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Why Did Eric Hosmer Decline in 2018?

Far and away the most expensive current player on the Padres is Eric Hosmer, who has proven to be quite disappointing so far in his short time with the team. He’s due $21 million next season, which is three times the second-highest salary on the club. For a team that will almost certainly never have a payroll that compares with larger market teams, that’s a significant price to be paying.

Although he was signed in February of 2018 to be a cornerstone for the team, he promptly put up a mere -0.1 fWAR last season. He’s always been an inconsistent performer year-to-year, and this campaign was no exception. How could a player who put up 4.1 fWAR in value in 2017 see his level of play drop off so quickly in the following season? Can he bounce back in 2019 as he often does?

To begin, we need to know what held him back last season as a hitter. Hosmer’s a first baseman, so the majority of his value is going to be derived from his bat. Here’s a table showing the differences in his offensive production between the 2017-18 seasons:

Eric Hosmer’s Past Two Seasons
Season OBP BB% K% wRC+
2017 0.385 9.8% 15.5% 135
2018 0.322 9.2% 21.0% 95

Read the rest of this entry »


The Padres’ Bullpen, and the Potential of Selling Relief Help at the Deadline in Bulk

Before the start of the season, back in late March, I wrote an article on three Padres relievers who I thought had a chance to form a triumvirate worthy of comparison to that of the Yankees’ 2016 trio of Chapman, Miller, and Betances. While I was wrong about Kazuhisa Makita, two of those three pitchers have indeed turned in impressive campaigns, and their fellow teammates in the ‘pen for San Diego must be commended for being quite good as well. The Padres bullpen has made what is otherwise a pretty lackluster team, a lot more interesting.

With a variety of different looks and approaches to getting hitters out in the late innings, this bullpen has performed really well this season. Their FIP, or fielding independent pitching, ranks fifth in the league at 3.47. This is a metric that is on the same scale as ERA, and can be interpreted in the same way. What makes it more useful than ERA is the fact that it tells you what a pitcher’s ERA would be if he had average luck on batted balls. The idea is that some pitchers have a higher or lower ERA because of their good or bad defense, or luck, etc.

Going back to the Padres — The team is rebuilding, and one would think GM A.J. Preller would be open to discussing a trade for any of his relievers. Though there are a number of questions he’s going to have to answer before making any moves, because the Padres are in an interesting situation at the moment. Is the team close enough to contention, to justify trading valuable relievers under team control for multiple years beyond this season? Does it make sense to trade for a prospect who wouldn’t necessarily be ready to contribute to the major league team in 2019? These questions will clearly have to be addressed, yet the most intriguing part about the whole situation is envisioning the return San Diego could get in return for some of their prized bullpen arms.

The price of relievers on the free-agent market has continued to rise in the last few years, so a team could see trading for relievers under team control for multiple years — as a cheaper alternative to shelling out money for older relievers in free agency. If a team had the chance to give up a big prospect but knew they were getting, say, three quality relievers in their prime from the Padres for the next three years, wouldn’t that be better than breaking the bank to sign a veteran this offseason? It would at least be a strong alternative solution to the problem of having a mediocre bullpen.

Furthermore, the Padres could actually trade multiple hurlers in their bullpen to try and get a significant haul back for them in a trade. Of course any trade of this nature, potentially involving one of the “super-teams” in the league — Could end up having significant ramifications throughout the final stretch of the season and in the playoffs. These are the likely trade candidates for the Padres:

Screen Shot 2018-07-12 at 10.20.55 PM

Their resumes above basically speak for themselves.

It seems like the only player the Padres would be less interested in trading would be Brad Hand, considering that he’s signed to a team-friendly long-term deal and has become the anchor of their bullpen. The question then becomes, what teams should be looking for relief help? The teams that come to mind are the Nationals, Phillies, Cardinals, and Indians. The depth of quality pitchers in the San Diego ‘pen should allow the team to possibly make a trade for a true impact player if they include multiple hurlers in a deal.

More likely to make a trade with the Padres than the aforementioned teams, are the Nationals. Seeking to maximize the last guaranteed season with Bryce Harper around, the franchise probably has very legitimate motivation to go all-in on trying to win a championship. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg won’t be in their respective primes forever, which is another reason for the team to really go for it now! The Nationals seem like a team that would make sense to trade with.

The Nationals don’t have a very deep system, and their top prospects would likely be untouchable. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t give the Padres a number of decent prospects, though. A package centering around Carter Kieboom, and perhaps Seth Romero or Yasel Antuna could be had by San Diego. A deal with DC would likely be more about quantity over quality in prospects received by the Padres. Other teams, however, could send fewer, yet more individually talented prospects.

If the Cardinals feel like they have a chance at the Wild Card, they could realistically trade for some relief help to use in the playoffs. Their system isn’t very impressive, but Adolis Garcia and Conner Greene could net them one of the Padres pitchers.

The Phillies’ bullpen has been fine so far, though they just demoted their closer Hector Neris to Triple-A. It would seem like they’d want to feel more secure about their bullpen, so maybe the Padres could trade a few of their relievers for blue-chip prospect Sixto Sanchez. More likely, they could take Adonis Medina, Franklyn Kilome, and buy low on hometown outfielder Mickey Moniak. Those three latter prospects would be a nice return even if Sanchez is unavailable.

The Indians have a horrendous bullpen situation, so they would be the most obvious candidate as a team interested in making a deal with A.J. Preller. Getting multiple talented relievers in one trade likely seems very attractive to the Indians at this point in time. While Francisco Mejia is likely off limits in trades, it would be reasonable for the Padres to get some combination of Shane Bieber, Nolan Jones, and Will Benson in return for some of their relief aces.

All of the pitchers being dealt are under team control beyond this season, too:

Pitcher
Last Year of Team Control
Brad Hand 2021
Kirby Yates 2020
Craig Stammen 2019
Adam Cimber 2023

The years of control on all the pitchers are what should excite contending teams —  As much as their talents likely already do. The Padres are still rebuilding, and they have plenty of arms in the system to fill out this bullpen in the years to come.

Not all of the starting pitchers in the system will pan out completely, so expecting some of them to be in the bullpen is realistic. While it is tempting to say that the team should hold onto their star relievers, the team simply isn’t close enough to contention for that to be a viable excuse to keep them around. Add on the fact that reliever performance is volatile, and you can see that trading some of these guys now would make sense while their value is so high.

Considering the number of quality relievers the Padres possess, it would be surprising if none of them were traded at the deadline in the coming weeks. Hopefully, for the Padres, they’ll be able to continue to build for the future in exchange for some of the quality bullpen arms they have.

This post was originally posted on https://fathomablefriarfactsresearch.wordpress.com — Check out the site for more Padres related posts.


