Month: May 2019

Improving Jorge Polanco leads the charge for surprising Twins

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Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco has burst out of the gates in 2019.

Quick. By wRC+, who has been the best hitting shortstop in baseball this year? I’ll give you a minute.

And stop. Let’s hear it.

Carlos Correa? 4th – 154.

Javier Baez? Closer … 3rd – 155.

The answer is Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco — who was 2019’s first batter to hit for the cycle — with a robust 165 wRC+ to start the year, first among shortstops and 8th in all of baseball. Pretty slick. Polanco’s never produced a wRC+ above 110 in a full season (he’s hit that number twice, in 2015 and 2018) and further, never hit more than 13 bombs. Through 38 games, he’s already at 8.

Something fun is cooking with Polanco and the Twins overall, who sit in first place in the AL Central and third in run differential in the AL, buoyed in part by an exceptional offensive start.

A couple things stick out for the young shortstop:

  • He’s striking out a lot less than last year: 18.6% in 2018, 14.0% in 2019
  • He’s walking more than last year: 7.5% in 2018, 9.9% in 2019
  • He’s hitting the ball a lot harder: 83.9 MPH exit velocity in 2018, 88.4 MPH exit velocity in 2019
  • He’s hitting the ball in the air: 15.5% launch angle in 2018, 21.7% launch angle in 2019
  • He’s putting the barrel on the ball far, far more: 3.7% in 2018, 9.4% in 2019

You tell me, guys. Is it better to strike out less, walk more and hit the ball harder and with a higher launch angle? Yes. Yes it is. Check out his 2019 heat map (note that the numbers are his slugging percentage per pitch):

Polanco heatmap

Throw the ball over the heart of the plate at your own peril against 2019 Jorge Polanco. He’s especially mashing fastballs, slugging an incredible .700 off heaters. That, kiddos, is good.

Obviously, it’s fun to marvel at the heatmaps and the Statcast metrics, but I’m more impressed with the improvement to his walk and strikeout numbers. A young player who learns to walk more is a young player I like, and Polanco’s still only 25. These sorts of developments can and do happen. Polanco always profiled as a high-contact player — more on this in a moment — so him adding patience and power are quite encouraging signs.

It should be noted that he’s carrying a somewhat-high .345 BABIP, but as long as it stays somewhere above .300, he’ll be fine. Given his pedigree, he might be able to maintain that — through the 77 games he played last season, his BABIP was that same .345.

This slow-motion video of Polanco’s swing shows us just compact and quick to the ball he is. No wasted effort.

I’m not saying he’s going to maintain his 2019 pace, but I do think he’s an above-average hitter now.  Even if he ends up around 120-130 wRC+, for a shortstop that’s a heck of a number. For example: last year, Francisco Lindor hit a 130 wRC+, Javier Baez 131 wRC+ and Xander Bogaerts 133 wRC+. That would be some great company to maintain.

It’s still early enough that Polanco could regress. Maybe pitchers probe around enough and find an opening; maybe that leads to more strikeouts, which subsequently drags down the overall production. It’s early and this is baseball, where nothing can be fully believed as Gospel. Things happen.

But this feels real. We’re seeing things that tell us this isn’t a fluke — much like Luke Voit bashing the cover off the ball indicated his early success wasn’t temporary. We can see tangible things from Polanco that suggest he’s taken a serious step forward.

Given that the Indians rolled the dice on health and came up snake eyes — Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger are hurt, Jose Ramirez seemingly can’t hit anymore — Polanco’s emergence comes at a great time. The AL Central is wide open.

Why not the Twins? Byron Buxton is healthy and running his way into a slugging percentage north of .400; Eddie Rosario is tied for second in the AL in homers; Jose Berrios‘ curveball is so gorgeous I want to buy it dinner and try my luck; Mitch Garver probably hasn’t become Ted Williams, but hey, it’s something. (I really, really want Buxton to maintain his current production with the bat; baseball needs players like him.)

Look, some of what has lifted the Twins to their strong start will fade. I doubt Rosario hits more than 40 homers and I seriously doubt Garver maintains his surge in isolated power (especially after last night, yikes). But with the Indians reeling, the Twins have a great opening.

Ode to a Pitcher: Noah Syndergaard blasts a home run, shuts out Reds

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Noah Syndergaard possesses truly incredible potential.

What a couple weeks for Thor!

