Category Archives: Analysis

Jonathan Villar bet on himself and lost

Jonathan Villar put together a terrific August. His 146 wRC+ led the team and ranked as the 45th-highest mark of all MLB players whom have had at least 50 plate appearances. Villar played so well in August that manager Craig Counsell has been inserting him into the lineup on a playoff-hopeful team almost on a daily basis.

Yes, Villar has been raking lately. But this article isn’t about how good he is. Instead, the next few hundred words will focus on his miserable and not-so-surprisingly awful 2017 season — his hot August notwithstanding. If you think 55 plate appearances is a decent enough sample size to think he’s a changed player, this piece probably isn’t for you.

In late February, the Milwaukee Brewers offered Villar an extension worth around $20 million in guaranteed money. The second baseman was coming off a 3.1 WAR season in which he hit 19 home runs on his way to a 111 wRC+. He proved he could be constant threat on the bases, as he used his .369 on-base percentage to steal 62 bags in 80 attempts. Naturally, the Brewers wanted to keep him around. They even waived Scooter Gennett in order to make sure Villar had a permanent spot in their lineup. However, somewhat surprisingly, Villar passed on the extension, settling for a $500,000 salary instead of the millions he could’ve made. He instead chose to bet on himself and his future, most likely thinking he could garner more money with a subsequent strong season.

Villar bet on himself, and Villar lost.

As of Sept. 5 Villar has been worth -0.4 Wins Above Replacement, well below replacement level. In other words, only 10 players with a minimum of 400 plate appearances have performed at a lower level than the Brewers’ infielder. In case you’re still not getting it, Villar is the 11th-worst player in Major League Baseball this season.

Let’s compare his last two seasons.

2016 2017
AVG .285 .241
OBP .369 .293
HR 19 11
BABIP .373 .328
wOBA .356 .287
wRC+ 119 70
WAR 3.1 -0.4

Villar’s statistics across the board have plummeted. He went from a hitter who created 19 percent more runs than league average, to one that doesn’t warrant a spot on the major league roster. A lot of that has to do with his discipline at that plate. His walk rate has dropped by five percent and his strikeout percentage — which was already high — has ballooned to 30.1 percent, which is the 10th-highest rate in MLB.

Overall, Villar’s made considerably less contact, and has suffered more bad luck on the balls he has managed to put in play. With a career groundball rate of 56.7 percent, Villar always been a ground-ball batter. And he used that to his advantage in 2016, hitting a remarkable .313 on grounders. Even the average fan could tell you that mark was probably unsustainable going forward. And they’d be right. This year he’s hitting just .272 on ground balls, down 41 points, which is why his BABIP is has fallen almost 50 points as well.

There was just no way Villar could’ve duplicated his 2016 season. He’s a strikeout machine without enough power to make up for it, and without his ability to get on base via the walk, his value dwindles. And that’s exactly what happened. But even my projections didn’t expect him to fall of a cliff and drown in the ocean. My projection system (RW23) pegged the Brewers’ second baseman for regression, but still had him as a high-OBP guy with decent enough power for a middle infielder. I don’t think anyone foresaw his complete meltdown at the plate.

Now, I don’t blame Villar for having confidence in himself and rejecting the extension the Brewers offered. I mean, more power to him. The payoff had the opportunity to be enormous. But as the 2017 comes to an end, it’s hard to believe he doesn’t regret taking the money. But don’t get me wrong; he still has time to prove he is, in fact, the player he was in 2016. At 26 years old, the Brewers would be wise to keep giving him chances, as young players are incredibly important assets. He isn’t eligible for free agency until 2021, and although he’ll enter arbitration this winter for the first time in his career, he won’t cost the team very much.

Expect Villar to play a utility role for the Brewers in 2018, but to think he’ll be as valuable as he was in 2016 or as useless as he’s been this season, is a little outlandish. His true talent level is somewhere in the middle, and hopefully he consistently displays that in the years to come.

