Month: February 2019

Yankees lock up underrated Aaron Hicks with a 7-year extension

Image result for aaron hicks
Aaron Hicks is probably better than you think.

Ten days after extending ace Luis Severino, the New York Yankees made sure another valuable young star won’t reach free agency for several years. Aaron Hicks, 29, has signed a 7-year, $70 million contract with a club option for an eighth, meaning the Bombers have Hicks through his age-35 season.

Hicks has become one of the league’s more underrated players, overshadowed by his home run bashing outfield brethren (Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton) and the popular young infielders on the team. Make no mistake, other than Judge, Stanton and maybe a rejuvenated Gary Sanchez, no Yankees position player is as valuable on the field today as Hicks. His 4.9 fWAR finished just behind his fellow Aaron last season, not including pitchers.

The former first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins does everything you want from a centerfielder. He handles his position without issue, gets on-base at an above-average clip (.372 in ’17, .366 in ’18), hits for power (27 homers in ’18) and makes good choices on the basepaths. The issue with Hicks isn’t the grades but the attendance; his career high in games played was last season’s 137. Given the price (more on that later) it’s a risk worth taking for the Yankees.

Here are your 2018 OBP leaders for outfielders with at least 550 plate appearances:

Outfielder OBP
Mike Trout .460
Mookie Betts .438
Christian Yelich .402
J.D. Martinez .402
Lorenzo Cain .395
Bryce Harper .393
Shin-Soo Choo .377
Andrew McCutchen .368
Tommy Pham .367
Aaron Hicks .366

From that same crop of outfielders, here is the full list of batters with a better walk rate in 2018:

Outfielder BB %
Mike Trout 20.1%
Bryce Harper 18.7%

I’ll spare you yet another table, but again from that crop of outfielders established above, only McCutchen and Betts did a better job of not swinging outside the zone than Hicks last season.

Consider too that underlying metrics suggest his power uptick in 2018 could be for real. From 2017 to 2018, he put barrel to ball more often (7.5% became 8.8%), saw his exit velocity increase nearly 4 mph (85.7 to 88.9) and his launch angle tick up nearly two degrees (10.6 to 12.5).

In laymen’s terms? He hit the ball a lot harder last year. That’s a good thing.

So what are the risks?

Well, the injury issue for one. Fortunately, Hicks hasn’t been plagued by the same injury over and over; it’s been a hamstring here, an oblique there, etc. It all adds up, though, and if you told me Hicks never plays more than, say, 120 games in any season during this contract I wouldn’t exactly be shocked. 0

The contract length also is a smidge uncomfortable. Hicks is 29 and the Yankees are paying for a healthy chunk of his mid-30s. Sure, there are the usual concerns about decline, but the average annual value of the contract is so absurdly low ($10 million is a smooth bargain for the Yankees) that it hardly matters. It’s less than half of what Jacoby Ellsbury’s Milk Carton makes right now. Seriously.

Bottom line: if Hicks falls below replacement level in year four or whatever, the salary won’t prevent the Yankees from making a move.

From the player’s perspective, given how free agency has played out and with the ever-present threat of labor turmoil on the horizon, Hicks took security over potential. Can’t say I blame him. It keeps him on a winning team with guaranteed checks coming.

 

 

2019 MLB Preview: Trevor Bauer and his ever-changing arsenal

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Trevor Bauer had a fantastic 2018 for Cleveland.

Before we dig into what the future might hold for Cleveland Indians righty Trevor Bauer, a bit of housekeeping. I’ll be doing a lot of preview content for the 2019 Major League Baseball season, including division by division breakdowns as Spring Training rolls on. You’ll get award and playoff predictions, too.

Every Monday, I’m also going to spotlight some individual players I find interesting. The reasons will vary and each post will explain further, but I think this will make for a nice break from the usual stuff we all digest each spring. Baseball is fun, so let’s have fun.

Opening Day is on the way …

***

Oh, Trevor Bauer. When he’s not making waves for his Twitter … personality (Feel free to do your own Googling), he’s probably researching new ways to increase his spin rates or break ground in some other way. From a performance standpoint, Bauer is one of the game’s more intriguing creatures; deeply analytical, he spends each offseason tooling around with the Driveline guys in their magical cave.

The stuff is just incredible, as you surely already know.  His fastball is hard and comes with truly elite spin, ranking in the 83rd percentile last season. Give a pitcher a fastball this good and you’ve set him well onto the path of excellence. Last year, Bauer broke into that class of pitcher; he finished with 6.1 fWAR (sixth best in baseball) and struck out 30.8% (also sixth best) of the batters he faced.

Suddenly the Cleveland Indians had a triumvirate of aces, coupling Bauer with two-time AL Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber and the incredibly underrated Carlos Carrasco. Plus, Mike Clevinger — another, shall we say, eccentric personality — developed into a really nice back of the rotation starter too.

But is Bauer’s growth sustainable or a blip?

I think it’s sustainable. Bauer was the third overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft and a highly-touted prospect as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Indians, so the pedigree is hardly an issue here. He’s been around and steadily improving, but in 2018 he became great.

