Braves Prospect Tyrell Jenkins Makes First MLB Start: LIVE BLOG

Howdy Braves fans… and anyone else who’s joined the party. Tyrell Jenkins is making his MLB debut today for the Braves, as they battle the Phillies in a contest featuring the worst teams of the NL East.

In a lost season, keeping tabs on our young talent is the best we Braves fans can do to engage in  the season in a positive manner. In this spirit, I’ll be live blogging Jenkins’ start right here, moment to moment. Can’t catch the game because of this or that? Check in with Modern Pastime over the next few hours to keep track of the youngster’s first start, and ask me questions you’d like to see answered in the comments. Cheers.


PRE-GAME

Jenkins has been throwing out of the ‘pen for a bit now, so keep an eye on his pitch count. Snitker will likely have him on a short leash.

1ST INNING

First pitch fastball to Herrera goes for a base hit up the middle. 

Jenkins gets a weak ground out, Herrera to 2nd.

According to StatCast, Jenkins has thrown all fastballs so far. Oops, there’s a change up as I type.

Asche pops out to Right-Center on another heater.

Franco grounds out harmlessly to SS to end the frame quietly. 

The Phillies slugger, who has 16 homers on the year, fouled a FB out of play with a 3-0 count before the ground out.

That’s 15 pitches so far for Jenkins, 9 for strikes. Almost exclusively heaters so far. 

SECOND INNING

Poor start to the frame, as Ruiz draws a walk on four straight FBs out of the zone.

Jenkins, as usual, is sporting the high stirrups. Another reason he’s building a reputation as a fan favorite, depending on how you feel about stirrups.

Tommy Joseph singles opposite field through the rights side on a FB.

Aybar makes a nice charging play to get an out at first on Galvis, but both runners advance.

Hernandez grounds out to Freeman, runners hold. 2 outs now. 

Jenkins mixed in a couple of change ups to Galvis, which were successful. Let’s hope he mixes his pitches well for the rest of the way, though he has not given up damaging contact yet sticking almost exclusively to FBs. Perhaps we’ll see Jenkins change his approach as the line up flips to the second time through.

Jenkins uses 4 more FBs to get a ground out out of Hellickson, which required another slick play from Aybar. 

During his first AB, TJ got a bunt down and showed his athleticism and presence of mind getting down the line in fair territory, potentially contributing to an error on the play. Jenkins is 6’4, and really looks like a natural athlete out there. 

THIRD INNING 

The Braves grabbed an early lead on a Freeman RBI via walk with ’em loaded. Let’s see how Jenkins looks as he gets to the second time through the order this frame.

With Herrera batting a second time, already Jenkins is mixing up his pitches. Herrera saw one fast ball, two sliders and two change ups. He struck out swinging on a change. 

Bourjous hits a first pitch slider hard to Right, but Markakis takes a great route and makes the running catch. 

Jenkins gets Asche to pop out to Adonis via a fastball. Inning FIN. 

FOURTH INNING

In his second AB, Jenkins flew out to dead center. He put good barrel on what was a 90 mph from Hellickson, right down the middle. It was a 2-2 count, making that twice that the rookie has down something reasonably hitter-looking with two strikes in this game. Always encouraging to see pitchers who look like they’ve swung the stick before. 

Jenkins indeed mixed in more of his breaking ball and change as the order turned over in the 3rd. He sits at 43 pitches through 3 innings, 25 for strikes. With some quick outs, I imagine Jenkins has a chance to get through the 5th today (remembering that he is likely on a precautionary pitch count, having not exceeded four innings sincebeing called up in late June).

Franco hits a screamer to Adonis for the first out. It was an 89 mps FB. 

Ruiz grounds out on a 3-1 FB. 50 pitches with 2 down. 8 straight retired. 

Joseph grounds out to Aybar sharply, in the hole at SS, to end the inning.

That’s 9 in a row set down by Jenkins, who is working efficiently against a team that has been swinging the bats pretty well as of late.

According to Pitchf/x, Jenkins is averaging 93 mph on his FB since being called up this year, all obviously out of the bullpen. Today, he is sitting more 89-91. It’s speculative, but I’d imagine this is intentional so as to pace himself throughout the start. This brings up an interesting question: is there any harm in the move to the bullpen for the rookie? More specifically, how might we quantify the health risks of moving a guy between starting and relieving roles? Jenkins seems mentally mature, but he is also young and hungry, just the type of player who won’t complain if erratic pitch counts are making his shoulder feel funny, for example. Something to ponder, being that all we really have to ponder this year is the work of our front office and management. Le sigh.

FIFTH INNING

Freddy Galvis singles through what would have been SS, beating a ‘violent’ shift. 

Galvis steals 2B on a hit and run swing and miss. AJ really is terrible defensively, but you knew that.

Hernandez  singles to RF, where Jeff Francoer lives and, in this case, throws out Freddy Galvis trying to score. Silly Freddy. What an accurate throw and quick release by Frenchy.

The pitcher Hellickson grounds out on a FB, moving Hernandez to third. 

