Torres Gets Comped

On Wednesday night, Gleyber Torres hit a home run to tie Gary Sanchez for the New York Yankees team lead with thirty-four. Despite injuries to Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton this season, that’s still an extremely impressive and unexpected feat for Torres. The twenty-two year old has followed up his rookie year, which earned him a third place finish in the 2018 Rookie of the Year voting behind Shohei Ohtani and Miguel Andujar, with another very solid campaign. Before starting a series with the Boston Red Sox on Friday night, Torres had a .283 batting average, .346 on-base percentage, and .540 slugging percentage in 2019, good for a .364 wOBA. The sophomore’s 128 wRC+ ranks him thirty-fifth among the 143 qualified hitters this season, ahead of players like Edwin Encarnacion, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Nolan Arenado, and Bryce Harper. Torres has shown steady improvement in 2019 over his 2018 performance.

SeasonPAHRAVGOBPSLGISOwOBAwRC+fWARbWAR
201848424.271.340.480.209.3491212.02.9
201953534.283.346.540.256.3641283.63.7

Torres has also made some notable improvements in his plate discipline and contact profile.

SeasonO-Swing%Z-Swing%Swing%
201834.4%68.7%48.4%
201934.8%76.8%51.8%

According to numbers available at FanGraphs, Gleyber’s chasing out of the zone at about the same rate, but he’s swinging at pitches in the strike zone much more often and, as a result, is swinging more often generally. Swinging more frequently at strikes has allowed Torres to make more contact.

SeasonO-Contact%Z-Contact%Contact%SwStr%BB%K%
201855.9%81.8%70.9%14.0%8.7%25.2%
201961.8%84.4%75.4%12.7%8.8%20.6%

Torres’ walk rate hasn’t really budged, but his strikeout rate has decreased significantly by 4.6%, likely due to his much higher contact rate on pitches outside of the strike zone and an overall increase in contact rate across the board. The heat maps below show that Torres is not only swinging at more strikes but also swinging at better strikes. First, from 2018.

And 2019.

Torres has consolidated his swings in the middle part of the plate where he’s likely to make better contact, particularly the lower-middle part of the zone. He has also laid off the inside pitch more often, especially low and in, and shifted those swings to cover the outside part of the plate. His increase in swings off the outside corner have also increased. Trading in swings at pitches off the inside corner for those off the outside corner may be the key to his increase in contact against pitches outside the strike zone.

Torres may have also made some progress on the defensive side of the ball. In 152 innings at shortstop in 2018, Torres had zero defensive runs saved and a -2.6 ultimate zone rating (UZR, a statistic that estimates the number of runs a player as saved or allowed on defense) for a -21.5 ultimate zone rating per 150 games played (UZR/150). In more than four times as many innings at short this season (636.2 innings), Torres has posted zero defensive runs saved and -2.0 UZR and -4.9 UZR/150, a big improvement over 2018. After 915.2 innings at second in 2018, Torres put up negative-one defensive runs saved, a -7.7 UZR, and -16.7 UZR/150. Four-hundred and forty-three innings there in 2019 have yielded negative-four defensive runs saved, a UZR of -2.5, and UZR/150 of -11.6, showing some mixed results for Torres. Advanced defensive metrics are still not as exact as we’d like them to be. Regardless, despite some potential improvement, defensive metrics still don’t identify Torres as a plus defender.

In addition to his overall production in almost two full seasons, the Yankees have to be thrilled that their twenty-two year old middle infielder has shown the ability to make adjustments and improve at the major league level. With the 2019 regular season nearing its conclusion, it makes some sense to take stock of what Torres has accomplished so far and what it means for him and the Yankees moving forward.

Comparing Torres’ performance to those of players who have come before him can give us an idea of what to expect from Gleyber in the future. Given that the Yankees will control Torres through the 2024 season with an extension, there seem to be three questions to answer: what can we expect from Torres in 2020, what can we expect from Torres from 2020 through 2024 (which will take him from his age 23 to age 27 season), and what can we expect from Torres in his career.

Torres has been an average fielder at best but more likely a slightly below average to below average fielder in 2018 and 2019, albeit at two premium defensive positions. To date, his value has largely come from his offensive ability. Entering Friday night’s game against Boston, in his age 21 and age 22 seasons, Torres has an average 125 wRC+. Below is a list of players who had an average wRC+ between 115 and 135 in their age 21 and 22 seasons (minimum 800 plate appearances), their wRC+ in their age 23 season, their average wRC+ from their age 23 to their age 27 seasons (weighted by number of plate appearances), and their average wRC+ in their careers.

