The Reds Pitching Staff Is On A New Level: Atop Baseball

The nature of change often makes it seem as though it’s happened overnight. We aren’t particularly good at seeing the tiny, consistent changes that build up over time when it comes to seeing it in others. We aren’t particularly patient enough to enforce those same tiny, consistent tweaks when we attempt to change ourselves. And beyond that, it’s more fun to subscribe to the idea that someone went to bed one night one way, and then woke up the next day completely different. It’s conveniently inspiring and hopeful.

Nonetheless, real change happens with quiet commitment. The Cincinnati Reds pitching staff so far in 2019 is proving to be a great example. Last year, they were the fifth-worst in all of baseball. So far this year, they’re tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the best in all of baseball.

Reds data

The data only go as far back as when games started at the end of March. But to appreciate when the Reds really started to implement change to their pitching approach, we have to go back to last October when they hired away Derek Johnson from the division rival Brewers. Johnson came to Cincinnati with a reputation as one of the best pitching coaches in the league. He spent the last three years in Milwaukee; before that, he was the minor league pitching coordinator for the Cubs for three years, and before that, he was the pitching coach at Vanderbilt University from 2002-12. Those are all in their own ways forward-thinking organizations of which Johnson was integral part.

He’s not the only improvement the team made. In January, the Reds hired Caleb Cotham as an assistant pitching coach. Cotham was coached by Johnson and was teammates with Sonny Gray at Vanderbilt. He has Major League pitching experience, has trained at Driveline, and most recently worked for the Bledsoe Agency while focusing on player development.  To get a sense of his approach, consider this picture he tweeted in January 2018:

tweet.png

Those baseballs are marked up to aid the use of a Rapsodo, to help show a pitch’s spin axis and provide cues for pitchers as to how to manipulate the ball as it leaves their hand. The Reds joined the revolution this offseason and began using Rapsodo in spring training, and made sure they had staff that not only wanted to implement it, but knew how to get the most out of the cameras that can provide thousands of slow motion frames per second.

That’s what the team has done on the coaching side of things, but the games and execution are still left to the players. Big changes were made there, too — Sal Romano, Matt Harvey, and Homer Bailey are no longer on the 25-man roster. They recorded the second-, fifth-, and sixth-most innings for the Reds last year and just 2.4 fWAR combined. Others who contributed somewhat regular innings, like Matt Wisler, Austin Brice, Dylan Floro, Jackson Stephens, and Brandon Finnegan, are also either no longer with the organization or are in the minors.

The Reds have fortified their rotation with Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark, and moved Robert Stephenson to the bullpen full time. So far, they’re the best pitchers the Reds have who aren’t named Luis Castillo, in large part thanks to a serious commitment to sliders. Gray isn’t trying to throw his for strikes as he was with the Yankees, and he looks like his old productive self. Roark is throwing the slider an additional 12% from last year. Stephenson has gone mad and is throwing it 20% more than in 2018. The early returns have clearly been favorable, but was solving the problem really just about the Reds getting new coaches and shuffling the deck?

Animated GIF-source (3)

All of these heat maps are from the catcher’s perspective. As a staff, Reds pitchers are demonstrating better command almost across the board. Fastballs are more clearly up and to the first base side. Sliders are extremely crisp, painting the low, first base-side corner and seemingly refuse to leak more into the zone. Curveballs aren’t being left in the heart of the plate. Changeups are being pounded with more authority to the low corner on the third base side. Two-seamers are working more to the lower third of the zone.

The team is also employing them far less, having accounted for anywhere between 5-10% less of the staff’s total offerings, depending on which pitch classification system you use. Over the course of the season, that’s roughly a thousand less sinkers, at least.

The two-seamer is the pitch that gets the least amount of whiffs. Trading them for literally any other pitch is a net win in that regard, which might help explain how the Reds have managed to maintain the amount of walks they give up while adding 20% more strikeouts over last year. We’re at a point where pitchers and hitters are each optimizing for the best possible outcome: strikeouts and homers. Going for more whiffs as hitters are already primed to swing and miss because they’re going for extra base hits is a no-brainer, but the Reds appear to have had more room to improve in this area than most teams, and have done it as much as possible since last year.

The improved command has lead to improved efficiency, too. Reds pitchers have thrown the eighth-fewest pitches in the Majors. From 2016-18, they never ranked better than 16th by that measure. Throwing fewer pitches doesn’t necessarily correlate to automatic success — for example, the Yankees threw more pitches than nearly everyone last year but their staff was also better than every team except the Astros — but in this instance, it’s clear that the Reds’ efficiency is representative of a big part of their ascent so far.