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Orlando Arcia still isn’t hitting, but…

Orlando Arcia still isn’t hitting. He’s had 399 plate appearances, and he’s still not hitting. He owns a career 66 wRC+ and has only managed a base hit on 27 percent of his batted balls. Both marks are well below league average. Now, we before we go any further, we have to understand we really didn’t expect him to make a big impact with the bat. Coming up through the minors, Arcia was known for his glove with his offense a distant second. However, his 66 wRC+ was unexpected, at least by me. I was expecting more of a league-average bat, with an OBP in the low .300’s. But man, Arcia just cannot get going.

BUT I HAVE GOOD NEWS.

Arcia is improving. Just take a look at this.

Month WRC+
April 2017 77
May 2017 62

Oh wait. This isn’t the right chart. According to this, he’s actually been worse than dreadful in May. Ha! This is a trick. Yes, Arcia has floundered in May, but there’s still reason to believe the 22 year old is improving.

Month K% BB% OBP
April 22.6% 3.6% .274
May 12.2% 7.1% .309

Arcia has dropped his strikeout rate by over 10 percent, improved his walk rate and has gotten on base at a higher clip as a result. His eye at the plate is better, evidenced by his decreased out-of-the-zone swings.

Around games 20 to 30, he had a really bad stretch of chasing pitches, but since then, he’s been better than most. Hopefully, this trend continues, and hopefully, with better pitches put in play, his BABIP will rise.

Arcia has been worth 0.6 WAR without hitting a lick due to his defense. If he can somehow manage to be just a league-average hitter (100 wRC+), he could be the prospect everyone once loved. But in keep mind, he’s only 22. Patience is a virtue, my friends.

Has Chase Anderson figured it out?

As of April 25, Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Chase Anderson owns the lowest ERA among qualified pitchers in the National League. I don’t know what part of that is more strange; the fact that a Brewers’ pitcher has been that dominant or that it’s Chase Anderson — a 3.8 WAR player over 442.2 innings. And we can’t forget that Anderson was on the outside looking in in terms of the starting rotation during spring training, and he himself believes he wouldn’t be among the five if Matt Garza hadn’t gotten hurt.

But Garza, unsurprisingly, opened the season on the disabled list, and Anderson has made the most of it, and will almost definitely keep his spot when Junior Guerra comes back. So now that we’ve established that Chase Anderson will win this year’s Cy Young Award, it’s time to figure out how and why. Has he finally figured it out?

In this new era of sabermetrics, we talk a lot about exit velocity, and how limiting hard-hit balls is usually a good thing for pitchers. With that being said, let’s take a gander over to the exit velocity leaderboards according to Statcast. Below is a chart. On that chart is a list of starting pitchers who have allowed the lowest exit velocities in MLB this year. Maybe you’ll see someone familiar down there.

Rank Player Avg. Exit Veloity
1 Michael Wacha 81.9 MPH
2 Jon Gray 82.0 MPH
3 Jake Arrieta 83.0 MPH
4 Ervin Santana 83.2 MPH
5 Chase Anderson 83.5 MPH

Well, darn it all, if it isn’t Chase Anderson! No wonder he’s been so good!

It’s well known that strikeout pitchers usually generate more weak contact than a non-strikeout pitcher, and Anderson has indeed raised his K rate from 18.6% in 2016 to 22.9% in 2017. Yes, the sample size is small — just 24.0 innings — but there’s reason to believe these strike outs are for real. For starters, Anderson has increased the vertical movement on almost all of his pitches, particularly his cutter — which he’s throwing at the highest rate of his career (15%). And, as you probably know, more movement = harder to hit.

Below is a chart of Anderson’s vertical movement in terms of inches (courtesy of Brooks Baseball).

His pitches have more vertical movement than ever before, but instead of moving down in the zone, Anderson’s pitches seem to be rising. His cutter has risen by over 2.6 inches, while his sinker — which you would think a pitcher would typically want to drop away into the lower half of the zone — has risen by almost by half an inch as well. His fourseamer has seen some mediocre rise, as well has his changeup. Now, his curveball has lost some drop, and that’s probably not a good thing, especially moving forward. But if nothing else, this is an interesting development, so let’s see how well batters are faring against these pitches to get a better understanding if his increase in vertical movement is helping.

