Archive for June, 2010

How Much Have Young Pitchers Contributed to the “Year of the Pitcher”?

There has been plenty of talk this year comparing 2010 to 1968, also known as the Year of the Pitcher.  While I believe the comparison is a bit farfetched, there is an aspect of this discussion that does grab my attention.  This renaissance is being led by a young group of pitchers such as Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Johnson and Stephen Strasburg, and is a group that many are considering to be one of the best of all time.  After seemingly going through somewhat of a dry spell during the early 2000’s, it appears that the latest troupe of pitchers has arrived en masse.  Many people are comparing this group to the vaunted group of pitchers that debuted in the late 1960’s, including Hall of Famers Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Jim Palmer and Don Sutton.  

I am a big subscriber to the theory that people think whatever is happening in the present is the greatest event of all time, so I decided to compare just how good the young pitchers of this generation were compared to their counterparts from years past.  I took a snapshot of Major League Baseball right now in 2010, as well as the end of the 1970 season and the 1990 season.  1990 was chosen because it was halfway between the two year’s in question, and would give an indication of whether or not the late 1960’s and today’s era were special or just the norm when it comes to young pitchers.  Using the Baseball Reference Play Index, I identified the pitcher’s age 27 and under who I thought had accomplished the most prior to the given years.  In my analysis, nothing that happened after the cut-off years is taken into consideration; I just want to know how good these pitchers were at the given dates.  Also, please keep in mind the era’s, as the ERA numbers from the 1970 group are not as impressive as you may think.  It was just not worth it to calculate the ERA+ of each player to illustrate my point, especially thanks to the presence of WAR, and I think most of the people reading this are smart enough to realize that a 3.50 ERA in 1970 is not the same as in 2010.  All WAR data prior to 2010 is from Rally’s WAR database, and 2010 information is from FanGraphs.

1970
1970

Reading through the names on this list is pretty impressive.  However, when you look at the numbers they lose some of their lustre.  For example, at the end of the 1970 season, Don Sutton was 25 years old, owned a career record of 66-73, and had only posted two seasons with an above average ERA, the best being a 110 ERA+ in 1966.  Hardly Hall of Fame material.  Many of these players went on to have very successful careers, but the fact of the matter is it is highly unlikely that people in 1970 were talking about a golden age of young pitchers.  Relative to the rest of the league, there was not much special about these guys outside of a select few, which can be seen by the average WAR/200 IP of 2.93.  The majority of them had their best seasons after 1970, as evidenced by the presence of only two Cy Young Award winners. 

1990
1990

As you can see, this list is much shorter, and there certainly was not as much young pitching depth as twenty years prior.  However, the quality is far superior, as the ERA’s are very impressive when compared to league average, and the average WAR is higher than 1970 by .72.  This group includes four Cy Young Award winners, and Roger Clemens was just entering his peak.  Time has not remembered this group as kindly as there is only one slam-dunk Hall of Famer (Maddux), a solid HOF candidate (Smoltz) and a tarnished legend (Clemens).  However, when taking a snapshot at the end of the 1990 season, I believe this group is stronger than the top candidates from 1970.

2010
2010

Now let’s take a look at today’s players.  Obviously the win totals are suppressed as players spend more time in the minors and make fewer and shorter starts.  However, outside of Nolasco and Santana, the ERA numbers are very impressive, and the average WAR is slightly higher than the 1990 group.  They are a little short on accolades, but I would not begrudge you if you argued that the 2010 season is not finished, and following this season we can probably put CYA-’10 next to Jimenez or Johnson, and maybe ROY-’10 next to Strasburg.  This group is fairly equal to the 1990 group and I believe we have several exciting years of baseball ahead of us thanks to these guys.

Conclusion

This is certainly a very subjective topic as it is very difficult to discuss players from the past without letting their future accomplishments cloud your judgement.  I have done my best to isolate this flaw by only considering data from before a certain date when each of these players was still considered young.  If I had to rank these groups given the statistics shown above, it would go 2010, 1990, 1970.  However, we also must remember that the pitchers from the 1960’s carried a much heavier workload.  On average, they had thrown 1,075 innings while the most recent group averages only 619 innings pitched.  Rating WAR on a scale of 200 IP might not also be the best measure, as these pitchers often threw more than 250 innings per season.  If we change our baseline to 250 IP the average WAR jumps to 3.67, which is more in line with the other two samples.

Another thing to consider is that human nature does not allow us to remember and process partial careers, and as such, most people consider the pitchers who debuted in the 1960’s as far superior to those in the 1980’s.  Considering the careers that Carlton, Seaver and the rest of that group went on to have, I can understand why.  If you only take away one thing from reading this article I hope it is an understanding that nobody will be able to remember exactly how we felt halfway through the 2010 season about our young pitchers.  Time will make the memories murky, and ultimately, this group will be measured based on the overall success of their careers, not just what they accomplished prior to 2010.  If Tim Lincecum continues to lose velocity and is done by age 30 and Stephen Strasburg blows out his arm in 2013, future generations will not be talking about all of the great young pitchers we were fortunate enough to see in 2010.  Enjoy them while you can.

This article was originally published at MLB Insights. Thank you to everyone at FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Projection and Bloomberg Sports for providing the information required for this research.


Bunt it Like Barton

Daric Barton, first baseman for the Oakland Athletics, is currently tied for the Major League lead in sacrifice bunts. And a lot of people really do not like that.

