No Spin Mizer: If the glove doesn’t stick, we must acquit; or, Spin Doctors: Tracking possible reactions to MLB’s announced crackdown on pitchers using foreign substances

On June 2, 2021, MLB’s rumored crackdown on pitcher use of foreign substances took a significant step toward reality. That morning, USA Today published a story describing the enforcement of the policy as “imminent.” The same day, four minor-league pitchers who had been ejected from games during the preceding weekend for using foreign substances received ten-game suspensions.

MLB pitchers, it seemed, took note. To many, Gerrit Cole, now the top starter in the New York Yankees rotation, has become the face of elite spin rates, and he was continuing to earn that reputation in 2021. In his first start after June 2, however, his spin rate plunged.

Trevor Bauer, the defending NL Cy Young winner now pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers, forced his way into the group of spin-rate leaders last season following years of public comments criticizing pitchers who used foreign substances to increase their spin rates. Like Cole, Bauer saw his spin rate plummet after June 2.

Another leader in this category in recent seasons is Yu Darvish, now a starter for the San Diego Padres. Unlike Cole and Bauer, Darvish appeared unfazed by the June 2 announcement, at least judging by the relative consistency in his spin rates this season.

Since the June 2 announcement and enforcement of minor-league suspensions, MLB yesterday announced that it would apply the ten-game-suspension policy to major leaguers as well, with a progressive-discipline scheme for repeat offenders.

While a variety of factors can affect measured spin rates, it’s difficult to interpret the spin-rate dips from Cole and Bauer in their post-June-2 starts as anything other than an acknowledgement of the use of substances that go beyond providing the sort of control-improving grip that even batters appreciate from a safety standpoint and facilitate extreme spin rates (Spider Tack has become the brand name associated with that latter variety of substance). Cole and Bauer don’t come to this point by the same route, however. Bauer’s well-documented history of criticizing Cole and his former teammates in Houston for what Bauer strongly implied– and later seemed to demonstrate in a live-action experiment– were artificially high spin rates arguably places him in a different category than others in this conversation. On the other hand, perhaps he’s just more media-savvy. Should it make a difference if Bauer publicly changed his game to capitalize on and make a point of highlighting MLB’s underenforcement of foreign-substance rules, while Cole did, well, whatever this is?

Nor can we draw any firm conclusions from Darvish’s spin-rate graph. Not only did Darvish’s RPMs not drop after June 2, but they continued to climb. Was he undaunted by the “imminent” threat of enforcement, and, if so, why?

All of this brings us to Casey Mize’s start last night, immediately following MLB’s declaration that it would begin enforcement of its zero-tolerance policy against major-league pitchers. In his short professional career, Mize has not been a high spin guy, nor has he been publicly associated with what he calls the “sticky.” Which is why he was so upset when an umpire forced him to change gloves during the game:

Mize was walking off the mound following the first inning of his start on Tuesday in Kansas City against the Royals, when John Tumpane stopped him for what looked like a friendly conversation.

According to Mize, Tumpane said Mize’s glove was too light-colored.

Mize said the glove, which he’s worn for every one of his big-league starts, was originally charcoal-colored, but may have faded a bit in the sun.

“He said the gray color was too light,” Mize said.

Color judgement aside, Mize was most angry because Tumpane’s order came on the same day that Major League Baseball announced a widespread crackdown on the use of sticky substances that some pitchers have used to help them grip the baseball and increase the spin rate on their pitches.

“I assume everyone thinks that I was using sticky stuff now, which I was not,” Mize said. “So I just thought the timing of it was pretty (expletive), honestly. The umpires need to get on the same page, because I’ve made 12 starts (in 2021) and everybody was fine with (the glove). Or John Tumpane just needs to have some feel and just let me pitch with the glove that the other team did not complain about. (Tumpane) brought it up himself. John’s a good umpire and a very nice guy. But I mean, just have some feel for the situation because I hate that I’m in a position now where I assume everyone thinks I was using sticky when in reality, that was not the situation at all.”

First, for visual illustration, some relevant images of Mize’s mitt:

Without more information, this seems like a questionable decision by the umpire, and, whatever his motivation, the decision did drag Mize into the broader conversation about foreign substances. So what do the spin measurements say about Mize’s pitches? Most obviously, he operates in a much lower band of RPMs than the likes of Cole, Bauer, and Darvish. That alone may be more than enough for many to exonerate him. And while Mize’s average spin rates did decline between his May 28 start and his June 3 start, the magnitude of the change was negligible relative to those Cole and Bauer exhibited. If his data suggest anything, it’s that Mize is telling the truth.

