Attack Of The Sliders, Part 1: Struggling Hitters

The most recent advent of baseball has brought with it a fervor for sliders across the league. Others have written about it — Matthew Trueblood wrote last September that pitchers were choosing sliders over sinkers, while just recently Eno Sarris noted that it’s more severe now when examining the struggles of Bryce Harper. It’s true. We’re on track to witness the largest year-over-year jump in sliders since 2010-11. They’re now accounting for 18% of all pitches and the league is on pace for about 8,000 more sliders thrown than last season. If we were talking about White Castle sliders, you’d pretty much be dead.

It makes sense that pitchers are chucking more sliders. It’s the pitch generates the most whiffs of any offering thrown with regularity. It makes sense that the pitch is usurping the sinker, because the sinker generates the least amount of whiffs. Every team has a guy who can throw gas at this point, and now half the league is leaning into it the slider as a primary breaking pitch as hitters and pitchers alike optimize for the best possible outcome. And it’s affecting some more than others.

Through this past weekend, 149 hitters had already seen at least 100 sliders. Of those, 100 had seen more than the average amount compared to their peers, but some guys are really getting beraged. Here are the 10 players who are seeing the biggest jump in sliders faced, of the group who’s seen the most sliders so far this year:

attack of the sliders

Certainly, this is a talented group. But it’s also equally as weird. I’m not sure you’d put them together for any particular reason outside of maybe age, and even that only regards about half of them. Even here, the closest thing they all have in common is a bad whiff rate at sliders. Their overall performance against the pitch, though, lets us split them into two groups of five. Today, we’ll take the bad news.

bad sliders

Before delving into the case of each player above, let’s keep in mind the average rates for each stat above for this entire group of hitters:

  • SL Whiff%: 16.8
  • Take%: 52.3
  • wOBA: .285
  • EV: 83.2

These points give us some context for just how much trouble the slider is giving each of these five guys.

Schoop signed a one year, $8.5 million prove-it contract with Minnesota over the winter. So far, the returns are good and he’s definitely rebounding from a woof-worthy stint in Baltimore. He’s showing the most power of his career, as his .234 isolated slugging tells us, and isn’t necessarily lucking into his success. It’s hard to say if sliders are keeping him contained or portend tougher times ahead, but he’s in the bottom 20% in everything but wOBA against them. It’s not a stretch to think the low exit velo and hack-happy approach leaves him exposed.

Leonys Martín is tied with Jordan Luplow as Cleveland’s best outfielder, though Luplow has played in 16 less games. Collectively, the group has actually been worth -.1 wins so far this season, though, so it’s not a terribly meaningful title, anyway. Martín isn’t offending anyone, but his inability to lay off sliders may make for predictable ABs as summer wages on. Despite this, his ability to make just enough quality contact to be definitively average will probably keep him in the lineup, as Cleveland’s front office appears aloof to the dearth of talent they’re leaving to patrol the outfield.

Pitch Info actually has Corey Seager as a positive performer against sliders for every season before this one. Maybe he’s not used to using his body as a baseball player again after a long injury and rehab process from last season, or maybe this is just a blip on the radar. But the drop in performance against sliders is worrisome because of the volume he’s seeing. He’s always had a take percentage against the pitch that’s similar to this year’s, but he’s also always been able to drive it much better. This feels like the kind of thing that could make or break a big moment or two in the Dodgers’ season.

Ozzie Albies…hmm. Albies is becoming more and more curious in the early stage of his career. He came up with a reputation of being able to control the barrel of his bat and take a walk, then hit the big leagues and swung at everything, showed impressive and unexpected power, then started to whiff. A lot. Simply having the major league experience he does at this point still bodes well for his long-term outlook. Atlanta is in a curious position, though. They chose to lean heavily this winter on a core that appeared to arrive early instead of using that performance as a reason to buy complementary pieces sooner. Albies is a big part of that choice, but right now everyone is left to take his solid all-around game and hope the upside shown by his ability to discern the strike zone catches up to his ability to drive the ball when he finally does square it up.

Buxton is another Twin who’s enjoying a fine rebound after a dismal 2018. Out of the guys who have seen the most sliders this year, he’s tied with Brandon Lowe for the highest fWAR. If he maintained his current rate of offense — he has a 115 wRC+ — and paired it with his elite defense, he’d be a huge piece for the Twins as they continue to muscle through the league. But we know he’s prone to big slumps and any additional increase in sliders could spell some trouble. Slight regression from a few guys in Minnesota could mean a lot more in a wacky AL Central, and, perhaps more than usual, the games will start to break more and more for or against them based on just a few centimeters.

Whiffs are increasingly inseparable from baseball. The guys featured above all embody that, and emphasize how important it is to make your contact count. So far, they’ve been vulnerable, despite being quality contributors. Whether it changes or not could have a pronounced impact on their final lines for 2019.

Stay tuned for part two of this story, when I’ll explore five guys excelling against the slider despite seeing a bunch more of them!

Slider data from Statcast. Pitch values and WAR from FanGraphs. Feature photo John McCoy/Getty Images

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. 

gaviglio

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.

Animated GIF-downsized_large

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.

deGrom4

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

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.

 

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.