Reflecting on the Cubs’ Five-Year Run

Last month at The Athletic, Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma took a deep dive into the Cubs’ successes and failures from 2015 through the conclusion of 2019. This led me to reflect upon this five-year run and try to figure out if, on the whole, it should be considered a success. They famously broke the franchise’s 112-year World Series drought, yet this Cubs team has seemed to leave baseball fans (especially Cubs fans) wanting more. When they took the league by storm in 2015 to the tune of 97 wins (a meteoric 24-win increase from the previous season), the baseball community was not asking if this group would win a World Series, but when. After the 2016 championship, we spent all offseason dreaming about how many World Series this group could claim over the next five years.

Of course, this Cubs group has yet to win another ring. Joe Maddon has left. Trade rumors have been swarming around the likes of Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber following reports of the Ricketts wanting to cut payroll. How do the Cubs pivot after this lost season? How much longer does Theo Epstein have to turn this ship around? These are the existential questions being asked in and around Wrigleyville after this season’s second-half collapse.

However, I would argue these questions are not totally fair. This Cubs core of Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Jon Lester has led the team to post one of the best five-year runs in the National League since the inception of the Wild Card in 1994. The Cubs were swept in the NLCS in 2015 at the hands of the Mets, won the World Series in 2016, lost the NLCS in five games to the Dodgers in 2017, lost in the wild card game to the Rockies in 2018, and missed the playoffs this year. Those regular seasons, in order, consisted of 97, 103, 92, 95, and just 84 wins this past season. Simply looking at the playoff and regular season results, this does not feel like a completely dominant stretch of baseball. Read the rest of this entry »

2019’s Quietest Breakout

The 2019 Reds were an enigma. They had the firepower, led by the homer-happy Eugenio Suarez. They had the rookie sensation, Aristides Aquino, who dingered like it was nobody’s business. On the pitching side, they had a steady crop of reliable pitchers. Sonny Gray was the unquestionable ace of the staff while the quartet of Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen, Amir Garrett, and Robert Stephenson anchored the pen. Despite all that, they finished with a lowly 75-87 record, 16 games behind the first-place Cardinals.

Going into 2019, no one would have guessed how pivotal of a role Stephenson, 26, would have played. He came into the year with a career 5.47 ERA, a 5.50 FIP, and a 1.673 WHIP over the past three seasons. His career was clearly at a crossroads; He was a former top prospect who hadn’t shown sustained success at the major-league level. He spent much of 2018 in the minors, regaining his mojo, pitching to a 2.87 ERA in 20 starts with the Louisville Bats, Cincinnati’s Triple-A affiliate.

The Reds announced at the end of spring training that Stephenson would start 2019 out of the bullpen. Since Stephenson was out of options, this year was most likely the last chance he would get in Cincinnati. It became a make-or-break, sink-or-swim, pitch-well-or-ya-gone type of campaign. Despite all of the stress and lack of previous MLB success, Stephenson engineered one of the most unheard and unlikely breakout seasons in 2019.

His Baseball Savant page is a thing of beauty. His xBA, xSLG, hard-hit percentage, and xwOBA all rank in the top 5% of all pitchers in 2019, while his strikeout percentage, fastball velocity, and exit velocity against placed him in or over the 25th percentile. Read the rest of this entry »

How the Nationals Outsmarted Paul Goldschmidt in the NLCS

The NLCS had a weird feel to it from the get go. The Nationals’ pitching was stupendous, balls hit off the bat that sounded like towering home runs were dying on the warning track, and of course, the Cardinals bats never woke up. This was a bit unexpected considering the club’s monster first inning in Atlanta during game 5 of the NLDS. We were all waiting for the Cardinals offense to appear, but it never showed up, as they only scored six runs in a four-game sweep by the Nationals.

