Author Archives: Justin Schultz

Eric Sogard is having some kind of season

When I was a kid, I always knew that one day I would be writing about Eric Sogard. In fact, it was a dream of mine. Those two sentences are a lie. I never wanted to write about him, and I don’t really want to write about him right now, because what I’m about to write doesn’t show him in a positive light, and I’m not really a big fan of writing negative pieces.

Yet here I am, and there is Sogard, currently sitting with a .114/.222/.152 slash line. Or if you’d prefer (I prefer), a 3 wRC+. You absolutely read that right. He is producing 97 percent fewer runs than the league average batter. If you think that must be the worst mark in baseball, well, you’re darn close. Of players with at least 90 MLB plate appearances in 2018, only Byron Buxton (-3 wRC+) and Trayce Thompson (2 wRC+) have been more useless at the plate. Since 1990, there have been only 21 players who have finished a season with a lower wRC+ than 3 (minimum 90 plate appearances). The record for the lowest wRC+ during that span goes to Felix Martinez of the 1998 Mariners with a -12 wRC+. Sogard probably won’t match that, but the fact remains he’s having one of the worst seasons at the plate in the last 30 years.

Sogard was a surprising bright spot on a surprising Brewers team last season. He set career highs in almost every offensive category, and finished the year with a mountain-high .390 on-base percentage. Regression was in his future, and while Sogard has never even been a league-average hitter, I don’t think anyone saw this type of regression coming.

The 32-year-old infielder has appeared in 38 games. He has one game with multiple hits, and that came on April 9. Also on April 9, he hit two doubles, which accounted for 66 percent of his extra-base hits this season. That would seem odd until you realize he has just nine total hits on the season. And if I have use the 90 plate appearance threshold once again, Sogard’s nine hits are the fewest in baseball.

Sogard was aided by a career-high .311 batting average on balls in play in 2017, despite having a rather paltry exit velocity. Take a look at this chart.

Avg Exit Velocity BABIP
2017 83.5 .311
2018 83.6 .153

He’s hitting the ball with almost the exact same force as he did a year ago, but the outcomes have been much different. Hitting the ball at a speed of 83 mph is not good. His exit velocity last season ranked 260th. This year it ranks 335th. His .311 BABIP was unbelievably lucky. Above everything else, Sogard’s struggles — not only now, but for his career — can be blamed on his inability to generate hard contact.

The Milwaukee Brewers just traded for infielder Brad Miller, a move that should ultimately end Sogard’s time on the 25-man roster. It should end his time in Milwaukee’s organization, but I’m sure David Stearns would have no problem sending him to the minors to try and get him right. Sogard would have to accept the assignment, but he’s already done it once before this season.

Sogard was fun last season. Sogard was a good player last season. But good things always come to an end, and in Sogard’s case, it came quick.

Who are the Brewers getting in Brad Miller?

Hit a pinch-hit grand slam one day. Get sent to the minors and subsequently traded the next. That’s more or less the life of a fringe MLB player, and that’s exactly what happened to Ji-Man Choi on Sunday evening when he was shipped to the Tampa Bay Rays in return for infielder Brad Miller and cash considerations.

This trade is an obvious one. With Jesus Aguilar hitting better than the likes of Nolan Arenado and Joey Votto, and Eric Thames ready to come off the disabled list in the very near future, the Brewers just didn’t have a spot for another first baseman. His signing this offseason was puzzling for that reason alone, unless David Stearns’ goal from the get-go was to use him as trade bait. If so, mission accomplished. In 32 plate appearances, Choi hit two home runs and finished his Brewers career with a 98 wRC+, and that enticed the Rays enough to send Miller — who the team had already designated for assignment — to Milwaukee.

But who exactly are the Brewers getting in Brad Miller?

