Signs of Improvement

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece looking at the other warning signs that surrounded Matt Moore. Velocity was just one of the many areas where Matt Moore was showing decline heading into the 2014 season. Moore’s rates were in a two-year decline (from 2012 to 2013) in each of the following areas:

  • F-Strike%
  • O-Swing%
  • O-Contact%
  • Z-Contact%
  • Contact%
  • Swing%
  • Zone%
  • SwStr%

It all started with the first pitch strike for Moore. Throwing a first pitch strike is very important for pitchers, something Craig Burley covered over at The Hardball Times some years ago:

Now if that perfectly average pitcher threw first-pitch strikes 80% of the time instead of 57%, his ERA would decrease by about 0.64. If every pitcher on a team did it, it would save that team about 100 runs a year, or ten wins, turning average teams into pennant contenders.

The folks at Viva El Birdos constructed an excellent visual to show the difference in outcomes after the first pitch has been thrown which further highlights the importance of that first strike:

Matt Moore had the worst F-Strike% of all pitchers that threw at least 150 innings last season just one season after he had an above-league average F-Strike%. Having to constantly pitch from behind, with decreasing velocity, was one of the reasons why his walk rate spiked up to a 11.8% rate. He had difficulty commanding his fastball as he worked the edges of the zone rather than challenging batters, but a 17-4 record and a 3.29 ERA distracted people from the warning signs in his other indicators. Simply put, that was a statistical house constructed on a questionable foundation.

What about pitchers that are trending in the opposite direction?

Using those same indicators from the previous story, Jeff Zimmerman was able to extract a list of pitchers that showed improvements in those areas over the past two seasons and have even shown further improvement so far in 2014.

The following table shows the pitchers who showed improvement in at least half of the eight categories over the past two seasons:

Alex Cobb X X X X X X
Tim Hudson X X X X X X
Clayton Kershaw X X X X X
Henderson Alvarez X X X X X
Jordan Zimmermann X X X X X
Matt Garza X X X X X
Edinson Volquez X X X X
Ervin Santana X X X X
Gio Gonzalez X X X X
Jason Vargas X X X X
Justin Masterson X X X X
Madison Bumgarner X X X X
Tim Lincecum X X X X
Travis Wood X X X X
Zack Greinke X X X X

Alex Cobb heading that list is no surprise given the amount of helium he had during draft season, but Tim Hudson showing up just behind him may be. Hudson’s skills at this stage of his career are very stable, as is the case with most veteran pitchers. Yet, through three starts this season, he has yet to walk a batter and his strikeout rate as well as his whiff rate is the highest it has been in recent memory.

Henderson Alvarez showing high on the list may be puzzling due to his bad start, but the skills were there to start the season. The issue that beared watching was his HR/FB ratio was just 2.3% last season, so regression was to be expected and he is getting it on three fronts. That ratio has regressed back to his career norm so far this season and an early .444 BABIP and career-high 9.6 BB% are compounding the pain points for his owners in 2014.

Edinson Volquez is now starting to get some noise as the latest mess Ray Searge and the Pirates have fixed, when in fact the reclamation project was already underway with him. Finding the strike zone with regularity was always the challenge with him, and he quietly improved over the past two seasons. While the rates were still below the league-average, they were improving, and so far this season, are continuing to do so. The fact Volquez’s Zone% is over 50% for the first time in his entire career is a tip of the cap to the Pirates for once again taking someone else’s trash and turning it into something serviceable.

Tim Lincecum is 20-30 with a 4.85 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP since the start of the 2012 season. As tempting as it is to discard him and move on, the fact he has shown improvement in four of the eight areas above makes it hard to do that. He is off to a bad start this season, but he is still striking guys out and has walked just one batter this season. Do not throw him away just yet.

Lastly, Jason Vargas is improving in some interesting areas. He is not throwing any harder than he ever has, but he is missing more bats both in and out of the zone and throwing more first pitch strikes. In fact, his improvements date back to 2011. He is a great example of pitching from ahead and getting that first strike and getting batters in protect mode rather than attack mode.

Keep an eye on these pitchers to see if the improvements over the past two seasons are indicators of improved results in 2014. So far, for many on the list, it has been.

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7 Responses to “Signs of Improvement”

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  1. Chicago Mark says:

    Nice write Jason. What about first strike decliners? Or is that in one of the attachments? Do you recommend picking up Volquez in a 13 team league with minimum 7 pitchers?
    Thanks again.

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  2. jdbolick says:

    I mentioned Lincecum’s first strike percentage and zone percentage in the comments of another column this morning, noting that he had this more aggressive approach in his earlier years before the velocity decline. Even though the results so far have been discouraging, I love that approach and really hope it’s conscious decision rather than a sample size fluke.

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    • stonepie says:

      im holding onto him. 2.36 xfip vs his 7.20 era, a babip at .349 and a 1/3 of all fly balls have left the park.
      looks like a buy to me

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  3. bdmccormick15 says:

    Why is an increase in Swing% considered an improvement area?

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    • Jason Collette says:

      Pitcher is throwing more strikes, or pitches perceived as strikes. That can lead to weak contact, shorter plate appearances, and longer outings.

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  4. MLB Rainmaker says:

    I don’t mean to dump on your articles Jason, I just don’t believe there is that much predictive value in aggregate plate discipline numbers. Plate discipline by pitch type (FB,CU,CH) may have more value, but just throwing all offerings in a blender and spitting out results doesn’t get us much, other than F-Str% and SwStr%.

    And on F-Str%, there are two logical fallacies you’re not accounting for:

    1) First pitch strikes that were put in play. Those pitches are still going to count as F-Str%, but AVG/OBP/SLG isn’t going to be factored into your 0-1/1-0 math, which misses part of the story. You’d expect a batter to swing at a first pitch strike, you wouldn’t expect them to swing at a first.

    2) A linear value for higher F-Str%. Player at bats aren’t random variables, teams scout pitchers and know tendencies. Pitchers that thrown lots of first pitch strikes get more aggressive hitters. I’d guess that you line up a guy with a high F-Str%, high Zone% and low SwStr%, you get a guy with a bad FIP and high AVG/OBP/SLG.

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