And that does it for our youngster Tyrell Jenkins, as Snitker comes on with the hook.

Shortly after, Ian Krol gives up a double to tie the game. That closes the book on a solid start for Jenkins.

Predictably, Joe Simpson immediately started complaining about the fact the Tyrell wouldn’t be allowed to finish the required 5 innings for the all important pitcher win. Then cue the rest of the announcing team interjecting that Jenkins missed an opportunity to ‘get better,’ and that he had ‘earned the chance’ to finish the inning. These are all, in my eyes, mostly empty sentiments being used to veil the old school reflex that a pitcher should be able to have a chance to get a ‘win.’ Pardon me, but I just can’t miss a chance to reinforce the fact that pitcher wins are easily the silliest popular stat in the game, yet so many voices purveying our game act as if it measures anything or matters. ***steps off soapbox***

 


Reaction

Jenkins looked up-beat  coming out of the game, as he should have. Here is his line:

4.2 IP, 18 batters faced, 64 pitches, 38 strikes, 4 H, 1 R/ER, 1 BB, 1 K

Nothing about the performance looked dominant, but the stuff looked fine, and the command was fine too. Particularly after the first time through the order, he mixed his pitches well. One thing he is not doing so far, however, is miss bats.

Overall, batters are making contact with about 90% of pitches that they swing at against Jenkins. The League rate this year is 78.4%. Looking only at pitches in the strike zone according to Pitchf/x, hitters are making contact essentially 100% of the time. The league rate is currently 86.3%. So far, in a tiny sample, Jenkins is doing a fine job of limiting hard contact; he is better than league median with a Statcast average exit velocity of 88.7 mph.

We’ll see if Jenkins’ stuff proves a bit more elusive as his body of work in 2016 grows. Right now, he looks about as billed: solid back end starter with athletic upside. That ain’t the sort of thing to thumb ones nose at, especially for a rebuilding mid-market club.

Congrats to Tyrell Jenkins on a solid first big league start, and congrats to us Braves fans for having something to holler cheerfully about!

 

 

 

 

 

Scoreless Streak: Hunter Cervenka is a Scrap Heap Hero

Hunter Cervenka is probably a handsome man according to many accounts. Objectively though, he appears more ’80s era MLB space filler than modern era stand out.

Doesn’t matter.

cervenka stache

courtesy of MiLB

Hunter Cervenka has started his big league career this season in sterling fashion, as far as results go. He has yet to give up a run in 14 games. Further, in the Atlanta system, he has yet to give up an earned run over 30 appearances from double A to the bigs.

This is all despite the fact that Cervenka was pithing for the Skeeters of Sugar Land, Texas, only about a year ago.

The Skeeters are part of an independent league, the likes of which are regularly groomed by MLB clubs. It’s not often, though, that players graduate from these little-known leagues and become impactful big leaguers.

So far, so good for Hunter Cervenka, then. Here are the top scoreless appearances streaks for relievers beginning their Braves career:

braves scoreless relievers

That chart no doubt amounts to a ‘fun fact.’ I make no insinuations as to any real significance to Cervenka’s start to 2016, beyond how unique and interesting that it is. We should all see it as overwhelmingly likely that Cervenka will look more human by the end of the season.

Until then though, we best celebrate the small stuff, Braves fans. Hunter Cervenka has been a real scrap heap hero, if there ever was one.

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Who is the Real Julio Teheran?

Julio Teheran’s career arc thus far can seem a little uneven. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly who he is. Let’s try, though.

Early Days

Julio Teheran was signed as a 16 year old out of Columbia on July 3, 2007. From the time he signed, he was heralded as a big time prospect. Indeed, Baseball America listed him as the Bravos’ 10th best farmhand at the time of his signing… as a 16 year old. He stayed on BA’s top 10 Braves list for six straight season (I’ll be referring to BA prospect rankings from here on out). Suffice it to say, Julio was on everybody’s radar from day 1.

After the 2008 season, Julio was ranked third in the organization, behind some dudes named Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward. After 2009, 2010, and 2011, he ranked as the Braves’ top prospect.

That’s hot stuff. But, it’s helpful to remember that he was also touted heavily in the baseball world overall; he ranked as the number five overall prospect among MLB systems after the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Yep. As a rule, the taste makers were sky high on some Julio.

This recap comes as no surprise to many readers. It is likely a source of frustration and distrust towards Teheran for many. When a player is the next big thing for that long, it’s tough for expectations to come to full fruition. After all, how much in life truly lives up to our hopeful lusting?

Bump in the Road

Photo credit: Gwinnett Braves 2011Julio Teheran Gwinnett Braves 2011.

Julio Teheran for the Gwinnett Braves, circa 2011. Credit unknown. 

