Archive for May, 2010

How to Fix Greinke

Two months into the season, the reigning American League Cy Young winner has just one victory. Zack Greinke, who managed 16 victories last season despite playing for a terrible Kansas City club, has been abandoned by his offense this year, as they are scoring just 2.97 runs per game when Greinke takes the hill. In fact, the Royals are just 2-9 when Greinke pitches, a testament to just how bad his teammates are.

But when assigning blame for Greinke’s problems, we can’t forget Greinke himself.

He has been significantly worse than he was a year ago. Most notably, Greinke’s strikeout rate has taken a tumble, falling from 9.50 K/9 last year to just 7.04 K/9 this season, ranking 21st in the American League in that category after finishing third in 2009. Fewer strikeouts increase the need for the Royals defense to make plays behind him, and their below-average gloves are rarely up to the task.

What’s caused Greinke suddenly to morph back into a strike-throwing, pitch-to-contact guy, rather than the blow-you-away ace we saw last year? His breaking ball.

A year ago, hitters swung and missed at 9 percent of Greinke’s curveballs, and a whopping 25 percent of his sliders. This year, hitters are whiffing on just 4 percent of curveballs and 11 percent of sliders.

The slider is clearly his out pitch — he throws it most often in two-strike counts. But he has not been able to get hitters to swing through the breaking balls nearly as often. To try to understand why this is happening, I asked our resident graphing guru, Dave Allen, to look at his off-speed stuff. Here’s what he found:

The first graph shows the vertical height of the curves and sliders that are being swung at, both this year and last. Hitters have adjusted to Greinke’s breaking balls: After chasing a lot of them down in the zone, they’ve now primarily been going after the ones he hangs up in the zone. The second graph shows why this has translated to fewer whiffs: Hitters have been laying off those low breaking balls that they couldn’t touch in 2009.

It appears opposing scouting reports on Greinke suggest hitters should take the two-strike breaking ball, which was Grienke’s bread-and-butter knockout pitch a year ago. And because hitters aren’t chasing breaking balls down out of the zone, Greinke will have to alter his two-strike approach if he wants to get back to Cy Young form.

Best Underhyped Catchers

Raise your hand if you know who Matt Wieters is. I hope a lot of you out there have your virtual hand up. Now raise your hand if you know who John Jaso is. Ryan Hanigan? Carlos Ruiz? Now, there is probably a lot fewer of you with hands up.

Minor League hype is a fickle beast. For every Jason Heyward, there are five Brandon Woods. Many regarded Wieters as the savior of the Baltimore Orioles on his way through the minors. His numbers certainly supported that belief, but they have yet to show up where it counts. This isn’t writing Matt Wieters off as a future Major League star. He just turned 24 so he has plenty of time to adjust to the bigs and begin posting the numbers people dreamed out of him. While we wait to see if that will occur, some catchers that got nowhere near the hype of Wieters have nonetheless turned in some valuable seasons for their big league clubs.

Ryan Hanigan isn’t a sexy prospect but he does one thing particularly well and that’s draw walks. His 31 walks in just 293 plate appearances helped him to a .361 OBP with the Reds. Hanigan, whom the Reds signed as an undrafted free agent back in 2002, has had an even bigger success story this year with a .338/.449/.486 triple slash line while splitting time with Ramon Hernandez. It is a small sample, but Hanigan’s .409 wOBA has made him the seventh most valuable hitting catcher in the majors, despite being a part-time player. Hanigan is almost certainly not going to maintain numbers that lofty, but ZiPS projects him to post a .334 wOBA going forward, which almost exactly matches ZiPS’ .336 wOBA projection for Wieters. Maybe someone should start a Ryan Hanigan Facts website.

John Jaso also flew under the hype radar when he failed to show much power in the minors. What he did show though was good plate discipline and low strikeout rates, which helped to maintain a high average and impressive OBP. Getting an extended look in Tampa due to an injury to Dioner Navarro, Jaso has made his case for keeping the starting job with a .324/.449/.493 line.Jaso’s 8.5 percent strikeout rate is just behind Hanigan’s 8.1 percent and, among catchers with at least 50 trips to plate this year, they rank second and third respectively, with only A.J. Pierzynski bettering the unheralded pair.

Hype of minor league players is generally well founded. It comes from quality scouting reports and/or fabulous numbers. Hype doesn’t always equate to Major League results though, and certainly does not guarantee instant success. Sometimes it takes awhile and sometimes, solid Major League catchers appear out of seemingly nowhere.

