Archive for ‘Breakdown’

Saturday: 05.4.2013

Jeremy Guthrie’s New “Success”

Jeremy Guthrie has a 3.06 ERA through five starts which looks like a continuation of his post-trade work with the Royals from last season when he had a 3.16 ERA in 91 innings over 14 starts. All told, he had a 3.14 ERA in 123 2/3 innings with 1.10 WHIP. He is blasting the zone resulting in a minuscule 5.8 percent walk rate – a marked improvement over his 6.9 percent career rate. His strikeout rate is at 16 percent as a Royal, up from a 14.3 career mark. Everything seems to suggest he has found a new level of production in his early-30s with his new club.

That strikes me as odd, though.

You don’t usually see a guy with 1111 innings of a certain level of production become something significantly better in their 30s. At least not without a major change in their pitch mix either by adding a pitch or using what he has differently. There hasn’t been any of that with Guthrie which made his improvement even more suspicious. This split of his innings as a Royal definitely stood out:

Guthrie

IP

ERA

WHIP

K%

BB%

vs. CWS

35.7

0.50

0.81

21%

2%

vs. Rest

87.7

4.21

1.31

14%

7%

Guthrie has owned his Saturday night opponent since becoming a Royal and it is driving his new found success. Against the rest of the league, he’s simply been the solid, if unspectacular Jeremy Guthrie we’ve known for nearly a decade, but he’s a Cy Young frontrunner against the Pale Hose. Let’s see if he continues the dominance tonight in Kauffman Stadium.

For those wondering, two of these five starts have come in Kauffman Stadium and he’s allowed five runs, but only one earned in 13 2/3 innings with nine strikeouts and two walks.

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Friday: 04.12.2013

Barry Good? Not Likely.

It doesn’t take a revisionist historian to understand that the 7 year, $126 million dollar deal that the Giants gave Barry Zito was a bad idea. Looking at the results of the nearly completed deal certainly backs up those of us who thought it was an overpay at the time, but the eroding skills and results during his final years in Oakland showed a guy who was morphing from a good pitcher to an innings eater. Innings eaters shouldn’t get seven year deals, let alone $18 mil a year on top of that.

Zito had the one great season when he stole a Cy Young Award away from Pedro Martinez, but otherwise his key attribute was reliability as he a near-certainty for 34-35 starts a year. His coda with the A’s saw rapidly dwindling ability paired with remarkably fortunate ERA totals that hid from plain sight his drop into mediocrity. The first suspected culprit would be his home ballpark, known for fueling ERAs that easily outpaced the accompanying skill. Alas it was actually his road work that kept him afloat with two sub-4.00 ERAs in his final two years.

zitolast3

The results compared against the advanced ERA indicators further showed the impending doom:

zito3chart

Flash forward six-plus years and it’s not too surprising that Zito’s San Francisco career has yielded 1020 innings of 4.41 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, and 1.58 K/BB. In other words, he has been the innings eater we saw developing back in his late-20s logging 32 or more starts in all but one of his seasons with the other Bay Area ballclub (2011).

Two starts into the final year of this nightmare deal for the Giants has seen Zito mow down his competition for 14 scoreless innings, a 2-0 record, and an even 1.00 WHIP. Maybe it is the difficulty of finding topics early in the season or maybe some actually believe it to be true, but these two outings have spurred talks of some sort of rejuvenation for Zito with some suggesting that a situation may arise where he is on the cusp of 200 innings and the Giants may be inclined to fiddle with him in the rotation to avoid that threshold as it would kick in a 2014 vesting option for $18 million dollars. Slow your roll, folks.

Zito hasn’t yet thrown 200 innings as a Giant and only once has he been better than league average by ERA- registering a 98 in 2009, or two percent better than league average. Meanwhile, his next 2.0 K/BB ratio with the Giants will be his first. Furthermore, we’ve been down this road before.

First off, something about season openers sits well with Zito. In his last four season debuts, he has a 0.96 ERA and 0.68 WHIP in 28 innings with all three runs given up in 2011. He stayed hot in 2010 posting a 1.53 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in 35.3 innings across five stats. His opponents in those five starts included four of the worst offenses in baseball that year: Houston (29th in wRC+), Pittsburgh (28th), LA Dodgers (22nd), St. Louis (12th), and Colorado (27th on the road). The rest of the year he put up a 4.72 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in 164 innings.

He did it all again last year. After kicking off the season with a shutout of the Rockies (in Colorado no less!), he reeled off another trio of gems yielding a 1.67 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in 27 April innings. He deserves plenty of credit for thwarting the Rockies in Coors as they were the 8th-best home offense, but the next three outings came against Pittsburgh (26th), NY Mets (22nd), and Cincinnati (23rd, but in fairness, 17th at home). The rest of the way? He was quite pumpkin-like with a 4.58 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in 157.3 innings.

There is nothing in the 35 year old’s game that suggests these first two starts are indicative of a forthcoming strong season. His velocity continues to drop toward Moyerian levels checking in at 82.9 MPH this year, continuing a four-year plunge from 2009’s 86.5 MPH. It will be a major upset if he is an above average starter for 200+ innings and these first two starts don’t change the odds much, if at all. Fantasy managers, step away from your waiver wires, there’s nothing to see here.

Friday: 12.7.2012

Joe Blanton in Los Angeles… er… Anaheim

After declining Dan Haren’s $15.5 million dollar team option and letting Washington pay him $13 million for one year, the Los Angeles Angels signed Joe Blanton for $15 million dollars over the next two years. Blanton, heading into his age 32 season, is essentially a Haren-lite in that he has strong K/BB rates and struggles with home runs. Home runs have been especially problematic for Blanton of late as he has posted a 1.4 HR/9 rate in each of his last three full seasons spanning 2009-2012 (he had a 1.1 in just 41 IP in 2011).

In that same time, he has a 3.4 K/BB that his risen yearly topping out at 4.9 last year. His sharply declining walk rate is primary factor as it has dipped yearly since 2008 when he tied a career-high 3.0 BB/9 all the way down to last year’s excellent 1.6 mark. His newly discovered strikeout success has been a bit overlooked. He carried a 5.1 K/9 in 761 innings with Oakland, but then moved over to the National League and saw a rise of more than two strikeouts per game up to 7.3 K/9 in 674 innings. There is a benefit in moving over to the NL, but it’s about 0.3 strikeouts per game so it wasn’t just that for Blanton.

His whiff rate (swinging strikes) rose dramatically in that time suggesting his stuff got better. The data only goes back to 2007 which only covers about a year and a half of his Oakland work, but you can see the sharp rise in that time:

   Year IP Whiff Rate
2007 230 6.8%
2008 198 6.6%
2009 195 8.4%
2010 176 9.8%
2011 41 10.4%
2012 191 10.4%

The dramatic rise has been driven mostly by improvements in his breaking stuff. For the data set we have, his slider whiff rate jumped from 13% in the two years with Oakland to 17% in the four in the National League (mostly with Philly before last year’s trade to LA). His curveball jumped from 12% to 20% and it has been at 22% the last three years. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain the strikeout gains upon returning to the American League.

