About this time last year, we were still reveling in the remarkable season that Rookie-of-the-Year Pete Alonso had, led by a remarkable barrage of 53 HR, which set a rookie record and led the major leagues. I decided to analyze each at bat leading to all 53 of Alonso’s home runs. Much to my surprise, he covered a lot of the plate, in particular the outer half, and from low to up in the zone. What looked like a hole was the inner part of the plate, although perhaps this was him being pitched away more than his inability to cover the inner half. Although the 2020 season classifies as “unusual” relative to any major-league season any of us can recall, it was still worth the effort to review the 16 home runs Alonso had in 2020.
Like last year, I watched each home run pitch multiple times in order to see the entire context of the pitch he hit out. In 2020, SNY displayed a K-zone box (much to my viewing unhappiness, but great for this work), making charting the location a lot easier. Like with my previous analysis, this article will feature a five-zone map to locate pitches (inner upper, inner lower, outer upper, outer lower, and middle middle) instead of the conventional 3×3 matrix. Factors looked at include the pitcher throwing arm, count, home v. away, NL v. AL, and inning the HR occurred. Unlike last year, pitches leading up to the home run were not considered. Part of the goal is to see what, if anything, changed from 2019 to 2020 seasons.
Comparing these two seasons is of course difficult for obvious reasons, but also because the numbers are quite imbalanced. Everyone could see the outward frustration with Alonso’s at-bats in 2020, with a tendency to chase outside, even way outside, to the point he looked like a minor leaguer. Interestingly, Alonso was on pace to have 30 or so fewer strike outs in a projected 2020 full season relative to 2019. So many of the at bats looked like he was totally lost, which magnified the agony to watch, but a strike out is a strike out. Other things were really similar, too, on an adjusted basis including games played and at bat totals.
As the accompanying figure shows, and unlike last year, nearly 60% of Alonso’s home runs in 2020 came on pitches to the inner half of the plate. There is clearly no concern whether Alonso can cover the inner half, he can. Similar to last year, his home runs came equally in both the upper and lower part of the strike zone against fastballs and breaking pitches. He hit about 70% of the homers in 2020 against right-handed pitchers, which is similar to 2019. Nearly two-thirds of Alonso’s homers came against NL pitching. He hit one more home run on the road than at Citi Field.
Some aspects of his home run at-bats in 2020 caught me a little by surprise. In 2019, Alonso hit the most home runs in the first inning (first at bat), followed by an even distribution in later at-bats. By comparison, Alonso was most prolific in the middle innings in 2020, hitting 50% of his dingers in innings 4-6 (second and third at bats) with an even distribution between his first and last at bats. Alonso continues to be most homer proficient seeing fewer pitches in an at-bat, with 80% coming with fewer than four pitches, and nearly 50% coming on a 0 – 0 count. He clearly was hunting first pitches. This expands a bit further to count, where he was much most effective on even counts (this was biased by seven of 16 HR coming on 0 – 0) or ahead in the count.
It is sort of easy to drop the hammer on Alonso’s sophomore season relative to his 2019 Rookie-of-the-Year campaign, especially in light of the “breakout” season by Dominic Smith. However, Alonso still had a pretty solid effort despite looking like he was pressing non-stop for the magic of 2019. He was on track for a 43 HR season and the accompanying RBIs. Yes, there was a more than 100-point drop in OPS, but he still finished with 123 OPS+. I would have been ok with that OPS+ and adjusted “on-pace” numbers. Alonso mashes homers at home, on the road, against lefty or righty pitching, up or low in the zone, and on the inner and outer half of the plate. That is a weapon this team needs. My reading is that it is not time to bail on Alonso in any way.
It’s no secret that the Rockies would like to get out from the contract of their star third baseman, Nolan Arenado. Recently, the Rockies indicated they would “like to engage” the Mets on a deal for Arenado. That certainly makes sense, as the Mets likely have the ability to take Arenado’s contract and the Rockies would prefer to deal him as far away from the NL West as possible.
The Mets could use a Gold Glove third baseman. Is the contract a deal killer? Perhaps but from here on let’s focus on what type of value Arenado would provide the Mets, rather than if it’s a smart idea at this moment to trade for him. You hear people all of the time quote his road numbers, which are far inferior to the ones he puts up at Coors Field.
But are the road numbers really what he’d hit like all year if he was removed from playing half of his games in Colorado? One of the stats we like to use is OPS+, which adjusts for both league and ballpark – which makes it a good number to use to compare players from different teams or different eras. It’s easier to hit in Coors Field in 2000 than it was to hit in Dodger Stadium in 1966. OPS+ puts numbers on an equivalent basis.
In 2000, Larry Walker put up a .309/.409/.506 line for the Rockies. In 1966, Lou Johnson slashed .272/.316/.414 for the Dodgers. Those two lines were separated by 185 points of OPS but once you account for the offensive environment of both the league and the park, those two seasons were virtually identical. Walker posted a 110 OPS+ while Johnson checked in with a 109.
Let’s check on Rockies hitters from when when they installed the humidor in 2002 up through 2020. We’ll focus on ones who played 650 PA both in Coors Field and with another park or parks as their home and compare how they did both as Rockies and elsewhere. Finally, we’ll also include their ages for both splits. Here are the numbers:
|Player||Rockiess PA||Rockies OPS+||Rockies Age||Other PA||Other OPS+||Other Age|
|Eric Young Jr.||855||72||24-28||1071||71||28-33|
We have 24 hitters in our sample and 16 of those put up OPS+ numbers within 10 points in their years away from Coors as they did while playing their home games in Colorado. Additionally, five of the eight hitters who were more than 10 points of OPS+ away did better when they called someplace else besides Coors home.
In his eight years with the Rockies, Arenado has a 120 OPS+ in 4,558 PA. Let’s focus on the seven hitters with at least 1,000 PA with the Rockies and an OPS+ mark of at least 100 and compare and contrast their results with Coors as their home field and without.
Holliday – Like Arenado if he were to be traded, Holliday started out with the Rockies and played elsewhere for the back half of his career.. He actually put up a slightly better OPS+ after the Rockies dealt him. In his last season in Colorado, Holliday had an OPS 105 points higher at home. His first year with a different home park saw him enjoy a 150-point higher home than road OPS.