The Brewers acquired Miller to play shortstop and/or second base, although the 28 year old hasn’t logged a game at short since the 2016 season, when he posted -14 defensive runs saved (DRS). According to DRS, Miller was the second-worst fielding shortstop during that year, behind only Alexei Ramirez. But Miller will have to get reacquainted with the position soon if the Brewers expect any offensive production from shortstop going forward. Defensive ace and current starting shortstop Orlando Arcia has eight walks, 39 strikeouts and a 37 wRC+. His backup, Eric Sogard, has a wRC+ of 3. Three. That means he’s been 97 percent worse than league average. In reality, he has no business being on a major-league roster right now.

And that’s where Miller comes in. He won’t impress with his batting average and he won’t get on base at a high clip, but he has power, and he’s a considerable upgrade over Arica and Sogard. And that’s all the Brewers really need. In 2016, Miller went deep 30 times, but has just 14 home runs in 581 plate appearances since. The former second round draft pick owns a career 100 wRC+, so he’s the definition of a league-average hitter, and a league-average hitter in an offense that already includes Lorenzo Cain (124 wRC+), Christian Yelich (133) and Travis Shaw (124) will be welcomed with open arms. He will make the offense better.

Miller’s defense will be tough to watch at times, but if he can make up for it at least a little with his bat, he’ll help a team that seems destined for the playoffs.

What happened to Domingo Santana’s power?

Domingo Santana hit 30 home runs last season. Domingo Santana hit 30 home runs last season because he’s a good player with power. Domingo Santana has one home run this season. It’s May 14.

Before going any further, here’s a table of how Santana performed from the beginning of 2017 to May 13 of the same year, along with nearly the same range of dates from this season.

G PA AVG OBP ISO wRC+ 2B 3B HR
4/3/2017 to 5/13/2017 34 129 .255 .357 .191 110 6 0 5
3/29/2018 to 5/13/2018 37 138 .273 .355 .066 92 5 0 1

Santana’s playing time is almost identical, and thanks to three hits — including a double — in five trips Sunday versus the Rockies, his on-base percentage is a mirror image, as well. Of everything on the table, though, it’s his power numbers that draw the most attention, particularly in the home run and isolated power department, and it’s clear Santana has gotten off to an excruciating slow start.

Now, this table doesn’t tell us much without context, which is why I’m about to give you context. I wouldn’t be much of a writer if I didn’t. There’s a handful of reasons why Santana has been no power threat whatsoever at the plate, with one in particular that’s quite fascinating. But for now, let’s look at his batted ball profile.

Nearly 31 percent of Santana’s fly balls landed over the fence in 2017. Only Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton finished with higher home-run-to-fly-ball ratios, and while that’s amazing company to share, I think we can all agree Santana doesn’t belong in that group. Negative regression was bound to happen. However, that regression has overcompensated. Santana’s HR/FB% currently sits at 5.3 percent. That minuscule number won’t last, but it is discouraging, especially when you realize Santana is hitting the ball on the ground more than ever before.

Milwaukee’s right fielder entered the season with a career ground-ball rate of 43.4 percent. He hit 44.9 percent of his batted balls on the ground a year ago, while both his line-drive rate and fly-ball rate flirted around 27.5 percent. That has completely changed. Currently, Santana is hitting the ball on the ground over 54 percent of the time, and that just happens to be the 13th-highest mark of every qualified hitter in Major League Baseball. For a guy who’s considered a power hitter, that’s not exactly a good stat to have next to his name. Meanwhile, his fly-ball rate has fallen to 22.9 percent.

What happened? Why is he hitting more ground balls? Well, the biggest reason is that Santana is having a tough time handling inside pitches. This is the interesting part. Get ready for some visuals.

The first visual shows a breakdown of Santana’s isolated power numbers based on pitch location in 2017 and 2018. (Click on picture of enhanced view.)

Last season Santana crushed inside pitches. Especially the low, inside ones that found the strike zone. This year? Different story. Despite his success last year, pitchers are testing him even more inside, and more often than not, they’re finding success. Take a look at the same breakdown except with grounders.

