I’ve started a number of articles over the last couple of days, but none of them really had that “yeah, that’s the good stuff” factor to them. As a result, I haven’t posted about a number of news stories. But that’s not a good idea, either, as a series of things haven’t been talked about at all outside of the comment section. So, with the advantage of hindsight, let’s look at some of the recent decisions, moves, and news.
Jose Ramirez Blows It and is DL’d
Fresh off being charged with five earned runs in the awful conditions last weekend at Wrigley, the Braves right-handed reliever gave up four runs against the Phillies in an extra-innings loss. His total over the two outings – 1.1 ING, 5 H, 9 R, 9 ER, 5 BB, 3 K, 1 HBP. After the second game, he mentioned that he was dealing with some shoulder stiffness and he was soon DL’d. It was yet another blow to a bullpen that had one of the top ERAs in the league before the Wrigley game that everyone seemed to agree shouldn’t have been played.
But that ERA, much like Ramirez’s ERA in 2017, should have come with an asterisk. It should have read that “Reliever ERA cannot be trusted.” There’s nothing new about this idea. The only thing new is our widespread understanding of the principle. On one hand, we have the actual results based on what box scores explicitly say. That helps us build rate stats like strikeouts and walks. It also gives us one of the most widely used stats – still to this day – in Earned Run Average. But over the last several years, we’ve refined the belief of what expected results should look like. We utilize those rate stats, add a dash of league information, and spit out things like Fielding Independent Pitching to give us a comparison tool.
The ERA vs. FIP argument is highlighted by the differences in WAR between Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference. The latter, for instance, graded Ramirez’s 2017 season as a 1.0 WAR year. They did this because Ramirez had a 3.19 ERA over 62 innings. But Fangraphs gave him a -0.4 WAR.
So, did he have a good year or a bad year? Yes.
He had a good year because the results said so. Regardless of what we can say about the metrics, Ramirez did his job. He got outs. He didn’t even vulture wins from other pitchers in the process as he allowed just 4-of-16 inherited runners to score. The results are pretty clear and Ramirez was a solid reliever in 2017. But it was also a bad year because the expected results were so poor. He had a FIP of 4.88 and an expected FIP of 5.00. He was essentially a slightly worse pitcher than he was the previous season.
But who cares, right? It’s a results-driven business and only results matter.
Except expected results give us a glimpse into what the future may look like. Not always. Let’s be clear – some pitchers will spend their whole career with a FIP higher than their ERA because of their style of pitching. One such example was Tim Hudson. Most of the time, pitchers that remain successful despite a higher FIP than their ERA are guys who don’t get many strikeouts. Context is always important. If you looked at Hudson’s 2010 FIP of 4.09 next to a 2.83 ERA and said “he’s going to come back to Earth,” you weren’t taking into account the pitcher that Hudson was.
Exceptions exist, but many pitchers suffer subsequent troubles the next season based on the luck-Gods taking the year off. In 2016, Dan Straily had a 3.76 ERA over 191.1 innings and looked to be a pitcher on the rise. However, he also had a 4.88 FIP and “saber nerds” were saying to expect a worse follow-up effort. His 2017 ERA was half-a-run higher. And he wasn’t alone. Ian Kennedy, Jake Odorizzi, Jerad Eickoff, and Chris Tillman all saw at least 40 points added to their ERA after outpitching their FIP the previous year.
Back to Jose Ramirez now. In 2017, Ramirez finished with a 3.19 ERA, a 4.88 FIP, a 5.00 xFIP, and a 4.43 SIERA (another metric that tries to find the quality of pitching). This disparity between results and expected results come from a league-average strikeout rate of 21.7%, a below-average walk rate of 11.2%, and homerun rates (HR/9 and HR/FB) that were both above average. The advanced metrics saw a pitcher prime for regression.
Was that a guarantee? Hell no, but if you were a betting man coming into 2018, you would have been foolish to expect solid results from Ramirez based on what the metrics were telling you. Certainly, pitching hurt – his fastball velocity is down a couple of ticks – won’t help. But I don’t think we can say it’s all injury, either.
Anibal Down, Wisler Up
The injury to Anibal Sanchez while running sprints in the outfield the day before his next start put the Braves in a bit of a confusing position. Sanchez had been a stabilizing force in the rotation over his first few starts and was looking to build on that success. Meanwhile, Luiz Gohara was still a few weeks off from being able to return and other stud pitchers weren’t available. The Braves made a decision to go with Matt Wisler over Lucas Sims, who had replaced Ramirez on the roster.
Braves fans prepared for the worst.
What they got was Wisler’s best. Wisler became the first Braves starter to complete seven innings of work in 2018. He allowed just two hits, including a solo home run on maybe his only real mistake of the evening. He threw strikes and plenty of them, finishing with eight K’s and zero walks. Game Score grades the start as the third-best of his career. From a context standpoint, it may have actually been the best when you consider the situation and timing. Here was Matt Wisler, whose unimpressive spring helped to convince the Braves to sign Sanchez in the first place, climbing the SunTrust Park mound only because of an injury to Sanchez and throwing the game of his life.
One game doesn’t make a Cy Young Award winner, but let’s consider this performance. In fact, let’s do a Mini-Statcasting article. For one game, at least, Wisler embraced the idea of being a three-pitch pitcher and scrapped his changeup and curve for the most part. Against righties, he was essentially a four-seam/slider guy while he added a heavy dose of sinkers against left-hand hitters. The big difference, though, wasn’t in pitch selection or velocity, but release point and depth to his slider. Wisler has worked over the last couple of seasons to increase his arm angle and release point. This was a key in Jake Arrieta‘s resurgence with the Cubs.