Over at Athletics Nation, an A’s fan site, statistics-savvy contributors have been calling for manager Bob Geren’s head for months. Joe Posnanski agrees. He wrote a column the other day suggesting that, among other things, “[s]omebody tell that man to stop doing that immediately.” Matt Klassen at FanGraphs also agrees, arguing that every single one of Barton’s bunts has been a bad idea. How could the team that led baseball’s statistical revolution in the late-1990s and early-2000s be so stupid? How can Billy Beane sit back and let his manager throw away out after out by allowing Barton, a good on-base hitter, to sacrifice his plate appearances?

As Tom Tango explains, it is not so simple. Tango makes two points: 1) Barton may have a chance to reach base when he bunts; and 2) all the bunting may force infielders to play in, giving him more hitting room and making him more successful when he does choose to swing.

The latter point is difficult to measure, but Tango has provided help with the former. His run expectancy calculator is a wonderful tool that allows some analysis of Barton’s bunts. It is based on the idea that every combination of baserunners and outs has a certain average “run expectancy.” There can be zero, one, or two outs in the inning, and there are eight possible configurations of baserunners (empty, first, second, third, first and second, first and third, second and third, loaded). Multiply the three out states by eight baserunner states, and there are 24 different situations that can come up in an inning. For each of these states, a team can expect to score, on average, a certain number of runs to the end of the inning — the run expectancy. Input a batting line into the calculator, and you get a table that shows the run expectancy for all 24 states.

One more consideration before we plug in some numbers: the current A’s team is not good at hitting. Since they score fewer runs per game than most teams (in other words, fewer runs per 27 outs), each out is worth a little less than it would be for an average team. Their lack of offensive punch also magnifies the value of a runner moving 90 feet closer to home.

I plugged the A’s season batting line through Monday into the calculator, and all run expectancy numbers come from the resulting tables. Let’s first look at the numbers when Barton bunts with a runner on first and no outs. On average, the A’s should expect to score 0.873 runs between this situation and the end of the inning. If Barton successfully bunts the runner to second, the state changes to a runner on second and one out — a situation which yields an expectation of 0.648 runs. So by successfully bunting in this situation, it would appear that Barton has cost his team, on average, about a quarter of a run. However, a successful sacrifice bunt is not the only possibility. Barton could reach base, resulting in runners on first and second with no outs (run expectancy: 1.493). The bunt attempt could also fail, resulting in a runner on first and one out (run expectancy: 0.499). Barton is a good bunter and always bunts with the speedy leadoff batter on first, so his chance of failure is probably very low. For the sake of argument, let’s say he can expect to pop his bunt up or fail in some other way only about two percent of the time. What about reaching base? Using all of these numbers, a little algebra can tell us how much of a chance Barton needs to have to make this a good play.

P(Bunt Fails) * .499 + P(Bunt Succeeds) * .648 + P(Barton Reaches) * 1.493 = .873

I suggested that P(Bunt Fails) is perhaps .02, so we can set P(Barton Reaches) = X and P(Bunt Succeeds) = .98 – X to make the probabilities add up to one. Solving for X gives about .27, or 27 percent. This means that if Barton has a greater than 27 percent chance of reaching base when he bunts with a runner on first with no outs, then he is actually increasing the number of runs his team should expect to score. If he has a less than 27 percent chance of reaching base, he costs his team runs and would be better off simply swinging away.

Reaching base could include a bunt hit or a fielder error, but a 27 percent chance still seems like a stretch. How about when there is a runner on second and no outs, the situation in which Barton has most often been successful? Posnanski specifically blasted the decision to bunt in that situation, but the numbers are actually a bit better. Here is the equation:

P(Bunt Fails) * .648 + P(Bunt Succeeds) * .895 + P(Barton Reaches) * 1.715 = 1.044

With a runner on second and no outs, again assuming a two percent chance of total failure, the threshold is 19 percent — if Barton has better than a 19 percent chance of reaching, he is helping his team score more runs. The number still seems high, but, contradicting Posnanski, it appears that bunting in this situation is a better play than when there is a runner on first.

Barton has appeared to be bunting for a hit on many of his sacrifices, and though he has not succeeded, he must believe there is some chance he will get on base. And there are two other factors at work. First, the fielders must play further in if he is likely to bunt, making his non-bunt appearances in these situations far more valuable. Second, Tango’s tool also gives the chance of scoring at least one run for each state, and this value stays constant at about 41 percent when Barton successfully bunts a runner to second, and actually rises from 58 percent to 65 percent when he bunts a runner from second to third.

Indeed, Barton’s bunts are far more complicated than some commentators have made them out to be. As Mitchel Lichtman explained during the playoffs last year, when a few Yankees sacrifices left viewers baffled, we cannot simply analyze the before and after state of a “successful” sacrifice bunt. The range of possible outcomes includes the bunter reaching safely; the effect on the fielders should the batter choose to swing is also a factor. The A’s may actually know what they are doing here.

This post originally ran at Ball Your Base.


