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The Theoretical Attack of a Bullpen-Focused Felix Hernandez

The slow progression that leads to a self-acknowledged decline was a process Felix Hernandez, unfortunately, entirely skipped. His career arch was a natural regression to average, injury, failure to adjust; sudden, poignant, and ridden of organizational, cognitive bias. The stark drop-off resulted in a split between a player who once meant everything being the roughest point in a rotation embattled in a playoff race. The hope that Hernandez could return to a balanced tactician on the mound was probably maintained one game too long – the last time he held a team to no runs was on opening day. Even more egregious, there was no subtle change to change his approach. The long leash of hope allowed him to stay stagnantly desperate.

His last outing against the Texas Rangers was the final capitulation to put him into the bullpen, no longer scheduled to make his start on Sunday August 12. The seven runs he allowed were built off his consist frustration leading to a parochial process. He no longer worked through counts with cognition for how batters were attacking – he was simply throwing. Analytically, Hernandez works from a fastball to a breaking ball; speed leading to mistimed swinging later in the count. Simply put, his fastball is necessary for leading into the breaking ball, and with his fastball dead in the water, his breaking ball is also dead. Batters no longer deceived now look forward to teeing off on a very predictable and forced breaking ball.

As the arm dies, the fastball dies. The changeup and breaking ball, however, does not always die. Furthermore, spin may die on the curveball, but spin rate makes an average curve deadly. Henceforth, Hernandez, does not need an incredible fastball to work toward an average changeup/curve. Yet, as a starter he has failed to figure out how to work into his changeup; he is beholden to a fastball which no longer averages 90 MPH. Experimenting with velocity and pitch utilization reached a maxim in 2018, leading to nowhere even after dropping the four-seam fastball. It is a crutch he has been unable to move past.

The following charts display how Hernandez has attacked batters based on the count from 2012, 2016, and 2018. As stated, in 2012, he used his fastball to work into a changeup on ahead counts ahead or a sinker when behind. Through 2016 and 2018, injury forced him to drop the fastball on the opening pitch, instead of using the fastball sinker. This creates two problems: the sinker is no longer effective to land a strike when behind counts because it is used as the opening pitch and the sinker becomes exposed to each batter, leading to the predictable approach. His sinker now owns a 1.64 BB/K ratio with a 1.001 OPS.

Moving to the bullpen should not necessarily be a point to fix Hernandez for an eventual transition as a starter. He is, for better or worse, an abbreviated pitcher, and as of right now, cannot endure multiple innings. His limited arsenal establishes him as a stretch reliever for two innings at best. To become an endurance starter, he needs to improve his curveball to break across both sides of the plate – or, McCullerize himself.

The focus for 2018 Hernandez is bullpen effectiveness and no more. Unfortunately, precedent for a pitcher in the Statcast era who utilizes a slow fastball and curveball/changeup is limited; limited to Sean Marshall. (This is assuming that Hernandez continues to forego his fastball in the bullpen. Most curveball relievers have a fastball which averages 93-97 MPH. Fernando Rodney is another reliever who is comparable with a sinker/changeup arsenal, but even he has maintained a 94 MPH sinker at age 41.) Thus, there is some new paths to be paved with Hernandez in the bullpen, making the transition even more intriguing.

The main goal in the bullpen is inducing ground balls; that was the magic of Hernandez’s changeup in his prime. Marshall achieved this in his prime with ground ball rates of 52.2, 57.5, and 56.3 percent from 2010 to 2012. He opened his counts with a slider, moving to a curveball when ahead and staying with his slider when behind. His curveball broke left (right from Marshall’s view) and was best when slyly placed out of the zone.

Hernandez breaks his curveball in the same style, just the opposite direction. In fact, while the spin rate has dropped, without injury, there is a clear improvement in control (2018 curve map versus 2015 curve map). Using the curve to introduce batters can theoretically be complemented by a changeup which paints the other side of the plate. Even so, his changeup is falling more in the zone as he ages (implicative of lack of a fastball to paint the inside, 2012 changeup versus 2018 changeup).

Putting the different strings together, a bullpen focused Hernandez would utilize a curveball to specialize for attacking the right side of the plate, with an increase to break across both aspects. His changeup then becomes the quick out option to force quick ground balls. If he slowly beings to move that pitch into the corner of the zone again, he can end at-bats on weak contact and topped contact. Despite his demise, the changeup is a quality pitch for inducing topped contact if he is ahead of counts. (Emphasis on if, and, there is a base loss of control which cannot be ignored; again, the point he is a limited inning pitcher with an onus on control). Thus, control with the curve to land a strike or foul from the corner can lead to an inning of what might remain of a magical changeup.

Brian Dozier: Regression, Desperation, and what the Dodgers Provide

As Brian Dozier began a new month with his new Los Angeles Dodgers, it was apropos that Dozier would hit a single, double, and home run in his first game. For Dozier, the Dodgers, and specifically Yasmani Grandal walking off in the bottom of the 10th, August 1 was a magical sort of night. The Dodgers broke a three-game skid to overcome the  Brewers 6-4. regarding momentum, an establishment of tone for the month of August. Having just passed the trade deadline and tied with the Arizona Diamondbacks for the National League West, August represents a fresh start amid a long season – the line between exhaustion and giving the remainder of dwindling energy.