Nobody could seem to get anything going offensively. Instead of searching for answers for all the Cardinal batters, let’s just look at one. While Paul Goldschmidt had his worst season offensively with a .346 wOBA, he is still the thunder in the St. Louis lineup. How exactly did the Nationals pitch to Goldschmidt, and why couldn’t he succeed in the series?

On one hand, the Nationals pitchers were outstanding. They were putting pitches right on the edge of the plate and mixing their pitch selection well. When you have Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin in your starting rotation, your opponent is going to have a difficult time. Additionally, Anibal Sanchez had a great game. Meanwhile, Goldschmidt went 1-for-16 with nine strikeouts in the series. He did seem to experience a little bit of bad luck with a few hard hit balls. In Game 4, he hit a ball 101.4 mph that went 340 feet, and he had another two hard-hit outs in Game 2. One traveled 316 feet that was hit 95.9 mph off the bat, and another traveled 284 feet that was hit 108.1 mph. That may not make him feel tons better about his performance given the nine strikeouts.

It is not surprising that Anibal Sanchez was able to succeed in his three times facing Goldschmidt in Game 1. Sanchez used the cutter and sinker well in that game. While his sinker generated an unimpressive .387 wOBA this year, his cutter was lethal with a .260 wOBA. Goldschmidt had a .350 wOBA against sinkers and a .317 wOBA against cutters. Those numbers are going to add to some underwhelming results. Sanchez utilized the sinker and cutter well and put them in difficult locations against Goldschmidt. During the second at-bat, Sanchez generated similar results. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Zack Greinke Throwing Too Hard?

Before Game 3 of the ALDS, Zack Greinke answered eight questions in just 67 words. The former Cy Young winner would soon be starting his 12th career postseason game. Earlier in the season, Greinke had been the main piece in the biggest deal of the deadline, joining the Astros and making them almost unanimously the best team in the league. Fifteen of the 32 FanGraphs writers who made a prediction on the World Series winner chose Houston. On July 30th, the Astros had a 24% chance of winning the World Series. On July 31st, that number had increased to 26.4%. To put that in perspective, the Nationals had a 4.7% chance.

However, Greinke will be the first to tell you that with success and high expectations comes media attention. Greinke had gone from an overperforming and small-market Arizona Diamondbacks team to an absolutely stacked Astros team. Houston was “World Series or bust,” especially now that they had sacrificed some of their future for Greinke. Before Game 3, the media crowded around Greinke to try to get answers and information about the big game. He did not oblige. They got eight answers but not much information from any of them.

One of those answers stated that the game was just a normal game. However, for Greinke, his performance was anything but normal. During that contest, Greinke would surrender six runs in 3.2 innings. Greinke’s mental ability to deal with a postseason game and the pressure that comes with it was questioned and became a major storyline due to the interview. In Game 1 of the ALCS, Greinke gave up three runs in six innings, which isn’t bad considering the Yankees lineup. However, for Zack Greinke, it is disappointing, frustrating, and it continues a recent narrative that he cannot handle the postseason. The postseason comes with a lot of added pressure and adrenaline, which can sometimes cause pitchers to throw harder. However, this is not always a good thing, as we have seen this year with Greinke. Read the rest of this entry »

Playoff Execution: A Look at Asdrúbal Cabrera’s Baserunning Error in NLDS Game 2

Each play in the playoffs holds extra weight compared to the regular season. An error can change a game, and a loss can doom a series. In close games and series, it is often the team that executes the small plays that comes out on top.

A particular play in Game 2 of the NLDS between Washington and Los Angeles stood out in this context: Asdrúbal Cabrera singled to right field, driving in Ryan Zimmerman. However, the throw from the outfield held up Kurt Suzuki at third base, and Cabrera was thrown out trying to advance to second base on the throw. Although the Nationals still won the game, the baserunning error was not inconsequential in the series.

Evaluating the Result with WE and RE24

Two statistics – Win Expectancy and RE24 – can be used to show why trying to advance was a bad decision.

