Yonny Chirinos Is Closing In On Being Awesome

Early season baseball is beautiful. It’s not that just that baseball is back. It’s that things get so weird so quickly. Take, for example, Mike Petriello pondering this:

petriello tweet

Lol, y’all. For the record, Owings is at .478 going into his game on Friday and Sanchez has worked his way to .088. So, yeah, just a few days later and things are still weird.

But some things…some things that seem weird may not be weird. Yonny Chirinos might be one of those things.

Chirinos has been on the fringe of interesting for some time. Last July, Carson Cistulli wrote about him at FanGraphs for three weeks in a row. The gist, from blurbs in those pieces, is that Chirinos tends to sit in the low 90s with his fastball but can amp it up to 96 mph. He can do it late in games, too. He also throws two offspeed pitches — a slider and a splitter — and is comfortable throwing them anytime. He’s a guy who’s gotten better as he’s faced better competition.  

And now, after injuries to Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon and Nathan Eovaldi, Chirinos is getting the chance to face the best competition in the world. And he’s rising to the occasion again. He hasn’t allowed a run through 14.1 innings and he’s striking out six hitters to every walk. But there’s more.

Chirinos 1

Certainly, it’s early. While Chirinos is ranked here against last year’s qualifiers, he wouldn’t actually qualify yet for this year. No pitcher does, because it’s so early. Plate discipline numbers tend to stabilize quickly, though. After just his first couple games, the odds are good that hitters will continue to make contact at the same rate against Chirinos that they already have. After a couple more starts, we’ll be able to say with relative conviction if he’ll hit the zone the same way he has through his first three appearances. The same goes for the rate at which he’s coaxing swings out of the zone.

Things get a little foggier when it comes to Chirinos’s first pitch strike rate. He’s probably only a fifth of the way toward that crazy 71.7% number becoming reliable. But let’s consider how he’s done it to this point. Statcast has him at 18 called first pitch strikes, five whiffs, and eight foul balls. He’s throwing about three sinkers to every slider at the start of an at-bat, and occasionally gets funky by throwing something else. But it’s mostly a two pitch mix. And if you check the leaderboards so far, you’ll see he’s surrounded by loads of legitimate and other emerging talent.

Once he’s gotten ahead, Chirinos has done well by distributing his three primary pitches well, supporting the reports linked above from last season. His sinker runs one direction, his slider jumps the other, and his splitter acts like it’s fruit falling through the bottom of a grocery bag. In any given matchup, he can control three parts of the zone.

Chirinos 2

Just about the only way Chirinos could be making more of an impact right now is if he were going deeper into games. He’s averaged a shade over 60 pitches per appearance so far, and 64.5 per start. I don’t know if the Rays are stretching him out, or if they’re being super cautious against him facing batters a third time, or both. The team’s history may suggest they’ll eventually be willing to let him go further into games, though. The Rays rank tenth in MLB from 2015-17 in innings thrown by starters.  More than 22% of those innings can be attributed to Chris Archer alone, but it’s still worth keeping an eye on.

Either way, it’s probably fair to hedge a bet that Chirinos could continue producing really effective five inning outings and sprinkle in a few that are more than that.

Sometimes, what seems weird is actually just a new kind of awesome.

Plate discipline data from FanGraphs. Pitch mix data from Baseball Savant. Feature image by Cortesia. 

Cesar Hernandez Swings Less, Hits More

Getting talked up as a second baseman can be hard. Jose Altuve, Brian Dozier, Daniel Murphy, and Jonathan Schoop occupy a lot of that conversation. Other, older guys like Robinson Cano and Ian Kinsler are still kicking around. Whit Merrifield says hello from Nowhere, too. And then there’s Cesar Hernandez, who seems to get talked up most for how underrated he is.

He’s one of only two holdovers on the Phillies since he came up in 2013 — the other is Luis Garcia — so even after this offseason of the team shedding some of that sluggish rebuild weight and adding some bona fide muscle, they must see something in him. He’s not just an asset to turn. This is true even after signing Scott Kingery, whose primary position is the same as Hernandez’s, to a six-year extension before he’s even played a single game in the Majors.

Hernandez is remarkably consistent. He strikes out less than 20% of the time, walks more than 10%, will display occasional pop, and can handle the glove at the keystone. But even consistency needs to evolve sometimes in order to keep pace, and we may have seen the next step from Cesar Hernandez last year.

hernandez plate discipline

The change, in a word: discipline. Per Pitch Info, we can see how Hernandez apparently decided to just stop chasing pitches out of the zone. In the first half he ranked 29th in MLB, directly ahead of Edwin Encarnacion, and fourth at his position. That’s already pretty good. But in the second half he shot up to eighth in MLB and tied with now-teammate Carlos Santana, and second at his position.

