Bread and Butter

Whether it’s Britton’s cutter, Kershaw’s curve, or Sale’s slider, every pitcher has their bread and butter pitch. It’s their version of the one play you run in Madden that nobody can stop. No matter how often you run “PA F Slide,” those chains keep moving until you’re in the end zone. We all hate that “one-play” guy. But if it helps me win then, hey, I too would run it every damn time. Using the same methodology for baseball, one would assume a pitcher should throw his best pitch a lot. Right? Who wouldn’t want to score a touchdown (or in this case, a whiff) on every play? Fangraphs developed a stat called “Pitch Values” which tries to quantify how good a pitcher has performed when using a particular pitch. If a pitcher whiffs on Aroldis Chapman’s fastball often (well, not this year), those numbers will be reflected in their wFB number. This stat is “the total runs saved by a pitcher using that pitch.” A problem arises, however, due to some pitchers throwing different amounts of each pitch. Therefore, Fangraphs created another category that standardizes the values on a per 100 pitch basis. Who are the pitchers that aren’t throwing that nasty cheese often enough? Using pitch values, let’s dive in.

 

Fastball—Jeremy Hellickson
wFB/C–.54 (16th among 63 qualified pitchers)
FB%-47.4% (58th among qualified)

Jeremy Hellickson was once a phenom. The former Rookie of the Year was supposed to be the next young pitcher the Rays somehow always seem to discover. David Price, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Matt Moore all have had successful careers with the Rays. None of them won ROY. Hellickson’s career has significantly fallen off, however. He has bounced around the NL since returning to the AL East in a July acquisition by the Orioles. With a 5.26 ERA, nobody was expecting the rookie version of Hellickson to step on the mound. With the Orioles, he has a 6.87 ERA. Hellickson’s fastball has been underutilized. Rather, he has been changeup heavy, tossing it 28.7% of the time (3rd most) but with a -1.78 wCH/C. He can throw the fastball more. Not asking for much, here. My mom can throw a fastball.

 

Slider–Lance Lynn
wSl/C—1.44 (10th among 46 qualified pitchers)
Sl%–12.4%(39th among qualified)

It’s fitting that Lynn plays for one of the most consistent franchises in sports. With an ERA under 4.00 every year of his career, Lance has been a rock for the Cardinals. Lynn started off with a repertoire guided by his curveball in 2012, where he threw it 17.8% of the time. Since then, those breaking balls have been substituted for fastballs with his slider staying around 10%. Previous to his Tommy John surgery, the slider was ineffective. He posted negative wSl/C every year of his career. However, this year his slider has been stronger than the ones of Severino, Darvish, and even Chris Sale. If he can keep this trend up, Lynn could become a more than reliable option behind Carlos Martinez.

 

Curveball–Masahiro Tanaka
wCB/C–1.63 (7th among 52 qualified pitchers)
CB%–6.2% (46th among qualified)

To succeed at Yankee Stadium, you better not hang your curveballs. That short porch in right field will rough you up. Masahiro Tanaka knows this all too well, as he has been somewhat home run happy this year with a 20.3 HR/FB %. Tanaka is an interesting case. His velocity is up on all of his pitches by a significant factor. This demonstrates the idea that velocity and results don’t always have a direct relationship. Despite its velocity jump, his fastball has been awful. His -2.24 wFB/C is the worst in the league by a healthy margin. Tanaka lives on his off-speed stuff. His sinker is what brought him to America, and now it’s time he implements the curveball more often.

 

Changeup—Gerrit Cole
wCH/C–1.30 (12th among 59 qualified pitchers)
CH%–10.8%(31st among qualified)

Gerrit Cole has been the subject of many trade rumors. A young, controllable starter like Cole should warrant the same kind of package the A’s got for Sonny Gray. He is the perfect candidate to throw his off-speed pitches more. Cole’s fastball ranks 2nd in velocity behind Luis Severino. Throwing the changeup more often would set hitters up for failure when they expect a pitch 8 MPH slower. Cole has been good this year, but not special. His HR/9 has more than doubled since last year, despite his peripheral stats staying essentially the same. Cole has also doubled his changeup usage, so he is on the right track. He recognizes the problem and has started to go after it. If he keeps using his secondary pitches to set up the fastball, Cole will rebuild his trade value and could find himself in a new uniform (Pinstripes? Please?!) soon.

