Quick Hits: Jacob deGrom and Sam Gaviglio Have Changed Their Pitch Mix

I’ve got more ideas for pieces than I might have ever had, but I’m also in the midst of moving. I can’t flesh out all of them at this moment, but below are some worthwhile tidbits for you to enjoy.

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Sam Gaviglio is working out of the bullpen for the Blue Jays this year and it’s going really well. He’s one of only 20 relievers to register at least 10 innings pitched so far — 305 have recorded outs, per FanGraphs — and there’s good reason. He has a 26% K-rate and a 21.4 K-BB rate. The only other times he’s done that were 2011, in four innings at Low-A; 2013, in nine innings in rookie ball; and 2018, in 29 innings at AAA.

His last stint in the minors would suggest some change, but he came up and produced a sub-par whiff rate for Toronto in nearly four times as many innings. As a guy who can barely break 90 mph, it might be fair to consider if this is just a flukey April performance. But he’s made a real change to his pitch mix this year. 

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Gaviglio’s primary pitch has become his slider, which is creating whiffs at a 26% clip. That’s nine percent better than league average. Last year it was just above average, at 19%. He’s tightened up the shape of it, but the results are a while off from us being able to fully buy in on his performance so far. It seems legitimate, though. The benefit really seems to be from trading a pitch that doesn’t get any whiffs for almost anyone — the sinker — for the one that generates the most.

Gaviglio’s got a spot in the bullpen that seems to suit his newly adapted skill set. He has a pitch that can get hitters to miss and one that they can drive into the ground, and he’s prioritizing them in that order. And remember, most guys throw harder when moved to a relief role because they can spend more energy on each pitch without having to worry about turning over the lineup multiple times. Maybe we even see a velo bump out of him at some point that helps his stuff play up even more. He’s not getting a lot of buzz right now, but he’s pretty intriguing.

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Everyone is entitled to a bad day, even when you’ve had a record-tying amount of consecutive good days. But now Jacob deGrom has had two uncharacteristic starts in a row and we haven’t seen that kind of performance from him since May of 2017. He’s gone just nine innings in his last two starts and has given up nine runs, five homers, and  five walks, to go with 12 Ks. His velocity is fine. The ball is juiced again. But there’s still some weird stuff happening under the hood.

One is that his pitch mix has changed. He’s siphoned away from the pitches he uses least — his curveball and two-seamer — and replaced them almost all with four-seamer, which he’s now throwing more than 50% of the time. He’s never done that in his entire career.

His nasty slider has also straightened out. As a dominant pitch, it’s never had a ton of drop or bite, but now it’s lost about a half inch on both horizontal and vertical break. The results have not been pretty. Batters are slapping it to the tune of a .474 wOBA. The league average hovers slightly above .260 and last year, batters only squeaked out a .206 wOBA against deGrom’s. These numbers are far from stable — his only has six hits against it — but pitch shape actually stabilizes really fast. It’s odd.

DeGrom is also throwing the slider 1.3 mph faster, and he isn’t spotting it well. It’s going more clearly out of the zone instead of painting the edge. His fastball has also been all over, and it’s hard not to wonder if there’s a tiny mechanical issue going on.

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Below are two stills from right before deGrom brings his arm up as he delivers the ball to the plate. They’re both from Citi Field. On the left is from 2018, and on the right is from this year. In each, he’s throwing a slider.

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Maybe I’ve stared at this too long, but it seems like he was more open to the plate last year, and that he’s more compact this year. We can see this in his throwing hand being closer to his body and his hips being slightly more closed this year. At 6’4″, he’s got big levers, and maybe he isn’t optimizing them right now. These are tiny details, but we all know that tiny details can scale big in this game.

You can look at the clips here and here and play it slowly for yourself if you’d like. It’ll be worth keeping an eye on deGrom moving forward for reasons we probably didn’t expect.

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That’s all for now. Keep your eyes peeled for a similar post on hitters as we settle into our new place. Until then, may you consume as much baseball as possible.

All data from Statcast unless specified. Feature photo: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke/NewsDay

The NL East Is Doing Something Brazen: Actively Trying To Get Better Than Their Competition

By now, you’ve likely heard of what’s going on in the NL East. At the very least, you’ve probably heard that Bryce Harper has chosen to play for the Phillies. Harper is the latest, boldest addition yet by an NL East team this offseason. With the likes of Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel still on the market, he might not be the last. In the words of Hall of Fame WWE broadcaster Jim Ross, the division is shaping up to be a real slobberknocker.

The NL East is one of only two divisions in all of baseball that is currently projected to have four teams winning at least 80 games. Everyone but the Marlins will be playing competitive baseball.

Three of the four remaining teams have acquired an upgrade at catcher via the fungible backstop market. The Mets and Phillies have each added a hitter who just last year created runs at a rate that was at least 30% better than the league average in Robinson Cano and Harper. The Braves have added one in Josh Donaldson, who, once healthy, was 17% better than average. The Nationals will have a full season from Juan Soto, who stunningly projects to be anywhere from 41-54% better than average. The Mets and Phillies have also added big time relievers in Edwin Diaz and David Robertson, and the Nationals and Braves have both been connected to Craig Kimbrel.

