Lonnie Chisenhall: Finding His Footing

Shy Lonnie – Speak Up

I submitted my last article on Brad Peacock literally 10 hours before Jeff Sullivan published an amazing article on exactly the same topic (using exactly the same GIF of Adrian Beltre looking ridiculous). So just to prove I’m not copying anybody, I decided to write about someone whose shocking appearance on the Statcast leaderboards made me confident this wouldn’t happen again.

In the month of June, Lonnie Chisenhall’s hitting .385 with 4 HR and 15 RBI. By any account, this is a monster three weeks (especially for somebody not named “Cody Bellinger”). Last year, his .328 BABIP (26 points above his career average) cast doubt over his success, however his .374 wOBA and .360 xwOBA (a stat that uses exit velocity and launch angle to predict what “should be” a hit) prove that his success this year is no fluke. There’s something different about this guy that means this inflated BABIP may just be signal and not noise.

Baseball analysts used to believe that BABIP for most hitters regressed to the mean (after you put the ball in play, the rest is just luck) until people started tracking year-to-year differences for players like…Mike Trout, whose BABIPs are high and correlate strongly across years. Now we know that batted-ball data (exit velocity, launch angle, launch spin rate, etc.) hugely influences the results of balls when they get put into play, which means projections have been undervaluing players who consistently make hard contact (Nick Castellanos, Miguel Sano, etc.). Barreling balls isn’t just a fluke; it’s a skill.

Barrels on Barrels on Barrels

The first thing that immediately jumped out at me was how much hard contact this guy makes. Among the league leaders are max effort home-run-or-die-trying type hitters (Khris Davis, Matt Davidson, Joey Gallo), freaks of nature (Aaron Judge and Mike Trout), headline-capturing breakouts (Justin Smoak, Miguel Sano) and…Lonnie Chisenhall. I know FanGraphs readers love player comps, so here y’all go:

Chisenhall Hard Contact Comparison
Player BBE Barrels/BBE Barrels/PA
Lonnie Chisenhall 110 13.6% 10.1%
Ryan Zimmerman 199 13.6% 10.2%
Giancarlo Stanton 190 13.7% 8.9%

Chisenhall closely resembles the batted-ball profile of a Ryan Zimmerman or Giancarlo Stanton when he puts the ball in play. The reason both he and Zimmerman have very similar results in the third column (Barrels/PA) as well is that they have roughly the same batted-ball events per plate appearance (17% K-Rate vs 18% respectively). The major reason for a divergence in the third column with Stanton is his absurd strikeout rate (16.7% K-Rate in 2016 to 25.4% in 2017). The reason I included him is just to give you an idea of the absurd power this guy has. He’s ahead of Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, and Miguel Cabrera in terms of Barrels/PA, mostly because they get walked way more.

What’s more, he’s trending in the right direction. Below is Chisenhall’s distribution of exit velocity over the past two years (red is 2017).

As you can see, his soft contact is slightly more concentrated at about the 70 mph range, with much more hard contact this year in the 95-105 range. Chisenhall has made an adjustment…it’s just a question of what.

The Line Drive Revolution

We’ve already read a million articles on the “air-ball revolution” detailing how hitters are attempting to elevate the ball — even at the expense of overall contact rates — to produce more home runs in total and thus more offensive production.

While it’s lazy analysis too easy to simply say the words “air-ball revolution” and call it a day — although with Daniel Murphy and Yonder Alonso, it might just be the decisive factor — changes in swing plane can drastically affect batted-ball data.

Two things are incredibly important in this debate that most people misunderstand.

First, it’s the “air-ball” revolution, not the fly-ball revolution. Mike Petriello, Statcast analyst at MLB Network, defines an “air-ball” as any ball hit above 10 degrees of launch angle. Fly balls are good, line drives are good, ground balls are less good. Strikeouts are bad.

Second, putting the ball in the air only works in tandem with exit velocity. There’s no sense in Eric Young Jr. trying to elevate everything, which would result in lazy fly balls, mitigating the benefit of his blazing speed. But, in aggregate, hard-hit balls are more productive when hit above 10-degrees launch angle rather than below. We’ve already established that he’s mashing this year. Now lets take a look at where they’re going.

As you can see from the above chart, a good amount of Chisenhall’s batted balls were directly at the 10-to-30 degree mark, while his hits were almost all at the 10-degree mark. Those were solid line drives, but leave very little room for error. Low-EV balls at the 10-degree mark likely result in ground balls or soft line-outs to infielders. Also, there is a decent amounts of batted-ball events directly below that. If your mean launch angle is 10 degrees, it’s very likely that small misses yield more ground balls than you intend.

This year, the vast majority of his batted-ball events are directly at the 20-degree mark. It seems like not only is he hitting more “air balls,” but they’re solid line drives that afford him more room for error. Even when he doesn’t hit frozen ropes, they still have a shot at becoming base hits. Also, there’s a much more apparent difference between air balls and ground balls, with many more hard-hit balls at 30 and 40 degrees.

The graph above confirms this. Especially on breaking balls, more and more are finding the air.

Patience is Key

A lot was written about the importance of plate discipline during the meteoric rise of Eric Thames at the beginning of the year. Petriello details the dramatic difference between swinging at strikes and balls.

“From 2015-16, Major League Baseball hit .292 with an average exit velocity of 89.3 mph on pitches in the zone, and only .168 with an 81.4-mph exit velocity on contact made outside it. Nearly 91 percent of all homers over the past two seasons are on pitches in the strike zone. These are massive differences. Learning plate discipline may be the hardest thing for a batter to do, but it’s also potentially the best thing he can do.”

You might think this is obvious but for major-league hitters geared up to hit a 98mph fastball, laying off of a dirty breaking ball that sweeps through the zone is one of the toughest things to do.

For Chisenhall, this has been one of the more drastic changes in his profile over the past few years. Below is a chart of the change in K-rate over the last six years. The league average has been trending up, starting at 18.5% to about 21.5% at a relatively stable rate (some speculate this increase in K-rate is a result of the move of major-league hitters to elevate more).

As made pretty clear by the above graph, Chisenhall’s strikeout rates have been moving pretty steadily in the opposite direction. A hitter with negatively trending K-rates without sacrificing power is rare. This was the precursor to the Justin Smoak breakout this year.

His walk rate skyrocketed to 9% this year from 5.5%. What’s the culprit?

Chisenhall Plate Discipline
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing%
2011 41.8% 69.1%
2012 37.5% 63.9%
2013 36.5% 72.5%
2014 38.4% 69.4%
2015 39.5% 70.4%
2016 42.0% 77.5%
2017 32.7% 75.0%

His O-Swing% is down 10% this year, and his Z-Swing% is down a bit, but nothing crazy. He’s clearly seeing the ball better this year.

Making Adjustments

Here’s a clip of 2016 Chisenhall on a changeup outside. Pay attention to 1) bat plane and 2) where his front foot lands in relation to the edge of the batters box.

 GIF

In terms of bat plane, he does go down to get this pitch a little bit, but finishes below his shoulder with one hand on the bat. Just a note about letting go of the bat: it’s fine and the majority of major-league hitters do it, but you have to make sure you’re not cutting your swing short as a result.