Advertisements

It’s a Rocky Road

The Colorado Rockies are forced to play in the shadow of the same storyline that analysts slap on them every Spring Training. It goes something like: “Coors is a hitter’s park. The pitching won’t hold up in that thin air.” It seems a bit tired. The narrative never changes. However, the start of this season brought some promise. Nolan Arenado, DJ LeMahieu and Charlie Blackmon were already established stars. Trevor Story was returning from a thumb injury that ended his 2016 campaign in which he set a record for the most home runs (7) in a team’s first six games. Throw in newly signed Ian Desmond, and there was some buzz in baseball about the Rockies potential for a dominant lineup. The starting rotation, however, had question marks. Coming into opening day, the staff would be rookie heavy. The kids responded, having pitched more than 60% of the Rockies starts and innings. The rookies — Kyle Freeland, 24; Antonio Senzatela, 22; German Marquez, 22; and Jeff Hoffman, 24 carried the load. Tyler Chatwood, the relative old man on the staff, pitched to a solid 4.08 ERA. Greg Holland re-discovered his Royal glory days, capping off the formation of a nice bullpen. After taking 3 of 4 at Wrigley on June 10th, the Rockies found themselves 2.5 games up in the division. Have the Rockies figured out Coors Field? How are they pulling this off? Well, 11 games against the San Francisco Giants could have something to do with it. The Rockies had the luxury of beating up on the Giants, with a 10-1 record. That was until last week, when the decrepit Giants swept the Rockies.

 

The façade of excellence ended the week before, actually. The Mark Reynolds renaissance and the consistency of Blackmon and Arenado kept the team afloat, but after losing their last two series to the D Backs and being swept by the Dodgers, the Rockies undisputable deficiencies have come to light. Their run has stopped, mainly because said run was unsustainable. The Rockies are 11-4 in one run games. Although their bullpen has been effective, this is a sign of some luck. For perspective, the Dodgers are 8-9 in one run games despite being arguably the best team in baseball. Moreover, the Rockies had the 4th best record in baseball before this rough stretch. However, if you look deeper, they had the 7th best run differential, a sign of unsustainability.

 

Speaking of unsustainability, let’s talk a bit about these rookie pitchers.  Kyle Freeland threw a career high 162 innings last year in AA and AAA, he is at 93.2 already. He sure won’t be giving the team 7+ innings of 2 run ball in September. Antonio Senzatela threw a career high 154 innings in 2015 at Class A Advanced (nowhere near the majors) and in 2016 he was riddled with a shoulder injury. The expectation for him to throw 150+ innings of sub 4 ERA ball is absurd. Tyler Chatwood threw a career high 158 innings with the Rockies last year and was solid, posting a 2-win season. This year, however, his HR/FB % is up more than 12 percentage points. Their upstart rotation is showing signs of slowing down, posting a 5.11 ERA over the last 30 days (7th worst in baseball over that time), and a 6.75 ERA the last 14 days (by far the worst).

 

When the casual fan hears the Rockies are winning games, their mind immediately turns to hitting. The Rockies must be mashing, right? Right?! No. In fact, the last 30 days, the team has produced a putrid wRC+ of 77, tied with the Phillies for last in baseball over that time. And over the past two weeks, they have a wRC+ of 46! Trevor Story cannot regain the phenom status, hitting only 11 home runs so far this season while striking out 34.4 % of the time, by far the most among shortstops. Pitchers have clearly adjusted to him and despite his elevation in launch angle, he is slugging behind “defensive” shortstops such as Orlando Arcia, Andrelton Simmons and Tim Beckham. His 71WRC+ is 16th worst in baseball.  Ian Desmond isn’t living up to his $70 million contract, walking only 3.8 % of the time and striking out 25% of the time. He is on a hot streak, but he and Carlos Gonzalez still have a wOBA under .305, putting them next to names such as Buxton, Schwarber and Hamilton. Let’s not get into Gonzalez. To put it simply, CarGo is CarGoing through something bad.

