Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Some Thoughts on Matt Harvey's Bounceback Outing


 Matt Harvey has struggled mightily, but he just put together a great start yesterday. Here are a few takeaways. I also posted this on the Rotoworld Forums:
Just got done watching the whole start (doesn't take very long when he faces 2 over the minimum)

My takeaways:

Fastball/changeup location was great. Curveball location was a little inconsistent. He missed up with the curve a few times, but they weren't total hangers. They had the same drop, just didn't start out as low as he wanted.

He attacked hitters with confidence and really trusted his stuff. Only went to a 3 ball count twice.

Changeup was nasty.

Velocity was up, and he maintained it throughout the game as well as when going from the stretch.

He kept the ball on the ground very well. Which meant when a ball was hit hard (only a couple times) it didn't do any damage (0 XBH)

His body language was excellent, even when he was in a bit of trouble. In the 7th inning, he walked Eaton (who had a great AB, Harvey didn't pitch too him poorly Eaton just did a great job), and then got a groundball from Abreu that wasn't hit very hard and could've been a DP but found a hole. I feel like Harvey from earlier this year would've started to melt down here, and I especially felt like Warthen coming out coupled with action in the pen would've shaken his confidence but instead he was smiling during the mound conference. He then caused Frazier to yell at himself on multiple occasions during the AB while getting him to pop-out with three straight fastballs on the hands and then getting a groundout from I don't remember who. In the dugout afterward he was enthusiastically high-fiving teammates. Dude was fired up. Loved the body language, especially considering how poor it's been this year. He was really feeding off the crowd (the same crowd that had been booing him earlier this year). It was really fun to watch.

I haven't watched enough Harvey prior to this season to say whether he looked like his old self, but I will say that he looked like AN ace.

Up the Middle: Middle Reliever Leaderboard and Notes

A week ago, I put together my rankings of the top 10 middle relievers to roster for ERA/WHIP/K. I'd like to update and expand those rankings in the near future, but I feel like not enough has changed to make a re-rank worthwhile. Instead, I wanted to give you a leaderboard that contains the stats I use to evaluate RP, and give some notes on some RP. I am a believer in riding the hot hand in the middle reliever department (because of the volatility at the position), so the linked leaderboard is for the month of May only.

RP Leaderboard for May

Top 30 non-closing RP by K-BB% in May:
1. Michael Feliz
2. Andrew Miller
3. Dellin Betances
4. Sean Doolittle
5. Addison Reed
6. Seung Oh
7. Luke Hochevar
8. Michael Tonkin
9. Koji Uehara
10. Tyler Clippard
11. Felipe Rivero
12. Vidal Nuno
13. Ian Krol
14. Kevin Siegrist
15. Junichi Tazawa
16. Ryan Buchter
17. Kelvin Herrerra
18. Jim Henderson
19. David Phelps
20. Chris Capuano
21. Tyler Thornburg
22. Shawn Kelley
23. Jake Diekman
24. Trevor May
25. Tyler Lyons
26. Will Harris
27. Tony Sipp
28. Scott Alexander
29. Louis Coleman
30. Cam Bedrosian

Notes:
Good lord, Michael Feliz had a monster month. 51% K rate and zero walks! That's nuts! At this point, I think that for exclusively ERA/WHIP/K, I'd only want Betances and Miller ahead of Feliz. He has immense upside.

Alex Colome is expected to lose the closer job soon and would've ranked 5th

I excluded Ross Ohlendorf, who would've ranked 28th, because I'm not entirely sold that Cingrani is the closer

Could Tonkin figure into the closing situation in Minnesota eventually?

Tyler Clippard seems to be back to his former studly ways

Addison Reed doesn't seem to get a ton of attention here considering he ranked 5th above and is locked into the 8th for holds

Kyle Barraclough ranks 5th by K% and ia getting 2 strikeouts per inning but drops to 46th when sorting by K-BB% because of his horrific walk rate (22.6%)

Matt Bush has been good, but hasn't quite lived up to the hype. He ranks 37th.

Brad Hand missed the list by one spot (31st), but was 2nd in baseball in relief innings, so could give a higher quantity of good innings, if slightly lesser quality. His strikeouts carry him (13.5 K/9), and the innings help improvr the raw K numbers. That's assuming he continues pitching well and throwing tons of innings.

Hector Neris ranked 10th in my rankings a week ago, but was 68th by K-BB% this month. His performance has gone downhill, which really goes to show the volatility of these guys.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The State of Streaming SP: Week 9

This blog is evolving. Early on, I was doing a "Pitching Matchups" series every day. After a while, I shifted that to a daily post with vulture saves, streaming starters and some miscellaneous bits. What a I've discovered is that I really don't have the ability to do daily analysis while still giving my complete effort into the weekly breakdowns and the buying and selling posts.

After some thought, I came up with an idea: what if I provided the same info about streaming starting pitchers, but provided it ahead of time, so you can plan out your starts and which streams to target? The catalyst for this idea was my own team: I was going to fall two starts short of our weekly games started limit, so I needed to stream two starts. The problem was that I didn't know whether the best stream on any given day was likely to be one of the two best options for the week.

Out of those two issues, this series was born. So, without further ado:

Top Streams for Each Day

Monday
Nathan Karns (SD) - Grade: A
Ervin Santana (@OAK) - Grade: B

Tuesday
Jake Peavy (@ATL) - Grade: B
JA Happ (vs NYY) - Grade: B
Jon Gray (vs CIN) - Grade: B+
Tyler Duffey (@OAK) - Grade: B+

Wednesday
Matt Cain (@ATL) - Grade: B
Sean Manaea (vs MIN) - Grade: B+

Thursday
Matt Moore (@MIN) - Grade: B+
Chase Anderson (@PHI) - Grade: C

Friday
Eddie Butler (@SD)- Grade: C
Doug Fister (OAK) - Grade: C

Saturday
Chad Bettis (@SD) - Grade: A
Junior Guerra (@PHI) - Grade: B

Sunday
Jon Gray (@SD) - Grade: A+
Wily Peralta (@PHI)- Grade: D

Top Streams for the Week

1. Jon Gray (@SD) - Grade: A+

You might notice all three projected Rockies starters for their weekend series in Petco are listed. Padres at home against a right-handed pitcher is one of my favorite streaming targets, and I think Gray and Bettis are two of the more skilled pitchers who are widely available, with their ownership percentages driven down by their home stadium, which of course means nothing with regard to their road games.

2. Chad Bettis (@SD) - Grade: A

See above. Bettis more skilled than most unowned pitchers, but is on wires because half his games are in a ridiculously hitter friendly environment. This game, however, is in a pitcher-friendly environment against a team that struggles mightily against right-handed pitching.

3. Nathan Karns (SD) - Grade: A

I really didn't mean to pile on the Padres like this, but they'll be a frequent streaming target. The combination of a pitcher-friendly home stadium and ugly lineup (especially against right-handers) makes them an easy target.

4. Matt Moore (@MIN)

I wish this game was in Tampa, but it's location doesn't change the fact that the Twins can't hit lefties, and Moore has electric stuff.

5. Sean Manaea (@MIN)

Literally everything I just wrote about Moore applies to Manaea. Lefties with plus stuff against a Twins lineup that doesn't hit well against lefties.

Two-Start Pitchers of the Week

1. Jon Gray (vs CIN and @SDP)

I wrote in depth about Gray a few weeks ago. I firmly believe he's an undervalued arm. A guy with a 3.10 xFIP facing two of the teams in the bottom 3 by wOBA against right-handed pitchers is a no-brainer. Only downside is the first start is in Coors, but the second being in Petco takes a bit of the sting off that.

2. Nathan Karns (vs SDP and @TEX)

Karns has taken a nice leap forward with his changeup, which is now getting a 20% whiff rate, and the Rangers have struggled to hit changeups this year. He also faces the Padres, and though he doesn't get to face them in Petco like their weekend opponents, he gets to face them in his equally pitcher-friendly home stadium. He's actually been pretty solid this year, posting a 3.53 ERA and 51 K in 51 IP.

3. Tyler Duffey (@OAK and vs TB)

I think Duffey is a little underrated, and he'll have a good chance to prove it, facing the Athletics who are a top tier matchup and the Rays who are certainly not a lineup to fear.

There you have it. That's your first weekly "The State of Streaming" article. Hopefully you find it helpful and can use it to plan out any spot starts ahead of time.

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Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Reinvention of Richard Hill

Blind player resumes is such a common thing in fantasy analysis, it's almost a cliche. But there's an old cliche about cliches: "They're only cliches because they're good." So let's kick off this breakdown with some blind player resumes that you probably know the answer to if you read the title of this post:

Pitcher A:
1.97 ERA, 10.49 K/9, 2.70 BB/9, 48.5 GB%, 10.8 SwStr%, 2.57 FIP, 3.23 xFIP

Pitcher B:
4.72 ERA, 8.62 K/9, 4.34 BB/9, 35.1 GB%, 8.6 SwStr%, 4.42 FIP, 4.45 xFIP

Which pitcher do you want?

