I See You, Jake Arrieta

In the last week Ichiro, Tim Lincecum, Carlos Gonzalez, Jonathan Lucroy, Mike Moustakas, and Lance Lynn have all signed. On Sunday, Jake Arrieta joined them, agreeing to a three year, $75 million contract with the Phillies. That’s an average of a signing a day! Of Major Leaguers, to Major League contracts! The dominoes are certainly falling. Finally.

Arrieta’s signing comes with curiosities. Or maybe more accurately, concerns. He has more than 1,100 professional innings on his arm. From 2014-16 he had a nasty-good run. Toward the end of it, and through 2017, his velo started to dip. Pitch Info tells us he lost two mph off his sinker between 2016 and 2017. His Ks have slightly gone down and his walks have slightly risen. At 32, he’s at an age where it’s fair to begin wondering how much further he could fall, and how quickly.

How does he adapt? Arrieta might be past his peak prime while with the Phillies, but what will he be? What can he be, and what adjustments might it take to get there? The way hitters manufactured production off him last year could help us find a path to that answer.

Arrieta wOBA

Half of his actual weighted on base averages were higher than what Statcast tells us we should have expected. Arrieta arguably has a skill of inducing weak contact, so what this would seem to suggest is that sometimes, when hitters put the ball in the air against him, he just gets beat. The overall numbers were lower during his run of dominance between 2014 and 2016, but the actual production similarly beat what could’ve been predicted based on the launch angle and exit velocity of balls in play against him.

Beyond that, though, we see a notable split in performance against lefties and righties last year. A single year of batter splits can be dubious, but consider this the New Arrieta; one whose age is revealing diminished skill. Lefties really went to town against his sinker and slider last year. The two pitches break in opposite directions, which makes them excellent sequencing buddies from the same tunnel, but things didn’t play that way for Arrieta last year.

One reason why could be because of the break on Arrieta’s slider. Per Brooks Baseball, he lost .7 inches of horizontal break and .53 inches of vertical break on it. What does that look like? I’m glad you asked.

arrieta visualizer3

Thanks to Statcast’s incredible, fantastic, super fun new 3d pitch visualizer, we can see how that loss of break in Arrieta’s slider could have impacted its performance against lefthanded hitters.

The slider is in red circles. His sinker is in black squares. The ones closer to the mound mark the point at which batters could first recognize the pitch. The ones closer to the plate tell us when batters would have needed to commit to swinging. In 2017, lefthanders saw Arrieta’s slider sooner and were able to decide on swinging against it later than his sinker. Less movement, plus less velo, plus the same tunnel means hitters faced a pitch with very little bite. And that’s how an absurd .509 wOBA happens.

From 2014-16, lefties only generated a .240 wOBA against Arrieta’s slider. Last year’s numbers are probably an outlier, but if the pitch continues to flatten out it could really threaten the viability of one of his weapons. He could consider turning the pitch into more of a true cutter to deliberately make it run further inside on lefties, or he could use it less in favor of the curveball. There’s also a chance he could take a little off the slider to widen the velocity gap with his fastball, but deliberately throwing slower in this context doesn’t seem ideal. 

Arrieta’s going to be an intriguing piece to watch on an increasingly intriguing team. The Phillies are showing they’re getting ready to contend, and his evolution as a pitcher could be key to making it happen.

Pitch mix and wOBA data from Statcast. Feature image: Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Jonathan Lucroy Might Not Be Done

Let’s start off with a guessing game. Below are two players. Try to tell who they are.

mysteryplayers

So, who are they?

Maybe the title of this post helped you figure it out. They’re both Jonathan Lucroy. Player A is Lucroy in 2016, when he was worth more than four wins. Player B is him in 2017, when he was barely worth one win. But these two lines represent the same player in name only. In 2016 Lucroy was the most valuable catcher in the game. And then last year, he was the fourth-worst.

Moving down the chart above, one could reasonably tell Lucroy’s story. Maybe the difference on balls in play is what drove him from about 40% above league average at the plate to about 10% below league average. But that wasn’t just bad luck; his contact numbers probably justify the drop. Driving the ball with less authority means hitting more playable dinkers. That creates lower BABIP and wOBA. It’s also not going to help if you hit an additional 16% grounders from one year to the next, which Lucroy did, because those playable dinkers are the worst playable dinkers a hitter could generate.

