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How Eric Sogard Made History

Last Saturday’s Athletics vs. Twins game turned out just about as everyone expected, with Oakland winning the game 9-4 in what was a noncompetitive contest after the 5th inning. Minnesota chose to debut their #8 prospect, starting pitcher Trevor May, in a road game during a lost season against a team with the best run differential in the majors. They did this, one can only suspect, because they are the Minnesota Twins. From experience we may infer the answer to the question “what happens when we give a young man his debut against a pitching meat grinder?”, and so it was that Trevor May struggled, and struggled mightily. May lasted only two innings, gave up four earned runs, walked seven batters, and did not record a single strikeout. This is strange for many reasons, the main ones being that Minnesota is a pitch-to-contact team in its approach, and because no one has walked at least seven batters and not struck anyone out in their debut since Ricky Romero for the Blue Jays in August of 2012.

However, we’re not here to talk exclusively about Trevor May, even though his wild performance on Saturday night partially allowed this article’s existence. We’re here to talk about Eric Sogard, who quietly had a strangely historic night during an otherwise fairly pedestrian Oakland win. Eric Sogard is known, if he is truly known outside of the Oakland fan base, for two things: coming in second during this past off-season’s “Face of MLB” contest, and for his prowess with the glove.

Sogard doesn’t really hit: he’s currently slashing .216/.305/.271, and he hit his first home run of the year last week, a 349-foot missile down the right field line. Eric Sogard is one of those major leaguers who is in the league because he does one thing very well, and because he plays for a team that has the luxury of being able to carry a player whose value is determined almost entirely by defense. Make no mistake, Eric Sogard is a very good defensive second baseman: he has a UZR/150 of 8.5 that puts him 8th among active 2B this year with a minimum of 500 innings played. He is not, however, great with the bat.

That being said, let’s look at Eric Sogard’s batting line from Saturday night against the Twins, when he batted in the 9th position:

0-1, 1 R, 4 BBs, 1 SB

Eric Sogard walked four times while batting in the 9th position in the lineup on Saturday night. Take a moment to let that fact sink in, because it’s crazy. How rare is it for a batter in the 9th position in the lineup to walk four times? Since 1914, it has only happened 14 times including Sogard this past weekend. He’s the first member of the Oakland Athletics to ever do it. Only two other players since 1914 have accomplished this and also stolen a base in the same game: Desi Relaford (2002) & Brady Anderson (1990). On top of all of that, Sogard also made an error – because in a game when weird things are happening to a defensive second baseman, of course he did. He’s now the only player in baseball history to have walked four times in the 9th spot, stolen a base, and made an error in the same game. That’s reaching a little bit, but hey, baseball history!

Just pointing out the rarity of this phenomenon isn’t really interesting enough, though. Let’s go a little deeper. Specifically, let’s ask ourselves this question: “how many pitches did Eric Sogard ‘get to hit’ on Saturday night?” By “get to hit” I mean pitches in the strike zone that have a high likelihood of good contact – i.e., not “pitcher’s pitches” on the corner low and away or nasty breaking pitches located perfectly. Yes, this is subjective, as every hitter is different in their preference of locations to swing at and hit thrown pitches, but we’re more generally going to look at pitches that were over the plate and hittable. We know the answer to this question isn’t going to be a lot of pitches, given the four walks. However, for a light-hitting second baseman batting in the 9th spot, who should expect to be challenged over the plate in almost every at-bat, it’s a fun question to ask. It also allows us to look at some GIFs.

I’ve gone ahead and split up every at-bat that Eric Sogard had on Saturday into different GIFs and overlaid them with circles: green for balls and red for strikes. Sogard saw 22 pitches on Saturday, which tied him for the team lead with Derek Norris. Let’s dig in.

1st AB, 2nd inning – 2 out, none on, P Trevor May:

AB1_Cropped

Sogard saw four pitches, all four of which were balls. Only the first pitch of the at-bat was close to in the strike zone, and Sogard was either taking all the way or correctly identified the pitch as a changeup and laid off.

