Strikeouts Are Never Gonna Give Baseball Up

Though they might let fans down.

Strikeouts are an integral part of baseball today. You can hardly watch an inning without seeing at least one. The pitchers that get a lot of strikeouts tend to give up fewer runs, so MLB teams are always on the lookout for guys that get a lot of strikeouts.

I’ll quickly list the top 5 teams in terms of strikeouts per 9 innings this season:

  1. Milwaukee Brewers
  2. New York Mets
  3. Atlanta Braves
  4. New York Yankees
  5. Houston Astros

Each of these teams has managed to maximize their strikeouts this season and it has largely led to success for the team. The Brewers, Mets, Astros and Yankees are all at the top of their divisions. The Braves are just a few games behind the Mets.

The Power of Strikeouts

Strikeouts are incredibly powerful for a pitcher because it is impossible to get a hit on a strikeout. Any ball put in play has the chance of turning into a hit, even if it is hit very weakly. If you’re striking everybody out, you do not have to worry about this. With the strikeout, you can say goodbye to a lot swinging bunts and jammed bloopers over the second baseman’s head.

Teams that strikeout more batters often allow less good contact as well. Outside of the Reds and Cubs (who have struggled with giving up the long ball), every team that is above average in strikeouts per 9 is also above average in ERA+. Teams that get a lot of strikeouts usually do not have to worry about teams scoring through a combination of hits. Their stuff is too good to get multiple hits in an inning consistently.

This is the issue we see with guys like Hunter Greene and Nathan Eovaldi. They struggle with high home run rates but do not give up a lot of hits. This can be a sign of command struggles, but also may be associated with poor luck. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to a good piece of hitting. This is the one that often comes to mind for me:

Raimel Tapia’s solo homer | 04/17/2021 | MLB.com

Assuming most of the hits you give up are singles, which is typical for most pitchers in any given season, having the ability to limit these singles by limiting contact will give you a good baseline for being a great pitcher in the MLB. This is what we have seen with Edwin Diaz this year.

The Reign of Edwin Diaz

Edwin is having a phenomenal year this year. He currently owns a 1.51 ERA over 41 2/3 innings pitched. Diaz has had some phenomenal seasons in the past, but this year has been his best so far. The biggest reason for his success? That might be his absurd 18.1 strikeouts per 9 innings. He is averaging over 2 strikeouts an inning with 40+ innings pitched. The next closest guy with a similar amount of innings is Josh Hader with 35 innings and 15.4 strikeouts per 9 innings.

Diaz displayed the power of key strikeouts in an outing against the Yankees on July 26th. He entered the game in the top of the 8th with a runner on first and 2 outs. A home run would have tied the game, but Diaz got Gallo to swing at a slider outside of the zone for strike 3. Diaz came back out in the ninth inning to complete the save. The Mets were up 3 at this point, but let’s pretend the lead was only 1 run.

Jose Trevino started the inning off with a weak infield single. The weak contact is a good result for Diaz, but Trevino gets on base anyway. This is one example of why it is beneficial to limit contact. Diaz then strikes out DJ Lemahieu. Trevino is unable to advance on the strikeout. The Yankees’ chance of scoring a run dramatically decreases from this one strikeout. The next batter is Aaron Judge.

As you likely know, Judge is having a monstrous season. Diaz wants to eliminate the possibility of any hard contact. He gets ahead 0-2 and instead of a strikeout, it is a soft chopper back to Diaz. Diaz fields it cleanly and would likely have had a double play if he had thrown it cleanly. It slipped out of his hand though and both Trevino and Judge were safe. With 1 out and runners on first and second, there are a few ways to score a run. A soft hit single out of the infield would likely do it. A single and a sacrifice fly would do it. A deep flyout and a single might even score two runs. Instead, Diaz quickly slams the door by striking out Anthony Rizzo and following that up with a strikeout of Gleyber Torres.

In this inning, Diaz put the power of the strikeout on full display. Strikeouts get outs and they usually hold runners at their current base. Diaz is the prototypical elite pitcher in today’s game. He does not attempt to induce weak contact, he attempts to eliminate contact altogether.

Going After Hitter Weaknesses

The other argument that can be made for strikeout pitchers is the argument that batters are increasingly susceptible to strikeouts. As batters look to increase their slugging, they make less soft contact and whiff much more. A pitcher with average movement or velocity will see an average amount of whiffs, but pitchers with good velocity and movement can use it to their advantage much more than they can against pure contact hitters.

Luis Arraez

It seems to be advantageous for pitchers to seek out strikeouts, but what about batters? Should they make the shift toward a more contact-oriented approach? Why do they seem to strike out so much?

Some people will make the argument that players just want to hit home runs and look cool. They will say players have lost all appreciation for things like small ball and pressuring the defense. Maybe these are part of the conversation, but I do not think they are the main drivers of current hitting approaches.

Players are always going to look to maximize their value, which means maximizing the skills that we measure them on. When we were measuring players based on batting average, there seemed to be more players with a high batting average. Then, home runs became the main measuring stick and players hit more and more home runs. Now, OPS and wOBA are often seen as some of the top indicators of offensive performance. For simplicity, we’ll focus on OPS.

The question becomes: Does OPS give an advantage to power hitters or contact hitters? A little digging seems to show a pretty obvious answer.

To start, I want to look at Luis Arraez. Arraez is a very interesting player. In an era of baseball where strikeouts and home runs often control the sport, Arraez succeeds without doing much of either. He averages 10.4 at-bats per strikeout. That is second in the MLB, just 0.1 at-bats behind Steven Kwan. He actually has 5 home runs on the year as well. This number is nowhere near most of the high OPS guys but it is ahead of a lot of the pure contact-oriented hitters. He is most known for his batting average though, which currently sits at a pristine .334. Even so, Arraez ranks 28th in OPS. Why? His slugging ranks 65th in baseball.

A .334 might not sound like an elite batting average, but it is really high for a guy that doesn’t hit for much power. Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) measures exactly what its name says, the batting average on all balls in play (excluding home runs). The league average BABIP is .300, Arraez has averaged .344 since he entered the league in 2019. This means Arraez would hit .344 if he never struck out and did not hit any home runs. To hit higher than .344, he would need to hit about one home run for every 2 strike outs. A feat that he is not close to, even with his incredibly low strikeout rate. Since 2000, only two players have accomplished this while hitting less than 20 home runs. Tommy La Stella, whose home run rate for 2019 doesn’t match the rest of his career, and Randall Simon, who did so in 2002. The important thing to note is that contact hitters that do not hit with much power often have a ceiling that makes it difficult to hit above .350 for an extended period of time.

Joey Gallo vs. Isiah Kiner-Falefa

One of the biggest displays of the importance of power is a quick look at Joey Gallo and Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s OPS numbers. The league average OPS is currently .708. If we look at the past month, Kiner-Falefa is getting hit but has no power. Over the last 28 days, he is 24 for 80 for a .300 batting average. Of those hits, 19 are singles and 5 are doubles. One walk brings his on-base percentage to .321, while his slugging percentage sits at .363. He has a .684 OPS over those four weeks.

Gallo’s last 28 days have been completely different. He is 5 for 39 with a single, a triple, and 3 home runs. The power is there, but the average sits at .128. Being a guy that can do a lot of damage quickly, Gallo has been walked 10 times over this span. As a result, his on-base percentage is .306 and his slugging percentage is .410. This gives him a .716 OPS, above league average and above Isiah Kiner-Falefa.

Gallo displays two key principles that often allow struggling power hitters to keep pace with solid contact hitters.

The first is walks. Guys that are better at hitting home runs often force pitchers to be more careful with their pitches. Pitchers do not want the game to change on one bad pitch, so they focus more on the edge of the zone and are less likely to challenge the batter when they are behind in the count. Regardless of a hitter’s batting average, these walks add up. While Kiner-Falefa receives a .021 boost to his on-base percentage from walks, Gallo gets a huge .178 boost. That is over 8 times more.

Second, whatever gap is left after the walks are factored in, can be made up with slugging. Slugging percentage is simply the number of bases a hitter averages per at-bat. For example, a player that hits 8 singles in 20 at-bats would have a .400 slugging percentage. He averages .4 bases per at-bat. Now, this batter would also have a .400 batting average. Some quick math shows that you can also get 8 bases in 20 at-bats by hitting 2 home runs. Your batting average would be .100 in this scenario, but your slugging percentage would still be .400. Against today’s pitchers, hitting 2 home runs over 20 at-bats is a manageable task. Hitting .400 over those 20 at-bats requires more bat control and some luck to hit the ball away from fielders.

The Future of Strikeouts

In the previous example, I picked Joey Gallo for a reason. Yankees fans have been incredibly frustrated with his strikeout rate this season. They have been such a problem that his OPS for the season is actually a fair amount below average. Yet, that single OPS number is quite a bit more forgiving for Gallo than many other players. While writing this article, Gallo was traded to the Dodgers. The Dodgers were likely willing to make this move because of Gallo’s past OPS numbers. Just last year, Gallo struck out in nearly every other at-bat and still had an OPS+ of 121 (21% better than the average hitter). The Dodgers would gladly take that.

The big point here is strikeouts are here to stay. As fans, we often get frustrated with the players that repeatedly strikeout without providing any real offense. However, the players that strike out the most, often up being quite productive hitters. Among the top 10 in strikeouts this year, there are 4 All-Stars including MVP favorite Aaron Judge and runner up in the home run race, Kyle Schwarber. We know these guys strike out a lot, but their productivity and home runs often overshadows the extent of their strikeouts.

If you are not tired of strikeouts, here is Ryan Helsley using his electric stuff to strikeout a few batters:

https://www.mlb.com/video/00ui4a1lyj7FgxXtD357/reels/ryan-helsley

One Fact About Each MLB All-Star Starter and Reserve (Position Players Only)

AL Starters

Alejandro Kirk: Alejandro Kirk is only 23 years old. He needs 13 more games to reach 162. He has a 134 OPS+ in his first 149 games, many of which he was the catcher for. This year, he has also walked more than he has struck out. Kirk may very well be a star in the making. His stellar offense at a position that often struggles offensively makes him an essential part of any team.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.: Like Kirk, Guerrero Jr. is also 23 and plays for the Blue Jays. Compared to Kirk’s career 134 OPS+, Guerrero has a career 135 OPS+ with nearly 300 more games played. The two will likely form a feared middle of the order for Blue Jays for years to come.

