Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Wander Franco are struggling after promising starts. They lead our biggest surprises of last week.
We're roughly one-quarter of the way into the MLB season, which means a lot of the statistics are reaching a large enough sample to be illustrative of successes or failures.Here's a list of players with outlier statistics and whether their performance will continue.Taylor Ward, Angels Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images Sport / GettyWonky stat: 249 wRC+ (1st in MLB)To say the 28-year-old Ward is enjoying a breakout would be a massive understatement. Not only does he lead all of baseball in wRC+, the most reliable statistic in measuring a hitter's performance, but he also leads in AVG, OBP, and SLG.Entering this season, the outfielder didn't have much of a major-league track record. Over 159 career games spanning back to 2018, Ward had posted a .230/.305/.388 slash line. That equated to a 90 wRC+, or 10% worse than the league average.So what's changed? Well, most importantly, he's walking more. One-third of his career walks have come this year alone. That usually indicates a hitter is being more selective, and Ward has definitely changed his approach. Instead of swinging at 27.2% of pitches outside the zone between 2018-21, Ward is now offering at merely 18.6%. That puts his chase rate in the 99th percentile among all major leaguers, according to Baseball Savant.As a result, he's seen a 4.4% bump in contact rate and a 4% dip in whiff rate. Additionally, when he does expand the zone, he's making contact on those pitches 67.2% of the time as opposed to 56.5% previously.Pitchers have already begun adjusting, as Ward is seeing only 39.6% of pitches in the zone now in the month of May. To his credit, though, his approach has stayed identical. He's still swinging at 17% of those offerings, and, on pitches below the zone, he's still making good enough contact on them to post expected batting averages above .300.Can this continue? Yes. He almost certainly won't finish the season atop the league leaderboard in wRC+, and he probably won't even beat his teammates Mike Trout or Shohei Ohtani. But Ward has shown a genuine change, and it's working.Nestor Cortes Jr., Yankees Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / GettyWonky stat: 1.35 ERA (1st in AL)With all due respect to Cortes, if anyone out there had the former 36th-round pick on pace to win the Junior Circuit's ERA title, we're going to need to see the receipts."Nasty" Nestor has arguably put himself in a position to be the AL Cy Young front-runner after spending the last four years bouncing between teams. Entering this season, he had a 4.66 ERA over 172 career frames. Now, it looks like he's trying to double his career innings in a single season.So what's changed? The lefty started showing these changes last year, keeping his strikeout rate at an impressive 27.5% while reducing his walk rate to 6.7% over 93 innings. That's the same strikeout-minus-walk rate that Charlie Morton and Nathan Eovaldi posted last year, albeit over larger workloads.Somehow, though, Cortes has elevated beyond even that. What was so impressive about his sudden success last year was that he kept his strikeout rate at a very good level while cutting his walk rate, which gave him problems early in his career. Now, he's kept the walks low and elevated his K rate to 32.5%, sixth among qualified starters so far this year. And Cortes is doing it with a fastball that ranks in the fourth percentile by velocity.Interestingly, he isn't inducing weak contact especially well. He's in the 61st percentile in barrel rate, 44th in exit velocity, and 47th in hard-hit rate. But his increased reliance on an 86-mph cutter - Cortes now throws it 40.5% of the time after not even using it until 2020 - seems to create enough deception between his fastball to keep hitters off balance. Even further, he's staying ahead of hitters with impressive command, throwing a first-pitch strike 69.5% of the time - third in baseball.Can this continue? For a guy who throws a fastball that even Jered Weaver might scoff at, it's hard not to root for the success to continue. However, there's a reason why breakouts like this are so rare, especially in the modern, velocity-obsessed game. Ideally, Cortes will continue to be deceptive, and the fact that he doesn't throw as hard as other guys means he's able to stay healthier. However, are we really getting 150-plus innings of this?Marcus Semien, Rangers Cooper Neill / Major League Baseball / GettyWonky stat: ***38 wRC+ (2nd-last in MLB)***Semien has been terrible in pretty much every conceivable way. He's looking completely lost at the plate while also not helping his team defensively, costing 8.6 runs on offense and 0.5 on defense, according to FanGraphs. This is coming on the heels of one of the best seasons by a second baseman in recent