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College Baseball Opening Weekend Notes (Batters)

On Monday, we recapped some highlights from top college pitching prospects who are going to be in the 2012 MLB draft (and potentially, on your favorite baseball-ling team!). A reminder to give @KendallRogersPG and @aaronfitt a follow on Twitter for live updates of top college prospects.

Today, we’ll take a look at the notable batting performances from the past week, ranked approximately by 2012 batting prospect you most need to know about. Each performance is accompanied by a quick scouting report of the batter’s profile, courtesy of FanGraphs’ own Mark Anderson (you can read more of his work at Baseball Prospect Nation as well as his post from yesterday):

C Mike Zunino, Florida (6-2, 215 lbs)
.474/.565/.895 in 23 PAs with 2 HRs
Zunino had a great first week to the season and could be the second college hitter picked in the draft. He has a good catcher’s build and is a plus defender as well. Zunino also credited a shortened stride in his swing that helped him hit two home runs against Bethune-Cookman on Tuesday. And after hitting .371/.442/.674 with 19 home runs last season, he is expecting that teams will pitch him outside of the strike zone more. “I know I’m going to get pitched there most of the year,” Zunino said. “I just got too antsy this weekend and was able to sit back in my stance [Tuesday] and get a couple pitches I can drive.”

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College Baseball Opening Weekend Notes (Pitchers)

Pitchers and catchers reported this past weekend, but what’s also exciting is that college baseball opened as well. It’s never too early to start reading about 2012 MLB draft prospects, and we’d like to start bringing you some coverage for the draft as well. Before we go on though, give @KendallRogersPG and @aaronfitt a follow on Twitter for live-updates of college prospects — they give you so much more than just line scores in their commentary.

Today, we’ll take a look at the notable pitching performances from the weekend, ranked approximately by 2012 pitching prospect you most need to know about:

RHP Mark Appel, Stanford (6-5, 195 lbs)
7.0IP, 2H, 1R, 1ER, 2BB, 5K
While the stat line looks decent, reports out of Palo Alto were expecting more out of the early projected #1 overall pick. He touched 97 in the 1st, but remained in the low-90s the rest of the game. His changeup was not impressive, and he didn’t show a good breaking ball until the 5th. Keith Law ($) was not particularly impressed either with Appel’s continued lack of missed bats.

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The Best Pitches of 2011: Changeup

As a continuation of this week’s Best Pitches of 2011 series, we’ll look at the best changeups from 2011 today. The best sliders (by Chris Cwik) and the best curveballs (coming tomorrow by Paul Swydan) ssummarize the most effective breaking balls in baseball, but changeups are a distinctly different animal. Changeups comprise the majority of an entire subset of pitch types in offspeed pitches, and they are used differently from breaking balls too.

An offspeed pitch is normally intended to fool the batter by coming out of the pitcher’s hand appearing like a fastball, and then — with a Chris Berman WHOOP — it decelerates and drops dead towards the plate. Some changeups have armside fade, others are straight and run 10-15 mph slower than the pitcher’s fastball, and still others hit the floor with combinations of all of the above.

Carson talked earlier in the week about some of the numbers and points of context we considered in this series, and some of what he says about fastballs applies to changeups too, particularly when you consider changeups in the context of pitchers’ repertoires.

So without further ado, here are the best changeups of 2011.

Note: the average movement for a changeup in 2011 was -1.4 X-move and +4.3 Y-move.

Also note: I’ve added another pitch result stat, Whiff%, which is the number of misses per swing (as opposed to SwStr%, which is the number of misses per pitch)

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Josh Johnson’s Curveball

We’re happy to welcome Albert Lyu back to the FanGraphs team. His work will again appear regularly here on the site.

Before Josh Johnson was lost for the season with shoulder injuries in May, he was ready to dominate the National League yet again as an early 2011 Cy Young Award candidate. He flashed a 1.64 ERA and a 2.64 FIP — and he was whiffing 8.35 batters per nine innings, while allowing 2.98 BB/9 and 0.30 HR/9. While much of his hot start through April and May last year wasn’t sustainable because of  a .239 BABIP and an 82.2% strand rate (LOB%), he did add a curveball to his arsenal that should keep NL hitters on their toes in 2012. Johnson was five outs from a no-hitter against the Braves in April, which left Chipper Jones to comment that Johnson had a new pitch to toy with.

