DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love

As absurd as it is given that he plays in the same league as a healthy Mike Trout, the MVP chants have started for DJ LeMahieu. While the American League MVP award is a long shot for LeMahieu, he has almost certainly locked up MVP of the 2019 New York Yankees. He’s accumulated a team-high 4.7 bWAR, good for tenth among all position players in Major League Baseball. He has a .381 wOBA, 139 wRC+, and .195 ISO and is slashing .336/.383/.531 with forty-six extra-base hits, including eighteen homers. His wRC+, ISO (a batter’s slugging percentage minus his batting average, eliminating the effect of singles, which makes ISO less susceptible to variations in luck than slugging percentage), and slugging percentage all would be career highs if the season ended today, and his wOBA, batting average, and on-base percentage would be second-best to the marks he put up in 2016 when he won the National League batting title. His wOBA ranks him twenty-fourth among all 146 qualified hitters in 2019, and his wRC+ is twenty-first.

Needless to say, LeMahieu has wildly outpaced any and all expectations set when the thirty-one year old signed a two-year, $24 million contract with the Yankees in the offseason. Dan Szymborski‘s ZiPS projection system, available at FanGraphs, projected DJ for 2.6 WAR in 139 games, a .316 wOBA, .120 ISO, .274/.332/.393 slash line, and thirty-nine extra-base hits, with only twelve home runs. Baseball Prospectus’ 90th percentile outcome (the top ten percent of projected outcomes for the 2019 season) projected LeMahieu for a .312/.384/.437 slash line and sixteen extra-base hits with four home runs in just 225 plate appearances. The Baseball Prospectus projections show not only that DJ is exceeding even the most optimistic of projections but also that his role on this Yankees team was expected to be much more supporting than starring when the season began. You can’t really blame the projections for being so modest given how his 2019 stats compare with his past performance since 2015.

SeasonAVGOBPSLGISOwOBAwRC+bWAR
2015.301.362.388.087.327912.4
2016.348.416.495.147.3911305.3
2017.310.374.409.099.342942.8
2018.276.321.428.152.322863.0
2019.336.383.531.195.3831394.7

So many offensive breakouts in recent years have followed the same narrative: changes to swing mechanics that result in both lifting and pulling the ball more often, unlocking latent offensive potential. LeMahieu is the type of player that makes swing doctors salivate. He’s always possessed well above average exit velocity coupled with elite contact ability. Below are his exit velocities and rankings among hitters with at least 100 batted ball events as well as his strikeout rates and rankings among qualified hitters since 2015.

SeasonExit VelocityEV RankingK%K% Ranking
201590.0 mph65th of 39217.3%66th of 143
201690.4 mph59th of 39112.6%21st of 146
201788.8 mph87th of 38713.2%20th of 144
201891.1 mph37th of 39014.1%23rd of 140
201991.7 mph26th of 34613.6%20th of 146

In addition to his exit velocities and bat control, LeMahieu has always hit too many ground balls and pulled the ball too infrequently. A swing change doesn’t appear to be what has fueled DJ LeMahieu’s breakout, however. Here he is on the Colorado Rockies in 2018.

And here’s what he’s looked like with the Yankees in 2019.

It does look like LeMahieu has quieted his leg kick and is slightly more closed in his stance, which might be helping him make solid contact more consistently, but there doesn’t appear to be any major swing overhaul for LeMahieu in 2019. His batted ball profile seems to confirm that he hasn’t altered his swing much.

SeasonGB%LD%FB%Pull%Center%Oppo%
201554.4%26.0%19.5%21.2%39.8%39.0%
201650.6%26.6%22.8%21.8%40.3%37.9%
201755.6%24.7%19.7%21.6%40.0%38.3%
201849.6%21.0%29.5%29.8%40.7%29.6%
201948.4%24.1%27.6%26.9%40.3%32.8%

LeMahieu has been hitting significantly more fly balls in 2018 and 2019 than he did from 2015 through 2017, but his fly ball rate has actually decreased from 2018 to 2019. DJ’s also become less of an extreme opposite field hitter the last two seasons but has regressed somewhat from 2018 this season, which might not be such a bad idea at Yankee Stadium. As Travis Sawchik first noted, the changes from 2015-2017 to what we’ve seen in 2018-2019 have been the result of a concerted effort from LeMahieu to modify his swing and are likely responsible for his elevated slugging percentages and ISOs in 2018 and 2019. But the question remains: why has LeMahieu had so much more success in 2019 than in 2018 despite seeing some regression on what has typically been the path towards offensive revolutions?

LeMahieu is swinging at better pitches more often in 2019. For starters, DJ is swinging at more pitches in general: his 46.2% swing rate represents a 4.5% increase over his 2018 rate and the highest of his career since 2014. That increase in overall swing rate has come with an increase in chase rate from 26.0% to 30.0% (another since-2014 high), but his strikeout rate has actually decreased from 2018. Additionally, his swing rate at pitches within the strike zone has increased even more dramatically from 60.1% to 67.2%, also good for his highest rate since 2014.

As you’ve probably intuited, not all pitches thrown in the strike zone are created equally, and just swinging at strikes isn’t enough. It helps to swing at the right strikes. LeMahieu has improved in that regard as well. Here’s the heat map of pitches he swung at in 2018.

And his corresponding 2019 heat map below.

The 2019 heat map shows that LeMahieu has been swinging more frequently in the strike zone generally and much more frequently middle-middle, middle-in, and middle-up than in 2018. To hammer the point home further, below are 2018 and 2019 heat maps of LeMahieu’s swings against four-seam fastballs, which he’s been thrown 42.0% of the time in 2019.

