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.

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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.

Ode to a Pitcher: Tyler Glasnow’s fastball demands your attention

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Tyler Glasnow works fast and hard.

If you’ve heard of Tampa Bay Rays righthander Tyler Glasnow, it’s probably because he has a glorious hook. His curveball is a classic 12-6 hammer. It’s even more impressive coming from his 6-foot-8 frame. Hitters can’t do much with it (.285 xwOBA last year, .164 this year) and for good reason. Examined as part of Glasnow’s full repertoire, batters are stuck; do you sit on the fastball or the curve?

Good luck either way.

When he toed the rubber last Sunday in Fenway Park, most eyes were on Red Sox lefty Chris Sale. Sale hasn’t been himself this year (is a 6.30 ERA good?), but because he’s Chris Sale, we expect those fortunes will change. And, because he’s Chris Sale, when he figures it out he’s liable to punchout 15. It’s worth following.

Alas, not this day. Sale struggled and Glasnow dominated. With Blake Snell injured, Glasnow has provided high-quality innings amid a torrid start for the Rays. I’m not saying Glasnow has emerged as an ace — his numbers are good but not exactly explosive, unlike Luis Castillo for example — but I am saying he’s someone to keep an eye on.

Today we’ll study how he works his fastball. Dude throws hard, and even though the spin isn’t great, he keeps batters uncomfortable by working it throughout the zone and keeping that curve in the forefront of the batter’s mind.

***

Jackie Bradley Jr. steps up to open the bottom of the third against Glasnow. Note the extension in the lanky hurler’s delivery and how well he finishes through the ball. He’s maximizing his height to add life to the fastball. I really like his mechanics, and I’m also intrigued his working from the stretch regardless of baserunners. It keeps things simple.

JBJ Pitch 1 FB

JBJ gets another fastball and knocks it foul to even the count 1-1. Bradley’s not much known as a hitter, but he did slug almost .500 against fastballs last season. Rarely is a belt-high fastball ideal, but no one is perfect.

JBJ Pitch 2 FB

Awesome pitch. I love the confidence to put a fastball right under the hands like this, flat-out challenging Bradley to do something with it. Make no mistake, a lot of hitters can — David Ortiz seemed to smash high fastballs like this — but it’s not easy. It’s especially not easy against a fastball like Tyler Glasnow’s.

JBJ Pitch 3 FB

JBJ is down 1-2 and Glasnow unleashes the hammer, but leaves it just high enough in the zone that the Red Sox centerfielder bounces it foul. You can still get a look at the movement, though — Bradley flails at it. Glasnow makes sure to finish through the ball, too, to help hide any tells about the breaking pitch.

JBJ Pitch 4 CRV

Another good pitch. Glasnow brings Bradley’s eyes back up with a fastball after working down with the curve. Follow the pattern: fastball up against the hands, curve down by the knees, fastball above the hands. That’s sequencing, kiddos, and it works. A pitcher who can work all throughout the zone is a pitcher who keeps batters uncomfortable, and uncomfortable batters are less likely to mash taters.

JBJ Pitch 5 FB

Bradley’s still 1-2 but Glasnow is working him. Remember in the intro when I asked if a hitter can afford to sit on the fastball or the curve? Well, at a certain point, you just gotta guess. It sucks, it’s a miserable feeling, but you just gotta sit on something. Bradley chooses the fastball but gets the hook for a called strike three. He knows it too.

JBJ Pitch 6 CRV

Let’s enjoy the break on that badboy:

JBJ Pitch 6 CRV SLOMO

Catcher Christian Vazquez steps in and is blown away by a Glasnow fastball for strike one. Hitting a good Major League fastball is just a tough beat, man. It’s not easy. Vazquez isn’t much of a hitter anyway, but he shouldn’t feel much shame here.

Vazquez Pitch 1 FB

Glasnow nearly slings one into the fifteenth row for the second pitch in the at-bat. Hey, at least he kept Vazquez’s eye level high, right? Heh.