Pitches to hit tally: 0

2nd AB, 3rd inning, 1 out, 1 on: P Samuel Deduno:

AB2_Cropped

This was the biggest battle of the game for our nerd power-harnessing second baseman, as he saw seven pitches and went to a full count. The 2-0 strike might have been the most hittable pitch Sogard saw all night, even though it was low in the zone and breaking slightly toward the outer half of the plate. The 3-1 pitch, called a strike, probably could’ve been called either way, and Sogard pulled a 3-2 liner foul off of an inside fastball off the plate before taking his second walk.

Pitches to hit tally: 1

3rd AB, 5th inning, 1 out, none on: P Samuel Deduno:

AB3_Cropped

Deduno had just given up a two run homer to Stephen Vogt in the previous at-bat, so he might’ve been a little rattled when facing our young hero. Sogard walked on five pitches, with the 1-0 high fastball strike the best pitch to hit. However, when you’ve already walked twice, why start swinging now?

Pitches to hit tally: 2

4th AB, 6th inning, 2 out, 1 on: P Ryan Pressly:

AB4_Cropped

Nothing to swing at. The two low and away pitches were the closest to strikes, but they were also easy takes after two pitches high and outside that weren’t close. Four walks achieved.

Pitches to hit tally: 2

5th AB, 8th inning, 2 out, 1 on: P Anthony Swarzak:

AB5_Cropped

At last Eric Sogard is bested. After a high and outside pitch was taken for a ball, allowing us to dream of the first-ever five walk night out of a hitter in the 9th spot, Sogard swung at a nasty low and away pitch on the corner and meekly chopped out to the pitcher. Not even Sogard’s blazing speed could rescue him this time. Unfortunately, that was not a pitch to hit/swing at.

Alas, poor Sogard, we knew him well.

Final pitches to hit tally: 2

To wrap it all up, here we have a GIF of all of the pitches Sogard saw on Saturday (from the catcher’s perspective). I’m viewing the strike zone that was generated by the system with a healthy bit of skepticism, as it’s not adjusted for the batter or the umpire. Still, it gives us a concrete idea of how many pitches Sogard saw that were worth swinging at:

sogard

The answer is two or three at most, which is insane, because the Minnesota Twins have the fifth-lowest BB/9 in the majors, and Eric Sogard is hitting around .215 with one home run.

Baseball is great because Giancarlo Stanton hits majestic 500 foot moon shots, but it’s also great because guys who are 5′ 10″ (on a good day) defensive specialists who platoon at second base draw four walks against a team that is known for pitching to contact. Players like Eric Sogard aren’t barred from the history books, even though they’re often overlooked in favor of the mashers chasing home run titles; they simply make their history in a very different and sometimes more interesting way. Maybe we have to dig for it a little. Or maybe Eric Sogard just needs to not swing for a whole game and let the stars align.

This post is dedicated to my good friend Adam Sax, who is nice enough to help me out with the deep stats (and the last GIF) and is the biggest Sogard fan I know.


Sonny Gray, Perfecting What Works

Tip: Click on any acronyms for an explanation in the FanGraphs glossary of terms.

With his final turn in the rotation for July completed, we’ve now had almost exactly one full year of Sonny Gray – one year of the 24-year-old starting pitcher, the up-and-coming staff ace, the dueler of Playoff Verlanders. In that year, we’ve seen him do some great things, like going eight innings with nine Ks and no runs against the Tigers in Game 2 of the 2013 ALDS. We’ve also seen MLB Fan Cave forcing him to prank New Yorkers as a result of some unknown fine print embedded in his rookie contract. Above all else, the one thing we’ve always known is that Sonny Gray has a really good curveball. Let’s take a look at it for all of its 12 to 6, 80-MPH Uncle Charlie glory, from a game against the Astros in August of last year:

Gray_Curve_Early_2

How good is his curveball? He has never given up a home run off of the pitch, with the only extra-base hits against the curve in his career being four doubles. In the past calendar year, Sonny Gray has saved more runs with his curveball than any other pitcher in baseball, and is behind only Corey Kluber and Yu Darvish in Runs Saved/100 curveballs. Having watched Kluber a lot, I suspect his slider/slurve is actually being classified as a curveball; I think it looks like a slider, but PITCHf/x doesn’t, so I will defer to the all-knowing pitch computer. Regardless, with the metrics we’re about to examine, Sonny Gray has one of the best curveballs in the game. What we’re going to focus on specifically are the advances in his curve’s effectiveness, spurred on by an adjustment in the way he throws the pitch.

