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: How does new Detroit Tiger Austin Romine relate to his teammates?

Now that Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila has tipped his hand with respect to his rebuilding strategy, it’s nice to see him following up on his listed priorities of improving every single position on the team. Yesterday, catcher Austin Romine, formerly of the New York Yankees, signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Tigers, who have made their former utilityman‘s younger brother the first notable addition of this offseason’s rolling thunder rebuild revue. How does he relate to the guys already on Detroit’s roster?

Obviously, his relationship with Miguel Cabrera hasn’t been great.

After that fight, in which Gary Sanchez revealed his true nature, Romine denied that he escalated the situation, which he probably should hope is the truth. Regardless, Avila may want to consider rehiring the elder Romine sibling as an assistant bench coach, even if the new guy is saying all the right things for now:

Jawing and brawling aside, where does Austin stand in relation to his new backstop colleagues? The assumption is that he will be the starter ahead of Greyson Greiner and Jake Rogers. The following table highlights some 2019 performance numbers those three posted.

Romine, who actually added value to his Yankees team last year, bests the incumbents across the board with the possible exception of age. The reasonable hope for him is that he can continue to hit at something within dirt-kicking distance of average while adding value on defense, which is what he did in 2018. The coming season is likely to be Romine’s first as a starter. He turned thirty-one last month, so his test in 2020 will be to sustain his offense and rebounding on defense while carrying a heavier load and learning a new staff. Seems easy enough.

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Previously
RKB: Detroit’s long, municipal nightmare is over, as Al Avila has solved the Tigers’ bullpen woes

MLB’s David vs. Goliath: Will Daniel Descalso outhit Giancarlo Stanton this year? (via ESPN.com)

Here’s a hot-take kind of question: Who was the better hitter in 2018, Giancarlo Stanton or Daniel Descalso?

Stanton, the highest-profile acquisition of the previous offseason, was very good for the Yankees: 38 homers, .852 OPS and a 127 wRC+, meaning he was 27 percent better than the league’s average hitter. He was on a couple of MVP ballots. Descalso, paid $2 million after the Diamondbacks picked up his option in November, was pretty good, too: 13 homers and a .789 OPS, with a 111 wRC+.

So that was easy. Stanton hit better, assuming the point of hitting is to get on base and hit the ball far.

But, of course, it’s not. The point is to score runs, and for scoring runs, some hits are worth more than others. Descalso hit .270/.372/.541 with men on base, while Stanton hit only .236/.315/.429. Descalso drove in 17 percent of the men who were on base when he came up, while Stanton drove in only 14 percent. Of course, Stanton drove himself in 38 times, 25 more times than Descalso did — but now the question is close. By RE24, a stat that also credits a batter with the runners he advances with his hits, it’s a virtual tie. That’s assuming, at least, that the point of hitting is, rather than “get hits,” to create runs.

But it’s not. The point is to win games, and for winning games, some runs are more important than others. We call the hits that drive in those runs “clutch.” In 2018, Daniel Descalso was the fourth-clutchest hitter in the majors, according to FanGraphs’ metric. And Giancarlo Stanton was, using that same measure and that same term, the fifth least-clutch. In high-leverage situations — those situations where the game is most likely to be materially affected — Descalso was far more effective, with a .591 slugging percentage to Stanton’s .462, and a .378 OBP to Stanton’s .313. By win probability added — which measures the hitting team’s chances of winning before a player bats and after he bats, crediting the change to the batter — Descalso was one of the league’s most productive hitters last year:

  • Descalso: 3.10 wins added, 23rd in the majors
  • Stanton: 0.95 wins added, 106th in the majors

So that turns out to be not that easy of a question: Descalso, Daniel Descalso, was apparently quite a bit better than Stanton, and also better than Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado. It’s a hot take, but you can actually stand behind it. But now here’s the really hot-take question: Who will be the better hitter in 2019, Giancarlo Stanton or Daniel Descalso? … Read More

(via ESPN.com)

A narrowly focused update on Zach Britton, new New York Yankee

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Last night, the New York Yankees completed what to this point constitutes the second-most significant trade of the month when they sent three prospects to Baltimore in exchange for a few months of closer Zach Britton’s services.

The Orioles drafted Britton out of high school in 2006, and Britton debuted five years later as a full-time starter for Baltimore in 2011. By 2014, he had transitioned to a full-time bullpen role, and my earliest memories of him date to two years after that.

