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July 21, 2015 Robert O'Connell
WATCHING DALLAS KEUCHEL, A FUZZIER, SLOWER CLAYTON KERSHAW
Like so many baseball upstarts, the Astros were built by way of prospect-hoarding and inefficiency—exploitation and a couple seasons of sheer willed suckitude; unlike most of those teams, they are very much in a pennant race. As an unavoidable result of the process through which they came to be, their players are connected to one another less by stylistic ideology than by proximity on the spectra of ability and attainability. They are variations on the theme of budding talent, or the ones that were available.
Jose Altuve, a stumpy lifetime long shot turned batting champion, turns double plays with 20-year-old rookie shortstop Carlos Correa, a former first overall pick who at every point of his developmental curve has done exactly what was hoped for. Colby Rasmus, a source of hope and frustration at every stop of his career to this point, is having his best season since Tony La Russa booted him out of St. Louis a half decade ago. Evan Gattis arrived via Atlanta, via Venezuelan winter ball, via a janitorial gig. This is an overdetermined movie script that became an overachieving baseball team.
While Houston presently has just about every iteration of ascendant ballplayer, the one sitting closest to that nexus might be their most valuable asset. Dallas Keuchel, the team's left-handed ace, is, at age 27, young but not prodigiously so, and gifted but not instantaneously mind-boggling. He is also making a strong case to be the American League Cy Young winner, just as the Astros are emerging as something like a contender.
If you watch Keuchel pitch, which you should, the first thing you will notice is his beard. This is not your fault. The beard is long and hideous. It would look equally at home in a Rembrandt portrait, on the face of a wan and ponderous clergyman, as it would hanging from an uncleaned gutter in late fall or early winter, after some early snow has combined with packed leaves to form a pulpy composite clot.
Such facial foliage is found on a great many indistinct, indistinguishable middle relievers across baseball, who all throw the same hard but erratic fastball and spin the same spasmodic slider. The beard, amid baseball's present surplus of like arms, suggests that Keuchel is the starter version of those artless, overscruffed bullpen men, but stick it out for a couple moments and you will discover more finery than you bargained for. Dallas Keuchel is different.
In the immediate company of baseball's finest pitchers, Keuchel can underwhelm. As the starter for the American League side at the All-Star game in Cincinnati, he was surrounded by arms pulled straight from baseball concept sketches. Felix Hernandez relieved Keuchel in the third and lobbed in magnetized curveballs; David Price, who throws 94 while yawning, entered in the fourth. By the game's midpoint, Keuchel's competent pair of early innings—one unearned run, one K, a sprinkling of ground-ball outs—was forgotten, and his repertoire seemed obsolete.
Keuchel is a sinkerballer, a phylum of pitchers whose talents tend to last but not to dazzle. At its zippiest, Keuchel's fastball will hit 92; it is most effective a notch slower than that, cruising toward the plate at 89 or 90 and dropping a baseball's height in the final frame. He also uses a fine, sweeping slider and a downy change. This is not pyrotechnic stuff, not any of it.
This M.O., maximized, has historically served as the foundation of decade-spanning careers that reach the lower tiers of excellence. Think of Tim Hudson, the current dean of sinkerballers, who is now pitching his final season at age 40. Hudson spent almost two decades atop some very good pitching staffs and, as his skills eroded, settled helpfully into the middle of others. His career represents something of a best-case scenario; the fickle luck of Rick Porcello or Justin Masterson is more common for this sort of pitcher.
Keuchel's present success, then, is both a continuation and an expansion of the genre. He has the tics and tempo of his forebears. There's the familiar watchful windup, like he's searching for a clue regarding the batter's strategy and intention right up until moment the pitch leaves the fingertips; the same squared-up follow-through; and the readiness to help his own cause as a fielder. (Keuchel won a Gold Glove last year.) He works quickly, keeping his defense engaged, and exactly, hitting his spots as if simply sliding a cored ball along a wire connecting his hand to the catcher's mitt.