According to Pitch Info’s pitch values per 100 times thrown, LeMahieu has had more success against four-seamers in 2019 than in any other season of his career with the exception of 2016, and it’s more of the same: more swings middle-middle, more swings middle-up, and more swings middle-in. DJ’s traditionally done more damage against pitches middle-middle and middle-up throughout his career. Below is another heat map showing his ISO per balls-in-play based on pitch location since the start of the 2015 season.

LeMahieu’s been attacking those middle-middle and middle-up zones accordingly in 2019.

Pitch Info’s pitch values also show that LeMahieu has been punishing sliders in 2019, which he’s seeing 19.6% of the time. His 1.59 runs created per 100 sliders seen ranks him twentieth among all 146 qualified hitters against sliders so far in 2019. Once again, the heat maps tell the story.

Yes, LeMahieu’s chasing a good amount of sliders down and on the inner part of the plate in 2019, but he’s also been ultra-aggressive on hanging sliders over the heart of the plate and up in the zone.

To put it simply, LeMahieu is swinging more often at more pitches in his wheelhouse in 2019. That change has allowed him to hit the ball harder more frequently. His 46.9% hard-hit rate is a 3.9% increase over his 2018 rate, the second-highest of his career (after his 47.5% mark in 2016), and in the 90th percentile of all qualified hitters according to Statcast. That his hard-hit rate seems to be driven by a positive adjustment in pitch selection makes his surge in overall offensive production appear sustainable, and the Statcast numbers don’t disagree: his .381 wOBA is just a tad above his .374 xwOBA in 2019.

As The Athletic’s Eno Sarris reported, in 2019, player development from the minor leagues to the majors is the name of the game in Major League Baseball. This season, the Yankees have suffered what would have been an insurmountable number of injuries for most teams. DJ LeMahieu was an afterthought when he signed with the Yankees in January and as he watched Opening Day from the bench in March. By embracing a more aggressive approach, LeMahieu has become a feared all-around hitter and the center of a core of unforeseen contributors that have the Yankees tied for the American League’s best record. Sometimes, pitch selection can make all the difference.

Insider Trading: Trevor Bauer

Towards the end of writing this, Trevor Bauer was traded in a three-team deal from the Cleveland Indians to the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds sent highly-touted outfield prospect Taylor Trammell to the San Diego Padres and outfielder Yasiel Puig and minor league pitcher Scott Moss to the Indians. The Padres sent outfielder Franmil Reyes and 3B/2B/OF Victor Nova to Cleveland. On the off-chance the Reds flip Bauer before 4 p.m. today (or even if they don’t), there’s some interesting stuff here about Bauer.

In 2018, Trevor Bauer had finally put it all together. The number three overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft was on his way to a potential American League Cy Young Award before being struck by a José Abreu line drive in August of last season. The resulting stress fracture in his fibula sidelined Bauer from August 11th to September 21st and limited him to 175.1 innings in 2018. Despite the lighter workload, Bauer finished sixth in the AL Cy Young voting with a 2.21 ERA, 2.44 FIP, 56 DRA-, and 221 strikeouts.

Bauer seemed poised to make another run at the AL Cy Young in 2019, but the controversial right-hander has taken a step back in his age twenty-eight season. In 156.2 innings pitched, he’s worked to a 3.79 ERA, 4.17 FIP, and 98 DRA- in 2019. That decline is also reflected in his peripheral statistics.

SeasonK%SwStr%O-Swing%BB%Hard Hit%
201830.8%13.3%31.4%8.0%29.1%
201927.9%12.0%30.5%9.5%38.6%

Bauer is missing less bats, getting hitters to chase less often, walking more batters, and giving up harder contact. Stuff doesn’t appear to be an issue for Bauer this season. His average fastball velocity has actually increased slightly in 2019, and the well-above average movement on his pitches has, for the most part, improved or remained steady, with the exception of his slider changeup (we’ll discuss the changeup below). While Bauer’s slider movement has decreased slightly compared to average, its horizontal break still ranks 28th of 270 sliders thrown at least 100 times in 2019, so it doesn’t seem to be a real cause for concern. The table below shows how much more or less movement each of Bauer’s pitches get compared to the average MLB pitch thrown at similar velocities.

Pitch (Movement)20182019
Four-Seam (Rise)8%10%
Curveball (Drop)17%17%
Cutter (Drop)25%28%
Slider (Glove-side Break)85%80%
Changeup (Drop)-3%-8%
Sinker (Arm-side Break)2%5%

One note on Bauer’s cutter: he uses the pitch differently than a lot of pitchers, and “cutter” may not actually be the best name for it. Bauer wants his cutter to have less horizontal movement and more drop than his slider, giving hitters one more thing to worry about in his arsenal when they think they’ve detected one of his other offerings (or vice versa). Here’s an example of the intended effect in tandem with Bauer’s slider (GIF from Pitching Ninja).

That quick aside aside, command looks like the thing that’s been ailing Bauer in 2019. As noted above, he’s walking more batters in 2019. Additionally, his zone rate (rate of pitches thrown in the strike zone) has decreased from 42.0% in 2018 to 40.4%. What’s more, he’s working behind batters much more often. His first-strike rate (the rate at which a pitcher goes 0-1 on a batter as opposed to 1-0) has shrunk from 63.7% in 2018 to 58.9% in 2019. Below is a graph showing how frequently Bauer has found himself in each pitch count in 2019 compared to 2018.

Bauer faced a total of 717 batters in 2018 and has faced 664 so far in 2019.

