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.

RKB: 2020 is the Season: Turn, Turn, Turnbull

Thoughts on Detroit Tigers prospect Spencer Turnbull - Minor ...

I can’t believe I burned that headline on what’s going to be such a modest batch of information, but I can believe that Spencer Turnbull has found his way to the top of the Detroit Tigers rotation this year. I don’t think any serious baseball fan still thinks about pitcher wins and losses anymore, but Turnbull obviously was much better than his 3-17 “record” in 2019. 

The exciting news is that he’s been even better than expected so far in 2020. With a 2.78 ERA/2.85 FIP, he’s the best Detroit pitcher by fWAR (0.7) and bWAR (0.6).

MLive Tigers beat reporter Evan Woodbery noted this morning that Turnbull’s likely to regress as the season proceeds, and he’s right: there are some signs pointing in that direction. Woodbery points to SIERA, an ERA estimator, which sees Turnbull as about two runs worse than his current ERA. To that I would add Turnbull’s .283 batting average on balls in play, which is about fifty points lower than his 2019 BABIP and seems likely to increase. His DRA, 3.56, also pegs him as a little worse than his ERA and FIP suggest, though still clearly the best among the current rotation.

There also are signs these good results might stick, though. Here’s a FanGraphs/RotoGraphs report from yesterday, which highlights Turnbull alongside Trevor Bauer as two pitchers who have produced significantly increased movement on one of their featured pitches. For Turnbull, it’s his slider, which has been his main out pitch:

Last year Turnbull’s main strikeout pitch was his slider which had a 15.3 SwStr%. That isn’t the greatest number to have as your main swing and miss pitch. He already has a really good four-seam fastball so pairing it with a true swing and miss pitch was the key to Turnbull having a better 2020 season. So far this season Turnbull’s slider has a 26.5 SwStr%. It also has a higher O-Swing%, better wOBA against, and better ISO against. But again, small sample size so we have to look deeper to make sure this is indeed legit.

To start, Turnbull increased his sliders RPMs. It has gone from 2,438 RPMs in 2019 to 2,533 RPMs this season thus resulting in more movement. His slider movement went from having an overall movement of 3.3 inches to 3.9. He did this mainly by increasing its horizontal movement. Something he seems to be working on in the past three years. Its movement in inches starting in 2018 went from 2.29 to 3.07 and now to 3.51. 

The increases in spin rate and movement on his slider show that Turnbull still is developing, refining, and improving his arsenal, and they constitute evidence that he may be ready to outdo the performance levels his past baselines suggest.

One other thing I’ve been wanting to document this year is the way Turnbull mixes speeds. The graph below plots the velocity of every pitch he threw in his first start of the 2020 regular season. In five complete innings, he only allowed three hits (just ten total balls in play) and recorded eight strikeouts, and it was clear that he had the Cincinnati batters off balance all day. This yo-yo velocity chart is a big part of the reason why.

Of course, Turnbull’s stay atop the Detroit rotation might not last long. Focusing on the positives in that regard, ostensible number one Matthew Boyd could recall the location of home plate at any moment. Even more exciting possibilities are the arrivals this week of highly anticipated pitching prospects Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize. Skubal is scheduled to make his first major-league start tonight, followed by Mize’s debut tomorrow night. Could we be witnessing the emergence of a 2013-era rotation in the Motor City? That’s an extremely high bar, but there’s no reason not to permit yourself a little bit of excitement during these rebuilding times.

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Previously
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – UPDATED PECOTA Ed.
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – Spring Training Ed.
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – Payroll Ed.
RKB: 2020 Detroit Tigers Season Preview – PECOTA Ed.
RKB: How does new Detroit Tiger Austin Romine relate to his teammates?

Related
Breakout prospect Tarik Skubal earns his first shot at the majors – Bless You Boys
The Call-Up: Tarik Skubal – Baseball Prospectus
The Call-Up: Isaac Paredes – Baseball Prospectus
Meet Isaac Paredes, the 21-year-old who is patient, punctual and experienced beyond his years – MLive

An inside look at the MLB COVID-19 testing process

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Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Trevor Bauer, coming off a 2019 season that saw him carry the heaviest workload– 213 innings pitched for Cleveland and Cincinnati– of his career, currently owns the third-best DRA (1.85) of any pitcher in the majors. His team hasn’t yet lived up to its lofty expectations, though, and it will be at least a few day before they’re allowed another opportunity to improve their record. That’s because one of Bauer’s teammates tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday night.

The Reds are the third team experiencing a positive player test requiring the postponement of games this season, and reports indicate that Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office will make an announcement about their revised schedule on Monday.