Luis Castillo is Going to Be Just Fine

Following what was a great debut season in 2017, Luis Castillo has been disappointing. The young righty sported the third-hardest average Fastball (97.5 mph) of all major league starters last season, trailing only Noah Syndergaard and Luis Severino. This year, his average velocity on the heater is 95.8 mph — Almost two ticks below what it was in 2017, which is surprising when considering that he is only 25 years old. This is a young pitcher that recently broke into the league, whose fastball velocity has dropped for no real apparent reason, as far as public information has indicated.

Diving into the data, the first aspect of Castillo’s game that stands out as changed is his Four-Seam Fastball usage, which has gone down from 50.6% last year, to 34.9% in 2018. Instead he’s opted to throw his Sinker 22.2% of the time, in contrast with his 11.6% rate throwing the pitch in last year’s campaign. Castillo is also using his Changeup slightly more often this year, while backing off from utilizing his Slider somewhat, in comparison with his reliance on each pitch last season.

When a pitcher has a blistering Fastball like Castillo does, it usually makes a lot of sense for them to use it to challenge hitters with frequency. In throwing his Four-Seam Fastball about half the time last year, Castillo was quite successful. Fellow high-velocity righty Luis Severino was a Cy Young candidate whilst throwing his own Four-Seam Fastball in 51.7% of his pitches.

The question of why the velocity has decreased is effectively up in the air for now, though perhaps Castillo has been throwing it with less frequency because he knows it’s not the same as it was last year. Regardless, it’s hard to say whether his drop in velocity would be able to facilitate the same usage and success of his Four-Seamer this season, as during the last one — Due to its loss in velocity.

What can be examined to better understand his recent changes, are Castillo’s mechanics — And more specifically his release point, as it relates to his arm action. First off, is a Four-Seamer he threw in a July 2017 start basically middle-up in the zone at 96 mph:

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The next is a middle-up located Four-Seamer thrown at 94 mph, in his April 11th Start against the Phillies:

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These are nearly identical pitch locations, just thrown in different starts, with two strikes. Notice anything different between the two? Looking at the gifs is not sufficient for understanding what’s changed in Castillo’s mechanics since last season.

Take a look at the freeze frame of the release points on each pitch:

His arm slot is higher on the right than on the left, which could be the culprit of his struggles. He threw the Four-Seamer with an average vertical release point of 5.90 feet in his April 11th start against the Phillies, despite his average being 5.71 feet on the pitch last season. What’s puzzling is that his arm slot has actually been lower on average this season in comparison with where it was during the last.

What’s changed between his starts in 2017, and first three outings in 2018 — Is that his arm slot has been very inconsistent between games this year. For example his vertical release of the Four-Seamer was on average 5.58 feet above the ground, during his opening three starts in 2018. Could his variation in arm slots be to blame for his loss in velocity?

Perhaps, though what’s important is that Castillo bumped his velocity up in his last start. His Four-Seamer averaged 96.1 mph on April 16th versus the Brewers, in comparison with the Four-Seamer’s average velocity of 95.5 mph in earlier outings. His velocity is trending in the right direction! He’s certainly on the right track towards getting back to his 2017 form. There are further signs of his improvement, as well…

Here’s the comparison between Castillo’s start last year, and his most recent April 16th start against the Brewers:

His arm slots here are definitely closer, and the data on his start indicated that his vertical release point on Fastballs was 5.68 feet in his April 16th start — Nearly identical to the 5.73 foot vertical release point on it in 2017. The recent signs in his last start provide evidence that he’s going to be fine.

In the box score, his last start doesn’t look great. He gave up four earned runs, but when watching the final inning in which he was charged with the runs, it’s clear he really just ran into some bad luck. Quickly getting the first two outs, Castillo gave up a slowly hit single up the middle, and the Brewers’ pitcher got a two-RBI hit on a pitch that jammed him. It was an unfortunate ending to an outing that should have resulted in him throwing 7 shutout innings. Context is always important, and in the case of his last start, this holds especially true.

There should be little worry about Castillo moving forward, despite his rough beginning to the season. Finding his release point has been difficult to be consistent with, though with the kind of velocity he has, it isn’t surprising. This is a rare power pitcher even in the context of many pitchers’ newfound increases in velocity. Some bumps in the road shouldn’t slow Castillo, who is ultimately a front of the rotation starter.

All Data taken from Brooks Baseball, Fangraphs, and Statcast – Video from MLB.com


Gregory Polanco Is Annihilating Baseballs

The tools have always been there for Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco, it has just been a question of whether he could put it all together with consistency in the big leagues. Well goodness, he has put it together this April! His average exit velocity is 92.8 mph in 2018, and his hits have had an average exit velocity of 100.9 mph! This is in stark contrast with his average of 86.5 mph on hits last season, which ranked 280th among Major Leaguers. Hitting Baseballs with this kind of force is nothing short of annihilation, based on the early results. His two solo home runs against the Cubs on the 12th, were a great example of how well he has played so far.

His average launch angle is 13.2 degrees, differing from a mark of 16.2 degrees last season. His launch angle on hits in 2017 was 10.1 degrees, and this year it has increased to 18.6 degrees. Even though his average launch angle is slightly down, lifting the ball has become more common for him when punishing mistakes. He has been able to get to more of his power already, as a result of hitting more balls in the air. Already having bashed five home runs so far, he looks set to easily surpass his career high of 22 taters back in 2016.

Seeing him hit the ball on average so much harder than he used to, is impressive in and of itself. When one looks at the individual batted ball outcomes, they see things like his eight batted balls hit at least 105 mph or harder. For comparison’s sake, Aaron Judge has nine, who hit the ball harder than anyone in Baseball last year. Additionally, Polanco’s twelve hits with exit velocities over 100 mph are equal to Judge’s twelve base knocks above the said velocity.

Here are his 2017 results against different pitches:

Pitch Type Pitches Hits AB AVG SLG
FF 588 44 146 0.301 0.404
SL 247 10 55 0.182 0.436
CH 176 9 45 0.200 0.356
FT 163 10 48 0.208 0.313
SI 102 9 25 0.36 0.640
CU 100 3 18 0.167 0.167
FC 83 3 17 0.176 0.294
KC 39 3 10 0.300 0.500

Given that all of his hits have been either on four-seam Fastballs, two-seam fastballs, or changeups this season, it seems likely that hitting breaking balls are a weakness in the outfielder’s game. His 0.182 average against such pitches last season, seems to confirm such a suspicion. However, his .436 slugging percentage against sliders, provides reason for optimism surrounding his ability to hit the pitch. This illustrates that Polanco can still crush pitches he usually struggles with. He hit four of his eleven home runs in 2017, off Sliders.

As for the question of whether Polanco is simply getting lucky on batted balls, the answer is that his BABIP is .231 — Which is actually the lowest of his career, across four previous seasons. Being as productive as he’s been, without much luck on balls in play, speaks to the talent he possesses. When he hits the ball hard, Polanco really can do some serious damage, as illustrated by his nine extra base hits in eleven games so far.