Unlike Haren, who he is ostensibly replacing, Blanton gets a nice boost in home ballpark when it comes to his biggest problem: home runs. Citizen’s Bank Ballpark in Philly actually suppressed righty home runs a bit last year with a 94 rating (where 100 is average), but lefties had a field day at 126. Dodger Stadium is often thought of as a pitcher’s park (and it has been on the whole rating 100 or lower since 1962), but you can hit some home runs there and last year it had a 108 rating for righties and a 117 mark for southpaws.

Blanton gave up 14 home runs in Citizen’s Bank a year ago, seven to each side. He actually only gave up three bombs in 38 innings in Dodger Stadium last year (2-1 favoring righties for those wondering). His new home, Angels Stadium, hasn’t yielded a favorable home run park factor to either side of the dish since 2009 including last year’s extremely stingy 80 to righties and 82 to lefties. Though the entire sample dates back to his Oakland days, Blanton has allowed just one home run in 48 innings of work there en route to a 2.61 ERA in six starts and two relief appearances.

Blanton doesn’t have the upside of Haren at all. The comparison is meant only between the similarities in strong K/BB rates and trouble with home runs. Blanton hasn’t been on the ride side of a 4.00 ERA since 2007, but his last three full season xFIP totals are encouraging at 4.01 in 2009, 3.87 in 2010, and 3.39 last year (his 3.15 in 2011 came in just 41 innings).

The xFIP totals are so favorable because they balanced out his gaudy home run problems with a league average HR/FB rate whereas Blanton has been above 12% the last four years (including the partial 2011) topping out with last year’s 15.3%. If you aren’t confident that he can utilize the park to make major strides in the home run department, then FIP would be a better indicator for you. It still tells a positive story about how he has pitched the last three full season declining from 4.45 in 2009 to 3.91 last year.

Though going back to the AL isn’t a positive indicator for ERA in general (NL starters have a 0.28 advantage the last four years), this specific case represents an opportunity for a pitcher to buck the trend and slice some fat off of his ERA going the other way. I like Blanton as a late dollar days target to round an AL-only or deep mixed league staff. His unimpressive numbers from last year (4.71 ERA, 10-13 record) combined with the general assumption that moving to the AL is a net negative for a pitcher will leave his price tag lower than it should be for this talent profile.

Saturday: 08.18.2012

On James McDonald

James McDonald had a better season in 2011 than his 4.21 ERA might lead you to believe.  While “breakout” might be a stretch as a definition, “breakthrough” probably works.  He labored through his first four starts in April posting a 10.16 ERA in 18.2 innings.  He threw six shutout innings against the Giants on April 27th and took off from there with a 3.49 ERA in his final 152.3 innings of the season.  Even trimming those first four starts from his record, he still had his flaws in 2010, specifically walks (3.9 BB/9 in the 152.3 IP) and home runs (1.1 HR/9).

He started his 2012 season off much better with a 2.97 ERA in April.  And he only got better from there.  After seven innings of one run ball on July 7th against the Giants (with 10 Ks and 0 BBs), his season ERA was down to 2.37 and he had 100 strikeouts in 110 innings.  More importantly, his walk rate was at 2.5 BB/9 and he allowed just 0.6 HR/9.  In other words, he was having his breakout season.  Then the wheels came off.  A rough start in Milwaukee wasn’t really any reason to panic.  After all, everyone has an off day.  Even his six earned run outing in Colorado that followed wasn’t ringing alarms because Coors has destroyed pitchers all year.

But when he followed those two outings with two more awful ones against the likes of the Cubs and Astros, panic set in.  He bounced back with a baseline quality start (6 IP/3 ER) in Cincinnati to start August, but then got torched for seven earned in just four and a third at home against the lowly Padres.  For those keeping score at home, that’s three duds out of four against three of the worse offenses in all of baseball.

All told, he posted an 8.71 ERA in 31 innings across six starts pushing his ERA up nearly a run and a half (from 2.37 to 3.77).  He still has 26 strikeouts (7.6 K/9), but also had 21 walks (6.1 BB/9) and eight (!) home runs (2.3 HR/9).  His only homer-less outing in the stretch was the one in Cincinnati against the Reds.  So what happened?  Obviously his old issues came back to haunt him and wiped away a lot of the good work he had done in his breakout season.  Let’s see what the data tells us.

VELOCITY

The first place most people look when a pitcher is struggling is the radar gun.  Has his velocity changed significantly?  If so, why?  Oftentimes a major velocity dip will signify a dead arm period or perhaps even a more severe injury that the pitcher is trying to work through on his own.  With McDonald, there was no such change whatsoever with his fastball.  His breaking pitches saw a velocity change, but they both increased.

In short, velocity wasn’t the root cause of his issues.  The added speed to his breaking pitches might’ve flattened them out a bit and robbed them of some effectiveness, but his fastball velocity holding firm means he was likely plenty healthy and that there was some other reason for his ineffectiveness.

FASTBALL

We looked at the velocity splits of his fastball from when he was on as compared to his run of bad starts.  However, we know that velocity isn’t the only thing that makes a fastball effective.  In the major leagues, even the hardest fastball has to have some wiggle or be placed perfectly otherwise it will eventually be caught up to and subsequently tattooed.  The movement on McDonald’s heater didn’t vary much in the two samples which leaves his command.  Was there is a difference in placement, specifically within the zone, of his fastball between his good and bad runs?

He was actually in the zone more during his hot stretch (56% to 52%), but look at how red it is down the middle of the zone during his poor stretch.  No wonder batters went from a .707 OPS on plate appearances that ended on a fastball up to 1.092 while striking out less (12.3% to 9.4%) and hitting more home runs (1.7% to 6.7%).  Hitting the fat part of the zone more often made hitters more aggressive and cut into his called strike percentage on the pitch, too, going from 33% down to 27%.

These fastball issues explain a lot of what went wrong for McDonald.

BREAKING PITCHES

The curveball went from overwhelmingly dominant to very good and from what I saw it was because he would lose it for stretches at a time.  For three innings it would look as sharp as it did in April through early July when it yielded an absurd .291 OPS and 34 strikeouts in the 79 plate appearances that ended on the pitch and then all of a sudden it would start flattening out in the fourth without warning.

I don’t think I have the eye or general know-how to say why or explain what was going on with his mechanics when it went from good to bad.  I know a ridiculous, devastating curveball when I see one and I know a hanger that will be crushed by a historically bad hitter* against breaking balls.  Exhibits A & B:

*Soriano has a paltry .595 OPS against curve since 2009

FRIDAY NIGHT IN ST. LOUIS

Given his recent trajectory, it was difficult to be psyched about McDonald heading into St. Louis for the series opener Friday night.  They simply crush everybody even as they seemingly have three or four starters on the disabled list at any given moment.  Alas, that’s why they play the games.

McDonald was excellent against the Cards getting back to what made him so successful for the first three-plus months of the season.  His fastball command was the best it’s been in weeks while his breaking stuff was just dominant.  Four of his seven strikeouts came on breaking balls (2 apiece for the slider and curve) and 23 of his 36 breaking balls went for strikes including nine called strikes (six on the curve).  He ended up throwing six scoreless allowing just two hits and walking three.

