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Stumping for Strasburgs’ 2-seamer

In his excellent article on Stephen Strasburg’s contact conundrum, ESPN’s Tony Blengino puts forth a compelling argument for what is holding Strasburg back from becoming a truly elite pitcher of his generation: When he allows contact, an inordinate amount of damage is done with those batted balls in play (BIP).

Blengino shows that while Strasburg is exceptional in his K rate (he was in the 97th percentile and only Kershaw was ahead of him as an NL qualifying starter), and his BB rate (71st percentile) is quite stout–especially when considering how many K’s he racks up–he manages to give up a disturbing amount of damaging contact.

Strasburg’s high K/low BB profile leads to a more than respectable FIP (2.94 in 2014). He led the NL in K’s last season, and had his lowest walk rate in a season where he pitched over 150 innings (1.8BB/9). While he HR/9 rose to to 1.0, in the categories that he “controls” according to FIP, he is a superior pitcher.

The problem for Strasburg, as Blengino points out, is that though he limits contact quite well, when a batter is able to put bat to ball, a surprising thing happens: Strasburg’s heroic stuff looks more than mortal. Blengino was able to tabulate the “relative production” for the BIP for Strasburg’s 2014 season, and then normalized that for park factors, recalculated what those BIP would have done in a neutral setting, and compared them to the rest of the qualifying pitchers in MLB.

The figures showed production on his line drives was 5% above league average, the production on his ground balls was 28% above league average, and the production on his fly balls was a whopping 32% above league average. When he is compared to other “elite” pitchers possibly vying for post season awards, Strasburg is the only one that allows above average production on every batted ball type, and most of this upper crust of the pitching world don’t allow above average production on any type of BIP.

Blengino believes he has zeroed in on the problem when he says Strasburg has, “a knack for finding the fat part of the bat.” Basically when Strasburg misses within the zone, he misses in the middle of the plate, which is obviously a recipe for strong contact. Blengino postulates Strasburg’s issue is not control (throwing balls or strikes), but command (where those strikes specifically go in the zone).

I tend to agree with Blengino, but I don’t think he completely encompasses the entire issue for Strasburg. He has found what is occurring, and maybe a portion of the why, but I think he has missed a key component, especially on Strasburg’s fastball.

When he came up to the majors, and through his 2012 season (the infamous year of the “Shutdown”) Strasburg threw two types of fastballs: a straight 4-seamer and a 2-seam sinker. As you can see in this chart from Brooks Baseball, in 2011 he threw his 4-seamer 54% of the time and his 2-seamer 19% of the time. In 2012 he hurled his 4-seamer 49% of the time and his 2-seamer almost 16% of the time. What you can see here though is Strasburg had an issue keeping his 2-seamer in the zone, sometimes by design, and sometimes not.

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Fans who watched Nationals games in that 2012 season would see Strasburg struggle at times to throw his 2-seamer for strikes because there was so much horizontal movement on the pitch it would oftentimes run right out of the zone into the right handed batters’ box.

Fast forward to the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Strasburg now was throwing his 4-seamer a consistent 57.5% of the time, and his 2-seamer an anemic 3.5% over those two seasons—a drop of 14% in usage rate when compared to 2011-12.

What does this portend for him? Well, Blengino argues Strasburg lacks a “go to…ground ball generation skill” or a way to “significantly minimize contact authority for one or more of the major BIP types.” My theory is a renewed use of his 2-seamer—that is, a controlled renewed use of his 2-seamer, would give Strasburg both that “ground ball generation skill” and a way to “minimize contact authority” because his 2-seamer has a horizontal movement component second only to his devastating change-up and 33% or more movement compared his 4-seamer. Not only that, but his 2-seamer has a far lower ratio of what Brooks Baseball deems “grooved pitches.”

In short, if Strasburg can harness the greased horizontal running pig that is his sinker, he will open himself up to reduced contact both in frequency and in damage, and, as Blengino has clearly demonstrated, that will catapult him into rarified air amongst pitchers of this generation.

Ep. 3: Leslie doesn’t read what Paul writes

Episode 3 is up…

In this episode Leslie taps into her inner Jeremy Schapp, Spring Training stories are discussed, and Paul finds out Leslie might not have really read his article when she proof read it…

Find it on iTunes, or here:

Article the First: Are the Nationals All They’re Cracked Up to Be?

