SSTN Weekly Mailbag: Pitchers vs. Hitters, Draft Preview, and a Trade Proposal!
By Andy Singer
What a week for Yankee fans! I was traveling for my day job when the Kluber game started, and arrived at my hotel room sometime in the 6th inning only to realize that the TV didn’t carry the YES Network. Luckily, I was able to use the YES App on my phone to watch innings 7-9 of Kluber’s truly masterful outing. The shine may be off of no-hitters to some extent this season as offense falls to an all-time low, but Kluber’s no-no wasn’t just a product of free-swinging hitters 60 feet away. Kluber’s breaking ball command was as good as I’ve seen it on Wednesday night, and there were enough ugly swings that I’m willing to argue with anyone who tries to downplay Kluber’s no-hitter.
I have a few things I’ve been thinking about lately as it relates to the Yankees, but they aren’t enough for full articles, so I’ll brain dump a bit here. Kyle Higashioka called a great game on Wednesday night for Kluber, and is a generally better defensive catcher than Gary Sanchez. However, a double-standard struck me as blatantly as anything I’ve seen as a Yankee fan on Monday night. Cole walked Joey Gallo in the bottom of the 3rd inning on a slider way out of the zone that got by Higgy. However, Higgy just sat without running after the ball. Joey Gallo realized what was going on and sprinted to first with an eye towards second base. Had Gallo not taken a fall that grabbed all of the media attention, he would have been standing on 2nd base, at least. Had Sanchez allowed a similar blunder to occur, the media and fans would still be ripping into him today. Look, Sanchez is a frustrating player, but it struck me just how uneven people can be in the way they evaluate players.
The second item of note is Tyler Wade. Why have I been thinking about Tyler Wade? He actually looked pretty good in right field during Kluber’s no-no, and dare I say he almost looks like I always hoped he would at the plate (roughly average or slightly below with good speed on the bases). I wonder how Wade would look part-time in center field…
Without any further ado, let’s get to the SSTN Mailbag. As always, thanks for the great questions, and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week’s SSTN Mailbag, we’ll discuss the seeming imbalance between pitchers and hitters this year, take a quick look at July’s MLB Draft, and evaluate a trade proposal! Let’s get at it:
Philip asks: Just saw a stat that the league is on pace for a .234 average, which would be the lowest league-wide average of all time.
Interested to see your take on why at-bats have been awful by everyone including star players, if you think MLB is regretting the decision to switch balls, what will be done by the league to correct what seems like an over-advantage now for pitchers, and why changes in approach to at-bats (hitting more for contact, rather than constantly swinging for the fences) haven’t been more readily adopted with the dead ball.
This is a great question that likely doesn’t have any one answer. E.J. Fagan and I discussed this a little bit on the Bronx Beat Podcast last week, but I think I can give a fuller answer here. I think we need to start by looking at what pitchers are today versus even five years ago. Fastball velocities have steadily risen for over a decade now, and though they appeared to briefly plateau in 2019, they have again risen since. More troublesome though is the fact that spin rates and active spin have risen through the roof. I know there are a lot of people who really aren’t interested in a lot of the new data pitchers and hitters are using, but improving spin rates and velocity means that even average pitchers have fastballs and breaking balls that move in ways that are more analogous to yester-year’s elite pitchers. 5 years ago, programs to improve velocity and maximize spin efficiency like the ones promoted by Driveline Baseball were few and far between, and media and fans really only knew about Driveline because some high profile names rebuilt their careers (and velocity) by working with Driveline as a last resort (Scott Kazmir, for example). Now, even high school teams have contacts to help their pitchers improve using similar techniques. So from a baseline perspective, pitchers’ stuff really is that much better in a short period of time.
However, it’s not just the pitchers. I have railed against the use of substances on the baseball for a couple of years now, but baseball has a real problem on their hands, and anything they’ve done to curb the issue is nothing more than eyewash. Increasing spin rate on a fastball or a breaking ball by even 200 RPM can completely change the way a pitch plays. Recent data has shown that pitchers in some instances can add double that spin rate to fastballs and breaking balls with substances that are readily available on every bench across every level of baseball. I know that a lot of people are talking about the ball, and I’m not going to say that it doesn’t make a difference, but substances on the ball may be this generation’s PED. It infuriates me to watch games and see it happen in plain sight. There are legitimate uses for some substances from a safety and control standpoint, but the imbalance is now to the point of being ridiculous. I have said this in the past, but I’ll reiterate my idea here. MLB needs to commission a study to find an acceptable substance that increases tack on the hand, but doesn’t significantly increase spin rate. Put that substance in a small container on the mound (it should be an obvious color), and force pitchers to ask permission from the home plate ump to apply the substance. If a pitcher is caught with a substance from anywhere other than the mound, make the penalties as steep as they are for performance enhancing drugs. This is really the only way I see to get the issue under control.