To start, let’s take a look at the top-15 starters by wCB and wCB/C for the past calendar year:

wCB_Leaders

As stated before, Gray is at the top in both of these categories. We should put a little more stock into wCB/C, as it normalizes all pitchers to runs saved per 100 pitches, taking away the advantage that one player might have due to throwing a certain pitch more frequently than another player. This is important for what we’re looking at, because Sonny Gray throws a lot of curveballs. How frequently does he throw curveballs? Here are the leaders for percentage of curveballs thrown over the last calendar year:

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 9.03.14 PM

The words “second only to Scott Feldman” don’t come up very often, but here they are. Gray throws his curveball a ton. Not only has he always leaned on the curve as a major weapon in his arsenal, but he has actually increased his number of curves thrown since he came into the league every month except for May (when he maintained his % thrown) and June of this year, when he seemed to temporarily lose a feel for the pitch and threw more changeups. However, his first start of July had Gray saying this after holding Toronto to one run over seven innings:

“That was the idea, to really get (it) going again,” Gray said of the curveball. “I think the last five or six starts it’s been OK, but it hasn’t been a big factor. We did some things a little different this week and I was able to find that again.”

Over the last 30 days, Gray has thrown the curveball more than ever, up to over 32% for the month. Not only that, he has found more effectiveness in the pitch, with his whiff % on the curve up to a career-best 19.2% during July. There’s also reason to believe that this isn’t simply a good month for Sonny Gray’s curveball – what we are now seeing is the fruition of a change of approach with the way he throws the pitch that has been coming for some time now. Let’s take a look.

Here we have the release speed of Sonny Gray’s curveball for every start since he was called up:

Release_Speed

He’s throwing the curve harder than he ever has, adding over three miles per hour since he started pitching in the majors. That’s not a small change. On top of the speed increase, he’s cut about 2.5 inches of vertical movement off his curve between his first start in the majors and now:

Vertical_Movement

Finally, he’s added more three-dimensional depth to his curve in the form of a top-3 best horizontal movement over the past calendar year. Only Corey Kluber and Charlie Morton have had better horizontal movement on their curves in that time period.

Add all of that up, and we have this 84-MPH curve from his last start against the Orioles:

Gray_Curve_Late_2

It now looks more like a slurve, with its high release speed and nasty late break away from right-handed hitters. As Eno Sarris included in his great article from October of last year, Gray said he “adds and subtracts” with the same grip on his curve to move between the 12-to-6 and slurve (which is sometimes classified as a slider) varieties. However, it seems as if he has leaned more toward the slurve option as time has gone on.

One question that arises out of this is “why throw the slurve more?”

Given his whiff % on the curve has increased as he has added velocity, I’d say that fact alone has supported the move to the slurve over the 12-to-6. However, there’s another potential reason that isn’t strictly rooted in statistics, and could be more about what goes into an elite pitching approach: by increasing his arm speed and flattening out the vertical movement of his curve, Gray can further deceive batters into thinking he’s throwing hard pitches before the bottom drops out. His struggles to find consistency with the changeup are well documented, so why shouldn’t he adjust his best breaking pitch to better fool hitters for whiffs and weak contact? As we’ve seen with Yu Darvish, the pinnacle of an ace approach may be one that includes a “great convergence” of arm slots and release points, in which every pitch looks hard until it’s not, or until it is.

