Marcell Ozuna, Braves Choose Value Over Commitment

The latest issue went out to subscribers overnight, with my extended thoughts on Marcell Ozuna signing with the Braves. I dug into how the Braves made the choice to pursue this instead of upping their offer to Josh Donaldson, and what their offense looks like for 2020. I also pondered the current state of the NL East. Here’s an excerpt on Ozuna himself, and what makes him unique:

His swing is wildly unorthodox, with a big leg kick (that sometimes goes nowhere), an early hip clearance, a tilt just like that of the model modern power hitter—and then a really bizarre, very quick, yet unathletic whip of bat through zone. He generates a ton of bat speed, but doesn’t contact the ball with the bat more or less perpendicular to the flight path of the pitch as often as most hitters do. He extends his arms (especially his back arm) far, far more than most hitters do before and through the point of contact. It’s really difficult to read the ball off his bat, which sometimes helps his BABIP, but the resultant slice hurts his power production. Meanwhile, he can be tied up inside, and he doesn’t cover the low, outside corner well. He’ll expand his zone, especially down, and is even susceptible to a right-on-right changeup tumbling in toward his feet. When he’s right, he can be a nightmare for opposing pitchers, but his unique setup, swing, and approach are a nightmare for a coaching staff tasked with keeping him right. It’s funny: he and Starlin Castro have had radically different career arcs, but Castro is just eight months older than Ozuna, and they now seem very, very similar—from broad things like their poorly-aging bodies and discouraging defensive profiles, to details of their swings and approaches. I certainly expect Ozuna to be a better hitter in 2020, but not by so much that it invalidates the comparison.

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Trevor May, Flowering Slider Monster

Today’s edition went out to subscribers this afternoon. It centers on Trevor May, who changed the grip on his slider and immediately found something back in the early stages of the season. I wrote about that adjustment and its importance for May at Baseball Prospectus just after Memorial Day, but it didn’t translate to great results right away. Three months later, however, that’s changing. Here’s an excerpt from the newsletter:

In August, he has seven whiffs on the slider. He’s gradually ramped up the spin rate on the pitch; it now approaches 2,600 revolutions per minute. With a slider he can command so much better and a fastball he’s trusting more than ever, he reemerged as a dominant force in Minnesota’s muddled bullpen. It’s very difficult to maintain command and execution of four different pitches as a reliever, and May made the right choice when he junked the curve instead of the slider. Now, he can cut loose with the same arm action on everything he throws, and he’s more comfortable with all three offerings.

Here’s one thing worth noting: regular, predictable usage patterns might benefit May quite a bit. After the first appearance of his encouraging stretch, he went another five days without taking the mound, and was asked for just one out when he did return. Since then, however, he has pitched almost exactly every third day, sometimes getting as many as six outs at a time. If the Twins think he’s benefiting from that routine, they might consider shifting him to an opener role. They could certainly use someone to pad the landing in each game for Martín Pérez, and arguably, Kyle Gibson and José Berríos could use the same. If the team doesn’t want to mess with either Gibson or Berríos based on their seniority in the rotation, they could have May open for Pérez each time through the rotation and then lurk as a short reliever for a couple of games between those games.

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Maldonado and Bailey Depart Kansas City

Today’s Penning Bull covers the Cubs’ side of the trade that sent Martín Maldonado to Chicago in exchange for fellow double-M Mike Montgomery. It also touches on the Royals swapping Homer Bailey to the A’s. Here’s an excerpt, on how the Cubs will juggle Maldonado, Willson Contreras, and Victor Caratini:

Something about the timing and nature of this move has people thinking it means something bigger. There had already been whispers that the team would treat Caratini as a trade chip; those whispers have given way to full-throated discussion. A frequent line of thinking on Twitter right now is that when Contreras is ready to return (technically, just before the deadline), the room on the roster will come from a deal that jettisons Caratini in exchange for the relief upgrade the Cubs sorely need.

I don’t view it that way. In every season of the Joe Madden era, the Cubs have carried three catchers at certain points. In 2015, they opened with Wellington Castillo as an ill-fitting spare part alongside Miguel Montero and David Ross. Later that season, with Castillo long traded, the team brought Kyle Schwarber up to join the rotation of catchers, moonlighting there while also getting at-bats as a left fielder. In 2016, they opened with the notion of Schwarber serving as a third catcher again. He went down for the year in the second series, but by mid-June, Contreras had come up, and he would take time from both Montero and Ross (along with some outfield work of his own) throughout the second half and the postseason. In 2017, they started with just Montero and Contreras, and after Montero was cut in a fit of pique in June, Madden quickly began riding Contreras too hard. The front office dealt for Alex Avila in July, to ameliorate that state of affairs, and then in August, they traded for Rene Rivera to provide depth in September. Last year, they carried Chris Gimenez for about half the season, kept Taylor Davis on call in Iowa, and swapped Gimenez for Bobby Wilson as an emergency option down the stretch. 

I think the Cubs will listen if a team makes an exceptionally attractive offer for Caratini, but I don’t think they plan to move him. I think they want Maldonado to stabilize the run-prevention infrastructure a bit, and be a veteran voice for the catching cadre.

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Red Sox Acquire Andrew Cashner

Today’s edition of Penning Bull consists of my breakdown of the Red Sox’s trade for erstwhile Orioles righthander Andrew Cashner. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Cashner still throws that heater at roughly 94 miles per hour, so he has some ability to overpower opponents. His changeup works off that pitch much better than it worked off the sinker, because it creates much more movement differential (as you would guess, Cashner’s sinker both drops more and moves more to the arm side than does his four-seamer) and a greater velocity differential. He can also change eye levels better with the pitch, because he’s both more confident and more effective in the upper half of the zone with the four-seamer than with the sinker.