Frank Wren and company decided Teheran needed some mechanical tweaking ahead of the 2012 campaign, as some Braves fans will remember. The stated intent was to improve his command and reduce what the Braves perceived as injury risks posed by the pitcher’s delivery. The results were disastrous, if minor league performances can be categorized as such. His strikeouts dipped, his home runs sky rocketed, and his overall results followed suit. 2012 saw Teheran’s prospect stock drop from #5 overall in MLB to #44. Frank Wren and his brethren decided to let Julio assume his former delivery after the experiment.

The electric Columbian joined the rotation full time in 2013, and rewarded his club’s decision with a great year on the hill, posting a 3.20 ERA. It was a solid 185.2 innings, and it was followed up with an even better 221-inning effort in 2014. Julio triumphed to a sparkling 2.89 ERA that year. The righty was worth 2.5 and 3.2 fWAR in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Given his large sample size habit of outperforming his FIP, it’s fair to conclude that those WAR figures undersell his value a bit (as Fangraphs calculates pitcher WAR with FIP).

Julio figured into the front end of two fine Braves rotations in 2013 and 2014. Atlanta’s starters ranked 5th best during that two year span in terms of ERA (3.46), 6th best in terms of FIP (3.59), and 8th best in terms of starting pitcher fWAR (25.9).

Let’s stand and observe a moment of silence for the good ole days of recent memory, as far as Atlanta Braves starting pitching goes. Good. Please be seated. 

Needless to say, Julio was a bona fide top flight prospect for a long time and from a young age. His numbers backed it all up as he crept through the system, eliciting drool from Braves faithful that were tuned in. He had a set back that seems straight away attributable to foolish tinkering by his organization (they didn’t try that noise with Alex Wood a few years later), and then burst onto the scene with two above average to great seasons of work.

Where are we now?

Here we’ve arrive at the crux of these digital scribbles. I’ll be the first to express that it feels like Teheran is somehow wavering in the wind between two labels: top of the rotation starter and another in a long line of top pitching prospect let downs. Objectively though, the more pessimistic of the two conclusions is based on one poor season and the memory of his brief struggles as he was on the cusp of the big leagues.

It’s news to no one that Teheran was quite bad in 2015. Not just disappointing for a guy we handed the ball to on Opening Day. Julio was lousy in general. His ERA of 4.04 ranked 55th best out of 78 qualifying pitchers. His BABIP was identical to his 2013 rate, so we can’t dismiss his poor results by profoundly mumbling “bad luck” – as much as we’d like to.

Of course, there’s more to discuss when describing Teheran’s 2015. He was maddeningly different at home and on the road. If you take only his home starts, Teheran sported the 12th best ERA among qualified starters in the bigs, taking his tea directly between Max Scherzer and Madison Bumgardner with a sparkling mark of 2.89. Pretty good company. Take only his road numbers, however, and he was dead last in both ERA and FIP.

The prudent thing to do is probably just not make too much of these splits, as Grade-A-Befuddling as they are, and just look at 2015 for what it was: a troubling season on the heels of two encouraging ones. Maybe Julio become temporarily afraid of airplanes and strangers, or some such thing.

Still, his Jekyll and Hyde 2015 does afford us the ability to isolate a sample of peak Julio and landfill Julio. If we can identify a canary in the coal mine to characterize the failures of his road starts in 2015, then we may be able to draw some conclusions about what makes Good Julio tick, and Bad Julio, well, hang dormant on the wall or whatever.

Julio 1julio 2

Some key numbers that jump off the page when looking at the home/away splits from 2015 are the K%, BB%, OBP, and HR/9 (% of fly balls that are home runs). The data here and below are directly from Fangraphs.

Bad (road) Julio struck out 5.6% fewer batters, walked 1.7% more batters, allowed an OBP nearly 100 points higher, and surrendered slightly more than 1 full HR more per 9 innings. That last one is pretty amazing. Pitchers don’t succumb to home runs that often. That Bad Julio was tagged for long balls that much more frequently than Good (home) Julio is already quite explanatory. When you couple that with Bad Julio’s higher rates of allowing base runners, you can see how his ERA ballooned.

The HR/9 rate seems to be the main driver here, so lets dig in and see what we find.

julio 3

GB: Ground Ball; FB: Fly Ball; LD: Line Drive; IFFB: Infield Fly Ball

On the road, balls put in play against Teheran were fly balls 3.1% more often than during his starts at home. That doesn’t account for the huge difference in home runs, though. It’s the home run per fly ball rate, on the right in the graphic directly above, that tells the story. A WHOPPING 16.7% of Bad Julio’s fly balls left the yard. Teheran gives up a high rate of fly balls, so he’s in big trouble when they start flying out of the yard more often. For context, only 6 pitchers surrendered homers on more than 15% of their fly balls in 2015. If we remove the two pitchers from that short list whose FB% (percentage of balls in play that are fly balls) is lower than 30%, these are the ERA results: 3.91, 4.28, 4.67, and 4.73.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves

Apr 9, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves shortstop Erick Aybar (1) talks with starting pitcher Julio Teheran (49) on the mound during the game against the St. Louis Cardinals during the second inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Simply put, Teheran can’t be Good Julio when his HR/FB rate is high. Especially when he is concurrently allowing a higher rate of batters to reach base.