Player21-22 wRC+23 wRC+23-27 wRC+Career wRC+
Alex Rodriguez128136153141
Darryl Strawberry128162148137
Freddie Freeman118150145N/A
Eddie Murray130130145127
Tim Raines116134144125
Christian Yelich118120141N/A
David Wright135132136133
Jack Clark129127135138
John Olerud118127134130
Juan Gonzalez125164133129
Bob Horner129125132126
Adam Dunn129109129123
Scott Rolen115140129122
Justin Upton120141126N/A
Cal Ripken, Jr.132146125112
Grady Sizemore118132123115
Tom Brunansky115110108106
Cody Bellinger129166N/AN/A
Mookie Betts122136N/AN/A
Manny Machado127131N/AN/A
Francisco Lindor116116N/AN/A
Average123135134126
Median125132134127

Cody Bellinger is not fully through his age 23 season, but he’s included here as an extra data point for the age 23 numbers since his age 23 season is substantially complete. Christian Yelich is also currently in his age 27 season, but he’s been included in the age 23 to age 27 group for the same reason.

Based on the above player comparisons, the future is a pretty rosy picture for Gleyber Torres. Three hall of famers in Eddie Murray, Tim Raines, and Cal Ripken, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez and Scott Rolen, who should be Hall of Famers, as well as players like Darryl Strawberry, David Wright, and Grady Sizemore, whose careers were on Hall of Fame trajectories before being curtailed for various reasons. We can likely expect Gleyber to be somewhere between thirty to forty percent better than average at the plate next season, the same over the next five seasons, and about twenty-five to thirty percent better than average over the course of his career. For a middle infielder, that’s exceptional. If you want to dream on Torres a bit, there are certainly some names on this list that provide significant upside given what Torres has done as a twenty-one and twenty-two year old hitter.

Prior to Friday’s game against the Red Sox, according to FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), Gleyber Torres has recorded a combined 5.6 fWAR in his age 21 and 22 seasons. Dan Szymborski’s projection system ZiPS projects Torres for 0.4 fWAR for the rest of the 2019 season, which would give him a total of 6.0 fWAR in his age 21 and age 22 seasons. To give us a picture of what Torres’ future overall production might look like based on his performance as a twenty-one and twenty-two year old, below is a list of players who, since the start of free agency in 1977, accumulated between 4.0 and 8.0 total fWAR in their age 21 and 22 seasons with no more than 10.0 defensive runs above average total. Given Torres’ average to below average defense, the limit on defensive runs above average is meant to match Torres with players who have not derived a significant portion of their value from their play in the field.

Player21-22 fWAR23 fWAR23-27 fWARCareer fWAR
Tim Raines6.86.032.666.4
Scott Rolen4.07.028.569.9
Christian Yelich5.92.427.1N/A
Eddie Murray7.44.925.472.0
Miguel Cabrera7.56.325.170.8
Adrian Beltre4.84.023.984.3
Darryl Strawberry5.84.823.341.5
Alan Trammell4.73.623.063.7
Jose Canseco4.87.622.742.1
Roberto Alomar6.94.320.363.6
Justin Upton7.46.319.4N/A
John Olerud4.03.119.157.3
Jack Clark8.02.016.050.6
Jason Heyward7.13.115.5N/A
Adam Dunn6.31.614.625.6
Terry Puhl6.25.313.726.7
Juan Gonzalez4.95.713.635.8
Carney Lansford5.60.211.633.9
Bob Horner6.01.810.019.5
Rocco Baldelli4.00.04.08.0
Mookie Betts6.68.3N/AN/A
Cody Bellinger7.77.3N/AN/A
Xander Bogaerts4.74.9N/AN/A
Rougned Odor5.0-1.3N/AN/A
Average5.94.119.548.9
Median6.04.619.950.6

You definitely feel good about Gleyber Torres’ future when looking at this group. Hall of Famers Raines, Murray, Alan Trammell, and Roberto Alomar with future Hall of Famers Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre, and Rolen again. It also includes current stars Yelich, Betts, Bellinger, and Xander Bogaerts. When all of these players careers are finished, you could conceivably see half of them in Cooperstown, so it’s not surprising to see the kind of numbers you might be able to expect from Torres: between 4 and 5 fWAR next season, around 20 over the next five seasons, and around 50 in his career. And that’s about the 50th percentile outcome. A note on Miguel Cabrera: his career is not over yet, but it is at a point where he’s likely not going to accumulate much more value, so his career statistics have been included to give us more data.