 

He walked Jon Jay on five pitches to start the game and it was hard not to think, “oh boy, here we go again”, but he then induced a double play out of Allen Craig and a groundout from Matt Holliday to avoid any trouble.  His other two walks both came with two outs.  The sixth inning walk to Craig came on four straight balls with nobody on and perhaps he was pitching around him since Craig came into the game 3-for-8 with a double and a homer off of him while Holliday was just 2-for-9 with three strikeouts.  Yes, I realize there is very little difference between those two minuscule samples and I don’t even know how often pitchers work on that level especially with such short samples against both, but it’s simply a (halfhearted theory).  It could just be that he threw three lame pitches and one close one to Craig.

This was a very encouraging outing against a great opponent on the road so hopefully it spurs McDonald to be his April-early July self the rest of the way.  In fact, it is imperative to the team’s success that he is that version at least skills-wise even if the ERA is closer to 3.37 than 2.37.

Wednesday: 06.27.2012

Yadier Molina’s Superstar Season

In “Year of the Pitcher: Part 3”, the headlines are being grabbed by R.A. Dickey, Matt Cain, Chris Sale, Yu Darvish, Brandon Beachy before his injury, Stephen Strasburg (and actually the Nats rotation as a whole) and whoever is six-plus innings into a no-hitter or perfect game on a given night.  And rightfully so given how incredible those guys have been.  Apart from the wunderkinds (Bryce Harper & Mike Trout), Josh Hamilton and Matt Kemp before his injury, hitters aren’t really getting as much run as individual story makers.

This attention on pitchers isn’t a problem, but it has left some hitters in the midst of great seasons off the radar including the brilliant season that Yadier Molina has had thus far.  The 29-year old backstop signed a five-year, $75 million dollar extension in early March that includes a mutual option for a sixth year that would keep him in St. Louis through 2018.

Instead of signing Albert Pujols, they essentially doled the money out to Molina, Carlos Beltran (2/$26mm) Rafael Furcal (2/$14mm) and Lance Berkman (1/$12mm) with Molina as the obvious centerpiece to be paired with Matt Holliday through the 2000-teens.  They are hoping that Molina can be their Jorge Posada in terms of longevity.

The challenge in that comparison is that Molina was up at 21-years old and full-time by 22 while Posada first saw significant time at 25-years old and that lack of wear and tear applied in his early 20s allowed him to remain an offensive force through his 30s with only two seasons below 101 OPS+ and zero below 90 (he was at 90 last year w/a .714 OPS).

However the story worthy of attention right now is that present-day Molina has become the best all-around catcher in baseball.  He has long been the league’s gold standard when it comes to the defensive discipline of catching, but he took a major step forward offensively last year and has not only continued it in 2012, but amped it yet another several notches.

When I saw Yahoo!’s Scott Pianowski tweet on the matter, I found myself nodding in agreement as I had just recently looked at Molina’s stat line over the weekend and marveled at the fact that he is ridiculously close to career-highs almost across the board in only 276 plate appearances.

He achieved career-bests in home runs (14), RBIs (65), runs (55), batting average (.305) and slugging percentage (.465) last year in 518 plate appearances.  He is already exceeding both rate stats (.319 and .512) to go with his 12 home runs, 44 RBIs and 33 runs scored in just 53% of last year’s plate appearance total.  His .369 on-base percentage is also tracking to be a career-best.  After an embarrassing 4-for-9 (44%) stolen base rate last year, he is just two away from his career-high with seven so far in eight attempts (88%).

It is a generally accepted fact that catcher’s develop later offensively speaking because the early part of their career is spent learning the finer points of handling a pitching staff and taming a running game, but that development is usually confined to a power spike.  Molina’s entire game is reaching new heights.

He is currently on pace for 26 HR, 95 RBI and 15 SB with his .317 batting average.  Only one catcher has ever reached or exceeded all four of those marks: Ivan Rodriguez in 1999 when he had 35 HR, 113 RBI and 25 SB with a .332 batting average en route to an MVP.  Of course the offensive environment was much different back then so while Pudge’s dream season netted a 125 OPS+, Molina’s carrying a 142 so far.

None of this offensive explosion is coming at the expensive of the defensive work that made him famous in the first place and earned him four Gold Glove Awards.  GGs aren’t a perfect measure of defensive prowess so you can’t just use them blindly, but I think it is universally agreed upon that Molina has deserved every single one he has earned.

In fact, a major & valid complaint of the awards is that they are often offensively driven for some ungodly reason, but Molina bucked that trend with his 2010 win as he was rather putrid at the dish netting a meager 84 OPS+, but even voters couldn’t ignore his MLB-best 49% caught stealing rate as he threw out a career-high 33 runners (against 35 steals).

So far this year he is popping runners at a 37% clip (13-of-35), but that doesn’t even tell the full story.  He is so good that he stops the running game before it even starts.  The opposition is running at a clip of nearly once per two games, easily baseball’s best rate.  There is currently an attempt once every 16 innings against Molina.  Compare that with San Diego’s Nick Hundley who doesn’t see six innings pass without someone attempt larceny on his watch.  Molina’s rate was even better a year ago when base runners ran just once every 17.7 innings.

The closest catcher to Molina this year is John Buck who is two innings behind (1 every 14 innings) and right behind him is Yadier’s brother, Jose Molina (13.8).  Yadier remains the most feared catcher in the game defensively speaking and with good reason.  The other bias usually associated with Gold Gloves is that multiple winners seem to get favored and ties usually go their way.  Arizona’s Miguel Montero is having a helluva year cutting down runners (22-of-42, 52%), but that might not be enough to trump Molina’s reputation.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that Carlos Ruiz is another catcher also having a truly brilliant year at the dish (and behind it).  His .361 average is the best in baseball and his 10 home runs are already a career-best while his 41 RBIs in 67 games have already topped the 40 he amassed in 132 games last year.  He has been no slouch behind the dish, either, with a career-best 39% caught stealing rate stopping 22 of the 56 would-be thieves.  Runners are testing him exactly once per game, but he is meeting the challenge.  At 33 years old, his 171 OPS+ is fourth in baseball behind just Joey Votto (198), David Wright (180) and Mark Trumbo (174).

When I was first gathering data and thinking about this piece, I was thinking of suggesting that Molina could be a longshot MVP candidate based on his excellent all-around season and he may be, but if he is then Ruiz definitely has to garner some consideration and likely even more than Molina as he is out-hitting him and playing sharp defense that is at least in the county of Molina’s, if not in the same ballpark.  I still give Molina the edge as baseball’s best all-around catcher both now and going forward.

What is clear is that these two plus the out-of-nowhere breakout from A.J. Ellis, the insane offensive surge from A.J. Pierzynski, the emergence of Jonathan LuCroy before his hand injury and the continued dominance of guys like Buster Posey, Miguel Montero, Joe Mauer (not 2009 levels, but still very good) and Matt Wieters, perhaps we are in the midst of “The Year of the Catcher” as well as the third edition of TYotP.  Given the return to earth by Mike Napoli and the struggles of Carlos Santana, Brian McCann and Alex Avila, who’d have thought we would be talking about superlative catchers this year?

