Fact: Phil Hughes has always been a tinkerer. All players are constantly making adjustments, so in that sense all players are tinkerers, but Hughes has been a tinkerer to the extreme. He’s gone back and forth on what pitches he’s wanted to throw, and Ben Lindbergh identified several different versions of Hughes, the pitcher. Adjustments are interesting to investigate, so Hughes hasn’t been dull, although this leads us to the next fact.
Fact: Phil Hughes has seldom been good enough. The former top prospect has a career 12.2 WAR, and for the most part he’s been missing consistency. Because of the inconsistency, there’s been the tinkering, and perhaps because of the tinkering, there’s been additional inconsistency. There’s always been the question of Hughes’ potential. There’s never been a question of whether or not Hughes was a disappointment. Because of his reputation, people were surprised when the Twins handed Hughes a guaranteed three-year contract.
And yet, here we are, and Hughes is pitching differently. He’s both pitching differently, performance-wise, and he’s pitching differently, process-wise. Hughes has done some more tinkering, and now he looks like the good starter on the staff. He’s walked just six in eight starts, and though it’s one thing for a Twins starter to throw strikes, Hughes has also struck out 40. He’s doing a good job, and not just because he’s left Yankee Stadium behind. He’s doing a good job because he’s folded in a variety of changes, turning the tinkering up to 11.
He’s still a fly-ball guy. He’ll forever be a fly-ball guy. He’s still just a decent strikeout guy, and he still allows a lot of fouls. But we can look at the changes, and the first, most obvious place to look is the pitch mix.
And this is simple. Hughes used to throw a cutter. Then he didn’t, then he did, then he didn’t, then he did, then he didn’t, and so on. Hughes has had a complicated relationship with both his cutter and his slider, but after using the slider last year, Hughes has gone back to the cutter in 2014 instead, and he’s thrown it more often than ever. The curve is now his only breaking ball, and it accounts for just one pitch out of nine. On top of that, Hughes has all but eliminated his changeup, so he’s mostly a fastball/cutter guy, against righties and lefties. He’s willing to throw the cutter in any count, particularly with two strikes, and he uses it away against righties, and on both sides against lefties. For Hughes, it’s not a new pitch, but it’s a new way of using an old pitch, as his repertoire has evolved.
It would also seem Hughes has tweaked his arm slot. Previously Hughes expressed some concern that hitters could read his curveball right out of his hand. The pitch would be released a little higher, and it would soar above the usual plane. This year, Hughes is up with all of his pitches, and though the difference isn’t dramatic, Hughes has been throwing that much more overhand. It gives his pitches a slightly different angle, and as long as we’re talking about changes, we can note this one even if we can’t speak to the significance.
Here is, though, I think the biggest change. His whole career, Hughes hasn’t been afraid of attacking the strike zone. Sometimes that’s gotten him in trouble, but he’s been a strike-thrower, and now he’s only kicked that up. Last season, Hughes threw about 53% of his pitches in the strike zone. That more or less matched his career mark. Here are the top five biggest Zone% gainers, 2013-2014:
Phil Hughes, +6.8 percentage points
Wily Peralta, +5.5
Zach McAllister, +5.5
Clay Buchholz, +5.3
Jeff Samardzija, +4.7
Hughes’ zone rate now stands at 60%. It is the highest zone rate in baseball. He also has one of the highest first-pitch strike rates in baseball, and he has an extremely high overall strike rate. Hughes, before, was content to come into the zone. Now it’s like he can’t bear the thought of pitching too far out of it. Pitch after pitch after pitch, Hughes is challenging, and when you’re constantly challenging, you end up walking basically nobody.
This season, 36% of Hughes’ pitches have been thrown with two strikes. It’s the highest rate in baseball, and the highest rate of Hughes’ career. What he isn’t, necessarily, is better at putting hitters away. It’s forever been one of the criticisms that Hughes lacks a true putaway pitch, which explains why his two-strike counts lead to so many foul balls. But while Hughes isn’t the most equipped to take advantage of two-strike counts, a two-strike count is still better than a non-two-strike count, for any pitcher, and so it works to Hughes’ advantage to spend more and more time ahead. Even should he continue to give up two-strike hits, he’s better at 0-and-2 than 1-and-1, and constantly being ahead will inevitably yield strikeouts just because hitters strike out sometimes.
Hughes has been all over the zone against righties. He’s been all over the zone, to a slightly lesser extent, against lefties. He’s replaced sliders out of the zone with cutters in it or close to it, and while some of the flaws in his game remain, the idea was never for Phil Hughes to be perfect. His strikeouts aren’t up, and his groundballs aren’t up, but his walks are down, and fewer baserunners means less damage when things go awry. If Hughes was ever a nibbler, he seems to be done nibbling.
You wonder if this in any way has to do with the catchers. In New York, Hughes might’ve been able to get some more calls around the edges. In Minnesota, the receiving talent isn’t there, so fewer borderline pitches will go in Hughes’ favor. Fewer borderline pitches have gone in Hughes’ favor, but his strikes are up anyhow because he’s just coming right after the hitters. This could have a lot more to do with the new environment. Hughes might just be more comfortable being aggressive when he doesn’t have that porch close behind him.
This is a case where a pitcher seems better. But instead of the pitcher changing one thing, Hughes has changed a number of things, so it’s impossible to calculate partial credits. He’s throwing a different mix of pitches, from a different angle, to different spots, with new catchers in a new ballpark. Based on his tendencies, Hughes is probably still going to get burned by his fair share of extra-base hits, even in two-strike counts. That’s a consequence of his pitching style, and his not having a true strikeout weapon. But think about what you actually have to do to be worth $24 million over three years. The bar isn’t set very high. Hughes today has almost seven strikeouts per walk. Phil Hughes is on the offensive, and this could be going an awful lot worse.
"It's the second-best pitch in baseball after the fastball" said Braves catcher Gerald Laird, when talking about the changeup. The arm action is the same as a fastball, the seams come out looking the same, there's not many release point clues that it's coming, and then "the ball is just not there."
For the first extended period of time, Ervin Santana and Gavin Floyd feel comfortable with their changeups. The two starters — acquired by the Braves over the winter — had unconventional offseasons in which they made mechanical adjustments on their own, and both have similar mechanics that may have made it harder for them to develop the pitch before now. But both are trying something new this season.
First, here's a look at their new changeups. Jeff Sullivan wrote about Santana's in-game strategy with the pitch, so we'll build from there.
These aren't the dipping, diving, fading changeups that keep batters awake at night. Laird's reasons that a change is so great doesn't mention "movement." To some extent, all the change needs to do is look like a fastball and not be fast.
A big part of that outcome is the grip. Floyd has been toying with a split-finger and different grips to try and find something that worked. For Santana, it was only about the grip: "Before, I didn't have the right grip, and I just tried different grips every year and it worked for a little bit and then I had to change the grip again." When told of Oakland pitcher Dan Straily's 17 different changeup grips, Santana laughed "At least I'm not the only one!"
That's not a fancy split-finger grip or even your more standard circle-change grip. Just lots of fingers, lots of contact with the ball, and an over-the-top release that can fool the hitters.
Santana and Floyd have fairly classic release points, too. Perhaps there's a link here. "Ideally you want to throw it just like a fastball and not manipulate it," Floyd said. "Some guys can, some guys fan it, some guys turn it over," he added, but said he couldn't do that. Pointing to White Sox starter John Danks as having a great change, Floyd said that Danks "flies open and can really spin the ball, and can pronate really well."
Neither Santana nor Floyd are choosing to pronate their changeups, meaning they aren't pulling towards the inside of their elbows or "closing the window shades" as some say. "You have to throw it like a fastball, that's the main thing; don't try to do anything — just like a fastball," said Santana while mimicking a straight fastball release with his arm.
Is it possible that they've had trouble finding great changeups because of their particular mechanics?
Though it's really hard to find a link between collected release point data and changeup quality — everybody's release point is relative to their height— we can look at some of the release angles for the best changes in the game. Kansas City's Jason Vargas, Washington's Stephen Strasburg and Danks sit atop the leaderboards for changeup pitch type value at FanGraphs. Below is a freeze frame of their changeups as they release them.
Maybe it's more about "flying open" than arm angle — looking at the three on the left, you might see what Floyd is talking about in terms of the placement of their non-throwing shoulder upon the release of the pitch. Their non-pitching shoulder is more open than Floyd's. If Floyd was specifically trying to "stay closed," perhaps it's not surprising that he wasn't getting the same movement as the top changeup artists. This might even have implications for finding the right grip for each pitcher — maybe some grips only work if you are comfortable opening up your lead shoulder.
But having a changeup they have confidence in — and one that the catcher has enough confidence to call, points out Laird — is a huge step for these two Braves. In their careers, lefties have hit for an OPS 82 points higher than righties against Santana, and 89 points higher for Floyd. Not surprising, given the platoon splits on most breaking pitches due to the fact those pitches break towards opposite-handed hitters. Now they both have a pitch that can break away from lefties.
These two found their grips on their own. They didn't come recommended from a pitching coach. Santana was stuck in that qualifying offer purgatory, and Floyd was a free agent rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Neither had a team. Floyd said he was happy to get away from "hearing so many voices," and perhaps both pitchers benefited from listening to their own bodies and doing what felt natural. At least when it came to finding the right changeup grip.
The changeups probably won't be as great, but there is a funny symmetry here. One of the best changeups of all time was found by a pitcher, just playing catch on his own in the Atlanta Braves outfield, as he reached down to grab a ball on the ground.
Panama native Johan Camargo placed ninth of the Braves pre-season prospects ranking at FanGraphs but he got off to a slow start to the year with a .409 OPS in April. In May, though, the 20-year-old shortstop is hitting .262/.333/.333 (.667 OPS) through 14 games.
One level higher, another talented shortstop — Jose Peraza — is hitting .313 with 20 stolen bases in 25 attempts. The development of this 20-year-old Venezuelan (who entered the year ranked as the third best prospect in the system) will ensure that the organization can be patient with Camargo.
The club will face a tough decision with both Peraza and Camargo — as well as at least seven more prospects that will be eligible for the Rule 5 draft this coming December, unless they’re added to the 40-man roster by the November deadline. Other names that need protecting include right-handed pitchers Mauricio Cabrera (ranked 4th in the system), J.R. Graham (5th), and Cody Martin (15th), as well as infielder Tommy La Stella (8th) and outfielder Matt Lipka (NR).
Anthony DeSclafani — ranked as the Marlins’ sixth best prospect entering the season — was the first pitching prospect to feel the effects of the Jose Fernandez injury. The former University of Florida reliever made a successful transition to starting in pro ball after being selected in the sixth round of the 2011 amateur draft by the Toronto Blue Jays. The 24-year-old pitcher was acquired by The Fish in the Jose Reyes/Mark Buerhle deal that also saw breakout pitcher Henderson Alvarez relocate to Miami.
DeSclafani’s continued development could make him more valuable in the long run than the more highly-touted Justin Nicolino, who entered the year ranked third in the system and has plateaued in Double-A. The 22-year-old southpaw has continued to throw up excellent control numbers (1.45 BB/9) but his strikeout rate continues to dwindle: 8.61 K/9 in 2012, 6.05 in ’13. 3.95 in ’14. Nicolino is fighting for a post-season spot on the 40-man roster.
Andrew Heaney is widely regarded as the best pitching prospect in Miami’s system and he was pitching along side both DeSclafani and Nicolino in Double-A. The Oklahoma State alum’s statistics have actually been the best of the trio but the business side of things may have played a small part in the lack of a promotion. DeSclafani was due to be added to the 40-man roster by November (to protect from the Rule 5 draft) and but Heaney is safe until after the 2015 season. Still, if The Fish remain in the playoff hunt in the second half of the year and the lefty is still throwing well, the organization may have no choice but to add him early.
New York Mets
The Mets organization has gone from having so-so catching depth to solid depth in just two years. Despite his early struggles, the club has one of the more talented up-and-coming backstops in Travis d’Arnaud (acquired from Toronto in the R.A. Dickey deal) at the big league level. His offensive woes are somewhat worrisome but he’s hit at every level he’s played. If he does end up needing a little more minor league seasoning, he has one more minor league option remaining. If it’s used in 2014, though, he’ll have to stick in the Majors in 2015 or be passed through waivers to go back to the minors. He’s currently backed up by offensive-minded slugger Anthony Recker.
Defensive whiz Juan Centeno, just 24, isn’t embarrassing himself with the bat in Triple-A (.686 OPS, 9/13 K/BB in 21 games), but he’s probably worthy of a five to 10 year big league career on his glove alone. He also has some added value because he swings from the left side of the plate. The Puerto Rico native’s development in the last few years has been nothing short of impressive after originally signing as a 32nd round draft pick way back in 2007.
Kevin Plawecki, ranked as the sixth best prospect in the Mets system, continues to hit exceptionally well as a pro. Selected 35th overall in the 2012 amateur draft out of Purdue University, the right-handed hitting catcher currently sports a triple-slash line of .316/.349/.418 in 25 games at the Double-A level. His defense also continues to improve and he’s doing a solid job of controlling the running game with a 34% caught-stealing rate. He’s not due to be added to the 40-man roster until after the 2015 season but the 23-year-old catcher could be ready for The Show by the end of the year or early next season.
With serious injuries to prospects such as Adam Morgan and Shane Watson, as well as a disappointing season from Severino Gonzalez, Jesse Biddle is one of the few bright spots on the mound. But his season hasn’t been without frustrations. After walking just seven batters in his first five starts (28.1 innings), the lefty has now issued 15 free passes in his last four appearances (22.0 innings). With Cliff Lee possibly heading elsewhere at the trade deadline, Biddle may be the beneficiary of the move — assuming he can find a little more consistency with his control. The Philadelphia native is due to be aded to the 40-man roster by November of this year, anyway.
Shortstop J.P. Crawford continues to display a more advanced bat than expected. The 16th overall selection from the 2013 amateur draft, he’s hitting .328 with a .902 OPS in 34 games. He also has an impressive 20/21 BB/K rate. Crawford has also impressed in the field, although he’s made a few youthful miscues. Phillies incumbent shortstop Jimmy Rollins is having a respectable season at the age of 35 and has an $11-million option for the 2015 season. Crawford likely won’t be ready for the Majors until mid to late 2016 — assuming he continues on this advanced development path — so picking up the veteran’s option might make some sense.