Los Angeles now has Manny Machado, Arizona now has Eduardo Escobar; two players who plug glaring holes to add that last substantive energy. Los Angeles, however, also obtained Brian Dozier – a second baseman who has simply regressed in hitting. He is in a season-long lull, hitting .229 with a .415 SLG, and a 95 wRC+ after finishing at .271, .498, and 125 in 2017. He has never relied on the luck of high BABIP and lucky placement, always an extremely successful hitter for the Minnesota Twins on his own merit. He simply fell flat in a flat batting order.

While not an objective point of analysis, Dozier might just need a change of pace in a new town to start finding the ball again. Open comments to the media regarding Minnesota being ‘comfortable’ and Los Angeles being a team in the race ‘rejuvenating me [Dozier] as a player’ provide surface-level follow-up for the ‘new city – new player’ philosophy.

Considering that Dozier is in the last year of his contract makes him only more of an enigma. The ‘contract-year’ is traditionally when batters inflate their statistics on a bad team for a massive contract in their later years. (Tradition in free-agency, being broken and a topic much written about). With Dozier doing the complete opposite, assuming he has the ability to rejuvenate his career, Los Angeles might be able to hide his genius and buy-low in free-agency. They have attempted to trade for Dozier the past two seasons, hence trading for Dozier has given a subtle chess piece to the Los Angeles front office for the 2019 season.

The importance of Dozier in the Los Angeles lineup is not about dazzling power. While chess piece might be a degrading term, for Dozier, it is a complement to its procedural efficiency. Second base has been Los Angeles’ worst position and Dozier will plug what has been a sloppy turnstile in the batting lineup.

On a micro-level, Dozier’s enigma of a collapse is across the board. He is making 11 percent more contact outside and three-percent less inside contact but is still contacting around 82 percent on the fastball. The only difference, a fall to a .259 from a .298 average. Despite making more contact on sinkers, 83.2 to 86 percent and two-percent less swinging-strikes, he is only hitting at a 126 wRC+ from a 171 wRC+. (And, yes, that is still above average, but a fall for Dozier).

The slider, a pitch never hit for average, has seen seven percent less outside-swings (26.6 to 19.9 percent) and a subsequent drop in outside-contact (60 to 51.2 percent). The result has been 52.4 percent in-field fly-balls, up from 22.2 percent. The worst pitch for Dozier this year has been the curveball, seeing a pitiful .054 average and -50 wRC+. This comes even as he is swinging less at the curve (39.6 to 32.2 percent).

The only pitch Dozier has seen an improvement on is the changeup, hitting at a .333 ISO (.128 in 2017) and a 178 wRC+ (120 in 2017). The main emphasis has been him attacking inside the zone five percent more. This is the same strategy which Dozier held in 2016, when he attacked the inside changeup at 69 percent and hit for a .338 ISO.

The subtle change in Dozier, however, is evident in his attack of the changeup. In 2018, Dozier has been attempting to hit opposite field for changeup power, with incredibly precise hits to right field. He also has gotten lucky on three infield hits. In 2017, however, Dozier was comfortable in pulling changeups to the left-field. While this has been a positive trend for the changeup, on a meta-level, Dozier’s fascination with hitting opposite is putting him on pace for more outs.

The following is a side-by-side comparison of balls resulting in outs for Dozier (per Baseball Savant), with 2018 on the left and 2017 on the right. He is avoiding pulling the ball, and as a result, has patterned his hits into a persistent pattern within a strangely linear line. The same comparison done on balls hit into play with no-outs is further evidence of Dozier attempting to hit balls to opposite field. In short terms, he is attempting to create distinct power by aiming the ball instead of just continuing to comfortably pull.

Conjoining the theory that Dozier will be better on a better Los Angeles roster with what can be termed as ‘futile desperation’ in attempts to hit opposite the field leads back to the subtle change within each micro-pitch. While the meta-level comparison is little changed for swinging percentage, very small, but important tweaks, in Dozier swinging outside exist. Hence, he is trying to walk more.

In other terms, Dozier has been on a bad team, and knowing so, has been attempting to take less risks outside so he walks more while also trying to create more emphatic power by targeting opposite field. He has been trying to mitigate Minnesota’s inefficiencies by playing tighter himself. While one game is hardly a good sample size, there may be an underlying psychological shift in Los Angeles which allows Dozier to relax and comfortably attack the ball.

The Reds are Turning Their Players Into Joey Votto

Reshaping a team core comes with reshaping team analytics – or, at least the goal is to craft players within a certain subset of principles. Each player will have natural talent they are inclined to favor (power, getting on base, choice of stat here), and in that nature, the team principles taught might be best thought of as a way to control the random chaos of baseball. Creating an orderly lineup within a game of disorderly results.

