Archive for May, 2013

The Yankees Need Their Stars

During March, there was one story you heard repeatedly; the Yankees are screwed. Coming off a winter in which they let Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Rafael Soriano, and Eric Chavez go elsewhere in free agency, the team looked old and thin. Then the injuries started mounting. Derek Jeter’s ankle didn’t heal properly. Curtis Granderson had his forearm broken by an errant pitch. Mark Teixeira’s wrist hurt. Kevin Youkilis achy back started acting up again. They were eventually joined on the DL by Andy Pettitte, Francisco Cervelli, and Eduardo Nunez, and that doesn’t even include perpetual rehabbers Alex Rodriguez and Michael Pineda.

And yet, two months into the season, the Yankees are 30-22, currently standing with the third best record in the American League. Despite all the big names missing from the line-up, the Yankees have just kept winning, and it has spawned some suggestion that maybe the Yankees didn’t need all those high priced veterans to begin with. Maybe they’d be better off with the young kids who no one has ever heard of and who didn’t have enough money to buy a small island, or in A-Rod’s case, a big island.

Don’t believe it. The Yankees 30-22 record is a mirage, and their underlying performance suggests that the team needs Youkilis, Teixeira, Jeter, and the rest to keep the Yankees in the playoff race.

The offense, specifically, has been a huge problem. The line-up has combined for a .312 wOBA, just 10th best in the American League, and that doesn’t even account for the fact that they play in a ballpark that increases offensive performance. By using a park adjusted metric like wRC+, which does account for Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right field, their offensive production has been eight percent below the league average. For context, that puts them squarely between the Astros (10 percent below average) and the Mariners (five percent below average), neither of whom are going anywhere near the playoffs this year.

So, how have the Yankees managed to keep winning with an ineffective offense? Their pitching has been absurdly great when it matters. Here is how stingy the Yankees have been at run prevention by situation:

Bases Empty: .261/.315/.420, .321 wOBA (#8 in AL)
Men On Base: .241/.303/.393, .302 wOBA (#4 in AL)
RISP: .207/.285/.339, .272 wOBA (#1 in AL)

With no one on, the Yankees pitching staff has basically been pretty average. Put a guy on base, they’ve gotten pretty good. Put a guy in scoring position, they’ve been unhittable. To give you an idea of how dominant allowing just a .272 wOBA is, Clayton Kershaw has allowed hitters to post a .268 wOBA against him in his career. The average Yankee pitching performance when under threat of allowing runs has been about equal one of the game’s best pitchers.

Yes, some of this is because they have two of the game’s great bullpen arms in Mariano Rivera and David Robertson at the back end, able to come in and put out any fires that might arise in close situations. But, this isn’t all just the bullpen bailing out the starters. Hiroki Kuroda has allowed a .179 wOBA with runners in scoring position, while Andy Pettitte is at .233. Even the back-end guys have been pretty good under duress, as Phil Hughes (.297) and David Phelps (.304) have pitched better with runners in scoring position than they have with the bases empty.

This is not normal, by the way. Pitchers perform best out of the wind-up, when they can align their defense in a normal way and don’t have the distraction of opponents dancing around on the base paths. The league average pitcher in 2013 has allowed a .312 wOBA with the bases empty, .319 with men on base, and .317 with runners in scoring position. The Yankees are the clear outlier here, performing far better in clutch pitching situations than they have with the bases cleared.

Some may look at those numbers and laud the heart and mental toughness of New York’s pitchers, but history says that it’s mostly just random variation that won’t last. Teams with good bullpens like New York’s can do a bit better than average in these situations, but there’s just no way the Yankees keep limiting opposing hitters to a .272 wOBA with men in scoring position. That can’t last, and when the pitchers stop bending and start breaking, the Yankees lack of run scoring is going to look like a much bigger problem.

Vernon Wells hot streak in April was a nice story, and Lyle Overbay hasn’t been awful filling in at first base, but the Yankees simply have to score more runs if they want to keep pace in the American League East. Robinson Cano and Travis Hafner cannot carry this team to the playoffs. Granderson, Teixeira, and Jeter might not be as young or as healthy as they once were, but they’re still much better than the alternatives that New York has on the roster. If the Yankees want to keep winning, they’ll need their high priced players to get healthy and start hitting the ball over the fence.

The Yankees clutch pitching kept them in the race while they survived the injury bug, but their context neutral performance suggests they’ve performed more like a team that should be around .500. While the narrative about the Yankees having no hope to win with this aging, injury prone roster was overblown, the overall assessment of this group not being good enough to contend was correct. The Yankees need their star hitters back.

The Rejuvenation of John Lackey

While Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have been the focus of the turnaround among Boston’s starting pitchers, their success shouldn’t be that surprising, as both are in the primes of their careers and always had the stuff to be frontline starters. However, there is one Red Sox pitcher enjoying a career rejuvenation that wasn’t so easy to see coming; the beleaguered John Lackey is pitching like it’s 2005 all over again.

Lackey’s first three years in Boston couldn’t have gone much worse. Signed to an $82.5 million contract after the 2009 season, Lackey came to Boston in 2010 and started throwing batting practice. By the time he finally told everyone his elbow hurt in mid-2011, he had accumulated a 5.25 ERA in 375 innings, and then spent the next year and a half recovering from Tommy John surgery. The first three years of Lackey’s Red Sox career were basically a total loss, and his personality didn’t exactly endear him to the Red Sox Nation.

However, they do say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and after being away from the team for 18 months, Lackey showed up in 2013 determined to get his career back on track. It’s only six starts so far, but not only is he pitching like the John Lackey of old, but he’s actually pitching better than he did in his heyday in Anaheim.

Through his first 33 innings of 2013, Lackey has a 22.9% strikeout rate, which if he sustained it all year, would be the highest of his career. The league average strikeout rate has been trending upwards for a while now, so relative to league average, his 22.3% K% of 2005 would be slightly better, but that was one of only two seasons where Lackey has ever struck out more than 20% of the batters he faced.

