Juiced Ball Economics

Look, another article about the juiced ball! I know, I know. At this point, the narrative of the juiced ball has been written from many angles. (For anyone reading this who is somehow not familiar with that narrative, Jay Jaffe’s piece from June is replete with graphs, tables, and external links.)

As fans, this narrative is interesting, as it contextualizes the product we see on the field. It feels like there are more home runs — hey, there are more home runs! It’s human nature to wonder why. Baseball writers have tough jobs, and they need something to write about. Many baseball writers have tried to tackle the “why” to satisfy both reader curiosity and their editor’s article quota.

While this narrative is interesting for fans, for teams, it’s of massive importance financially. Teams have payroll budgets, and presumably, some of those teams will have room in those budgets for free agents this offseason. Teams also have players under contract who are eligible for arbitration, on whom the team must place valuations in advance of submitting a figure to arbitrators or deciding to non-tender the player. In short, teams have financial decisions to make, and they rely on all the information at their disposal to make them. Wasted dollars represent opportunity cost more than anything, in a league where advantages are razor thin and random variance plays such a key role in success or failure from year to year. Read the rest of this entry »

Dissecting Jack Flaherty’s Approach Against Lefties

In 2018, Jack Flaherty took significant strides towards looking like a potential front-of-the-rotation starter for the St. Louis Cardinals. He posted a 3.34 ERA across 151 innings, striking out nearly 30% of the batters he faced, while holding a 3.58 xFIP. Additionally, he maintained strong numbers against both righties and lefties. As a result, expectations for Flaherty in 2019 were high. Projection systems called for an ERA between 3.30 and 3.60, which placed Flaherty among the top 15-20 pitchers in baseball, depending on the algorithm. However, through 97 innings in 2019, Flaherty has fallen short of those marks. Going into the All-Star break, the young righty held a 4.64 ERA with a 4.07 xFIP. Peripherally, his strikeout rate (K%) is down 3%, his ground-ball rate (GB%) is down 5%, and his hard-hit% is up as well. Investigating further, one of the biggest differences between Flaherty’s 2018 and 2019 seasons is his performance against left-handed hitters.


While worse than his performance against righties, in Flaherty’s .275 wOBA against left-handed hitters in 2018 ranked eighth out of all right-handed pitchers with more than 300 total lefties faced, and his 26.8% strikeout rate against them ranked twelfth. Those numbers place him around pitchers like Aaron Nola, Jose Berrios, and the 2018 version of Mike Foltynewicz. Those are good pitchers! However, Flaherty’s performance against lefties in 2019 has not held up — take a look at the numbers.


It’s easy to see, but through the first half of the 2019 season, Flaherty has been drastically less productive. His surrounding numbers paint the whole picture: the average exit velocity from lefties has risen from 81.9 mph to 84.4 mph, with their GB% dropping from 42.5% to 35.8%. Lefties have been replacing those ground balls with batted balls in the air, as his FB% went from 34.4% to 41.8%. It doesn’t help either that his HR/FB rate has nearly doubled across the two seasons. The bottom line is that lefties are hitting him harder, and when they do so, their results are better. Read the rest of this entry »

Gerrit Cole’s Strikeout Rates Continue to Reach New Heights

There is arguably not another starting pitcher in the majors better at striking out opposing hitters right now than Gerrit Cole. Not only does he lead all starters in total strikeouts (216) and strikeout rate (36.4%), the Astros’ right-hander is also second in strikeout-per-nine innings (12.90 K/9). Only Chris Sale (13.09 K/9) has a higher strikeout-per-nine rate. Cole’s progression as a strikeout artist is noteworthy when compared to his last season in Pittsburgh.

Cole’s strikeout surge has been driven, partially at least, by an increased reliance on his four-seam fastball in recent seasons, which, by average spin rate, is one of the more interesting pitches in baseball. In fact, the 28-year-old also leads all starters in strikeouts generated by four-seam fastballs with 119. The resurgent Lance Lynn is second in this measure with 91 strikeouts while notable hurlers Sale and Max Scherzer are third and fifth with 87 and 81 results, respectively. Again, Cole’s progression in this area with his four-seam fastball since departing from Pittsburgh continues to impress. Read the rest of this entry »

Nick Madrigal and Baseball Preconceptions

I’ve talked about Nick Madrigal a lot in the last year and a half. There are tons of players in affiliated baseball, but I’ve spent more time on Twitter, in the Baseball Farm GroupMe, doing Google news searches, and just thinking about this diminutive middle infielder than any other player since he came on my radar in the spring of 2018.

