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Clay Buchholz: Not What He Appears to Be

After the 2013 season, Clay Buchholz was kind of interesting. He put up some crazy good numbers with an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 1.74/2.78/3.41. It was clear that Buchholz was good in 2013, putting up a 3.2 WAR while being limited to just 108 innings of work. This may have caused some to be weary of Buchholz following the 2013 season. Sure he was good during the Red Sox championship run, but he also had trouble staying on the field. Combine that with several outliers, a lot of luck (.254 BABIP, 83.3% LOB%), and it was easy to see that there were a lot of red flags in Buchholz’s performance.  While we shouldn’t discredit 108 innings of awesome work, we also shouldn’t put all of our weight on it either. Buchholz’s 2014 season taught us that as well.

Buchholz’s 2014 season looked pretty bad.

In 2014, Buchholz put up an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 5.34/4.01/4.04. The first thing that pops out is that awful ERA. However, ERA isn’t everything, and there’s a compelling argument that it’s not the most trustworthy statistic. However, we do know that run prevention is some kind of a skill. Buchholz’s RA9-WAR between 2013 and 2014 fell from 5.0 t0 -0.5. There was some bad luck as well. In order for Buchholz’s skillset to work he needs to have a low BABIP, and the seasons in which he has been successful his BABIPs were somewhere in the .250-.260 range. In 2014 his BABIP was .315, which was the highest it’s ever been aside from a 75- inning stint early in his career.  This is not entirely Buchholz’s fault, however it’s clear that he took a step back as a pitcher in 2014.

However, peripherally Buchholz actually seems in line with his career norms.

2007 1.59 2.75 3.70 0.8
2008 6.75 4.82 4.24 0.8
2009 4.21 4.69 4.04 1.1
2010 2.33 3.61 4.07 3.5
2011 3.48 4.34 4.28 1.1
2012 4.56 4.65 4.43 1.5
2013 1.74 2.78 3.41 3.2
2014 5.34 4.01 4.04 2.2
Career 3.92 4.06 4.08 14.1

Buchholz has proven that he’s the type of pitcher who succeeds by outperforming his FIP, and for the most part he has done a decent job of doing just that. In his career year of 2011, he had nearly a 1.30 ERA-FIP differential, and in 2013 the trend was the same, with his ERA being a whole run lower than his FIP. It’s clear that this is how Buchholz has made himself an above-average starting pitcher. That’s not to say that this is not a skill set that can’t work. Matt Cain has always outperformed his FIPs, and done so at an elite level. Shelby Miller looks like the type of pitcher who may do the same thing. There are exceptions to everything, and it’s clear that there are some pitchers who can do a good job of beating out their FIPs. Buchholz may or may not be one of those pitchers.

It is clear that Buchholz, for a good chunk of his career, has masked his average to below-average peripherals by doing a good job of preventing runs from scoring. That eventually caught up with him in 2014 when his luck ran out. Regression from the 2013 season was inevitable. Buchholz increased his K% in from 16% in 2012 to 23%. This is what made his peripherals look really good in 2013. However, an increase in strikeouts isn’t always sustainable as the increase in strikeout rate usually doesn’t carry over into the next season.

Buchholz never struck out batters at such a high clip in his career and given that this was a small sample — 108 innings — regression in 2014 was predictable. However, it’s not like Buchholz regressed to something that was godawful in 2014. In fact, he actually regressed to something that was pretty similar to what he has always been. There were a couple of concerns throughout the season in terms of his ability to repeat his delivery, which is quite concerning, but at the end of the day the stuff hadn’t changed that much from 2013 to 2014.

Whiffs Per Swing: 

Year Hard Breaking Offspeed
2013 18.21 22.67 48.09
2014 15.25 26.43 40.39

There was a decrease in his ability to get whiffs on two of his pitch categories. However, the decreases weren’t that extreme. One could label an 8% change on Whiffs per Swing on his off speed stuff as drastic, but at the same time this only regressed Buchholz back to getting strikeouts at a typical 16-17% rate rather than the 23%. At the end of the day, Buchholz’s skill set isn’t about striking guys out. His approach is about not walking too many guys, making weak contact and keeping the ball in the park. He has never excelled at being a command artist, in fact in some parts of his career he has been quite lousy at keeping his walk rate down as well as keeping the ball in the park. If a pitcher is not going to strike guys out at a high rate, in order to be elite he has to be able to excel at either keeping the ball in the park or not walking guys. Buchholz has been very okay at both keeping the ball in the park and not giving up walks.

Buchholz has built up a conventional reputation of being something special by posting low ERAs, a no hitter, and maybe some post-season dramatics. However, Buchholz may just be a mediocre pitcher masked by some stellar defense. He doesn’t have that stellar walk rate and he doesn’t seem immune to home runs like Matt Cain in his prime. However, Buchholz in 2014 wasn’t as bad as many thought he was. Sure a 4.06 FIP in 2014 — where pitching rules — isn’t the prettiest figure, but at the same time there are still plenty of teams that would consider the figure very serviceable. Positive regression is likely for Buchholz, however asking him to come back to those pretty looking ERAs is asking a lot. By FIP Buchholz has never been anything elite, and he has proven that he is nothing elite. Buchholz is what he is, a very serviceable pitcher with some highlights in his career such as postseason heroics and a no-hitter. Buchholz is not terrible nor is anything spectacular; he is somewhere in between.

Royals are Foolishly Thinking about Lackey and Miller

Social media is fun a tool to use. It makes following the news a lot easier. You can find hundreds of stories within a matter of minutes on Twitter. I was scrolling through my twitter feed when I found this cute little rumor:

This is just rumor, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Royals are in  hot pursuit for those two arms, but  it is a rumor worth exploring.