He was a good pitcher in Anaheim because he was durable, he didn’t walk anyone, and he kept the ball in the yard. Strikeouts weren’t really a huge part of his game. Before this season, his Boston-era strikeout rate was just 16%. A 23% strikeout rate is a huge jump over what Lackey was doing to opposing hitters before the surgery.

Interestingly enough, though, Lackey’s stuff appears to be almost exactly the same as it was before he went under the knife. This isn’t a case where his velocity has jumped up following surgery. Here are Lackey’s average fastball velocities for the last three years he’s been on the mound:

2010: 91.1 mph
2011: 91.5 mph
2013: 90.9 mph

And, no, he hasn’t really added a new pitch either. Lackey still throws two fastballs (four-seam and two-seam), a slider, a curve, and a change-up, just like he always has. He’s throwing his curveball a little less than in the past, but not dramatically so, and usually increasing your fastball rate at the expense of your breaking ball will reduce your strikeout rate, not increase it. So, how is Lackey getting all these strikeouts with the same stuff he’s always had?

It starts with strike one. Lackey has thrown a first pitch strike 67% of the time this season, ranking him third in the American League behind only Phil Hughes and Jake Peavy. Hughes’ presence on top of the list should tell you that this isn’t a foolproof magic plan to striking everyone out, but Lackey’s ability to consistently get ahead of major league hitters has given him control of the at-bat in ways he he didn’t have before.

Here are the splits for hitters against Lackey depending on the type of count that the at-bat ends in:

Batter ahead: 38 PA, .241/.395/.448
Even count: 52 PA, .333/.346/.529
Pitcher ahead: 50 PA, .160/.160/.160

36% of the batters who have faced Lackey this year have ended up in a pitcher friendly count before either putting the ball in play or striking out, and Lackey has just dominated hitters who aren’t able to look for one pitch in one location. Lackey has taken full advantage of the expanded strike zone that comes from hitters having to swing defensively.

Compare that with what he did in his first year in Boston, in those same situations.

Batter ahead: 311 PA, .277/.447/.430
Even count: 330 PA, .297/.300/.446
Pitcher ahead: 289 PA, .255/.267/.401

Only 31% of his 2010 opponents had to end their at-bats in a pitcher’s count, and even when Lackey was able to get ahead of them, he didn’t really take advantage. Opponents put up a .600 OPS against Lackey in two strike counts back in 2010, the situation where the hitter should be at his most vulnerable. This year? Opponents have a .268 OPS against Lackey with two strikes.

While some still advocate pitching to contact in order to save your arm and reduce the amount of pitches thrown, Lackey has brought his career back to life by going the other way entirely. By getting ahead of hitters and then putting them away when he gets into strikeout situations, Lackey has given the Red Sox six starts that would fit in well at the peak of his career. If he keeps pounding the zone and getting hitters to chase when behind in the count, the second half of his career in Boston could be a resounding success.

The Top Five Relievers in Baseball

How can you tell which relievers have had the most impact for their teams? Some might simply say “saves”, though that immediately eliminates any pitcher who hasn’t been given the opportunity to pitch in the ninth inning. It also doesn’t seem quite right to say that Huston Street and Tom Wilhelmsen, for example, have performed equally. Each has 11 saves, but Street has struggled with a 6.96 FIP while Wilhelmsen has been far more effective at 2.43.

Others might point to ERA, though it can be very unreliable over small amounts of innings, especially since it poorly accounts for ownership of inherited runners. We can see that with the case of Kansas City’s Tim Collins, who has actually been very good this year with a 1.75 FIP and 10 scoreless outings in 13 appearances. But thanks to one poor game earlier in the month, he saw his ERA jump from 2.79 to 5.59 overnight.

So what can we use that applies equally to all relief pitchers, regardless of role, yet also takes into consideration the primary job of getting outs (or not) in the most crucial situations? For that, we turn to shutdowns, a FanGraphs stat that attempts to measure the most basic question of “did a relief pitcher help or hinder his team’s chances of winning a game?”

Shutdowns (and its negative equivalent, “meltdowns”) works on the premise of win probability added. You can read the full description here, but it is essentially a context-based stat that identifies how important each play in a game was towards a team winning or losing.

This works perfectly for relievers, since the setup man who enters with the bases loaded in the eighth is often much more directly involved in the outcome than the closer who gets to start a clean inning in the ninth, even though it’s the latter pitcher who will get the “save”. Shutdowns are awarded when a pitcher increases his team’s win probability by at least 6 percent in a game, while meltdowns come when a reliever costs his team by at least that same amount.

Using shutdowns, who finds themselves on the top five list of most essential relievers this year? The answers, in some cases, may surprise you.

1. Mark Melancon, Pirates (17 shutdowns)
The top shutdown reliever in baseball so far is… who? Traded three times in less than three years and fresh off a 6.20 ERA and a long stint in the minors for the Boston Red Sox last season, no reliever in baseball has had a larger direct positive impact on his team’s fortune than the 28-year-old Pittsburgh righty. Relying on improved location and heavier use of his cut fastball, Melancon has been a revelation with the Pirates, posting an otherworldly 26-1 K/BB ratio. No pitcher with as many innings as he has tops his 64.1 percent ground ball rate, and when you’re getting strikeouts and grounders while almost entirely avoiding home runs and walks, success will almost certainly follow.

What of Melancon’s Pittsburgh teammate, Jason Grilli? The first-time closer has been outstanding as well, leading baseball in saves while sporting an excellent 32-5 K/BB mark of his own. But for as great as he’s been, Grilli ties only for just 18th in shutdowns since many of his saves have come with him starting a clean inning with a lead of a few runs, leading to low WPA. Melancon, on the other hand, has been in the thick of tight situations all season.

2. Edward Mujica, Cardinals (15)
Mujica didn’t begin the season as the St. Louis closer, and he didn’t get his first save chance until April 18, once Mitchell Boggs failed to adequately replace the injured Jason Motte. That keeps Mujica out of the top five list on the save charts, but he’s been so good that he’s been credited with a shutdown in 15 of his first 19 appearances.