As a result, Wisler was getting more bend on his slider and the late movement was hard for Mets’ hitters to figure out. They swung at the slider 58% of the time Wisler threw it. They only put it in play 8%. For years, we’ve talked about Wisler’s fallback potential as a reliever with good mid-90’s heat that he has great control over and a swing-and-miss slider. If he has more games like he did Thursday, he won’t need a fallback option to the pen. Sanchez’s injury doesn’t appear to be a big concern anymore. He will be back sooner rather than later. Rarely over the last few years have the Braves had too many competent starters for the rotation. I hear it’s a nice problem to have.
Braves Sign Jose Bautista
Well, uh, that’s weird.
In their yearly quest to load up on old-and-broken home run champs, the Atlanta Braves have signed Jose Bautista to a minor league deal. Bautista, who has six starts at third base since 2011, has a shot to earn a spot on the major league roster at the hot corner. To put that in another way, the Braves haven’t signed Bautista to give Ronald Acuña Jr. yet another obstacle in taking over the world.
It’s an interesting signing and we’ve seen plenty of people go insane about it. I’ll go over some of the fears and concerns related to signing Bautista, but first, let’s talk about the actual player. It’s been a pretty sudden fall from grace for Bautista, who was among the most-feared hitters in baseball from 2010 to 2015. He was still productive in 2016 with a .355 wOBA and 122 wRC+, but struggled to keep up with the league last year. He hit just .203/.308/.366 and while he did bash 23 home runs, he did it with a 11.9% HR/FB rate. It hadn’t been that low in nearly a decade.
The big reason for the dropoff? I mean, he was 36 years old. What is usually a drop off for players that age? Yep, the bat slowed down. From 2010-15, Bautista destroyed heaters. Only Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, and Shin-Soo Choo had a better wFB number than Bautista. Because he was so dangerous against fastballs, he got a lot of breaking balls for strikes and he pulverized them, too. But starting first in 2016, the production level declined. Last year, only three hitters had a worse wFB score than Bautista and he had the eighth-worst score against sliders.
As a result, his quality of contact stats has shifted toward the soft rating. His exit velocity in 2017 alone rarely went above 90 mph. He popped the occasional homer and pitchers continued to pitch him carefully, leading to a number of walks, but he was a much easier out. His contact rate on swings slipped dramatically as well – especially on outside-the-zone contact. The latter was even more worrisome because he swung more at those pitches than ever. His ability to hit any pitch was once laudable. Now, it was gone.
Why sign him, then? Because why not?
I hate to be glib, but why don’t you give a guy with a 40-home run season on his record in 2015 a shot? The Braves tried this with Ryan Howard and everyone went crazy. “How can you sign Howard? He’s done!” Yeah, he was. As a result, he was released. Is Bautista also done? There’s a good chance of it, but at least the Braves can throw him against some minor league competition and find out first.
Of course, there is a slight difference here. The Braves didn’t sign Ryan Howard and say, “We’ll try him out at third base.” In their defense, Bautista played a good chunk of third base earlier in his career. He wasn’t very good at it and it makes the choice to use him there a bit more confusing since Alex Anthopoulos has spoken at lengths about improving team defense as a chief concern for Atlanta. But as we saw last year with Freddie Freeman, our quick disregard for the idea of non-third basemen playing the position is a bit unfounded. That’s not to say Bautista will be an ace defender at third – willing to bet he won’t be. But he might just be decent enough.
In addition, with defensive shifts and other analytical data, infield defense – especially at the corners – isn’t quite as important as it once was.
Back of Braves Bullpen Ever-Changing
Over the last week, we have seen Jesse Biddle and Miguel Socolovich come up, Jose Ramirez go on the DL, Lucas Sims come up and go back down, and Josh Ravin come up only to go into DFA hell. Part of this is kind of par for the course. Teams are taking advantage of very close Triple-A squads by mixing up the arms to get fresh ones. The bigger reason, though, is probably the lack of quality pitching we’ve seen from the bullpen.
The ERA, which was once so glorious, has dropped to 3.36. That’s just outside the top 10, but the FIP and the xFIP are especially bad at 3.84 and 4.79. The last number is especially troubling because only two teams have a higher xFIP in baseball. The Braves have been fortunate that a 16.5% walk rate hasn’t hurt more than it already has. It’s the worst mark in baseball and not all that close. They’ve been able to more lucky-than-good because of a .259 BABIP and an insanely low 0.24 HR/9. Despite the fact that they induce the second-fewest groundouts among bullpens in baseball, the Braves have the lowest amount of homeruns surrendered.
That won’t continue. Unfortunately, I’m not sure there’s a lot that can be done in the short-term. Outside of Dan Winkler and Shane Carle, nobody is really throwing quality strikes out of the bullpen on a consistent basis early on this season. A.J. Minter and Arodys Vizcaino should improve and Sam Freeman has to be able to find the strikezone at a better rate than 36.4%. These five pitchers should form a strong core. It’s finding other options outside those top four to shoulder some of the load. Peter Moylan is hyper-limited as a right-hand-batter-only option.
Jesse Biddle, who has strangely not been used since his call-up, might be worth an extended look. That is if Brian Snitker remembers that Biddle is in the pen.