Month: August 2019

Ode to a Pitcher: Charlie Morton is much better than you realize

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Charlie Morton is one of the world’s best pitchers. Don’t believe me? Here’s a quick piece of proof. Among all starters since 2017 (with enough innings, yadda yadda yadda) Morton’s xFIP is 13th best. His fWAR is 14th, ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Noah Syndergaard.

Sorta weird that he signed for so little last offseason, right (2 years, $30 million)? The Rays are a contender and Morton is the best and healthiest arm they have. He’s been excellent for them.

But … uh … the  New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies couldn’t have used Morton?  (Imagining Morton on the Dodgers or back on the Houston Astros might break the space-time continuum. Just don’t.) I just don’t for the life of me get why teams weren’t willing to take this risk. Sure, he’s on the wrong side of 35, but the immediate track record is strong.

Hey, Brian Cashman. Defend re-signing JA Happ for an additional year versus Morton’s 2/30. Go ahead. I’ll be here.

Charlie Morton is good. Like, really good. Nothing has changed since signing with the Tampa Bay Rays, either; in fact, he’s probably only better. Morton has leaned even harder into that nasty curveball, throwing it more than anything else in his bag of tricks and finding elite results: .176 xwOBA (!!!!!!!), 37.9 percent whiff rate (!!!). The average exit velocity off that curve is 82 MPH, which is just ridiculous.

Seriously, that .176 xwOBA is absurd. Just bonkers. Remember, the expected weighted on-base average is driven by batted ball data and the expected performance therein. Hitters are doing nothing against Morton’s hammer. Given what we’ll see soon, that makes perfect sense. Morton doesn’t have a great fastball — the velocity is solid, the spin isn’t — but he knows how to work hitters into bad spots. And what’s a bad spot, you ask? Any count where he can unleash the curve.

Okay, I know the Detroit Tigers are bad. Wait, sorry, terrible. I know. But I wanted the chance to show you some of Morton’s best hammers, and so here we are. Last Friday, Morton squared off with Detroit’s finest. We’ll be working out of the first inning.

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Ode to a Pitcher: Aroldis Chapman battles Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Last Sunday, Aroldis Chapman faced Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for the first time.

The young phenom, the son of a Hall of Famer, beginning to prove himself after loads of hype.

The legendary closer, an incredible strikeout machine, still punching out hitters after years of dominance.

On Sunday afternoon in Toronto, the New York Yankees sent Masahiro Tanaka back out to the mound in the ninth inning. Tanaka, his best self that day, was looking to preserve a shutout and the Yanks were looking to claim another win.

But, as happens, the ninth didn’t open favorably, and after a single out came manager Aaron Boone to pull his nominal ace. Out goes Tanaka and in jogs closer Aroldis Chapman. And how did Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo respond?

By pinch-hitting with one of his young prodigies — read that sentence again; the Blue Jays are going to be such a pain in the ass someday — in a critical part of the game. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the dreadlocked mashing machine who arrived earlier this year with much hype. On this very site, I lambasted Toronto for not freeing Baby Vlad sooner (it’s worked out well for the Padres and Fernando Tatis Jr., eh?), but now he’s here.

The young slugger, still only 20 years old, hasn’t lit the American League on fire as a rookie — .345 xwOBA and a 112 OPS+ are fine, not revolutionary — but he’s shown the spark of a potential MVP. Since July 1, he’s looked more and more the part, especially considering his age, hitting .302/.374/.511.

Meanwhile, Chapman is Chapman, even as his velocity slowly drops. Slowly. His fastball velocity is still in the 99th percentile, as is the spin on that heater. Hmm. Maybe it’s more like the desert has just a bit less sand? Something like that. Even as he turns more to the slider — .224 xwOBA, 41.4 percent whiff rate — the results stay the same. Chapman is awesome.

The table was set. The firebreathing Yankees closer against the Blue Jays phenom. One run lead. Here we go.

Continue reading “Ode to a Pitcher: Aroldis Chapman battles Vladimir Guerrero Jr.”

Ode to a Pitcher: Luis Castillo’s changeup takes no prisoners

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The Cincinnati Reds have found an ace in Luis Castillo.

My wife and I trekked down to Great American Ballpark on Monday. Why?

Simple.

Mike Trout was in town. That was reason enough: to say we saw the greatest alive and perhaps the greatest ever at the peak of his powers. Despite an uncharacteristic error, Trout was Trout; he got on-base, easily swiped a bag and drilled a homer. He’s unreal, and every baseball fan should see him work.

But, in a sense, I was even more excited to see Trout against Luis Castillo. Castillo, the unquestioned best pitcher in a quite good Reds rotation, didn’t fare well against the presumptive MVP. He joins a long list in that category. Don’t hold it against him.

Castillo is an ace and better than I expected. His changeup is the best of its kind; thrown in the high 80s with harsh late movement, tunneled perfectly with his 97 MPH fastball. His approach is often quite simple; work with the fastball and slider into a two-strike count, then it’s changeup time. Hitters are whiffing an astounding 51.2 percent of the time against the change. He throws it more than any pitch in his repertoire, and batters still can’t touch it (.185 xwOBA).

Before the season I wondered if Castillo’s rather hittable fastball might hold him back. Well, it’s roughly as hittable this year as last, but he found a solution.

Throw more changeups. Amen, brother.

Let’s watch Castillo take on the Los Angeles Angels in a recent start. Spoiler: there will be changeups.

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Ode to a Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw can still twist you into knots

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Clayton Kershaw just passed the great Sandy Koufax in career strikeouts. Rarefied air.

I’ve been doing this series since January (Pedro Martinez at the ’99 All-Star Game was the first). Every week. Lots of fun breakdowns and all manner of pitching nerdery, and yet somehow I have never covered Clayton Kershaw. You know, three-time Cy Young winner. MVP. Definite Hall of Famer.

Never covered. Sigh. It’s a stain on my career.

That ends today.

I can remember a young Kersh tantalizing prospect watchers way back when, and boy oh boy did he ever deliver on that promise. Kershaw’s peak is basically otherworldly. You’d feel weird having this kind of run in MLB: The Show. (Are my sliders out of whack? Am I accidentally playing on Easy?).

Check this. From 2011-14, Kershaw threw 895 innings to a 2.11 ERA. He struck out 948 and walked just 200. That’s … wow. That’s unreal. Tons of punchouts, barely any walks, incredible ERA over nearly 900 innings thrown. That’s an all-time peak. Promise delivered.

And the thing with Kershaw is, he’s a painter. Kershaw had ridiculous stuff, but he wasn’t a Roger Clemens or Max Scherzer type, beating you into submission with high velocities. Kershaw could dial up the heat, no doubt, but he dominated more with pinpoint control and breathtaking movement. Kershaw at his peak was a marvel. His curveball, in particular, was a work of art.

Age never loses, and Kershaw isn’t the pitcher he once was, but dude, that’s a long slope down to the bottom. He’s still great; 117 innings, 146 ERA+ in 2019. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Let’s take a look at his recent work in the third inning against the Washington Nationals.

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