For the Cardinals, it is still very early (in fact, the extension for Molina hasn’t even kicked in), but it certainly looks like he is trending in the right direction (improved OPS+ in five of the last six years) offensively without losing anything in the defensive game that went a long toward earning him the contract in the first place.

Saturday: 06.16.2012

Welcome to Splitsville: Lefties

Welcome to Splitsville.  Here is Splitsville I analyze players through a particular lens, or split, and highlight those who excel.  I looked first at those excelling in each split so far this year, but then I compared it with their career performance to see if it is something that can be relied upon with any degree of certainty going forward or might just be statistical noise through two and a half months.

With the proliferation of daily games like FanGraphs The Game, Daily Joust, FanDuel, PickSix and many others, knowing which players excel in a particular split can help you decide who to pick for a single game.  It is incredibly hard to pick who will excel in a one day sample and even leaning on a favorable split won’t guarantee results, but it can enhance your odds.

Our first split to examine is “vs. lefties”.  Some guys just rake against southpaws.  They usually aren’t southpaws themselves as the lefty-lefty matchup is one of the tougher ones for hitters which aided the rise of the LOOGYs.  Here are 16 guys who are more or less LOOGY-proof:

Andrew McCutchen

McCutchen is on another level across the board this year with an .809 OPS against righties which is up a tick from his career .792 OPS mark against them.  Meanwhile, he is obliterating lefties this year as his 1.285 OPS against them is baseball’s best among those with 50+ PA facing left-handers.

David Wright

Wright has been unique this year in that he has actually been better against right handers (1.063 OPS) than lefties (.986 OPS), but he is still excelling against them so he makes the list plus he has been significantly better against them for his career.  As a superstar, he has excelled regardless of which hand the pitch is coming from (.855 career v. RHP), but his 1.021 OPS is akin to him being Jose Bautista (1.025 OPS in 1338 PA) circa 2010-2011 against southpaws.

Shane Victorino

Victorino has a .641 OPS against righties this year and a .742 for his career.  The Flyin’ Hawaiian is a slap-hitting useful, but unspectacular outfielder against righties, but becomes Mike Napoli with more speed against lefties.  Napoli has an .888 OPS in 1153 PA since 2010.

Billy Butler

Butler has always handled lefties, but this year’s power surge against them has put him on pace to push the 30-home run barrier for the first time in his career.  He was popping a home run every 24 at-bats coming into this season, but has upped that mark to every 14 at-bats with 4 in 57 AB so far.  Butler still hits pretty well against righties with a .288 average, but his slugging dips 100 points to .434 meanwhile he actually has more walks (99) than strikeouts (93) vs. LHP.

Derek Jeter

Unsurprisingly, this surefire first ballot Hall of Famer is doing well across the board.  He has always held an edge against lefties, but this year he has been on another level and it is propping up his entire stat line.  This year he has just a .696 OPS against righties.  He is still hitting .280 against them, but no power (.360 SLG).  He has the same amount of home runs against lefties (3) in 130 fewer plate appearances.

Kevin Youkilis

Youk has been an abomination on the whole this year, but he is still popping lefties to the tune of a solid .853 OPS (compared to his putrid .586 mark against right-handers).  He has held an advantage against lefties, but it was usually accompanied with an excellent mark against righties, too (career .852 OPS).  His career mark against lefties is essentially equal to 2010-2011 Troy Tulowitzki (.931 OPS in 1135 PA).

Paul Goldschmidt

Goldschmidt doesn’t exactly have a rich career history having played all of 101 games in his career, but he does seem to feast on lefties in his limited sample.  His minor league record showed a similar domination of lefties suggesting we will continue to see this trend from him in the majors (1.390 OPS v. LHP; .934 vs. RHP in 131 and 326 PA, respectively).

Jose Altuve

Like Goldschmidt, Altuve has virtually a nothing sample of games compared to most of the guys on this list with just 119 played.  He is but a relatively hollow batting average against same-handed pitchers, but bashes the hell out of lefties with a near-.400 average this year.  This was present in his minor league career as he posted a .446 AVG and 1.165 OPS in 92 PA.

A.J. Ellis

Ellis is your prototypical late-blooming catcher as his 51 games this year are already a career-high.  He has always been an on-base machine with capable batting average and no real power before this year’s surge.  Though his career samples aren’t huge, he shows a pretty distinct edge when facing southpaws, especially for power.

Danny Espinosa

Espinosa has been so bad against right-handers both this year (.589 OPS) and during his career really (.676 OPS) that you could make a case that he should be a platoon player.  The switch-hitter’s split has been as stark as ever this year to the point where fantasy managers should definitely be platooning him where applicable.

Scott Hairston

Speaking of platoons, Hairston is deployed that way by the Mets with great success.  He has just 49 plate appearances against righties posting a paltry .600 OPS.  I am surprised it took this long for him to become a platoon player with a career .225/.287/.408 line against righties in 1328 plate appearances.

Trevor Plouffe

Plouffe currently doesn’t care which hand you throw with, he is going to hit a home run regardless.  But for his career, he has a distinct advantage against lefties in the form of a 230-point split in OPS.  In a lot of leagues, specifically any mixed league format, he was a waiver wire pick (and might still be out there in a few leagues) so the roster should be constructed in such a way that he can be platooned once this hot streak tamps down.

Gaby Sanchez

Sanchez’s performance this year has been one steeped in relativity.  A .698 OPS inspires exactly nobody, but compared to his .449 mark against righties, it is clear he fares better against lefties.  And his career record, filled with much more appealing data, bears that out as well with  a 177-point edge.

Jonny Gomes

Gomes notoriously feasts on lefties and the split seemed to be getting more distinct by the year before this year’s surge against righties (.752 OPS).  His career mark is probably still more instructive.  Same goes for teammate who would be a perfect platoon partner, though he too is enjoying an unexpected surge against same-handed opposition.

Mark Reynolds

Reynolds hits for average against no one and hits for power against anyone, but he is exceptional at getting on base and hitting for power against lefties specifically.  He didn’t hit his first 2012 HR until May 4th so he only have 1 against lefties and 5 overall, but four doubles in his 12 hits vs. LHP gives him that gaudy SLG so far this year.

Cody Ross

Ross was hitting everyone before he went on the disabled list, and he has always hit like an All-Star against lefties, but this year he was at a superstar clip against them buoyed by his .625 SLG in the short sample.  The Green Monster probably aided his work against righties so you might not have to worry about sitting in those situations once he returns.  Either way, he has been out for nearly a month so he probably appears on more than a few waiver wires.

Wednesday: 06.13.2012

Gio Gonzalez’s Breakout Season

It is hard to be overshadowed during a season when you have an 8-2 record, 2.35 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 11.0 K/9 and 3.0 K/BB in 73 innings.  And that doesn’t even mention the MLB best hit (5.3 H/9) and home run (0.1 HR/9… just 1 HR allowed) rates.  Alas such is life when you are teammates with Stephen Strasburg (he of the 7-1 record, 2.41 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and MLB-best 11.7 K/9 heading into his Wednesday afternoon start) as is the case for Washington’s Gio Gonzalez.