Sabathia’s Strong June

CC is having his best month so far this year. In June he has a 2.48 ERA, 3.13 FIP, and a 3.46 xFIP, all excellent numbers. His improved numbers have come mainly by way of improved strikeout numbers. His K/9 this month is 8.69, over 1.4 more strikeouts per nine than any other month, a huge jump. He is punching out more batters this month because of nastier secondary pitches:

March-May (SL = slider, CH = changeup, CU = curveball):

Type Count Selection Strike Swing Whiff Foul In Play
FF 504 48.6% 63.3% 38.1% 4.6% 16.7% 16.9%
CH 188 18.1% 64.9% 54.8% 16.0% 18.1% 20.7%
SI 175 16.9% 69.7% 54.3% 8.0% 13.1% 33.1%
SL 141 13.6% 56.7% 41.1% 15.6% 12.8% 12.8%
CU 27 2.6% 66.7% 33.3% 7.4% 14.8% 11.1%
FA 3 0.3% 33.3% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

June:

Type Count Selection Strike Swing Whiff Foul In Play
FF 252 60.1% 63.1% 40.9% 4.4% 16.7% 19.8%
CH 54 12.9% 68.5% 57.4% 25.9% 13.0% 18.5%
SI 46 11.0% 52.2% 47.8% 8.7% 17.4% 21.7%
SL 34 8.1% 73.5% 50.0% 32.4% 5.9% 11.8%
CU 33 7.9% 63.6% 51.5% 24.2% 15.2% 12.1%

As you can see, his secondary pitches are being swung through quite often now. What’s also really important here is that in June, he has thrown his slider for a strike way more often than earlier in the year, suggesting improved command. When looking at the movement of his pitches, one can see that his breaking ball(s?) especially have sharpened up:

March-May

Type Count Selection Velocity (mph) Vertical (in) Horizontal (in)
SL 141 13.6% 80.4 -0.63 -5.75
CU 27 2.6% 78.5 -3.85 -2.03

June

Type Count Selection Velocity (mph) Vertical (in) Horizontal (in)
SL 34 8.1% 80.8 -1.27 -2.96
CU 33 7.9% 80.9 -3.10 -0.88

In June he has lost a considerable amount of horizontal movement, but gained vertical movement (assuming that his curveball and slider are basically the same pitch). This indicates that his slider/curve was a little flat earlier in the year, and he has since added more tilt to the pitch.

His release points also look a little tighter:

March-May                                                                                               June

sabathia_release_points_march-maysabathia_release_points_june

*obviously the march-may chart is going to be more crowded (than the June chart) because of more pitches thrown during that time-period. Additionally, the horizontal changes in release point  may have more to do with changes in where Sabathia stands on the rubber than actual release point differences. I also apologize for the changing color of the pitches from chart to chart.

It certainly looks like Sabathia has found his secondary pitches, particularly his slider/curve. He’s throwing his slider/curve with better tilt and much better command. This improvement can also be seen by looking at linear weight values, found on Fangraphs:

wSL/C
March/April 2.71
May 1.17
June 3.46

As a result of his improved secondary pitches, batters are chasing balls and swinging through Sabathia’s pitches more often:

0-swing SwStr%
March/April 29% 10.5%
May 29.7% 6.8%
June 34.2% 11.2%

It is quite clear that his secondary pitches are better this month than previously in the year (march-april), yet for some reason Sabathia is actually throwing fastballs more often.

fastball + sinker %
March-May 65.8%
June 71.1%

*this article originally appeared on www.pendingpinstripes.net/


Ubaldo Jimenez – An Outlier Impostor?

If you had told this Colorado Rockies fan ten years ago that our team would have a pitcher who could possibly start the All-Star Game and then possibly win a Cy Young, then this fan would either say you were crazy from lack of oxygen or that the Rockies had moved to another city.  I don’t pretend that our team is the center of the baseball world; rather I know the Colorado Rockies are stuck in no man’s land.  We are neither East Coast nor West Coast.  Our team is rarely seen and our players simply don’t get the respect they deserve due to the Nintendo Ball that was played here in the 90s.  Why do I bother with such an introduction?

Well I think this explains the case of Ubaldo Jimenez.  On April 17, Jimenez became the first player in franchise history to throw a no-hitter.   Jimenez’s story was a feel good moment for the Colorado Rockies.  Jimenez is a nice kid, with a fast ball like no other, pitching for a team where pitchers go to die.  The media gave him his due and moved on to Braden’s perfect game.  But this was only the beginning and Jimenez has since then rattled off ten more wins.  At 13-1, he has done something only two other pitchers can claim to have done in MLB history.

Sometimes though I don’t think unknown early season player performances fit well with the baseball media establishment.  This was supposed to be the year Roy Halladay was going to sweep into the NL and blow batter’s away.  So then what tends to happen to these player performances?  Articles start to sprout up trying to tear down what they have done up to this point.  These articles claim that Jimenez is simply lucky, that it is all a smokescreen, and that eventually the stats will catch up and he will be revealed as an imposter.  That is the funny thing about stats, when the outlier shows up, the men behind the numbers rationalize away the beauty of baseball, and either discount the player or the situation.  The all telling models have become so complex that these outliers just shouldn’t exist.

It should be noted that this article is in no way a complaint about the new generation of stats.  I love them.  I love that the history of baseball is the statistical record.  What I don’t like is when stats are used to manipulate the reader into dismissing great performances.  What Jimenez has done to start 2010 has been simply amazing.  For comparison’s stake let’s look at how Jimenez’s stack up compared to 1968 Gibson’s season and 1986 Clemens’ season.