 

 

Let’s look at the Rockies in a historical context. For the year, the Rockies have the worst wRC+ in baseball at 78. Since 2000, only 3 teams have ever made the postseason with a wRC+ 90 or lower. The 2007 Cubs, 2005 Astros, and 2001 Braves. If we go team by team, it’s clear that these teams had elite pitching and/or defense to carry the offense. The Cubs had the 2nd highest UZR in the league, 5th most valuable bullpen by WAR, and produced the weakest contact among all starting staffs in the league. Consequently, they sported the lowest BABIP in the league by 8 percentage points. The Astros had one of the greatest rotations since the turn of the century. Their big three of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, and Roy Oswalt created the 2nd most valuable rotation by WAR. All three hurlers had sub 3 ERA’s, with Clemens at a miniscule 1.87. And subtracting their defense, the staff had the best xFIP- in the league. The Braves also had a great rotation. They had 3 pitchers over 219 innings pitched with names like Maddux and Glavine spearheading the rotation to the 4th best WAR. These teams all made the playoffs with a wRC+ above 88, and quite frankly, the Rox don’t have any Clemens walking through the clubhouse. Given, all these teams played in the one wild card team era. Still, the Rockies are nowhere near these teams.

 

 

The Dodgers, Nationals and Diamondbacks aren’t going anywhere. Once the Cubs figure things out, they will handle the Central. That leaves one wild card spot open. Hopefully the following week can put the Rockies back into legitimacy, as they play the Reds and the White Sox at home. If not, the Rockies will be the official overachievers of 2017 and they will hear the Coors Field narrative all of March 2018.

 

Picture from MLB.com. Thanks for reading!

Chad Kuhl is Throwing Heat

On the surface, Pirates’ starter Chad Kuhl appears to be having a disappointing season. However, there is more to it than just that.

Generally speaking, a slash line (ERA/FIP/xFIP/SIERA) of 5.58/4.28/4.77/4.80 isn’t very encouraging. These are the numbers that Pirates’ starter Chad Kuhl has put up to date this season through 69.1 innings. Last year, he threw 70.2 MLB innings, so we have comparable sample sizes. Yet, he seemingly hasn’t improved upon last years numbers. Yes, the strikeouts are up, from a 17.6% K-rate to a 19% this year. However, the walk rate is also up (6.6% to 9%), the ground balls are down (44.3% to 41.8%), and the home run rate has risen accordingly (0.89 HR/9 to 1.04). What, you may be wondering, do I see in this guy?

Check out his plate discipline stats.

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact%
2016 26.40% 68.80% 45.00% 65.70%
2017 30.50% 65.90% 46.40% 57.40%
Season Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2016 87.50% 80.30% 43.90% 57.10% 8.90%
2017 85.30% 75.20% 45.00% 59.40% 11.40%

Improvements across the board. His chase rate has gone up while his in-zone swing rate has gone down. Hitters are making far less contact on pitches out of the zone, and even a bit less on pitches within the zone. This explains the increase in strikeouts. The walks shouldn’t be increasing, unless hitters are really going much deeper into counts, since they are making less contact. Nonetheless, this should change if Kuhl keeps things the same, because he’s throwing in the zone more often and getting more swings outside of the zone. Of the 118 pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings this year, Kuhl’s chase rate ranks 43rd, his in-zone swing rate is tied for 48th lowest, his z-swing minus o-swing ranks 37th, and most impressive, his swinging strike rate is tied for 26th. In fact, his swinging strike rate is the same as Yu Darvish–he even has a higher chase rate than him (30.5% and 29.3%), and Darvish has a superb 26.9% strikeout rate. The underlying statistics are optimistic, so if Kuhl keeps pitching this way, the strikeouts will increase and the walks will decrease. The bigger question is, what is the driving force behind these improvements?

According to PITCHf/x data on FanGraphs, Kuhl’s average 4-seam fastball velocity has jumped from 93 last year to 95.5 this year, touching 99. Contrary to what his name might suggest, Chad Kuhl is throwing heat. In fact, all of his pitches have seen an increase in velocity (and he’s added a curveball, but he’s only thrown 38 of them and they have been largely ineffective):

Season Pitch minVel maxVel Vel
2016 SI 83.3 96.5 92.7
2016 SL 81.6 89.5 86.6
2016 FA 87.4 96.1 93
2016 CH 81.6 88.3 85.1
2017 SI 88.6 99.5 94.1
2017 FA 90.2 99.4 95.5
2017 SL 77.2 91.8 88.5
2017 CH 81.7 90.7 88
2017 CU 79.7 86.4 82.7

The velocity increase has given Kuhl more confidence in his four-seamer, and his usage of the pitch has risen to 29% this year, up from a mere 10% last year. This explains part of why the ground ball rate is dropping–the uptick in four-seamer usage has caused a drop in sinker usage (down from 57% last year to 37% this year).