It’s not really compelling to discover that inflated HR and OBP rates lead to worse pitching outcomes, even coupled with the knowledge that such trends are particularly damaging for fly ball pitchers. What we’d really like to know is why Julio surrendered homers and base runners at his highest rates in 2015.

As I was gathering information for this article, I noticed that the writers at Beyond the Box Score have done some interesting analysis about Teheran in the last two years, complete with great graphics that I’m not including here for sake of space. It’s a great site full of great writers; you should check ’em out. I’ll summarize their conclusions and link to their work, and add some insight from my own observations before finishing up.

  • Murphy Powell demonstrated that Teheran threw pitches up in the zone far less frequently during the first half of 2015, and that this may have led to his reduction in fly ball rates and strike out rates, and an increase in BABIP via higher line drive rates.
  • Kevin Ruprecht found that despite an overall trend of pitching down in the zone more often, Julio kept using his four seam fastball up in the zone as he had in the past. He used this pitch more often in the second half than in the first, which which Ruprecht reasons may have led to much improved HR rates and K rates later in the season.
  • Lastly, Shawn Brody dissected Teheran’s struggles against lefties in 2015, including some interesting analysis of Julio’s move to the opposite side of the rubber in August of that season.

Those three pieces together serve as an excellent analysis of Julio’s down year in 2015. I think that I have something to offer that they are leaving out, though.

Swing Rates on Pitches Outside of the Strike Zone

I’ve already mentioned that Julio walked more batters, struck out fewer, and surrendered a noticeably higher rate of HR per fly ball in 2015, relative to his work during 2013 and 2014. The fellas from BTBS above hit on some interesting factors that may have led to this. But check this out.

The gif below shows swing rates against Teheran’s pitches by zone. There are two ‘slides.’ One shows the rates during his good work during 2013 and 2014, and the other during his poorer work in 2015 (dates are on the top). The ‘hotter/redder’ the zone, the higher the swing rate in that zone, and the ‘colder/bluer’ the zone, the lower the rate. This view is from the catchers perspective, and the 3X3 zone in the middle represents the strike zone.

Atlanta Braves Julio Teheran Swing Rates

These heat maps are courtesy of Brooks Baseball, which is awesome.

Look at the drastic difference in swing rates outside of the zone in the two heat maps. It’s very plain to see: batters offered at pitches that they had a low chance of success against (balls) far more in Teheran’s first two seasons as a full time starter in Atlanta. In 2015, that trend came to an abrupt halt.

It’s clear that it’s to a hitter’s advantage to lay off balls outside the zone. Pitchers will have a tougher time striking you out if you don’t chase, and you will earn more walks this way, as well. Further, if you make contact on pitches outside the zone less, you will naturally get yourself out via weak contact less.

Julio Teheran built his early career success on better than average strike out and walk rates, and by limiting fly ball distance very effectively. He went from above league average in those areas in 2013 and 2014 to below league average in 2015, a season during which hitters also stopped making contact with pitches outside of the zone so much. That does seem pretty compelling.

But why would this happen?

Scouting Reports: it’s very possible that teams wised up. If fans and bloggers can access a pitcher’s habits, just imagine what the data analysts employed by MLB teams have at their disposal. Perhaps the book is out on Teheran’s tendency to pitch out of the zone to get punch outs and weak contact, and the league has adjusted. So far in 2016, it appears batters are chasing a bit more than in 2015, but still less than the previous two seasons.

Command: not all balls are created equal; batters will chase a fastball 3 inches above the zone much more often than a pitch up in the eyes. The same of course goes for anywhere in the zone. An overall decline in ability to throw pitches in an area where batters are likely to chase could have fueled this.

Pitch Sequencing: batters are more likely to chase when they have been set up by the pitch sequencing decided upon by the catcher and the pitcher. During 2015, Teheran threw to a new group of catchers in A.J. Pierzynski, Ryan Lavarnway and Christian Bethancourt. Perhaps these two did a worse job calling the game, and batters reaped the benefits.

It’s difficult to pin point what may have led to the reduced swing rates outside the zone in 2015, but it’s pretty clear that the trend contributed to undesirable outcomes for Teheran.

Looking into the Crystal Ball

2015 was a troubling result for Julio and the Braves. However, we can find some optimism in that he finished the year with positive results during the last two months, and that his numbers are trending in the right direction in 2016 so far. Indeed, his current strike out rate matches his best career mark from 2013, his average length on fly balls is back to a respectable level after sky rocketing to over 300ft in 2015, and his HR/FB rate is back down to just below league average. The walks continue to happen more often than during 2013 and 2014, but they are slightly improved against last season thus far.

That last sentence encapsulates where I think Julio Teheran is right now. He’s better than last year, but not flashing 2014 results, either.

Given his career so far, his start in 2016 should make us feel pretty confident that he is better than the pitcher we saw last season. And it’s not even like he was that bad last year. That being said, there are other trends that should make us skeptical that Julio will consistently dominate the league like we witnessed in his first two seasons as a part of the Atlanta rotation.