Incredibly, Mujica is essentially getting by with just a single pitch, his lethal “split-change”, and he’s managed to control it with such efficiency that he hasn’t allowed a walk since April 3, in his second outing of the season. Stolen from the Miami Marlins for minor league third baseman Zack Cox last season, he’d spent most of the last seven years being decent but unremarkable for Cleveland, San Diego and Miami; now, thanks to reliance on his unhittable out pitch, he’s become one of the most dangerous relievers in the game.

t-3. Jesse Crain, White Sox/Mariano Rivera, Yankees (14)
Sometimes conventional wisdom and next-level thinking come to the same conclusion, and it hardly takes an advanced doctorate in statistics to point out that the immortal Rivera remains one of the best relievers in the game. That’s the case whether you’re using saves (second in MLB) or shutdowns (third).

The appearance of Crain ahead of Reed on this list shows how important the game can often be in the seventh and eighth innings, but the long-time setup man has quietly been an effective reliever in each of his three years in Chicago. After parts of seven years toiling in the Minnesota bullpen, Crain joined the White Sox prior to 2011 and has subsequently posted swinging-strike percentages of at least 11.6 percent each year, after never having topped 9.6 percent as a Twin. Crain’s name recognition remains low among casual fans, though that may not be fair to him.


t-5. Aroldis Chapman, Reds/Jim Johnson, Orioles/Addison Reed, White Sox
Reed has been steady all season long, only three times allowing more than a single hit in an outing while striking out 24 in 21 innings. Chapman, meanwhile, finds himself tied for 12th on the saves list with several other closers, one behind Street and one ahead of embattled Los Angeles Dodgers closer Brandon League, who is on the verge of losing his job.

That makes using saves problematic because it’s not adequately showing just how dominating Chapman continues to be, despite some homer trouble in Philadelphia last weekend. Although Chapman spent much of the spring preparing for an aborted attempt to move into the starting rotation, manager Dusty Baker has yet to allow him to pitch more than a single inning this year. That leads to oddities like the fact that lesser teammates like Sam LeCure and Logan Ondrusek have each pitched more innings in May than Chapman has. Despite the limited opportunities, few pitchers have managed to shut down the opposition as well as Chapman has, and the Reds may be better served by thinking outside the box to use him more often.

Johnson has not quite had the batted ball luck of the magical 2012 season in Baltimore on his side, seeing his BABIP rise from .251 to a more realistic .306. That’s largely why his ERA and FIP have each risen as well, but Johnson has counteracted that in part by increasing his strikeouts per nine innings from a poor 5.37 to a better 7.25 mark. Unfortunately for Johnson, he’s been hit hard in May — blowing three games in a row at once point — and he’s the only pitcher with at least 10 shutdowns who also has as many as five meltdowns, a very poor percentage. By comparison, Johnson led baseball with 46 shutdowns last season, but did so with just three meltdowns all year long.

Quiet Winter Hasn’t Slowed Texas

If there was a commonly perceived “loser” of the 2012-13 baseball offseason, other than perhaps the suddenly budget-conscious New York Yankees, it was almost certainly seen to be the Texas Rangers.

General manager Jon Daniels watched Mike AdamsRyan DempsterJosh HamiltonMike Napoli and Koji Uehara all leave as free agents while failing to land either Zack Greinke orJustin Upton, two big-ticket names the team was connected to for months. The only real additions the Rangers made were one-year deals to past-their-prime veterans like Lance Berkman and A.J. Pierzynski, all while dealing with the increasingly visible off-the-field distraction surrounding team icon Nolan Ryan’s future with the club.

Championships aren’t often won in December, but even when the games got rolling, Texas faced an additional concern. Opening Day starter Matt Harrison, who received a $55 million extension in January, dropped his first two starts before being lost to back surgery. He has since undergone a second procedure, and his return date remains uncertain.

After all that, where do the Rangers stand now? With the best record in baseball and the only team with more than a 1½-game lead in its division. In what was expected by many to be the most competitive division race in the game, Texas is a surprising 6½ games ahead of the Seattle Mariners, and they’re doing it with a well-rounded team. They have the third-best wOBA and the fourth-stingiest FIP on the mound. They are, according to ESPN’s Playoff Odds, the team with the best chances of reaching the postseason with a percentage of 88.2.

So much for a lousy winter, apparently.

Balanced offense

Although Texas didn’t bring in many new faces, all the departures meant that only four of the 10 men penciled into manager Ron Washington’s 2012 Opening Day lineup were there again when this season kicked off. Despite the turnover, the offense in particular really hasn’t missed a beat.

This year’s Rangers are getting contributions in some amount from nearly every part of the lineup, and that’s not something that could be said about last year’s group, which gave more than 1,100 plate appearances to players who didn’t even manage 0.0 WAR (more than half of which were to Michael Young, who was one of the worst players in baseball last season). As we complete the first quarter of 2013, only struggling left fielder David Murphyand backup catcher Geovany Soto fit that description, and that’s a big reason this club has yet to lose more than two consecutive games.

It’s that kind of offensewide production that has allowed the Rangers to weather the losses of Hamilton and Napoli and slower-than-usual starts from core stars Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre. Beyond that, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the team is getting star-level production from a few places that weren’t quite providing it last season.

At second base, Ian Kinsler struggled through a down year in 2012, ending the season with a career-worst .327 wOBA and fueling rumors he might be asked to move to first base or the outfield to make room for top prospect Jurickson Profar. All Kinsler has done in response is put up a stellar line of .302/.369/.500, good for a .378 wOBA that currently makes him the most productive offensive second baseman in baseball.

Kinsler remains at second in part because the previously inconsistent Mitch Moreland has come into his own to establish himself as the team’s regular first baseman. Moreland’s nine homers are already more than halfway to his previous season high of 16, and his success isn’t even due to the small-sample-size batted-ball luck that we often see at this point in the season — his .311 BABIP is barely off the .307 mark he had last year. Perhaps as importantly, he’s finally begun to show some amount of success on the road and against lefty pitching, problems that had plagued him for most of his career.

Moreland’s secure hold on first base continues a domino effect that allows Berkman to take the majority of playing time at designated hitter, where his .377 wOBA is a massive improvement over the poor .297 mark Young provided last year. In right field, Nelson Cruz — finally healthy, though that always seems to be a temporary condition — already has 11 homers and a robust .356 wOBA.