However irked Mize was after being forced into a mid-game glove change, it did not appear to alter his performance. He completed 6.2 innings, threw a season-high 103 pitches, and allowed three runs on the way to a 4-3 Tigers win in Kansas City.

To this point in the season, Mize has been the best of Detroit’s young pitchers, and he trails only Spencer Turnbull in WARP. He’s following up an interesting if inconsistent debut in 2020 with across-the-board improvements in major statistical categories. While veterans attempting to be crafty and the commissioner’s office duke it out over Spider Tack, here’s hoping Mize can avoid that fray and continue to find his footing as a leading member of Detroit’s rotation.

April 2019 MLB MVP: Kirby Yates?

Image result for kirby yates

Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger just wrapped up excellent Aprils.* Yelich started very hot, while Bellinger came on very strong a bit later. The two finish the season’s first full month tied for the MLB lead in home runs (fourteen) and with a pair of gaudy offensive lines:

yelich bellinger april 2019

Unsurprisingly, these guys appear at the top of a lot of leaderboards right now, including the FanGraphs combined WAR leaderboard, by which measure Bellinger (3.0 fWAR) just completed a month tied with August 2002 Barry Bonds for the third-best month ever. You’re going to have a hard time convincing anybody that Bellinger, or maybe Yelich, wasn’t the April 2019 MVP.

For the sake of this post running longer than 105 words and maybe illuminating something beyond the obvious, another one of the leaderboards Yelich and Bellinger also top is the cWPA leaderboard:

cwpa through 4-30-19

I like using cWPA (defined: championship win probability added “takes individual game win probability added (WPA) and increases the scope from winning a game to winning the World Series. Where a player’s WPA is the number of percentage points that player increased or decreased their team’s probability of winning a single game, their cWPA is the number of percentage points the player increased or decreased their team’s chances of winning the World Series.”) in MVP analyses because I think it should be attractive to a broad swath of the MVP electorate in that it accounts for the traditional notion that the individual award-winner ought to have been on a winning team. When handing out performance awards for a given season (or some subset thereof), it makes sense to reward players based on what they actually accomplished, as opposed to what they should have accomplished but for bad luck, sequencing, weak teammates, strong opponents, environmental variations, and other contextual and extrinsic factors. After all, these factors work, to some extent, on all players, and just as we determine team monthly standings based on actual win percentage (and not a sabermetrically adjusted winning percentage), so too should we determine individual monthly awards based on actual results.

If you followed the cWPA leaderboard over the course of the last month, you would’ve seen Yelich hanging out at the top most days, eventually joined at the top by Bellinger thanks to the latter’s strong, late surge. You also would’ve seen Kirby Yates consistently hanging around the second or third position for much of the month. Who is Yates, and how did he come to join Bellinger and Yelich in the clear top echelon of early season cWPA accumulators?

Yates currently is:

  • a right-handed relief pitcher
  • playing for the San Diego Padres
  • in his sixth major-league season
  • thirty-two years old
  • a native of Hawaii
  • leading MLB in games finished in 2019 (fifteen)
  • leading MLB in saves in 2019 (fourteen)

The Padres closer certainly has gotten off to a hot start, but it’s important to remember that he’s only thrown sixteen total innings in 2019. He’s probably going to give up a home run at some point, for example, and eventually seems likely to allow more than one run per sixteen appearances.

It also bears noting that relievers commonly experience a greater share of their playing time in situations of elevated leverage, so it isn’t totally surprising to find a reliever hanging out near the top of this group (cf. 2016 Zach Britton), though it of course is a double-edged sword for WPA-based metrics.

Finally, even if Yates’ hand remains steady, his team’s situation over the course of the season may not put him in a position to boost championship win probability. The Padres currently are 17-13 and tied for second in the NL West, but they’ve allowed more runs than they’ve scored, which isn’t what you’d like to see if you’d like to see the Padres competing for a playoff berth and a World Series championship in 2019.

Cody Bellinger probably deserves player-of-the-month honors for April, but Yates has, at a minimum, made a case with his own April performance that he is a guy to watch, which is pretty good for a Padres reliever in 2019.

* Statistics and information contained herein current through April 30. Spoiler Alert: Bellinger won the April player-of-the-month award for the National League.