Jose Altuve: If Altuve does not have any major injuries, he will likely reach the 2,000 hit milestone and the 200 home run milestone next season. Three or four more years of this production could give him a serious case for making the Hall of Fame.

Rafael Devers: Rafael Devers was voted as the All-Star Game starter largely because of his league leading hit total and his .327 average. He is, however, also tied with Kyle Schwarber for the second-most home runs against righthanded pitchers since the beginning of last season.

Tim Anderson: Anderson has a .320 batting average since 2019. He is just behind teammate Luis Arraez (.321) over that span. He is doing so in his usual manner of maintaining a very high BABIP.

Aaron Judge: Judge will likely pass the 200 home run mark this season. For his career, he is averaging a home run about every 3.5 games. His contract discussions will be one of the main headlines this season and possibly into the offseason. Judge’s home run capabilities might be the best in the MLB, but will his contract be affected by previous injuries and the fact that we have not seen a 6’7″ 282lb baseball player before?

Mike Trout: Trout is 5th in OPS+ this season at 171. He is 71% better than the average MLB hitter. Somehow, he is just below his career average of 176. He is 10 home runs from entering the top 100 in career home runs.

Giancarlo Stanton: Stanton’s hardest hit ball this year is 119.8 mph. Since 2015, he has topped 120 mph every year. Could he be saving it for the All-Star Game?

Shohei Ohtani: This spot is for you to insert any crazy Ohtani stat that you find fitting.

AL Reserves

Jose Trevino: Trevino has a 104 OPS+ this year. As a catcher that is quite good. However, he truly shines on the defensive side of the baseball. Statcast’s catcher framing has him as the most valuable catcher with 8 catcher framing runs. He has greatly succeeded in getting inside, outside, and low pitches called strikes for his pitchers.

Luis Arraez: Luis Arraez has a .322 average over 323 games. Since 2000, only Ichiro Suzuki has had a higher batting average over his first 323 games while getting significant hitting opportunities. The key is not striking out.

Andrés Gimenez: Read here for Andrés Gimenez’s path to becoming an All-Star.

José Ramirez: Ramirez has 39 walks this year and only 36 strikeouts. He also has 17 home runs. His ability to hit for power while not striking out is rarely matched in today’s game.

Xander Bogaerts: For his career, Bogaerts has been best in April, May, and September. His numbers are a little worse in July and August. Could this be the year he turns that trend around?

Corey Seager: Like a lot of left-handed hitters, Seager has noticeable differences in his batting against left-handed pitchers and his batting against right-handed pitchers. The power actually seems relatively equal against both, but his average against righties is .297, compared to .279 against lefties. He has also walked in 10.3% of his at-bats against righties compared to only 7.5% of his at-bats against lefties.

Byron Buxton: Buxton has only grounded into 10 double plays in his career. The last time he did so was August 18, 2020. Since then, he has 149 hits and 50 home runs.

Kyle Tucker: Tucker ranks 3rd among outfielders in defensive runs saved. He has also improved his walk percentage to 12.6% from 9.3%. That places him in the top 10 percent of the MLB.

George Springer: Springer has 213 career home runs. His lowest totals are 14 in 2020 where he only played 51 games because of the shortened season and 16 in 102 games during 2015. Every other season, he has been above 20 home runs.

Andrew Benintendi: Benintendi is hitting .317 so far this year. This hit tool made him a valuable prospect since his power and defense are not amazing. He seems to be on his way to reaching his ceiling of a guy that just racks up hits. He is one to look out for during the trade deadline.

Julio Rodriguez: Julio Rodriguez has simply been incredible this season. Following Kelenic’s struggles to adapt to the MLB, Mariners fans were likely anxious to see Rodriguez have success in the MLB. The first month was a bit of a struggle as Rodriguez hit only .205 with no home runs and a .544 OPS. A 3 hit game on May 1 which included his first home run got him started. Since then, he has hit 15 home runs and raised his average to .275.

Yordan Alvarez: Yordan is one of the best hitters in the MLB. In 308 games, he has been 61% better than the average hitter (161 OPS). He leads the league in slugging percentage and OPS. His 26 home runs are just 3 below last year’s total. Additionally, Yordan had 50 walks to 145 strikeouts last season. Currently, he has 43 walks to 57 strikeouts. This shows he is being much more patient and pitchers are likely avoiding him more this year. If you had to choose between 5 years of Yordan Alvarez or 5 years of Juan Soto, who would you take?

J.D. Martinez: Martinez is leading the American League in doubles for the second consecutive season. While he only has 9 home runs so far this year, his career total stands at 275. A good second half would put him in position to reach the 300 milestone next season.

Santiago Espinal: Espinal finds success through being one of the best defensive second basemen in baseball. He also ranks near the top of the league in whiff%, leading to a low strikeout rate.

Ty France: Like Espinal, France succeeds through putting the ball in play a lot. His whiff% is just outside the top 10% of Major League Baseball. He also shows the ability to hit for a bit more power than a pure contact hitter. His 125 OPS+ in 343 career games means he could be a regular at the All-Star game over the next few seasons.

Miguel Cabrera: This is Cabrera’s 12th All-Star appearance. The most of any active player. He is just ahead of Pujols who is appearing for his 11th time and Trout who was selected for the 10th time.

NL Starters

Willson Contreras: Willson Contreras is leading the league in hit-by-pitches while regularly starting at catcher (about 2/3 of his games). Talk about tough. Contreras has been one of the bright spots for a largely disappointing Cubs team.

Paul Goldschmidt: Goldschmidt’s worst career OPS+ was 115 in 2019. He finished 20th in MVP voting that year. The last time he finished outside the top 20 in MVP voting was 2014.

Jazz Chisholm Jr.: Jazz Chisholm Jr. is having an Altuve-like power surge this season. He hit 18 home runs last year. He is already at 14. He is only 24, so this trend could continue in the coming seasons.

Manny Machado: Machado recently turned 30 years old. He has 49.4 career WAR. The only players 30 or younger with more WAR are Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. He is definitely on a Hall of Fame path.

Trea Turner: Each year, Turner averages almost as many stolen bases (46) as walks (52). He truly changes the game with his speed.

Ronald Acuña Jr.: Ronald Acuña Jr. is 5 stolen bases from having 100 stolen bases along with 100 home runs. Only 6 players have done that prior to their 25th birthday.

Mookie Betts: Betts is 2 home runs away from 200 career home runs. With 20 home runs in the Dodger’s first 90 games, he is also on pace to set a career high in home runs.

Joc Pederson: Pederson’s exit velocity, hard-hit percentage, and fly ball percentage are all the highest of his career. That is a good combination for hitting more home runs.

Bryce Harper: According to Baseball Reference Similarity Scores, the closest comparison to Bryce Harper’s career through his age 28 season is Barry Bonds. A massive power surge in his 30s like Bonds had is very unlikely but he is coming off of an MVP last season so he might be getting even better.

NL Reserves

Travis d’Arnaud: d’Arnaud had a .704 OPS in seven years with the Mets for a 97 OPS+. In two and a half seasons with the Braves, he has a 107 OPS+. He seems to have found his stride offensively. This is also his first All-Star team.

Pete Alonso: Alonso has 130 regular-season home runs, just one less than his 131 HR derby home runs prior to this All-Star break.

C.J. Cron: Cron is having a great year with 20 home runs and an .889 OPS. He was just as good last year, with a .905 OPS, even though he did not get a lot of recognition. Fewer walks have brought his on-base percentage down a bit, but his power numbers are up.

Jeff McNeil: McNeil has quietly been one of the better hitters in baseball since his debut in 2018. He ranks 35th in OPS+ among players with at least 400 games, tied with Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, and Anthony Rizzo. He ranks 4th in batting average among players with at least 400 games.

Nolan Arenado: Arenado is only striking out in 12.8% of his at-bats. If he continues this through the season, it will be just behind the shortened 2020 season for his lowest career K%.

Dansby Swanson: Swanson had a career-high 27 home runs last year, topping his 2019 total by 10. He is on pace for about 25 this year. He is showing consistent power potential that could make him a yearly contender for best hitting shortstop. This is an addition to his stellar defense.

Kyle Schwarber: Since the beginning of 2021, Kyle Schwarber has 49 home runs against righthanded pitchers. The only player with more is Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Starling Marte: In 68 first-inning plate appearances this year, Marte has an OPS above 1.000. He has greatly helped the Mets take the lead early in games.

Ian Happ: While Happ’s home run pace is a little down from last year, he already has 3 more doubles than he had in 148 games last season. He is making full use of the gaps in the outfield.

Juan Soto: A walk allows you to travel the 90 feet from home to first base. Juan Soto is the only player in Major League Baseball to travel more than a mile on walks. He has traveled 7,110 feet as of July 18th. His 79 walks are 24 more than the next closest player. Somehow, he is actually walking less than last season.

William Contreras: Contreras made the All-Star team despite only appearing in 46 of Atlanta’s 94 games so far. When he has played, he has done very well. About 13% of his at-bats this season have ended with a double or home run.

Garrett Cooper: Garrett Cooper’s biggest challenge has been playing enough. He only played half of the games in 2020 and 2021. Both years, he had an OPS+ above 125. He is currently at a 130 OPS+. Only 22 players have been above a 125 OPS+ for 2020, 2021, and so far this season.

Freddie Freeman: Since 2013, Freeman has not had an OPS+ worse than 132. This year is shaping up to be one of his best seasons. He leads the league with 114 hits. He truly is one of the most consistent players in the MLB.

Austin Riley: Riley had a breakout season last year as he hit over .300 with 33 home runs. This season, he is trying to outdo himself. His average currently stands at .285 but the home runs have already totaled 27 with 68 games still to be played. Riley’s emergence has been an essential part of the Braves success last season and this season.

Albert Pujols: Pujols is simply one of the best players to ever play in the MLB. He is 15 home runs from 700 for his career. That number is likely out of reach with less than half a season left, but maybe?

The 2022 MLB All-Star Game is almost upon us. It should be an amazing show. Here is a reminder of what last year looked like.

via MLB

A Thank You to Minor League Baseball

I live in Hartwick, NY. If you’re aware of the town’s existence it may be the result of a trip to Cooperstown. That is largely what Hartwick is known for: its proximity to the Home of Baseball. Baseball’s history is right next door. Catching a game though? You have to travel a little farther. The closest Major League teams would be the New York City teams. It’s about a four hour drive to get there. Thus, going to a Major League game is difficult to plan. It can also be quite expensive just to get there and back.