memory, which earned Semien a massive seven-year, $175-million contract from the Rangers.So what's changed? Surprisingly, some of the underlying numbers don't look that bad. He's walking less, but he's also striking out less. So, while he isn't being as selective, Semien isn't really racking up Ks, either.His contact rate is still a respectable 78.9%, barely below his career norm of 79.6%. But the big problem here is that he's swinging a lot more, both on pitches inside and outside the zone. The former Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner is swinging at 78.6% of pitches in the zone (a year-over-year increase of 7%), but also 34.4% of pitches outside the zone (up 8.6 percentage points). In total, Semien is swinging at more than half of the pitches he sees now (53%) versus his career average of 44.3%. That's typically the swing rate of a slap hitter, not a slugger who hit 45 homers last year.So, it's really no wonder that the quality of contact has taken a nosedive, given that he's expanding the zone at a rate he hasn't since his first 21 games in the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox back in 2013. As a result, he ranks dead last with a .184 expected batting average and .239 expected wOBA and second last with a .290 expected slugging.It's also worth noting that hitting ahead of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. last year likely helped Semien, but not as much as you'd think. He's still seeing roughly the same amount of pitches inside the zone as he did in 2021, and now he's hitting in front of Corey Seager, who's performing just fine after a relatively quiet start. So lineup protection isn't the easy answer one might expect.Can this continue? There's no chance this keeps up. Semien might never be as good as he was last year when he finished third in MVP voting. But it seems like he's trying to live up to his nine-figure deal in every single plate appearance lately. He'll have to readjust his approach to increase his quality of contact. Otherwise, Baseball Savant including 2015 Grady Sizemore - the final year of the once-promising speedster's career - in Semien's "similar batters" section might be more than just ominous.Zack Greinke, Royals Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / GettyWonky stat: 9.8% strikeout rate (last in MLB)It's been a decade since a qualified starting pitcher had a strikeout rate in the single digits (Henderson Alvarez, 9.8% in 2012). Even Mark Buehrle, perhaps the last pitch-to-contact God, never posted K rates below 10%.But Greinke isn't just not missing bats - he's succeeding without missing bats. He's walking barely anyone and not giving up that many homers, either.So what's changed? A lot of people are going to point to his velocity dip. His 88-mph fastball sits in the fifth percentile in the majors. However, that's been happening for a few years now, and Greinke never really featured blow-you-away velocity. Here are his average fastball velocity and percentile ranks since 2015, when he finished as NL Cy Young runner-up: Year Velocity Percentile 2015 92.3 46th 2016 91.9 36th 2017 90.8 24th 2018 89.5 13th 2019 89.9 12th 2020 88 5th 2021 89 8th 2022 88.8 5th So, Greinke has been dealing with incredibly similar velocities over the past two years. Here's how those years panned out versus what's happening this season: Year K% BB% HR/9 ERA FIP 2020 24.5% 3.3% 0.81 4.03 2.80 2021 17.2% 5.2% 1.58 4.16 4.71 2022 9.8% 2.2% 0.41 3.48 3.27 What's changed, then, might not actually be entirely up to Greinke. Last year, he was a pretty similar pitcher by velocity. But he was getting more strikeouts, giving up more walks, and surrendering way more homers, which hurt both his ERA and FIP. Interestingly, though, league-wide HR/9 has dropped from 1.26 last year to 0.99 this year thanks at least in part to the deadened ball. But that doesn't account for Greinke's incredible ability to suppress dingers far beyond what the ball seems to be causing.In lieu of missing bats, he's missing barrels. Some analytics indicate that hitters have almost all the say regarding quality of contact, but it seems to be a factor pitchers can also influence. Atlanta Braves ace Max Fried has made a career out of avoiding barrels with elite chase rates, ho-hum velocity, and strikeout numbers.He's throwing his off-speed stuff less than his breaking balls now, and he seems to be finishing his slider in the strike zone more often as well. Other than that, Greinke's relying on his defense - which ranks sixth in the majors, according to FanGraphs - to get outs for him, and it's working.Can this continue? It's hard to say. Eventually, the 38-year-old will be finished. But for now, he's found a way to suppress hard contact without walking anyone. The lack of strikeouts almost doesn't matter if you can do those two things.Copyright © 2022 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.
