The 2020 MLB season is a month old and the trade deadline is less than one week away. Pretty crazy, isn't it? It's difficult to know which teams will buy and which teams will sell because the postseason is expanded and finances are a mess following the shutdown. I don't know what to expect. The deadline could be slow or it could be crazy, and neither would surprise me.
On the field, the 60-game season is roughly 50 percent complete and the "it's still early" excuse doesn't apply like it normally does a month into the season. Every game carries that much more importance in a short season. Last week we examined Trevor Bauer's suddenly sky-high spin rates, among other things. Now here are three other MLB trends to keep an eye on.
1. Lewis cutting down on strikeouts
From the looks of things, the longest active postseason drought in North American sports will not end this season, even with a 60-game schedule and an expanded postseason. The Seattle Mariners are 12-19 and 3 1/2 games out of a postseason spot, and FanGraphs says their postseason odds are down to a mere 3.1 percent. Better luck next year, Mariners.
On the bright side, the Seattle faithful do get to watch the Baseball Kyles on a nightly basis. Stalwart third baseman Kyle Seager is enjoying a resurgent season and owns a .290/.370/.505 batting line with five home runs. His contract includes a poison pill $15 million player option for 2022 if traded, otherwise Seager would be of interest to contenders (looking at you, Blue Jays and Braves).
Rookie outfielder Kyle Lewis, the other half of the Baseball Kyles, is having a breakout season. The 25-year-old was the 11th overall pick in the 2016 draft and, after dealing with injuries throughout his minor-league career, he's sporting a .360/.446/.568 batting line with seven home runs in 30 games. He's also making highlight reel catches in center field on the regular:
Lewis debuted last September and flashed big power, hitting six home runs in 18 games. He also struck out 29 times and walked thrice. In their preseason scouting report, Baseball America called Lewis a "power-over-hit type with high strikeout totals part of the package" because there are "a lot of moving parts to his swing, with a hand trigger and a leg kick."
The strikeout woes carried over to 2020. Lewis fanned 19 times in his first 11 games this year, including multiple strikeouts in eight of those 11 games. He still performed exceptionally well -- Lewis hit .386/.438/.591 in those 11 games -- but that's too many strikeouts. His 39.6 percent strikeout rate and 15.4 percent swing-and-miss rate were far higher than the league averages (23.2 percent and 11.2 percent, respectively).
A weird thing has happened since those first 11 games: Lewis has stopped striking out. He's struck out only 11 times in 19 games since and he's struck out in only four in his last 38 plate appearances. His season numbers are down to a 23.1 percent strikeout rate and an 11.3 percent swing-and-miss rate, both of which are now right in line with the MLB averages. This graph is remarkable:
"Kyle's seeing the ball great," Mangers manager Scott Servais recently told reporters, including Adam Jude of the Seattle Times. "It's very easy; he's not swinging hard. You can see it. His effort level is in a perfect spot right now, understanding where he's at and the pitches he's looking for."
Lewis has not noticeably changed his two-strike swing mechanics -- he still employs the same big leg kick -- but he is being much more selective. In those first 11 games, Lewis swung at 43 of 56 two-strike pitches (77 percent), including 57 percent of two-strike pitches out of the zone. In the 19 games since, those rates have dropped to 65 percent and 43 percent, respectively.
You're never really as good as you look when you're playing your best nor are you really as bad as you look when you're playing your worst. Chances are Lewis' true talent is somewhere between the near-40 percent strikeout rate he posted last year and early this year, and the near-20 percent strikeout rate he's posted the last three weeks or so. He struck out in 25.5 percent of his plate appearances in the minors. That would be a fine rate against MLB pitching.
For a big man (listed at 6-foot-4 and 210 lbs.) with power, Lewis does not post the sort of hard-hit rates you'd expect. His average 87.3 mph exit velocity is in the 37th percentile, yet his barrel rate -- batted balls with the optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle -- is 11.0 percent, or in the 76th percentile. When Lewis gets into a pitch, he can really drive it, and the less often he strikes out, the more damage he can do..
"I hope we can keep him there all year," Servais told Jude. "It's some kind of fun to watch and to see him mature and grow — and the confidence is rubbing off on some other guys, too."
2. Freeland's new and improved changeup
The 2018-19 seasons were a tale of two seasons for Colorado Rockies left-hander Kyle Freeland, truly. In 2018, the Denver native threw 202 1/3 innings with a 2.85 ERA (166 ERA+). It was the best pitching season in Rockies history by WAR (8.2) and it earned him a fourth place finish in the Cy Young voting. Last year though, Freeman had a 6.73 ERA in 104 1/3 innings. That earned him a midseason demotion to Triple-A. Ouch.
One month into this season the 27-year-old Freeman looks much more like the 2018 version of himself than the 2019 version. He's compensating for a career-low strikeout rate (16.4 percent) with gobs of weak contact: 86.5 mph average exit velocity and only 28.8 percent of batted balls hit 95 mph or better. Those are both top tier rates in MLB. Freeland is doing it with an improved changeup he's throwing more than ever. The numbers on his changeup:
|% Thrown||Swing & Miss %||Ground Balls||Exit Velocity|
MLB average for lefty changeups
The changeup is not a dominant swing-and-miss pitch, but it is a dominant ground ball pitch, and it generates a lot of really weak contact. Two years ago, when he was a Cy Young candidate, Freeland was getting those weak grounders, though he didn't throw his changeup a whole lot. This year he's throwing it a ton with even better contact quality rates. Freeland credits last season's stint in Triple-A for the changeup improvement.