Cuddyer – A stalwart in Minnesota for the first 11 years of his career, Cuddyer actually improved his production when moving to Colorado, despite being on the wrong end of 30 at the time. In his last year with the Twins, Cuddyer had a 45-point home OPS advantage. In his first year as a Rockie, Cuddyer had a 114-point home edge.
Tulowitzki – One of the top offensive shortstops of his era, Tulowitzki was done in by injuries. In five years after leaving Colorado, he was only able to amass 1,000 PA. His reduced output has as much – if not more – to do with health than with his home park.
Smith – Overall he was slightly better after leaving Colorado. In his last year as a Rockie, Smith had a 34-point edge in home OPS. In his first year after leaving Coors, he had a 22-point road edge.
Wilson – His pre-Rockies career included 22 games with the Mets. That, combined with his years with the Marlins, was more productive than what he did in Colorado. In his last season with the Marlins, Wilson had a 63-point home OPS edge. His first with the Rockies produced a 165-point home edge.
Fowler – Another player like Holliday and Smith to start his career with the Rockies and produce equal or better once he left. In his last year in Colorado, Fowler had a 196-point home OPS edge. His first year in Houston, he had a 103-point home edge.
Reynolds – He played for six different teams before joining the Rockies and his production was nearly identical at Coors as it was previously. In his last season before joining Colorado, he had a 66-point road edge in OPS. His first year in Coors, Reynolds enjoyed a 148-point home edge.
Four of our seven highlighted players started off with the Rockies in Coors before finishing their careers elsewhere. Three of those four produced at an equal or better clip once they left Colorado and the one who didn’t had major injury issues. Regardless of if they started their career with the Rockies or not, all seven of these players had a major OPS edge in Coors Field. That had no impact on what they were able to do when they weren’t playing in Colorado. There’s a Coors Field Hangover effect in place, where it’s hard on hitters to adjust in-season to playing on the road. But that effect does not follow the players to other parks, with some actually performing better in road parks.
For the most part, no player performs the same year-in, year-out, even if we build in an aging pattern for the numbers. But we see that OPS+ does a good job of accounting for the difference in parks and leagues. If it didn’t, we’d expect to see more random results than we actually do from our 24-player sample.
When looking at Arenado, you’re missing the boat if you just look at his raw HR or OPS totals. You’ll get a much better idea of who he is as a hitter by looking at his OPS+. Arenado had a poor year at the plate in 2020 so fans and teams will have to decide if this is the beginning of a decline or merely a Covid-year blip.
From 2015-2019, Arenado had a 129 OPS+. In the same time frame, Michael Conforto had a 125 OPS+. If we include 2020, Conforto jumps ahead by a 128-127 mark. Essentially, if the Mets traded for Arenado, the expectation should be they’re adding a hitter equivalent to Conforto to the team, assuming 2020 was not a sign of things to come for Arenado.
Of course, offense is only part of the equation for Arenado, who has eight Gold Glove Awards to his credit. Defense is a big reason why Arenado has a 27.8 fWAR since 2015 while Conforto checks in with a 16.0 mark in the same time period. It’s not the only reason – Arenado has a 1,076-PA edge since 2015.
Most people view Arenado’s contract as prohibitive. There’s no way he’d get that much money if he was a free agent right now. His deal was for 8/$260 with an opt out after the 2021 season. Some people consider that he should waive the opt-out clause before the Mets acquire him. But since he’s owed $164 million for 2022-2026, maybe that’s not really necessary.
Trading for Arenado would give the Mets a two-way player at third base, improving both their offense and defense at the position. But it’s an awful lot of money and there’s concern about his 2020 numbers. There are reasons to be wary of trading for him. But one thing that shouldn’t be a concern is that he hits better in Coors than he does in road parks. As multiple players before him have proven, properly-adjusted hitting numbers (OPS+) don’t fall apart once a player leaves Colorado.
Much digital ink has been used on the need to get George Springer onto the Mets because he’s “a real center fielder” and the one the Mets used this year isn’t. To this, we will examine how good does your center fielder have to be in order to win a championship and is signing Springer to major dollars the best scenario? First, we will examine the center fielder production for the last 10 World Series champions and their team’s dependence on their play. Then, we will examine the names in the news for the Mets, my mystery acquisition and how they compare to our incumbent.
First, a brief summary of each year’s World Series winning center fielder and their relevance to the team’s production. Pitching is always referenced because some teams expect to win because of their superior pitching. All WAR values come from FanGraphs.
|2011 Cardinals CF:||Jon Jay||2.3||7.7 Offense, -1.2 Defense|
|Top Performers:||Yadier Molina||5.9||9.1 Offense, 31.3 Defense|
|Lance Berkman||4.7||44.4 Offense, -17.5 Defense|
|Matt Holliday||4.4||29.9 Offense, -3.9 Defense|
|Albert Pujols||3.9||28.9 Offense, -11.6 Defense|
The top nine WAR players were all negative on Defense expect for Molina.
|fWAR||Offensive/ Defensive Grades|
|2012 Giants CF:||Angel Pagan||4.6||21.7 Offense, 2.7 Defense|
|Top Performers:||Buster Posey||10.1||41.9 Offense, 36.5 Defense|
|Melky Cabrera||4.5||33.4 Offense, -5.6 Defense|
|fWAR||Offensive/ Defensive Grades|
|2013 Red Sox CF:||Jacoby Ellsbury||4.6||19.1 Offense, 2.9 Defense|
|Top Performers:||Dustin Pedroia||4.9||11.1 Offense, 10.4 Defense|
|Shane Victorino||4.7||17.6 Offense, 8.6 Defense|
|David Ortiz||3.4||27.0 Offense, -15.0 Defense|
|Mike Napoli||3.4||17.5 Offense, -4.9 Defense|
Five pitchers with WAR of 2.3 or greater, led by Jon Lester at 3.3.
|2014 Giants CF:||Angel Pagan||1.8||7.6 Offense, -3.4 Defense|
|Top Performers:||Buster Posey||7.6||25.3 Offense, 25.7 Defense|
|Hunter Pence||4.0||23.4 Offense, -7.9 Defense|
|Pablo Sandoval||3.2||2.4 Offense, 7.9 Defense|
Bumgarner had a 3.6 WAR, three pitcher had 1.5 – 1.7; no one else close.