The Nationals acquired two intriguing prospects during the off-season during the deal that sent pitching prospect Nate Karns to Tampa Bay and also saw catcher Jose Lobaton relocate to Washington. Unfortunately, both of the B-level prospects have struggled in their new surroundings. Felipe Rivero, a 22-year-old southpaw in Double-A, has struggled with his command and against right-handed batters. Lefties are hitting just .133 against him with righties are swatting him around to the tune of a .344 batting average. Outfielder Drew Vettleson, 22, appeared in just nine games at Double-A before hitting the disabled list. The left-handed hitter enjoyed his time at home (in a small sample size) with his three hits going for a triple and two home runs. He suffered a broken hand after he was hit by a pitch from Phillies prospect Jesse Biddle and should be out until late May or early June.
Prized pitching prospect Lucas Giolito continues to rebound exceptionally well from Tommy John surgery. Selected 16th overall in the 2012 amateur draft, he made just one pro appearance before going under the knife. The 19-year-old hurler returned for 11 appearances in 2013 and has looked even stronger in ’14. The right-hander his showing eye-popping stuff, including an upper-90s heater and is also inducing a ton of ground-ball outs to go with 36 strikeouts in 32.1 innings.
In baseball, as in life, perspective is crucial. In terms of the terribly struggling Atlanta Braves offense, Jason Heyward‘s 79 wRC+ is merely one issue among many, because this is a team that’s also rolling out Ryan Doumit (34 wRC+), Dan Uggla (40), B.J. Upton (68) and Chris Johnson (also 79) on a semi-regular or more basis. When the entire offense is so wretched that as a team, their .302 OBP — and yes, I have filtered out the pitchers, so this is only the guys actually paid to hit — is No. 28 in baseball, it’s hard to single out the guy who’s been more “meh” than “flaming poisonous tire fire” when there’s more than one of the latter around.
In terms merely of Jason Heyward, who debuted at 20 with hype commensurate to Bryce Harper, homered in his first plate appearance, and is the owner of seasons of 4.6 and 6.4 WAR, this can only be seen as a huge disappointment. That 79 wRC+ is equal or essentially so to Curtis Granderson and Carlos Santana, each hitting under .200; to Allen Craig, who has looked like he’s playing a different sport; to Eric Young, who is inexplicably getting playing time over Juan Lagares; to Chris Colabello, all but assured of a minor league stint in his future.
There’s no shortage of theories as to why that is, of course. He’s striking out more than last year, but less than in 2010-12. His .258 BABIP could indicate some amount of bad luck. He’s hitting more balls in the air, which generally leads to fewer hits, but less of them are leaving the park than usual. There’s some talk that he’s had trouble with high pitches, and maybe that’s true; he has just four hits all year off such pitches. For his part, Heyward can only offer some platitudes about consistency.
But there’s also this: Heyward’s defense at the moment is rated as being so valuable that not only is he (by some measures) the most important defensive player in baseball, he’s still on pace for a nearly 6 WAR season.
The usual caveats here, of course, and you already know all of them. It’s less than two months of data, and defensive metrics are imperfect even over a full year of data. I think we all know that and know enough not to place the utmost certainty on these, but I also think that sometimes the rush tends to be to dismiss imperfect results and tossing out all of the information without even a cursory look at it, and that’s unfair. Eight weeks or so of baseball aren’t enough to draw irrefutable concrete conclusions; they aren’t nothing, either.
It’s especially so in Heyward’s case, because it’s not like he went from being Raul Ibanez to Gerardo Parra overnight — he’s always been seen as a very good outfielder. Since 2011, he has three of the 23 outfielder seasons with 15 or more Defensive Runs Saved, despite several injuries of varying severity that have limited his playing time. Overall, he’s DRS’ second-best outfielder to Alex Gordon in that span, despite nearly 1,000 fewer innings. By UZR/150, he’s the best. Feel free to quibble with the numbers themselves, but the general theory of “Heyward is and has been a very good defensive outfielder” is pretty clear.
…and a single game is all it took for his manager to regret resting Heyward and putting the lead-footed Doumit in right:
“When you make all the plays – I’m not talking about highlight plays – pitchers don’t have big innings (go against them),” Gonzalez said. “You boot the ball, then all of a sudden they have to use 8, 10, 12 more pitches to get out of that inning. Now instead of them going into the sixth, they’re out in the fifth. Or they can’t get into the seventh, because it takes them an extra 10 pitches to get out of an inning. And not necessarily having errors – it’s ball that drop in, and you go, man, a good right fielder… We’ve got the best right fielder in the game, I’m just thinking a good right fielder would have caught that ball.
The uptick in stats is perhaps in some small way due to the the Braves pitching staff, who — among other changes — have replaced Tim Hudson with Aaron Harang, leading to a two percentage point difference in GB/FB rates as compared to last year. It’s not much, but it’s something, worth expounding fewer than 30 words on, anyway: more balls to the outfield means more balls to act on. And that’s what this all really seems to be — small things that add up to improvement, because there’s not one particular item you can point to in order to explain Heyward’s defensive uptick. He’s healthy, after last year’s broken jaw and appendectomy. His pitching staff is allowing slightly more flies. He’s still only 24, and already has a track record of excellent defense. This didn’t exactly come out of nowhere.
But still: the offense. I said earlier that Heyward was on pace for “nearly 6 WAR,” and the actual number is 5.8. Since 2000, we have 192 seasons of 5.8 WAR or higher, from three ridiculous Barry Bonds years at the top to the inexplicable high points of Rickie Weeks and Corey Koskie at the bottom. It’s always a bit fraught with peril to merely extrapolate current stats out for the remainder of the season, as though we assume nothing about Heyward will change from May 19. They certainly will, and so the following is for entertainment value only: No one in this century has come close to putting together a season that valuable with offense this inept. Remember, Heyward’s wRC+ is 79. No one has had a 5.8 WAR season with a wRC+ below 100; only three (Machado, 2013/101; Franklin Gutierrez, 2009/104, Michael Bourn, 2012/105) have even been below 112. Going back to only 2000 not good enough? Going back to 1930, only Devon White‘s 1992 (93 wRC+) is under 100, and that’s still not close to Heyward.
Again, defensive stats aren’t perfect. We saw Jeff examine Andrelton Simmons‘ seemingly “down” season just a few days ago, and come away with the idea that there’s really nothing at all wrong with Simmons. Heyward has always been a good outfielder, and he’s at least squarely in the argument for the best defensive outfielder in baseball. That’s not the same as being the best defensive outfielder any of us have ever seen, as the numbers might indicate he’s on pace to do; I might still take “the field” between now and October as far as who ends up being seen as the best defensive outfielder. But it does go back to the argument advanced stats subscribers have long had and specifically had in the Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera MVP discussions: defense matters. It matters a lot. And when you’re as good at it as Jason Heyward is, it can cover up a lot of other woes. Heyward might be hitting .215 and terribly disappointing everyone this year with the bat, but don’t let anyone pretend he’s hurting the team in the same way Uggla is. The fact that Heyward is a different kind of valuable this year doesn’t negate the fact that he is, still, terrifically valuable.
Here on FanGraphs, we don’t do a lot of writing about other writers. It’s actually a site policy, and when someone joins FanGraphs, we make a point of telling them that our goal is to talk about baseball, not talk about the people who cover baseball. I have little to no interest in media criticism, or in advancing any kind of notion that the “traditional” and “new” media outlets need to be at war with either. But yesterday, Bob Ryan published a piece in the Boston Globe that I think is worth responding to.
In some ways, the piece isn’t that different from what hundreds of other sports writers have written over the last few years. However, I think this one is worth a response, or put more accurately, I think Bob Ryan is worth responding to. He’s one of the most respected sports writers in America, generally, and his body of work suggests that this article was born out of a genuine belief system, not just an attempt to stir the pot and generate discussion. My experience in reading and listening to him has always led me to perceive him as a reasonable man, and so I’d like to offer a reasoned response to his column.
The central tenet of Ryan’s piece can be essentially summed up in these two paragraphs.
Where I’m going with all this is that I’m wondering if all this, to borrow a phrase, Inside Baseball is just, well, Inside Baseball, of interest to the working baseball people and to the new breed of baseball writers and analysts who are perfectly comfortable micromanaging every game they encounter. I read some of these people, and, yes, I learn. But I feel like I have to follow them because I don’t want to be perceived as a baseball Luddite.
My question is, does the average person care? Is the average fan still content with batting average, runs batted in, and earned run average being the Holy Trinity of baseball stats, even though the modern Smart Guys have discredited all three? Oh, and — how could I forget? — wins. Speak not to the modern baseball analysts about a pitcher’s wins, those being the most circumstantial of pitching developments, at least in their eyes.
Ryan is right: the average baseball fan does not care about the numbers found here on FanGraphs. This is a niche industry, a community of enthusiasts whose interest in baseball goes far beyond that of the general sports fan, the type who follows baseball to the same degree that they follow football, basketball, hockey, soccer, tennis, and golf. We are baseball’s equivalent of automotive gearheads, craft beer enthusiasts, or foodies, and the size of our community is dwarfed by the number of casual fans, just as the number of Camry owners, Budwiser drinkers, or diners at Applebees far outnumber people who are passionate about their specific hobby. By definition, enthusiast communities are always a minority of the population, because they self-select based on being hyper-interested in that specific event or activity. Enthusiasts will never be the majority in any venture, because then that would simply require a new definition of enthusiast.
But there’s an assumption in the paragraph that follows the two above paragraphs that I disagree with, and that was the impetus for writing this response.
I’m guessing that most fans are oblivious to all the new statistical stuff. They just want to watch and enjoy a game. They will continue to evaluate players and teams by giving everyone the Eye Test, just as their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather did. If this means they are then wallowing in some kind of statistical ignorance, then so be it. I think the average fan really didn’t understand the recent fuss over whether Miguel Cabrera was worthy of an MVP. He won the Triple Crown in 2012, didn’t he? Isn’t the Triple Crown supposed to be baseball’s crowning offensive achievement? Hadn’t we been waiting since 1967 to see another one? Of course, Miguel Cabrera was worthy of being MVP. Next question.
I think the first half of this paragraph is entirely correct. Most baseball fans, most sports fans, watch for the enjoyment of the emotion and the contest itself. But the second half of the paragraph assumes that there is an innate understanding that the Triple Crown is “baseball’s crowning offensive achievement”, and that “the eye test” leads one to evaluating players by the “Holy Trinity of Baseball Stats”. That paragraph suggests that the casual fan comes to value batting average, RBIs, and ERA as the definitive metrics of player performance on their own.
In reality, I think casual fans value batting average, RBIs, and ERA because that’s what 100 years of baseball journalists have told them to value. These numbers are not the product of “the eye test”, as they were both created and placed on a pedestal in the age that preceded television. These statistics came to prominence at a time when the only way people could apply “the eye test” was to actually attend a game in person, and few did so more than a handful of times per year. The average fan being able to watch hundreds of baseball games and create their own evaluation based on what they themselves have seen is an extremely recent phenomenon.
Put simply, I believe the average fan will place value on the metrics that the media tells them to value. The average fan of the NFL knows what Quarterback Rating is — despite it being a complicated formula that they could not recreate themselves — because the broadcasters talk about it regularly and it is listed in the on-screen graphics right next to things like attempts, completions, touchdowns, and interceptions. It isn’t a matter of ease of calculation; it’s simply a measure of the experts telling the viewers that this is a statistic that matters. Baseball fans care about things like pitcher wins not because they pass “the eye test” — awarding a win to the closer who blows a save, only to watch his teammates make up for his failure in the next inning doesn’t make any sense to anyone who watched the game — but because they’ve been told that pitcher wins matter and take the statement at face value.
I’d suggest that the statistics that the average fan puts emphasis on are solely a reflection of the statistics that the media puts an emphasis on. The numbers that are displayed prominently on Sportscenter, by beat writers, or are shown and discussed during a team’s telecast are the numbers that fans will value. If the media emphasizes a different set of numbers, then so will the average fan.
But here’s the thing: the actual numbers themselves are kind of irrelevant. Beat writers and reporters don’t need to use wOBA, FIP, or WAR in their stories, and I don’t think the baseball media would be improved if everyone simply replaced the “Holy Trinity” with a selection of stats from FanGraphs. The use of numbers only matters to the extent that they inform our ability to tell the right story.
We — those privileged enough to write about sports for a living — are all storytellers. I don’t believe that a good story needs to include any numbers at all, as long as its an accurate reflection of the truth. A good storyteller doesn’t need tables, graphs, or charts; I need those because I’m not a very good storyteller. Those who were born with better writing gifts can tell far better stories than I, and can do so without ever referring to a number. The point of our community isn’t to promote the numbers; it’s to promote the story those numbers tell.
The problem with the “Holy Trinity” statistics is that, far too often, they tell the wrong story. Putting value on things like pitcher wins or RBIs isn’t a choice about aesthetics or enjoyment; it’s about continually propagating myths at the expense of the truth. I think telling an accurate story is more important than telling a comfortable one, and the reality is that the numbers that are commonly used generate stories that are factually incorrect.
So why should we continue to use them? As those entrusted with telling the story of baseball, why continue to lean on tools that mislead rather than inform? We should value accuracy over tradition. We should strive to tell interesting stories that are rooted in fact. If that takes a re-education of the public due to several generations of emphasizing and valuing flawed statistics, so be it, and that’s where the numbers have value.
We’re not replacing the “Holy Trinity” of baseball statistics because we can’t enjoy the game. We’re pointing out that these statistics breed false narratives, and we value the truth. This isn’t about replacing old numbers with new numbers, or attempting to dissuade anyone from enjoying the aesthetics of the game. It is simply about telling the average fan about the reality of what actually happened on the field. The “Holy Trinity” of baseball statistics fail at this most basic task, and so they are not worth deifying any longer.