It started with one coaching hire, and then another. And then they added new tech that complements old knowledge and relationships. Since then it’s been about executing each pitch with more authority to places that are harder to hit it. The Reds are five games under .500 in what could be baseball’s toughest division, and yet they’re in the midst of a turnaround on the mound that’s unprecedented. Tune in to be a witness. 

Heat maps from Statcast. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images.

Brad Peacock Might Finally Have An Answer For Lefthanded Hitters

Brad Peacock has been a lot of things in his career. A near-afterthought as a draft pick, a top-50 prospect, a starter with an unsightly walk rate, injured with bone spurs near his spine, a nifty reliever, a great swingman…they’re all apt descriptions of the various phases he’s experienced. This year, he’s back in the rotation for the Astros as they’re primed for another season of success. Whether in an upswing or a downturn, though, lefty hitters have always been a bugaboo for him.

He came into 2019 sporting a wOBA against lefthanded hitters that was 29% worse than the average righthanded pitcher since he came into the league. I wanted to round that to 30% for the sake of convenience, but then I checked how Peacock has performed against same-handed hitters compared to other righties in the same time frame. Get this — he’s been 29% better at limiting quality contact than his peers. Talk about wild!

But back to how he fares against lefties. He has a three-quarter arm slot and his best pitches — his fastball and slider — aren’t necessarily ideal to go to battle with against them. With that in mind it’s understandable that he could have his limitations; that his ultimate effectiveness might be limited by the same things that got him to the Majors. Just consider what he’s thrown when facing a lefthanded hitter through his career:

peacock v lefties career
There are a couple clerical-type things to note here. One is that we could merge Peacock’s two-seamer (FT) and sinker (SI) into 229 total pitches. Even if we want to split hairs and distinguish them from each other, odds are infinitesimal that Peacock was trying to throw two different pitches. It’s just a pitch classification quirk. The other is that anything thrown by a pitcher less than about 10% is something we don’t need to sweat. It probably isn’t offered enough to really buy into the data it produces. So we can eliminate the two-seamer as a whole to get a closer look at how Peacock really approached lefties from the time he debuted in MLB through last year.

That leaves us with a four-seamer, a knuckle curveball, a slider, and possibly a changeup. Based on usage, let’s draw our focus tighter to just the breaking balls. Here’s where he located them:

peacock HHEEAATT

That’s from the catcher’s perspective. He alternated location with each, sometimes trying to get chases low and in and sometimes trying to backdoor them over the plate. They’re distinct pitches and that’s usually good. But in this case, maybe not so much. Peacock’s curveball has always dropped between six and 11 inches more than his slider. Meanwhile, its side-to-side movement shrunk from a four inch difference with the slider to less than an inch in the last two-plus seasons. Locating the pitches in different spots could have given lefty hitters the chance to distinguish the break on each pitch, line it up and drive it, or spit on it and wait for a fastball. With all that deep yellow outside of the zone above, there was probably a good chance for a walk, too.

In his first start of 2019, he changed things against lefties. To the pitch mix!

peacock peeitch meeix
Ok, so let’s ditch the two-seamer/sinker amalgamation. Let’s also ditch the single cutter (FC), because it was probably just a bad slider. We can take or leave the five changeups, and since we already left them earlier, we’re going to do it again. We’re going to continue focusing on only the four-seamer, the knuckle curveball, and the slider.

The first thing that jumps out is the fastball is down below 50% usage. The next thing that sticks out is the breaking ball preference has flipped. By flipping the script, Peacock got four called strikes on sliders to lefties in his 2019 debut, plus one whiff. The lefties let the curveball go and it became a ball half the time. 

There’s one more thing about how Peacock employed his breaking balls against lefties to start the season. Here they are in heatmap form from the catcher’s perspective again:

peacock heat

Both pitches fell to the same lower, inside corner. With the side-to-side break less than an inch apart from each other, and the curveball dropping more than an additional 10 inches, Peacock used them in tandem to cause fits for lefties.

Think of this with the heatmap as an aid. The pitches most frequently fell to the black dot below the zone, but the pitches that created the gradation of maroon out to orange up and into the zone are the ones that made it so hard for the hitter to decide whether to swing.