In the age of the launch angle revolution, Santana has been one of the few outcasts this season. Instead of lifting those balls like he’s been known to do, Santana has been weakly rolling over them and driving them into the ground at an insanely high rate. His launch angle has dropped from 10.5 degrees to 9.9 degrees. Yes, the overall sample size is still relatively small, but over 130 plate appearances is nothing to scoff at. Santana’s seeing more inside fastballs than what he’s normally accustomed to, but he’s been very capable against fastballs during his career (.243 ISO against four-seam fastballs), so that can’t be used as an excuse. Maybe Santana isn’t seeing the ball as well or maybe his bat speed has slowed down, but this has become a problem.

Defense has always been a black mark on Santana’s record, and if you take away his ability to hit home runs, he turns into a league-average player at the very best. He needs to hit home runs in order to be serviceable. He needs to hit home runs if he expects Counsell to write his name on the lineup card every day. He needs to hit home runs. Period. And that starts with him figuring out a way to not only start elevating the ball again, but also how to once again remaster the inside pitch.

Does Eric Thames deserve the “Mr. April” nickname?

There have been countless marvelous nicknames handed out in baseball history. Of all the major sports, baseball is a step above the rest when it comes to imaginative monikers. There’s The Great Bambino, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Hammerin’ Hank and Mr. October. There’s also The Big Hurt, The Big Unit and Kung Fu Panda, along with numerous other creative titles. In Milwaukee, we currently call Travis Shaw “The Mayor of Ding Dong City”, and we used to swoon over El Caballo (Carlos Lee) back in his playing days. And now, after another powerful April, we’ve given out another nickname to Eric Thames.

Over the past two seasons, the Brewers first baseman has 18 home runs in the month of April. He crushed 11 in April 2017 during his return to Major League Baseball, and as of April 22, he has seven over-the-wall hits in 2018. It’s not a stretch to say he’s been nothing short of phenomenal during the season’s opening month, but does he really deserve the “Mr. April” nickname that so many people — myself included — have called him? Let’s find out.

Before the 2017 season, the last time Thames played professionally in the states was in 2013, when he spent time in the Orioles’ and Mariners’ minor-league systems. He had just 684 major-league plate appearances in his career up to that point, and he eventually decided to take his talents to Korea. Therefore, because Thames’ body of work is so small, it would be unfair to compare him to players with much larger sample sizes. Like Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols, for example. Bonds is the owner of the award for most home runs during the season’s first month in MLB history with 117, and Pujols is a close second with 107. Thames has 20 April home runs. To his credit, though. Bonds and Pujols have more plate appearances in April alone than Thames does across his entire career. So, for the sake of this argument, I’m just going to be looking at the last two seasons. It’s not perfect, but who cares?

Let’s first start by looking at Thames’ performance the last two Aprils. (Note: When I say April, I’m including March, as well).

PA Avg OBP wOBA wRC+ HR
172 .299 .414 .468 194 18

Those numbers are impressive. Really impressive, actually. Thames has created 94 percent more runs than league average in the month of April, and has hit just as many home runs as Joe Mauer has in the last two full seasons combined. Granted, Mauer isn’t necessarily considered a power hitter, but you get the point.

Thames has been fantastic in April. I’ve established that numerous times in this article already, and I’m only 383 words in. We still haven’t gotten to the main question, though; does Thames deserve the Mr. April nickname? If he hasn’t been the best hitter in that month over the last two seasons, he shouldn’t be blessed with that moniker. I don’t think anyone could disagree with that. I realize that two years is an incredibly small sample size, especially when handing out a nickname, but let’s just have some fun with it.

The three categories I’ve chosen to evaluate are home runs, isolated power percentage and OPS. I would prefer to use wRC+ and wOBA, but Baseball Reference’s Play Index fails to list those as options, so isolated power and OPS are the next best things. If Thames is leading the way in all three of those offensive categories, then I will admit he absolutely deserves the nickname.