Time will tell, as Teheran and the league adjust back and forth to one another in the cat-and-mouse typical of the sport at its highest level. He has good stuff, but as 2015 showed us, he’ll need more than that if he is to regain his early career form and stay at the top of what may be a very good Braves rotation in the future.

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Baseball Is Already Exciting, and Tweaking it Won’t Fool Anyone, Anyway.

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Baseball is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. As it turns out though, there is a lot more to wring our hands over than the puny 162 game schedule would suggest. Just ask the internet.

Exhibit A

For several years now, establishment experts, lauded saber-types, tastemakers, and top brass alike have been lamenting what they see as a dangerous metamorphosis in baseball. In their eyes, the game is losing its jazziness, becoming more boring. The purported risk of this is appealing to fewer young fans and risking the health of the enterprise.

It’s true that age demographics are shifting in baseball, and it’s not something that should be under-appreciated. It’s also true that baseball, as a business, is doing better than ever and is trending upward. So, baseball is healthy, but young people are opting out as a trend. What is the appropriate response to this?

ugly jersey

I used to be more of a fixed-gear bike polo guy, but have you seen that drop in MLB strike out rates lately??? photo via Obsev.com

Generally speaking, writers and representatives of the game have coalesced around the idea that baseball needs more scoring. Increase scoring by a run or two per game, the thinking goes, and the kids will be jitter-bugging their way back to the Polo Grounds in droves. Increase balls in play by, say 10%, and all those extra ground outs, pop ups, and occasional hits will spur adolescents into the streets, fist-bumping in alternate camo jerseys and god knows what other young-person-stuff.

It should be noted here, before I dive on in, that I generally enjoy a game with fewer strike outs, though the occasional display of rabid pitching dominance is certainly not outside of my realm of appreciation. Likewise, I want to go on record as being fully in favor of the current efforts, successful so far, to speed up the game. I harbor this view despite being personally grateful for every second of escapism that baseball affords me. It’s just that I’ve noticed that some other folks actually have other responsibilities and pastimes that they engage in. Go figure.

But dissent is at the heart of these words, because this scoring and strike out rate stuff is of a different ilk than pace of play effots. My position is probably clear by now, but here it is stated plainly: no modest increase in the runs scored in baseball, even those that come via the home run, nor modest increase in balls put in play due to reduced strike outs, nor any other minor tweak, will change how young people or any people perceive the game. Not one iota. 

Here, many writers who are reading this piece (if I’m fortunate) are probably quibbling with my characterization of their proposals, some of which I’ll outline below, as minor tweaks. In a way, I fully agree. A 10% reduction in strike outs and a one to two run increase in scoring per 9 is certainly significant… statistically and historically. Heck, you can even make well reasoned inferences that such changes would alter roster construction and offensive approach in the near term. It’s not that anyone is wrong in venturing that the game can be tweaked to increase offense. It almost certainly can. The problem here amounts to missing the forest for the trees. 

A thought experiment, if you will

Let’s place a hypothetical baseball neophyte in front of a television. Not forcibly or anything! We’ll show the newb 2 different games and observe the responses.

Game 1: The game ends in a 5-3 win for… Average Like-ability Team 1 over Average Like-ability Team 2. There was a home run in the game that scored the go ahead run in the 8th inning. There were 16 combined strike outs in the game. The game lasted 3 hours.

Result: the viewer expressed a preference to watch basketball instead.

Game 2: the game ends 7-5. Two home runs were hit, both in the first 4 innings by the winning team. There were 10 total strike outs in the game. One more difficult defensive play was converted, and two more hits were recorded in Game 2 than in Game 1. One of those extra hits were a double. The game lasted 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Result: [insert your inference here]

David Ortiz angry

David Ortiz represents the type of player whose value has taken the deepest dive due to defensive shifts. He also represents the type of hitter most responsible for the rising strike out numbers in MLB. Must we save his brethren? Photo credit: Jim Rogash/Getty Images

What do you think, dear reader? Has game 2 made a dent in the viewer’s resistance to obsessing over our wonderful game? Let me attempt to predict and paraphrase what will be the most common response here: “it depends; there is much more to a baseball game than those numbers. Game 1 actually sounded more exciting because of the late lead change, but I need more information.”

I don’t believe that readers would feel comfortable making the claim that the watchability advantages of Game 2 would convert many non-fans into baseball disciples. Both games look essentially the same. They both look like baseball games.

The quantitative improvements that are being sought via proposed tweaks to the game don’t get at what makes Baseball lovable and exciting. 

Even if you push back on my bolded claim, despite it having been bolded, making it very unlikely to be false, let me add one last wrinkle to my argument. The increases in watchability from Game 1 to Game 2 intentionally represent a shift from the current style and state of the game, to what could be called a full, optimal realization of a battery of fun-ifying proposals for which you can find ready support in the blogosphere and beyond. I’ll list a few:

  1. Move the mound back 6 inches.
  2. Drop the height of the mound.
  3. Juice the ball.
  4. Outlaw ‘violent’ defensive shifts (not my words, even!).
  5. Shorten the game in general.