Gray’s horizontal release points for all of his pitches are closer to one another than they ever have been during his major league career. Not surprisingly, his curveball and fastball were released on average at the almost identical horizontal point during his May and July starts, when he posted career-best whiff rates on his curveball (18.6% & 19.2%, respectively). June was an aberration, as Gray seemed to lose his release point in general and was tinkering with his delivery, leaning more on the changeup:

Release_Points

Sonny Gray has work to do on parts of his game before he takes the next step into the true elite of starting pitchers. His walk rate has actually increased this year to 8.5%, owing mostly to a lack of fastball command in deep counts, and his changeup is still very much a work in progress as a third pitch. However, his adoption of the hard curve and syncing of arm angles is a positive step toward dominance, and is a sign that he knows what works; he’s now perfecting it.

And now, my first go at a DShep Darvish-like GIF of Sonny Gray’s 12-to-6 curve from last August along with his harder slurve from his last start to compare:

Sonny_Curves_Final

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Josh Donaldson vs. the Elite

Tip: Don’t understand an acronym? Just click on it and it will take you to the corresponding FanGraphs glossary of terms.

Watching the final game of the Yankees – A’s series last week, which featured one of the game’s finest pitchers in Masahiro Tanaka, I had a thought during Josh Donaldson’s final at-bat against the Japanese hurler. After he struck out to finish 0-3 against Tanaka, my mind traveled back to the ALDS game 5s of the past two years. It’s no secret the A’s crashed out against a dominant Verlander in both 2012 & 2013, just like it’s no secret that Josh Donaldson was almost entirely absent in both of those very important games: 1-7, 0 BB, 3 K (with all 3 of those Ks coming in 2013′s game 5). 7 at-bats is obviously an incredibly small sample size, especially for an up-and-coming player getting his first taste of the postseason. However, for what Donaldson means to the A’s, there were certainly quiet rumblings of disappointment among the fan base.

Verlander is very good; it seems he’s especially good in high leverage situations when his team needs him. Josh Donaldson is also very good, posting 7.7 WAR last year in 158 games. This year, Donaldson has been even better, posting 3.4 WAR through just 62 games and asserting himself in the conversation of the best overall players in baseball. A sizable portion of that WAR comes from the plus defense he plays, but his bat is what he’s known for: since getting called up from the minors on August 14th, 2012 (the point at which his consensus “breakout” started), he’s batted .291/.377/.509 with a wRC+ of 148 (which means that Donaldson has created 48% more runs than a league average player). Only one player has higher WAR in 2013 and 2014 combined (Mike Trout), and only nine other players have higher wRC+. Josh Donaldson is an elite defensive and offensive player by many metrics.

After watching Donaldson’s at-bats against Tanaka, I started wondering how he fares against other elite pitchers in the game, having an unproven hunch he might struggle against them. We know that most everyone struggles against elite pitching, as that is generally the very definition of elite pitching; however, there’s the larger question of just how much impact elite pitching has on hitting statistics, and how elite hitters fare against elite pitching. One might assume that elite hitters are better able to succeed against elite pitching. Looking at Donaldson’s statistics, you wouldn’t think that is the case.

Pulling data from the start of the 2013 season, I’ve identified some of the “elite” pitching that Donaldson has gone up against. I’ve tried to identify pitchers he has faced most often in terms of plate appearances – fortunately (for our sake at least), those pitchers he’s seen most often are also elite arms in his division, like Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish, and Hisashi Iwakuma. All pitchers on this list are ranked in the top 15 for xFIP for 2013-2014 (minimum 160 innings pitched) with the exception of Verlander (77th) & Lester (41st). I’ve included them as their FIP rankings are in the top 40, and because I’ve already used Verlander as a benchmark above. Here are Donaldson’s statistics for 2013 & 2014 against some of the best arms in the game, with his total statistics overall in the final line for reference:

Donnie_VS._Elite

These figures don’t include the 2012 and 2013 postseason series against the Tigers, which actually helps Donaldson’s case. However, let’s get the small sample size disclaimer out of the way before we continue. 113 plate appearances is about a month’s worth of full-time hitting statistics, which is not a tremendous sample to draw from, but not insubstantial either. What’s clear from these numbers is that Donaldson really struggles against elite arms, posting awful strikeout and walk rates and severely depressed average, on base, and power numbers (just 7 extra base hits in 104 at-bats).