Thus, one of the underlying theories of evaluating a team reshaping the core is to analyze those players they are shaping; players who have the talent to subtly manage their own game. The Reds are one of those teams rebuilding with a split between stark promise and those who, bluntly, are roster spots. In some regards, Cincinnati is a universe revolving around the Joey Votto-style of baseball – low rate of outside swings, high contact, the simplicity of getting on base. Overall, they have the fourth lowest swinging-strike percentage in the MLB (9.6 percent), are tied for the fifth lowest outside-swing percentage (29.1 percent) and are tied for the second highest-contact rate (79.5 percent) with the Boston Red Sox.

There is sensibility of principled baseball despite their slight record. Effectively, however, the main separating point between teams such as the Red Sox and Reds is visualized in their spray chart on base hits; Boston with a wide range, Cincinnati lacking viability of power. There is something to be said about Cincinnati having the MLB’s fifth-best batting average (.259), but that average is held back by a .144 ISO and a .401 SLG mark (bottom third of the MLB). Cincinnati’s range of contact is quaint, more akin to a peaceful breeze than a bombastic wind.

Philosophically, the peaceful wind of contact is bound to the style of pitches attacked, their underlying method of creating order. Further defining that order (and leading with summation), they have a knack to lead pitchers into throwing them a favorable pitch with foul-balls and an inclination for avoiding weak contact. And while Votto might be the veteran tangentially modeling an established career, the success of Scooter Gennett, Jesse Winker, Curt Casali, and Jose Peraza reflect effectiveness seasons from now.

To note, if any player can be removed from this group, it would be Gennett, who has intrinsic power and might be termed the most natural player. However, he still falls into the binding theme of an academic plate-approach under the adage of leading pitchers into contact and lowering swinging-strike percentage. Between all four players, they have only 724 swings outside of the zone. Not surprisingly, the aberration pitches far outside are mostly Gennett swinging – remove his partiality to power, and the chart loses wild swings and the knuckle curve.

Moving inside the zone, the Cincinnati four have only 10.3 percent whiffs, with 39.1 percent fouls, 32.6 percent balls batted into plays, and 18 percent hits. One of the most impressive aspects of the inside contact has been the lack of weak contact opposed to the flare, solid, or barrel contact. Hence, within their categorized principles, Cincinnati has shaped the type of pitches which need to be attacked inside the zone. Again, that point of avoiding handing a pitcher a quick-out, instead creating foul balls and probability in launch-angle. Although they overwhelmingly have better contact than average, their lack of deep power (exit velocity) is seen in the classic moon-shot of under contact.

Principled swinging might be best reflected in the evolved in-game attack. As the game progresses, these players make contact in a tighter range with higher exit velocity. The results in innings one through three have been a method to create more power contact, albeit, at the risk of weaker contact. Hence, a method of sorting through how to attack during the remainder of the game while taking a risk on some intrinsic fastballs. From innings four through six, the contact group becomes smaller, and thus the spray chart also becomes more oriented toward singles with less power. They become more principled to find the average rate of success. Even though power is lost, they are becoming better at capitalizing on simplicity.

Inning seven through nine are the most evident of how Cincinnati is shaping their players to hit for the average rate of success. Regard, this is a team which overwhelmingly has found a way to chip away late in games. (The Cincinnati four have combined for a .304 AVG; 128 wRC+ split in high leverage, .289 AVG; 111 wRC+ in innings seven through nine).

Their attack becomes tuned for breaking pitches (or finding the breaking pitches which do not break) and thus into making less powerful contact but creating more functional contact on average. They remove the risk from themselves by avoiding wild swings, and thus force pitchers to throw breaking balls into the zone. 28.7 percent of their swings in the late innings have gone into play, while another 37.8 percent have gone for fouls. That punctual ability to create foul balls and chip away at pitchers creates long-at bats to reveal weak-points, wears down relievers, and eventually lead to a swing-worthy breaking ball.

Cincinnati may not be the most successful or powerful team within the moment. But, this is only the moment of crafting. The Joey Votto way of baseball might be a grinding and dying way of baseball. The Votto way of baseball might even be a misnomer for power-hitters such as Gennett. Yet, in the end, the underlying philosophy of Cincinnati’s baseball is to remove intrinsic risk in swinging and create order by forcing the pitcher to make the first risk.

Corbin Burnes, Spin Rate, and Evolving a Generic Arsenal

He throws a fastball. He throws a slider. He introduces the subtle slight-of-hand with a curve ball. The description could fit one of many relief pitchers who have walked through the doors of Miller Park in Milwaukee. The description is also specific to the debut of Corbin Burnes; a 95 MPH fastball, 2,900 RPM curveball pitcher who paints the plate with spinning fire. The diverse intersection between his fastball, curveball, and more commonly used slider makes Burnes another stable relief pitcher. However, the potential of a changeup with dazzling mechanics have Burnes on pace to fulfill his long-term projection as a starter. The 2018 extended relief situations are only a fine-tuning process, so his meticulous approach will become elegantly meticulous as a starter.

Burnes sample-size is small; three games small. Eventually, as all relievers do, one-bad pitch will create a problematic scenario. The question becomes how Burnes reacts toward that controversy, defining his understanding of strategy negotiation in the MLB. Mechanically, Burnes has the fundamentals to skillfully react, deriving strike-outs with a fastball hitting an average 95.3 MPH, his 87.7 MPH slider with control of a whistling 2,909 RPMs, and his curve ball at an equally mesmerizing 2,922 RPMs.