Johnson had shown a curveball during his rookie season in 2005, but he dropped it early on. He thrived as an starter for several seasons with just three pitches: a mid-90s fastball, a high-80s hard slider and a mid-to-high-80s changeup. Mixing and matching three pitches at different speeds brought success — but adding the new curveball now forces Johnson’s opponents to change their approach against him even more. While his power slider can range anywhere between 85 mph and 91 mph, his curveball was in the high-70s.

Here’s an MLB.com video of Johnson’s 12-6 curveball, which appears on the first two pitches (later pitches in the video showcase his high-80s hard slider and his mid-90s fastball):

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Will FIELDf/x Go Public? Should It?

For those among you out there who read FanGraphs regularly, chances are you have a copy of the Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2011. If so, pace around your mother’s basement, take your dog-eared copy off that book shelf, and flip to page eleventy-one with me (or do yourself a favor and purchase a copy here). Take a couple of minutes to (re)read Rob Neyer’s article documenting his giddiness of the potential of FIELDf/x, a new player-tracking system by Sportvision. Fully operational FIELDf/x camera systems will be installed in five stadiums by the end of this season and hopefully all 30 by 2012. Here’s an excerpt from Rob’s article describing FIELDf/x:

FIELDf/x will manifestly and forever revolutionize the evaluation of defense. In fact, I will venture that the defensive metrics in use today, whether by John Dewan or Sean Smith or David Pinto or Mickey Lichtman or anyone else, will in five years seem nearly as primitive as range factor does today. Because with FIELDf/x, we’ll know not just (approximately) where the baseball went and whether it was caught and who caught it (or didn’t). We’ll know exactly where the ball went and exactly how long it took a fielder to arrive and exactly how he got there. All the talk about range and getting a good jump and taking a good route — it won’t be just talk anymore. There will be cold, hard data for every bit of it.

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Axford Axes Save Opportunity

The defending NL Central champions played like it yesterday afternoon as a four-run 9th inning led the Cincinnati Reds to a walk-off win against the Milwaukee Brewers on Opening Day. When Jay Bruce stepped to the plate down three runs with the bases loaded, memories of the division title-clinching walk-off home run by Bruce last season were immediately conjured up.

John Axford, Milwaukee’s newly respected closer who usurped Trevor Hoffman‘s closer duties last season, had allowed a long single to Brandon Phillips, walked Joey Votto on five pitches, and allowed Scott Rolen to reach base thanks to Casey McGehee‘s non-error fielding gaffe. McGehee tried to tag Phillips out as the second baseman was going from second to third, but missed the tag and took a second too long to attempt the force out at first. Boom, bases loaded.

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Opening Day Notes: Kershaw vs. Lincecum

Opening Day’s most anticipated matchup is that of the Kershaw vs. that of the Lincecum. How anticipated you ask? The latest issue of Dodgers Magazine was appropriately dubbed “explosive openings” and will only be on sale at Dodger Stadium on Opening Day. And it features both Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum on its front cover much to the ire of many (or a very few) Dodgers fans.

To help you out when you watch the game tonight, let’s take a look at the pitch selection of both aces, as Kershaw and Lincecum mix their repertoires very differently. Kershaw relies heavily on his low-to-mid 90s four-seam fastball, hurling it on at least 70% of pitches throughout his Major League career. His 12-6 low-70s curve ball was the talk of Tinseltown a few years ago, but Kershaw has since developed a low-80s slider. It has become his favorite secondary pitch, used almost 20% of the time in 2010. His straight changeup hovers in the mid-80s range.

By contrast, Lincecum’s out pitch is his sinking changeup, which he adds a split-fingered grip to. Combined with his mid-80s hard slider and high-70s curve, Lincecum’s repertoire also consists of fastballs that cut, break, and rise in all sorts of directions. Timmy breaks out the fastball on 55% of pitches with varying speeds and movement, anywhere between 87 and 95 mph, then throws the changeup, curve, and slider in that order of frequency.

