Roberto Osuna, the Blue Jays young star reliever, has put together a very impressive resume in his 3-year career. Last season Osuna ranked 3rd in RP WAR (3.0) only behind Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen in his age 23 season, and has also posted the highest cumulative WAR among relievers aged 20-23 years old in the last 40 years, while also producing the 2nd best FIP (2.69) and the moves saves (95).
Last July, Jeff Sullivan wrote a very compelling and in-depth article into the pure dominance Osuna was displaying on the mound; he was having a near perfect start to his season. He showed that across the board, Osuna ranked in the top 90 or 95 percentile in all of the major pitching statistics, proving that he had put it all together – matching his control to his skills. A few weeks before Jeff published his article (around June 25th), Osuna had missed some time for personal reasons, which was later disclosed as time away from the team to deal with anxiety issues. Roberto showed great courage speaking out to the public about his own internal struggles, but it was soon after that announcement that Osuna began to struggle on the mound.
It is both a difficult and a delicate analysis to undertake when analyzing the changes to Roberto’s performance last season. It is important to not read too much into certain trends and extrapolate that these derive from mental rather than physical, mechanical or strategic changes; however, this article will explore these changes to see why he suddenly began to struggle and how Roberto can strive to regain his top form for his 2018 season and beyond.
Roberto was at the top of his game in May and June and was putting up ridiculous numbers every time he took the mound. From July onward, Osuna began throwing his cutter and sinker much more frequently and threw fewer four-seam fastballs and sliders, as shown below:
The increase in his FC and SI usage and decrease in his SL and FA usage resulted in a change in his batted ball profile and strikeout potential. Osuna has a devastating slider with one of the best chase rates and swinging strike percentages in the league. He moved away from this pitch in favor of his sinker, which resulted in a lot more groundballs, as shown below. This change affected his BABIP, as it rose from .269 to .298.
Further, the large increase in his cutter usage resulted in a lot more hard-hit balls and he began to use it more often in high leverage situations with runners on base. His cutter usage increased from 15.7% to 37.4% with runners on base and this led to a plummeting left on base percentage. Last season Osuna posted the 2nd worst LOB% in the league among relievers at 59.5%. This is a statistics that jump off the page when juxtaposed with his fellow elite relievers who post metrics above 80 or even 90 percent. Below we can see just how drastic the drop was for him.
Considering that his LOB% was such an outlier compared to his peers, it is important to delve further into how this occurred. Recent history shows how rare it is for a pitcher with such great skills and control to have such trouble with runners on base. Since 2000, there has only been one other reliever who had a FIP under 2.00 who had a lower LOB%. A contributing factor to his struggles with runners on base was his aforementioned change in pitch composition. Increased usage of his sinker increased his balls in play and BABIP, his increased usage of his cutter resulted in harder hit balls and his decreased slider usage decreased his strikeout rate at times where he needed it most. Before June 25th, Osuna had a 2.41 FIP, 29.4% strikeout rate, 0% walk rate and a .304 BABIP with runners on base. After his temporary absence, his FIP actually dropped to 2.02, despite striking out fewer batters (24.1%) and walking more batters (1.8%) but his BABIP increased to .378. His xwOBA of .274 versus his wOBA of .311 with runners on suggests that he got a bit unlucky in the second half of the season, so his high BABIP is likely a combination of poor pitch command or selection, poor defense behind him and bad luck on balls in play.
Osuna enjoyed such great success when getting ahead of hitters (.189 wOBA after 0-1) and especially with 2 strikes (.130 wOBA), that hitters began to be more aggressive earlier the count looking for something to hit hard. A combination of a loss in fastball velocity and poor pitch location, Osuna began to get hit harder in high leverage situations. The top two heatmaps are Osuna’s fastball location and the bottom two are for his cutter. The heatmaps on the left are before June 25th while the ones on the right are after June 25th.
Osuna began to leave his fastball up over the plate in a hittable spot, as opposed to up and in, where he could tie-up right-handed hitters and produce weak contact. His cutter went from a setup pitch or even a waste/chase pitch to a pitch that he threw for strikes. Since Osuna started to throw so many more cutters, of course, he had to throw more of them for strikes, but the problem was he was unable to command the pitch to the better areas of the zone. A likely reason why Osuna began throwing more cutters was because the drop in his fastball velocity, as it was losing its effectiveness.