The central joy of watching a master sinkerballer is in the plainness of the allegory. He gets by on parlor tricks while his peers practice high science. He is a lint-pocketed gambler in a billionaire's casino. Each loping fastball that prompts a home-run swing but produces, by some miracle of minute degree, a ground out to third seems a triumph of an old, pre-digital knack, a tally for feel in an age increasingly ruled by formula.
Keuchel does a bit more than carry on the tradition of a particular baseball nuance, though. On the last night of June, the Astros hosted the Kansas City Royals, one of the best offensive teams in the league. Five days after pitching a complete-game shutout against the Yankees, Keuchel brusquely breezed through eight scoreless innings. The Royals, accustomed to shooting line drives to every corner of the field, simply tapped and nubbed the ball around the infield. Fastballs caught corners or changeups fell just off them; bats scraped the tops of these pitches and were deposited in the grass while their owners commenced unhappy jogs to first.
Against Royals left fielder Alex Gordon, Keuchel showed how he has attained the type of success ordinarily off limits to his ilk. Gordon faced him three times, each ending in a strikeout. That cognizant fastball, not content here with merely hoping for meek contact, scrambled Gordon's radar early in counts, catching the plate when he held his swing and ducking off when he let loose. The off-speed offerings coaxed the final airy hacks in each at-bat. In these instances, Keuchel tied his traditional talents to some selective version of the strikeout-seeking tactics en vogue among the best modern pitchers. It was like watching Clayton Kershaw at a slower, fuzzier frequency.
Keuchel's ability to speak the dialect of the strikeout when the occasion calls for it—he currently strikes out 7.9 batters per nine innings on average, well back of baseball's premier strikeout artists but significantly ahead of archetypal ground-ball pitchers—has had the practical and immediate effect of elevating him from high-end innings-eater to true ace. This is a valuable thing for a club currently embroiled in an ahead-of-schedule division race.
More happily for those without an emotional investment in the Astros, it gives Keuchel's stranger, subtler talents a brighter stage and greater import. Baseball is stuffed with flamethrowing cyborgs who can strike out 11 on a given night. Dallas Keuchel doesn't always do that, and doesn't need to. He's more welcome than ever, and he's not going anywhere.
“The pitches that break down and late are the toughest to hit, so if you call those pitches strikes, it becomes even harder.”
As player complaints rise, separating fact from fiction about the strike zone
Photo: Alex Brandon/AP
BY TOM VERDUCCI Posted: Tue Jul. 21, 2015
To the weather, summer road construction, airline baggage fees and Congress, you can add the strike zone as guaranteed kindling for gripe sessions. Indeed, MLB vice president Joe Torre has been conducting such sessions with players as he travels around ballparks. He has heard so much second-hand grousing about the strike zone that he thought it was a good idea to listen to the players and to shoot down any misconceptions they have.
"The number one thing I want to get across to them is that this has nothing to do with the pace of play initiatives," Torre said. "I don’t want them to think more strikes are getting called for a faster pace, because that’s not the case."
I asked Torre about the size of the strike zone. A swell is building among hitters that the zone is getting larger, particularly at the bottom of the zone.
"The numbers tell us there’s no change in pitches being called strikes at the bottom of the zone," he said. "It’s the same as last year. Now last year it was a little [lower] than the year before that."
Complaints about the strike zone are a baseball tradition. The volume of such complaints seems to have grown this year—almost entirely from hitters. On Sunday, Bryce Harper of the Nationals, when asked about another scoreless start by the Dodgers' Zack Greinke, said, “When you’re getting six inches off the plate, it’s tough to face him.”
The size of the strike zone never has been more important because the overall quality of pitchers’ stuff never has been better. Said Washington infielder Danny Espinosa, “The pitches that break down and late are the toughest to hit, so if you call those pitches strikes, it becomes even harder.”
It’s imperative for baseball to get an accurate handle on how much the true strike zone gets stretched—and not from the width-of-a-baseball leeway it gives umpires in their postgame report cards.
Facts trump perception, and that’s the case with these two myths about the offense/defense balance this season:
Myth No. 1: Umpires are calling more strikes.