Don't think too long, because, as you might've surmised, both pitchers are Rich Hill, the 36 year old breakout who's current run of dominance resembles the best stretch Max Scherzer has ever put together.

In 84 career starts, Hill has ten games with double-digit strikeouts. Five of them have come in his last 14 starts. In the last calendar year, only Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta have lower ERAs than Hill. Only Kershaw has a lower ERA and a higher K/9. That from a guy with a career 4.72 ERA over 70 starts from 2005-2013. That from a guy who bounced up and down from the minors more times than I can count.

What's been behind the amazing, late-blooming renaissance?

(Unlike most of my breakdowns, I'm not comparing Hill's 2016 to his 2015. Instead I'm comparing his 2015-2016 with the rest of his career. For our purposes, "Old" Rich Hill is from 2005-2014. "New" Rich Hill is from 2015-present.)

First, he's managed to improve in all four of the "Holy Quaternity" stats (K%, BB%, GB%, PU%). That's not easy to do; when you improve your walk rate, your strikeout rate usually falls as well as you pound the zone and get more balls in play. When you increase your grounder rate, it usually means you're lowering the launch angle of balls hit against you, thus eliminating some pop-ups. Usually, you make trade-offs within the four stats. So, obviously a pitcher improving in all four catches my eye.


To validate K rate spikes, I first look at where the extra strikeouts are coming from; what's driving them, in other words.

For Hill, I believe that answer is multi-faceted. First and foremost, he is getting ahead in the count far more often. "Old" Rich Hill got to two strikes on 54% of batters he faced. "New" Rich Hill is doing so on 64%. This is partially supported by a two percentage point increase in first-pitch strike percentage. I suspect it is also supported by a decreased Contact% (if one of the first two strikes is put in play, he can't get to two strikes).

Once he gets batters in a hole, he's also been more efficient at sitting them down: "Old" Rich Hill converted 40.7% of his two-strike counts into strikeouts. "New" Rich Hill is converting 45.9% This also is supported by the drop in Contact% as well as SwStr%. I believe it is also supported by a Fool% (percentage of pitches that are in the zone and taken plus percentage of pitches that are outside the zone and swung at) that has improved from 30.0% to 33.1%. It's interesting to note that Hill's pitch mix with two strikes has hardly changed; he still has about a 40/60 fastball/curveball split with two strikes.

Last but not least, it's impossible to ignore the improved whiff rate as a source of additional strikeouts. "Old" Hill had a 8.6% swinging strike rate, whereas "New" Hill has a 10.8% rate. Obviously, more swings and misses leads to more strikeouts, since the vast majority of strikeouts are of the swinging variety.

In the past, Hill could rely on his curveball for whiffs but his fastball wasn't good for much of anything. But now, he's getting a ton of whiffs on his fastball: it's 12.4% swinging strike rate is nearly double the league average, and it's whiff/swing ratio is the best in baseball, and by a wide margin: his 35.59% ratio tops David Price's second place mark by a whopping six percentage points, which is about the same as the difference between Price and fourteenth place Noah Syndergaard, or the difference between Syndergaard and 45th place Cody Anderson.

How is a pitch that averages 91.5 mph getting more than 1 1/2 times as many whiffs per swing as a pitch (Syndergaard's fastball) that averages 99.3 mph? And whatever skill allows it to get such gaudy whiff rates, why is it just now appearing?

I had a few hypotheses, and to examine them, I put together the following table of info about his fastballs over the years:



There's a handful of interesting observations we can make here. Obviously, there's the aforementioned spike in swinging strikes. There also appear to be three distinct periods, which I separated out. I think of them as "The Four-seam Period" (2007-2009), "The Two-seam Period" (2011-2014), and "The Reinvention Period" (2015-2016). 2010 is an outlier, mostly because Hill only tossed 32 fastballs that year.

In the "Four-seam Period", Hill was throwing a four-seam fastball, obviously, and was getting very good vertical rise, but mediocre horizontal movement. In the "Two-seam Period", that was reversed.
 He got plenty of arm-side run, but his vertical movement was below average.

Now, however, Hill is combining the two, throwing what PITCHf/x classifies as a four-seam fastball, but that has similarities to two-seam fastballs or sinkers (it's most comparable pitches are Santiago's sinker and Miley's two-seamer). He's combining above average vertical rise (40th out of 103 qualified pitchers) with elite horizontal fade (3rd).

Not only is more movement a good thing by itself (as long as you can still control it), but the direction of Hill's added movement is in the exact opposite direction of his curveball. Hill's fastball has some rise and great arm-side run, while his curve has the 12th most vertical drop among qualified pitchers (second only to Kershaw among left-handed pitchers) and is tied for the 12th most glove-side break (1st among left-handers). All told, Hill's "new" fastball is getting over two feet of separation from his curveball (meaning that if he threw his fastball and his curveball at the same initial trajectory, their movement would have them crossing the plate at two separate points over 24 inches apart - second most in the game).

Changeups and other off-speed pitches are often evaluated by how distinct they are from the pitcher's primary fastball. Obviously, if the batter doesn't know what direction the pitch will move in, it becomes extremely difficult to hit. Given Hill's heavy curveball usage (over 50% of all his pitches), I would argue that his fastball should be evaluated in comparison to his curveball, since his curveball, not his fastball, is his primary pitch (or, at least since the beginning of his renaissance). Not only is Hill using his fastball more and more like a change of pace from his curveball, but it's becoming a better, more distinctive change of pace.

That's been a key for Hill. Check out this chart that plots his fastball/curveball separation against the swinging strike rate on his fastball:



While improving the separation from his curveball has been a big part of his improved fastball results, I believe the pitch has also gotten better in isolation. It's been shown that fastball spin rate correlates with swinging strikes. Look at how Hill has gradually increased the spin rate on his heater through the years:



That, too has had a correlation with his fastball whiff rate, though we sort of have a chicken-and-the-egg dilemma: did his spin rate cause the increase in whiffs, or was it the change in movement? Then again, didn't the spin rate change influence the change in movement?

While Hill's fastball has been the most enigmatic part of his mid-thirties breakthrough, I'd be remiss if I didn't devote more attention to his devastating hook. Observe:



As I mentioned above, he gets the most glove-side run on his curve of any left-hander, and the 12th most vertical drop of all pitchers (only Kershaw gets more drop among left-handers). It gets the 10th most whiffs per swing of any curveball, and the 5th most grounders. It also gets the 9th most pop-ups. It's been worth 4.8 runs above average, which is good for first in the American League (5th in the MLB).

Verdict: Hill features one of the best curveballs in the game, and has plus movement on his fastball. He's also seemingly figured out the perfect way to use the fastball to complement the curve. Moreover, his fastball is seemingly a different pitch from his pre-breakout fastball. As such, it's mostly safe to ignore the "old" Rich Hill and focus on the new. Obviously, some regression should be expected, but now's your time to buy while his owner might think he's still a small sample fluke. He's easily a top 30 SP going forward, with top 15 upside. Not bad for a 36 year old Quadruple-A player.

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Buying and Selling: Nola and C-Mart

Stats for this post were pulled prior to yesterday's games, in which both Nola and Martinez pitched. My opinion of either player has not changed, although another rough start from Martinez may have lowered the price and pushed the needle towards "buy".

Aaron Nola
If I wanted to be lazy, I could point you to his 2.53 xFIP (3rd in baseball behind only Kershaw and Syndergaard) and just leave it at that. I won't do that, though. Let's take a look at what's driving that number:

He's 14th in baseball in K% and 9th in BB%; only the aforementioned Kershaw and Syndergaard best him in both categories. He's also 7th in GB%, putting him once again in the elite company of Kershaw and Syndergaard as the only pitchers in the top 15 in K%, BB%, and GB%. Pitchers with that combo are rarely unsuccessful. The lone flaw in his "Holy Quaternity" stats is his lackluster pop-up rate; only 0.6% of his batted balls are pop-ups. That flaw is easily forgiven for a pitcher with his elite stats in the other three.

His K and BB rates are driven by plus numbers in SwStr% and F-Strike%. He's using his curveball mostly for whiffs and his fastball to get ahead. Both pitches get groundballs at well

I was asked recently if I think Nola can continue to excel with only one good pitch (the curve). My opinion is that it's not just one good pitch; it's two good pitches and a great one. His changeup is getting good whiffs, his sinker is getting a ton of looking strikes (and grounders), and his curve is great by absolutely any measure. He also has elite command.

There has been a significant amount of coverage of Nola on FanGraphs, all of which was excellent (as FanGraphs usually is). Here are some links for further reading:

Aaron Nola's Sinker and the Looking Strike by Alex Chamberlain

Aaron Nola Has Baseball's Best Curveball by Jeff Sullivan

The Phillies are Curveballing Their Way Into the Future by August Fagerstrom

The Change: Early Starting Pitching Omnibus by Eno Sarris (contains sections on many different pitchers; scroll down to the section labeled Aaron Nola)

An Obligatory Look At Philly's Trio of Young Arms by Alex Chamberlain

Verdict: BUY(!)
I simply don't have enough good things to say about Aaron Nola. Buy him while you still can.