As for foot placement, it looks like he’s close to square with the pitcher, maybe a little bit closed, and about two feet from the edge of the plate. On this swing, he produces a fly ball at 88mph that ends in the stands.

This is a heatmap for where pitchers located the ball against him in 2016. Notice a pattern?

It seems like pitchers realized that mistakes inside are what make him the vast majority of his money (as will be shown in a zone map slightly later).

Now take a look at this video detailing a swing on a nearly identical (albeit overhanded) pitch from 2017.

 GIF

This time, he finishes his swing with both hands on the bat above the shoulder, with the bat traveling on a slightly higher angle (though nothing like the transformation we’ve seen from some of the more absurd poster boys of the elevate-and-celebrate craze mentioned above).

I think the most interesting change for this swing, however, is that he strides fairly substantially closed and his foot lands about a foot from the plate. Instead of a lazy fly ball to the stands next to the left-field line, this produces a 103mph line drive to right-center.

In a recent FanGraphs article by Eno Sarris about the importance of changing where the hitter stands in the batters box, Anthony Rendon (one of my personal heroes who I grew up watching at Rice University) says,

“If a righty dives, we sell ourselves short inside, so if I’m getting crowded, and I’m hitting the ball late and deep, let me scoot back, and so on the same swing, instead of hitting here [on the handle] and fouling it off, I’m hitting it closer to the barrel and hitting into right field.”

It looks like Chisenhall’s position in the back of the box with a slight move toward the plate is designed to correct that issue. His hands are so fast that he can consistently make contact with the inside pitch. His best hitting in 2016 happened on pitches off the plate inside. However, it doesn’t matter how good you are at driving inside pitches if no pitcher is ever willing to give you one. Making an adjustment to put solid swings on pitches on the outer third is the right call in this situation.

I would be a little bit worried about this change from the perspective of hitting the inside pitch, but it looks like a concrete adjustment in response to the outside pitch was warranted from the previous season’s heat map. It seems that pitchers have picked up on this adjustment as well. Below is the distribution of pitches for 2017. Pitchers have made a dedicated effort to react to Chisenhall’s changed hitting style and adjust accordingly.

So? Is this adjustment working? Here’s the map of Chisenhall’s batting average in 2016 broken down by zone provided once again by the lovely Brooks Baseball website.

Anything strange? Um…he’s hitting over .900 on low to middle pitches off the plate inside and .160 on pitches middle-middle and middle-up. What?? He was hitting balls outside of the strike zone way better than meatballs down the middle of the plate. I think this is a big reason for the spike in walk rate we’ve been seeing this year. The videos we saw above show that he’s scooted up to the plate a bit more than he used to, meaning the alarming shade of red (indicating that he’s getting hits with regularity) shifted over the plate and now he can simply take those pitches for balls (and eventually, walks).

Yup! That’s exactly what happened. He’s also getting to pitches off the plate outside a bit more to protect the plate in two-strike counts. This could also help limit strikeout rate. Overall, a better approach toward outside pitches combined with adjusting placement within the batters box have served him well.

Final Thoughts

So, lets recap what we’ve seen here. First, Chisenhall hits the ball…hard. Second, walk rate is up, strikeout rate is down. Third, more and more balls are being hit in the air (without overly focusing on hitting fly balls). Lastly, all of these changes seem less like a product of batted-ball luck and more like the result of intentional change in approach at the plate. We can expect this success to continue at a current or similar rate.

Some red flags could signal and end to this dominance, however. First, I would keep my eye out for a change in walk rate. While he stopped swinging so much on inside fastballs off the plate, he’s still aggressively swinging off of the low-outside corner. This shouldn’t be a problem as long as he keeps mashing those pitches (as a result of the new approach), but the further he reaches, the less likely he is to make solid contact. Second, I’m incredibly interested to see how he responds to this shift to the inside corner. His 2016 results seem to suggest that his quick hands are capable of getting to these without getting jammed. However, on a pitch with high velocity and cut, we could see much more weak contact.

You’re going to hear a lot of people simply point to his BABIP numbers and say that’s unsustainable, he’s just getting lucky, and that he will inevitably regress. That’s lazy analysis and untrue. Until we see any of the above physical adjustments, just sit back and enjoy the Lonnie Chisenhall show. It’s going to be a good one.


Charlie Blackmon Goes Golfing

Baseball players have been known to have a fondness for golfing. After all, it’s just like baseball, except nobody’s trying to throw the ball past you. Famous baseball golfers include Yoenis Cespedes, John Smoltz, and, as we now know as of last Thursday, Charlie Blackmon.

I’ll be honest — I’ve never seen Charlie Blackmon step foot on a golf course before. His current facial-hair situation is also in violation of most country club dress codes. But after seeing what he did in his first AB against Zack Godley on Thursday, I’m convinced that Blackmon is already preparing to win the US Open after he retires from baseball.

Charlie Blackmon HR Gif

Charlie Blackmon managed to hit a no-doubter off of a shoelace-scraper. It’s like a Statcast glitch in real life. I looked it up on Brooks Baseball to see where this pitch really was, and, well –

Brooks Baseball Pitch Map of Charlie Blackmon's first AB on June 22, 2017

If you’re having trouble seeing the pitch, it’s because Godley threw the exact same pitch to Blackmon earlier in the AB (the #2 is covering the #7). The result the first time around was a swinging strike, as Blackmon went over top of it — as one would with a curveball in the dirt. Blackmon saw the exact same pitch later in the AB, and rather than take it, Blackmon decided to lift it over the outfield fence. Somehow, Blackmon managed to get under a pitch in the dirt. This pitch was .81 feet off the ground, via Trackman — if it was any more down, Blackmon would need a shovel to dig it out.

It’s no secret that players can golf pitches for home runs. Jonathan Hale of the Hardball Times showed that home runs significantly spiked on pitches that were thrown at a height of about one foot above the plate.

HR Rate versus height of Pitch, via Hardball Times

But there’s a very steep fall-off below that sweet-spot, mostly because baseball bats aren’t long enough to make contact below that point.

In order to make contact on this pitch, Blackmon needed to bend down on his back knee while keeping his front leg straight. Essentially, he needed to invent a new form of Yoga to drive this out.

Charlie Blackmon Swing Freeze Frame

This is an amazing feat from one of baseball’s hottest hitters. And it’s possibly one of the lowest pitches EVER hit for a home run.

Baseball Savant keeps track of almost every data-point anyone could ever want on every pitch of the past 10 years, including vertical height, and only eight batters have ever hit home runs off of pitches that were less than a foot off the ground (there’s a fun glitch where this Chris Coghlan home run appears as the lowest pitch off the ground at -4.8 feet — evidently someone placed a negative sign in front of a 4.8 foot figure).

Coincidentally, Coghlan actually was present for the lowest pitch ever hit out, according to Baseball Savant. Brad Hawpe took a low pitch from Rick VandenHurk and put it way over Coghlan’s head, plating himself and Troy Tulowitzki.
Brad Hawpe low-ball HR

According to Baseball Savant, that pitch was hit when it was only ~5 inches off the ground, which makes it the lowest pitch ever hit out of the Pitchf/x era. But something’s a little fishy (and it’s not the Marlins) — at the moment of contact, the ball is clearly more than 5 inches off the ground. It’s certainly a low pitch, but it’s not quite at Hawpe’s ankles, unlike Blackmon’s pitch. Perhaps it’s a glitch from the early days of Pitchf/x.

