Christian Friedrich: “Best Shaper” Makes Good

On March 5th, Christian Friedrich was inducted into the annual Best Shape Of His Life club thanks to this MLB.com article from Thomas Harding:

Even worse, he had bulked up to 240 pounds by the latter part of the season, partly because of his off-base workouts and partly because he had fallen into the habit of late-night meals.

But this winter, Friedrich spent a week and a half training with Phillies standout Cliff Lee. Friedrich, who said he was floored by Lee’s physical conditioning, dropped to 205 pounds, and he hopes to be in that vicinity during the season.

A 35 pound weight loss is certainly a drastic change, but as has been often chronicled, many of these off-season workout stories turn out to have little to no impact on a player’s performance on the field. In fact, so many players are noted to report to camp in the “Best Shape Of Their Life”, the story has become something of a running joke. However, getting in better physical condition can occasionally lead to significant changes, and it’s looking like Friedrich might just be an example of why these stories keep getting written.

A first round pick out of Eastern Kentucky in 2008, Friedrich was supposed to be a polished college lefty who could get to the big leagues quickly, but after a successful first year in A-ball, Friedrich hit a wall in 2010. He started the year in Double-A as a 22-year-old with hopes of ending the year in the Majors, but he struggled with elbow problems that led to decreased velocity, and in turn, his results weren’t particularly good. His strikeout rate dropped by 1/3 while his home run rate nearly tripled, and Friedrich ended the year with just 87 innings pitched due to skipped starts and poor performance.

Last year was more of the same. He returned to Double-A Tulsa, but was still sitting in the high-80s with his fastball and regressed even further, seeing his strikeout rate drop once again while his home run rate continued to rise. He managed to stay healthy enough to make 25 starts, but his results were still going in the wrong direction, and he was essentially an afterthought in the team’s plans after two lousy seasons.

However, Friedrich changed his workout habits over the winter after training with Lee (who he shares an agent with) and impressed the staff with his new physique and a 10/1 K/BB ratio in eight spring training innings. The work earned him a promotion to Triple-A to start the season – even though he never really conquered Double-A during his two stints there – where Friedrich showed that his off-season changes weren’t just a spring training mirage. In 30 innings in the PCL, Friedrich ran a 27/4 K/BB ratio while only allowing one home run, which is kind of incredible given where he had to pitch – two games in Colorado Springs and one in Reno, two of the most dramatic offensive environments anywhere in the sport. He also started two games against a Fresno Grizzlies team that is hitting .299/.358/.456 as a group, so his success in Triple-A demanded recognition, and when the Rockies needed an arm at the big league level, Friedrich got the call.

He got the softest possible landing in his debut, getting to make his first big league start in San Diego against a Padres offense that can only be described as lousy. Still, even accounting for the context, it was a strong start: 6 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 K. Last night, he moved up the California coast to make his second career start in San Francisco, against another not good line-up in a pitcher’s park, but this time, he was even better: 7 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 10 K.

In his first two big league starts, Friedrich has now struck out 17 of the 51 batters he’s faced, and he’s done it with swinging strikes; opposing batters have made contact on just 72.8% of their swings. His results through two starts: 1.38 ERA, 1.81 FIP, 2.17 xFIP. Not bad for a kid who couldn’t get Double-A hitters out last year.

Now, obviously, it’s just two starts, and it’s two starts in pitcher’s parks against bad offenses. If you look at his play log, the names of the strikeout victims aren’t exactly going to impress you.

Andy Parrino (x2)
Angel Pagan
Anthony Bass (x2)
Brandon Crawford
Charlie Culberson (x2)
Gregor Blanco
Jesus Guzman
Melky Cabrera (x2)
Nick Hundley
Orlando Hudson
Ryan Vogelsong (x2)

4 of his 17 strikeouts have come against pitchers, and even among the position players, you’re only looking at a couple of decent big league hitters. Friedrich is not going to keep getting to face offenses like this every night, and he’s not going to keep striking out 30 percent of the batters he faces over the rest of the season.

However, it’s worth noting that there have only been 34 games this season (out of 1,060 total) where a starting pitcher racked up 10+ strikeouts in a one start, and it’s not like the Padres and Giants have a monopoly on bad offenses. The list of pitchers with 10+ K starts in 2012 reads like a who’s who of quality MLB starters: Felix Hernandez, Jered Weaver, Matt Cain, Stephen Strasburg, CC Sabathia, David Price, Roy Halladay… Yes, there’s a few surprising names on the list – James McDonald, Jason Hammel, and Aaron Harang aren’t what you might consider dominating hurlers – but nearly everyone in the group is a quality starter. Even McDonald and Hammel, while not true aces, would represent a pretty dramatic step forward for Friedrich.