Defense and Darvish

While we all like to focus on offense, run prevention is just as important in terms of winning games, and the Rangers have found improvement with the gloves as well. When we looked at the Rangers in this space in January, there was cause for optimism that no matter what losing Hamilton, Napoli and Young might do to the offense, subtracting the three poorly regarded defenders should help support the team’s pitching.

That’s exactly what’s happened. Less of Napoli and Young at first has allowed more time for the defensively solid Moreland; losing Hamilton in center field has opened up playing time for superior defendersCraig Gentry and Leonys Martin, who can add value even if they’re not hitting. The 2012 Rangers were a decent fielding team, but the 2013 edition is a better one.

As you might expect on a team that’s turning more balls into outs, a rotation that had depth concerns even before losing Harrison is performing better. As a group, last year’s Texas rotation had a 4.30 ERA. That number is down to 3.56 this season, even though the Rangers have had to replace Harrison and the injuredColby Lewis with rookies Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch.

Of course, the way Yu Darvish is pitching, it might not matter if he had a defense behind him at all. No starting pitcher in baseball tops his 12.76 K/9 mark; in fact, no pitcher even comes within a full strikeout of that, with Max Scherzer trailing at 11.57. Darvish’s ascension into a full-fledged ace has somewhat masked the rebound of Derek Holland, who has managed to limit the homers and walks that had hurt him in the past to put up a 2.36 FIP.

Can they keep this pace up in the face of more bad news? Starter Alexi Ogando, who had already been struggling with decreased velocity this season, went on the disabled list on Thursday with right biceps tendinitis. He’ll be replaced by 25-year-old Josh Lindblom, the return from Philadelphia in the Young deal, who will make his starting debut after more than 100 games of major league experience in the bullpen.

That makes for a trio of inexperienced starters behind Darvish and Holland, but for once, good news is on the way. Lewis has been making rehab starts as he returns from elbow surgery and could be ready by June; he’ll be followed by former Kansas City Royals starJoakim Soria in July and ex-closer Neftali Feliz later in the season, as each recuperates from Tommy John surgery. If Daniels decides that he needs to add a starter like David Price or bat like Giancarlo Stanton before the deadline, few teams can match the strength of a farm system that boasts talent like Profar and third baseman Mike Olt.

Although the Rangers have done more than erase the memories of a seemingly subpar winter, they need only to look back at 2012 to know that the only day when being in first place matters is the final day of the season. So far, they’re doing a great job of making everyone who wrote them off in December look foolish.

Change You Can Believe In

While most teams have now played around 25% of their 2013 schedule, the reality is that taking a player’s stats at face value is still generally a mistake. Six weeks of baseball is not enough for the normal ups and downs to have evened out, and the leaderboards of mid-May will not resemble the numbers at the end of the season. At this point in the year, you are almost always better off looking at a player’s track record than you are looking at his 2013 performance.

However, there is an exception that proves the rule. There are some cases where a player is showing a pretty dramatic change in skills, and that change should cause you to discount their performance and put a little more faith in what they’re doing right now. Cliff Lee in 2008 is perhaps the most extreme example of this effect, as he showed up to camp with more velocity, a new cut fastball, and the ability to throw the ball wherever he wanted, which turned him from a back-end starter into a legitimate Cy Young contender. There’s no one having quite that dramatic of a conversion, but here are three players who have made a distinctive shift that should give us some reason to think they might just keep this up.

Kyle Kendrick, SP, Phillies

Kyle Kendrick has been a big league pitcher since 2007, and over the last six years, he’d thrown over 750 mediocre innings. Heading into the 2013 season, he had a career strikeout rate of just 12% and had an ERA- of 104, meaning he’d given up runs at a rate four percent higher than the league average. He was the quintessential pitch-to-contact swingman, capable of throwing the ball over the plate but not much more.

After a miserable 2008 season, Kendrick found himself in Triple-A in 2009, where he had the fortune of being teammates with a journeyman reliever named Justin Lehr. Lehr threw a change-up with a split-finger grip, and given that Kendrick was in need of a better off-speed pitch, Lehr taught Kendrick how to throw it. It didn’t come immediately, but he’s been steadily working it in as part of his repertoire ever since, throwing it 23% of the time this year. Here is how left-handed hitters have fared against Kendrick for each Major League season of his career (2009 excluded, since he spent most of it in Triple-A):

2007: 54.1 IP, .317/.374/.549, .394 wOBA
2008: 78.1 IP, .327/.404/.541, .408 wOBA
2010: 85.0 IP, .308/.367/.535, .389 wOBA
2011: 49.0 IP, .232/.327/.436, .330 wOBA
2012: 78.2 IP, .236/.318/.383, .308 wOBA
2013: 28.2 IP, .225/.265/.373, .277 wOBA

Kendrick has actually posted a higher K% against LHBs (19.7%) than RHBs (15.4%) this year, which would have been unheard of back when he was just a sinker/slider pitcher who belonged in the bullpen. The evolution of Kendrick’s change-up has allowed him to get to the point where he can go right after left-handed hitters, and he now has an out pitch he can throw against line-ups stacked with hitters from the left side. His sinking fastball still gets right-handers to hit a ton of ground balls, but now that his change-up has progressed to the point where he can actually get left-handed hitters out, Kendrick looks like a solid rotation option for the Phillies.

Josh Donaldson, 3B, Oakland

Last year, the Oakland A’s were planning on having Scott Sizemore as their starting third baseman, but he tore his ACL in spring training and would miss the entire season. The A’s didn’t have a lot of infield depth, so they turned to converted catcher Josh Donaldson as part of the solution coming out of spring training. He was, by any measure you want to use, absolutely awful.

From opening day to June 21st — when he was mercifully optioned to the minors — Donaldson came to the plate 100 times; he hit .153/.160/.235 with a 26/1 K/BB ratio, the kind of thing that just doesn’t fly in the land of Moneyball. Just as one walk in 100 plate appearances might suggest, Donaldson was a free swinging hack. He swung at 51.4% of the pitches he was thrown, including 37.0% of the pitches that were out of the strike zone. Hitters didn’t need to throw Donaldson a strike, as he would simply get himself out without requiring any effort on their part.

