The Whole of the Nationals’ Hidden Lee Streak.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Whenever a player or team perform exceptionally well, a common question we get in our chats is, “is this the real player/team?” Usually, the answer is no — a hot streak is a hot streak, a fluke level of performance above the norm. Every so often, though, the outlook’s a little fuzzier, especially when it comes to individual players who might be having a breakout. Yet in the case of the Nationals’ rotation, we can declare unequivocally that no, this is not the real them. The Nationals’ starting rotation is good. Over 51.2 innings, between June 3 and June 10, Nationals starters didn’t walk a single batter.
And they struck out 51 batters. According to Adam Kilgore, that hadn’t happened in at least a century. We can say with certainty that the Nationals’ starters aren’t this good because, over that span, they posted a 1.66 FIP, putting them somewhere between Craig Kimbrel and peak Pedro Martinez. They achieved a strikeout-to-walk ratio of #UNDEFINED, and a K% – BB% of their K%. The Nationals’ rotation, without question, overachieved, but everyone who’s ever thrown a perfect game has overachieved, and those perfect games have drawn an awful lot of words. So the Nationals deserve some words of their own, before this streak is forgotten.
Everything got started on June 3, when, in the sixth inning, Jordan Zimmermann walked Jimmy Rollins in a full count.
The next pitch was a ball to Chase Utley. The next pitch was a ball to Chase Utley. The pitch after that was also a ball to Chase Utley. The Nationals’ streak began with a 3-and-0 count to a disciplined hitter, but Zimmermann got a strike and a following line-out, and so the streak started without anyone noticing, the streak having just been conceived. Marlon Byrd flied out. Ryan Howard was then the streak’s first strikeout. And higher and higher it grew, by the individual pitch, by the individual plate appearance.
A day later, Stephen Strasburg was dominant. The day after that, it was Doug Fister‘s turn, and the Nationals wrapped up a sweep of the Phillies. After the Nationals flew to San Diego, Tanner Roark turned in eight frames of brilliance. Blake Treinen followed with his customary contact approach, and then Zimmermann had the start of a lifetime. A trip up north preceded Strasburg owning the Giants. Finally, Tuesday night, Fister went six innings before he lost Brandon Hicks.
Of note: the full-count pitch wasn’t terrible. Of note: the plate appearance passed through a 1-and-2 count. Of note: Fister shook off a couple pitches before settling on the curveball.
What might have happened? A non-walk is what might’ve happened, but a walk is what did happen, and the Nationals will have to work on a new streak, if that’s their thing. Currently, it stands at 1.0 walkless innings, which isn’t impressive, but which is the kind of thing Ubaldo Jimenez might kill for.
The whole thing lasted 691 pitches, spanning 192 batters. It’s true that a lot of those batters were Phillies and Padres, and those aren’t particularly good batters, but no one else has ripped off a streak like this, so it’s not like that’s the whole explanation. Of those pitches, 70.8% were strikes. Between 2010-2013, Cliff Lee threw 70.5% of his pitches for strikes, as a starting pitcher. He struck out a quarter of his opponents. The Nationals struck out right around a quarter of their opponents. Over the course of the streak, the Nationals’ starters all pitched like the awesome version of Cliff Lee, only with a slightly better strike distribution, so as to avoid any walks at all. It has to be noted for the record that one batter was hit, and a hit batter is like a walk, but it happened in a 1-and-2 count and it happened against Chase Utley, who gets hit by pitches when he’s making a sandwich. Of course a streak like this is going to have a few asterisks. But the streak itself, as defined, took place, for real.
A full 71% of the batters saw first-pitch strikes. Peak Lee threw 69% of his first pitches for strikes. Because the Nationals’ starters were so good at getting ahead, they threw barely 1 out of 25 pitches in three-ball counts, where the league average is about twice as high. Here’s a somewhat unhelpful chart of all the pitches thrown over the course of the streak, with an approximated strike zone:
Plenty of pitches in the zone. Plenty of pitches near the zone. When the pitchers are ahead, the batters have to expand, so the strike zone effectively gets bigger. If you look at this image, you don’t automatically think 51 strikeouts and zero walks, but this is what that can look like. This is 51 strikeouts, zero walks, and one beaned Utley.