Polanco has hit more balls thrown middle-away this season, showing his ability to punish mistakes more often than he did previously. The heatmap on the left shows the locations of his 2017 hits, with his 2018 hit locations on the right:

He has gotten better at pulling his hands in and driving pitches he previously didn’t have as much success against. Last season he didn’t have many hits in the location where he’s now mashing pitches — A sign that he has probably matured as a hitter recently. The fact that there isn’t a darker zone towards the middle of the plate is due to it being the beginning of the season, so there is not concern at this point over his ability to hit pitches thrown basically right down the middle. Considering how hard he’s hit the ball on pitches towards the outside part of the plate, it would seem safe to assume that he’d crush pitches thrown more middle-in if given the chance.

Another encouraging development in his game, has been an increased number of walks this season in comparison with how often he’s done so previously. Polanco only walked 27 times last year in 411 plate appearances, yet in his 53 trips to the dish this season, he has nine walks already. Perhaps he’s just taken awhile to mature as a hitter, and only now is he beginning to flourish in the big leagues. The data suggests that he may have finally taken the big step many in Pittsburgh have long been waiting for.

Staying healthy this year will be key for him, as he missed time last season during three separate DL stints due to hamstring strains. If he can do so, the Pirates will have a dynamic outfielder who has become more patient at the dish, more selective in terms of the pitches he offers at, and most importantly annihilates mistakes for extra base hits.

What is looking great for the Pirates, is the extension they recently signed him to:

Losing Andrew McCutchen hurt, even if it mostly meant saying goodbye to a well-known star in Pittsburgh. With the emergence of Polanco, the Pirates may already have found their new face of the franchise. Given the abilities Polanco has shown this season, it is looking like his contract will be a major bargain for the Pirates. With the new star set to stick around in the Steel City for the long haul, it’s time for Pittsburgh to say hello to Gregory Polanco, only now in recognition of his immense talent and importance to the future of their team.

All Data in this article was taken from Fangraphs, Statcast,  Brooks Baseball, and Spotrac.


Finding the Mets a Catcher

Having started the year at 10-1, the Mets’ season is certainly going swimmingly. This team could realistically make a playoff run, which was something no one seemed to be certain of prior to the season. The hope for Mets fans is that the team’s decision makers in the front office don’t mess this up, or miss an opportunity to make sure this team maximizes its potential.

Mets ownership and management has been nothing short of infuriating in recent years, whether that has meant mishandling issues with injured players, failing to spend sufficiently on payroll despite being in the gigantic New York market, and countless other reasons. It seems reasonable to expect the team to be more ambitious in signing star players, or at least keep the homegrown stars healthy on the current team. The team’s treatment of medical issues are significant enough to justify their own post altogether, but exploring that will be left for someone else, or investigated another time.

Kevin Plawecki just fractured his hand, while Travis d’Arnaud is set to have Tommy John Surgery next week. The team needs help at Catcher, and if management wants to make sure this team remains in contention, they will trade for a useful backstop. Jon Heyman confirmed that the team is indeed interested in upgrading at the position:

Who could the Mets acquire via trade? The elephant in the room is J.T. Realmuto, an elite catcher who’d be an immediate upgrade over even the injured d’Arnaud and Plawecki long-term. He is also represented by CAA , like many prominent Mets stars (DeGrom, Syndergaard, Cespedes), making a trade for Realmuto seemingly more likely. In reality though, he is still on the DL for the Marlins, and the asking price in a trade for him would be far too steep for the Mets to be able to meet. Their farm system lacks the impact talent needed to land a player of Realmuto’s caliber, and trading useful major leaguers is effectively not an option for a contending team.

Could the Dodgers be convinced to deal Yasmani Grandal? Considering the performance of Austin Barnes at the end of last season, and their faith in him throughout the playoffs — It would not seem completely unreasonable for them to be interested in trading Grandal. Though for a team with serious championship aspirations, keeping around two starting caliber star-level catchers is justifiable. Add in the fact that Grandal has already been worth 0.7 WAR, and one realizes that the Dodgers very likely wouldn’t be interested in a swap.

A team can lose a catcher anytime to a concussion, or injury as a result of a foul tip, among other potential risks that are inherently a part of playing the position. Given this possibility, it’s reasonable to see why the Dodgers are content splitting playing time between two very talented backstops. The Mets are all-too-aware of this reality, with both their regular catchers set to miss significant time with injuries already this season.

If the team wanted to kind of take a lottery ticket on a Catcher, they could trade for Luke Maile, a strong defensive catcher who has hit surprisingly well to start the year. Defensively he was worth 4.9 runs in 46 games in 2017, and he has four hits with exit velocities over 105 mph already this year. If he can hit better than he has previously, Maile would be a great buy-low candidate for the team. He is blocked by Russell Martin in Toronto, so he could likely be acquired by the Mets pretty easily.

A strong option for the team, is the Cardinals’ Carson Kelly. Though he is seen as more of a defensive catcher, his 120 wRC+ in Triple-A last year illustrates that he is ready for regular playing time in the big leagues. He hasn’t hit at all in his brief major league time, yet has never gotten an extended look at the level. Being blocked by Yadier Molina, who is signed to a long-term extension, has left no real opportunity for Kelly to get the regular playing time he needs to develop as a hitter.

The scouting reports indicate that the 23-year-old has average hitting abilities, which coupled with his above-average to plus defense, should intrigue the Mets. The young backstop had an average pop-time of 1.96 seconds last season, which ranked 23rd among all major league catchers. By comparison, Travis d’Arnaud ranked 78th with an average pop-time of 2.06 seconds, while Plawecki ranked 86th with a time of 2.08. The Mets acquiring Kelly would be an upgrade for their defense at Catcher, which would be a welcome change for their pitching staff.

The Cardinals have to realize that Kelly doesn’t have a real chance to play regularly anytime soon, and the Mets know they have an obvious need behind the plate. A trade between the two teams seems like a good idea for both sides, considering each team’s situation. The latest Fangraphs prospect reports for the Cardinals in November of 2017 placed a 50 FV on Kelly, so to get a sense of what his trade value likely is, that will be used as the primary indicator.

Basically, he is expected to be a 2 WAR player per season and would be controlled through the 2023 season assuming he played the majority of 2018 in the major leagues. So this is a roughly 12 WAR player, over the course of the six years he would be under team control. As a contender, the Mets would not be interested in trading any of the players on their major league roster, so any trade would almost certainly involve sending minor leaguers to the Cardinals in return for Carson Kelly.

Mets pitching prospect Justin Dunn would seem to be a sufficient return in a trade with St. Louis, as he also received a 50 FV rating from Fangraphs prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen. A reliever initially at Boston College, Dunn started some games at the end of his final spring with the Eagles, before being selected in the first round by the Mets in the 2016 draft. He already has a strong Fastball / Slider combination in addition to a developing Curveball and Changeup, all pitches that give him the potential to have a formidable four-pitch mix. His strong pitching at High-A this season has been encouraging, and he would be a welcome future addition to the Cardinals’ 15th ranked MLB rotation by WAR.