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Jonathan Papelbon’s Slutter

Jonathan Papelbon recently announced that he will use his slider more this upcoming season and that he feels it will be a ‘difference-maker’ to rebounding from a down 2010 year. As reported by WEEI, here is how Papelbon came to decide to committing to this pitch:

“I remember being in Yankee Stadium, throwing a few of them to [Mark] Teixeira and one to [Derek] Jeter,” the Red Sox closer said. “I remember throwing one to Jeter and he check-swung. He got the call – even though it was a strike – but I remember him specifically looking at me and looking like he was thinking, ‘Where did that come from?’ From then on I said I am going to start using this pitch any time, all the time.”

“This is the most confident I’ve felt about a breaking pitch,” he said. “It’s right where I want it to be. I’m going to throw it as much as my split. I’ll have three pitches I can throw from 0-0, to 3-2.”

What this quote portends is that Papelbon will use his slider more this season — this much is true. Having three pitches to throw in all counts, as he claims, is more of a trite remark than an analytical one, but it does lead me to want to investigate how Papelbon’s three pitches and each of A) their usage and distribution based on the count, and B) their performance and pitch results.

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Team Preview: Cincinnati Reds

After being ousted by the recent NL powerhouse Philadelphia Phillies in three NLDS games, Reds fans may be left wondering “what if?”. But 15 postseason-less and nine losing seasons later, the city of Cincinnati should be proud of their ballclub and can be assured that the organization is in good hands. The future has finally arrived at the Great American Ball Park while years of whiffing on player development appear to be over. GM Walt Jocketty has been able to anchor both the homegrown talent he inherited in 2008 and the talent the team drafted and acquired under his rule. Manager Dusty Baker received a two-year extension and will lead a team of seasoned veterans and promising young players, favorites for another NL Central crown.

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Garret Anderson Retires

Today, Garret Anderson announced his retirement, ending a long 17-year career, the verdict of which depends on which L.A. team you root for. Anderson hit .293/.324/.461 for his career with 287 home runs and 1365 RBIs. His peak years came in and around the Angels’ 2002 World Series run, averaging 3.2 WAR seasons between 1999 and 2003 and placing fourth in AL MVP voting during the Halos’ championship year. He ends his career as the Angels’ franchise leader in total games played, hits, doubles, total bases, runs, extra-base hits, and RBIs.

Drafted out of the 4th round in 1990 and spurning Division-I basketball offers, he batted .321/.352/.505 with 2.8 WAR in his 1995 rookie season, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting. For 13 seasons after that, Anderson was a fixture in the lineup, always hitting and always healthy. One highlight during his career was winning both the 2003 Home Run Derby and All-Star Game MVP honors by almost hitting for the cycle, the first All-Star at the time to win both awards in the same year since Cal Ripken Jr. in 1991.

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Team Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers

It’s not exactly high times to be a Dodgers fan right now. Sure, the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, but most of the bitterness of the 2010 season is directed at the divorce battle between Frank and Jamie McCourt. General Manager Ned Colletti hasn’t exactlybeen  given the complete freedom to make whatever transactions necessary for the good of the big league ballclub, being hamstrung by financial constraints and all. But he was able to tack on to the starting rotation of homegrown Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley by re-signing Hiroki Kuroda and Ted Lilly, while adding Jon Garland, giving L.A.’s rotation a well-rounded staff.

But if you think the additions and re-additions of Jay Gibbons, Marcus Thames, Juan Uribe, and Rod Barajas will bolster an offense with several holes, think again. A left field and backstop sans Manny Ramirez and Russell Martin are the biggest questions for the boys of Chavez Ravine. A lesser question that will be just as publicized is the performance of current closer Jonathan Broxton, backed by an eclectic but mostly capable bullpen. The single most important X-factor that first-year manager Don Mattingly could use? A Matt Kemp revitalization, whose upside could be the difference between a third-place NL West team and a playoff contender.