Of course, all of those guys have a track record of success, while Friedrich’s ability to get hitters out is something recent, and the lack of a large sample means we have to be significantly more conservative in projecting his future. However, we can look at things that stabilize quickly and note that Friedrich has made real changes from what he was throwing in Double-A the last few years. Here’s his Pitch F/x plot from his first two big league starts:

The fastball has consistently sat between 90-94, well above what he was throwing in the minors, and back in line with the type of fastball he showed in college. He’s also working in a change-up between 80-84, a slider between 82-85, and his trade big slow curve at 74-77. Four pitches with distinct movement, a fastball that runs up into the mid-90s, and an out pitch breaking ball? This is the kind of stuff you’d expect to get Major League hitters out. This isn’t what Friedrich was throwing in the minors the last couple of years.

While you don’t want to go overboard extrapolating on the results of his first two starts, it’s worth noting that the physical changes were noted before he had any kind of success this season, and the increase in velocity gives a legitimate explanation for why Friedrich’s results have done a 180 degree turn seemingly overnight. He’s still going to have to figure out how to survive as a fly ball pitcher in Colorado, and opponents will begin to adjust to him as the scouting report gets around the league, but Friedrich has put himself on the map with his first two starts, and all the work he put in over the off-season seems to be paying off in spades.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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lester bangs
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lester bangs
4 years 13 days ago

Another best shaper, David Ortiz.

I know it’s an easy joke, but what do people want: a winter on the couch with pizza and potato chips? Bring in shape is a good thing.

mcbrown
Member
mcbrown
4 years 13 days ago

And Adam Dunn, who lost considerable weight.

I think it’s the easy claim of “I’m in the best shape of my life” that makes it a bit of a joke. Certainly players can affect their performance positively or negatively through training (or lack thereof). I would be curious to see a study of (crowdsourced) players who actually made noticeable physical changes from one season to the next, as opposed to those who just showed up in Spring and said “best shape of my life”…

Also, when you’re talking about a minor-leaguer there is probably more scope for physical training to make a huge difference. It’s very easy to believe that a lower-level player just hasn’t yet learned how to properly maximize his physical conditioning.

Peter 2
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Peter 2
4 years 13 days ago

Ron Dayne came into Giants camp every year in “lost weight, looks great!” You would have thought by the 4th season or so that he was down to 93 pounds.

When people make this claim, it’s very typically in a particular context: player is coming off an underwhelming year, player’s physical skills appear to be diminishing, player looks slow and tubby, player is looking to “recommit” himself and avoid a “bust” label.

This kind of “best shape of my life” claim is also typically cheap talk with zero correlation with results. File it in the same drawer as “having a great spring.”

Matt
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Matt
4 years 13 days ago

Great point on Dunn. He looked awful last year and had a huge gut. He looks back to his old self now and VIOLA…return of the Donkey.

mcbrown
Member
mcbrown
4 years 12 days ago

Re: Dayne, (a) we’re talking baseball here, and (b) Dayne stunk from the day he was drafted. But yes, mostly it’s just nonsense, hence the running joke.

chuckb
Member
chuckb
4 years 13 days ago

I have to quibble with one thing you wrote in this article. You said that the Padres’ offense can “only be described as lousy.” I disagree. There are lots of other words to describe the Padres’ offense: middling, feckless, futile, ineffective, and incompetent, to name just a few.

hscer
Member
4 years 13 days ago

Then today must have been the worst, most middling, feckless, futile, ineffective, and incompetent day of Stephen Strasburg’s life.

lester bangs
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lester bangs
4 years 13 days ago

Why I love The Clash, part 497: they taught me what “feckless” meant.

baty
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baty
4 years 13 days ago

It is harder to figure out what it means for your younger prospect type players since part of the process is about maturing. At some point, these guys start to realize that there is more to being good at baseball than just playing baseball.

So, I imagine a young and naive kid can learn a lot from a guy like Cliff Lee. That’s what I took from Harding’s article… You had a prospect who seems to have had a pretty nice learning experience.

Result-wise, it’s probably more of a long term effect with some immediate benefits. It could be what keeps you on the field more times than not and help maximize the length of your career. It might not be what’s responsible for getting him close to that potential ceiling, but it might be what keeps him from completely falling off the map. For Cliff Lee, it’s probably what puts him in a better position to continue pitching relatively well into his 40s if he has the chance to.

These guys answer stupid questions from reporters all the time, and it’s only a matter of time before someone digs up the “best shaper story” from players who have some sort of renewed sense of health. If they feel good, they’re probably more likely to say they feel good.