This would be a trade to benefit both teams and would improve the future outlook of the Cardinals while helping the Mets shore up the catching position long-term. If the Mets are really committed to winning and doing so with consistency — Trading for Carson Kelly would be a strong option for the team. After all, Syndergaard and deGrom won’t be around forever.

All Data in this article was taken from Fangraphs, Statcast, and Baseball Prospectus. 


Diagnosing Shohei Ohtani’s Pitching Woes

There has been a lot of concern over Shohei Ohtani, and his rough spring training performance recently. Considering the hype he has come with, it is only natural for people to react as strongly as they have. Given his track record in the Nippon Professional Baseball League, and the presence of his impressive physical abilities, it is frustrating to see him struggle.

What must be considered more seriously, is the significance of the transition Ohtani is making. There has to be better recognition of his being human. He does not speak the language in a new country where customs, culture, and even life philosophies are often very different than back home in Japan. Based on the information available surrounding his appearances hitting, and pitching, it seems that this is simply a guy adjusting to his new life in the United States.

Also significant are the differences between the Baseballs,  such as the NPB ball that has higher seams, as well as the mounds in Japan that are softer than the contrastingly more solid mounds in Major League Baseball. These are factors affecting Ohtani, and his transition, that must be considered.

To begin, Ohtani’s pitching mechanics and delivery as a whole, seem to be somewhat different than they were in Japan. His approach and intentions have looked to be the same, but the execution has been slightly off. These gifs are slowed down to show the differences in Ohtani’s mechanics in Japan during the 2017 season, and 2018 in Spring training. Take a look at the location and execution of his fastball in said seasons:

2017 in Japan:

Animated GIF

2018 Spring Training:

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The key aspect to watch here is the contrast in the times it takes him to bring the ball to the plate. In real time, from the start of his throwing motion to when he releases the Baseball, Ohtani throws the ball in 1.8 seconds in 2017. In contrast, during his most recent Cactus League start in the second gif, he releases the ball in 2.2 seconds following the beginning of his throwing motion. Is he trying to reach back for more velocity this spring? His mechanics seem to indicate such a suggestion.

Looking at the freeze frame just after he releases the ball, Ohtani’s arm slot is higher on the left than on the right. Ohtani’s back foot is higher than it was previously. His whole body is slightly more upright, his arm is further behind his lower half, and he is not as balanced on the left in comparison with the frame on the right.

He does not drag his back foot on the mound anymore, the way he used to in Japan. This has caused him to have less balance in his delivery to the plate, which will be explained further later on. It is likely that Ohtani has no interest in sliding his foot across the harder mounds in the United States, which is clearly hindering the execution of his mechanics.

Furthermore, he is opening his body more in his pitching motion this spring, than he used to in Japan. Being more upright means that it’s harder for him to get on top of the Baseball, which makes it more difficult to keep the ball down in the zone when he wants to throw it there. Having his arm behind his lower half as seen on the left, is putting more unnecessary stress on it as well.

His balance point is off on the left, too – This makes it more difficult for him to sync his arm and lower half, as well as locate his pitches. Ohtani has better control of his body in the frame on the right, thus allowing him to have more fundamentally sound mechanics.

Often, when a pitcher is not fully finishing his delivery, he (Hopefully someday She!) is overthrowing. Ohtani has indicated that he feels hardly any anxiety surrounding his performance, however it seems that he may be pressing a little, based on the contrast between the mechanical execution of his delivery in Japan, and here in the United States.

The finish of the delivery with his back leg swinging up as it always does, is more pronounced and noticeably higher on the left than on the right. Given that the pitches were thrown to similar locations in both frames, this is likely an indicator of him putting more effort into his delivery:

His non-throwing arm and glove are much higher on the left, and his pitching arm is visible on the left while it is not on the right. His left arm is actually turned up-and-out in his pitching with the Angels, whereas in Japan his arm is folded inwards, and is much closer to his body. This is simply further evidence of his seemingly increased level of effort while pitching this spring.

There is also the possibility that he is hurt, as his change in mechanics would support, too. Maybe his elbow is not as healthy as it has been made out to be. Regardless of the cause, Ohtani is not himself at the moment.

What is interesting, is that the pace of his delivery has slowed, while also becoming more stiff and less explosive. The abilities are there for him to perform at a much higher level, and it would really help him to stay within himself more and execute the fundamental aspects of his delivery.

It is likely difficult for him to adjust to the mounds in the United States, which could be affecting his delivery and mechanics significantly. Above all else, it seems that this is a case of a 23 year-old acclimating to a completely new country and culture. He is learning countless new things about life here, and his poor performances this spring seem to be a reflection of the recent change in his life, more than anything else.

The most glaring issue in his pitching thus far, has been in his mechanics. The pitches he is throwing are objectively impressive, they just aren’t being placed where Ohtani wants them to be as a result of his delivery being out of sync. He is absolutely fine, and simply needs to make a few adjustments to get back to being the potentially dominant pitcher many envision.

Video in this piece was taken from MLB.com.


Do The Padres Have Their Own Three-Headed Bullpen Monster?

Now that most rosters have been finalized ahead of opening day, there can be more specific speculation as to how certain groups of players on teams will perform.

As the use of bullpens becomes more significant in baseball, it is increasingly important to consider their performance. The Yankee bullpen is looking fantastic, which is fairly obvious to most at this point in time. A bullpen that is especially intriguing heading into this season is that of the Padres. While the team is not expected to contend this season, their bullpen is lining up to be quite unique.

Outside of Brad Hand, this is a group of relievers hardly anyone has ever heard of. Either because they simply have not played in the Major Leagues at all prior to this year, or have had mediocre performances in their time at the Major League level, these guys seem pretty lackluster to the average person.

This begs the question: Could the Padres have a trio of relievers similarly dominant to that of the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, and Dellin Betances? The idea is ambitious, however, the trio of Brad Hand, Kazuhisa Makita, and Kirby Yates have shown themselves to have the potential to be just as good this season. These three are players who have immense potential as relievers, whose variety of arm angles, and styles of pitching could be set to give opposing hitters fits this summer.

The bullpen is obviously led by Brad Hand, who will be the Closer for the Padres – What makes him unique is that he throws a lot of innings, and truly doesn’t care whether he’s pitching the ninth, or the earlier innings of a game. This means he can be used in the most high-leverage situation of a game, which is the ideal way for relievers to be used, a-la-Andrew Miller in the 2016 postseason.

Padres manager Andy Green said of Hand: “I’ve never been around a pitcher that takes the ball as willingly and as often as he does.” Hand pitched 79.1 innings for the team in 2017 – 6th most among all relievers in Baseball and first among Closers. With 11.8 K/9 in that many innings, take a look at the slider that generated a 21.2% whiff rate in 2017:

Animated GIF

He didn’t locate this slider very well, but even when left up in the zone, the pitch is objectively good enough that it can still usually generate whiffs.