In some sense catchers aren’t supposed to be as good as Lucroy has been in the past. Expecting him to stay that good forever would be silly. But so would expecting him to fall off the edge of a flat earth into the same relative nothingness as Martin Maldonado. Jeff Sullivan broke down Lucroy when he was traded to the Rockies last season and found that in addition to his offensive stats cratering, so had his previously excellent framing numbers. He went from being one of the game’s very best at stealing strikes to being one of its very worst. So maybe Father Time had simply claimed eminent domain instead of moving next door. 

The numbers bear out Lucroy’s fall as much as numbers can. But the same thing that makes them so endearing — their blindness — sometimes means they still aren’t telling the whole story. Below are two gifs. On top is Lucroy as a Brewer in 2016, driving a JC Ramirez fastball up the middle. Below is Lucroy as a Rockie in 2017, pulling off of a Ross Stripling slider.

giphy2

giphy

Above, the Angels defense was presumably playing at double play depths, making a play up the middle more accessible, if still difficult. Thought it was a grounder from Lucroy, it was a screamer, coming off the bat at 100.7 mph (he averaged 87.6 in 2016). Below, Lucroy forced Corey Seager to make a bit of a play, but Seager was able to because the ball only came off Lucroy’s bat at 88.4 mph (he only averaged 85.1 last season). Both pitches were in the middle third of the plate. The swings are similar enough. But check out the stills below as the ball arrives at the plate.

Lucroy 2

In this picture, from when he was still a Brewer, Lucroy is very much in control. He’s square, and his body is getting ready to move together. All the MSPaint lines are moving in the same direction, showing that his kinetic chain is tuned up. That basically means his big muscles were ready to transfer power to his little muscles. The next frame shows it stayed that way. The swing is coming from his center of mass. Sure, he grounded out, but he was together. Groundouts happen.

Lucroy 1

But look at this still, from when Lucroy was a Rockie last year, and good grief. His body is moving in so many directions it looks like it’s in a traffic jam. His hands are going down and away, his hips are pulling in the other direction, and his legs are digging directly ahead. The kinetic chain is nowhere to be found, and Lucroy’s one body is effectively acting in three independent manners. Doing that on a regular basis would would go a long way toward explaining his sudden inability to drive the ball, and how he lost 2.5 mph of exit velocity on average per batted ball. 

Lucroy’s legs being hurt, but not enough to sideline him to ensure they’re healed, could explain an inability to rely on his core to support his kinetic chain. However, per Statcast, his sprint times were nearly identical between 2016 and 2017. In fact, he was actually .2 seconds faster last year than the year before. But that’s only his legs. Maybe he had an issue with his core — a set of big muscles —  that kept his swing from staying in sync and glove from reacting as well when framing.

Baseball Savant only has so much video to examine. Lucroy’s broken kinetic chain in 2017 appears to be pretty consistent, though. And sure, these were different pitches, from different pitchers, with presumably different camera angles. I can’t tell you the ball was at the exact same distance from Lucroy in each instance. But a nagging injury influencing a mechanical flaw isn’t entirely implausible, even if speculative.

If Lucroy can smooth out his mechanics and is even half of what he used to be, that’s still twice as much as he was last year. Or maybe he did just fall off a cliff. But at one year and 6.5 million, it’s easy to understand why the A’s would want to find out. 

Mystery player data from FanGraphs. Gifs made with Giphy; videos from Statcast. Feature image: Getty Images/NBC Sports

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.

 

Two Reasons Mookie Betts Has Been Less Awesome

Mookie Betts was incredible in 2016. As the third best player in the Majors, he posted a 7.9 fWAR. But this year has been different. His .261/.341/.434 triple slash line is a far cry from the one he posted last season of .318/.363/.534. His 101 wRC+ tells us he’s producing runs at a rate that is barely above league average, while also revealing a lot of his value has come from his defense.