He came back to the big leagues a different hitter, showing a more disciplined approach, and hit .290/.356/.489 in 194 plate appearances after his August return. He still didn’t walk a lot, but he wasn’t chasing so many awful pitches, and he was forcing pitchers to throw him pitches in the strike zone.

This year, he’s taken that selective approach to a whole new level. In the first six weeks of the season, Donaldson has only swung at 43.5% of the pitches he’s been thrown, and more importantly, only 24.3% of the pitches he’s seen out of the strike zone. As a result, Donaldson has already drawn 19 walks, and his 11% walk rate is now above the league average. He already had decent contact skills, but laying off pitches out of the strike zone has allowed him to improve that as well, and now Donaldson has blossomed into one of the A’s best hitters. Essentially, Donaldson made the changes that everyone in Anaheim is begging Josh Hamilton to make. You don’t often see a player revamp his approach at age 27, but Donaldson has done just that, and it’s turned him into a legitimate Major League third baseman.

Roberto Hernandez, SP, Tampa Bay

The former Fausto Carmona’s change in approach can be summed up in one fairly simple chart.


Carmona was an extreme groundball pitcher in Cleveland, using his “tubro sinker” to force hitters to put the ball in play, but his emphasis on throwing hittable fastballs at bottom of the strike zone never really worked out the way he had hoped. Now a member of the Rays, Tampa has convinced him to become a strikeout pitcher, relying much more heavily on his slider and his change-up.

As Bradley Woodrum noted several weeks back, Hernandez had gone from throwing 13% change-ups to left-handed hitters in 2008 to 36% in the first few weeks of 2013, but he also was throwing change-ups to right-handed batters as well. For the first time in his life, Hernandez isn’t simply pounding fastballs at the bottom of the strike zone, and it turns out that his off-speed stuff is good enough to get hitters to swing and miss.

With a 113 ERA-, the conversion hasn’t turned him into an ace just yet, but the fact that Hernandez has nearly doubled his career strikeout rate without issuing more walks or allowing fewer ground balls spells good things for his future. Once his obscene 20.6% HR/FB ratio comes back more towards normal levels, Hernandez is going to look like a pretty good pitcher, and not at all like the one who used to go by his old name.

Nats’ Bats the Biggest Problem

Through the first 30 games of this season, the Washington Nationals found themselves sitting right at .500. That’d be a fine start for a lot of teams, but not for Davey Johnson’s club. After winning 98 games in 2012, general manager Mike Rizzo added starter Dan Haren, closer Rafael Soriano and outfielder Denard Span to a roster that was already bursting with talent. Consider as well that they’d get to reap the benefits of full seasons from Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, and it’s not difficult to see why the Nationals were the consensus choice to win the National League East, and seen as a potential World Series winner as well.

Though they’d won three in a row through Wednesday after dropping to .500, things still haven’t fully come together yet for the team, as it treads water behind the Atlanta Braves in the division. If you ask the average fan why that is, in all likelihood he or she would reply “Strasburg.” Most of the attention so far has been focused on the struggles of the Nationals’ young ace, as he’s battled inconsistency and right forearm tightness that at one point put his availability in question; in the seven games Strasburg has started, Washington has won just two. But for all the concern over his situation, he’s still struck out nearly a man per inning and has an adequate-if-not-quite-electric 3.45 ERA. Overall, Washington’s pitching has been fine, with a total 3.69 FIP that places the Nationals within the top 10 in baseball.

While Strasburg demands the lion’s share of the attention, the problem in Washington isn’t on the mound. It’s at the plate, where a group (excluding pitchers) that had a .331weighted on-base average last year (eighth-best in baseball) has now tumbled all the way to .302, better than only the woeful Seattle Mariners, Chicago White Sox and Miami Marlins.

That would be a surprising drop for any team, but it’s especially shocking for a roster that returned six of eight starters, cleared anchors from last year like Rick AnkielMark DeRosa,Jesus Flores and Xavier Nady, and has seen Harper blossom into arguably the most dangerous young hitter in baseball.

Johnson and Rizzo came out of the winter expecting to enjoy a productive offense — but so far, it just isn’t working.

What’s gone wrong?

It’s difficult to have a hitter as dynamic as Harper (.437 wOBA) and still rank so poorly as a team, and the only way that can really happen is if nearly the entire group around him is struggling. As you’d expect, that’s exactly what’s happened so far. Ten different Nationals had at least 100 plate appearances last year, and just two have managed to equal or better their wOBA from last season — Harper and catcher Kurt Suzuki.

Nowhere is this trend more noticeable than in the infield, where first baseman Adam LaRoche, second baseman Danny Espinosa, shortstop Ian Desmond and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman combined to form one of the better quartets in baseball last season. Between them, they combined for an even 100 home runs in 2012, and three of the four — Espinosa excluded — finished among the top seven at their positions in wOBA.

This year? Of the four, only Desmond is providing anything close to positive value, and even he has seen his wOBA drop from .362 to .326 thanks to a strikeout percentage that has jumped five points and a walk percentage that has been cut in half. His double-play partner, Espinosa, has been even worse — it’s difficult to paint a .200/.238/.379 line in a positive light — and while a .226 batting average on balls in play indicates poor luck that should even out, a line-drive rate down from last year shows that part of it is that he’s simply not hitting the ball as well. It might be as simple as pointing to the shoulder and wrist injuries he’s dealt with so far, but those are also difficult problems for a hitter to play through with success.

Yet it’s really on the infield corners where the serious problems are. LaRoche had one of the best years of his career in 2012, gaining some MVP support as he hit a career-high 33 homers to go with a .361 wOBA. So far this year, he’s been nothing short of a disaster, dropping nearly 100 points off his wOBA to go with an ugly .184/.283/.306 line.