Ben Verlander shares his MLB all 25 & under team featuring Baltimore Orioles' Adley Rutschman, Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Miami Marlins' Jazz Chisholm Jr., Atlanta Braves' Austin Riley and Yordan lvarez, San Diego Padres' Fernando Tat s Jr., Houston Astros' Yordan lvarez, Washington Nationals' Juan Soto, Minnesota Twins' Joe Ryan and Cleveland Guardians' Emmanuel Clase.
Atlanta's Ronald Acuna Jr., Toronto's Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and San Diego's Fernando Tatis Jr. headline the list of young MLB players with the potential to become the face of their franchises in the very near future (if they aren't there already)...
The best Yankees teams have always featured iconic sluggers throughout the lineup. As witnessed in their 15-7 route of the White Sox on Thursday, New York still has plenty of power, especially if it can get Josh Donaldson's bat going.But this offseason, the 24-8 Yankees, baseball's best team entering the weekend, pivoted to place more of a premium on run prevention. They traded bat for glove. They moved catcher and longtime defensive liability Gary Sanchez to Minnesota in a deal that brought back Isiah Kiner-Falefa, an upgrade defensively at shortstop, which moved Gleyber Torres to second base and a utility role. The Yankees converted 69.8% of in-play, batted balls into outs last season. That rate is up to 71.2% this season. They're splitting catcher innings between Jose Trevino and Kyle Higashioka, who are about twice as valuable defensively as Sanchez per inning over the course of their careers, according to FanGraphs' runs saved values.So while there was little doubt the Yankees' fielding would be better as their focus shifted to pitching and defense, big questions about their starting pitching remained. Well, the Yankees' arms are answering those questions with flying colors to date, and such staffs have historically led to pennants and World Series trophies in the Bronx. The Yankees traded bat for glove in adding Isiah Kiner-Falefa. It appears to be working. Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / GettyThe Yankees currently have a 76 ERA-, second to only the Dodgers. If they maintain that performance over a full season, the mark would be the second-best over a campaign in club history, sandwiched between 1939 (74 ERA-) and 1927 (80) World Series championship teams, and their best since their 1998 World Series-winning club.Why ERA-? The measure adjusts for ballpark and run-environment factors for each year, better enabling us to compare seasons and eras. An ERA- of 100 equates to league-average pitching. Lower is better.The Yankees' 10 best teams in ERA- all reached the World Series, and six won titles. The current staff helped New York to its best start to a season since 2003, another campaign in which it reached the World Series. The 2022 Yankees lead the majors in pitching WAR (5.2). Yankees Best 30-Game Starts All-Time1928 24-6 Won WS1939 24-6 Won WS1958 24-6 Won WS1998 23-7 Won WS2003 23-7 Lost WS1923 22-8 Won WS1932 22-8 Won WS1950 22-8 Won WS2022 22-8 James Smyth (@JamesSmyth621) May 11, 2022 While many expected the Yankees to be far better defensively, this level of pitching success is a surprise. Is it sustainable?Even staff ace Gerrit Cole, who the Yankees outbid the market for with a record deal in December 2019, had questions about how he'd perform entering the season. Colin Braley / Major League Baseball / GettyLast year, Cole's second half wasn't as good as his first half, after MLB began policing and enforcing sticky substance use in the middle of the season. He posted a 2.68 ERA (28.6% strikeout rate) in the first half of 2021, and a 4.14 mark (26.5% strikeout rate) in the second as his spin rate declined.Luis Severino entered this year coming back from Tommy John surgery. Jameson Taillon was up and down last year in his first year back from returning from Tommy John a second time. And the two lefties on the staff, Jordan Montgomery and Nestor Cortes, were very good but their track record was spotty.New York's starters currently boast an 81 ERA- as a rotation. That rate over a full season would