Archive for September, 2013

On Slow Fastballs

While thinking about Jeff’s post on the fastballs of over 100 miles per hour, I thought it might be informative to look at the pitchers who have pitched their fastballs the slowest this year.  No, it’s not as flashy as those who live at the top of what’s humanly possible, but it makes for an interesting contrast.  What’s more, you’ll often hear broadcasters say something along the lines of “you don’t need to throw 100 if you can locate your fastball.”  Is that true for pitchers who aren’t anywhere near 100?

There have been 683 fastballs this season (as of September 13th) that registered below 80 MPH according to pitch f/x (grouping together fastballs, 4-seamers, 2-seamers, and cut fastballs).  Two men alone account for 526 of them, with a third adding another 80.  Any guesses on who they are? (Hint: Jamie Moyer is retired.)

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The Supposedly Decreasing Importance of Strikeouts

Note: I have no idea if I’m the first to do this, but quite frankly I don’t care.

Let me start by apologizing for the Papelbon thing. It was a pretty stupid article, and I was basically just looking for something to write about. While I’m at it, I should probably apologize for the bFI thing–I thought that would come out better than it did–and the last part of the Pettitte thing–when a guy’s gone 28-6 against you, you tend to harbor some animosity towards him. With all that said, I feel like this is a pretty good one, even if it is rather brief. So, without further ado…

By now we’re all sick of hearing it. Strikeouts don’t matter anymore for hitters! They’ve lost their stigma¹! These crazy kids today don’t know about plate discipline! For the most part, these criticisms all seem to be saying the same general thing: Strikeouts (or the lack thereof) are no longer correlated to offensive success.

Well, I can’t speak for you, but I have really grown sick of these baseless assertions. Other writers have touched on the fact that there is virtually no correlation between strikeouts and offensive performance², but these are all within the past several years. What I wanted to prove was that there has never been a correlation between the two.

The methodology was pretty simple: Since wRC+ is the tell-all offensive statistic, I simply found the correlation, measured by R-squared³, between K% and wRC+ for every season from 2012 going back to 1913 (the first year that strikeouts were recorded for batters). I then graphed the resulting R-squared⁴ values by year for every year, of which there were 100.

And what, you ask, were the results?


“Well, golly, them folks was right!”, the reader might be inclined to say. Indeed, it would seem that–although the R-squared values have fluctuated heavily over the years–they are, overall, at a lower level than they once were. This would mean, of course, that strikeouts did matter more in the days of yore.

But wait! All hope is not lost! For you see, I purposefully excluded one key aspect of the graph in question: the labeling on the y-axis (i.e. the one upon which the R-squared values were measured, i.e. the vertical one). Put that back on, and what do we discover?


For the entirety of baseball’s history, there have only been FOUR YEARS with an R-squared above .1. Remember, R-squared is on a 0 to 1 scale, and the higher the number, the greater the degree of correlation; an R-squared of .1 is basically what you get if you draw random points on a graph. Or, to put that another way:


That’s a scatter plot of the strikeout rates and wRC+s of players from the 1961 season (i.e. the one with the “highest” correlation). Does that LOOK like a correlation to you? Hopefully, you answered no (because of the way the internet works, I can’t know what your answer was, or even if you answered); any monkey⁵ with even a basic grasp of statistics could see that those two variables aren’t connected in any way.

What, then, does this mean?

Not only are strikeouts not correlated to offensive success now, they never have been, and probably never will be. Now, can we please stop saying they are⁶?


¹I tried looking up specific quotes, but searching “strikeout stigma” just returned some ADHD thing.

²And, of course, scatter plots reflecting such will generally be more elliptical than straight.

³In case you’re unedumacated, R-squared measures the degree of correlation between two variables. It returns a value between 0 and 1; the higher the value, the greater the correlation, and vice versa.

⁴I’m forced to say “R-squared” to avoid confusion between that and the footnotes.

⁵Really, a monkey would probably be the one drawing the scatter plot.

⁶Or were. You know what I mean.

Evaluating Players in the Dark and Scooter Gennett

To make it as a big-league ballplayer, you have to do very hard things well, like hitting a very fast-moving baseball.  You also have to be able to do some reasonably easy things well, like see the baseball.  Why, then, couldn’t Brewers second baseman Scooter Gennett see the ball in the minor leagues?

In a recent Brewers broadcast, tv announcer Brian Anderson relayed a story about Scooter Gennett and his somewhat surprising performance in the majors (149 wRC+ and 1.4 WAR in 49 games so far).  Gennett claimed that he was just seeing the ball so much better in the majors due to poorly-lighted minor-league ballparks.

While minor league plate discipline data may not be a reliable comparison, if he was able to see the ball better in the majors, you would expect certain things to happen.  He’d make contact frequently, and probably solid contact.  Take a look at his contact numbers now 51 games into the majors:









His contact numbers so far are comparable to Matt Carpenter’s.  What we don’t see in Scooter’s major league data, however, is a real solid line drive rate to indicate he’s able to better put the barrel of the bat on the ball.  In fact, he ranks just 28th out of all second basemen this season with at least 150 plate appearances  with a slightly-above-league-average 22%.  He doesn’t appear to actually be recognizing pitches any better– his walk rate is actually down from his time in the minors, and his strikeout rate is up.  But there seems to be something to indicate that he’s seeing the ball well–he’s swinging and making contact on plenty of the pitches, and he figures out where the ball is and puts his bat on it.