Fact: The percentage of strikes looking is the lowest it’s been in 14 years.
Myth No. 2: Pitchers are ahead of the hitters early in the season; hitters take over as the weather warms.
Fact: It’s getting harder to score a run this year as the season wears on. Here's the run-scoring per team by month this year entering this week:
July: 3.91oto: Andrew
Let’s face it: Pitching is so darn good these days that the pitchers are better than ever at making balls look like strikes, even to umpires, and especially with the hyper-emphasis on how catchers receive and “present” the ball.
Fourteen times already this year a pitcher has struck out at least 10 batters without allowing a walk or a run—the second most such games in a season in baseball history (topped only by the 21 from last year.) It’s happened as many times just this month (three: twice by the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and once by theAstros' Dallas Keuchel) as in the entire 2008 season.
"Have you looked at our schedule for the next two weeks?” Harper asked me last Friday before the Nationals opened the second half against Los Angeles. “It’s ridiculous how many great arms we see, one after another.” The gauntlet looked like this: Kershaw, Greinke, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, A.J. Burnett, Gerrit Cole,Jose Fernandez, Tom Koehler, Dan Haren, Harvey, deGrom and Syndergaard.
That's a 15-game stretch against the Dodgers, Mets, Pirates,Marlins and Mets again in which nine games have been or will be started by six of the 20 hardest throwing starters in the league and in which six games will be started by 2015 All-Stars. The composite ERA for the starters Washington will see over the 15 games is 2.64, with 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings.
The Nationals, off to a 2–2 start in the second half against that stiff competition, are ill-equipped to deal with such pitching with half their everyday lineup on the DL (infielders Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman and outfielders Denard Span and Jayson Werth). Because of the injuries, the Nats are a poor defensive team (only Philadelphia is worse in the league in defensive effieciency), a bad two-strike hitting team (only the Cubs are worse) and a bad base running team (14th in steals and 11th at taking the extra base). A huge year by Harper and their amazingly efficient, strike-zone-pounding pitching staff is keeping them afloat.
By the end of the season, though, the Nationals and Dodgers figure to be the two best teams in baseball—Washington by getting healthy and Los Angeles by adding talent through trades and promotions. And both teams will be loaded to the gills with pitching.
“As an evaluator you need to understand how that happens and when it applies to individual hitters.”
by Dan Farnsworth - July 21, 2015
The adage that power is the last tool to develop floats around every year when trying to explain why a certain prospect has or has not realized his raw power in game situations. When I first heard the idea, it made sense. A hitter’s power develops as he gets stronger getting into his early-to-mid-20s, and… that was enough for me. The problem with this concept is that many of these hitters whose power we expect to develop sometime in the future already have the ability, just not the means to use it regularly. It’s not, in other words, merely a matter of getting it done in the weight room. And oftentimes, the smooth-stroking high-average doubles hitter never gets any attention for his power, then becomes a home-run monster as he matures. As an evaluator you need to understand how that happens and when it applies to individual hitters.
For this noninclusive inquiry, I wanted to look at two hitters lumped into the first group, those believed to have the raw power to be legitimate home-run hitters and how that power has or hasn’t manifested itself in the professional game. In looking at how hitters are able or unable to tap into their raw power skills, we can have a better idea of how to evaluate whether other players will be able to develop those skills into tangible results. Xander Bogaerts and Carlos Correa provide two excellent examples of this paradigm. Bogaerts has shown he can hit for moderate power in the minors against age-advanced competition, but has not yet brought it to Boston in his young career. Correa has started to showcase his power in the early going this year, though prior to this season it was more projection than demonstration. He was touted as a five-tool prospect going into the draft, and our own Kiley McDaniel graded him out in October as having a present 60 raw power tool (65 potential) with a 55 potential game power ability, or approximately 19-22 homers per season.
If you have seen how hard these two young players can hit the ball, I doubt anyone would disagree that both of them have the strength to hit 20+ home runs, even at present. By looking at how they have swung recently and in the past, we can get an idea of what adjustments they will have to make and have already made, and whether it really is just a matter of packing on muscle, or perhaps growing more comfortable facing big-league pitching.
