Has it been a month already since I last posted? Oof. Que terrible.
Well, if you’re so inclined, check out some of the things I have written for Parts Elsewhere on the Series of Tubes, yes?
I have written a little more about injuries for Beyond the Box Score as of late. In particular, ulnar collateral ligament tears.
First, I revisited the Medlen/Strasburg debate, looking at whether leverage might have played a role in Kris Medlen’s re-injury, while Stephen Strasburg continues to truck on, almost four years post-Tommy John surgery.
I then take a page out of my old lab notebooks and consider whether tobacco use might play a role in UCL re-tears and poorer outcomes, surgically.
Hot off the presses, I also take a look at the role of the triceps muscle in the throwing motion, through the lens of Scott Kazmir’s recent triceps tightness.
For Gammons Daily, it’s been all about pitching.
For the Athletics fan in your life, I wrote about the move of Jesse Chavez from the bullpen to the starting rotation and what he might do differently pitch-wise in the new role.
Maintaining the California Love, I then had a look at Tyler Skaggs’ Uncle Charlie. Lookin’ good…
Nationals baseball more your thing?
My condolences I have just the thing for you!
For District Sports Page, I’ve covered a numbers of things:
– defensive shifts and their effect on Nats hitters? Got it.
– discussion of some troubling velocity declines for some pitchers? Order’s up!
– Ross Detwiler and some discussion of why he fell short for the fifth starter role (for now)? Enjoy.
– Rafael Soriano? Yes, I have that as well, much to your chagrin.
– Drew Storen and his troubling walk rate during spring training…WITH PRETTY PICTURES? Ayup.
– STRASBURG OUTRAGE AFTER ONE GAME? Embrace it.
– Man crushin’ on Anthony Rendon’s swing? Alright, alright.
Adding to the DSP work, I have been invited to guest blog for MASN, which I am very excited to be a part of.
I started with a comparison of Stephen Strasburg and Tyler Clippard, went from there with a discussion of some quirky stats related to the aggressiveness of Nats hitters early in the season, and went with more velocity decline concerns, this time, with Taylor Jordan.
Lots of words. Lots to discuss. I hope you enjoy them. If you don’t, I welcome your comments (constructive ones, at least) on how to make the words better-er.
A few days back, I had a look at the statistic ‘pace’ and briefly discussed how pace affected the Washington Nationals pitching staff. Overall, we found that the Nats staff is fairly quick compared to the rest of MLB, with relievers being more apt to dawdle. We also discussed very briefly what, outside of a pitcher’s internal clock, could factor in to the pace stat — things like home run rate, holding runners on, and what have you.
Let’s return to this topic of pace and more specifically to the topic and its effects on the Nats’ big three starters — Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmermann. We have already seen some of their cursory pace data, but let’s now look at these three with a different lens; let’s now look at the role and effect of the catcher on pace as well as some of their other pitching stats.
First, some brief materials and methods discussion. Again using FanGraphs data, I grabbed game log data for all three for 2013, including pace, plate discipline data (think contact and swing rates), as well as some other standard data (things like pitch counts, home runs, walks, FIP, and xFIP stats). From there, I matched the games to each of the big three catchers for the Nats last season — Wilson Ramos, Kurt Suzuki, and Jhonatan Solano, with the idea of doing some statistical voodoo and breaking down pitcher stats (pace, xFIP, et cetera) by catcher to see if there were any significant differences in how quickly or productively each of the Big Three pitched, depending on who was behind the dish.
One more caveat to our methods here; for each pairing, I used the catcher who started as the catcher for each pairing. While there are a few games where the starter was relieved mid-game and a pitcher’s pace could possibly be affected by this change, I made the leap that the potential for this is negligible. Also, for the most part, catcher swapping was done later in the game, by the time our Big Three were pulled from the game; therefore, pitcher data should be consistent across catcher. While I could do my due diligence and break this all down by inning, the amount of manual manipulation of the data to do that is too much of a time suck, so here we are.
Good with that? A reasonable leap of faith taken? Moving along…
So. Our catchers. We have three, and here are their vital stats for this data set:
Ramos: 44 games caught
Solano: 4 games caught
Suzuki: 46 games caught
One quirk here as well — Solano only caught Strasburg, while Suzuki and Ramos both caught all of the Big Three. More on this later.