Vazquez Pitch 2 FB

Absolutely beautiful pitch. Vazquez knows he can’t do anything with it and lets it go, hoping for ball two. Nope. Glasnow has firm control of the at-bat, having eaten the Red Sox catcher’s lunch with the first heater and painted up and in with the third. This is a bad place to be, man.

Vazquez Pitch 3 FB

Just, wow. Sometimes you don’t have to change speeds or work the corners. Sometimes you don’t need to nibble or get complicated. Glasnow knew from the first pitch he had Vazquez and saw no reason to take his foot off the pedal. If you got ’em, you got ’em.

Vazquez Pitch 4 FB

Andrew Benintendi presents a far more stout threat than Vazquez or Bradley Jr. The latter two are known primarily for their defense; Benintendi can hit (123 OPS+ last season). The young leftfielder watches a fastball for ball one.

Benintendi Pitch 1 FB

Benintendi gets another high fastball and wisely takes it for ball two.

Benintendi Pitch 2 FB

No pitcher wants to be down 2-0 in the count. The hitter knows you’ll probably be working in the zone to avoid an even worse situation. Glasnow does work in the zone, but throws a changeup (yes, a changeup, at 93 MPH) and Benintendi misses for strike one.

Let’s talk about this for a second. Tyler Glasnow just threw a 93 MPH changeup. It’s not quite as uncommon as you might think, given that Norse gods like Noah Syndergaard exist. Regardless, Glasnow rarely throws the change so we can’t exactly say it’s a good or bad pitch, but it worked here.

Benintendi Pitch 3 CH

I don’t know guys. I think Glasnow likes working up and in. He blasted Bradley Jr with a fastball up and in, buzzed the tower on Vazquez and dropped a 91 MPH changeup on Benintendi in the same spot as Bradley’s. If you look at Rays catcher Mike Zunino‘s glove, Glasnow either missed or threw to a different spot. I can’t tell ya, but given Benintendi’s reaction, it worked.

Benintendi Pitch 4 CH

Glasnow leveraged two changeups to drag the count back into his favor. Now Benintendi has to be ready for the fastball, the curve and presumably even a third changeup. The lanky hurler has proven he can throw the fastball and the change anywhere he wants in the zone. As a batter, you have some plate to cover here.

Glasnow comes up but away with a 97 MPH fastball and just misses off the plate to run the count full. Good take by Benintendi.

Benintendi Pitch 5 FB

Pretend you’re Glasnow. What are you going with? You drew a swinging strike on a low change and a called strike on a high change. You’ve missed with three fastballs. Is it time for the curve? It’d be tempting, for sure. If you can tunnel it a little behind the fastball and bury it low, you’ll be forcing Benintendi to adjust to the break, the speed and the spot.

Hmm.

Or, you know, you could put an upper-90s heater right by his hands. Sure. Let’s try that.

That’s exactly what Glasnow does, and man what a sight it is. Catching up to that kind of heat in that spot is just a damned hard thing to do. If Glasnow leaves the fastball a bit more arm side — that is, a bit further out over the plate — maybe Benintendi gets a little wood on it. That leads to another pitch, and you never know what can happen with just one more pitch.

But Glasnow affords no such opportunity. Hell of a pitch.

Benintendi Pitch 6 FB

***

Glasnow throws a lot of fastballs. So far this year, 66.1% of his pitches have been heaters. Last year, it was 70.5%. Even though the curve is fun, he lives and breathes off that gas. And as we saw today, because he can put it wherever he wants, it becomes all the more valuable a pitch.

Nothing lasts forever: Chris Sale stares down his future

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Chris Sale’s struggles loom large for his team going forward.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs says a wife of good character is worth far more than rubies. That’s true, of course. In baseball, though, an ace is worth far more than rubies.

Few things are more empowering to a baseball fan than the ace. Knowing your team has one of those rare beasts breeds confidence unlike anything short of having a great quarterback in football. If the first card you play in a playoff series is Roy Halladay or Randy Johnson or Sandy Koufax, suddenly you’re in control. You set the tone. You start with an advantage. Maybe your opponent can match you, but often not.