|fWAR||Offense/ Defense Grades|
|2015 Royals CF:||Lorenzo Cain||6.1||26.0 Offense, 11.8 Defense|
|Top Performers:||Mike Moustakas||3.8||10.9 Offense, 5.2 Defense|
|Eric Hosmer||3.5||21.7 Offense, -10.8 Defense|
By contrast: Curtis Granderson 5.3 WAR, Travis d’Arnaud 3.4 WAR in just 67 games, Lucas Duda 3.2 WAR, Yoenis Cespedes 2.6 WAR in just 57 games, Daniel Murphy 2.2 WAR, Michael Conforto 1.9 WAR in just 56 games.
|2016 Cubs CF:||Dexter Fowler||4.6||25.6 Offense, 1.9 Defense|
|Top Performers:||Kris Bryant||7.9||48.8 Offense, 6.6 Defense|
|Anthony Rizzo||4.9||34.6 Offense, -8.0 Defense|
|Ben Zobrist||4.0||20.5 Offense, -1.4 Defense.|
|2017 Astros CF:||George Springer||4.5||28.6 Offense, -4.6 Defense||(was -4.8 Defense in 2018)|
|Top Performers:||Jose Altuve||7.6||52.7 Offense, 0.8 Defense|
|Carlos Correa||5.1||32.4 Offense, 5.1 Defense|
|Marwin Gonzalez||4.0||28.3 Offense, -6.1 Defense|
|Alex Bregman||3.5||17.7 Offense, -4.4 Defense|
|Josh Reddick||3.4||21.3 Offense, -5.8 Defense|
|509 plate app.||Carlos Beltran||-1.1||-17.6 Offense, -11.3 Defense||Notice who benefitted?|
|2018 Red Sox CF:||Jackie Bradley Jr.||2.8||-0.5 Offense, 10.1 Defense|
|Top Performers:||Mookie Betts||10.4||69.2 Offense, 11.6 Defense|
|J. D. Martinez||5.9||50.4 Offense, -14.7 Defense|
|Xander Boegarts||4.9||21.1 Offense, 7.2 Defense|
|Andrew Benintendi||4.4||22.0 Offense, -1.5 Defense|
|2019 Nationals CF:||Victor Robles||2.5||-3.0 Offense, 8.5 Defense|
|Top Performers:||Anthony Rendon||7.0||46.5 Offense, 4.2 Defense|
|Juan Soto||4.8||35.8 Offense, -7.5 Defense|
|Trea Turner||3.5||19.1 Offense, -1.5 Defense|
|2020 Dodgers CF:||A. J. Pollock||2.7||17.8 Offense, -10.5 Defense|
|Top Performers:||Mookie Betts||8.1||50.2 Offense, 8.4 Defense|
|Corey Seager||5.1||36.5 Offense, -6.8 Defense|
|Chris Taylor||4.1||21.1 Offense, -1.1 Defense|
|Justin Turner||3.5||22.7 Offense, -3.5 Defense|
|Will Smith||3.5||25.9 Offense, -3.8 Defense|
|Austin Barnes||2.7||2.4 Offense, 11.3 Defense|
|*-All numbers multiplied by 2.7 to match up to other years.|
As we have seen for the last decade, a winning team has an offensive center fielder more often than a defensive center fielder. In fact, in only three times in the 10 years has the winning team had a good defensive center fielder even when he wasn’t one of the team’s top performers. So, as we know quality catchers are hard to find, so it seems are quality dual threat center fielders. Now that we’ve done our homework, time to see how the five players we are comparing stack up. We will compare Brandon Nimmo, George Springer, Jackie Bradley Jr., Kevin Kiermeier, and my mystery candidate.
We will go defense first by comparing the players’ UZR – that is FanGraphs’ version of Outs Above Average – and their arm strength specifically.
|Player||17 UZR||17 Arm||18 UZR||18 Arm||19 UZR||19 Arm||20 UZR||20 Arm|
On offense, rather than measuring the counting stats, which can be affected by the lineup around each player, I’d like to present some of the hitting trends of each player to try to get a sense of the individual results we may expect. We used the percentages from 2019 and 2020 to be as current as possible as bat speed can be affected much quicker than defense is affected. The “hard hit” and “medium hit” are usually pretty subjective, so it’s best to watch the trend and blend the two as a batted ball may go to one category or the other depending on home team scoring.
|Player||19 K%||19 BB%||19 Med||19 Hard||20 K%||20 BB%||20 Med||20 Hard|
This is a pretty tight match but Springer doesn’t seem to be the slam dunk the writers are making him out to be – and what’s with always putting him right field in the late innings of games? Obviously, his present employers must know something. Kiermaier seems a better overall player but the “easier get” may be the mystery player and he will be essentially free to trade for. That player is Jason Heyward. Heyward is an athletic marvel and a great defensive player who I believe still has a great arm. He has had a reputation for hurting the ball consistently and when his luck changes, he will be a beast. His BABIP has not been anywhere near what it was in Atlanta while in Chicago – for whatever reason – and that is something I would bet on when the other numbers average out. By asking the Cubs if they want to save $23 million by switching Cano for Heyward, we give them a first baseman for next year when Rizzo leaves, no payment to Heyward this year, and an overall savings of the previously mentioned $23 million, which will please the owner and take away their headache. Problem is Heyward just had a pretty good year with a .848 OPS, so we may need to sweeten the deal by throwing in a small piece or also taking Bryant off their hands too to make the tendering aspect of his contract easier to make.
Then, there is the incumbent who seemed to be better when he moved deeper in center field in August of this year to the naked eye, but has always had an uncomfortable look when he is standing in the middle of the ball field alone.
From 2012-2015 Matt Harvey was fabulous on the mound for the New York Mets. His performance in the 2015 World Series was everything a fan wants from a top hurler. He had the persona, the confidence, the dominance and the city to deserve the moniker “The Dark Knight.” It was very fun to be a Mets fan for those seasons.