New Japanese pitcher Kazuhisa Makita is also on board with the Padres, who was signed from the Saitama Seibu Lions of NPB. A submariner who releases the baseball six inches off the dirt, Makita is arguably the most interesting reliever in the Major Leagues this year. His fastball has topped out around 81 mph this spring, and he also throws a curveball that has been clocked as slowly as 52 mph, and usually sits 56-59 mph.

It is unprecedented for a pitcher to throw at such a lower velocity than is traditional in the Major Leagues, though his 2.83 career ERA in the NPB suggests he is a very capable pitcher. His pitches and pitching style are so unique, that watching them gives one a better understanding of his pitching than words could ever describe.

He’s especially adept at painting the outside corner:

Animated GIF

It’s certainly a very different arm angle, and he looks to have pretty good command of his pitches.

Makita seems to often throw his fastball on the outside corner more than anywhere else, based on his pitching style in his appearances this spring.

Though Makita is legitimately unafraid of throwing his pitches to any part of the plate, notably pitching up in the zone at times as he does here:

Animated GIF

It will be especially interesting to see if Makita generates a ton of pop-ups from hitters in front of, and under his often 81 mph Fastball in 2018.

What is even more fun, is Makita’s curveball, because of how slow it is. It has been described as “Bugs Bunny” and “Eephus Curve” among other names thus far. Thus far though, the pitch has played as well as any other pitchers’ Curveball.

Here is his curveball:

Animated GIF

As far as how his stuff will translate to success in the Major Leagues, the Padres have been liberal in allowing Makita to pitch his own style. Backup catcher A.J. Ellis made echoed this sentiment nicely: “we just want to let that style translate here as opposed to making him fit into what we think he should be.” Makita is unlike any pitcher the League has seen in years, so it is encouraging that the team will give him the independence to continue to attack hitters as uniquely as he did in Japan.

Amid all the power relievers looking to often whiz the ball past hitters with velocity, Makita has the chance to finesse his way to success in the big leagues. In an era in which hitters continue to counter power pitching with higher launch angles, and fly-ball swings, Makita’s pitches that rise on hitters will require legitimate adjustments from them. He probably won’t strike out a lot of hitters, though he figures to be a guy who will generate a lot of weak contact.

There is no standard for this kind of a pitcher in the modern era throwing at such a low velocity, and maybe he just won’t throw hard enough to ever be very good. However, if his approach to pitching is successful, the Padres will have found a truly rare kind of dominant reliever.

Another member of the bullpen is Kirby Yates, who almost struck out 14 batters per nine innings last season. His 13.98 K/9 was 5th best among qualified Major League relievers, behind guys including Kenley Jansen, Dellin Betances, and Craig Kimbrel. Yates upped his Split-Change usage to 14.2% in August, and 25.6% in September, which helped him to a 14.6% K/9 rate in those months. He gave up 17 hits during that time, yet not a single one of them was on a changeup, according to Baseball Savant. His split-change had a 22% whiff rate last season, easily being the best swing-and-miss pitch in his repertoire. Here is the split-change in action this spring:

Animated GIF

He also throws a high spin-rate fastball often up in the zone, which from his shorter arm slot was hard for hitters to make solid contact on last season. Yates ranked third in swinging strike rate, at 17.4% –  Among relievers who threw at least 50 innings last season, behind only Craig Kimbrel, and Kenley Jansen. With the increase in split-change usage, Yates could potentially take the next step as a reliever, and become even better than he was last season. Thus far, the results have been promising from a guy who was claimed off waivers from the Angels in 2017.

The three pitchers explored above, may not be likely to have the success they are sort of touted to have, as this article indicates. Especially in the case of Makita and Yates, people are not expecting them to be as good or comparable to Chapman, Robertson, and Betances. They probably aren’t going to be a three-headed monster, as the Padres hope.

Brad Hand is legitimately talented and should be recognized the way the members of the Yankees trio are. The point is that the other two pitchers have shown flashes of brilliance, in the case of Makita because of his unique style of pitching. Yates got hitters to swing and whiff at a level nearly as high as Craig Kimbrel, and Kenley Jansen.

Being a smaller market team, the Padres have to be more careful with their money than a team like the Yankees, who signed Robertson and Chapman to hefty free agent deals. Quietly San Diego might have found their own funky three-headed monster to anchor the late innings of their games this season. They’ve acquired and signed the aforementioned three relievers for a combined total of $7,145,833 in 2018 – The Yankees trio, in contrast, is due $38,100,000 in 2018 salaries according to Spotrac.

The team will never have the financial might of the Yankees, but they have shown a creative way to build a bullpen, that will be interesting to watch this season. Reliever performance is volatile, and the sentiment that these guys are nothing more than flashes in the pan is perfectly legitimate. What they have is a chance to be excellent relievers, and that chance is worth examining.

All Data used in the article was taken from MLB.com, Baseball Savant, Spotrac, and Brooks Baseball.


Recognizing The Best Defensive Catcher in Baseball

Tucker Barnhart has been an invaluable defensive catcher for the Reds recently, and his impressive 2017 season earned him a Gold Glove. After all, he had a .999 fielding percentage in 2017! He truly was a really important part of the Reds team last season and should be commended for his efforts.

Though there was another catcher last season, who was better than Barnhart. The player who was more impressive last season, who did not receive sufficient recognition for his efforts, is Austin Hedges. He took over the starting catching job for the Padres last season, and despite having a 71 wRC+, the team stuck with him behind the plate for the entirety of the season. The team is rebuilding, but traditionally when a player is producing so poorly on offense, they do not continue to receive everyday playing time. Unless they are so talented on defense, that it simply doesn’t really matter that they don’t hit very well. This is exactly the reason for Austin Hedges taking over the starting catcher role in San Diego last year.

Hedges should have won the Gold Glove at catcher last season, though obviously the reasoning behind him being superior to Barnhart must be explained. These are the likely reasons why Barnhart won the Gold Glove, and why they are flawed in being able to truly represent his individual performance as a catcher:

  1. .999 Fielding Percentage – This hinges too significantly upon the official scorer’s rulings. Evidently Barnhart got very lucky this season in terms of  being held culpable for defensive miscues by the official scorers.
  2. 44% Caught Stealing Percentage – Pitchers are much more significant to this statistic than people are often aware of. If a pitcher cannot hold runners on or is slow in his delivery of pitches to the plate, the catcher’s chance of throwing runners out can sometimes be eliminated altogether.

Miguel Montero echoed this sentiment perfectly in June last season, and despite his words resulting in his being released by the Cubs, it nonetheless holds true: “It really sucked because the stolen bases go to me. And when you really look at it, the pitcher doesn’t give me any time.”

Furthermore, Blue Jays outfielder Anthony Gose addressed base stealing, saying “It has nothing to do with the catcher,” and that “It’s on the pitcher and his times.” While this statement may be taking things too far, the idea here is that the pitcher is more significant to limiting baserunners than people often realize. As far as this concept is related to Barnhart and Hedges, the point is that Barnhart was simply helped out more by his pitchers, who were faster at pitching to the plate than the Padre pitchers Hedges was handling.