In addition, while his sinker has seen an increase in arm-side run (1.6 inches more), the ground ball rate is also dropping because the sinker has seen a decrease in drop (1.1 inches less). While the drop on his sinker has decreased, the rise on his four-seamer has increased. It is now above average, ranking 52nd out of the 118 pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings as of morning June 27th. This is in part due to a slight change in vertical release point:Brooksbaseball-Chart-16.png

This year, Kuhl is throwing more over the top with all of his pitches. This graph shows that, for his sinker, he is on average releasing the ball about two inches higher. Now, Pitch Info (which powers this graph) says that Kuhl doesn’t throw a four-seamer at all, only sinkers, as opposed to PITCHf/x. Either way, at this point, Kuhl’s “sinkers” don’t sink very much. Using Pitch Info’s data, Kuhl’s sinker has the eighth worst drop amongst the 87 starters who have thrown at least 200 sinkers this year. In that same group, the ground ball rate on Kuhl’s sinker is also eighth worst. Coincidence? I think not. His overall ground ball rate of 41.8% this year is below average, ranking 78th-lowest of the 118 pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings this year.

All of his pitches are generating more whiffs, looking at both Pitch Info and PITCHf/x. This is probably due to the improved velocity. Using Pitch Info’s data, his slider ranks 15th in whiffs per swing out of the 87 starters who have thrown 100 sliders this year (not to mention, it ranks 10th in average velocity), and his sinker ranks 17th out of the 87 starters who have thrown 200 sinkers this year. However, his changeup still gets whiffs at a below average rate: it ranks 71st out of the 92 starters who have thrown 100 changeups this year. Although the changeup has gotten more run this year, it too has lost vertical drop and the velocity gap between it and the fastball has closed a bit. Generally, changeups are used to sit down batters of the opposite handedness, because they have arm-side run. Kuhl, a righty, has struggled against lefties this year, as they have a .445 wOBA against him, while righties have a mere .286 wOBA. At the same time though, he has gotten more strikeouts against lefties (30) than righties (29), despite having faced fewer lefties (147) than righties (163). Also, I’m not too worried that Kuhl will have struggles against lefties in the long run because his sinker has great arm-side run.

The fact that Kuhl has a diminished ability to get ground balls doesn’t bode well for his old skill set, where he relied on his control and inducing weak contact, but with an increased penchant for strikeouts, backed by improving velocity, it shouldn’t matter that much. I would still take a flyer on him; the strikeouts, walks, and platoon splits should improve, along with his ERA.

Data from FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus. Picture from MLB.com. Thanks for reading!

Some Preseason Thoughts: American League

An in-depth look at the favorites to win each division and each wildcard.

So here we are, in the midst of opening week. I’m going to outline the favorites for this season, based on who was truly good last year and who made the best win-now moves this past offseason.

AL East

Favorite: Boston Red Sox

Mookie Betts accumulated 7.8 WAR and Xander Bogaerts had a career-best walk rate and ISO in their age-23 seasons. Andrew Benintendi is healthy and geared up for his first full season in the majors. Dustin Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez enjoyed bounce-back campaigns, the former garnering 5.2 WAR and playing 160 games, the latter with a 127 wRC+. Jackie Bradley Jr. proved his 2015 success was no fluke. The acquisition of Chris Sale offsets the injuries to David Price and Drew Pomeranz. They have plenty of rotation depth: Rick Porcello is a solid presence (although, some regression is to be expected) and both Eduardo Rodriquez and Steven Wright offer some sneaky upside.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that last year, although they won 93 games, Baseball Prospectus said that they should have won 103 games (more than anyone else in the AL) based on runs scored and runs allowed, amongst other underlying statistics, and adjusted for strength of schedule. FanGraphs projects them to tie with the Astros for most wins in 2017.

AL Central

Favorite: Cleveland Indians

Carrying over from last year is a solid young core of Francisco Lindor, Tyler Naquin, and Jose Ramirez, backed by consistent veterans Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis. The signing of Edwin Encarnacion and the return Michael Brantley further boosts this offense. As for the pitching, the big three of Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, and Danny Salazar are returning, fully healthy. They are backed by a couple of solid arms in Trevor Bauer (whose excellent stuff still offers upside in his age-26 season) and Josh Tomlin. Furthermore, there are two solid prospects with major league experience: Mike Clevinger struck out more than a batter per inning in Triple-A last year, and Ryan Merritt was a postseason hero. Not to mention, a very strong bullpen composed of Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and the newly signed Boone Logan.