Here are the home run leaders in April since the beginning of 2017:

Rank Name HR
1 Eric Thames 18
2 Bryce Harper 17
3 Aaron Judge 16
4 Mike Trout 15
5 Khris Davis 15
6 Charlie Blackmon 14
7 Ryan Zimmerman 14
8 Joey Gallo 13
9 Ryan Braun 12
10 Mike Moustakas 12

Thames wins this one. Bryce Harper and the powerful Aaron Judge are right on his heels, though, and both could easily surpass him before this month’s up. Now, let’s look at the isolated power numbers (minimum 100 plate appearances).

Rank Name ISO
1 Eric Thames .441
2 Bryce Haprer .382
3 Aaron Judge .374
4 Mike Trout .350
5 Ryan Zimmerman .350
6 Scott Schebler .340
7 Charlie Blackmon .327
8 Miguel Sano .326
9 Nelson Cruz .323
10 Matt Kemp .321

The top four are the exact same as the home-run list, but there’s a few new names toward the bottom of the list, with Matt Kemp being the most surprising. Thames is once again on top of the leaderboard, and is well on his way to officially taking the Mr. April crown.

Here are the top 10 April OPS leaders over the last two years (minimum 100 plate appearances):

Rank Name OPS
1 Bryce Harper 1.217
2 Eric Thames 1.173
3 Aaron Judge 1.135
4 Freddie Freeman 1.124
5 Mike Trout 1.118
6 Eugenio Suarez 1.032
7 Ryan Zimmerman 1.029
8 Mitch Haniger 1.019
9 Nelson Cruz 1.000
10 Matt Kemp 0.996

An upset! Due to an incredible start to the season, Harper takes down Thames with a slightly better OPS.

However, even though I said Thames could only be nicknamed Mr. April if he leads in all three categories, I’m still going to give it to him. Because the fact is, he deserves it. In addition to Thames’ above accolades, he also ranks sixth in on-base percentage, third in total bases and fourth in runs created. In terms of offensive production and providing value with the bat, no one has been better than Thames in April since he made his triumphant return from Korea.

This isn’t the best way to determine the top hitter in a given month, and there’s obviously many more stats I could’ve dived into to further my research, but at the very minimum, it shows that calling Thames “Mr. April” actually makes a whole ton of sense. If he can put together three or four more Aprils of this magnitude, maybe the nickname will stick for years to come.

Until then, though, every time Thames comes to the plate as this month winds down, it’s a safe bet he’ll find success. After all, they don’t call him Mr. April for nothing.

***All stats are as of April 21, 2018

An early look at exit velocity

With the invention of StatCast, we have the capability to see just how hard a batter hits the ball. Being able to determine exit velocities has transformed the way we evaluate players, and it allows us to measure player performance on a more accurate level. In other words, StatCast is amazing.

According to my Baseball Savant query, there were 165,566 balls put in play in 2017. Of those, only 15,799 (10.4 percent) were hit with an exit speed of 100 mph or faster. Batters hit .651 with a whopping .844 wOBA on those balls, while they batted just .253 with a .249 wOBA on exit velocities that failed to reach the century mark. The lesson learned here: hit the ball hard.

Exit velocities can also let us know if a hitter is having good or bad luck. For example, if a hitter has a low batting average on balls in play but has a relatively high hard-hit rate, it’s likely the said hitter has been bitten by the bad luck bug. Chances are his misfortune will eventually turn in his favor. Unless, of course, he’s someone like Joey Gallo, who will always have a low BABIP because most of his batted balls go over the fence.

The Milwaukee Brewers just finished their first full week of the season, and currently sit in third place in the NL Central with a record of 5-5. And quite frankly, they’re lucky to have five wins. They just lost three of four to the Chicago Cubs, a series in which the Brewers managed just one hit with runners in scoring position. After a strong start in San Diego, Milwaukee’s bats have cooled off, so I thought it would be an interesting exercise to look at the team’s exit velocities after 10 games to see which players are over performing/underperforming.