Now, you might point out that a lot of these players played or play different positions than Torres does. Here’s a quick look at the list and numbers if we get rid of the first basemen and outfielders.

Player21-22 fWAR23 fWAR23-27 fWARCareer fWAR
Scott Rolen4.07.028.569.9
Miguel Cabrera7.56.325.170.8
Adrian Beltre4.84.023.984.3
Alan Trammell4.73.623.063.7
Roberto Alomar6.94.320.363.6
Terry Puhl6.25.313.726.7
Carney Lansford5.60.211.633.9
Bob Horner6.01.810.019.5
Xander Bogaerts4.74.9N/AN/A
Rougned Odor5.0-1.3N/AN/A
Average5.93.619.554.1
Median6.04.221.763.7

This is a list of infielders that you definitely want to be on. Half of the list is made up of Hall of Fame caliber players and the rest were or are, for the most part, very competent major leaguers. The average and median fWAR numbers are still outstanding.

According to FanGraphs, Torres has -8.8 defensive runs above average in his career. The last group of players was selected by looking at players who accumulated 10.0 or less defensive runs above average in their age 21 and age 22 seasons. What if we decrease that to 0.0 defensive runs above average?

Player21-22 fWAR23 fWAR23-27 fWARCareer fWAR
Tim Raines6.86.032.666.4
Christian Yelich5.92.427.1N/A
Eddie Murray7.44.925.472.0
Miguel Cabrera7.56.325.170.8
Darryl Strawberry5.84.823.341.5
Jose Canseco4.87.622.742.1
John Olerud4.03.119.157.3
Adam Dunn6.31.614.625.6
Juan Gonzalez4.95.713.635.8
Carney Lansford5.60.211.633.9
Bob Horner6.01.810.019.5
Rocco Baldelli4.00.04.08.0
Cody Bellinger7.77.3N/AN/A
Rougned Odor5.0-1.3N/AN/A
Average5.83.619.143.0
Median5.84.020.941.5

There’s a slight dip in the numbers as the group becomes less productive as fielders, but that’s probably expected. The decrease is sharpest in career WAR, likely due to the fact that many of these players, who were not great defenders to begin with, had to move down the defensive spectrum to first base or corner outfield spots as they aged. Regardless, this group still provides a very favorable forecast for Torres.

Gleyber’s age 21 and age 22 seasons also happen to be his first two seasons in the league, and you can probably tell where this is going. Using Baseball Reference’s version of WAR (bWAR), let’s see what we find when comparing Torres’ first two years in the show to the freshman and sophomore campaigns of other players.

According to Baseball Reference, entering Friday night’s game against the Red Sox, Torres has accumulated 6.3 total bWAR in his first two seasons. Even though the fWAR and bWAR are slightly different (they use different defensive metrics to measure defensive value), we’ll add the 0.4 WAR that ZiPS projects Torres adding over the rest of 2019 for a total of 6.7 bWAR. Again, we’ll want to limit Torres’ comps to ensure we don’t include players who derive a lot of value from their defense. Torres has accumulated a defensive wins above replacement component of 0.7 in his first two seasons. The group of players below are those who accumulated a bWAR between 4.7 and 8.7 with a defensive wins above replacement component between 1.7 and -0.3 in their first two years in the show (minimum 800 plate appearances) since 1977.

Player1 & 2 bWAR3 bWAR3-7 bWARCareer bWAR
Rickey Henderson7.96.736.2111.2
Ken Griffey, Jr.8.57.131.983.8
Chuck Knoblauch8.23.629.844.8
Mark Teixeira7.37.229.351.8
Christian Yelich5.73.627.2N/A
Jason Heyward8.45.522.7N/A
Giancarlo Stanton6.95.420.7N/A
Anthony Rendon6.50.420.5N/A
Travis Fryman5.44.918.634.4
Bryce Harper8.81.118.5N/A
Nick Markakis6.67.417.1N/A
Jason Kendall5.75.616.741.7
Marcell Ozuna5.30.513.9N/A
Ellis Burks8.23.513.449.8
Carney Lansford6.41.613.340.4
Colby Rasmus5.51.68.319.8
Oddibe McDowell5.51.94.510.7
Rocco Baldelli5.90.04.34.3
Cody Bellinger8.48.2N/AN/A
Alex Bregman5.66.9N/AN/A
Corey Seager7.75.7N/AN/A
Average6.94.219.345.3
Median6.64.918.641.7