Which bring us to the question:  What the hell is going on in minor-league ballparks, if in fact Scooter Gennett’s contact rates are really closer to Matt Carpenter’s and he feels the ball was harder to see in Nashville?

If you’re the Brewers, or any team really, wouldn’t you want to know that difference?  Especially when your other second base options this year have been Rickie Weeks (86 wRC+), Jeff Bianchi (57 wRC+), and Yuniesky Betancourt (Yuniesky Betancourt)?  I don’t know much (anything) about exterior lighting, but I would think that if there was a possibility that field conditions were affecting a team’s player evaluations, teams could reasonably justify investing some money into the lights for the minor-league affiliates.

“Seeing the baseball” seems like it’s discussed for well over half of players’ and managers’ attributions of a hitting streak or an unexpected jump in power, and this may account for Scooter Gennett’s explanation of his success with the Brewers in 2013. But with the margins for error and to gain a competitive advantage so small in the majors, these kind of anomalies may be well worth the attention of baseball ownership and their affiliated clubs.

Starters Destined for the Bullpen

Relievers tend to be failed starters. Most front offices have come to realize that a closer or a late-inning arm is not worth a big multi-year deal or a first-round draft pick. Instead, general managers are building quality bullpens out of failed pitching prospects, former starters, and journeymen relievers. Find a hard thrower who hasn’t managed to develop a full repertoire and stick him in the bullpen where he can air it out for one inning and get by throwing only one or two pitches. Or get a starter with wild platoon splits and convert him into a specialist who gets same-handed hitters out. Look at the Royals or the Rangers bullpens, the league leaders in relief WAR. Other than a post-Tommy John surgery Joe Nathan, you won’t find a big name there, or a big salary (Nathan’s 2/14 is the most expensive).

By initially using Z-Contact%, and then looking at factors such as pitch mix, walk rates, and fastball velocity, I identified six pitchers who I think are likely to end up in the bullpen. Three of the pitchers have trouble missing bats, despite being hard throwers, and a trip to the bullpen might allow them to pick up some extra velocity while focusing on a more limited repertoire. The other three have swing and miss stuff, but factors such as a lack of control or durability, or difficulty in developing secondary pitches have limited their effectiveness as starters.

Has a Fastball But Not Much Else

Joe Kelly has appeared in 57 games for the Cardinals since 2012, 28 of them being starts. Despite averaging over 94 mph on his fastball, Kelly has been more of a groundball pitcher. As a starter in 2013, he has posted strikeout and walk rates of 13.5% and 9.8% respectively.While Kelly’s changeup is solid, his curveball and slider are likely not good enough to keep him in the starting rotation. Despite Kelly’s smaller frame, he has managed to avoid the longball. Unless the 25 year-old masters a third pitch, the bullpen is a good spot for him.

Tyler Chatwood has started 17 games for the Rockies this season, and thanks to very high groundball rates has done well, even with poor strikeout and walk rates. As the righthander is only 23, I may be jumping the gun on calling him a relief pitcher, but his declining velocity and reliance on the fastball signal reliever to me, not to mention his undersized frame. While he has improved on his career strikeout and walk rates of 13.4% and 10.3%, his rates this year are still below average. Chatwood’s changeup is below average, and he needs to develop a reliable pitch to get lefthanded hitters out. Moving to the bullpen may preserve his velocity and allow him to focus on his slider.

Henderson Alvarez has started all 54 games he has appeared in since 2011. After returning from a long DL stint, Alvarez has shown some improvement from his 2012 season when he posted strikeout and walk rates of 9.8% and 6.7%, respectively. However, the righthander had had difficulties with lefthanded hitters, as his wOBA splits of .374/.248 show. Much of this is due to his struggles with his changeup. Alvarez has gained confidence in his slider, and it has been effective against righties. The 23 year-old will get a chance to stick in the Marlins rotation, but his smaller frame, limited pitch mix and injury history will likely relegate him to the bullpen.

Misses Bats…And the Strike Zone

Alexi Ogando has bounced around between the bullpen and the starting rotation. He started in 2011, relieved in 2012, and is starting in 2013. However, he has had durability issues. His second-half numbers in 2011 dropped off significantly with increasing innings, and he has taken two trips to the DL in 2013. Furthermore, his fastball velocity is down from 95.1 in 2011 and 97.0 in 2012 to 93.1 in 2013. This has caused his swinging strike rate to plummet from 13.2 to 7.9.  His walk rate is also up significantly. Ogando was strong as a starter in 2011, and he still shows swing and miss stuff, but a return to to the relief role he held in 2012 would do him well, particularly if Joe Nathan departs as a free agent.

Nathan Eovaldi is a 23 year-old flamethrowing righthander. However, the young hurler has not yet developed a reliable secondary pitch. Accordingly, his strikeout rate is well below the league average. Also, while his control has been better this year, he still walks hitters at an above-average rate. Though his fastball can get whiffs as shown by his above-average swinging strike rate, his lack of secondary pitches has given him difficulty in finishing off hitters. He had some success with his slider in 2012, but has struggled to command it consistently in 2013. If Eovaldi can stay healthy and learn a secondary pitch, he will remain a starter. More likely, he will slot into a high-leverage bullpen role where he can focus on airing out his already potent fastball.

