By Ed Overend, Lead Baseball Writer
EO: My latest Conversation is with Ryan P. Morrison. Ryan writes for Inside the Zona, part of ESPN’s Sweetspot Network, as well as Baseball Prospectus Boston and Beyond the Boxscore. He also cohosts The Pool Shot with Jeff Wiser, who has previously taken part in the Conversation, a podcast about the Arizona Diamondbacks. Welcome, Ryan. The D’backs are still hovering around .500. How has the season so far been received locally?
RM: Thanks Ed! I’ve been looking forward to this for a while.
It’s funny, just yesterday Jeff and I were talking about how it’s hard to imagine a losing baseball team more fun to follow than Arizona right now. The details do matter, but you can’t say the new front office by committee isn’t trying to win — and with their turnover of the roster and focus on the near term, there are a ton of new players who still have some projection but who aren’t necessarily all that young. It’s a ton of energy, the best up-the-middle defense in the game, and a steady stream of new things that are just so interesting to a guy like me. It’s just fun watching these guys go full speed every night, fun following up with all of the new and unusual things happening on the field, especially with our growing arsenal of analytics tools.
I think fans of the team get that it’s a work in progress but that there really is progress. A few of the newest guys have won over hearts and minds, from Robbie Ray to Welington “Beef” Castillo (#BeefMode), and yet none of the team’s most beloved players have been displaced. Short of a playoff run, it’s hard to picture a better scenario right now. People are very optimistic about 2016 and 2017.
EO: It’s always great to have a fun team to follow, even if they’re not quite going to get to the playoffs.
I was going to ask you about Robbie Ray, actually. I watched him pitch at Safeco towards the end of July and thought he was terrific. For someone so young and so new to the majors, he has garnered very little national coverage – I suppose you’ll say that’s typical – but I’ve very much been keeping an eye on his starts. What’s impressed you most about him?
RM: With Ray, it may also be that many of us learned him as “overhyped” when we were first exposed to him with the Doug Fister trade. I agree, though, he deserves more credit than he’s getting. Pitching around 93 is pretty great for a lefty, but in addition to the command, it’s the movement on his fastballs that has impressed me the most — he’s picked up a sinker this year with unbelievable run, and his four-seam has that exploding movement we saw out of Roy Oswalt in his prime. Ray’s not done, either. His breaking ball — “slider,” “curve” and “hangerball” are all appropriate names — is one of the worst in the majors, and one of the worst I can remember seeing on a consistent basis. If he replaces that with a pitch that’s either harder to hit or harder to pick up out of his hand (I’m thinking hard slider), Ray could be a top 30 pitcher. As it is, he’s pretty fun to watch. The D-backs exploded the pitching staff last offseason and set up a whole bunch of experiments, and Ray is the D-backs’ biggest prize from that approach.
EO: You spoke as to how great the team defense has been up the middle this year. One part of that is AJ Pollock who has been fantastic in centerfield. I think, after Paul Goldschmidt, Pollock must be the next best known D’back right now, especially among the fantasy community as he puts up useful counting stats in home runs and steals. However, also amongst the top 10 defenders in the league this year by defensive WAR is Nick Ahmed, who will be very little appreciated outside of the local fans and the sabermetric community. Tell us a bit about Nick
RM: Nick Ahmed is everything right about baseball, about the D-backs, and about the D-backs front office. How’s that?
No, seriously, I have never seen anything like his defense, game in, game out. It is an absolute joy to watch. There is no wasted time, at all — if he can get to the ball a little bit quicker, he will, even if it means being in an awkward throwing position. He’s able to do that because he can throw from any position. Every little thing — his body control is constantly surprising. I know what this sounds like, but I’m not actually given to hyperbole. On one play, he barehanded a hard ground ball that bounced up chest high (as he appeared to know he would). But before his hand touched the ball, he had charged to arrive at the right spot to his right, and had already set his legs and his hips to make the throw — his arm was already in the throwing motion when he snatched the ball out of mid-air. In that particular case, the resulting throw wasn’t quite strong enough to get the force at second, but that was the closest thing to an out that was possible, I think. That was the game on July 20.
Any time I question the front office this season, the same refrain sounds in my head: “yes, but they stuck with Nick Ahmed.” Six weeks into the season, Ahmed was below the Mendoza Line, and even that sub-.200 average was an empty one. The Mendoza Line is exactly for this situation — it’s the line below which any other contribution, no matter how great, cannot be countenanced. At least that’s the idea. It still surprises me that the D-backs made Ahmed the starting shortstop out of spring training, and they deserve a ton of credit for valuing defense like that. But they deserve even more credit for sticking with Ahmed at the beginning of the year for what seemed like an eternity, with Ahmed scuffling on pitches low and away and up and in. It worked out, by the way — Ahmed has improved, even if he still isn’t a good hitter against righties. He’s very effective against lefties (.308, .785 OPS), and his minor league track record suggests that if he were to hit at the major league level, it was going to take a while for him to adjust, anyway.