LaRoche was hampered for part of April by a sore back, and he’s been hurt even more by a .238 BABIP. (You’ll see this is a recurring theme for the early-season Nationals.) LaRoche probably won’t repeat last year’s success, but at least in his case there’s a lot to like about what’s to come. He’s been more selective than ever, swinging at fewer pitches than in any full season of his career, and the balls he has gone after have led to a career-high 25 percent line-drive rate. We’ve been able to see the effects of that already, because after an atrocious April, he’s turned it on in May, reaching base 13 times in the first six games.

Zimmerman also missed time in April due to injury, but unlike most of his teammates, BABIP isn’t a huge issue for him. He’s just been flat-out bad, striking out nearly a quarter of the time, which would be by far a career high if he keeps it up all season long. His swing rates are largely unchanged, but he’s just not making contact as he once did, and when he does hit the ball, it ends up on the ground more than half the time.

While his April injury was to his hamstring, he’s also coming off offseason shoulder surgery. As we’ve seen with Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp recently, shoulder woes can often affect a hitter’s production long after the procedure. That goes double for his once-excellent defense, which has seen throwing problems so serious it has raised questions of when — not even if — he’ll move off third base to first to make room for prospect Anthony Rendon.

In fact — and not to completely terrify Washington fans — the Nationals’ offense as a whole looks surprisingly like another highly touted group that’s struggled to live up to expectations. That would be the flailing Toronto Blue Jays, profiled here by Insider Dave Cameron last week.


Big disappointments

The Nationals and Blue Jays were supposed to be offensive juggernauts, but both have floundered. (Stats through May 8.)

TOR .238 .304 .410 .311 .273 8.2 21.5
WAS .239 .302 .393 .302 .281 8.0 21.3


The two offenses are very similar, and being compared to a team that has more losses than anyone in baseball other than Miami and the Houston Astros is not exactly what the Nats had in mind headed into the season.

They’re in luck

Fortunately for the Nats, their prospects are brighter than those north of the border. Unlike the Jays, who have more than likely already cost themselves a shot at the playoffs as they sit in last place in the American League East, Harper and the pitching staff have more than kept the Nationals in the race. They’ve bought time for the offense to come alive, and that might be all the team needs, given that it’s incredibly unlikely that a group with this much talent is going to be saddled with such a poor BABIP all season long.

While it’s not as cut and dry an answer as many would like to hear, this does seem to be largely a result of some really atrocious batted ball luck, along with some health concerns that are keeping players like Zimmerman, Espinosa and the constantly banged-up Jayson Werth at less than 100 percent.

Washington isn’t likely to get back to last season’s offensive levels, and that’s partly by design as the club essentially swapped the extraneous Mike Morse for the defensively-talented Span. But the Nats might not need to regain their 2012 offensive form — even a simple bounce back to their established normals should be enough to support Harper and a rotation that features Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and the underrated Jordan Zimmermann. Considering how lousy their batted-ball luck has been so far, that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation.

Searching for The Spitball

The accusations are on the table. As Gordon Edes reported on ESPN Boston, Jack Morris said he thinks that Clay Buchholz was throwing a spitter in his start against the Toronto Blue Jays last week, and we know the baseball world will be watching Buchholz closely when he toes the rubber on Monday night against the Minnesota Twins.

It’s not easy to test these accusations, despite the fact that every moment of the start was recorded on video and baseball creates more data than any sport. Those who have looked closely at the Boston Red Sox pitcher’s forearm have not decided conclusively whether it’s just sweat and rosin or if there is definitely something else going on there.

Buchholz’s last start was not out of the ordinary in terms of movements.

So let’s avoid the screen captures of sweaty forearms and try to find the spitball in the numbers. PITCHf/x gives us data for the horizontal and vertical movement of every pitch. We should be able to find the outlier in the data … if it exists.

The quest for a spitball is just the quest to find a pitch that looks different. A pitch that doesn’t fit in. A fastball that moves too much, since that’s what caught Morris’ eye.

To the right are all the fastballs from Buchholz’s May first start against the Blue Jays, plotted by X and Y movement.

The pitch in red is the pitch against Jose Bautista that caught David Schoenfield’s eye. Unless Buchholz was cheating on every fastball, that pitch was perfectly “normal” on May 1. As Dan Rozenson pointed out on Baseball Prospectus, that pitch fits right in with other fastballs thrown by Buchholz and the rest of the league as well.

Drew Sheppard at FanGraphs overlaid that particular pitch against a pitch from last year in Toronto, and almost no difference was noticeable.

But what about those fastballs in green? They are outliers on the day with their near-10-inch horizontal movement, paired with wicked vertical movement and 93-94 mph gas.

Plenty of pitchers, such as Max Scherzer, have outlier pitches.

Those are excellent pitches — but they aren’t extraordinary. Max Scherzer, Matt Harvey, Jeff Samardzija and Lance Lynn all average more horizontal movement on their two-seamers than Buchholz managed with those three pitches on the day in question. Just take a look at the X- and Y-movement of the fastballs thrown by Scherzer in a start from last week against the Twins and two things should emerge quickly (see right).

First, Buchholz’s “strangest” two-seamers would fit right in the heart of Scherzer’s fastball plot. Second, Scherzer had two extreme pitches of his own, pictured here in green; nobody’s asking Scherzer these questions.

But let’s say those three pitches in green were out of the norm for Buchholz, if not out of the norm for the league’s fastballs as a whole. Let’s look at a start from last April, when things weren’t going well for the Red Sox pitcher.

Buchholz had similar movement in a start a year ago.

We do see a fairly similar spread of movement, and once again there are outliers. But you might notice that the overall movement of the group was not as impressive — the outliers move just seven inches horizontally, and the heart of the cluster is closer to five inches of movement. There was no 10-inch pitch in that game at all.

Before we start shouting and pointing, though, there’s one last thing to do: zoom out further on his career. Buchholz has had some up and downs in his short career so far, and his pitches have changed some.

Brooks Baseball judges pitch classifications carefully, pitcher by pitcher, and its date has tracked Buchholz throwing a sinker since 2009. The average horizontal movement of that sinker, year by year is shown on the right.