Hawpe Contact Freeze-Frame

In fact, the same can be said of the second-lowest HR according to Baseball Savant — a pitch to Jonny Gomes at his knees is recorded as being 6 inches off the ground. It’s a reality of technology in that it’s not perfect every time.

The main takeaway, however, is that Blackmon might just have a legitimate claim to lowest-hit dinger of the past 10 seasons.

The biggest legitimate rival to Blackmon’s claim is probably Freddy Galvis‘ ankle breaker from 2013 against Jon Niese. Galvis adopts a similar approach to Blackmon in hitting this pitch, knocking one out at a height of only .81 feet off the ground. Pitchf/x appears to have this one right on the money — and it just so happens that it’s also the exact same height as Blackmon’s pitch was.

Galvis Dinger

So, according to Pitchf/x, Blackmon hit the lowest pitch out since Galvis. What’s really impressive is that Blackmon is about 5 inches taller than Galvis, so Blackmon needed to screw himself into the ground about 5 inches more than Galvis.

It’s a testament to Blackmon’s new-found power (or the generous park factors at Coors Field) that Blackmon managed to turn on such a terrible pitch and turn it into a home run. The anomalous dinger gods have visited Blackmon, and we should be thankful that they’ve graced us with the gift of this home run — we might not see another like it for a few years.


Brad Peacock: Finally Showing His Feathers

Brad… What?

Welcome to the Astros rotation, Brad Peacock. In his first six starts (plus 16.1 innings of relief work), he has a 2.82 ERA with a 1.19 WHIP. Wait, I forgot to mention the 66 strikeouts in 44.2 innings. If you’ve ever seen this guy pitch, you’ve no doubt observed his strangely overpowering repertoire and wondered how All-Star hitters can look so ridiculous on a 93mph fastball. For a former top-100 prospect who has spent 10 years playing professional baseball, one might wonder if there was a fundamental change in stuff, if this is just batted-ball luck, destined to disappear as soon as you pick him up on your fantasy team (#thanksJasonVargas), or if the only missing factor was opportunity. Either way, everybody who has seen this Astros team play knows that something special is happening in H-Town. While many believed that the Astros needed at least one new arm to even compete for a playoff spot, the return of Cy-Young, immaculately-bearded Dallas Keuchel and breakout Lance McCullers mean that there was just one missing piece to seriously contend for the World Series. That piece is Brad Peacock.

Devastating Repertoire

Sometimes it’s important to subject pitchers to the eye test, which this guy passes with flying colors (unlike a peacock which, while colorful, cannot fly). For this section, I’ll show you a pitch and then a table showing the league leaders for that pitch type. Because of the problems with pitch values (which I’ll dive into in a bit) it’s important to couple that with other methods of assessing pitch effectiveness, including simply watching the pitcher.

While some of you will no doubt roll your eyes at the next section, I think it’s important to talk about what matters when using film study. The important things to look for when watching a pitcher include:

1. Location (duh). I trust the Astros’ game plan to get the job done on most days. More often than not, the relevant question is if the pitcher can execute that plan.

2. Bite. Is there late movement on the pitch? Arm side tail or cut? This can serve to induce weak contact even on meatballs and serve as a helpful backup in case of missed location.

3. Hitter’s balance. While we now have metrics that calculate the likelihood of each batted ball becoming a hit based off of exit velocity and launch angle, those stats can be misleading as well. Sometimes, a hitter can be completely fooled on a pitch and still get the barrel on the ball. This could change the expected outcome for that batted ball, but not for the same pitch in a slightly different context.

4. Situational pitching. How do they fare in high-pressure situations (3-2, runner on third, battling back from 3-0, etc.)?

OK, sorry for the kiddie stuff. Back to Peacock. Here’s a straight 3-2 fastball that generates a strikeout.

 GIF

This pitch is indicative of a few things. First, it catches a bit more of the plate than you would like to see, although in a 3-2 count with bases empty and 2 outs, it is more acceptable to challenge the hitter than to give up a two-out walk (as long as it’s not flat and down the middle). Second, note the late arm-side tail. This could be a major factor in his ability to generate swing and misses (as will be explored later).

Before I show you the leaderboards, there’s a major caveat. As with a lot of advanced metrics, pitch-type linear weights are more descriptive than predictive. There’s extremely high variance from year-to-year. On top of that, several variables go into each pitch and it’s extremely hard to differentiate the signal from the noise. The results of certain pitches are not independent from one another, but heavily influenced by the hitter it’s thrown against, the situation it’s thrown in, the pitch it’s following, etc. This all is amplified by the fact that his start of the season in the bullpen has limited his innings total and a good chunk of the results we are seeing are against an Oakland A’s lineup that swings and misses…a LOT.

That being said, if we continue to see major run savings from Peacock as his innings total climbs, the continuation of the trend as more and more context changes, the more we can be confident that this is more a product of skill than anything else.

Here’s how that pitch has fared against the league writ large. Below is a table of the league leaders in weighted pitch value for fastballs. Feel free to peruse the familiar names of his company on the leaderboard.

League Leaders in wFB/c (6/20/17) (Minimum of 40 IP)
Name wFB/c
Chris Devenski 2.43
Jose Berrios 2.20
Dallas Keuchel 2.18
Chris Sale 1.95
Jaime Garcia 1.75
Alex Wood 1.72
Taijuan Walker 1.37
Ivan Nova 1.37
Wade LeBlanc 1.36
Brad Peacock 1.34

You might be asking yourselves why I chose to write about Peacock and not Jaime, Walker, Nova, etc. Aside from the amazing name, it’s because this guy has not one, but two All-Star offerings.

Next, his slider (brace yourselves):

 GIF

Did you see where that pitch starts versus where it ends?? Is he throwing a wiffle ball? The look of frustration on Beltre’s face is not unique to this at bat. That slider has been doing that to hitters all year. Below is the table of weighted pitch value leaders for sliders in the MLB this year.

League Leaders in wSL/c (6/20/17) (Minimum of 40 IP)
Name wSL/c
Max Scherzer 4.82
Yusmeiro Petit 4.60
Jake Odorizzi 3.49
Lance Lynn 3.19
Jordan Zimmerman 3.16
Carlos Carrasco 3.15
Jhoulys Chacin 3.10
Dallas Keuchel 2.74
Carlos Martinez 2.56
Stephen Strasburg 2.47
Brad Peacock 2.42

There’s a good chance that in high-leverage situations, this pitch can generate a swing and miss like it has so many times this season. There’s a reason (which you probably picked up from watching the above gif).

League Leaders in SL-X (6/20/17) (Minimum of 40 IP)
Name SL-X
Yu Darvish 8.3
Scott Feldman 6.9
Jason Vargas 6.8
Jhoulys Chacin 6.4
Kendall Graveman 6.1
Brad Peacock 5.8
Joe Musgrove 5.4
Marcus Stroman 5.2
Ariel Miranda 5.1
Sonny Gray 4.8

There are five sliders in the entire majors with more break than this pitch.

Overall, while there are problems with looking at pitch values in isolation, we can be slightly more confident that this is the product of solid game plans from the Astros coaching staff, Peacock’s ability to carry it out, and simply a dirty slider.