As a team, the Brewers rank 26th in average exit velocity with a mark of 86.4 mph. The Chicago White Sox lead baseball with an average of 91.8 mph. Individually, the average hitter hits the ball at 88.2 mph. Let’s look at Milwaukee’s hitters to determine who’s contributing to the team’s low velocity numbers.

Note: All stats are as of April 7. Sunday’s finale versus the Cubs is not included. All stats courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Player Balls In Play 2018 Avg Exit Velocity (mph) 2017 Avg Exit Velocity Difference wOBA xwOBA
Lorenzo Cain 32 89.9 89.1 0.8 .326 .353
Travis Shaw 28 86.1 88.3 -2.2 .320 .296
Jonathan Villar 22 86.7 86.7 0.0 .255 .222
Domingo Santana 21 90.1 89.3 0.8 .296 .293
Manny Pina 21 79.0 87.0 -8.0 .278 .329
Eric Thames 20 89.9 88.1 1.8 .403 .497
Orlando Arcia 20 82.0 85.3 -3.3 .169 .183
Christian Yelich 20 97.1 90.4 6.7 .418 .398
Ryan Braun 18 86.1 89.7 -3.6 .282 .315
Eric Sogard 8 80.9 83.5 -2.6 .175 .210
Jesus Aguilar 7 84.2 89.0 -4.8 .543 .460
Jett Bandy 6 91.5 85.2 6.3 .211 .314
Hernan Perez 5 85.2 84.1 1.1 .097 .182
Ji-Man Choi 1 99.0 93.6 5.4 1.232 .591

A few things stand out here.

  • Only four players have exit velocities that are better than league average, and one of them is Jett Bandy, who’s put just six balls in play so far.
  • The Brewers desperately need Christian Yelich back in the lineup. He ranks fourth in all of baseball in exit velocity and has a .474 BABIP.
  • Manny Pina is really struggling to make strong contact. His xwOBA is much higher than his wOBA, but the fact he’s averaging only 79 mph on batted balls is worrisome.
  • Ji-Man Choi made the most of his one at bat on Opening Day.
  • I thought Orlando Arcia would take a huge step forward in 2018, and although it’s still early into the season, he’s continually hitting soft grounder after soft grounder. He has a 60 percent ground-ball rate and a 40 percent soft-hit percentage.
  • Ryan Braun — aside from his late-inning home run heroics — has been miserable at the plate. He’s not hitting the ball hard and has a miniscule .158 BABIP
  • Eric Thames looks good at the plate, and the peripherals back it up.
  • Domingo Santana has crushed the ball, but hasn’t found any gaps yet. He has just one extra-base hit.
  • Lorenzo Cain leads the team with 11 batted balls of over 100 mph. His hardest hit ball was 111.6 mph off Brian Duensing that resulted in a double.
  • The Brewers have 48 batted balls that have reached 100 mph or faster off the bat. That’s the 11th most in baseball, which is strange considering how low they rank in average exit velocity.

The Brewers have a dangerous offense. The additions of Yelich and Cain have made their lineup a force to be reckoned with, but 10 games into the new season, the offense has struggled. And a lot of that has to do with the quality of its batted balls. It’s still early, so the numbers in the table are still fluctuating by large amounts with each new batted ball, but if in a month, Milwaukee’s exit velocity numbers are still in the gutter, then we may want to take more notice and start worrying.

RW23 hitter projections for the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers

Welcome to the second annual edition of the RW23 hitter projections. RW23 — creatively named after Rickie Weeks — was created in 2017 with the help of Mike Podhorzer and his book, “Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance.”

Below you’ll find the RW23 hitter projections for the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers’ roster as of March 25, along with the Steamer and ZiPS projection systems for comparison. In its debut season, RW23’s hitter projections went toe-to-toe with Steamer, while solidly beating ZiPS.