Tim Lincecum won back-to-back CY Young awards in 2008 and 2009. The last couple years have not been as kind to Lincecum. His fastball velocity has dropped by 2 mph, and his walk rate has gone up. Furthermore, his HR/FB ratio has shot up to the 13-15% range, well up from his career rate of 9%. Lincecum still has swing and miss stuff, as his swinging strike rate has not dropped off from his career rate. Lincecum was utilized as a multi-inning reliever in the 2012 World Series, and dominated in that role. While Lincecum proved a lot of skeptics wrong by remaining healthy in a starter role, transitioning to the bullpen can maximize his effectiveness. However, depending on how much money he signs for this offseason, his new team may have an incentive to try and keep him in the rotation.

While a good starting pitcher will always have more value than a good relief pitcher, moving these pitchers to the bullpen can maximize their productivity. All of them profile as at least solid relievers, and at this point in their careers, I have my doubts that any of them, with the possible exception of Lincecum, can handle the rigors of starting.

The Oakland A’s and Winning Without Good Starting Pitching

The Oakland Athletics starting pitchers have posted a 106 xFIP-, and accumulated 9.5 WAR, figures that are 23rd and 19th in the MLB, respectively. As the below table shows, pitching independent stats do not show much love for the Athletics starting pitchers, with their walk rate being the only number not around the bottom third of the league.

 Stat xFIP- K% BB% GB% WAR
 Number 106 17.8 6.7 38.8 9.5
Rank      T-23rd         21st         T-7th          30th       T-19th

However, the A’s starting pitchers fare better in terms of defense-dependent stats, and with the exception of Brett Anderson, they have managed to stay healthy.

 Number            97        0.273          73.7            9.7          12.0        862.2
Rank        T-7th            1st         T-6th            7th           8th            5th

Finally, to give you an idea of how pedestrian their staff has been (at least in terms of sabermetric numbers, more on that later), I prepared a table of the A’s starting pitchers this year.

Pitcher Innings xFIP- K% BB% BABIP LOB% HR/FB WAR Fbv
Bartolo Colon 164.1 104 13.0 3.8 0.297 77.8 5.8 3.0 89.7
Jarrod Parker 176.1 110 16.8 7.9 0.256 75.4 9.0 1.7 91.7
Dan Straily 134.1 110 19.4 8.5 0.271 71.2 9.2 1.4 90.4
Tommy Milone 143.0 109 17.7 6.1 0.283 71.7 11.1 1.0 87.1
A.J. Griffin 182.0 107 19.8 6.6 0.250 77.2 12.3 1.2 88.9
Sonny Gray 39.0 73 24.4 6.4 0.264 67.2 6.7 1.1 92.9
Brett Anderson 23.2 91 21.3 11.7 0.366 55.6 17.6 0.1 91.2

The Coliseum is the 8th-most difficult park in terms of hitting home runs, and the A’s fly ball rate of 42.0% leads the MLB (no other team gets a higher percentage of fly balls than groundballs). Gray has been excellent in the six starts he has made, with a 53.7 GB%. Other than Anderson and Gray, no A’s starting pitcher has a GB% above 42.3%. Put a team full of fly ball pitchers in a big ballpark with a good outfield defense, and you have a recipe for overachieving peripherals. This helps explain how the A’s starting pitchers have managed to put together a 3.79 ERA despite a 4.25 xFIP, easily the biggest positive gap of any team.

Except for newcomer Gray (18th overall in 2011), the A’s have not used high draft picks to get these pitchers. In fact, since 2003, the A’s have only selected four pitchers out of their nineteen first round picks. Colon was an inexpensive free-agent signing. Parker and Anderson were acquired in trades with the Diamondbacks where the A’s gave up Haren and Trevor Cahill after getting some solid years out of those arms. Milone, a former 10th-round pick, was acquired as part of the Gio Gonzalez trade. Straily was a 24th-round pick in 2009. Griffin was a 13th-round pick in 2010. If you click on the links, (or just keep reading) you will find out that one other player from those two rounds has reached the majors. (Keith Butler, who managed a 5.44 xFIP in 20 innings with the Cardinals this year). Most players drafted in those rounds are no longer playing affiliated baseball, not starting games for a playoff-bound team.

As the A’s starting pitchers are currently 23rd in the MLB in xFIP- and CoolStandings puts their playoff odds at 98 percent, I thought it would be interesting to see how many teams had made the playoffs with their starting pitchers possessing a cumulative xFIP- of 106 or worse. As xFIP- only goes back to 2002, the search was restricted to the 2002-2013 era.

The 2011 Diamondbacks finished 94-68, winning the NL West.  Diamondbacks starting pitchers posted a 107 xFIP, good for 25th in MLB. Thanks to some innings eaters, they tallied 12.0 WAR, 15th in the MLB. Like the A’s, the Diamondbacks had a staff of fly ball pitchers, as they posted the lowest groundball percentage in the league. Despite playing at cozy Chase Field, their HR/FB ratio was only 9.8%, due in part to their rotation getting the fourth-highest infield-fly rate. They also had the third-lowest walk rate in the MLB. Featuring an outfield of Chris Young, Gerardo Parra, and Justin Upton, the Diamondbacks led the MLB in UZR. The rotation featured excellent seasons from Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, with a side of Josh Collmenter. Nobody else reached +1 WAR. The Diamondbacks beat their Pythagorean record by +6 wins. Their 28-16 record in 1-run games was the best in the MLB.