On average, pitchers begin losing velocity the minute they reach the majors. Age and injuries begin to degrade pitchers and some begin to become shells of their former selves. But some don’t. These pitchers are still productive as their fastball loses more and more zip. But not every fastball is the same. While we generally think of a pitcher’s velocity in terms of his average velocity, in each game a pitcher’s velocity on his fastball will vary by roughly 5-6 mph, and in some cases even more than that. So I wanted to investigate whether we a pitcher’s individual pitch values at different fastball speeds would help determine how a pitcher will age.
Some pitchers just can’t seem to pitch as well as their velocity declines. Tim Lincecum is one. His velocity has come off an average peak of over 94 mph in his rookie season to under 89 mph this season. His ERA has followed the decline. Here are his ERA/FIP values from 2008, which was his first full season, to 2014:
TIM LINCECUM, CHANGES IN PERFORMANCE WITH VELOCITY
Season Avg MPH ERA FIP
2008 94.1 2.62 2.62
2009 92.4 2.48 2.34
2010 91.3 3.43 3.15
2011 92.3 2.74 3.17
2012 90.4 5.18 4.18
2013 90.2 4.37 3.74
2014 89.7 4.78 4.10
He was still productive when his velocity dropped in 2009. From 2011 to 2012, when his velocity dropped another two mph, he did see a huge drop in production.
On the other hand, Felix Hernandez has seen his fastball lose three mph, but he has been producing the same or better since getting to the majors. Here is his profile of these same three metrics since 2006, which was also his first full season:
FELIX HERNANDEZ, CHANGES IN PERFORMANCE WITH VELOCITY
Season Avg MPH ERA FIP
2006 95.2 4.52 3.91
2007 95.6 3.92 3.75
2008 94.6 3.45 3.80
2009 94.0 2.49 3.09
2010 94.1 2.27 3.04
2011 93.3 3.47 3.13
2012 92.1 3.06 2.84
2013 91.9 3.04 2.61
2014 92.1 3.03 2.47
Since 2010, Hernandez has lost two mph off his fastball, but is basically producing at the same level.
Carson Cistulli took a stab at trying to answer this question by using game outcomes and velocities to look at how Ubaldo Jimenez struggled with decreased velocity.
This method may have its virtues (subject to later possible study) in determining how a pitcher will perform at a decreased velocity. One issue that may arise, however, is that a pitcher might not transition slowly into his new velocity level. His velocity may take a major dive like Lincecum’s did from 2011 to 2012.
Another pitcher who had a major velocity drop this season is Danny Salazar. Last season he burst into the majors with a 96 mph fastball, and he struck out more than 30 percent of the batters he faced. This season his average fastball speed is down 2.5 mph, and both his strikeout rate (down five percentage points) and walk rate (up two percentage points) have gone in the wrong direction. His rate of home runs per nine innings has gone from 1.2 to 1.8. The combination has led to an ERA of 5.53, way up from his 3.12 of last season. The drop in performance was not lost on the Indians, who demoted him back to Triple-A Columbus on Friday after he couldn’t escape the fourth inning on Thursday.
Trying to predict the drop would have been impossible with game data, since he never averaged under 95 mph for any game in 2013. All his games this season though have averaged under 95 mph. Here is his velocity chart, per FanGraphs:
Those are averages, but just over 30 percent of his 2013 fastballs were slower than 95 mph. I wanted to know if I could use the per pitch run value on these fastballs at the lower end of the velocity spectrum to predict his belly flop of a performance in 2014. Were hitters able to make solid contact more easily with them? Could they be a sign of problems to come?
Obviously, it’s not that simple — there could be some sampling issues with the data. First, the fastball may be thrown slower, compared to other fastballs, to keep the hitter off balance. Also, a loss of speed may mean more break, which can just as beneficial as a change of pace. Furthermore, the pitcher may be looking to get a weak batted ball instead of a swing-and-miss. Besides the intent of the slower fastball, other known factors may be acting on the slower pitch. Some pitchers see their velocity decline over the course of a game (though a few, such as Justin Verlander, do increase) and the effects of the second and third time through a batting order may be over-weighting the decline. In the end, I kept the data simple and just used the run values.
The key hope behind using per pitch run values was to use a larger sample of data (every fastball) and having the ability to look at every pitch instead of games.
In a single at-bat, a pitcher could easily throw four fastballs, and each could be at a different speed. By looking at the individual pitch values, I hoped to get enough useable information. I grouped each pitcher’s fastball speeds into one mph blocks and got the pitchers’ run values for those speeds. Here are the average run values for each of the velocity intervals. A negative value is better for the pitcher:
No real surprise with the data: a faster fastball is more productive.
To get an idea of how run values correlate with ERA, FIP and xFIP, here are the correlation equations from run values to ERA and its two estimators.
ERA= 76*avgRV + 4.30 (r^2 of .45)
FIP = 49.5*avgRV + 4.23 (r^2 of .33)
xFIP = 28* avgRV + 4.18 (r^2 of .19)
Using the values in the above image, here are the estimate ERA/FIP/xFIP knowing the run value.
ESTIMATED RATE STATS AT SPECIFIC VELOCITIES
Velocity (MPH) ERA FIP xFIP
>=82 and <83 4.21 4.17 4.15
>=83 and <84 4.20 4.17 4.14
>=84 and <85 4.18 4.15 4.14
>=85 and <86 4.18 4.15 4.13
>=86 and <87 4.16 4.14 4.13
>=87 and <88 4.13 4.12 4.12
>=88 and <89 4.10 4.10 4.11
>=89 and <90 4.10 4.10 4.11
>=90 and <91 4.08 4.09 4.10
>=91 and <92 4.00 4.04 4.07
>=92 and <93 3.90 3.97 4.03
>=93 and <94 3.90 3.97 4.03
>=94 and <95 3.77 3.89 3.99
>=95 and <96 3.66 3.81 3.94
>=96 and <97 3.47 3.69 3.87
>=97 and <98 3.38 3.63 3.84
>=98 3.23 3.53 3.79
Now that we’re armed with this data, let’s go back and look at Salazar. Here are his average 2013 run values at different speeds:
If you look hard enough, you see that as his velocity declines, his run values increase (which, again is bad). Could it have been possible to have an idea of his decline?
To find out, we want to see how the data correlates between seasons. The answer is, essentially, not very well, and this points to the theory being effectively moot. At the high end of the spectrum, where a pitcher has 500 fastballs in a one mph band, the data correlate with a r-squared of .10. That’s a small enough number that we can say that it basically doesn’t correlate at all. And this R-squared value is when the pitcher has the most number of pitches in a band. I was hoping the data at the low end of the spectrum could tell me something going forward, but no such luck.
Again, using Salazar as an example, he had approximately 300 pitches total less than 95 mph, and not all all of them were grouped into the one mph bands I used here, which splits the sample up even more.
So what does all the preceding work mean?
Pitch values may not be the way to analyze individual pitches. The only decent other measure I can think of is swinging strike rate, though I am open to suggestions, and welcome you to share your thoughts on the matter in the comments section.
To see if a pitcher may decline, we should treat velocity loss like BABIP — just use the overall values for now. A small amount of projection can be taken from the player’s past results, but basically the league average values dominate the prediction.*
Maybe I could expand the data to three mph blocks, but the range may not detect a talent level decline. If the range were 90 to 93 mph, Lincecum’s average values from 2011 and 2012 would both be selected.
We may not be able to determine which pitchers will be able to thrive at lower velocities, but while I am crying “Uncle!” for the moment, I am not ready to concede the idea entirely.
I expected to find some useful insight when I began using run values to look at the production loss as a pitcher sees his velocity decline, but did not. There simply does not seem to be enough data once you break up velocity into different mph bands to get a good idea of how a pitcher will decline. For now, we should just assume a league average decline until the pitcher’s other stats begin to stabilize at his new fastball velocity.
* To put some numbers behind how small the change would be, in 2013 Danny Salazar threw only 35 pitches in his current range of 93 mph to 94 mph. He would need 12 times as many pitches to just get near the 400 pitch value and a r^2 of of .1. At a .1 r^2 value, 10 percent of the player’s talent is his own and the rest is the the major league average. So using Salazar’s 35 pitches in 2013 would predict less than 1 percent of this 2014 value.
At the start of the 2014 season, there wasn't a great deal of buzz around the Mets. They had signed Curtis Granderson, but with Matt Harvey out for the season, a muddy first-base situation and an even muddier bullpen, the team was a question mark at best.
In the season's first seven weeks, the Mets have managed to scrape by to a near-.500 record, despite the fact very little has changed. At the center of the problems are a baseball operations department and coaching staff who have proved ill-equipped at identifying who its best players are.
Here's a look at several positions and/or Mets players who have been mismanaged this season.
The problems started at first base. Despite the fact the team has been watching Ike Davis play baseball for more than half a decade -- with most of that time coming in Queens, N.Y. -- they needed to wait through spring training and into the first three weeks of the season before finally deciding to trade him.
In theory, you could suppose that the Mets were holding out for a better return in exchange for Davis, but instead they took a 25-year-old relief pitcher in Zack Thornton -- who wasn't even deemed good enough to be selected in a now-diluted Rule 5 draft last winter -- and a player to be named later, who will likely be a second-tier prospect from the 2013 draft. Given that the team was trying to trade Davis all offseason, that's a pretty paltry return.
The salt in the wound is that the Mets may have chosen the wrong first baseman to trade. Entering Sunday's action, Davis had hit .274/.376/.397 for the Pirates, good for a 121 wRC+. Since the trade, Lucas Duda -- the player whom the Mets chose to keep -- has hit .237/.326/.329, which equates to just an 88 wRC+ (33 percent worse than Davis). It's a small sample size, but given how much time the team took to make the decision, you would hope they would have gotten it right, and so far, it does not appear that they have.
AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek
Curtis Granderson is batting just .192 with a .292 OBP in 2014.
The outfield has been just as problematic. Manager Terry Collins has made a point of saying that he is concerned with improving the team's offense, but his actions suggest otherwise. The Mets have four main outfielders this season: Granderson, Juan Lagares, Chris Young and Eric Young Jr., and Collins is seemingly obsessed with Young Jr. -- and hitting him in the leadoff spot -- even though he is the worst of the four by any objective standard.
The 28-year-old switch-hitter wins a lot of support with coaches and managers because he is the epitome of hustle and hard work, but he simply isn't talented enough to warrant the playing time he has received this season, as demonstrated by a career .254/.324/.335 line. Now in his sixth major league season, Young Jr. can be a very effective bench player. He has demonstrated the ability to competently play second base, left field and center field, and is one of the game's best baserunners.
The team should be using him as a defensive caddy and pinch runner for Granderson, who is no longer fleet of foot; after stealing 25 bases in 2011, Granderson has stolen a total of just 20 since. Instead, Granderson is too often left to fend for himself, and he has not fared very well on the bases.
Granderson in general is a player who seems destined to be more of a problem than an asset during the course of his contract. At the time of his signing, there was the thought that Granderson -- who is one of the most respected people in the game -- simply needed a little more time to work back into his old self after he missed a bunch of time with injuries that came as the result of being hit by pitches.
However, so far in 2014, it looks as though Granderson is simply on the decline. It is hard to forget just how good he was for the Yankees in 2011, and then he followed that up with another 40-homer campaign in 2012. But his offensive trend has pointed down over the past three years. After that 2011 season when he put up a 146 wRC+, he dropped to 116 in 2012, 97 in 2013 and now 78 this season. We have passed the point in the season where you can say "It's early."
In the preseason, ZiPS forecasted Granderson for a 116 wRC+, but given his poor start, his updated full-season projection is for a 99 wRC+. It's not hard to find league-average hitters who contribute little on defense and on the bases to populate your outfield, and so you rarely need to pay them good money. But in signing Granderson to a four-year, $60 million deal, that is exactly what the Mets did, and it looks like they have an albatross on their roster.
Collins has given Granderson every opportunity to succeed, and given their commitment to him he doesn't have much choice, but one player who has been jerked around recently is Lagares. Last season, Lagares was a major difference-maker in the Mets' outfield, and while it isn't conclusive that he can continue that throughout his career, he has not been given the opportunity to play every day because of the team's infatuation with Young. Lagares' absence from the lineup was so conspicuous last week that Collins got heated while defending his lineup during a news conference on Sunday.
[+] EnlargeJenrry Mejia
Al Bello/Getty Images
The Mets are now hoping that Jenrry Mejia can succeed as their closer.
And the jerking around has not stopped there. At this point, Jenrry Mejia's nickname might as well be "Yo-Yo," because the Mets can't seem to make up their minds as to what they want to do with him. When he first came to the States, he was a starter. After just 42 professional starts in the U.S., including just 17 at Double-A (16) and Triple-A (1), he was rushed to the majors as a 20-year-old, where he served almost exclusively as a reliever (30 relief outings, three starts). He was put back into a starting role in 2011, and after five starts needed Tommy John surgery.
When he came back in 2012, he made seven starts across three levels in the minors, and then was converted to relief, and over the next two months made 16 relief appearances. Then from the trade deadline to early September of 2012, he made seven more starts and earned a September call-up, where his usage was relief, start, relief, start, start. In a related story, Mejia came down with a bout of elbow inflammation/tendinitis in early 2013, and missed most of the first half of that season.
He made two starts in high Class A last May, then couldn't pitch until late June, where he made four more starts across two minor league levels, and was called up, where he made five more starts for the season. This season, he was once again given a chance to start, but was removed from that role recently and put in the bullpen, and the Mets are now hoping Mejia can thrive as the closer, and hopefully put to rest any controversy about his future role..
Mejia has been billed as fragile, but given the way the Mets have jerked him around, it's a wonder his right arm is still attached to his body. He was, to be sure, inefficient in his seven starts, but his 11.8 percent walk rate was lower than Zack Wheeler's (12.4 percent), and no one is talking about leveraging Wheeler's strengths in the bullpen. Add it all up and it is hard to discern any functional plan by Collins or the Mets' management.
Mystifying personnel management coupled with a decision to make a run at veteran talent in a year when their young players are not yet ready to mount a serious threat on their own have left the Mets in an all-too-familiar middling position.