Andrew Miller’s ranks amongst the 133 qualified relievers last year:

K% BB% SIERA ERA FIP xFIP
1st 2nd 1st 2nd 3rd 1st
WAR O-Swing% Z-Swing%
2nd 2nd 1st (Lowest)

AL West

Favorite: Houston Astros

Despite a disappointing season last year, the Astros have an improving young core. Carlos Correa just put up 4.9 WAR in his first full season, which he seemed to be playing injured throughout. And he’s only 22! They’re getting a full season of Alex Bregman, who put up a 112 wRC+ in his first big league action. Jose Altuve, still only 26, had a career year, posting bests in walk rate, ISO, WAR, wRC+, OBP, Slugging, and more. George Springer, still only 27, played a full season for the first time, putting up a 124 wRC+ for the third straight season and garnering 4.5 WAR. The Astros don’t only have youngsters, though; they also improved their catching with the acquisition of veteran Brian McCann, and now have a respectable tandem of McCann and Evan Gattis. They’re set for their first full season of Yulieski Gurriel, the 32-year-old Cuban. They also signed three more solid veterans this offseason: Nori Aoki (career .353 OBP), Carlos Beltran (124 wRC+ last year), and Josh Reddick (career wRC+ of  105 and positive defensive marks).

On the pitching side of things, after struggling with shoulder issues for the last couple of years, Lance McCullers (30.1% K-rate last year) is healthy to begin the year. While Dallas Keuchel disappointed last year, his underlying metrics (3.87 FIP, 3.53 xFIP, 3.77 SIERA) suggest that he suffered from some bad luck. Joe Musgrove provided 62 solid innings in his MLB debut last year, and still has room to grow at age 24. Charlie Morton, the oft-injured veteran, showed much improved velocity last year in a small-sample and topped out at 97 this spring (he sat 91-92 in previous years) with his sinker, so he offers some sneaky upside. Collin McHugh is starting the season on the DL, but he has garnered at least 3 WAR in each of the last three seasons. The ‘Stros have some depth beyond those five: Mike Fiers can be an innings eater with the potential to showcase the swing-and-miss stuff that he showed before last year, Brad Peacock struck out a batter per inning in 117 Triple-A innings last year, and Chris Devenski, bullpen ace, started five games last year, putting up a 2.16 ERA in 108.1 innings (mostly in relief).

The bullpen is loaded. Luke Gregerson led the MLB in swinging strike rate last year, Ken Giles has a career 34% K-rate and an only 8.2% walk-rate, Will Harris and Tony Sipp are two lefties who have struck out more than a batter per inning in their careers, James Hoyt had a 2.96 SIERA last year and Michael Feliz had a 2.45. Not to mention, Chris Devenski.

Beyond the obvious depth on the MLB team, the Astros have a solid farm system. They have 9 top-100 prospects, according to KATOH, the stat-based prospect ranking system on FanGraphs. Among them are familiar names such as outfielder Kyle Tucker (119 wRC+ in A-ball last year, 188 in 69 PAs in High-A), David Paulino (1.83 ERA in 64 Double-A innings last year), Francis Martes (3.33 ERA, 2.73 FIP in 125.1 Double-A innings last year), and A.J. Reed (142 wRC+ in 296 Triple-A PAs last year).

Wildcard

Favorite: Toronto Blue Jays

While they lost Edwin Encarnacion, much firepower remains. Josh Donaldson is still Josh Donaldson. Kevin Pillar is one of the best defenders in baseball, accumulating the most defensive runs saved above average out of every outfielder the last two years. I’m expecting a bounce-back from Jose Bautista, who played through injury last season. Devon Travis, who has 4.8 WAR in only 163 career games, is fully healthy to start the season. Russell Martin provides a steady presence behind the plate. Even though his offense has declined over the last two years, Troy Tulowitzki still provides upside at shortstop and defends well. The signings of Steve Pearce (136 wRC+ last year) and Kendrys Morales (whose homerun power should play up  at Rogers Centre) should help offset the loss of Encarnacion.