This Peacock Can Fly

OK, so we know his pitch mix is fairly strong. What does this mean for his results? When I examined the batted-ball data, three things immediately jumped out:

1. When hitters swing at strikes, they miss.

League Leaders in Z-Contact% (6/20/17) (Minimum of 40 IP)
Name Z-Contact%
Chris Devenski 75.4%
Chris Sale 75.9%
Brad Peacock 76.7%
Jacob deGrom 77.8%
Danny Salazar 78.4%

This much is clear from the section above. This guy truly has overpowering stuff without lighting up the radar gun. Z-Contact is cool because for pitchers with low velocity, it serves as a kind of proxy for movement, sequencing (thanks to the coaching staff for that one), and locating pitches on the corners.

If anyone takes issue with Danny Salazar’s inclusion on this list, it’s important to keep in mind what gave him so many problems was not nastiness of pitch mix; it was mostly a combination of walks and bloated HR/FB ratio. He actually inspires confidence in Peacock, as you can think of him as a Salazar without the walks who keeps the ball in the ballpark (as you’ll see… right now).

2. When they do make contact, it’s soft.

League Leaders in Soft% (6/20/17) (Minimum of 40 IP)
Name Soft%
Dallas Keuchel 29.9%
R.A. Dickey 26.7%
Brandon McCarthy 26.4%
Brad Peacock 25.8%
Drew Pomeranz 25.5%

Dickey’s appearance on this list should not be a surprise. Because of the low overall velocity of his pitches, the batter must generate the majority of the exit velocity. While Keuchel isn’t a knuckle-baller, his average fastball velocity of 88.7 mph means the same logic applies, although not to the same extent. Peacock’s appearance on this list is particularly impressive because of his average fastball velocity of 92.3. This means that although he is providing more force than the aforementioned players, he is still inducing roughly as much soft contact.

3. Even with hard contact, the ball stays in the park.

League Leaders in HR/FB (6/20/17) (Minimum of 40 IP)
Name HR/FB
Jesse Hahn 1.8%
Brad Peacock 3.0%
Michael Fulmer 5.1%
Danny Duffy 5.1%
Jason Vargas 5.3%
James Paxton 5.7%
Joe Biagini 6.4%
Chris Sale 6.7%

This last table is, I think, what makes Peacock a candidate for greatness.

First, generating swing and misses is one thing, because it intrinsically decreases the likelihood of home runs, RBI, etc. But if you tell me this guy limits the pool of potential home runs AND the likelihood of each individual batted-ball event in that pool turning into a home run, we’ve stumbled on something special.

Second (and most important), he’s in danger of being undervalued. It used to be thought that BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was essentially random for every hitter, so the ones with higher batting averages simply put the ball in play more often. Later, sabermetricians discovered that, in fact, some players just had higher BABIPs. Mike Trout hits the ball harder than Replacement-Level Joe, so Mike Trout is more likely to get base hits when he puts the ball in play. The latest version of this logic is playing out in the debate over HR/FB rates. Baseball analysts for years have been developing models that regress the HR/FB rate in the direction of the league mean. The thinking goes: if someone hits a hard fly ball, several factors have a large sway in determining if it leaves the park (park factors, weather patterns, time of day, etc.) outside of the hitter’s control. These days, however, several pitchers are sustaining remarkably high HR/FB ratios (Gerrit Cole – 18.2%, Lance Lynn – 18.8%). If it turns out that this ratio actually has more to do with the pitcher, then these players are being systemically overvalued in projections. The flip side remains true. Projections tend to undervalue players with low HR/FB rates, because it ignores the skill involved in limiting the amount of hard contact that leaves the yard.

What’s Next?

What’s next for this Peacock? We can see clear trends in his pitch usage that suggest this dominance will continue. The below chart from our friends at Brooks Baseball shows what I believe to be the root of his recent success.

Two things to note:

1. He’s throwing the slider much more often as the season progresses. It’s his best pitch and the contact rate hasn’t changed as hitters are seeing it more and more.

2. A sinker is in the works! Several analysts note that to be a major-league starter, you need three effective pitches to keep hitters off balance and be effective the third time through the order. While there are some problems with these studies (because of the preordained conclusion, there are very few two-pitch pitchers in the majors, resulting in self-fulfilling prophecy), it is at the very least comforting to see another pitch in the mix. While Peacock’s curveball generates a high number of whiffs, he has trouble commanding it late in the game relative to his slider, so its usage is limited.

Lastly, for Peacock to be a truly effective starter, he’s going to need to go deeper into games. Strikeout pitchers generally bloat their pitch counts in an attempt to generate swings and misses early on. Since transitioning to a starter, he’s averaging 4 2/3 innings per start. Part of this will be resolved with experience as a starter, but in the meantime this new sinker could mean more ground balls, saving his swing-and-miss stuff for later.

For now, at least, it looks like the sinker is doing just that. In his last start, Oakland slugged .200 against it. With low whiff rate, high ground-ball rate, and low slugging percentage, this could be the tool to get Peacock deeper into games where the curve and hammer of a slider can take the wheel from there. While we’re finally seeing what makes this guy so special, he’s already making the adjustments needed to become an elite starter. This peacock is finally showing his tail feathers, and we haven’t seen anything yet.


Joey Gallo: Elite Baserunner?

In the boom-or-bust era of plate appearances, baserunning value has become less important than it’s been in quite some time, but it’s a fascinating part of the game in which you can literally steal a win here and there. Given that this fourth pillar of the game is a pillar nonetheless, here’s a list of the top six baserunners this year by BsR, with their stolen base and caught stealing totals as well (as of 06/18/2017):

Name

BsR SB CS

Billy Hamilton

6.8 28

5

Xander Bogaerts

6.6 8

1

Jarrod Dyson

5.7 17

3

Dee Gordon

5.7 25 3
Paul Goldschmidt 5.6 13

4

Joey Gallo 4.8 4

0

Some of the guys on this list are the burners you would expect to see, and Xander Bogaerts is a pretty athletic, fast guy. Paul Goldschmidt is a freak and has been far and away the best at baserunning among 1B by BsR since 1950 (relative to the smaller number of games he’s played), which is a highly underestimated part of his game.

Other than Goldschmidt, who you should already know is fantastic at everything in baseball, the name that really sticks out is Joey Gallo, the barrel-chested guy with an 80 power rating as a prospect who thumped homers at every level of the minors. He’s also hit some big ones in the majors; we’d be talking about his homers a lot more if Aaron Judge wasn’t doing his own thing in the Bronx. If you Google “Joey Gallo home run” and go to videos, words like “mammoth,” “crushes,” and “monster” pepper the results. Gallo is 6’5” and 235 lbs. In short, he’s not the guy you expect to be atop the BsR leaderboard, earning his team nearly half a win this year with his legs, especially given his low SB total.