IP H H / 9 R BB SO K / BB HR BF AB 2B 3B GDP BABIP
2010 Jimenez 101 65 5.8 13 36 88 2.4 3 385 344 18 2 14 0.245
1968 Gibson 124 77 5.6 23 28 92 3.3 5 473 434 9 0 7 0.213
1986 Clemens 115 75 5.9 30 29 114 3.9 11 450 420 15 0 3 0.217

Jimenez stats are pretty comparable to some great pitching performances.  In addition to above, batters are hitting 0.189 against Jimenez (Gibson at 0.177 and Clemens at 0.175).  Of the 385 batters Jimenez has faced only 56 have gotten to a full count.  He has faced 75 batters with runners in scoring position and they are batting 0.147.

The telling stat for the home team is that he has won 13 of the 36 Rockies victories and ten of wins have come after Rockies losses.  Regardless of any stat a pitcher’s job is to put his team in the position to win.  How the pitcher gets there is some crafty pitching, some luck, and timely hitting by your side.  Baseball is a long season and time will tell whether these numbers will hold up.  I think Jimenez will probably hit a rough patch in July and August.  The team behind him is in disarray.  Scoring runs has been the Rockies Achilles heel not to mention an on and off again bullpen.  His innings pitched has raised a few eyebrows for a player with less than 100 major league starts (compared to Gibson’s 300 starts in 1968 but only 50 starts for Clemens in 1986).  And finally tracking the running average through his 14 starts of batting average on balls in play (BABIP) suggest that, through ten games Jimenez was walking with Gods, he has since then started to regress to his mean.

BABIP

Heralding a particular player at this point in the season as the greatest is a bit premature.  Although as a Rockies fan I am rooting for the franchise’s first 20-game winner!  Additionally if at this point in the season I needed one win, then Jimenez would be on the rubber.  His season so far stacks up pretty well with two of greats – Gibson and Clemens.


No Soup For Ubaldo

There probably isn’t a single baseball fan in the country who hasn’t heard Ubaldo Jimenez been called “lucky.”

For several weeks now, analysts have devoted countless hours and vast amounts of energy to debunking the theory that Jimenez is—as his 13-1 record and 1.15 ERA suggest—one of the best pitchers in the history of the game. And with good reason.

There’s no question Jimenez is a talented pitcher entering the prime of what will certainly be an impressive career. But he’s not an all-time great, and he’s certainly not the greatest of all time.

Jimenez’ 7.8 K/9 rate is impressive (though not legendary—he’s looking up at not only Tim Lincecum and Josh Johnson, but guys like Javier Vazquez and Felipe Paulino), but it’s not enough for us to turn a blind eye to his wildness (3.2 BB/9). A 2.44 K/BB ratio is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s nothing compared to Dan Haren (5.05), Roy Halladay (5.63), or the superhuman Cliff Lee (16.75).

As a result, Ubaldo’s FIP is a more mortal-looking 2.93. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and it’s the seventh-best mark in the game. But it’s more than two-and-a-half times his ridiculous 1.15 ERA.

And that’s before you consider Jimenez’ ludicrously low 3.8% HR/FB rate. That’s why his 3.61 xFIP is significantly higher even than his FIP—and that’s normalized for a pitcher in a neutral park, not one who plays half his games at the launching pad that is Coors Field. Substitute his xFIP for his ERA and ignore the wins (naturally, he wouldn’t have as many if he gave up more runs) and you’ve got a questionable All-Star, not a unanimous Cy Young.

So where is all this luck coming from?

The fishiest thing about Jimenez’s season so far is his 91.2% LOB rate. In other words, fewer than one out every 11 baserunners he’s allowed have ended up crossing the plate. The discrepancy between his strand rate and the norm (72 percent) is greater than the overall range of qualified pitchers’ LOB rates in 2008.

It makes sense that a better pitcher would strand more runners; the better the pitcher, the better the chance of making an out, so there is less opportunity for the other team to score. But Jimenez’ 91.2% figure places his performance well outside the reach of logic and fully inside the realm of luck.

Consider the case of John Candelaria, whose 88.8% strand rate in 1977 stands as the closest anyone has come to pulling a Ubaldo over a full season since at least 1974. The year before that, his strand rate was 72.5%; the year after, it fell to 76.8%. Simply put, you can’t sustain a number like that unless you’re playing Xbox.

Then, of course, there is the issue of Jimenez’. BABIP. I’m a firm believer that pitchers have some degree of control over where and how hard the ball is hit. I wouldn’t think it noteworthy if Ubaldo’s hit rate had merely slipped to .290, or .280, maybe even .270. But if you think the ability to induce weak contact is the reason his hit rate stands at an historically low .239 mark, I’m going to have to stop you right there.

It takes a lot more than talent for a pitcher to sustain a hit rate that low for more than a few weeks. Since 1989, only one pitcher has posted a hit rate at or below Jimenez’ current .239 mark over a full season without it ballooning 50 points or more the following year.

Now, some say that Jimenez’ hit rate is explained by the kind of contact he’s induced—his 13.8% line-drive rate is the third-lowest in the league, and his 54.9% groundball rate ranks fifth. But there’s no refuge in that argument, either.

Looking at tRA, which (unlike FIP) takes his batted-ball profile into account, Jimenez is expected to give up 3.09 runs per nine innings. That’s not a bad number by any stretch, but it’s not good enough to put Ubaldo in the history books. So even if you assume that his low line drive and HR/FB rates are the product of sustainable skill and not felicitous chance, Jimenez could be expected to give up nearly three times as many runs if he had neutral luck.

