Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter: "Thinking Inside the Box, April 11, 2023"

This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for 25 years.

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"Thinking Inside the Box" is an occasional Newsletter feature that pulls topics from a reading of the box scores. The lines in fixed-width are the player's box score line for the game in question.


Being out for an evening -- I was at Citi Field last night -- forces me to lean more on box scores than I normally would. It’s fun, like being a fan as a kid and getting all my information from Baseball Tonight and the next day’s paper. Let’s see what I missed while watching the Mets shut out the Padres.

Mets 5, Padres 0

                   AB  R  H BI
Guillorme 2B        3  1  1  0
Nido C              3  0  1  0

Actually, let’s start here, with one of the all-time “line drive in the boxscore” sequences in baseball history.

Up 2-0 in the seventh, with Mark Canha on second, Luis Guillorme laid a bunt down the third-base line that tried to go foul three times and never quite got there, eventually settling between the chalk and the infield grass about 75 feet up the third-base line for a single. Following a sacrifice fly by Eduardo Escobar, Tomas Nido took a big swing on an 0-1 pitch and topped the ball on the same path as Guillorme’s bunt. This one didn’t get quite as far, but it settled right on the chalk for an infield single. Two hits that didn’t combine for an exit velocity of 100 mph and didn’t even reach a base were key in putting the game away.

I could not have had a better view of the two hits from Section 321, with a perfect, unobstructed angle on the third-base line and two baseballs that damn near expressed free will in staying in the field of play. The first one, you credit Guillorme for a great bunt. The second, you just throw up your hands and laugh.

Rays 1, Red Sox 0

                     IP  H  R ER BB  K
Fleming (W, 1-0)    4.0  1  0  0  0  5

Oh, hey, the Rays won.

This was unlike any of their first nine wins, however. They were scoreless through seven innings, 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and without a home run. Josh Fleming, though, along with opener Jalen Beeks and two other relievers, held up their end of the bargain long enough for Brandon Lowe to save the day with a solo homer in the eighth.

I was talking about openers with someone recently, about how after being very popular for a bit in 2018-19, they’ve all but disappeared. Despite all the arguments for them, there seemed to be pushback from the pitchers who would otherwise have started the game and were now in the bulk role. There was a sense that not starting the game would potentially cost those pitchers wins. As Fleming’s outing shows, though, the opposite is the case. Freed from the rule that a starter has to go five innings for the win, the bulk pitcher actually has a better chance of being deemed the winner, assuming comparable effectiveness.

As with many new baseball ideas, the use of the opener has gone by the wayside not because of merit, but because of vibes, because of generalized opposition to things that look different. The fewer innings fourth and fifth starters pitch, though, the more sense an opener makes -- both for the team and the pitchers.

Phillies 15, Marlins 3

                   AB  R  H BI
Bohm 3B             5  2  3  6 HR

Alec Bohm was a popular breakout pick over the winter, after a pair of seasons in which he didn’t crack a .320 OBP or .400 SLG. I didn’t get on board at all, perhaps overlooking a strong set of batted-ball measures in 2022: a .290 expected batting average (actual, .280) and a 43% hard-hit rate. So far this season, he’s exceeded those breakout expectations, with a .351/.415/.649 line in the season’s early days.

He’s still hitting a lot of balls on the ground, though, and his average launch angle has dropped to 7.3 degrees. What’s enabling him to get around that is hitting the ball very hard: 17 batted balls of at least 95 mph, a top-15 number. Bohm is hitting .385 on ground balls in a league that hits .244 on them. It’s not an unheard-of result -- Billy Hamilton hit .393 on grounders in 2016, and other right-handed batters have been above .360 in recent years -- but it will be hard to sustain. If Bohm is really going to break out, he has to get more balls in the air, as he did against Devin Smeltzer late in last night’s blowout.

Braves 5, Reds 4 (10 inn.)