Why? His profile is just divisive. The skillset is so strange and unique that he poses a lot of questions without easy answers. Madrigal challenges your preconceptions on what makes a “good” baseball player. He does not pass the eye test. If you feel you can project how he will perform in a future large sample of performance data by watching him swing the bat, you will not project him to do much, as he looks like your nephew playing Cal Ripken Baseball. If you like looking for player comps when evaluating a player, you will find few, as he presents tools that we haven’t seen in this combination in the minor leagues in at least the past 15 years.

If you guess at what his value could be, you will be wrong. It’s too hard to conceptualize, too many moving parts, too much math. I know, because I’ve tried it! Move a guy up “a little bit” because you like the athleticism, down “below those guys” because he plays in an org that “can’t develop anyone.” Squint and think “he could hit 15 home runs,” and then that becomes your mental baseline for how to value Madrigal.

If I’m trying to be accurate with this stuff, I have to admit this basic premise: My initial guess will not be accurate.

But the good part is that there are tools you can use to give you the context. It’s like trying to get a picture level. You don’t have to squint at it and bump it up or down a little bit. You use a level, which is calibrated to be more precise than your eyes. At Baseball Farm, we have a bunch of tools, including a Fantasy FV calculator which can help you evaluate any profile, even one as strange as Nick Madrigal’s. Read the rest of this entry »

How the Astros Can Fix Noah Syndergaard

With Noah Syndergaard trade rumors whirling around the baseball world, it is fair to ponder how a team who would acquire him could improve upon his 2019 results. To be clear, this incarnation of Syndergaard is still an excellent pitcher, but he still leaves us wanting more; Syndergaard has the physical profile and repertoire of a pitcher that teams dream about in their search for their next front-line starter. So how can he improve upon his already great season?

Look no further than his right-handed colleague, Gerrit Cole. When Cole was trade to the Astros, the baseball community expected that the Houston would be able to optimize Cole’s raw stuff to build one of the best pitchers in baseball. We expected the Astros would ditch his mediocre sinker and trade it for more breaking balls, Cole’s bread and butter. Sure enough, that was the case, and Cole has become one of the most dominant pitchers in the league:

Let’s look under the hood at Syndergaard’s 2019 season. Here is a zone plot of all of his pitches this year: Read the rest of this entry »

Justin Verlander and Juiced Baseballs

The road from Opening Day to the All-Star break produced an abundance of entertainment and storylines. Max Scherzer was unhittable, Lance Lynn led AL pitchers in fWAR, and Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger found themselves in an MVP race. However, no headline drummed up as much controversy as the increase in home runs resulting from juiced baseballs. To provide some context, the home run to fly ball ratio has risen 2.4% since last season. Additionally, Buster Olney provides us with a different but still shocking angle:

Even if you deny the introduction of juiced baseballs, the increase in home runs is undeniable. 

Presumably, if league-wide home run rates inflate, individuals should experience a similar increase. Of course, there is luck and small sample sizes involved, but increases should be relatively constant across the board. However, there has been one extreme outlier who will be the main focus of this work.

Justin Verlander was the ace of a world champion team, has won a Cy Young Award and an MVP Award, and has posted 67.8 career fWAR. Recently, in an interview with ESPN, Verlander expressed his frustration and accused MLB of juicing the baseballs. “I find it really hard to believe that Major League Baseball owns Rawlings and just coincidentally the balls become juiced,” he said. Surprisingly, very few, if any, pitchers have been more affected by the uptick in home runs as much as Verlander, who gave up 26 in the first half. Read the rest of this entry »

Stealing First May Not Be a Crazy Idea

Earlier this year, Major League Baseball reached an agreement with the Atlantic League that allowed MLB to test any new playing rules in Atlantic League games. Five new rules already went into effect in the first half of the season, and a day after the Atlantic League All-Star Game, in addition to testing the electronic strike zone using TrackMan radar, MLB announced four new rules that would go into effect in the second half of the Atlantic League season. One of the four seems to have received stronger criticism on the Internet than others, and that is the idea of stealing first base.