Introduction

It’s fairly hard to read a season preview article about baseball this year without having someone list the Washington Nationals as the odds on favorites to win the World Series.  Vegas, the king of odds, also believes the Nationals are the front runner to take home a trophy to the District for the first time since 1924.

As someone who follows the Nationals fairly (read: obsessively) closely, I don’t doubt the Nationals are a good team, especially if you compare to a somewhat mediocre NL East, but what I started to wonder is:  Just how good are the 2015 Nationals?  So I decided to find out.  In this article I am going to compare, position by position, the Nationals’ starting eight, rotation, prominent relievers, and top three bench players, to the rest of the NL East.

If the Nationals rate the top spot in a category, then I’ll provide the runner-up.  If the Nationals do not own the pole position for a particular position, I’ll give their standing and those in front of them.  All of this will also be packaged with my opinion (informed or otherwise) on what the projection shows for these side by sides.

So how am I going to compare these players?  Well there are a number of different systems I could use, but to simplify things, I’m going to stick with one of the industry standards: PECOTA from Baseball Prospectus.  The rankings will be done by WARP (BP’s proprietary form of Wins Above Replacement).  I agree WAR is not a perfect stat, but it’s a good start for a comparison.

Let’s get this started, here’s the NL East, by score card number, except for the hurlers, who will come after the hitters:

Position Players

Catcher

  1. Travis d’Arnaud NYM – 2.9 WARP
  2. Carlos Ruiz PHI – 2.7 WARP
  3. Wilson Ramos WAS – 1.9 WARP

I like d’Arnaud, and he was a big name prospect coming up through the Blue Jays system, but PECOTA likes him even more than I do.  It’s giving him a full 1 WARP jump over last year even though he played in 108 games.  I also think PECOTA under estimates Ramos’ power at 14 HRs.  He had a down year for power last year, but it must be taken into account the hamate bone injury he suffered on opening day against the Mets.  This sort of wrist injury might be a reason why his AB/HR in 2014 (31) was so weak compared to 2013 (17.9).  I think Ramos has a touch more thump in his bat in 2015.

1B

  1. Freddie Freeman ATL – 2.9 WARP
  2. Ryan Zimmerman WASH – 1.9 WARP

I’m not sure if this is positional adjustment taking hold here for Zimmerman, but if he does get the almost 600 PAs PECOTA projects he’d be almost 2 WARP lower than his worst season before 2015.  I’m not sure I’d call on him to be better than Freeman, who I also like a lot, in his first year at first, but 1.9 feels weak for the former All-Star.

2B

  1. Chase Utley PHI – 3.9 WARP
  2. Daniel Murphy NYM – 2.5 WARP
  3. Dee Gordon MIA – 1.4 WARP
  4. Yunel Escobar WAS – 1.3 WARP

There is little surprise that 2B is a weak spot for the Nationals in 2015.  It, except when Anthony Rendon was there, was a weak spot in 2014, and 2013, and 2012 for the team.  Mike Rizzo is hoping trading away his best reliever (Tyler Clippard) for Yunel Escobar is going to pay off and Escobar just really hated playing at Tropicana Field last year and bounces back to something closer to his form with Toronto (minus the eye black, naturally).  There was a repeated narrative from the Washington front office that injuries caused Escobar to be rated the worst defensive SS in baseball last year (if that doesn’t take they might claim Derek Jeter forced him to take a dive so he wouldn’t occupy the cellar in his final season), and I’m somewhat inclined to believe this as Escobar, while possibly in his defensive decline, hasn’t fallen off the cliff just yet.  Still, Chase Utley should continue to be the class of the NL East 2B field.

3B

  1. Anthony Rendon WAS – 4.0
  2. David Wright NYM – 3.0

Look.  Okay, could Davis Wright have a good year?  A solid year? An All-Star-for-the-Mets year?  Sure.  He most certainly could, but it doesn’t matter.  I’m putting the National League on report:  Anthony Rendon is a bona fide star.  Every time he comes up to hit I make my five-year old watch his swing.  His swing is so pretty I stop drinking beer when he’s at the plate because I don’t want to miss a single cut.  I know I’m gushing here, but this is the call I’m going to be the most comfortable with during this whole exercise.  Rendon isn’t the best 3B in the NL East, he’s the best in the whole National League.