Gonzalez is in the midst of a Cy Young-worthy season with only his teammate standing in his way at this point.  I’m sorry, but Zack Greinke having a better fWAR than both of them shows a flaw in fWAR as far I am concerned.  Results have to count for something.  Greinke has been fantastic again in 2012 despite being saddled with a .350 BABIP that has no doubt contributed to his 1.22 WHIP, but part of that is on him.  Getting obliterated by the Cubs (8 ER in 3.7 IP) and the D’Backs (7 ER in 2.3 IP) no doubt elevated that BABIP so you can’t just blame the defense, claim bad luck and move on expecting things to regress to a more palatable level.

Strasburg’s biggest implosions are a pair of 4 ER outings, both of which still saw him last longer than either of Greinke’s.  Gonzalez, meanwhile, was popped by the Cubs in his opener (4 ER in 3.7 IP) and hasn’t given up more than 3 ER since including four scoreless outings of six or more innings.  Apologies for the tangent, I was just perturbed to see fWAR list Greinke at 3.0, Gio at 2.7 and Strasburg at 2.6.  How Strasburg is last among those three is beyond me.  Both Nats fan more than Greinke, he walks fewer than either and he is in the middle for home runs.  His ERA and WHIP are significantly* higher.

*significantly relative to the levels we’re discussing with these three this year, all of whom have been excellent

This is about Gonzalez, though.  An incredible left-handed talent, Gonzalez has been coming into his own the last few years as he works through his mid-20s.  Command and control have always been a problem for him as evidenced by the 4.4 BB/9 over his career.  He has shown incremental improvement yearly since first reaching the majors in 2008, though:

OK, improvement is a bit of a stretch for 2010 to 2011 as he simply walked one less batter in virtually the same amount of innings.  In fact, his 92 walks in 2010 didn’t even lead his league thanks to C.J. Wilson’s 93, but 2011’s 91 led all of baseball as he was the only one to reach 90.

So what has changed in Gonzalez that has elevated from a quality mid-rotation arm with potential to ace-level material (with only some of the potential showing) through the first two and a half months of the 2012 season?  Obviously shifting into the National League has aided some of the improvement as it is generally an easier league for pitchers to traverse due in part to the fact that they get to face their counterparts a couple of times a game and even when they aren’t, they are facing pinch hitting bench types instead of a DH.

So far in 2012, starting pitchers in the National League are 0.41 ERA, 0.05 WHIP, 0.4 K/9 and 0.2 BB/9 better than their American League counterparts.  Factoring those changes into Gonzalez’s current totals is a bit crude, but just for the sake ease it would push him to 2.76 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 10.6 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9.   Among the reasons it is crude include the fact that the AL numbers are influenced by Oakland being the worst hitting team in that league and he wouldn’t face them.  Of course, he would also get to pitch in Oakland’s stadium which is very friendly to pitchers (Gio had a 2.63 ERA there the last two years).

FASTBALL VELOCITY/PERFORMANCE

Regardless of league, it is clear that Gonzalez is pitching as one of the best in baseball and his stuff would play anywhere.  He has enjoyed a slight velocity gain that has given his four-seam fastball and sinker more punch.  The four-seamer has improved from an average of 93.5 MPH to 94.1 MPH and he is throwing it more often going from 37% a year ago to 43% so far this year.  The result has been more swings-and-misses and fewer balls in play (naturally).

The sinker has gone from 92.8 MPH to 93.3 MPH.  He has been more selective with it throwing it 3% less than last year, but it is generating more swings-and-misses, too.  There are a few more balls in play with it percentage-wise, but a sharp rise in the groundball percentage with it suggests that batters aren’t exactly squaring it up.

More strikes, fewer balls and poorer contact from two pitches that make up 68% of his arsenal is the foundation to the stark improvement in Gio’s numbers.  The improvements in his four-seamer and sinker have spurred his surge in strikeouts, too, especially the four-seamer.

CURVEBALL PERFORMANCE

Gonzalez has a true hammer curveball.  It is his best pitch, his strikeout pitch, and one of the better ones across baseball.  He has taken it to another level this year.  First off, he has been more selective with it throwing it 20% of the time, down from 28% a season ago.  It is easily the lowest usage rate of his career, his first time below 25% in fact, and batters are having an even tougher time doing anything with it in 2012.  He is throwing it for a ball nearly 3% more at 45%, but he is generating more called strikes and whiffs with it, too.

He is commanding the pitch lower in the zone which has probably led to the rise in balls thrown with it, but has also left batters powerless against it yielding a filthy .225 OPS (yes, OPS) against the pitch.  There was nothing wrong with last year’s .524 OPS against the pitch, .225 is just… insane.  What comes after elite?  That’s what his curveball has been this year.  He has had 64 plate appearances end on curveballs and just five have been hits.  Nearly half, 30 to be exact, has been strikeouts while three have resulted in a walk.

CHANGEUP PERFORMANCE

A big improvement for Gonzalez has been the advancement of his changeup.  He used it just 8% of the time last year and while it still isn’t much more than an occasional pitch (11%), the results have dramatically improved.  He achieved all of one strikeout with the changeup a year ago in his 44 plate appearances that ended on the pitch.  This year has already seen 36 plate appearances end on changeups and 11 were strikeouts.  Batters are swinging 10% more often and missing 6% more often despite Gio putting it in the zone 5% less often.

He only threw it 2% of the time in 2-strike counts a year ago, whereas this year that number has risen to 9%.  He is trusting the pitch more and it isn’t letting him down.  Hitters can’t sit on the curveball expecting him to go to it in those counts like he did 44% of the time a season ago.  He is using the curve 32% of the time in those counts and the excess has been shifted to the four-seamer and changeup.

GOING FORWARD

Gonzalez is in the midst of a special season and the obvious question is whether or not he can maintain this level of success.  There is nothing he has done thus far that is ridiculously unsustainable especially for a pitcher as talented as Gonzalez.  The issue remains his elevated walk rate.  But it doesn’t preclude him from success.  When I first looked at Gio’s stat line for this year, it reminded me of Ubaldo Jimenez’s 2010 season.

Even while he was running up that insane 15-1 first half record, he was still walking 3.3 per game.  He ended the season with a 3.7 BB/9.  In fact, he and the 2009 iteration of Clayton Kershaw are the only two pitchers in the last three years to post a sub-3.00 ERA with a  3.7 BB/9 or higher, which is what Gonzalez has done thus far.  Gonzalez has a much better strikeout rate than either of those two had, but the common thread is that all three were eminently unhittable.  Kershaw led baseball with a 6.3 H/9 rate while Jimenez was at 6.7 H/9 in 2010.

Like I said, nothing in Gonzalez’s line is crazy and unsustainable, not even his .244 BABIP.  His infield defense is sound and continue to turn the weak groundball contact he generates into plenty of outs.  He has been at .274 and .287 the last two years, too, so it’s not like the .244 is a major outlier for him.  He will probably allow a few more home runs and not necessarily maintain a 1 per 73 inning rate (0.1 HR/9), but even regressing that out toward his career mark (0.8) won’t sink his ERA.  His xFIP is a very strong 2.91.

Then just imagine if his command and control show more improvement as the season goes along and he chisels away at the walk rate.  There is nothing in his line indicating that will happen, but it isn’t implausible as we watch the maturation of Gonzalez before our eyes.

