Last week, I inaugurated RotoGraphs’ Small-Sample Normalization Services, or SSNS. Said services attempt to contextualize good and bad starts within a particular player’s history of achievements (or lack thereof). Assessing player performance based on small samples seems distinctly difficult in April, when, for whatever reason, we perceive players with tattered histories as blank slates. Occasionally, there’s merit to these perceptions. More often, we find out a player’s April is no different than his May or June or July, for example, when a small-sample performance might go less noticed than it would when starting from zeroes.
Here are a handful of players that have caught my eye lately.
Name: Jason Vargas, KCR SP
Games started: 3
Assessment: Paul Sporer wrote about Vargas’ recent accomplishments, noticing Vargas sharpened his command, bolstering his already-plus change-up. It has correlated with what appear to be among the best strikeout and walk rates he has ever posted, at least recently, and never before simultaneously, as evidenced by the yellow K/BB line:
What I also noticed: his release points look different, and they’re resulting in different movement on his pitches (or at least his fastballs), too. If one were to ask why he’s more effective, it appears to be related to his command. But if one were to ask why his command looks better, well, I might wager it’s because of a minor mechanical adjustment. We are talking mere inches horizontally and vertically — and it might be a good time to mention I’m not a physicist nor a biomechanics expert. Alas, I’m not sure if the movement theory is legitimate. Regardless, a mechanical adjustment could very well cultivate sustainable results. We’ve seen it time and again. It’s just so hard to believe coming from a perennially mediocre starter. But maybe we should.
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Name: Jose Bautista, TOR OF
Games played: 18
Assessment: Bautista had, like, one RBI through his first 15 games. Needless to say, that’s bad. Would it surprise you to know it’s unprecedented for him, at least since the beginning of 2011? Probably not. I think we’re all probably more concerned about the strikeouts and power, though:
The strikeouts seem like a uniquely post-2016 All-Star Break trend. It’s not an issue of chasing bad pitches; his discipline is still commendable. He’s simply whiffing on the pitches that matter the most, and he’s not capitalizing on anything. If he can’t even make contact on pitches on the zone, how can we comfortably expect him to make good contact? It appears he’s slowly coming out of his funk — the .190 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) certainly doesn’t help. But it remains to be seen if this is the start of something good or the beginning of what might be a swift and painful end.
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Name: Wade Miley, BAL SP
Games started: 3
Assessment: If it’s any testament to what I thought of Miley prior to this season: I chose him for my HACKING MASS team at Baseball Prospectus, in which you attempt to achieve the inverse of fantasy success by “drafting” the worst possible 10-man team conceivable. (At this point, I would have been far better off leaving Miley’s pitching slot empty.) This is certainly the best strikeout version of Miley we’ve seen, outside of a blip late last season. Which makes you wonder. Looking at his last 10 games, which include starts and relief appearances, Miley posted a 6.19 ERA to close out 2016 but notched a 3.34 xFIP and 3.79 FIP during that time:
Miley’s looking good. With his recent 11-strikeout performance, he might be looking great, even despite the walks. It might be a measurement issue, but there’s a distinct difference in his pitch selection this year, ramping his sinker way up and all but abandoning his change-piece. I don’t know if I like that last part — the change was good — but his slider and curve both accumulate whiffs and grounders, and his bolstered sinker is killing worms as well. Unfortunately, they don’t accumulate enough whiffs, at least in terms of what we know about the importance of swinging strikes. While it’s easy to get excited, especially in the absence of excitement for the pitcher who immediately follows Miley in this feature, it’s hard to buy into it as sustainable the way I might be inclined to do with Vargas.
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Name: Kevin Gausman, BAL SP
Games started: 5
Assessment: Is it time to abandon Gausman’s ship? Some of you have already thrown yourselves overboard, I’m sure:
This is, by pretty much any measure, the worst we’ve seen of Gausman. (You’ll notice the way his strikeout and walk rates converge right now look more like early 2015, but those are small-sample bullpen appearances prior to his entering the rotation in late June.) Right now, he is exhibiting little control — compare 2015-16 to 2017 — which is not particularly surprising given the results but is particularly alarming. Even if he’s keeping pitches down — which he isn’t doing often enough for me to applaud him — he’s leaving them over the heart of the zone. During his rough stretch in 2014, which we are more or less using as a benchmark, he still had the same plan of attack, and he executed it. Not so, this time around.