The same things largely true of the changeup are even more true of Cashner’s revamped curveball, which he’s throwing with less speed but greater vertical movement. That means that he’d be getting more of a movement differential even if he were still throwing the sinker, but with the switch to more four-seamers, it’s been especially pronounced. He’s getting a lot of ground balls with that pitch this season, which helps explain his success despite a low strikeout rate.

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The Twins’ Slugging, Shifting Infield

Today’s Penning Bull is about the marquee matchup of the first weekend after the All-Star break, featuring the Twins and the Indians. Specifically, I hone in on the Twins’ infield, a fascinating unit that has been the difference-maker for them so far this year. Here’s a brief excerpt.

These days, there’s always a new analytical frontier in MLB, and one of this season’s is a dramatic league-wide increase in defensive shifts against right-handed batters. 

Prior to 2019, the only team documented to have shifted righties at least 25 percent of the time was the 2017 Rays, at 25.8 percent. This season, five teams—perhaps the exact five you would guess, and perhaps the five most analytically advanced organizations in the game—are at or above that 25-percent threshold. The Astros shift right-handers exactly that often. The Dodgers, Orioles, and Rays all shift somewhere between 32 and 37 percent of righties. The Twins have shifted those batters 42.3 percent of the time.

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Catchers and Concussions

Today’s Penning Bull focuses on catchers and concussions. Here’s an excerpt, on the unfortunate play that left Jonathan Lucroy concussed just prior to the All-Star break:

Marisnick has taken some exceptionally harsh criticism for the play, and that’s understandable. As he admitted, he made a mistake and it caused a severe injury to another player. Where some see intentional malice or negligence, fhough, I saw a player redirect himself two separate times, seemingly seeking the best path to an open corner of home plate. Some (including Yadier Molina, bless him) saw those moves as aiming for Lucroy, but remember: the play was coming from the line in right. I firmly accept, and believed even before Marisnick explained it this way, that he was unable to read Lucroy’s body language as he set up to take the throw, and that he thought he could sneak in the front door if Lucroy let the ball travel and tried to tag him toward the back edge of the plate. For a runner, that throw is the hardest to read. If it’s coming from left field, every movement the catcher makes will tell you something useful about where the ball is. If it’s coming from center, you know any throw that’s on line will basically put the catcher at the front third-base corner of home. Catchers waiting for throws from right, however, have to set up sideways, like a shortstop waiting for a throw on a stolen-base attempt. That makes their movements, large and small, hard to read. I don’t think Marisnick meant to hurt anyone, or even collide to drive the ball out of Lucroy’s mitt; I think he’s a really fast guy who missed a read and couldn’t adjust quickly enough. I still think, though, that he probably ought to have been ejected, in addition to being called out (as he was) for the collision. That’s a smallish but meaningful message, and penalty, akin to having players tossed from NBA games for flagrant fouls, and I think it’s probably time to make that the rule.

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José Alvarado’s Over-the-Top Sinker

Today’s Penning Bull is about José Alvarado, the new pride and joy of pitching Twitter, and about his dastardly sinker—what it is, and what it isn’t, and what does and doesn’t make it uniquely dominant. Here’s a teaser.

Alas, batters are rarely fooled by sinker movement, which is why they have a considerably higher league-wide contact rate against the pitch than against any other.

Contact Rate on Swings, By Pitch, MLB, 2019 (%)

Sinker – 84.6

Fastball – 78.1

Cutter – 75.2

Curveball – 68.2

Changeup – 68.1

Slider – 63.0

Splitter – 62.5

It’s also why the league is throwing fewer sinkers every year—why, indeed, it’s becoming a specialty pitch for a handful of relievers and a rare secondary option for most others who throw it. The sinker just isn’t as nasty as it seems, motion trails be damned. Besides, Alvarado’s movement doesn’t set him apart from the pack. Here are the 10 hurlers whose sinkers move to the arm side least, so far this season, of 89 qualifying pitchers:

Average Sinker Movement, Glove Side, MLB, 2019, Min. 50 Thrown (in.)

Mike Leake: -6.0

Brad Keller: -6.4

Dereck Rodriguez: -6.6

Marcus Stroman: -6.6

Joe Biagini: -6.6

Sonny Gray: -6.7

Jameson Taillon: -6.8

Kyle Hendricks: -7.0

Lance Lynn: -7.1

José Alvarado: -7.3

It’s important to note that being at either extreme, where movement is concerned, is usually preferable to being average. The fact that Alvarado’s sinker moves less to the arm side than those of most hurlers doesn’t necessarily speak badly of it; we might do better to think about these guys’ movement as having an unusual amount of cut, for a sinker, rather than as lacking tailing action.

Where vertical movement is concerned, Alvarado also isn’t an outlier, though again, he’s close to one end of the spectrum.

Average Sinker Movement, Vertical Rise, MLB, 2019, Min. 50 Thrown (in.)

Jake Odorizzi: 9.8

Nate Jones: 8.9

Joe Biagini: 8.6

José Quintana: 8.0

Tanner Roark: 7.9

Dereck Rodríguez: 7.9

Marco Gonzales: 7.9

Fernando Rodney: 7.7

Mike Fiers: 7.5

José Alvarado: 7.4

Again, when we think of exceptional sinker movement, we tend to think of the greatest possible downward movement. That’s not how it works in all cases, though, and Alvarado’s rise might work in his favor. As with the lateral movement, the vital takeaway is that he’s not shredding opponents by making the ball take off in any particular direction, in a way other pitchers don’t.

That leaves us with the question of what is unique about Alvarado, though, and there turns out to be plenty.

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