So how has Gallo achieved this high level of baserunning despite clearly not passing the baserunning eye test? He is generally athletic, which he recently discussed. The obvious first take is that Gallo strikes out a lot, so he doesn’t have the opportunity to ground into double plays and negatively affect his BsR. This is true, to a certain extent, but doesn’t tell the whole story. Of the three components of BsR (UBR, wSB, and wGDP), UBR is the primary source of value for Gallo. This can generally be perceived as a measure of baserunning skill, as it looks at how often the baserunner takes extra bases in the same situations. This metric may be a little team-dependent, but Gallo ranks seventh in baseball at 3.1 runs added. The value from this metric is derived from both taking extra bases on hits as well as while already on base. However, Gallo only has 24 non-home run hits this year, only 11 of which went for extra bases, leaving him without much room to boost his UBR rating. Therefore, a lot of this value likely comes from his time running the bases while already on them. Gallo has been on the bases 59 times this year (including non-home run hits, walks, HBP, and reaching on an error or fielder’s choice), giving him many more opportunities to make plays on the bases.

Gallo’s overall assessment by BsR as a good baserunner is a result of the other metrics as well. Couple that high UBR rating with a tenth-place ranking in wGDP (1.0 run), the metric that favors Gallo because such a high percentage of his plate appearances result in either strikeouts (37.2%) or medium/hard contact (81.7% of his batted balls). Both of these outcomes reduce the number of double plays he grounds into, leading to a slightly positive contribution to his BsR. In fact, Gallo has only hit into one double play this whole season over 247 PA. Gallo’s wSB (0.7 runs) is respectable as well, if only because he has yet to be caught stealing.

It’s possible that Gallo isn’t on the bases enough to have his BsR statistic stabilize and he’ll regress quite a bit as the season wears on, but that remains to be seen. What we do know is that Gallo is a good baserunner this year because he does a pretty good job taking extra bases, hasn’t been caught stealing, and strikes out/crushes the ball enough to rarely hit into double plays. Does that add up to being an actually good baserunner? Gallo has still been an effective baserunner this season compared to his peers, albeit not by the usual definition of the term, especially considering (and likely assisted by) his profile as a high-strikeout, high-power hitter. That value is derived from a variety of factors, so don’t expect to see him go 30-30 (or even 20-20) anytime soon, but keep an eye out for him when he is on base.


How Players Might Distinguish Risk in New Contracts

Player contracts can be fascinating because of how we tend to examine them. We can do it through a micro lens, figuring how each one impacts the shape of the team and its ability to compete; or we can look at them with a macro perspective and see how they do or don’t impact the overall business of a franchise. As fans and analysts, we usually go the micro route.

Part of going the micro route in examining player contracts is questioning whether a player just became overpaid or underpaid upon signing his new deal. Dave Cameron did just that when considering Jean Segura’s recent extension, expanding on how Segura may well have left money on the table when he inked his five-year, $70-million extension earlier this month:

Perhaps Segura just really likes Seattle, likes the ballpark, likes the organization, and isn’t as concerned about whether he’s on a sustained winner. But 18 months from free agency, it seems like he might have had a chance to earn more money on a team with a more certain future, so him taking an extension now is certainly a risk on his part, as he could end up as an underpaid asset on a team without enough around him to win consistently. That’s not what you generally want.

This is  a fair thought. Players rarely — if ever — have the chance to influence what the market will pay them, and where. Signing a deal that potentially pays anything less than maximum value, then, could certainly be regarded as shortsighted and a risk.

It’s at this moment in evaluating new contracts that it becomes worthwhile to ask: on whose behalf might the player be leaving money on the table, and for whom is it a risk? Them, or players down the line?

Players should absolutely push for every dollar the market is willing to pay them. This idea becomes emphasized when we remember how disparate the split in revenue is between players and owners. It doesn’t matter that the dollar amounts on both sides are absurd to most people. Players gain zero benefit by taking less pay.

But if we consider recent economic research, we might see why Segura didn’t necessarily push for every single dollar. Doctor George Simon comments on a study from Christian Bayer at the University of Bonn and Falko Juessen at Dortmund University that details how money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness but that levels of financial certainty do impact our general well-being. And the bottom line is Segura’s new deal still comfortably puts him in a mental place where he is “gaining steadily in [his] overall sense of security.” He can put in the same exact work as he did before signing this contract and feel much more at ease.

The real risk in deals like Segura’s, then, may be for other players in the future. The micro approach for him — the part of his signing that considers only the needs of Jean Segura and his family — is something he clearly finds satisfying. Otherwise, he probably doesn’t sign. But the macro perspective, or the one that would consider how his new contract could be used as a benchmark for others in the future, is probably left wanting.


The Julio Teheran Delivery Mystery

It’s hard, sometimes, to believe that Atlanta Braves pitcher Julio Teheran is only 26. After being signed out of Colombia in 2007, Teheran got his first sniff of the majors as a 20(!) year-old four years later, then ranked as the second-best pitching prospect in the league. As a mid-rotation starter in 2013, Teheran more than justified that ranking, putting up a 3.69 FIP, 22 K%, 2.5 WAR season for a 98-win Braves team that would ultimately fall to the Dodgers in the NLDS.

That Braves team was still an exceptional one; the next few Braves teams (winning 79, 67, and 68 games) less so. For that reason, when Teheran has been mentioned recently, it’s often been in reference to his status as a potential trade chip. It’s no secret that the Braves are in full-fledged rebuilding mode, and a good, young pitcher with over three years left of reasonably-priced team control ($6.3M this year, followed by $8M, $11M, and $12M) could fetch an enticing package of prospects to add to their growing collection.

There’s just one problem – Teheran’s currently in the middle of the worst year of his career, and, even worse, he’s the not-so-proud owner of some of the least favorable pitching statistics in the majors. His 5.67 FIP, far higher than his 3.69 figure last season, is seventh-worst among qualified starters, and his -0.3 WAR ranks fifth from the bottom. As you might assume from the preceding figures, Teheran’s rate statistics have been similarly ugly. In fact, as the following chart illustrates, the sum of Teheran’s decline in K% and increase in BB% from 2016 to 2017 (9.5%) is the fourth-highest among all pitchers who qualified in both years.

Pitcher
Dec. in K%
Inc. in BB%
Total
Kevin Gausman 8.8% 4.0% 12.8%
Justin Verlander 7.4% 5.3% 12.7%
Jeremy Hellickson 9.8% 1.1% 10.9%
Julio Teheran 5.7% 3.8% 9.5%
Zach Davies 4.2% 2.4% 6.6%
R.A. Dickey 4.1% 1.1% 5.2%
Wade Miley -0.4% 5.3% 4.9%
Jaime Garcia 2.8% 1.4% 4.2%
Jerad Eickhoff 0.9% 3.2% 4.1%
Ervin Santana 1.5% 2.1% 3.6%
Jason Hammel 3.6% -0.2% 3.4%

Overall, Teheran’s K% has fallen from 22% to 16.3%, his BB% has ballooned from 5.4% to 9.2%, and while his fly-ball rate isn’t significantly higher (although it is the fifteenth-highest in the majors), his HR/FB rate is up nearly five percentage points. In some circumstances, such an increase in HR/FB% might lead one to believe that, to an extent, the pitcher in question has simply been unlucky. But Teheran’s HR/FB rate, at a shade over 15%, isn’t unreasonably high; it’s in approximately the 63rd percentile in the league. And it’d be hard to chalk up such a dramatic shift in both strikeout and walk percentages solely to random misfortune.