Welcome to the Prospect Report, a quick-and-easy guide to the recent performance of elite prospects across all levels of the minor leagues.
Who's hot? Who's not? You'll get the latest right here.
MIKE FOLTYNEWICZ, RHP, ASTROS (AAA)
The hard-throwing 22-year-old took a loss Sunday for Round Rock, but has allowed only five runs in three May starts. He's still walking more than four batters per nine, but it's a matter of time before the rebuilding Astros give him a shot in the rotation or relief.
JAVIER BAEZ, SS, CUBS (AAA)
The Baez hype train has slowed down considerably, as the 21-year-old has more three-strikeout games (five) than home runs (four) this season, and a paltry .521 OPS for Iowa. All the talk about the Cubs' overcrowded infield has died down as a result.
KRIS BRYANT, 3B, CUBS (AA)
Bryant has been the anti-Baez this year, and has been particularly hot of late, hitting .379 with six homers in May for Tennessee. He may not stick at third, but his bat will play anywhere, and he could end up beating Baez to the North Side of Chicago.
JON GRAY, RHP, ROCKIES (AA)
If the Rockies need to add an arm down the stretch, they may not have to make a trade, as they might just have an ace up their sleeve in Tulsa. Gray, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 draft, has a 27-4 strikeout-walk ratio over the past month with a 1.50 ERA.
JOEY GALLO, 3B, RANGERS (HIGH A)
Myrtle Beach might be the toughest hitting environment in the minors, but Gallo leads the minors with 18 jacks, including a three-homer game Friday. He's striking out in almost 25 percent of plate appearances, but no one in the minors has more power.
JULIO URIAS, LHP, DODGERS (HIGH A)
The 17-year-old appeared in a big league spring training game, and there was buzz he might make his Dodgers debut this year. However, he's walking more than five batters per nine for Rancho Cucamonga, and clearly needs time.
KOHL STEWART, RHP, TWINS (LOW A)
Minnesota has lacked high-upside arms in recent years, and Stewart breaks that mold. The No. 4 pick in last June's draft is overpowering hitters in the Midwest League, as he has allowed just two runs in three May outings for Cedar Rapids.
In other news, was perusing mlbtraderumors.com and Matt LaPorta's name popped up. Didn't know he was playing in the Mexican Leagues.
Made me look back on the CC Sabathia deal LaPorta, Michael Brantley, Zach Jackson, Rob Bryson. I remember hearing how the Brewers gave up too much for half a season of CC, and all those highly rated prospects didn't pan out.
Always go for the proven commodity, especially if it's a star.
I know every GM is scared of ending up on the wrong end of the Bartolo Colon/Tim Drew for Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, Lee Stevens deal. Crazy what the Expos could've been. Edited by ooIRON MANoo - 5/20/14 at 4:42pm
Joey Gallo used to throw pitches. Now he just abuses them.
The former two-way prep hurler is doing the unthinkable — he’s improving upon stunning 2013 breakout season, which saw him slug 40 home runs in 111 minor league games. This year, through 42 contests, his Isolated Slugging rate (ISO) is up to .452 in High-A after siting at .365 at Low-A in ’13. His BB/K rate is also much improved from 0.29 to 0.75. His walk rate has risen from 10.8 to 17.8% while his strikeout rate has dipped from 37.0 to 23.8%.
One of the big reasons that the walk rate is up is due to the fact that pitchers are afraid to challenge the big slugger. And credit Gallo; he hasn’t expanded his strike zone. His ability to trim his K-rate — even if it remains high at almost 24% — speaks volumes about his maturity as a baseball player and to his understanding of hitting. Most 20 year old hitters would not display the type of restraint that Gallo has shown — possibly harkening back to lessons learned during his days standing on the bump staring into the batter’s box.
Perhaps the best comp for the prospect is also one of the most prolific all-or-nothing sluggers in recent memory in Russell Branyan, also a left-handed batter. At the same age as Gallo, the former seventh round draft pick of the Indians produced a .307 ISO rate in 130 Low-A ball games (one level lower than the Rangers farmhand). He had an 11.2% walk rate and a 30.1% strikeout rate.
As pointed out during last Friday’s Myrtle Beach Pelicans broadcast — during the game in which Gallo slugged three home runs — Gallo is currently on pace to hit more than 50 home runs this season. The last player to hit that many in the minors was former Chicago White Sox slugger Ron Kittle, who slugged exactly 50 in 127 Triple-A games in 1982 at the age of 24. He produced his .407 ISO rate for Edmonton of the Pacific Coast League, and his walk rate was 13.2% while his strikeout rate was just 19.5%.
Neither Branyan nor Kittle went on to have overly successful big league careers. The Indians slugger managed 194 home runs but topped out with 10.8 WAR. The former Rookie of the Year winner for the White Sox produced 176 home runs in his career with just 5.2 WAR. I remain optimistic with Gallo because of the adjustments I noted above, as well as his ability to hit the ball out of any part of a ball park — with ease. He doesn’t have to sell out for power; he has easy 80-grade power. For example, consider Gallo’s recent three-homer performance:
HR #1: 2-0 count, FB away, crushed to left center field (got too much of the plate)
HR #2: 2-0 count, FB away, crushed to left centre field (off the end of the bat)
HR #3: 1-2 count, FB low and inside, crushed to deep right field
The final dinger caused the Myrtle Beach Pelicans announcer quipped, “That ball might have hit his car out there.”
Prior to the 2012 draft, I wrote a piece detailing what I would have done as the scouting director for each team in the first round. I had Joey Gallo listed as the 12th-best prospect on my draft board (He actually lasted until the 39th pick). But, interestingly enough, I picked him as a pitcher:
Joey Gallo, 3B/RHP, Las Vegas HS – The toughest decision with Gallo is whether to make him hitter or a pitcher. He has some of the best raw power in the draft but also flashes mid-to-upper-90s heat and a potentially-plus slider. Because he has a lot of holes in his swing I would try him on the mound before handing him a bat. Gallo has shown a lot of promise as a pitcher and could really take off if he focuses on it full time.
Picking 12th in the 2012 draft, perhaps the Mets should have listened to me — rather than taking the light-hitting Gavin Cecchini. Well, on second thought… it’s probably best that they didn’t. Otherwise, he might be serving up dingers rather than slugging them.
An 18th round draft pick out of Arkansas State University in 2011, Ferguson could end up having more future big league value than first rounders such as Bubba Starling (Royals), Cory Spangenberg (Padres), Sean Gilmartin (Braves/Twins), Levi Michael (Twins), and Kevin Matthews (Rangers).
Ferguson, 25, is pretty ordinary. He’s a right-hander pitcher. He stands just 6-0 (or 6-1, depending on who you ask). His fastball velocity spends time in the low 90s. And, as a result, he lasted into the mid rounds of the 2011 amateur draft.
Currently pitching in Double-A, Ferguson’s numbers are just so-so, although advanced metics and secondary numbers tell us he’s been better than his ERA would suggest (4.78 ERA vs 2.78 FIP vs 3.55 SIERA). Through his six starts (He also pitched out of the ‘pen for two games), the Arkansas native has averaged 6.0 innings per start and he’s walked just five batters. So, this tells us he’s durable and has solid control — two key ingredients for a big league hurler.
Where Ferguson struggles, according to the numbers, is 1) Against left-handed hitters, and 2) In generating fly-ball outs. Against opposite-handed hitters (throughout his career), the right-hander’s strikeout rate plummets (24.4 to 16.4%), his walk rate jumps (6.0 to 8.6%) and his line-drive rate increases (12.7 to 18.1%). Since reaching Double-A in the second half of 2013, Ferguson’s ground-ball rate has been below 40%, making him predominantly a fly-ball pitcher.
The right-hander’s repertoire consists of a 87-93 mph fastball, breaking ball and splitter. As mentioned above, the heater’s velocity is average-ish. It also doesn’t have a ton of movement to it so it’s important for him to throw strikes with the offering, which he does routinely. Unfortunately, he has a tendency to keep the ball in upper half of the zone — especially when he struggles to keep his shoulder closed — which leads to the high fly-ball rate.
The Royals prospect’s breaking ball is below average thanks to its modest break but he utilizes it well at times as a change of speed. He’d benefit from a bigger break on the pitch because it would help alter the hitters’ eye levels from the fastball. His splitter is quite effective as a chase pitch but it’s important for him to be ahead in the county to fully benefit from it.
I like Ferguson’s well-balanced, easy delivery. It allows him to stay in a good fielding position after he delivers the ball and he fields his position well. He utilizes a low-three-quarter arm slot but he gets under the ball at times and, as a smallish right-hander, needs to focus on generating as much plane as possible on his offerings.
I don’t see the pitcher surviving for long as a starter in the big leagues but, with a little further polish, he could develop into a middle reliever with his fastball/splitter combination; his above-average control — and willingness to pitch inside — helps his stuff play up a bit. The former college pitcher is in his fourth pro season so he’ll be eligible for the Rule 5 draft in December if the Royals fail to add him to the 40-man roster by the November deadline.
A candidate to go first in the 2013 amateur draft mainly due to the strength of his triple-digit heater, Gray eventually went third overall to the Colorado Rockies.
Gray threw 37.1 innings in his pro debut in ’13 and was assigned to Double-A to open the 2014 season. The University of Oklahoma alum has pitched reasonably well with a 2.98 ERA (2.96 FIP, 3.15 SIERA) and 34 hits allowed in 42.1 innings. He’s also walked just seven hitters to go along with 38 strikeouts. He’s performed equally well against left-handed and right-handed batters.
Gray, 22, sounds like a sure-fire star with his 6-4, 235 pound frame, power arsenal and above-average control numbers but I remain hesitant to get too excited. Despite his strong frame, I have injury concerns thanks to the effort needed to throw in the upper 90s coupled with a delivery that causes him to finish more upright than I’d like; it puts a lot of stress on his shoulder.
On the plus side, Gray repeats his delivery well and he has simple mechanics, which helps him throw strikes. Even when he struggles to command his pitches, he’s often around the strike zone. When I saw him pitch, he was fastball-heavy and he struggled with his slider early in the game when he was guiding the ball and slowing down his arm speed. By the third inning, though, he commanded it well and it showed a sharp break. I didn’t see much of the changeup but it’s reportedly a distant third offering.
If my injury concerns are out in left field then the Rockies could have a solid pitcher on their hands, although I also worry about how his heavy-fly-ball tendencies and will match up with his home park in Colorado. From a talent perspective his floor is probably that of a No. 3 starter in the Majors with the ceiling of a No. 1/2 hurler.
Hey, everybody, I’m the guy here who talks about pitch-framing, and I’m here to talk about pitch-framing — sort of. You might think there’s too much written about pitch-framing, but it’s a real thing that we can measure, so that’s kind of like saying you think there’s too much written about on-base percentage. Baseball stats are baseball stats, and that’s what we talk about here. But I’ll say this much: Usually, when people talk about framing, they’re talking about the catchers who do it. But I want to focus on the pitchers.
That is, the pitchers who benefit, and the pitchers who do the opposite of benefit. It’s important to remember good and bad framers don’t simply do what they do in isolation. That performance has an effect on pitcher statistics — statistics we’ve long thought to be fielding-independent. It’s an aspect not often discussed, in part because it gets incredibly complicated, but I figured I’d take this chance to provide a 2014 season update on pitchers and their zones. I’ve written these posts before, but not yet this season.
These are the basic questions:
(1) Which pitchers, in 2014, have pitched to the most favorable strike zones?
(2) Which pitchers, in 2014, have pitched to the least favorable strike zones?
(3) Which pitchers have seen the biggest changes between 2013 and 2014?
I can address these with the simple little metric I’ve probably explained here at least a dozen times. Let’s make it a baker’s dozen. We have, readily available, data on number of strikes and number of pitches. Something we can also do is calculate a number of expected strikes, based on zone rate and out-of-zone swing rate. That data’s also provided on FanGraphs. Though there are ways of making this more complex and accurate, this simple statistic can get us most of the way there, and it takes seconds to enter into Excel. The beauty is the simplicity, and by comparing actual strikes to expected strikes, we can learn something about strike zones.
For 2014, I set a minimum of 250 called pitches, so far. The samples are small, but the samples will have to do. Let’s address the first question first. Which pitchers have pitched to the most favorable strike zones? Here’s a top 10 in terms of extra strikes above average per 1,000 called pitches. It’s an arbitrary denominator, but it’s also fine as a common denominator:
Eric Stults 95
Andrew Cashner 89
Yovani Gallardo 66
Marco Estrada 61
Wade Miley 58
Edinson Volquez 55
Bronson Arroyo 55
Roenis Elias 54
Matt Garza 52
Tim Hudson 48
If you’re well-versed in pitch-framing coverage this list shouldn’t surprise you. It’s topped by a Padres pitcher, who’s followed by a Padres pitcher and this is kind of one of the Padres’ things. Then you’ve got a Brewer, then another Brewer and later, there’s a third Brewer. There’s a greater understanding now that Jonathan Lucroy is extremely underrated, and Martin Maldonado isn’t a bad catcher himself. Also featured: a couple Diamondbacks, working with Miguel Montero, and a Pirates pitcher with Russell Martin, and a Mariners pitcher with the new and exciting Mike Zunino. Hudson sneaks in, just ahead of Martin Perez.
Now for the other extreme. Which pitchers have pitched to the least favorable strike zones? The bottom 10:
Robbie Ross -74
Dan Straily -70
Erasmo Ramirez -62
Hyun-Jin Ryu -62
Phil Hughes -55
Samuel Deduno -51
Jordan Zimmermann -50
Hector Santiago -46
Brandon Morrow -46
Tyler Skaggs -45
Remember this isn’t all about the catchers. There’s a definite command component, as Jose Molina would have a tougher time framing Kyle Drabek than Cliff Lee. Ross, for example, hasn’t done himself many favors, but he probably doesn’t deserve the worst zone in baseball. Straily is a pitcher we’ll talk about a little later. Ramirez has been hurt by pitching a lot to John Buck, instead of Zunino, and Buck is a far worse receiver. As usual, there are some Twins, and Angels pitchers who’ve worked regularly with Chris Iannetta instead of Hank Conger. Ryu has perhaps missed A.J. Ellis. Zimmermann isn’t getting many calls outside of the zone, and the Nationals haven’t had very much Wilson Ramos.
