By Ed Overend, Lead Baseball Writer
EO: This week’s Conversation is with Owen Watson of Fangraphs
Owen, first of all welcome. I think I’m right in saying, obviously correct me if I’m wrong, that you are a relatively new addition to the writing team at Fangraphs. Why don’t I start by asking how you managed to get involved at the site and what your baseball writing background was before that?
OW: Hi Ed! Happy to be here. You’re right — I started writing for FanGraphs during Spring Training of this season, so I am relatively new. I had done some work for their Community section before that, and have written for FanGraphs’ sister site, The Hardball Times. When I saw FG had openings for new writers, I submitted an application, interviewed, and joined the team. Before I joined FanGraphs, I had contributed a few posts to Athletics Nation, as well as having a background in music and political journalism. Baseball writing feels like of a combination of a bunch of writing styles I’ve done in the past.
EO: They certainly appear to be keeping you busy. I assume you are pretty much left to your own devices in terms of deciding what to write on. I notice that today you’ve written a piece on probably baseball’s hottest hitter, JD Martinez, and how his opposite field power is ridiculous. Tell us a bit about what you found and was it a case of saying I want to write about JD and then discovering this standout skill?
OW: We are pretty much left to our own devices in terms of what to write about. A lot of times, the articles are influenced by a question, such as “who has the biggest shift toward hitting to the opposite field compared to last year?,” while other times they’re influenced by recent performances. The J.D. Martinez article was one of the latter, where he hit 15 homers in 24 games, and that leads down the rabbit hole of looking to see if he’s doing anything differently, how he’s being pitched, etc.
For Martinez, we’ve been talking about how he’s really unique since he broke out last year: he’s exhibited this unrivaled ability to hit for power to the opposite field since the start of 2014, which isn’t often coupled with an ability to hit for power to the pull side. He’s continued that this year, and this recent streak has seen him take that to a really extreme level — more fly balls, more opposite field tendencies. Because of this most recent hot spell, he actually has higher Isolated Power to the opposite field than any left-handed hitter does to the pull side, which is insane. It’s obviously a small sample size, but he’s effectively been the most powerful hitter in the majors in 2015 to the right side of the ballpark, even if we include lefties.
EO: It really is amazing power, especially when you consider there are a lot of hitters whose only power comes on the pull side. I’m just watching Tigers at Mariners and I’m pretty certain that all Kyle Seager’s homers are when pulling for example.
Seager is a hitter that the shift is invariably put on. You wouldn’t obviously do this with Martinez because of his opposite field hitting but has there been an increase in shifts put on right-handed hitters this season?
OW: There’s definitely been an increase in shifting overall across all hitters: that means different things for different players. For righties, you don’t often see the very exaggerated shifting you do with lefties, and that’s because of a few issues — first, there’s a simple obstacle in stationing someone on the grass in left field to try to throw a runner out at first base, which is just a distance issue. After that, you get into finer points, like lefties having a greater tendency toward pulling the ball. Righties are getting shifted very often, it’s just more subtle and not quite as obvious as the usual “three infielders on the right side” positioning we’re used to with lefties. Shifting in general has gotten more sophisticated for both lefties and righties, and that means different infield and outfield positioning for a lot of hitters.
EO: How much shifting is actually taking place? Is it just the latest fad?
OW: 2014 was the first year in which normal baseball fans noticed something different in terms of infield shifting. Hard ground balls straight up the middle weren’t going as hits because there was a defender standing there, etc. The trend of more frequent shifting has been building for the past few years, and this year is a continuation of that: 2011 saw around 1,500 shifts, 2012 saw around 4,500, 2013 saw upwards of 7,000, and 2014 saw over 13,000 shifts. The Astros alone are on pace for over 1,500 shifts just this year. Last season was the first in which all teams shifted at least once, and all teams are employing them now to some extent.
EO: Certainly a trend that shows no sign of slowing for the moment then.
One team that traditionally has set trends is the Oakland Athletics, of which you are a fan. It’s been a very unusual season for the A’s. If you look at just their record they are 10 games below .500 and yet they have the 4th best run differential in the AL at +45. It must be a difficult one for Billy Beane to call coming towards the trade deadline. We know he likes a trade. Does he sell?