C Manny Pina

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO wOBA K% BB% BABIP SB HR
RW23 333 304 .245 .301 .370 .671 .125 .295 23.1% 6.4% .299 1 8
Steamer 231 210 .251 .306 .388 .694 .137 .300 20.5% 6.5% .297 1 5
ZiPS 339 311 .248 .299 .386 .685 .138 .295 19.5% 5.9% .288 2 8

1B Eric Thames

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO wOBA K% BB% BABIP SB HR
RW23 489 419 .243 .348 .499 .846 .256 .363 30.2% 12.8% .306 4 26
Steamer 508 437 .251 .346 .488 .834 .236 .352 27.2% 11.5% .309 6 26
ZiPS 516 441 .240 .345 .510 .855 .270 .358 30.6% 12.6% .300 7 29

2B Jonathan Villar

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO WOBA K% BB% BABIP SB HR
RW23 466 423 .255 .316 .405 .721 .150 .314 28.2% 8.2% .336 27 13
Steamer 489 434 .250 .323 .398 .721 .149 .312 27.0% 9.4% .326 29 13
ZiPS 526 472 .244 .312 .400 .713 .157 .307 28.5% 8.7% .324 34 15

3B Travis Shaw

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO WOBA K% BB% BABIP SB HR
RW23 595 527 .277 .353 .535 .888 .258 .376 23.2% 10.1% .315 9 33
Steamer 580 516 .249 .323 .454 .777 .205 .328 23.4% 9.3% .286 5 26
ZiPS 573 515 .256 .323 .472 .795 .216 .335 23.2% 8.6% .294 7 26

SS Orlando Arcia

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO WOBA K% BB% BABIP SB HR
RW23 592 544 .278 .331 .431 .762 .152 .326 16.9% 7.0% .312 15 17
Steamer 551 503 .262 .313 .405 .717 .143 .305 17.5% 6.7% .296 14 14
ZiPS 599 554 .256 .305 .401 .706 .144 .299 18.2% 6.3% .292 16 16

OF Ryan Braun

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO WOBA K% BB% BABIP SB HR
RW23 475 428 .280 .345 .490 .835 .210 .356 18.3% 8.6% .308 7 20
Steamer 475 426 .277 .344 .496 .840 .219 .353 19.3% 8.8% .304 10 22
ZiPS 472 426 .284 .347 .495 .843 .211 .354 18.9% 8.3% .316 12 20

OF Lorenzo Cain

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO WOBA K% BB% BABIP SB HR
RW23 610 553 .292 .350 .417 .767 .125 .334 17.6% 7.7% .338 23 14
Steamer 593 533 .283 .344 .437 .781 .154 .335 17.7% 7.6% .324 16 16
ZiPS 579 530 .283 .339 .426 .765 .143 .328 16.6% 7.1% .322 22 14

OF Christian Yelich

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO WOBA K% BB% BABIP SB HR
RW23 672 580 .300 .386 .502 .889 .203 .382 20.2% 11.8% .349 15 26
Steamer 647 560 .296 .381 .491 .871 .195 .371 20.2% 11.4% .348 12 23
ZiPS 682 598 .289 .371 .472 .843 .182 .360 20.8% 11.1% .346 16 21

OF Domingo Santana

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO WOBA K% BB% BABIP SB HR
RW23 535 460 .273 .370 .501 .871 .228 .375 28.5% 12.5% .352 13 25
Steamer 573 492 .258 .353 .468 .821 .211 .351 28.3% 12.0% .328 9 26
ZiPS 566 492 .258 .352 .472 .823 .213 .352 30.9% 11.8% .345 10 26

INF Eric Sogard

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO WOBA K% BB% BABIP SB HR
RW23 401 357 .259 .336 .326 .662 .067 .298 12.3% 9.3% .293 3 2
Steamer 164 142 .262 .346 .364 .710 .102 .313 14.0% 10.6% .298 3 2
ZiPS 383 335 .257 .344 .349 .693 .093 .308 13.1% 11.0% .291 6 4