In 2016, Harvey hurt his arm. Pitchers hide injuries, sometimes subconsciously, because they feel like it is a pain they have worked through before, or maybe they just slept on it wrong. So, they adjust to avoid the pain on the mound. Dizzy Dean famously, perhaps apocryphally, had a line drive hit his foot, and to pitch through that he altered his motion and injured his arm. What was Harvey trying to pitch through?
With Statcast, we can see Harvey change his throwing angle. Statcast data started in 2015, which is key because it shows when he is good.
It may not be terribly obvious without a frame of reference, but his release point for all his pitches are pretty narrow and in the same vertical line. Here’s Jacob deGrom’s 2018:
You can see a nice “football” shape to their release points. Squashed into the vertical.
Justin Verlander’s 2019 season.
Here is Trevor Bauer’s 2020:
You get the idea.
Harvey started 2016 pretty well, but the release point charts show he was “rounding” his release points, and really only getting on top of this 4-seam fastball, and major league hitters only need the smallest of differentiation before you become dead meat. Couple that with declining velocities, and there is a recipe for disaster. Here is Harvey’s 2016 season:
Those pitches suddenly out from the pack are his last game, before shutting down the season. But that release point was tough to come back from.
One can see the roundness of his pitches. And the hand is much further from his body, with changeups being more prominent.
It is about this time people should have noticed. His arm slot is off from his dominant period. Once a pitcher loses that due to injury can he every get it back or does the fear of re-injuring his shoulder override his ability to do what he knows to be needed. Frankly, it is tough to tell if he was coached in what he needed. The Mets gave him another shot in 2018, and it started out well, but the Mets lost patience quickly and shipped him off to the Reds, where he struggled.
His pitch releases were better, but still round, and fewer curveballs. He got a real chance with the Angels in 2019, was not good, and then spent 2020 with the Royals. His 2019 was very round, which basically works as tipping your pitches.
At least Harvey made some money in 2019. As noted 2020 started out with some control, but:
The last two games are represented by the wide release points, which flagged an injury, and he was put on the injured list with a lat strain.
Harvey is an unrestricted free agent. He signed for the minimum in 2020. Harvey hopefully will get healthy and spend some time re-learning how to pitch, his velocity was up some, but his spin rates were down. He needs to hold it like an egg.
Can the Dark Knight Return? Could Rick Peterson fix Harvey in 10 minutes?
This Met fan would love to see him given the chance.
One of the rule changes that we saw in 2020 was the introduction of the 3-batter minimum. Unlike other rule changes, this one was planned before the pandemic hit, meaning that we will see it again for sure in 2021. Jayson Stark of The Athletic had an article on this rule change and he quoted several managers who were unified against the change. These managers felt that the rule not only handcuffed them in what they had to do but also kept them from having the chance to run a better bullpen than their counterparts.
Let’s for the moment accept on faith that the latter is true. But let’s take a look at the former. If managers were truly handcuffed by this new rule, we would expect the numbers to reflect that – with offense going up because managers either had to leave guys in the game longer they wanted or because fear of the rule kept them from bringing in a reliever in the first place. In order to check this out, we’ll need to do a preliminary look at the overall numbers, all coming from Baseball-Reference.
In 2019, the overall ERA in MLB was 4.49 and for relievers it was 4.46
In 2020, the overall ERA in MLB was 4.44 and for relievers it was 4.44
That’s pretty remarkable year-to-year consistency and at first glance it’s hard to say that the new rule was a detriment to teams or a boon to offense.
My hope was to show the numbers for all lefty relievers in both seasons but a split off of a split is not so easy to achieve. What was somewhat easy to get was all lefty relievers who did not start a game. And given that it’s not exactly what we want, it’s not awful. What we’re looking to see is if the elimination of the LOOGY guys resulted in a worse bullpen performance. And if you have a lefty reliever that you want to shield from RHB, you’re not likely to give him a start. So, here are the numbers for lefty relievers with zero starts:
2019: 4.34 ERA
2020: 4.02 ERA
The results of the full-time lefty relievers improved with the new rule.
Now let’s shift our focus away from MLB and zero in on the Mets. We know the Mets were absolute zealots when it came to chasing the platoon advantage with their lefty relievers under Terry Collins and it didn’t improve all that much under Mickey Callaway. And we know that all of that jumping through hoops did not make the Mets’ bullpen a good one. Hopefully everyone recognizes that the one year they didn’t have an established LOOGY all season like Jerry Blevins or Scott Rice is the year they went to the World Series.
Anyway, in 2019 the Mets used seven lefty relievers and they combined to allow 38 ER in 84 IP for a 4.07 ERA. In 2020, the Mets used four lefty relievers and they combined to allow 23 ER in 53.2 IP for a 3.86 ERA.
Ending the LOOGY madness and focusing on pitchers who could get all hitters out led to an improvement of nearly a quarter of run – and that’s despite the outstanding results of Justin Wilson in 2019. After posting a 2.54 ERA in 2019, Wilson notched a 3.66 ERA last season. If we take Wilson out of the equation, lefty relievers for the Mets in 2019 had a 5.40 ERA while the 2020 lefties had a 3.97 ERA.
At the heart of the matter, the Mets traded the matchup relievers of Luis Avilan and Daniel Zamora in 2019 for Chasen Shreve in 2020. Avilan and Zamora combined for 23 ER in 40.2 IP (5.09 ERA) while Shreve allowed 11 ER in 25 IP for a 3.96 ERA. And because of the rule, the Mets didn’t look to carry a guy who couldn’t get RHB out at all – like Rice – and didn’t promote lefty relievers who had no business being in the majors, guys like Buddy Baumann who in 3 IP allowed 8 ER.
Let’s look backwards three additional years and see how LH relievers for the Mets performed previously:
2018: 54.2 IP, 32 ER – 5.27 ERA
2017: 152 IP, 74 ER – 4.38 ERA
2016: 134.1 IP, 66 ER – 4.42 ERA
Most teams were moving away from the traditional LOOGY gambit but the Mets were not really one of them. They had to have the new rule make them do what they should have done at least eight years ago – look to carry their best relievers instead of worrying about which hand they used to throw.