Their stellar rotation from last year remains intact. Although J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, and Aaron Sanchez are due for some regression, Marcus Stroman was unlucky last year (his ERA-FIP was the 10th highest amongst qualified pitchers last season). It’s also worth noting that Estrada, with a superb rising fastball, is known to defy his peripherals by inducing popups at a high rate. Sanchez is still young (24), so he can improve his skills before regression catches him. Either way, he led the AL in ERA in his second year in the majors and features an excellent sinker. Francisco Liriano provides some sneaky strikeout upside at the back-end of the rotation.

The bullpen is solid too, headed by Roberto Osuna, Joe Biagini (who I profiled last year), and Jason Grilli (who rebounded nicely last year).

Second Wildcard

Favorite: Seattle Mariners

 The Mariners have some upside (Mike Zunino, Mitch Haniger, and Dan Vogelbach are all former top prospects still under 27 years old), but their aging stars (Nelson Cruz is 36, Hisashi Iwakuma is 35, and Robinson Cano is 34) will have to remain effective in order for them to catch the Blue Jays. The ineffectiveness of Felix Hernandez and the injury to Drew Smyly mean the M’s will have to lean heavily on the injury-prone but high-upside James Paxton for innings.

Pennant

Favorite: Houston Astros

With unmatched depth and a stat-savvy UPenn and Northwestern educated GM in Jeff Lunhow, I pick the ‘Stros over the Red Sox (whose depth is rapidly disappearing under old-school president of baseball operations Dave Dumbrowski) and the defending pennant winners (Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are too injury-prone for my liking, and their depth pales in comparison to the Astros).

About those Yankees:

The young trio of Greg Bird, Gary Sanchez, and Aaron Judge will have to really wow in order to make them a contender :(.

Data from Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs. Picture from wordpress.com.

Thanks for reading!

 

Starlin has Really not Been Sterling

A common misconception amongst casual baseball fans is that Starlin Castro is a solid player. I’m here to debunk that myth.

Twenty-one homers, a career-high by seven. A .270 batting average. Only 118 strikeouts in 610 PAs. So, Starlin Castro is back on the map, right?

Not so fast. Castro did not just experience a sweet power-surge, as some may think. He greatly benefitted from an inflated HR/FB rate. Last year, his 15% rate was way higher than his previous career high (10.1%). Some may dismiss this stat and say that the move to Yankee Stadium helped him out, but in fact, the park factors on FanGraphs list Wrigley (106) as an easier venue for righties to hit homers than Yankee Stadium (105). As was often discussed amongst the Sabermetric community, last year the number of homers skyrocketed all around the MLB (possibly due to the balls being “juiced”), so take that with Castro’s inflated HR/FB rate and the most PAs he saw in a year since 2013, and we have a career-high in homers, even though Castro posted a fly ball rate lower than his career average and a popup rate higher than his career average. All of these homers helped lead to a career-high ISO, at .163. Because I don’t think the home run increase is sustainable, I don’t think the ISO increase is, either. He only hit 29 doubles, tying him for 51st out of the 88 players with at least 600 PAs last year. He also only hit one triple. Further undermining his ISO explosion, the league average ISO also ran up to its highest in ten years, fifth highest all-time, at .162. This was only the second time in Castro’s career that he had bested the league average ISO in a season (and he barely did so in 2016).

graph.jpg

Accompanying this power surge was an erosion of plate discipline. Castro posted the second-worst walk rate of his career, at 3.9%. This was the third-lowest walk rate amongst the 88 hitters with at least 600 PAs last year. To make matters worse, his strikeout rate (19.3%) was the worst of his career. His swinging strike rate ballooned to 11.3%, way higher than his previous career-high (9%), and firmly below average. His chase rate was its worst since 2012, ranking 11th highest in the group of 88. If there is one good thing here, he also swung at pitches in the zone at the highest rate in his career. However, this could just be a function of Castro seeing a career-high number of strikes and him choosing to have a more aggressive approach (career-high overall swing rate as well, ranking 12th in the group of 88). Yet, he still made contact on pitches in the zone at the lowest rate in his career. Either way, Castro’s .300 OBP last year undermined his improvements in the power department, and he ended up with a below-average 94 wRC+. That OBP was the seventh-lowest amongst the 88 hitters with at least 600 PAs.