There doesn’t appear to be a significant difference in any of Teheran’s pitches this year, either in velocity or movement, that would explain his sudden loss of effectiveness. Additionally, none of his pitches’ spin rates have declined this year (although his slider’s spin rate has actually increased by over 200 RPM). There has, however, been an interesting development this season in regard to Teheran’s mechanics. Look at the dramatic change in his horizontal release point:

h_release

It’s evident that Teheran consciously changed his delivery during the offseason, at least with respect to his horizontal release point (his vertical release point didn’t change nearly as dramatically). And this isn’t the first time he’s switched up his mechanics; when we expand the x-axis even farther, we can see just how much Teheran has tinkered with his horizontal release throughout his career.

h_release_career

We can see that, compared to today, Teheran had a similar horizontal release point between August 2015 and May 2016. His results during that time span were excellent – a 2.86 ERA (although his FIP was a full run higher), a 21.4 K%, and a 7.4 BB%. But Teheran’s abrupt midseason change in horizontal release point last season didn’t seem to negatively impact his performance afterwards. From June to October 2016, his FIP and BB% were both lower, and his K% was slightly higher, than they were before he altered his delivery.

This naturally raises the question: if Teheran was so successful during the second half of 2016, why did he change his delivery so radically over the offseason? It’s probably premature to say that Teheran’s change in delivery is necessarily the cause of his struggles this year, but there could, at least theoretically, be some secondary consequence of his new mechanics that’d explain his lackluster performance. A potential clue might lie in Teheran’s swinging strike rate, which has declined from around 10.5% – where it’s consistently been throughout his career – to 8.4% this season, despite him throwing a similar percentage of his pitches for strikes in 2017 as in years prior. To me, this could suggest that something in Teheran’s delivery is leading batters to more easily pick up on his pitches’ trajectory. It’s also possible that the mechanical change has affected his control. Although Teheran’s thrown about five percent more fastballs this year, these pitches have been far more spread out across the strike zone in 2017, as the following graph illustrates (see here for 2016):

fastball_17_FG

I’m not particularly privy to the Braves’ everyday clubhouse conversations, but it’d be hard to believe that an adjustment this large didn’t come from Atlanta’s coaching staff. I can think of a few possible explanations behind the change: (1) the belief that Teheran’s old delivery would increase injury risk, (2) the belief that Teheran’s velocity, movement, or command would improve with an altered delivery; or (3) a combination of the two. We can’t know for sure – and we can’t definitively confirm a link between Teheran’s new mechanics and his depressed performance – but I’d say this is a situation worth keeping an eye on, especially as the trading deadline approaches. It’ll be interesting to see if Teheran and the Braves coaching staff continue to tinker with the young right-hander’s delivery, especially if he continues to struggle so much over the coming weeks.


The Secret to the Twins’ Surprising Start

Almost one year ago, I took my initial stab at sabermetrics writing about how the Twins’ fabled philosophy of “pitch to contact” was being stifled by the club’s own inability to field the ball. If you are putting that much faith in your defense, it would make sense that you would have the defensive ability to back up your philosophy. For a while, this was true for the Twins. I am not going to rehash what I already wrote in August of 2015, but if I haven’t summarized myself adequately enough yet, I’ll attempt to do so again: the Twins fostered a philosophy in pitch to contact that relied on their defense, yet from 2010-2015 their defense slowly deteriorated, as did their pitching and overall record. My thought was that if the Twins were able to improve on this sub-par defense, they would be able to bail out their pitching, rather than continue to hamper it. I relied a lot of the idea of fielding-independent pitching, so if you are unaware with that concept, read about it here.

Fast forward to 22 months later, and the Twins have some new captains running the ship. These guys value math, and have started to take a more analytical look at the Twins. The most noticeable difference so far in the Twins’ somewhat surprising season (although as of this posting the team has fallen back to earth somewhat) is their improved defense. To this date, the Twins have the fourth-best defense according to Defensive WAR. Last year, they were the second-worst defense. This idea has already been written about, showing that my prediction nearly two years ago was correct. The whole idea that, on average, a good defense can bail out pitching still holds, and I ran a regression to prove it. On average, a one-unit increase in your FIP-ERA difference increases your defensive rating by 49 points. This is quite the turnaround, showing how valuable a defense can be, and this number, in combination with batting and pitching WAR, can be quantified to show its overall impact on a club’s record. I’ll spare the calculation, but one can see how this improved defense has helped lead the Twins to their surprising start.

Unfortunately, the Twins’ pitching (besides two great starts from Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios) has been awful, so any defensive gains this season have been erased by having the second-worst ERA and FIP in baseball, despite the 13th-best FIP-ERA metric. To this point in the season, the Twins have the same ERA as they did last year, but their FIP-ERA difference was a horrendous -0.52. They have a positive FIP-ERA difference this year at 0.12, showing that their pitching has actually gotten worse from last year to this current season. In some ways, their defense has kept the team above .500. Turns out my prediction was right: improve the defense, and the team will be noticeably better. If the Twins’ pitching would have stayed at the same point as last season, (4.57 FIP), in combination with their FIP-ERA metric, the Twins would be in the top-20 for pitching this season. Unfortunately, the regression of the pitching staff (independent of the defense) has kept the Twins from fully benefiting from their improved defense.

Before I wrap this up, a quick side-note on the Cubs this year. Last season, the Cubs had far and away the best defense in baseball, the best FIP-ERA in baseball, and the best ERA in baseball. This year, as any baseball fan would recognize, the Cubs have been struggling, especially with their pitching. Coincidentally, the Cubs’ pitching this year has dropped to 14th by ERA, along with their defense, which is also ranked 14th. Their FIP-ERA metric is at 13th in baseball, so their regression in defense may be partly to blame for their pitching struggles.

To sum, from 2010-2015 the Twins’ defense deteriorated, leading their pitching staff to do the same based on their pitch-to-contact philosophy. I wrote a year ago that the Twins needed to improve their defense if they wanted to continue this philosophy. They improved their defense, which has fueled a surprising start for the club, and has kept the team from bottoming out with their horrendous pitching staff.

 

Appendix

Linear Regression and Plot

Untitled


Detroit’s Batted-Ball Readings Are Hot

To be clear, this did not begin as an example of investigative journalism. While I do occasionally enjoy media pieces such as Spotlight and S-Town, my curiosity in this topic all began with the incredible amount of attention given to a seemingly mediocre player named Nick Castellanos. To give some examples, below are three popular FanGraphs/RotoGraphs articles written about Castellanos:

In theory, the hype surrounding Nick Castellanos makes sense. High exit velocity, few ground balls, sustainable HR/FB%, decent home ballpark. If only he could get those strikeouts down and avoid bad luck, he could turn into Kris Bryant or Nolan Arenado. The analytics community, who have been waiting for the Castellanos breakout for five years, is more divided than ever on the Tigers third baseman. Some continue to beat the drum while others are abandoning ship, arguing that the breakthrough will never happen.

This season, Castellanos is not the only Detroit Tigers player who has received love from the analytics community:

The claims brought up by all of these writers have one thing in common: high or increased exit velocity. As presented in Matthew Ludwig’s article The Value of Hitting the Ball Hard, exit velocity and wRC+ have a positive correlation. In general, a player who hits the ball harder would be expected to have more favorable results when they make contact.