This is an interesting group. It’s punctuated by two of the most elite talents to ever play the game in Rickey Henderson and Ken Griffey, Jr. at the top and peppered with some of the biggest names in the sport right now: Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Bellinger, Alex Bregman, and Corey Seager. The numbers are still great and very much in line with what we’ve seen: a bWAR between 4 and 5 next season is likely, around 19 bWAR over the next five seasons, and a really good shot at a career bWAR somewhere in the 40s. Let’s whittle this list down to just the infielders and see what we get.

Player1 & 2 bWAR3 bWAR3-7 bWARCareer bWAR
Chuck Knoblauch8.23.629.844.8
Mark Teixeira7.37.229.351.8
Anthony Rendon6.50.420.5N/A
Travis Fryman5.44.918.634.4
Carney Lansford6.41.613.340.4
Alex Bregman5.66.9N/AN/A
Corey Seager7.75.7N/AN/A
Average6.74.222.342.9
Median6.54.920.542.6

This group admittedly gets down to a pretty small sample, but it’s still probably somewhat useful, especially since the numbers we get are very much aligned with those that we’ve seen with the other player groups. The bottom line seems to be that, when comparing his performance to the performances of past players, Gleyber Torres’ future looks incredibly bright any way you slice it.

ZiPS appears to agree. Prior to the season, ZiPS projected Torres for 3.0 fWAR in 2019 (which he’s already surpassed), 4.2 fWAR in 2020, and 4.6 fWAR in 2021. About two weeks before the trade deadline, in their annual Trade Value series, FanGraphs ranked Torres as the twelfth most valuable player in all of baseball in terms of trade value and projected that he would accumulate 4.5 fWAR in 2020, 4.9 fWAR in 2021, 5.2 fWAR in 2022, 5.1 fWAR in 2023, and 4.8 fWAR in 2024 for a total of 24.5 fWAR from 2020 to 2024. Those numbers compare well with what our analysis found and are actually slightly better than that.

The surplus value is likely due to a component of the ZiPS projection system that incorporates Torres’ prospect grades. Baseball players are graded on their various tools on a 20 to 80 scale. Torres’ grades from before the 2018 season are stellar.

HitGame PowerRaw PowerSpeedFieldThrowFuture Value
40/5540/5555/6050/4040/5055/5560

The number before the slash is the player’s current grade at the time he’s scouted, and the number after is his projected grade once he’s fully developed. Future Value is the player’s overall grade. Players almost never receive 80 grades. As you can see, Torres doesn’t really have any standout tools, but he receives above-average grades across the board. Torres’ Future Value grade ranked him as the twelfth-best prospect prior to the 2018 season according to FanGraphs. Given those healthy grades, you can probably expect Torres’ production to skew closer to the top of the groups listed above as his career progresses.

The player groups above definitely include some cautionary tales (see: Rocco Baldelli). The careers of athletes are often more fragile than we realize and want to admit. That being the case, it’s important to enjoy what Torres is doing right now and not take it for granted. But it’s also exciting to think about having the opportunity to witness the entire career of what could be a generational talent. Who knows? In eighteen years, you could be watching another moment like this.

Aaron Judge Turns It Around

The New York Yankees have weathered more than their fair share of adversity this season. Thanks to a multitude of successful player development initiatives throughout the organization, the depth of the Yankees’ roster has allowed them to withstand the onslaught of injuries wrought by 2019. Despite their resilience, as the Bombers continue their march to capture the franchise’s twenty-eighth World Series title, the one thing it’s hard to envision them climbing to the top of the mountain without is a healthy and effective Aaron Judge.

That being the case, Judge’s recent slump was certainly cause for consternation. In twenty-one games from July 25th through August 15th, Judge slashed .148/.266/.235 for a .228 wOBA and 35 wRC+. In 94 plate appearances, he hit just one home run, four doubles, and walked twelve times against thirty-one strikeouts.

On April 20th, Judge injured his left oblique on a swing and missed time from April 21st until his return to the lineup two months later on June 21st. Many feared this most recent slump was the manifestation of lingering effects from the oblique injury. The Yankees’ right fielder maintained that he was healthy, and his numbers in the month after he returned seem to support that assertion. Judge hit .330/.460/.571 from June 21st to July 24th with a .429 wOBA and 171 wRC+. Those don’t look like the numbers of a player who came off the IL too quickly. Judge did come back with one noticeable change, however.