How close did the Nationals come to a walk, that ultimately wasn’t issued? It turns out, very close, but only once, and only Tuesday in San Francisco. Pretty much all of their three-ball pitches were good pitches, but here’s a pitch Fister threw to Hunter Pence in a 3-and-0 count:
The pitch was way inside, but Pence went after it anyway, looking to drill something to left. The count advanced to 3-and-1, and then Pence put a ball in play, keeping the streak alive. Had he walked, the streak would’ve been shorter, but it wouldn’t have been much shorter, and it still would’ve qualified as historic. And Fister deserves some credit anyway, for throwing a pitch in that situation that Pence wanted to swing at.
There’s a good chance that, come the end of the year, this will end up the worst 3-and-0 swing, as determined by pitch distance from the center of the strike zone.
So what is there to be made of all this? Two things, I feel like:
Nationals starters did something crazy, which is crazy
The Nationals have a really good starting rotation
If you had to bet on someone doing what the Nationals did, you’d bet the field over the Nationals specifically. But if you had to bet on one particular team, you’d choose the Nationals, at least as long as you consider both the walks and the strikeouts. Though the Yankees’ rotation has a slightly lower walk rate, the Nationals are the leaders, by a good margin, in K% – BB%. As historical rotations are concerned, the 2014 Nationals rank fourth all-time in K% – BB%, less than a percentage point behind the leading 2002 Diamondbacks. Nationals starters have baseball’s lowest adjusted FIP and baseball’s lowest adjusted xFIP, and though the main reason is Stephen Strasburg, the rotation’s also deeper than that, and it’s good even without Gio Gonzalez, who’s back in a matter of days. The Nationals are pitching like the team that was projected to win the division by a handful of games.
What the Nationals did was historic, and over their level of true talent. But it was less over their true talent than it would’ve been over any other rotation’s true talent. Over a week’s worth of games, all the Nationals starters combined to pitch like the best version of Cliff Lee. It’s not quite as sexy as a perfect game, but it might be more meaningful.
Has the first-pitch take become a losing strategy?Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
I'm going to begin this column with an unremarkable-looking fact.
When a Major League hitter has swung at the first pitch of an at-bat in 2014, the average OPS in that at-bat -- not just OPS on first-pitch swings, but the OPS for all at-bats in which there was a first-pitch swing -- is .710. The average OPS for an at-bat in which the batter does not swing is .708. For all intents and purposes, that is a statistical tie, and suggests that there has been no obvious advantage to pursuing either approach this year.
Here's why that unremarkable-looking fact actually is remarkable; if this lasts, it would mark the first season ever recorded -- as far back as Baseball-Reference's data for that split goes anyway, which for this specific number is 1988 -- where the OPS on at-bats with a first-pitch swing was higher than the OPS on at-bats with a first-pitch take. For most of the last 25 years, it hasn't even been close.
From 1988 to 2011, the advantage of the first-pitch take was consistent and constant. Sure, there were years where the advantage wasn't enormous -- in 2001, the gap in OPS was only seven points, and it was just nine points in 2004 -- but the blue line and red line never really came that close to intersecting until 2012. That year, the gap fell to just two points, which still stands as the lowest recorded advantage for the first-pitch take over a full season in the last 25 years. Last year, the advantage jumped back up to six points, but that was still lower than any season prior to 2012. And now this year, the gap has not only disappeared, but it's reversed course for the first time.
From 1988 to 2011, the average OPS in an at-bat when a batter took the first pitch was .752, and only .725 if the batter swung at the first pitch; a 27-point gap overall. Since the start of the 2012 season, those numbers are .718 and .714 respectively, a four-point gap. Compared to 24 years, a little under two and a half seasons is a smaller sample, but we're still dealing with a total of over 441,000 plate appearances over these last few years. And while a one-year disappearance of the gap could have been considered an aberration, at this point, it can only be considered a trend.
What could be driving this change? We can only speculate, but many prominent writers have speculated that the modern hitter is simply too passive, too willing to stare at a hittable first-pitch in an effort to "work the count" and curry favor with the OBP-loving nerds that populate today's front offices. Perhaps the most vocal scribe on this issue has been Tom Verducci, who wrote the following last year.
Welcome to the state of the art in hitting these days, where aggressiveness is disdained and passivity is exalted. The modern hitter is guided by the accepted wisdom in catchphrases such as “driving up pitch counts,” “taking pitches” and “quality at-bats.” There is one serious flaw in this groupthink strategy.
It isn’t working.
Hitters are striking out more than ever before in baseball history while runs, walks, hits and home runs have been on the decline for years. And while teams still preach the religion of driving up pitch counts to “get into the bullpen” of the other team, they may be pushing an outdated agenda.