Okay, so only one team has made the playoffs with an xFIP- of 106 or worse, and the 2011 Diamondbacks were knocked out in five games by the Brewers. So, to see if I could include some more teams, I expanded the search to include teams whose starting pitchers finished 23rd or worse in xFIP-.

The 2006 Mets won the NL East, going 97-65. Their starting rotation  featured a 104 xFIP-, which was 24th in the MLB. Like the A’s and Diamondbacks, this was a staff of flyball pitchers, which finished 28th in groundball percentage. Outfielders Carlos Beltran and Endy Chavez ran down many of those flyballs. Unlike the A’s and Diamondbacks, the 2006 Mets were heavy on strikeouts and walks. The staff finished 8th in strikeouts and 7th in walks. Overall, the starting rotation was 26th in WAR, with a 40-year-old Tom Glavine leading the team at +2.5, followed by 34 year-old Pedro Martinez and 36 year-old Orlando Hernandez at +2.0 and +1.7, respectively. Headed by Billy Wagner and Aaron Heilman, the Mets bullpen finished 2nd in WAR and xFIP, and 4th in innings. Mets hitters also finished 7th in wRC+. Furthermore, the Mets beat their Pythagorean record by +9 wins, going an MLB-best 31-16 in 1-run games.

The 2006 Oakland A’s won the AL west at 93-69 with a starting rotation that had a 104 xFIP, 23rd in the MLB. That staff featured strong years from Barry Zito and Dan Haren, who helped the A’s rotation throw the 4th most innings in the MLB, which allowed them to accumulate a more respectable 11.9 WAR, 17th in the MLB. Unlike this year’s version of the A’s, the 2006 staff was middle of the pack in groundball percentage. The bullpen featured contributions from a bevy of relievers, finishing 5th in relief WAR, despite throwing the 7th fewest innings. The hitters were patient but generally lacked power, as they finished 2nd in walk rate and 25th in ISO. An old Frank Thomas and a young Nick Swisher combined to hit over 40 percent of the team’s home runs. The fielding was solid but far from spectacular. Like the Diamondbacks and Mets, they beat their Pythagorean record by a substantial margin.  Their 32-22 record in 1-run games helped them finish with +8 wins.

And that’s it. No other team has made the playoffs since 2002 after having their starting pitchers finish 23rd or lower in xFIP-. To tally it up, that’s one team that has made the playoffs with a starting rotation that posted an xFIP- of 106 or worse, and only two more that made the playoffs while finishing 23rd or worse in xFIP-, one of those being the A’s. The A’s success this year isn’t quite unprecedented, but it’s close. Unlike the other teams mentioned, the A’s have played to their Pythagorean record. Rather than emphasizing velocity (A’s starters are 28th in fastball velocity) Billy Beane has sought out young strike throwers who can stay healthy (and Colon, an old strike thrower). By putting them in a big ballpark with good outfielders, the A’s have managed to make below-average starting pitchers look solid. Billy Beane and the A’s are finding a way to beat sabermetric pitching stats such as xFIP and FIP.  By drafting pitchers later and making the most out of less than electric arms they have managed to insure themselves against the risks associated with young pitchers.

Is Jonathan Papelbon a Hall of Famer?

Note: I have no idea if I’m the first to do this, but quite frankly I don’t care.

Wait, don’t go! I swear I’m not crazy! Seriously, though, Jonathan Papelbon is an interesting case, one which has fascinated me ever since his last pitch with the Red Sox¹, and since the Jewish community² has been so gracious as to allot me this day off from school, I don’t really have anything better to do; hence, this.

While there has been a lot of criticism directed at Papelbon recently, the fact that everyone seems to overlook is that he is still a pretty good pitcher. It’s true that his strikeout rate has decreased dramatically (“only” 23.3% compared to 29.2% for his career); however, he has compensated for this by reducing his walk rate (4.2% compared to 6.4% for his career) and having a lower HR/FB% (6.1%, compared to 7.1% for his career). Consequently, while his xFIP and SIERA are both higher than his career numbers (3.43 and 2.93 compared to 3.09 and 2.50, respectively), his ERA and FIP (2.35 and 2.70, respectively) are right around his career numbers of 2.34 and 2.65; these numbers rank him him 33rd and 27th, respectively, out of 140 qualified relievers. Combine that with pitching in one of the more offense-friendly parks in baseball, and his WAR is 25th-best out of all relievers.

Now, the obvious counterpoint is that Jonathan Papelbon is not being paid the highest salary of any relief pitcher in all of baseball to be the 25th best. Obviously, this is true, and this post could very easily devolve into the usual “it’s not his fault Amaro’s a dipshit” argument; however, that’s not what I want to write about today. No, I choose to follow a higher calling: to determine whether or not Mr. Papelbon shall be enshrined forevermore in Cooperstown.