Now for the final table, showing the 10 most positive and negative changes from 2013. I kept the same 2014 minimum, and used a 2013 minimum of 500 called pitches. You’ll see some names again:
Pitcher Change Pitcher Change
Andrew Cashner 80 Dan Straily -74
Bronson Arroyo 69 Phil Hughes -65
Matt Garza 63 Clay Buchholz -61
Brandon McCarthy 60 Hyun-Jin Ryu -61
Edinson Volquez 54 Erasmo Ramirez -49
Garrett Richards 46 Mark Buehrle -46
Eric Stults 45 Adam Wainwright -44
Brett Oberholtzer 44 Erik Bedard -44
Jason Hammel 39 Justin Verlander -42
Juan Nicasio 37 Aaron Harang -41
Cashner has leaped forward. Straily has done the opposite. Not that theirs are the only two names shown. Hughes has predictably pitched to a worse zone, but he’s compensated by just pouring in strikes. Arroyo has seen a big gain after changing teams. Garza, too. Volquez as well. On the other side, Buchholz has less Jarrod Saltalamacchia and more A.J. Pierzynski. There’s a lot of noise in this data, as you’d expect there to be, but there’s also a good relationship between the 2013 data and the 2014 data so far. So there’s some noise and some signal, and toward the extremes, the signal is easier to believe in.
Let’s use some images from Texas Leaguers. Here are Cashner’s zones in 2013 and in 2014:
And here are Straily’s zones in 2013 and in 2014:
How might we explain this, outside of just changes in command? A year ago, Cashner pitched mostly to Nick Hundley, who has been a mediocre receiver. This year he’s pitched only to Rene Rivera, who has been an outstanding receiver. Meanwhile, Straily has pitched a lot more to John Jaso, and for all of Jaso’s positive qualities, he’s never been regarded as much of a defender. He’s tolerated because his bat makes up for his defense, and his defense isn’t completely terrible.
Now, Cashner has a sub-3 ERA, and Straily was demoted to the minors. Cashner has been helped by his zone, and Straily, presumably, has been hurt by his. But this obviously isn’t the primary factor driving pitcher success. Just look at Aaron Harang in the table above. McCarthy has an ERA above 5. A lot of pitching success is determined by what happens when the batter swings. And a lot of called pitches are fairly obvious pitches, so framing is mostly about the borderline. This, quite simply, is one factor out of many. You can be an awesome pitcher with a mediocre receiver, and you can be a bad pitcher with a terrific receiver. But every factor’s a factor. Why was Andrew Cashner good before the elbow thing? He threw some really good pitches. He also got some good calls too. Dan Straily wishes he were that lucky.
Last off-season, the Red Sox made Stephen Drew a qualifying offer, giving him a chance to return for 2014 with a $14.1 million salary. He turned it down, and sought a multi-year offer in free agency instead. No offers came, and the Red Sox moved on. They brought Xander Bogaerts to camp as their regular shortstop, and gave Will Middlebrooks a chance to reclaim the starting third base job. While Boras made noise about the problems with the qualifying offer system, he continued to suggest that Drew’s market would emerge once the draft occurred and the attached compensation pick went away. The draft will be held in two weeks, and so Drew could have signed with any club as a “true free agent” 16 days from now.
Instead, today, he essentially accepted the qualifying offer from the Red Sox, taking a pro-rated version of the $14 million salary he turned down seven months ago. Once he’s ready to resume facing live pitching, Drew will presumably once again take over as the Red Sox shortstop, with Bogaerts shifting back to third base, and Middlebrooks serving as depth or a trade chip once he returns from the DL.
For the Red Sox, this move is essentially a win-win. They get an immediate infield upgrade, especially with Middebrooks hurt, and yet continue to leave shortstop open for Bogaerts in the long term. Re-signing Drew for 2014 doesn’t close the door on Bogaerts moving back to SS again next year, and they avoid the long-term contract that Drew was seeking at the beginning of the off-season. While the Red Sox remain a contender in a mediocre AL East, they needed to get better, and this was the easiest way to improve their roster at the present time.
Additionally, the Red Sox benefit by not letting Drew sign with another AL contender. While the Tigers are running away with the American League Central, they still have a gaping hole at shortstop, and signing Drew after the draft to bolster their chances of winning in the postseason would have likely been a legitimate consideration. While signing Drew won’t single-handedly put the Red Sox back into the postseason, keeping him out of Detroit might very well prove to be a significant factor if the Red Sox end up facing the Tigers down the stretch. At the very least, they’re going to force a competitor to pay a higher price in trade to upgrade a weak spot, and there is value in forcing your competitors to pay higher prices.
For Drew, this is probably not a bad outcome either. Multiple reports have suggested that returning to Boston was his first choice, and while he forfeit about $4 million by not playing the first two months of the season, he did gain the right to not be eligible for a qualifying offer after this season, so he could very well make that difference up in his next contract if he plays well down the stretch. $10 million this year plus the chance at free agency without compensation might very well be more lucrative to Drew than $14 million with the threat of another qualifying offer.
Of course, if the plan was just to hold out long enough to avoid another QO, Drew could have theoretically offered to take this same deal back in April, and still received a larger share of the annual salary. But, perhaps the Red Sox really weren’t willing to sign Drew without giving Bogaerts and Middlebrooks a fair shake. Perhaps they needed to let the kids who came to spring training have a shot at the regular season before handing the job over to someone who didn’t come to camp on time. Perhaps rather than the Red Sox waiting on Drew, the last six weeks have been about Drew waiting for the Red Sox to come around.
Either way, this is pretty clearly a positive result for Boston, and not a bad one for Drew either, at least relative to his options over the winter. The fact that the qualifying offer created this situation remains unfortunate, but this isn’t a disaster for anyone. The Red Sox get an upgrade without a long-term cost, Drew gets to return to Boston and escape the qualifying offer system, and Boras gets to remind his future clients that turning down the qualifying offer in November doesn’t mean that that offer will disappear forever. I’d still like to see the QO system revamped or improved upon, but this is the kind of outcome that might reinforce MLB’s position that the system works well enough. And if Scott Boras hates the system, well, maybe to them, that’s a feature, not a bug.
What follows represents an attempt by the author to utilize the projections available at the site to identify the five starting pitchers whose per-inning WAR projections have most improved since the beginning of the season.
For every pitcher, what I’ve done is first to calculate his preseason (PRE) WAR projection prorated to 150 innings, averaging together Steamer and ZiPS forecasts where both are available. What I’ve done next is to calculate the prorated WAR for every pitcher’s rest-of-season (ROS) WAR projection (again, using both Steamer and ZiPS when available). I’ve then found the difference in prorated WAR between the preseason and rest-of-season projection.
When I attempted a similar exercise last month, I used updated end-of-season projections instead of prorated rest-of-season ones. The advantage of the latter (and why I’m using it here) is that it provides the closest available thing to an estimate of any given player’s current true-talent level — which, reason dictates, is what one requires to best identify those players who have most improved.
Only those pitchers have been considered who (a) are currently on a major-league roster and (b) have recorded at least 20 innings at the major-league level and (c) are expected to work predominantly as a starter for the duration of the season. Note that Projection denotes a composite Steamer and ZiPS projection. PRE denotes the player’s preseason projection; ROS, the rest-of-season projection. Inning estimates for both PRE and ROS projections are taken from relevant pitcher’s depth-chart innings projection. Data is current as of some time in the middle of the night between Monday and Tuesday.
Hutchinson’s most recent start, a complete-game shutout versus Texas last Friday, is the best he’s produced this season in terms of run prevention (box). That said, the single-game 3.69 xFIP he recorded against the Rangers actually represents the exact median figure among the nine starts he’s made in 2014. Strikeout rate, walk rate, and home-run rate: those are the metrics which most readily correlate with ERA, and Hutchison’s projections have improved by all three measures since the beginning of the season.
Because his preseason projections were issued while he was still technically a member of the Cleveland Americans and because he’s presently a member of the Atlanta Nationals, Harang’s raw rate stats appear to have improved more than is actually the case. Jared Cross, who is the boss of the Steamer projection system, estimates that a switch from the one league to the other would decrease a pitcher’s ERA forecast by about a 0.5 runs. That said, WAR adjusts both for league and park — and, according to WAR, Harang is likely to produce about 0.65 more wins per every 150 innings now than one would have reasonably expected before the season began.
As noted with regard to Aaron Harang above, one variable that can influence a pitcher’s raw stats is the league in which he pitches. Another one — one germane to the question of Jesse Chavez and his value — is the role in which he’s utilized by his club. In most cases, moving a pitcher from a starting to a relief role will allow that pitcher to produce better rate stats — because he’s able to throw harder, avoid opposite-handed batters, etc. Conversely, a pitcher moving from the bullpen to the rotation will likely see his rate stats decline. What’s notable about Chavez is that, despite having been projected this preseason to throw a number of innings in relief, he’s managed simultaneously to earn improved projections for his rate stats while also receiving a higher percentage of his projected innings as a starter. His projection has improved by almost a win per every 150 innings.
Entering the season, the left-handed Elias was included neither among Marc Hulet’s organizational top-15 prospect list for Seattle nor among Baseball America’s top-30 list for that same club. Nor had he necessarily given any indication that he was a Tommy Milone sort — which is to say, one who produces superlative minor-league numbers and receives excellent projections while nevertheless failing to impress scouts. That Steamer didn’t forecast him to produce numbers worse than replacement level is the most optimistic comment one could reasonably make. Still, on a club that featured the prospect triumvirate of Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker, it’s been Elias who’s produced the best numbers — with peripherals (20.6% K, 9.4% BB, 51.0% GB) to suggest that the results are sustainable.
Mike Petriello announced earlier today that Dallas Keuchel is the sort of person who can no longer be ignored. The improvement in Keuchel’s prorated WAR projections would appear to support that sentiment. Through nine starts, the 26-year-old left-hander has already surpassed his WAR total from 2013 by over half a win — in about 90 fewer innings. Even despite the fact that he made approximately a third of his appearances last season in relief (in which role he’d be expected to produce better raw figures), Keuchel has improved his strikeout rate and walk rate, in addition to having induced grounders at a frequency unmatched by literally every other qualified starter in the majors. Because, like Jesse Chavez above, Keuchel was projected to record some of his innings out of the bullpen, his raw rate stats don’t necessarily reflect the full measure of his improvement. He’s really good, is the point.
Three additional notes:
Sixth among pitchers by the measure used here is Garrett Richards (+0.5 WAR per 150 IP). Calculating any of the pitchers after him would require a sort of due diligence, however, which the author is unwilling to perform.
Among the most improved pitchers excluded from the top five because they’ve been demoted or otherwise have failed to pass the 20-inning threshold, here are the top three: Arizona’s Michael Bolsinger (+2.1 WAR per 150 IP), the New York Yankees’ Chase Whitley (+1.5), and also Arizona’s Chase Anderson (+0.7).
White Sox right-hander Felipe Paulino (-1.4 WAR per 150 IP) is the pitcher, among those who’ve recorded at least an inning at the major-league level this year, to have exhibited the greatest decline in prorated projected WAR.
This afternoon, Mike Petriello put up a really good post on Dallas Keuchel‘s breakout season. Included in that post was a graph plotting every 2014 qualified starter based on two variables: their groundball rate, and their strikeout rate minus their walk rate. Basically, the point of the graph was to show not just how extreme Keuchel’s groundball tendencies have been, but how rare it is for a pitcher to get that many groundballs while also getting strikeouts and limiting walks.
I gave Mike the graph after seeing that he had beaten me to writing a post about Keuchel’s emergence, but that’s not the only interesting data point on the chart, so I’m giving that chart its own post, highlighting some of the more interesting pieces of information that we can gain from plotting pitchers based on those variables.
Before we get to the graph, however, a quick explanation about why the vertical axis is strikeout rate minus walk rate, rather than the traditional K/BB ratio. As others have previously pointed out, K/BB ratio can often be problematic when a pitcher posts a very low number of walks, driving down the denominator and thus creating an artificial sense of distance between similar performances. For instance, David Price currently has a K/BB ratio of nearly 13-to-1, with Tim Hudson coming in second at 10-to-1. Both pitchers are walking fewer than one batter per inning faced, as is Bartolo Colon, who ranks 4th in MLB in K/BB ratio.
But while limiting walks is great, it isn’t the sole purpose of pitching, and many great pitchers trade a few extra walks for a lot of extra dominance. No one actually thinks Colon is dominating the strike zone more than Jose Fernandez was, after all, even though Fernandez’s K/BB ratio is “just” 5-to-1, ranking 7th overall in MLB. Fernandez’s strikeout rate was twice that of Colon’s, but because the low walk rate is the denominator, Colon’s K/BB comes out ahead when dividing them.
If you instead subtract walk rate from strikeout rate, you get something that more realistically aligns with what we know about pitchers dominating the strike zone. Fernandez is now #1, with a strikeout rate that is 28% higher than his walk rate. Masahiro Tanaka comes in second at 26%, with Price not far behind at 25%. The other leaders in K% minus BB%? Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Yu Darvish, Stephen Strasburg, Johnny Cueto, and Michael Wacha. These are great pitchers, and they’re great pitchers because they dominate the strike zone. Subtracting walk rate instead of dividing by walk rate gives us a better list of who is actually owning the strike zone, rather than simply exalting those who avoid walks altogether.
While K% minus BB% isn’t going to be as immediately familiar as K/BB ratio, it’s pretty easy to adjust to the scale. Because league average K% is 20.4% and average BB% is 8.2%, the league average K%-BB% is 12.2% so far this year. Anything over a 15% difference is pretty good, and getting over 20% is reaching ace-type levels.
But dominating the strike zone isn’t the only way to succeed, and a pitcher who avoids walks and gets a ton of strikeouts is probably making a trade-off of allowing more fly balls, because in-zone contact rates are lowest on pitches at the top of the strike zone. So that’s where GB% on the horizontal axis comes in, and why we’re plotting the metrics that make up xFIP on a graph. By putting the strike-zone dominance on one axis and groundball rate on the other, we can see not just a pitcher’s overall result, but how they are getting those results.