Comparatively, his slider is one revolution less than Luis Severino, and his curveball has greater spin than Rich Hill or Justin Verlander. Regard, greater effective spin rate does not intrinsically make a pitcher better, but it provides the mechanical solution and optimal projection to build intrinsic control. Spin rate is an essential sign of manipulating batters.

Burnes makes his spin rate effective with a quick release. His pace of pitching further assists in pitch disguise, sitting at 22.8 seconds above the average of 25 seconds. Release points are fairly-well grouped, albeit, the fastball does tend to be released a bit higher than the slider. Maybe more importantly is his curveball is released from the same position as his fastball. Hypothetically, once the change up is released, pitching charts should show that his fastball, curveball, and changeup are released from the same slot. Add in pace of play, and Burnes manipulates batters with intensity and deception.

There are two projection points for Burnes, both unfairly high in Severino and teammate Josh Hader. The purpose is not to heap on all-star expectations early in Burnes’ career, rather to show two optimal styles he can evolve into.

The Severino projection is based upon the quick-pace of play, spine rate, and indication Milwaukee prefers Burnes as a starter. Under this theory, he would need to add in a changeup that can assist in disguising his fastball, forcing batters to swing too early. Severino rose to all-star status on the changeup/slider interlay with distinguished velocity, presenting a velocity map that shows greater control of velocity as he advanced his career. Severino has added two MPH to his fastball (96 to 98 MPH) and increasingly tweaked his changeup – Burnes has the fundamentals to follow this model.

The Hader projection leaves Burnes in the bullpen if his changeup is slow to evolve or a curveball which falls to mediocre control. Hader built a deadeye slider into his arsenal to become a definitive relief pitcher. He has precise control over velocity and placement to set-up pitch one with a fastball, then strike back with a contrasting fastball or slider. Burnes has the fastball quality to match Hader and the ability to control left or right-handed batters. Add in a changeup, and Burnes complements Hader in Milwaukee by becoming a three-pitch, set-up pitcher for innings six through eight.

Through three games in the MLB, Burnes has a swinging-strike rate of 20.5 percent and a first-strike rate of 61.9 percent while hitting the zone 38 percent. His game arsenal shows a favorability to begin with an inside-pitch, then overwhelmingly attack the shadow of the zone. Five of his 20 sliders which have hit the corners of the zone have gone for swinging-strike outs, while another resulted in a ground-out. Six more went for balls, one for a foul, and seven for strikes. Hence, batters have had a hard-time locating his moving slider.

Burnes’ performance against the Los Angeles Dodgers offers insight into his awareness. He relieved Chase Anderson in the fifth with bases loaded and no outs. In a bamboozling play, he worked with catcher Erik Katz to obtain an out on Clayton Kershaw at home. He then threw two sliders to Matt Kemp resulting in swinging-strikes, a fastball outside resulting in a ball which set-up a slider for the final swinging-strike. More importantly, these were pitches with low-contact probability – the one thing which had to be avoided was Kemp obtaining a pop-up to scuttle Joc Pederson or Manny Machado home. Obtaining the punctual strikeout allowed Burnes freedom to throw inside the zone against Max Muncy – any result, including the resulting fly-out, was appropriate, thus Burnes hit Muncy with his 97 MPH fastball.

If Burnes maintains the elegance he showed against Los Angeles, he qualifies to build a skillful foray for Milwaukee either as a starter or reliever. He might be another generic reliever for now; time in the MLB, however, is the one-factor holding him back from creating powerful uniqueness with generic presentations.

Marco Gonzales is Quietly (Re)Learning the Art of the Breaking Ball

The development of Marco Gonzales is essential for the Seattle Mariners immediate or long-term pitching success, insight into the very way the Mariners construct their starting rotation. Gonzales is another pitcher with long-term control (through 2023) that Jerry Dipoto found in a myriad of whimsically addictive trading, acquired in July 2017 from the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for right-field prospect Tyler O’Neill. Tommy John surgery history and analytics pushed him immediately into the safety net of the Mariners AAA affiliate, the Tacoma Rainers, with the delineation of ‘long-term’ project. However, injuries to anyone in a Mariner uniform ensured no AAA project was safe in Tacoma; Gonzales received his callup on August 5, 2017, never to look back.

Gonzales just finished the months of June and July with the Mariners second most innings pitched (59.2, just behind Mike Leake’s 62.1 innings) and a FanGraphs’ WAR of 1.3. If arguments were to be succinct by WAR, then Gonzales has been the second most stable starting Mariners pitcher with 2.5 WAR on the season after 119.2 innings pitched. The stability of Gonzales, however, is entirely despite allowing an above average BABIP and contact percentage of .305 and 80.2, respectively.