To do this, I decided to get a historical perspective, keeping in mind that the Hall of Fame voters are not sabermetrically-inclined, though they are still rational people³. Looking at the FanGraphs all-time ERA leaderboard, we see that Papelbon’s career ERA is the third-best all-time of pitchers with at least 500 relief IP, behind only Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner⁴. Looking at the Baseball-Reference all-time saves leaderboard⁵, we can see that Papelbon is 29th all-time in saves; establishing an arbitrary cutoff, we can see that 5 of the top 37 players in saves are in the Hall, and Rivera and Trevor Hoffman will obviously make that seven.

So, roughly 20% of the “elite” relief pitchers of all time are in Cooperstown. If Papelbon were to retire today, his chances would probably be slim, so the question becomes: how good can he be expected to be over the twilight of his career?

Papelbon is 32, and currently in the second year of a four-year contract. Since his birthday is conveniently located in the offseason⁶, we can identify the next two years as his age-33 and -34 seasons. Most reasonable people would say that the Phillies are several years away from being contenders, so a realistic assumption would be, say, 40 save opportunities over each season. This season, he’s converted 80% of his save opportunities (roughly league average); optimistically speaking, let’s say that rate holds up over the next two years. With Charlie Manuel now gone–and, hopefully, his attitude towards closers taken with him–Papelbon will also probably work some in tie games or games where the opponent has the lead. Let’s assume, again optimistically speaking, he pitches 70 innings each season, and continues to outperform his declining peripherals, allowing 20 earned runs in each season.

Now, the deal that he signed also had an option for a fifth year. Just a random speculation, but let’s say Ruben Amaro–being the genius that he is–decides to pay $10 million for a 35-year-old closer. At this point, there’s probably going to be a dropoff in Papelbon’s production; let’s say he converts 28 out of 40 save opportunities, and allows 24 earned runs in 60 innings.

What does all of this add up to?

Papelbon now 553 144 2.34 281 320
Papelbon later 753 208 2.49 373 440

That ERA would rank Papelbon as the 4th-best all-time among pitchers with at least 500 relief innings, and that save total would rank him 7th-best of all-time; in addition, this is assuming that he doesn’t pitch at all after the contract expires.

Another interesting angle: which active pitchers have similar cases to Papelbon? Aside from the Sandman, there are three active players ahead of Papelbon on the saves list; since one of them has probably ended his career (by pitching in a hot dog jersey, no less), that leaves but two: Joe Nathan and Francisco Rodriguez⁷.

All three of them have sub-3.00 career ERA’s and have never (as far as I know) been connected to PEDs; Nathan and K-Rod each have more than 300 saves (a feat only 25 pitchers have accomplished). Rodriguez has accepted a non-closer role with the Orioles, and he may never close again. Even if his exceptional start with the O’s (1.82 xFIP! 1.60 SIERA!) is no mirage, it’s hard to envision him being enshrined; plus, y’know, there’s the whole “assaulted his girlfriend’s dad” thing, though it’s not like the voters ever exclude people on moral grounds. Nathan, on the other hand, has never had any off-the-field problems; the biggest crutch holding him back may be his age. He debuted at 24–the same age as Papelbon when he debuted–but took a while to figure things out⁸, and only started pitching really well from age 29 on, when he was traded to the Twins in one of the more infamous trades of the decade. While his career relief ERA is quite good (2.35, the same as Papelbon) his overall ERA is a not-quite-as-spectacular 2.78, and he’s shown some signs of wear at age 38, with a 3.29 BB/9 rate that’s his highest since 2003.

Overall, I–the baseball expert–would say that Papelbon has the greatest chance of the three of heading to Cooperstown. Papelbon has some other notable achievements–the first pitcher ever with 25 saves in each of his first five full seasons, the fastest pitcher ever to reach 200 saves–which may help his case. Overall, this was a pretty good usage of a Jewish holiday. If you read this article in its entirety, I probably just wasted a lot of your time, although it’s not like you definitely didn’t come here for that.


¹A pitch, I should add, that I will remember (and constantly remind Red Sox fans that I remember) until the day that I die.

²I tried to look up the It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia clip where they talked about what to refer to Jewish people as, but I couldn’t find it. Does anyone know where that might be found? It’s from “The Gang Goes Jihad”, if that helps.

³Yes, I get that the tweet was sarcastic. The fact that he felt the need to joke about it proves that people with those archaic beliefs still exist.

⁴Wagner’s got an interesting Hall of Fame case as well–it’s outlined here.

⁵I used this instead of FanGraphs’ leaderboard because Baseball-Reference includes the “+” next to the player’s name if they’re a HOFer.

⁶I think a rule should be established saying only players with offseason birthdays can play baseball. That way, there won’t be any confusion with these midseason birthday guys–when people say “he’s in his age-__ season”, do they mean that was his age when he started the season, or that’s his age now?

⁷This could’ve been written about those two, but I chose to focus on Papelbon because cases for Nathan and for Rodriguez have already been outlined, and–as far as I could tell–none such actions had been taken for Papelbon.

⁸People really forget just how bad Nathan was in those early years. In 1999 and 2000, he pitched 183.2 innings, with a 4.70 ERA and a 5.70 FIP, due largely to a 5.34 BB/9 rate; to top it all off, he did it pitching in SAN FRANCISCO.