Oliver
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Oliver
4 years 12 days ago

Different career path between the two, but Cliff Lee did scuffle in the major leagues before his dominant 2008 season. From 2004 to 2007, he racked up plenty of wins despite poor ERAs and HR rates (2005 excluded) and weak K/9 ratios (2004 excluded). He also had command issues in his first full season (81 BB and 11 HBP in 179 IP). Lee’s tutelage just might be the perfect remedy, as clearly he knows something about refining his craft.
I’m looking forward to seeing how Friedrich handles his first taste of adversity at the major league level; Sooner or later he’s going to have to face a dangerous offense.

Psst
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Psst
4 years 13 days ago

Great writeup, Friedrich has been a bright spot in a pretty dismal 2012 at altitude. Point of interest Friedrich isn’t really a flyball pitcher per se, he had a 51.1GB% in AAA and was 44% in 2011, 45% in 2010. Mverall he has a 47GB% in the minors to date.

baty
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baty
4 years 13 days ago

It’s common for good pitching prospects to start loosing GB% points (and even flip to becoming FB pitchers eventually) as they perform against higher levels of competition, so I wouldn’t follow minor league percentages too strictly.

TBird
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TBird
4 years 13 days ago

Sample size is too small to determine batted ball tendencies in the bigs though, right? Just a few more GBs instead of FBs in only two games and it’s a different story…

Psst
Guest
Psst
4 years 13 days ago

Exactly, First Inning has his GB rate at 40%, FanGraphs at 30%

baty
Guest
baty
4 years 13 days ago

For sure… Some guys show more obvious shifts, but Friedrich isn’t one of those guys. His first two MLB starts speak loudly, but it’s too hard to tell. For all we know, he might further develop a current pitch or even create a new one to completely change everything.

Bumgarner showed a consistent rise in his GB% throughout the minors and into the majors. He had consistently made the shift from being a slight FB pitcher into an extreme GB pitcher.

Matt Moore was a GB pitcher for most of his career, but has experienced a sharp decline with his GB% for a while now (through the minors and into the majors), which is an interesting case because his MLB sample size is just as small as Christian’s. Moore’s trend is a more obvious shift though. Right now, he’s becoming one of the more extreme FB pitchers out there, and it might take a drastic change from him to break free from that.

Phil Hughes was even more interesting because he completely flipped from being an extreme GB pitcher into an extreme FB pitcher as soon as he became a regular major leaguer.

Friedrich kind of hovers in between. He’s been pretty consistent throughout the minors as a slight GB pitcher with exception to producing a huge GB% this year in the minors.

Charlie77
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Charlie77
4 years 13 days ago

Colorado Springs has a humidor this year.

Note to the PCL: Get a humidor!!! I’m looking at you Albuquerque, Tucson, Las Vegas, Reno and SLC. Then you can watch your best minor league pitchers throw like a AAA prospect is supposed to.

Denver Rider
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Denver Rider
4 years 13 days ago

lets see how quickly Bob Apodaca destroys him.

I’d like to put a j/k behind that but I really can’t.

Anyways, that 1st k of the game was insanely nasty. Right at the head and it drops into the zone.

His stuff looks plain nasty. I wish him the best. He probably has 2 of the best starts in a row I’ve seen by a Rockies pitchers in a long time (Baldo’s starts always were all over the place)

I am a Red Sux Fan
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I am a Red Sux Fan
4 years 13 days ago

AAA budgets

Denver Rider
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Denver Rider
4 years 13 days ago
Guest
Guest
Guest
4 years 13 days ago

I know it’s hard to say he’s leaving his 94 mph fastball up in the zone, but thats where he got most of his K’s in this montage and two of his breaking balls were up too. He didn’t get any K’s down in the zone until his last 2-3. Maybe he was changing the eye level of the hitter, but I don’t know. I’m semi-concerned.

Josh
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Josh
4 years 13 days ago

Wow you were kidding! That curve was crazy! Hitter though for sure it was going above or at his his for that first second.

Josh
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Josh
4 years 13 days ago

Weren’t*

Hurtlockertwo
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Hurtlockertwo
4 years 13 days ago

Someone needs to tell Todd Coffey he would be Cy Young if he lost 100 lbs, that guy is huge.

BryanMichael
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BryanMichael
4 years 13 days ago

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Bob
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Bob
4 years 13 days ago

We were expecting this guy in Denver in late 2010 or early 2011 when he was drafted, so after watching him implode in the minors and then COMPLETELY turn it around over this winter and spring it’s hard to believe we’re watching the same guy.

I still don’t have much hope for this year, but next year and beyond, with this fellow, Pomeranz, and Nicasio (and Chacin, if he can get his head on straight), the rotation might finally develop into a strength for this club.

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