Clay Buchholz’s average FB horizontal movement by year
Year Movement
2009 -8.11
2010 -7.93
2011 -7.06
2012 -6.00
2013 -6.46
5/1/13 -7.58

Those famous sinking fastballs, darting low and away on May 1? They’d look right at home when measured against the fastballs Buchholz was throwing in 2009 and 2010, when the pitcher had some of the best stretches of his career. You’d think, if he was cheating against the Blue Jays, he’d have broken out the spitter in 2012, when he struggled in the worst year of his career.

Or maybe, as he suggests in this April game report, the two-seamer is a fickle beast. Like most pitches, it’s hard to throw it with the same movement every time. Sometimes it even disappears for a year or two at a time.

And then, when it’s on, it can be a pitch that’s so wicked it almost seems unfair.

The Detroit Tigers Ridiculous Rotation

The Detroit Tigers rotation is underrated. Yes, the group headlined by Justin Verlander, the one that helped carry the Tigers to the World Series last year, do not receive enough attention. You probably know that the Tigers have good starting pitching. You may not know that they have one of the best rotations any team has put together recently.

Heading into the second month of the 2013 season, here are the four best starters in the American League by Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which evaluates a pitcher based on their walks, strikeouts, and home runs allowed and is scaled to expected ERA.

1. Anibal Sanchez, 1.34
2. Yu Darvish, 1.60
3. Max Scherzer, 1.69
4. Justin Verlander, 2.11

That’s right – by FIP, the Tigers have three of the league’s top four pitchers through the first month of the season. Doug Fister, who takes the mound against the Astros on Friday, rates 14th at 3.14. Combined, those four pitchers have thrown 144 innings while posting a 2.06 FIP, which is 49 percent better than league average. To put that in some context, Pedro Martinez in 2000 — in what some consider the best single season pitching performance of all time — posted a FIP 54 percent better than league average in 217 innings. For the first month of the season, the average of the Tigers top four starters have been almost as good as Pedro Martinez at his absolute peak.

They can’t keep this up, because no one can keep this level of performance going for any sustained period of time. In particular, they’re due to give up some home runs, as they’ve only allowed four long balls between them in 22 starts. Only 3.5% of their fly balls have gone for home runs, when the league average is around 11%. Eventually, they’re going to give up some long balls.

But, even accounting for the expected rise in home run rates, these guys are on another level. By xFIP, which replaces home run rate with expected home run rate based on number of fly balls allowed, they still come out 29 percent better than average as a group, with Scherzer taking the top spot and Sanchez falling all the way to #3.

In fact, the Tigers are the poster child for why using ERA to evaluate a starting pitcher can lead to mistakes. Detroit’s rotation ranks just 6th best in the majors by ERA this year, but that’s because the defense behind them is simply not up to par. The Tigers made a conscious decision to trade defense for offense by moving Miguel Cabrera to third base to make room for Prince Fielder, and while it improved the offense, the Tigers defense simply doesn’t convert that many opportunities into outs when given the chance.

This year, the Tigers starters have allowed a .328 batting average on balls in play, third highest of any starting rotation in baseball. By Ultimate Zone Rating, the Tigers rank 26th in baseball in fielding, and it’s not like it’s just Rick Porcello — the weak link in the rotation at the moment — giving up all the hits; Sanchez (.316), Verlander (.324), and Scherzer (.380) have all given up more hits on balls in play than the league average.

If you rely on ERA to evaluate the Tigers pitchers, you’re going to end up penalizing them for the team’s decision to prioritize offense over defense among position players, and we shouldn’t hold Miguel Cabrera’s lack of range against anyone besides Miguel Cabrera. FIP focuses on solely the events where the defenders behind a pitcher are not involved, and can give us a better view of how they’ve performed on their own, without the impact of their defense clouding the picture.

So, how does this fearsome foursome stack up against other great pitching staffs of recent years? Well, the best rotation (by FIP) any team has put together in the last 20 years belongs to the 2011 Phillies, barely edging out those mid-90s Braves teams that featured Greg Maddux. As a group, the Phillies posted a 2.98 FIP, which was 23 percent better than league average. This Tigers rotation would destroy that mark at their current pace, but of course it’s easier to beat a single season record in a month’s time than to do it over a full six months of baseball.

However, their ridiculous April performance has given them a pretty good shot at besting the Phillies 2011 mark. Because their first 162 innings are already in the books, they only need to post an ERA just 19 percent better than league average over the remainder of the season in order to match the Phillies mark. Last year, Detroit’s starters FIP was 15 percent better than average, and they only had Anibal Sanchez for the final two months of the season. With Sanchez in Detroit for the entire season, the Tigers rotation this year is certainly better than last year’s, and might even be as good as that Phillies staff that led Philadelphia to 102 victories.

Cabrera and Fielder might be the two biggest guys on the team, but the starting rotation is the foundation of this Tigers team. No team has a better group of starters this year, and few teams have put together this kind of group in recent history.

Red Sox Surge Behind the Strikeout

In most years, seeing that the Boston Red Sox had the best record in the American League East and the top run differential in baseball at the end of April would come as little surprise. After all, the Red Sox have won two World Series titles in the last decade and annually find themselves in playoff contention.

But 2013 isn’t most years, because rarely are the Red Sox coming off a season in which they lost 93 games and suffered national embarrassment on a regular basis. Most observers expected the Red Sox to rebound somewhat from last year’s debacle — if only because key players would return to health and Bobby Valentine would be anywhere other than Boston — it’s safe to say that few expected the club would be among the class of baseball after the first month.

While the Red Sox have benefited thus far from the improved health of Jacoby Ellsbury andDustin Pedroia and the additions of Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino on offense, it’s pitching that is truly driving the turnaround. Last year’s collection ended up with the fourth-worst ERA in baseball; through the first month of 2013, they’d allowed the fifth-fewest runs in the game. Even more notable, however, is how they’re getting there, because this crew is striking out hitters at a record pace. After Jon Lester and Junichi Tazawa teamed to punch out seven Toronto Blue Jays to finish off April on Tuesday night, the Boston staff stood at a combined 9.94 strikeouts per nine innings.