Win expectancy (WE) is the probability a team will win given the specific circumstances. Greg Stoll’s Win Expectancy Calculator [1] shows how potential baserunning outcomes by Cabrera change Washington’s win expectancy in Table 1 below.

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The Nationals’ win expectancy before Cabrera’s single was 82.7%. The highest WE is 93.4% and results when Cabrera gets to second base, however, staying at first only decreases Washington’s win expectancy by 0.9%. In comparison, getting thrown out decreases their chances by 6.7% compared to staying at first. A 0.9% increase in WE is probably not worth risking 6.7%, especially in a playoff game where you have the lead. Read the rest of this entry »

Machine Learning Our Way to the Gold Glove Award

I love good defense. Watching a center fielder chase down what should have been a blooped-in single, instead creating a shocked reaction from the baserunner as he turns and realizes he’s out is priceless. That classic, one hand in the dirt, rest of the shortstop’s body flying through the air snag, is truly my favorite. I know what people say about the excitement of a home run and I get it. The rifle-like, cracking sound of bat on ball, closely followed by fans standing and cheering and spilling and spitting! God, I’m going to miss baseball this winter!

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As the season comes to a close, we celebrate more than just home runs. We celebrate and award players for all their actions on and off the field. With that, it’s nearly time to award the best defensive players of the year with the Rawlings Gold Glove Award. There’s nothing like having a gold glover on your team and being able to watch them hold it down in the field all season long.

​Like many awards, managers and team coaches get to vote on the Gold Glove. Managers can’t vote for players on their own team and they have to stay in their own league. In addition, they have to vote for players who qualify (mostly needing at least 713 total innings) as laid out by Rawlings. It’s nice to have the men who are closest to the game voting and giving out these awards, but there must also be some quantifiable way to determine who is deserving. According to Rawlings, 25% of the vote is left up to metrics. Using the SABR Defensive Index, advanced analytics are now built into the award. This index includes:

– Defensive runs saved (DRS)
– Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR)
– Runs Effectively Defended
– Defensive Regression Analysis
– Total Zone Rating Read the rest of this entry »

Which Playoff Team Has the Most Former Players from Your Favorite Team?

When your favorite baseball team misses out on the playoffs, October offers a brief free-agency in fandom. Do you temporarily switch to root for a loved one’s team, or choose to root against a rival?

For me personally, I want former Rockies players to do well. It would be fantastic to see DJ LeMahieu lift the Commissioner’s Trophy, even if he’s now wearing the wrong color of pinstripes.

But do I really have to root for the Yankees? I wanted to see if I had any other option — to see if there was any other playoff team with more former Rockies.

I started with FanGraphs data showing player totals from every season going back to 2001 (CC Sabathia is the player on a 2019 playoff roster with the earliest debut, having come on April 8, 2001 for Cleveland). I also defined “playoff roster” as only including players who made an appearance for a playoff-bound team in September of 2019, so if someone hasn’t seen the field in the last month, they’re not counted here.

I didn’t want a player with only 15 ABs to have the same weight as a player with 1,000 at-bats, so I used each player’s “appearances” for their former clubs (plate appearances as a batter plus total batters faced for pitchers, including both regular season and playoffs). Read the rest of this entry »

Six-Trick Ponies: Could the Reds Do More with Michael Lorenzen’s Tools?

Michael Lorenzen is one of a kind. We’ve heard plenty of his multi-faceted accomplishments as of late. As far as pitchers go, the guy can mash. He was a two-way star at Cal State Fullerton, slashing .335/.412/.515 in his draft year, while posting 19 saves and a 1.99 ERA out of the bullpen. In the big leagues, he’s a career .267/.306/.514 hitter with seven home runs in 116 plate appearances. The hits haven’t come cheap, either. His 14 batted balls this season have had a remarkable 98.70-mph average exit velocity, despite him only barreling one of them.