In the Stark piece from The Athletic mentioned at the start of the piece, Indians manager Terry Francona said this about the 3-batter rule:
I just don’t like it when they tell you how to compete,” he said. “If they want to tell us that you’ve got to throw the ball within 20 seconds, OK fine. We’ll adjust. But if we handle our bullpen better than other teams, you’d like to think you can get rewarded for it.
The Mets didn’t handle their bullpen better before the rule because of the way they utilized sub-par relievers because they threw with their left hand, which also cost them flexibility in the long-term because those lefty relievers were so limited in what they could do. While Avilan and Zamora combined for 62 games and 40.2 IP, Shreve threw 25 IP in 17 games, which was on pace for 68 innings in a 162-game season. Their overall bullpen ERA dropped 39 points last year.
My preference is for the game to feature strategy over paint-by-numbers managing. My ideal is for the Mets to have a guy in the dugout who, in the words of Francona, gets rewarded for the moves he makes. But we see that the rules in 2020 that reduced strategic thinking – specifically the 3-batter rule and the implementation of the DH – aided the Mets tremendously. It doesn’t give me any joy to say that but the only way the situation improves is when you admit and fix where you have problems.
A few days ago, a story was published here with my grades for the key players on the 2020 Mets. In that piece, Seth Lugo received a D+. There were two comments that specifically mentioned that grade. The first expressed shock – in an approving way, is my guess – that Lugo received one that low. The second comment indicated that my grade was too harsh, with the commenter thinking he deserved a “C” grade, saying he was still good as a reliever.
In 2019, Lugo allowed runs in 13 of his 61 appearances, or 21% of the time. In 2020, he allowed runs in three of his nine relief appearances, or 33% of the time. For a comparison, Justin Wilson allowed runs in nine of his 45 appearances (20%) in 2019 and in five of his 23 appearances (22%) in 2020 while Edwin Diaz allowed runs in 19 of his 66 games (29%) in his first year with the Mets and five of his 26 games (19%) in 2020. In this simple six-season sample, four of the seasons had runs allowed in the 19-22% range. Then we have Diaz with his 29% range in what everyone considered a dismal 2019 and Lugo with a 33% mark in his relief appearances in this shortened season.
That was looking at the good relievers. Let’s take a quick look at the other end of the spectrum. Jeurys Familia allowed runs in eight of his 25 appearances in 2020, which is a 32% rate. Lugo’s was a small sample – absolutely – but when your runs allowed percentage is hanging out with 2019 Diaz and 2020 Familia, that’s not the kind of company you wish to keep. Shoot, let’s do one more. In 2019, Tyler Bashlor allowed runs in eight of his 24 appearances, which as the math majors know is 33%. Wow, this is even more depressing than originally thought.
Regardless, Lugo earned that grade from me more on the results of his starting pitching than his work out of the bullpen. Seven starts and a 6.15 ERA is dreadful, especially from a guy who hasn’t been bashful about wanting to start. Lugo had to know that poor results as a starter would be highly detrimental to his chances of ever being a starter again. That he performed so poorly is pretty shocking, at least to me.
There was a concern that Lugo was tipping his pitches in the Phillies game. He seemed to correct whatever was going wrong in that department in his next outing versus the Rays, when he allowed just 1 ER in 6.1 IP. But he ended the year on the flattest note possible, as he didn’t make it out of the second inning against the last-place Nationals. Lugo ended up with 6 ER in 1.1 IP. And while the Phillies bashed him to death with homers, Lugo did not throw a gopher ball in his start against the Nats.
So, it’s back to the pen and hope he can find his way back to his 2019 performance, right? Well, maybe not.
The best thing working in Lugo’s behalf to remain in the rotation is that the Mets only have two starting pitchers. It’s an expensive proposition to sign three free agent starters and good luck finding someone to trade you a starter cheaply. And it’s not like any of the guys in the farm system appear poised to take a slot. The easiest thing to do would be to tell Lugo he’s got a chance to show he belongs in the rotation until Noah Syndergaard returns to action.
But there’s another thing that makes me think he deserves an additional shot at starting.
The big trend now is to pay attention to when a pitcher is going through a lineup for the third time. Conventional wisdom is that for mid-rotation and back-end starters, you can maximize their success by not letting a guy face him for the third time in a game. And with Lugo sitting with a 6.15 ERA, no one is looking at him as a top-of-the-rotation starter.
Yet Lugo wasn’t running into trouble the third time through the order. Instead, he was getting lit up in the first two innings. In a way, this was just a continuation of his dropoff in performance in the bullpen from earlier in 2020. In seven starts, Lugo allowed runs in the first two innings four times. He pitched past the second inning in five starts and from inning three to inning seven, Lugo allowed 3 ER in 12.1 IP for a 2.19 ERA.
The splits on Baseball-Reference break down how pitchers do by innings. In the first two innings of a game, MLB pitchers allowed 1,656 ER in 3,592 IP for a 4.15 ERA. From innings three thru seven for all pitchers – not just starters – the league ERA was 4.72 over 8,928 innings. Lugo was more than twice as good as the average MLB pitcher in these innings.
Forget about average, let’s take a look at Jacob deGrom. In the first two innings of games in 2020, deGrom allowed 6 ER in 24 IP for a 2.25 ERA. In innings 3-7, deGrom allowed 12 ER in 44 IP for a 2.45 ERA. When Lugo wasn’t getting taken behind the woodshed, he was putting up numbers that were slightly better than deGrom’s in the middle innings of games. This seems relevant to if he can be a starter.
Sure, this has a little bit of, “aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” feel to it. It’s a gigantic problem when he gives up 14 ER in 7 IP in the first two innings of games over four starts. No one should pretend otherwise. The question is if what he did in those four starts in the first two innings is a better indication of how he’s going to perform as a starter than the 12.1 innings in five games from inning three on.
No matter where we look, we have small samples. The one constant, whether in his work as a SP or RP, is that Lugo has a significant number of game where he gives up multiple runs in the first two innings, including eight times as a reliever in 2019. The question we have to ask is: If he pitches for a full season in one role, can he overcome those games and still be a worthwhile pitcher? In 2019, in those eight games, he allowed 23 R (19 ER) in 8.2 IP – which is even worse than this year’s 14 ER in 7 IP. The thing is that Lugo got to pitch in 61 games in 2019 and throw 80 innings. He got the chance to compensate for the awful outings. Lugo didn’t get that chance, either as a starter or reliever, in 2020.