There’s nothing terribly fluky about his 2018 season, either — the BABIP is normal and while he gave up fewer home runs, he also developed some of his other offerings enough to mitigate the bounce-back concern. He’ll give up more bombs in 2019, but it won’t kneecap his value. The strikeout rate saw a healthy bounce, but might that also be explained by improved pitches?

Year to year, the slider is what really changed. By Fangraphs’ pitch value metric, his slider was essentially average or right around that every year in his career except 2018 when it suddenly became a really good pitch. The story here is pretty amusing, by the way. Bauer decided last offseason he didn’t like his slider (and it shows — he barely threw it in 2017), so he spent a lot of time studying pitchers who did it better, namely Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Bauer selected Stroman’s slider, because he considers it one of the elite breaking balls in baseball based on the pitch’s results on balls in play and in generating swings and misses. Although Bauer is listed as five inches taller than Stroman, he thought their arm angles were similar enough for it to work.

“I diagrammed that out in my head, how it has to spin in order to accomplish that,” Bauer said. “I went to video and checked to make sure I had a theory lined up with the actual [results]. I tried to get as much slow-mo video of [Stroman’s slider] as I could, there’s not a lot of it. I looked at what I could, and then I went in the lab and started using high-speed video of myself just iterating the axis that I wanted. Then it was pretty much about commanding it.”

First off, wow. See what I mean about Bauer and being analytical? It worked, by the way. Let’s have some fun with how hitters fared against Bauer’s new and improved slider last season:

  • Batters swung and missed 41.8% of the time against it
  • Batters produced a paltry .123 wOBA and a .171 xSLG, which for you non-stats folks means they did nothing against it

And, of course, the visual evidence:

Bauer slider

Pretty nasty. Bauer relied on the fastball (36.9%) and curve (26.7%) more, but perhaps that will change. Both remain above-average pitches, and the rising tide lifts all boats.

We’d be doing him a disservice to not mention the growth in his changeup, too. While perhaps not as dramatic as the slider, the changeup improved by leaps and bounds:

Stat 2017 2018
Pitch % 7.7 7.0
wOBA .370 .153
Whiff % 25.4 36.0
Avg Spin Rate 1646 1852
Pitch Value -4.6 4.0

So he used it a bit less — remember, the slider stole reps from most of Bauer’s arsenal — but it was a considerably better pitch year over year. That difference in wOBA is incredible. Whether he continues to develop it or not, I can’t say, but again considering Bauer’s aptitude I suspect he’s well aware.

If Bauer, 29, expands upon the improvements he made in 2018, I think he’s certainly capable of establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in the world. He’s young enough to still be considered in his peak and injuries aren’t a major concern (he’s thrown at least 175 innings the last four seasons — a good example of how times have changed when that’s considered more than acceptable).

Then again, if the slider and changeup don’t hold their newfound performance, maybe that leads to a strikeout and home run rate more in line with his 2017 record. He’d still be valuable, but not necessarily excellent. Maybe he ends up throwing less than 150 innings. There’s certainly some volatility with Bauer — that’s kind of why he’s so interesting to me.

Ode to a Pitcher: Patrick Corbin and his truly incredible slider

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Patrick Corbin’s slider flummoxed hitters and opened the Washington Nationals’ checkbook.

How much is one pitch worth?

If you ask the Washington Nationals: about $140 million. They told us so when the club signed pitcher Patrick Corbin to a six-year deal at that figure, all on the brilliance of his slider, which itself only really became brilliant last season.

And brilliant it is: according to Fangraphs’ pitch value metric, it was the fourth most valuable offering in all of baseball. Let me just rattle off some numbers about that slider:

  • Corbin threw it 40.9% of the time
  • Corbin struck out 198 (!!!) batters off that pitch alone; his other offerings produced 51 punchouts
  • Hitters slugged a meager .243 off it
  • Hitters missed 53.6% of the time they swung at it

Corbin’s slider is tunneled neatly with his fastball and boasts a long, slurve-y break that’s hard to make contact with. It’s quite a breaking ball. Compared to other hurlers profiled in this series (Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana, Mike Mussina and Jacob deGrom), Corbin’s repertoire is relatively slim. His fastballs are slightly above average by pitch value; his changeup is below average and his curveball just barely above.

Said differently: Years removed from Tommy John surgery, Corbin has become a really good pitcher — 6.3 fWAR, 2.61 xFIP — because he has a really good pitch. Singular. Pitch. The slider carries the water. And as such, his entire approach is to rely on it to both setup hitters and to finish them, sprinkling in a fastball here or a curveball there as essentially change-of-pace offerings.

Just ask the Los Angeles Dodgers. Very early in the 2018 season, the boys in blue headed over to Chase Field to face Corbin. It didn’t go well — especially not for Enrique Hernandez, Yasmani Grandal and Matt Kemp.

***

The Dodgers erstwhile utility man stepped up to face Corbin to open the second inning.

Kike Pitch 1 K 2Seam Away.gif

Corbin stands tall on the mound and has a pleasing delivery, nice and smooth. His fastball isn’t particularly hard (this game takes place in April — his velocity averaged a few ticks south of 94 for the season), but it doesn’t have to be — the slider keeps hitters off balance.