One larger question we have to answer is whether Donaldson’s drop in production vs. elite pitching is congruent with the standard drop of production any hitter would expect when going up against this level of competition. To find that out, I combined all of the batting-against statistics for these 12 pitchers for all of 2013 & 2014, a total of 12,534 plate appearances, which gives us a “league average” line vs. these pitchers. The findings? These elite arms are really good. Big surprise, right? In fact, the league strikeout and walk rates against these pitchers is very close to Donaldson’s rates, with the walk rate exactly the same. Here are Donaldson’s numbers vs. the elite pitchers, his overall numbers vs. all competition, and then the league average line vs. the elite arms:

Donnie_BB_K_Rate

Even though we’re looking at the best pitchers in baseball, these statistics were still a bit surprising to me, as these league-wide walk and strikeout rates are abysmal from a hitter’s perspective. How does Donaldson’s slash line compare to the league average? Again, let’s take a look:

Donnie_3_Stats

We know that Donaldson’s poor BB and K rates fit tidily within the standards of the league line, as seen in the first graph, but his slash lines tell us that he’s been far worse than the rest of the league against these elite pitchers in the limited plate appearances we’re looking at. Shouldn’t we expect a player of his offensive caliber to fare better than league average against this level of competition?

The answer is not necessarily. Donaldson’s approach at the plate has a large bearing on the fact that he struggles against elite pitching. He is not a contact hitter, posting below average marks in swinging strike percentage, contact percentage, and Z-Contact percentage. In fact, he has changed his approach over the past calendar year specifically to try to hit more home runs, resulting in an almost 5% spike in his strikeout rate from 2013 to 2014 (16.5% to 21.1%), but also increasing his home run per fly ball rate by almost 7 points to 17.3%, an elite mark for someone who plays half of their games in one of the most pitching friendly ballparks in baseball. Coupled with an increase in his walk rate, Donaldson’s run creation output has benefited from Chili Davis’ hitting instruction, sitting on pitches he is more likely to drive and swinging hard at the expense of a lower average and higher strikeout rate. Donaldson batted .301 in 2013 with an inflated BABIP (.333), but with his change of approach, he projects somewhere in the .270 range moving forward.

Donaldson is the profile of a hitter that may be more apt to struggle against the elite pitching in the league due to the simple fact that elite pitchers tend to have makeups consisting of low walks and high strikeouts. For example, against “Power” pitchers (pitchers that are in the top third of the league in strikeouts plus walks), Donaldson has a career line of .210/.316/.356, showing that he struggles with pitchers who have strikeout potential, whether elite or not. He’s not alone in being a top offensive player that struggles against power pitching in relation to his overall performance: the benevolent baseball god Mike Trout slashes a fairly pedestrian (for him) .269/.379/.473 against the high strikeout arms.

The most important point to remember when looking at these statistics is that Josh Donaldson is currently one of the best players in baseball, regardless of his past performance versus elite pitching. He is a player that has enjoyed only a year and a half of sustained high-level performance and is continuing to make adjustments in hopes of greater success, which could completely alter his future at bats versus these elite arms I’ve highlighted. However, my gut tells me he may always struggle with these pitchers due to his approach at the plate, which trades contact for power – an Oakland A’s team-wide trait. It bears further scrutiny in the future for his potential playoff success, as he will obviously face more elite pitching in October when the average arms have gone home for the offseason. Will Donaldson and the Oakland A’s home run-centric approach carry them to a deep playoff run against the best arms in the game? Fortunately for us, it looks like we’re going to find out.

Wondering about the two home runs he hit off of Bumgarner and Sale? EXTRA CREDIT BONUS FREE BASEBALL GIFS!

Off Madison Bumgarner: May 27, 2013, 2-0, no out, 1 on, 4-seam fastball:

Donnie_Bums

Off Chris Sale: June 8th, 2013, 1-1, 1 out, 3 on (oppo taco all the way), 2-seam fastball:

Donnie_Sale