                     IP  H  R ER BB  K
Ashcraft              6  6  2  2  3  7

I pushed back a bit this spring against what I saw as a premature hyping of Graham Ashcraft, analysts promoting him to a group with Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo as one of the Reds’ trio of top young starters. Ashcraft didn’t have anything like that pedigree, and his low ERA coming through the system hid a truckload of unearned runs allowed -- more than a quarter of his total. He was intermittently impressive in 19 starts a year ago, but a 15% strikeout rate is unacceptable for a modern starting pitcher.

Still, Ashcraft showed up on breakout lists this offseason, notably that of Eno Sarris, citing his “97-mph cutter” and some numbers from his Stuff+ model. So far in 2023, Ashcraft has two quality starts, and his strikeout rate is up over 25%. After last night’s game, he spoke like a pitching nerd, explaining to MLB.com’s Matthew Leach why he changed his slider:

“It’s just holding that fastball plane a lot longer. And it’s just creating that swing and miss. That was something I needed last year, and I just started to find it, figure it out now. … You can tell by the swings. Guys are swinging like it’s a heater, and then they’re way out front or just missing it by a mile.”

The Reds lost anyway, because they have exactly one (1) good relief pitcher. Still, if Ashcraft’s new pitch mix is for real, the Reds have another piece of their next good team in place.

Rangers 11, Royals 2

                     IP  H  R ER BB  K
Eaton                 1  2  0  0  0  1

That’s not a comeback by Padres hurler Adam, but rather Royals utility player Nate mopping up in an 11-2 loss. The righty got some attention for his impressive velocity and movement, better than some of the actual relievers the Royals have been using this year.

Still, it was the latest in what seems like the daily use of position players as pitchers. What was once a fun little quirk that happened less than once a month is now standard operating procedure in a blowout, this despite teams carrying more pitchers than ever in baseball history. On any given day, there are more pitchers on rosters than position players, with the concomitant lack of bench talent and tactical options for managers. Yet managers will refuse to use those pitchers in a blowout for fear of not being able to use them in some future game.

Having seen teams use position players 132 times last year, highlighted, if you can call it that, by A.J. Hinch using three in a single June blowout, MLB tightened the rules this year. Now, you have to be down eight runs, or up ten in the ninth, to use a position player on the mound. You can also use a position player any time in extras.

The result? The highest rate of position player pitching in baseball history, nine appearances in 12 days. Mind you, this is in April, before pitchers have been overworked and injured and teams are desperate for innings. The Phillies used Josh Harrison to finish off their second game of the season! Hanser Alberto, now with the White Sox, is on pace to better his ten appearances with the Dodgers in 2022.

MLB’s rules aren’t working, and we are all now fans of a sport that is comfortable changing rules in-season, so let’s suggest a new one: A team may only use a position player to pitch if it is carrying fewer than 13 pitchers. If you have eight relievers, nearly a third of your active roster charged with pitching in relief, you shouldn’t be using a position player to pitch. If you want the option, then add a bench player. This would be a soft incentive to lengthen your bench and provide better hitter/pitcher balance, giving teams stronger tactical options and making late-game situations more interesting. I don’t expect a return to 16/9 splits, but surely we can encourage 13/12 and dream about 14/11. If you’re under 30, trust me when I tell you the game was more interesting when teams had as many bench players as they did relievers.

You can only use position players to pitch if you’re carrying fewer than 13 pitchers, Simple, elegant, and a force for good. Make it happen, MLB.

Nationals 6, Angels 4

                     IP  H  R ER BB  K
Corbin (W, 1-2)     5.0  7  4  4  3  3 HR

I mentioned in the season preview that Patrick Corbin has a chance to be the first pitcher since Phil Niekro to lead his league in losses for three straight years. He’s also a real threat to lose 20, and maybe even 25 games, this year. That’s made harder when he allows four runs in the first three innings and not only dodges a loss, but picks up the win. The Nationals got four runs off Jose Suarez, two off the Angels’ bullpen, and four shutout innings from their own bullpen to beat the Halos 6-4.

Corbin is no longer the star who got a $140 million contract or the swingman who was a huge part of a World Series winner. If he takes the ball 30 times, though, he’ll be doing a lot for a Nationals team that’s mostly just trying to get to 2024.