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:

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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.

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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.

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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. 

 

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:

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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.

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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

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?

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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.

 

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.

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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.