How does this impact hitting strategy in the meantime? I admit, it would initially seem that a more contact oriented approach would yield dividends. However, let’s dig a little deeper. With the stuff even the 13th pitcher on a staff now throws, contact is harder to make than it has ever been. Logically, this means it’s harder to string consecutive hits together. Based on that, one could argue that MLB hitters are employing a long-run strategy to do the most damage possible if contact is going to be limited so severely.
First and foremost, baseball needs to get a handle on the foreign substances on the ball. Beyond that? I think baseball may need to get creative with roster composition limits to keep starters and even most relievers from throwing max effort at all times. Every solution beyond dealing with foreign substances could have unintended consequences though, so MLB needs to be very careful with how it proceeds. The MLB game is as talented as it has ever been, but I think we’ve reached the point where adjustments need to be made to level the playing field.
Sam asks: I haven’t seen a lot of talk about the MLB Draft yet. Anyone we should talk about for the Yankees yet or any general impressions of this years prospects?
This is going to be a tough draft year for evaluators. Most high school and college prospects had their seasons stop suddenly in 2020, and many are just rounding into real game shape at this time. College prospects are being evaluated on their Freshman seasons and just 30-60 games since 2019. That’s not a lot to go on for scouts and player development staffs!
We still have some time until the draft, but my general sense is that the top of the draft is very unsettled still, and that could have ramifications for when the Yankees draft at 20 in the first round. Based on the way the Yankees have drafted in recent years, I would normally expect to see a college bat with the Yankees’ pick at 20, but given the general lack of information scouts have about this years’ class, I’m not sure that high school kids are inherently more risky this year, and there should be plenty of talent in the high school ranks right around where the Yankees are picking. The Yankees love loud tools, so I would expect the Yankees to go with someone who is an athlete regardless of how advanced their baseball skills are currently. Here are some high school players who currently fit that bill:
Bubba Chandler, SS/P
Joshua Baez, OF
Braden Montgomery, OF
Will Taylor, OF
Brady House, 3B
A couple of these guys might have signability issues, and one or two might shoot up draft boards, but I think one of these guys might be around when the Yankees pick and have loud tools with good physicality.
Paul asks: The Yankees have a ton of young pitching to offer… OR
Would you trade Florial for Mullins right now?
This question came from the comments section in the Tuesday Discussion, and I just couldn’t leave it there. The trade would likely look something like Estevan Florial (and an ancillary prospect) to the Orioles for Cedric Mullins. My answer is yes, I would do it…which means that I don’t think that the Orioles would.
While Cedric Mullins has raised some eyebrows with his performance this year, the truth is that he was a pretty good prospect in the Orioles’ farm system and was on the fringes of the Top-100 Prospects conversation, depending on which list you read. In 2018, Fangraphs listed Mullins as the 6th best prospect in the Orioles system, crediting him with an average hit tool, average or better raw power, plus speed, and good enough defensive actions to stay in CF with a slightly below average arm. Some might say that Mullins is a flash in the pan, but the truth is that he is hitting near the top of what prospect evaluators thought was possible if everything broke right. Mullins is a fun player with functional speed that plays up on the bases and on defense, with good plate discipline at the plate. Mullins is also making enough contact with loft to allow his raw power to show in games. In short, Mullins is a very good center fielder, even if he played on a good team.
Here’s the rub: Cedric Mullins is going to be cheap for the next 4-5 years under the current system. That fits snugly within the Orioles timeline for contention, which likely begins sometime in the next 2-3 years. I think Mullins might be analogous to Jose Altuve: a guy that endures some rough years while a team rebuilds, only to emerge as the heart and soul of a championship team (even if the Astros don’t have a soul, but I digress). A trade for a player like that needs to hurt.
Estevan Florial is in the process of rebuilding his prospect status, and his raw talent is inarguable, but his plate discipline and pitch recognition are still poor enough to question just how valuable Florial will be as a big leaguer. The Yankees should hope that Florial is as valuable as Mullins 3 years from now when he’s Mullins’ age. If I’m the Orioles, Florial is not an acceptable centerpiece in a trade for Mullins.
Now, if the Orioles were willing to do a trade right now centered on Florial and Mullins? I sign the paperwork before the Orioles realize what they’re doing, but I don’t think it’s likely.