No Avengers: Endgame spoilers here, but rest assured Chris Hemsworth wasn’t the only golden-haired Asgardian with a hell of a story to tell.

Noah Syndergaard is a tantalizing pitcher. He broke into the big leagues at 22 and was pretty good; one year later, he was awesome and pitched deep into the postseason with the Mets. Ultimately, of course, the Kansas City Royals won the 2015 World Series. Syndergaard would dominate the San Francisco Giants in the next year’s Wild Card game but still manage a loss, and that has been that for Thor in the playoffs.

A torn lat muscle short-circuited his 2017, but he rebounded for a pretty good 2018. You might have heard, his teammate Jacob deGrom was pretty good too.

Syndergaard was a trendy Cy Young pick heading into the season. He might be a trendy Cy Young pick for a long time. The stuff is bonkers; he throws really hard and has an absolute hammer of a curveball. Oddly, his strikeout numbers aren’t always off the charts (155 Ks in 154 IP last season), but the run prevention is there (121 ERA+).

He’s really good. Odds seem positive that he becomes really great. Against the Cincinnati Reds last week, he was that guy; economical, grabbing easy outs, flashing that stuff when necessary and even a little something extra.

***

Look, this Mets season has been weird. Pete Alonso has been fun! deGrom has been hurt and not quite great, which is frustrating. Edwin Diaz was amazing last year and has scuffled. It’s all very Mets. The NL East is a bloodbath and who knows how well the team will fare.

But today, oh today, we’ve got something fun for the Mets fans. It’s the bottom of the third, scored tied 0-0. Here’s what happened with the very first pitch Noah Syndergaard saw.

Pitchers wallop home runs from time to time. It’s not common, but it happens. But man this is cool. Syndergaard reached out and smacked this to left-center. Bang.

Syndergaard Pitch 1 HR

So it’s 1-0. Let’s leap to the top of the 9th inning, and Syndergaard has been cruising; 92 pitches, 3 hits, 1 walk, 8 Ks. 1-0 lead. Pretty darn economical for a dude with his penchant for strikeouts, but then again, the Reds aren’t reminding anyone of the Big Red Machine right now either.

Up first is a personal pet favorite of mine, Jesse Winker. I think Winker should be glued into left field and kept there all season; let him evolve at the plate (he should produce solid OBPs out of the gate) and figure it out in the field. He could be valuable when the Reds are ready to win.

Oh, and he also annoys the heck out of opposing fans and teams. I find that fun. Syndergaard greets him with a low curveball that Winker bounces foul.

Winker Pitch 1 CRV

Syndergaard comes back with a running fastball for strike two. It looks bad initially; if you listen to the SNY broadcast, even they have a fit with this call. Because catcher Wilson Ramos‘ glove moves so much, this appears to be a glaring miss from home plate umpire Marty Foster. Winker goes ballistic — he enjoys putting on a show, and I can imagine from his angle that this seemed an egregious missed call — before his manager, David Bell, can rescue him. Winker gets tossed.

Winker Pitch 2 FB

But actually … it’s a strike. Look at that movement! As soon as the ball enters the frame until Ramos squeezes it, that pitch is running to the outside corner. Incredible.

Foster got the call right.

Winker Pitch 2 FB SLOMO

Unfortunately, Reds ace and recent Ode to a Pitcher selection Luis Castillo got caught in the crossfire.

Winker bounces helmet off Castillo

Once Winker’s shenanigans ended, Kyle Farmer stepped up to the plate inheriting his teammate’s 0-2 count. What a gift! It’s probably a lot of fun to try and be productive with an 0-2 count against Noah Syndergaard. Like, a lot of fun.

At least it was brief. Thor dials up the gas on the outside corner and he’s two outs away from a shutout.

Farmer Pitch 1 FB

Eugenio Suarez is a pretty good hitter. You should know this if you don’t. He produced a 116 wRC+ in 2017 and a very healthy 135 wRC+ last season. He has pretty nice pop and has turned into the team’s best hitter, assuming Nick Senzel doesn’t go bonkers out of the gate (he might) and Joey Votto doesn’t rebound (I hope he does).

I just wanted to share that because his plate appearance in the ninth inning only lasted one pitch. Syndergaard kind of got away with one here; the Reds third baseman is slugging a healthy .613 on the season off fastballs as of this writing. But not today.

One out to go.