That strikeout pace is more than two and a half batters more per game than the 2012 Red Sox had, which would be an enormous increase. Not only that, it would be the highest team rate in baseball history if they were somehow able to maintain it for the entire season. How have they managed to increase their strikeout rate so much?

It’s the pitchers

This may seem obvious — after all, the pitchers are the ones collecting the strikeouts — but there’s a lot more to it than that. The roster turnover during and after the 2012 season rid the Red Sox of several pitch-to-contact types, most notably Aaron Cook, who struck out just 20 batters in 94 innings. That’s not a typo. In fact, only one pitcher in the last 60 years threw as many innings as Cook and struck out fewer. (Here’s your chance to take a bow, Larry Pashnick of the 1982 Detroit Tigers.) The Red Sox also bade farewell to Scott Atchison(6.31 K/9 in 51.1 IP) and Josh Beckett (6.64 K/9 in 127.1 IP), while banishing Daniel Bard(5.76 K/9 in 59.1 IP) to the minors after a failed attempt to convert him into a starter.

The departed have largely been replaced by newcomers like Ryan Dempster (12.9 K/9 in 30.0 IP) and Koji Uehara (10.13 K/9 in 10.2 IP). While Uehara’s performance is largely in line with his career norms, the 36-year-old Dempster has been a revelation, striking out hitters at a pace he’s never come close to before. Dempster has always maintained decent K rates, but pitchers of his age rarely experience and then maintain such an uptick in performance, but at least in this case there’s evidence of improvement to point to rather than simply “it’s just a small sample size.”

Dempster has had an effective splitter for several years, but this year he’s throwing it more than ever, up to 18 percent of the time, while relying less on his fastball. That’s an out pitch when hitters chase it, but it’s also one that rarely ends up in the strike zone, which may also explain why Dempster’s walk rate is higher than it’s been since moving back into the rotation in 2008. As Jeff Sullivan recently went into great detail about at FanGraphs, Dempster has also slightly shifted his position on the rubber and his pitch location over the plate, largely avoiding the inner half entirely. You shouldn’t put money on Dempster retaining a K/9 date north of 12 all season, but there’s reason to believe he can sustain at least some of this improvement.

Nearly as important as the newcomers is the improvement from those who remained, and that starts with Clay Buchholz. The former top prospect struggled badly in 2012, ending the year with a 4.65 FIP and a 6.32 K/9. He has turned that around in a big way in 2013, striking out 47 in his first 44.2 innings while allowing a mere five earned runs. Andrew BaileyFelix Doubront, and Andrew Miller have each shown improved strikeout skill as well this year, which in Bailey’s case can be attributed in part to better health.

It’s the catchers and coaches

In addition to the big-name items like Dempster, shortstop Stephen Drew, reliever Joel Hanrahan, Napoli and Victorino, Boston gave a two-year contract to 36-year-old backstopDavid Ross, coming off four seasons backing up Brian McCann in Atlanta. Ross earned a reputation for being one of the better backup catchers in baseball on the strength of his .816 OPS as a Brave, but his value goes far beyond the offensive stat line.

The science of tracking pitch framing — that is, quantifying the positive or negative effect a catcher can have on having borderline pitches being called strikes based on how he receives the ball — is still in its infancy, yet Ross consistently ranks among the better catchers in the game in the studies that have been run. Backstop partner Jarrod Saltalamacchia is considered solid, but Ryan Lavarnway and Kelly Shoppach — who started 67 games behind the plate last year but are not with the big-league club this year — each grade out poorly.

That subtle upgrade helps all the pitchers, of course, but Ross may also be responsible for some of Dempster’s success. Catching a bullpen session from his new teammate in spring training, he offered Dempster the advice to try to throw all of his pitches from the same arm slot, minimizing the chance that hitters may be tipped off to what pitch was coming. Dempster acquiesced, and the data bear out the difference; his pitches are coming out far more consistently than they used to, and the veteran pitcher is off to one of the best starts of his career.

Beyond the impact Ross has brought, new manager John Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves deserve credit as well. Farrell, a veteran of eight big league seasons on the mound, and Nieves, who pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers before injuring his arm at 23, have tinkered with the release points of Buchholz, Doubront and prospect Allen Webster. Buchholz and Doubront have each shown improvement so far, and Webster has become one of the more talked-about pitching prospects in the game.

It’s the league

When we noted above that Boston’s 9.94 K/9 through April would be the highest team rate in history if kept up over an entire season, that was true. However, it’s worth pointing out that the second-highest rate ever is this year’s Detroit Tigers, with 9.79, and the eighth-best ever is the current Kansas City Royals staff at 8.51, so you can probably see where this is going. The top 40 pitching strikeout seasons have all come since the turn of the century, and that’s no surprise, because it’s a well-established fact that today’s hitters whiff far more than their ancestors did. (As Buster Olney noted, the top eight months as far as strikeouts go in the history of baseball are the last eight months of play.)

However, the 2013 American League is taking that to a new high. Last year, all AL pitchers struck out 7.41 batters per nine, which was less than the 7.69 their National League counterparts managed — to be expected, given the weaker lineups NL pitchers face. Yet this year, that number in the AL in April shot up to 7.82, while it actually decreased in the NL to 7.57.

Why? It’s likely oversimplifying to pin the swing on this reason alone, but it’s hard to ignore the one huge difference between 2012 and 2013 in baseball: the dreadful Houston Astros — on pace to be the most strikeout-prone offense in the history of the game with a whopping 26.3 percent strikeout rate through April — shifted leagues to the AL. The Red Sox had the benefit of playing Houston for a four-game set in Boston in late April; they stuck out 41 Astros during the series.

The Red Sox probably aren’t going to end the season as the all-time strikeout leaders, because it’s hard to see pitchers like Dempster maintaining quite that level of performance, and we’re of course dealing with small sample sizes for every pitcher discussed. Still, there’s a lot to like about this staff. Last season’s disaster was less about the narrative of “fried chicken and beer” than it was about poor health and indifferent coaching, and the 2013 Red Sox seem better situated to succeed than last year’s version in every regard.