Saturday, August 20, 2022

MLB trends: Why the Dodgers and Rays are starting baseball’s intentional balk era

The dog days of August have turned into the postseason races of September. There’s a little more than three weeks remaining in the MLB regular season and still so much to be decided. As of Wednesday morning 17 teams are within 3 1/2 games of a postseason spot.

Our weekly series examining various trends across the league continues with intentional balks, a breakout player on a disappointing team, and an unusual league leader. Last week we looked at Salvador Perez’s home run binge, Adam Frazier’s tough time in San Diego, and Paul Fry’s very bad August

Welcome to the intentional balk era

There is a new craze sweeping across baseball and it is no surprise two of the smartest teams in the game are at the forefront. With a multi-run lead in extra innings, pitchers have begun intentionally balking the automatic runner over to third base. Dodgers righty Corey Knebel did it last week and Rays righty Collin McHugh did it earlier this week. Here’s Knebel:

Back in May, Craig Kimbrel intentionally balked a runner to third base while with the Cubs. That was in the ninth inning, though Chicago held a three-run lead at the time, so the run was relatively inconsequential.

With a multi-run lead, the runner at second doesn’t mean anything. Moving him up to third base doesn’t hurt. It does help the team on defense in several ways though. First and foremost, it means no runner at second base trying to steal the catcher’s signs, and teams are paranoid — paranoid — about sign-stealing these days. Understandably, I think.

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Also, the pitcher is able to pitch from the full windup with the runner at third rather than second (if the pitcher chooses), and it also gets the runner out of the way of the shortstop on the potential ground ball. Trading the extra 90 feet of a run that doesn’t tie the game or give the other team the lead in exchange for all those benefits is sensible.

Two years ago Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen became the first pitcher in what we’ll call the social media era to intentionally balk a runner from second over to third. He was protecting a two-run lead with a runner at second and two outs, and he was worried the runner was stealing signs, so he balked him over to third intentionally. Jansen then recorded the final out to win the game.

“We feel, me and [bench coach Bob Geren], we’ve been talking about it for a little bit and he came up with the idea with [leads of] two runs or three runs and two outs,” Jansen told reporters, including MLB.com’s Ken Gurnick. “Especially yesterday, tying run at the plate, not saying anything about nobody, you just never know. Always got to be on your toes. Just be extra little cautious. I finally thought it was a good time to try it and it turned out pretty well.”

This is a copycat league — isn’t every league a copycat league? — and soon enough other teams will intentionally balk runners up from second base. You can only do it in certain situations, obviously, but there is merit to it. Before you know it intentional balks will become close to automatic with a multi-run lead and a runner at second base. It’ll happen. It may take some time, but it’ll happen.

Will MLB do anything about it? I don’t think intervention is necessary, this is a harmless strategy and a little comic relief, though I am in favor of eliminating balks entirely. MLB Rule 8 essentially describes balks as a motion on the mound that the umpire believes is intended to deceive the runner. Most balks don’t fit that description though. Most balks are called when the pitcher flinches or does something similarly innocuous. Get rid of them and life will go on. It would be a minor change to the sport.

Until MLB eliminates balks (to be clear, there is no indication the league is considering this), the intentional balk strategy will remain valid in certain situations, and we’ll see more teams do it. The Dodgers and Rays (and Cubs) beating everyone to the punch isn’t surprising. It’s what they do. Now it’s only a question of how long it takes the rest of the league to catch on.

(In case you’re wondering, no, the baserunner can not refuse the balk. He must move up a base upon the intentional balk, and an attempt to go back to second base would result in the runner being called out. That falls under running the bases “in reverse order for the purpose of confusing the defense” per MLB Rule 5.)

Polanco’s big second half

This has been a year to forget for the Twins, who sit in last place in the AL Central and traded stalwarts Nelson Cruz and José Berríos at the deadline, and recently lost ace Kenta Maeda to Tommy John surgery. Minnesota has a lot of work to do this winter, especially on the pitching side. They’ll look to regroup in what isn’t exactly a powerhouse division.

One of the few bright spots for the Twins in recent weeks is shortstop-turned-second baseman Jorge Polanco. The 28-year-old switch-hitter has dealt with ankle and back trouble throughout the season (he has not gone on the injured list, however) and took an unimpressive .252/.318/.431 batting line into the All-Star break. Polanco was just another underperforming Twin.

In the second half though, Polanco has been one of the best hitters in baseball, exceeding his first-half home run total in a little more than half as many games. His 26 home runs are a new career high, and earlier this week he became only the seventh player in franchise history with four extra-base hits in a game (three doubles and a home run Monday). Polanco is the first Twin with four extra-base hits other than Cruz since Michael Cuddyer on Sept. 21, 2005.

“I was seeing the ball good, and I was on time on the fastball,” Polanco told reporters, including Betsy Helfand of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, following his four-extra-base hit game. “I’m reacting to the breaking ball. I think that helped me a lot today.”

After hitting .252/.318/.431 with 12 home runs in 80 games in the first half, Polanco owns a .328/.371/.656 batting line with 15 home runs in 47 games since the All-Star break. Polanco, Ozzie Albies, Bryce Harper, Cedric Mullins, and Marcus Semien are the only players in baseball with 30 doubles, 25 homers, and 10 stolen bases this season.