You might be thinking, “Big whoop. The Astros played the Rangers in Peacock’s first start. They stink.” You wouldn’t be wrong. They’re projected to win about 75 games, give or take a few. But Texas offers some dangerous lefties. Nomar Mazara, Joey Gallo, Rougned Odor, Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Ronald Guzman combined to go 2-for-14 against Peacock. The lineup was stacked with established lefty big leaguers (save for Guzman) whose wOBA was between average and 50% above average against righties as recently as last year, and they were collectively helpless. 

The season’s about a week old. What’s happened so far is by no means an indicator of what will continue to happen. But Brad Peacock might have changed his approach to lefties and that could be a big deal. It might not solve his times-through-the-order problem, where he’s 75% worse than his peers the third time seeing an offense. He’s also 25% better than them when seeing hitters the first and second time, though, so an uptick in efficiency could produce some scary-good results. The Astros have pitchers in the system like Forrest Whitley and Josh James, plus others, who could eventually take Peacock’s rotation spot. For now, he’s locked in, and might have a new trick up his sleeve to help keep it that way. 

All data from Statcast unless otherwise noted. Feature photo Ron Schwane/Associated Press.

 

David Price Has Leveled Out And Leveled Up

David Price has started 24 games this year. Per FanGraphs, he’s been worth 2.2 wins above replacement in those games. But in his last five starts alone, he’s been worth exactly half of that total. He’s been so good recently that Boston media asked him after his most recent start, in which he went seven innings, struck out eight, and only allowed two runs against Tampa Bay, what he had changed. The exchange was direct.

Specifically, Price was asked what he’s done to catch fire. He responded saying that he “made adjustments,” and, when the initial question was followed up with “what kind of adjustments?” he responded saying he wouldn’t say, and that he isn’t going to do the media’s job for them since they don’t do his, and that they can “go back and watch film.”

So I did.

Price Side by Side.II

On the left is Price on June 9. On the right is Price on July 12, the start of his best stretch of 2018. There’s a lot going on here. Five things, actually, and they’re all happening in just a couple split seconds that may be difficult to catch in real time.

First things first: he’s moved in more on the rubber toward first base. Even a couple of inches changes the path of the ball to the plate, meaning hitters have automatically been getting an altered look. Then look at his glove, and how high he was lifting it and his right arm earlier this year. It was nearly coming up over his eyes.

That brings us to the third tweak Price has made. His head isn’t poking out quite the same. Now that his glove hand is lower, his view to home is cleaner the entire time through his motion and his upper body can be more relaxed. Just look at the line from the outside of his glove hand to the bend in his throwing elbow. Before he made his adjustments he was rocking up and down much more, almost like an old metronome needle. Only the time he was keeping wasn’t so sharp, which we can get a sense of if we look at number five, his back leg.

Get out of your seat and slowly mimic Price’s motion on the left from earlier this season. Do you feel all the tilt your back leg and knee are left to control from what your torso is doing? It’s a lot. By Price leveling out how he transfers energy through his upper body, he’s letting his lower body stabilize and support himself more easily. His hips can coil and spring outward, moving directly to the plate with less to account for. 

Below is a gif of heat maps for each of his individual pitches.

David Price Heat Maps GIF-downsized_large

On the left is where Price was placing each pitch before the changes. On the right is where he’s been putting it since. The view is from the catcher’s perspective. Each horizontal dash at the bottom accounts for two feet of distance, and each vertical one accounts for one foot. I left them in so you can get an idea of how much Price’s adjustments to his motion have impacted his control and command.

This is not the kind of tweak we should take for granted, though we often do. For one thing, we ‘re forced to consider just how difficult the Red Sox will be to handle in the playoffs with this version of Price if they got to 50 games over .500 largely without this version of him. And for another, this process could be beneficial to an endless amount of players if delivered in a forward manner.

What Price has effectively done is turn down the noise level within the motor pathways firing off in his brain. It’s not a matter of seeing a perceived mechanical flaw, pointing it out, and suddenly being better, though. This more exaggerated rocking from Price started sneaking into his motion somewhere around 2015. That’s the same time he had his best season to date and finished second in the Cy Young voting. Deliberate or not, it seems to have crawled into his game and been reinforced, creating a wrinkle for him that’s become inhibitive. Fixing it isn’t necessarily so simple.