There’s no question Ubaldo Jimenez is a good pitcher, or that his is an arm to watch for years to come. But once the winds of fortune stop blowing in from the Coors bleachers, no one will mistake him for the best pitcher in the game.

Lewie Pollis lives outside of Cleveland, Ohio, and will be starting at Brown University in Fall 2010. Like at least half the people who will read this article, his dream is to be GM of a baseball team. For more of Lewie’s writing, click here.


Burnett’s New Strategy a Cause for Concern?

Note: I originally posted this on my blog before his most recent start, but I was hoping I could perhaps get some feedback.

Lost amid much of the early-season trials and tribulations of this year’s Yankees squad has been the performance of the Yanks’ lead pie-thrower, A.J. Burnett. While Burnett can boast of an improvement in his walk rate (3.11 BB/9 in 2010; 4.22 in 2009; 3.75 career), his strike-out rate has seen a steeper drop (2010 K/9: 6.43; 2009: 8.48; 8.27 career). David Golebiewski of FanGraphs recently wrote an article in which he pointed out that hitters are making much more contact this year than in past years off of Burnett. Golebiewski posited that this was due to the ineffectiveness of Burnett’s knuckle-curve, but I believe that Burnett’s diminished fastball velocity and overall approach to pitching has also played a role in making him more hittable. Here are Burnett’s velocity charts:

In 2007, the first year in which velocity data was available from Pitch F/x, Burnett was averaging 95.9 MPH (the gap you see in the velocity chart can be explained by a two month-long stay on the disabled list for a shoulder strain). In 2008, Burnett’s velocity saw a rather large drop to 94.4. The velocity held steady in ’09, when he averaged 94.2 on the fastball. This year, however, Burnett’s velocity has dropped down to 93.2.

There are two possible explanations for Burnett’s decrease in velocity. It is very possible that Burnett is toning down his velocity in order to have better command, and the decreased walk rate appears to indicate that. The decrease in overall fastball velocity could also do with the fact that Burnett has added a two-seam fastball to his repertoire, throwing it 25.1% of the time, in comparison to his four-seamer, which he throws 46.8% of the time. As a side note, the four-seamer and the two-seamer have similar velocities (4-seam: 93.3; 2-seam: 93.1).

Apparently, Burnett has adjusted his pitching philosophy. He has spoken of his wishes to “become more of a pitcher” (Mark Feinsand) and to “pitch to contact” (Chad Jennings). Developing the sinker seems to go along with that thought process. Catcher Chad Moeller, as quoted in the Jennings piece, indicated that the two-seamer away to left-handed hitters was intended to induce more groundballs. Indeed, it has. In 2010, Burnett has posted his highest ground-ball rate against lefties (51.1%) since 2007, when it eclipsed 53%. Overall, Burnett is inducing ground balls at a rate of 48.4%, which is good, but not great.

Usually, it’s good to have a third pitch, especially if you are a starting pitcher. I laud the fact that Burnett has started using a two-seam fastball and is trying to be smarter about pitching, but the overall approach that he has adopted this year has robbed him of his gargantuan K rate. The meager improvements in walk rate and ground-ball rate are not enough to justify losing nearly 2 K/9 innings. Keeping balls on the ground is great and all, but the strength of Burnett’s game has always been inducing swings and misses. Getting away from his bread and butter does not appear to be working.


What’s Happened to Gordon Beckham?

Once hailed the savior of the White Sox, Gordon Beckham has suffered from the dreaded “sophomore slump” in 2010. In 430 at-bats as a rookie, Beckham put up a slash line of .270/.347/.460. In the off-season, Beckham was shifted to second base, where he was expected to make a bigger impact with both his bat and his glove. While Beckham has provided value with his glove in 2010, as a hitter he has completely collapsed. Beckham’s current slash line of .206/.283./252 has left many White Sox fans wondering about the future of their former top prospect.

A look at the advanced metrics reveals some troubling trends. Beckham’s solid walk rate has dropped from 9.5% to 8%, while his strikeout rate has risen from 17.2% to 19.6% in 2010. His swing rates reveal that Beckham has chased pitches out of the zone with more frequency in 2010. His O-Swing% (or percent of pitches he has swung at outside of the zone) has risen from 24.7% to 30.4% this season. While Beckham has actually made more contact with pitches out of the zone in 2010, they are leading to an increased number of infield flies. Beckham’s 16.1% infield fly rate is currently the 11th highest rate in baseball. Also troubling, is Beckham’s poor 15% line drive rate. While BABIP is typically a good indicator of luck, in Beckham’s case, it’s hard to argue he’s been unlucky. Beckham’s current BABIP of .250 would typically suggest improvement, but with such poor line drive and infield fly rates, it’s hard to imagine a big improvement if his rates stay the same.

During the season, some Chicago writers have suggested that Beckham may be pressed after experiencing failure for the first time in his career. While I cannot assess the mental state of Gordon Beckham, his current rates are so out of line with what we would expect that, as a fan, you have to wonder if Beckham is pressing. Last season, Beckham slugged 14 home runs in 430 at-bats. This season, his slugging percentage is actually lower than Juan Pierre’s (.258-.272). Another troubling aspect of 2010 is Beckham’s inability to hit a fastball. Beckham feasted on fastballs last season, hitting them for 4.8 runs above average (per FanGraphs). In 2010, that number has plummeted to -5.7, meaning that batters are able to blow their fastball by Beckham. Looking at Beckham’s pitch values is quite depressing. As a rookie, Beckham hit four types of pitches for a positive value (fastballs, sliders, change-ups, and curveballs). In 2010, Beckham has a negative pitch value rate against every one of those pitches. While his struggles against fastballs are the most pronounced, his ability to hit sliders and change-ups have dropped substantially as well.