"I got the (crap) beat out of it when I was in Triple-A when I was forced to throw it," Freeland told reporters, including MLB.com's Thomas Harding, when asked about his 2019 stint in Triple-A. "I was giving up liners in the gaps. I was giving up homers with it. I was telling myself, 'I've gotta keep throwing this thing,' but at the same time I was telling myself I can't throw it because every time it gets whacked. It was the developmental stage for me with that pitch. Looking back on it, I'm glad I went through it. Now it's paying off with the hard work I've done with it."
It should be noted this is not simply a case of a pitcher using a pitch more often or maybe locating it better. Freeland is also getting more downward action on the changeup this year and the movement differential between his fastball and changeup is the largest it's been over the last three seasons. Here is vertical movement plotted against horizontal movement:
Thirty-six pitchers have thrown at least 100 changeups this year and only Johnny Cueto and Sean Manaea have a lower average spin rate on the pitch than Freeland. With changeups, the lower the spin rate the better, because that creates the downward tumbling action. His 1,378 rpm average spin rate on the changeup this year is down considerably from 1,519 rpm last year.
"In pretty quick time -- basically one offseason -- this has developed into an above-average major league pitch," Rockies manager Bud Black recently told reporters, including Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post. "He has the confidence to throw it in any count. It has great action down in the strike zone."
So, to recap, Freeland is not only throwing more changeups this season, he's getting more movement on the pitch as well. He's changed the scouting report considerably. Freeland is using the pitch to get more weak ground balls, and while strikeouts are preferable to grounders, weak contact on the ground is the next best thing. The changeup is the single biggest reason Freeland is enjoying a bounceback season.
"It's a great pitch to get hitters off my fastball," Freeland recently told reporters, including MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez. "Throughout the start of my career, I favored fastball and slider, two pitches with a little bit of movement. With this changeup coming out of my hand, hitters see it as a fastball ... I think it's very important to keep hitters off balance with throwing a pitch that looks like a certain pitch."
3. Spreading out the saves
Traditional bullpen roles have evolved the last few years and not only because teams now regularly use relievers as openers. The closer's role, the most glorious bullpen role of all, is beginning to fade away as clubs take a more analytical approach and use their top relievers when the matchups warrant rather than marry them to a specific inning.
No team has done this better than the Rays, who have 20 wins this year and nine different pitchers with at least one save. Nick Anderson, who is now on the injured list with a forearm issue, leads the team with three saves. From 2010-19, only 30 individual teams went an entire season with at least eight pitchers recording one save. The Rays have nine in one month's time.
Here is the distribution of those 30 teams with at least eight pitchers recording a save:
- 2019: 11 teams
- 2018: 6 teams
- 2017: 5 teams
- 2015: 4 teams
- 2011, 2013, 2014, 2016: 1 team each year
- 2010, 2012: 0 teams
It happened eight times total from 2010-15 and then it happened 11 times last season alone. The trend is obvious too. More players are getting opportunities to rack up saves with each passing year. Already this season 87 different players -- 87! -- have at least one save. Two years ago 64 pitchers had a save through the season's first month. Five years ago it was only 48.
A certain level of closer turnover is expected each season. Some guys get hurt, like Ken Giles and Kirby Yates this year. Others perform poorly and lose their job, like Hector Neris. And sometimes someone has a great year and forces his way into the closer's role on a team with an unsettled bullpen, like Cole Sulser and Taylor Williams. That's regular old baseball.
Roles have evolved as well. Think about Andrew Miller with Cleveland from 2016-18. He was their best reliever and traditionally the best reliever is the closer, yet others (usually Cody Allen) handled the ninth inning so manager Terry Francona could deploy Miller in what he deemed the game's biggest moment. If that meant using him in the seventh or eighth inning, so be it.
Furthermore, the multi-inning reliever is making a comeback, which makes sense because starters are throwing fewer innings than ever. Someone has to pick up the slack. The total number of three-inning relief appearances is skyrocketing. It's almost doubled in the last five years:
- 2019: 547 relief appearances of at least three innings
- 2018: 454
- 2017: 361
- 2016: 329
- 2015: 287
The days of rigid bullpen roles are coming to an end. There's something comforting about having a dominant closer available for the ninth inning, but depth and flexibility is paramount. Sometimes the biggest outs come in the sixth or seventh inning and teams are increasingly willing to use their best reliever at that moment. That means more save opportunities for everyone else.
"We've tried to stay away from naming specific roles because we think it's a benefit to our club to be able to be versatile and prioritize matchups," Rays manager Kevin Cash told reporters, including John Romano of the Tampa Bay Times, during summer camp. "But there's no way you can doubt the value of how challenging getting the last three outs of the game is."