Correa is a particularly interesting case to me from an evaluation standpoint. He obviously oozes with tools, yet I believed there to be legitimate reason why he would not reach the 20-homer plateau for a season in his career. Fellow FanGraphs writer David Temple and I went as far as making a bet on whether Correa would ever reach 25 home runs in a year. Since I don’t bet on hitters making big changes, especially ones that have had a fair amount of success doing things naturally, I took the under. Check out a couple swings from his early minor-league career to see what gave me pause.
There is very little natural lift to this swing. Try to trace the path of his hands from start to contact; notice how the direction is down all the way to the ball, followed by a roll of the wrists to take the bat out of the hitting zone. So there is never a point in his swing here where the barrel is coming through the ball on an ascending plane. It’s all down. Of course, you can certainly still hit a ball far this way, but it is completely reliant on hitting the right spot on the ball, and doing so with a ton of force. If the direction of the swing is down, and the desired exit angle is more up, you’re not going to get all the momentum to transfer from the bat to the ball. Contrast that with this guy:
Paul Goldschmidt is an unfair comparison for any young hitter, but here I just wanted to use him as a demonstration for how the swing itself can provide opportunities to use power in game. The big differences here are evident before the hands come past the back hip.
Correa’s back shoulder is already turning in as the hips fire, bringing the hands across the middle of his right bicep, not getting into the plane of the pitch until right before contact. Goldschmidt’s right shoulder stays facing the camera, allowing the elbow and hands to drop in deeper in the zone, putting the rest of his swing in line with the desired result: a line drive or hard fly ball. Accordingly, his hands don’t roll over at contact, and his posture stays more upright on top of his legs, giving him more efficient use of his strength and the ability to lift pitches whether he catches them deep or out in front. The result: a higher likelihood of consistently generating power.
There’s obviously an encouraging trend for Correa in this department, though, so far as results are concerned (as if his fans were devoid of optimism). So far this season Correa has popped 18 home runs (eight of them in the big leagues) in about a half-season of at bats. Here are a couple of his swings from earlier this month:
If we use the same checkpoint for where his hands come through, you can see he is still bringing them down as they come forward, crossing his back arm just above the elbow. But they do level off much earlier in the zone than a few years ago. And he does still turn his back shoulder into the ball earlier than what we saw with Goldschmidt. Unsurprisingly then, he is putting up a higher-than-average rate of ground balls (48.6% to 45.4% league average), with a lot of low line drives and hard grounders. For a guy who hits the ball as hard as Correa does, it’s fun to dream on what he could do if there were more high line drives and hard fly balls.
Though there is still a lot of downward direction to his hand path, this swing is obviously much more viable for a strong hitter looking to put up good power numbers. I don’t know if I would say he’s a definite 20-homer major-leaguer yet, but this is absolutely a step in that direction. Hitters change slightly from year to year, and we have to hope this is a trend and not a natural variation. It assuredly puts Temple in a better position on our bet if the change holds or improves.
On to our other case, Xander Bogaerts has already shown he can hit for power in the mid-teens over a couple years in the minor leagues. In 2013, over the Double-A and Triple-A levels, he put up a .180 isolated slugging with 15 home runs before throwing in his first big-league dinger the same year. Last year, those numbers dipped to .123 and 12 in Boston, respectively, though it was easy to see that as a growth year being his first time at the highest level of the game. Through the All-Star break this year, those numbers have gone down even further, to a light .108 ISO with 3 homers. Obviously he’s been valuable regardless, but we’re looking specifically at power development for these two young players. So what gives?
First a few swings from his 2011 season in Single-A Greenville, where he hit 16 homers in 249 plate appearances:
Here we see some similar qualities to the earlier version of Correa. The first clip shows his hands coming across the middle of his bicep, not getting into plane until they pass his belly button, where they level off and come slightly up through contact. In the second clip, they come down to the level of the pitch earlier, but continue to go down through contact so that when they first get extended they’re pointing at the ground ten feet in front of home plate. He doesn’t roll over like we saw with Correa, but there is still a lot of “swing down” to his mechanics here. The more obvious issue is how it looks like his shoulders turn in front of hips, so much that it almost looks like he’s fooled and out in front of pitches. That leaves his upper body looking like it’s leaning toward the pitcher: not a great spot to be if your timing gets challenged consistently by better pitching.
