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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Jose Peraza IS the Reds

The latest edition of Penning Bull is about Jose Peraza’s quasi-breakout season in Cincinnati: the good, the not-as-good-as-it-looks, and the quietly-very-bad. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s very encouraging that he’s been able to make these changes without losing the ability to make contact at an above-average rate. In fact, Peraza remains one of the least strikeout-prone full-time hitters in the league, and pitchers struggle to miss his bat within the strike zone. On the other hand, he’s remained aggressive, and pitchers have remained largely unafraid of him. In what’s otherwise looked like a breakout campaign, he’s only gotten on base at a .332 clip. If he’d developed the ability to hit the ball harder, rather than to lift it more, his athleticism (and particularly his speed) might be put to a higher use, but as it is, he’s reached base at just a .314 clip on balls in play.

More importantly, despite nominally sticking at shortstop all season, he’s demonstrated pretty clearly that he’s a below-average defender at that position, and any movement in that talent level for a player finishing up his age-24 season is likely to be in the wrong direction. If this newfound power is the sort of thing he’ll have to fight to maintain, as pitchers adjust their approaches and opportunities to ambush pitches become scarce, then Peraza’s overall value dries up in a hurry. He’ll finish the season with a stout two or three wins in each formulation of WAR(P), but that overstates both the actual value he’s delivered and the value he’s likely to provide in years to come.

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The Unshiftables

Today’s post is about the two pitchers whose teams have yet to employ a defensive shift behind them this season, and what that tells us. Given Saturday night’s news about Mike Matheny, it’s of particular interest.

Two hundred sixty-five pitchers have faced at least 150 batters this season, and only two have yet to pitch in front of a defensive shift. Those two pitchers are Shohei Ohtani and Jordan Hicks.

Obviously, Hicks and Ohtani have more than one thing in common. They both have elite velocity, and it can be a bit harder to predict where opponents will hit the ball when a flamethrower is on the hill. It seems to me, however, that the primary reason these two particular guys wouldn’t be shifted behind is that their teams don’t have the information they would need to do it confidently. Ohtani, of course, hadn’t pitched in the United States prior to this spring. Hicks jumped right past Double- and Triple-A. Mikes Matheny and Scioscia (no gurus of communication with young or inexperienced players, and slow implementers of even the most fundamental, common-sense innovation) have just not seen any benefit in moving defenders around behind their young fireballers.

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Yadier Molina, Cooperstown, and Incomplete Information

Today, instead of a short excerpt, I’m running Penning Bull in full, here, for free. It’s a brief piece, anyway, on the recent and persistent conversation about Yadier Molina’s Hall of Fame case.

It seems like we can’t go more than a few months, anymore, without the argument breaking out anew on Twitter. Sometimes it’s sparked by a great game or notable milestone, and sometimes it stems from bad news about yet another painful-sounding injury. One way or another, however, baseball fans seem to keep finding a reason to ask (and then heatedly argue) the question: Is Yadier Molina a Hall of Fame catcher?

I’ve been drawn into this argument more than once over the last several years, and I’ve slowly changed my stance. Where once I was staunchly against the notion, I now view Molina as a near-lock for Cooperstown, and a deserving one. The purpose of this piece, however, isn’t to state Molina’s case (or my case for him). I’m not here to parse his WAR numbers from FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference, which don’t make any real effort to capture the value he’s delivered as a receiver over the course of his career, but nor am I here to tout his Baseball Prospectus WARP, which gives him full (and handsome) credit for those skills but can’t do the same favors for Bob Boone, Thurman Munson, or Ted Simmons, because of the limitations of the dataset. Brian Kenny is writing Twitter poll questions and talking about this on MLB Now, trying to get people to take sides. Many are happily doing so.

I’m here to say: it’s too early to have a well-founded take on this.

Molina is 35, which is old for a catcher. The thing is, though, that it’s only old if you believe Molina is more or less a normal, human catcher. If you start with the assumption that he’s somewhat comparable to players like Simmons, Boone, or even Carlton Fisk, then it seems silly to assume he’s nearly done. In fact, all the on-field evidence also suggests that he has plenty left in the tank. PECOTA projected him for 1.5 WARP before this season; he’s already delivered 2.2. He’s still an above-average defensive catcher, all things considered, and that’s just based on the numbers we use to detail and evaluate catchers physically: it doesn’t account for his leadership and ability to handle the Cardinals’ pitching staff. He’s having his best offensive season since 2013, hitting for the power he showcased last year and continuing to make plenty of contact.

My point is that Molina, who’s being written and talked about as though his case for the Hall is all but finished, could well end up with a career catching workload comparable to those of Jason Kendall and Boone, and his offensive stats aren’t dissimilar to those of Ivan Rodriguez. In fact, though Rodriguez had a higher offensive peak and was far less of a drag on the bases, Molina’s superior defense could nearly cancel that out. He’s been worth 2.0 WARP or more in 11 straight seasons, now, and 12 overall. This could yet be the eighth season in which he surpasses 4.0 WARP. Rodriguez only had 15 seasons of at least 2.0 WARP, and just five of 4.0 or more. His last good season came at age 38. Boone had a very good season at 39, and a fine one at 40. Fisk, famously, was even better, even older.