The Nine-Man Defense

(Author’s note: This is the first of a series in nontraditional tactics that may be advantageous in a one-game playoff scenario)

It certainly wouldn’t be earth-shattering for me to tell you about baseball being heaped in tradition.  In fact, to most of us, that’s the appeal.  The tradition. The consistency. The ability to reconnect with old times, making the comparisons between Manny Machado and Brooks Robinson without fear of having to factor in the large changes of the game.  The traditionalists out there, the ones who surely disagree with interleague play, and maybe even the designated hitter, make up a large part of the viewing audience.  Unfortunately for them, this article is probably not for them.

With the way that sports have evolved in the past few years, the future seems to be innovation.  In football, there was the Wildcat Offense, which was only outlasted by the (similarly gimmicky) Spread Offense.  Of course, who can forget New Orleans opting to onside kick to begin the second half of the Super Bowl, something that “common sense” would dictate is a terrible idea?  Meanwhile in hockey, Uwe Krupp, coach of the German national team has decided that when on 5 on 3 power play, he will pull their goalie.  While football and hockey are more prone to innovation, it is surprising that, for the most part, baseball offense and defense is almost exactly the same as it was in 1950.  Or even 1900.  Sure, the traditionalists will cite the Designated Hitter, the rise of the relief pitcher who exists solely to get one out, the Joe Maddon-esque shifting that seems so prevalent.  However, the shifts that we’ve seen have assumed the traditional positioning of defensive elements.

It’s time to change that.

Now, like I have mentioned, what I’m about to propose is extremely radical. The reactions I’ve gotten from people I’ve told is twofold: one group telling me that I’m an idiot and it would never work; the other telling me that I should write a letter to the manager of my favorite MLB team to ensure success in a one-game playoff (likely the best venue for such a suggestion).

It’s simple.  Move the catcher.  For lack of a better name, we’ll call it the nine-man defense.

“What on Earth are you talking about, the catcher can’t move, he’s there to call pitches, position his glove, and of course catch the ball!”

Relax, traditionalists.  I realize the problems.  The passed third strike or fourth ball, the runners on base concerns.  This isn’t about that.

However, we’ve all surely seen the following: fewer than three balls or two strikes, the pitch is in the dirt, skipping past the catcher, and the ball is replaced by the umpire.

Did you see that sequence?  The catcher did nothing.  He sat there, providing marginal defensive benefit, while he could have been occupying valuable defensive space.

“Okay, but the rulebook says that’s how it has to be!”

Not exactly.  The rule book only has a couple of fleeting references to the role of the catcher, surprisingly.  The first is Rule 1.12 which cites that the catcher is allowed to have a different glove than most other positional players and section 1.16 which permits a protective mask.  You’ll note a complete absence of a mention requiring that a catcher be in the catcher’s position for every pitch.  Remove the mask and the glove, and your catcher is just your run of the mill positional player.  The chest protector and knee pads, according to the rules, may remain on.  The second section (rulebook owners or adept googlers, refer to section 4.03) references the requirement that only the catcher is permitted to be positioned in foul territory during an at-bat, and that the catcher must be positioned behind home plate.  However, that does not say that a catcher is a REQUIRED fielder. I’ll leave it up to the Joe Maddons of the world to determine the optimal position of the catcher, my initial suggestion would be to place him near first base, and shift the second baseman to directly behind the bag, while moving the first baseman to the previous position of the second baseman.  Perhaps there would be more value in a fourth outfielder,  that discussion is beyond the scope of this hypothetical discussion.

The 9 man defense, with fewer than 3 balls or 2 strikes and no runners on.


So that’s it.  That’s all the rules have to say about the catcher.  It’s almost silly how few references there are to the role of the catcher in the rulebook.

“Okay, Chris.  I acknowledge that there may be some value to this, but I just have to think there are entirely too many downfalls.”

As I see it, there are quite a few downfalls to the approach.  The balance of trade on these downfalls as compared to the opportunity will be left up  to you.

One: The associated hassle of moving the catcher from “behind the plate” to “in the field” and back (once a third ball or second strike has been thrown, or a baserunner has gotten on base.)  Of course, baseball has had to deal with the complaints about long games, this does absolutely nothing to rectify it.  In fact, every pitch flying to the backstop might frustrate everyone involved.  Which is why it would have to be done in a one-game playoff type scenario (or series deciding game), segueing us perfectly to downside number two.

Two: The rules committee  would come down hard on this loophole after the first application of the nine-man defense.  There’s no getting around this.  This is a nuclear defense.  It’s only to be used in the most critical of situations.  Indeed, even the on-field crew may have difficulty in permitting it, which brings us to point number three.

Three: The poor home-plate umpire is just left behind the plate to have to somehow deal with being directly thrown at with 90-100 MPH pitches.  I feel sorry for the umpires, and this may be why I’ve gotten a less-than-receptive response from the MLB umpires I have contacted. My only remedy to this issue is a simple one: the umpire move to the side…or work on his reflexes.

Four: The defending team is now susceptible to a bunt.  Now, this may seem the case, but with a fifth infielder, the corner players would be able to play a lot closer in on the infield without worrying about range as much.  The additional infielder perhaps discourages the practice of bunting by having true fielders located along the baselines in a position to better field bunts.  In fact, it may make the fielding of bunts simpler without the opportunity for the pitcher to collide with the catcher running out from behind the plate to field a ball.

