Sunday, June 30, 2024

Newsletter Excerpt, June 30, 2024 -- "NL Central Notes"


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.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $79.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.


St. Louis Cardinals

At the risk of repeating a theme, the Cardinals are hanging on to playoff position despite having less power than actual cardinals, something that happened in a hurry.

Busched (selected power stats, 2022-24 Cardinals)


        Brl%    HH%   SLG   ISO
2024    4.6%  36.5%  .377  .138
2023    5.7%  41.6%  .416  .166
2022    5.3%  37.4%  .420  .166

Brl%: Barrels per PA
HH%: Hard-hit rate

The Cardinals were just outside the top ten in the Statcast metrics a year ago, and around average in the other two categories. This year, they’re 27th in barrel rate, 24th in hard-hit rate, 20th in slugging and 24th in isolated power. 

It’s perhaps unfair to pin it all on one guy, but Nolan Arenado has aged like mayonnaise at a picnic, and that’s killed a lineup that needed him to grow old gracefully. Arenado has posted career lows in all the batted-ball metrics. Of 254 qualified batters, Arenado’s average exit velocity of 85.1 mph ranks 242nd. His max exit velocity ranks 221st. His barrel rate ranks 228th. 

If I had to diagnose Arenado, it would be that he’s starting to cheat even more to get to the fastball, which is making him more prone than ever to everything else, and the tradeoff isn’t working. Arenado is hitting .299 with a .446 slugging against fastballs, which sounds fine until you notice that was a .508 SLG last year and .606 two years ago. Remember, too, what we’ve talked about a lot this year, that most offense happens against fastballs. Arenado’s performance against them is barely above average.

The cost in that cheating shows up in Arenado’s performance against anything soft or with a wrinkle. 

Arena-DOH! (performance against off-speed/breaking stuff)

            AVG   SLG
2024 Off   .171  .200
2023 Off   .237  .355
2022 Off   .214  .482

            AVG   SLG
2024 Br    .235  .337
2023 Br    .275  .437
2022 Br    .261  .455

This isn’t an original story. For 120 years, veterans have learned they can’t get around on the fastball as well and tried to compensate by cheating just a little bit. Sometimes it works for a while, often it doesn’t. Arenado, at 33, is like a thousand other players losing the battle with age. Throw in some serious decline with the glove, and you have a player who, two years removed from an MVP-caliber campaign, is now a drag on the roster.

Friday, June 28, 2024

Newsletter Excerpt, June 28, 2024 -- "NL East Notes"


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.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $79.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.

Washington Nationals

A frustrated reader asked me about the Nationals’ propensity for making outs on the bases. He wasn’t just venting. The Nats lead baseball with 39 times caught stealing, eight more than any other team. They lead baseball in times picked off, with 17. They’ve made 31 additional outs on the bases -- third in baseball. On average, a National makes a baserunning out once a game, the kind of thing fans notice and that drives them crazy.

The outs on the bases add up. Baseball Reference calculates baserunning value, and the Nationals are nearly last. 

Walk, Don’t Run (B-R baserunning value, 2024)

Guardians    -9
Nationals    -5
Marlins      -5
White Sox    -5

By this stat, Nick Senzel is one of the worst baserunners in the game this year, with his infield compatriots Ildemaro Vargas, CJ Abrams, and Luis Garcia all costing the Nats runs. 

The aggressive approach, though, may make some sense. Stolen bases have the most value when a team hits a lot of singles relative to their other hits. They need to get that runner from first to second more than a team that slugs a lot. Steals also have value the more contact a team makes. The Nationals are 29th in homers, 27th in isolated power, and ninth in the percentage of their hits that are singles (67.4%). They have the ninth-best contact rate in baseball, too. 

So while it’s frustrating watching all those baserunning outs, Davey Martinez may be playing a style of baseball that best fits the roster he has. The Nationals just don’t have a lot of paths to scoring from the batter’s box -- 23rd in OBP, 26th in SLG -- so aggression on the bases, even at a cost, is their best play.