Below is a video of Judge in his first plate appearance of the season on March 28th against the Baltimore Orioles.

For good measure, here’s a freeze frame of his batting stance.

His hands are held high and close to his head with only the bottom hand being visible from this angle. As for his lower half, Judge is only slightly open in his stance here. If you’re an avid Yankees fan or just an Aaron Judge enthusiast, you may remember that the twenty-seven year old was experimenting by using no leg kick in two strike counts early this season in an effort to make more contact. Instead, he was lifting only his left heel off the ground during his load and placing it back down as he began to shift his weight forward. Here’s an example of that two strike approach on March 30th against the O’s.

By April 6th, after not hitting a homer in his first seven games of the season, Judge had abandoned that approach, perhaps in an effort to regain some of his hallmark power.

Here’s another snapshot of Judge’s revamped stance to accentuate the differences.

Judge’s hands are farther away from his body, and his bat is angled more vertically and tilted forward as his top hand has appeared from behind his helmet. He also looks slightly more open in his stance as more of his right knee and leg have become visible. If Judge was seeking more power with these adjustments, it worked. He hit five homers in thirteen games from April 6th through April 20th before injuring his oblique.

When Judge returned from the IL, there was some variation in his batting stance in the first few games back, but he eventually settled on the stance he used against Clayton Richard and the Toronto Blue Jays on June 25th.

Judge’s hands are much lower and even farther away from his body, and he’s as open as we’ve seen him in 2019. As noted above, these changes worked initially, as Judge had success in his first month off the IL. But eventually, they began to present issues.

Even in the at bat against Richard, you can see how much Judge’s hands have to work to get into a hitting position during his load. Against an 81 mph slider on the outside part of the plate, that may not matter much. But against fastballs on the inner part of the plate, that could get you into trouble if your timing isn’t right.

During Judge’s slump, he struggled to get the ball in the air. From July 25th to August 15th, his ground ball rate was 48%, almost ten percent higher than his 38.5% career mark and seven percent higher than his overall 41.2% ground ball rate during the 2019 season. Judge saw his ground ball rate start to increase when he came back from the IL in June, corresponding with the change in his batting stance. The following table shows a breakdown of his batted ball profile in three different periods this season.

Date RangeGB%LD%FB%
3/28 – 4/2039.6%31.3%29.2%
6/21 – 7/2443.9%28.1%28.1%
7/25 – 8/1548.0%24.0%28.0

Judge’s ground ball rate trended upward, his line drive rate trended downward, and his fly ball rate ticked down slightly. Digging deeper, in addition to hitting the ball on the ground more often, we can see that Judge was also making less solid contact during his slump. According to Statcast, his average exit velocity of 93.4 mph from July 25th through August 15th was almost two miles per hour lower than his career 95.2 mph average and more than three miles per hour lower than his 96.5 mph 2019 average. The trend was even more pronounced when Judge was pulling the baseball. Below are Statcast numbers for the same three periods above on Judge’s pulled batted balls.

Date RangeExit VelocityLaunch AnglewOBAxwOBA
3/28 – 4/20101.2 mph1.1 degrees.273.523
6/21 – 7/2497.5 mph-7.0 degrees.470.427
7/25 – 8/1590.3 mph-7.4 degrees.300.323

The drastic decrease in launch angle began when Judge returned from the IL. Still making solid contact, he was able to salvage many of those balls to the pull side. Predictably, as Judge’s exit velocity on pulled batted balls dipped, so did his offensive production. During his downturn, Judge seemed to have particular trouble handling fastballs, which he’s typically punished throughout his career. The table below shows his numbers against four-seamers, two-seamers, and sinkers as categorized by Statcast (cutters have been excluded as some pitchers use cutters more like sliders than more traditional fastballs).

Date RangeExit VelocityLaunch AnglewOBAxwOBA
3/28 – 4/2098.9 mph14.6 degrees.449.542
6/21 – 7/24100.4 mph6.6 degrees.486.442
7/25 – 8/1594.5 mph5.4 degrees.232.307

Judge’s drop in production was even more pronounced when pulling fastballs (again, four-seamers, two-seamers, and sinkers).