Five: The relatively minor concerns about pitch selection and positioning.  It may take some time for a pitcher to adjust, given a lifetime of throwing pitches to a target, but it is not unreasonable to think that pitches could be called from the dugout, or even the catcher positioned in the field.  As for targeting, I would hope that is something that the team would address with their pitching staff before implementing such a plan.

That’s it.  For many, even the non-traditionalists, I realize this is a quantum leap in the defensive mentality of baseball teams, normally limited to an infield shift, or the ever-so-rare 5-infielder-2-outfielder-hope-to-keep-the-ball-in-the-infield-to-save-the-game-in-the-ninth defense.  And sure, the rules committee may take exception, but in a one-game playoff, which MLB has tacitly admitted an affinity for (by forcing an annual one-game playoff), this seems like it would certainly cause a buzz about October baseball.  And after all, isn’t that the point?

Okay FanGraphs, what do you guys think?

John Axford: the Cardinals’ newest reclamation project

On Friday the Cardinals acquired Brewers reliever John Axford for a player to be named later. While dominant in 2010 and 2011, Axford’s lackluster performance since 2012 has many Cardinals fans uninspired by the move. In fact, most of the media attention has centered around his public farewell to Milwaukee fans.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offered his own analysis of the deal, calling it a “smart gamble” for the Cardinals. In addition to acknowledging Axford’s well documented HR/FB% struggles, Miklasz highlighted that the former closer has been particularly challenged by an ineffective fastball and poor performance in high-leverage situations.

PITCHf/x data on Axford’s fastball:





















Axford’s performance in high-leverage situations:





















FanGraphs readers will know that Cardinals GM John Mozeliak and his organization’s pitching staff have developed a reputation in recent years for quietly acquiring mediocre pitchers and helping them reach previously unimagined levels of success on the mound. To the extent that Mozeliak and company have similar designs for Axford, one must ask how they plan to help him reclaim his once dominant form.

The Cardinals may suggest any number of tweaks to Axford’s approach, but smart money has them coaching him to focus on throwing more first-pitch strikes. Jeff Sullivan recently reminded us of the importance of pitching ahead, and its import is surely not lost on manager Mike Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist. Since 2012, Redbird pitchers rank tops in the majors in terms of throwing first-pitch strikes.


































In the same piece, Sullivan also noted that since arriving in St. Louis in July 2012, Edward Mujica has established himself as the league leader in first-pitch strikes, increasing that figure from a pedestrian 60.9% in 2011 to an elite 75.6% in 2013. Doing so has no doubt played a large part in his improved performance in high-leverage innings.

Mujica in 2011 with the Marlins:





Low Leverage




Medium Leverage




High Leverage




Mujica in 2013 with the Cardinals:





Low Leverage




Medium Leverage




High Leverage




While Mujica’s 2011 performance in high-leverage situations was not nearly as poor as Axford’s has been in 2012 and 2013, there exists a similar opportunity for improvement.

Specifically, Axford is getting absolutely crushed when behind in the count this season.

Axford’s 2013 pitching splits:





Through 3 – 0




Through 3 – 1




Through 3 – 2




Through 2 – 0




Through 1 – 0




As they did when acquiring Mujica last year, look for the Cardinals to initially deploy Axford into low-leverage situations in which he can regain his confidence and focus on getting ahead in the count. If successful, one would expect the club to move Axford into higher-leverage situations, particularly if Mujica or Trevor Rosenthal wears down or runs into trouble down the stretch.

Pitching Backwards: Is The Fastball The Best Pitch in Baseball?

The fastball is the holy grail of pitching. Listen to a baseball broadcast, particularly one that involves a former pitcher, and you are likely to hear something along the lines of “the fastball is the best pitch in baseball and always will be.” However, since 2002, fastball usage has been declining, and since 2007, runs scored have been declining as well. The strategy of pitching backwards has been cited as a reason for the strikeout increase and the decrease in runs scored. Also, as the below table shows, fastball velocity for starting pitchers has steadily increased since 2002, which has also been cited as a reason for the current offensive environment.

Year Fb% Fbv ERA K%
2002 63.10% 89.5 4.41 16.00%
2003 63.00% 89.5 4.52 15.60%
2004 61.30% 89.7 4.62 16.00%
2005 60.70% 89.7 4.36 15.60%
2006 59.70% 90 4.69 15.90%
2007 59.70% 89.8 4.63 16.10%
2008 59.70% 90.3 4.44 16.60%
2009 59.00% 90.8 4.45 17.10%
2010 57.30% 90.7 4.15 17.60%
2011 56.40% 91 4.06 17.70%
2012 55.90% 91 4.19 18.70%
2013 56.30% 91.2 4.03 18.70%

To investigate the idea of the fastball being the best pitch in baseball, I first sorted all qualified starting pitchers since 2002 by fastball usage. Then, I sorted all qualified starting pitchers by fastball velocity. The first table is sorted by fastball usage, going from the most fastball-heavy to least fastball-heavy in descending order. Not surprisingly, Bartolo Colon utilizes his fastball more than any other starting pitcher. I excluded knuckleballers Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey from the list.