Pete Walker the pitching coach for the Toronto Blue Jays recently discussed with reporters Roberto Osuna’s offseason and reflected on his 2017 season. He acknowledged that Osuna had a drop in velocity during the season, had some mechanical issues, which impacted his fastball command, and that perhaps he threw his cutter too often during stretches of the season. All of this can be backed up with stats. Both the Jays coaching staff and Osuna are aware of where he can improve to regain with elite form. Walker also alluded that perhaps Osuna’s off of the field issues had an impact on his performance last season. By interpreting some statistics through this lens we can see how it can appear that Osuna lost of a lot of his confidence on the mound, especially in high-stress situations.
In particular, Osuna struggled away from the Rogers Centre as his road ERA was 5.10 versus only 1.85 at home in 2017. Further, Osuna had the 2nd best home wOBA while on the road it was only ranked 48th best.
Osuna was still good in the 2nd half (1.80 FIP and 4.24 ERA) and overall had a great 2017 season, but when the pressure started to grow and the wheels started to spin, they usually fell off (i.e. on the road with runners on base). It is hard to say whether this is the result of a lack of confidence, his decreased velocity on his fastball and his subsequent increased usage of his cutter or if it was a bit of bad luck with runners on base. It is likely a combination of these factors that led to Osuna’s declining second half, but we shouldn’t forget how dominant he can be when he’s at his best. According to Walker, Osuna has put on some muscle this offseason to help him with his durability in maintaining fastball velocity. Just like for most if not all other pitchers, being able to command his fastball is pivotal to Osuna being successful. At the end of last season, Osuna saw a small up-tick in fastball velocity and retired all 15 batters he faced in his last 5 appearances of the season, which is an encouraging sign, but how will he handle adversity, when batters reach base in 2018? With some minor tweaking to his game, Osuna should be on track to bounce back and have another dominant season as the Blue Jays closer.
The Red Sox are currently tabbed as the favourites in the American League by most experts and odds-makers, but there was a lot of roster turnover from last season so it is difficult to really project their level of success for the coming year. Their positive 2017 outlook is despite losing the face of their franchise and best power hitter, David Ortiz, to retirement. He has been one of the most consistent clean-up hitters in the past decade and so offensively he leaves big shoes to fill (pun intended). The Red Sox offense in 2017 led the majors in most offensive categories like AVG, OBP, SLG, Off WAR component, swStr%, contact% and had the best OPS since the 2009 Yankees. Instead of signing or trading for a big slugger in the offseason to fill this void, Red Sox management looked elsewhere by acquiring one of the majors’ best starting pitchers in Chris Sale. The 2017 Red Sox are now led by a young nucleus of hitters who are projected to carry an offence that is likely going to be one of the best, and the Red Sox are banking on the continuing development of their young offensive talent to help them go far in the postseason.
One player who is expected to make major offensive contributions this season is Xander Bogaerts — a hitter who has shown the ability to hit for an elite batting average (.320 BA in 2015) and display some power (21 HR in 2016). He plays for one of the league’s most scrutinized teams and at one of the most important positions, creating an environment that demands excellence and puts a high level of pressure on a young player. Bogaerts has posted back-to-back seasons with a WAR over 4 and a wOBA over .338 but he achieved these feats in contrasting ways. In 2015, it was driven by an elite batting average, while in 2016 he made some changes to his swing and approach at the plate and was able to hit for a high average (.294) while increasing his home-run total from 7 to 21.
But when we delve into the numbers of his 2016 season, we learn that it was a tale of two halves. His noticeable two-halved season is similar to the 2016 seasons of Matt Carpenter and Kevin Pillar, players who I have written about recently, but these tales were directly related to injuries they sustained. For Bogaerts, however, his change was not due to an injury but from a change in his approach at the plate. This change had a negative effect on most of his offensive statistics and perhaps is a cause for concern for the coming season.