This brings us to the question, is it possible for so many Detroit Tigers players to be underperforming their batted-ball profiles? In order to gauge exactly how much harder the Tigers are hitting the ball than their opponents this year, I took a look at the hard-hit rate for the Tigers as a team. The point that is colored “Tiger orange” represents the Detroit Tigers.

Screen Shot 2017-06-17 at 2.59.39 PM

It isn’t even close; the 2017 Detroit Tigers are currently the best team at making hard contact and the worst team at preventing hard contact. Thinking qualitatively, are the Tigers hitters really that much better at making hard contact than the hitters on the Astros, Nationals, or Diamondbacks? Are the pitchers really that much worse at preventing hard contact than the pitching on the Padres, Orioles, or Reds? If so, the results are not proving it. The Tigers currently rank ninth in runs scored and 20th in runs against. Park factors and other variables do apply, so it may be possible that the hitters are getting unluckier and the pitchers are getting luckier than the batted-ball data shows. Assuming that players’ abilities are transferable across stadiums, we should small differences in hard-hit rate for Tigers hitters and pitchers when looking at home/away splits.

Screen Shot 2017-06-18 at 9.18.25 PM

Quadrant I (x,y) represents the teams that have a higher hard-hit rate for both hitters and pitchers on the road than at home. Quadrant III (-x,-y) represents the teams that have a higher hard-hit rate for both hitters and pitchers at home than on the road. The Detroit Tigers (orange point) rank as the team with the largest negative difference for both hitters and pitchers. One thing to note about the data is that 22 out of the 30 points lie within either quadrant I or quadrant III. This could give some validity to the assumption that exit velocities are not consistently measured from park to park. There could be a variety of reasons for this (humidity, air density, etc.). For more on this, I would point to Andrew Perpetua’s article Home And Road Exit Velocity. If there was truly something unique about Detroit causing these balls to be measured harder, this trend would be seen over a wider time period. Let’s look at where the Tigers ranked for the years 2012-2016.

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 10.14.50 PM.png

See that orange circle almost directly in the middle of the chart? That is the Detroit Tigers. The only point that has a closer distance to the direct center is the Atlanta Braves, who now play in an entirely different city and stadium.

So what about all other stadiums? If hard-hit rate is being artificially increased at Comerica Park, it is likely that there are slight adjustments at all ballparks. Based on 2017 data, the difference for each stadium (hitters or pitchers) is listed below:

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 9.05.05 PM

Looking at an individual-player level (min. 50 AB home and away, min. 20 IP home and away), let’s see how many Tigers batters appear on the top 20 away-home hard-hit-rate difference leaderboard for hitters and pitchers. Detroit Tigers players are highlighted in orange.

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 9.37.18 PMScreen Shot 2017-06-19 at 10.31.05 PM.png

I can see four possible scenarios to explain why Detroit Tigers players may be experiencing this phenomenon:

  1. Tigers hitters and pitchers have actually experienced increased exit velocity at home this year
  2. There was an adjustment made to the calculation of exit velocity at Comerica Park, which is now causing incorrect data readings
  3. Changes are being made to the ball at Comerica Park, making it act differently
  4. Small sample size bias is skewing the data

Unfortunately, this is about as far as I can take this piece. Something is going on in Detroit this year that is skewing the exit-velocity calculations. However, the whys and hows beyond the data are not clearly evident. Until then, I will continue to monitor this unintended project of investigative journalism from the sidelines.


The Super-Utility Men of Yesteryear

The utility player has made low-profile appearances on rosters throughout baseball history, but only recently fans, media, and ownership have come to appreciate the full value of their versatility. After the Cubs had so much success with utility players Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez in their title run last year, many teams are choosing to develop young talent into utility players instead of having them specialize in one position. While there are many Hall of Famers who played multiple positions over the course of their careers, most of them switched positions not because they were equally good at multiple positions,  but because they were good hitters who became defensive liabilities at their previous position. My hope is that that will change within the next 20 to 25 years as some of baseball’s top talents are groomed for the new super-utility role.

Before we marvel at these young and exciting players of today and tomorrow, let us take a moment to reflect on the super-utility men of yesteryear.

Melvin Mora

Melvin Mora debuted as a Met in 1999 and immediately was used all over the field, playing six positions in 66 games that season. Over the course of his career, he had six seasons where he played at least three different positions in the field. In total, Mora appeared in 908 games at 3B, 194 at SS, 174 in LF, 158 in CF, 48 at 2B, 29 in RF, 27 at 1B. Only pitcher and catcher eluded him. He had a career combined +3.1 DWAR, never having a season below -.8 DWAR. In addition to being a huge asset in the field, Mora was a 105 OPS+ hitter over 6,158 career plate appearances.

Juan Uribe

While Juan Uribe’s six-foot, 245 lb physique may have looked out of place on a baseball field, he was a true gem of a fielder, accumulating +15 career DWAR across five different positions. Over the course of his entire career, he appeared in 917 games at SS, 644 at 3B, 228 at 2B, 4 at 1B, and 1 in CF. His value as a fielder is what kept him around for so long; even though he hit 20+ home runs on four separate occasions, he was a career 87 OPS+ hitter.

Placido Polanco

If you are a hardcore baseball fan, you may know that Polanco is one of two players to win a Gold Glove at multiple positions (two at 2B and one at 3B). However, I think very few people realize that he ranks first all-time in fielding percentage at BOTH of those positions! In addition, if he had only played 214 more innings at SS (equivalent to just under 24 games), he would have ranked 6th all-time in fielding percentage there as well! In addition to playing in 1,027 games at 2B, 751 at 3B, and 122 at SS, he appeared in 5 games in LF and 1 at 1B and finished his career with +18.1 DWAR, good for 65th all-time. In addition to being a superb fielder, Polanco was an accomplished contact hitter as well, batting over .300 five times and .297 for his career.

Gil McDougald

A central part of the 1950s New York Yankees, McDougald could be one of the most overlooked players of all time in terms of Hall of Fame consideration. He never received higher than 1.7% of the vote despite being a part of five World Series championship teams and averaging +4 WAR per season over his 10-year career. A large part of that value came from his play in the field, where he played in 599 games at 2B, 508 at 3B, and 284 at SS. Over the course of his career, he accumulated +14 DWAR, never having a DWAR under +.4 and having at least +1 DWAR in 8 of his 10 seasons. In addition to his elite defense, McDougald was a career 111  OPS+ hitter.

Craig Biggio

The first and only Hall of Famer on this list, Biggio almost didn’t make my cut because he only had two seasons where he appeared in at least seven games at more than one position. Despite not displaying much fielding diversity within seasons, though, Biggio accumulated 1,989 games at 2B, 428 games at C, 255 games in CF, 109 games in LF, and 2 games in RF over his career. At the time,  he was regarded as an above-average fielder, earning four Gold Gloves at 2B. His -3.9 DWAR is somewhat misleading because he played for so long after his defensive prime due to being a Hall of Fame hitter. Over his 20-year career, Biggio earned Silver Sluggers at both catcher and second base, and had a career OPS+ of 112.