INF Hernan Perez

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO WOBA K% BB% BABIP SB HR
RW23 355 333 .273 .309 .430 .739 .157 .319 17.0% 5.1% .300 8 12
Steamer 183 172 .258 .293 .398 .691 .141 .295 19.2% 4.5% .298 6 5
ZiPS 474 446 .269 .299 .426 .725 .157 .307 18.1% 4.2% .305 15 13

C Jett Bandy

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO WOBA K% BB% BABIP SB HR
RW23 201 181 .228 .298 .392 .690 .164 .302 25.6% 7.3% .275 1 7
Steamer 77 70 .229 .289 .384 .673 .154 .290 22.2% 6.2% .267 1 2
ZiPS 297 266 .222 .291 .398 .689 .177 .297 21.5% 6.1% .247 1 11

C Stephen Vogt

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO WOBA K% BB% BABIP SB HR
RW23 244 225 .250 .302 .451 .752 .200 .324 17.9% 6.3% .265 0 11
Steamer 176 159 .257 .318 .441 .759 .183 .322 18.9% 7.9% .283 1 7
ZiPS 405 371 .259 .314 .450 .764 .191 .323 17.3% 7.2% .280 0 15

1B Jesus Aguilar

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO WOBA K% BB% BABIP SB HR
RW23 82 74 .249 .314 .450 .764 .201 .330 28.8% 7.7% .311 0 4
Steamer 20 18 .236 .302 .426 .728 .190 .310 26.5% 7.9% .284 0 1
ZiPS 473 428 .243 .307 .428 .734 .185 .312 26.0% 7.8% .293 0 19

Dark horse Cy Young candidates for 2018

I’ve been putting together a list of dark horse Cy Young candidates since 2015 when I was writing for a different site. The topic was assigned to me by my editor and, since then, it’s been a little pet project of mine, and when I say dark horses, I mean dark. I had major success in my debut season, as two of my dark horses actually won the prestigious award. Aside from 2015, I haven’t had a place to publish my candidates save for Twitter and Google Docs, so I decided to issue it on The First Out At Third, an — up until now — exclusive Milwaukee Brewers website. This post, along with one at the end of the season reviewing the candidates, will be the only two non-Brewers pieces you’ll find here.

I only have three requirements when picking my candidates:

  • They haven’t won the Cy Young award in the past
  • They haven’t received a single Cy Young vote in the past three years

You can find my past dark horses here, along with how they finished. You can also follow along with my current candidates here.

Now, without further ado, here are my 2018 dark horse Cy Young candidates.

1. RHP Zack Godley – Arizona Diamondbacks

Godley is coming off his first full season as a starter, and the 27 year old performed like a No. 1 pitcher in Arizona’s rotation. His 3.37 ERA was backed up by his 3.41 FIP and 3.32 xFIP, while his strikeout rate increased by nearly nine percent from 2016 (when he was mainly used as a reliever). The main thing that intrigues me about Godley is his ability to generate whiffs. Among pitchers who threw at least 150 innings last year, Godley ranked ninth in swinging-strike rate (13.3 percent). That’s a higher percentage than Jacob DeGrom, Stephen Strasburg and teammate Zack Greinke.

The Diamondbacks are set to install a humidor in Chase Field in which they’ll store their baseballs and, as a result, the baseballs will become heavier due to the water they’ll absorb. And that means there will be fewer home runs hit in Chase Field. FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan has more on the issue, but we can reasonably expect Chase Field to see a rather large reduction in home runs. Now, Godley isn’t a fly-ball pitcher, but his 14.7& home-run-to-fly ball ratio — which was the 26th highest mark in all of baseball (minimum 150 IP) — suggests the humidor will absolutely help Godley keep the ball in the park. And that along with his strikeouts should aid him in taking the next step to “ace” this season.