Here he is playing for Pawtucket in 2013:
Bogaerts’ hands look better in the first portion of his hand path behind his body, and it does seem like he’s doing more work with his lower half than the previous swings. It is still apparent that the back shoulder wants to turn the hands into the zone early, so they continue to travel level or slightly down all the way to contact. He once more gets into extension pointing towards the ground, only starting to ascend again once he’s through the ball and releasing with his top hand. It is like he has to catch the ball far in front of his body to have a chance to elevate it, a couple frames after the strongest parts of his body have finished firing.
His 2014 season showed many of the same swings, though there were flashes of even better movements starting to come out, like in this home run:
And in 2015 some have looked even better:
Better balance and some obviously better lift there. BUT, the caveat with the last two is the location of the pitches. Though the swings look better when tracing his hand path and looking at his finish and balance, his first move with his hands and back shoulder is to go straight forward towards contact. Because both are relatively higher pitches and the fact that the hands start around shoulder level, a straight line to the ball ends up being a lot more on plane with the pitch than a lower location. In fact, the 2014 pitch is about half-a-foot lower, and his resulting extension is lower concurrently. This makes sense with what we have seen from Bogaerts since the start of the 2014 season, where he has only really punished pitches middle and slightly up and in. Here is his ISO broken down by location:
Because he throws his hands forward and his shoulder turn happens so early, another byproduct is the concentration of his power almost exclusively to his pull side. Over his young career, he has a .223 ISO to left field, but a .113 and .083 to center and left, respectively. There are guys who can sustain long careers only pulling the ball for power, but Bogaerts has strong enough physical tools that that should not be his only strength. Hopefully he can make the necessary adjustments to be a well-rounded power hitter. Despite his strong season thus far, like Correa he is hitting ground balls at a higher than average clip, all the way up at 51.3%. When you watch him swing at most pitches, you can see why that is:
A guy with his talent can get by as a very valuable player without being a serious home-run threat. He can join the ranks of hundreds of other hitters who had loads of power but were never fully able to harness it.
Without going into too much discussion, I wanted to show a few clips of another hitter whose power arrived late, in a similar way to how we hope these two young players will develop: Carlos Gomez. Here he is in 2010 and 2011, throwing his hands at the ball:
And here he is in present day doing what he’s now known for:
Notice anything different about how his hands work?
There are a few interesting points illuminated by how both Bogaerts’ and Correa’s power has developed. Hitting for power in batting practice, or even the minor leagues, does not guarantee being able to showcase it at the big-league level. Also, when projecting a player as he matures, it is irresponsible to believe he will develop game power simply by getting stronger. If Bogaerts in particular doesn’t change something about his swing or mental approach, he may not be more than a mid-teens pop kind of guy. Mechanical and mindset changes don’t just happen naturally, and we cannot assume that the catch-all “great makeup” label with which every top prospect gets branded on their scouting reports is enough to ensure they will figure things out. Carlos Gomez, like many talented young hitters who hit the ball hard, had to consciously change his approach and swing to fully utilize his physical gifts. So will these two.
July 18, 2015 Joe Stiglich
OAKLAND – When Tommy Milone takes the mound Sunday at the Coliseum, the opposing uniform will look very familiar.
The players inside those uniforms won’t.
Just four A’s position players currently on the 25-man roster remain from the time Milone pitched in green and gold from 2012-14. Two of those players, Josh Reddick and Eric Sogard, may not even face Milone on Sunday as they often don’t play against left-handed pitchers. A third, Billy Burns, was promoted from the minors last season just three days before Oakland dealt Milone to the Minnesota Twins on July 31.