Pete Rose

Like Biggio, Pete Rose didn’t display spectacular fielding diversity within seasons, but over the course of his career the Hit King appeared in at least 73 games at every position in the field except pitcher, catcher, and shortstop. To be exact, he appeared in 939 games at 1B, 673 in LF, 634 at 3B, 628 at 2B, 589 in RF, and 73 in CF. That’s a lot of games. While his hitting accomplishments are well documented, few people realize that Pete Rose actually won two Gold Gloves during his career as well. Whether he deserved them or not is another story (-14 career DWAR) though to his credit, he had a modest -0.1 DWAR during his first 12 seasons while playing 2B and OF. Despite not being the finest fielder of the bunch, and though he is not a Hall of Famer like Biggio, Pete Rose, aka Charlie Hustle, is the quintessential super-utility player, championing the gamer-ship that all utility players must have to earn the title “super.”


WikiLeakes: What Went Wrong for Mike Leake?

To begin the 2017 season, Mike Leake was one of the most cautiously optimistic targets for a breakout season. His low velocity and K-rate had a lot of people worried about how sustainable the success was. But, for a while, he led the league with a 2.03 ERA (5/23). He ended April with 33.1 IP and 5 ER total, good for a 1.35 ERA. While his success came in the face of Jason Vargas stealing all of the low-velocity, soft contact-inducing, ERA-leading thunder, he generated plenty of buzz as a welcome surprise in the Cardinals rotation after a shaky April and beginning of May by resident pitching-staff wizard, Carlos Martinez.

Part of this was certainly soft contact combined with luck to create a stellar (but unsustainable) LOB% of 86.5% of baserunners (warning: that article contains an extended metaphor comparing him to “leek soup”). But even in the midst of a brilliant start of the season, many analysts warned about the impending reversion to normalcy, referring to previous stunts of brilliance at the beginning of the season. Since the beginning of June, he has surrendered 7 ER in 11 IP, for a 5.40 ERA. While this is not a disaster when compared to other pitchers who have flamed out (cough, cough, Kevin Gausman), for those who were hoping this was a turn of the page in the story of a 29-year-old soft thrower with roughly a 4.00 career ERA — what happened?

Speeding Up or Slowing Down?

First, Leake’s sinker velocity has changed in slightly different ways than one might imagine. Below is the chart of his sinker velocity with June in red and the rest of the season in blue:

The most noticeable change is the slight uptick in sinkers for the 92-93 mph and 89-90 mph range, with less of the 90-92 mph variety. For most pitchers, this would correspond to an increase in swings and misses, but for Leake, a pitcher who relies on command and finesse, this has a minimal impact on overall performance. Also, it should be noted that at a certain point, an increase in velocity has higher returns (e.g. a jump from 92 to 95 mph as exhibited by Brewers breakout-ace Jimmy Nelson), but as MLB hitters are used to seeing slightly faster sinkers than Leake’s with less movement, this increase in velocity has small (perhaps even negative) returns on his performance. When I looked at the chart for contact rates broken down by velocity quantile, this phenomena was ever present, although not as prominent for his sinker, but his cutter.

Pitch Type/Velo Quantile SI FC CH SL KC
Slow 0.494 0.383 0.389 0.333 0.500
Medium 0.495 0.333 0.500 0.273 0.400
Fast 0.482 0.575 0.542 0.294 0.545

The cutter quantiles were based on splitting the distribution into thirds and were defined as follows: “Slow” (v < 89 mph), “Medium” (89 mph < v < 90 mph), & “Fast” (v > 90 mph). As shown in the above table, the way to miss bats with this cutter is to keep it below 90 mph, and Leake seems to be moving in the opposite direction. The histogram below charts changes in cutter velocity, red being the distribution in June. While he decreased the amount of cutters directly at 90 mph, the number close to 91-92 mph (danger zone) increased, along with the low-velocity 87-88 mph cutter. Also, we can’t rule out the possibility of an injury with a much wider variation in velocity (although there are more reliable metrics for judging injury risk, like variation in spin rate).

With the changeup, we see the same story. The changeup quantiles were: “Slow” (v < 85 mph), “Medium” (85 mph < v < 86.5 mph), & “Fast” (v > 86.5 mph). Again, the way he misses bats with this is to keep the velocity under 85 mph. This histogram below categorizing the change in changeups shows that this may be the culprit.

Many more changeups are being thrown in the 87-88 mph range, which is really dangerous for a pitcher like Leake whose fastball does not get much faster. A major goal of throwing changeups, especially early in the count, is to disrupt the hitter’s timing. Little research has been done on the optimal separation in fastball and changeup velocity, but generally a 3-4 mph difference is insufficient. It is worth noting, however, that the Statcast pitch tracker system is far from perfect and some of these could very well be slow cutters.

Here are some pretty telling gifs (from the same game) demonstrating the two types of changeups. The first is a particularly nasty changeup on the outside corner to strike out Yasmani Grandal. He is not only totally off balance, but uses none of his legs and pokes, trying to stay alive. This change in velocity is exactly what we should be looking for when getting the feel for changeups.

 GIF

Now, here’s the high-velocity, flat changeup that has been getting him into trouble.

 GIF

It lacks vertical movement and just sort of slides through the top of the zone. Utley has zero problem keeping his weight back and engaging his hips to launch it over the right-center field fence, which leads me to my next point.

Leake-ing Over the Plate

Next, we can note the situational pitching Leake has had to do in June, relative to other months. Below is the bar graph of the change in frequency of counts he has faced in June:

Most of the count distributions are roughly the same, but he’s pitching in a lot more 3-1 and 3-2 counts. Leake has never been one to walk many hitters, which may explain the increased exit-velocity numbers. When Leake falls behind in the count (and loses command of his off-speed pitches) he often times has no choice but to spin a cutter over the middle of the plate. Previous to this last start (6/14) Leake pitched in significantly fewer 3-0 counts, while the amount of 2-0 counts he was in stayed pretty much constant. This could be a sign that he lost confidence to shoot for the corner on 2-0 and would be more likely to catch the middle of the plate. The alternative of a 3-0 count (or subsequent walk) might be the lesser of two evils.

Also, the deeper into the count hitters get against Leake, the more comfortable they are against his variety of offerings. Leake thrives off of keeping hitters off balance and surprising them with variations in movement. The more time hitters have to track these pitches, the less effective they will be at throwing off their timing.

As we can see from the locational charts from this season before June, Leake’s moneymaker is very bottom of the zone:

Compare this with the zone chart from June and you can see Leake’s concerted effort to throw more strikes has resulted in many more pitches middle-in at the expense of the bottom half that he dominated at the beginning of the season:

Establishing the inside fastball is a great tool for pitchers with high velocity, but with Leake’s pitch mix, it can be dangerous to leave a sinker middle-in if right-handed hitters have the ability to catch their hands up.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I would caution against reading into Leake’s start of the season as an indication of a fundamental change in stuff. Part of it was most certainly batted-ball luck. Even guys who pride themselves as being soft-contact-inducing studs generally cannot sustain a 0.234 BABIP. Whatever adjustments he made at the beginning of the year have faded. However, look for an adjustment in the coming months to move back toward the bottom half of the zone, especially when behind in the count. I would not be deterred by a slight uptick in BB/9 rate if I saw it accompanied by a decrease in exit velocity. If he can find the sweet spot between leveling out the velocity in his pitches a little more to keep hitters off balance and allow for the most movement possible, we could see another go-around of Peak-Leake.