SS

  1. Andrelton Simmons ATL – 4.7
  2. Wilmer Flores NYM – 2.4
  3. Ian Desmond WAS – 2.1

Go home PECOTA, you’re drunk.  Okay, I can get on board with the “Simmons glove is so transcendent tiny baby angels are willing to eat breakfast off it before the infield dirt is swept away” value theory.  Simmons is the probably the best defensive SS since the Wizard hung it up.  What I can’t figure out is how PECOTA thinks Wilmer freaking Flores somehow triples in value while Desmond is worth less than half of what he was last year, and all of this during Desmond’s walk year (if you put value on that sort of thing…).  I expect a retraction from BP for this at some point in the near future.

LF

  1. Jayson Werth WAS – 3.1 WARP
  2. Christian Yelich MIA – 2.9 WARP
  3. Curtis Granderson NYM – 2.5 WARP

PECOTA does not believe the youth movement out of Miami just yet it appears, and I’m ok with that.  I think Werth continues to live up to his once reviled contract.  The Nationals are hoping that moving him to LF will take a few miles off his legs and take advantage of Bryce Harper’s video game arm.  Don’t sleep on Christian Yelich though, because the baby-faced up-and-comer has started to put it all together with his opposite field focused approach and shiny new Gold Glove.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up more valuable than Werth, but Werth’s stellar OBP will probably keep him on top.  I just included Granderson on the list because it made me chortle.  I think PECOTA is going all Huey Lewis here (admit it, you just started humming Back in Time) and can’t forget Granderson’s halcyon days of 2011 and before.  Poll:  Will the Mets regret the Granderson or Cuddyer contract more?  Correct Answer?  Both!

CF

  1. Denard Span WAS – 2.6 WARP
  2. Juan Legares NYM – 2.4 WARP

PECOTA doesn’t seem to be buying into Span’s career year (5.7 WARP in 2014) and predicts he’ll return back to his 2012 and 2013 levels, but that’s still good enough to make he the most valuable CF in the NL East.  If Span doesn’t create quite so many on base opportunities with his bat this year (he led the National League in hits last year) and Legares can use his heretofore untapped speed (only 13 SB last year) to generate a little more value, the battle of the diminutive Gold Glove finalists might tip towards Legares, who had a defensive break out party last year.  Also, don’t sleep on new entry to the contest, Atlanta’s newly styled Melvin Upton!  Who if he….awww, who am I kidding, even called Melvin he’ll still hit like B.J.

RF

  1. Giancarlo Stanton MIA – 5.9 WARP
  2. Bryce Harper WAS – 3.8 WARP

I think we can all agree that Stanton is a monster.  A laser eye wielding, just strode out of the ocean, oh sweet lord we just lost Tokyo, monster.  As long as he rebounds from Mike Fiers hitting him in the face just before the close of the season, Stanton is primed to begin to attempt to live up to his mega deal.  For Harper, his main goal needs to be staying on the field and allowing his tools to mature into present production.  He has shown, in flashes (April 2013, the 2014 Postseason), that he can carry his team for periods of time, but for him to challenge Giancarzilla for preeminence in the East he’s going to have to have a sustained period of excellence.

Pitchers

So I battle with how to break this down and compare the pitchers without droning on for ages, so I’ve decided to break this down into three categories: Aces (Highest WARP in rotation), Rotations as a Whole, and Bullpen (which will consist of the closer and three setup men as designated by BP).

Aces

  1. Stephen Strasburg WAS – 3.8 WARP
  2. Cliff Lee PHI – 2.9 WARP
  3. Mat Latos MIA – 2.6 WARP

Eureka!  Ted Lerner’s $210M investment paid off!  PECOTA also thinks Max Scherzer is going to dominate the…wait, what?  Strasburg?  That’s right folks, PECOTA not only thinks Money Max isn’t going to be the best pitcher in the East, but it doesn’t even rate him as the best pitcher on his own team.  According to the computer, Strasburg is finally poised to dominate like all the hype said he would from the beginning, with a projected 2.71 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP.  Maybe Matt Williams should read this before deciding who his Opening Day starter is going to be…

To be fair, Scherzer is projected to be the second best pitcher in the division at 3.2 WARP, and is in line to lead in Ks by 10% over his next competitor (Cole Hamels, with Strasburg just behind).

PECOTA has reduced innings in mind for comeback kids Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez, keeping their totals down, but I wouldn’t count Harvey out.  As long as his elbow stays intact and his bulldog mentality doesn’t trigger him to over tax himself, he could be the comeback player of the year.