Defense is Biggest Surprise in S.D.

It was easy to overlook the Padres in the springtime. After all, their most recognizable face, Adrian Gonzalez, doubles as their only legitimate bat and he spent the offseason popping up in various trade rumors. The rest of the lineup and the pitching staff was filled with various unknowns — not in the sense that the Padres had no idea who was playing where, but in the sense that nobody had reason to know about these guys. Projecting anything but a last-place finish seemed optimistic.

As we near June, the Padres are not only out of the cellar, but actually way up in the attic. So, how are they doing it?

For one, the Padres’ rotation leads the league in xFIP, meaning they own the aspects their pitchers can control — namely strikeouts, walks and getting ground balls. It’s not just the defense-free parts of pitching the Padres have succeeded at, though. Clayton Richard and Jon Garland have sub-3 ERAs and former top prospect Mat Latos isn’t too far behind. The team’s pitching staff has been the best in baseball for the first two months of the season.

In addition to pitching well, The Padres’ staff also maintains the third-lowest batting average on balls in play throughout the league.

That kind of success is a credit to the Padres’ stellar defense and the cavernous ballpark they play in. David Eckstein is no longer a shortstop with a weak arm, but one of the more range-blessed second basemen around. Chase Headley is back at third base and ranks second on the team in ultimate zone rating, UZR, the number of runs above or below average a player allows at his position. Even the Padres’ center-field platoon of Tony Gwynn and Scott Hairston is excelling defensively despite sharing playing time. Those parts combine with the rest of the team to form the unit that ranks second in UZR and first in defensive runs saved in the league.

The one group of players that was expected to excel for the Friars was their bullpen. Sure enough, the Padres’ relief corps has also been the best in baseball, turning games into six inning affairs and converting nearly every lead the team gets into a victory. Closer Heath Bell has led the way, but unheralded setup men such as Luke Gregerson and Mike Adams have each been lights out as well. The Padres bullpen is both deep and talented, and has given Bud Black numerous options with which to shut down opposing hitters in close games.

Perhaps we should have seen the Padres success coming after all. Given the recent success of teams like Tampa Bay and Seattle in past years, this is hardly the first time a young rotation with a stellar bullpen and excellent defense has surpassed expectations.

Reds Offending the NL

For those readers without a rooting interest in the National League Central, you might be surprised to learn that the perennially strong St. Louis Cardinals currently have company atop the division standings. Your first inkling might be: Is it the Chicago Cubs and their $147 million payroll? Actually, no. Well, what about the 2008 wild card-winning Milwaukee Brewers? Guess again.

With their 7-5 win versus Pittsburgh on Monday night, the Cincinnati Reds now stand at 26-19, tied with St. Louis. Whether Cincy’s success will last, it’s hard to say. How the Reds have gotten where they are — that’s easier to understand.

The answer is offense.

As you can see in the following table, the Reds are currently scoring runs at a faster pace than they did in 2009. After ranking 11th among 16 NL teams in runs scored last season, the Reds are currently ranked fifth in that category.

Reds' runs scored and run allowed
2009	673	11th	723	8th
2010	217	5th	212	12th

Yet raw run totals don’t necessarily tell the whole story. Otherwise, one might assume — seeing that the Reds have slipped four spots in terms of runs allowed — that they had simply offset their offensive gains with defensive shortcomings.

In fact, that’s not the case. If we look at the club’s batting and pitching wins above replacement numbers (bWAR and pWAR in the table below) for last year and for the season to date, we find that Cincinnati’s pitching has actually stayed relatively consistent (10th last season; 11th this year) while the batting is significantly better.

Reds' wins above replacement
2009	9.5	15th	10.4	10th
2010	6.7	5th	4.5	11th

What does WAR tell us that pure stat of runs scored doesn’t? Well, a couple important things. For one, WAR is park-adjusted. Seeing as Cincinnati’s home field, Great American Ballpark, plays as a hitter’s park, it makes sense that their pure run totals might be inflated. Secondly, WAR is context neutral. That means it only considers what a given batter does at the plate, thus teasing out the effects of so-called “clutch” hitting, which demonstrates high degrees of variance season to season.

In any case, it’s pretty clear that it’s the Reds’ offense that has helped them get where they are.

The logical question then is: From where are the Reds getting all this production? The answer: Basically from everyone. Though OPS+ isn’t a perfect measure — it’s generally acknowledged that it undervalues the importance of on-base, as opposed to slugging, percentage — it’s very helpful for understanding where a player stands relative to league average — and where players stand relative to each other.