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Newsletter Excerpt, June 26, 2024 -- "AL East Notes"

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.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $79.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.



New York Yankees

We’ve been using ERA to measure the value of pitchers for more than a century. FIP, a product of the Defense Independent Pitching Statistics developed by Voros McCracken about 25 years ago, uses the ERA scale to measure pitching performance based on the three true outcomes: walks, strikeouts, and home runs allowed. FIP is more predictive than ERA, stipping out what happens on batted balls in play, which can be heavily affected by the fielders behind the pitcher and plain old luck.

The gap between those two numbers, ERA and FIP, is a helpful tool. One measures outcomes, the other the skills that went into producing those outcomes. The Yankees, through half the 2024 season, are at an extreme.

Luck? (ERA - FIP, 2024)

            ERA    FIP     E-F
Yankees    3.31   4.01   -0.70
Dodgers    3.29   3.82   -0.53
Brewers    3.74   4.20   -0.45
Guardians  3.50   3.93   -0.43
Blue Jays  4.20   4.49   -0.29

The Yankees’ run prevention is outstripping its underlying pitching performance by more than any team in baseball. In fact, that -0.70 figure is one of the highest since the mound was lowered in 1969.

Luck! (ERA - FIP, 1969-2024, real seasons only)

                   ERA    FIP     E-F
Reds       1999   3.99   4.74   -0.75
Yankees    2024   3.31   4.01   -0.70
Braves     2022   3.13   3.83   -0.69
Athletics  1990   3.18   3.84   -0.66
Dodgers    2022   2.80   3.45   -0.65

The elements here are pretty simple. The Yankees have allowed just a .265 average on balls in play, third-lowest in baseball, so the run elements not covered by FIP have been good to them. They have stranded 76.6% of the runners who have reached against them, second only to the Guardians. They’ve pitched well, yes, but they’ve snagged batted balls (third in Defensive Efficiency), and they’ve done their best work with runners in scoring position. The Yankees lead MLB in OPS allowed with RISP, as well as relative OPS with RISP compared to their own performance (tOPS+) and the league performance (sOPS+).

That’s jargon-y.

Yankee pitching and defense has been at its best with runners in scoring position.

That’s why they’re in first place.

Monday, June 24, 2024

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, June 24, 2024 -- "Thinking Inside the Box"

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.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $79.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.


"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.


Phillies 4, Diamondbacks 1

Sanchez (W, 5-3)    7.0  3  0  0  0  4

Cristopher Sanchez celebrated his new four-year, $22.5-million contract by wiping out the Diamondbacks on a hot summer Sunday. Sanchez, whose deal includes team options for 2029 and 2030, has emerged over the last year as a key member of one of the best starting rotations in baseball: 33 starts, 183 2/3 innings, 3.30 FIP, 3.09 ERA.

Yesterday, Sanchez stuck to the mix that has worked for him over the last two seasons, throwing his change-up, his best pitch, 35% of the time and getting four of his five whiffs on it. Over the past two seasons, Sanchez’s change is ninth in value, and in 2024 it’s second only to Tyler Anderson’s. Last year, the Phillies had Sanchez throw the change more at the expense of the two-seamer, and that unlocked a mid-rotation starter.

Sanchez was acquired almost five years ago from the Rays in a trade for Curtis Mead, and until recently, that looked like another data point in the “never trade with the Rays” case, as Mead became a top-50 prospect. As Sanchez has pitched well with the Phillies the last two seasons, though, Mead has failed to launch, hitting just .235/.297/.312, unable to stick on the Rays’ roster.

These are the new Phillies. They’re not just throwing John Middleton’s money around at the most famous guys who will take it, they’re beating the Rays in trades by making their own players better. 

Marlins 6, Mariners 4

                     IP  H  R ER BB  K
B. Miller (L, 6-6)  4.0  6  6  6  1  3 2 HR

It’s getting away from Bryce Miller a bit. He’s allowed five runs or more in four of his last eight starts, with a 5.20 ERA and 4.46 FIP in that time. His strikeout rate is down to just 19% across those eight starts, and he got just four whiffs on 61 pitches yesterday, part of a trend that has seen his whiff rate drop from 28% in April to 20% in June. Hitters are no longer chasing his splitter, down to a 12.5% whiff rate in June.