Carlos Martinez
There was a lot of hype coming into the year on Carlos Martinez. He was an already extremely talented hurler, and it looked like he finally found that elusive third pitch to be able to stick as a starter.

His strikeouts have dried up this year, falling to a career worst 17.9%. The rest of his profile looks the same, but his xFIP is all the way up at 4.30. The key to figuring out Martinez is going to be figuring out what's going on with the strikeouts. Where have all the strikeouts gone?

The first thing I'll point to is his SwStr% and Contact%, which are both career worsts. He's not missing bats anymore. All of those missing whiffs have been on the changeup; it's SwStr% has been cut in half. But the changeup has identical movement and velocity differential to last year. What's going on?

As I suspected, his location is off. Last year he did an excellent job locating it low and away to left-handers (the ideal changeup location). This year he's leaving it up and/or over the middle - hitters aren't going to miss that.

Verdict: DEPENDS
Losing swinging strikes is never a good thing, especially when you're giving back the improvement that was supposedly the key to becoming a star. However, it's very encouraging that his changeup has the same shape and characteristics, so if he can figure out the location of the pitch, he could right the ship. I know you probably wanted a more concrete answer, but I think it comes down to this: if you can get him for a price that bakes in the possibility of his changeup not returning to form, go for it. He has tremendous upside and is seemingly a tweak away. On the other hand, if you can sell him for a price that doesn't acknowledge the possibility that his changeup won't be fixed, by all means pull the trigger because there is risk here.

Don't forget to follow Pitching Breakdowns on Twitter (@PitchBreakdowns)!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Pitcher Breakdowns Daily - May 25

Welcome back!

Stream of the Day
Pitchers must be owned in 30% or less ESPN leagues to qualify. The formula for the Super-Pseudo-Scientific ERA projection machine (SPSEP) is Pitcher's Steamer Projected ERA * Opponent wRC+ by Pitcher Handedness / 100 * Park Factor

1.  Junior Guerra (@ATL)
Grade: 
SPSEP: 2.67
The Braves offense is so futile. SO futile. Guerra is an interesting arm as well, racking up 11 Ks against the Cubs in his last start.

Vulture Saves Watch
From the Twitter account @VultureSaves, which I operate.

1. Justin Wilson, DET
Grade: C
Francisco Rodriguez has thrown back to back and 3 of the last 4 games. He's questionable.

2. Xavier Cedeno, TBR
Grade: C
Alex Colome is questionable, having thrown back to back days including 2 IP today.

3. Bryan Shaw, CLE
Grade: D
Cody Allen pitched back to back days, and is probable.


Top 10 Middle Relievers to Roster for ERA/WHIP/K

I'm a huge fan of the strategy of rostering elite middle relievers/setup men for help in ERA, WHIP and K. I'm especially fond of this strategy in leagues with innings limits (because great middle relievers are very efficient on a per inning basis) or GS limits (because relief innings don't count against the GS limit). Some analysts even encourage rostering multiple of these guys to "create" an ace.

There are places on the internet that rank middle relievers for the purpose of potential saves down the road, and there are places that rank them for holds leagues, but I've never found any sites that rank them solely for their ERA/WHIP/K contributions. That changes today, with my top 10 middle relievers for ERA/WHIP/K list:

1. Dellin Betances
2. Andrew Miller

These two are just way ahead of the pack in this department. The only hard part about this is separating the two of them. If we were factoring in save potential and holds, Miller would get the nod as he's the clear handcuff to Chapman, but for solely ERA/WHIP/K the margin is razor thin. I anticipate similarly ridiculous ERAs, Miller to have the slightly better WHIP and Betances to have the slightly better K/9. The deciding factor was Betances' likely heavier workload. He's led the AL in bullpen innings two in a row, and that both mitigates Miller's likely WHIP advantage (since his will be more heavily weighted) and amplifies his K advantage, while also giving his ERA more weight.

3. Shawn Kelley
4. Kevin Siegrist

These two actually have identical K-BB% numbers (33.9), which, as you can imagine, made them exceptionally hard to differentiate. Typically, I'll lean towards the guy with the better K% - strikeouts are their own category, and a high K% can make walks less painful - but in this case I felt there were some other indicators pointing toward Kelley. His SwStr% is substantially higher, for one. Also, Siegrist is giving up too many flyballs for my taste - homers can really screw up these types of guys.

5. Michael Feliz
I really wanted to rank this guy higher, but I think I need to see a bit more longevity in his recent run before I move him up too high.

He gave up 10 runs (9 ER) in his first two big league outings this season, but has been unbelievably dominant since:

6 G, 11.2 IP,  0.77 ERA, -0.19 FIP, 14.66 K/9, 0.00 BB/9, 0.26 WHIP, 50.0 K%, 0.0 BB%,  17.9 SwStr%, average fastball velocity of 95.4.

His fastball velocity is also trending up:

(earliest) 91.5. 94.6, 93.6, 93.7, 95.6,  96.3, 96.9, 96.4 (most recent)

Over the last 30 days he's lead all RP in K% and is one of only six qualified RP to not issue a single walk.

The Astros are not hesitant to use him for multiple innings, so he could put up lots of innings to amplify the effect of those superb ratios (a la Betances).

6. Seung-hwan Oh
7. Nick Vincent
8. David Hernandez
9. Kelvin Herrerra
10. Hector Neris

Honorable mention:
Will Harris

Don't forget to follow Pitching Breakdowns in Twitter (@PitchBreakdowns)!

Pitching Breakdowns Daily - May 24

Only one feature today, since all closers are expected to be available so there's no Vulture Saves Watch. I hope to atone for that with an article on middle relievers later today.

Streams of the Day
Pitchers must be owned in 30% or less ESPN leagues to qualify.

I'm back with the super-pseudo-scientific ERA projection machine (SPSEP) I introduced yesterday. A reminder on that formula:

Pitcher's Steamer Projected ERA * Opponent wRC+ by pitcher handedness / 100 * Park Factor

For the park factors, I weighted 2013-2016 as follows:

2013: 3
2014: 5
2015: 7
2016: 9 * Games played at stadium / 81

Mike Bolsinger (vs CIN)
Grade: A
SPSEP: 2.33

Yes the Reds have been that woeful against RHP, and Dodgers Stadium has been that great for pitchers the last several years, and Bolsinger is projected decent enough that the super-pseudo-scientific ERA projection machine (which, I might remind you, is super-pseudo-scientific) spit out an amazing 2.33 ERA.

Nathan Karns (vs OAK)
Grade: B
SPSEP: 3.04
All the things I said about Bolsinger apply here as well, but to a lesser extent. Bad hitting opponent. Good park. Decent pitcher.

Don't forget to follow Pitching Breakdowns on Twitter (@PitchBreakdowns)!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Buying and Selling: Struggling Aces

This post was supposed to be finished and published yesterday morning, but that didn't happen, as I still had to do Kluber. Archer pitched yesterday, so the stats on him are outdated by one start. He got torched that start, and all of the analysis is still applicable.

Heading into this season, I had 19 pitchers tabbed as aces (in no particular order: Kershaw, Arrieta, Sale, Scherzer, Kluber, Bumgarner, Harvey, deGrom, Archer, Greinke, Keuchel, Price, Syndergaard, Hernandez, Carrasco, Fernandez, Lester, Cole, Strasburg). I had them set up in a special leaderboard to compare them, and I noticed a distinct drop-off in ERA after Jose Fernandez. Seven "aces" had ERAs above 4. The rest were all at 3.21 or below (in other words, they were their typical ace-like selfs). This inspired me to take a look at what's slowing these seven struggling studs, and whether they should be expected to bounce back.

The "buy" or "sell" labels assume you can get them at something of a discount due to their struggles, but it also assumes you can extract some name value from them if you choose to sell. This may not be the case in your league, which is part of the difficulty of making generalized buy/sell recommendations.

I suppose it may be better to think of it as either "I'm confident he will return to ace-levels soon" (buy) or "I have little confidence in his ability to recapture his former dominance" (sell).

Max Scherzer
Scherzer's first go around in the senior circuit was a smashing success, complete with a 2.79 ERA and 276 strikeouts (10.86 K/9). The biggest reason for his monster year was an improved BB% (3.8%, compared to 7.0% in 2014), which was driven by a 71.3 F-Strike%, which smashed his previous career high of 64.5. The F-Strike% and, in turn, the BB% have fallen back to his previously established norms, so it appears that was a fluky one-year thing. He was still a stud even before that, however, and his K% and SwStr% are perfectly normal (his K% is actually a career high). The big thing that's bitten him this year is the 2.01 HR/9. Scherzer is a flyball pitcher, so homers will likely always be his Achilles heel, but he's currently posting an unsustainable 21.3% HR/FB ratio. When that corrects, expect his ERA to correct back towards his 3.19 xFIP.