Continuing Education Jam

Before lunch yesterday, I learned two things. The second was that former St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith, one of the most talented and popular players in MLB history, began his career in San Diego. Smith made his major-league debut with the Padres in 1978 and spent four seasons with them before they traded him to the Cardinals following the strike-shortened 1981 season. (In digging into this news-to-me, I also discovered that the Detroit Tigers were the first team to draft Smith, but he didn’t sign with them after they picked him in the seventh round in 1976. San Diego picked him in the fourth round the following year and he signed.)

The first thing I learned yesterday morning was that Dolly Parton is the author of the Whitney Houston hit “I Will Always Love You.” Parton’s original version is this week’s Jam:

The only surprising part of Will Ferrell’s tour de baseball

will ferrell baseball chopper

Everybody had a good time with Will Ferrell’s Major League Baseball debut last week, and that’s no surprise. Will Ferrell is funny and good at making people laugh, and, it’s always seemed with him, the bigger the stage, the bigger the laughs. Ferrell started Thursday as an undrafted amateur free agent signee of the Oakland Athletics, and he finished the day as a San Diego Padre. In between, he appeared in games as a member of eight other teams and played every position, including designated hitter (pictured above). He even has his own Baseball-Reference page!

All of this feels like it belongs within Ferrell’s entertaining wheelhouse. Close examination of his B-R page reveals a little surprise, however:

wfb-rWho knew Cincinnati held Norm’s rights to begin with? Maybe it has something to do with the Marge Schott joke he made on Weekend Update nineteen years ago, forever “preserved” on this broken NBC.com video? Baseball, like Norm, proves to be a continually unfolding mystery of the most enjoyable variety.

The yard sale at Upton Abbey continues

upton abbey banner

It’s been a while– too long– since the last dispatch from Upton Abbey, but today’s news commands an update.

The Braves’ offseason has been one filled with departures. First, they allowed a number of their free-agent pitchers– Ervin Santana, Kris Medlen, and Brandon Beachy, among others– to walk, along with role player Tommy La Stella (via trade). Then came the biggest move of all: Atlanta traded Jason Heyward, its best player and a fan favorite by virtue of his abilities and history in the Braves’ farm system, to the hated Cardinals for some mystery meat.

Now Justin Upton is departing for San Diego, the latest of the Padres’ marquee offseason acquisitions. In exchange for the younger Upton, who is heading into the last year of his contract, the Braves will receive four minor leaguers, including Max Fried, which sounds like a selection on the Popeye’s menu but actually is just a twenty-year-old pitcher who’s already had Tommy John surgery, and something called Mallex Smith. If you can stomach that sort of writing, here are scouting reports on these prospects.

Braves fans can be forgiven for feeling like they’ve been whipsawed. After competing for a playoff spot two years ago and combining the high-profile acquisition of the Upton brothers with contract extensions for most of their infield, it looked like Atlanta was really building something.

As it turns out, the Braves are building something, but it isn’t a good baseball team. The construction of the new Cobb County stadium– much reviled in these e-pages— is the lens through which these moves can be understood. It now is clear that new general manager John Hart has his marching orders: deliver a team that will be competitive in 2017, the year the new park opens. “And not a moment sooner,” fans might add.

There’s nothing wrong with rebuilding. Every team not named the Yankees and (now) the Dodgers has to do it from time to time. What’s likely to trouble baseball fans in Atlanta is the sudden downshift into rebuilding mode apparently for the sole purpose of optics: the Braves organization wants to unveil its new– and, again, controversial and probably illegal– park with a competitive, if unrecognizable, team on the field. The timing was off. The best way to arrive in 2017 with a good team is to sell off your assets that are valuable in 2014. Expect to see Craig Kimbrel traded during the 2015 season. That’s what’s happening now.

Were the Braves of 2013-14 world-beaters? Obviously not, and the 2014 season exposed flaws that everybody chose to pretend didn’t also exist in 2013. But there was a framework there. The team didn’t cry out to be blown up. My strong suspicion is that it wouldn’t have been, even with a new GM in place, absent the construction of the new park. And that’s a stupid reason to hit the restart button.

ALDLAND Podcast

The MLB had a fairly inactive trade deadline today, but luckily ALDLAND had a very active podcasting session to make up for it. Marcus and I share our semi-informed opinions on a variety of trades that were and were not made, as well as discuss the date of the MLB trade deadline and whether it should be moved. Bonus discussion of music related things. Will this podcast be the first ALDLAND podcast to be on iTunes? Who can say?

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