Date RangeExit VelocityLaunch AnglewOBAxwOBA
3/28 – 4/20100.3 mph8.5 degrees.438.590
6/21 – 7/2499.6 mph-12.9 degrees.468.401
7/25 – 8/1589.3 mph-13.4 degrees.194.192

With such a low average launch angle, Judge couldn’t afford the more than 10 mph decrease in exit velocity. It appears that Judge was late getting around on fastballs and having trouble squaring them up during his slump. Here he is facing Boston Red Sox starter Rick Porcello on July 25th.

Judge takes on Eduardo Rodriguez on August 2nd.

And Darwinzon Hernandez on August 4th.

In the three videos above as with the clip against Richard, you can see how far Judge’s hands have to go before he can start to attack each pitch. If Judge’s timing is off, that extra movement can make it more difficult to meet an inside fastball out in front of the plate where it can be pulled in the air to left field. Additionally, a more complicated setup at the plate always opens up the possibility for more to go wrong with your swing. By introducing more movement into his mechanics, Judge may have found it more difficult to barrel the ball up consistently.

Above are attempts to capture Judge at the point of contact in each of the three clips against Porcello, Rodriguez, and Hernandez. Judge’s right elbow is absolutely pinned to his right hip as he’s late on the inside fastball, unable to fully extend his arms at contact. Without getting his arms extended, Judge can’t catch the ball out in front of the plate, robbing him of his prodigious power and preventing him from getting the ball in the air to the pull side. Judge also fails to get the barrel of the bat on all three pitches.

On August 16th, Aaron Judge made a change.

Facing Cleveland Indians rookie Aaron Civale, Judge’s hands are almost exactly where they were when he started the season: held high with his top hand disappearing behind his helmet and the bat angled much more horizontally with no forward tilt. Judge remains significantly open in his stance on the 16th but would come almost back to even by August 21st against Mike Fiers and the Oakland Athletics.

Judge has seen immediate results. From August 16th through August 26th, Judge has slashed .351/.385/.757 with a .405 ISO for a .461 wOBA and 192 wRC+. To display the difference, here’s Judge turning on a 95 mph four-seam fastball on the inside corner from Brad Hand on August 18th for a 100.6 mph double over the head of left fielder Oscar Mercado.

On August 21st, he ropes a 103.1 mph worm killer right at Matt Chapman on a 90 mph four-seamer on the inside part of the plate from Fiers.

Let’s take a look at Judge at the point of contact on both swings.

In each picture, you can see daylight between Judge’s back elbow and right hip, evidence that he’s more extended, which has led to harder contact and more lift for the righty slugger. He also gets both pitches on the barrel, which will always lead to better contact.

Below is the table from above showing Judge’s numbers when pulling fastballs including his latest hot streak starting on August 16th. He’s back to crushing fastballs and is also getting them in the air, where his power is at its most dangerous.

Date RangeExit VelocityLaunch AnglewOBAxwOBA
3/28 – 4/20100.3 mph8.5 degrees.438.590
6/21 – 7/2499.6 mph-12.9 degrees.468.401
7/25 – 8/1589.3 mph-13.4 degrees.194.192
8/16 – 8/26103.7 mph11.7 degrees.586.830

Those trends are not isolated to pulled fastballs either, supporting the idea that Judge’s new stance has not only improved his timing but helped him square up pitches more consistently. Here are his Statcast metrics against that fastball pitch grouping generally.

Date RangeExit VelocityLaunch AnglewOBAxwOBA
3/28 – 4/2098.9 mph14.6 degrees.449.542
6/21 – 7/24100.4 mph6.6 degrees.486.442
7/25 – 8/1594.5 mph5.4 degrees.232.307
8/16 – 8/2697.6 mph16.9 degrees.509.566

Since making his latest adjustment, Judge has been pulling the ball with more authority and in the air more frequently on all pitches, which you can see in his numbers when pulling the ball on all pitch types below.

Date RangeExit VelocityLaunch AnglewOBAxwOBA
3/28 – 4/20101.2 mph1.1 degrees.273.523
6/21 – 7/2497.5 mph-7.0 degrees.470.427
7/25 – 8/1590.3 mph-7.4 degrees.300.323
8/16 – 8/2697.8 mph4.3 degrees.654.779

Judge’s improved timing and ability to get the ball on the barrel has improved his overall numbers as well. Since August 16th, his average exit velocity on batted balls is 95.5 mph and his average launch angle is 15.4 degrees, leading to a .498 wOBA and a .508 xwOBA. According to data available at FanGraphs, 66.7% of his batted balls during that span have been categorized as hard hit balls. His batted ball profile shows major changes in his ability to get the ball in the air and to his pull side.