Verdict: BUY
He's probably not going to be a top-3 SP like he was drafted as - he'd have to have maintained the BB%/F-Strike% improvements to do that - but there's no reason to think Scherzer won't be an ace going forward. I'm guessing top 8 or so rest of season.

Chris Archer
While the Rays ace is still racking up Ks at a 27.9% clip, he's succumbing to the deadly combo of walks and homers. Obviously, those are both bad in isolation but even worse in combination; lots of walks makes it more likely the homers come with men on base, and lots of homers makes it more likely the walks come around to score.

Control played a big role in Archer's 2015 breakout, but it's gone down the tube this year; his BB% is a career worst, as is his F-Strike%.

Like Scherzer, half the problem is an inflated HR/FB% that we should expect to regress, and the other half is walks. But, whereas Scherzer's walk rate went from elite to average, Archer's went from average to 10th worst in the league, and there's not a lot of signs pointing towards a bounce back.

Verdict: SELL
Archer will still hold some fantasy value for his Ks, but it won't be the ace-like value we hoped for until he fixes his walk rate. Until then, a 3.75 SIERA just ain't cutting it.

Zack Greinke
Although I'm a big fan of Greinke as a pitcher, I was pretty down on him for fantasy this year due to the park change and the imminent regression from his sparkling 1.66 ERA in 2015. Even then, there's no way anyone could have predicted that his ERA would triple to an ugly 5.08.

Surprisingly, most of his peripherals are about the same as they were in his incredible 2015 run. His BB% is nearly i identical, as is his batted ball profile. His K% is down a couple of ticks, however, and it's backed by a drop of 4 percentage points in xK%. I found a few reasons for the drop in strikeouts:

- Z-Contact% is a career worst
- Fastball isn't getting whiffs anymore (all other pitches actually have slightly better whiff rates)
- Getting to two strikes on 46.7% of batters this year (52.0% last year)
- 44.7% of two strike counts have ended in strikeouts (45.7% last year)

Verdict: INCONCLUSIVE
This is an odd one. At first glance I thought it would be an easy buy, but the strikeout drop gives me significant pause. If you own him and can find someone who thinks he's a completely safe ace, I'd sell. If you don't own him and can get him at enough of a discount to mitigate the risk, I'd buy.

Dallas Keuchel
Keuchel's success was built on the combination of control, contact management, and groundballs. It's a massive red flag, then, when all three of these skills appear to deteriorate simultaneously.

A 10% BB rate for a finesse pitcher is not going to keep you above water. Keuchel just isn't commanding his pitches anymore.

He was never a bigtime K guy, but it's certainly disconcerting to see a drop in strikeouts accompanying the drop in grounders and soft contact and increase in walks. He's just not fooling people anymore.

Verdict: SELL
Dominating without missing bats was already a fragile foundation, and when you're not commanding the sinker, it can (and has) gotten ugly quickly. All arrows are pointing in the wrong direction for Keuchel. He could figure it out and start to click, but he can do that on someone else's roster. Finesse pitchers are simply harder to fix.

David Price
This was the easiest call in this post. Not only are Price's skills not getting worse, his peripherals have actually improved. He's sporting a career best K% and SwStr%, and doing it without a major increase in BB%.

When a good pitcher starts getting hit hard without his peripherals getting worse, I like to look if he's throwing more pitches in the middle of the zone. This isn't the case with Price. He's actually throwing less pitches in the heart of the zone and more on the edges.

Verdict: BUY
Not only is Price pitching perhaps the best he's ever pitched, he has a great offense backing him up. If you can find someone who will give you even the slightest discount on Price, jump all over it.

Matt Harvey
Ah, the dreaded dropoff in all four of pitching's "Holy Quaternity" (racking up strikeouts, limiting walks, getting grounders and inducing pop-ups). When I first looked at that, I thought this would an easy sell candidate.

However, I noticed in mechanics that he's flying open sooner and driving more towards the first base dugout than home plate, so if he can fix that he could get back on track.

Verdict: INCONCLUSIVE
He hasn't pitched quite as bad as his ERA, and that with a mechanical flaw. If he irons that out, he could go back to being  Dark Knight of Gotham.

Corey Kluber
There are some good signs and some bad signs here.

The bad:
- Ks are down, walks are up (never a good combo)
- Sinker velocity is down 1 mph

The good:
- Swinging strike % has remained steady
- Neither strikeouts nor walks have changed a ton
- Sudden spike in grounders
- All non-fastball pitches have the same velocity

Verdict: BUY
I'm not too sure what to make of these changes, but one thing I can observe is that they haven't been big, so there's little reason to think he won't return to form in short order.

Site you should check out:
I just came across the site rototargets.com which is brand new and gathers all sorts of buy low/sell high touts from around the web, including some in-depth analysis pieces and some quick lists. They even linked my Nathan Eovaldi article!

Don't forget to follow Pitching Breakdowns on Twitter (@PitchBreakdowns)!

Pitching Breakdowns Daily - May 23

Welcome back, to those who have read this before, and welcome to those who haven't! Let's get down to business:

1. Streams of the Day
Only pitchers owned in less than 30% of ESPN leagues are eligible.

I'm going to try something new today. I'm going to give projected ERAs with a completely pseudo-scientific formula:

Pitcher Steamer ERA * (Opponent wRC+ by pitcher handedness / 100) * Park Factor

For park factors, I'm taking the data from ESPN and weighting it as such:

2013: 3
2014: 4
2015: 5
2016: Games played in stadium so far / 9

Ryan Vogelsong (vs COL)
Grade: C+
Projected ERA: 3.32

I typically use team wOBA by pitcher handedness as my primary tool for analyzing easy matchups. But Coors Field changes this calculus - it makes it look as if the Rockies are a tough matchup for RHP (.333 wOBA) when in fact, it's only Coors that is tough; the Rockies lineup owns a poor 89 wRC+ against RHP. So, when they are away from Coors they are actually a good matchup for right-handers. Vogelsong has the benefit of a pitcher's park and a great offense behind him. Plus, Searage is a wizard or something.

2. Vulture Saves Watch
From the Twitter account @VultureSaves (which I operate), updates on possibly unavailable closers and the setup men who could see save opportunities if those closers are rested. I assign football injury report style designations (probable, questionable, doubtful, out) to each closer as well as grades A-F to potential vultures.

1. Addison Reed, NYM
Grade: A
Jeurys Familia has pitched thrre straight, and I'm considering him doubtful. Reed is the clear next in line.

2. Cory Gearrin, SFG
Grade: C
Santiago Casilla has pitched 4 of the last 5 days (he didn't throw Friday) and toes the line between questionable and doubtful. I'm not sure Gearrin is next in line, but closermonkey.com thinks so.

3. Ryan Buchter, SDP
Grade: D
Fernando Rodney pitched back to back, but he is almost certainly available tomorrow.
Don't forget to follow Pitching Breakdowns in Twitter (@PitchBreakdowns)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Pitching Breakdowns Daily - May 21

Welcome back, to those who have read this before, and welcome to those who haven't! Let's get down to business:

1. Streams of the Day
Only pitchers owned in less than 30% of ESPN leagues are eligible.

Adam Morgan (vs ATL)
Grade: B
I've said it before, I'll say it again: there simply isn't a better streaming matchup than a left-handed pitcher facing the Braves.

JA Happ (@MIN)
Grade: B-
The Twins aren't quite as gravy of a matchup as the Braves, but Happ is probably a better pitcher than Morgan and has a great offense behind him.

Sean Manaea (vs NYY)
Grade: B
Despite his 7.91 ERA, Manaea is easily the most talented pitcher on this list, and he also draws a gravy matchup in the Yankees. He actually looked pretty good last outing, and he has the benefit of pitching in the Oakland Coliseum. However, he is opposed by Masahiro Tanaka, so a win is less likely.

2. Vulture Saves Watch
From the Twitter account @VultureSaves (which I operate), updates on possibly unavailable closers and the setup men who could see save opportunities if those closers are rested. I assign football injury report style designations (probable, questionable, doubtful, out) to each closer as well as grades A-F to potential vultures.

1. Shawn Kelley, WAS
Grade: D
Papelbon has thrown back to back days, but he's probable and I'm not entirely certain Kelley would be Dusty Baker's vulture of choice.

3. My GIF of the Day Vote
The site pitcherlist.com has a daily feature with the best pitching GIFs from the previous day, and they include a poll to find the GIF of the Day. Just for fun, I'll let you know what I voted for.

Link

I voted for Strasburg's curveball simply because of the reaction from Cespedes. That same curveball leads the poll.