In the first half of the season versus the second half of the season, his batting average fell from .329 to .253, his BB/K fell from 0.59 to 0.37, his OPS dropped by 134 points, and his wOBA dropped by 57 points. The only improvements he displayed was improving his HR/FB ratio from 10.6% to 12.1% and increasing his ISO slightly by 13 points (.146 vs. .159). So what changed, you ask? Well, you can probably tell from interpreting the aforementioned changes in his statistics; he sold out for power. He made a significant change to his ground-ball to fly-ball ratio, as it decreased from 1.62 to 0.98. Below we can see the change in his AVG/P from the first half to the second half of the 2016 season:
He stopped hitting balls to the opposite field, decreasing his Oppo% by 6.3% and increased his Pull% and Cent% by 2.8% and 3.5%, respectively. See below for a summary:
He also increased his average launch angle from 6.3 degrees in 2015 and 6.9 degrees in the first half of 2016 to almost double those marks in the second half of 2016 — 13.1 degrees. Despite increasing his launch angle in the second half, he made no major changes to his exit velocity (89.8 MPH vs. 90.2 MPH) or to his swing speed (61.3 MPH vs. 61.7 MPH).
In the table below, we see how Bogaerts ranked at his position in wRC+ and wOBA based on batted-ball type in the first half of the season and the second half:
Further, it is interesting to investigate his home and road splits in the second half as he hit .325 at home vs. .207 on the road. His second half away FB% was 39.9% and pull% was 42% while at home it was 38.3% and 52.1%. He increased his away FB% by 9.4% and increased his home FB% by 5.9% and his pull% by 7.7%. This change obviously helped him when playing at Fenway Park as his ISO increased from .172 to .205 while maintaining an identical batting average. However, while playing on the road, this new approach to hit fly balls and to pull the ball over an imaginary Green Monster led to major struggles at the plate.
I wanted to see if there was hope for Bogaerts with his new fly-ball-driven plate approach, so I wanted to look at hitters who made similar changes year-over-year and how they fared. I used data from the past four seasons and looked at qualified hitters who had at least a 0.40 decrease in their GB/FB from one year to the next. Analyzing the data, I found that Xander Bogaerts’ second half was eerily identical to Salvador Perez’s 2014 season. Perez made similar changes in his fly-ball approach from his 2013 to 2014 season and below are the results:
It is not all doom and gloom for Bogaerts, as he is only 24 years old and has a lot of time to build into his frame and develop a power stroke. Looking at the same set of data, Bogaerts’ 2016 full-season data (a mixture of high-average approach vs. HR-hitting approach) looked similar to Robinson Cano’s 2016 season, apart from his ability to tap into his power. Cano and Bogaerts decreased their GB/FB rates by 0.72 and 0.75 respectively from 2015 to 2016, as shown below:
If Bogaerts can learn to hit the ball harder more consistently and perhaps focus less on pulling the ball, and revert back to his 2014 Oppo% of 32%, he could turn into both an elite power and contact hitter. An ideal future player comparison for Bogaerts would be somewhere in between Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano. Being able to utilize the whole field, hitting for a high batting average, stealing some bases, scoring lots of runs atop a killer lineup, and hitting for a lot of extra-base hits are all within the realm of possibilities for this young shortstop.
An important aspect to consider for the upcoming season is, where should Bogaerts hit in the batting order? According to Ian Browne of MLB.com, John Farrell is tinkering with the idea of hitting Bogaerts sixth in the Red Sox lineup, and this was the case for his first spring-training game since returning from the WBC on Thursday. And perhaps he has done so for good reason. In 2016, Bogaerts had most of his success hitting third in the lineup, but was moved to the two-hole on August 10th and stayed there for the vast majority of games there on out, and he began to struggle at the plate. It is a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg dilemma but something that probably prompted the move was his inability to hit with runners in scoring position. His batting average fell from .351 to .136, due mostly to his increased FB% — a trend that he has showed throughout his short major-league career, as shown by the table below:
His struggles with runners in scoring position are something that I am sure Farrell is well-aware of, and therefore his move down in the batting order makes a lot of sense, especially if he continues struggling with his new approach at the plate. It should not only helps his team be more efficient at run production, but it should also help Bogaerts’ chances of stealing more bases this season — something he has talked about doing more of if given the opportunity. He stole 11 bases in the first half of the season but only stole two in the second half, something that he attributed to having fewer green lights from his coaching staff when on the base paths, as they didn’t want to take the bat out of Big Papi’s hands. Of course, that is no longer an issue, and if he does in fact hit in sixth slot, he should have more opportunities to run than if he hit fourth – a position in the order that he was originally projected to hit from.