In addition to the above numbers, per Baseball Savant, 2019 Bauer has been behind in the count 27.37% of the time, even in the count 44.25% of the time, and ahead in the count 28.38% of the time. In 2018, those numbers were 25.13%, 44.13%, and 30.74%. As you might imagine, being behind in the count is bad for pitchers. According to Baseball Savant, since 2015, all batters have hit for a .424 wOBA when ahead in the count, .305 when even, and .223 when behind. Essentially, when hitters are ahead in the count, they hit like 2019 Anthony Rendon; when they’re behind in the count, they hit like 2019 Juan Lagares. Bauer’s lack of command is giving hitters a head start in 2019.

The table above from Brooks Baseball shows Bauer’s pitch usage in 2019. You can see that, down in the count, Bauer tends to go to the four-seam fastball, particularly against lefties.

Left-handed batters have teed off on Bauer in 2019: he’s allowed a 5.29 FIP and a .340 wOBA against while surrendering 15 of his 22 home runs allowed to lefties. Bauer has had trouble putting lefties away as well, striking out only 24.6% of left-handed batters. That pales in compares to Bauer’s numbers against righties in 2019: a 3.13 FIP, 30.6% strikeout rate, and .275 wOBA allowed. In contrast to 2019, in 2018, Bauer stifled lefties to the tune of a 2.65 FIP, .256 wOBA against, and 29.5% strikeout rate.

Above is a heatmap of Bauer’s four-seam fastball locations to lefties in 2018. He successfully located the ball up in the zone where a “rising” fastball is likely to get more swings and misses and pop-ups. The Indians’ starter has struggled to match that location against lefties in 2019.

Instead of middle-up, Bauer’s four-seam fastball has been more middle-middle in 2019. Lefties have taken advantage, putting up a .440 wOBA against Bauer’s four-seamer (compared to a .308 wOBA in 2018). Eight of Bauer’s fifteen homers allowed to lefties have come against the four-seam fastball. With Bauer behind in the count, lefties have been able to hunt fastballs, and Bauer’s been serving them up.

Looking back at the pitch usage table, Bauer throws the changeup 18% of the time against lefties. It’s an important part of his arsenal against them. Unfortunately for Bauer, that pitch hasn’t been nearly as effective as it was in 2018.

SeasonExit VelocityLaunch AnglewOBAxwOBAWhiff%
201883.2 mph-4 degrees.153.15236.0%
201988.6 mph5 degrees.301.30031.8%

Below are 2018 and 2019 heatmaps of Bauer’s changeup locations against lefties with different locations split into various zones.

Bauer definitely grooved a few more changeups to lefties in 2018 than he has so far in 2019, but he also did a better job of throwing the change on the outer part of the plate, where it might get more swings and misses and induce weaker contact on the ground. Bauer has done a good job of of keeping the changeup down in 2019, but he’s had trouble keeping it away from the middle of the plate. It’s a small sample, but the fifteen changeups pulled by lefties against Bauer in 2019 have led to a .399 xwOBA and .499 wOBA; the twenty-two lefty-pulled changeups in 2018 led to a .223 xwOBA and .248 wOBA. In addition to hitting the ball with more authority due to the more central location, lefties are likely spitting on most of those lower-than-low changeups you see at the bottom of the 2019 map.

Command isn’t the only issue with Bauer’s changeup in 2019. As noted earlier, it’s also suffered from decreased movement in 2019.

Metric20182019
Velocity87.0 mph86.2 mph
Vertical Break (VB)29.3 inches28.0 inches
VB vs. Average-1.0 inch-2.4 inches
VB % vs. Average-3%-8%
Horizontal Break (HB)15.7 inches15.3 inches
HB vs. Average1.7 inches1.0 inch
HB % vs. Average12%7%

Batters have swung and missed less frequently as a likely result of the dual decrease in movement. In addition to the lower whiff rate (the percent of swings and misses per swing) shown above, according to data available at FanGraphs, the swinging strike rate (the percent of swings and misses per pitch) on the changeup is down from 15.2% to 11.8%. The contact rate is up from 64.3% to 69.7%, spurred mostly by the out-of-zone contact rate, which is up 16.6% from 39.3% to 55.6%.

Bauer uses his four-seam fastball and changeup 56% of the time against lefties and 73% of the time when lefty hitters are ahead in the count. It’s not surprising that he’s found it difficult to get left-handed hitters out in 2019 given the deterioration of two of his primary weapons against lefties.

Bauer has also had command issues with his slider in 2019. He uses the slider almost exclusively against right-handed hitters, throwing it 24% of the time overall against righties. He throws the pitch 40% of the time when he’s ahead of right-handed batters and 37% of the time with two strikes against them. To put it simply, it’s his go-to pitch when trying to put away righties. In 2018, hitters could hardly touch the pitch; 2019 has seen different results.

SeasonExit VelocityLaunch AnglewOBAxwOBAWhiff%
201883.6 mph10 degrees.123.14141.8%
201978.8 mph20 degrees.249.23244.9%

The exit velocity and whiff rate against Bauer’s slider have actually improved, but hitters have been lifting Bauer’s slider more when they do make contact and seeing better outcomes as a result.

The heatmaps above detail Bauer’s 2018 and 2019 slider locations to righties. In 2018, Bauer was really dotting the slider low and away. In 2019, the pitch has been located higher in the zone and catching more of the middle of the plate, likely making it easier for righties to get the ball in the air. You can also see a gathering of sliders low and way outside in the 2019 map, more evidence that Bauer is having trouble controlling the pitch. That might be partly responsible for the decrease in chase rate and swinging strike rate against Bauer’s slider in 2019. The chase rate is down by 11.2% from 45.6% in 2018 to 34.4% in 2019, while the swinging strike rate has decreased from 21.1% to 17.6%. Generally, the more erratic location of Bauer’s sliders is leading to better contact and less swings and misses by right-handed batters against his most lethal offering.