Minor League Baseball has filled the void for my father, my brother, and I. We go to a few games each summer and always have a great time. The Binghamton Rumble Ponies and Scranton Wilkes-Barre Railriders have been our teams of choice. We have been quite lucky in the games we have seen.

The first game we went to in Scranton, we saw Gary Sanchez hit possibly the longest home run I have seen in person and Aaron Judge hit a home run as well. This was before either of them played an MLB game. At the Binghamton Mets/Rumble Ponies games we have been to, we have seen Michael Fulmer pitch (I believe it was about a month later that he was traded for Cespedes and he won Rookie of the Year the following year). We have seen Luis Guillorme show off his magnificent glove work pre-game. Last year, we saw Mets top prospects Brett Baty and Ronny Mauricio. Baty hit multiple home runs while Mauricio added another himself. If things go as planned, they will get promoted within the next couple years and I will be rooting them on. These moments are fond memories and made me a fan of all these players.

I think I feel most grateful for these experiences because I realize how vulnerable Minor League Baseball can be. Some teams make a lot of money, others do not. Scranton Wilke-Barre seems to do fairly well in the games we go to. It has more people to draw from and, as AAA affiliate of the Yankees, the competition tends to be a bit better. Some of the Rumble Ponies games can be pretty quiet. At a time when making money seems to be the biggest priority for baseball owners, some Minor League Baseball teams are an exception to the rule.

The Future of Minor League Baseball

Luckily, the future of Minor League Baseball seems to be moving in a positive direction. Minor League players, many of whom could barely live on their salary and struggled getting the equipment and training they need as athletes, are finally getting paid housing (albeit with varying quality). There is still a lot that can be done, but these players are finally being included in improvements to the game. For many years, Minor League Baseball was only brought up when a top prospect did well or a new rule/equipment was put in place like electronic umpires or the pitch clock or the electronic pitch signaling system PitchCom. The Minor Leagues are still often brought up in relation to these issues, but there are people talking about their living conditions and their right to adequate compensation as well.

Also, the move to pay for housing suggests that Minor League teams are still important to organizations even if they regularly overlook their needs.

I hope these changes continue and Minor League Baseball becomes a better opportunity for the players and new fans get to experience Minor League Baseball. It has been a huge part of my life that has given me a better appreciation of the experience of a professional baseball game.

A Nice Little Underhand Toss: The History of Submarine Pitchers in Major League Baseball

In the last article, I talked about the anomaly that is Matt Wisler. This article will focus on a different kind of anomaly. The one that hides underwater. Take a look:

via MLB

Seems like someone missed the memo that you are supposed to throw the ball overhand. I can make plenty of jokes about submarine pitchers, they are funky and not in the musical way, but they are also the source of existential dread for many hitters.

Note: This article focuses on the most successful submarine pitchers. Click here for a complete list of all submarine pitchers in MLB history.

The First Submarine Pitchers

The first pitcher to experiment with a submarine style was the one and only Cy Young. Young often mixed it in with an overhand delivery and a sidearm throw that fell somewhere in between. Using different arm angles likely made it more difficult for hitters and may have allowed Young to throw more innings without injury (He was pretty good at throwing a lot of innings).

Young’s occasional use of a submarine pitching style was a common theme for the submarine pitchers that followed. In 1899, as Young was racking up accolades, Joe McGinnity became the next pitcher to feature the submarine style. McGinnity felt the style was low-stress and helped him pitch more. Mixing it in with his overhand delivery allowed him to lead the league in wins 5 times, games pitched 6 times, and saves 3 times. This all came within a 10-year career. In addition to his 246 major league wins, McGinnity has the most minor league wins of any Hall of Famer with 224. McGinnity is 79th in major league innings pitched and he threw even more innings in the minors.

Mordecai Brown (often referred to as Three Finger Brown) and Charles Bender (Chief Bender) joined the list of Hall of Famers occasionally using the submarine pitching style.

The True Submariner

Jack Warhop began his career in 1908. He is the first true submarine pitcher we see in MLB history. Unlike other pitchers like Young and McGinnity, Warhop used the submarine style as his sole method of getting outs. Warhop had some struggles with controlling his pitches early in his career. He led the majors in hit-by-pitches in his first 2 full seasons. Warhop pitched at a time when run scoring was incredibly low, making his 3.12 ERA just below the average pitcher from 1908 to 1915 (ERA+ 97). Yet, he ended his career at a very poor 68-92. This is largely due to a continuous battle with unearned runs. Warhop averaged 27 unearned runs per season. This accounts for nearly a quarter of the runs scored against him.

Elden Le Roy Auker emerged in 1933 after a football injury had led him to the submarine arm action. Auker played for the Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, and St. Louis Browns (later became the Baltimore Orioles) over the course of 10 seasons. Auker threw over 200 innings in 6 of those seasons and came 5 innings short of a seventh season. He did not strike a lot of guys out, but he kept his ERA right around league average during that time. His ERA+ for his career (101) was 1% better than league average for 1933-1942.

Ted Abernathy pitched for the Washington Senators from 1955 to 1957. The results were not so good. In 1959, he underwent shoulder surgery. He was determined to not let this injury derail his career. The solution was to begin pitching submarine. He made 2 appearances in 1960 and gave up 4 runs in 3 innings. Abernathy, spent the rest of 1960 and all of 1961 and 1962 in the minor leagues. In 1963, he got another chance with the Cleveland Indians. He made the most of it by posting a 2.88 ERA in 59.1 innings. Abernathy pitched another 9 years for 6 different teams. He got better as he went. He had a phenomenal year in 1967 and finished fourth in pitcher WAR. He was a great reliever for the rest of his career and retired on a high note in 1972.

The next well-known submarine pitcher to arise was Kent Tekulve. Tekulve reached the major leagues in 1974 with the Pirates. As a 6’4″ submarine pitcher, he provided an unusual look for batters. Tekulve was an extremely durable reliever throughout his career. He appeared in at least 90 games in 1978 and 1979 for the Pirates and did it one more time in 1987 at the age of 40 for the Phillies. Tekulve took fifth in the Cy Young voting in 1978 and 1979 before receiving his only All-Star Game selection in 1980. You could say this was Tekulve’s peak, but his consistency year after year was a defining part of his career. His run prevention was above average in all but his first season and his 2 final seasons. The 13 years in between were amazing. By the end of his 16 year MLB career, Kent Tekulve had appeared in 1,050 games, earned 184 saves, and had an ERA of 2.85. He also locked up a World Series Championship in his stellar 1979 season.

As Tekulve was on his way to winning the World Series, Dan Quisenberry emerged. Quisenberry soon became a dominant closer in Major League Baseball. He had 5 saves in 1979. In 1980, he led the league with 33 and earned himself a fifth place in the Cy Young race. He led the league in saves again in 1982, 1983, 1984, and 1985. In those years, his Cy Young placements went as follows: 3rd, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd. Like Tekulve, Quisenberry pitched in a lot of games and lead the league in games pitched multiple times. He also got a World Series of his own in 1985.

We have now reached the 21st century!

Submarine Pitchers in the 21st Century

Chad Bradford was a name I first heard through the movie Moneyball. He began his career in 1998 with the Chicago White Sox. He posted a solid 3.23 ERA in 29 appearances. The following year, he only got a little over three innings and those innings did not go well. He returned to good form in 2000. The next nine years would be quite successful. Bradford succeeded by not making mistakes. He did not give batters free bases and rarely allowed home runs. Instead, he let them hit the ball. He leveraged the fact that scoring a run often requires three singles in an inning. Bradford’s postseason performances were even better than his performances in the regular season. He allowed 1 earned run in 23.1 postseason innings for a 0.39 ERA.

As Bradford was moving toward the end of his career, Brad Ziegler emerged as the next possibly elite submarine pitcher. Ziegler’s first season was a masterpiece. He allowed 7 earned runs in 59.2 innings for a 1.06 ERA. The success would continue for the rest of his career. He only finished below average in run prevention in 1 of his 11 MLB seasons. Like Bradford, Ziegler knew how to stay away from the home run ball which benefitted him greatly.

Today’s Submarine Pitchers

There are currently two well-known submarine pitchers in Major League Baseball.

Adam Cimber made his debut in 2018. He ended the season with a 3.42 ERA. His next two years were okay but not great. Last season was his best in the majors. He finished with a 2.26 ERA after pitching for the Marlins and the Blue Jays.

Tyler Rodgers appeared in 2019. In 17.2 innings he only allowed 2 earned runs. It was a small sample size but showed a lot or promise. He has led the league in games pitched the last two seasons. His 4.5 ERA in 2020 was a step back from the great promise he showed in 2019, but he found that greatness again last year. Over 80 appearances, he had a 2.22 ERA.

Why Throw Underhand?

One question I often have when I seen a submarine pitcher is: why did they decide to pitch that way? There are plenty of advantages to being a submarine pitcher but one of the most common reasons for becoming a submarine pitcher might be a sense of desperation. Many of the pitchers above had some form of overhand delivery for many years. They switched to submarine pitching after a shoulder injury or years of being in the minor league with little hope of making the majors. The submarine delivery seemed to offer them a better chance of making an MLB roster. Of course, there are still plenty of pitchers that deliberately went the submarine route early on.

The most obvious reasons for pitching submarine have to do with pitch recognition and movement of the baseball. When a pitcher throws it overhand, they usually release the ball above their shoulder or in line with it. Hitters get comfortable seeing these release points because they see them a lot. Submarine pitchers have a much lower release point which can allow the ball to travel a little farther before the hitter recognizes its trajectory and spin. These release points also determine the vertical movement required to throw a strike. Most MLB pitchers release the ball about 5.5 feet above the ground. To put the ball in the strike zone, most pitches begin on an even or downward trajectory. Submarine pitchers often release the ball between 1 and 3.5 feet above the ground. When you factor in the natural drop created by spin and gravity, they must release nearly all their pitches with an upward trajectory. This greatly affects how a hitter sees a pitch.

If you look at Tyler Rogers’ numbers, you will find he gets a lot of ground balls with his pitches.

Via Baseball Savant

The low home run rates of pitchers like Ziegler and Bradford suggest that they likely had high ground ball rates as well. This is interesting because I would expect the upward movement (being very unusual in baseball) would lead hitters to swing under the ball and hit pop ups and flyouts. Maybe, most of these swings under the ball do not end up making contact. We can say with certainty that when hitters put the ball in play, they are on top of it. This could be the result of the natural drop of the pitch which gives it less upward movement than it appears it will have out of the pitcher’s hand.