“He’s not swinging any harder. He’s not trying to really lift the ball in an overly apparent way,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli told reporters, including MLB.com’s Do-Hyoung Park, about Polanco’s hot streak earlier this week. “These are subtle changes that some hitters make and some talented guys are able to do at certain points of their careers. I think he has all the other skills that we talk about that good hitters have, and he’s just kind of adding this layer on top of all of these other positive, productive things that he does.”

Surely good health has contributed to Polanco’s big year — he was hampered by ankle problems last year that required surgery each of the last two offseasons — and the position change is working out as well. As a full-time shortstop from 2017-20, Polanco was at minus-30 defensive runs saved, one of the worst marks in baseball. Now he ranks about average at second base. Going from terrible at one position to average at another equals a nice upgrade for the team.

The Twins have several major questions to answer this offseason (who’s pitching next year? who’s playing shortstop? what’s the plan with Byron Buxton coming up on free agency? etc.) but the second base position is settled. Polanco is in his prime at age 28 and he’s signed affordably through 2023 (with club options for 2024 and 2025). He’s a long-term building block at an up-the-middle position.

MLB’s unlikely hit by pitch leader

Padres right-hander and slider specialist Austin Adams is having either a good bad season or a bad good season. I can’t tell which it is. The 30-year-old has a 3.28 ERA with 68 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings, which is objectively good. He’s also walked 31 batters in those 46 2/3 innings, and if that isn’t bad enough, Adams has hit 20 batters. Twenty hit batters in 46 2/3 innings!

Despite being a reliever, Adams leads baseball in hit batters and not by a small margin either. Padres teammate Joe Musgrove ranks second with 15 hit batters, and he’s thrown 107 more innings. Adams throws his big sweepy slider nearly 90 percent of the time and he throws it in the zone roughly 40 percent of the time. Not surprisingly, all 20 hit batsmen have come on sliders.

“I was still kind of brainwashed with the old-school theory that you need to throw your fastballs for strikes. Then I came to understand that in the major leagues, getting outs is what matters. It’s not about how you do it,” Adams told reporters, including MLB.com’s AJ Cassavell, earlier this year. “Really, I was just trying to jam this square peg in a round hole when I was with the Nationals [in 2019]. And I didn’t really get to figure out how good my slider was until I [got traded to the Mariners that year].”

Adams’ slider is almost literally unhittable. Opposing batters have hit .142 with a .177 slugging percentage against the pitch this year, and they’ve missed with 35.7 percent of their swings. The MLB averages against sliders are a .210 batting average and .364 slugging percentage with 35.4 percent whiffs. When you have a slider that produces results like that, you should throw it a lot.

The downside is all the movement and low in-zone rate (and predictability) leads to a lot of walks and a lot of hit batters. Again, we’re talking about 31 walks and 20 hit batters in 46 2/3 innings. More than one free baserunner per inning! There have been 146 instances of a pitcher hitting at least 20 batters in a season. Here are the fewest batters faced among those 146 instances:

  1. Austin Adams, 2021 Padres: 210 (20 HBP)
  2. Ed Doheny, 1900 Giants: 647 (22 HBP)
  3. Bronson Arroyo, 2004 Red Sox: 764 (20 HBP)
  4. Jake Weimer, 1907 Reds: 816 (23 HBP)
  5. Victor Zambrano, 2003 Devil Rays: 836 (20 HBP)

Unless he does the impossible and faces 437 in San Diego’s final 24 games (that’s 18.2 batters per game, essentially a starter’s workload every single game), Adams is going to obliterate the record. No pitcher has come remotely close to hitting this many batters with this small a workload.

The thing is, this is an entirely new problem for Adams. He spent 2017-20 as an up-and-down reliever (he also spent some time on the injured list) and during that time he hit only two of the 143 big-league batters he faced, or 1.4 percent. Now he’s hitting nearly one out of every 10 batters he faces. That is quite the spike.

As effective as he’s been, all the free baserunners make Adams something of a liability, at least when deployed incorrectly. You don’t want him entering with the bases loaded in a close game. He’s liable to push a run(s) across without a ball being put in play. Adams has appeared in 59 games this season and Padres manager Jayce Tingler has brought him in with men on base only 14 times. The other 45 times Adams entered to begin an inning and had a clean slate.

That usage gives Adams some margin for error — he can’t make a bad situation worse with walks or plunks — and allows him to go after hitters with slider after slider, and not sweat a free baserunner here or there. I suppose there’s also a safety issue to consider when you hit this many batters, though none appear to have been intentional, and getting hit with a mid-80s slider is preferable to getting hit with a mid-90s fastball.

With less than four weeks remaining in the season Adams is close to a lock to lead baseball in hit batters, and he has a shot to break the Modern Era record (Jack Warhop hit 26 batters in 243 1/3 innings with the 1909 Yankees). A reliever leading baseball in hit batters is pretty crazy. A reliever setting a new Modern Era record for hit batters is damn near unthinkable, and yet it is within reach for Adams.

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