Why Bauer’s command has suffered in 2019 is a difficult question to answer. The below graph from Brooks Baseball might be one clue.

The vertical release points on each of Bauer’s pitches other than the changeup have decreased uniformly from 2018 to 2019. If you know anything about Bauer, you know that he’s a pitcher who’s constantly adjusting, continuously striving to improve. Given the uniformity of the change, the decrease could easily be an adjustment Bauer decided to make in the offseason, but it could also be the result of something wrong with Bauer’s mechanics that he’s had difficulty correcting in-season. This will be something to watch as Bauer begins to work with Cincinnati pitching coach Derek Johnson, who seems to have ironed out whatever issues Sonny Gray was experiencing with the New York Yankees during his tenure in the Bronx.

Bauer’s tendency to get behind in the count and inability to consistently command his secondary offerings has allowed hitters to sit on the four-seam fastball. Hitters are swinging at the heater more often in 2019.

Metric20182019
Swing%44.2%51.0%
Z-Swing%61.7%70.1%

And, for the most part, hitters are laying off Bauer’s breaking and off-speed stuff more frequently than in 2018.

Unless Bauer can find a way to regain command, the trends outlined above will continue, and his future Cy Young hopes will remain exactly that. But, given his stuff, with the right adjustment, they’re more realistic hopes than most.

According to Pitch Info data available at FanGraphs, here’s how Bauer’s five most frequently thrown offerings ranked in terms of run value per 100 times thrown among pitchers to throw at least 120 innings in 2018: slider — 7th of 91 (2.78); four-seamer — 9th of 114 (1.19); changeup — 12th of 113 (1.93); cutter — 12th of 46 (0.64); curveball — 31st of 97 (0.52). Bauer commanded five above-average pitches (some of them elite) in 2018 and flashed the potential of a Cy Young winner as a twenty-seven year old.

Another Diamondbacks first-round draft pick with an arsenal of five above-average pitches had his breakout as a twenty-seven year old with a team in the AL Central. The next season, Max Scherzer won the AL Cy Young and went on a run that has cemented him as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Trevor Bauer won’t win a Cy Young this season, but he certainly has the knowledge, talent, and drive to put together that type of run.

Insider Trading: Matthew Boyd and Robbie Ray

As the trade deadline inches closer, the waters are muddied. There are very few clear sellers as fifteen of the twenty-four teams not leading their divisions are within 6.5 games of the second wild card spot. One thing is very clear: the Detroit Tigers will be selling. The Tigers are 30-66, the worst record in Major League Baseball, and their -190 run differential is also good for league-worst honors. With so many teams in the market for starting pitching depth, the Tigers’ most valuable asset is left-handed starter Matthew Boyd. Boyd won’t become a free agent until after the 2022 season, so the Tigers don’t have to trade him at the 2019 deadline. But, in the middle of a breakout campaign with three seasons of team control after 2019, Boyd’s value may never be higher than it is right now.

The Arizona Diamondbacks have been labeled as sellers despite their 51-51 record, +61 run differential, and three game deficit in the wild card race. Left-handed starter Robbie Ray, who will become a free agent after the 2020 season, appears to be a potential target for several buyers. Given the similarities between Boyd and Ray, it might make sense to consider the two southpaws together.

At twenty-eight, Boyd is only eight months older than Ray, who will turn twenty-eight on October 1st. Both starters are primarily four-seam fastball/slider pitchers. According to data available at FanGraphs, Boyd (86.3% of the time) and Ray (77.6%) throw four-seam fastballs and sliders at the second- and ninth-highest rates among the seventy-five pitchers who have thrown 100 innings in 2019. Additionally, they throw their four-seam fastballs at similar, below league average velocities.

PlayerAvg. VelocityAvg. Velocity MLB Rank
(min. 500 pitches thrown)
Max. Velocity
Matthew Boyd91.8 mph78th of 10295.6 mph
Robbie Ray92.6 mph71st of 10295.4 mph

While Robbie Ray’s four-seamer has more rise than Boyd’s, the pitches see similar results, and Boyd has actually induced more swings and misses with his four-seamer this season. Statcast numbers suggest that Boyd has either been unlucky or the victim of poor fielding this year, as the wOBA on his four-seamer is underperforming its xwOBA (expected wOBA based on quality of contact).

PlayerVert. Mov.Vert. Mov. vs. Avg.wOBAxwOBAWhiff%
Matthew Boyd17.3 inches -1%.339.31425.0%
Robbie Ray13.9 inches 12%.311.30622.9%

One note on Ray’s four-seam fastball: the velocity on the pitch has been in decline since 2016, and the trend has only continued in 2019. Ray’s velocity loss could be an area of concern for teams looking at the left-handed starter. Since 2015, the league-wide wOBA against four-seam fastballs thrown above 94 miles per hour is .321; against fastballs below 94 miles per hour, it increases to .368.

Neither Boyd nor Ray’s slider possesses extraordinary movement. Boyd’s slider has improved in 2019 thanks to work he’s done at Driveline Baseball (and some advice from James Paxton) in recent years. Since 2018, he’s increased the drop on his slider by more than four inches on average, from 41.3 inches in 2018 (4% below average drop) to 45.8 inches in 2019 (4% above average drop). He’s getting slightly better horizontal break on the pitch but not much: 4.1 inches of break (62% below average) up from 2.4 inches in 2018 (71% below average). Still, the increase in drop has also come with a 7.4% increase in whiff rate on the pitch in 2019 over 2018. Ray’s slider, which he throws about three miles per hour harder than Boyd’s (83.9 mph vs. 79.6 mph) has been getting 36.0 inches of vertical break in 2019 and 1.9 inches of horizontal break, which are -5% and -60% below average.