Suarez Pitch 1 SNK

Derek Dietrich, future beekeeper, steps up with no runway left. Thor misses a little low with a sinker to start the count 1-0.

Dietrich Pitch 1 SNK

Dietrich watches a nifty curve drop in for strike two. Thor has generated whiffs on nearly 60 percent of the swings against that hammer this season. That seems good.

Dietrich Pitch 2 CRV

With the count 1-1, Syndergaard runs a fastball belt-high over the plate and Dietrich bounces it into right field for a single. An impressive piece of hitting; it would be easy to foul this off given the action on the ball and velocity. Credit to Dietrich here.

Dietrich Pitch 3 FB

Michael Lorenzen pinch runs for Dietrich and up comes Yasiel Puig with a chance to tie it. Before this plate appearance, Puig had produced outs on the first pitch three straight times against Syndergaard. His generous donation helped Thor run up such a mild pitch count through 24 outs. The Reds outfielder takes strike one outside.

The fun with guys like Syndergaard is he throws this beauty of a sinker, smashes the outside corner and we breeze by it like nothing special happened. This is a crazy good pitch.

Puig Pitch 1 FB

Lorenzen takes off for second — an odd risk with two outs and a pitcher running who never stole a base before — while Syndergaard removes Puig from his cleats with this curveball. He actually hangs it, but Puig was so geared up for the gas he couldn’t navigate the speed difference.

Puig Pitch 2 CRV

0-2. Lorenzen on second. Syndergaard threw a nuclear sinker for strike one and a solid curveball for a swinging second strike. Now what?

Gas. The 104th pitch of the day is a 99.6 MPH sinker on the outside corner for a smooth strike three. Love the little pose there at the end too. Don’t question the power of Thor.

Puig Pitch 3 FB

***

From CBSSports.com:

Since 1908, this was just the seventh time in MLB that a pitcher threw a shutout and homered in a 1-0 win, per Baseball Reference. It hasn’t happened since 1983, when Dodgers hurler Bob Welch pulled it off. 

Impressive. Syndergaard didn’t have a great May — that ERA was hovering around 5 — but the potential remains immense. There are lots of excellent pitchers in baseball and he has everything he needs to become one of them. What a treat it would be to see Thor light up MLB over the summer, especially if deGrom straightens himself out, too. The Mets might have a reason to believe.

A Mets team led by deGrom, Syndergaard, Alonso and Cano could wreak havoc over the summer.

Let’s check in on Harper, Machado and the other big catches of the winter

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Bryce Harper got booed in Philly. Yawn.

We won’t rehash the offseason, but it wasn’t much fun. Lots of sitting around and theorizing about why Manny Machado and Bryce Harper hadn’t signed, what it meant for Nolan Arenado and Francisco Lindor‘s future, etc. Ah. Fun times.

Eventually, the dust settled (except for Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel, who continue to have plenty of free time, thank you very much). Machado headed to San Diego and Harper to the friendly streets of Philadelphia. But those weren’t the only big moves of the winter, so let’s check in on how some of the big acquisitions are doing with a few random observations.

Bryce Harper

ESPN and MLB Network and the rest clutched their collective pearls about Phillies fans booing Harper. A quick list of other thoroughly mundane events that would surely upset ESPN and MLB Network:

  • Snow falling in December
  • Rain falling in April
  • Milk going bad in the fridge

You get the picture. Look, Philadelphia fans booing something just isn’t interesting to talk about anymore. Frankly, almost all of the attention paid Harper bores me. He’s a really good and exciting player, capable of thrilling moments. He also can be frustrating, as any power hitter can be. He strikes out. It looks bad sometimes. This is baseball.

Harper’s hitting .231 with plenty of walks and solid power. It adds up to a 122 wRC+, which is hardly world-beating, but hey, it’s a far cry from bad. He’s streaky and would probably benefit from a slight change in approach; that’s true of virtually every hitter alive except for Mike Trout (and Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger for the moment).

So, yes, Harper will at times frustrate, but he’s at all times capable of a ferocious month of production. It would make for quite a fun baseball summer to have the Phils, led by Harper on a tear, battling, say, the Atlanta Braves led by Ronald Acuna. Who wouldn’t love that?

As of now, the Phillies are in first place in the NL East. Second? Atlanta.

Manny Machado

The Machado – Fernando Tatis Jr. pairing is thrilling to me. I love it. If I were a Padres fan, I’d probably think about it every single day. You’re on your way to a championship core with those two on the left side of your infield.