I would still say he is the second best pitcher on his team, but the difference has been slight thus far.  They are a great righty-lefty combo atop a rotation while Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson have been great in their own right, too.  If you haven’t watched a Gonzalez start this season, I implore you to do so.  Not only will you have the added benefit of watching Bryce Harper play, but Gio has some of the most entertaining stuff in the game.

Plus, the Nationals announcing duo of Bob Carpenter and F.P. Santangelo is really good.  That statement was meant with some derision when I made it on Twitter, but I really think so.  Carpenter is a strong play-by-play by with a good voice and Santangelo offers tons of great insight.  The one downside I heard a few times was that they’re too “homery”, but I always compare that on a scale with Hawk Harrelson as the absolute worst & completely unlistenable, and they don’t even come close to that.  I think they call a straight up game reacting properly to great stuff the opposing team does even though it goes against their Nats.

Wednesday: 05.16.2012

On Ross Detwiler

I am chronically a year early on players.  As the 2012 seasons unfolds, we get a chance to see who I was early on last year.  One such case has been Washington Nationals starter Ross Detwiler: see here and here.  I’m not exactly sure why I’m so often early, but Detwiler is hardly the first example (I was all over Matt Kemp for 2010 to name another, and thankfully I stayed the course for 2011).  OK, enough semi-humblebragging.  Better to be early than late, right?

The 26-year old southpaw was 6th overall pick in the 2007 out of Missouri State University.  He actually made his major league debut that September throwing a clean inning against the Atlanta Braves.  He spent all of 2008 in the minors, but then spent the next two years split between the minors and majors, though his 2010 season was cut short due to a busted hip.  He struggled to bring his minor league success (2.78 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 8.2 K/9 and 2.8 K/BB in 120 IP) to majors putting together a modest 105 innings with a 4.78 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, 5.1 K/9 and 1.3 K/BB primarily as a starter with some bullpen work sprinkled in, too.

Part of the issue was that his 2.78 ERA in the minors during those two years likely skewed expectations toward the high side since his FIP outputs were significantly higher at each stop.  Even the peripherals likely raised expectations for Detwiler since the composite was pretty strong, but his work in AAA was a good bit below the total with a 7.3 K/9 and 2.1 K/BB.  Lefties as a whole can often take a bit longer to develop than their right-handed counterparts, though, so I kept faith in Detwiler heading into last year.  He showed some signs in 2011 finally cutting into his hit rate at 8.6 H/9, a career-best for any season whether in the minors or majors.

He has accumulated another 105 innings since the start of 2011 posting a 2.91 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 5.9 K/9 and 2.3 K/BB with this year’s strikeout and walk rates improving again to 6.4 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 (2.8 K/BB).  What has spurred the emergence of the promising 26-year old and more importantly, can he sustain it?

PITCH MIX

Detwiler is a four-pitch pitcher relying predominantly on his sinker and four-seamer and balancing them out with a curveball and changeup.  For his career, he has used the sinker 42% of the time, the four-seamer 29%, the curveball 15% and the changeup 14%.

That general split has held relatively firm every year save 2010 when he was throwing the four-seamer at 38% and the sinker just 26% while both secondary pitches were up at 18%.  This year he has shifted a bit taking 5% from the changeup and dispensing it to the four-seamer (now 32%) and curveball (17%), which is his best secondary pitch.  This shift has played a role in his success and based on what we have seen, even more curveball usage going forward would likely be a good thing for Detwiler.

VELOCITY

From 2009-2010, Detwiler was an 89-92 MPH guy with his fastballs with the ability to touch 93-94 MPH every now and then.  His sinker was 88-91 MPH while the four-seamer was 91-92 MPH.  In 2010 when he was using the four-seamer more than ever, it was actually at its slowest, registering a 90.7 MPH average.  His changeup sat 83-84 MPH for those two seasons while his curveball was a slow curve sitting 76-77 MPH.

Since 2011 he has seen a rise in velocity with all of his pitches.  The four-seamer now operates 93-95 MPH with 96+ in his back pocket when he needs it.  The sinker is up to 91-93 MPH now, too.  Meanwhile the slow curve has become more of a power curve elevating from 76-77 MPH in 2009-2010 to 79-81 MPH the last two years.

His changeup sat 83-84 MPH previously, but now resides 84-86 MPH.  He has always had about an 8.5 MPH split between the fastball and changeup except for 2010 when his four-seamer velocity dipped.  That year showed just a 7.7 MPH split.

STRIKEOUTS

The uptick in velocity since 2011 has no doubt been a contributing factor to his improved performance across the board including this year’s career-high 6.4 K/9 through 39 innings.  No one is going to confuse someone with a 6.4 K/9 for Nolan Ryan, but it’s nearly a strikeout higher than last year’s 5.6 K/9 and it is his first season over 6.0 after spending most of his minor league career at 8.0 K/9 or better.

He had a 6.8 K/9 in 142 innings at AAA so this newfound level might be his peak or close to it, but he would hardly be the first pitcher to add strikeouts as a major leaguer.  Minor league numbers can help give you an idea of how someone will perform, but they aren’t locked in stone indicators.  Madison Bumgarner spent two years on the wrong side of 6.5 K/9 before reaching the majors where he has a 7.6 K/9 career mark including an 8.4 K/9 in 205 innings last year.

The curveball has long been his strikeout pitch and the faster version of 2011-2012 is generating even more strikeouts.  In 2009-2010, he got a strikeout on 27% of the plate appearances that ended with a curve, but the last two years he is up at 40%.  When looking at why he has enjoyed a rise in Ks this year specifically, it is actually his fastball and changeup that are accounting for the jump.  The pair of pitches yielded a strikeout on just 10% of plate appearances that ended on one of them last year, but this year that mark is up to 13% spurred mostly by the changeup going up 5% to 14% in 2012.

GROUNDBALLS

The sharpest improvement for Detwiler in the early part of 2012 is the amount of groundballs he is inducing.  His sinker is the most effective it has ever been, inducing groundballs left and right en route to a career-best 54% rate (career 43% mark coming into 2012).

He has always been a groundball guy with a better than 1.0 groundball-to-flyball ratio, but this year’s contact against him has been overwhelmingly weak as the rise in groundball rate has come right out of his line drive rate which is down to 10%.  From 2009-2011, he carried an astronomically high line drive rate between 20% and 25%.

His line drive rate is going to see an uptick as the season progresses as 10% just isn’t sustainable.  The lowest line drive rate for an ERA qualifier going back to when that kind of data is available (2002) is 13.3% for Derek Lowe in 2002.  There have only been 12 seasons (spread among 11 pitchers as fake Fausto Carmona has two of them) under 15%.

The fact that it will rise and likely cut into his BABIP and subsequently his ERA isn’t a problem, though. I don’t think anyone expects him to finish the year with a 2.75 ERA and 1.09 WHIP anyway so some regression doesn’t make him a fraud.  How much regression is obviously the real question.