Despite frequent usage and pedestrian movement, Boyd and Ray see high whiff rates on their sliders, with Boyd’s coming in at 40.5% and Ray’s at a whopping 45.6%. The two lefties have ridden those whiff rates to the strikeout leaderboards in 2019. Incredibly, Boyd has increased his strikeout rate almost 10% from 2018 to 2019.

PlayerK%
Gerrit Cole37.9%
Chris Sale35.5%
Max Scherzer35.2%
Blake Snell32.9%
Justin Verlander32.2%
Matthew Boyd32.1%
Shane Bieber31.1%
Jacob deGrom31.0%
Robbie Ray31.0%
Charlie Morton30.4%

In addition to being sixth and ninth in strikeout rate so far, Boyd and Ray are also leaders in swinging strike rate. The two lefties are tied (along with Stephen Strasburg) with identical 14.0% swinging strike rates, good for 11th among the seventy-five pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings in 2019.

How do Boyd and Ray get so many swings and misses without elite velocity or pitch movement? Pitch tunneling. Pitch tunneling is the concept of a pitcher throwing two different pitch types that appear to follow the same trajectory to the plate and then diverge near or at the point at which the hitter must decide whether or not to swing. Baseball Prospectus has done incredible work to measure pitch tunneling. The statistic Plate:PreMax Ratio measures the ratio of the distance between two different pitches once both pitches have reached the plate and the distance between those same two pitches at the tunnel point (when the hitter must decide whether or not to swing). For example, if the average distance between two pitches at the tunnel point is 1.50 inches and the average distance between those two pitches at the plate is 18 inches, the Plate:PreMax Ratio is 12, which, coincidentally, is around league-average.

Baseball Prospectus measures total pitch tunneling (an average Plate:PreMax Ratio for all of a pitcher’s pitch sequences) and specific pitch tunneling (particular pairs of pitches in sequence against either left- or right-handed batters). Matthew Boyd and Robbie Ray perform well in both metrics. Boyd’s total Plate:PreMax Ratio in 2019 is 12.9, which ranks him 67th among 334 pitchers with at least 100 total pitch sequences in 2019. His Plate:PreMax Ratio when a slider follows a four-seam fastball to right-handed hitters is 17.4, the fifth-best mark among 138 pitchers who have thrown at least 15 fastball-slider combinations to righties in 2019. Ray’s overall Plate:PreMax Ratio is 13.3, 26th of 334 pitchers with at least 100 total pitch sequences in 2019. His four-seamer/slider Plate:PreMax Ratio to righties is 17.0, the tenth-highest among the same 138-pitcher group referenced above.

To give you an idea of what this looks like in practice, here are a few GIFs from Pitching Ninja Rob Friedman. First, Boyd.

And Ray.

In short, Boyd and Ray are able to get so many swings and misses without high velocity or above average movement by making it difficult for hitters to discern which pitch is actually coming. All of the above has led to the following lines for Boyd and Ray in 2019.

PlayerIPERAFIPDRA-
Matthew Boyd126.04.073.5763
Robbie Ray123.03.954.2786

Neither pitcher is without warts. Both Boyd and Ray have been burned by the home run ball recently. Since June 1st, no pitcher has surrendered more home runs than Robbie Ray, who’s given up sixteen long balls. Matthew Boyd is tied for second (with Justin Verlander), surrendering fifteen jacks in that span (Craig Edwards has detailed Boyd’s home run issues at FanGraphs). Compounding his home run problem, at 11.1%, Robbie Ray has the third-highest walk rate among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched in 2019, which is at least part of what separates Boyd’s and Ray’s FIP and DRA-. In contrast, Boyd’s 5.0% walk rate is 11th best among the seventy-five pitchers in same group.

When viewing Matthew Boyd’s and Robbie Ray’s Baseball Savant player profile pages, Washington Nationals left-hander Patrick Corbin is listed for both as a “similar pitcher” based on velocity and movement. Corbin appears as Boyd’s first match and Ray’s second. In the 2018-2019 offseason, Corbin signed a six-year, $140 million contract with the Nationals. It was the largest deal given to a pitcher all offseason, both by total size and average annual value, and the third largest to any player (after Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, of course). In the frigid free agent market, Corbin’s contract means one thing: teams saw a lot of value in the lefty starter. Despite their blemishes, Matthew Boyd and Robbie Ray offer deadline buyers who missed out on Corbin in the offseason the opportunity to add a pitcher of similar value, both for their 2019 stretch runs and beyond.

Insider Trading: Madison Bumgarner

If you’re a baseball fan, you know the narrative: Madison Bumgarner, big game pitcher. His performance during the San Francisco Giants’ 2014 World Series run: a 1.03 ERA in fifty-two and two-thirds innings pitched over seven appearances; seven runs allowed on thirty-six total baserunners; in the World Series-clinching Game 7, five scoreless in relief to preserve a 3-2 lead on just two days rest after a complete game shutout to win Game 5 (his second of the playoffs), culminating in World Series MVP honors to add to his NLCS MVP. That’s all backed up by stellar career playoff numbers: a 2.11 ERA in 102.1 innings pitched with two complete game shutouts in do-or-die Wild Card games. At the trade deadline, when the best teams in baseball are looking to bolster their rosters for the playoffs, that resumé makes MadBum the flashiest name on the market.