Don’t take my word for it…

The distance between the mound and the plate has been tinkered with twice since the late 1800’s. When it was moved back 5 feet in 1881, scoring stayed essentially unchanged. When it was moved back an additional 5 feet to it’s modern position, scoring initially rose, but after a few years then fell back to well below previous levels as pitchers adjusted to the distance.

In 1969, MLB lowered the mound 10 inches after “The Year of the Pitcher” in 1968. When you compare the 10 seasons before the height reduction to the ensuing 10 seasons, run scoring did rise… by a mere 0.025 runs per game after the adjustment towards seas level.

In 1911, the livelier baseball was introduced to the game (despite the end of the Dead Ball Era being generally agreed upon as 1919). If you take the 10 seasons before the ‘juiced ball’ was introduced and compare them to the 20 following, you see a rise of 0.5165 runs per game. Just in case you think I’m cherry picking here, I chose those time increments so that I could find any effect at all that could be reasonably attributed to the ball change.

(For the above three paragraphs, I used data from this Baseball Reference page and some insight from this excellent piece by Steve Treder for The Hardball Times on historical strike out rates.)

Defensive shifts are shiny and new, so we can only look at the tentative effects that they have on the offensive environment of the game. Employing the shift is definitely on the rise. The main effects of defensive shifts should be found in how many batted balls are converted into hits. Luckily, BABIP gives us a quick way to probe for this effect. In 2010, there were 2,464 defensive shifts. In 2014, there were 13,296 (source: Bill James Online). During that span, BABIP remained at it’s typical levels (source: Fangraphs). Still, according to the Baseball Info Solutions metric Shift Runs Saved (SRS), 2014 saw an estimated 195 runs saved due to modern shifts on the infield. Put that feather in your cap, but do so knowing this: 19,761 runs were scored in 2014, which is about 0.98% lower than the 19956 total that SRS estimates would have been scored sans shifts. Teams scored 4.07 runs per game in 2014. Without shifts, then, SRS estimates that they would have made it home 4.11 times per contest, instead. That’s a difference of 0.04 runs per game.

Lastly, the 2015 time-shaving policies instituted last season led to games that were 6 minutes shorter on average over the course of the year relative to recent seasons. New measures added this season should modestly increase that trend. Other proposals, such as a strictly enforced 20 second limit between pitches, have been floated. You could expect such policies to trim a few minutes more off of the average game if enacted.

Now that I’ve treated these tweaks commonly proposed to the game, let’s return to the differences between Game 1 and Game 2 from above.

4 more total runs scored per game: If we lower the mound and move the rubber farther from the batter, and we increase the liveliness of the ball, an estimated increase of 2 runs scored per game, per team, is still quite liberal.

6 fewer total strike outs / 6 more balls in play and 2 more total hits: After lowering the mound in 1969 and instituting the American League designated hitter in 1973, strike out rates were modestly reduced. From the highest rate of the era in 1967, then 5.99 per team, K’s dropped on average by 0.81 per team during the period between 1968 and 1982. Then they began to rise again. Let’s allow that changes to the mound (and a slimming of the strike zone if you wish, which isn’t discussed at length in this article, but has had similarly modest effects in the past) reduce the current K/9inn rate by 3 full strike outs, or 6 total per game. If we then apply the typical .300 BABIP, which as discussed above has ‘survived’ defensive shifts so far, then we could expect about 2 extra hits per game from those balls in play. You could argue that 3 hits may be a fairer number, but if you do, remember that the K/9inn reduction that I’m using is statistically huge.

One double, one home run, one stand-out play: These are all just arbitrary additions to make Game 2 look better. I won’t belabor the numbers behind this hypothetical, but presenting all three of these outcomes as being a result of the added balls in play and hits that I’ve discussed seems a fully generous assumption.

20 minutes of game time: This is perhaps the most moderate, and most realistic assumption that I’ve built in. Given what has transpired so far with pace of play rules, molding the game into an affair that is 20 minutes shorter than it’s pre-2015 self is reachable. It would still be quite a feat, but it’s the most plausible of the effects that I’ve laid out in this section.

The Upshot

Even if ALL OF THESE THINGS HAPPENED AT ONCE, the contrast of the viewing experience before and after the changes would amount to very little to the uninitiated. Game 2 isn’t going to make more life-long fans out of young people than Game 1. Current societal views towards the game aren’t going to evolve because of the unveiling of a style of play more resembling Game 2, either.

So why all the hubbub?

Wizards v/s Thunder 03/14/11

photo credit: Keith Allison on Flickr

I think we’ve let ourselves become slightly misguided by our penchant for analytics, our desire to think progressively about the game, and by the media echo chamber that we as writers reside in, so to speak.

Seems to me that we’d be better served by forward thinking research and proposals concerning the impacts of potentially exclusionary costs of youth baseball in the U.S., and concerning the causes of the dwindling participation of young, black Americans in the game.