Noted for his speed as a prospect, Castro never actually posted a positive BsR (base-running runs above average) value in a season. His base stealing days appear to be over, as he only attempted to steal four times last year. Although he wasn’t caught once, he still posted a -1.6 BsR.

Did he at least hit the ball hard? Well, his Hard% was the second highest of his career, but it was still just below league average. His Soft% was a couple percentage points below league average, at least. His line drive rate was the second highest of his career (right around league average). But did his exit velocity improve? Of the 61 hitters with at least 400 batted ball events last year, Castro had the 43rd highest average exit velocity, at 89 MPH. The prior year, he ranked 44/55 amongst the hitters with at least 400 batted ball events, with an 86.5 average exit velocity. While Castro experienced quite a jump there, the average of the first group was 89.9 and the average of the second group was 88.9 MPH, so the entire league experienced a jump, and Castro ended up below average both years.

Starlin Castro is definitely a below average hitter. There are certainly some good things about him, but when he has a down year on defense, like last season, his offense isn’t enough to bank on–he only accumulated 1.1 fWAR in 151 games. This was the 11th worst amongst the 88 hitters with at least 600 PAs, and the worst amongst the second basemen in that group. Despite an uptick in homers, I don’t see enough of a skills improvement for Castro to maintain a 20-per season pace. I would expect something more along the lines of 15-per season, with his increased aggressiveness giving him more shots to lift the ball out of the park. This aggressiveness, however, can be his downfall: he doesn’t walk often and he doesn’t hit the ball hard, so some bad luck on balls in play could lead to a horrific OBP.

Data from FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Graph made courtesy of https://nces.ed.gov/. Picture: USA TODAY NETWORK/USA TODAY NETWORK/SIPA USA–via nydailynews.com

Thanks for reading!

Caught on Cotton

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a potential impact rookie hitter for 2017, Dan Vogelbach. Today I’ll evaluate a potential impact rookie pitcher, Jharel Cotton.

Just before the trade deadline this past summer, the Dodgers and Athletics struck a blockbuster deal that sent ace Rich Hill and capable right fielder Josh Reddick to the Dodgers and pitching prospects Grant Holmes, Frankie Montas, and Jharel Cotton to the A’s. The oft-overlooked Cotton was largely considered the third-best prospect the A’s received; after all, how good could a pitcher who put up a 4.90 ERA in 97.1 frames of Triple-A ball be?

Well, I’ll answer that question for you; pretty damn good. As I often write, ERA isn’t a tell-all statistic, and Cotton had some pretty good indicators that suggested he was more than just a run-of-the-mill pitcher in those 97.1 frames. Although the 1.57 homers per nine were troubling, it is encouraging that in years prior in the minors, he only allowed a rate higher than 1 homer per nine at one level. Also, that rate normalized after the trade; in 38.1 frames for the A’s Triple-A affiliate, he allowed 0.70 homers per nine, sporting a 2.82 ERA. In the majors, the rate wasn’t great, but it was still palatable at 1.23 homers per nine.

What I like most about Cotton, though, is his command and his swing-and-miss stuff. At every stop in the minors in which he threw at least 20 innings, he never walked more than 3.02 per nine. Even more exciting, in those 97.1 innings for the Dodgers Triple-A affiliate, he only allowed 2.96 walks per nine and struck out 11 per nine. That’s right. I said 11. So, he probably suffered from some bad luck there; his strand rate was just barely over 60% and his home run to fly-ball ratio was probably exorbitant. In his short stint in the majors, he only struck out 7.o6 per nine, but with only a 1.23 BB/9 rate and a 12.5% swinging strike rate, which would have been a top ten rate had he qualified.

How did he amass such a high swinging strike rate? Is it sustainable? Let’s take a look at his repertoire.

In order of usage, he throws a four-seamer (34%), a changeup (28.3%), a cutter/slider (16.4%), a two-seamer (13.5%), and a curve (7.8%). His four-seamer averages a solid 92.3, right around the average for a right-handed starter. What really makes this pitch special, though, is its rise. It would have ranked within the top 15, had he qualified. This helped Cotton to a crazy 24.4% popup rate, which was better than every single pitcher who threw 30 or more innings, except for Tyler Clippard. This would explain the miniscule BABIP that Cotton allowed (.198). While I don’t think that figure is sustainable, the rise on the fastball looks good for suppressing BABIP going forward. Let’s check the Baseball Prospectus PitchFX leaderboards for the fastball, too. Of the 228 starters who threw at least 100 four-seamers last year, Cotton’s ranked 113th in average velocity, 42nd in rise, and most impressive, second in terms of popups per balls in play.