Dayton Moore wants his team to win this year, and that’s not completely unreasonable. After all, Moore gets paid to build competitive teams, and if he consistently put lousy products on the field he wouldn’t hold onto his job very long. However, the Royals situation isn’t as competitive as Moore would like to think.

Tigers 57 45 .559 0.0 91.2 70.8 .570 89.1 % 4.9 % 94.0 % 91.4 % 53.3 % 27.4 % 15.7 %
Royals 53 51 .510 5.0 81.8 80.2 .496 4.7 % 10.0 % 14.7 % 8.9 % 3.8 % 1.5 % 0.7 %

The problem appears to be that the Tigers have the AL Central locked up with nearly a 90% chance of winning the division. That would leave the Royals in the midst of a wild-card race. A wild-card berth is not as valuable as it used to be because it results in a one-game toss up. This year, that one-game toss-up would be a difficult one for a team like the Royals to win because they’re likely to face one of the two of the best teams in baseball: the Angels and the Athletics.

In a hypothetical situation where the Royals somehow secure a wild card, they get to face either the Angels’ dynamic offense — including Mike Trout — as well as a fortified bullpen, or they could face the all-around, well-built Oakland A’s. While it’s extremely hard to predict the result of one game, and I don’t possess a magical crystal ball, the odds that the Royals advance to the ALDS don’t look very promising. Given the likelihood that the Royals a) don’t make the playoffs and b) if they do it would most likely be through a wild card matchup that they’re unlikely to win, they should probably not be looking to acquire the services of John Lackey and Andrew Miller.

Based on the work that Jeff Sullivan did a couple of weeks ago, we know that a team that acquires an ace like David Price would roughly increase their playoff odds by about 10%. This is a rough estimate, but that’s the upside of adding someone like Price. I doubt that Lackey would increase playoff odds by 10%, but ZiPs/Steamer projects Lackey to have between 0.9 and 1.1 WAR for the rest of the season. For context, Shields is projected have a WAR of 1.3 for the rest of the season, and Price is projected to have a WAR of 1.5 for the rest of the season.

The difference between Price and Shields is marginal for the rest of the season. However, the difference between Lackey and Price is somewhat significant, so just to be a little more accurate, we have to scale back those increased playoff odds — for Lackey — from 10% to 8%.  I have done no calculations; we’re just simply guesstimating here.

Say that the Royals decide to add a guy like Lackey, and they get the upside of a 8% increased chance of making the playoffs. That still only puts them at roughly a 22.7% chance of making the playoffs. That’s assuming that Lackey performs the way the projections expect him to perform. There’s still a chance that they make a run for a wild-card spot, but the other thing to take into consideration is the price of Lackey and Miller.

Relievers are considered extremely valuable assets if you’re going to the playoffs — so the price on Miller is going to be high — especially if you plan on being in wild-card games, as the strategy in those one-game matchups is to empty the bullpen.

Boston controls a large part of the market, because as the Rays have started winning they’re probably having second thoughts on moving Price. Boston has many arms, and as we’ve seen this week with the Peavy trade, they’ve committed to being sellers at the deadline. They have two of the best available pitchers on their roster: Lester and Lackey.

Therefore, since they have two of the better pitchers on the market the asking price is probably going to be high even on Lackey, given that the next best pitchers available are Bartolo Colon and A.J. Burnett. Rumors have been circling that the Red Sox want at least an average major-league starter in return for a package of Lackey and Miller. There would probably have to be some sort of prospect thrown in, as well. Selling the farm to increase your odds of making the playoffs that aren’t that high to begin with isn’t the best use of the Royals’ resources.

You could make the argument that trading for Lackey is justifiable because he has 2015 club options for a team-friendly $0.5 million, and if the Royals are building for 2015, then they would be bolstering their rotation. The problem is that Lackey’s contract is done after one year — at which point he would be 36 years old — and his skills would be declining. Trading a young player that you could control for multiple years for an aging veteran that you control for one year doesn’t sound like a very good deal.

The Royals simply are not in the position to upgrade with the present in mind. They should probably think about selling rather than buying, but they still want to be relevant in 2014. If the Royals are set on hanging around for a wild card, they should follow the model that the Yankees have set of acquiring low-cost/high reward upgrades; a guy that you hope to squeeze two months of good baseball out of. Otherwise, paying a premium for a pitcher when your team is unlikely to make a run at the playoffs is not the best move that the Royals could be making right now.

Gregory Polanco’s Power Struggle

Baseball has spoiled us. For the past two years baseball teams, spectators, and analysts have been in awe of the young talent in the game. Last year,  the likes of Yasiel Puig and Jose Fernandez came out of nowhere and dominated the league. The year before, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper came up  and were beyond exceptional baseball players.

This year has been a little bit dry in terms of top prospects coming up and turning into the best players in the league. George Springer has been an exciting player to watch but not dominant like Trout, Puig or Fernandez. There’s a case to be made for Jose Abreu, but he was an international signing. Abreu wasn’t developed in the White Sox’ farm system for multiple years. Instead, Abreu was major league ready upon signing his contract.

The other top prospect whose performance hasn’t been captivating — at least during his first month in the big leagues — is Gregory Polanco.

Polanco is considered an extremely toolsy young player. Most scouting reports agree that Polanco has a pretty good glove — profiling as a corner outfielder — and he has a good arm.  Polanco’s bat has been more of a projection than a reality. In the minors it was easy to see that he had some talent. In his minor league career he put up an .842 OPS. There were still some rough edges around Polanco’s game as his ability to hit for power fluctuated during his time in the minors.