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Unsung Los Angeles Rookie Relievers

Plenty of rookie relievers who made brief appearances in 2010 are worth looking out for in 2011. Aroldis Chapman leads rookie reliever headlines with his grade 90 fastball (yes, grade 90) and Chris Sale could challenge for the White Sox’ closer role. Craig Kimbrel has also gotten lots of love from several FanGraphs authors. While it remains to be seen if Chapman and Sale will develop into starters, Kimbrel seems destined for the bullpen. His mid-90s fastball and mid-80s slurvy curveball form a two-pitch reportoire, which resulted in a 17.42 K/9 in 2010. Earlier this month, I highlighted Kimbrel’s control issues and 6.71 BB/9 when discussing the Braves’ possible platoon closer situation.

But there are two Los Angeles rookie relievers with similar profiles to Kimbrel whom I feel have been more underappreciated, perhaps due to Kimbrel’s appearances in October baseball: Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Jordan Walden of the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim). Like Kimbrel, both Jansen and Walden bring the high heat with mid to high-90s fastballs along with mid-80s slurvy slider/curves. And like Kimbrel, both L.A. relievers are strikeout artists with command issues, especially with their fastballs.

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Neftali Feliz’s Pitch Selection

Dave Cameron’s look at possible replacements for Neftali Feliz‘s closer role should he transition into a starter’s role inspired me to take a look at Feliz’s pitch selection. Evan Grant’s great piece on Feliz’s pitch repertoire finds that Feliz started to throw more breaking balls later in the season (and less off-speed pitches). I was also interested in looking at how Feliz’s repertoire evolved over his first full season.

Feliz throws his high-90s fastball 80-90% of the time on most nights, as well as a sort of slurvy slider-curve hybrid at 80-82 mph. As noted in Grant’s look at Feliz’s secondary pitches, his upper-80s changeup is rarely used — he used it even less as the 2010 season winded down and in the playoffs. Here’s a look at Feliz’s month-by-month pitch selection in 2010, including the playoffs (FF – fastball, SL/CU – slider/curve, CH – changeup; “total” indicates total pitches in that corresponding row or column):

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Platooning Closers: Good Idea or Great Idea?

Yesterday, Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez suggested that fireballer Craig Kimbrel and left-handed Jonny Venters might share closing duties this season barring a surprising return by Billy Wagner from presumed retirement. The Braves certainly aren’t unfamiliar with this strategy: Bobby Cox used both the right-handed Rafael Soriano and left-handed Mike Gonzalez in save opportunities in 2009 before Cox went primarily with Soriano. So while the 22-year-old Kimbrel was supposedly slated to be the team’s primary closer after quite a September run and a brief role in 9th inning situations, this option reveals an adaptability that the Braves management is willing to take.

Since the ‘save’ became an official Major League Baseball statistic in 1969, teams and fans have overused the term, misguidedly limiting a team’s best reliever into a closer’s role. Not to say that it isn’t beneficial to have some sort of consistency, but when you save your best reliever for last and don’t employ the flexibility to bring him out during high-leverage inning situations that often occur in the 7th or 8th innings, you do your opponents a service by not optimizing your reliever usage.

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Adam Dunn’s Changed Plate Approach

Suffice it to say that Adam Dunn‘s power has been eerily consistent throughout his career, hitting 40 +/- 2 home runs the past six years with over 100 RBI in five of them. His OBP, walk rate, and strikeout rate were very similar from 2004 to 2009. However, Dunn showed a change in approach last season, reaching career worsts in walk rate (11.9%) and strikeout rate (35.7%) while his OBP was his lowest since 2003 (.356). Granted, that’s still a very good OBP, but his change in approach came with an OBP drop of 40 points since he first joined the Washington Nationals.

Dunn’s swing rate has increased from 40.4% to 45.0%, a career high, showing a more aggressive approach at the plate. Here’s how his other plate-discipline stats changed:

2009: 19.4% O-Swing%, 65.5% Z-Swing%, 73.0% Contact%, 10.7% SwStr%
2010: 28.5% O-Swing%, 68.3% Z-Swing%, 68.2% Contact%, 13.8% SwStr%

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Adventures in Swinging Strike Rate vs. K Rate

A few weeks ago, Eno Sarris took a look at a few batters with high swinging-strike rates and average strikeout rates, showing that a batter with a penchant for (or weakness in) whiffing on pitches doesn’t necessarily post as a high number of strikeouts as you would expect. Josh Hamilton, Delmon Young, and Vladimir Guerrero were identified as players who combine decent strikeout rates with high swinging-strike rates. These batters are characterized by their below-average walk rates while being known as free-swingers. Their aggressive approach presents both fewer strikeout opportunities and fewer walk opportunities as they try to put the ball in play early in the count.