Fantasy Perspective: The move down in the order will definitely hurt his counting stats in runs and RBI, but the optimist in me believes that he will revert back a little to his 2015 self and hit fewer fly balls than he did in the second half of 2016. This should hopefully help him hit for a high batting average, considering he was able to sustain a BABIP in the .370 range over the course of over 1000 PAs from the beginning of the 2015 season to the halfway point of the 2016 season. His batting average over that period was .323, which which was tied for second with Jose Altuve, and only trailed Dee Gordon at .324. A more balanced approach should hopefully result in productive power numbers from Bogaerts, posting an elite number of doubles and HRs in the mid- to high teens. He has talked about trying to steal at least 20 bases this season and the likelihood of doing so is highly dependent on where he hits in the order. So if he stays in the six-hole for the majority of the season or moves up to the two-hole at some point – I believe that 20-25 steals is achievable.
Kevin Pillar recently announced that he played through a torn thumb for the majority of last season’s second half. I was curious to see how much this injury impacted his offensive production, so I decided to delve into his pre- and post-injury numbers. His elite defense in CF makes him a staple in John Gibbons’ lineup card on a daily basis — but how much would this injury negatively impact his ability to help his team at the plate?
Pillar is best known for his glove, and across the league he is often recognized for his diving catches in the outfield, like this gem.
However, despite him not being one of the Blue Jays’ major offensive contributors, the fact that his defense keeps him in the lineup every day, even when hurt, begs the question: At what point do you start sacrificing offense for stellar defense? Among the CFs who ranked in the top 15 in WAR last season with at least 400 PA, he was the only one with a negative offensive WAR component, at -11.9, which was the seventh-worst offensive WAR component last season for any qualified player. His 2016 wOBA (.295) and wRC+ (80) were identical to Billy Hamilton’s — not exactly the type of player you want to model your bat skills after.
But of course, his defense was incredible, as he led all OFs in defensive WAR (23.6), UZR/150 (26.3) and RngR (21.8). He was the third-best defender measured by WAR, only trailing Brandon Crawford and Francisco Lindor. His total WAR was 3.2 in 2016, and this is despite playing hurt from August 6 onward.
Pillar is an elite defender and a fan favorite — but what can he do offensively to make himself a positive offensive WAR player? First, let’s look at what he did pre-injury. Before August 6, Pillar slashed .261/.292/.385 with 7 HR, a 2.9 BB% and a 15.8 K%. When he returned from his DL stint, still feeling the effects of his torn thumb, he slashed .283/.338/.346 with no homers, but his walk rate was 7.8% and his strikeout rate dropped slightly to 14.2%. This is unfortunately based off a small sample size of 141 PA, and his batting average was inflated by a .333 BABIP, vs. his career mark of .305.
The major change to his output is what you would expect from someone battling a hand injury, and that was a major drop-off in power, as his ISO was cut in half after sustaining the injury. Pillar likes the ball up and in and struggles with pitches down and away. You can see how playing through a thumb injury could really hurt his ability to drive and pull the ball. Below is his pre- and post-injury ISO/P.
To further illustrate this point, below are his pull and hard-hit rates for the 2016 season. The line in the graph indicates when he returned from the DL.
He pulled the ball more, but was not able to barrel it up and make hard contact due to his thumb injury. He attempted to pull the ball on pitches not in on his hands, as shown by the two heat maps below for his pre- and post-injury swing percentage.
Despite having his setbacks, Pillar was able to post a slightly higher wOBA after his injury (.303 vs. .292), proving that he could still be a productive player, but in a different way. The Blue Jays quite frankly do not need Pillar to hit 15-20 HR and I don’t even think they care if he hits more than 10. Offensively, they need him to get on base more and provide speed on the basepaths. He needs to focus more on hitting line drives and ground balls rather than trying to hit fly balls, considering that last season Pillar had the third-worst batting average on fly balls (min 100 PA) at .139. He has already shown an improvement in changing his approach by decreasing his FB and IFFB rates by around 2.5% from 2015 to 2016.