The following table gives the OPS+ numbers at each position for Cincy’s batters this year as opposed to last.

Reds OPS by position
Pos	2009	2010	Diff
as C	90	125	35
as 1B	112	134	22
as 2B	106	118	12
as 3B	78	120	42
as SS	77	104	27
as LF	84	126	42
as CF	74	74	0
as RF	105	94	-11

With the exception of right field (where they’ve dropped 11 percent relative to league average) and center (where they’ve broken even), the Reds are consistently improved across the board. In particular, third base (where Scott Rolen is currently hitting .287/.353/.581) and left field (where Jonny Gomes has taken over the majority of playing time) have proven to be significant improvements over their 2009 counterparts.

Monday night was no different. On the strength of 10 hits, five walks and a couple of 3-for-4 performances from Orlando Cabrera and Drew Stubbs, the Reds showed the Pittsburgh Pirates what they’ve been showing the National League these first 40 or so games: an improved ability to push runners across the plate.

A Chink in the Rays’ Armor

At 32-12, the Tampa Bay Rays are on top of the baseball world. Despite playing in the toughest division in baseball, they currently enjoy a six-game gap over their nearest competitor, easily the largest lead of any first-place team in the game. They have outscored their opponents 240 to 138, and their plus-102 run differential is also the best in baseball by a significant margin. The Rays are a very good
baseball team.

However, while they have played well, there are several reasons to expect a pretty significant step back may be forthcoming.

Offensively, the Rays just haven’t been that good, despite being just six runs off of the league lead in scoring. They’ve racked up their runs through timely hitting rather than good hitting, the latter of which is much more likely to be sustained over a full season. As a team, the Rays are hitting .231/.311/.370 with the bases empty (10th best in the AL), but have hit .294/.368/.462 with runners on base (2nd best in AL), and those clutch hits have put a lot of extra runs on the

How many? Based on their .333 Weighted On Base Average (league average is .326), we’d have expected the Rays to score 211 runs so far this year, or 29 fewer than they’ve actually scored. Historically, it’s been shown that 10 runs are worth about one win to a team, so the Rays have gained approximately three wins just by making their hits count. (To read specifics about how they’re producing clutch hitting see this post.)

While getting clutch hits is fun and nice to root for, historically this isn’t the kind of thing that teams can actually specialize in. Over time, pretty much all teams regress back to being about as good (or bad) at hitting with men on base as they are with the bases empty. Good hitting is a repeatable skill — timely hitting is (mostly) not.

So, while the Rays’ record is sparkly, and even their Pythagorean Expected Record is impressive, there are chinks in the armor. With Carlos Pena struggling, Ben Zobrist hitting like it’s 2006 again and the team struggling to find a productive designated hitter, this isn’t the offense of a team that will win 70 percent of its games. While their strong start to the season will help them in their quest for a playoff berth, the Rays would be wise to not rest on their laurels if they want to hold on to their spot atop the American League East.

The Truth about Aramis Ramirez

One of the big reasons the Chicago Cubs have had success in recent years is third baseman Aramis Ramirez. Ramirez has put up some great seasons ever since he joined the Cubbies in 2003, and has become a key part of their offensive game plan. But this year, he’s hitting .167 with a .234 OBP while slugging .280. For six straight seasons, Aramis has posted a weighted on-base average of .380 or greater (.330 is about league average). This season, he’s posting a meager wOBA of just .237. So what’s wrong with the Cubs slugger?

To begin with, Ramirez’s strikeouts are way up. Last season, he struck out in 14.1 percent of his at-bats (league average is usually around 19 percent), slightly better than the 15.4 percent mark he’s posted over his entire career. This season, Ramirez is taking the walk of shame a whopping 23.1 percent of the time, the highest since his rookie season back in 1998. It is very unusual for a hitter to see such a large increase in strikeout rate from one year to the next.

Delving further into his rising strikeout rate, we can see that Ramirez is actually swinging at fewer pitches this year and making contact less often when he does get the bat off his shoulder. To compound the problem, Ramirez is making less contact on balls inside the strike zone, while getting his bat on the ball more often on pitches outside the strike zone. Last year, he made contact on 88.8 percent of balls in the zone. This year it’s 83.3 percent. And on balls outside the zone, he’s gone from making contact 65.6 percent of the time, to 68.7. Missing hittable pitches, while making contact on pitches off the plate that are not easy to square up, is not a recipe for success.