That’s because the kinds of practice and repetition inherent to baseball are also inherent to automatizing the information a player processes every time they pick up a ball or bat. When we automatize, it’s like learning how to ride a bike without wobbling or falling. It’s what lets us focus on other, more important things, like looking where we’re riding so we don’t drive into a wall or a baby stroller. For David Price, it means being able to execute pitches better. (If you’d like to learn more about our natural pull draw to automatizing procedures, consider reading Zach Schonbrun’s The Performance Cortex, which will promptly blow your mind.)

But automatizing also leaves us open to creating bad habits, where our brains can go on autopilot too long through a process. We become so used to knowing how to ride a bike that our minds wander. We pull out our phone or ride hands-free without thinking. For ballplayers, they might start swinging wildly or superficially capping their power or, in Price’s case, dulling his repertoire. Automatizing is a constantly fluid and tricky process.

Players need to understand why a change makes a difference and how to discern the need for it. They need to know how wading into the waters against what they’ve been doing for a long time in an effort to be their best is actually going to help. 

David Price isn’t throwing harder. He hasn’t drastically adjusted his pitch mix more than he has in the past, changed a grip to create more movement on old pitches, or introduced a new pitch.

He explored, understood, and implemented a change to something he’d been doing for years. He adapted a pattern that swayed from exact and automatic to habitual and obstructive. Now the Red Sox have another piece firing on all cylinders as we move toward October, leaving all the other teams in MLB to shudder at the possibilities.

Photo stills from Baseball Savant video. WAR numbers from FanGraphs. Gif made with Giphy. Feature image from Jason Miller/Getty Images

George Springer Isn’t Quite Seeing What He Wants

Look up and down the Houston Astros roster and it’s difficult to imagine them getting any better. They’re on pace to win 105 games, which is four more than even last year. But it’s possible. Though their pitching staff is the best in the league and maybe one of the best ever, their offense has been more middling. And it may start at the top with George Springer.

So far Springer has registered 1.6 fWAR and a 113 wRC+ in 97 games. While being 13% better than league average is pretty good, it’s not quite what you’d expect from him. Last year he surged to a 140 wRC+ mark. Even if you account for regression, you don’t account for him being almost 30% less than the batter he was just a season ago.

Right now the projections love him. He’s pegged to account for at least 1.5 wins for the rest of the year, in less than 60 games, and a wRC+ of at least 128. And remember that as projection systems evaluate a player’s true underlying talent level at a given point in time, they’re also conservative in nature. You could somewhat reasonably argue, then, that Springer could possibly manage an even bigger rebound here as the season resumes.

But there’s a catch with projection systems. They might capture a player’s true talent level, but by nature they can’t capture all that goes into preparing for that player. Maybe based on George Springer’s past body of work, compared to players of his ilk and age, he really is a hitter who is at least 30% better than his peers right now. But based on how pitchers have attacked him this year, he hasn’t been, and there’s one reason that sticks out as to why.

SpringerHeat2017

Pitchers are locating their four-seamers to Springer differently this year. On the left, you see where they spotted the pitch to him in 2017, mostly outside. Springer is 6’3 and looks every bit of it in the box. He has an upright stance. When he gets ready to swing he becomes relatively compact. His arms move down while his hands load and he has a moderately  pronounced leg kick. Given how he condenses himself, it’s possible pitchers felt there was an opportunity to attack away because of how it would take him more time to expend the energy to get there on their fastest pitch.

But if you look on the right side of the heat maps above, you’ll see the fastballs Springer swung at. He didn’t have difficulty getting to those pitches and you can see why for yourself if you get out of your seat and pretend to take a swing as you read this next part. (That’s what I did. It was fun!) Go ahead. Stare down Luis Severino or Jacob deGrom fearlessly as you ready yourself for what’s about to come. Make sure you’re in an upright stance. Slowly coil up as you get ready to take your cut. Follow through.

Notice where your arms and legs go? They explode out. They pretty much have to, right? Now imagine you’re a top tier athlete on a top team in the world, like George Springer is, and you can see how he’d shred fastballs on the outer half. He accumulated a 17.4 pitch value against four-seamers last season, which was good for 15th in all of the Majors.

SpringerHeat2018

So, the solution? Try to take advantage of the way Springer coils up. Bust him inside some more to keep his body and bat from exploding through the pitch. And so far this season, it’s working. He’s managed only a 6.9 pitch value against four-seamers so far. That’s still relatively nice, and top 40 in the Majors. His wOBA against four-seamers this year is still .381, but that’s down nearly 50 points from last year. In many ways he’s been perfectly cromulent, even if a far cry from the top six outfielder and top 20 hitter in all of baseball he was in 2017.  