Combining this upward movement with horizontal movement can be a nasty combination for a pitcher. Rogers’ best pitch the last two years has been his slider. The upward movement and glove side break combine to leave Willson Contreras swinging at air.

Rogers strikes out Willson Contreras on a slider via Baseball Savant

Here, the slider gets a terrible swing from Joey Votto:

Tyler Rogers strikes out Joey Votto on a slider via Baseball Savant

The last swing by Joey Votto really encapsulates why some pitchers switch to a submarine style of pitching. The unique arm angle along with some control and a few solid pitches can really throw off hitters.

You also do not need a lot of velocity to succeed as a submarine pitcher. Sure, over 80 mph from that arm angle is not doable for the average person but in terms of MLB pitcher velocities, submarine pitchers are often at the bottom of the league. They remind us that a funky 85mph fastball can be just as effective as a 95mph fastball.

Finally, one of the most notable differences between successful submarine pitchers and those that give up more runs is the level of control. Submarine pitchers seem to lead the league in hit-by-pitches a lot for being such a small group in Major League Baseball. Any pitcher will tell you this is a recipe for failure.

Conclusion

The submarine pitching style emerged over 100 years ago. Initially, it was mainly used by overhand pitchers that wanted to occasionally confuse the batter. Since then, some pitchers have solely used the lower release point and many have had great success with it. The delivery is here to stay and one day it might win an award named after the man that first started experimenting with it.

Try to Hit My Slider: A Unique Approach to Pitching

If you look around baseball, you will inevitably find some pitching anomalies. Sean Hjelle recently made his pitching debut for the Giants. He is 6 feet and 11 inches tall, tying him for the tallest player to ever play in Major League Baseball. He is a baseball anomaly.

Another interesting anomaly can be found in Tampa Bay. The Rays being the source of a pitching anomaly? Pretty shocking, right?

Path to the Majors

The source of this particular anomaly is a man known as Matt Wisler. Wisler was a seventh-round draft pick in the 2011 draft. This meant he had to prove himself in the minor leagues and get the attention of the Padres organization. That is exactly what he did. In 2012, he pitched to a 2.53 ERA in 114 innings of A ball. He followed that up with a stellar 2013 season that included a 3.00 ERA in 105 innings of AA baseball. Heading into 2014, Wisler was ranked within the top 100 prospects according to Baseball America, Major League Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus. Wisler had performed well enough that struggles in AAA in 2014 (Padres Organization) and 2015 (Braves Organization) would not hold him back from making his debut in 2015. He had not yet become the anomaly that he is today.

Revolutionizing Pitch Selection

Wisler began his career in 2015. Luckily for us, Statcast began tracking pitches that same year. Like many well-developed starting pitchers, Wisler had quite the arsenal to work with. He began his career throwing a 4-seam fastball, sinker, slider, changeup, and curveball.

In 2017, Wisler transitioned to the bullpen. This likely allowed him to focus on the pitches that worked best for him. By 2019, he had stopped throwing the changeup. He stopped throwing the sinker and curveball the following year. In 5 years, he transformed from a 5-pitch pitcher to a 2-pitch pitcher.

Wisler has taken this transformation a step further though. If you look at his use percentages for each pitch, you can see that 92.1% of his pitches this year have been sliders. If you were to see 25 pitches against him, you could expect 23 to be sliders and 2 to be fastballs.

Matt Wisler’s slider percentage has greatly increased over the past 5 seasons. Via Baseball Savant

Challenging Pitching Logic

Wisler’s slider usage is an open challenge to prior pitching logic. He throws the slider so much that hitters can just sit on it. You really do not have to think about the fastball early in the count since you are unlikely to see more than one in your at-bat. Usually, this would be terrible for a pitcher. One of the biggest benefits of being a pitcher is being in control of all the variables. If you do this well, the hitter does not know what to expect on any pitch. Wisler is effectively showing his cards before playing them and somehow he is having success.

Leading the Pack

Wisler’s usage percentage outpaces everyone else. He is the only pitcher with at least 250 pitches thrown this year to use a single pitch for more than 90% of those pitches. There are a few pitchers not too far behind though. Jake McGee and Ian Kennedy both throw 4-seam fastballs over 80% of the time. Clay Holmes is having a stellar season this year, throwing his sinker just over 80% of the time. Alex Colome is the closest to Wisler with his cutter usage at 87.6%.

These pitchers find themselves on the extreme end of evolving pitching philosophy. One of the bigger changes over the past decade seems to be a philosophy of throwing your best pitch more often. For some guys, this means using more sharp breaking balls and offspeed pitches to get ahead in the count.

Wisler’s slider usage is particularly emblematic of the current trends in baseball. The percentage of pitches league-wide that are breaking balls has risen every year since 2016. Ten years ago, about a quarter of all pitches were breaking balls. So far this year, almost a third of all pitches have been breaking balls. Pitchers, like Wisler, are using breaking balls more in all counts. (The reasoning? Hitters are hitting fastballs far better than offspeed pitches and breaking balls.)

At the same time, Wisler’s reliance on his slider is ahead of the rest of the league by a good margin. Only 29 pitchers throw sliders for at least half of their pitches. The second-highest slider percentage belongs to Steven Okert, who throws a slider on 72% of his pitches. This is a 20% gap. Only Robbie Ray has thrown more sliders than Wisler this year (3 more to be exact) and he has thrown almost 3 times as many innings as Wisler has. Breaking balls are being thrown more throughout Major League Baseball, yet no one comes close to Wisler’s slider usage.

Succeeding With The Slider

Wisler’s crazy slider usage has not seemed to negatively impact his performance in any way. This is even more surprising considering the analytics often used to measure a slider’s effectiveness do not really show his slider as one of the top sliders in baseball. Wisler’s slider averages 83.5 miles per hour. This is seven miles per hour slower than the top sliders and a little below league average. He is 156th in slider spin rate and only about 26.1% of that spin ends up being active spin that contributes to horizontal movement. As a result, Wisler’s slider breaks 2 inches less than the average slider. He does get about an inch of drop on the pitch that the average slider does not get, but this hardly seems like enough to make the pitch as effective as it has been.

Many of the more advanced pitching measurements do not show Wisler’s slider as one of the best sliders in baseball. Yet, the Rays trust the pitch enough to let him almost solely rely on it. Maybe they know something we do not? Whatever the reasoning is for him throwing it so much, it is working. The pitch has a negative 5 run value so far in 2022 (tied for the 102nd best run value of any pitch). Hitters can sit slider the whole at-bat and they are still whiffing on nearly a quarter of their swings. Batter’s batting average against the slider is only .189 for the season. There is obviously something that is fooling them.

Pitching With Less

I have been able to see Wisler pitch a few times now and I think there is a sort of beauty in the way he pitches. He does not follow the status quo in a lot of ways. Many pitchers in today’s game wish to create different types and directions of movement on their pitches. This often means experimenting with new pitches and using tools such as Rapsodo until they have created a new monster pitch. I’m sure Wisler uses these tools as well but he has not added any pitches since he entered Major League Baseball. Instead, he just seems to get more and more slider-focused each year. While many pitchers attempt to maximize the complexity of their pitches, Wisler simplifies his pitches.

In baseball, one pitch can make or break a career. Some guys find that pitch and go on to make multiple All-Star teams while others get hit hard. I recommend this video from Foolish Baseball that focuses on Corbin Burnes’ cutter and how it may have altered the trajectory of his career. Who knows where Wisler would be without his slider. His own numbers have improved since he started throwing more sliders.

Finally, I want to briefly mention how the Rays might aid Wisler’s success. Wisler is just one of many players that have had some of their greatest successes with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays always seem to put players in situations that will allow them to succeed. For a guy like Wisler, this could include good scouting reports on hitters and not facing the same players twice, among other things. I think Wisler would still be successful on a different team but being on the Rays certainly doesn’t hurt.

Matt Wisler strikes out DJ Stewart with a slider via Baseball Savant

To read about the Rays pitching philosophy: The Intriguing Idea Guiding Tampa Bay Ray’s Pitching – Baseball: Past and Present (baseball-past-and-present.com)

Looking at the History of Japanese Baseball and Its Interactions With the MLB

If you have been following the state of baseball throughout the world or watched the last summer Olympics (with those sweet bullpen carts), you will know that baseball has achieved great popularity in Japan. The Nippon Professional Baseball league has become one of the top baseball leagues in the world with some players coming to Major League Baseball in the United States and players from Major League Baseball moving to the NPB. How did baseball grow in Japan, what does the NPB currently look like, and what is the Japan’s role in international play?

Baseball Moves to Japan

The origin of modern baseball has been the cause of great debate and confusion. The myth that Abner Doubleday created the game in Cooperstown, NY was prevalent for a long time and led to the establishment of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Modern knowledge points to the New York Knickerbocker Baseball club, which started in 1845, as the likely beginning of modern baseball. New rules for the game were drawn up at the onset of the league. These rules built upon previous games resembling baseball like rounders and cricket.

Baseball moved to Japan much quicker than one might expect. By 1872, elements of baseball could be seen in Japan. The development of baseball into one of the most popular sports in the country took a little longer in Japan than it did in the United States. In 1936, as Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, Johnson, and Mathewson were elected as the first members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Japan was founding its first professional baseball league.

The Beginnings of Baseball in Japan

The first baseball games in Japan can be attributed to American teachers/professors in Japan. Horace Wilson, a professor at Kaisei Gakko (now Tokyo University), is credited with first introducing the game. The first game was played in 1873 through the organization of Albert Bates. Five years later, the first Japanese baseball team was formed. Over the next few decades, baseball teams continued to pop up throughout the country. Shiki Masaoka, a highly regarded Japanese poet, played a pivotal role in the sport’s growth. He grew to love the game and included it in many of his poems, often creating Japanese versions of baseball terms.

The Rise of Amateur Baseball

By the beginning of the 20th century, baseball was ready to expand. The first expansion occurred with the creation of university teams. Waseda University and Keio University began what would become an annual match-up. The growth in popularity seen in amateur teams continued at the university level. By the end of the 1920s, two of the most historic college baseball leagues had been founded.

High School baseball was experiencing similar growth during this time. The National High School Baseball Championships was established in 1915. This tournament soon grew into one of the biggest sporting events in Japan.

The early 20th century also saw a lot of interaction between American and Japanese teams. Waseda University made a trip to the United States to play other collegiate teams in 1905. They ended their trip with a 7-19 record, which included games against Stanford, USC, and Washington University. Within a few years, professional teams from the US began touring Japan and playing against university teams throughout the country. These tours were not the most competitive as Japanese baseball was still quite young and had yet to form a professional league. They did, however, help to expand the presence of baseball in Japan.