Are these the symptoms of a player struggling to cope with failure for the first time in his career? While the answer to that is unclear, this has certainly been a “lost” season for Beckham’s development. His numbers, particularly his infield flies, home runs, and complete loss of pitch recognition seem to suggest a complete breakdown in 2010. In the same way that Alex Rios’ numbers last season were not an accurate reflection of his true ability, it’s fair to say that 2010 has not been an accurate reflection of Gordon Beckham’s true ability. Unfortunately, there isn’t much the White Sox can do to rectify the situation right now. The Sox are hesitant to send Beckham down to Triple-A, and would prefer that he work out his issues at the major league level. Unless Beckham can rebuild his swing and regain his confidence, Sox fans might have to wait until 2011 before they see “the real Gordon Beckham” again.

*This article was originally published on my personal sports blog FoulPole2Foulpole.com


The Todd Helton Situation

As of June 15th the Rockies were 3.5 games behind the Padres for first place in the NL West and the general consensus is that the team is underperforming. With the pitching staff sporting a solid FIP of 3.67 (2nd in the NL) the finger pointing has turned to the offense. Whether or not the offense is to blame for the team’s “woes” (I’m somewhat skeptical, can you tell?) one thing is for sure, something is wrong with Todd Helton. Helton is experiencing what people are calling a “season long slump” (to which Chris Iannetta asks, “So does that mean there is such a thing as a ‘career long slump’?”) hitting .255/.361/.323 with 1 HR. He’s moved from third in the team’s batting order to sixth, and recently has moved back up to second in an attempt to get him kick started. Here I’ll examine what is different this year and why. First let’s take a closer look at what we already know: in 2010 Todd Helton sucks at hitting.

The first thing that should pop out at you here is not Helton’s subpar 2010 numbers, but how good his career numbers are. As a player ages and younger, faster, stronger, better looking players come along it’s easy to forget how great a veteran’s career has been, especially one as consistently good as Helton. Sure the T-1000 was super awesome with its mimetic metal alloy and shapeshifting and whatnot, but who paved the way for him? I’ll tell you who: Todd Helton.

Now look at those subpar 2010 numbers. Pretty bad. We are into June and Helton has accumulated a healthy 227 plate appearances. He hasn’t had a month with a wOBA higher than .335, in fact, he hasn’t had any period of anything close to resembling his career production all year. For a veteran player known for his solid swing mechanics and meticulous approach to hitting, it would seem that he would have figured it out by now. Or figured something out, it doesn’t even have to be IT. Just something.

“Maybe it’s just bad luck”, you say. Well, his BABIP is a pretty solid .309. Sure, it’s lower than his career mark of .336, but it’s not bad by any means. It’s not .318 wOBA bad. Of qualified players with BABIP’s between .300 and .310 only three of 19 have lower wOBA’s than Helton. Luck and BABIP have little to do with it.

Maybe he’s lost his great eye and is swinging at bad pitches. There might actually be something to this as it was reported that Helton was fitted with contact lenses on June 7th. However, nobody in that article seemed overly convinced they had fingered the culprit of Helton’s lack of production. Since getting fitted for the contacts his slash line is .292/.280/.333. Even in a small 25 PA sample, not exactly a ringing endorsement of the corrective lenses fix. The real question here is one of pitch selection, has there been a change? Given that his O-Swing% is 18% vs a career 17.6% chasing doesn’t seem to be the problem. If he were having problems recognizing pitch location or type his walk rates would most likely take a hit as well, but that’s not the case either. He has a solid BB% of 14.1% (career 14.5%). He seems to be seeing the ball just fine.

So what then? Where does that leave us? Is he really in a “season long slump”? A 227 PA aberration? Maybe, but let’s look at a few more pieces of data. One of the numbers that jumps out at me most is Helton’s 2010 K%. Known as someone who is a notoriously good two-strike hitter he has a career K% of 13.7% and has never had a K% above 17.7% (in 2001, when he posted an ISO of .349, so we’ll take it). As of June 15 Todd’s 2010 K% is 18.8%, the highest of his career and a far cry from the 13.4% of 2009. Helton has struck out 36 times in 192 AB in 2010, in 2009 he had 73 in 544. At his current pace he will accrue 102 strikeouts over 544 AB. He’s only ever K’d more than 100 times in a season once. Ok, now we’re getting somewhere: his balls in play are falling at a relatively normal rate, he’s not chasing pitches, he’s getting his walks, but he’s striking out at an abnormal rate. Maybe pitchers have changed how they approach Helton. Here is the pitch type data for 2009 and 2010 from TexasLeaguers.com:

2009

2010

Comparing these two tables gives us some interesting bits of information. If anything we can see that Todd is handling offspeed pitches better. Not only is he seeing more sliders (SL) and changeups (CH), but he is swinging at them less and whiffing less. This could be a pitch recognition issue, but I see something more glaring and problematic: fastballs (FF). Against fastballs his whiff rate is up, while foul and in play rates are down. Not only is he putting fewer fastballs into play, when he does put them into play he’s not doing much with them. Here’s what Helton did with fastballs put into play in 2009:

It’s clear that Helton sprayed fastballs all over the field pretty equally, and mashed mistakes to right field. Now take a look at 2010:

Big difference. The majority of the balls in play are to left field, and the mistakes he hits are obviously not going as far (as evidenced by his one home run). Granted, Helton has a history of driving the ball to the opposite field, but he has also shown the ability to hit fastballs to all parts of the park, something he is clearly not doing as effectively in 2010.