In the meantime, Bauer has taken fans inside the player-testing process with a video that shows “another day in this fake MLB season”:  Continue reading

The week in baseball: 5/29/20

From the Increasingly Nocturnal Department:

  • I haven’t found it productive to follow each new return-to-play proposal for the 2020 MLB season in any detail, but public comments this week, especially from players including Max Scherzer and Trevor Bauer, point to the very real possibility that the entire season will be lost due to the inability of the owners and players union to reach final agreement on compensation arrangements for the year in a timely fashion. Although the calendar has not yet turned to June, keep in mind that any start date will need to allow a few weeks of lead time for pitchers to stretch out, undoubtedly among other logistical considerations. The viability of opening the season on or around July 4 therefore depends on what the sides can accomplish over the next couple of days. Of all the things Rob Manfred has screwed up in his brief tenure as MLB commissioner, the complete absence of baseball in America should other professional sports leagues find a workable way to resume action would be one of the most memorable.
  • Meanwhile, the 2020 Minor League Baseball season effectively ended this week following the announcement that teams are expected to begin releasing large numbers of players shortly. Some big-league veterans, including  Shin-Soo Choo and David Price, have responded by personally paying all of the monthly stipends of all of the minor-league players in their respective teams’ farm systems.
  • The CPBL and KBO seasons are rolling on, though a recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases in South Korea has delayed the expected return of fans to KBO stadiums. ESPN is continuing live telecasts of KBO games, often with replays on ESPN2 later in the afternoon.
  • The KBO appears to have earned itself a celebrity fan in Adam Eget, trusty sidekick of Norm Macdonald and manager of the world-famous Comedy Store, who said as much on a recent episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast. He and Rogan also discussed cults and Charles Manson, so listen at your own risk.
  • Japan’s professional baseball league, NPB, announced it will begin an abridged season on June 19. The prevalent view among those who follow foreign baseball leagues is that the NPB is the league that comes closest to MLB in terms of talent and competition levels.
  • Facing the prospect of the complete absence of MLB games this year, I’ve begun posting daily baseball landmarks that occurred on that day on ALDLAND’s twitter account. Some from the past week in baseball history, courtesy of Baseball-Reference:
    • 1904 – Dan McGann steals 5 bases in a game, a feat not matched until 1974 (Davey Lopes) or bested until 1991 (Otis Nixon, 6)
    • 1922 – Supreme Court rules baseball not subject to antitrust laws, interstate commerce regulations
    • 1925 – Ty Cobb becomes 1st major leaguer with 1,000 career extra-base hits
    • 1946 – 1st night game at Yankee Stadium
    • 1951 – Willie Mays gets his first hit, a home run off Warren Spahn
    • 1952 – Hank Aaron, then of the Indianapolis Clowns, signs with the Boston Braves
    • 1959 – Harvey Haddix pitches 12 perfect innings before an error in the 13th (“there has been never been anything like it” = more from Tim Kurkjian here)
    • 1968 – NL announces expansion to Montreal, San Diego
    • 1969 – Aaron becomes the 3rd major leaguer with 500 HR + 500 2B
    • 1976 – Pitcher Joe Niekro, batting against his brother, Phil, hit his only career home run
    • 1990 – Rickey Henderson breaks Cobb’s AL stolen-base record
    • 2004 – Mariano Rivera earns his 300th save
    • 2006 – Barry Bonds hits 715th home run
    • 2008 – Pedro Martinez, making a Single-A rehab start for the St. Lucie Mets, faces off against then-recent top pick David Price, then of the Vero Beach Devil Rays. (Price and the Rays win 2-0.) Price would make his major-league debut that September and his World-Series debut the following month.
    • 2010 – Roy Halladay pitches perfect game (ESPN is airing a program on Halladay’s career and too-short life tonight at 7:00 pm)
  • Whatever happens with baseball this year, Jersey City brewery Departed Soles wants to make sure we don’t forget what happened in the recent past, and therefore has released its newest beer, Trash Can Banger, a session IPA with a can styled after the Houston Astros’ classic 1970s uniforms. For now, the beer only is available in New Jersey.
  • Did the Astros cheat? They did. Did their cheating help? Running counter both to fan intuition and the public statements on the subject by professional pitchers, the latest look at that question, like some others before it, concludes that it didn’t make much of a difference. This analysis also set out to test Commissioner Manfred’s assertion that the Astros didn’t cheat in 2019 but was unable to reach a conclusion on that question.

Baseball Notes: Save Tonight

baseball notes

It is an accepted reality that, in general, baseball players don’t have much time for their sport’s new and advanced statistics and metrics. In many ways, this resistance makes sense. In the moment, when standing on the mound or in the batter’s box, there’s only so much thought and information a player can hold in his mind while trying to accomplish the task– make or avoid contact between bat and ball, for example– at hand. Players, like experts in other fields, also understandably tend to be skeptical of outsiders’ ability to provide baseball analysis or insight superior to their own. This skepticism is fairly well documented, most obviously when it involves changes that might impair or decrease a player’s value or role in the game, and, more surprisingly, even when new statistical revelations work in a player’s favor. (There certainly are some players, like Jake Lamb and Trevor “Drone Finger” Bauer, who have embraced sabermetric thinking, but it’s reasonable to assume they remain in the minority among their colleagues.)