Perhaps the biggest tour through Japan occurred in 1934. Babe Ruth made his first appearance in Japan along with a star-studded group that included Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Charlie Gehringer. The games were highly attended. In an attempt to match this star power, Japan organized a team of its best players. Like previous years, the US team won the series 18-0, but a 17 year-old, Eiji Sawamura, did hold the team to one run in one of the games while striking out 9. This was the high point of the series for the Japanese team. Following the series, the Japanese team was kept together to form the first professional baseball team in Japan.

Professional Baseball in Japan

The Japanese Professional Baseball League was formed in 1936. It originally included seven teams based in three different cities: Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. The first three years in the league featured six different seasons before one season per year was decided upon. The Tokyo Kyojin (later renamed the Yomiuri Giants) dominated the early years of the JPBL.

In 1950, the league was split into the Central League and the Pacific League. The winner of each league would play against each other in the Japan Series. Under this new format, the league was renamed Nippon Professional Baseball. This league remains the professional baseball league of Japan.

With this new league in place, baseball continued to grow in popularity within Japan. At the same time, the gap between teams in the United States and teams in Japan shrank a little. Some stars began to emerge in the NPB.

Sadaharu Oh made his debut in 1959. In 94 games, with 193 at-bats, he hit only 7 home runs. Four years later (1963), he began one of the greatest streaks a hitter has ever had in any professional baseball league. He would not have a season OPS below 1 until 1979. During that span, Oh hit less that 40 home runs only three times (39 twice and 33 once). For his career, he led the league in home runs 15 times and won 9 MVPs. To this day, his record is over 200 home runs more than the next highest count.

Oh and teammate Shigeo Nagashima became stars in Japan as they led the Yomiuri Giants to 9 straight championships.

Interactions Between the MLB and the NPB

As Nippon Professional Baseball developed, its interactions with baseball outside of Japan grew as well (albeit slowly). Wally Yonamine joined the league in 1951, he was the first American to play in the NPB. This became a precedent for many future baseball players.

Masanori Murakami became the first Japanese-born player to make an MLB roster in 1964. He appeared in 54 games before contract disputes between the San Francisco Giants and Nankai Hawks sent Murakami back to Japan.

In 1971, a trade between the Pacific Coast Hawaii Islanders and the Taiyo Whales became the first trade between a Japanese team and a team from the US. These moves all helped create the transitioning between leagues that we see today.

In 1995, we had one of the first impactful signings by an MLB team with the Dodgers signing Hideo Nomo who had recently retired from the NPB to pursue playing in the MLB. Within the next decade, multiple important names are signed: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Ichiro Suzuki, and Hideki Matsui. These players formed a strong platform for other players to sign such as Shohei Ohtani and, most recently, Seiya Suzuki.

The Posting Process

The frustration behind the disputes that sent Murakami back to Japan was still evident with new players leaving. Nippon Professional Baseball teams might sign a player just for that player to announce their retirement from the NPB (the players most commonly associated with this loophole are Hideo Nomo and Alfonso Soriano, who played 9 games in the NPB), allowing them to pursue a team in Major League Baseball. The NPB team owners feared being left empty-handed as MLB teams took their talent. The posting process was created to guarantee that these teams got compensation for their players that would leave for the MLB.

The posting process begins with the player and their team coming to an agreement to post the player. Once this is accomplished, the NPB commissioner is notified and he then notifies Major League Baseball. Originally, MLB teams bid for the right to negotiate with a player. If the highest bid was accepted by the NPB team, the MLB team that submitted that bid was given 30 days to agree on a contract with the player. In 2017, they updated the system so that all MLB teams could negotiate with the player and a percentage of the agreed upon contract would go to the NPB team. With this system in place, many players have transitioned from the NPB to the MLB in the past few years.

The MLB Japan All-Star Series

The MLB Japan All-Star Series forms an important milestone in the various tours of US teams through Japan. The first games took place in 1986. Major League Baseball assembled a team of some of its best players and the NPB did the same. This series showed how far the NPB had come from its early days. While the MLB All-Stars took 8 of the 9 series, the NPB was able to win 4 of 7 decisive games in 1990. They won at least one game in every series and over half the series were decided by less than a couple games. The last series between the MLB and NPB was played in 2004 with the Major League All-Stars winning 5 games and the NPB All-Stars winning 3. These games solidified the NPB as one of the top leagues in the world.

In 2014, the MLB Japan All-Star Series got a bit of a reboot. However, instead of playing an NPB All-Star team, the MLB All-Stars played the Japanese national team Samurai Japan. Samurai Japan was quite successful in these games. They won 3 and lost 2. In 2018, the teams played again with Samurai Japan taking 5 of the 6 games. The change in fortune can be explained by the continued growth of Japanese baseball and the lack of preparation by the MLB All-Stars. For Samurai Japan, this was an amazing opportunity to prepare for national events such as the World Baseball Classic or the Olympics. For the MLB All-Stars it was just a series of games in a different country.

Here is Ohtani dealing for Japan in the 2014 series:

Via MLB

Success in Major League Baseball

As the first MLB Japan All-Star Series was being played (1986-2004), star players in the NPB were beginning to sign with Major League Baseball teams.

Transitioning from the NPB to Major League Baseball cannot be an easy transition. You’re moving to a completely different culture with a different language and traditions. The overall competition is better. There are also expectations that you will immediately make an impact. Still, there have been some big success stories. Here are some of the most impactful players to come from the NPB:

  • Hideo Nomo: Hideo Nomo made the transition in 1995 and became the first player from the NPB to make a considerable impact on Major League Baseball. In his first MLB season at 26 years old, he was an All-Star. By the end of the season, he led the league in strikeouts, won Rookie of the Year, and placed 4th in Cy Young voting. He followed his stellar rookie season with another 4th place in the Cy Young voting in 1996. Nomo’s performance in these seasons helped the Dodgers make the postseason both years.
  • Kazuhiro Sasaki: Kazuhiro Sasaki signed with the Seattle Mariners for the 2000 season. He was 32 years old and would become the second oldest Rookie of the Year winner in Major League Baseball history. Kazuhiro pitched to a 146 ERA+ in 2000. In 2001, he made the All-Star team and captured 45 saves for the 2001 Mariners, who still hold the record for the most wins in a season. Kazuhiro had one more stellar year in 2002 and grabbed his second All-Star selection.
  • Hideki Matsui: Matsui played his first season in Major League Baseball in 2003. Like the other members of this list, Matsui’s success was immediate. He made the All-Star team in 2003 and came second in the Rookie of the Year voting. He found more success in 2004 and 2005 with another All-Star appearance and two top 25 MVP finishes. Matsui did not miss a game in these 3 years. He also managed above average OPS numbers from 2006 to 2010.
  • Shohei Ohtani: You probably know what Ohtani has been up to recently. Last year, his 4th season in the MLB, he won the MVP Award by pitching very well and nearly leading the league in home runs. His success on both sides of the ball is historic and we are lucky to watch him play. You could make the case that he has already had the second-best career of any player to transition from the NPB and he is only 27.
  • Ichiro Suzuki: Leading the pack of NPB turned MLB players is Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro was the same age as Ohtani is now when he came to Major League Baseball. His first year, he collected a suitcase of awards that included an MVP, Rookie of the Year, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, and an All-Star appearance. He would go on to win 10 straight Gold Gloves, make 10 straight All-Star Games, and achieve some crazy hit totals. Ichiro began playing regularly in Japan at age 20, about when big MLB prospects start their careers. Between then and the end of his MLB career, he collected over 4,300 hits (3,089 of them in the MLB). Here is a brief run through Ichiro’s career:
Best moments from the career of Ichiro Suzuki via MLB

From Major League Baseball to Japan

As players from the NPB transition to the MLB, players from the MLB sometimes head to the NPB. There is an important difference here though. Major League Baseball is able to attract stars from the NPB while players that leave Major League Baseball often go to Japan without much of a track record or with poor performances causing less playing time in the US. Some succeed in Japan and stay there for the remainder of their career. Others use their success to return to the MLB with more opportunities. Here are a few players that were able to use success in Japan as a springboard for their Major League Baseball careers:

  • Cecil Fielder: Cecil Fielder played from 1985-1988 with the Blue Jays. He showed a lot of promise but never got more than 175 at-bats in a season. Even after hitting 14 home runs in 175 at-bats in 1987 (he was on pace to hit at least 44 home runs with a full season’s worth of at-bats), he was only given 174 at-bats the following year. Instead of returning in 1989, he joined the Hanshin Tigers and hit 38 home runs with an OPS above 1.000. His success led to a contract with the Detroit Tigers and a 13-year MLB career followed. He hit 319 home runs. (Fun Fact: His son, Prince, retired from Major League Baseball in 2016 with the same amount of career home runs)

Some players moved to Japan and became stars in the process:

  • Matt Murton: Matt Murton played fairly well in his 5 years in the MLB (2005-2009). He posted a slash line of .286/.352/.436 in just under 1000 at-bats. He only got 1 full season of playing time in 2006 with the Cubs. His numbers were solid but there was nothing attention-grabbing about them. In 2009, he went to the Hanshin Tigers. One year later, he racked up 214 hits to break Ichiro’s previous NPB record of 210. He had a few more solid years before resigning with the Cubs triple-A affiliate. He was unable to make the majors again though.
  • Tuffy Rhodes: Tuffy Rhodes played parts of 6 seasons with the Astros, Cubs, and Red Sox. His offensive numbers over that time were not good. In 1996, he made the jump to the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes. He hit 27 home runs the first year, a number in line with his best spans in the minor leagues in the US. Then, Rhodes surpassed those numbers. He would have seven 40+ home run years over the span of 13 years in Japan. His 464 home runs were a record for a foreign player in the NPB. I mentioned that Tuffy was not very good in the MLB, but he did have one game that showed the power potential that would come in Japan:
  • Alex Cabrera: Most of Alex Cabrera’s career in the US was spent in the minor leagues. He managed to crack the Arizona Diamondbacks roster for 31 games in 2000 after incredible success in AA and AAA. This includes an insane stretch in AA where he hit 35 home runs in 53 games. Following the 2000 season, he went to Japan. His power would continue to shine in Nippon Professional Baseball. His first year for the Seibu Lions he hit 49 home runs. Then, he followed it up with 55 the next season and 50 the year after. Cabrera hit 357 home runs in 12 years of Japanese professional baseball and finished with an OPS just under 1.000.
  • Wladimir Balentien: Wladimir Balentien played 170 games above the minor league level. His offensive numbers were poor. In 2011, he signed with the Yakult Swallows. Balentien hit 301 home runs in 11 seasons in the NPB including a record-setting 60 home runs in 2013.