According to this new rule, if a pitch is not caught in flight, the batter has the right to “steal” first base. In essence, this is an extended version of the dropped-third-strike rule that has long been engrained in the baseball rule books. Of course, a dropped third strike has many criteria: it must occur with two strikes, the pitch must be a strike, and unless it occurs with two outs, there cannot be a runner occupying first base. With this new rule, however, batters now have the right to go for first base in any count, regardless the pitch is a ball or strike, and in any base situations. And recently, we witnessed the first steal of first in professional baseball history:

On the second pitch in the bottom of the sixth inning, Alejandro Chacin of the Lancaster Barnstormers threw a wild pitch, which allowed Southern Maryland Blue Crabs outfielder Tony Thomas to steal first base. From the video, we can clearly tell that the players were still adjusting to this new rule, as neither the catcher nor the batter reacted at first. The fact that catcher Anderson De La Rosa took time to react was probably the main reason that allowed Thomas to reach first without a throw. Interestingly, the term “stealing first” might actually be a misnomer, as the play was scored as a fielder’s choice and counted as an 0-for-1, according to Somerset Patriots southpaw Rick Teasley. Read the rest of this entry »

Billy Hamilton and His Undiscovered Value

We all know Billy Hamilton’s hitting stinks. In fact, since debuting in 2013, Hamilton’s wRC+ of 68 ranks as the 14th-worst among active, qualified hitters. His pre-2019 All-Star Break slash-line of .217/.284/.271 has done nothing more than hurt his cause. All told, since the start of his career, Hamilton has contributed a whopping -58.3 runs offensively.

Notably, however, among all of the cellar-dwelling hitters at the bottom of the offensive table, Hamilton’s 10.3 fWAR since 2013 ranks as the highest among the 75 lowest in wRC+. His 62.2 defensive runs contributed above average, in addition to his absurd 58.7 BsR, provides pretty much the entirety of Hamilton’s value.

To optimize Hamilton’s positive output, it would then make sense to limit his time hitting while simultaneously maximizing his baserunning and fielding opportunities. So here’s my proposal:

Given his weak career on-base numbers, when starting, Hamilton reaches base approximately once per game. Given this, if the Royals were to pinch-run Billy once every nine innings for a hypothetical average-running outfield replacement, Hamilton would contribute close to the same BsR as he does in a normal season, about 10.0.* This alone would be good for almost an entire WAR. Read the rest of this entry »

Giovanny Gallegos Deserves More High-Leverage Opportunities

Making the 2019 playoffs was never a sure thing for the St. Louis Cardinals. With the Brewers returning most of the team that won the 2018 division and the Cubs returning most of the team that contended until the literal last day of the season, and with the Reds and Pirates qualifying as “interesting” at worst, every single thing needed to go right for the Redbirds in 2019. Unfortunately for them, entering play on July 6th, the team’s odds for a playoff berth sat at just under 28%.

Still, the team is just three games out of first place and half a game out of a Wild Card spot. They need every win they can get, which is why Mike Shildt should give Giovanny Gallegos more high-leverage opportunities. One of the newest Cardinals, Gallegos was part of the trade that sent Luke Voit to the Yankees last year. His name didn’t cause many eyebrows to raise; after all, at the time he had a just-okay K-BB% of about 20%. Voit’s performance in the second half easily overshadowed any mention of Gallegos’ name.

But 2019 is different. Gallegos now features a stellar 33.3% K-BB rate, behind that of only four qualified relievers: Josh Hader, Ken Giles, Will Smith, and Kirby Yates. (You may have heard of these guys.) He’s missing bats like never before, and when hitters do get the bat on the ball, they’re not doing much. While everyone and their little brother is hitting 20-plus dingers, Gallegos’ HR/9 rate dropped year-to-year. It’s not a fluke; his xWOBA fell from .304 last year to .250 where it sits now. This ranks 16th out of the 388 pitchers who’ve faced at least 100 batters. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the Baseball Actually Juiced?

Home runs are on the rise. We all know this. The number of homers per game is at an all-time high in 2019, and has increased by about 36% just since 2015:

Home Run Rate
Year HR/game
2015 1.01
2016 1.16
2017 1.26
2018 1.15
2019 1.37

What we do not know is exactly why.

Commissioner Manfred recently suggested that the current baseballs have less drag through the air, caused by the more perfect “centering of the pill” (the innermost part of the ball). It has basically become an operational fact that there is something going on with the baseballs. Manfred’s explanation implies that the flight of the baseball is the key difference.

To look at this closer, I considered the distance traveled by balls in the air as a function of the exit velocity and launch angle at contact. If the average distance on similarly struck balls has increased over time, it would suggest that the ball itself is more aerodynamically efficient.

Pitch-by-pitch data for the 2015-2019 seasons was collected from Baseball Savant via the Statcast Search page. Two random forest models were built for each year, one using all fly balls and one using home runs. To account for a possible difference in flight due to the warm air in the summer months, only data through June of each year was used. (At the end of the season, the analysis can be applied to the full data set). In both cases, the distance the ball traveled is the response variable and the exit velocity and launch angle are the explanatory variables. The models are applied to a test data set of various exit velocity/launch angle combinations. Read the rest of this entry »