The 2019 playoffs will mark the fifth anniversary of Bumgarner’s 2014 heroics. The San Francisco Giants starter, who will be a free agent for the first time after the 2019 season, turns 30 on August 1st. From 2011 to 2016, Bumgarner posted six consecutive seasons of 200+ innings pitched and the fourth-highest innings total in that span (sandwiched between Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander). He’s logged 1,754 innings since the start of his rookie season in 2010, ranking him 12th during that timeframe. MadBum’s been incredibly durable throughout his career, landing on the disabled list only twice: he sustained a shoulder injury in a dirt bike accident in April 2017 and was hit on his pitching hand by a Whit Merrifield line drive in Spring Training 2018, breaking his finger. Despite that durability, age and that large workload might have started to take their toll on the 6’4 southpaw.

Bumgarner’s ERA and FIP have increased in recent years as he appears to exit his prime. Unsurprisingly, his DRA- has also suffered, falling from a career-high 59.7 in 2016 (rating Bumgarner 40% better than average that season) to 90.9 this season (less than 10% better than the average pitcher). According to Statcast data, Bumgarner has seen his average exit velocity allowed and hard hit rate against (34.4% is average in 2019) increase in every season since 2015 (with the exception of 2018, when it remained steady). Offensive production against him has increased as well.

YearExit VelocityHard Hit %DRA-wOBAxwOBA
201586.6 mph30.1%60.1.266.273
201687.5 mph31.1%59.7.269.286
201787.8 mph34.3%77.9.296.318
201887.8 mph35.3%99.8.300.321
201989.6 mph42.1%90.9.307.324

Statcast tells us that Bumgarner’s four-seam fastball velocity has also taken a step backwards. The average velocity on his primary offering is down 1.1 mph from its 2016 peak at 92.7 mph to 91.6 mph in 2019. That 91.6 mph average actually represents an increase over his 2017 and 2018 marks, which sat at 91.1 and 90.8 mph, respectively. It’s likely that the 2017 shoulder injury and broken finger on his left-hand in 2018 sapped some of the zip from his four-seamer in those seasons. Still, Bumgarner’s powers may have started to dwindle. That average fastball velocity puts him in the 19th percentile according to Baseball Savant.

It’s not all doom-and-gloom for Bumgarner, though. His 2019 FIP and DRA- have both improved over his 2018 levels (from 3.99 to 3.70 and 99.8. to 90.9). That recovery is likely due to the 4.8% increase in his strikeout rate from 19.8% in 2018 (2.5% below league average) to 24.6% in 2019 (1.8% above league average). His chase rate (the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone a pitcher gets hitters to swing at) is the highest of his career at 36.2%, up from 31.4% in 2018 (league average is 31.3% in 2019). MadBum’s swinging strike rate (the percentage of pitches that result in swings-and-misses) is the second-highest of his career at 12.0% and a 2.8% increase over 2018 (11.1% is average in 2019). As a result, Bumgarner is allowing contact on 76.6% of pitches, his best contact rate since 2016 and a 3.6% decrease from 2018. Considering the increasing amount of high-quality contact against Bumgarner in recent years, less frequent contact is great news for the Giants’ lefty.

It looks like the increased swing-and-miss in Bumgarner’s game is primarily the result of dramatic increases in spin rate and, consequently, movement on Bumgarner’s most frequently thrown pitches in 2019: the four-seam fastball, the cutter, and the curveball, which he’s thrown a combined 93.4% of the time in 2019.

Four-Seam Fastball
Metric20182019
Spin Rate2,082 rpm2,390 rpm
Vertical Movement19.6 inches17.2 inches
Movement Above/Below Avg.-14%-3%
Whiff%12.8%21.9%
Cutter
Metric20182019
Spin Rate2,129 rpm2,472 rpm
Vertical Movement32.6 inches29.6 inches
Movement Above/Below Avg.-9%-3%
Whiff%24.9%27.8%
Curveball
Metric20182019
Spin Rate2356 rpm2624 rpm
Horizontal Movement9.4 inches12.5 inches
Movement Above/Below Avg.-3%20%
Whiff%27.4%33.3%

These jumps in spin rate are not all as extreme as they appear. That four-seam fastball spin rate is not unprecedented for Bumgarner. He registered average four-seam spin rates of 2315 and 2309 rpm in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Moving to the cut fastball, it appears that, prior to 2017, the Statcast system categorized Bumgarner’s cutter as a slider. In 2016, that pitch had an average spin rate of 2,307 rpm. His curveball also topped out in 2016 at a spin rate of 2,368 rpm. Similar to his fastball velocity, it looks like Bumgarner has recovered some spin rate in 2019 after two injury-affected seasons in 2017 and 2018. However, his cutter and curveball have taken large leaps above their previous career-high spin rates. Whether four-seam fastball spin rates can be naturally increased is unsettled and controversial territory, but breaking ball spin rates can be improved with changes in grip and release. It’s entirely possible that Bumgarner made some adjustments to his cutter and curveball deliveries to gain more spin and movement in the offseason. This picture (borrowed from a tweet by Giants beat reporter Alex Pavlovic) from spring training provides even more evidence of a potential change.

Adjustments or not, Bumgarner may have turned a corner recently. Since June 25th, in five starts, he has a 1.55 ERA, 1.83 FIP, 30.4% strikeout rate, and 4.5% walk rate. His FIP ranks fourth since June 25th among pitchers with twenty or more innings pitched, and his FIP-, which is a park- and league-adjusted version of FIP on a scale where 100 is league-average (lower is better) is 44, bumping Bumgarner only one spot to fifth.