Onto the changeup. This one’s a beauty.

 

A 40% O-Swing rate, and he only throws it in the zone 35.5% of the time! A 17.7% swinging strike rate. A 54.8% swing rate, almost as high as his fastball (55.7%). Also, it would have had top-15 drop, had he qualified. A 4.4 pVAL in only 125 pitches. If we look at the PitchFX leaderboards on Baseball Prospectus instead of FanGraphs, the prognosis is similarly positive: of the 153 starters who threw at least 100 changeups last year, Cotton’s had the 55th highest swing rate, the 48th best whiffs per swing, the 38th best drop, the 21st highest fouls per swing, and best of all, the second highest popups per balls in play rate.

The cutter/slider:

A high O-Swing rate (37.9%) and a low Z-Swing rate (62.8%) point to signs of success for this pitch and possible sustenance of its exorbitant swinging strike rate (22.2%). Here are the relevant stats from Baseball Prospectus as well: of the 89 starters who threw at least 50 cutters last year, Cotton’s had the 28th highest average velocity, the 27th highest swing rate, the third best whiffs per swing, the second best GB/FB ratio, and the best popup per balls in play ratio. Although the pitch also has the lowest fouls per swing rate in that group, the high whiff rate and excellent contact management negate any ill effects from that.

Cotton also throws a curve:

He only threw it 34 times in the majors last year, but it looks like it has good movement, and it generated a 17.7% swinging strike rate. It has above average drop and horizontal movement.

Lastly, Cotton throws a two-seamer, his most ineffective pitch, but it is good to know that he has another fastball he can turn to when he’s in need of a ground ball.

With a full starter’s repertoire, excellent contact quality management, and a robust swinging strike rate that has good foundations, look for Cotton to do big things this season in his first full year in the majors.

Data from FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. Video from Pitcherlist. Picture courtesy of USA Today Sports Images, via cbssports.com.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

Dan the Man

A promising rookie took a big step forward last year.

2016 was an excellent year for rookies. We saw 20 homers in only 229 PAs from Gary Sanchez, 20 in only 330 PAs from Ryan Schimpf, and 27 in only 415 PAs from Trevor Story. Trea Turner managed 33 steals, 13 homers, and a .388 BABIP. Tyler Naquin ran a .411 BABIP.   Not to mention, Corey Seager racked up 7.5 WAR. You get the idea. This year, Dan Vogelbach looks poised to burst onto the scene.

Vogelbach was dealt just before the trade deadline from the Cubs to the Mariners in a four-player deal that was basically just Mike Montgomery for Vogelbach, with a throw-in on each side. It was expected that the Cubs would trade Vogelbach, a notoriously bad fielder who can only play first base at best (where Anthony Rizzo is slotted for the near future), to an American League team who could deploy him at first base or DH if needed. However, there is little doubt about his offensive ability: at every stop in the minors where he logged at least 100 PAs, he put up at least a 126 wRC+ with at least a .150 ISO, 10% walk rate, and .350 OBP. Not to mention, he struck out in less than 20% of his PAs at every stop but one (where he struck out in 20.2%). Check out some of his important stats from last year, which was another solid year:

Team PA HR BB% K%
Mariners (AAA) 198 7 21.20% 17.20%
Cubs (AAA) 365 16 15.10% 18.40%
ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG
0.182 0.263 0.240 0.404 0.422
0.230 0.362 0.318 0.425 0.548
wOBA wRC+
0.375 127
0.423 158

While his success with the Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate was partially BABIP driven, it was a larger sample, and he still maintained a solid ISO (.182) with the Mariners’ affiliate. Not to mention, he walked a ton, even more than he struck out after the trade. Either way, at each stop, he posted an OBP above .400, incredible plate discipline for a 23 year-old (now he’s entering his age-24 season). Walk percentage is an excellent predictor for future results, as it usually has an r-squared value in the .70’s from year to year. Thus, it isn’t surprising that Vogelbach received the most positive projection from Steamer this year for all incoming rookie hitters (in terms of wRC+).

Data from FanGraphs, photo by Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images, via seattlepi.com. Thanks for reading!