So, here’s that same graph from Mike’s piece, only with the gridlines adjusted so that you can see the four quadrants.
You’ll note that the graph isn’t centered around the average or median points, as the midpoint of GB% is set to 50% and the midpoint of K%-BB% is set to 15%, with both marks representing points above the league average. The point isn’t really to show the big cluster of guys in the middle, but to demonstrate the buckets by which we often describe pitchers. Guys with a groundball rate north of 50% are often referred to as groundball pitchers, and as you can see from the few number of data points to the right of the vertical axis, there aren’t actually that many “groundball pitchers” among MLB starters. Even more rare are pitchers who get a lot of groundballs and rack up strikeouts.
That upper right quadrant is basically the nirvana of pitching. The perfect pitcher would live as far up and as far right as humanly possible, though clearly, being at the top of the chart is more important than being at the far right. As a pitcher moves right, he also moves downward — to get a lot of groundballs, you have to pitch in higher contact parts of the zone — so it’s always a question of making the most of what each individual pitcher has, and maximizing the total value of all three events.
But a pitcher who can miss bats while also generating a lot of groundballs can be quite good, and that’s why I’ve highlighted all the names of the data points in that upper right quadrant. Keuchel is on the island by himself on the far right side, with Tim Hudson being a less extreme example of both groundballs and strikeouts, and then the rest of them clumping closer towards the 50% GB% mark. A few of those names probably won’t surprise you, as guys like Cueto, Yordano Ventura, and Nathan Eovaldi have generated a lot of headlines this year. But don’t overlook what C.J. Wilson has done as a reason why the Angels are contending again, as he continues to look like the Angels best free agent signing in recent years.
And then there’s Brandon McCarthy, perhaps the biggest outlier of them all. You can see the names of the guys he’s pitched like, on a K%, BB%, and GB% basis. Here’s the ERA- for each of the pitchers in that upper right quadrant.
Of the seven pitchers in that bucket, only McCarthy has a below average ERA, and he’s not even close to the average. The problem, as has been pointed out, has been balls flying over the fence; McCarthy’s HR/FB ratio is 21.4%. Getting groundballs is primarily good because it limits the amount of home runs you can allow, but if you’re getting groundballs and still allowing home runs in the process, it’s not all that helpful. The good news, of course, is that HR/FB ratio is barely predictive in large samples and basically not predictive at all in small samples, so there’s no reason to think McCarthy is going to keep giving up home runs at this rate. If he keeps getting groundballs and strikeouts while limiting his walks, positive results will follow, as they have for every other pitcher in that area.
The problem is that what he’s doing is very hard to sustain. What all of them are doing, actually. For reference, here’s the same graph, but with the numbers from last year instead of this year.
Note that there are exactly three pitchers in that upper-right quadrant, with a fourth just sneaking in below the K%-BB% line. Felix Hernandez, Stephen Strasburg, and A.J. Burnett were three of the best pitchers in baseball last year, but it’s a lot easier to tell someone to just pitch like those guys than it is to actually pitch like those guys. It takes pretty incredible stuff, and sustained command of that stuff, to get batters to swing and miss while also pitching in the parts of the zone that generate grounders.
So while McCarthy is in line for some positive HR/FB regression, he’s probably also in line for some negative K%, BB%, and GB% regression, because generating these kinds of numbers over 200 innings is just very difficult. It’s good to remember that regression goes both directions, and a pitcher with a huge gap in their ERA and xFIP will probably see improvement in their ERA and and decline in their xFIP. The numbers will get closer together because both numbers will move back towards the middle.
As this post is already pushing 1,500 words, we’ll save the breakdowns for the other quadrants for another day. One quick note, though: Kyle Gibson, you might want to start getting guys to strikeout occasionally.
On Monday night, I sat down to watch a presumed pitchers duel featuring successful AL West starters Garrett Richards and Dallas Keuchel, which I suppose says something about both the 2014 baseball season to this point and me as a person. Richards, who’d entered the game with a top-10 FIP in baseball, disappointed, needing 27 pitches to get through a three-run first inning. He managed to avoid a disaster and actually stuck around through seven innings, but allowed 12 base runners, five runs and a mere lone strikeout, if whiffing Chris Carter even counts. I’m sure there’s a good starter in there, but being as this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to really watch him this year, I haven’t seen it yet.
And Keuchel? Well, I’m fairly certain this is the first time we’ve ever written about Keuchel on the main page of FanGraphs. He shut down the Angels on two runs over 8.2 innings for what was very nearly his second career shutout, five days after shutting out the Rangers for his first career shutout. After entering the season with a 5.20 career ERA in 239 innings, he’s now got a 2.92 ERA over the first 61.2 innings of his 2014 — numbers emphatically backed up by a 2.81 FIP and 2.68 xFIP. That xFIP is No. 5 in baseball, tied with Zack Greinke, just ahead of Johnny Cueto and Jon Lester; his swinging-strike percentage is No. 13, right in between Madison Bumgarner and Corey Kluber.
You know what? I think we’re finally going to have to talk about Dallas Keuchel.
It should be noted, first, that while “shut down the Angels on two runs over 8.2 innings” and “has a 2.92 ERA” are both very impressive statements, here’s how close this all came to being even more impressive:
That’s a very blurry Mike Trout running at full speed with two outs in the ninth inning of a 5-0 game to ever so closely beat out a Jose Altuve throw to Jesus Guzman in what was otherwise a game-ending 4-3 putout. That hustle, and the infield grounder that followed to knock Keuchel out of the game, and the triple that Josh Zeid then allowed to Howie Kendrick, prevented me from being able to say “Dallas Keuchel just shut out the Angels and Rangers back-to-back,” and it increased his ERA from 2.63 to 2.92. It prevented Keuchel from joining Cueto, Henderson Alvarez and Martin Perez as the only pitchers with multiple shutouts this year.
But of course, Trout and the failings of Zeid hardly take anything away from Keuchel’s performance, and now we need to figure out just where all of this came from and how he’s making it work. It’s not like he was a highly-touted prospect, selected with the 221st pick in the 2009 draft as a junior out of the University of Arkansas, and never — so far as I can tell — appearing highly on any prospect lists. He never piled up any impressive strikeout numbers in the minors, whiffing 323 in 493 innings. Nor does he throw particularly hard, averaging 90 on his four-seam and his sinker and occasionally touching 92.
So far, we’ve just mentioned what he isn’t great at. Fortunately, Keuchel makes it pretty easy on us to identify how he’s finding the success he’s having, partially by offering a master class in pitching on Monday night. Were you to sit down and construct the things an ideal pitcher would do, it would probably include items like “misses bats,” “gets grounders,” “limits walks,” and “avoids homers.” Against the Angels, very easily defined as one of the better offensive teams in baseball, here’s what Keuchel did:
– Generate 16 swing-and-misses, highest of any pitcher on Monday
– Created 18 grounders, tied for the third-most this year, and keeping with his MLB-best 67.7 GB%
– Allowed three flies, none of which went out
– Allowed one walk, but induced two double plays
It’s really that groundball percentage that stands out, because it’s not just the best mark in baseball this season, it would be the best mark we have from a starter in our database, which has batted ball data back to 2002, topping out a bunch of years from celebrated groundball artists Derek Lowe and Brandon Webb. It’s not particularly difficult to see how he’s generating them, either: just look at his heat map:
That’s a man with an almost pathological avoidance of the high strike — the kind that, say, a pitcher with a 90 mph fastball might find quickly leaving the park — and it also goes to explain why his Zone percentage of 38.5 is the lowest in baseball among healthy pitchers. There’s a big difference between “being wild” (Francisco Liriano is next on that list) and “throwing a good-looking pitch that isn’t a strike,” hoping the batter will fish for it, and that’s exactly what Keuchel has done — his O-Swing percentage is the third-best in baseball. Masahiro Tanaka, Jose Fernandez, Greinke, and Rick Porcello round out the top five. This is starting to make sense.
That’s great, really. That’s a great way to succeed in the big leagues, but something interesting shows up when you look at the 28 pitcher seasons since 2002 with a GB% above 60 — most of them don’t really pile up strikeouts. They live and die on the grounder. Of the 28, only four had a swinging-strike percentage above 10, and one of those was from Kevin Brown, who doesn’t exactly fit the Lowe mold. Another is from Tim Hudson this season, unlikely (as, fairly, is Keuchel) to maintain both of those numbers all season long. Keuchel is one of them, with an 11.6 SwStr%. He never really got strikeouts in the minors, but he absolutely is in the bigs in 2014.
First, a graph, helpfully created by Dave Cameron, showing how impressive that combination is. This is a comparison of 2014 pitchers in K%-BB% against groundball rate. This is the guts of what goes into xFIP and it’s pretty simple to follow: the higher your K%-BB% is, the better, because you aren’t giving the hitters back what you’ve taken, and groundballs don’t turn into home runs. You might notice the name all the way out there on the right.
Thus far, we’ve established that keeping the ball down, inducing grounders while collecting strikeouts and avoiding walks and homers, is a pretty wonderful way to win baseball games, which I know is a groundbreaking discovery, but what we haven’t yet done is understand how it is that Keuchel managed to turn himself from a low-strikeout minor-league afterthought into, well, this — how a guy who was terrible in 2012 (5.74 FIP) managed to become mediocre in 2013 (4.25) and wonderful in 2014 (2.81).
There’s some amount of “even Trout didn’t set the world on fire in his first crack at the bigs” in there, no doubt, but there’s also a different pitcher. Take a look at his pitch usage in the bigs and see if anything stands out to you:
It’s the red and orange lines you should be focusing on. Keuchel came to the bigs without a slider, instead using a curve to go with his fastball, sinker, change and cutter. And the curve was, to put it kindly, not working out. His swing percentage on the curve was 33.1; swinging-strike was 7.6. A good curve rarely goes for strikes, so he was giving hitters something they didn’t care to swing at, and rarely missed when they did. The slider gets offered at approximately half the time, and missed roughly a quarter of the time. It’s not difficult to see which one offers more value. (Eno Sarris looked into this in detail a month ago at RotoGraphs, noting that the slider is also making Keuchel’s change look better, which is true. We’re also calling it a “slider,” despite the fact that the Houston broadcasters argued about what it really was and what to call it.)
Here’s what that looked like on Monday, against Grant Green, offering little chance of success to the hitter:
What’s difficult to parse, however, is this: groundballers in front of lousy defensive units can often struggle if their team doesn’t support them. Just go compare Justin Masterson‘s ERA to his FIP/xFIP for proof of that. By just about every metric we have, the Houston defense is terrible. They’re No. 28 in DRS. No. 30 in UZR/150. The team leader in DRS is… Keuchel himself, at 3. Matt Dominguez has a reputation as a very good third basemen, but he’s graded out as mediocre. Altuve isn’t highly thought of in terms of the numbers. Shortstops Jonathan Villar and Marwin Gonzalez aren’t, either. And yet what I saw last night was Altuve flying all over the place, making play after play (though his slow throw on the Trout play arguably cost Keuchel the shutout). My sample size here is “one game,” so I’m not taking my observation over the numbers, but then, I do wonder how Keuchel might have done had the expected Houston defense showed up last night. He probably wouldn’t have carried a shutout into the ninth; but missing bats, avoiding walks and homers — i.e., “the three true outcomes” — doesn’t require the defense’ assistance.
Maybe we should have seen this coming. Keuchel made clear improvements from 2012 to 2013, obscured perhaps by an ugly ERA and an atrocious and unwatchable team, improvements made clear in his FIP/xFIP/SwStr progression. Then again, he got destroyed in three of his four September starts, so it’s not like it was so obvious that we were foolish for missing it. Now he’s made clear improvements from 2013 to 2014, turning him from a guy fighting for a rotation spot to a guy maybe fighting for an All-Star spot. No matter what happens from here, now you know the name Dallas Keuchel, and can associate him with some success. I don’t imagine that was true for most of us just a month ago.
Roughly a quarter of the 2014 season is in the books, and the sample sizes are creeping toward a representative level. Over the next couple of weeks, let’s take a somewhat deeper look at some of this season’s more noteworthy players and performances to date. “Noteworthy” doesn’t always mean “best”, though it does in most cases. Today, we’ll take a look at the first quarter season of Jose Abreu‘s US major league career. Though recently sidelined with left ankle tendinitis, Abreu has already made an indelible mark on the American League. He leads the majors in homers, and has been one of the game’s most productive hitters despite a poor K/BB ratio. Can he keep it up, or is he in over his head a bit, marking himself as a clear regression target?
The White Sox’ signing of Abreu to a six-year, $68M contract this past offseason kind of flew under the radar, with the courtship of Masahiro Tanaka stealing most of the headlines. Abreu is the latest of a steady stream of hitting prospects to arrive from Cuba, following in the considerable footsteps of Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig. Many scouts weren’t nearly as impressed by Abreu as they were by those two, as Abreu’s skillset was not as well-rounded. His defense and arm were considered just adequate, and his speed negligible.
What Abreu has always done, however, is hit, and hit with power. Even with his hit tool, there was skepticism. Many found fault with his swing, and thought that it might not play as well in the major leagues as Cespedes’ or Puig’s. Performance-wise, Abreu actually has a superior track record to his two countrymen. Cuba’s Serie Nacional statistics are a bit spotty, but based on what is publicly available, Abreu’s career line of .342-.457-.621 is better than Cespedes’ .311-.394-.565, or Puig’s 2010-11 mark of .330-.431-.581.
Like Cespedes, Abreu would be walking into the majors in his prime, as a 27-year-old, relatively polished hitter. No minor league seasoning required, unlike Puig. He would also be playing his home games in one of the most homer-friendly parks in the majors. Based on my own park factors, derived by utilizing granular batted ball data, US Cellular Park had a 132 park factor for homers in 2013, third highest in the major leagues. If Abreu could handle MLB pitching, the White Sox, more so than just about any other club, would be placing him in an environment that would put him in a position to succeed.