Britton was a key part of the 2016 Baltimore team that finished second in the AL East and made the postseason as a wild card. That was the Orioles’ last playoff appearance, and manager Buck Showalter’s decision not to use Britton as the win-or-go-home contest went into extra innings granted the game an air of infamy.

Prior to that, writer Ben Lindbergh memorably made the case that Britton, a closer who would pitch sixty-seven innings that season, merited serious consideration for the AL MVP award. As recorded contemporaneously in these digital pages, Lindbergh’s argument was based on a modification to the notion of Win Probability Added (WPA):

Earlier today, Ben Lindbergh argued that Baltimore reliever Zach Britton has a claim to the 2016 AL MVP award. To make that case, Lindbergh demonstrated that Britton had done more than any other player to help his team win games that mattered. Lindbergh did this by placing Britton’s performance in the context of the individual games in which Britton pitched– did Britton’s actions help or hurt his team’s chances of winning that game, and to what degree did they do so?– and then placing those games in the context of his team’s position in the playoff hunt. Viewed this way, Britton (excellent contributions to a good team in close contention) is more valuable than, for example, Mike Trout (superlative contributions to a bad team far out of contention). The metric that captures this contextual performance concept is called Championship Probability Added (cWPA), and Britton currently holds a commanding lead atop that leaderboard.

(Emphasis added.)

The road has been a bit rough for Britton since that 2016 season, however, as the trade article linked above summarized:

After consecutive two-win seasons in 2015 and 2016, he has missed time with the following injuries:

  • April 16, 2017 – Hits the disabled list with a strained left forearm and misses a little over two weeks.
  • May 6, 2017 – Almost immediately after return from disabled list, goes back on it with same injury.
  • August 25, 2017 – Injures his left knee and is shut down in September.
  • December 2017 – Hurts his right Achilles in an offseason workout requiring surgery.

The lefty returned to action on June 12 but hasn’t been lights out like he was before 2017, with a 4.43 FIP and 3.45 ERA thus far. He’s been a bit better of late, tossing eight straight scoreless outings, but has still produced just six strikeouts against four walks in that span. Perhaps more encouragingly, his velocity is up over his last few outings, getting closer to the 97 mph sinker he used to throw. If the velocity return is here to stay, better results might follow.

By a clear margin, Britton led all pitchers in WPA in 2016. This year, however, he’s nowhere to be found atop that list. That no team has done as little winning as Baltimore (record: 29-73) likely contributed to that shift. Still, the fact that he has a negative WPA (-0.13) for the first time since he moved into the bullpen seems worth noting in light of the foregoing.

As the block quotation immediately preceding the immediately preceding paragraph indicates, there are a number of red flags that suggest that the version of Britton the Yankees acquired (insert reference about Redcoat POWs) last night may be meaningfully different from the one who presented an intriguingly compelling case for consideration as the most valuable player in the American League in 2016.

As a closing addendum, the current leaders in pitcher cWPA for 2018 are Justin Verlander (.023) and Josh Hader (.020).

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Related
Baltimore Closer Zach Britton Isn’t Just a Surprise Cy Young Contender — He’s the AL MVP

Can CC Ride into Cooperstown?

New York Yankees starting pitcher CC Sabathia had a big night last night, giving his team a much-needed six-inning shutout start and a chance to even the series against the  Houston Astros in the ALCS. With Sabathia, at age thirty-seven, in the final year of his current contract, Sabathia’s performance made some wonder about his Hall-of-Fame credentials, a subject I attempt to parse in only slightly greater detail in my latest post for Banished to the Pen.

The full post is available here.

When your favorite group plays poorly in the wrong venue

When the Tap’s fans wanted to express their displeasure with the debut of Spinal Tap Mark II and “Jazz Odyssey” at Themeland, there’s only one way to do it:

spinal tap thumbs down

The same goes for Rays fans expressing their displeasure with a losing performance against the New York Yankees in a game relocated to Citi Field (the home of the New York Mets) due to Hurricane Irma:

Have the Atlanta Braves discovered the secret of the ooze?

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Only three teams– the Rockies, Tigers, and Phillies– declined to participate in the transaction frenzy that concluded on August 1’s non-waiver trade deadline, which means that, yes, even the lowly Braves were in on the action.