Don't forget to follow Pitching Breakdowns in Twitter (@PitchBreakdowns)

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Pitching Breakdowns Daily - May 20

Welcome back, to those who have read this before, and welcome to those who haven't! Let's get down to business:

1. Streams of the Day
Only pitchers owned in less than 30% of ESPN leagues are eligible.

CC Sabathia (@OAK)
Grade: C-
Sabathia actually hasn't pitched that poorly this year (3.55 FIP, though that's buoyed by a 3.4% HR/FB), and he gets a nice matchup against an A's lineup with a .304 wOBA against LHP. He also gets the benefit of the spacious Oakland Coliseum, but squaring off with Sonny Gray as well as his own offense's struggles limit the potential for a win.

Matt Wisler (@PHI)
Grade: C
Like Sabathia, Wisler is a mediocre skills pitcher in a good matchup. Also like Sabathia, he has a formidable pitching opponent in Nola, and the miserable Braves offense makes a win less likely.

2. Vulture Saves Watch
From the Twitter account @VultureSaves (which I operate), updates on possibly unavailable closers and the setup men who could see save opportunities if those closers are rested. I assign football injury report style designations (probable, questionable, doubtful, out) to each closer as well as grades A-F to potential vultures.

1. Chasen Shreve, NYY
Grade: C
Historically, Joe Girardi disdains to use relievers three days in a row before the all-star break, and "No Run-DMC" (Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman) have all pitched back to back days, which could make Shreve the de facto closer tommorrow.

3. My GIF of the Day Vote
The site pitcherlist.com has a daily feature with the best pitching GIFs from the previous day, and they include a poll to find the GIF of the Day. Just for fun, I'll let you know what I voted for.

Link

Lots of nastiness here. Tillman's curve or Cueto's changeup were probably the best, but I had to go with Britton's curve because of Leonys Martin's reaction.

Don't forget to follow Pitching Breakdowns in Twitter (@PitchBreakdowns)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pitching Breakdowns Daily - May 19

Welcome back, to those who have read this before, and welcome to those who haven't! Let's get down to business:

1. Streams of the Day
Only pitchers owned in less than 30% of ESPN leagues are eligible.

Jeff Locke
Grade: C+
Pretty much any time the Braves face an unowned lefty, that lefty will be on this list. They've been that bad against lefties (.245 wOBA). Based on that wOBA, we would expect an average lefty to post a 2.59 ERA against them. That's nuts. There's absolutely nothing appealing about Locke himself (4.97 xFIP), but the matchup is ridiculously appealing. Plus, the Pirates great offense should provide plenty of run support (knock on wood).

Ivan Nova
Grade: C-
Nova actually hasn't pitched terrible (his 3.70 ERA matches his xFIP perfectly), and he gets a nice matchup against the punchless A's in that spacious ballpark.

Kendall Graveman
Grade: C-
Squaring off with Nova is Kendall Graveman, who hasn't been quite as good but has an equally appealing matchup.

2. Vulture Saves Watch
From the Twitter account @VultureSaves (which I operate), updates on possibly unavailable closers and the setup men who could see save opportunities if those closers are rested. I assign football injury report style designations (probable, questionable, doubtful, out) to each closer as well as grades A-F to potential vultures.

1. Tyler Thornburg, MIL
Grade: A
Jeffress has thrown on three straight days as well as five of the last six and is doubtful. Recent usage points to Thornburg being next in line.

2. Justin Grimm or Pedro Strop, CHC
Grade: D+
Rondon is questionable, having thrown 30 pitches across 1+ innings. Strop is clearly ahead of Grimm in the depth chart, but he himself is questionable, having thrown 29 pitches over 2 innings. Watch for updates on the availability of Rondon and Strop.

3. My GIF of the Day Vote
The site pitcherlist.com has a daily feature with the best pitching GIFs from the previous day, and they include a poll to find the GIF of the Day. Just for fun, I'll let you know what I voted for.

Link

Noah Syndergaard's fastball is dominating in the poll (and on the field), but I'm a sucker for a good changeup, and Max Scherzer's was nasty.

Don't forget to follow Pitching Breakdowns in Twitter (@PitchBreakdowns)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Hidden Improvement of Nathan Eovaldi

While searching for a pitcher to breakdown for this week, I asked myself a question: What do my first two breakdowns (Jon Gray and Joe Ross) have in common? I was very happy with the choices of those two pitchers, as I found plenty to write about for both, so asking this question would help me capture some of what made Gray and Ross fun pieces to do. At least, that's what I hoped.

Now that I've asked the question, let's answer it, shall we? Of course, Gray and Ross have many things in common. They are both exciting young pitchers. They both debuted last season. They share a first initial. They both pitch in the National League. They both feature primarily fastballs and sliders. Both of their fastballs were expected to be their best pitch, but it's their sliders that have been elite thus far in their young careers. The most helpful answer, for our purposes, is that both have seen changes in their peripherals and skillset that have been masked by surface stats buoyed or inflated by luck.

For Gray, his peripherals have been elite, but you'd have never guessed it from his ERA, which was above 7 at the time of that writing. For Ross, his peripherals are in decline, but his ERA has remained superb due to some good fortune.

The natural follow-up question is what other pitchers have shown changes in peripherals that have been masked by their surface stats? One answer to this question is Nathan Eovaldi.

You wouldn't know it from looking at his ERA, which has remained at his previously established norm, but Eovaldi's peripherals have taken a substantial turn for the better. His K% has jumped from 18.0% to 22.2%. His BB% has fallen from 7.3% to 5.6%. Between these two improvents, his K-BB% has improved by almost six percentage points, the third largest improvement in the game. He's done this while maintaining a plus groundball rate (51.9%).

Why are these improvements not showing in his ERA? The main reason is his inflated HR/FB ratio, which sits at 17.9% (career 7.7%). You could argue that 7.7% mark has been pretty fortunate, and it'd be hard to disagree, but 17.9% is way too much of a swing in the opposite direction to be sustainable. Only 6 qualified pitchers since 2002 have run a HR/FB ratio that high over a full season. His BABIP has also been inflated (.328), but he does have history of high BABIPs (career .317), so that is less of an impact.

Now, his peripherals are nice (3.40 xFIP), but how's he getting them? What's he doing to earn them?

For one thing, he's averaging 96.7 mph on his fastball (the 2nd fastest average velocity in MLB among starters), but he averaged 96.6 last year, so that's not the reason for his improvement (though it is a nice testament to his potential). The whiff rate on his fastball has also remained identical, as has the movement. The pitch has shown some improved performance, generating a great 49% GB rate, as opposed to 44.2% last year, but it's not the reason for the improved K%.

The reason for his K rate improvement is quite simple, actually. He's getting ahead in the count more often (58% of his batters faced have gotten to a 2-strike count this year, as opposed to 51% last year) and he's doing a better job putting guys away (38.1 K% after two strikes this year, versus 35% last year). Neither of these changes have been dramatic, but between the two it's resulted in a substantial K% spike. Is it sustainable, though?

To answer that question, I think it's best to separate the two improvements and evaluate them separately. First, the improvement in getting ahead in the count. It's backed up by a spike in Zone% from 47.7% to 51.6%, as well as a massive spike in first pitch strike% from 59.7% to 66.1%. He's going after batters substantially more than he has in the past. He's not messing around nibbling at corners. He's going right after you. Such a monumental change in approach is more than enough to explain the spike in 2-strike counts.

But what about his improved efficiency in putting batters away after reaching two strikes? Is that here to stay as well? There's no definitive way to answer this one, but I believe there's evidence indicating it is. First, he's doing a better job fooling hitters, regardless of count; his Fool% (a metric I invented that measures how often a pitcher gets a batter to take a pitch in the zone or swing at one outside of it) is up from 30.9% last year to 33.6% this year. Second, he's changed his pitch mix with two strikes dramatically. He's cut his two-strike slider usage in half and is throwing less fastballs in favor of the splitter, which he's now throwing nearly half the time in two-strike counts. That's a ton of confidence for a pitch he just started throwing last season[LINK]. Take a look at his pitch mix with two strikes from last year to this year (2015 first, then 2016):


Keep in mind that the pitches are not the same color across the two charts - Baseball Savant (from where I pulled the charts) automatically assigns colors by which pitches are used the most, and Eovaldi's changes were so dramatic it changed those designations.

Now, between the improved ability to fool batters and the drastic change in pitch mix with two strikes, I'd say we have enough evidence to accept his improved efficiency with two strikes as the new norm, though it's something to continue to keep an eye on.

As for the walk rate improvements, we've already covered how he's attacking hitters early in counts and getting ahead, and that's more than enough evidence for me to buy into his improved BB%. In fact, I wouldn't be shocked to see his walk rate continue to fall.

More on that splitter: Eovaldi only began throwing a splitter in 2015, hoping it would be the answer in his quest to find a reliable changeup. He steadily used it more and more throughout the season (see image below), and it slowly became his primary offspeed pitch.


