The scouts are out in full force this time of year, their presence at a particular ballgame purposefully reported as a potential tie-in to a non-waiver Trade Deadline deal. At no time of year is up-to-the-minute information on a player's performance more important than it is just ahead of July 31, so teams of course want to have eyes on potential targets.
But there's another, newer element of scouting taking place right here at this very website. At any point in the season, the Statcast™ data available at MLB.com provides an interesting way to put what we see with our eyes into proper context. But in the midst of some big, potentially season-shaping decision-making, Major League executives are using it as a significant supplement to traditional scouting.
"What Statcast™ allows you to do," said a high-ranking team exec who preferred to speak on background, "is track, in real time, different trends that might be happening. One of the things we're always looking for are indicators that give you some sense of whether a player is ascending, declining or staying the same. As you start thinking about acquisitions, you're paying closer attention to recent information."
Already we can tell you that when the Nationals reeled in Sean Doolittle earlier this week, they added the lowest xBA allowed by a lefty reliever this season. When the Cubs brought Jose Quintana aboard, they could take comfort that while his overall ERA showed a decline from recent seasons, Statcast™ indicators like xwOBA revealed Quintana to be very much similar to ... himself.
With that in mind, here are 10 examples of what Statcast™ tells us -- good or bad -- about some current trade candidates. (Big tip of the cap to MLB.com reporters Andrew Simon and David Adler for the research assistance.)
1. Zach Britton, LHP, Orioles
The most fascinating figure of this Trade Deadline, because we saw what a difference-maker Andrew Miller was for the Indians in their ascent through October last year, and contending clubs can hope for a similar impact from Britton. Alas, Britton, who returned from a forearm strain earlier this month, is very much a moving target right now. Prior to Thursday night, he had seen his velocity tick up each time he took the mound this month, and his ground-ball rate (84.2 percent) was higher and his swinging strike rate (16.7 percent) was comparable to his historic '16. That's the good stuff.
But -- and it's a big but -- Britton's command was way off in giving up two runs on two hits with a walk to the Rangers on Thursday. His velocity was still at 96.3 mph on average, but he generated just one swinging strike among his 23 pitches. This is one guy for whom the smallest of samples could have the biggest of impact in decision-making, so stay tuned.
2. Sonny Gray, RHP, A's
Because of the talent and the years of control involved here, this is the starting-pitching market's big fish right now. You don't need Statcast™ to tell you Gray is in command of the opposition right now, having allowed just six earned runs over 33 1/3 innings in his past five starts, four of which were victories. But Statcast™ does tell you his stuff is particularly on point right now, even by Gray's high standards. Since June 25, his four-seamer is averaging 2,517 rpm, ranking third among those with at least 100 results. Gray's curveball in that span is averaging 2,917 rpm, ranking eighth in the game. The curveball has only generated three swings in 35 uses in that timeframe, but it's also generated 12 called strikes.
3. Zack Cozart, SS, Reds
The dearth of contenders specifically looking for shortstop help hurts Cozart's market in an All-Star-earning, donkey-winning 2017. But what might also give some people pause when evaluating him is the gap between his expected wOBA and his actual wOBA. The expected figure is based on the quality of contact plus actual strikeouts and walks. Among the 175 hitters with at least 250 at-bats, Cozart's -.077 differential between xwOBA and wOBA is the third worst in the game, trailing only one other shortstop in Xander Bogaerts (-.078). In other words, some of Cozart's success this season is attributable to batted-ball luck, which could level off in the home stretch.
4. Tony Watson, LHP, Pirates
The Bucs have thrust themselves back in the National League Central race. But should things change between now and July 31 and they find themselves on the sell side, Watson, a pending free agent, lurks as a possible buy-low trade target for clubs looking for lefty relief. More than 200 pitchers have had at least 150 opponent at-bats this season, and Watson has suffered the third-largest gap between his expected batting average allowed (.238) and his actual average allowed (.306).
5. Yonder Alonso, 1B, A's
Alonso has been one of baseball's great, late breakout stories this season, with a .273/.373/.556 slash line, 21 homers and 15 doubles. Approaching free agency, he's an obvious trade chip for the rebuilding A's. But Statcast™ reveals a red flag here. Through June 15, 15.6 percent of Alonso's batted balls were barrels, giving him the 11th-highest rate out of 249 players with 100-plus batted balls in that span. But since June 16, that rate has plunged to 4.8 percent, or 131st of 205 players with 50-plus batted balls.
6. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers
Well, because Verlander is owed at least $65 million through 2019, we know he's going to be tough for the Tigers to move and get a prized prospect return, unless they take on significant salary. But at least his stuff is cooperating with the cause. In his start in Kansas City on Wednesday, Verlander compiled 16 swinging strikes, and his 15 percent swinging-strike rate was his second highest this season. His slider picked up 10 swinging strikes -- his most in a game with that particular pitch since Aug. 23, 2012. Verlander also had his highest average four-seamer velocity of the season Wednesday (96.4 mph), and his four highest average velocity readings of '17 have all come in the past month. Could it be that Verlander is actively trying to pitch his way onto a contender?
7. Addison Reed, RHP, Mets
A pending free agent, Reed has amplified his trade value in the relief market with seven straight scoreless outings. Statcast™ tells us that his 67.5 percent strike rate since June 29 ranks second in the game.
8. Yu Darvish, RHP, Rangers
If Texas makes its ace available, some clubs investigating Darvish as a rental might be concerned about his 5.40 ERA in July. It is worth noting, however, that no pitcher this month has allowed more hits on what Statcast™ deems non-hard contact (or less than 95 mph exit velocity) than his 13. Darvish's hard-hit rate is 25.4 percent, putting him in the top 25 among starters in July.
9. Justin Wilson, LHP, Tigers
Wilson achieved zero swinging strikes in his outing against the Royals on Wednesday, which doubled as the first outing in which he allowed a run since June 20. Prior to that point, his whiff rate in pitches in the strike zone in eight outings between June 25 and Sunday was 38.5 percent, third highest among relievers. So you can probably put more stock in the bigger sample, but stay tuned.
10. Jay Bruce, RF, Mets
In a market deep on supply and low and demand, this might be a potential salary dump. Potential acquiring clubs should take note that in July, 27 percent of Bruce's batted balls have been classified as barrels or solid contact. Only five other hitters have a higher percentage. He's seeing it well right now.