Date RangeGB%LD%FB%Pull%Cent%Oppo%
3/28 – 4/2039.6%31.3%29.2%31.3%31.3%37.5%
6/21 – 7/2443.9%28.1%28.1%36.8%38.6%24.6%
7/25 – 8/1548.0%24.0%28.0%34.0%40.0%26.0%
8/16 – 8/2629.2%41.7%29.2%50.0%33.3%16.7%

Judge has played only nine games and accumulated 39 plate appearances since August 16th, but it certainly appears that his adjustment at the plate has finally gotten him right after an extended slump. The Yankees will need this version of Aaron Judge if they’re going to make a run in the 2019 postseason. Here’s one last clip from August 20th where Joakim Soria serves one up to Judge, who can punctuate this article much better than I ever could.

Talking The Tauch

You probably didn’t pay much attention or even notice when the New York Yankees acquired twenty-eight year old outfielder Mike Tauchman from the Colorado Rockies in exchange for pitching prospect Phillip Diehl towards the end of spring training on March 23rd. Who could blame you? Tauchman’s major league resumé to that point was ugly: a .153/.265/.203 slash line in 69 plate appearances over 52 games for the Rockies.

From 2013 to 2016 in the Rockies farm system, Tauchman hadn’t shown much in his age 22 to age 25 seasons. He displayed a decent hit tool but didn’t flash much power, combining for only eight home runs across four minor league seasons. If Tauchman wanted to crack Colorado’s major league roster, he needed to make a change.

Prior to the 2017 season, as reported by the New York Times’ James Wagner, Tauchman worked with Justin Stone, a hitting instructor at Chicago-based Elite Baseball Training. With three-dimensional sensors and plates that measure force, Stone, who was hired as a hitting consultant by the Chicago Cubs in 2018, used biomechanics to help Tauchman improve his swing. Stone and Tauchman found that the former Rockie was transferring energy inefficiently from his lower half to his upper half. In scientific terms, Tauchman’s kinetic chain, or the sequence of movements that make up his swing, was off. With Stone’s help, Tauchman learned to use his lower half better when starting his swing, enhancing the transfer of energy up the kinetic chain.

The results were undeniable. Still in AAA, Tauchman improved his wOBA from .322 in 2016 to .399 in 2017 and .420 in 2018. His 139 wRC+ was good for the eight-best mark in AAA in 2017. In 2018, his 153 wRC+ was fourth-best, just behind fellow 2019 breakouts Daniel Vogelbach and J.D. Davis as well as Astros top prospect Kyle Tucker. Tauchman’s power had definitely increased: he tripled his career home run mark with sixteen homers in 2017 and swatted another twenty in 2018. The Yankees front office took notice and was intrigued enough by Tauchman’s minor league success to add him as a depth piece just before the 2019 season.

Tauchman’s rise has continued in 2019. In 71 games, he’s posted a .381 wOBA and 138 wRC+. That wRC+ ranks Tauchman twenty-ninth among 309 players with 200 or more plate appearances in 2019, just ahead of Josh Bell, Jose Altuve, and Anthony Rizzo. Tauchman’s done more than just impress with the bat in 2019. According to FanGraphs, he’s created 1.4 runs on the basepaths this season.

Tauchman has also shined with the glove in 2019. He’s played 559.2 innings in the outfield for the Yanks: 363 in left, 74.2 in center, and 122 in right. Tauchman has been above average defensively in all three spots and amassed a stellar fourteen defensive runs saved, which ranks him sixth among all outfielders with at least 500 innings played. To give you a sense of how good Tauchman has been defensively, he’s just two defensive runs saved behind the Tampa Bay Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier in almost three hundred less innings played.

LeftCenterRightTotal
Innings Played363.074.2122.0550.2
Defensive Runs Saved91414

Statcast numbers available at Baseball Savant agree that Tauchman has been outstanding in the field this season. Tauchman ranks tenth among ninety-five qualified outfielders with seven outs above average this season. Using the exit velocity and launch angle of the batted balls hit in Tauchman’s direction in 2019, Statcast calculates that 85% of those batted balls should have been converted into outs. Tauchman has caught 91% of those balls, good for the second-best catch percentage added in the league at 6% behind only Kiermaier’s 7%. Statcast’s Outfielder Jump metrics also rank Tauchman above average at twenty-seventh among the 105 qualifying outfielders.