I wonder if the real trick will be ditching the sweeper. Hitters are teeing off on it to the tune of a .625 SLG and .410 wOBA allowed. Miller is catching way too much of the plate with it. It wasn’t a good pitch for him last year, either (.475 SLG, .348 wOBA, 17.4% whiff rate). There’s value in having a wide repertoire, as that’s been shown to mitigate the third-time-around penalty. If an ineffective pitch means you’re never around to see a lineup a third time, though, it’s a wash. I’d like to see Miller narrow the offerings to the four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, and splitter, just to see how it goes for a few starts.

It’s also getting away from the Mariners a bit. After running their lead in the AL West up to as many as nine games, their cushion is down to six over the Astros, 6 1/2 over the Rangers. It was never likely that either Texas team would give up on the season, and as long as they’re anywhere close in late July, they’ll look to add talent. The Mariners continue to be exceptionally reliant on their starting rotation, with just a .301 team OBP and 3.75 runs a game in regulation. The Mitches haven’t come around, with a combined 83 OPS+, and Julio Rodriguez is still scuffling, .244/.306/.372 in June. They’re headed into a couple of tough weeks, with a trip to St. Pete finishing off this Florida swing and then home to host the Twins, Orioles, and Blue Jays. The AL West race is far from over.

Guardians 6, Blue Jays 5

                  AB  R  H  BI
Kwan LF            5  1  2   1 HR

We did this last year with Luis Arraez, so I’ll spare you the drama: Steven Kwan isn’t hitting .400. He could hit .350, though, and that may be the new .400. Just 15 players have hit .350 in a qualified season in this century (2020 never counts), with Ichiro’s .372 in 2004 the highest batting average anyone has posted. When Arraez hit .354 last year, he was the first player to hit .350 since Josh Hamilton in 2010. There’s no great mystery here; when strikeouts are common and defenses are wildly efficient, batting average suffers. It’s far harder to hit .350 in a .240 league than in a .260 league. 

Kwan, despite the .390/.448/.575 line, is pretty much the same hitter he’s been for three years. He barrels about one ball a month and has some of the lowest exit velocities and hard-hit rates in baseball. What’s changed is that he’s no longer getting the bat knocked out of his hands, jumping from a career .374 wOBA against fastballs to a .486 mark. Already possessing some of the best contact skills in the game, Kwan has swung and missed at just three heaters all season long. When he makes contact, he’s getting the ball in the air more, with a career-low 36% groundball rate, and while no one is mistaking him for Kyle Schwarber, Kwan has more than doubled his pulled fly-ball rate over 2023’s 4%.

I’ve been comping Kwan to Brett Butler, the excellent leadoff man who spent four years with the -dians in the 1980s. Looking more closely, Butler never had Kwan’s contact rates, especially relative to the league. Butler had more applied speed and was one of the best bunters of his era. Kwan is a superior left fielder, the best since Alex Gordon, while Butler eventually established himself as a center fielder and never left.

Kwan doesn’t have to hit .400 to be a great player or a great story. The changes he’s made at the plate this year, though, give him a strong chance to join a small club of .350 hitters, and an outside chance at posting the highest batting average of the century.

Astros 8, Orioles 1


                  AB  R  H  BI
Bregman 3B         4  2  4   0 2 2B

I can’t lie, I had my shovel out for most of the spring. Alex Bregman was hitting, if you want to call it that, .198/.268/.252 through six weeks of play. It looked even worse, with Bregman overmatched by everything, serving as an escape hatch for pitchers getting through Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker. 

Since that low-water mark on May 8, Bregman is hitting .309/.358/.539, and the Astros are 21-15 in the 36 games he’s started. A team with an awfully thin lineup, and down Tucker for much of that time, has been saved by a player who, one way or another, always seems to find his way to a four-win season. 