Season Team PA ISO SLG
2010 Pirates (R) 200 0.085 0.287
2011 Pirates (R) 203 0.124 0.361
2011 Pirates (A-) 10 0.000 0.100
2012 Pirates (A) 485 0.197 0.522
2013 Pirate (A+) 241 0.161 0.472
2013 Pirates (AA) 286 0.144 0.407
2013 Pirates (AAA) 9 0.000 0.222
2014 Pirate (AAA) 274 0.194 0.540

There were times in Polanco’s minor-league career in which he hit for decent power, but he definitely bounced back and forth between having above-average power and power outages. In his 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates Top Prospects post, Marc Hulet described some of Polanco’s difficulties:

“At the plate, he flashes the ability to hit for both average and power but he’s still learning to identify and handle breaking balls.”

Polanco has been in the big leagues for about 40 games. In his first couple of plate appearance he looked like a pretty dynamic toolsy outfielder. However, as he has accrued more plate appearances, it has become apparent that he is still an unfinished product. Polanco has hit .247/.324/.352. which has been good for a WAR of 0.2. This is a pretty small sample size of only 183 PA’s, however Polanco has been having difficulty hitting for power. Right now Polanco is getting on base a decent amount, but his lack of power offsets the value of his ability to get on base.

Fourseam 230 46 6 8 0 11 2  0  0 .283 .326 .044 .325
Sinker 207 37 6 8 0 6  0  0 0 .162 .162 .000 .194
Change 57 13 3 0 0 6  0  0  0 .462 .462 .000 .600
Slider 111 32 9 2 0 5  0 0 3 .250 .531 .281 .250
Curve 56 12 5 1 0 1 0  0 1 .167 .417 .250 .167
Cutter 66 14 5 1  0 3  0 0 1 .286 .500 .214 .375
Split 26 9 2 0  0 1  0 0 0 .111 .111 .000 .143
Slow Curve 1 0 0 0 0  0  0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000

Pitchers have mostly fed Polanco fastballs. In his first 40 games, Polanco has seen a fastball around 60% of the time, and that’s the pitch against which he seems to be able to have the most success. Polanco also doesn’t hit for a lot of power when he does make contact with a fastball (.044 ISO against fastballs). Despite that, Polanco was known for not being able to handle breaking balls — in the minors — so far he has actually been able to take advantage of some curveballs, cutters and sliders. All five of the home runs he has hit have come off of either a slider, a curveball or a cutter.  The story seems to be that he can catch up to the hard stuff, but doing something meaningful with it is a different story.

We’re dealing with a small sample size,  so we don’t know whether Polanco has a propensity for hitting sliders, cutters, and curveballs a long ways. Other off-speed/breaking pitches — such as sinkers and splitters — have been difficult for Polanco to hit.

2014 O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
League 30.6% 65.7% 46.4% 66.0% 87.4% 79.6% 45.1% 60.1% 9.2%
Polanco 28.3% 59.3% 41.4% 53.3% 88.3% 74.4% 42.1% 54.2% 10.0%

Polanco is still showing good knowledge of the strike zone as he’s drawing a lot of walks this season. Despite his proclivity for drawing walks, there are some issues with his plate discipline stats. These mainly have to do with his ability to make contact. While Polanco does swing at lower number of pitches outside of the zone  — with an O-Swing%  of 28% — he only makes contact with those pitches 53% of the time.

The only good part of Polanco’s offensive performance has been his ability to draw walks. However, if you’re not making enough contact and not hitting for power, that doesn’t make you a productive major-league hitter.

Polanco has not necessarily been a great hitter in his first couple of months in the majors. I’m sure some people expected Polanco to step in and be one of the best hitters in the game. The truth is that this game is incredibly hard, and there are certainly growing pains when it comes to young players. Polanco has to figure out how to hit for more power to be a useful major leaguer. He hasn’t done that.

That doesn’t mean that Polanco won’t do it; we are dealing with a small sample size of just 183 PA’s, and it’s completely plausible that he makes the adjustment necessary to fix his problems. Polanco showed that he could adjust quickly.  That’s why he rose so quickly through the minors; he was able to adjust to the new challenges each level presented him. Demoting Polanco is completely pointless as he hasn’t been bad, and he has nothing left to prove in the minors.

Polanco now needs to prove himself in the majors, and that might just take some time.

World’s Best Pitcher Faces World’s Best Hitter

If you’re an East Coaster  — like myself — and you stayed up late enough to watch the Angels-Mariners game on Saturday night, you were in for treat. The game, based on the pitching matchup alone, would have been an exciting one to watch: Garrett Richards versus Felix Hernandez. There’s a fair argument that Hernandez is the best pitcher in baseball right now. The same could be said about Clayton Kershaw, but if you’re talking about pitchers who have been healthy for the whole season, then King Felix is your guy.

Richards has been no slouch either, turning himself into the bona-fide ace in Anaheim, pitching to a ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 2.55/2.69/3.21, which is good for a WAR of 3.2. This game previewed as more of pitcher’s duel than a slugger’s fest.

However, this game didn’t just feature the game’s best pitcher.  It also featured arguably the game’s best hitter: Mike Trout. So, how does the world’s best pitcher pitch to the world’s best hitter?

First Pitch

trout pitch 1

This is in the fourth inning, and it’s Trout’s second time facing Hernandez.  Hernandez starts out with a fastball. Sucre set up for a pitch low and away, and Hernandez misses with a 92 MPH up and in. A slight mistake, but definitely not a costly one. The count is 1-0.

Second Pitch

Like any great pitcher, Hernandez fixes the mistake he made on his first pitch. Sucre sets up for the same location, and Hernandez throws a 92 MPH fastball low and away. Hernandez nails it right on the money. The pitch was well executed, and Trout even thought about going around on it. Trout doesn’t go around, but that doesn’t matter because the pitch is a called strike. Hernandez evens up the count at 1-1.