And he didn’t really get the chance in 2017, either. In addition to pitching with the elbow injury for the first time, he missed the first 60 games of the season.
We’ve seen what Lugo can do in a full season as a reliever – the 2.70 ERA and 0.900 WHIP he posted in 2019. It’s really good and a big reason why people are hesitant to make him a starter for a full season, a role where he hasn’t had anywhere near that level of success. Of course, just about any pitcher will perform better in a full season as a reliever compared to a full season as a starter. The question is: At what level does Lugo have to pitch as a starter to make it worthwhile to remove a 2.70 ERA guy from the pen?
There are a number of factors that play into what that number is, including the strength of your starters and relievers. And we know the Mets desperately need starters. But let’s play around some and see if we can come up with what Lugo might do as a starter in a season with 30+ starts.
As mentioned earlier, Lugo gave up runs in the first two innings in 13 of his 61 games as a reliever in 2019, or 21% of the time. So, let’s make him worse as a starting pitcher. Let’s say he gives up run(s) in the first two innings 30% of the time. If he makes 32 starts, that would mean 9.6 games he would give up runs early. We’ll round that up to 10 games. Here are the four games he gave up runs early as a starter in 2020:
9/5 – 2 IP, 1 ER
9/17 – 1.2 IP, 6 ER
9/22 – 2 IP, 1 ER
9/27 – 1.1 IP, 6 ER
That’s two starts where he gave up a run and two starts where he got clobbered. So, let’s give him five starts where he gives up one run and five starts where he gives up six runs. For easier math, let’s assume he pitches at least two innings in all of these starts, getting pulled after two frames in the games he gets clobbered and that he goes five innings in the other games. That would leave us with 20 IP and 35 ER for a 15.75 ERA in the first two innings of these contests.
Now, again to make things easy, let’s assume he pitches six innings in each of his remaining 22 starts. That would give him 167 IP for the season. And we know he didn’t allow a run in the first two innings of those remaining 22 starts. So, we have 64 IP and 35 ER for a 4.92 ERA in the first two innings of games. Now the question remains what he would do over the final 103 innings he pitched.
If he pitched as well as he did in 2020, when he had a 2.19 ERA after the second inning, he would give up 25 ER. That’s 60 ER and over 167 IP, that’s a 3.23 ERA. It seems a no-brainer to prefer a 3.23 ERA over 167 IP compared to his 2.70 ERA in 80 IP as a reliever.
Let’s give him a 3.00 ERA after the second inning. That would be 69 ER for his season and over 167 IP, that’s a 3.72 ERA. Maybe that’s not as clear-cut as the first option but it still seems like you would prefer him as a starter. In 2019, only 61 pitchers in MLB threw 160 innings and only 24 had an ERA better than the mythical 3.72 that Lugo gets in this example. So, check that, this would be a slam dunk, too.
The splits at B-R show Lugo with a career ERA of 3.68 in innings three thru six. If he did this in our example, he would finish the year with 77 ER in 167 IP for a 4.15 ERA. Only 37 starters in MLB in 2019 put up that many innings and had a better ERA. Guys who were close to that innings/ERA combo in 2019 include Max Fried (160.1 IP, 4.15 ERA), Joey Lucchesi (163.2 IP, 4.18 ERA) and Adam Wainwright (171.2 IP, 4.19 ERA).
Ultimately, none of us have any idea how Lugo would fare in a season with 32 starts. Someone could make different assumptions and come up with completely different, more pessimistic numbers than what was presented above. The bottom line for me is that what he did in seven starts in 2020 doesn’t change the narrative to any significant degree. He struggled mightily in the first couple of innings in two starts and gave up a run in two others and had three games without a run. You could say he had five starts where he gave up 2 ER in 10 IP in the first two frames or you could say he had four starts where he surrendered 14 ER in 7 IP.
Do two incredibly poor starts mean he’s incapable of being a starter? If you went into the 2020 season thinking he was a failed starter, you might view that as confirmation. But it’s never good to look at an issue with your mind made up and then only look for confirmation of your belief. And that goes both ways. You can’t say Lugo had a 2.31 ERA in the majority (five of seven) of his starts in 2020, which means he should be guaranteed a spot in the rotation in 2021.
Lifetime, Lugo is 15-10 with a 4.35 ERA in 38 games and 194.2 IP as a starter. Another small sample filled with things that make it tough to take at face value. There were the great results in 2016 when he outpitched his peripherals. There was the delayed start and pitching with the injured elbow in 2017. There were five and seven starts in 2018 and 2020, respectively.
It made sense to me for Lugo to be a reliever in 2019 because the Mets had five starters that were essentially league average or better. It didn’t make sense to me once Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman were out in 2020 for Lugo to be kept in the pen. With the Mets having only two starters right now for 2021, it makes sense to me to utilize Lugo as a starter.
Then we’ll just have to hope he doesn’t go out and make 32 starts and put up a 4.88 ERA – his career mark as a starter since 2017. That’s on the table as a potential outcome. It’s good to go into things with your eyes wide open.
As another season in which the Mets were expected to compete (even before the playoffs were expanded) whimpers to an ignominious end, there do remain some bright spots in an otherwise weird and disappointing campaign. One of the shiniest is the youthful offensive core that ranked as one of the league’s best as the young mashers put on a display that hopefully portends good things in the coming years. Sure, take the 2020 season with a large chunk of salt, but the lineup put on an impressive show despite some struggles with runners in scoring position.
A key cog in the Mets’ hitting machine is 27-year-old Michael Conforto, who seems to be perpetually *this close* to breaking out into full-blown stardom. He appeared to be on the cusp of just such a breakout in 2017 when a freak injury ended his stellar season in late August. Conforto followed that up with strong seasons in 2018 and 2019, but didn’t quite replicate the elite performance he was on track for three years ago. In 2020 he seemed to rediscover that 2017 mojo before his season was again cut slightly short when he was placed on the injured list with hamstring tightness earlier this week. His 2020 wRC+ of 158 placed him on the cusp of the top ten best in baseball, a scenario Mets fans have been dreaming of since he was drafted in 2014.