I wrote a little about this feeling on BronxPinstripes this week. CC Sabathia‘s arrival certainly gave New York Yankees fans that confidence upon his arrival in 2009. When the Philadelphia Phillies started Cliff Lee in the World Series, the Bombers could match with Sabathia. It means something. It’s hard to quantify and drop in a nifty chart, but it’s part of the experience of rooting for a team. If the other team has a Hulk, we want a Hulk too.

The Boston Red Sox knew they had acquired that guy back in 2016. Chris Sale was flat-out awesome with the Chicago White Sox and has continued to basically be that or better in Boston, culminating in his dominant performance to close out the Fall Classic last October. Sure, the tail end of the 2018 regular season wasn’t great — velocity down, etc — but he’s Chris Sale. He’ll be fine. The offseason rest was coming at a great time.

And for all the excitement a hurler in full-bloom can generate, when a couple cracks emerge in the facade, the feeling flips in the blink of an eye. The problem with pitchers is they break. We try and we try to learn why they break and work and work to prevent it, but nothing has made a serious dent. It’s really hard on the arm — all of it, from shoulder to wrist — to do what pitchers do. These guys are modern marvels, throwing harder than ever with dazzling breaking balls. How could it last?

Sale might be the most dazzling of them all. When he’s on, Sale is borderline unbelievable. He throws hard and spins ridiculous sliders from a crazy release point. He’s untouchable. His career K/9 and strikeout-to-walk ratios are the best ever. Ever.

Sale hasn’t been anywhere close to that dude so far in 2019. He’s not throwing as hard (2018: 95.2 MPH, 2019: 92.3 MPH) and not generating the same spin on his fastball (2018: 2357 RPM, 2019: 2279 RPM). Across the board, he’s not missing as many bats …

Sale swing and miss

.. while giving up a lot more hard contact:

Sale hard hit

That red line is his four-seamer. Yikes. The xwOBA (read it like an on-base percentage) off his four-seamer last season was a mild .264. This year? .444. That paints a pretty obvious picture. So, what’s the deal? Is Sale hurt? He’s said no, and we have to take him at his word, but players aren’t always forthcoming. Tommy Kahnle wasn’t honest with the Yankees last year, for example. It happens. It’d be a normal human thing in the wake of a huge contract extension to white-knuckle your way through an injury in an effort to validate the cash. I get it.

So, is it mechanical? If you play around with the horizontal and vertical release point charts over at BrooksBaseball, you’ll see a difference. I don’t know enough to tell you that’s the problem, or even that the difference is enough to mean something. But the calendar has turned to May and Sale’s struggles continue. Any lead is worth pursuing.

Sale is in his age-31 season. This is right about the time we’d expect most pitchers to begin a decline, but Sale isn’t most pitchers. He’s tremendous. Tremendous pitchers don’t always follow that path; Max Scherzer is even older and hasn’t dipped. But, given Sale’s unconventional mechanics and how he tailed off toward the end of last season, maybe he has started to enter a new phase of his career. That happens, and if the lower velocity is his new normal, he’ll figure it out. He doesn’t just suck all of a sudden.

I’ll hedge and say Sale is somewhere in the middle of who he once was and who he will be. He very well could be past the days where he’s arguably the best per-inning starter in the world. Therein lies the rub, though; a declining Sale should still be quite valuable. That’s hardly a comfort to Red Sox fans who just want their fire-breathing dragon back to defend the crown.

In the era of analytics, we are obsessed with learning and locking onto the most valuable players and tactics. And hey, I’m on board with that. But even I’ll admit that the tangible part of the fan experience is critical too, and having someone like Chris Sale toe the rubber for your squad is a damn thrill. Even as a fan of his team’s greatest rival, I hope it’s not over. I don’t think it is. I remain optimistic that at some point this season — perhaps soon — he’ll put together a run.

Ode to a Pitcher: Luis Castillo shines as Reds struggle to launch

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Luis Castillo starts are becoming appointment television in Cincinnati.