I responded to Verducci's claims at FanGraphs, noting that while he's correct about the fact that swing rates on first pitches are down substantially, the rest of the data doesn't support his conclusion. The overall league average swing rate is essentially flat, and has been for 20 years. Contact rates are essentially unchanged, so the problem isn't that hitters are swinging through more pitches than they have before. The most significant measurable change has come from a dramatic rise in the number of called strikes.
As called strike rates have risen and first pitch swing rates have fallen, the natural result is that more pitchers are getting ahead in the count than they have historically. From 2002 to 2010, the rate of first-pitch strikes held steady between 58% and 59% In 2011, it went to 59.4%, then 59.8% in 2012, then 60.3% last year. It is again over 60% this year, and with more hitters falling behind 0-1 than we've seen at any time in recent history, it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that the outcomes for hitters who take the first pitch have been declining pretty rapidly in this environment.
But are hitters really just taking meatballs down the middle that they used to swing at, and is that really the reason for not only the rise in first-pitch strikes, but the subsequent rise in strikeouts that Rob Neyer continually preaches against? We don't have reliable, comprehensive pitch location data prior to the 2008 season, so we can't say for sure which pitches hitters were getting back in the offensive explosion of the 1990s, but even back in 2008 and 2009, first-pitch takes led to substantially better outcomes than first-pitch swings. Can we measure some differences in swing rates for hitters from 2008 to 2014?
First, here's the league-average swing rate by location for all hitters on the first pitch in 2008.
And here's the same map for 2014.
There are some notable differences in the middle of the plate. In the six boxes that comprise the area that could effectively be described as "middle of the plate and elevated," regardless of whether a left-handed or right-handed batter was hitting, swing rates were about 2% higher in 2008 than they have been this year. And those pitches are almost always called strikes, so if you don't swing at those, you're basically asking the umpire to put you down 0-1.
So, while I wrote a rebuttal of Verducci's claim a year ago, the data actually does support his suggestion to some degree, and I think a case can be made that hitters are being too passive on grooved first pitches. If a pitcher throws an elevated, middle-of-the-plate pitch, try to hit the crap out of it, and worry about working the count next time.
But at the same time, we still have to acknowledge that the rise in strikeouts and the overall dominance of pitchers is not simply a byproduct of hitters trying to see more pitches. There are other factors at play here. Pitcher velocity is trending upwards, and harder thrown pitches are harder to hit, so perhaps the middle-middle pitches of today aren't as meaty as the middle-middle meatballs of a decade ago.
And pitchers aren't the only ones changing. Back in April, I wrote about the shifted strike zone for left-handed hitters, and there is evidence that the strike zone itself has gotten larger since MLB had location-tracking cameras installed in every Major League ballpark. Encouraging hitters to swing at more pitches won't lead to more offense if the pitches they have to swing at aren't in the zone, and if with the growing strike zone, pitchers don't need to be able to throw it over the plate as often as they used to.
The reality is that big changes like this are never just one thing. It's not just pitchers throwing harder, though that probably is a factor. It's not just size of the strike zone, though giving hitters more area to have to cover is a clear benefit to the defense. And it's not just modern hitters taking more first-pitch strikes in an effort to work the count.
But over the last few years, the first-pitch take has all but lost its advantage over the first-pitch swing, and an overly passive approach to attacking hittable 0-0 pitches could be part of the culprit. Being selective shouldn't be equated with standing there watching a centered, elevated fastball get called for strike one, but maybe Major League hitters have indeed become a little too willing to take a good first pitch, only to strike out before ever seeing another meatball again.
Reminder: Stephen Strasburg Is Still Really, Really Good.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
If you were to conduct a casual survey among baseball fans about the greatest pitching season of all time, there’s no doubt that there’s a few years that would pop up regularly among the responses. Bob Gibson‘s 1968, certainly. Dwight Gooden‘s 1985 would probably appear, or Roger Clemens‘ 1986, or Steve Carlton‘s 1972. Randy Johnson has a few years you could point to. So does Sandy Koufax. So does Greg Maddux. There’s not really a wrong answer there, because it’s not a question that can be answered. Run environment and park effects have to be measured, and we can do that to some extent, but we can’t really account for the fact that some people prefer the quiet mastery of Maddux to the flame-throwing mastery of Johnson, or the fact that whether you were 15 in 1968 or still decades away from being born will absolutely color your memories of particular eras.