Lorenzen can also move better than most. His top sprint speed of 28.2 mph in 2019 places him in a tie with Bryce Harper, Shohei Ohtani, George Springer, and Jorge Polanco, among others. His general athletic prowess means he’s been serviceable enough to play in the field with some level of frequency, converting all eight of his chances in 34.2 innings split over three outfield positions. On September 5th, the day after his historic performance, he even earned himself a start in center field for the out-of-contention Reds.

His Swiss Army knife capabilities aren’t the only reason he’s unique. Lorenzen is an outlier on the mound as well. Lorenzen has spent the last four years as a solid reliever, working to a cumulative 3.48 ERA over 290 innings out of the Cincinnati bullpen. After a failed run as a starter in his rookie season, he seems to have found his niche working in the later innings.

This is far from out of the ordinary. But while failed starters tend to simplify their pitch mix upon shifting to the bullpen, Lorenzen has doubled down on his six-pitch arsenal, throwing each of his four-seamer, sinker, cutter, changeup, cutter, slider, and curveball between 7% and 28% of the time. It’s rare enough for any pitcher to have a true six-pitch mix, much less a reliever. I ran a Statcast search to find every pitcher since 2017 (when Statcast arsenal data begins) to have thrown at least six pitches between 5% and 40% of the time, minimum 250 pitches per season. Lorenzen still stands out: Read the rest of this entry »

Mike Ford: The Player Within

Baseball and player development have become increasingly data-driven, but the determination of the athlete under evaluation is essential too. At least that’s the case with Mike Ford of the New York Yankees.

During his junior year playing for Princeton (2013), Ford was the Ivy League Baseball Pitcher and Player of the Year. Yet no team picked him in the draft that summer. Today, as one of only eight undrafted free agents playing in the major leagues, his approach to hitting has opened eyes all around baseball.

Ford could have easily given up on baseball after he was passed over. During an interview with Yahoo Sports, he said “It was a little bit embarrassing being passed over in the draft at times. I did well at school at both, but I didn’t have good 95-mph fastball, or I didn’t put up 20 homers. I was just a good player. I don’t think anything 100 percent necessarily stuck out. I think with the Ivy League, a lot of times a lot of those guys kind of fall since they will be seniors, that’s what I’ve heard from a few teams since then. We passed because we thought we could get you next year.”

His embarrassment and disappointment quickly gave way to resolve to prove he belonged in the majors, and that resolve led to his determination not just to generate more power at the plate, but to remain quiet at the plate. Read the rest of this entry »

Emilio Pagan Rides Improved Fastball to Breakout Year

Emilio Pagan made his debut in 2017 with the Mariners. He impressed somewhat as a 26-year-old rookie, notching a K-BB rate of 24.5% en route to an xFIP- of 93. Not bad. The Athletics traded for him that offseason, whereupon Pagan promptly did much worse. His strikeout rate dropped four points while his walk rate rose three. He also suffered from long-ball-itis and saw his xFIP- climb to a below-average 112.

The Rays then got ahold of him in the three-team Jurickson Profar deal with Texas. Pagan began 2019 in Triple-A but was called up in mid-April when Blake Snell fractured his toe. Three days later, Pagan was sent back down; two days later he was back in the bigs. All he’s done since then is help his team chase a playoff spot.

As the team’s nominal closer, Pagan has accrued 1.4 WAR, which ranks ninth among qualified relievers. Take leverage and innings totals away and his 1.63 WPA/LI ranks fifth. Baseball Prospectus and their DRA-based methodology agree he’s good. Among pitchers with a maximum of 75 innings pitched, Pagan’s 1.7 WARP ranks fifth.

Pagan’s been dominating hitters to the tune of a 30.6% K-BB rate, seventh-highest among qualified relievers. And when batters do put the ball in play against him, they’re not doing much. His .213 xWOBA against is the lowest in the entire sport among pitchers who’ve faced at least 50 batters. Read the rest of this entry »