This got me thinking: Since there are batters who can avoid strikeouts who presumably swing early, are there batters who get too many strikeouts because they don’t swing enough? I mean, clearly swinging strikes are not the only way to strike out a batter, and a batter who leaves his bat on the shoulder too often will get lots of called strikes. A conservative approach with few swings at anything in the hopes of drawing a walk could backfire. Such batters do exist — it’s just about identifying who they are.

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Joe Beimel Improves Bucs’ Bullpen

The Pirates announce the signing of Joe Beimel today, giving the organization a decent left-handed reliever since they traded Javier Lopez at this past summer’s trade deadline to the eventual World Series champs Giants. Beimel was originally drafted by the Pirates out of Pittsburgh-based Duquesne University (shout-out to former RotoGraphs author and friend Dan Budreika), debuting with Pittsburgh in 2001. As reported by MLB Trade Rumors, Beimel had several Major League offers and one two-year offer, but he chose to return to Pittsburgh for a minor league deal. He’s expected to make the Pirates’ Opening Day roster.

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The Reds’ Crowded Rotation

Sometimes, having too many starting pitchers is a good problem to have, and the Cincinnati Reds appear to be stuck in this rut. While the Reds’ rotation won’t get much attention compared to that of other NL teams like the Phillies and the Giants, they should head into 2011 with a serviceable rotation.

Bronson Arroyo leads as the workhorse of the rotation, eclipsing the 200-inning mark every year since 2005. He also posted a 3.88 ERA and a 4.61 FIP with a low BABIP of .239 in 2010, aiding the low-strikeout ground-ball pitcher. A pair of 24-year-old righties in Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey are the first of the youth movement in the Reds’ rotation, both having pitched career seasons each with a sub-4.00 FIP. After recovering from Tommy John surgery, Edinson Volquez looks to return to the heart of the rotation and continue posting good strikeout rates.

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Has Jonathan Sanchez Been the Same Pitcher?

As much as we at FanGraphs and other analytically-flavored websites preach against it, ERA is still the most commonly used measure of pitching performance (I would hope that we as a collective baseball fan base have dropped W-L record down on such a list). Whether it’s a Hall of Fame debate (Jack Morris) or recent transactions (Matt Garza), it’s almost natural for us to first look at a pitcher’s ERA in order to make a quick evaluation. Jonathan Sanchez has improved his ERA dramatically in the past few seasons, going from a 5.01 ERA in 2008 to a 4.24 ERA in 2009 to a 3.07 ERA in 2010. When looking at such numbers, my first inclination is that he got better every season, but I will also remember to look at peripheral statistics and stats such as FIP and WAR.

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Projecting Matt Garza at Wrigley Field

The addition of Matt Garza to the Cubs rotation looks like an upgrade in a vacuum. On the surface, Garza appears to be a decent pitcher, holding a sub-4.00 ERA with a healthy 200+ innings each of the past two seasons. A young pitcher heading into his prime years, Garza does sport a varied pitch repertoire while relying mostly on his mid-90s four-seam fastball. Yet, though Garza may be a staple in the Cubs rotation and more reliable than the enigmatic Carlos Silva, he is anything but a potential ace in a rotation absent of aces.

As Dave Cameron explained, Garza’s approach in relying heavily on four-seam fastballs comes at the risk of surrendering home runs, and his relatively low home-run to fly-ball ratio for a fly-ball pitcher is one factor for his sub-4.00 ERA seasons. What I am concerned about is what I feel some optimistic Cubs fans (yes, they exist) are ignoring: Garza’s fly-ball tendencies are ill-suited for Wrigley Field, and his Tropicana-depressed HR/FB ratio will be exposed in 2011.

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