And succeed he has. The raw traditional numbers are very impressive – a .260-.312-.595 line with AL-leading totals of 15 HR, 42 RBI, even though he recently hit the DL. He’s destroying same-handed pitching, crushing righties to the tune of .277-.333-.615, with 11 HR in 130 at-bats. Though his home park is cozy, his power certainly transcends it, as nine of his 15 homers have been hit on the road. He’s not just a grip-it-and-rip-it pull-sided bomber, as six of his homers have landed to the right of dead center field.
There are some clear shortcomings to his game, however. Chief among them are his poor strikeout and walk rates. He has the 12th worst K (26.5%) and BB (5.3%) rates among qualifying AL hitters, and the 5th worst K/BB ratio, better than only Alfonso Soriano, Nick Castellanos, Colby Rasmus and Chris Colabello. He has the third highest swing-and-miss rate among AL hitters, better than only Castellanos and Chris Carter. A couple of his homers have been hit in Coors Field, and a couple others were very high, routine fly balls that the wind carried over the wall.
So what do we have in Jose Abreu? Is he simply an all-or-nothing masher whose career could take a Dave Kingman-esque path? Or is he a generational slugger whose power numbers could be boosted into the stratosphere by his home park? Let’s take a look at his 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data for some hints. Keep in mind that the sample sizes remain small, so most of the contextual information incorporated below is from the 2013 season. No matter – we’re not searching for exactitude here, just looking for some indicators.
Abreu AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD
FLY 0.571 2.000 607 385
LD 0.633 0.833 89 123
GB 0.085 0.085 12 71
ALL BIP 0.363 0.831 190 200
ALL PA 0.259 0.299 0.592 135 141
First, let’s look at the frequency table. The poor K (95 percentile rank) and BB (16) rates put him in a hole from which only superior batted-ball authority can help him escape. There is quite a bit of good news here, though. It is exceedingly unusual for a power hitter to have such a low popup rate (8 percentile rank). The 2013 version of Chris Davis is one example of a hitter with such a combination. It’s only one quarter of a season in the books, but Abreu’s ability to consistently square up balls hit in the air has been very impressive. Abreu’s line drive rate (95 percentile rank) has also been quite high thus far, and is a prime target for regression moving forward. If he’s stacking the deck against himself by striking out so much and walking so little, he un-stacks it a bit by rarely popping up and hitting a bunch of liners.
The second table lists the production from and hints at the authority of Abreu’s batted balls. The actual production allowed for each BIP type is listed in the “AVG” and “SLG” columns, and is converted into run values, compared to MLB average and scaled to 100 in the “REL PRD” column. Estimates of context, i.e., ballpark, team defense, simple regression and luck are applied in the “ADJ PRD” column in an attempt to isolate his true talent. For the purposes of this exercise, HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation, and SH and SF are counted as outs. Again – this is relatively small sample, with much subjectivity in the contextual adjustments, so let’s not get caught up in absolute precision here.
This is a very eventful table, to put it mildly. Abreu is batting an almost unfathomable .571 AVG-2.000 SLG on fly balls to date. That’s good for 607 REL PRD, which basically breaks the scale. Once you adjust for his ballpark and the handful of relatively cheap homers he’s hit to date, among other contextual factors, his ADJ PRD slides downward to “only” 385. Who or what might that be comparable to, you might ask? Well, Chris Davis – there’s that name again – had a 393 ADJ PRD figure on fly balls in 2013. A couple of guys named Giancarlo Stanton and Miguel Cabrera were next in line at 364 and 358, respectively. That’s the kind of rarefied air we’re messing with here.
Abreu is “only” batting .633-.833 (89 REL PRD) on liners to date, but that is regressed upward for context to an ADJ PRD figure of 123. Then there’s this little issue with his ground ball production to date – he’s batting a measly .085-.085 so far, for a REL PRD of 12. There’s got to be some bad luck and some lack of speed in that number, but Abreu has been rolling over a lot of weak grounders to the pull side, so he bears some responsibility. This should regress somewhat, but even his ADJ PRD of 71 on grounders is anemic – no productive hitter in the majors last year posted a number near that level.
Abreu has batted .363-.831 on all batted balls this season, for REL PRD of 190 and ADJ PRD of 200. Yes, his outlandish 37.5% HR/FB rate will calm down, but he’s got some good fortune coming his way on liners and grounders that will help offset it. This is basically the impact you must place upon the baseball to be a star with such poor K and BB rates. After adding back the K’s and BB’s, his ADJ and REL PRD figures of 135 and 141 qualify him for “star” status, but not by as comfortable a margin as you might think, especially once you take his position into account. A dropoff in his popup or liner rates might drop him from the star category into “nice hitter for a first sacker” territory. Looking at it the other way, if he can just improve his K and BB rates to a somewhat respectable level, he could get even scarier than he already is.
When Abreu had to shut it down due to his ankle injury, his OBP was (0.33) standard deviations below the average of AL regulars, and his SLG was 2.40 STD above. That is a very unique dichotomy of abilities – most hitters with such power have above league average OBP’s, drawing walks at a league average rate at minimum due to the fear factor. Allowing for some regression, I searched for 27-year-old MLB regulars with OBP more than (0.50) STD below the average of league regulars and SLG more than 1.50 STD above. I came up with exactly four.
NAME YR LG REL OBP REL SLG AVG OBP SLG BB K OPS+
M.Williams 1993 NL -0.53 1.89 0.294 0.325 0.561 27 80 136
Kingman 1976 NL -1.35 1.80 0.238 0.286 0.506 28 135 128
Sosa 1996 NL -0.61 1.60 0.273 0.323 0.564 34 134 126
Armas 1981 AL -0.77 1.60 0.261 0.294 0.48 19 115 125
Matt Williams never struck out like Abreu, but his walk rates were every bit as bad. Williams’ age 27 season, in Barry Bonds‘ first season as a Giant, represented a long-awaited breakout for the erstwhile power prospect. The Giants won 103 games that year and missed the playoffs in the last wildcard-less postseason. Alas, he had the misfortune of having his two career years at ages 28-29 in 1994-95, the two strike years. He just might have beaten Mark McGwire to Roger Maris‘ record in 1994, when he hit 43 homers in 112 games before the season ground to a halt. Though Williams remained a significant power threat through age 33, he never developed plate discipline, and was never really an offensive “star” relative to league norms after age 30. He still added value to his clubs, however, by offering solid defense at a relatively high-value position through age 33.
Dave Kingman’s age-27 OBP relative to the league was easily the worst of this group at (1.35) STD below league average. His overall defensive contribution is also the lowest of this group, and probably the most comparable to Abreu’s at this early stage in his career. He was a strikeout machine throughout his career, and though he did begin to walk at essentially a league average rate in his thirties, plate discipline never became a strength. Kingman’s athleticism, especially early in his career, has largely been forgotten. He was never a good fielder, but he did come up as a third baseman, and even stole 16 bases in his 1972 rookie season. There are a lot of common threads between Kingman and Abreu – the jaw-dropping raw power, the size, the lack of patience, the swinging and missing, even the home base in Chicago. Abreu certainly appears to be a purer hitter than Kingman, so I’d peg this as a near worst-case scenario quality-wise (.302 career OBP), but a best-case scenario durability-wise (35 HR at age 37) for Abreu.
At age 27, Sammy Sosa had yet to become the Sammy Sosa we came to know and love – and then not love. He had broken through at age 26 with a 36-homer season, but even after hitting 40 at age 27, he had never had an OPS+ above 127 because of his poor plate discipline. Then he “got some help”, his stolen base totals tanked and his power totals mushroomed. As a result of his additional power, fear among the pitcher community kicked in, and his walk rate surged. This is an interesting comp, especially in light of the Chicago connection, but ultimately a meaningless one, as “other circumstances” force us to look elsewhere.
Like Matt Williams, Tony Armas‘ age-27 season occurred in a strike year. He tied for the AL homer lead (22) and also paced the circuit in strikeouts. His walk rate, as usual, was abysmal. On a per at bat basis, Armas never again approached this level offensively, even though he did lead the AL in HR and RBI at age 30 as a member of the Red Sox. He accrued value for his clubs by providing adequate defense at a very important position, center field. He wound up with an abysmal career OBP of .287, and could never truly be considered an offensive “star” despite his prodigious home run power.
Abreu is likely a better all-around offensive player right now than Williams, Kingman or Armas ever was, with the exception of Williams’ age 29 peak season. He’d better be, however, as Armas and Williams provided substantially more defensive value. The early returns on Abreu’s difference, both statistically (8.4 UZR/150, -3 DRS) and via the eye test, are better than expected. He appears to be an average defensive first baseman. A 27-year-old average defensive first baseman, however, has nowhere to go but down. Abreu’s value is, and will always be in his bat. The value in his bat is now and will always be dependent upon continued top-of-the-charts batted-ball authority. As we’ve seen with Chris Davis this season, when such a player isn’t absolutely tearing the cover off of the ball, he can appear ordinary pretty quickly. 27-year-old Albert Pujols and 27-year-old Prince Fielder were pretty special, but their current versions don’t hammer the ball as hard or as often as they did then – and they had K prevention and BB maximization to fall back upon, unlike Abreu.
Batted-ball authority-wise, we are likely currently seeing the best we will ever see from Jose Abreu. He needs every bit of that authority, however, to qualify as a true star. For him to remain one going forward, he is going to have to show some semblance of plate discipline. Pitchers are going to adjust to him, and he is going to have to adjust back. That said, if he continues to do a similar amount of damage, he should at the very least be able to cash in his share of “fear” walks, as the Sox’ lineup isn’t exactly teeming with alternate power sources. The future is always now for a 6’3″, 255, first baseman. Injury risk, as we already see, will be high, as will the offensive bar. Expect him to pay off his contract very quickly, in three or four years, but then potentially be unworthy of a second larger payday come the end of 2019.
For years, there's been a pretty easy answer to the common question of "Who is the most underrated player in baseball?" It's Ben Zobrist. It was Ben Zobrist last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. It's probably been Zobrist since his breakout year in 2008. If you want to win a bar bet -- and you happen to be at a bar where the patrons know what Wins Above Replacement is -- the "Ben Zobrist has a higher WAR than Robinson Cano over the last six years" factoid is a pretty good place to start.
But Ben Zobrist is still human, and humans don't age particularly well when it comes to athletic competitions. Next week, Zobrist will celebrate his 33rd birthday. His power is already starting to wane, as just 10 of his 40 hits this season have gone for extra bases, continuing a trend towards weaker contact that began last year. He's also slowing down and is not the dynamic baserunner he was a few years back. While he remains an excellent defender and a player who can still control the strike zone, he's becoming more of a good player than a great one. After years of being underrated, Zobrist is finally regressing into the player that people have thought he was.
And so now, it is probably time for him to pass the torch, and to anoint a new Most Underrated Player in Major League Baseball. Interestingly, the prime candidate looks an awful lot like the incumbent.
Meet Brian Dozier. He's not a young, exciting prospect. He doesn't have a great career track record. Two years ago, he hit .232/.286/.337. In Triple-A. At the age of 25. He wasn't any better when the Twins called him up to the Majors simply because they needed a warm body to play the infield. He was essentially the definition of a replacement-level player, the kind of guy that bad teams gave at-bats to because their good prospects weren't ready yet, or because they didn't have any good prospects to begin with.
But then, last year, things began to change. Dozier won the Twins second base job, again somewhat by default, but he didn't look like the Brian Dozier of old. After never hitting more than nine home runs in any minor-league season, he launched 18 homers against Major League pitching. And he stopped getting himself out, reducing his rate of swings on pitches outside the strike zone from 33 percent in 2012 to 23 percent in 2013. Dozier transformed himself from a no-power hack into a guy who could work counts in order to get a fastball he could drive, and then he actually put a charge into the ball when pitchers challenged him over the plate.
The positive growth has only increased this year. Dozier already has 11 home runs and is slugging .479, but even more notable is the massive spike in walk rate; he's drawn a base on balls in 14.2 percent of his plate appearances this year, nearly double his 2013 mark, which was already nearly double his 2012 walk rate. And so now, for the first two months of 2014, Dozier's overall line looks eerily similar to what Zobrist was doing in his prime. Here's Dozier's current season, compared with what Zobrist did over his five-year peak, ranging from 2008 through 2012.
Player BB% K% ISO wRC+
Dozier 14.8% 18.7% 0.222 140
Zobrist 13.5% 17.0% 0.195 129
Draw walks, strike out at a roughly league average rate, hit for power, play good defense at second base, and add a bunch of value by running the bases well. This was Zobrist's formula, and now it is Dozier's.
Of course, it's easy to cherry pick any player who is off to a hot start to the season and make them stack up favorably to a guy who did it for five years. But Dozier isn't just some two month flash in the pan.
If you simply date back his performance one calendar year, rolling the last four months of last season and the first two months of this season into a total line, here's how he did from May 21, 2013 through May 20 of this season: 158 games, 696 plate appearances, 35 doubles, 2 triples, 28 home runs, 80 walks, 130 strikeouts, 23 stolen bases.
aybe we haven't seen Dozier put up All-Star numbers from Opening Day through Game 162 of the same season, but we have a full year worth of performance data that suggests that Dozier isn't the same guy he appeared to be a few years back. He's made a leap, not unlike the one Zobrist made at a similar point in his career. And now, Dozier is excelling in the exact same way that allowed Zobrist to become baseball's under-the-radar superstar.
Baseball loves to exalt starting pitchers and power hitting first baseman, focusing heavily on guys who are great at one particular aspect of baseball. If you throw 98 miles per hour or hit a ball 450 feet, the highlights will find you. But if you diversify your value and simply are above average at everything, you're not as likely to draw the same kind of attention. Defense and baserunning aren't sexy, and despite the "Moneyball" revolution, people still prefer guys to hit their way on base rather than ones who force the pitcher to walk them. Like Zobrist, Dozier doesn't do the kinds of things that will earn him regular accolades. He just does the things that help teams win baseball games.