be the first time since 1998 and 1981 that the club was at least 15% better than league average, and both those teams made the World Series.So, is this for real? Can the Yankees count on this staff to remain well above average?There's reason to believe much of it is sustainable.Cole is pitching well and appears to have adapted to baseball's sticky-stuff policing. While his strikeout rate is slightly down, and his overall spin rate is down a bit on fastballs and breaking balls, he's throwing as hard as ever and enjoying some slight movement increases on his breaking pitches, perhaps achieved through improved pitch design and efficiency.Taillon changed how, what, and where he threw last year, trading in a sinker-down-in-the-zone focus he adhered to in Pittsburgh for pitching more up in the zone with his four-seam fastball. Your browser does not support the video tag. Augustine Visuals / Major League Baseball However, he began to add the two-seamer back late last season, which is an effective pitch and grades as above average this season. He also added a cutter to his arsenal this year, which compelled Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to break his bat over his knee after a swing-and-miss strikeout Wednesday. Taillon keeps evolving the further he's removed from surgery, and he now owns a six-pitch mix, one of the most diverse in the game. While he may never live up to his draft pedigree as the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, he appears to at least be a quality mid-rotation option and boasts a 25-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio early this year.Severino still owns a gifted arm. In his first full season back from Tommy John, his fastball velocity (96.6 mph) and swinging strike rate (12%) are in line with his pre-surgery levels, and remain above the major-league average. His fielding-independent numbers suggest he's been better than his 4.08 ERA to date. He holds the second half upside.Severino is averaging 97 mph with his fastball. He could get stronger as he gets further removed from Tommy John surgery. Dustin Satloff / Getty Images Sport / GettyMontgomery began to fulfill his promise last year. The lefty has always had good command and pitch quality but he's beginning to trust stuff more and more, as evidenced by his 71.8% first-pitch strike rate, which moved him ahead of Toronto's Kevin Gausman among pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings this season. As with Gausman, trust and pounding the zone is helping Montgomery get ahead, put away hitters, and avoid three-run homers.And then there's one of the season's top breakout stories: Cortes.Cortes owns a sparkling 1.41 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. He reached a new performance level last year and is clearly proving he's a viable big-league starter.His fastball, cutter, and changeup are all playing as above-average pitches. He's throwing his cutter substantially more often and can get it glove side, or inside, to right-handed batters. Mike Stobe / Getty Images Sport / GettyBut some elements of Cortes' underlying skills - his velocity, pitching movement, and swinging strikes - haven't changed much, which suggests he's outperforming his true talent level. Moreover, he entered Friday ranking sixth in strand rate (88%), which accounts for the percentage of runners that reach base but don't score. While he's being supported by a better defense, as all the Yankees' arms are, at some point that rate is likely to return nearer league average.Of course, few pitchers outside of peak Pedro Martinez and a healthy Jacob deGrom are threats to sustain a 1.41 ERA. Though even when Cortes likely regresses from here, he still appears to be a quality arm.While it remains early, and while health is a question with every staff, this Yankees group may have the right stuff to lead the team to a division title, and to the World Series, where New York hasn't been since 2009.The Yankees' pivot to pitching and defense might just pay off in a big way.Travis Sawchik is theScore's senior baseball writer.Copyright © 2022 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.