A pitcher’s home stadium should be a primary concern when considering a trade candidate. Oracle Park is a well-known pitchers park. According to ESPN Park Factors, since 2010, it has rated in the bottom third of all major league ballparks in terms of run-scoring in all but two seasons, ranked in the bottom five parks for offense six times, and has been dead last three times, including currently in 2019 when it is also suppressing home runs at a league-leading rate. Bumgarner’s FIP- in 2019 is 89, ranking him 30th among 70 pitchers who have thrown 100 or more innings. His 3.70 FIP ranks him 22nd among the same group. A move to a more hitter-friendly ballpark could hurt Bumgarner’s numbers slightly.

This feels like a familiar story. On July 2, 2017, Justin Verlander’s ERA hit a high-water mark at 4.96 after surrendering 7 runs to the Cleveland Indians in 3.1 innings. From that point through August 30th, he started 11 games, posting a 2.32 ERA and 84 strikeouts over 74 innings. He was traded just seconds before the now defunct August 31st waiver trade deadline. Verlander got even better with the help of his new team, and the rest is well-documented history.

As we approach the 2019 trade deadline, contending teams are circling a starting pitcher in apparent decline as his current team demands a high price for the franchise-defining ace. The star has potentially made some tweaks and appears to have returned to form, poised for a playoff run. The team that deals for Bumgarner will undoubtedly be having visions of 2014 when they do, but it won’t be because of the narrative you know.

Insider Trading: Marcus Stroman

There’s certainly been a lot of buzz around the Toronto Blue Jays 28-year old right hander Marcus Stroman leading up to the 2019 trade deadline. The 5’8 Stroman is best-known for two things: getting a ton of ground balls and his nasty slider.

Since the start of 2014, Stroman has been one of the best in baseball at inducing ground balls. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 750 innings over that span, Stroman ranks second with a 59.7% ground ball rate, behind only Dallas Keuchel (60.1%). Getting batters to hit the ball on the ground suppresses offensive production. According to Statcast, since 2015, hitters have produced a .226 wOBA on all ground balls, compared to .488 wOBA on all other types of batted balls (fly balls, line drives, and pop ups). wOBA, which stands for weighted on-base average, is a statistic that measures total offensive production at the plate using the same scale as on-base percentage. But, unlike OBP, which attributes the same value to all on-base events (walks, singles, home runs, etc.), wOBA attributes the actual average run-producing value of each on-base event for that season to every on-base event a hitter has accumulated (for example, in 2013, the average run value of a walk was 0.690, 0.888 for a single, and 2.101 for a home run). To provide some context, the MLB average wOBA in 2019 is .317.

Back to Stroman: below are his ground ball rates and his MLB rank among pitchers with more than 100 innings pitched in each season (excluding his rank in 2015, when he threw only 27 innings due to an ACL tear).

YearIPGB%MLB GB% Rank
2014130.253.8%13
20152764.1%N/A
201620460.1%1
201720162.1%2
2018102.162.1%1
2019110.257.91

Stroman gets so many grounders thanks to his sinker, which is the pitch he’s thrown most often in his career at 42.5% (according to Brooks Baseball). In 2019, Statcast data tells us that Stroman’s sinker gets an average of 27.6 inches of vertical break, good for 15% more downward movement than the average sinker thrown at a similar velocity, ranking the pitch’s downward break 29th out of the 198 sinkers thrown more than 100 times so far in 2019. As a result, Stroman’s sinker has led to average launch angles of at least -5 and ground ball rates of at least 67.6% since 2015. Despite the extremely low launch angles, Stroman has allowed high exit velocities on the pitch, likely because it suffers from much below average horizontal break (24% less than average, ranking it tenth-worst among the 198 sinkers thrown 100 times in 2019).

YearLaunch AngleGB%Exit VelocitywOBAxwOBA
2015-875.8%88.9 mph.240.256
2016-567.6%91.3 mph.351.337
2017-573.2%89.1 mph.357.368
2018-570.9%91.6 mph.390.379
2019-569.8%89.2 mph.352.342

Another statistic MLB front offices like to look is ground ball percentage plus strikeout percentage. Nothing suppresses offense as effectively as strikeouts, so a high number of combined ground balls and strikeouts will typically lead to good outcomes for pitchers. Below are the top ten pitchers since 2014 in ground ball percentage plus strikeout percentage (minimum of 750 innings pitched).

PlayerIPGB%K%GB% + K%
Dallas Keuchel982.160.1%20.0%80.1%
Clayton Kershaw1015.149.6%29.7%79.3%
Marcus Stroman775.259.7%19.3%79.0%
Carlos Martinez808.253.2%23.4%76.6%
Carlos Carrasco92147.9%28.1%76.0%
Sonny Gray93453.5%21.4%74.9%
Jake Arrieta103751.3%23.4%74.7%
Stephen Strasburg917.245.1%29.1%74.2%
Felix Hernandez87252.0%22.0%74.0%
Chris Sale1093.141.5%32.4%73.9%

The average ERA and FIP of the above group since 2014 are 3.28 and 3.32, respectively. Just missing the top ten is Jacob deGrom, and other notable names in the top twenty include Corey Kluber, Gerrit Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, and Zack Greinke. Stroman’s ERA (3.82) over that span ranks last in this group, and his FIP (3.63) ranks 8th, due to his low strikeout rate, but his inclusion shows precisely why he’s been an effective pitcher since he came up in 2014.

Getting ground balls is even more important at Yankee Stadium, especially for right-handed pitchers. Since 2015, the wOBA against right-handed pitchers in Yankee Stadium on fly balls, line drives, and pop ups is .508, twenty points higher than the league average in that span (potentially due to the short porch in right field). Additionally, thanks to park factors, we know that home runs have historically been easier to come by in Yankee Stadium than in other ballparks throughout baseball. Here’s how ESPN’s MLB Park Factors have ranked Yankee Stadium’s propensity for surrendering home runs since 2014.