Clearly, the vertical movement is helping Anderson, especially when throwing his hard stuff. His two offspeed pitches — curveball and changeup– are the only two that have seen a negative effect over a decrease in drop, but can we really complain about a .214 average? No. No, we can’t.

But despite all of this, it’s Anderson’s new-found belief in his cutter that has him leading the Cy Young race (not really, but you know what I mean). He’s increased his cutter usage from 5% to over 15% and the vertical movement probably has a lot to do with that. Now, I’m not saying Anderson will continue this dominance, because he surely won’t, but the signs so far are encouraging. His FIP and xFIP back up his ERA, and his walks — which have never really been an issue — have decreased by over a walk per inning.

I’m hesitant to say it, but maybe, just maybe, Chase Anderson is good?

Regression candidates for the Milwaukee Brewers

“Regression” is a commonly used phrase in the baseball community, particularly among those who consider themselves statheads or sabermetric-minded. It’s even popular among fantasy baseballers. Listen to a fantasy baseball podcast and I guarantee you’ll hear the word “regression” at least 49 times. It might become redundant, but it’s important to understand and expect regression, especially if a player has a stat that looks like an outlier and/or is getting up there in age.

Take Gary Sanchez of the New York Yankees, for example. Forty percent of his fly balls flew out of the park in 2016. There’s absolutely no chance he repeats that. If he does (he won’t), his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio would be the highest of any qualified hitter in Major League Baseball history. Sanchez has terrific power for a catcher, but even Barry Bonds’ fly balls didn’t carry that much. Sanchez will regress, that much is certain.

Like the Yankees’ backstop, there were a few players on the Milwaukee Brewers last season that produced numbers that are more than likely unsustainable.

Jonathan Villar

Villar is coming off a .373 BABIP, meaning 37 percent of his batted balls went for hits. To put that in perspective, he ranked fourth in MLB in that category, and he was better than Mike freakin’ Trout. Right away, the odds of him sustaining that high of a BABIP are extremely low, just because that’s insane. But there are other warning signs, as well.

Villar hit the ball on the ground 55.6 percent of the time in 2016, which doesn’t leave much room for other types of batted balls, including line drives. In order to try and predict his regression, I looked at every player who was within about three percentage points of Villar’s GB%, so I could see how their BABIP compared to the Brewers’ infielder.

Player GB% BABIP
Eric Hosmer 58.9% .301
Yunel Escobar 58.1% .339
Christian Yelich 56.6% .356
Ryan Braun 55.7% .326
Jonathan Villar 55.6% .373
Cesar Hernandez 54.9% .363
Wilson Ramos 54.3% .327
Adam Eaton 53.7% .329
Ian Desmond 53.4% .350
Jean Segura 53.1% .353
Denard Span 52.7% .291
Adonis Garcia 52.4% .308
Brett Gardner 52.3% .310
Average .333

This list actually shows the 14 players with the highest GB% last season — which illustrates just how frequently Villar put the ball on the ground — and out of all these guys, Villar’s BABIP was far and away the highest, which essentially points to automatic regression. Now, keep in mind that league average batting average on balls in play is usually around .300, and aside from Span, every player above exceeded that, so Villar is still likely to as well. He has the speed which allows him to use ground balls to his advantage — which is why most of these players have admirable marks — but while Villar’s BABIP probably won’t crater down to earth like President Donald Trump’s approval rating, it’s definitely going to drop closer toward the mean (.333) in 2017, and as a result, his overall offensive production will falter a bit.

Ryan Braun

During the last two seasons, Braun has looked like the same fearsome hitter that he was when he produced MVP-caliber campaigns back in 2011 and 2012. He has 55 home runs during that span, 30 of which came last year, and while that has been an impressive run, it’s likely going to come to an end, as Braun is about to experience some serious home run regression.

braun

Above is a chart of Braun’s HR/FB ratio over the course of his career. His fly balls have always carried over the wall at a higher rate than most other players, but 2017 was an entirely different story. Braun not only posted a career high with a 28 percent home-run-to-fly-ball ratio, but he actually led all of baseball in this statistic, and it wasn’t all that close, either. Before last year, Braun never even came close to hitting 25 percent, much less flirting with 30, so predicting a home run regression isn’t exactly a shot in the dark. Not to mention the fact that he recently turned 33, and power usually evaporates with age.