Kike Pitch 2 K Slider DownIn.gif

Corbin draws a bit of a flinch from Hernandez here — a good example of how hard it is to pick up the slider. Note that a two-strike count against Corbin means you’ll probably see the slider — he threw it more than 65% of the time in such situations. Oh, and if you do, you’ll probably produce an out.

Kike Pitch 3 BB Slider Down Away.gif

Catcher Jeff Mathis set up inside but Corbin missed. It’s a good take from Hernandez nonetheless.

Kike Pitch 4 TwoSeam DownAway STRIKEOUT.gif

Even though the slider missed, it still served a purpose. Corbin proved to Hernandez he’d work both sides of the plate which helped draw the half-swing on a fastball clearly in the zone. The utilityman is the first punchout of the inning.

Grandal Pitch 1 BB Crv Down Away.gif

There was some discussion on this broadcast (available in the MLB.TV archives) about whether Corbin’s curveball is really a curveball or simply a slider thrown intentionally softer. The release above looks like a curve to me.

Grandal Pitch 2 TwoSeam Down Away.gif

Corbin comes back with another fastball away that just misses for ball two. We’ll notice a theme with Corbin’s work to the Dodgers today. He wants to establish the fastball away to righties to setup the slider down and in. Corbin more or less finagles his way to two strikes so he can finish you with the slider, even if everyone in the ballpark knows it’s coming.

But to get there with Grandal, Corbin has a lot of ground to make up.

Grandal Pitch 3 Crv UpAway.gif

Instead of offering another fastball, Corbin goes with a high-and-away breaking ball that the Dodgers catcher watches for a called strike. It’s kind of a ballsy choice — you miss with that over the plate and Grandal has enough pop to make you pay. Corbin does miss high, but not enough to tempt a swing.

Grandal Pitch 4 Change Middle.gif

This is the pitch Corbin can’t make. I’m not sure if Grandal was expecting slider — then again, facing Corbin, you probably are always expecting it. Either way, he let a meatball go here. Maybe Grandal misread it, maybe the slider kept him weary, who knows. Somehow, Corbin is right where needs to be. It’s a two-strike count.

Whatcha bet he throws?

Grandal Pitch 5 Slider Down In.gif

That’s the money pitch folks. Corbin’s smooth delivery hides any intent and Grandal swings helplessly over it.

Take a look at how pretty this thing is:

Grandal Slider K Slomo.gif

Nationals fans will be seeing a lot of that over the next six years.

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Matt Kemp steps up and Corbin starts him away too, missing with a breaking ball.

Kemp Pitch 2 Fastball DownAway.gif

He comes back with a nice sinking fastball away that draws a miss from the Dodgers outfielder.

Kemp Pitch 3 Fastball away.gif

Corbin comes back with another fastball, also away, for a ball. Corbin loves to pinpoint that outside corner and work it raw.

Kemp Pitch 4 Curve Down In.gif

Corbin flashes another breaking ball — maybe a slower version of the slider, but don’t hold me to that — but it misses low.

I find this situation particularly interesting. Corbin probably doesn’t want to go back to the slider here for fear of missing and giving Kemp first base. On the same token, Kemp can’t just sit fastball because if gets the slider, he doesn’t have much of a chance to make contact.

Kemp Pitch 5 Fastball away.gif

Corbin gives him the fastball and Kemp swings, but it’s just enough off the plate to draw weak contact. That’s a heck of a pitch. Kemp probably wanted the fastball and couldn’t resist, but the spot meant he had little chance of doing damage. If that fastball runs over the plate Kemp might crush it. But it doesn’t.

Now the paradigm flips. Corbin has that ever-valuable second strike. Another fastball located in the same spot probably draws weak contact again. Maybe Kemp lays off and you give him first base, though.

Hmm.

Or, you know. Corbin can do that other thing.

Kemp Pitch 6 Slider Down Mid.gif

Folks, that’s a brilliant example of tunneling and sequencing. Again, because Corbin’s delivery is so smooth it’s very hard to tell that previous fastball and this slider apart. Kemp tries to adjust and fend the breaking pitch off, but it’s too good. Major League pitchers, man. Science, art and voodoo.

Down goes the side. Fear the slider.

***

Patrick Corbin was an interesting gamble for the Nationals. He’s 29 and coming off easily his best season. As we examined, his value is tied up entirely in one pitch — not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes me wonder how many more times he produces a season like 2018.  One could easily argue that he’s just rounding into form after Tommy John surgery, meaning 2018 wasn’t necessarily a fluke. Corbin developing into the pitcher he is after such an injury is a testament to his skill and work ethic.

The Nats don’t need him to be their best pitcher — or second best, even — and in that case, he makes for a solid fit. I think he’s a safe bet to spin a lot of awesome sliders for years to come.

***

This was Ode to a Pitcher, a weekly feature from Adkins on Sports where we break down a brilliant pitching performance. These posts are meant to be informative and fun, just like baseball coverage should be.

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