Gonzales, by design, is a breaking-ball pitcher who seeks contact, but that does not make his games any less tedious or uncomfortable. If there were an analytic for uncomfortable pitching style, where the clean-up process becomes essential, Gonzales would top that leaderboard. Context is essential to introducing his development for two-fold reason. First, Gonzales is tied to the Mariners front office vision; a pitcher that they have buried plenty of faith in his steady increase in workload around their style of development. Second, this is not a regular development process akin to the league standard; Gonzales was thrown into the MLB due to the Mariners haunting injuries through 2017, and thus has been forced to re-learn the art of the breaking ball ahead of schedule.

The Mariners noticeably began to have an immediate effect on assisting Gonzales tap into his development as a breaking-ball pitcher. His four-seam fastball was still utilized 52.5 percent of the time last season but steadily dropped throughout his August and September in Seattle. At the same time, he began to utilize his curveball, doubling the rate which he used with the Cardinals to 16.7 percent, while also slightly increasing his changeup.

There was a vision in-tact, and in 2018, that vision came to fruition. His four-seam fastball fell to 10.9 percent with a cutter and sinker appearing at the rates of 18.6 and 23.7 percent, respectively. His curve-ball further rose, effectively tying together a breaking ball type of arsenal with the sinker, changeup, and curve of equal use dependent on the situation.

This is more than a natural change to strategy, but a compelling point that Gonzales had finally overcome Tommy John surgery. He had dropped his cutter and sinker earlier in his career to alleviate torque and recover safely. Reports and commentary from catcher Mike Zunino earlier in the year signaled that this season would see a new, more aggressive Gonzales attempting to conform batters, not he conforming to batters.

Confidence from Gonzales is seen in an addiction in committing to the quickened recovery pace. Over the span of the season, the evidence already points toward Gonzales finding a natural flow to his post-Tommy John arsenal and his goal of using the zone’s shadow to pinpoint strike percentage. Further breakdown shows two important developments. First, he is using less of the zone to derive more swings, particularly outside-swing percentage. Hence, he no longer needs to use in-zone pitches to deceive batters into soft-contact on outside pitches, he can just use his natural breaking pitch. Second, at the same time, he is maintaining an uncomfortable contact percentage and BABIP rate, both are controlled with BABIP trending down on the season.

Breaking-ball pitchers are going to be more brazen in their attempt to get outs based on soft-contact, but Gonzales is showing an ability to decrease his BABIP rate on the season while also stabilizing his FIP and xFIP around 3.3 and 3.4, respectively. The stabilization of Gonzales, again, is equally impressive for how quick he has turned around, albeit, a bit surprising because of how uncomfortable his BABIP is.

Gonzales’ batting average, slugging, and ISO rates per zone are higher than average, hence the above average BABIP. His expected batting average is either similar to or the same as his functional output, but his expected slugging and ISO become worrisome, leading to the analytical insight that any moment could lead to a sudden regression.

The summary point on Gonzales’ analytics would debate the point regression is inevitable; his overwhelming confidence and ability to control the quality of contact is what makes Gonzales development as a pitcher enticing. He has maintained a steady bought of keeping launch-angle to nine degrees while holding barrel percentage to six all for the goal of making balls hit into play, easier to handle. Perfection from Gonzales may never be expected, or reasonable – his changeup floating in the upper zone to set up a low curveball does provide dangerous contact opportunity; the magic, however, in his arsenal is the crisp preciseness to obtain quick outs and double-plays if the bases are loaded. Between the sinker and curveball follow-up, spotting adequate contact on Gonzales is epitomized by the random chance of baseball.

On that note, Gonzales’ pitching style might be summarized as an ability to double-down on batting randomization.

The Athletics Traded for Blake Treinen and Built a Dominate Reliever

Last July when the Oakland Athletics traded for Blake Treinen, Jesus Luzardo, and Sheldon Neuse, providing the Washington Nationals the services of relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson, the Athletics trade was more notably about the prospects of Luzardo’s pitching and Neuse at third base. The Athletics are in the middle of a definitive rebuild; outside of the Athletics organization, the Treinen piece of the trade was simply for his services as a simple bullpen body to hit average (hopefully) and pander on through the remnant of the season as Doolittle and Madson’s replacement.

Contextually, when the trade occurred last July, Treinen was 28 and hitting his ceiling in the Nationals development methodology. He lost hit job in April of 2017 then slowly settled into an awful 5.73 ERA with 48 allowed hits in the first half. There is no magical analytic which explains why he was bad, no pedantically bad situational deterioration – Treinen was simply bad.

Specifically, Treinen was bland on his first pitch (which is a telling sign of a pitcher struggling), lofting sweet, contact worthy pitches to the upper zone. Overall, batters swung and made contact throughout his first-pitch zones. Hence, the same area that created his bizarre downward trend was the first area where Treinen began his 2018 correction. He has cut high zone pitches on the first-pitch count, aptly cutting contact to the high zone. Batters are attacking his first pitch less, taking (or trying to take) a more principled approach to seeing him out.

The batting delay has created Treinen’s most formidable analytical point: the second highest and lowest qualified-reliever swinging strike rate and ERA at 18.8 percent and .93, respectively.