It’s one thing to see a relatively sharp change in a stat and be able to acknowledge how a player’s performance improved or declined. It’s another to process how directly it possibly influenced his overall production. Consider that Hernandez swung at 5.2% less pitches in the second half. Nearly 80% of that decrease was the direct result of letting pitches outside the zone go. That’s four balls for every called strike.

The difference in Hernandez’s approach fueled a drastic increase in OBP and was a big reason he became 25% better than league average at creating runs. It’s no wonder he went from being worth less than a win before the All-Star break to 2.4 after it.

Check out the gifs below. They’re both of the switch-hitting Hernandez swinging from the left side at a pitch to the same outside third of the plate:

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The first is against a Yu Darvish fastball in May and resulted in a weak groundout to Elvis Andrus. It has a nice Fox Trax spot to show you how it was out of the zone. The second is against a Robert Gsellman fastball in September, around the same outside third of the plate, and was a double. This one doesn’t have a tracker showing you it was more over the plate, but, per Statcast, it was.

If you’ve heard of pitchers working the plate side to side, Hernandez does a little bit of the same with his swing, working horizontally. He pulls out his hips behind him and lets his bat drive through the zone on a similar plane. The small difference in pitch selection between the two gifs was the difference between a dribbler and an extra base hit, and Hernandez made this a regular thing from mid-July and on.

It appears as though he didn’t make any mechanical change that allowed him to better cover the plate or access the ball when it got there. This is true whether he batted lefthanded or righthanded. His plate discipline, then, really does seem to be the result of simply choosing to swing at only what’s within the zone. Last August, I wrote about Rhys Hoskins being exciting in the context of the current Phillies, and how he offers a threat that the rest of the lineup doesn’t. If Hernandez’s plate discipline sticks in 2018 — the handful of games so far hasn’t allowed for a stable sample size yet — then he, too, will offer a skill that makes the lineup tougher and more of a threat.

It’s been a weird year for the Phillies already. Between Gabe Kapler and younger talent making a push for playing time, it could get much weirder. But an eye like Cesar Hernandez’s at the plate every day could help steady the ship.

Pitch Info Data from FanGraphs. Gifs made with Giphy. Feature image from AP/Laurence Kesterson. 

Power Relievers and a Third Pitch?

As spring hopes eternal so, too, do the annual Spring Training stories. Guys are in the best shape of their lives or feeling better than they have in years. Or futzing with new pitches. In fact, so many guys try new pitches that Jason Colette keeps an annual, running list of pitchers who are attempting to add to their arsenal. 

Edwin Diaz is among those attempting to do that this year by adding a changeup to his very fast fastball and exceptionally mean slider. Mariners General Manager Jerry DiPoto says that so far the changeup is “pretty firm.” He also adds that “it could be something in [Diaz’s] back pocket that he can introduce against an occasional lefty.” But  does he even need it?

relievers

A glance at the top 10 relievers over the last three years tells us a few things. None of them threw any two pitches at a volume that would allow them to throw a third at a clip of 10% or more. Jansen’s and Britton’s numbers don’t even facilitate doing it for a second pitch! That 10% seems to be the tipping point at which an offering is actually useful to a pitcher. That’s when a hitter has to be accountable to it, or at least be aware of it in the back of his head. Less than that and they can take their chances focusing on what they know is coming more than 90% of the time.

The lone near-exception in this group is Roberto Osuna. After his fastball and slider, he’s thrown a cutter 9.4% of the time. He’s thrown a changeup slightly less than that (8.4) and a sinker slightly less than his change (7.4). While his repertoire might be an outlier compared to his peers, he still falls short of the 10%-per-offering threshold.

It’s important to acknowledge that each reliever’s primary and secondary pitch types aren’t listed above. They all throw different stuff. But what they use, they use similarly. In this sense it’s kind of like taking different routes to the same destination, but each one takes the nearly same amount of time. Looking at each reliever’s individual splits shows us that almost all of the them also faced a relatively even amount of righthanded and lefthanded hitters. Only Miller, Chapman, and Britton had splits that tilted more distinctly one way, and that was against righties. None faced notably more lefties.