Baseball is baseball, and I humbly submit that it is exciting enough already. Those that disagree won’t be persuaded otherwise by tweaks such as those discussed here. If encouraging changes to the demographics of the fan base are to be realized, MLB will have to dig deeper.

What can we do to help?

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Featured Image credit: PATRICK SEMANSKY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Braves’ Secret Bromance with the Twins

You may have noticed some chemistry between a couple of MLB teams lately. A little somethin’ somethin’. You know. They’re trying to hide it but we ain’t blind; every time you see one of ’em, there’s the other, doin’ the same thing, just across the way in the other league.

Yep. The Braves and the Twins have something going on.

You probably noticed that the Twins and Braves both started 0-9. I’m not going to lie; there being another team matching Atlanta’s comprehensively garbage start to the season helped me cope a little.

But that’s not it. You probably also have noticed that both teams have now gone on a 3-game winning streak.  That’s just uncanny.

Let me accentuate the impression I hope to make here with some historical colorings, courtesy of Baseball Reference’s Play Index (which you should subscribe to), and my weak-ass Excel skills.

Bob-Ross-2

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Since 1871, only 21 teams have started 0-9. That’s over the course of 145 seasons. That’s a lot of opportunities for teams to really go belly up for 9 games. It speaks to the mathematical marvel that is baseball. Even in the early days of the organized game, when there was less parity than we have now, it was very unlikely to lose 9 games in a row. The ball is just about bound to bounce your way more often than that.

I need to choose an average number of teams per season from 1871 to 2016, but it’s not readily available to me. I’m going with 18, which I think is conservative. This gives us an estimate of 2610 chances for teams to start 0-9, and 21 occurrences of it. Using these numbers, we uncover a historical frequency of 0.008 for teams earning this dubious accolade. Of course, not all teams are equally suited to start 0-9 in the first place. The Braves were quite likely to sport a poor record in the first half. But the fact that it’s happened so few times… well, that speaks for itself.

Now, this article is about the weird tear in space time that allowed the Twins to become the AL dimension’s version of the Braves (poor chaps, they never had a chance). So how rare is it for not one but two teams to start 0-9 during the same season?

It’s happened 5 times. Using our arbitrary but probably not-too-far-off estimate of 2610 team seasons above, we end up with a frequency of 0.0019. We’re talking nearly unprecedented stuff. But let’s go further.

Is there precedent for 2 teams starting this epically bad together, and then continuing their synchronicity for 3 or more games? No. No there is not.

Here’s the closest thing, though. I don’t want to hype it up, but this ending up being quite an entertaining little nugget. I hope you’ll agree.

In 1875, the New Haven Elm Citys (yep, that’s right), and, get this, the WASHINGTON NATIONALS, both marched bravely forth to an 0-11 record. Washington finally relented and won game 12. Ahhhhh. That’s pretty satisfying that it was a Washington Nationals team. But that’s really not the good part.

If you peruse the same message boards and Braves-y internet groups as I, then you have probably gotten a depressing chuckle recently out of someone cracking wise that “the Braves and Twins are set to play this summer, so one of them will definitely get a win eventually.” It’s a funny observation.

It must have been an even funnier reality in 1875, when the Nationals finally got their first win by sweeping a two game series against their former bedmates in loss-accumulation, none other than the New Haven Elm Citys. They literally played out our funny  joke; two teams staggered to an 0-11 start, while the rest of the league snickered “can’t wait to see those heavy weights go at it,” and only then could one of them get a W. Too bad it was the Nationals, given New Haven’s clearly superior name.

So, wrapping up here, the Braves and Twins mutually hold a strange record that I have spent my free time uncovering, for the joy of a precious few. In sum: out of the 21 teams in baseball’s 145 year recorded history that have blundered to 0-9, the 2016 Braves and Twins represent one of only 5 pairs of teams to pull this off together in one season. Of those 5 pairs, they are the ONLY duo to then continue to match each others W/L patterns for 3 or more games.

Just in case you’re bad at sharing, Braves fans, I’ll leave you with one more fun fact. There have been only 2 pairs of teams in baseball to start the same season 0-9 together since 1900. The Braves were part of both. They shared an 0-10 start with the Orioles back in 1988.

Is that cool? I’m not sure. Let’s just hope the Braves and Twins keep this magical wormhole set to the “both of us stay on a winning streak” setting for a while.

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Modern Pastime Ender Inciarte injury

Impact of Ender Inciarte’s Injury on Braves

The season started! Whoo hoo!

That said, the top story for your at the time of writing 0 – 3 Bravos is not a pleasant one. Center fielder and leadoff hitter Ender Inciarte is day-to-day with a hamstring injury. The speedy Venezuelan was lifted from Friday’s game as he was trying to leg out a grounder. Earlier in that game, I felt like I noticed Ender wince while going back on a ball in center field. This seems to fit the storyline, according to beat writer Mark Bowman via Twitter:

Dave O’Brien of the AJC echoed this optimism in his article on the injury and here:

From O’Brien’s article, some less reassuring undertones from Ender himself:

“I depend on my legs so it’s frustrating that I’ve been having hamstring issues since last year. It’s a different leg but hopefully it’s not going to be that bad.”