The greats of the position defied its broader aging curve, and Molina is still showing every sign of doing the same. Unless and until he has a full season in which he’s a substandard hitter for the position (that’s only happened once since 2007, in 2015) or a below-average defender (that’s never happened, nor has it come close to happening), we can simply defer this conversation. Should Yadier Molina go to the Hall of Fame? Ask me in three or four years. I have a good guess, but the answer will probably be clear to both of us if you wait for all of the information before making a decision.

Kelvin Herrera to the Nationals—in June!

The latest edition of Penning Bull hit subscribers’ inboxes late Tuesday night. It’s about the early start to the serious trading period that was the Nationals’ deal for Royals closer Kelvin Herrera. Here’s an excerpt:

In cases like those of the Nationals and Royals, though, decision time can come earlier, and there are more and more cases like those of the Nationals and Royals. No one really wants to win the Wild Card anymore; that’s strictly a consolation prize for the losers of particularly noble division races. With so many teams taking all-or-nothing approaches to contention, though, there are ample incentives for early moves. In that way, the two-Wild Card system has successfully brought us back to the way things were in, for instance, 1985, when it wasn’t good enough to be good. Every good team can count on having two or three teams competing with them for just one desirable playoff spot, so teams aim for 93 or 94 wins, instead of 87 or 88. That means that teams whose best-case scenario finds them grabbing a Wild Card berth are basically out on premium trade candidate, and it makes it more worth the while of very good teams to improve sooner, thereby improving more.

For Washington, making this particular improvement at such an early date might be particularly crucial. Firstly, the Braves are no fluke, and in fact, have a higher third-order winning percentage than have the Nationals so far. Secondly, with Stephen Strasburg joining the already long list of injured Nationals recently, one can fairly expect an added toll on the bullpen over the coming weeks. Having the kind of depth Dave Martinez now enjoys in the relief corps makes distributing high-leverage innings much easier, and gives Herrera, Doolittle, Madson, and the rest of the Washington bullpen a better chance of reaching October relatively fresh and ready to dominate.

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Brandon Crawford Opens Things Up

The latest edition of Penning Bull hit subscribers’ inboxes this morning. It’s about Brandon Crawford’s stellar offensive season to date, and whether it’s sustainable. Here’s an excerpt:

Crawford, however, has been crucial for the Giants all year. He’s hitting .317/.368/.496, good for a 133 wRC+, to go along with his usual above-average defensive work. At 31, he’s no longer the best defensive shortstop in the National League, but he’s matured into the kind of hitter that could make him similarly valuable.

There’s bound to be some temptation, though, to dismiss this improvement as a mirage. After all, Crawford has walked only at his customary rate, about seven percent of the time. He’s whiffing about as often as usual, and just a hair less than the league as a whole. He’s hitting for much more pop than usual, and the plate discipline adjustments he has made—less contact, especially outside the zone, as he grooves his swing for power, but more aggressiveness within the zone—are consistent with that kind of improvement. Much of the overall improvement is driven, though, by a .374 BABIP that is in line neither with his profile (left-handed, average speed) nor with his track record. The baseline expectation, here, is for him to regress.

I’m not sure that it’s that simple. Crawford is using the opposite field more this year. In that way, he’s using the entire field better. It’s not just lazy fly balls to left, either. On a per-plate appearance basis, Crawford has more batted balls classified as Flares & Burners to the opposite field than any other qualified hitter in baseball: 29 of them, in 272 plate appearances through Saturday. Twenty-four of those have gone for hits, and of those, seven have been doubles.

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Take The Hitter, Stupid

The latest edition of Penning Bull is a brief, broad-strokes bit of Draft analysis. It lays out more or less the only Draft philosophy a prospect dilettante like me can offer: there’s far more expected value in hitters than in pitchers, near the top of the draft board. More teams ought to embrace that. Many already are.

Here’s a taste of the newsletter:

Consider the famous first round of the 2011 Draft. The Pirates picked first, and in Gerrit Cole, they got a good one—even if they didn’t capture the full benefit for which they might have hoped. The Mariners, of course, weren’t nearly so lucky: Danny Hultzen blew out before he reached the Majors. Then again, the Diamondbacks found another productive starter, in Trevor Bauer—again, despite the fact that he didn’t realize his full potential until after they traded him. So, using the top three overall selections, three moribund franchises managed to go two-for-three on finding solid, above-average big-league starters. Heck, despite the major injury issues he had, high-school stud Dylan Bundy has turned into another good one for the Orioles.

Still, would any of those teams, given the chance to go back and try this over again, take any of those four hurlers ahead of Anthony Rendon? How about George Springer? Those were the first two college hitters taken. Bubba Starling was the first high school position player drafted, but the next two were Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez.

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