Third Pitch


Clearly,  the Mariners had a plan: pitch Trout low and away. This is the third time that Sucre set up in that location, however this time Hernandez decided to flash his signature changeup. This hard changeup  probably would have bounced in the dirt had Trout not fouled it off. It seems as though Hernandez plans on going after Trout by  first establishing the fastball in a particular location, and then attack with the off-speed stuff. The count is in Hernandez’s favor at 1-2.

Fourth Pitch

Hernandez comes after Trout with another changeup, and Sucre sets up in the same location as the last pitch. Hernandez — like any pitcher — is clearly going for the punch out. Hernandez is trying to execute the same pitch, while hoping for better results. Unfortunately he misses inside for a ball. Trout has worked the count to 2-2.

Fifth Pitch

When you throw a pitch two times in a row, you run the risk of becoming predictable. Hernandez decides to break his streak of throwing changeups, and goes for the hard stuff. Sucre sets up in the same location that he always does, however Hernandez floats 93 MPH fastball up and away for a ball. The count is full. The best thing about a full count is that you know that one of three things will happen: strikeout, walk or the batter makes contact.

Sixth Pitch

Well, something did happen. Trout made contact, but it was nothing  meaningful,  as he fouled off a 94 MPH fastball from Hernandez. Nothing is really new from the Hernandez-Sucre side. Sucre sets up in the same location he has been setting up for the entire at bat, and Hernandez probably would have hit his spot had Trout not fouled it off. The count is still 3-2.

Seventh Pitch


Hernandez comes back with a 94 MPH fastball, hoping to hit the low and away location that Sucre sets up. However, Hernandez leaves the pitch up a little bit just enough to slightly miss the location that Sucre had set up. Trout is one of the best hitters in the game, and the best hitters in the game can take advantage of a pitcher’s slight mistake. Trout almost takes this pitch yard , as it bounces off the wall for a double. This double ended up being nothing significant, as Hernandez managed to work his way out of the inning without Trout scoring.

Crisis averted for Hernandez.

Trout happened to come out successful in that at-bat as he got himself a pretty big hit against Hernandez, however later on in the game Hernandez managed to strike out Trout.

Hernandez finally gets Trout on his signature nasty changeup that breaks on the inside part of the plate. If you look at Mike Trout’s heatmap,  you know that going inside on him is risky business. Dave Cameron even wrote a whole article about it. Luckily, Hernandez’s changeup is good enough that he can get away with pitching Trout inside.

One of the best hitters in the game faced off against one of the game’s best pitchers. You could see why these two are the best at what they do. They recognize mistakes, capitalize on those mistakes, and correct their own mistakes. There are a lot of at-bats each year in baseball, and to someone who knows nothing about baseball, this might look ordinary.  However,  if you look closely enough, you can see the intricacies of a particular at-bat. That’s when you start to realize how complex baseball is.

Wait, They’re Good Now?

In the 2008 season the Yankees started the year with two young pitching prospects in their rotation: Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy. These two pitchers were expected to be the future of the Yankees rotation. That didn’t really go as planned. The two pitchers struggled, and they both earned demotions as they combined for an ERA of 7.44. Hughes and Kennedy were simply not ready for major-league action. They gave up too many walks, didn’t strike out enough guys, and didn’t keep the ball in the ballpark. That’s a recipe for disaster when it comes to trying to succeed as a pitcher at the major-league level.

Nonetheless, these two pitchers showed enough promise as prospects for the Yankees to actually wait on them. In fact, after their demotions, Hughes and Kennedy spent most of their 2008 season in the minors due to mediocrity and injuries. The  Yankees were patient for a year with their young talent, however there is only so much time that goes by before you go from being a developing prospect to struggling major leaguer. The Yankees quickly gave up on Kennedy, and traded him to Arizona, where he showed decent success as a starter. In three seasons with Arizona, Kennedy compiled a WAR of 10.2.

The Yankees saw something in Phil Hughes. Hughes showed some promise in 2009 as a reliever, and then in 2010 as a starter who compiled a WAR of 2.5. However, there was the problem of Yankee Stadium not suiting Hughes’s skill set. Hughes was a fly-ball pitcher in a stadium that was known for being a hitter’s haven. Hughes always struggled as a Yankee when it came to keeping the ball in the park. The lowest home run rate that Hughes posted as a full season Yankee starter was 1.28 in 2010.

Both Kennedy and Hughes had some success over the  years; one could even argue that Kennedy was one of the best pitchers in the league in 2011. However, for the most part their careers have been a mixed bag. But times have now changed. Kennedy is now with his third team, the Padres, and Hughes is with his second team, the Twins. After mediocre 2013 seasons, the two pitchers are actually performing well.

2014 Season K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Hughes 7.99 0.81 0.67 3.92 2.62 3.22 3.7
Kennedy 9.67 2.46 0.72 3.47 2.93 3.17 2.3

As of right now, Hughes is fourth in the league for FIP among qualified pitchers. The only pitchers who have been better are John Lester, Adam Wainwright, and Felix Hernandez. Hughes is third in the league for WAR, right behind Lester and Hernandez. For the first half of the season Hughes has pitched like an ace.

Hughes has had the second best walk rate among qualified starters. Any walk rate below two is considered to be good, and Hughes’s rate right now is downright ridiculous. We can’t expect Hughes to be this good at not walking people, however the ZiPs/Steamer projections have him finishing the year with a walk rate between 1.31-1.38. That’s a pretty good projection, considering Hughes has never had a walk rate lower than 2.16. Hughes has also improved his home run problem, as he isn’t letting an egregious number of baseballs leave the park. The main change in Hughes approach has been his implementation of the cutter. Between 2012 and 2013, Hughes had dropped his cutter. This year, he reintroduced the pitch — throwing it 23% of the time — and dropped his usage of a slider. The change has proven to be useful for Hughes, and he no longer needs to rely on his fastball.