The Diamondbacks have quietly put together a strong rotation, and I’m betting Godley is the best one in that group in 2018.

2. RHP Luis Castillo – Cincinnati Reds

Castillo has just 89.1 major league innings under his belt, all of which came in 2018. But he was spectacular in those 89.1 innings, and I’m all in on this youngster.

The right-hander skipped over Triple-A after putting together a 2.58 ERA and 2.50 FIP for Cincinnati’s Double-A affiliate, and when he got to The Show he didn’t skip a beat. Castillo struck out over 27 percent of batters faced, while posting a 3.12 ERA and 3.74 FIP. His FIP screams that Castillo may be in for some negative regression in 2018, but I’m not buying that narrative. Sixty percent of his allowed batted balls were grounders, and his four-seam fastball and sinker averaged over 97 mph. He has one heck of an arm, and though he probably relies on his four-seam a bit too much, it has the capability to be a devastating pitch.

Castillo’s chances of winning the Cy Young award are miniscule, but that’s why they call it a dark horse, right? Look out for him 2018.

3. RHP Kenta Maeda – Los Angeles Dodgers

Maeda accumulated an ERA over 4 in 2017 and, as a 29-year-old pitcher, his prime should soon be winding down, yet here he is on my list.

Assuming he begins the season in the rotation, Maeda should have no trouble shutting down hitters, and while he took a step back numbers-wise from his rookie season, he made big strides in a few noteworthy categories by upping his K/9, lowering his BB/9, and raising his swinging-strike rate. The results didn’t reflect those improvements, mainly due to his trouble keeping the ball inside the stadium, as he gave up 22 home runs in just 134.1 innings.

If Maeda can keep the ball from flying out and continue to raise his strikeout game, he should see some positive regression in 2018. He allowed a .306 wOBA last season while his xwOBA was .281; that’s not a terribly big difference, but it does mean that Maeda pitched better than his final stats indicated.

4. RHP Jeff Samardzija – San Francisco Giants

Of every pitcher who threw a pitch last year, Samardzija may have been the unluckiest. He posted a 4.42 ERA, yet I would argue that he was dominant. He’s on my list in 2018 because I think he’ll be dominant again, except this time with the stats to back it up.

Samardzija posted baseball’s 13th-highest K-BB% last season, with a 20.4 percent mark. He struck out 24.2 percent of hitters — his highest rate since 2012 — and walked just 3.8 percent — the lowest of his career. Furthermore, his ERA-FIP was the second-largest gap among qualified pitchers, which highlights just how much better Samardzija was than what the naked eye sees. Samardzija will be very good in 2018, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he finished with a sub-3 ERA.

The former Notre Dame star is getting up there in age, so this could be his last shot for a true chance at the Cy Young.  I think he has the best chance of all my dark horses.

5. LHP Andrew Heaney – Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

The darkest of the dark of my candidates, I believe Heaney — if he can finally stay healthy — can be an ace-like starter for the Angels.

Heaney has pitched just 27.2 innings over the last two years due to a plethora of injuries, including Tommy John surgery in 2016. The 26-year-old lefty has made 23 starts in his career and has a 4.48 ERA to go along with a 4.81 FIP, but during his time in the minors and his brief stint in the majors last season, there’s a lot to like. In 21.2 innings, he struck out 26.7 percent (11.22 K/9)  of batters, and while I know that’s an incredibly small sample size, it ranked among the top 25 in that category among starting pitchers. However, Heaney was terrible in 2018, finishing with a 7.06 ERA and 9.11 FIP. That was mostly due to a 40 percent home-run-to-fly-ball ratio, which is just nuts and unsustainable.

Heaney has always had success in the minors, and health has been his biggest hurdle. His only healthy season in the majors came in 2015 when he posted a 3.49 ERA in 105 innings. If Heaney can prove he can continue to pile up the strikeouts with a low-90s fastball and sinker while maintaining a clean bill of health, he has the chance to finally reach his potential.