The pitch itself was evolving as it's usage increased, as Eovaldi made a minor tweak to the grip that improved both the velocity and movement of the pitch, as demonstrated below (courtesy of Rob Friedman aka @PitchingNinja):

video

Here's a first-hand look at the pitch itself:


That certainly looks like a good pitch. In a short time, the splitter has gone from a new pitch for Eovaldi to his out-pitch. It's certainly earned it's increased usage, accounting for 68% of his strikeouts.

Combine the development of a plus splitter with increased strikeout ability, a falling walk rate and his typical groundball tilt, and we may have a true breakout on our hands.

With Eovaldi, we've got another case of a guy showing serious skills improvements that are being masked by bad luck in the BABIP and HR/FB departments. Don't be fooled; those will correct and the skills will shine through.

Verdict: He may not be an ace, but Nathan Eovaldi has shown marked improvement that should make him a great guy for the middle of your fantasy rotation. He could finish as a top-40 SP - if not higher.

Pitching Breakdowns Daily - May 18

Welcome back, to those who have read this before, and welcome to those who haven't! Let's get down to business:

1. Stream of the Day
Only pitchers owned in less than 30% of ESPN leagues are eligible.

Quite a few unowned pitchers in plus matchups, but for the most part, there's good reasons they're unowned: they're not very good. I'm sure one or two will have a good game, but there's certainly risk. If you need to take the gamble, go for it, but I don't envy you. There is one streamer I'm particularly fond of, however:

Mike Clevinger
Grade: B
Making his major league debut, Clevinger gets a nice matchup, but this is more about the skills I feel he brings to the table. In a deeper league, I think he warrants more than a stream.

As for the aforementioned dice rolls, Brandon Finnegan, Martin Perez, RA Dickey, and Tom Koehler all have nice matchups but questionable skillsets. I'd say they're all in the C-/D+ grade range. Forced to pick one, I'll take Dickey. He looked good last time out, and knuckleballers tend to be streaky. Maybe this is the start of a great hot streak for Dickey.

2. Vulture Saves Watch
From the Twitter account @VultureSaves (which I operate), updates on possibly unavailable closers and the setup men who could see save opportunities if those closers are rested. I assign football injury report style designations (probable, questionable, doubtful, out) to each closer as well as grades A-F to potential vultures.

I'll be updating as games happen.

1. Jon Axford, OAK
Grade: A-
Madson is highly doubtful, having pitched three in a row and four of the last five. The only thing stopping Axford from being an A+ vulture is the presence of Doolittle if a lefty-heavy portion of the lineup comes up in the 9th.

2. Tony Watson, PIT
Grade: C
Mark Melancon has thrown three straight days, and is doubtful. I'm not sure if it'll be Watson or Feliz in the 9th, but I'd lean towards Watson.

3. Neftali Feliz, PIT
Grade: C-
See above.

3. My GIF of the Day Vote
The site pitcherlist.com has a daily feature with the best pitching GIFs from the previous day, and they include a poll to find the GIF of the Day. Just for fun, I'll let you know what I voted for.

Link

I voted for Drew Smyly's curve, which is in 3rd on the poll. Jerad Eickhoff's curve is the current leader.

Don't forget to follow Pitching Breakdowns in Twitter (@PitchBreakdowns)

Monday, May 16, 2016

Searching for the Next Frontier in Pitching Analysis

Baseball statistics have come a long way. We've reached a point where things like OPS and FIP have become almost universally accepted, and where the analytically inclined can easily access stats like wRC+, SIERA and WAR.

We've also come to a point in time where baseball data is at it's zenith. With things like Pitch F/X and Statcast giving us the most granular and comprehensive data we've ever had, there's seemingly nothing we can't track.

The problem is, we don't quite know how to use it yet. Baseball is such a complex game that even with all the data we could imagine, we can only scratch the surface of what it means.

I want to write briefly about a few ideas I've had that could possibly help us use Pitch F/X to deepen our understanding of the art of pitching, and ultimately improve our ability to analyze it. I haven't researched any of these ideas, but I'd like to at some point in the future.

Idea 1: Identifying pitches that moved in to or out of the zone

In general, if a pitcher throws a pitch in the zone and the batter takes, it results in a good outcome for the pitcher (a called strike). If a pitcher throws a pitch outside the zone and the batter takes, it results in a bad outcome for the pitcher (a ball). Generally speaking, pitchers want batters to chase pitches outside the zone, and to take pitches inside the zone. When I wrote about Joe Ross, I wrote about a metric I called Fool%, which attempted to quanify a pitcher's ability in this area.

Now, hitters are much more likely to chase a pitch out of the zone if it looks like it's headed for the zone and dives out of it at the last second (think of a batter fishing for a curveball in the dirt), and are much more likely to take a called strike if it appears to be outside the zone before darting into it at the last second (think of a pitcher freezing a batter with a frontdoor fastball). With Pitch F/X, we have the necessary location and movement data to identify pitches that looked like strikes but weren't, and pitches that didn't look like strikes but were. My guess is that the percentage of such pitches a pitcher throws will correlate very well with K%, as well as Fool%. The percentage of pitches within the zone that looked like balls should have a significant negative correlation with Z-Swing%, and the percentage of balls that appeared to be strikes should have a significant positive correlation with O-Swing%.

The biggest hurdle in testing this theory is determining what the vertical movement reading would be for a hypothetical straight pitch, since the movement readings in Pitch F/X are compared not to a straight pitch, but to a pitch with no spin.

Idea 2: Difference in movement between pitches (also known as "tunneling")

The thinking in this one is that, if a pitcher throws two pitches that move in opposite directions, it's impossible for the batter to cover them both. The idea is to look at the average movement and velocity of a pitcher's pitches and determine, if they were thrown at the same trajectory, how far apart they would end up. I'm not entirely sure what this would correlate to (perhaps Contact%? Or maybe soft contact? Or maybe both), but tunneling is certainly an important part of pitching; when the batter doesn't know what direction the pitch will dart off in, it's an additional advantage for the pitcher. Additionally, it shouldn't be too hard to come up with, and wouldn't require mining through the expanses of individual pitch data, as you can simply look at average movement by pitch type. It could also help a pitcher expand the zone even more. If the batter thinks the pitch is going to move into the strike zone he may swing even if it was outside the zone the whole time and end up chasing a pitch that moves even farther from the zone.

Idea 3: Average difference from pitch to pitch in effective velocity within an at bat

The idea of changing speeds has been around forever, and August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs did a solid job quantifying it in an article on then-free agent Wei-Yin Chen. But the idea in my head at that time that has stuck with me is that instead of using raw velocity, the data would be more instructive using the concepts of Effective Velocity

If you're not familiar with Effective Velocity, I highly recommend the linked article, which was a great read, but I'll try to sum it up here:

To hit a pitch up and in with authority, you need to be a little bit out in front of it, or you'll just pop it up. Since you have to start your swing earlier to make solid contact, the pitch's functional velocity (or "effective velocity") is faster than it's actual velocity.

To drive a pitch that is on the outside corner and at the knees, you have to be a little behind it or you'll roll over on it and pull a weak ground ball, so it's effective velocity is slower than it's actual velocity.

By combining this effect with actual changes in velocity, you can amplify the effect of changing speeds. I'm betting a stat like "average change in effective velocity from pitch to pitch within an at bat" has some significance, whether it be in generating soft contact or in getting whiffs (or both!)

Pitching Breakdowns Daily - May 17

Let's jump right into it:

1. Stream of the Day
Only pitchers owned in less than 30% of ESPN leagues are eligible.

I hope you got your streaming fix in Monday's games, because there's not much cooking for Tuesday. Lots of widely owned pitchers are throwing, and the unowned guys that are scheduled to pitch are facing the top offenses.

Juan Nicasio
Grade: A-
I'm pretty surprised his ownership is low enough (28.1%) to qualify, but with today's lacking slate, I'm taking it and running with it. If he's taken in your league, today is not the day for streaming. If, however, he is available, he makes an excellent stream against a Braves team that is last in baseball in wOBA against RHP (...and against LHP - pitiful). Nicasio is a pretty decent pitcher to boot, with a 23.6% K rate on the year.

2. Must-watch Pitching Matchup
Max Scherzer (4-2, 4.15 ERA) vs Noah Syndergaard (3-2, 2.53)

Fresh off a historic 20-K performance, "Mad Max" squares off with "Thor" in precisely the type of pitching matchup that this feature was created for.

Chris Archer (2-4, 4.57 ERA) vs Marcus Stroman (4-0, 3.54)

Archer vs Stroman makes for a pretty epic undercard fight.

3. Vulture Saves Watch
From the Twitter account @VultureSaves (which I operate), updates on possibly unavailable closers and the setup men who could see save opportunities if those closers are rested. I assign football injury report style designations (probable, questionable, doubtful, out) to each closer as well as grades A-F to potential vultures.

I'll be updating as games happen. The below is current as of 10:25PM EST.