A primary impetus of baseball’s sabermetric movement has been to encourage the abandonment of certain traditional statistics that, while still largely entrenched in the sport, are understood to be incomplete in important ways or much less meaningful than their use might suggest. Batting average, for example, doesn’t include walks. (Cf. On-base percentage.) RBIs require a player’s teammates to reach base ahead of him. ERA depends, to a significant extent, on a pitcher’s defensive teammates and other factors outside a pitcher’s control. (Cf. defensive-independent pitching statistics like FIP and DRA.) Pitcher wins and saves are artificial, highly circumstantial metrics that, at best, indirectly measure pitching talent.

For years, analysts have pushed baseball to rid itself of these traditional performance measures. There’s a comfort in hanging onto the statistical language with which we grew up as we learned and discussed the game, but that comfort should turn cold upon learning the degree to which these familiar stats obscure what’s really happening on the field.

So long as baseball’s current player-compensation structure remains in place, though, players aren’t likely to stop caring about things like saves; after all, that’s how they’re paid:

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In the course of discussing whether departures from conventional reliever usage as particularly exhibited in the 2015 and 2016 playoffs are likely to bleed over into upcoming regular season play, FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards explains one reason players are likely to prefer conventional, save-oriented bullpen strategy:

Saves get paid in a big way during arbitration. Only one player without a save, Jared Hughes, received a free-agent-equivalent salary above $6.5 million in arbitration, while all 16 players who’d recorded more than 10 saves received more than Hughes in equivalent salary. Players are more than happy to make more money, so giving more relievers higher salaries and more multi-year deals is openly welcomed. Taking saves away, however, also takes money away from players with less than six years of service time.

Although there are a number of not-uncompelling reasons why players prefer to steer clear of baseball’s newer metrics, Edwards has fingered one of the most forceful. If fans and analysts want to hear players discuss OBP, DRA, and leverage, they ought to channel their persuasive efforts less toward appeals to players’ logical sensibilities (they get it, no doubt) and more toward the education of the MLB salary arbitrators, to whom the players already listen with great attention.

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Previously
Baseball Notes: Current Issues Roundup
Baseball Notes: The In-Game Half Lives of Professional Pitchers
Baseball Notes: Rule Interpretation Unintentionally Shifts Power to Outfielders?
Baseball Notes: Lineup Protection
Baseball Notes: The Crux of the Statistical Biscuit
Baseball Notes: Looking Out for Number One
Baseball Notes: Preview

Catching Fire: Cabrera leads by example

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In an odd way, it’s tough to find an excuse to write about Miguel Cabrera in a season series like this one, because he’s so consistently good that, within his own context, his day-to-day achievements don’t stand out. If, from a coverage perspective, the greats miss out on talent-correlated attention during the season, though, they tend to make up for it during the big moments, like playoff races and the postseason.

The Detroit Tigers are in the final countdown for the 2016 season. Monday was their last off-day until the season ends on October 2. Their playoff odds have tumbled, but they’ve managed to keep pace at about two games back of the second AL wild card spot, meaning that their postseason hopes remain very much alive. The reason those playoff odds are low, though, is because they’re running out of time. Every remaining game is of critical importance, and while the Tigers really need to win each of these games (or, at least, a vast majority of them), even doing that won’t guarantee a playoff berth unless the teams ahead of them falter.

Cabrera knew the stakes last night, during the team’s first game of this crucial final stretch. Detroit already was missing two of its biggest bats– Cabrera’s Venezuelan countryman Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler, also an important vocal leader– due to a brutal triple HBP run by Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer (Cabrera also was a victim) in a costly win on Sunday, which meant Cabrera would need to shoulder even more of the offensive load than usual.

In the fourth inning, leading by a slim 1-0 margin, Cabrera decided to manufacture a run essentially all by himself, and not by way of a snappy home run blast. First, he stretched his single into a double; then advanced to third on a dangerously shallow fly-out; and, finally and amazingly, scored from there on an infield hit to the third baseman. Cabrera’s Billy Hamilton impression is one of the most impressive baseball moments I’ve seen this year (here’s the video), and he delivered it for the benefit of his teammates at the perfect moment. While it’s impossible to say whether the team’s subsequent offensive breakout– they ended up winning 8-1, with Cabrera also contributing a two-run homer– came as a result of this moment or the team simply (finally) catching up to bad Minnesota pitching, Cabrera’s baserunning in the fourth, which resulted in what ultimately proved to be the winning run, sent an unmistakable message to his teammates.   Continue reading