Then there is Kennedy. Kennedy has turned himself into the ace of the Padres staff this year. The main difference in Kennedy is that he has actually gained velocity on his pitches. Throughout his career he has always been a soft tosser. For most of his career, Kennedy averaged 89-90 MPH on his fastball. In 2013 he was up to 90 MPH. This year he is averaging 92 MPH.

Not only does Kennedy’s fastball have more velocity, but he’s also throwing the pitch more than he ever has since 2009. He has thrown his fastball 48% of the time this year. The last time he threw it more than 40% was 2010.

While it may be good to have more velocity, it also could be a little bit of concern when it comes to Kennedy because his secondary offering don’t appear to be very good. In fact, all of his pitches have negative wRAA values except for his fastball, which has a wRAA of 12.8. Most of Kennedy’s strikeouts have come off of his fastball. Having a good fastball is nice, but when Kennedy gets older — and his velocity starts to decline — he’s going to have a hard time being successful if he doesn’t have good secondary offerings.

Overall, the changes for these pitchers seemed to have worked. They’re succeeding in their own environments. While the Yankees never were able to see their prized prospects come into fruition, these two pitchers have found success away from New York. Learning to pitch at the major-league level is a learning curve. Some pitchers dominate right away. Other pitchers struggle for their first couple of years, and then things somehow start to click for them. I’m not suggesting that Kennedy and Hughes have figured out pitching, nor are they the best pitchers in the majors. However, they have proved that they are  at least very average starters, or maybe even above average major-league pitchers. Only time will tell.

Jedd Gyorko’s Struggles

A couple of months ago, I wrote a community post on FanGraphs stating that I felt as though Jedd Gyorko was a special player. I summed up the fact that Jedd Gyorko goes against the normal second baseman positional identity. Rather than being the slappy hitting second baseman,  Gyorko was a second baseman with some serious power. A second baseman with power is not something you see everyday. You can really only point to guys like Robinson Cano and Ian Kinsler in today’s game, that have played second base, and have had success because of their power.

Gyorko’s success last season was mainly driven by his power. Gyorko hit 23 homers to go along with a line of .249/.301/.444.  Gyorko’s contact rate was below league average in 2013 with a mark of 73%, and when you pair that with a walk rate of only 6.4%, you end up getting a player who makes most of his value from driving the ball a long ways.

This season has been a bit of a different story. Gyorko has been one of the worst hitters in the league. In just 56 games this season — before going down with a foot injury — Gyorko has hit an abysmal line of .162/.213/.270. Gyorko’s lack of production could be attributed to a below average BABIP of .192. Gyorko has been unlucky, but it’s also likely that he’s also just not been very good.

In 2013, Gyorko hit a slightly higher FB% than league average (39%), and that has remained the same for 2014. The difference this year has been that Gyorko has been hitting more groundballs, more IFFB’s, and less line drives. Whenever you’re hitting less line drives, you’re probably not getting as many hits.

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing % Swing % O-Contact% Z-Contact % Contact % Zone %
2013 33.6% 70.8% 50.1% 60.0% 82.1% 73.8% 44.4%
2014 30.0% 66.3% 47.5% 54.4% 84.8% 74.8% 48.1%

If you look at Gyorko’s plate discipline, the story hasn’t actually been that much different from 2013. For the most part there’s only been a +/- 6% margin between his plate discipline stats from 2013 to 2014. The contact rate has been steady. Gyorko is swinging at less pitches outside of the zone, however of those pitches outside of the zone he’s making less contact than he did in 2013. For the most part it looks as though Gyorko’s plate approach has remained relatively consistent.

Jedd Gyorko » Heatmaps » RAA/100P | FanGraphs Baseball.

In 2013, Gyorko’s heatmaps indicated that he had success mainly on pitches low and inside. However, he hit pretty well on pitches inside most of the strike zone excluding pitches up and in or low and outside.

Jedd Gyorko » Heatmaps » RAA/100P | FanGraphs Baseball.

In 2014 nearly all of locations in the strike zone Gyorko has struggled with hitting. Gyorko has only had success with pitches that are  low and inside, and even that location has a pretty small area. For the most part Gyorko has not been able to punish anything inside the zone.

Overall pitchers have been able to get away with throwing Gyorko strikes. However, the thing that is also mysterious about Gyorko is that the power has been gone. Even if Gyorko hasn’t been making a whole lot of contact, you would at least think that when he did make contact it would be going a long ways. Thanks to Baseball Savant’s Pitch F/x tool, I was able to take a look at the velocities of pitches which Gyorko was hitting home runs. None of Gyorko’s home runs came off of pitches that were slower than 90 MPH.

Ironically,  despite all of Gyorko’s home runs having come off of high velocity pitches, he has struggled against fastballs this season. In 2013 Gyorko had a 3.6 wRAA against fastballs. In 2014, Gyorko has had a -8.3 wRAA against fastballs: nearly a 12 run difference.  The struggle against fastballs is something that is new for Gyorko, but what has remained steady for Gyorko between 2013 and 2014 has been the struggle against breaking balls. Gyorko has posted negative wRAA against every single type of off-speed pitch. When you can’t hit anything very well, and have never been able to hit off-speed pitches well, it makes the pitchers job very easy.

This dilemma is not something I know how to fix. It may be something mechanical or it may be something mental. Right now, Jedd Gyorko is on the disabled list taking care of a foot injury. Hopefully he can take advantage of his rehabilitation and make some adjustments to his swing. In my posts a couple of months ago I mentioned Jedd Gyorko in the same sentence as Dan Uggla. This season Gyorko might be showing that he may never reach Uggla’s ceiling. He’s played like Uggla’s floor. However the good news is that there is a whole second half of baseball, and Gyorko still young. There’s still the chance that Gyorko can fix whatever it is that is making perform terribly, and be the second baseman that breaks positional identities.