Of course, the major caveat we need to take into account with Conforto’s performance in 2020 is his sky-high BABIP of .412. This is significantly higher than both his career average of .302 and the .328 he sported during his 2017 season. With just 54 games played in 2020, his overall performance screamed more “extended small-sample good luck for a talented player” than “breakout season.” As I was digging a little more deeply into BABIP and luck, though, I came across a two-year-old article at Pitcher List discussing the correlation between BABIP and various advanced hitting statistics. As it pertains to Conforto, the results were very interesting.
Before reading the article, the first thing I examined for Conforto’s 2020 was his line drive rate. Unsurprisingly, his LD% of 30.3% is both the highest of his career and significantly higher than his career average of 22.7%. As cursory examinations go, and due to a high correlation between BABIP and LD%, it seemed pretty obvious that luck was driving a good chunk of Conforto’s performance.
One of the more illuminating correlations in the Pitcher List article, and the one driving the discussion of this piece, is the high correlation between BABIP and how often a batter pulls the ball. If a batter consistently pulls the ball then he’s likely to make more outs as defenses shift against him, and thus his BABIP will be suppressed. That seems pretty obvious, but the article notes that the correlation between PULL% and BABIP is significantly higher for lefties than right-handed hitters. The article goes into a bit of detail regarding the circumstances for why this is the case (shorter throws from the right side of the infield, less room for error, etc.), but the key quote from author Dan Richards is:
“In general, then, Pull% is worth looking at more for lefties than for righties in determining whether a player has earned his BABIP. Sorry Scott Boras, but so long as the shift is around, pull-heavy lefties are going to have BABIP problems year in and year out.”
With that in mind, we start to get a clearer picture of the periods of success in Conforto’s career and during his 2020 performance specifically. Since 2015, Conforto is in the top 30 for total number of at-bats in which the defense employed a shift against him, and that remained consistent in 2020.
During his best years, Conforto has pulled the ball significantly less than during his simply “good” years. In fact, his lowest PULL% occurred during his best seasons in 2017 (32.4%) and 2020 (also 32.4%) and was almost 10% lower than his next best season. Unsurprisingly, his second-best BABIP (.328), AVG (.279), and wRC+ (147) all occurred in 2017 as well.
The takeaway in this seems fairly obvious even outside of BABIP: in the age of the defensive shift, hitting the ball to all fields will likely lead to more hits falling in, particularly for left-handed hitters. In Conforto’s case, and keeping in mind that he’s one of the most shifted-on lefties in the game, his greatest success comes when he is less predictable in where he puts the ball in play.
It’s important to remember that “high” correlation between these stats and BABIP is strictly within the vacuum of the discussion at hand. There doesn’t appear to be significantly high correlation, as traditionally defined, between any single stat and BABIP. In a game of inches like baseball, good old-fashioned luck comes into play no matter how much preparation a player makes nor how well he executes his game plan.
Still, it appears that Conforto can at the very least nudge luck in the right direction by approaching his at-bats with an aim to defeat the shifts so regularly employed against him. He might not really be a .320 batter, and his BABIP will certainly never sit above .400 in a normal season, but he has the tools to consistently be one of the most dangerous hitters in the game. All he needs to do is keep creating a little bit of his own good luck, one plate appearance at a time.
With the Mets stumbling out of the gate in this shortened season, the concern is that they are digging a hole from which they won’t be able to recover. The issue is that while we have a fairly good idea what type of record you need to make the playoffs in a normal year, few know what it’s going to take in a 60-game season. And the other thing to consider is that we are operating with a different playoff format in 2020. Eight teams from each league are going to make the postseason – two from each division plus the next two teams with the best record.
Chris touched on this back before the season started, saying that the Mets would only make the playoffs once in the past five years. But that was before the new playoff structure was announced. So, let’s look at how the entire National League would look after 60 games played in each of the last three seasons.
It’s important to note a few things first. What follows are the teams’ records after 60 games. But teams never have 60 games played at the same date. In a normal year, you can add up the wins and losses for all 30 teams at the end of the year and it will produce a .500 record. That would not be the case in this look. Also, this 60-game look has teams playing wildly different schedules. This year, the schedules will be much more (but still not perfectly) alike for teams in the same division.
The top three seeds go to the division winners. So, the Dodgers would be the first seed and the Braves would be the third seed. The winner of the Central would be the second seed. There will be no tie breakers played like there would be in a normal year. Instead, the winner of the tie will be chosen based on this formula:
The first tiebreaker is head-to-head record (if applicable). If that’s also a tie, the next tiebreaker is intradivision record. If that’s still a tie, the next is record in the final 20 division games (plus one until the tie is broken).
After 60 games last year the Brewers and Cubs played six games and they were tied 3-3. The Brewers won the season series, 10-9, and so for simplicity’s sake, we’ll call them the winners and the second seed. The next three seeds go to the teams that finished in second place in their division. That makes the Cubs fourth, the Phillies fifth and the Rockies sixth. The final two teams are considered the Wild Card teams and in this look that would have been the Cardinals and Padres. Maybe the Padres would have finished second – honestly did not look.
The playoff format is a 3-game set in the Wild Card round, with the matchups 1-8, 2-7, 3-6 and 4-5. The Division Series is best-of five, with the winners of 1-8 squaring off against the 4-5 winner and the winners of 2-7 and 3-6 also facing one another. The League Championship and World Series will be best-of-seven affairs.
Here’s our 60-game standings for 2018:
The interesting thing here is a reminder of what a poor start the Dodgers got off to in 2018. The final record looks really good but LA was 16-26 after 42 games. They played great from that point on but their 30-30 record would have left them out of the playoffs.
Our first two years give us fairly “normal” looking results. But 2017 shows us the wackiness that is possible in a 60-game season. Here are those standings:
The NL West had three really good teams while the NL East had just one. In their first 60 games of 2017, the Mets played the Giants, Brewers, D’Backs, Angels, Padres, Pirates, Angels and Rangers. They actually had two series against both Miwaukee and Pittsburgh. In all, they played 27 games against teams they wouldn’t face under the 2020 schedule. The Mets went 11-16 in those games.