OW: It has been a very unusual season for the A’s. As Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs recently noted, the 2015 A’s have been the biggest underperformers since 2002 compared to what their context-neutral performance should be. Because of that, they’re 7-22 in one-run games through July 9th, which would be the worst winning percentage over a full season in one-run games since the 1935 Boston Braves. A lot of that is simply due to bad luck, and some of it is due to bullpen implosions, poor defense, and not getting a hit when they need to. As a season ticket holder, it’s been pretty tough to watch, because the talent is there — it’s just not translating to wins.
At this point, the A’s are almost certainly going to be sellers to some extent, especially given the fact that it’s going to be a seller’s market. The A’s needed a great run before the All Star break to get back into range of contention, and they simply didn’t get it. Because of that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see guys like Ben Zobrist and Scott Kazmir go to contenders for packages of prospects. However, that being said, Billy Beane always tries to downplay the term “rebuilding;” the A’s are still going to try to find ways to compete, and their version/idea of buying and selling is often different from those of other teams. The A’s are interesting in that way: when you think they’re going to execute a plan that follows normal expectations, they do something totally different.
EO: This season must be doubly frustrating as there have been some really outstanding performances amongst the players. Sonny Gray seems to have taken a further step forward in his development and you’ve had the emergence of Stephen Vogt and Billy Burns.
Vogt and Burns especially are what I would describe as Billy Beane types – they are hardly prototypical baseball specimens! It still seems to be one of his great talents.
OW: This season has been frustrating, mostly because the A’s starting pitching has been so good (6th-best in the majors in ERA) and the hitting has been good as well (10th-best wRC+). It’s simply been a matter of not getting hits when they need to, and poorly-timed bullpen implosions. Sonny Gray has been a true ace at the top of the staff: his increased ground ball rate and altered approach with his breaking balls have made him almost unhittable this year.
It’s also fair to say not many saw this coming out of Stephen Vogt — he’s been one of those guys that’s toed the line between AAA and the majors for the past two years, and he finally got his shot at a full-time role this year. He’s really run with it: by making more contact and pulling the ball more, he has the highest pull-side Isolated Power mark of any left-handed hitter. Billy Burns is a really interesting story as well — he has the highest rate of “softly” hit balls in the majors, but his legs have carried him to a great average on the back of infield hits. With his speed on the base paths and improving defense, he looks to be one of the big surprises in this rookie class.
EO: Let’s finish with this and thanks once again for your time. Are there a couple of players who during the first half you could point to and say ‘he’s been lucky/unlucky’? In other words, name a guy or two you’d look to have either strong or less good performance for the rest of the season, whether it be because of BABIP regression, hard hit rate, poor fielding thus far, anyway you want to go…
OW: Thanks, Ed! It’s been great joining you. In terms of luck, Yoenis Cespedes has had a great season so far on the back of some good batted-ball fortune. He isn’t showing many improvements — in fact, his walk rate is at a career low — so I think he has the potential to come back down to earth at the plate a little bit in the second half. On the pitching side, John Lackey probably can’t keep this incredible year up: he’s not striking many hitters out, and he’s been really fortunate with leaving runners on base and not having fly balls leave the ballpark.
For upside, better times are most likely in store for Billy Hamilton. For a guy with his speed, a .252 BABIP probably isn’t going to stay so low, and he’s hitting more line drives and striking out less this year. Even so, his first half on the base paths wasn’t limited by his low OBP, which I suppose is the main concern. For pitchers, anyone in the Cleveland rotation should be in for a better second half, but especially Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber. Cleveland’s defense is terrible, but it’s improved recently with Lindor and Urshela on the left side of the infield, and they should help turn more batted balls into outs. I’m a still a big believer in Cleveland’s rotation, as they strike so many batters out without really walking many — you can’t ask for much more than that. I actually see Cleveland in the Wild Card conversation toward the end of the season.
Owen can be found on Twitter @ohwatson and writing for Fangraphs, Hardball Times and Just A Bit Outside on foxsports.com.