In essence, the numbers bear out the phenomenon generally known as “pressing.” As a reaction to his slow start, Ramirez is chasing more balls and overswinging at those he thinks he can hit. It’s not working, though, and the Cubs need to do what they can to get their slugger back to his old ways. He knows how to hit — he’s just lost right now.

The Trouble with Trevor

Losers of seven games in a row entering yesterday, the Brewers desperately needed a win against the first-place Reds. Holding a 4-2 lead entering the bottom of the ninth, the Brewers weren’t aware that the unceremonious end to Trevor Hoffman’s storied career was on the horizon. While the 42-year-old closer has been bad this season, suffice it to say he hasn’t had worse stuff this season than he had yesterday. Thanks to, we have this sad-looking graph that shows neither Hoffman’s fastball nor legendary changeup had any horizontal movement against Cincinnati:

Scott Rolen’s game-tying home run came on one of those straight change-ups, leading to Hoffman’s third loss and fifth blown save of the season. Even if last night is viewed as an anomaly, there are plenty of indicators that Hoffman is pitching at an all-time low level. Not since 2002 — when FanGraphs started tracking pitch stats — has the right-hander’s changeup been below-average relative to the rest of the league. This season, it has been one of the least valuable 20 changeups in all of baseball, worth 2.2 runs below average. (It was 8.3 runs above average in 2009.) His fastball, which has always been a weapon merely as a counter to the change, has taken a predictable beating as a result. The pitch has a tiny 2.1 whiff rate (versus a league average of around 8 percent), and batters are having no problem hitting it hard and into the air.

Always a fly-ball pitcher, Hoffman is allowing elevation at never-before-seen heights in 2010. Since 2002, Hoffman’s ground-ball percentage has been between 30 and 40 percent every season. This year, through a little more than 50 balls in play, he’s allowed just seven ground balls, for a minute 13.7 ground-ball rate. Considering that 20 percent of the fly balls he’s allowed have left the stadium, we’re seeing a bad combination of epic proportions. Hoffman’s 13.15 ERA is probably higher than it should be, but considering a career-high walk rate, his fielding independent pitching (FIP) suggests it should still be 10.48.

This season, the Brewers have trusted their worst pitcher with one of their most important roles. It is strange to think about Hoffman in any inning besides the ninth, but if the right-hander understandably doesn’t want to retire on this note, then he can’t be trusted with anything besides mopping up until some semblance of good stuff comes back.

According to, the Brewers now have a 6.1 percent chance of making the playoffs as they stand eight games back of the Reds. It’s likely that those 6.1 percent of simulations in which the Brewers made the comeback were not with Hoffman pitching high leverage innings.

Do Fewer Walks Mean More Wins?

The Minnesota Twins have issued the fewest walks of any team in baseball, despite playing in the league that features the designated hitter. There isn’t even another team within shouting distance of their 2.40 BB/9 ratio — the Phillies are next at 2.8 walks per nine — and the Twins’ strike-throwing ways are one of the main reasons they sit atop the American League Central.

Obviously, not giving out free passes is a good thing for a pitcher, but just how valuable of a skill is it? Let’s find out.

One way of measuring a single variable’s effect on an overall result is to determine the coefficient of determination. That is essentially a five-dollar phrase for “how much does Thing A cause Thing B to happen?” or, if you’re mathematically inclined, it’s the square of the correlation between two things.

This coefficient can be between 0 and 1, where zero is no relationship between two items and one is a perfect relationship (when one thing happens, so does the other, every single time), and these relationships can be either positive or negative — a negative correlation suggests that when one thing happens, the result is less
likely to occur.

So, what does this show the relationship between walks and winning percentage to be? The coefficient of determination between team BB/9 and team winning percentage since the wild-card era began is 0.21, a number that suggests that it’s not the only thing you need to win games, but it’s a pretty good thing to succeed at. In other words, it means that 21 percent of a team’s winning percentage can be explained simply by walk rate. And since 1995 (the dawn of the wild card), 57 percent of playoff teams have finished in the top 10 in all of baseball in BB/9 ratio.

While you still need to do things like score runs (as the Seattle Mariners are currently proving night in and night out), assembling a pitching staff of strike-throwers will get you well on your way to winning baseball games. Just ask the Twins.

What’s Lackey Lacking?