1.Kyle Barraclough, MIA
Grade: B+
AJ Ramos and David Phelps have both pitched three days in a row and are both doubtful. Barraclough has pitched back to back, so he could be unavailable as well, but he's probable.

2.Bryan Morris, MIA
Grade: C-
See above. Ramos and Phelps are doubtful, Barraclough is probable.


4. My GIF of the Day Vote
The site pitcherlist.com has a daily feature with the best pitching GIFs from the previous day, and they include a poll to find the GIF of the Day. Just for fun, I'll let you know what I voted for.

http://www.pitcherlist.com/blog/gifs-of-the-night/rich-hills-curveball-the-nastiest-pitching-gifs-from-this-weekends-games

There must be some mistake. How was this not a candidate?



Since apparently Rougned Odor's right hook is not an option (maybe a write-in candidate?), I'll go for Trevor Bauer's curveball.

5. Stat of the Day
This one should be pretty self-explanatory. Should be a fun one though.

Punches Thrown/Landed
Rougned Odor 1/1, Jose Bautista 0/0

That's right, I'm delving into boxing stats.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pitching Breakdowns Daily - May 16

I'm back for episode 2!

I'll leave the descriptions of each feature in there for now.

1. Stream(s) of the Day
In this section, I will pick my top pitcher(s) to stream for that day, and give them a grade (A-F). To qualify, a pitcher must be owned in 30% or less ESPN leagues.

Lots of streaming options for tomorrow. In no particular order:

Jon Niese (vs ATL)
Grade: B
Niese is wholly mediocre as a pitcher, but he does do one thing well: he's averaged 6 IP per start for his career. Facing a Braves offense which owns a horrific .238 wOBA against lefties and opposed by Williams Perez, Niese is one of the best bets for a win and for a quality start, and he should tally a few Ks. He also has the benefit of throwing in a pitchers park.

John Lamb (@CLE)
Grade: B
I actually find Lamb's skillset quite interesting, and he's got a nice matchup against a Cleveland lineup with a .274 wOBA against lefties. He should rack up the Ks, but his own offense's struggles hurt his chances for a win. He's opposed by another oboard my streaming picks in Cody Anderson.

Robbie Ray (vs NYY)
Grade: B
Ray is probably the best pitcher on this list, talent-wise. His matchup isn't quite as juicy as a couple of the others but the Yankees do have just a .294 wOBA vs LHP, so it's plenty juicy in his own right. He'll have to contend with a hitter's park in Phoenix. Facing off against Michael Pineda could be a boon or a knock, as Pineda is pretty bipolar.

Derek Holland (@OAK)
Grade: C
Holland has had a rough 2016 so far, but he has shown some skills in that past. He'll have a chance to get it going against an A's team that has struggled mightily against lefties (.282 wOBA). Pitching in Oakland is nice, and if Manaea's struggles continue Holland would have a nice shot at a win.

Cody Anderson (vs CIN)
Grade: C+
He's fairly well established as an average pitcher, and he draws a very nice matchup against the Reds (.293 wOBA against RHP).

Adam Conley (30.1% owned) narrowly missed qualifying, but he's also a great stream (probably B+) if he's available.

2. Vulture Saves Watch
From the Twitter account @VultureSaves (which I operate), updates on possibly unavailable closers and the setup men who could see save opportunities if those closers are rested. I assign football injury report style designations (probable, questionable, doubtful, out) to each closer as well as grades A-F to potential vultures.

1. Koji Uehara
Grade: A
Kimbrel has thrown in three straight and is Doubtful.

2. Fernando Salas
Grade: A-
Joe Smith is also Doubtful, having thrown on three straight days.

3. David Phelps
Grade: D
AJ Ramos has thrown on back to back days and is Probable.

4. Jason Grilli
Grade: D-
Vizcaino tossed 2 IP today, but it only took him 18 total pitches, so he's Probable.

3. My GIF of the Week Vote
Here's the link to the article by ThePitcherList, including all the GIF candidates as well as the poll: http://www.pitcherlist.com/blog/gifs-of-the-week/jake-peavys-fastball-the-nastiest-pitching-gifs-of-the-week

That was an absurdly good collection of GIFs, but for me it came down to Arrieta's slider and Scherzer's fastball. Both were insane, but I went with Arrieta's slider. I find it more visually appealing, though how Scherzer can whiff a batter on a FASTBALL that drills him is truly mind-numbing.

4. Stat of the Day
This one should be pretty self-explanatory. Should be a fun one though.

Initially, I wrote here about Hector Rondon's negative FIP. But then he went and raised it from -0.15 to 0.98 moments before publication.

Consider this one a replacement level stat of the day:

Jose Altuve leads baseball in solo home runs with nine. Byung-ho Park, Robinson Cano, Nolan Arenado and Todd Frazier all have eight.

For teams, the Diamondbacks, Nationals, Astros and Rays are all tied at the top with 31.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Pitcher Breakdowns Daily - May 15

This post is the first of it's kind, but it won't be the last. No, this post will be the first of many - one a day, which you probably guessed from the title.

There will be a few sections to this series, so for today I'll explain in italics below each section heading what each section will be. Feel free to skip to the sections you find useful or interesting. Sections that will be on every daily are marked with a *. Others may come and go.

1. Stream(s) of the Day*
In this section, I will pick my top pitcher(s) to stream for that day, and give them a grade (A-F). To qualify, a pitcher must be owned in 30% or less ESPN leagues.

Dan Straily (vs PHI)
Grade: C
Straily isn't anything special (4.86 FIP), but he does have a 3.46 ERA so far and draws a juicy matchup with a Phillies lineup that owns a .283 wOBA vs RHP on the season

2. Must-watch Pitching Matchup(s)
For a while, I was doing a pitching matchup of the day series. What I discovered is that some days the best matchup is still pretty mediocre, so I stopped doing that series and replaced it with this one. I still love a great pitching matchup, so when there is a good one (like today) I'll give it a shoutout here.

Gerrit Cole (3-3, 3.78 ERA) vs Jon Lester (4-1, 1.96 ERA)

The MLB At Bat app originally had this as Cole vs Arrieta, which had me far too excited for my own good. I'll settle for this one

3. Vulture Saves Watch*
From the Twitter account @VultureSaves (which I operate), updates on possibly unavailable closers and the setup men who could see save opportunities if those closers are rested. I assign football injury report style designations (probable, questionable, doubtful, out) to each closer as well as grades A-F to potential vultures.

1. Joel Peralta
Grade: A
Steve Cishek has thrown 55 pitches in two days, blowing back to back saves.

2. Chad Qualls
Grade: C
Jake McGee has tossed in back to back games as well as three of the last four.

3. Fernando Salas
Grade: C
Joe Smith has also gone back to back and 3 of 4.

4. Sam Dyson
Grade: C-
Shawn Tolleson threw 28 pitches in today's blown save.

4. My GIF of the Day Vote*
The site pitcherlist.com has a daily feature with the best pitching GIFs from the previous day, and they include a poll to find the GIF of the Day. Just for fun, I'll let you know what I voted for.

Pitcher List combines Friday, Saturday and Sunday into one post, so this one will have to wait to make it's debut.

5. Stat of the Day
This one should be pretty self-explanatory. Should be a fun one though.

We finally got to see the Yankees bullpen of death in action, and it was as advertised. 10 batters faced, 8 strikeouts.

Chapman, Miller and Betances rank 1st, 3rd and 5th in baseball history(!) in K%. Insanity.

Also, No Run DMC (Dellin-Miller-Chapman) is a fun nickname.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Joe Ross Breakdown

When I look for pitchers (especially pitching sleepers), I look for guys who do well in 4 areas: racking up strikeouts, avoiding walks, getting groundballs and generating pop-ups. I think of it as "the Holy Quaternity of pitching". I hope to write a full piece about it soon.

The reason they are so important is obvious: strike a batter out, and there's nothing your fielders can do to screw it up; walk a guy, and there's nothing your fielders can do to save you; get a groundball, and you've simultaneously prevented a home run and given yourself a chance at a double play; generate a pop-up, and you've gotten a nearly automatic out and prevented a "productive out" (one that moves or drives in a runner). I obviously look deeper than just these four stats, but they form the foundation from which I work, as well as alerting me when I need to take deeper looks.

Joe Ross has a 2.29 ERA this year. It may surprise you, then, to hear that he's actually gotten worse in each of the four areas I look at. His K% has fallen from 22.0% to 19.0%. His BB% has risen from 6.7% to 7.8%. His groundball rate has fallen from 49.8% to 44.6%. His IFFB% has been cut in two. It's especially concerning to see these changes with Ross because his excellence in these areas is precisely why I targeted him this season.

With his peripherals falling, Ross' ERA has been lowered by .267 BABIP, a 3.1% HR/FB ratio, and an 80.8 LOB%, which have conspired to keep his ERA 1.8 runs lower than his xFIP (4.08). Those numbers are unsustainable. Ross is going to have to improve his peripherals to maintain his fantasy value.