Amid a historically anemic start for the Cincinnati Reds offense, Reds fans have taken solace in Luis Castillo. The young flamethrower has been excellent to open the 2019 season (stats through his last start in San Diego): 30 IP, 13 H, 14 BB, 41 K, 308 ERA+.

We’ll quibble for a moment; the hits will start dropping in before long and that walk rate is rough, but Castillo is racking up the strikeouts and the stuff — always tantalizing — is definitely for real. I’m not convinced he’s suddenly a top-10 starter, but he might be top-20. That is quite a positive development.

A fancy stat to keep an eye on? Last year, the average exit velocity off his four-seam fastball was 90.6 (right around league average). This year? Down to 81.9. Is that drop for real? Permanent? I doubt it, but if it settles in the mid to upper 80s, that’ll mean the fastball is playing better. Despite the impressive velocity, Castillo’s fastball wasn’t even a good pitch in 2018. The xwOBA (read it like an on-base percentage) was .402; the pitch value by Fangraphs was -9.6. Not great. This year both numbers look quite a bit better.

I don’t think he’s suddenly solved all his fastball issues, but I do think he’s learning. Don’t misread me: Castillo’s been incredibly fortunate so far (.197 BABIP, 87.4 strand rate), but he’s also developing. Two things can be true at the same time. I wrote about the righty last winter, wondering if he’d be able to make a few tweaks to unlock the elite hurler within himself. As fraught with peril as a 30 inning sample can be, there’s reason to be confident.

Let’s enjoy Castillo’s first inning against the San Diego Padres.

***

I love this. How cool would it be to see Luis Castillo and Fernando Tatis Jr. square off in the NLCS? Young star vs younger star. The Reds hurler starts the Padres shortstop off with a fastball down and away for ball one.

Tatis Pitch 1 FB

Castillo misses with a second fastball, belt-high and away.

Tatis Pitch 2 FB

Tatis, already with a handful of homers on the season (all of them off fastballs), can’t be taken lightly in a 2-0 count. Castillo can’t just serve up a fastball here; he splits the difference by nipping the inside corner with 96 MPH. Love the run on this pitch — and note how Tatis turns as it crosses the plate.

Tatis Pitch 3 FB

Still behind in the count at 2-1, Castillo busts out his true weapon, his changeup. This one is a beauty, running arm side and down, grabbing the inside corner for a called strike two. Through this very start in San Diego, hitters have managed a meager .083 batting average off it. I can see why.

Tatis Pitch 4 CH

It’s 2-2. Tatis has now paid witness to three fastballs (two away for balls, one inside for a strike) and a nasty change down and in for a strike. From the pitcher’s perspective, the appealing option is to bury the changeup further down and force the young shortstop to chase.

Castillo does just that, and the results are spectacular. That’s an absolutely tremendous changeup, well sequenced and perfectly located. Credit to Castillo for battling out of a 2-0 hole against a hitter with pop and punctuating it with the punchout.

Tatis Pitch 5 CH

Who doesn’t love a slow-motion look at a K?

Tatis Pitch 5 CH SLOMO

Up next is Francisco Mejia. He’s greeted with a bicep-high fastball that runs out over the plate for ball one. Imagine how pleasant it must be to think, for just the hint of a second, that a Luis Castillo fastball is about to explode into your elbow. Pleasant indeed. It’s 1-0.

Mejia Pitch 1 FB

Mejia watches a changeup run off the plate away for ball two, and yet again the young Reds righty is behind in the count. He’s started exactly half of his exchanges with a first-pitch strike, hardly a dominant number (league average is 60.3%). As announcer Chris Welsh pointed out, Castillo has the stuff to mitigate the mistake, but great pitchers don’t do this. It’s something to work on.

Mejia Pitch 2 CH

Castillo runs a fastball right over the heart of the dish and Mejia sprays it foul. Not a great spot at all, but Castillo got away with it. You can see catcher Tucker Barnhart sat up low and away.