League 90.3 2.4 0.295 10.7 16.8 7.9 43.0 35.0
Group 1 90.6 2.5 0.297 10.4 14.8 7.7 48.0 30.2
Group 2 90.7 2.7 0.294 10.3 18.5 8.8 43.9 34.3
Group 3 90.5 2.8 0.294 10.3 16.7 7.4 42.1 35.8
Group 4 91.0 2.4 0.292 10.7 16.8 7.7 44.5 33.8
Group 5 90.8 2.9 0.295 10.1 17.9 8.2 43.2 35.0
Group 6 89.7 2.6 0.296 10.6 16.9 7.4 42.5 35.1
Group 7 89.5 2.6 0.297 10.3 16.7 7.3 41.8 35.8
Group 8 90.6 2.7 0.294 10.5 18.4 8.0 43.2 35.0
Group 9 89.6 2.6 0.290 10.5 17.7 7.7 41.5 36.6
Group 10 89.1 2.9 0.291 10.7 17.0 6.7 43.2 35.0

The group that used their fastball the most had the least strikeouts, which should not be surprising for anyone who has seen Colon pitch. Several groundball, pitch-to-contact types such as Kirk Rueter and Aaron Cook populated the first group. The least effective groups were Group One which used their fastballs the most, and Group Four, which had the highest average fastball velocity. Interestingly enough, the walk rates are all over the board. Group Two had the highest walk rate. Group Ten, which was composed of pitchers who used their fastballs sparingly, had the lowest walk rate by a wide margin. Overall, there is not much of a connection with fastball usage and success. The average WAR/200 IP of the first five groups is the same as the last five groups. If the fastball is the best pitch in baseball, pitchers who throw it more often are not more effective.

The below table is a listing of all qualified starting pitchers, sorted in descending order by fastest average fastball velocity.

        League 59.3 2.4 0.295 10.7 16.8 7.9 43.0 35.0
       Group 1 62.3 3.6 0.293 9.7 21.1 8.2 44.3 34.4
       Group 2 60.7 3.3 0.296 10.3 19.7 7.9 43.6 34.7
       Group 3 63.2 3.2 0.292 10.0 18.9 7.9 45.0 33.5
       Group 4 59.3 2.8 0.294 10.4 18.8 8.3 42.5 35.9
       Group 5 58.7 2.9 0.295 10.4 17.5 7.1 43.7 34.4
       Group 6 61.8 2.2 0.295 11.1 15.5 7.6 44.6 33.6
       Group 7 58.3 1.9 0.296 10.9 15.6 7.8 43.8 34.0
Group 8 58.2 2.5 0.295 10.7 15.7 7.3 43.1 34.7
Group 9 59.0 2.3 0.291 11.0 15.4 7.2 42.7 35.0
Group 10 55.8 2.1 0.292 10.3 14.2 7.3 40.9 36.5

This chart lends more support to the assertion that the fastball is the best pitch in baseball. As you would expect, strikeout rates decrease with declining fastball velocity. Overall, there is a strong link between average fastball velocity and pitcher quality. There also appears to be a link between fastball velocity and HR/FB rate, though Group 10 messes things up.

Not surprisingly, it looks pretty clear that fastball velocity is a significant predictor of success. However, offspeed offerings have been emphasized more in later years, as overall fastball usage has steadily dropped. Justin Verlander, owner of the third fastest fastball for starting pitchers in the Pitch f/x era has thrown his fastball less than 60% of the time during that period. On the other hand, hard thrower Daniel Cabrera threw his fastball on nearly 75% of his pitches over the course of approximately 900 largely unproductive innings.

The rise in strikeouts and drop in runs scored has largely corresponded with increasing offspeed usage. Pitchers are throwing more offspeed pitches, and hitters sitting on the fastball are being caught off guard. As a way of adjusting to the current run of pitching dominance, I have to wonder if pitch recognition and plate-discipline skills will have a more prominent emphasis. Perhaps raw home-run power and bat speed have been overemphasized. (How often would Wily Mo Pena strike out if he played today?). With the way pitchers can control and command their offspeed pitches (walk rates have not risen with decreasing fastball usage), the old strategy of sitting on the fastball may need to be tweaked if hitters are going to catch up with pitchers. Strikeouts are not inherently bad, (a look at this year’s strikeout leaderboard confirms my statement) but today’s hitters are also walking less despite seeing less pitches in the strike zone. The Pitch f/x data in the table below illustrates this phenomenon.

Year K% BB% Zone% O-Zone Swing%
2008 17.50% 8.70% 50.30% 28.00%
2009 18.00% 8.90% 50.40% 27.90%
2010 18.50% 8.50% 50.40% 28.40%
2011 18.60% 8.10% 50.10% 28.90%
2012 19.80% 8.00% 49.50% 29.30%
2013 19.70% 7.90% 49.20% 29.60%

Of course, pitch recognition is not nearly as exciting as raw power, and chicks probably don’t dig plate discipline like they dig the long ball. However, combating the recent run of strikeout-driven pitcher dominance by valuing pitch recognition and plate discipline is almost certainly a better approach than seeking out contact hitters in the way that Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers has done. Despite his statements about valuing hitters with pitch recognition, his 2013 squad chases more pitches than the 2010 team which set the MLB strikeout record. While fastball velocity plays a crucial role in a pitcher’s success, even the hardest throwers are mixing in plenty of offspeed pitches to keep hitters off balance. Hitters without the ability to adjust are being exploited.