How fun is the start of the baseball season? Your guy might win 30 games or hit 162 home runs and your team might vault from last to first, because small sample sizes are ever so enticing and often misleading. Here is something new from Red Seam Dreams – a glance at the joy of small sample size starts in one division. Here is a quick look at one player from each team in the NL West for your perusing pleasure.
The season has just started and we are still waiting to see which Yasiel Puig the Dodgers get this season. Will they get 2017 Yasiel who hit 28 bombs and had an OPS+ of 118 or the 2015 and 2016 Yasiel who only managed 11 home runs in each of those partial seasons? So far he has struggled with the bat and doesn’t have a home run yet through 60 at bats. He is popping up more often and his exit velocity is down. A quick look at how pitchers have worked him so far – it’s interesting to note that they are throwing him a lot more changeups, around 14% of the time up from just over 7% last season. He has never faced the change even 10% of the time in his career. Pitchers are likely to continue throwing them too because he is having a hard time with the pitch – more so than with any pitch aside from the cut fastball which not everyone throws. So, there might be a new early season book on Puig that says mix in the changeup often. Until he starts crushing or laying off changeups it seems that pitchers can succeed with the slow ball.
Chad Bettis made an emotional return to Denver last season after beating cancer. His first start, adrenaline field or not, was possibly the best of his 2017 season, but the season as a whole was not good. Thus far, Bettis is off to an excellent start – or is he? He is 3-0 with an ERA of 1.44 through his first four starts, but if you look under the hood it seems that Chad has been quite lucky so far. The BABIP against him is .217, which means when hitters put the ball in play, they have tended to hit it right at defenders. That number will not hold up over the course of a season – his career BABIP is .311. Bettis was previously counted on to provide solid innings and keep his team in the ball game without taxing the pen too much. The Rockies rotation has improved which makes it tougher on guys like Bettis to hold their rotation spot. Two other stats that could ultimately work against our guy Chad. His fastball velocity hasn’t made a comeback since his health issues. He has lost a bit over 2 MPH off his fastball. That combined with a slight uptick in the velocity of his change means the separation between the two has diminished which could make both pitches less effective. So far his change has been quite effective while his fastball has not. So root for Chad, pray for Chad, but keep an eye on Chad because he might be the Rockies starter most likely to regress as the season progresses.
Zack Greinke had a rough spring and probably scared the crap out the Diamondbacks with his calf injury and his annual fears about how his velocity just isn’t coming back and maybe this is when he finally loses it and should I have invested in Facebook stock?! Yes, Greinke’s velocity is down. His average fastball has dropped each of the last three seasons and so far this year has dipped below 90 MPH. His changeup has also dropped in velocity so the separation between the two pitches has remained relatively constant, which is probably why his change has been a consistently effective pitch for the last six seasons. An interesting note about the start of his season so far that seems to fly in the face of his declining velocity is that his strikeout rate is up over 11% while his walk rate is down at about 0.5 walks per nine innings. So he is spending more time in the strike zone with an increasingly below average fastball velocity, but getting more swinging strikes and more strikeouts – weird. He is also giving up home runs at the highest rate of his career but that’s the beauty of small sample sizes – it creates weird numbers that look like they might portend something. His WHIP is 1.00 and his ERA is 4.13 so even with the home run spike he is ok. It is possible that Greinke has changed his approach based on the strike zone numbers, but the drop in velocity is probably the most telling number for the 34 year old. He will have to adjust his approach and that might be what we are seeing.
Walk up to any serious baseball fan and say, “Did you hear about Tyson Ross?”, and you would probably get a response like, “Oh – is he on the DL again?” When he signed with the Padres, expectations weren’t high. He came back from surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome last year and was not worthy of a roster spot. But today Tyson Ross is your small sample size bit of joy from the Padres. Through three starts, Tyson Ross has thrown 18 innings with an ERA of 3.50, a WHIP of 1.22 and a strikeout to walk ratio of 3.50. Even more encouragingly, Ross’ batted ball numbers – percentage of hard hit balls, ground ball percentage – are right in line with when he was good, and his walk numbers are even better. His velocity is down from 2016 but still respectable at a touch over 92 MPH. He seems to have ditched his change – not that he threw it often – and is now throwing the slider quite a bit more. His BABIP is a tiny bit low which means he might come back to the pack a bit, but right now it is all sunshine and cake for the Padres and in the Ross household – at least the Tyson Ross household.
The Giants are holding off from that rebuild just like a guy who was told he is diabetic going on a pastry binge before he starts his diet in earnest. They went the other direction this summer and picked up some veterans at third and in two outfield spots. Their eights starting position players are all between 27 and 32, except for Hunter Pence, who is 35. Not sayin’ it’s good or bad – just pointing it out so keep your AARP missives to yourself. Pair that older lineup with a starting rotation that is top heavy, and you had better hope your training staff is the best in baseball. Uh, well, to start the season the Giants lost the heavy part of the top heavy rotation with Bumgarner, Samardzija, and Cueto all spending time on the DL already. Cueto is back and pitched great against the Diamondbacks, but the other two are still on the shelf, although Shark is coming back this week. Obviously in the face of all that disabled list badness someone had to step up to keep from destroying the arms of the bullpen pitchers at the start of the season. The shining beacon of light has been 27 year old Chris Stratton. Baseball Prospectus pegged him as a possible breakout for 2018 because his curveball had the highest spin rate of any pitcher in baseball in 2017. They posited that if he threw his curveball more often he could turn from average arm into something of a find. So do the Giants read Baseball Prospectus? Apparently not because Stratton has actually thrown his curveball a bit less often than he did in 2017. The most significant change in pitch frequency has been a decrease in the use of his changeup, a return of his sinker, and a slight increase in the use of his slider. So why is Stratton off to such a good start through four starts (2.22 ERA and a WHIP of 0.90? Take a look at these three numbers – 0 home runs surrendered through 24.33 innings, 2.59 walks per nine down a walk and a half from his career average, and a BABIP of .231. One of those appears to be real while the other two are most likely the output of Stratton’s dirty Superman underwear he refuses to wash – luck. One can only hope that Stratton actually has Superman underwear that he wears every time he toes the rubber, but that is only speculation. Zero home runs allowed and a BABIP of .231 are both unsustainable and both numbers will increase. But, if Stratton can keep the walk numbers down and maintain his strikeout rate at just above 7 per nine, he might keep his ERA under 4.00 for the season. If he can pitch in 30 or so starts with those kinds of numbers then the Giants have a find and a prayer.