Change You Can Believe In

While most teams have now played around 25% of their 2013 schedule, the reality is that taking a player’s stats at face value is still generally a mistake. Six weeks of baseball is not enough for the normal ups and downs to have evened out, and the leaderboards of mid-May will not resemble the numbers at the end of the season. At this point in the year, you are almost always better off looking at a player’s track record than you are looking at his 2013 performance.

However, there is an exception that proves the rule. There are some cases where a player is showing a pretty dramatic change in skills, and that change should cause you to discount their performance and put a little more faith in what they’re doing right now. Cliff Lee in 2008 is perhaps the most extreme example of this effect, as he showed up to camp with more velocity, a new cut fastball, and the ability to throw the ball wherever he wanted, which turned him from a back-end starter into a legitimate Cy Young contender. There’s no one having quite that dramatic of a conversion, but here are three players who have made a distinctive shift that should give us some reason to think they might just keep this up.

Kyle Kendrick, SP, Phillies

Kyle Kendrick has been a big league pitcher since 2007, and over the last six years, he’d thrown over 750 mediocre innings. Heading into the 2013 season, he had a career strikeout rate of just 12% and had an ERA- of 104, meaning he’d given up runs at a rate four percent higher than the league average. He was the quintessential pitch-to-contact swingman, capable of throwing the ball over the plate but not much more.

After a miserable 2008 season, Kendrick found himself in Triple-A in 2009, where he had the fortune of being teammates with a journeyman reliever named Justin Lehr. Lehr threw a change-up with a split-finger grip, and given that Kendrick was in need of a better off-speed pitch, Lehr taught Kendrick how to throw it. It didn’t come immediately, but he’s been steadily working it in as part of his repertoire ever since, throwing it 23% of the time this year. Here is how left-handed hitters have fared against Kendrick for each Major League season of his career (2009 excluded, since he spent most of it in Triple-A):

2007: 54.1 IP, .317/.374/.549, .394 wOBA
2008: 78.1 IP, .327/.404/.541, .408 wOBA
2010: 85.0 IP, .308/.367/.535, .389 wOBA
2011: 49.0 IP, .232/.327/.436, .330 wOBA
2012: 78.2 IP, .236/.318/.383, .308 wOBA
2013: 28.2 IP, .225/.265/.373, .277 wOBA

Kendrick has actually posted a higher K% against LHBs (19.7%) than RHBs (15.4%) this year, which would have been unheard of back when he was just a sinker/slider pitcher who belonged in the bullpen. The evolution of Kendrick’s change-up has allowed him to get to the point where he can go right after left-handed hitters, and he now has an out pitch he can throw against line-ups stacked with hitters from the left side. His sinking fastball still gets right-handers to hit a ton of ground balls, but now that his change-up has progressed to the point where he can actually get left-handed hitters out, Kendrick looks like a solid rotation option for the Phillies.

Josh Donaldson, 3B, Oakland

Last year, the Oakland A’s were planning on having Scott Sizemore as their starting third baseman, but he tore his ACL in spring training and would miss the entire season. The A’s didn’t have a lot of infield depth, so they turned to converted catcher Josh Donaldson as part of the solution coming out of spring training. He was, by any measure you want to use, absolutely awful.

From opening day to June 21st — when he was mercifully optioned to the minors — Donaldson came to the plate 100 times; he hit .153/.160/.235 with a 26/1 K/BB ratio, the kind of thing that just doesn’t fly in the land of Moneyball. Just as one walk in 100 plate appearances might suggest, Donaldson was a free swinging hack. He swung at 51.4% of the pitches he was thrown, including 37.0% of the pitches that were out of the strike zone. Hitters didn’t need to throw Donaldson a strike, as he would simply get himself out without requiring any effort on their part.

He came back to the big leagues a different hitter, showing a more disciplined approach, and hit .290/.356/.489 in 194 plate appearances after his August return. He still didn’t walk a lot, but he wasn’t chasing so many awful pitches, and he was forcing pitchers to throw him pitches in the strike zone.

This year, he’s taken that selective approach to a whole new level. In the first six weeks of the season, Donaldson has only swung at 43.5% of the pitches he’s been thrown, and more importantly, only 24.3% of the pitches he’s seen out of the strike zone. As a result, Donaldson has already drawn 19 walks, and his 11% walk rate is now above the league average. He already had decent contact skills, but laying off pitches out of the strike zone has allowed him to improve that as well, and now Donaldson has blossomed into one of the A’s best hitters. Essentially, Donaldson made the changes that everyone in Anaheim is begging Josh Hamilton to make. You don’t often see a player revamp his approach at age 27, but Donaldson has done just that, and it’s turned him into a legitimate Major League third baseman.

Roberto Hernandez, SP, Tampa Bay

The former Fausto Carmona’s change in approach can be summed up in one fairly simple chart.


Carmona was an extreme groundball pitcher in Cleveland, using his “tubro sinker” to force hitters to put the ball in play, but his emphasis on throwing hittable fastballs at bottom of the strike zone never really worked out the way he had hoped. Now a member of the Rays, Tampa has convinced him to become a strikeout pitcher, relying much more heavily on his slider and his change-up.

As Bradley Woodrum noted several weeks back, Hernandez had gone from throwing 13% change-ups to left-handed hitters in 2008 to 36% in the first few weeks of 2013, but he also was throwing change-ups to right-handed batters as well. For the first time in his life, Hernandez isn’t simply pounding fastballs at the bottom of the strike zone, and it turns out that his off-speed stuff is good enough to get hitters to swing and miss.

With a 113 ERA-, the conversion hasn’t turned him into an ace just yet, but the fact that Hernandez has nearly doubled his career strikeout rate without issuing more walks or allowing fewer ground balls spells good things for his future. Once his obscene 20.6% HR/FB ratio comes back more towards normal levels, Hernandez is going to look like a pretty good pitcher, and not at all like the one who used to go by his old name.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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