“Most of the players I know are pitchers, so it’s not really gonna help (as far as a scouting report),” Milone said with a smile Saturday. “I’ll just treat it like any other start. There’s going to be a little more incentive, maybe a little more excitement I guess, being back in Oakland. But it’s the same game regardless.”
Milone is faring well in the Twins rotation, sporting a 5-1 record and 2.84 ERA for a team that finds itself currently in one of the American League’s two wild card spots. He spent all of May in the minors and said he benefited from some mechanical adjustments he made.
After the A’s plethora of trades last season and during the winter, this season is marked by several former Athletics returning to the Coliseum to renew acquaintances. Third baseman Josh Donaldson will do the same when his Toronto Blue Jays arrive Tuesday.
Milone may not have the star power of other players shipped out of Oakland, but he was a popular clubhouse figure. If you’re a subscriber to the theory that some of the A’s transactions in 2014 affected team chemistry in a negative way, Milone’s demotion to Triple-A on July 5 of last season was a noteworthy event.
After the A’s acquired Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs, room needed to be cleared in the starting rotation, and Milone was optioned to the minors even though he had gone 6-0 with a 2.62 ERA over his previous 11 starts. Shortly after, news broke that Milone made a trade request. Hours before last year’s trade deadline, he was dealt to Minnesota in exchange for outfielder Sam Fuld.
“It wasn’t like a ‘Here, trade me type thing,’” Milone says now. “Obviously it wasn’t something that was supposed to be (public). It’s just one of those things that if they felt there wasn’t a spot open up here, then I’d like to see if there’s an opportunity elsewhere. And I guess it presented itself with Sam Fuld being available.
“It’s kind of bittersweet to leave after a few years of being here, leaving some of the guys and the coaching staff. But there was an opportunity.”
Said Sogard: “He was definitely a great guy in the clubhouse. It was a tough loss for some of us (when Milone was demoted last year), but we understand it’s a business in the long run. It’s good that he got an opportunity over there.”
Twins catcher (and former Athletic) Kurt Suzuki said he lobbied the Twins coaching staff last year to acquire Milone when he was in the minors with Oakland. He’s happy they got a chance to reunite.
“He looks like the Tommy we’ve seen since he first (began pitching) for Oakland,” Suzuki said.
New Order: What’s Behind the Sudden Surge in Pitchers Batting Eighth?
TAYLOR BAUCOM/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES
Aside from clutch performance and the ongoing hunt for the hot hand, there’s no subject in sports whose ratio of shrug-worthy research to significant findings trumps that of baseball’s batting order. Analysts have tried to check the work of managers by building lineup simulators and looking into whether their lineup cards satisfy certain batting-order best practices, but they’ve generally found that real-world deviations from the ideal are worth very little relative to the consternation they cause, and that’s without accounting for player preferences that might make statistically suboptimal lineups smarter than they appear from afar. Lineup mistakes are galling for fans because they’re unforced errors, identifiable instances of teams appearing to pass up free runs by neglecting one of the few factors on the field they can completely control. But in almost all cases, a manager would have to intentionally sabotage himself, disobeying both the book and The Book, for batting order alone to make a meaningful difference in his team’s playoff odds. The smaller, more common mistakes, like slotting a hitter one or two spots away from the perfect position, just don’t matter that much.
One popular (and particularly inconsequential) lineup-analysis subgenre that has become particularly relevant this year centers on the debate about the pitcher’s place in the order. For most of baseball history, the 9-hole pitcher was close to an ironclad rule: Early in his career, even Babe Ruth batted ninth, because that’s where tradition (reasonably enough, in most cases) said the starter belonged. The practice held, with rare exceptions, until July 9, 1998, when Cardinals manager Tony La Russa batted Todd Stottlemyre eighth, ending a leaguewide streak of 9-hole starts by pitchers that had started on June 1, 1979, after Steve Carlton batted eighth for the Phillies. La Russa hit his starter eighth 76 more times that season, but no other team tried it that year. La Russa then abandoned the idea the following season, which led to a drought that lasted until 2004.