By all rights, the Twins have no business being in second place in the American League Central. That they have more wins than losses in late-May is amazing, especially considering that Joe Mauer hasn't hit at all and Josh Willingham has spent most of the year on the disabled list. This offense should be dreadful, but instead, they're seventh in MLB in runs scored per game.
This is what having a guy like Brian Dozier will do for you. Quietly, he's become not only the Twins' best player, but one of the best players in baseball. Ben Zobrist can turn over his crown; his successor has been found.
Mike Recchia, RHP, Chicago White Sox (Profile)
Level: Double-A Age: 25 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A
Line: 5.0 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 2/1 K/BB, 1.80 ERA, 3.00 FIP
This independent league find has always been old for his levels, but he has legitimate stuff and deception.
Yesterday, Mike Recchia made his first career Double-A start (and appearance). He is 25 years old. Generally, players who don’t make it to Double-A by before then aren’t prospects, but Recchia arrives at the level with a statistical track record that is nearly beyond reproach. At the time of his promotion from High-A Winston-Salem earlier this week, he was pacing the Carolina League in strikeouts, with a 47/10 K/BB in 40.1 innings. Last season, he put up an 83/19 mark in 76.1 frames between Low-A and High-A.
If he’s been so dominant, why has it taken Recchia this long to reach baseball’s third-highest level? Well, it’s mostly due to one factor–he was undrafted out of Eastern Illinois in 2010. He signed with the Yankees and pitched in their system at both the short-season and Low-A levels for two years, but even though he threw fairly well (78/25 K/BB, 3.38 ERA in 96 IP) as a New York farmhand, his status as an undrafted reliever made him a low-priority player in the organization, and he was released before the 2012 season. At 23, Recchia drifted to Windy City of the independent Frontier League for that campaign. He was able to land a starting role with his new team, and immediately took the circuit by storm, leading the league in innings pitched, complete games, shutouts, and strikeouts (40% more than the second-place finisher!). That wasn’t enough to get him signed, but after five more dominant starts in the league to open the 2013 campaign (47 K in 31.2 IP), the White Sox (an organization that has a long track record of picking up Frontier League stars) brought Recchia back to organized baseball, and as a starter this time. Still, he was only assigned to Low-A as a 24-year-old; as I noted above, he’s pitched very well since, forcing his way to High-A last August and to Double-A after twelve High-A starts.
He’s certainly behind the age curve, but the great thing about pitchers is that good stuff is good stuff, regardless of age/level. Given his release by the Yankees and his indy league sojourn, one might expect Recchia to be a mid-to-upper-80s control/deception guy. He isn’t. I’ve seen him three times (twice last year with Low-A Kannapolis, and once this year with High-A Winston-Salem), and each time, he’s presented a solid four-pitch mix.
Recchia throws a 90-94 mph fastball that’s fairly straight but gets on hitters quickly. His offspeed arsenal revolves primarily around two breaking pitches, a low-to-mid-80s slider and a mid-70s 12-to-6 curveball. They’re very distinct from each other and are both solid offerings. Recchia also occasionally tosses a mid-80s changeup to lefthanders, but it’s more of a show pitch than a legitimate weapon, though it will flash some sink and fade.
Everything plays up due to the deception in Recchia’s motion, which features a very long arm action; he’ll also occasionally throw in a Ryan Dempster-esque glove flutter. You can get a good sense of how his stuff works here:
Given how long Recchia’s arm action is, you might think he’d have trouble repeating his release point and throwing strikes, but he’s an athletic pitcher who has good pace to the plate and a soft, easy landing, so he’s able to stay in sync better than one might expect.
It’ll be very interesting to see how well Recchia’s three-solid-pitches-and-deception act plays at the Double-A level. While he has a nice arsenal, none of his pitches stand out as clearly plus offerings, and while he throws strikes a nice amount of the time, he’s not really a control artist. That leads me to believe that his likeliest path to the big leagues is in the bullpen, where he might be able to throw in the mid 90s more consistently and his deception could play up in short stints. That’s not to say he should be moved to the bullpen just now; he’s never failed as a starter, and he deserves a chance to give it a go in that role at every level until hitters solve him. At the very least, he’s an excellent organizational arm, which is a heck of a positive outcome for an undrafted collegian who had to spend over a year in the indy leagues.
Milroy leads the SAL in strikeouts despite appearing more in relief than as a starter.
Recchia’s fellow Illinois native, Milroy was an eleventh-round pick in 2012 out of the University of Illinois. After working as a starter in short-season ball in his pro debut, he’s pitched in a swing role with Low-A Greensboro for much of the past two campaigns. Despite striking out over a batter per inning last season with the Grasshoppers, he was returned to the SAL for the 2014 campaign, responding with a dominant statline.
Like Recchia, Milroy’s old for his level, and thus his combination of older age and impressive production leads to inevitable questioning about the legitimacy of his arsenal.
Milroy is mostly a fastball-slider pitcher. He works mostly at 89-93 mph with a touch of life, touching 94 on occasion, and he throws a lot of breaking pitches that will arrive anywhere from 74 to 87 mph. Obviously, it’s not the same pitch at 74 as it is at 87, but the lower-velocity offerings (let’s assume they’re curveballs) are slurvy rollers that aren’t well-differentiated from the harder sliders. Milroy will also occasionally throw in a changeup in the 83-85 mph range, but it’s not a major part of his arsenal.
He’s an athletic pitcher with a fluid motion, though his delivery is somewhat rotational and includes a pronounced “Inverted W”:
Milroy’s delivery should allow for solid-average command, which, combined with his two good pitches, might be enough for a future in middle relief. Due to his lack of a good curveball or changeup, he’s unlikely to remain a starting pitcher at higher levels, but there are positive attributes here that give Milroy a chance to be something beyond just a low-minors compiler.
Diaz dominated the Appalachian League on the back of one pitch last year; the strikeouts have held up in a promotion to Low-A, though his overall production has slipped.
Diaz is the one pitcher in this piece who comes with legitimate prospect pedigree, as a third-round pick in 2012 who led the Appalachian League in strikeouts last season with 79, along with a stellar 1.43 ERA. He’s also the only one who is somewhat young for his level–he and Milroy are at the same level, but Diaz is three and a half years younger.
He also has one key advantage over Recchia and Milroy, in that he already has a legitimate plus offering–a fastball that works at 90-94 mph, touching 95, featuring excellent running life.
However, Diaz’s inexperience manifests itself everywhere else. I saw him twice in the Appy last year, and he really didn’t have much other than the heater, tossing a hard slider and changeup that both graded out as little more than show pitches. His delivery also featured a significant back leg collapse that took away a lot of his leverage to the plate. Here’s a look at both outings of his that I took in last year:
At the Low-A level this year, Diaz is seeing these issues catch up to him, as his statline has regressed across the board. His strikeout rate is down 5%, his walk rate has nearly doubled, his ERA has nearly tripled, and his FIP is up a full run. Oddly, his fellow righthanders are pasting him at a .273/.406/.429 clip this year, evidence of his breaking ball’s failure to fool them (lefties are hitting just .211/.274/.316). Clearly, more polish is needed for him to step into the ranks of the better starting pitching prospects in the game. His projectable, lanky frame and natural arm speed are tremendous gifts, but Diaz will need more a far more diverse skillset to reach the #2/#3 starter ceiling some have given him. He has plenty of time to make adjustments, but if he goes too much further without a semblance of interesting offspeed stuff, he’ll start to project more as a reliever than a starter. It bears watching.
The best player in baseball so far has been Troy Tulowitzki. He made it to 4 WAR before any other player made it to 3 WAR. Tulowitzki isn’t the entire reason why the Rockies have been a pleasant surprise, but he’s more responsible for their success than any other player is responsible for his own team’s success, and as long as Tulowitzki is able to stay on the field, he ought to resemble an MVP candidate. Healthy Tulowitzki is always an MVP candidate.
Let’s break that WAR down a little bit. As the best player in baseball, Tulowitzki has been the best hitter in baseball. It’s true that he spends half his time in a hitter’s paradise, but we have numbers that adjust for that, and the adjustment is built into the fact. The most conspicuous part of Tulowitzki’s hot streak has been his offensive productivity. You don’t just overlook a .764 slugging percentage. But another thing that’s true is that Tulowitzki has been among the best defenders in baseball. He’s on track for a career-best UZR. He’s already at a dozen Defensive Runs Saved, after finishing last year at +6. We’ve long known that Tulowitzki is a good defensive shortstop, but thus far he’s been out of his mind, just as he’s been at the plate. So one wonders: just what has he been doing?
This is going to lean on some Inside Edge data, and this is going to look somewhat similar to last week’s piece about Andrelton Simmons. With Simmons, the idea was to explain the curiously modest DRS. With Tulowitzki, the idea is to explain the curiously amazing DRS. What has he done, specifically, and what might be learned from all this?
Let’s do a super-quick review. Inside Edge classifies defensive plays. One classification is Impossible — these are plays with a 0% chance of getting turned into outs. The next classification is Remote — these are plays with a 1-10% chance of getting turned into outs, in the opinion of the observer. The full list:
The classifications are subjective, but they tend to hold up pretty well. Indeed, remote plays are usually not made. Routine plays are usually routine. Last year, Brandon Crawford led baseball with five remote plays turned into outs. The year before, Mike Moustakas had five, and Alcides Escobar had six. Between 2012-2013, Troy Tulowitzki converted just one single remote play. He converted six unlikely plays. He was a good shortstop, but he didn’t make a habit of pulling off the extraordinary.
This year, Tulowitzki has already converted four remote plays. He’s added a pair of unlikely plays. The defensive numbers suggest Tulowitzki has done the near impossible, and Inside Edge backs that up. If you look at the plays counted against him, Tulowitzki has failed to convert a handful of impossible plays, and 11 remote plays, and two even plays. That’s it. All the easy stuff has been converted, all the slightly less-easy stuff has been converted, and a lot of the difficult stuff has been converted. Tulowitzki still hasn’t been charged with an error. He really has gone nuts across the board, performing at an overall superhuman level.
So as in the Simmons post, let’s look at some defensive plays. Here are Tulowitzki’s six most difficult converted plays, in chronological order. As noted earlier, four of these were classified as remote, and two were classified as unlikely. These plays are a big reason why Tulowitzki’s defensive numbers are absurd. Basically, we’re partially deconstructing DRS and UZR, so you can see the plays supporting the calculations.
.Gif warning, by the way. It’s too late, I guess.
Play No. 1
From April 1, it’s a remote play, converted against a quick Marcell Ozuna. The talent is readily obvious. Tulo covered a lot of ground, backhanded the ball cleanly, and threw across the infield in midair while falling away. It’s the Derek Jeter play, if the Derek Jeter play involved range, and Ozuna was out by a fraction of a step. It’s easy to see why this was valuable. It’s also easy to see how this could’ve gone differently. Notice that Tulowitzki was helped by the first baseman stepping into foul territory while keeping his foot on the bag. With very little difference, this could’ve been an infield single, for which no one would’ve blamed the shortstop.
Play No. 2
Hey, it’s kind of that same play again, this time on April 7, this time against a slower Jose Abreu. It’s an insane backhand and an insane off-balance throw, but once more, you can see how this could’ve been an RBI infield single. Tulo’s throw was mostly accurate, but it required both a stretch and a dig, since it was a little off target and short-hopped Justin Morneau. Tulo did almost all the hard work, but Morneau completed the play, and for him it wasn’t routine.
Play No. 3
The first two were considered remote — this was considered unlikely. Nevertheless, Tulo made a play behind second base and made another awkward throw to nail a runner by a fraction of a fraction of a second. Had the runner been someone other than Nick Hundley, he might’ve been safe, but had the runner been someone other than Nick Hundley, Tulowitzki might’ve lined up differently. This play is just nonsense. Also nonsense: the play that happened literally two pitches later.
Play No. 4
Right after the unlikely play on Hundley, there was this remote play on Robbie Erlin. Seriously, right after, separated by maybe a minute. The ball took a funny bounce off the mound, requiring Tulowitzki to adjust his path in an instant, and then he charged and bare-handed and got the pitcher-runner by a blink. The throw, once more, wasn’t perfect, but you can forgive the imperfection, on account of the perfection of everything else. Morneau had to stretch, but stretch he did.
Play No. 5
An unlikely fielder’s choice, with Joaquin Arias batting on April 22. The stop was flawless. The throw was flawless. Tulowitzki didn’t just save a run — he recorded an out, on a ball that probably usually gets through. Stop and think for a moment about how difficult this is. Look away from the computer and imagine that you’re Tulowitzki, doing this in this game. Wow, you’re amazing!
Play No. 6
This is classified as remote, and Tulowitzki recorded not one out, but two. The hard part was the diving catch — doubling off the runner was automatic, although it was cute of the runner to try. I will say I’m not sure this was a 1-10% play; it’s easier to make a diving catch than a diving stop and throw. But it’s definitely a low-percentage play, so Tulowitzki gets a mountain of credit.
That doesn’t completely explain Tulowitzki’s defensive numbers — there are also all the easier plays, each of which he’s made. Pitch-framing has two components: preserving strikes in the zone, and getting strikes out of the zone. Defense also has two components: not screwing up the routine, and pulling off the difficult. Tulowitzki’s done everything, so for that reason, he’s probably earned his defensive statistics. You can also see, though, why those numbers should settle down. Some of the amazing plays required assistance from the first baseman. Some just barely got the runner, where the slightest difference might’ve made the biggest difference. I think you can see, even in these six plays, that Tulowitzki is an outstanding shortstop who’s also gotten a little lucky. Sometimes, he’s going to be a little too slow. Sometimes, his throws are going to be a little bit off. He’s running too high a rate of converting the most difficult plays in the game, and that’s too extreme to sustain.
But it’s also something extreme that’s happened. Tulowitzki has made all these plays, and so many other ones. How do you explain Troy Tulowitzki already having 4 WAR? A slugging percentage that starts with a 7, an on-base percentage that almost starts with a 5, and an assortment of almost impossible defensive plays as a shortstop. No, Tulowitzki probably isn’t going to finish with the greatest single season ever. But he could certainly finish with the greatest single season of the season. What’s in the bag is in the bag, and what has yet to happen is going to involve Troy Tulowitzki, and all of his skills.