One of the clearest messages the trade-deadline market communicated was that contending teams (or teams that fancied themselves contenders, anyway) were willing to pay a premium for relief pitching. Atlanta did send pitchers Lucas Harrell and Dario Alvarez to Texas in exchange for Travis Demeritte, an infield prospect who starred across from Dansby Swanson at this year’s Futures Game, on July 27. They skipped the more obvious opportunity to sell high on the momentarily resurgent Jim Johnson, however, especially considering the fact that he’s a free agent after this season.

Instead, in the words of Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan, the Braves “exchange[d] toxic assets” with the Padres by trading infielder Hector Olivera for Matt Kemp.

It’s been tough to find people who think this was a good trade for the Braves. Kemp was good, once, five years ago, when he provided 8.3 fWAR in 161 games for the 2011 Dodgers. Since then, he’s been worth 4.8 fWAR total from 2012 through August 2, when he made his Braves debut at Turner Field:

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Kemp’s still being paid like he’s an eight-win, MVP-caliber player, but he’s playing like a half-win, DL-caliber player. He can’t run. As he demonstrated for the crowd in his Atlanta debut, he can’t defend. His bat, his only potential weapon at this point, is less consistent than that of Justin Upton, the last consequential left fielder to wear a Braves uniform. Still, when Kemp received a standing ovation from the home fans (who, to my eyes, were outnumbered by a surprisingly large cadre of Pirates fans) when he came to the plate for the first time in the bottom of the first, it so confused the Pittsburgh players that Jace Peterson, who was on first after walking to start the inning, easily stole second. So maybe there is some hidden value there.

But really, what’s the Braves’ plan with this move? Continue reading

Yogi Berra, by the numbers

The most famous Yankee catcher, a veteran of twenty-one World Series and one World War, died yesterday at the age of ninety. It’s a testament to the power of Yogi Berra’s personality, which remains his strongest legacy, that it casts a shadow longer than the remarkable numbers that attempt to illustrate his baseball achievements. What follows is a sampling of those numbers:

If you’re not going to know nothing about baseball, these are some pretty good things to know. Now get on to Yogi’s funeral, or else he won’t come to yours.

A fresh glance at Babe Ruth, upon the resumption of baseball

My latest post at Banished to the Pen contributes to the spirit of the opening of a new baseball season with a quick look back at one of the game’s most accomplished players.

It is nice to see the rookies of today showing respect for their elders, but modern celebrants of the game sometimes fear that reexaminations of their childhood heroes will alter their images and understandings of past giants in adverse fashion. For Babe Ruth, a truncated, targeted retrospective does serve to modify the Ruthian folk zeitgeist, but, in his case, it does so exclusively to enhance the stature of the Sultan.

The full post is available here.

Upton Abbey: Season Two Preview

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Upton Abbey is our Atlanta Braves series, now in its second season. B.J. and Justin Upton are off to rough starts, but overall, the state of Upton Abbey is strong. Tune in all season long right here on ALDLAND.

The Braves are opening at home this week with series against division foes New York and Washington. They started the season on the road in Milwaukee and Washington, going 4-2 on that trip, dropping just one game in each city.

Atlanta’s young, ascendant starting pitchers were the story heading into the season. That talent vanished with still-shocking swiftness, duplicate round-two Tommy John surgeries, and other injuries clearing out the bulk of the rotation. Still, the remaining starters, led by Julio Teheran and Alex Wood, have looked pretty good so far. Craig Kimbrel remains the best closer in the game, so that’s something that will help reassure a young, trembling group of starters. Reliever Luis Avilan’s hamstring injury, suffered this week, is cause for concern, but you’re getting the theme pretty clearly at this point.

The main non-injury offseason personnel event was the departure of free agent catcher Brian McCann to the Yankees. While the still-raw Evan Gattis (and the wily Gerald Laird) may be able to replace some of McCann’s hitting, we should pause here to note the likely dropoff when it comes to the glove. From 2008-13, McCann was the best catcher in baseball in terms of pitch framing; Laird and fellow Braves backup catcher Ryan Doumit were among the ten worst over that period.

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ALDLAND will be at Turner Field for two games this week. Tonight, Commodawg and AD will catch the rubber match in this opening series with the Mets. On Sunday, Physguy comes to town to join AD for the third game of the Nationals series. Stay tuned here and on twitter for the freshest insights and hottest updates.

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Related
Preseason BP Nuggets
A Boy, His Granddad and the Monumental Courage of Henry Aaron (via The Bitter Southerner)

Baseball Notes: Lineup Protection
From Barves to Burbs: What’s Happening to Baseball in Atlanta?