And that brings us back to Diaz. He, too, has faced more righties than lefties so far in his time in the bigs, about 14% more. Adding a pitch specifically to focus on hitters he’s seen less of, in anticipation that he might see them more, seems premature at best. Remember, the M’s moved Diaz to the bullpen because he couldn’t develop a third pitch to stick in the rotation. That’s how we get a lot of our power relief arms. As a starter, that third pitch is way more critical because of the volume of hitters per appearance. For relievers — especially the dominant ones, which Diaz is capable of being — the lack of volume is by design.

Odds are that Diaz stops fiddling with a changeup and just keeps throwing his fastball and slider as the season gets going. But nonetheless, the situation feels like trying to push a buoy underwater. It’ll just keep bobbing back up. And why the Mariners would advocate for it in this context, whether passively or actively, is very, very confusing to me.

In my day job, I’m an educator. For every lesson planned, there’s a constant inner monologue, a series of cascading questions. What’s the best way to approach the day’s goal? Does this lesson serve the unit? If not, does the lesson have enough value to still include or would it just be empty fun? What questions can I anticipate, and what answers could I have ready?

If I were the Mariners, I wouldn’t plan for Diaz to throw a changeup. If he asked to do it, I’d conference with him about why he thinks it would be effective. I’d speak to him, with evidence, about why it might be cool, but emphasize that it’s definitely not necessary to succeed. I’d map out why it makes sense for him to just throw that dang slider.

But alas, I’m not the M’s.

Data from Fangraphs. Feature image from Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times

Maybe the Brewers Are Stepping Up Because of Zach Davies?

Not entirely, no. Before acquiring Christian Yelich and signing Lorenzo Cain, the Brewers still had a host of other talent scattered throughout their lineup that made them interesting, if not necessarily intimidating. But Davies occupies a particular space that their more established players have surpassed and that their other younger players have yet to enter.

He’s going into his third full season and has provided nearly six wins for the team, and his approach could make you believe he could keep doing that in the middle of the rotation. He’ll play 2018 at just 25 years old.

Travis Sawchik detailed why Davies is an outlier toward the end of last season. At 6’0, 155, he creates his success by combining guts, guile, and execution. Of those three characteristics, guile may pique the most interest.

Davies Sequencing

From his start on July 19 and after, Davies was a different pitcher. He made a big adjustment to his sequencing as he adapted the usage of his secondary pitches to better complement his two-seamer.

Davies’s two-seamer and changeup fade to the same quadrant of the strike zone. If he was working off the fastball, it may have been giving batters a better opportunity to tee up a changeup because of how tunneling works. They would have looked the same to batters by the time they had to decide to swing, generating a similar bat path.

Meanwhile, his cutter and curve could have come out of the same tunnel as his two-seamer, but ended up working the opposite side of the plate. Batters would have had a much more difficult time picking up what was coming next.

Davies heatmaps

Given how Davies’s two-seamer and changeup work the same area of the plate, it’s interesting that their drop in wOBA was identical after July 19, and equally interesting that the cutter and curveball became so much more effective.

These differences after Davies’s change in sequencing speak to the possible impact a tunneling effect could have had on his overall game. While tunneling isn’t necessary for pitchers to have success it may be especially productive for a guy who throws in the low 90s and lives on the edges of the zone.

Sequencing better in any count is bound to help performance, but it appears to have helped Davies in one particular situation. When he was behind 3-1 before July 19 — 38 times in 19 starts — hitters were smacking the ball into play at over 100 miles an hour. After that date — 26 times in 14 starts — he coaxed hitters’ exit velocity down to 87.3 mph. Once or twice a game, Davies turned absolute screamers into much more average balls in play. That’s critical when a pitcher isn’t going to generate outs on his own with whiffs, as Davies won’t with his career 6.55 K/9.

We can probably fairly consider this adjustment as deliberate, based on another quote from him in Travis’s article:  

“I think it just comes down to the other side of the game that not a lot of people pay attention to…[t]he thinking part of the game…[smaller guys]  have to rely upon smaller details about their game that can give them an edge.”

What if that also explains, at least partially, how the Brewers decided to go big by trading for Yelich and signing Cain? Teams have billions of data points to measure player performance. Davies’s subpar raw skills apparently haven’t kept him from being able to make adjustments and providing tangible value, despite falling outside what those data points might influence teams to prioritize. In this respect he’s a player who gives his team a unique edge.

We’ll have to wait to see an encore from Milwaukee’s holdovers from 2017, as well as the impact their newcomers make. But Zach Davies finds himself at the heart of a team looking to make some noise in a challenging NL Central.

All data from Statcast. Featured image from Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America.