The “pitcher in the eighth spot” strategy is an attempt to balance two conflicting goals: minimizing the number of plate appearances the pitcher makes, and putting more runners on base for the productive hitters at the top of the lineup. The thinking is sound, but it’s tough to argue that teams have been leaving a lot of runs unscored by not following La Russa’s lead. Study after study has shown that the tactic offers at best an infinitesimal edge: two or three runs per season in the right lineup, ornone in the wrong one. La Russa took the plunge in order to put more runners on in front of peak, PED-powered Mark McGwire. Before he made the change, the Cardinals scored 4.9 runs per game; afterward, theyraised their rate to five. That increase didn’t necessarily stem from the lineup change, but an improvement of that modest magnitude is what we would expect to see when this strategy works.
The benefit of bumping up the pitcher varies by team. “We have tried it in the past and we just didn’t figure we had the right bats in the lineup to make it work — an elite no. 3 hitter or somebody who could hit no. 9 that could serve as a second leadoff hitter,” one assistant GM whose team hasn’t used the strategy this season told me via email. “I think the key, obviously, is getting more opportunities with runners on base for your best hitters, but we have shied away from using it this year because of personnel.” Tony Blengino, a former analyst for the Brewers and Mariners, added, “We did this for a while when I was with Milwaukee. It makes a lot of sense when your regular no. 8 hitter is a decent OBP guy with little power, like Jason Kendall was for us at the time. There just haven’t been a lot of those guys around, with runs scored declining without a proportional decline in HR.” But even in the ideal scenario, it almost certainly isn’t going to make or break the season. As another assistant GM said, “It hasn’t been discussed much because we don’t feel strongly either way is meaningfully better. Batting order isn’t nearly as important as it sometimes appears, and the benefit of batting the pitcher eighth is tiny if it exists at all.”
Despite that ambivalence and the lineup studies, the industry as a whole has embraced the eighth-place pitcher to an unprecedented degree this season. According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, only 861 games since 1914 have featured a starting pitcher in the second-to-last lineup spot. Almost 20 percent of those games have come in 2015. The following graph shows the number of games in which teams batted the pitcher eighth, and the number of teams that tried it, by year:
In the early 1950s, Casey Stengel occasionally batted his pitcher eighth, or even seventh, albeit because he believed that in some cases, his pitcher wasn’t his worse offensive option. In 1957, the idea was adopted by Indians manager Lou Boudreau, who was also instrumental in popularizing the shift, a strategy that wasn’t widely accepted for decades. But both of those potential movements died out, like sparks that couldn’t quite catch. Even La Russa’s 1998 endorsement didn’t do it, and while 2008 — when La Russa brought it back, this time with Albert Pujols in place of McGwire — seemed to usher in a resurgence, the frequency declined over the following few seasons.
This season, though, there have been 162 games in which the pitcher batted eighth,1 putting us on pace to shatter the 2008 record of 222. Even more notably, 11 teams have used the strategy at least once — three-fifths of NL clubs, and even two AL teams (the Twins and Angels). That buy-in more than doubles the previous high of five teams from 2009.
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES
If batting the pitcher eighth isn’t a new, paradigm-changing inefficiency that’s going to take teams to titles, why did the kindling crackle now? Baseball’s sudden embrace of the tactic tells us more about the state of the sport than it does about a specific strategy. We can draw several conclusions from the new-look lineups we’ve seen this season:
Baseball Is a Copycat, Cover-Your-Ass Sport: The successor to Stengel, Boudreau, and La Russa is new Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who’s batted his pitcher eighth 80 times, almost half of the 2015 total.2 A seal of approval from a prominent, respected manager like Maddon, on a high-profile team that was expected to contend, makes other managers think twice about a strategy they might otherwise have dismissed. It also makes it an easier sell to skeptical fans, media members, and ownership. “Part of the reason [use of the pitcher in the eighth spot] has spiked … is also sort of a ‘safety in numbers’ approach, where a manager is more willing to defy convention if he’s not the only (or one of a few) doing it,” said one NL executive. “Sort of how the defensive shifts skyrocketed — once it became ‘acceptable,’ a lot of teams adopted the strategy. [La Russa] had enough of a reputation in the game (and job security with ownership) that he didn’t have to worry about getting ripped for making an unconventional move, but most managers didn’t have that luxury.”