Pitch values come with caveats. They can be deceptive because on the surface they look like they report only on one specific pitch, but the value of each pitch is often heavily tied to how it’s sequenced with others. We don’t immediately know what set up the performance of the pitch we’re evaluating, and that’s a big deal. However, Springer has seen and offered at pretty much the same volume of four-seamers as just a season ago. Pitchers have merely changed where he’s seeing it.

Springerrrrrrr

If he’s still favoring swinging at the fastballs on the outer half, it’s probably because he knows he can crush them. Just last night, on June 21, poor Noe Ramirez served him a pitch right in his happy zone and the Angels paid dearly. The Astros are a smart club. Maybe they’ve tried or are brainstorming possible solutions to Springer getting crowded with heat. Maybe they’ haven’t and they’re just telling him to keep on keeping on because it’s not like he’s turned into a liability. But good gravy, imagine if he figures it out before October.

Pitch percentages and heat maps from Statcast. All other data from FanGraphs. Feature image from Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle

 

Examining The Struggles of Ozzie Albies Through The Lens of Neuroscience

Ozzie Albies has been at the heart of his team’s unexpected push for the NL East division lead all season. He was there before Ronald Acuña came up. He’s been healthy since Acuña got hurt. He blasted through April with a triple slash of .293/.341/.647. A .647 slugging percentage! Everyone was astounded. Articles were written about how rare and mystifying it was, whether it was sustainable, and how it was nearly impossible to provide a comp for him because there hasn’t been a player like him before. He appeared to be imposing his will on anyone who dared to pitch to him.

Well, gang, May happened. And June is in the midst of happening. And while his overall performance to date still provides us great insight to the player we can look forward to, Albies has had a much tougher go of things. That triple slash slunk to .264/.306/.432 in May. So far this month, it’s at .154/.200/.346.

The good has been unprecedented; the bad has turned abysmal. Each has been more extreme than his profile ever seemed to offer. When Albies was first called up last year, Baseball Prospectus said he “has a slash-and-dash offensive approach that marries well with his advanced bat control and plus-plus speed.” But since he’s been in the Bigs, he’s been more of a free-swinging, freewheelin’ monster.

In 2017, he offered at more than 51% of the pitches he saw. Had he qualified, that would’ve placed him in the bottom 20% of the league, in the company of Yangervis Solarte and Brandon Crawford. This season he’s been even more severe, swinging at more than 55% of all pitches faced. That puts him in the bottom 5% of qualifiers. So, really, what is going on?

Neuroscience GIF-downsized_large

This gif shows the plate from the catcher’s view, and consists of only lefthanded plate appearances by Albies. It accounts for about 70% of his plate appearances and is where the struggles have really come in, as he’s hit only .232 from the left side as opposed to .318 from the right.

On the left side of the gif is a heatmap of Albies’s swing percentages. On the right is where pitchers have located to him. The first is through April, and the second is from May through 6/14. At the start of the season, pitchers filled the zone and challenged him. Per Baseball Savant, more than 41% of pitches he faced crossed the plate that month, and he used his exceptional bat control to punish those balls. However, since May, pitchers have thrown it in the zone far less — a shade under 33% of their total pitches to him. When you’re swinging at more than 55% of the pitches you’re seeing, but only one in three is over the plate, you’re bound to run into trouble.

There are two possible suggestions to make for Albies here. One would be mechanical, assuming something is wrong with his swing. That would probably be premature, given how good he’s been at such a young age. The other would be mental, which seems more likely. His advanced bat control appears to have convinced him that he can hit anything, so he’s going for it. But by doing so, he might be poorly manipulating the signals in his brain he uses to make contact.

Bijan Pesaran, a professor of neuroscience at New York University, explains it this way through the scope of ping pong players:

“When [they] are playing at a high level, they look at the ball up to the point where they hit it. As soon as the paddle makes contact with the ball, you can see their eyes and head turn to now look at their opponent. They think they are looking at their opponent when they are hitting the ball, but they are looking at the ball. Their eyes are tracking the ball, even though they are aware of their opponent.”

Pesaran also says that the cerebral cortex is arranged more like a mosaic than a traditional puzzle. That’s the part of the brain ballplayers would use for pitch recognition and location. If Albies is going to parts of the zone he’s unfamiliar with — parts he doesn’t approach when he’s hitting at a high level — he’s essentially attempting to rearrange the mosaic network that relays the signals from his brain to his swing. It also means he could be looking at the ball longer since he’s not used to seeing it in those places.