Any improvement this stark demands a resurgence across all pitching categories. First, Treinen has begun to shift his fastball placement. In 2017, on a micro fastball scale, Treinen offered either the fastball outside (44 percent balls) or distinctly inside (76.1 percent contact), failing to hit the lateral sides of the inside zone. That crisp distinctness allowed batters to perceive where his fastball was going to land, allowing a 156 wRC+. In 2018, he has avoided letting the fastball fall distinctly outside of the zone (30 percent balls, 72.7 percent contact), thus offering more variety within more controlled movement. His fastball has kept batters to a negative 20 wRC+.

When batters have been contacting his fastball, they have a 47.1 percent fly-ball rate. Perceptually, this is an alarming rate, less that placement becomes intrinsically important. In a string of reactions, Treinen is enforcing a greater chase rate (38.7 percent, increase from 30.8 percent) while decreasing his chase contact rate from 52.2 to 38.6 percent. This has cut the ability of batters to find barrel contact (2.1 percent), thus cutting his opposite field hit-rate to 19.8 percent. In short, Treinen is deriving contact that is easy to field.

Hypothetically, this might be a philosophical adjunct to the Athletics analytic mantra. The team is shifting on 30.4 percent of left-handed batters, an increase from 17.1 percent last season with the Washington Nationals. Neither team shift at a dramatic rate, but there is a slight difference between the Nationals fielding chart and the Athletics fielding chart behind Treinen. The slight difference may not be the main reason, but the Athletics awareness of how to help Treinen with more movement is, at minimum, an interesting note.

However, for all the jovial notation Treinen’s fastball is receiving, his main-pitch, the sinker, deserves even more praise. He has kept batters to a .200 average, already hitting 17 strikeouts on the sinker for a 56 wRC+. Much like the fastball, the sinker is moving less, but in a crisper fashion (9.7 rating down from 11.9). On a meta point, Treinen is simply more confident and educated in his pitching approach – on a simple eye-test, he is perceptually prepared where to throw. Scrupulous timing and more variety in placement of his sinker has lowered contact to 71.1 percent (was an egregious 86.2 percent last season). The one data-point which fundamentally incorporates how good his sinker has been is the increase in outside swing percentage (43 percent) while decreasing outside-contact (52.1 percent).

In short, pitches that were not meant to be hit, were being hit in 2018, and Treinen has prevented that from occurring. Fundamentally, this is on the breadth of a slight mechanical edit observable with a release point grouping to the right. In the example provided, between 2017 and 2018, Treinen is releasing his pitches with more elevation, signifying a change to his release philosophy.

The Athletics somehow have tapped into Treinen to bring out the best of him; the only question they have to answer is whether he is trade-bait or a long-term staple to the bullpen.

The Red Sox Evolve their Swings In-Game and the Results Are Incredible

The Boston Red Sox almost romantic approach to the plate has been one of the major themes on their journey to be the first team with 60 wins. Last night’s expose of producing home runs and precise batting behind Chris Sale’s robotic approach to pitching gave the Red Sox a 10-5 victory over Kansas City Royals for their 60th victory; another notch in a long-chain of accomplishments. More impressively, however, is the Red Sox micro approach to each game. They have not only revolutionized the average statistics played out through the tenure of a season but have revolutionized how they approach the plate inning-by-inning. The romantic plate approach is more than good batting – it is the beginning to a methodical introspection into opposing pitchers for an evolution in innings five and six.

In an interview with 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny, Dave, and Moore, Seattle Mariners pitcher Marco Gonzales casually remarked of his struggles against the Red Sox on June 24 that they were “taking swings we haven’t seen before.” Gonzales lasted only six innings against the Red Sox, allowing seven hits and five runs on six strikeouts. The fifth inning was the instant the game changed in the Red Sox favor as they scored three.

Naturally, this observation may have been a microcosm dependent on Gonzales’ pitching, not so much the Red Sox. Yet, the observation was enticing enough to warrant investigation. The results were incredible, explaining why the Red Sox meta of plate patience is about more than being disciplined – they pedantically study batters through the first few innings, leading to innings five and six which are destructive.

Before delving into the data, two notations must be established. First, the Red Sox are, on average, destructive regardless of the inning. Their jump in innings five and six are not why they are good, but why the are atop the MLB this year. Second, analytic rise in statistics in innings five and six is a trend across the league; it might be easy to pass on the Red Sox rise as the best batters popping off on ‘third-time through the rotation’ deterioration. Again, however, the Red Sox are using the seemingly inevitable deterioration of pitchers throughout the game and exacerbating on that analytic.

Within innings one through three, the Red Sox hold a .270 batting average with a 20.5 percent strikeout rate, an 8.4 percent walk rate, a .467 SLG, and a 117 wRC+ – all rates which make the Red Sox a top MLB team intrinsically. Stopping here, the Red Sox would be a good team alone. However, as mentioned, the Red Sox jump to great in inning five and six. They post a .292 batting average, only 15.7 percent strikeouts, 7.9 percent walks, a .538 SLG (.240 ISO!), and a wRC+ of 139.

On a micro-level, the functional output has benefited Mitch Moreland and Mookie Betts the most; Moreland has a .808 SLG and Betts has a 234 wRC+. Even Rafeal Devers has a sharp increase in effectiveness in these innings, raising his egregious .198 average from innings one through three to a .304 average in innings five and six.