For me, the answer is a tie. It’s either Pedro Martinez‘ 1999 or Pedro Martinez‘ 2000, and it’s not hard to explain why. They were legitimately great seasons no matter how you looked at them, and they occurred right in the face of some of the highest offensive environments we’ve ever seen. It’s why Martinez’ ERA+ in 2000 was 291 while Gibson’s 1968 was 258, despite Gibson’s raw ERA of 1.12 being considerably lower than Martinez’ 1.74. And for me, I lived in Boston at the time. I was in college. I lived within walking distance of Fenway Park. I can’t say I specifically remember any starts of Martinez’ I saw in person in those two years, but I’m sure I saw at least a few.
Martinez, in those two years, did something no other qualified pitcher since 1900 has ever done before or since. He struck out more than 11 per nine, and he paired that with a walk rate below 2.00. That’s a bit biased towards recent pitchers, since the game as a whole simply didn’t strike out decades ago like they do now, but that doesn’t really change how fantastically impressive it was.
Now, realize this: This isn’t a post about Pedro Martinez. It’s a post about Stephen Strasburg, who, through his first 14 starts of the season, is on pace to do exactly that… not that anyone seems to be noticing. If it’s possible to be both a superstar and feel like a disappointment, considering how hyped Strasburg was as the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, he’s managed to accomplish it.
* * *
Three notes about Stephen Strasburg, to follow imminently:
1) Strasburg’ s velocity is down. It’s not down by as much as it was when we noted it here on April 1, after the fact that he averaged under 93 mph in his first start of the year raised some red flags, but it’s down, by more than three miles per hour than it was when he reached the big leagues.
This is generally considered to be a problem, at least for pitchers in general, if not specifically to Strasburg. It’s been the cause of much angst around Jered Weaver and CC Sabathia and others, as they realize that they can no longer blow the ball past a hitter. We know that in general, losing velocity corresponds to losing effectiveness, outliers like Mark Buehrle aside.
2) After speaking to Strasburg two weeks ago, John Perrotto noted at Sports on Earth that the drop in velocity was more a strategy than a concern, saying that Strasburg “has since made a conscious effort to take a little bit off his fastball for the sake of preserving his arm over piling up strikeouts and blowing out radar guns.”
Intuitively, this makes sense. There’s still plenty we don’t know about how to keep elbows from exploding — Strasburg, of course, is a Tommy John survivor himself — but the one idea that does seem to be gaining some wider acceptance is the theory that the best way to get yourself hurt, short of pitching when you’re already injured, is to attempt to go at max-effort every single time. It’s probably not a coincidence that the increase in arm injuries is happening as the pitching velocity of the sports has gone up. To be clear, that’s not a 1:1 “there’s your answer” position, but it makes a lot of sense.
Of course, it’s a problem for guys like Weaver and Sabathia when not throwing as hard means they struggle to even get to 90. For Strasburg, dropping three or four miles still means he’s operating in the mid 90s. It’s easy to take some off when you’re starting from the top.
3) Despite taking some speed off, Strasburg is almost certainly the best pitcher in the National League. That’s maybe partially because Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey blew up, and Clayton Kershaw missed enough time that he doesn’t have the innings to qualify yet (Kershaw, by the way, is also doing what Martinez did, though again isn’t qualified), but it’s hard to argue the following:
FIP: 1st in NL (2nd in MLB behind Felix Hernandez)
xFIP: 1st in MLB
WAR: 1st in NL (3rd in MLB behind Hernandez and Corey Kluber)
K%-BB%: 1st in MLB, tied with David Price
SwSTR%: 3rd in NL (5th in MLB)
ERA and RA9-WAR don’t look upon him as favorably, mostly because A) the Washington defense has been wretched and B) related to A), Strasburg’s .354 BABIP is the highest of any pitcher in baseball.
Now, what I’d like to do here is make some grand statement about how Strasburg has significantly changed in 2014 to make for this success — that the slider he worked to add in the spring has been a dominant new addition to his arsenal, or that throwing slightly less hard is what has allowed him to increase his command. But the truth is, there’s no point in making a narrative where one doesn’t exist. (Although, as noted in the comments, he may have changed his position on the rubber somewhat.) He ditched the slider weeks ago, finding that it wasn’t working. His command has improved, but it was never a problem to begin with, and it’s not just about cutting down on the high-velocity pitches, anyway, because even those are going for strikes. On pitches above 96 mph, he’s improved his ability to locate them within the strike zone by roughly two percent every year, from 39.7 percent as a rookie to 47.3 in 2014.