The result is a hitch in the 200 millisecond cycle where his brain processes a pitch and tells his body to swing, which may be causing, or at least contributing to, the struggles in which Albies finds himself swamped.

Ozzie Albies didn’t suddenly turn into a pumpkin after a flare of greatness. He’s too good for that. But he does need to adapt to a league that’s already adapted to him. His next step forward could take realizing his limits.

Pitch charts from Baseball Savant. All other data from FanGraphs. Gif made with Giphy. Feature image from Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images.

Jacob deGrom is Leveling Up

So far this year, more than 170 starters have thrown at least 10 innings. Of those starters, Jacob deGrom has been the fifth best in all of Major League Baseball. In the prior three seasons he was 12th overall, then 28th, then 12th again. He’s already been worth more than two wins…in less than a third of a season. Last year, he was worth 4.4. John Edwards noted just how berserker his start has been:

johntweet1

Nine wins, y’all. DeGrom is on pace to be worth nine wins. The last pitcher to be that good was Randy Johnson in 2004. Being that deGrom is “only” the 5th best pitcher so far this season, that means four others — Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Luis Severino — have been even better, and that they’re on pace to break that nine WAR barrier, too. Given that less than a third of the season has passed, maybe none of them will, or maybe we’re in for a heck of a season from the mound despite a ball that favors hitters.

DeGrom might be of particular interest, though, because he’s showing us a completely different look this year than in the past. Just see for yourself.

Mets GIF-downsized_large

Those heat maps are all from the catcher’s perspective. DeGrom is combining his crazy high talent level with a whole new level of conviction. The result? Video game-like command that’s yielded a career-high 12.1 strikeouts per nine and a typical 2.45 walks per nine.

degromwhiffs

DeGrom is just baffling hitters. His four-seam fastball is generating whiffs at more than twice the average rate of the whole league. It’s always been above average but it’s off the charts this year. What’s interesting is it’s got less run right now, per Brooks, meaning it’s straighter. That isn’t fascinating on its own, but his changeup is straighter, too. Basically, the two pitches look more like each other for deGrom in 2018 than they ever have, but they’re working different parts of the zone. That means they’re creating a wrinkle for hitters that they’ll continue to have a difficult time ironing out moving forward.

All of his offerings have created pretty much league average swing-and-miss or better. There are two outliers: the slider and the sinker. Like the fastball and changeup, the slider appears tighter in its movement to the plate, with less drop but slightly more side-to-side break. I can’t discern if it’s playing up because of that, or because of his other stuff, or if he’s due for some regression on whiffs there. It’s something to keep an eye on, though.

Meanwhile, the curve is plowing away at the low, glove side corner. And the sinker isn’t a pitch anyone uses for whiffs very often, but deGrom’s has been about 80% worse than average this season. Instead of throwing it more arm side, though, he’s using the other side of the plate so it zings back to the edge of the zone to steal called strikes.

Let’s take a breath and recap. DeGrom’s generating a crazy amount of whiffs with his fastball up in the zone. He can mess with hitters’ eye level with his changeup low in the zone. The sinker can steal strikes on the edge. And then the curve and slider are breaking toward that same spot with pinpoint authority. Is this even fair?

Hitters will certainly say no, but that’s kind of the point. Bless their hearts, though; they’re trying. DeGrom’s improved command has coaxed them into 8% less hard contact against him so far this year compared to last year. That’s nice by itself, certainly. But it’s fueled almost the entirety of deGrom’s 8.6% increase in soft contact generated. He now leads the league by that measure at 29.9%. Hitters are hitting less against him, and when they do manage to put the bat on the ball, they’re making life easy for defenders.

The last pitcher to show this kind of jump — from really good to amazing — was Corey Kluber from 2013 to 2014. In 2013 he was worth 2.8 wins in 147.1 innings. A year later he was worth 7.4 wins in 235.2 innings. He generated more soft contact, too, but only half as much as deGrom has added this season, and it didn’t come directly from his hard contact allowed. He struck out about two more batters per nine than the year before. His stuff was in the zone but he didn’t quite command it like deGrom has.

There isn’t much precedent for what Jacob deGrom is doing this season. Time will tell if he maintains his new dominance, but for now he’s pacing nearly the entire league. He’s leveling up. 

League average whiff rate and WAR from FanGraphs. Heat maps and deGrom whiffs-per-pitch from Baseball Savant. Gif made with Giphy. Feature image from AP/John Bazemore.