Mejia Pitch 3 FB

Castillo misses well out of the zone with another fastball, running the count to 3-1. As stated in the intro, walks are a blinking red light of a problem for Castillo, easily my biggest fear for him as he tries to emerge as an ace. Free passes are killers against Major League offenses, regardless of how good the hurler might be otherwise. I think he can work on it, though, but it remains a concern.

Mejia Pitch 4 FB

The fifth pitch of the at-bat is another fastball low and away. Mejia bounces it slowly to short and Jose Iglesias isn’t able to make a play. A rough sequence of pitches for Castillo results in a 1-out baserunner with a superstar coming to the plate.

Mejia Pitch 5 FB

Manny Machado’s Homer-like free agent odyssey brought him to lovely San Diego, where he can live out his well-paid days playing next to Tatis Jr. Fun stuff. Castillo greets him with a fastball down and away for yet another ball. (Thom Brennaman kinda acted like this was barely a ball but … uh … are we looking at the same thing here, Thom?)

Machado Pitch 1 FB

I love this. Castillo flat-out blasts the $300 million man with a fastball at the tippy-top of the zone. Machado uncorked a mighty hack and came up with air. Note how Castillo’s delivery ends with just a hair of flourish there. He enjoyed this.

Machado Pitch 2 FB

With the count even and a runner on, Castillo unleashes the finest pitch of the breakdown and an entrant into the Ode to a Pitcher Hall of Fame (we’re looking into a building right now, probably). Castillo drank Machado’s milkshake with this changeup, fooling him on speed, movement and location, drawing a wild miss of a swing and an amused grin from Machado after.

Machado Pitch 4 CH

Check out the slomo on that bad boy:

Machado Pitch 4 CH SLOMO

Machado’s been around. He knows when he’s been had.

Machado Pitch 4 CH GRIN

Machado is down 1-2 in the count. He got blasted with a hard fastball and spun into a parallel dimension with a darting changeup. What will Castillo follow it up with? He goes fastball away, drawing gentle contact right in front of the plate for a quick groundout. Mejia advances to second.

Machado Pitch 5 FB

Hunter Renfroe watches a wild fastball miss into the other batter’s box for ball one. These little episodes encapsulate the Luis Castillo experience. He might depants one of the game’s elite sluggers; he might throw a ball two feet off the plate. Control is a work in progress, obviously.

Renfroe Pitch 1 FB

Again down 1-0, Castillo returns with another nasty changeup that Renfroe swings right over. As Welsh said, he has the stuff to dig out of these holes he digs for himself.

Renfroe Pitch 2 CH

Castillo doubles up on the change, throwing another one and getting the same result. Kind of incredible, isn’t it? That changeup solves a lot of problems.

Renfroe Pitch 3 CH

Renfroe isn’t in a good place here. You don’t want to be down 1-2 to a pitcher with that kind of changeup in his arsenal, especially after proving you can’t touch it. Wisely, Castillo goes back to the well again but misses inside for ball two.

Renfroe Pitch 4 CH

So, 2-2. Mejia on second. Castillo has missed with a fastball, drawn two clean swinging strikes with changeups and missed with the third. Do you go offspeed again? Reach up in the zone with the heat?

Castillo goes changeup and finishes Renfroe with it. Three swings and misses off the same pitch in one at-bat. Incredible.

Renfroe Pitch 5 CH

***

Castillo is one to watch. Will he fix the control issues? That might be the last hurdle for him to clear in order to become a Cy Young candidate. The stuff is absurd and he pitches with confidence on both sides of the plate. Reds fans, you’ve got a fun one here.

The hits will start to fall in and he’ll give up some more runs. Don’t despair. If the walks improve, that’ll be enough. He’s close.

Baseball deserves shame for its handling of Tim Anderson

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This picture will adorn countless walls in Chicago.

Picture this.

Picture yourself as the leader of an organization flush with exciting, young talent amid a culture that loves self-expression and fun. Your organization hardly has a history of inclusion and excitement, but alas, you’ve developed a loyal fan base. Maybe it’s time to stretch out the organization’s collective arms?