Maddon does have that luxury: He just signed the most lucrative contract of any National League manager. When the model manager starts doing something with the full support of a front office whose members have won World Series elsewhere, it’s hard to write off as an ill-advised plan. It’s also hard to ignore when one’s regular opponent is doing it every day. As one AL analyst theorized, “Three of the top four teams are NL Central teams, so maybe there’s some copycatting or a lessened fear of looking different if two of the teams in your division are doing it already.” Maybe there’s also an increased fear of falling behind, which brings us to the next reason:
We’re in an Era of Almost Unprecedented Parity: Perhaps this applies more to the closely contested AL, where as one front-office type put it, “We keep the pitchers where they belong … on the bench, behind a DH.” But the NL’s top teams aren’t exactly running away with their respective divisions: The Dodgers’ 4.5-game lead in the West is the largest of any division leader in the senior circuit. And when there’s so little daylight separating the top teams in the standings, it’s more likely that a few runs — which, once in a while, will add an extra win — could actually account for the difference between making and missing the playoffs.
Front Offices (and by Extension, Managers) Are More Open-Minded and Data-Driven: The argument for batting the pitcher eighth isn’t entirely counterintuitive, but the evidence is mostly based on statistics and simulations. That makes it more abstract: It’s not as if a difference of two or three runs over 162 games is apparent to everyone watching, and it can’t be proved that a few extra runners on for an “RBI guy” resulted from the switch. But baseball’s decision-makers are more analytically minded than they once were, and they’re more likely to hire analytically minded managers who won’t reject an idea solely because it makes lineups look different from the ones they’re used to. “Obviously, most front offices are now willing to at least consider such out-of-the-box ideas, compared to just a handful a decade or so ago,” Blengino said. “It also appears to be one of the areas where the old school has some overlap with the new school.”
Offense Is Down: Last year, scoring reached levels that baseball hadn’t seen since the early 1980s. In an environment in which runs are scarce, teams are more desperate to create them. “This is the first time really in MLB history that you have close to one fast, low-offense, everyday player per NL team (since everyone cares about defense again) and almost all teams are valuing not making outs,” said one NL executive.
The added value of each out has made teams consider smaller edges that (rightly or wrongly) they might be less likely to prioritize when runs are flowing freely. “I think in a lot of situations the traditional NL eighth–place hitter is a much worse hitter than whoever is pinch hitting,” said one AL executive. “So managers would prefer to pinch hit for the pitcher’s spot in a high-leverage situation later in the game as opposed to letting the horrific-hitting shortstop or catcher hit with two on in the seventh inning.”
It’s a Year of Young Hitters: This season has seen an extraordinary number of highly ranked prospects make their major league debuts, as part of a larger youth movement in baseball. One of Maddon’s motivations for moving up his pitchers was a desire to put rookie shortstop Addison Russell, who’s hit ninth for the Cubs, in a better position to see good pitches than he would if he were hitting in front of the starter, where opponents would pitch around him. Maddon might not be the only manager with player development on his mind.
One AL executive speculated that the change in pitchers’ lineup position could be traced to “more managers using their best hitters in the 2-spot and not wanting the pitcher’s spot to feed directly into the best hitter in the lineup.” But even though early returns suggested that teams might be paying more attention to the sabermetric mandate that the best hitter bat second, no. 3 and no. 4 hitters still tend to be the strongest.
That relic of old-school lineup construction still appears to be entrenched, but the increased flexibility of the pitcher’s spot points to increased flexibility in the way baseball brain trusts think, as well as the heightened competition that stems in part from a greater uniformity in front offices. Relative to the league, pitchers have never been more ineptat the plate than they have been in recent seasons. But for a variety of rational reasons, Major League Baseball is coming to the conclusion that burying them at the bottom of the lineup is the wrong approach to take.