And yet, he’s still on pace for about 4.5 fWAR, which still makes him one of the game’s top assets. He continues to be awesome, but a different kind, and different enough to ask “what’s changed?”

betts 4

There are some significant differences from last year to this year in Betts’s contact profile. In general, he’s swinging less. Like, a lot less. Last year he took the 20th-most pitches in the league. This year, he’s taking the 4th-most. He’s also swinging at fewer pitches in the zone, while making more contact when he goes outside it. That’s an odd combination for a player so disciplined at the plate. It suggests pitchers have adjusted to Betts and that he might have picked up on it, but that he hasn’t quite countered yet. 

And though it helps us see what’s fueling a lower triple slash this year and, by matter of course, lower WAR, it doesn’t tell us how pitchers have adjusted to Betts. He’s seeing just about the same pitch mix this season as last, save for one thing. He’s getting about 22% sliders this year, or an additional 5% more than in 2016. 

His wOBA against sliders is just .276 this season. That’s lower than what even his expected wOBA against sliders was last year, which he topped by 57 points. And like dominoes, this one push is impacting other pitches he’s seeing.

betts 3

Changeups are also giving Betts considerable problems, and it could be because he’s been oddly less patient with them than other offerings in 2017. Despite seeing almost the same exact amount this year as last, and swinging at them at a nearly identical rate, his weighted pitch value against the offering is more dramatic than any other. He’s managing an unimpressive -.43 mark this season. In 2016? It was at 3.67. He’s gone from waiting for changeups to show up in his wheelhouse to swinging at it freely. It’s extremely uncharacteristic for Betts, and it’s yielded just a .260 wOBA against the pitch.

Consider how the changeup is designed to induce weak contact, how it can often fade and drop away toward the lower outside corner of the zone, and how sliders drive to the same portion of the plate. Pitchers seem to have found a way to sequence their stuff against Betts to thoroughly influence the damage he can create with the bat.

This is particularly true with righthanders, against whom Betts is batting only .253 in 2017. Last year, he hit .331 against them. And because the league features about two and a half as many righthanders as southpaws, the trouble for Betts becomes emphasized that much more. 

Mookie Betts is still exceptional. He’s still demonstrating elite control of the zone, as evidenced by a walk rate that equals his K rate. But there appear to be plate adjustments that will be necessary for him to make if he’s to return to being one of the game’s absolute best. 

Featured image from Jennifer Nicholson/USA Today Sports Images. Data from FanGraphs.

Rhys Hoskins Is Particularly Exciting in the Context of the Current Phillies

Rhys Hoskins is getting a lot of digi-ink recently. You may have read about him being only the third player ever to have 8 dingers in his first 15 games. Or maybe the first player to have 19 RBI in those same games. Or how he’s walking nearly as much as he’s striking out. Or how he’s doing it with a BABIP flirting with the Mendoza line. Or how he’s done it all despite having only 64 plate appearances and after starting out 0-for-12. All these things are worth talking about.

None of those reasons acknowledge Hoskins in the context of the current Phillies lineup, though. Maybe it’s because the team is the clear-cut worst in the Majors this year. Or how they’ve been so terrible the last few years that it mirrors their futility in the 90s. Or how they stand in such stark contrast to the organization’s great run from just a few short years ago. All of these things are worth not talking about. (more…)

Aaron Nola, Charlie Morton, and World Series Aspirations

Last night brought another Astros game and another win for the club. On the hill and pitching pretty darn well was Charlie Morton, whose career has been as compelling for his talent as his injuries. He went 6.1 innings and gave up a single run on three hits with four walks and nine strikeouts.

If you do a quick search, you’ll see a lot of comparisons of Morton to Roy Halladay, and, depending on the year, a lot of bad jokes about how such a comparison is crazy. But it’s really just about their size and motion to the plate. Curiously, there might be a more relevant comparison to make between Morton and a current Phillie based on mechanics and arsenal: Aaron Nola.

Morton and Nola are two righthanded pitchers who use a three-quarters arm slot. They also both rely on two-seamers and curveballs, which make for a fun pitch mix. The two-seamer zips away from the throwing arm while the curve snaps late glove side, potentially allowing for full plate control.

mortonnola

And now, with PitchInfo from FanGraphs, we can see just how similarly these pitches move for Morton and Nola. When I watch these guys and the way their offerings break, I think of them keenly casting a fishing line or maneuvering a whip. It’s snappy but fluid and reaches the target deliberately.