Gulp. Ender missed a month last year to hamstring trouble, after all.

We can find a silver lining in that Inciarte removed himself before sustaining a serious injury. What we can take “serious” to mean is up for interpretation, though. Particularly for a player that thrives on speed to provide value in all facets of his game, a hamstring tweak can linger.

So What Now?

It seems likely that the Braves will just trot Drew Stubbs out there until Ender is back. That’ll do for now, as Stubbs is still capable of providing above league average defense in center. We shouldn’t expect him to set the table with much effectiveness at the leadoff spot though; in a small-ish sample of 140 Plate Appearances last year, Stubbs’ OBP was a cellar-dwelling .283. In fairness, 2015 was well below his career marks offensively. But Stubbs drawback has always been his inability to minimize strike outs, so as to get on base more often and better utilize his speed tool.

As a matter of fact, Stubbs owns the 12th worst K% in the bigs since 2009 when he broke in. He has struck out in 30.3% of his plate appearances. Not exactly who you want at the top of your lineup. Fun fact: former Brave Juan Francisco is at the top of the K% list since 2009 with a 34.4% mark. Atta boy, Juan.

UPDATE: So far it looks like the Braves are going with Erick Aybar at the top of the lineup. Aybar is a marginally better suited hitter at getting on base. He accomplishes this by making a ton of contact; he swings at pitches in the strike zone well above the league average rate, and makes contact with those pitches an amazingly efficient 93.7% of the time. Though he is speedy, Aybar doesn’t translate this contact in to a very impressive OBP or AVG, though. It’s possible he will be able to intentionally see more pitches and walk more in the leadoff role. Time will tell… hopefully he won’t be there long. 

What the Braves lose with Inciarte out is pretty significant. You’re taking a step down offensively and defensively by sliding Stubbs in. For instance, check out the Statcast breakdown of Inciarte’s stupid good catch against the Nats. 

Or just glimpse this gif if you can’t bear to leave Modern Pastime for a moment (it is nice here):

modern pastime ender inciarte gif

Inciarte’s absence is compounded by the fact that he was hitting in important spot in the order, in front of what should be a pretty consistent run-producing trio with Eric Aybar, Freddie Freeman and Adonis Garcia. The Braves must especially find ways to squeeze all of the run outcomes out of Freeman’s production if they hope to be a scrappy offense that can compete on most days. Stubbs likely doesn’t serve that purpose, unless he miraculously turns around his OBP woes.

Informed fans may be speculating at this point how any extended Inciarte absence may affect the ascent of Mallex Smith to Atlanta. If you don’t know Mallex yet, catch up here via the venerable Ben Chase of Tomahawk Take, my other writing habitat. Optimistically speculating about our promising youngsters is going to be a must for our sanity this season. Keep in mind though, that the Braves will be unlikely to rush Smith unless the 2016 club is looking like a contender that he could help to improve.

So let’s hope 3 things, Braves fans: 

  1. Ender is back in the lineup soon.
  2. His production is not limited upon returning by any lingering effects, physical or psychological.
  3. This hammy thing will be a thing of the past, as opposed to a recurring ticket on the DL train.

Hurry on back, Ender! You’re glowing early work in center has been comforting to behold so far.

Now this, just for fun:

inciarte miller

Yep. That’s then-Brave Shelby Miller robbing then-DBack Inciarte. In another universe, it could be said.

 

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The Braves’ Spring Training W/L Record: Optimism or Despair?

Featured Image of Mike Foleynewicz courtesy of  Associated Press /Times Free Press.

What should we make of the Braves’ Spring Training record?

March Madness Baseball Modern Past

March Ignorance.

I’m going to weigh in on the fact that your Atlanta Braves have the least best record among MLB teams participating in Spring Training.

NOTE: I said least best so that I could associate the word best with the Braves in some capacity.

My mantra in Spring Training is stats don’t matter. Unless they’re good… then we’ll take a look at ‘em. Read More

On Harper/Gossage: Rethinking Baseball’s Cultural Roots

Featured Image: Goose Gossage and Thurman Munson after winning the American League Championship Series on Oct. 7, 1978. | (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Modern Pastime

The scene after Bryce Harper was hit by a pitch from Braves pitcher Julio Teheran, August 6, 2013. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

I know, I know. You’re a little late on the whole Harper-Gossage thing, Tapley. In my defense, I’ve been talking myself out of writing this piece for about a week. But eventually, words write themselves.

Here’s the thing: I can relate to this argument from both sides. You’ll discover I have some clear convictions about this discussion, but I want establish common ground with the Gossage argument and the Harper argument first. Bear with me. I’ll argue at the end that we’re forgetting to consider inclusiveness and elitism in this argument about Baseball’s cultural identity. Read More