The Results of MLB and NPB Interactions

Major League Baseball has played a critical role in the development of baseball in Japan. Without teams from the US touring Japan, baseball may not have gained the same popularity and the Japanese Professional Baseball League may not have been created. On the other hand, Nippon Professional Baseball often struggles with challenges created by Major League Baseball.

If you look at any professional baseball league (or just any professional sports league for that matter), you will find that the best players hold an important spot in that league. These players do not just make a team better on the field. They get more people to come to games and create more jersey sales for a team. Star players help teams be financially successful and aid team popularity. With some of the best Japanese baseball players leaving for Major League Baseball, there have been concerns about the NPB’s long-term popularity. Will fans continue to come to games if the best player on the team is no longer there? Or will they look elsewhere for entertainment?

It is difficult to know exactly what effect players leaving for the MLB has on NPB and its teams. If we look at Shohei Ohtani’s team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, we see that their average attendance was down the most of any Pacific League team between his last year in Japan and the following year.

Data: 2017 and 2018

The fears about the NPB losing fans also stem from lower attendance numbers following the first big signings. Attendance numbers steadily rose from 1950 up until the early 1990s. These numbers plateaud for about a decade. Then, following the 2004 season, there was a decline in both the Central League and the Pacific League. Luckily, the average attendance has risen over the past decade and broke the league record in 2019 (attendance was limited in 2020 and 2021).

The Future of Japanese Baseball

While there are some worries surrounding the NPB’s ability to keep star players, the status of baseball in Japan looks pretty promising.

One cause for celebration is Japan’s performances in the World Baseball Classic. The World Baseball Classic is an international competition with many of the best baseball players representing their countries. Unlike the Olympics, many MLB players compete in the World Baseball Classic. Japan is the only country that has earned a medal in all four World Baseball Classics. Japan took first place in the first two (2006, 2009). Then, won third place in the two most recent events (2013, 2017). The other countries to win medals are the United States, the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Venezuela. Many of the best players in the world represent these countries and Japan has been very successful against this stiff competition. This is a good sign for the level of talent coming out of Japan now and in the future.

The MLB All-Star Voting Is Always a Beautiful Mess

A look at our choice of the stars that light up baseball.

Photo by Neale LaSalle on Pexels.com

Fans having the power to select starters for the All-Star Game is an idea that has been around since the game’s invention. All 18 starters for the first and second All-Star games (1933 and 1934) were selected by fans. In the following decades, the All-Star selection process shifted a few times between fans and managers. Since the 1970 All-Star game, baseball fans have selected 8 of the 9 starters for every team (starting pitchers are not selected by fans).

As a fan, having the opportunity to vote for All-Star starters is a fun opportunity. You get to vote for the players that you enjoy watching most. You also get to play a part in deciding baseball history. Just as we look back at a player’s number of All-Star appearances to understand a player’s impact on baseball at their time, future generations will likely look at the number of All-Star Game appearances for today’s players.

The fan voting put in place by the MLB allows for a lot of options as a fan. You can vote for whoever you wish. You could vote for your favorite player or a guy that only has 30 at-bats on the year. Regardless of whatever strategy someone takes for their individual ballots, the total of all votes usually ends up selecting players regarded as the best for their position in that season. In other words, fan voting usually selects worthy players for the All-Star Game. This, however, has not always been the case.

I said that 1970 began the current string of decades where fans vote for the All-Star Game. That year, the voting process was shifting from 12 straight years of managers voting for the All-Star Game, a move that was taken in response to the 1957 All-Star Game voting.

The method of fans voting for the All-Star Game takes the same approach as a crowd of concert-goers singing along to a song. I can sing along at the top of my lungs and be completely out-of-tune but, as long as there are enough people, the group as a whole will sound good. Individual voting decisions are essentially unimportant because the entire group of voters should give more votes to worthy players. In 1957, this logic completely failed.

The 1957 National League All-Star Team

The Cincinnati Reds had a solid start to the season and entered the All-Star break with a 44-36 record. The team had been in first place in the National League for all of June and a few days in July. They only lost their lead in the last week before the All-Star Game. They were a good team, but the bigger story around their team may well have been the All-Star voting. Cincinnati fans had gone all out in voting for their team. Their enthusiasm in the voting led to 8 Reds players being selected as starters for the All-Star game. The voting results looked like this:

C: Ed Bailey (Cincinnati Reds)
1B: Stan Musial (St. Louis Cardinals)
2B: Johnny Temple (Cincinnati Reds)
3B: Don Hoak (Cincinnati Reds)
SS: Roy McMillan (Cincinnati Reds)
OF: Frank Robinson (Cincinnati Reds)
OF: Gus Bell (Cincinnati Reds)
OF: Wally Post (Cincinnati Reds)

As you can imagine, not all of these Reds players were deserving of an All-Star Game spot.

The voting upset the league Commisioner, Ford Frick, and he responded with two moves. First, he removed Gus Bell and Wally Post from the starting lineup. Bell would enter later in the game while Post would not play at all. In their places, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays received starts. They would go on to finish the year as the top 2 hitters in the National League. Their spot on the team was highly deserved and, in a more common vote, they likely would have topped the list of starters. Second, Frick handed the voting over to the managers for the next 12 years.

The 1957 All-Star voting displays a lot of the same issues we still consider in today’s voting. The most glaring of these issues is deciding whether to vote for the players we think have been the best for the first half of the season or to vote for the players we most want to see in the All-Star Game. Is starting the All-Star Game an honor for the players that have been the best over the first half of the season? Or, is it a recognition of the players that we have had the most fun watching over the first half of the year? The answer could vary slightly for everyone that fills out a ballot.

For me, this year’s voting for the National League outfield could be particularly interesting. The first round of voting still has two weeks left and things could change a lot and the case for certain players will likely improve or decline. Let’s imagine, though, that we were voting based on current stats. I think Mookie Betts deserves a spot as a starter and I think he will get it. After that, it gets a little more open-ended. Joc Pederson has a pretty strong case with the highest OPS. His numbers against lefthanders are pretty poor but his numbers against righthanders more than make up for those struggles. For the last spot, there are a bunch of players you could choose. Kyle Schwarber, Mike Yastrzemski, and (if you like defense) Jurickson Profar or Brandon Nimmo all have possible cases.

The thing is none of them are seen as superstars throughout baseball and, when the running is close, popularity among fans often becomes a deciding factor.

Will Stars Reign Supreme?

While these players on the bubble of being All-Star starters are not quite seen as elite level, a couple players not too far below them have already solidified themselves as faces of the sport.

We will start with Ronald Acuña Jr., who I think has a better shot as of now.

Ronald Acuña Jr. has had a successful year so far. In fact, I believe his OPS and averages are indicative of an All-Star starter, but he has missed nearly half of the Braves’ games this year. As I write this, Acuña Jr. has only played 35 of the team’s 64 games. By the time the All-Star break arrives, he will likely have played in 2/3 of the team’s games. Assuming he continues to play well and makes it through the first round of voting, he likely becomes the frontrunner for that last spot.

The other player in this conversation is Juan Soto. Juan Soto has struggled so far in the season. To give credit where it is do, Soto has retained his artistic qualities from previous seasons. He still knows how to draw a walk. Unfortunately, Soto has more walks than hits in 282 plate appearances. His power is still very impressive. He just needs to get some more singles and doubles. Soto is still regarded as one of the best hitters in baseball and could easily raise his stats to meet those of other players on the bubble over the next few weeks. A quick look at his Baseball Savant page seems to show he is suffering due to bad luck. He has been making contact quite often. That contact just isn’t falling for hits. With his walk numbers, he should have an on-base percentage among the top 10 players in the league. He is currently 30th.

Being a star player grants certain advantages during a fan voting process. Soto and Acuña have name recognition with casual fans that many of the other outfielders do not. This can make them easy default picks when people cannot decide who to vote for. Being a star also means your successes are often publicized more than the success of other players. Most importantly, a lot of people would rather see Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr. start the All-Star Game. We know what they are capable of even if it has not been fully displayed this year.

If I had to submit a final vote today, I would not vote for Ronald Acuña Jr. or Juan Soto. That being said, I think it is completely okay to vote for them solely because you want to see them in the All-Star Game. Is voting for 8 players from your team excessive? Maybe, but the fact that you want to vote for 8 players from your team should be a cause for celebration as well.

The All-Star Game voting has always been a mix of rewarding the best players in baseball and selecting players we want to see. It doesn’t fit neatly in either box. Sometimes popularity wins and sometimes it loses to better stats. Yet, whatever the results of this year’s voting may be, the game will be enjoyable as it always is. Players from both leagues will put on a show for the fans and baseball will celebrate one of its greatest annual events.

Here is a reminder of how fun last year’s All-Star Game was:

via MLB

Is Andrés Gimenez an All-Star?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If you sat down at the beginning of the season and created a list of potential All-Star candidates, I would bet a lot of money that Andrés Gimenez was not on that list. However, if you were to recreate that list today, Andrés Gimenez should be on that list. In 44 games, he has hit remarkably well while maintaining his signature defense. Let us take a look at Andrés Gimenez’s career and how he got himself to be a candidate for this year’s All-Star race.

The Call Up

Gimenez got his shot at Major League Baseball in the shortened 2020 season. The 2019 year had been a mix of ups and downs for Gimenez. He spent the 2019 season with the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, the Double-A team of the New York Mets. He struggled for most of the year. His final slash-line of .250/.309/.387 was nothing to write home about and he failed to show the power gains that many scouts thought he would. He only managed 9 home runs, 22 doubles, and 5 triples in 432 at-bats.

Following the season, Gimenez was given a spot in the Arizona Fall League. Here, his year took a complete turn. He won the Batting Title by hitting .371 in 18 games. He also hit 5 doubles, 2 triples, and 2 home runs in 70 at-bats. Even though it was a small sample size, the batting average was a very positive sign for the 21-year-old. It also seemed like there might be a little more power emerging. During his year with the Rumble Ponies, he ended 8% of his at-bats with an extra-base hit. In the Arizona Fall League, 13% of his at-bats ended with an extra-base hit. It wasn’t a definitive sign of more power but it showed potential.