Barnhart also led the league in runners caught stealing, with 32, however, this statistic is flawed for the same reasons as Caught Stealing Percentage. Hedges’ fielding percentage was .990, and he had a 37% Caught Stealing percentage. Focusing on these simple statistics is not sufficient for evaluating catcher defense, which should be obvious in the context of how they were debunked earlier in the article. There are actually more advanced, as well as simple measurements that both indicate Hedges’ superiority over all other catchers in baseball defensively.

First of all, looking at the Baseball Prospectus defensive catcher data, reveals that Hedges lead the league in 2017 in multiple statistics:

Rank NAME Framing Chances Framing Runs Blocking Chances FRAA_ADJ FRAA
1 Austin Hedges 6,708 25.9 4536 29.2 31.8
2 Martin Maldonado 8,267 23.7 5294 27.5 28.1
3 Tyler Flowers 5,348 29.6 3763 27.9 27.3
4 Yasmani Grandal 6,735 22 4553 22 23.7
5 Caleb Joseph 4,629 17.2 3113 18.9 19.1
6 J.t. Realmuto 8,394 8.3 5763 10.9 19
7 Roberto Perez 4,255 15.2 2906 17.5 17.1
8 Welington Castillo 5,967 9.7 4170 13.8 13.4
9 Austin Barnes 2,931 12.3 1982 13.2 12.3
10 Christian Vazquez 5,935 10.5 4133 13.6 11.1

Leading the league in Fielding Runs Above Average, and Adjusted Fielding Runs Above Average, is no small feat. Clearly, Hedges has a special defensive ability, that has not seemed to be recognized sufficiently. As far as the data above is concerned, he is a step ahead of even the second-best defensive catcher in the Major Leagues last season.

Recently Statcast released public data measuring catcher pop times, and Hedges topped the list in average pop time:

Rank Catcher Arm (mph) Exchange Average Pop Time CS Time SB
1 Austin Hedges 85.7 0.72 1.89 1.92 1.88
2 J.T. Realmuto 87.3 0.68 1.9 1.92 1.88
3 Gary Sanchez 87.8 0.73 1.93 1.93 1.92
4 Manny Pina 84.9 0.67 1.93 1.96 1.92
5 Martin Maldonado 87.7 0.75 1.93 1.94 1.93
6 Yadier Molina 83.3 0.74 1.97 2 1.93
7 Welington Castillo 82.6 0.66 1.94 1.94 1.94
8 Drew Butera 86 0.73 1.95 2.01 1.94
9 Josh Phegley 80.4 0.68 1.97 2.01 1.94
10 Roberto Perez 84.4 0.72 1.95 1.96 1.95

Also significant here is the fact that many catchers’ pop times on plays that resulted in runners being caught stealing, were slower than their average pop times. This confirms the earlier point that caught stealing statistics are influenced by the pitcher’s ability to get the ball to the plate quickly or not. Barnhart checks in at 22nd on the list of catcher pop times, recording pop times of 2 seconds flat across all three times being measured in the table above. Yet he led the league in runners caught stealing, which illustrates the effects of pitchers and obviously baserunners, on the caught stealing percentages of catchers. Hedges was objectively the fastest at getting the ball to second base last season among Major League catchers, which is yet another reason for his being the premier defensive catcher in Baseball.

Borrowing from Travis Sawchik’s piece last June, he says this regarding Pitchers and Catchers handling baserunners:

“Generally speaking, pitchers with times of 1.3 seconds and quicker to home are going to slow the run game, while anything above 1.5 seconds is going to entice teams to run. As such, a battery is generally looking to record a total time of 3.3 seconds or less. That should prevent most baserunners from stealing. Between 3.3 and 3.5 seconds is average. Above 3.5 seconds is likely to be a problem.”

Given that Hedges’ average pop time is 1.89 seconds, Padre pitchers can actually release the ball in 1.41 seconds to home plate, for the batteries to record a total time of 3.3 seconds. What is special about Hedges, is that he actually helps compensate for pitchers who are slow to the plate, because his release is lightning quick, and his throwing arm is so accurate. Watch him make up for Tyson Ross’ 1.59 second time in his pitch to the plate, and throw out Elvis Andrus with a pop time of 1.82 seconds:

Animated GIF

Ross threw a slider at 85 mph, yet Hedges was still able to throw out the runner. Watch Jedd Gyorko’s glove here – He does not move it at all to catch the throw. It was not only lightning fast, but also a near-perfectly accurate throw. There are no catchers in Baseball who would have made that play, outside of Austin Hedges. The times of Ross and Hedges are self-timed by the writer of this article, and the average times were 1.59 and 1.82, though if one wants to they can time it themselves – The times will be quite similar to the numbers above.

Even more impressive than this play, however, was when Hedges threw out Billy Hamilton from his knees this past August. His Pitcher Luis Perdomo threw a low slider in 1.42 seconds to the plate, and Hedges actually has a pop time of 1.72 on this play to just get Hamilton. He was called safe initially but was determined to be out after replay review. Hedges didn’t even make a standing throw!

Animated GIF

Hedges combined with Ross for a total time of 3.41 seconds, and with Perdomo for a time of 3.14 seconds. Both times making up for a pitcher who was slow in delivering his pitch to the plate.

Statistical analysis is the basis of the article, yet at times it really is valuable to just watch a player in action, in order to truly understand what makes him talented. In the case of Hedges, there are plays he makes as a catcher that others at his position simply can’t make.

Watch Hedges reach for a low and-in pitch, then quickly get out of the crouch and run in the opposite direction to make an incredible play here:

Animated GIF

The Padres pitchers appreciate the effort, and ability Hedges brings to the table every game he plays, as Padre closer Brad Hand said very well:

“He does his homework. All the pitchers here have good trust in him. That’s good to see. He’s a young catcher, and you don’t really see that too often, a rookie catcher gaining that kind of trust from his pitching staff right out from the get-go. That’s a credit to him and the hard work he puts in.”

There are other talented defensive catchers in Baseball, yet there are none at the level of Austin Hedges. He knows how to handle the pitching staff, frames pitches as well as any catcher, blocks balls in the dirt with the best of them, and has a lightning quick release to throw out runners. The data presented earlier backs all of those claims. And the gifs help one visualize the true wonder in his defensive capabilities. The next time someone asks about the best defensive catcher in Baseball, the answer is now Austin Hedges.

Data used in this article was taken from Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, Statcast, and Video from MLB.com


The Brewers Should Sell High on Brett Phillips

On Thursday evening Brewers have made some significant acquisitions to their outfield, notably acquiring Christian Yelich in a trade with the Marlins, and signing Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80-million deal. The Brewers have added around 7 Wins in a single day, at least according to Steamer, which has Yelich projected for 4.0 WAR and expects Cain to produce a WAR of 3.3. The point is, the Brewers have other outfielders such as Domingo Santana, Keon Broxton, and Brett Phillips, whose future with the team are now unclear.