Mechanically, the Red Sox, as a team, change the type of pitches they attack. Produced from Baseball Savant, here is a graphic of the pitch movement attacked in innings one through three; here is the comparative graphic for innings five and six. The graphic shows most of the pitches they take at the beginning of the game have little horizontal movement and trend with more vertical movement – hence, pitches which are easier to see. As the game goes on, they dramatically increase their SLG by attacking pitches with sharp horizontal movement, even hitting low.

In application, it might be said the Red Sox study through the first few innings, waiting to see how pitchers will attack under the guise of movement. Their contact is more studied through this span, evidenced by J.D. Martinez’s expected SLG of .936, Bett’s of .843, and Andrew Benintendi’s of .757. Even Devers sees an increase from an xSLG of .389 to .545.

The Red Sox plate discipline is purposed, thoughtful, and intended for the length of a game and season. They literally improve the quality of swings and contact throughout the game; the maxim of why analytical discipline is important to success.

Jon Gray Has a Pitch Strategy Problem

On the eve of July, the month of definitive do or die competition, the Colorado Rockies optioned their opening day starter, Jon Gray, to Triple A Baseball, putting a temporary halt to a season which should have been superlative. Gray was positioned to be the Rockies Ace pitcher, the de facto strike out machine. He did so, posting an MLB fifth best 11.64 K/9 with a WAR of 2.5, breaking most of his projections.

Yet, Gray’s demise and optioning is a reminder that a pitcher’s job, in the end, is to play the averages and get out of situational disaster to end innings with the formidable zero still on the board. Gray was pitiful at cleaning up the base path with a 63.1 percent left-on-base percentage. His 5.77 ERA was slowly flowing up since the beginning of the season. His MLB best 14.33 K/9 for June was met with only 27 innings of pitching, 62.2 percent left-on-base, and an ERA of six. Troubled outings and difficulty finishing starts were trending, not the outlier.

There is an odd note, however, on Gray’s optioning to Triple A. German Marquez, who finished eight innings of one-run pitching in a 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers last night, has even more developmental problems. Marquez had an even more troublesome June analytically, with an equal 62.2 percent left-on-base, an era of 6.75, a FIP of 5.26, and nine home runs allowed. Hypothetically, there are two reasons the Rockies have decided to option their ‘best’ pitcher instead of the more developmental Marquez. First, the Rockies may be admitting they are going to be sellers at the deadline, and this is the beginning to positioning certain pitchers for sale. However, this would be a very un-Rockies tact to take for a team who has been stubbornly boisterous about ‘competing’. Second, Gray may be more fixable than Marquez, with a quick stint in AAA allowing him to resolve fundamental mechanics away from the stench of scrutiny. (This hypothetical is what the remnant of the article will focus on). Or, it may be a mix of both hypotheticals, with time telling which carries more weight in organizational decisions.

Optioning Gray becomes a matter of establishing finishing touches, helping him to make his strikeouts effective. In a matter of plate discipline, batters are attacking zone pitches 5.8 percent more than last season, back to a career average of 65.8 percent. Yet, he is throwing less to the zone (43.8 percent) while batters are making drastically less contact (80 percent in 2017, 70.2 percent in 2018). All those numbers lead up to a compelling 13.2 swinging-strike percentage and the conclusion Gray ought to be even better than last season when he finished with a 3.67 ERA and a 3.18 FIP.

The pitch arsenal has seen some slight edits, with a cut to fastballs and a rise in slider percentage of five both ways. Velocity has remained mechanically the same, thus, batters should not be exploiting his pitches at this rate. The problem, however, becomes that batters are exploiting this edit by forcing perceptual chaos on Gray, in which he doubles down on throwing distinct pitches with little movement variation.

Gray’s slider placement, on a meta level, has not changed, nor has the contact basis. However, what has dramatically shifted between 2017 and 2018 is how batters are making contact. In 2017, there were three zones which batters had near .100 averages against Gray; in 2018, that rating has gone up to seven, with an egregious .250 to double down on the pain. Strategically, Gray attacks the shadow of the zone with his slider when ahead and moves up to inside the zone when behind. It is not so much a matter of controlling placement but controlling the count and situation.

A false sense of security in the slider has created situational derisiveness on Gray’s fastball. Gray has developed a distinction with his slider as his ‘shadow’ pitch (3.3 PITCHf/x movement rating, down from 5.4) while his fastball is his ‘heart’ pitch (8.7 PITCHf/x movement, down from 11.3). Thus, when in trouble, Gray’s intents become clear, and his fastballs have been straying more inside. The brevity in fastball movement has lead to batters grouping his fastball and hitting at a .172 average from the middle to right, lower portion of the zone.

In short, Gray’s problems result not from mechanical duplicity, but from strategic duplicity – a loss of confidence. Since Gray’s goal is to hit strikeouts, when bases are empty, he has a 13.84 K/9 rating; when runners are on, his K/9 falls to 8.61 while BB/9 raise to 4.19. With runners in scoring position, his FIP takes a jump to 4.94.