Gimenez’s performance in the Arizona Fall League was likely a key element in joining the Mets following the 2020 restart. His opportunity was also likely aided by the roster changes established to deal with COVID-19.

They were unique conditions to start an MLB career, but Gimenez took the opportunity. He played 49 of the 60 games, sometimes as a starter and other times as a defensive replacement. He hit .263 with average OPS numbers. More importantly, Gimenez played excellent defense and swiped 8 bases.

He proved to be a solid infielder for the Mets in 2020 and caught the interest of another team.

The Trade

For many baseball fans, their first introduction to Andrés Gimenez might have been through the trade between the NY Mets and Cleveland Indians (now Guardians) prior to the 2021 season. The Met’s acquisitions, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco, headlined the deal. Leading the players they sent away were two shortstops with MLB experience, Amed Rosario and Andrés Gimenez.

While Lindor had a difficult season with the Mets, Gimenez had his own struggles. He started the year with the Indians and played 29 games before being sent down to the Columbus Clippers. In April, he hit .200 with only 2 home runs. The start to May was not any better as he only managed to go 3 for 23 in 10 games. None of these hits went for extra-bases.

Gimenez was sent back to Triple-A in late May. He had a great June and a successful July which put him in a position to head back to the Majors in early August. While Gimenez’s season as a whole was quite a struggle, he ended on a high note. September was his best month with the Indians. He raised his batting average to .279 for the month and had 4 doubles to go along with 3 home runs. Not an amazing month compared to the rest of the league but an improvement for Gimenez.

Andrés Gimenez in 2022

Coming into this year, Gimenez had played all of the shortened 2020 season and some of the 2021 season. He had only logged 117 games in the MLB, but never showed great offensive capabilities at the Major League level. He seemed to be an excellent defender with good speed that could hopefully provide slightly above-average offense. Looking at his record in the Major Leagues, it is difficult to picture Gimenez doing as well as he has this year. That being said, he has done it and it is great to see.

A quick look through Gimenez’s Baseball Savant page shows that the key to his success is simply more good contact. His max exit velocity is not any higher than it has been in previous years. Yet, his average exit velocity is up 3mph from 2020 and 2021. He has tripled the percentage of his at-bats that result in a barrel. His HardHit% (balls hit 95+mph) is also up to 42% from 30%.

All the advanced statistics back up Gimenez’s success. This is a great sign. It means Gimenez’s performance for the first half of this season may be sustainable. Some players have successful months because balls that do not usually fall for hits are falling for hits, this is not the case for Gimenez. He is making contact that warrants the results he has had so far this year.

Getting Results

Gimenez has been making a lot more hard contact this year, and it is paying off for him. His batting average is up to .309, a number he has only hit in the previously mentioned Arizona Fall League and in his first year in the Dominican Summer League. The home run numbers are also up. He seems to be developing some of the power scouts thought he was capable of.

Andrés Gimenez has looked really good for the Guardians and he is still only 23. Sometimes we forget how young certain MLB players are. Some guys like Juan Soto and Mike Trout become stars almost as soon as they turn 20. Other guys take a few years longer. Pete Alonso was 24 when he had his amazing rookie season. Baseball’s top prospect and recent call-up, Adley Rutschman, is currently 24 years old. Gimenez will reach that mark in September.

Gimenez has over 3 years before he turns 27, the age most people consider to be a player’s prime. He also has a lot of room to keep improving. A lot of the top hitters end up above or around 50% in HardHit%, Gimenez is at 42% this year. His max exit velocity of 110.2 is also fairly low, but he may still have some room for this to increase. Also, his on-base percentage is good but not great. If he continues to hit well this year, pitchers are going to be more particular with the pitches they give him and he should get more free passes.

Making the Playoffs

The Guardians are currently 28-26 on the season. They have not been great but they are in a decent position to make the playoffs. They are half a game out of a Wild Card spot with all 3 teams ahead of them being AL East teams. At least one of those teams is likely to fall by the end of the season when teams have more games within their division. The Guardians just need to hold off the teams behind them. If they play well enough, they also have a shot at winning their division.

For the Guardians to reach the playoffs, Gimenez and the other young Guardians players need to continue their early play. You can almost count on Jose Ramirez having a great year but the rest of the team seems far from a sure thing. They have succeeded so far but will it continue? Gimenez seems to be in a good position to do so.

Read More: Paul Goldschmidt is likely to be an All-Star starter this year. One of the more underrated parts of his game is his baserunning. Click here to read about Goldschmidt’s ability to steal bases.

The No Pop Club

In a game dominated by power hitters, can extreme contact hitters still thrive?

Is it possible to succeed without power? Can a player be a good hitter in today’s game without hitting home runs?

There are many ways to answer these questions. I decided to look at seasons since 2000 where players have had more than 150 hits yet tallied no more than 5 home runs. These are the guys that rarely leave the yard but played consistently throughout the year.

The No Pop Club has been is nowhere near where it once was.

Juan Pierre was the king of such seasons in recent decades. Between 2001 and 2011, he achieved the feat 9 times. Elvis Andrus and Luis Castillo both have 5 seasons with 150+ hits and 5 or fewer home runs, and, somewhat surprisingly, Jason Kendall has 4. I think it is important to mention here that it is rare to hit less than 6 home runs while collecting 150 hits. It has happened 77 times since 2000, meaning less than 4 times per year. Even a guy like Ichiro Suzuki hits too many home runs to be included in this group.

If we look at the other commonalities between these seasons, a few things are readily noticeable. There is a lot of bold in the singles column. Home runs are obviously low, but extra-base hits are also fairly low for a lot of these players. Second, many of these players are known for running pretty quickly. This combined with the trend of hitting a lot of singles leads to very good stolen base numbers for the group. There are only 9 seasons below 10 stolen bases and there are 8 seasons above 60 stolen bases. Additionally, many of these guys played for quite a few seasons in Major League Baseball.

So, can you be a good hitter with no power?

If we look at the group we have created, the answer does not look very promising. For example, if we look at OPS+, 20 seasons have been above average (above 100) and 57 seasons have been below average (below 100). The seasons that are above average all have batting averages above .287 with most above .300. Being the power numbers are not there, these players really need to get on-base a lot. This is why we see so many of these seasons fall below the league average OPS.

Hitting above .287 is a very difficult task. The lack of home runs this group displays suggests their approach places greater emphasis on contact. This is usually beneficial in terms of limiting strikeouts. Thus, these players only need to have a similar batting average on balls in play to maintain a high batting average. Unfortunately, as strikeouts decline, we often see BABIP and exit velocity numbers decline as well.

Dee Strange-Gordon has the highest OPS+ of any of these seasons at 116. He did so by hitting .333 in a down offensive year. He finished just outside the top 50 in OPS that year. It is incredibly difficult to be one of the best 50 hitters in baseball while hitting 5 or fewer home runs. This is why we see so many teams today trying to squeeze the power potential out of each player.

Having no power offensively makes it necessary for a player to excel in other parts of the game, usually baserunning and defense. It also often requires players to master some of the finer details in the game. Juan Pierre led the league in sacrifice bunts 4 times, he beat out double-play balls, and he hit .295 for his career.

Recent Additions to Club

A few guys had seasons meeting our standards in 2021.

The first and most successful player was Adam Frazier. Frazier had an amazing start to the year with the Pirates. In 428 plate appearances, he hit .324 which allowed him to have an .836 OPS for a 127 OPS+. He also hit 4 of his 5 home runs in this stretch with the Pirates. Frazier was very successful with the Pirates, and it made him a big trade target for other teams. He was eventually traded to the Padres where his hitting cooled down. In his last 57 games, his batting average was only .267 and his OPS+ was 86. Frazier’s season did not end how he would have wanted it to, but the season as a whole was a success. His batting average ended above .300 at .305 and his OPS+ was a solid 114. Frazier made a living off of hitting singles and doubles and it worked.

The next player to have at least 150 hits and 5 or fewer home runs is Myles Straw. Straw did not have the profile or offensive performance of Adam Frazier. Straw got his first full year of playing time in 2021. He played 98 games for the Astros with an 85 OPS+. His offensive production was below average, but his speed in the outfield and on the bases made him a consistent starter for the Astros. Straw was also traded after 98 games in a deal that did not receive as much attention as the Adam Frazier deal. Straw’s hitting rebounded a bit and his OPS+ was slightly above average with the Guardians

The final player to meet the conditions of this club in 2021 was David Fletcher. Fletcher has become known around the league for his excellent defense. His defense provides some of the value that his offense has not been able to. Last year was Fletcher’s worst offensive season. He hit .262, barely walked, and had only 2 home runs.

Even with their varying levels of offensive production, all 3 of these players are valued by their teams.

Frazier and Straw have both played in most of their team’s games in 2022 and Fletcher played 14 games but has been sidelined by a hip injury for much of the season. This question of how effective a player can be without hitting for power is key to the longevity of their MLB careers. Frazier and Straw both currently have an OPS+ in the 80s.

The Decline of Extreme Contact Hitters

Earlier I mentioned there were 77 seasons meeting our criteria between 2000 and 2022. If we look at the 20-year period prior (1979-1999), there are 180 such seasons. Not only are there more of these seasons, there are also players that managed some amazing seasons in terms of OPS. Wade Boggs did it 3 times with an OPS+ above 140, including a league-leading 0.965 OPS in 1988. Tony Gwynn also did it 5 times as part of a hall of fame career. Rod Carew and Pete Rose each did it 3 times as well. These players are considered some of the best hitters of their generation even though they did not hit home runs.

Juan Pierre has been successful in the past 2 decades, but his offensive production is nowhere near the likes of Boggs, Gwynn, Carew, and Rose. Even within our group of seasons, the best seasons between 1979 and 1999 are far better across the board than the seasons between 2000 and 2021. Players like Gwynn and Boggs put up batting averages that have only been matched a few times in recent years. Boggs also managed to walk once in every seven plate appearances.

Some players in the 80s and 90s were able to be an essential part of their team’s offense without hitting more than 5 home runs in a season, and they could do so for many years. That feat is much less common in today’s game. Dee Gordon’s 116 OPS+ would rank 25th in OPS+ if he were placed in with the 80s and 90s seasons. Even Ichiro Suzuki, who often hit just a few too many home runs to be included in this group, does not have OPS+ numbers comparable to Tony Gwynn. Gwynn has 9 seasons better than Ichiro’s best season.

If anything, this reflects a shift throughout the league that has made it difficult for these extreme contact hitters. Gwynn did not need great slugging numbers to have a great season, because the rest of the league did not have great slugging numbers. Today, hitters do not get as many hits but they average more bases on their hits. It is getting more difficult to hit enough singles to keep up with the sluggers.