What's driving his peripherals to take a nosedive anyway? Let's start with strikeouts: his swinging strike rate has fallen from an exceptional 11.9% to a merely average 9.3%. Where are the extra swinging strikea going? For one thing, batters are swinging substantially less (48.6% swing rate in 2015, as opposed to only 41.4% thus far in 2016). The swinging strikes don't seem to have disappeared from any one pitch type in particular; both his sinker and slider are getting less whiffs, while his changeup has actually improved (more on this later). So his loss of swinging strikes is coming from a loss of swings more than from giving up more contact. A few sentences ago I asked where the swinging strikes have gone. Now I'm asking a slightly different question: where have the swings gone? While both his Z-Swing% and O-Swing% have tumbled, it's outside the zone that has seen the larger drop. This is not a good sign; it indicates he's fooling less batters.

On occasion, I look at a metric I created and dubbed "Fool%". It attempts to measure the effect a pitcher has on disrupting the hitter's plate discipline. In other words, it looks at how often a pitcher fools a hitter. It's calculation is simple: take the number of pitches thrown inside the zone and not swung at, add the number of swings outside the zone, and divide by total pitches. I haven't done any real research on using "Fool%" as an analytical tool, but I find it nonetheless informative. Joe Ross' Fool% has fallen from 33.7% in 2015 to 30.4% so far in 2016. Needless to say, that's not a good sign.

Like a detective, I'm going to keep asking questions: why is he fooling batters less? Is it something to do with his stuff (losing velocity, moving less), or is it a location issue? Or something else entirely?

According to Pitch F/X, his slider looks almost identical to last year. It's been his most dominant pitch, allowing a .363 OPS. His fastball has lost half a tick, but has gained an inch and a half of arm-side movement. That'a certainly a change, but I'm not sure it's a negative one. As promised earlier on, I will look more at his changeup in a few paragraphs.

His stuff hasn't changed much. Has his location and/or his approach? To examine this question, I present you with a series of heatmaps. In each instance, the heatmap to the right is versus right handed hitters, the heatmap to the left is versus left-handed hitters, and the heatmap in the middle is against all hitters. 2015 is on top, 2016 on bottom. First, the sinker:


The slider:


And the changeup (this one is different: Ross almost never throws it to RHH, so I'm just showing overall heatmaps, 2015 on the left, 2016 on the right):


At risk of boring you with images before I get to my analysis of them, here's one more: a bar graph of his pitch usage by handedness:



Now, with all that data in front of us, we can get a clear look at how Ross is attacking hitters and how that approach has changed, as well as how he's locating.

First, I want to point out the clear pattern in his sinker usage against right-handed hitters: in the 2016 RHH sinker heatmap, you can see three distinct clusters of fastballs, the up and in, up and out, and down and out. When you break it down by batter handedness, you see that he's throwing the pitch inside. His sinker heatmap for this year shows a much clearer plan than it's 2015 counterpart. I also find it interesting how much he seems to use his sinker at the top of the zone, whereas most sinkers are thrown primarily at the bottom. He's using it to freeze hitters, and it's also helped him get pop-ups despite his sinker-slider repertoire.

His plan for his slider doesn't seem to have changed much; he's still throwing it primarily to the glove side corner (away from a RHH, inside to a LHH), though you will notice he's throwing less backdoor sliders to left-handed hitters. His execution of that plan has changed slightly, however. For one thing, he's leaving fewer sliders (and overall pitches, for that matter) in the heart of the zone. His location on that gloveside corner isn't nearly as tightly bunched as it was last year. Whereas 2015's slider heatmap showed the highest concentration exactly on the corner (seriously, look at that), the 2016 version shows his sliders hitting more of a general area, rather than a precise point.

Now, as promised, let's talk about his changeup. There were talks of him adding a splitter this off-season, so I should start by noting that it's possible he's mixing that in as well, but Pitch F/X is registering a changeup only. Anyhow, the talk of an improved changeup was a big reason I heavily targeted Ross during drafts, landing him in all three of my leagues. It seemed to be the missing link for Ross, a weapon to use against left-handed hitters (who were his kryptonite in 2015, slashing .275/.353/.456).

Let's take a look at what a typical Joe Ross changeup looked like in 2015. To do so, I used Pitch F/X to find the most perfectly average changeup thrown by Ross last year (that is, the changeup whose velocity and movement most closely matchup his averages). Here is that pitch:



Now, it's 2016 counterpart:



I'm not really sure what to make of that. The current iteration definitely has less fade, which is normally a bad thing, but perhaps it is a good thing for Ross, creating separation from the arm-side run of his fastball. I think the big change has been location, rather than shape.

If I may now direct your attention once again to the changeup heatmaps as well as the usage graph, I'd like to point out a couple things: First, although he's using his changeup more, he's still throwing it almost exclusively to left handed hitters. He's only thrown it to a right handed hitter 8 times in his entire career. Against LHH, however, he's substantially increased his changeup usage, almost matching his slider. He obviously trusts the pitch much more this year, and for good reason.

Looking at the heatmap, we can clearly see his improved changeup location. He was always throwing it on the outside corner, but now he's also throwing it at the knees more often (obviously a better location for a changeup).

This is really an odd situation. I was really high on Ross pre-season, and he's answered my primary concern by improving the location of his changeup, yet I've found new areas of concern.

Verdict: If you can find a trade partner who thinks Ross has already become the next young ace, you sell. His peripherals show that he's not there yet. If you can't find such a trade partner, you hold on to him. There's immense upside here if he can recapture the dominance of his fastball-slider combination while maintaining the changeup improvements.

Don't forget to follow Pitching Breakdowns on Twitter (@PitchBreakdowns).

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Pitching Matchup to Watch 5/9/16

Boy, this is rough. Not a lot of fun matchups. The one that intrigues me most is:

Steven Matz (4-1, 2.83 ERA) vs Scott Kazmir (2-2, 5.68)

Matz has been truly terrific this year. He has a 2.79 xFIP. Could he be the FOURTH homegrown ace for the Mets? Good Lord...

As for Kazmir, he hasn't been great results-wise, but he hasn't pitched nearly as poorly as his ERA would indicate: he has a 3.77 SIERA. Besides, it's a thin Monday schedule and there aren't a lot of options.

Pitching Matchups to Watch: Mother's Day

It's been a week of this series!

A quick follow-up on my Jonathan Gray breakdown: Gray went 7 scoreless innings, striking out five in a no-decision against the Giants in San Francisco.

And a note on future content: It's been a really busy weekend for me, so I haven't been able to do as much research yet for my upcoming Joe Ross breakdown. I may have to push it back a day or two.

Because of the aforementioned busy weekend, my comment's on today's matchups will be short and sweet:

1. Gerrit Cole vs Michael Wacha

Two young studs and a division rivalry game? Count me in.

2. Tanner Roark vs Jake Arrieta

Roark has been pitching well, and Arrieta is Arrieta. Two very good teams as well.

3. Tyler Duffey vs Jose Quintana

Neither are big names, but their combined ERA is 1.47.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Pitching Matchups to Watch 5/7/16

1. Gio Gonzalez (2-1, 1.15 ERA) vs Jason Hammel (4-0, 1.24)

Neither of these guys were supposed to pitch like this. Don't get me wrong, they're both solid pitchers, but they weren't supposed to do this. And yet here they are, sitting second and fourth in the NL in ERA, respectively. While they're both pitching like this, there's no say this wasn't going to be number one.

2. Jonathan Gray (0-1, 7.98) vs Johnny Cueto (4-1, 3.61)

This one has a lot of intrigue to me personally, so it's quite possible I'm giving it too much credit.

I did an exhaustive breakdown of Gray just the other day, which can be found here. I might have made a mistake of sorts, using all my bullets on that piece and not saving any for this post. Oh well. If you're wondering why I think a matchup featuring a guy with a 7.98 ERA can be the second best of the day, read that piece. If you don't want to do that, suffice to say Gray has pitched much better than his ERA would indicate.

3. Ervin Santana (0-1, 3.15) vs Chris Sale (6-0, 1.66)

What a month for Chris Sale! He missed having a six win month by just one day (his 6th start was on May 1st), posted a 1.66 ERA, and won the official Pitching Breakdowns April Cy Young Award , which I'm sure will take a prominent place on his awards shelf. Or maybe at least his fridge or something.

I briefly noted his lack of strikeouts so far, and I noticed as I was researching for this article that August Fagerstrom did a nice piece on Sale's apparent new approach on Wednesday, which I recommend you read.

Although he clearly plays second fiddle to Sale in this matchup, Santana has actually pitched quite well this year. His ERA has obviously been great, and it's fully supported by his 3.13 FIP, though both numbers are kept low by his 4.8% HR/FB ratio. An interesting note about Santana is that he's getting a ton of pop-ups, with his 6.7% PU/BIP ratio more than doubling the league average (3.2%). That partially explains the low HR/FB ratio.