That’s what makes the combo so useful. Even if a hitter knows one or the other is coming, the movement on each can keep them unpredictable.

This informs how they try to mess with hitters, too: the curve from Morton moves in on lefties and gets them to hack and whiff, while the two-seamer from Nola to the same hitters is designed to get them to take a strike. To righties, Morton’s two-seamer backs them up while Nola’s curve can coax more swings. Take a look at these gifs: 

Image result for charlie morton gif            Image result for aaron nola gif

In general, Morton also gets more movement on his pitches and comes with more velocity. But he also has about four inches and 40 pounds on Nola, which could certainly influence the 6 milliseconds when spin is put on the baseball and force with which it gets to the plate.

Saying Nola is more valuable than Morton is a no-brainer, though. He’s nearly 10 years younger and one of his best skills — control — can be one of Morton’s weaker ones. He’s already accounted for a full win more than Morton this season despite throwing only 12 more innings. The comparison isn’t so much about the players at their peak as it is how their perhaps unsuspected similarities gives a glimpse into the way each can contribute to a team with legitimate World Series aspirations.

Morton is a sound complementary piece on an Astros team that’s on pace for 100 wins. Nola could be a main reason a Phillies team charges at the World Series in a few years. The ride watching each will be fun.

Featured image from AP/Chris O’Meara. Morton gif from GramUnion. Nola gif from Phuture Phillies.

wOBA Flippers and the Playoff Charge

Early on in a season, we get to talk about eye-popping numbers that players put up. We warn of sample sizes, though, and almost crave stability. We wait impatiently for the season to steady itself and almost breathe a sigh of relief when it happens — when we can start to buy into what an individual is doing.

But as the season wades on and we move toward the postseason, the biggest stories often come from singular moments. And while we can’t predict who, exactly, will define his team’s season with a single play, we might be able to take a pretty good guess.

With weighted on-base average, we get to see just how much a player is contributing each time they step to the plate. With expected weighted on-base average, we get to see how well their results line up with their approach.

woba flippers

The differences in expected and actual wOBA for these players in the early going is no small thing. The 20-to-45 point gap would have put them in a completely different class of players had things gone as expected. Manny Machado figured to rank ahead of Kris Bryant; in reality, he lingered above Freddy Galvis. There’s an example like that for each of the other three, too. While the early performances of these guys might have lasted long enough to make us feel like they were a certain kind of reliable this season, their recent play highlights how fast things can change.

The rankings associated with each player give a sense of what their teams would have enjoyed had circumstances fell more in their favor. Rankings aren’t included since the start of July because the sample size may emphasize a gap that could be misleading — Kyle Seager, for instance, has the smallest difference of the four in wOBA-based production but drops 76 spots because of it.

That’s also to intentionally emphasize something else: all of these players’ teams are in the playoff hunt. Seager’s Mariners are tied for the Wild Card lead and Machado’s Orioles, despite abysmal pitching, are only 1.5 games out. Moreland’s Red Sox and Santana’s Indians each lead their division by four games. And for better or worse, their turnarounds could be playing a big role in who’s playing in October.

So consider the implications. Do the Mariners possibly lead the Wild Card at this point if Seager’s production more closely matched what was expected? Are the Orioles smashing expectations again if the same were true for Machado?

Could Santana have delivered a more comfortable divisional lead for Cleveland earlier? Is he doing that now by exceeding expectations with a white hot bat? Moreland broke his toe in June — what impact has that had on the Red Sox building similar divisional comfort, and how big of a role could him simply being able to put pressure on his back foot play?

The answers to these questions may or may not be rhetorical, but all of these players are having a string of moments that could help define their team’s season. While we’ve longed for stable samples to dig into, their turns in production are showing us the ebb and flow of a game that remembers snapshots more than anything. As we come down to the wire, the big picture is telling us how it’s constructed of little ones.

wOBA numbers from Statcast. Featured image from Zimbio.