One can make the argument that Broxton is perhaps more likely a bench player than the star player he seemed to be in his brief 2016 campaign. Keeping him as a fourth outfielder would not be an unreasonable expectation. Santana is likely at least an average outfielder, if not more, so keeping him around would be a waste of his talent, so trading him would make sense. Brett Phillip’s strong showing late in the 2017 season makes him a valuable trade chip, too, especially considering that he still has not exhausted his rookie eligibility.

Rumors of the possibility of the Brewers trading the two outfielders were confirmed by Bob Nightengale:

While Santana is no doubt an interesting player worth examining, Phillips is whom this article concerns. It seems that Brett Phillip’s value could be at its peak right now, for a multitude of reasons. An overarching theme of many transactions in Baseball this winter, or lack thereof, has been the seemingly increasing value of prospects to teams. This high value may be peaking right around now. First of all, contending teams with the need for an impact veteran player at the deadline will be less concerned about trading prospects at that time. However, also as a result of the reality that next winter there will be the star-studded free agent class, which should, in turn, facilitate more transactions throughout the baseball industry as a whole.

Phillips played in 37 games last season for the Brewers, yet he is still rookie eligible and is controllable through 2023, for the next six seasons. He posted a 104 wRC+, adding 2.2 runs on the bases, while accounting for 4.5 runs saved on defense. He showed off his cannon of an arm by throwing a ball 104-mph according to Statcast, and made multiple other throws from the outfield over 101-mph.

Those are all reasons why the 29 teams in baseball not named the Brewers should be high on him! He has done everything well in the Major Leagues thus far, so on the surface, there are not necessarily any real red flags in his profile. Though upon examining his brief showing in the big leagues last season more closely, there are reasons to be concerned about his ability to sustain the success he had.

Regression to the mean is always likely, and this is the essence of the story Phillips’ data is suggesting. What is so interesting about Phillips though, is that there is another player who seems to have a very similar skillset. Looking at the Major League hitters’ strikeout rates in 2017, Phillips and Drew Robinson both struck out 34.7% of the time. That is how the players were first connected by the author, which ended up being the basis for what has turned out to be a really interesting investigation.

Here are some of last year’s numbers for both players:

Player Team Games PA BB% K% ISO SLG wOBA wRC+
Brett Phillips Brewers 37 98 9.2 % 34.7 % 0.172 0.448 0.338 104
Drew Robinson Rangers 48 121 11.6 % 34.7 % 0.215 0.439 0.323 96

The performances are in a small sample, which is the primary reason to be doubtful that this comparison is necessarily very accurate. However, it is nonetheless captivating that the two players had such similar seasons in 2017. It gets better though! They both hit left-handed and throw right-handed, and take a look at how similar their swings are!

Phillips:

Robinson:

The swings are pretty similar, agreed? The finishes are slightly different, but the bat paths and leg kicks of both players are certainly quite reminiscent of each other. Phillips had an average launch angle of 13.27 degrees, while Robinson’s average launch angle was 14.29 degrees in 2017. Given such a finding, it would seem to make sense that they have relatively similar bat paths through the hitting zone. Consider the most recent tool grades given to each player by Fangraphs Prospect Analyst Eric Longenhagen:

Player Hit Raw Power Game Power Run Fielding Throw
Drew Robinson 40/40 55/55 40/45 55/55 50/55 60/60
Brett Phillips 40/40 55/55 45/50 55/55 50/55 70/70

Phillips has a better arm, and Longenhagen gave him a 45 FV, while he gave Robinson only a future value of 40 on the 20-80 scouting scale. Though one could reasonably argue that they are kind of the same player. At the very least, these are two players with very similar hitting abilities and performances thus far.

While Phillips produced a WAR of 1.0 during his 37 games with the Brewers in 2017, Robinson’s WAR was 0. What has to be kept in mind, however, is the fact that Phillips was riding a .408 BABIP, that is highly unlikely to occur again. Steamer projects both players to hit .229 in 2018, illustrating the similarities in their profiles. Phillips is expected to put up a 77 wRC+ figure, with Robinson actually having the edge with a mark of 86 wRC+ projected by Steamer in 2018.

These are two players that are similarly mediocre, in the writer of this article’s best estimation. The fact that Phillips does not have a good chance of getting any meaningful playing time in the outfield this season is already enough to justify Milwaukee trading him away.

The reality that his value is perhaps at its highest right now, as a result of a great debut performance with the brew crew in 2017, also strongly points towards the idea of trading him. Throw in the fact that he is controllable for six more years, and there seems to be little reason for his value to increase. The Brewers would do well to acquire some pitching in exchange for Phillips. The time is now to do so!

All Data used in this article was taken from Fangraphs, as well as MLB.com and Statcast.


An Inquiry Into The Efficacy of Differing Pitching Philosophies

A philosophical question many people have likely pondered is the decision of whether it is more beneficial to be daring and to take risks, or to simply remain content with the status quo and use a more risk-averse approach. Being audacious requires a willingness to leave the comfort of society’s praise and expectations, and this ambition is too often discouraged. As a Baseball fan, one can relate these themes to styles of pitching and philosophies for being successful as a pitcher.

In the age of the juiced ball and home run spike, it would seem safe to say that the most prevalent style of pitching involves throwing lots of pitches towards the low-outside corner of the plate. If one thinks about the last time they watched a Baseball game, they would very likely remember the number of times they saw the catcher set up his target on the edge of the lower part of home plate. The idea is to basically throw the baseball as far away from the hitter as possible, while barely catching the plate. One would imagine that the idea is to generate ground balls and induce strikeouts, when pitchers throw to this location. Throwing pitches up in the zone is typically associated with allowing hitters to elevate the ball and get to more of their power.

Can one reasonably fight fire with fire, or should they simply use water? In Baseball terms: Is the art of ground-ball induction a worthwhile endeavor for pitchers, or should they challenge hitters more aggressively with their pitch locations?

Visually, these are the two examples that help one understand the essence of what the differing pitching philosophies entail:

Marcus Stroman painting the low-outside corner:

Chris Sale blowing hitters away with high heat:

Chris Sale was arguably the best pitcher on the planet last season; he was honestly chosen as an example for this piece because his statistics are a part of the data being analyzed here. Marcus Stroman’s numbers are also a part of the data being interpreted; his ground-ball rate of 62.1% ranked highest among all qualified starting pitchers in 2017. Sale, on the other hand, recorded the ninth-lowest ground ball rate among qualified starters, at 38.7%.