Braun turned in one his best seasons in recent memory, but if his fly balls stop carrying out of the ball park, can we really expect him to put up similar numbers?

Junior Guerra

Guerra came out of nowhere and provided 2.5 WAR in 20 starts for the Brewers last year, second only to Zach Davies. He’ll battle Davies for the right to start on Opening Day, but it’s unwise to believe he can repeat a 2.81 ERA. Just look at his peripherals. His 3.71 FIP and 4.29 xFIP are huge warning signs going into 2018. Those two marks were considerably higher than his ERA because he wasn’t much of a strikeout pitcher, had some issues with walks and kept the ball in the park at an alarming rate — all of which suggest that regression is about to hit him hard.

The then 31-year-old rookie was also quite lucky last season. His .250 BABIP was the fifth-lowest mark among starting pitchers (min. 120 IP), just ahead of Clayton Kershaw and a fraction behind Kyle Hendricks. And even when he did allow hits, he did an unusually terrific job at stranding them, as is evident by his 79.4 percent strand rate.

Steamer projections are predicting him to fall off a cliff with a 4.32 ERA, and while I could definitely see that happening, that may be a bit too much projected regression.

Ryan Braun has improved his plate discipline

Go back to 2014, a year after Ryan Braun was suspended by Major League Baseball. Are you there yet? OK great.

Just three years removed from winning the NL MVP award, Braun’s (as of then) Hall of Fame career seemed to be fizzling out, like Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. He had already shown a loss of power in 2013 with just nine home runs in 253 plate appearances, and he showed no signs of a comeback in 2014. In fact, Braun was considerably worse in all facets of his game. His ability to get on base vanished, he stopped pulling the ball and ended up posting his lowest contact percentage since his rookie campaign. A thumb problem could easily explain all of his troubles, but nonetheless, Braun, once of the most feared hitters in baseball, became anything but a threat at the plate.

Jump ahead a year to 2015. After undergoing a thumb procedure called cryotherapy, Braun began to look  a little like his former MVP-self. He bashed 25 home runs and accumulated his highest WAR since 2012. Though he was nowhere near the player he was just a handful of years ago, Braun was once again a feared hitter.

And now we get to the present day, where Braun has been the subject of many, many trade rumors. MLB Trade Rumors listed him as one of the top 10 trade candidates this summer, even taking into account that he might be hard to move given the money he’s owed and his injury/PED history. Why is his name such a hot topic? It’s simple, really. Braun, by far, is having his best offensive season since 2012 when he hit 41 home runs and outperformed his MVP year. According to FanGraphs’ wRC+ leaderboard, Braun is MLB’s 19th-best hitter with a 145 wRC+.

braun

The above chart shows why teams are interested in him, despite the heavy baggage he carries. One of the main reasons Braun has returned to prominence is his eye at the plate. Before the last three seasons or so, no one ever really questioned his plate discipline. Posting high walk rates and respectable strikeout rates was always the kind of player Braun was, but he’s on an entirely different level now in 2016.

Braun’s walk rate (10.0%) is almost a career high, and his 14% strikeout rate is down from 20.2% a season ago. At age 32, that’s damn impressive. He’s done this by swinging at more pitches inside the zone and swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone (see chart below).

swing

Because he’s stopped swinging at bad pitches (i.e. balls), Braun has significantly cut down on his whiffs and his zone contact percentage (89.6%) is its highest since 2010. I don’t know if he’s more confident now that his thumb is seemingly healed, but the player he was from 2013-15, at least in terms of plate discipline, is no longer.

We all know that when Braun makes contact, good things usually happen. We don’t need to look at his .336 career BABIP to understand that,. When Braun puts the ball in play, he’s of great value, and because he’s doing it with such consistency and force, his name will keep popping up in trade talks until he’s inevitably dealt.