The Cubs Hope Lightning Can Strike Twice

In the 2013 offseason, the Cubs did something smart. They signed RHP Scott Feldman. Feldman had a rough 2012 season in Texas, posting an ERA of 5.09. However, his peripherals indicated that he was fairly unlucky during that season, leading him to be vastly undervalued. FanGraphs’ own Dave Cameron opined that Scott Feldman was the poor man’s Brandon McCarthy. Feldman was a nice, cheap addition for one year, $6 million.

The Cubs’ strategy of betting on FIP and xFIP seemed to pay off as Feldman quickly became an asset by the time the trade deadline rolled around. In a move that flew under the radar, the Cubs traded Feldman for Steve Clevenger, Pedro Stroop, international bonus slots, and a struggling Jake Arrieta.

It hasn’t taken the Cubs long to see the fruits of their return as Jake Arrieta has become a bright spot on an otherwise struggling Cubs team. In 64 innings, he has compiled a 2.4 WAR and an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 1.81/1.97/2.50.

Arrieta has been downright filthy for the Cubs in the 64 innings that he has pitched this season. While this is a small sample, it’s indicative that there has been a change in Arrieta’s approach to pitching that is proving to be successful.

While the acquisition of Arrieta didn’t make headlines last year, the Cubs have definitely made headlines over when they completed potentially the largest blockbuster trade of the season, sending pitcher Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland Athletics in return for Addison Russell, Billy McKinney, Dan Straily and a PTBNL.

While Russell and Samardzija are the main components of the trade, there is something interesting about the other acquisitions.  If you break the trade into two parts, there’s McKinney and Russell for Samardzija, and then there’s Straily and a PTBNL for Hammel.

It looks as though the Cubs are hoping that history can repeat itself.

The Cubs signed Hammel — for not a lot of money — hoping that he would perform well, and that he could be used as ‘trade bait’ midway through the season. Hammel exceeded expectations during his time with the Cubs, and now he is netting another reclamation project for the Cubs. Sounds an awful lot like the Feldman trade the Cubs made a year ago.

Straily has struggled this year, posting an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 4.93/5.64/4.43. This is a small sample size of only seven starts,  however the projection systems don’t rate him too favorably for the rest of the year. ZiPs projects Straily to have an ERA of 4.44 and FIP of 4.80 by the end of this year. Steamer projects Straily to have an ERA of 4.45 and FIP of 4.93.

Straily has been getting a decent number of strikeouts, however the root of his struggles have been keeping the ball in the park (16.4% HR/FB), and keeping his walks down. It’s reasonable to think that Straily’s HR/FB will come down given that this is a small sample size, and he’s not nearly this bad at keeping the ball in the park; regression to the mean is expected.

Unlike Arrieta, Straily doesn’t necessarily have the blazing raw stuff. Arrieta flashed a 94 MPH fastball even through his struggles with the Orioles. You could definitely see some raw talent. Straily is in the midst of a velocity decline in which his fastball has declined from 90 MPH in 2013 to 88 MPH this year, and he has lost at least a mile and a half on each of his other pitches. However,  Straily does appear to have a good slider and decent changeup which — combined with regression back to the mean — is a good enough reason for the Cubs to think that there is some talent that can be unlocked.

It’s unlikely that the Cubs will be able to turn Straily into a potential ace, however it’s hard to bet against their track record. They have managed to turn Feldman, Hammel, and Arrieta into something. The have proved that they are good at scouting as they boast arguably the best farm system in the league. Maybe they see something in Straily with which they think that they can work, and realize that he might be good to buy low and hope that he turns into an asset. The Cubs trust their ability to turn pitchers that are nothing into something. While Russell, Samardzija, and Hammel may be grabbing all the headlines, it might just be Straily that surprises us in a year or two.

Brandon Belt Fooling Around with His Identity

We know not to read too much into statistics at the beginning of the season. As of right now, Allen Craig is hitting a line of .154/.211/.231. Sure, it’s ugly — but then it’s only been 14 games. A year ago, Michael Morse hit six homers in his first 14 games, and then only hit seven more for the rest of the season. The small-sample-size game can work so many different ways. A hot start could indicate a breakout season, but then again it could not. A cold start could indicate a clunker, then again it could not. One interesting story in the first 14 games of the season is Brandon Belt.

Belt is off to a hot start this season, and is tied — with notable power hitters Jose Bautista and Pedro Alvarez — for second in the league in homers, with five. There is reason to think that this is Belt’s year to become a legitimate power threat. Belt’s power did increase from an ISO of .146 in 2012 to .193 in 2013. For context, Adrian Beltre had an ISO of .193 in 2013 and hit 30 home runs.

Given this evidence, and the hot start, it could be that Belt is developing into a first baseman’s mold. A first baseman who can hit for power, hit fourth in the lineup, and drive in RBIs, excites baseball fans.  However, Belt hasn’t been a conventional first baseman. In fact, he goes against the positional identity.

Belt has been well known for his passivity. In his first two full seasons, he had a walk rate of at least 9.1% and a .360 OBP in both of those seasons. Belt has always shown tremendous knowledge of the strike zone. As a 21-year-old, he took a page out of Nick Johnson’s book and posted a walk rate of 17.4% in 77 games at High-A Ball.  Although Minor League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, Belt’s high walk-rate definitely means that he’s no free swinger. Belt is a similar first baseman to Freddie Freeman and Joey Votto. Belt might not be as good as those guys, but the profile remains the same: first basemen who walk a lot and hit well, but don’t hit an outrageous number of homers.