This investigation is going to look at the twenty starting pitchers across Major League Baseball who were best able to induce ground balls this past season, as well as the other twenty who generated the fewest number of them. To start, it is apt to examine the durability and effectiveness of the two different kinds of pitchers being evaluated. Below are two tables showing the ground-ball rates, games started, and innings pitched by two very different kinds of pitchers:

Ground Ball Artists’ Durability Statistics:

Rank  Name GB% GS IP
1 Marcus Stroman 62.1 % 33 201
2 Luis Perdomo 61.8 % 29 163.2
3 Clayton Richard 59.2 % 32 197.1
4 Mike Leake 53.7 % 31 186
5 Sonny Gray 52.8 % 27 162.1
6 Carlos Martinez 51.3 % 32 205
7 Luis Severino 50.6 % 31 193.1
8 Patrick Corbin 50.4 % 32 189.2
9 Jimmy Nelson 50.3 % 29 175.1
10 Zach Davies 50.2 % 33 191.1
11 Aaron Nola 49.8 % 27 168
12 Michael Fulmer 49.2 % 25 164.2
13 Masahiro Tanaka 49.2 % 30 178.1
14 Jhoulys Chacin 49.1 % 32 180.1
15 Andrew Cashner 48.6 % 28 166.2
16 Tanner Roark 48.2 % 30 181.1
17 Michael Wacha 48.0 % 30 165.2
18 Clayton Kershaw 47.9 % 27 175
19 Alex Cobb 47.8 % 29 179.1
20 Martin Perez 47.3 % 32 185
   Average 51.4 % 29.9 180.2

Leading the ground ball pitchers above is Marcus Stroman, who is the model for all pitchers striving to generate weak contact. Also included is Carlos Martinez and his impressive 9.53 K/9 last season, as well as Yankees ace Luis Severino. One can never forget Clayton Kershaw, of course. Martin Perez and Luis Perdomo do not appear to be much more than league average starters, and Andrew Cashner’s drop in strikeouts does not inspire confidence moving forward. Aside from those three players though, the rest are some very accomplished and talented pitchers.

Low Ground-Ball Rate Pitchers’ Durability Statistics:

Rank Name GB% GS IP
1 Marco Estrada 30.3 % 33 186
2 Dylan Bundy 32.8 % 28 169.2
3 Justin Verlander 33.5 % 33 206
4 Dan Straily 34.2 % 33 181.2
5 Jeremy Hellickson 34.9 % 30 164
6 Max Scherzer 36.5 % 31 200.2
7 Matt Moore 37.7 % 31 174.1
8 Jason Hammel 38.0 % 32 180.1
9 Chris Sale 38.7 % 32 214.1
10 Rick Porcello 39.2 % 33 203.1
11 Julio Teheran 40.0 % 32 188.1
12 Ricky Nolasco 40.1 % 33 181
13 Jason Vargas 40.3 % 32 179.2
14 Robbie Ray 40.3 % 28 162
15 Yu Darvish 40.7 % 31 186.2
16 Ervin Santana 41.2 % 33 211.1
17 John Lackey 41.2 % 30 170.2
18 Jeff Samardzija 41.5 % 32 207.2
19 Chris Archer 42.0 % 34 201
20 Kevin Gausman 42.7 % 34 186.2
  Average 38.3 % 31.7 187.5

Taking a look at the individual pitchers who generated the lowest percentage of ground balls, it is notable to see the back-to-back National League Cy Young Winner, Max Scherzer. Also included is Chris Sale, whom the writer of this article thinks was the best pitcher in Baseball last season. However, it is imperative not to forget about the man at the top of the table, Marco Estrada. He has actually been a very good player throughout the past couple seasons for the Blue Jays. It is simply hard to feel good about the future outlook of the man nicknamed “Estradabien” with his 89.8 mph average fastball velocity, who generates the least number of ground balls among qualified Major League starting pitchers. The point is really that there are varying levels of talent and performance in the group of pitchers in the table, which is a part of what makes this investigation so captivating.

If a pitcher is getting hitters to pound the ball on the ground, he is seemingly more likely to be efficient with his pitch count, and should theoretically be able to stay in the game longer. Though this theory does not hold true in the case of the pitchers being evaluated here. The qualified starting pitchers with the lowest ground ball rates averaged almost two more starts comparatively with those who had the highest ground ball rates in 2017. The same low ground-ball rate pitchers also pitched approximately seven more innings than the ground-ball artists threw this past season.

This finding begs the question: Are pitchers who are less interested or talented at generating ground balls more durable than the pitchers who are more successful in doing so? Half of the twenty ground ball inducing pitchers (10) went on the 10-day Disabled List last season at least once, while only twenty percent of the pitchers with the lowest ground-ball rates (4) required time on the Disabled List. It would appear based on this data, that ground-ball pitchers are more injury prone comparatively with pitchers who seem less interested and able to induce ground balls.

Staying healthy is obviously a significant part of being a successful player, especially in the case of pitchers. The table below, however, shows the important stats one is usually looking for when comparing these two different kinds of pitchers:

2017 Performances of High and Low Ground-Ball Pitchers

Pitching Philosophy K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP WAR
High Groundball 7.88 2.72 1.04 3.92 3.1
Low Groundball 8.73 2.80 1.40 4.28 2.7

This data slightly favors the high ground-ball pitching philosophy, which is quite an interesting development. Yet at this point it is still not necessarily clear whether one approach is favorable to the other. The data representing the results of both pitching philosophies is simply too similar to come to a sound conclusion thus far.

Thus it would be prudent to view the 2018 projections for both kinds of pitchers, to have an idea of what pitching philosophy is potentially going to make the players more successful moving forward. Steamer projects the High ground-ball pitchers to produce an average WAR of 2.65 in 2018, with the Low ground ball pitchers expected to produce 2.35 WAR on average. Again, there is a slight inclination to lean towards the ground-ball approach, yet the difference in projected performance from both types of pitchers is marginal. At this point it would seem like a good idea to simply accept that there are different ways of pitching, and depending on the pitcher’s skillset, he should pitch to his strengths.

Taking a look at how the two different styles of pitching fared in 2016 is also important. The high ground ball rate pitchers produced an average WAR of 2.72, in comparison with the 2.65 WAR put up by the pitchers with the lowest percentages of ground balls. Given that there has not been a significant difference in production between the two different styles of pitching over the last two seasons, could this be related to the home-run spike and juiced baseballs?

Despite suspicion that these themes could have been related to how pitchers have performed and approached their location of pitches to hitters, the fact that there was not a significant difference in performance between the two different ground ball rates does not provide evidence for them being a real factor in this investigation. While it would be more satisfying to say that throwing the ball up in the zone is preferable to painting the low-outside corner of the plate, or vice versa, there simply is not sufficient evidence for either being truly better than the other.

In this case the answer seems to lie in the middle – aces like Chris Sale and Max Scherzer are clearly having success with high heat up in the zone to hitters. Marcus Stroman is keeping hitters from making quality contact by keeping the ball down and throwing a great sinker. Luis Severino is using some of the best velocity of any starter in the Major Leagues to generate ground balls. Perhaps this was always too binary of an exploration of what is an inherently open-ended question. Hopefully, this article has at least helped advocate for pitchers who challenge hitters up in the zone, without criticizing the admirable approach of keeping the ball down in the zone and inducing ground balls.

All data used in this piece was taken from Fangraphs.