It’s one thing to look at the NL East in a vacuum and see it setting up as a battle royale. But in the scope of baseball, it’s something else altogether.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies-Workouts

One of these things is not like the other. Okay — two of these things are not like the others, but the AL Central is still expected to be a cakewalk for Cleveland and those win totals are mostly buoyed by the White Sox and Royals not imploding again like last year. So that leaves the NL East as the only division where, based largely on the winter’s moves to date, the win total is expected to jump double digits from last year. We’ve already run through the big additions each team has made or could be looking to make. But how do these moves really set the teams up for 2019?

Let’s start with the biggest shakers: The Phillies. They’ve completely remade their depth. They rated as a bottom-five team by production from rightfielders, registering just .3 fWAR. Adding Harper adds another four and a half wins, according to pretty much every projection system. The team rated just as poorly at shortstop, where Jean Segura projects to be at least two wins better than the team was as a whole last year. Andrew McCutchen manning left field allows Rhys Hoskins to go back to first base, adding about another win and a half. JT Realmuto gives them perhaps the best catcher in baseball whose numbers could burst from playing half his games literally anywhere other than Marlins Park, which suppressed his performance by nearly 50% compared to on the road.

That’s a lot of star power to add in one offseason, and with the way the pieces fit and their relative youth — only McCutchen is older than 28 — it’s easy to glean the upside. All told, the Phillies’ three- and four-hole hitters last year, Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera, probably slot in at the seven- and eight-holes now.  That is wild.

New GM Brodie Van Wagenen seems to have had a distinct plan for the Mets since coming aboard: Do everything possible to help the team avoid being ravaged by injuries again. His pursuit of solid contributors and star power alike has seemed odd at times because the additions don’t make as clean an impact as, say, Bryce Harper over a struggling Nick Williams.

Instead, they’ve got three guys now whose primary position is second base in Jeff McNeil, Jed Lowrie, and Robinson Cano. The team had the sixth-best performance from the position in the Majors last year. And now Cano appears to be pushing McNeil to a super utility role and Lowrie primarily to third base, where the Mets ranked second-to-last in overall production last year. Wilson Ramos will be a considerable upgrade behind the plate, and Edwin Diaz will be an anchor in the bullpen. Pete Alonso will magically improve his defense after a few games in the minors and arrive in Flushing to solidify first base. Combined, these moves will net about an additional win to a win and a half from four positions while also allowing the team to absorb injuries far better than they have the last two years.

The Nationals may be easy to perceive as hard-up here, given that they’re the ones who lost Harper, and now have to worry about him in their own division for the rest of eternity. But they’re really not. Wunderkind Juan Soto will be up all season and presumably be doing Juan Soto Things the entire time, adding a win’s worth of production compared to last year. Potential Other Wunderkind Victor Robles is also expected to be with the team for the majority of the season, adding another couple of wins. Brian Dozier should up their second base production to the middle of the pack from the bottom of it. Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki should turn what’s been a black hole of positional production into well above average. And, oh yeah, they’re going to be catching newly-signed unicorn ace Patrick Corbin.

Washington took the money they could’ve given to Harper and spread it on modest or better acquisitions all over the diamond. Like the Mets, they have better depth than last year. Their boldest move may be counting on Adam Eaton staying healthy. But overall, they’ve still worked to take a step forward after a disappointing 2018.

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s offseason has been the most curious in the entire division. After winning it last year after the early but pronounced arrival of a slew of star-caliber youngsters headlined by Ronald Acuña, they’ve mostly sat on their hands. The big get has been Josh Donaldson, who signed way back on November 26. Donaldson will push Johan Camargo into a utility role. Once healthy last year, Donaldson proved he could still rake, but that took so long that he only played in 52 games. The team remains on the periphery for Craig Kimbrel but appears insistent on a short-term commitment, which would follow suit with Donaldson’s one-year, $23 million deal. Either side blinking could have a huge impact on the end of the team’s games this year.

What, exactly, they’re saving the money for is unclear. In today’s game and market, less term makes sense for the likes of a 33-year-old position player looking to build up his value again or even a 31-year-old lockdown reliever looking to validate his own past value. But if they were looking to spend on a younger, more dynamic star, you certainly wouldn’t know based on their disinterest in Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. The team’s actions seem to say they’re content to rely on the continued play of young, cost-controlled players at their peak instead of going for the gullet like their division mates appear to have been doing.

A flurry of star power and excitement has come down on the NL East this offseason. It’s the only division in all of baseball where nearly everyone is trying to get better at the same time, and the fight for the playoffs is going to be worth tuning into all year. Any break for one team will be inherently against the others, and every out will matter that much more. The weirdness of baseball means we can’t bank on much outside of Mike Trout. The NL East is making a case for convincing us of otherwise in 2019.

All individual player data from FanGraphs. Projected wins from FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. Feature photo Kim Klement/USA Today Sports