John Lackey has never been a strikeout artist. He’s never struck out 200 in a season nor reached the hallowed ground of recording one K per inning for a season. But this year, it’s getting a little ridiculous. He’s striking out batters at a career-low rate (5.58 per nine innings) and he’s getting battered around the park, such as he did in a 5-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers on Sunday. This isn’t what the Red Sox thought they were buying with their $85 million.

Normally, when a pitcher has an unexpected bad start, the traditional “luck” statistics (batting average on balls in play, strand rate and home run rate) tell the tale. But in this case, they don’t. Lackey has a .308 batting average on balls in play (which usually ends up at .300 across baseball) and has stranded exactly 70 percent of runners, which is also right around league average. He’s even giving up the standard amount of home runs per fly ball (8.5 percent this year, usually around 10 percent across baseball). It’s not a case of poor luck, it seems.

Looking at batters’ swing rates when they step in the box against Lackey doesn’t help much, either. Batters are reaching at offerings outside the zone about as often as usual. It seems that Lackey is missing the zone a little (45.2 percent in the strike zone, 50.4 percent career) and batters are making more contact than usual (84.1 percent contact rate, 80.3 percent career). But why are batters making more contact with his pitches?

He hasn’t lost any velocity. His fastball and curveball are within 0.2 mph of their career levels. The slider and changeup have actually gained oomph, but perhaps that is part of the problem. The difference between his fastball and changeup has gone from 8.2 mph for his career to 7.1 mph this season. But Lackey throws the changeup only around 5 percent of the time, so that effect probably isn’t huge.

The answer may lie in Lackey’s curve in the end. At FanGraphs, we keep a statistic that tries to put value on the results of each type of pitch in a pitcher’s arsenal. By using game state statistics before and after a slider, for example, we can assign value to that pitch. Looking at Lackey’s career, his fastball (plus-27.6 runs career) and curve (plus-51.8 runs career) have always been his best pitches. His slider has usually been around scratch or better (plus-6.4 runs career).

This year? His fastball (plus-1.1 runs) and slider (plus-1.2 runs) have been doing fine. For only the second time in his career, however, the curveball is currently negative (minus-1.6 runs). Though neither the horizontal movement, vertical movement nor the velocity numbers show anything really unique about his curveball this season, the pitch is just not providing good results for Lackey this year. Why? It’s hard to know, but don’t be surprised if we start to hear murmurs about him tipping his pitches.

On Sunday, Lackey threw the curve 31 times. It actually resulted in a strikeout three times, so it wasn’t terrible, but the curve also resulted in three singles and Ramon Santiago’s two-run homer. If you’re wondering what Lackey is lacking, it seems it’s his signature curve.

The Best Pitch in Baseball

Adam Wainwright pitched 233 innings during the 2009 season while posting a 2.63 ERA and a 3.11 FIP and earning himself a fair share of Cy Young Award votes. It would have been perfectly acceptable and understandable if Wainwright’s performance took a step back this season as hitters adjusted and Wainwright’s ERA increased. Yet the 28-year-old hasn’t taken a step back, and so far, he’s actually taking a step forward by pitching well enough in his first seven starts to record an ERA of 2.08 and a FIP of 2.55.

Seemingly the only change in Wainwright’s approach is an increase in the amount of breaking balls used. Earlier this season on TMI, Mark Simon noted how frequently Wainwright was using his curve last year, and he is even more reliant on his breaking stuff this season.

Throughout his career, about half of the pitches Wainwright threw were fastballs. This season he’s throwing his heater less than 42 percent of the time and instead focusing on his always excellent slider and curve. FanGraphs’ linear weights based on pitch type give run values for each offering, and for his career, Wainwright’s curve is worth 45.2 runs above average and his slider 35.3 runs. It’s a stark contrast from the minus-7.6 runs his fastball is valued at, or the plus-3.9 run value of his change-up.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Wainwright’s success is how predictable his usage has become. The only counts in which Wainwright is throwing a fastball more than 50 percent of the time are obvious fastball situations (1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 2-1, 3-1, and 3-2). He’s using his curveball more than 70 percent of the time in 0-2 counts, and nearly 60 percent of the time in 1-2 and 2-2 counts.

When Wainwright gets ahead –- and he usually does –- batters have to know the hammer is on the way, and yet they still can’t hit the thing. Nearly 13 percent of the curves Wainwright has thrown have been swung at and missed and roughly 70 percent have been strikes –- whether it be of the foul, called, or swinging variety. As far as out pitches go, it’s hard to find one that gets the job done as often as Wainwright’s curve, and it’s easy to see why he’s on the path to a career year.