So what’s behind the Todd Helton Situation? All of this data suggests a slower bat. If you’ve watched him play you’ve no doubt seen him get beat by some pretty mediocre fastballs. Keep in mind Todd is going to turn 37 this year. Sure he played wonderfully in 2009 posting an OPS of .904, but that was coming off a year in which he only played in 83 games. Since 1961 only 22 players have had multiple seasons with an OPS of .900+ past age 35. The thing about bat speed is that once it’s gone it’s gone. The one hope is that there is a hitch or something mechanical in his swing that’s causing this, but, as I pointed out before, a hitter as good as Todd with the help of Don Baylor would have most likely identified a mechanical flaw by now.

As far as his numbers are concerned, if he continues to get regular at bats there does seem to be room for a small amount of regression (the good kind in this case). Will it be enough to keep him in the lineup? If not, what are the Rockies’ options? And what about next year and the year after that?


A Closer Look at Austin Jackson

Austin Jackson is off to a brilliant start in his major league career.  But any discussion of his hot start invariably leads to discussion of his strikeout total.  His 63 have him just one behind the American League “leader”, Carlos Pena.  Several National Leaguers (six) are ahead of him including perennial air conditioner, Mark Reynolds.  We are conditioned to believe that strikeouts are at least as bad as WMDs and possibly worse than British Petroleum.  But what should we really make of all of Jackson’s strikeouts?  Are all strikeouts created equally?  Is he just flailing wildly and piling up lucky hits when he does make contact but otherwise striking out?  Or is there more to the story than just the negative connotation of strikeouts?

The Strikeouts

Let’s dig deeper into Jackson’s 63 punchouts and see exactly what we are dealing with in the youngster.  He is averaging 4.8 pitches seen per strikeout which I guess is essentially 1.8 when you consider that every strikeout will be at least three pitches long.  Kevin Youkilis, who is renowned for his plate discipline, sees an average of 5.0 pitches per strikeout, just 0.2 pitches more than Jackson.  In fact, the MLB average on the 12209 strikeouts this season is 5.0 pitches per strikeout.  Jackson is just 4% below the average, hardly cause for concern.

Just eight of Jackson’s 63 strikeouts (13%) have been the worst kind: good morning, good afternoon and goodnight.  Jackson’s 13% 3-pitch strikeout percentage is much better than the league average of 17% (2021-of-12209) and a good bit better than the average of all leadoff hitters who check in at 16% (211-of-1339).  Also, 19% of his strikeouts have gone to a full count which is 3% better than the major league average.  Hopefully he can learn to turn more of those full count plate appearances into walks as the season wears on; that will be instrumental in his development as hitter, but especially as a leadoff hitter.

One of the biggest arguments against strikeouts is that it eliminates the chance for a “productive out” which is just an out that advances someone.  By striking out, a player doesn’t put the ball in play and leaves the runner where they were when the plate appearance started.  Of his 63 strikeouts, 38 have come with the bases empty (60%).  This eliminates the “productive out” argument from more than half of his strikeouts.  By comparison, 57% of the entire league’s strikeouts have come with the bases empty.

Finally, let’s look at Jackson during the first inning when he is leading off the game.  The job of a leadoff hitter is to draw the pitcher’s arsenal out and give the team an early look at what he’s got for that game.  While 14 of his 52 leadoff PAs have been strikeouts, only two (14%) were 3-pitch strikeouts as Jackson averages 4.7 pitches per leadoff plate appearance that results in a strikeout.  His 3-pitch strikeout rate is below the major league mark of 16%.

The Performance

We deep dove into Jackson’s strikeouts so now let’s deep dive into his overall performance thus far.  Jackson is seeing 4.1 pitches per plate appearance which tied for 2nd-best among American League leadoff hitters.  Elvis Andrus is leading the way at 4.2 and Jason Bartlett is tied with Jackson.  He is averaging slightly higher on leadoff plate appearances with a 4.3 mark.

In the first inning, Jackson has a .292/.346/.500 line with 14 hits, 14 strikeouts and four walks.  His 27% leadoff strikeout rate is significantly higher than the 19% for all of baseball, but he obliterates the league line of .246/.313/.355.  He has just one 1-pitch leadoff plate appearance (2%) and he ripped a double off of Dallas Braden, meanwhile the league’s rate is 7% on 1-pitch leadoff plate appearances.

For the season Jackson has just 19 1-pitch at-bats of his 249 (8%) and he is hitting .474 in those 19 ABs.  For the league, 11% of all ABs have been 1-pitch encounters and the collective batting average is .343 in those 7298 ABs.