Situationally, the flop begins when situational leverage ebbs from low to medium with 96.6 and 61.8 percent left-on-base, respectively. Unfortunately for Gray, his troubles begin regardless of time through the order. He has allowed 21,19, and 21 runs through the first, second, and third time through the order, respectively. The underlying tact of how batters destroy Gray can be seen in slugging at a .390, .485, and .527 percentage through the order.

What can Gray fix in Triple A baseball? In two words, strategical variety. Despite being able to land more strikeouts, Gray has become less effective by staying stuck in a rut, unable (or unwilling) to hide his slider and fastball with movement. Situational aptitude and learning how to pattern his pitches will be essential to turning Gray into an effective strikeout machine.

The Atlanta Braves Have no Fear of Swinging

The austere face of Freddie Freeman; the resounding crack of Dansby Swanson’s bat; Ozzie Albies brimming smile – these are the surprising Atlanta Braves whose description is no longer surprising, but partial to a definitive fun run through the National League East. The Braves are baseball joy with a mix of relaxed confidence, even brimming optimism. A brimming optimism that has little been partial to any of the Braves players in the past.

A sort of confidence is sweeping the organization as every player is contributing, allowing each player to be distinctly themselves. No longer does Swanson have to turn himself into an all-star, slugger defined hitter, but a second-year player still learning. Nick Markakis can take time to become more confident in a refinement of his mechanics.

The simple undertone is two-fold; the Braves batting lineup is simultaneously playing at a career high, which has allowed the Braves batting lineup to refine their optimal batting throughout the first half of the season. The dominoes fell right, and the Braves learned how to optimize, cutting their progression time in half through analytical chemistry. Second, the one point that defined their functional progression: they have no fear of swinging, second highest in the MLB at 48.6 percent combined with the third highest contact percentage at 79.6 percent.

The odd perception is that swinging this high would lead to inappropriate risk. And for most developing teams, it has. The Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, and Baltimore Orioles round out the top five in swinging percentage, each with a resulting high swinging-strike rate. The Braves, however, have a 9.9 percent swinging-strike rate, eighth best in the MLB. The magic is not accidental due to a combination of veterans who are more patient and, young, power hitters whose slugging means swinging more is appropriate. Nick Markakis has a 4.8 percent swinging-strike rate and Kurt Suzuki is at a mere 7.5. This does not excuse Swanson or Freeman posting 11.7 and 11 percent swinging-strike percentage, respectively, but it allows them to take those extra risks to optimize slugging opportunity.

Suzuki has been an enigma for the Braves, but one of the most important supporting pieces to their run creation. After going his entire career with only one season at a wRC+ over 100 (Minnesota Twins, 2014, 106), Suzuki is now on pace to break his 129 wRC+ and tie his 2.7 WAR from last season. There might not be a coincidence that these two seasons have also seen him break the 50-percent swing margin (52.8 and 53.6 percent) while maintaining a high contact rate, specifically in the zone (93.5 percent this season).

Suzuki’s resolution has come on the backward notion to stop attempts to hit the ball opposite (below 20 percent of hits) instead opting to pull the simply pull hits for apt run creation. His placement map dictates he is better at hitting sharp, pulling balls, and his hits to opposite field were traditionally drab and futile with long hang-time. Hence, an allowance to be better at playing Suzuki baseball and not a league meta-style.

While Suzuki has added value by changing his batting style, there is Nick Markakis who is playing the exact same baseball, just with better contact and providing better leverage. He is hitting well above his career average in ISO at .160 while striking out remarkably lower at only 10.2 percent of pitches. His batted ball profile remains the same, making Markakis a player benefitting from the simple adage of relaxed baseball and improving at tearing pitchers apart in high-leverage situations.

Ozzie Albies, in his second season for the Braves, has already blown away a good first season, posting a 2.4 WAR with a 118 wRC+ (1.9, 112 in 2017). Much like Markakis, Albies has been a run creating machine with high-leverage situation hitting. He doubles down on chaos creation by forcing pitchers to throw uncomfortably away from the zone, less he turns a pitch for a deep slug shot. Albies has refined his slap-shot hitting by achieving his best slugging percentage in the bottom of the zone; thus as pitchers throw breaking-balls and off-speed pitches to derive poor contact, and those pitches drift, Albies is not only able to make contact, but make derisive contact.

The macro change has come with a micro improvement on finding the changeup. He has starkly increased his contact percentage, now above 85 percent in all but two zones. Last season he was above 80 percent in only four of nine zones. Albies is sending more of that contact higher into the air, a bit of a downside to the slugging revolution, but at the same time, is expanding his placement map. He has placed more balls sharply under three seconds of hang time, specifically under 1.5 seconds, implicating an ability to send even soft contact for hits. The career-trajectory implication is Albies is developing an ability to be a rounded hitter, known for more than homeruns.

That then is how the Braves have become a team still fighting into the July trade deadline; a buyer and not a depressed seller. The sudden power from the veterans meant the younger players had time to relax and optimize their best ability, creating a waterfall effect. The Braves have the best high-leverage analytics in the MLB because they find ways to creatively get on base, and those veterans now have players to send home.