Rotations

  1. Nationals – 13.5 WARP
  2. Mets – 5.5 WARP
  3. Marlins – 4.3 WARP

(Mike Rizzo walks up to the microphone stand, takes the mic off it, and inhales as if to speak, but instead just smiles, holds the mic out in front of him…and lets it go before strutting from the stage)

No, really though.  I will say, if you replace Tom Koehler with Jose Fernandez’s short season contributions, the Marlins would come in second at 5.8 WARP.  Still, the “super rotation” assembled by the Nationals not only dwarfs the rest of the competition, it makes them look downright Lilliputian.  Oh, and if one of the Nationals starters gets hurt, some guy named Tanner Roark (19th in MLB in ERA last year, min. 150 IP) is waiting in the wings to help out.  Talk about an embarrassment of riches.  The Nationals rotation looks like Scrooge McDuck’s money bin.

Also, PECOTA seems to have a vendetta for Atlanta’s newly acquired Mike Foltynewicz: It rings him up at a scathing -2.5 WARP; or, to put it another way, the worst pitcher in the division.

Bullpen

  1. Braves – 3.9 WARP
  2. Nationals – 2.8 WARP
  3. Marlins – 2.5 WARP

It shouldn’t be revelatory that the Braves pace the East here, especially considering the Craig Kimbrel by himself would be the fourth best team (a staggering 2.4 WARP in only 64 projected innings!).  It might be considered surprising the Nationals still come in second after dealing away one of the best set up men (and leader in appearances in MLB since 2009) in Tyler Clippard.  Mike Rizzo signing Casey Janssen might pay off, as he is regarded by PECOTA as the Nationals second best relief option at 0.7 WARP.

Bench

The last category will be the bench.  To calculate this I’m using each teams’ back up catcher, presumed (by value) fourth outfielder, back up middle infield, and back up corner infielder.

  1. Mets – 2.1 WARP
  2. Nationals – 1.8 WARP
  3. Phillies – 1.4 WARP

Wow.  This one surprised me.  Since the Chad Tracy led 2012 bench (yes, I chuckle typing that) overachieved, the Nationals bench the last two season has been abysmal.  So to see them come in the runner-up position by PECOTA was an eye opener.  Mike Rizzo did not make a serious addition to the bench in the off season (no, I don’t take Dan Uggla’s comeback seriously), and that raised a concern for me.  Should this erase my doubts?  Time will tell.

Conclusion

So, out of our twelve categories here’s how the Nationals finished in them:

1st – 5

2nd – 4

3rd – 2

4th – 1

5th- 0

I also think I pointed out that one of those third place finishes (Ian Desmond at SS) seems to be quite bizarre and I’m not sure I buy into PECOTA’s conclusion.

What can we get from this break down?  I think it’s pretty clear that the Nationals are poised, with the usual injury caveats, to dominate the National League East, and maybe by even a larger margin than the 17 games they were up at the end of the 2014 season.  Ok, I’m not sure I mean the last sentence.  Maybe PECOTA’s inherent conservative nature is rubbing off on me.

*All statistics were taken from www.baseballprospectus.com.  All bad jokes were taken from me.

Episode 2: A-Rod has no strings to hold him down…

Episode 2 is up on iTunes!

Or…

Podcast Activated

The first podcast is in the can!  We hope you like it.

Episode 1

It had to start somewhere…

This has been a long time coming…

 

I don’t have a specific date for the mental genesis of this project, but for quite some time I’ve been wanting to start putting all the thoughts, mostly baseball related, that have been crowded inside my cranium down somewhere.  As one of those types that routinely can be caught talking to the television or becoming my own color commentator, I thought for a while that I should provide myself some sort of outlet to see if all the ramblings that have been confined to my living room should see the light of day.

 

I also have developed a strong penchant for podcasts, and after recently dipping my toe into that deceptively deep water, my wife and I decided the only way to prevent the apocalypse was for us to start producing our own podcast.  You’re welcome.

 

That wasn’t enough though, not by a long shot. So I made up my mind that I’m also going to be producing some written commentary on the baseball landscape to accompany our podcasting efforts…and this will be where it lands.

 

Hopefully episodes will be starting by the end of the month.  Hopefully I’ll figure out how to make this website look a little more dynamic by then.  Hopefully, for all of you, we haven’t started the essential project too late.

 

Welcome….<cue expansive music> to Ground Rule Trouble.

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