YearMLB Park Factor Home Run Rank
20141st
20154th
20161st
20172nd
20186th
201921st

One note on the 2019 ranking, which is pretty jarring. It’s hard to believe that Yankee Stadium could play so differently in 2019 than it has in the past. There is a ton of evidence that the baseballs being used in 2019 are drastically different than those used in any other season, with the alarming home run totals this year being the biggest tip-off. That difference could be one reason Yankee Stadium is seeing fewer home runs compared to other MLB ballparks this season.

The chart above shows that Stroman has followed recent league-wide trends, moving away from his sinker and throwing his excellent slider more often. In 2019, he’s throwing his sinker a career-low 35.9% of the time, and he’s throwing his slider at a career-high 34.2% clip. The results against his slider speak for themselves (for context, the league-wide wOBA on sliders since 2015 is .267; Whiff% is the percentage of swings-and-misses a pitcher gets on all swings).

YearUsageExit VelocitywOBAxwOBAWhiff%
201517.7%94.2 mph.292.35525.0%
201613.1%92.1 mph.251.25731.3%
201724.4%86.7 mph.216.21640.7%
201830.4%87.5 mph.255.24732.6%
201934.286.1 mph.192.22936.3%

According to Statcast, Stroman’s slider averages 11.3 inches of horizontal break, 99% more than average sliders thrown at a similar velocity. Stroman’s horizontal slider break ranks 22nd of the 248 pitchers who have thrown over 100 sliders in 2019. His slider also gets above-average drop: 4% higher than average, which his good for top 30% within the same group. Here’s Stroman’s slider in action (credit to MLB.com’s Baseball Savants site for the video).

In their seminal 2019 book The MVP Machine, Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik detailed how the Cleveland Indians’ Trevor Bauer specifically studied Stroman’s slider while developing his own early in the 2018 season. Using a high-speed Edgertronic camera to record Stroman in a start he made against Cleveland, Bauer dissected slow motion video of Stroman throwing his slider, paying particular attention to how the pitch came out of Stroman’s hand as he released it. Teams on the forefront of the player development movement have certainly begun to use Edgertronic cameras in this way to gather intelligence about the best ways to release certain pitches to get the desired movement on each pitch. A team can always gather more intelligence when a player is in its own system.

The Yankees’ love of sliders is well-documented. No team has thrown more sliders than the Yankees in 2019 (21.3%), and they’re tied with the Rangers for the highest slider usage since 2017 (18.4%). Given their infatuation with sliders, you can bet the Yankees would benefit from learning more about how Stroman throws the pitch and using that information to teach pitchers throughout their system, both at the major and minor league level, the best way to throw sliders. In 2019, that intel could be just the thing that moves the needle for the Yankees (or another team) in a deal for Stroman.

Despite his increased slider usage, Stroman remains below average in strikeout rate in 2019 (19.1% where league average is 22.7%) as a result of his high-sinker usage. There are some interesting things about Stroman’s profile, however, that suggest he has greater swing-and-miss potential.

Stroman’s average four-seam fastball spin rate sits at 2,488 revolutions per minute (RPM) in 2019, just behind Aroldis Chapman and Max Scherzer and just ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill. That spin rate ranks Stroman’s four-seamer 36th out of 502 four-seam fastballs thrown at least 50 times in 2019 (in the top 7th percentile). High spin rates on four-seam fastballs typically lead to high swing-and-miss rates. High-spin four-seamers have the potential to combat the force of gravity, causing the baseball to drop less on its path to the plate. That less-than-average drop generates swings under the baseball, resulting in more swings-and-misses, pop ups, and fly balls. Although Stroman’s four-seamer has a high spin rate, he gets below average “rise” (the term used to describe the less-than-average drop) on the pitch: 14% below average, ranking it 433rd of 502 four-seamers thrown 50 times or more. In contrast, Rich Hill, who has a slightly lower four-seam spin rate than Stroman, gets 10% above average rise.

Spin rate alone doesn’t create the rising effect perceived by hitters; spin efficiency is also required. Spin efficiency can be explained pretty simply: a pitch may be spinning very quickly, but if it’s spinning on the wrong axis, it won’t create the desired movement. Spin efficiency can be corrected with the use of Edgertronic cameras to alter a pitcher’s pitch grip, release, or release point (or all three) until a pitcher is getting the desired movement on a particular pitch. Its high-spin rate and below average rise indicates that Stroman’s four-seam fastball suffers from poor spin efficiency, making it ripe for development into an effective weapon. A team willing to work with Stroman to improve the spin efficiency on his four-seamer (a pitch he’s only using 3.6% of the time in 2019) could extract hidden value from the Blue Jays starter by creating a pitch with higher swing-and-miss rates to replace some of his less effective pitches.

A deal for Stroman would bring back an effective pitcher who keeps the ball on the ground and in the ballpark, is on the right side of 30, and has no history of serious arm trouble, a rarity in 2019. Other than his ACL tear in 2016, Stroman has only missed time for right shoulder inflammation and fatigue as well as blisters on his pitching hand. Stroman doesn’t enter free agency until after the 2020 season, giving teams an extra year of control. That extra year of control means Stroman will command a higher price than a true deadline rental. For the Yankees, that turns what was already a negative into an even larger one, as they’d be trading prospects to a division rival whose farm system has consistently been ranked in the top ten in baseball in 2019 (5th by MLB.com, 8th by FanGraphs, 9th by ESPN’s Keith Law). However, that extra yer of control also gives teams an extra year to mine Stroman for information on how he throws his slider and more time to tinker with Stroman’s four-seam fastball and potentially squeeze even more out of what is already a very good major league pitcher beyond the 2019 season.