All current projections on FanGraphs predict that Pillar will have another negative offensive season; however, in a healthy 2015 season he posted an offensive WAR component of 3.2. I believe that it is possible for him to do that again in a healthy 2017, but he needs to make a few adjustments at the plate and needs to stay healthy. This is something that he’s struggled a bit with in his career, as he tends to go all-out in the field.
He should have a better offensive season in 2017 than he did in 2016, and he appears to be healthy in spring training, so far hitting 10-for-20 with 5 doubles, which is promising but not that meaningful. I hope he can continue to make offensive strides this season without any injury setbacks, but expectations should probably be set that the Blue Jays organization and their fans may just need to accept the fact that they have a stud defender, yet not much more than a mediocre hitter.
Since earning a starting job with the Cardinals in 2013, Matt Carpenter has been one of the league’s best run producers, and one of the best OBP lead-off hitters. From 2013-2015, health was a staple for Carpenter, as he had 2109 PA (avg. 703), which ranked third, only behind Nick Markakis (which is a bit surprising) and Mike Trout. In 2016, Carpenter injured his right oblique on July 6th and was never quite the same after returning back from his DL stint. A lot of fans were surprised to see a power outbreak for him in 2015, Carpenter posting a career-high 28 home runs (in 665 PA) when he had only hit 25 homers in his previous 1766 PA. He made some changes to his approach at the plate in 2015 and strove to hit more fly balls, pull the ball more and to sacrifice some contact for some power.
Now let’s jump to 2016. It was a tale of two halves. His offensive production was finally impacted by an injury which directly affected his swing and, more specifically, his new power-enhanced swing path.
In a recent article by Jeff Sullivan from FanGraphs, he references data from Baseball Savant which indicates that the optimal launch angle for slugging percentage is between 20-29 degrees. Carpenter has increased his average launch angle from 17.2 degrees to 18.2 between 2015 and 2016. Continuing to increase his launch angle while playing injured likely contributed to his plummeting batting average in the second half, as he continued to try to hit fly balls and line drives but simply couldn’t create the same bat speed and power to carry the ball into gaps and over the fence.
Below is a 15-Game rolling average of Carpenter’s Weighted On Base Average for the 2016 season. He got injured during game 78 of the season, which can easily be identified on the chart. He clearly never got back to form after hurting his oblique, but he did have the fourth-best wOBA before his injury, getting beat out by only David Ortiz, Josh Donaldson, and Mike Trout.
When playing healthy, his average swing speed was 62.7 MPH, but it dropped to 61.8 MPH after returning from the DL. His hard-hit rate also dropped by 6.7% and his soft-hit rate increased by almost the same amount. He clearly wasn’t the same hitter at the plate, and his numbers down the stretch took a massive hit.
If we focus on his 2015 and the beginning of 2016 production, we are looking at an elite run generator and on-base machine. He ranks ninth in OBP, 12th in BB% and wRC, had the same OPS as Nolan Arenado, had the same wOBA as Edwin Encarnacion (tied for 11th), and lastly he and Joey Votto were the only hitters in that timeframe to have a combined medium+hard-hit rate over 90%. That is some elite company.
Health will be imperative for Carpenter in 2017. If he is able to avoid a major injury this year and show no ill effects in spring training from his oblique injury from last season, we could be looking at someone who could shatter his current projections. His hitting tool and batted-ball profile are quite similar to Joey Votto and Freddie Freeman, with a high walk rate and hard-hit rate, a high line-drive rate, and power in the 25-30 home run territory.
The following stats are from 2015 – July 6th, 2016.
Putting Carpenter in that category of hitter might be a stretch for some; however, since making adjustments to his swing path and approach at the plate, he really isn’t that far off, as Carpenter, for the majority of these metrics, falls below Votto but ahead of Freeman.
He has withdrawn from the World Baseball Classic due to a back injury that his manager has indicated isn’t too serious. Nevertheless, he is definitely worth monitoring in the coming weeks leading up to opening day, to make sure he looks like his hard-hitting normal self.