RUNNERS ON

Even if he adds 5-6% to the line drive rate (most of which will go for hits as I believe the league BABIP on LDs is something like .700), his BABIP should remain on the right side of .300 as BABIP has never really been an issue with him as you saw from the chart above.  The problem is that not enough men who get on are left there.  Last year he enjoyed a 79% LOB rate, easily his highest rate ever and the first time in his career that he topped 67%.

Though off to his best start ever, he is still allowing 35% of his base runners to reach home.  League average is around 72% left on base.  He can cancel out most, if not all of his line drive rate regression by leaving more runners on base.  He doesn’t even need to push as high as league average to do so, either.  Of course, just because league average is 72% doesn’t mean pitchers are magically entitled to the mark.

Sometimes it is a matter of focus with runners on that ends up as the missing link for pitchers, while others have markedly different wind ups and stretch positions.  For Detwiler, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between his wind up with the bases empty and his stretch with runners on so perhaps it is mental for him.

This GIF isn’t great, but my computer was being wonky as hell and this was like my 12th attempt so we’re going with it.  (I definitely need a new computer now that I’m a full-fledged GIFer… or is it GIFist… jeez, could anyone possibly care less about this last sentence?).

Detwiler has allowed a career .693 OPS with the bases empty as opposed to a .751 OPS with runners on.  Last year his split was .691 to .721, but this year he’s at an impressive .480 with the bases cleared compared to .730 with men on.  He showed last year that he can leave men on at an above average clip.  If he can even get to average this year, he will mitigate the pending regression in that line drive rate.

OUTLOOK

Though we are just 39 innings into the season, there are reasons to be excited about what Detwiler has shown especially if you extend it back to last year which is really when he started to show signs of being worth the 6th overall pick.

Any pitcher who can miss some bats and keep the ball down is likely to be successful on some level.  He doesn’t miss a ton of bats, but he misses enough at this current rate and I think there is the potential for a few more (perhaps pushing as high as 7.0 per game) if he continues to rely more on that curveball as a finisher.  Meanwhile his groundball rate is elite at 54% and allows him to carry a mid-6.0s strikeout rate yet remain very successful.

There haven’t been any wholesale changes to his approach this year (velocity, pitch mix, stance on mound, new pitch, etc…) that you would point to and say “this is why he is excelling”.  Rather it has been a maturation process that started back in 2011 when he began displaying more control as well as improved command.  The command has taken another step forward this year as continues to pound the zone, but leaves far fewer pitches “fat” where hitters can destroy them which is evidenced by the lowered line drive and elevated groundball rates.

He is becoming a better pitcher with more room to improve, too.  He just crossed the 200-inning threshold as a major leaguer this year, though, so temper expectations as he is still learning on the job.  From a fantasy perspective, trading Detwiler isn’t a bad idea if you get a nice offer, but don’t think that just because his numbers are excellent you can “sell high”.

Or at least sell high in the traditional sense.  A lot of fantasy managers probably didn’t even know who he was coming into the season so I doubt they are going to be ready to trade off a mint to acquire him after 39 big innings.  That doesn’t mean you can’t move him and get value in return.  Just don’t expect something commensurate with a 2.75 ERA and 1.09 WHIP if it were coming from someone like Zack Greinke or Cliff Lee.

Keep in mind that Detwiler was a last round pick or waiver pickup which play into his valuation.  That means if you can get some 16th-18th round guy, that is a pretty hefty return.  You might just want to hang on to your gem who is actually paying off, though, as so few ever do.  Even if he ends the season with a 3.75 ERA in 175 innings, it’s not like he will be getting slaughtered from here on out to get to that level.  He would post a 4.05 in 135 innings the rest of the way.

Monday: 04.30.2012

Maddening Max

I remember seeing the news across the crawl on TV, “Detroit Tigers option RHP Max Scherzer to AAA Toledo…” and kind of doing a double take.  “Wow, that’s a shock!”  He had posted a 2.12 ERA in his first three starts, twice against Kansas City and once against Seattle, but his skills (10 K, 5 BB) weren’t particularly special.  He was better against Texas in his fourth start (7 IP, 3 ER, 7 K, 2 BB) before things came completely unhinged.  In his next four starts, he failed to go more than five innings posting a 13.50 ERA, 2.33 WHIP, 9 K and 9 BB in 18 innings.

It was mid-May of 2010 and the Tigers had little choice but to send the talented, but flailing hurler down to the minors for a spell.  Two weeks later he returned to the majors and went on to enjoy the best run of his professional career pitching like one of baseball’s best pitchers from May 30th through the end of the season with a 2.46 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 158 K and 54 BB in 154 innings giving up 0 or 1 run in 15 of his 23 starts.  Could a similar move be in the offing for the 2012 version of Scherzer?

He was a complete mess on Sunday in Yankee Stadium walking a career-high seven, allowing seven hits as well and ending up very lucky to come away allowing just three runs in his 4.7 innings of work.  His ERA for the season is now at 7.77 and his league-leading 10.0 K/9 is completely cancelled out by the 4.8 BB/9 and 13.7 (!!!) H/9 rates.  His WHIP is an astronomical 2.06.  So what’s wrong?

Would you accept “everything” as an answer?

OK, maybe not everything, but “plenty” is definitely a viable answer.  Max himself said that fastball command was a huge issue on Sunday suggesting the ball felt like a “cue ball” as he struggled to find the zone with any amount of consistency.  The numbers bore out his assessment as he hit the strike zone a meager 52% of the time with his 74 fastballs.  He has always been what you might call effectively wild, but it was excessive on Sunday.  The outing in Yankee Stadium was more like things coming to a head for Scherzer as he hasn’t really been crisp at all this year, even when he struck out 11 in Chicago a few weeks back.

He has a 62% strike rate with the fastball on the year, down from 64% last year.  He was at 65% during that 2010 run.  While the lack of fastball strikes are contributing to his control issues, it is really the lack of reliable secondary stuff that is fueling his struggles so far this year.  He has a devastating wipeout slider when he is right as well as a strong changeup that often carries ~10 MPH split from his fastball which he buries down and away to neutralize lefties.

Just as with the fastball, he isn’t throwing nearly enough strikes with the secondary stuff as his slider is crossing the dish just 59% of the time, down from 63% in 2011.  Meanwhile, when it does go for a strike it is often being obliterated as hitters have a 1.224 OPS in plate appearances that end on a slider.  That is nearly twice the .617 OPS from last year.  Furthermore, the change is doing nothing to stifle southpaws.  He has a 59% strike rate on the changeup against lefties and they are battering it to the tune of a 1.065 OPS, numbers that were at 66% and .721 a season ago, respectively.

Scherzer has always had something of a violent delivery making consistency a constant challenge, especially with his release point.  On Sunday, the only thing that was consistent was Scherzer dropping his arm and throwing across his body as he continually flew open and finished all but falling off the mound.  The silver lining to these early issues is that they can be ironed out as the 2010 season showed.  You can refine and work on a pitcher’s mechanics.  You cannot, however, teach an arm to be as electric as Scherzer’s.  It’s subtle (and to me more evident in watching the starts), but you can see the difference in Scherzer’s release point yesterday when compared to his other starts this year.