Oddly enough, the passivity for which Belt has been known hasn’t shown up in his hot start. Through his first 14 games this season, Belt has had a walk rate of 4.8%. Again, this is based on only 14 games and therefore there is a lot of time for Belt to show his patience, however the trend is interesting: Belt is known for drawing a lot of walks and not hitting home runs, begins the season by hitting a lot of homers and not drawing a lot of walks.

Belt’s walks are definitely going to go up; he’s too much of a passive hitter to not walk a lot, and you can’t be a viable major leaguer walking only 1.9% of the time. However, the main question is whether or not the power is sustainable. The updated ZiPs and Steamer projections estimate that Belt finishes the season with between 21-22 homers this year. Both systems don’t see Belt having a significant power jump.

However, it is worth noting that most of the dingers Belt has hit have come on pitches that were low and inside.

Belt was able to turn on a loopy off-speed pitch from Zack Greinke that was low and inside, and take it to right-field. Most of Belt’s other home runs have come off of low inside pitches. This is where Belt’s power is coming from.

While the early power surge is promising, Belt may not make a gigantic leap as a power hitter. Neither projection system sees this kind of leap, and pitchers are probably going to learn to avoid throwing inside to Belt. Belt may be a little more aggressive this year, his OBP and SLG may trade some points, however he’s still going to get a good number of walks. It’s too early to tell whether Belt has turned into the power hitting first baseman that most people want him to be. For now, Belt is still Belt — a first baseman with moderate power and a lot of patience.

Jedd Gyorko: The Second Baseman With Power

When Robinson Cano signed his 10-year, $240 million deal with the Seattle Mariners, it validated two things: (1) that the going rate for players who can consistently put up +5 WAR is at least $200 million, and (2) a second baseman who can hit like a first baseman is extremely valuable. There aren’t a lot of second baseman in the league who have the 30-homer, .500+ slugging percentage, and .316+ ISO, seasons that Cano does.

Second baseman aren’t considered to be players who have an excess of power. You can make an argument for guys like Ian Kinsler and Dan Uggla. However, neither is the player he used to be. Uggla is a shell of his former self, who can run into a dinger every now and then, but he’s not going to return to the power threat that he once was. While Kinsler has shown some above-average power for a second baseman, most of that power can be attributed to the friendly confines of  The Ballpark in Arlington. Kinsler’s power has also been waning over the past three years, as both his home run totals and slugging percentage have been in decline.

Kinsler’s Power Stats

2011: HR 32, SLG .477,  ISO .223

2012: HR 19, SLG .423, ISO .166

2013: HR 13, SLG .413,  ISO .136

Kinsler is obviously declining as a power threat, and the change from The Ballpark at Arlington to Comerica Park will probably not be kind to him, either. However, just because Kinsler is not hitting for above-average power doesn’t mean that he’s not a valuable second baseman. Kinsler can still hit for some power, and his glove is decent enough to make him one of the better second basemen in the game.

Uggla’s value is derived from his ability to draw walks and hit home runs. He has always had  trouble making contact, which in return drove down his OBP, making power the main reason he was good.

Uggla’s Power Stats

2011: HR 36, SLG .453, ISO .220

2012: HR 19, SLG .384, ISO .164

2013: HR 22, SLG .362, ISO .183

Like Kinsler, Uggla’s power has declined. However, this is to be expected given that he is 34 years old. What is more concerning is Uggla’s decline in slugging percentage, as he has had sub .400 slugging percentages for the past two years.  In both his 2012 and 2013 season, Uggla’s value derived solely from dingers. Uggla has  become a one-dimensional player when it comes to his bat.

Despite that two of the most powerful second basemen in baseball are declining in power, there remains hope in the form of the San Diego Padres’ new, young second baseman Jedd Gyorko.

Gyorko has the potential power of a first baseman. Last year, he hit 23 home runs, had a slugging percentage of .444, and ISO of .200. Considering that he was playing in Petco Park, which decreases homers by 13% for right-handers, his 2013 campaign was very impressive.

ZiPS and Steamer project Gyorko to hit between 20-25 homers next year, and to be somewhere between a +2.5 – 3.5 WAR player. Even if Gyorko’s 2014 campaign mirrors conservative projections, he is still going to be a top-10 second baseman.

Gyorko does comes with flaws. There are definitely some holes in his swing, which make him prone to strikeouts. He also is not going to have a high OBP. Gyorko is going to be a powerful bat with a decent glove, which recalls Uggla. Uggla has certainly had his struggles, and it’s not looking like he will turn things around. However, previously he was similar to what Gyorko appears to be: decent glove, above-average power.

Many of those who follow baseball — front offices, fans, certain baseball writers — seem to have profiles for positions. First basemen, third basemen and corner outfielders are thought of as powerful. Shortstops, center fielders  and second basemen are thought of as  having quick hands and being speedy. However, a player like Gyorko is valuable because he sets himself apart from the typical second baseman profile. Instead of being speedy and hitting for a high average, he’s powerful. Second basemen that hit like first baseman are rare, and that’s why Gyorko is a special player.

Platoon-Split All-Star Team

The 2013 All-Star Game has already been played, and the result was decided. The AL defeated the NL in a 3-0 effort in a game  that was filled with players of all different types. The aging veterans who want a last hurrah. The rising stars who are getting their first taste of what it is like to play among the elite in baseball. The overpaid superstars and the underpaid superstars. However, I thought it would be interesting to assemble an all-star team of players with large platoon split.

Call it an Island of misfit toys or misfit all-stars, if you’re feeling Moneyball-esque.