This is a fun time for the shortstop position, with Andrelton Simmons and Adeiny Hechavarria playing every day, Alcides Escobar and J.J. Hardy still excellent, Brandon Crawford showing that if you give a defensive specialist a job, they might just improve at the plate. I’ll still take Ahmed.
EO: I love stories like that. Perhaps the front office were able to stay patient as expectations coming into the season were relatively low but you’ve still got to applaud decisions like that when they work out. It’s been a very decent season overall, especially when you consider the club has the lowest payroll in the Majors. Whilst we talked about Robbie Ray, the offense and defense have been the team’s strengths with no pitchers really doing anything above replacement level. When I talked to Jeff earlier in the year, he filled us in about the new TV deal that had been signed. Are there plans to increase the payroll next year?
RM: I think it’s safe to say the payroll will increase next year, but so far, this group has been much more about specific moves than about dollar targets. There’s about $16M in dead money coming off the books, but arbitration raises and increasing salaries for Paul Goldschmidt and Yasmany Tomas may gobble up that gap. If there’s a move to be made for a pitcher that costs money — could be Aroldis Chapman, could be a starting pitcher in trade or free agency — I think they may make it. My latest conspiracy theory is that they’ll make a very strong run at Kenta Maeda, assuming he’s posted this offseason. I think they do have some room to work, but I wouldn’t expect a run at one of the top free agent starters — probably more like Maeda, or maybe a trade that would increase the payroll this offseason, like for Chris Sale (just an example).
EO: The Chapman link first surfaced, as far as I was aware anyway, in the week before the non-waiver trade deadline. It seemed a strange one to me, mostly as perceived best practice is that closers, or expensive ones, are low on the list of priorities when building a team. However, it clearly is a need. Addison Reed has been a big disappointment and Brad Ziegler has taken over ninth inning duties. Ziegler has been terrific but is not seen as a traditional closer due to his low strike outs. How do you see the Chapman link?
RM: I see that Chapman link mostly about the search to upgrade a roster that already has a ton of depth. Especially if Zack Godley’s recent cameo is meaningful, the D-backs have #4 starters for days. They have decent backup plans at every position on the field save first base (“backup plan for Paul Goldschmidt” is kind of a D-backs contradiction in terms) and maybe third base. The relief crew has also been better than advertised, and next year’s crew could be headlined by a solid front four in Brad Ziegler, excellent rookie Andrew Chafin, David Hernandez, and Daniel Hudson, in his last year of club control. There’s been talk of adding a bat, but recent surges by “Beef” Welington Castillo (13 HR in 46 games) and David Peralta (57.5% of batted balls over 100 mph in the last month) are quieting those rumors. Pitching is just so fungible, I guess. If you’re looking to upgrade, have to upgrade on pitching, and can only upgrade with a well above average pitcher, I think it starts to make sense to go after Chapman — adding an ace is so much harder.
These guys also love fastball velocity to death and like selling the international flavor of the team, so in a vacuum, I could kind of see Chapman as their white whale, anyway.
EO: He’d also add a bit off star-dust – a guy the casual fan knows because of the ridiculous speed he throws at.
You mention David Peralta and batted ball velocity. I’m guessing 100mph is used just because it’s a nice round arbitrary number. Batted ball velocity, thanks to statcast, is one of the novel measurements of this season. Now we have played more than 100 games, I’m guessing we’re getting to a point where some of the statistics are starting to settle down and reveal some trends. What have you found useful and interesting so far?
RM: Sure — there’s a ton there with this batted ball velocity now, more than enough data to start seeing some trends. What I’m seeing is that “average” batted ball velocity for a particular player is helpful, but the actual distribution of those hits matters a ton more. Up to 90 mph, there aren’t big differences — batting average on those balls has been in the low .200s, with a little bump for those Texas Leaguer fly balls that fall in. At least for the D-backs, though, if you hit it harder than that, you start to reap some big benefits in a hurry: .290 (90-94 mph), .395 (95-99 mph), and then .765 for both 100-104 mph and 105+ mph. Hit three balls 75 mph, and you might be a little lucky to get one hit; hit two 60 mph and one 105 mph, and you’d be unlucky if you didn’t — even though you’d have the same average speed.
My guy has been Jake Lamb, who had these crazy .380-.400 BABIPs in the minors. Normally you look for .300 or so in the majors, maybe a little higher for fast guys that beat out infield hits. But Lamb and Peralta are two guys who get extra hits just by hitting the ball hard. Kole Calhoun might be another guy. Randal Grichuk is a guy to watch for that reason. I think we’ve dismissed guys with high strikeout rates in the past if they didn’t have strong home run totals; now, in the majors at least, we have this cross check to see if they’re missing more.