(click to enlarge)

Another tick on the plus side would be that his velocity isn’t diminished during this tough time.  In fact, it’s up.  He has averaged 93.1 MPH with his fastball the last two years, but he is up to 93.7 MPH so far this year.  Often when a pitcher is struggling, analysts eye fastball velocity as an indicator to potential injury.  Scherzer is at his best mark since his 2008 debut (94.2 MPH) when he worked a lot out of the bullpen.  He has lost some of the velocity split on his changeup, though, which is currently averaging 85.6 MPH, up 3 MPH from last year.  His slider velocity is also up to a career high 86.6 MPH after sitting 82.7 MPH last year.

He appears to be overthrowing both secondary pitches helping explaining the velocity gains as well as his inability to consistently draw strikes with either pitch.  In short, Scherzer is a mess right now and that is obvious.  Even when he gets ahead of batters, they are still pounding him for a .751 OPS (.514 last year, .525 career).  What isn’t so obvious right now is what to do if you’re the Tigers.  Do you see if another stint in AAA does the trick a la 2010?  Or do you let him ride it out with the big league club?

If you choose the former, you probably have to wait until Doug Fister is ready to come back from the disabled list as you’re already working shorthanded.  Drew Smyly has been incredible in the early going and he is the only thing holding up the non-Verlander end of the starting pitching bargain as Rick Porcello has hardly been any better than Schezer (6.45 ERA, 1.48 WHIP) while Adam Wilk was forced into duty after the Fister injury and subsequently batted around for an 8.18 ERA in just 11 innings across three starts.  Duane Below will take his spot this week drawing a pair of starts and hoping to bring his bullpen success (12 scoreless IP) into the rotation.

How about handling Scherzer from a fantasy perspective?  Any AL-only league manager has to keep him, he is simply too talented and anyone you replace him with is likely a flavor of the month with nowhere near the upside.  Cutting him after just 24 innings would be hasty and likely end up backfiring.  I would say the same goes for deep mixed leaguers (14+ teams) and it is rare that a mixed league doesn’t allow a bench so I would just reserve before I would ever decide to cut him.  What about 10-12 mixed leaguers?  That is where a decision gets a bit more dicey.

There are no doubt a throng of options with better stats than Scherzer (not a tough bar to clear) and while I would personally practice some patience with him, I could understand making a move for a new pitcher in those types of leagues.  Looking at some of the names available in a 12-team mixer that I am playing, I see some nice options beyond the flashes in the pan like Joe Saunders and Bruce Chen, who I don’t trust at all.  Names like Jeff Niemann, Chris Capuano and the aforementioned Smyly among others.

I would assume a 10-teamer would have even better names in addition to those.  So while I would still recommend reserving Scherzer ahead of anything that involves cutting him, there is a case for releasing him for a better performing arm if that is your only choice or if you utilize Matthew Berry‘s Wandy Line Method for streaming starters.

Monday: 04.23.2012

Jordan Zimmermann and His Tiny K Rate

Coming into the 2012 season, the Washington Nationals were a chic pick to improve upon last year and even contend for a playoff spot for some (I gave them top NL wildcard with 87 wins), especially in light of the added wildcard.  On the heels of their 80-81 record a year ago, they added two big time arms in Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson via trade and free agency, respectively.  Perhaps even more importantly, they have Stephen Strasburg for most of the year (likely being capped around 160 innings) and Jordan Zimmermann for the entire season after his successful 161-inning return from Tommy John Surgery.

Zimmermann, a big time prospect in his own right though definitely a cut below Strasburg in terms of hype and pedigree, is building off of a solid foundation with 284 innings under his belt coming into the year during which he has posted a 3.84 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 7.7 K/9 and 3.5 K/BB.  With the reins off in terms of an innings limit, he is poised for a breakout in what should be his first full season of action.  He is off to great start already with a 1.29 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and 5.0 K/BB in his 21 innings spread across three starts (he has exactly three 7-inning, 1-run outings).

The gaudy 5.0 K/BB rate catches the eye, but it is spurred by his allowing just two walks (0.9 BB/9) as his 4.3 K/9 is far from special.  The first thought when strikeouts are down against expectations or track record is to check velocity, but Zimmerman’s fastball velocity is exactly the same as last year’s at 93.4 MPH so there is nothing amiss in that realm.  In lieu of the strikeouts, he is inducing plenty of weak contact with a sky-high 52% groundball rate off of which batters have a meager .121 batting average.  We saw something like this from him last April when he had a 4.3 K/9 while posting his best groundball rate of any month at 45% in 30 innings.

In fact, his two best groundball months were easily his worst strikeout months by a significant margin.  In June, he had a 41% groundball rate while striking out just 5.7 K/9.  In the other months (excluding April), his strikeout rate was 8.1 or better while the groundball rate failed to top 37%.  Can he get back to inducing groundballs and missing bats simultaneously?  In the first 23 starts of his career spanning 2009-2010, he had an 8.8 K/9 with a 46% groundball rate so he has the ability to combine the two skills.

A sharp difference early on has been his curveball and Zimm’s ability to generate swings-and-misses with it.  In 2011, he was at a 15% swing-and-miss rate with it and for his career coming into 2012, he was at 21%.  The curve has definitely been his knockout finisher in the past.  This year he has just a 7% swing-and-miss rate on his bender due in large part to batters laying off of it as he tries to get them to chase out of the zone.  Just 29% of his benders have even hit the zone compared to a healthy 51% coming into this season.

Courtesy of MLB.ESPNTrueMedia.com

With hitters laying off the low, out-of-the-zone curveball, Zimmermann will need to change his approach if he wants his strikeout rate to return to previously established levels.  Of course, we are just three starts into the season, too, so while there is definitely a difference between what we have seen from Zimm in the past, it could just be him getting a feel for the curve as the season starts.

Another difference we have seen in the early (and small) sample is that he isn’t afraid of contact with two strikes.  Batters have put it in play during 21 of Zimm’s 34 two strike plate appearances (62%) with just a 29% strikeout rate while last year those rates were at 57% and 37%, respectively (meanwhile his career rates coming into ’12 are 55% and 38%).

It has served him well thus far with a .191 average and .491 OPS against in two strike situations, but in the long term he would be better served to start hitting the zone more (specifically with his curve as previously mentioned) and generating strikeouts instead of trusting his defense so often.  Based on both his talent and stuff, I think we will see Zimmermann start putting away more hitters as the season progresses.

Batters will start to get more hits off of him going forward (5.6 H/9, .200 BABIP), but hopefully he is able to counter that with an improvement in punch-outs.  You can’t argue with the outstanding results in his first three starts (though I’m sure he isn’t thrilled with the 8 runs of support from his offense across the three games) and I think we will see an even better Zimmermann going forward though the gaudy results (1.29 ERA, 0.71 WHIP) are sure to rise.

If anyone in your league is trying to “sell high” on Zimm in fear of the miniscule strikeout rate, take them up on it as long as the price isn’t egregious (Justin Verlander/Roy Halladay).  I don’t think any reasonable fantasy manager expects a leaguemate to pay for a 1.29 ERA and 0.71 WHIP knowing full well that neither is sustainable, but if they are thinking of buying low on Josh Johnson or Tim Lincecum, for example, and offering Zimmermann as a foundation, then I would entertain such a move without question.