So, there was a 3-way tie for second place in the NL East here. And their records were so bad that the teams that didn’t win the tiebreaker would not make the playoffs. Would the Mets have won? Feel free to jump through all of the scenarios and post the results. The assumption here is that the Mets won. Hey, there’s a one in three chance of it being right!
Overall, the magic number in this three-year look seems to be 31 Wins. In our three-season sample, a team won 31 or more games 21 times and made the playoffs each of those instances. The Mets will have to go 26-20 the remainder of the way to hit 31 wins.
The teams within a division playing fairly equal schedules should lessen the chance of something like the 2017 standings above happening. But it won’t reduce it completely. It’s certainly possible that Interleague play will throw a monkey wrench into things. If nothing else, it should be a little fairer for the Mets, as the rest of the teams will have to face the Yankees, even if not as often as the Mets do. So, instead of the Nationals having a huge built-in edge by playing the Orioles as their national rival, they’ll have to play a team that isn’t 40 games below .500 when they venture outside the NL.
And the other thing that could mess with the results is how teams fare when they have to play multiple doubleheaders to make up games that were lost earlier in the season. Teams aren’t used to playing doubleheaders and now we have the additional uncertainty of how they’ll react playing 7-inning games in those.
Back in 2017 in the middle of the season, Devan Fink from Beyond The Box Score wrote an article about doubleheader results. He found that in the period from 2008 to 2017, there were 231 doubleheaders in MLB and 120 of those resulted in sweeps. However, in 2017 alone there were 14 doubleheaders at the time of the article and 11 of those ended up as being split with each team winning a game. The example he used was flipping a coin. In the long run you expect results to approach 50-50 but anything can happen in a small sample.
Baseball-Reference shows the Marlins with three doubleheaders scheduled right now. But they also only have 58 games on their schedule. So that’s likely two more twinbills coming their way. And a rainout or other Covid cancelations are certainly possible. So, they could be playing even more doubleheaders. Right now, the Marlins are in first place, thanks to an unsustainable record in one-run games. But what happens when the twinbills hit?
One thing that gets lost about the magical 1969 season for the Mets is that they played 22 doubleheaders that year. They swept 11, split 8 and got swept 3 times, giving them a 30-14 (.682) record in twinbill games. In their last nine doubleheaders, they went 14-4. Can any team replicate that type of winning percentage if they play five or more 2020 doubleheaders? If so, that team will be in excellent shape.
Rick Porcello takes the mound tonight versus the Braves, squaring off against the same team that took him behind the woodshed in his first start with the Mets. This gives us a chance to test out a theory of mine. My theory is that whenever a player faces a team that he just pitched against recently, that if he had a particularly good or bad outing against them the first time, he’ll do the opposite in the second go round.
It’s a theory because I’ve never actually looked at the results. So, let’s do that now. First, we’ll have to define some terms. What’s a particularly good or bad start? Let’s use the Bill James Game Score number to determine this, as found on Baseball-Reference. James considers several factors and throws them into equation where an average Game Score is 50. So, let’s consider a particularly good start as one with a Game Score of 60 or higher and a particularly bad Game Score as one with a 40 or worse.
Porcello had a Game Score of 14 for his outing against Atlanta on July 26.
What do we consider recently? For our purposes today, let’s use a definition of two starts in three games within a period of two weeks. So, if a guy faced a club and then went on the injured list for several months and then faced the same club again when he was activated, that won’t count. This actually happened with Noah Syndergaard back in 2017.
Before looking at the data, let me preface this by saying that there weren’t as many of these as expected. Partly this is because you typically only have the opportunities to do this in division games. It’s not like a Mets pitcher frequently faces the Dodgers twice in three starts. And the other is that a lot of starts end up with a Game Score in the 40s or 50s, eliminating them from our consideration. Steven Matz faced the Phillies last year in back-to-back starts late in the season but his first outing against them had a Game Score of 48, so it didn’t make our cut. Here’s our lists, beginning with the particularly good starts:
|Date||Pitcher||Opponent||IP||ER||BB||K||GM Score||Date||IP||ER||BB||K||GM Score|
Looking at the 2017-2019 period, there were 13 times that a Mets pitcher had a particularly good start and then faced that team again within his next two starts. In our initial start, the average Game Score was 71 and the follow-up start it was 52. That seems to work in favor of the theory. But let’s dig a little deeper.
There are two factors to consider here that work against our theory. First, you have the possibility of a good pitcher dominating a bad team. The 2018 Giants that Zack Wheeler put up consecutive strong starts against in 2018 went 73-89. This happened in the second half of the year, when Wheeler was lights out and the Giants went 23-41. And, there’s also the fact that pitchers tend to bunch good or bad performances together. You’ll frequently hear that Pitcher X is having a great month.
On the flip side, we have the overall tendency of regression. If a true talent 4.21 ERA guy throws a shutout, like Steven Matz did against the Pirates last year, chances are he’s not going to duplicate that performance the next time out. Essentially, the theory is saying that regression is a stronger factor than either the quality of the team or the streakiness of the pitcher.
Now let’s look at the particularly bad starts:
|Date||Pitcher||Opponent||IP||ER||BB||K||GM Score||Date||IP||ER||BB||K||GM Score|
There were only nine instances for the Mets in the last three years of what Porcello will be doing tonight. This really surprised me. And there was a tiny bit of unintentional cheating going on to get to nine. The information for Tommy Milone in 2017 was already entered before the realization hit that this came before he joined the Mets. Those two starts both happened when Milone was on the Brewers. Since it was already entered – and we needed the game for a better sample size – it was kept in.
The Game Scores for the particularly bad starts averaged out to 26, which is quite awful. The follow-up start produced a 47 score, a nice increase but not as strong as my expectation going in. Only one-third of our follow-up starts would qualify for our particularly good start list and one of those three was the cheat start by Milone. Maybe a larger sample would have produced different results.
Checking Porcello, he did not have a start the past three years which qualified for our particularly bad grouping and a recent follow-up against the same opponent. You have to go back to 2015 to find a case where it happened. On April 19, he had a lousy game against the Orioles, one that resulted in a Game Score of 14. He faced them the next time out on April 24 and put up a Game Score of 49. In that game, Porcello gave up 4 ER in 6 IP. After he went just two innings in his first start this year, the Mets would be happy with a 6 IP outing tonight.