The Conclusion

Jackson is off to great a start in his rookie campaign yet a lot of the focus lands on the strikeouts.  I am not here to say that he isn’t striking out a ton or that it’s awesome to strikeout that much.  In fact, he is on pace for 183 which would be 2nd-most for a rookie in MLB history (Pete Incaviglia, 185), but he is also on pace for 49 doubles, 23 stolen bases and a .316 batting average.  Let’s not crucify Jackson for two months of data.  He struck out in 24% of his minor league at-bats and he’s at 27% so far as a major leaguer.

He has a 28.1% O-Swing percentage according to FanGraphs.com which is a measure of how many pitches outside of the zone he has swung at thus far.  That is about average in the American League.  Of the 83 qualified hitters in Junior Circuit, Jackon’s rate is the 39th-highest.  As you can see, he isn’t just hacking away at the plate and some of his longer at-bats that are currently ending in strikeouts should soon turn to walks (or better) as he gets more and more comfortable as a big league player.

As we have seen, not all strikeouts are created equally.  With the proliferation of hackers in the big leagues in this era and their lack of shame associated with striking out, there is this desire to demonize the event for all players.  I definitely want to see Jackson strike out less if for no other reason than the fact that his BABIP of .432 will likely drop a bit more and thus he needs to put more balls in play otherwise his average will drop well below .300, but I also see that his strikeouts haven’t been a serious liability for the Tigers.  He has a pretty good idea of what he is doing at the plate, especially as a leadoff hitter in his first two months in the show.

He has acquitted himself very well at the plate while hitting leadoff and playing one of the most important defensive positions.  How often do we see guys much more hyped than Jackson perform significantly worse yet get pass after pass for their pedigree and excuses because the team has thrust them into a key lineup spot and/or primary defensive position?  It happens quite a bit.  (Matt Wieters anyone?)  So how about when someone actually performs well in a key lineup spot while playing elite defense, we actually applaud the performance instead of looking for the flaws to cut it down?  I am suggesting we ignore Jackson’s egregious strikeout total, rather make it a secondary headline or footnote to the overall picture with the central focus placed on his quality work in many other facets of the game.


What’s Behind A-Rod’s Power Outage: The Sequel

When Yankeeist last looked at Alex Rodriguez‘s declining power numbers, I (and several others) came to the rather obvious conclusion that his paltry 8.3% HR/FB rate would soon escalate. Alex’s five home runs since that point in time have indeed bumped his rate up, but it’s only sitting at 12.1%, still well below his 23.3% career percentage.

A-Rod has eight home runs on the season to date; the lowest number through 58 games of his career and only the second time he has accumulated less than 10 this deep into a season — in 1997, he had nine through 58 games with the Mariners. So what’s going on with Alex?

The below table shows historical batted ball numbers for A-Rod, his year-to-date home run totals (in this case, through the first 58 games of each season), and his season home run totals (all data c/o Fangraphs and B-Ref):

Despite five big flies, Alex’s fly ball percentage is down from when I last looked at the numbers on May 10. Accordingly, his line drive percentage is also down, to 17.9% (though this is barely off his career rate) and his ground ball percentage is up, to 46.2% (pretty well above his 42% career rate).

As you can see, Alex has never had a Fly Ball % this low in a full season for as long as Fangraphs has recorded this data, which partially explains why his HR/FB rate has only risen by 3.8 points — he’s just not hitting as many fly balls as he usually does. Assuming his Fly Ball % normalizes to his career rate, we should see a corresponding uptick in the HR/FB percentage.

Here are the different pitch types A-Rod has seen:

Pitchers are obviously aware that A-Rod isn’t hurting the baseball as much as he usually does, as they are challenging him with more fastballs than ever before. Correspondingly he’s seeing less of every other pitch type since May 10, with the exception of a slight increase in changeups and split-fingered fastballs. Looks like the book on ‘Rod remains challenging him with the heater, which means he’s going to have to make some adjustments to his approach, as there’s no reason Alex shouldn’t be able to adequately handle a steady diet of fastballs.

And here are his swing percentages:

Since I last conducted this analysis, Alex is swinging at even more pitches out of the zone (25.8%) but making less contact with them (60.1%), and also swinging at more pitches in the zone (65.7%) and making less contact with those as well (91.8%, down from a crazy high of 97.3%). His overall contact percentage is 81.4%, still a good deal higher than his career rate of 75.5%.

It would appear Alex’s biggest problem is that he’s trying to make too many things happen with the bat right now — swinging at pitches out of the zone has contributed to an above-average (for Alex) contact rate, which is resulting in more balls being pounded into the ground than lofted into the air (hence the career-low Fly Ball %).

Alex has also eschewed his trademark patience during the past month. He had 19 walks through 31 games, but has only walked seven times since then over his last 27 games. His OBP has dropped from .381 on May 10 to .360.

While A-Rod still has time to improve his numbers, and ZIPS ROS projection has him hitting a robust .284/.378/.512, .392 wOBA and 18 home runs the rest of the way, that would still only get A-Rod to a full season line of .285/.371/.499 with a .381 wOBA and 26 bombs, which would mark his lowest SLG, home run total and wOBA since 1997.

Basically, A-Rod needs to stop swinging at bad pitches, take a few more walks and show pitchers he can still punish the fastball if we’re going to see significant improvements in the Fly Ball % and HR/FB rate and get his numbers anywhere near his career line of .304/.389/.573. I realize that’s a rather obvious conclusion that probably didn’t require a comprehensive statistical analysis, but it’s nice to see that the numbers support it.

Larry Koestler eats, drinks, sleeps and breathes the Yankees at his blog, Yankeeist.