Vs. RHP Jason Castro: PA’s 380, wOBA .371, wRC+ 137

Vs. LHP Derek Norris: PA’s 173, wOBA .426, wRC+ 177

Combined: PA 553, wOBA .387, wRC+ 149

Castro doesn’t actually lead all catchers against RHP. That honor belongs to Joe Mauer. However, Mauer ranks within the top three catchers against left-handed pitching, which makes him not really have a huge platoon split. Therefore I rendered him ineligible as a platoon partner. It makes sense that the Athletics would have a catcher who is so effective in hitting left-handers, because they also have John Jaso who is known to mash righties (.363 wOBA vs RHP). If there is anything an Astro fan should be happy about  — which there isn’t much — it’s the fact that Jason Castro eats right- handed pitching for lunch and he also is one of the better catchers in the league.

First Base

Vs RHP Chris Davis: PA’s 434  wOBA .473, wRC+ 203

Vs. LHP Nick Swisher: PA’s 224 wOBA .398 wRC+ 158

Combined: PA’s 658, wOBA 447 wOBA, wRC+ 187

Davis was considered the best first baseman, as he led the league in dingers and compiled a WAR of 6.8. While Davis was performing at near-immortal levels against right-handed pitching, he was also very vulnerable against left-handed pitching with wRC+ of 104 against LHP. Nick Swisher is an interesting case because he is a switch hitter, but really struggles against right-handed pitching with a wRC+ of 93. This makes me wonder if Swisher should consider going the Shane Victorino route, and drop batting lefty to focus solely on batting right-handed. We don’t know if this strategy works for everyone — it’s probably a case-by-case situation — but it’s something to keep in mind.

Second Base

Vs RHP Robinson Cano: PA’s 420, wOBA .410, wRC+ 160

Vs LHP Brian Dozier: PA’s 148, wOBA .421, wRC+ 171

Combined: PA’s 568, wOBA .408, wRC+ 161

I had a hard time picking Cano simply because while Cano is definitely better at hitting righties than lefties, he’s not that bad at hitting lefties. Last season, Cano had a wOBA of .343 and wRC+ of 114 against LHP. That’s not a bad mark, however it is a sizable enough difference to create a platoon split. On the other hand, this points out that Dozier is a little underrated, and if he is used in the right roles, he could be a very valuable player. I find this platoon an interesting dichotomy: an overpaid superstar in Cano and a cost-effective role player in Dozier.


Vs. RHP Ian Desmond: PA’s 507, wOBA .344, wRC+ 118

Vs. LHP Jhonny Peralta: PA’s 136, wOBA .414, wRC+ 164

Combined: PA’s 643, wOBA .344, wRC+ 126

Shortstop was by far the hardest position for which to make a platoon. The LHP side was easy with Peralta because he led all shortstops when it came to facing lefties. The problem came with the right-handed side because the guys who could hit righties well — such as Tulowitzki and Lowrie — could also hit lefties pretty well. I settled with Desmond because even though he is well balanced against LHP and RHP, he wasn’t as balanced as Tulo or Lowrie.

Third Base

Vs. RHP Adrian Beltre: PA’s 516, wOBA .370, wRC+ 129

Vs. LHP David Wright: PA’s 150, wOBA .454 wRC+ 199

Combined: PA’s 666, wOBA .397, wRC+ 143

There were a lot of good-hitting third baseman last year. Miguel Cabrera led all third baseman in hitting against right handers and left handers. Wright and Beltre are number two to Cabrera. They also both have large platoon splits. Wright can hit RHP, it’s just that the split between PA’s against RHP versus his PA’s against LHP is huge. Beltre, on the other hand, is somewhat insignificant against lefties.

Right Field

RHP Daniel Nava: PA’s 397, wOBA .392, wRC+ 146

LHP Hunter Pence: PA’s 178, wOBA .415, wRC+ 174

Combined: PA’s 575, wOBA .399, wRC+ 154

This is where things can get a little arbitrary because there are a lot of corner outfielders, and therefore a lot of corner outfielders who have platoon splits. You could sub out both outfielders for a combination of Michael Cuddyer and Giancarlo Stanton. However, I thought that it would be more fun to point out how undervalued Nava is. Nava had a breakout year in Boston, and he did so by destroying right handers. Pence actually isn’t all that bad against RHP, wRC+ of 119 against RHP, which is kind of surprising considering he’s a lefty with a long swing. Bruce Bochy should probably take more advantage of Pence’s ability to hit left handers well. I think that both players are underrated.

Center Field

Vs. RHP Shin-Soo Choo: PA’s 491 wOBA .438, wRC+ 183

Vs. LHP Carlos Gomez: PA’s 140, wOBA .421, wRC+ 171

Combined: PA’s 631, wOBA .430, wRC+ 179

Choo is easily one of the worst defensive center fielders in the game, and he probably should shift over to a corner outfield spot in Texas. A lot of people express concern over the Choo contact because of the poor defensive play combined with a massive platoon split. Choo is godly against RHP, but below average against LHP (wRC+ of 81). The three-year, $24 million contract extension that the Brewers gave Gomez looks like it was a steal. Not only did they get a guy who punished left handers, but they also got a guy who led the NL in WAR, had great defense, and even some decent pop.

Left Field

Vs. RHP Dominic Brown: PA’s 381, wOBA .366, wRC+ 133

Vs. LHP Justin Upton: PA’s 164  wOBA .422, wRC+ 174

Combined: PA’s 545, wOBA .382, wRC+ 145

There isn’t anything interesting about why I picked these two, other than the fact that I did consider Matt Holliday instead of Brown. However,  Holliday’s split wasn’t as large as Brown’s. I wouldn’t expect Dominic Brown to perform as well against righties again; he’s in for some serious regression to the mean.

If these platoons were put into practice you could probably get as good or better production than the elite hitters in baseball. This list, just like the actual all-star game roster, is diverse. You have players who are considered elite — such as Choo, Cano, Wright, and Beltre — and then the undervalued guys such as Dozier, Nava, Norris and Castro. It’s surprising that most teams don’t take more advantage of platoons since they could get elite production from two players for a fraction of the cost.