There are problems in the data, as Tony Blengino pointed out at FanGraphs recently, because there are a lot of missing balls and those balls tend to be outs (popups, very weak grounders). But I do think that if we’re comparing one player’s batted ball velocity data to the league’s, there’s a lot to learn. In the past, we’ve dismissed a lot of high BABIP performances as luck, and we can do better now.
EO: That’s really interesting that the batting average changes so dramatically the harder you hit it. As you say, there have always been ‘high BABIP guys’ which, after a certain sample, we’ve come to accept without being able to explain why.
It must be a great way of looking at who has been lucky and who unlucky. I recall earlier in the season, actually not long ago, Robinson Cano being towards the top of hard hit average leaderboards yet having a stinker of a season by the traditional numbers. He has certainly been a lot better of late, perhaps unsurprisingly armed with this data.
Does the data correspond for pitchers too? I suppose it has to in some way but what are the things that have revealed themselves?
RM: Yeah, Cano is a great example of where this information can help — his batting average success still lags behind where it should based on how often he’s stung the ball. When we build this “expected BABIP” machine and get more years of data, it’s going to be interesting to see whether some guys are consistently above or below where they should be, and whether there’s still more to figure out. Cano’s career numbers are so good, though, that we can probably guess the BABIP gods don’t have it out for him. Is it just me, or is Seattle just weirdly unlucky in general this year?
I think there’s definitely something there in the velocity data for pitchers, but I haven’t dug in on this myself and I think it can tell us less for pitchers than it can for hitters. It looks like the hitter has much more to do with whether balls are hit at super speed, as the excellent Rob Arthur explained at FiveThirtyEight earlier this year. And whereas it looks like there’s a lot to be gleaned from how often a batter gets to that 95+ mph range, what we’d probably care most about for pitchers is how often they get those batted balls that are outs almost all the time, those popups and weak grounders, which Blengino discovered were left out of the data much more often.
I think in terms of those 95+ mph balls, part of it is the hitter’s swing, and what he’s trying to do — maybe swinging harder comes at the cost of more whiffs, and while these guys probably play to their own strengths, that’s partly a choice. Part of it is probably a different kind of skill, though: sweetspotting the ball. We’ve used ground ball, line drive, fly ball classifications for different types of hits, but those are mostly a function of launch angle — which is mostly a function of how bat hits ball vertically. The closer you get to the sweet spot of the bat, though (which is really a point), the more momentum you transfer — accuracy horizontally is not something we’ve been able to look at anywhere near as closely. If we could get the first thing (bat speed) out of the data, we should be left with the second thing (horizontal accuracy, “barreling”). If we can do that, that might tell us a ton about pitchers. I think we theorize constantly that certain pitchers’ fastballs (especially cutters?) lead to weaker contact because hitters miss in that way. It would be great to be able to credit pitchers for that, and maybe we’re not far away from batted ball velocity data helping us with that.
Pretty crazy that more data just makes us want more, but that’s what baseball’s all about, right? Haven’t you been up at night sometimes, wondering what’s chance in this game, and what’s not? What’s on your wish list?
EO: I don’t think Mariners fans can complain very much. There might have been some bad luck on the offense if you look at the hard hit rate but run differential says we’re bad. Also, pretty sure I’m correct in saying the club has lost the fewest days to player injury in MLB so there really is no excuse.
The information on batted balls is excellent as it is very easy to understand without getting complicated. If you hit the ball hard you should do well. I think where some find advanced stats infuriating is when it is not so simple. Fielding stats would be a good example of this. In the past someone like a Jim Edmonds might have been regarded as a good fielder just because his diving efforts in centerfield were always on the highlights. When it’s somebody who just makes all the plays and makes them look simple it’s very easy to underestimate that guy.
Another area I think would be interesting is if the batter has enough control over where the ball goes to the extent that he affects whether it’s a double or the right fielder just manages to catch it. There can often be so little difference.
One final question, Ryan, and thank you again for taking part. Assuming the Diamondbacks don’t make the postseason, is there a team you would like to win the World Series this year above all others and why?
RM: Great points! And I’ll chime in on hitters controlling the direction of the ball — bring shift-proof has its own benefits, but Yasmany Tomas in particular is making me think a lot more about that skill. Hit ’em where they ain’t!
Tough call on the World Series! I like that the Jays put the pedal to the metal on offense after pitching proved hard to upgrade. As I write this, all three of the NL’s top teams are in the Central, and I’d like to see one of those teams get rewarded for surviving that kind of battle. Sure seems like it’s shaping up to be fun.
Thanks a lot, Ed, this was a blast!
Ed Overend is the lead baseball writer for Call to the Bullpen. You can find him on twitter @EdwardOverend, leave a comment in the section below or join in the conversation @CTBPod or on our Facebook Page.