for him this year.

That strikeout rate is a different animal, though. He’s always struck out a lot, never posting a K rate below 20% at any stop in the minors, and the whiff rate mentioned previously supports that. On the other hand, the sample size is now at the point where this being a complete fluke is pretty unlikely. Is this a real improvement or a mirage? I don’t know, and we don’t have plate discipline numbers in ST to see underlying patterns, but according to Davidson himself, making more contact is exactly what he’s trying to do. It sure seems like he’s succeeding in that thus far. As another small data point, he doesn’t seem to have a pattern of ST flukes in K rate, as in 58 PAs during last year’s spring training he struck out in 37.8% of his plate appearances, a number that echoes his full-season 37.2%.

This wouldn’t be as interesting a case if Davidson did nothing well offensively. He’s a large and very strong man, which is why he hasn’t just been released by the White Sox years ago. Take a look at his contact profile. Basically, last year, he pulled balls, hit more fly balls than ground balls, and vaporized balls in to play, with a quality-of-contact triple-slash line of 15.7% Soft/46.1% Med/38.2% Hard. His HR/FB% was a robust 22.0%, rubbing statistical shoulders with established sluggers like Nelson Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion. In short, when he actually did hit the ball, he looked for all in the world like a poster child for the fly ball revolution. Those underlying numbers hint at a lot more offensive potential than anyone outside of the White Sox organization sees in him, if he could just reduce that giant 32.9 K-BB%.

Now he’s showing signs of significant improvement in that fatal flaw of plate discipline. It doesn’t seem like the improvement in K% and BB% thus far in spring training has cost him much in power, considering that he’s demolished ST pitching to the tune of .358/.433/.679 (1.113 OPS & .321 ISO). Obviously, he’s not going to keep hitting quite that well, but the still-rebuilding White Sox aren’t about to outright bench or demote him either. Maybe it’s all a lot of noise, and he’ll be bad again this year. Or maybe Matt Davidson, at the age of 26, is about to be the Next Big Breakout™. Just as a reminder, it took J.D. Martinez until 26 to figure it out and become the “King Kong of Slug”; Justin Turner was 29-year-old replacement-level utility infielder who suddenly blossomed offensively in 2014; Jose Bautista was almost 30 before he turned into a nightmare for AL pitchers in 2010. So, here’s an prediction I would have laughed off for 2018: Matt Davidson is about to bust out in a big way.


UPDATE 3/29: Davidson hit three homers on a cold day in Kauffman Stadium, every single one of them with a 114+ MPH exit velocity. He also walked and did not strike out. Jump on the bandwagon now while there’s still room.