There are some worrying signs still. One of the more patient hitters in the game throughout his career, Bregman’s walk rate has cratered to 8% from his established 12-13% level. He’s chasing like never before, and the run value of his swing decisions, as measured by Statcast, has slipped from among the top 5% in the game to the top quartile. He’s a much more aggressive hitter than he has ever been, and while it’s worked for him in June, any radical change in approach like this feels unstable.

Bregman’s big Sunday capped a series in which he went 6-for-13 with three doubles in helping the Astros to a sweep over the Orioles. As mentioned above, Houston is now within six games of the Mariners, even without Tucker, who still hasn’t started baseball activities as his shin heals. They will get Tucker back, but that still leaves the Astros two starters short of a rotation, and maybe two hitters short of a lineup. Whatever changes Bregman has made, the Astros need them to stick.

Rangers 4, Royals 0

                     IP  H  R ER BB  K
Scherzer (W, 1-0)     5  1  0  0  0  4

The Rangers are thrilled to have one of their co-aces back in uniform. With that said, Max Scherzer wasn’t quite vintage in his first start of the season. He averaged 93 on his four-seamer, topping out at 94. Command of everything but the fastball left a lot to be desired. The state of the Royals’ lineup is such that Scherzer could get by on 60% of his skills, so consider yesterday a glorified rehab stint. The Orioles, at Camden Yards, loom next, a far tougher test.

Nationals 2, Rockies 1

Wow, a 2-1 game at Coors Field, how did th...

HP: Doug Eddings

...oh, OK.

Mets 5, Cubs 2

                  AB  R  H  BI
Vientos 3B         4  1  1   1 HR

It’s not Grimace, it’s Vientos. The Mets were 19-22 when they recalled Mark Vientos from the minors on May 15. They’re 18-17 since then, and 14-13 when Vientos starts, averaging a ridiculous 5.7 runs a game when he’s in the lineup. Vientos himself has contributed a .280/.339/.505 line while mostly fighting third base to a draw.

Let me circle back to something I wrote over the winter...

I want no part of a long-term contract for Pete Alonso, and even granting his popularity in Queens, the Mets shouldn’t either. They have the 24-year-old version of Alonso in Mark Vientos as it is. Vientos’s Triple-A stats from ages 21 through 23 are pretty much a match for Alonso’s at 23, his only season at that level:

           PA    AVG   OBP   SLG   HR   K%  BB%
Vientos   739   .290  .371  .556   43  26%  11%
Alonso    301   .260  .356  .585   21  26%  11%

Vientos has struggled in scattered playing time at the major-league level the last two seasons at 22 and 23. Alonso didn’t play in the majors at those ages. There is little reason to think Vientos can’t step in for Alonso and provide comparable production in 2024 and beyond.

Pete Alonso won the Mets’ first-base job at 24 and went on to be NL Rookie of the Year while hitting 53 home runs. Vientos has been up and down and has had to fight his way to playing time. Extending the comp, though....

         Age   PA    AVG   OBP   SLG  OPS+   K%  BB%
Vientos   24  125   .289  .344  .526  151   22%   8%
Alonso    24  693   .260  .358  .583  147   26%  10%

Vientos, in less playing time through no fault of his own, has been a dead match for Alonso at 24. Alonso’s rookie year was a Happy Fun Ball year, and as you can see, Vientos has actually been more productive relative to his league than Alonso was. The Mets have their next Alonso on the roster, and leaving him alone to play every day is the best decision they’ve made this year.

[Editor Scott chimes in...”Now do Francisco Alvarez. :)” The Mets are 7-3 in Alvarez’s ten starts since he came off the IL June 11. He’s hitting .361/.425/.611 since his return.] 


We’re going move into the divisional whiparounds next, starting with the AL East. 

Other Places


12 noon CT, KZNE 1150, College Station, Tex. with Louie Belina
1 p.m. PT, 93.3 KJR FM, Seattle, with Ian Furness