The simple fact is, this isn’t new. Strasburg was dominant when he made his debut at 21 years old, and the elbow surgery hasn’t changed that. From the start of 2012 until now, he’s got the No. 4 FIP, the No. 2 xFIP, the No. 2 K%-BB%. Perhaps we’ve lost sight of that with new flavors like Masahiro Tanaka, Fernandez, Harvey and Yu Darvish, or in the midst of his unpopular shutdown in 2012 and the disappointment that was Washington’s 2013, but he’s always been this good. If too many fans seem to not be noticing that, well, too many fans probably care that his record since the start of 2013 is just 14-13. They shouldn’t. They do.
Strasburg is succeeding for the same reasons he always has, namely that he has a changeup that can do this, as he showed in Monday night’s dismantling of the Giants, making it among the three best changes in the game since the start of last year:
He’s got a top-five curve that can do this:
Which all helps make the fastball with movement on it look even better:
Yet it never really does seem like we talk about Strasburg as though he’s among the elite with Kershaw, Adam Wainwright, Fernandez and the rest. That’s less on him than it is on us. We should probably take the moment to accept that Strasburg can’t be overrated, not when he’s living up to the hype and then some, in ways we’ve rarely if ever seen before.
Prospect Watch: Bullpen Arms in the Desert.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The Arizona Diamondbacks bullpen ranks among the worst in the league in numerous categories — including ERA and home runs per nine innings (HR/9) — which has helped the club land in last place in the National League West division. But there is good news on the horizon. Arizona actually has some of the best relief depth in the minor leagues in terms of pitchers’ ceilings — especially when looking at Double-A and above. Here are a few names to know:
Jake Barrett, RHP, Double-A (Profile)
Level: AA Age: 22 Top-15: 8th Top-100: N/A
Line: 23.0 IP, 22 H, 7 R, 21/9 K/BB, 2.74 ERA, 2.16 FIP
Summary: Barrett is nearing his first MLB promotion and has the potential to develop into one of the most valuable arms in The Snakes’ bullpen.
Notes: Drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays out of high school, Barrett reportedly flunked his physical and headed to Arizona State for three years. He was then re-selected in the third round of the 2012 draft (the same round Toronto took him) and has moved swiftly through the Diamondbacks system. The right-handed reliever entered the year as the eighth-best prospect in the system and has pitched well in Double-A after a breakout 2013 season that saw him post a 1.21 ERA and just 39 hit allowed in 52.0 innings. His stuff is plenty good enough to develop into a high-leverage reliever at the big league level — 94-98 mph fastball, potentially-plus slider and occasional changeup — and he could enter the big league picture at some point in 2015.
Matt Stites, RHP, Triple-A (Profile)
Level: AA/AAA Age: 24 Top-15: 13th Top-100: N/A
Line: 24.2 IP, 19 H, 10 R, 22/9 K/BB, 2.92 ERA, 3.04 FIP
Summary: With a little more consistency, Stites could become a true weapon in the later innings for Arizona.
Notes: Acquired late last season in a deal with San Diego for Ian Kennedy, this right-handed reliever combines plus velocity with plus control. Just 5-11, Stites struggles to generate a consistent downward plane on his fastball but when he’s on, his heater/slider combo is tough to hit and he opened the year ranked at FanGraphs as The Snakes’ 13th-best prospect. He opened the 2014 season in Double-A but earned a promotion to Triple-A after just 12 appearances. The former 17th-round draft pick out of the University of Missouri will have to be added to the 40-man roster no later than November of this year so he stands a good chance of seeing some big league action in the second half of the season. Stites, 24, has the ceiling of a high-leverage reliever if he can consistently retire right-handed batters.
Jimmie Sherfy, RHP, Double-A (Profile)
Level: AA/AAA Age: 22 Top-15: N/A Top-100: N/A
Line: 22.0 IP, 18 H, 13 R, 37/13 K/BB, 4.91 ERA, 4.25 FIP
Summary: The new kid on the block, Arizona’s minor league staff gushed about this prospect’s potential prior to the 2014 season.
Notes: Sherfy just missed ranking among the Diamondbacks’ Top 15 prospects when the season began and he’s making a strong bid to be considered in the Top 10 during the 2014-15 offseason. In just his first full pro season, the right-hander earned a promotion to Double-A after striking out 23 batters in 11.0 High-A ball innings. He’s gotten roughed up a bit since the bump-up due to inconsistent command. Under-sized like Stites, Sherfy is listed at 6-0 but is a tad shorter than that, which is one of the reasons why he was available to Arizona in the 10th round of the 2013 draft. His heater sits in the mid-90s and touches 97-98 mph. He also has a potentially-plus slider. Look for him to reach The Show in the latter half of 2015.