Tauchman’s all-around game has contributed 3.4 bWAR in just 71 games played for the Bombers in 2019. However, there are some warning signs that his offensive breakout might not be sustainable. First, there’s a discrepancy between Tauchman’s .381 wOBA and his expected wOBA as calculated by Statcast based on the exit velocity and launch angle of his batted balls. His xwOBA is a mere .324, suggesting that luck has played a large part in Tauchman’s offensive success. Additionally, his .353 BABIP is fifty-four points above the league average .299 BABIP. With a pedestrian average exit velocity of 88.8 miles per hour, it’s likely that Tauchman will see his BABIP decrease and his offensive numbers regress somewhat. That said, according to Baseball Savant, Tauchman owns a 38.4% sweet spot percentage in 2019, which ranks him seventy-first of 436 qualifying hitters. Sweet spot percentage tallies the percentage of balls a batter hits in the ideal launch angle range between eight and thirty-two degrees. Since 2015, batted balls in the sweet spot have led to an average BABIP of .514 and average wOBA of .707.

There’s more to combat the assertion that Tauchman’s offensive breakout is just a mirage. Tauchman’s season has truly been a tale of two halves. The table below helps tell the story.

Date RangewOBAEVLAxwOBABABIPK%
3/30 – 7/6.31088.0 mph7.8 degrees0.285.31030.2%
7/11 – 8/17.47289.5 mph16.3 degrees0.369.39719.3%

Tauchman’s actual wOBA is still outstripping his xwOBA by quite a bit over the last month, but his .369 xwOBA is nothing to sneeze at: it’s good for fifty-seventh among the 344 hitters with at least fifty plate appearances from July 11th through August 17th. The increase in his launch angle shows that he’s lifting the ball a lot more and that’s borne out in his batted ball profile as well.

Date RangeGB%LD%FB%
3/30 – 7/653.3%16.0%30.7%
7/11 – 8/1731.0%31.0%38.0%

Tauchman’s ground ball rate has dropped dramatically in the second half, and his fly ball rate has increased by a significant amount. His 31.0% line drive rate is almost certainly unsustainable (Whit Merrifield of the Kansas City Royals currently leads the league at 29.7%) and has likely driven much of Tauchman’s success, but given the sweet spot percentage mentioned above, he may be predisposed to hit line drives more frequently than the typical hitter. As expected given his line drive rate in the second half, Tauchman has been hitting the ball harder more often.

Date RangeSoft%Med%Hard%
3/30 – 7/618.7%53.5%28.0%
7/11 – 8/179.7%51.4%38.9%

A more refined pitch selection appears to be what’s led to Tauchman’s offensive breakout over the last month.

Tauchman had already displayed excellent plate discipline in the first half with a chase rate that ranked forty-second among 437 hitters with at least fifty plate appearances. He’s improved upon that skill in the second half, as he’s swinging less overall, chasing less frequently, and swinging less often in the strike zone. His second half swing rate ranks thirty-third lowest among 345 hitters with at least fifty plate appearances, and his chase rate ranks twentieth among the same group. His even more patient approach after the All-Star break has led to more contact: he’s increased his contact rate by almost 6% and decreased his swinging strike rate by 3.2%. Below are his overall swing percentage heat maps from the first and second halves of the season.

Tauchman has really concentrated his swings in the middle of the zone, especially the inner-middle part of the plate, swinging most often in the upper-middle part of the zone. He’s also laying off pitches low and away and above the zone a lot more frequently. Swinging at pitches higher in the strike zone and staying off that low and away pitch probably has a lot to do with the reduction in his ground ball rate. You can see the same trend against four-seam fastballs, which Tauchman is seeing 42.1% of the time in 2019.

It’s most likely that Tauchman won’t be able to sustain all of his offensive breakout over the last month. Maintaining a near .400 BABIP is unheard of and Statcast shows that Tauchman has definitely been the beneficiary of some good luck. Even when regression comes for Tauchman, however, there appears to be enough to believe that he’ll retain some of that breakout. He has shown elite plate discipline and an above-average ability to put the bat on the ball. Those attributes will serve any hitter well. If he’s able to keep enough of his batted balls in the air, given his above-average base running and excellent defense, Tauchman has shown the tools to continue to be an above-average regular moving forward.

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.