For now, though, Machado has slid back to shortstop while his younger teammate nurses an injured hamstring. His team has looked perhaps a bit better than expected, sitting 3rd in the NL West and a few games north of .500. With Chris Paddack causing a fervor each time he’s on the mound — he’s like a Baseball Twitter aphrodisiac — the Padres have an exciting future.

It could easily just be a blip — it’s May, my dudes — but Machado’s strikeout rate has climbed quite a bit as a Padre. Again, blip? Probably. I’m not drawing any major conclusions.

Here’s to more Machado and Tatis moments. I remain very optimistic about that pairing and the Pads overall.

Patrick Corbin

The Nationals are eight games below .500. Their injury list isn’t quite to the level of the Yankees, but it’s a damned impressive group all its own: Juan Soto (back, could return around May 11); Trea Turner (fractured finger, probably in a few weeks); Ryan Zimmerman (plantar fasciitis, TBD). Anthony Rendon just returned from an injured stint.

It hasn’t been great. But Corbin, mostly, has delivered. The slider, still his most utilized offering, continues to generate tons of swings and misses and very little else (.246 xwOBA). Everything else he throws is far more hittable (at least 100 points of xwOBA higher) and that, in my mind’s eye, makes his 3.71 ERA feel right. That’s probably about who he is, and hey, that’s a valuable guy.

I think he’s a treat to watch. Everyone knows he relies on that breaking ball and yet, the results are the results. Lord only knows if the Nationals will even make the playoffs, and maybe I’m being old-fashioned in thinking this way, but throwing out Max ScherzerStephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in a playoff series is, um, ideal.

Paul Goldschmidt

Should we freak out? Last year we all freaked about Goldy’s slow start. Remember? It was fun. Then, he eventually torched the league for a few months and ended up with a hell of a season. This is baseball.

Goldschmidt in such a passionate baseball city makes me smile. It feels right. This is no disrespect at all to Arizona, but the Diamondbacks don’t have the historical cache of the Cardinals. (What, maybe three teams do?) He has a stage now that he didn’t before, and I hope he can capitalize on it.

The BABIP is low (for him). The walk rate is down, but it’s May. Things balance out. Paul Goldschmidt is awesome and he’ll be awesome. The Cards are five games over .500 and remain close to both the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers: the hitting has been good and the run prevention okay. That’s about right.

James Paxton

As was decided long ago by blood ritual, James Paxton, now a Yankee, must do his penance on the injured list, much like all of his talented and established teammates short of Gleyber Torres, Luke Voit, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman.

You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.

Paxton was really frustrating at launch, particularly in a start against the Houston Astros (that feels like 5 years ago … ). Then, he rattled off consecutive 12-strikeout starts, drumming up plenty of excitement in New York (especially with Luis Severino serving his aforementioned time in purgatory). However, as we know, nothing good lasts forever, and Paxton is nursing a left knee issue. It’s not expected to keep him down too long.

He’s basically been James Paxton so far. Lots of strikeouts, solid-to-good ERA, injuries.

Sonny Gray

Oh, Sonny. He’s truly one of my favorite pitchers to watch, in an almost masochistic way. When Sonny Gray is on, he’s marvelous; when he’s nibbling and missing, he’s maddening.

He’s been pretty decent in Cincinnati. The normal stats tell us he’s been okay (ERA sits in the low 4s); the fancier stats suggest he’s been better (his FIP is in the low 3s). His fastball, despite nice spin and okay-ish velocity, continues to be a sore spot (but not an outright atrocity like last season). The Reds are having a frustrating season, but the pitching has been a triumph, led of course by Luis Castillo. Gray has been a positive.

Yasiel Puig

Yasiel Puig isn’t hitting. His wRC+ is 56. That’s bad. Puig will eventually hit. That’s a familiar theme in today’s piece and for good reason, because baseball moves in cycles and deep sample sizes. He’s a good hitter with a weird platoon split. He’s solid in the field. He’s at times maddening to manage and root for, but also, and this has to be mentioned too, he’s thrilling. The Puig experience is nothing if not memorable.

For the Reds, I think the optimal outfield alignment is somewhat obvious. Jesse Winker in left, Nick Senzel in center and Puig over in right. Let them play, especially the first two, and even more especially, Senzel. That could be a heck of a trio if things break the right way. The Reds might as well find out.