Picture yourself believing that — or at least, seeing the monetary potential therein — and launching a media campaign centered around one phrase, loaded with meaning: let the kids play. Picture yourself rounding up most of that incredible young talent — the Trouts and Judges and Bregmans — for a fun commercial shoot where the game’s leading ambassador and star, the unquestioned best in the business, looks right in the camera and says: just let the kids play.

And then, the first chance you get to act on this potentially exciting new initiative, imagine falling square on your face, undoing all that goodwill.

Here’s how it started, with Tim Anderson‘s epic blast and sweet bat flip:

Wonderful. I love a great bat flip. What followed, of course, was Brad Keller throwing at Anderson in response. Why? Oh, must you even ask? Anderson showed him up. It’s okay that Anderson drilled a long home run off Keller — sure, fine — but not okay that Anderson enjoyed doing it? This is stupid. Brad Keller, you were without a moment’s hesitation wrong to do this, and baseball should drop the hammer on you for it.

Now let me be clear about something. I am all for Tim Anderson flipping his bat. I am also all for Brad Keller striking Anderson out and emphatically pumping his fist after. Heck yes. I loved Jose Batista‘s epic bat flip. I love Aroldis Chapman‘s poses and Marcus Stroman‘s struts. Let baseball be fun. It turns out — I checked — that baseball is in fact allowed to be fun.

If a pitcher intentionally throws at a batter — as Keller did here — that crosses a line, and the punishment should be swift and leave a mark. The same would apply if a batter did something aggressive toward a pitcher, like for example tossing the bat toward the mound.

This is the baseball equivalent of targeting. It’s an old baseball adage to believe there’s some justice in a pitcher plunking a batter in the hip for some perceived slight, and I suppose everyone nodded in acceptance “because it’s only the hip.” But, and maybe this will be shocking to you, pitchers sometimes miss. Giancarlo Stanton‘s horrific accident wasn’t that long ago, and Mike Fiers was not trying to hit him. And yet, he did, right in the face.

Pitchers cannot be allowed to throw at batters intentionally. I don’t care if Anderson grabbed his nuts, did a dance, pointed at Keller and shimmied around the bases. We can handle that separately, but under no circumstances can a pitcher retaliate. The risks are too high.

And then, word came down that Anderson was suspended 1 game and Keller 5. We’ll get to Anderson in a second, but the idea behind Keller’s 5 game suspension is to make him miss a start, as starters work every fifth game. Well, that’s easily avoided by simply skipping Keller one day and using him the next.

Because I believe this retaliatory behavior is a tragedy waiting to happen, I think Keller should have been suspended for like 50 games. Baseball should have handled this a long time ago and didn’t. Shame on MLB.

So, about Anderson. Jeff Passon of ESPN.com had the scoop:

Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson was suspended for one game after calling Kansas City Royals pitcher Brad Keller a “weak-ass f—ing [N-word]” during a benches-clearing incident precipitated by Keller hitting Anderson with a pitch, league sources told ESPN on Friday.

Oh, boy. Look, this is a great place for a white suburbanite baseball writer to get into trouble. So, I’ll step aside and leave you with Michael Wilbon’s opinions on the matter.

“Rob Manfred and Joe Torre, neither of whom are of color, needs to stay the hell out of this. Bring in a black deputy if you need to, recuse yourself. Stay out of it,” Wilbon said. “They need to leave the n-word alone and any adjudication involving it.”

I completely agree. Manfred hasn’t been scoring points with me for awhile anyway, but to think that two old white dudes should be the arbiter of an issue like this is ridiculous. Have just a little bit of self-awareness. How hard would it have been to just call up, oh, I don’t know, CC Sabathia or Joe Morgan or Dave Stewart and get their insight? Maybe baseball did that, but I’d be shocked. This organization is rarely prudent.

Baseball’s history with race is abhorrent, a mark on the game that will never completely wipe away. This should have been an easy one, MLB. Ignore Anderson, suspend Keller, let the kids play.

You couldn’t even do that.