Could We See a Game Where Players Never Hit 5 or Fewer Home Runs?

This certainly feels like the direction baseball is headed in. The value of home runs is too great to be overlooked according to many of today’s performance measurements (slugging, OPS, wOBA, etc.). Well-rounded players are also learning to hit home runs in batches. Defensive specialists are becoming more rare because there are guys that can hit really well and play good defense. Just look at the star shortstops in Major League Baseball today. They might allow 5 more runs on defense, but they will score 20 more runs of offense.

As grim as the situation may appear, there is still a chance for the “No Pop Club”. For one, some defensive-minded players have been able to stick around for many years. This list includes guys like David Fletcher, Andrelton Simmons, plenty of members of the Rays outfield, etc. Teams obviously still value these types of players to some degree.

The Philadelphia Phillies Experiment

Baseball seems to be moving more and more toward assigning greater value to players that provide a lot of offense without much defense. It feels like guys that can hit home runs but play very little defense are getting more opportunities. This seems like a very bad trend for guys like David Fletcher. The silver lining is the fact that teams that have gone all-in on offense have not been as successful as we might expect.

One example is the New York Yankees. That Yankees have always been able to hit over the past decade, but their pitching and defense have often let them down. During the offseason, they traded for Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Donaldson and Kiner-Falefa now find themselves as anchors of a defense that has posted 25 defensive runs saved so far this year. This is coming off a season where the Yankees had an awful -41 defensive runs saved. Additionally, the Yankee’s pitching numbers look a lot better this year. The Yankees were willing to give up some offense by trading Sanchez and placing Kiner-Falefa at shortstop and it seems to be working.

Meanwhile, the Giants have done the opposite. They played good defense last year and had a very successful season. This year, they have not been able to meet expectations and their defense has been quite bad as well. Obviously, the Giants play in a very good division where repeating last year’s success would have been extremely difficult, but that also means that every run they give up through below-average defense has a greater impact on their standing. They literally have little room for errors.

The Giants, however, did not go all-in on mashers like the Philadelphia Phillies did. The Phillies had the worst defense in baseball last year. Unlike the Yankees, the Phillies got addicted to the long ball. They needed more of it. So they went and got Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber. Part of their struggles are related to these signings not having much success so far this year. If Castellanos and Schwarber were hitting better, they would definitely have a few more wins. The defense is not helping these struggles though. According to defensive runs saved, the Phillies have given up 30 runs more than the average team. Castellanos has not made any errors, yet he is at -11 defensive runs saved. The Phillies are over halfway to their league-worst total from last year and we are not even a third of the way through the season.

The first inning of this game against the Mets shows a lot of the defensive challenges the Phillies have had this year. The error on the first play hurts, but Castellanos’ inability to keep the Mets runners at third on the shallow fly balls is just as detrimental. Teams know the Phillies have poor defense and they are challenging it every chance they get. Most of the time, it is resulting in more runs.

Perhaps the Phillies’ extreme defensive struggles and the success of teams that have better defenses will be a warning for other teams to not go all-in on offense. This might be one of the few lifelines left for players that do not hit home runs. This might be one of the few lifelines left for defensive specialists. Ozzie Smith, perhaps the greatest fielder in MLB history, only hit more than 3 home runs in one season of his career. Like Andrelton Simmons and David Fletcher, Ozzie was never particularly amazing with the bat, but it is difficult to imagine baseball without his presence. Also, we would have missed out on one of the most memorable home runs in baseball history:

Ozzie Smith NLCS Game 5 Walk-Off Home Run

He may not have hit many in his career, but he certainly picked a good time to hit that one.

The No Pop Club is becoming smaller with each passing decade. The possibility of succeeding without hitting home runs is more narrow each year. Can you be a good hitter in today’s game without hitting home runs? You can, but you need to have a batting average above .300, sometimes it needs to be well above .300. You need to find a way to get on base at a high clip. The window of opportunity is quite small, but it still exists. It has not left. Not yet.

Read More: Home runs have become the currency of choice over the past century in baseball. However, it was triples that once held that spot in the early days of baseball. Sam Crawford mastered the art of hitting triples and set a record that will not be touched anytime soon.

The Texas Rangers After 3-0 Counts are Case Study in Luck and Variance

The Texas Rangers are struggling this year in plate appearances that reach 3-0.

Hitters dream of 3-0 counts. Being 1 ball away from a walk and having 3 strikes to work with gives the hitter a lot of options. By the end of last season, every Major League team had walked in over half of the plate appearances that reached 3-0. The average slugging percentage in at-bats that reached a 3-0 count was 0.088 points higher than the average for all at-bats.

So far this year, the Texas Rangers are struggling in these advantageous plate appearances. With a BB% of 48.7%, they are one of 4 teams not getting walked in half of these plate appearances. The bigger issue, however, is plate appearances when they do not get walked.

In 39 plate appearances that reached 3-0, the Rangers have been forced to put the ball in play. They have failed to do so in 11 of these plate appearances. This gives them the top strikeout percentage for such plate appearances. Of the 28 balls put in play, only 5 have been hits. They have 4 singles and a home run.

The statistics look really bad for the Rangers, but they are not nearly as bad as they seem.

With only 76 plate appearances that have reached a 3-0 count so far this year, much of the Ranger’s issue has to do with the oddities of small sample sizes. They have had some bad luck in these at-bats. In fact, they have had at least a couple balls that fielders made rare plays on. That right there would raise their batting average to .179. The difference between them and a team that is doing well in this category could be 2 or 3 hits. You will not find this number in the batting average though. The batting average provides one number to summarize the team’s success but it leaves out the context of the at-bats. It will not tell you if a spectacular catch was made or if the batter got on via a swinging bunt.

The fact that luck plays such an essential role in a team’s season can be very difficult for players and fans to acknowledge. Over the course of 162 games, most things work themselves out. Teams get lucky sometimes and unlucky other times until the net gain of their luck is neutralized.

The playoffs, however, are a prime opportunity for luck to determine a team’s season. A well-hit ball that would go for a hit 90% of the time might be hit right at an infielder. An outfielder might make a diving play on a ball in the gap. These plays often determine who wins and who loses.

Embracing the Role of Luck In Baseball

Luck will always be an essential part of baseball. It will lead teams to stunning comeback wins and difficult losses. Luck will make teams champions and send others home unhappy. Every person that has watched or played baseball has wished luck could be removed from the game at one time or another. This often happens when your team is on the wrong side of a bad hop or a broken-bat single. By definition, luck is unpredictable. There is no way of knowing exactly when or how it will impact a baseball game, yet there are important ways we can prepare for it and embrace it as fans and players.

The Role of Expected Stats

Expected stats have become an important measuring stick for many teams to figure out how good players are. Instead of looking at results for hitters (i.e. singles, home runs, batting average, etc.), expected statistics use data from Statcast about the quality of contact they are making. They allow us to account for some of the luck that affects a hitter’s season.

Expected stats are not all-encompassing, but they do give us a better idea of how productive a batter’s at-bat is. For example, we can look at this 3-0 hard-hit ball by Marcus Semien:

Marcus Semien lines out sharply to center fielder Chas McCormick. | 05/22/2022 | MLB.com

The expected batting average for this ball is .770. This means balls hit with that exit velocity and launch angle fall for hits 77% of the time. Semien did his job and hit the ball hard, it just happened to be right at the centerfielder.

Expected stats can be really helpful when a player is struggling. Well-hit balls not falling for hits is often an important part of a player’s hitting struggles. Jesse Winker is a great example this year. He is currently hitting .213, but the expected statistics say he is closer to a .282 hitter. Additionally, he only has 2 home runs so far this season. A big drop-off from last year. Statcast’s expected home run measure which looks at wall heights, distances, and environmental effects, along with batted ball data, shows that Winker would have about 4 home runs if he played his home games in Cincinnati (he would have 8 if he played all his games at Great American Ball Park). Below is a spray chart of his batted balls in home games:

The grey circles represent outs while the pink circles are home runs. If he still played at Great American, as shown here, he would have 4 home runs instead of 2.

While Winker’s hitting this year is not on par with last year, he is still making a lot of solid contact. They simply are not falling for hits at the moment. We would expect Winker to move toward his expected stats as the season progresses.

Patience With Top Prospects

To fully acknowledge the role of luck and variance in performance, we must be patient with players. Patience is especially important when looking at top prospects. The first week will not show whether the player will have a good career or not. Even the first few months may not be enough time to accurately gauge where the player is compared to other MLB players. There is often an adjustment period when players first face MLB pitching, but there can also be a lot of variance in results. Julio Rodriguez is a prime example of someone who took a few weeks to start hitting well. It is still far too early to know what his true potential might be, but it certainly looks better than it did a few weeks ago.

Looking at “Lucky” Players

Just as there are players that are performing below their expected numbers for the season, there are also players performing above their expected numbers. We might deem them “lucky” players because they are performing better than their contact quality suggests they should be, but it is important to remember that luck balances itself out in larger sample sizes. This is part of the reason players can hit .380 in 15 games and not get another at-bat for the rest of the year. This can also lead some players to have one or two months that are way better than the rest of their season.

Combining Luck and Expected Stats

With expected stats, we could totally disregard traditional statistics. We could say that a player’s slugging does not matter and simply look at his expected slugging, but I think the right approach requires both.

Expected stats can be used to show a player is making better contact than his traditional numbers would suggest, but we should also celebrate players succeeding in spite of their expected stats. If a player is hitting .350, he deserves praise regardless of what his expected stats say. His at-bats are helping his team win games. Plus, while expected stats are very good measures, a few players have been able to consistently outperform them. An example is Tim Anderson, who seems to outperform his expected batting average each year. It could be pure luck or maybe he has found a way to create his own luck.

On the other side of the discussion, we can use expected stats as a reminder that good players have horrible weeks and/or months sometimes.

Being a Major League Baseball player is incredibly difficult. Why should we use stats to tear these players down when we have the ability to show what their peak performance looks like?

Texas Rangers data via fangraphs.com and their custom leaderboards.

Jesse Winker batted ball data via baseballsavant.mlb.com

Read More: Triples often require a bit of luck. Players have to hit the ball as far away from the outfielders as possible. Everyone in Major League Baseball can hit the occasional triple, but to be good at hitting triples, you need a lot of solid contact and speed. Read to learn about the career triples record and why it will not be broken any time soon.