Now, some data, in the form of pretty charts!
First pace and pitches per inning for the Big Three; for the moment, I am filtering out Solano data.
Not too much here; overall, pace is pace for our Big Three, regardless of the catcher, with Suzuki getting pitchers to work a hair faster and hair more economically. I will save you the statistical gymnastics and tables, but there were no statistically significant differences in any of the pitching stats I grabbed across catcher.
The stats I looked at were:
xFIP – FIP
So with that aside out of the way, let’s keep looking data; here we look at the difference between xFIP and FIP (xFIP minus FIP) between catchers as well as strike rate:
With the difference between xFIP and FIP, it was my thought it could possibly portend to some sort of measure for catcher-pitcher dynamic, given that in general, both should trend together tightly for a pitcher, since the only huge difference between the two is how they handle home runs in their calculation. With that in mind, more positive numbers are desired, since it means that the pitcher-catcher combo did better than expected, at least with FIP as our yardstick. Does it really mean anything? Probably not; however, it is interesting to see that all three starters did worse than expected, on average, with Suzuki catching and that Strasburg’s Ramos outings were a full run worse. Again, there might be something here, but I am doubtful. Moving on to strike rate, we again see no real grand deviations with differences in catcher considered. Not shocking.
Now, let’s take a look at the Solano data; let’s also remember that this is based on FOUR GAMES, so we really can’t say much about it, but we can at least admire the differences seen with Solano’s signal calling:
Kind of quirky. With Solano catching, Strasburg improves across the board with the pitching stats of interest; again, it’s only four games, and there are a ton of variables and effects that we are not taking into account with the data as presented, but it is an interesting trend we see. Two things that are beaten into a pitcher’s head — work fast and throw strikes — that are purported to be the secret to success are seen with Solano, for Strasburg, in spades. Is it an effect of Solano and possibly some intangible rapport the pair has? Maybe. Could it be simple coincidence? Yep, could be that too. But it will be an interesting trend to keep an eye on in 2014.
Could all of this be luck?
It could be that too; these BABIP rates by catcher are interesting just as an aside, not so much as a predictor of success (BABIP stinks for that), but how different the rates are across catcher and it speaking to there possibly being an effect of pitch selection amongst each of the pairings. Another study for another day, I suppose.
While there are many aspects of the fulfilling the duties of a catcher that haven’t been considered here, by the looks of it, the Nats are fortunate to have a pair of catchers in place for 2014 — Ramos and Solano — who won’t be poisonous to the overall productivity of their Big Three starters and might even be positive influences on their staff.
It’s been awhile since I’ve last posted here and while I would love to tell you I have spent the time away from HDIB? analyzing the L.O.M.B.O. data and results in preparation for a manuscript that will be submitted to the International Journal of Sport Grit and Want and Desire and Other Things No One Can Truly Measure But Dammit We Try — the IJSGWDOTNOCTMBDWT for short — alas, I have not.
I have however, been busy writing about the Shutdown. Put away the pitchforks and take a look at what Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann have done before and after Tommy John surgery and having their innings limited post operatively across a number of stats and categories:
For the Orioles fan in your life, I have lots of prose dedicated to Manny Machado and his MPFL injury and his prospects for a healthy return and what that means for the Orioles in 2014:
Looking to 2014, part of a series over at Camden Depot breaking down 2013 and 2014 by position.
I will be helping out Camden Depot with a couple more of these year in review write ups, focusing more on the O’s bullpen; you can also find more of my nerd math writings over at Beyond the Box Score, if you enjoyed the Strasburg/Zimmermann/TJ bits discussed.
Anyone know what IJSGWDOTNOCTMBDWT’s impact factor is? Might have to shop L.O.M.B.O. around…
Earlier in the week, Harry Pavlidis had an article in the WaPo breaking down the changeups featured by the Washington Nationals and a breakdown of each into one of four categories that evolved from whether the changeup generated lots of swings and misses (called a ‘whiffer’) or groundballs (a ‘grounder’). If a pitcher’s changeup did both, it was a ‘double threat’ pitch and a ‘no threat’ if the whiff and groundball rates generated by the pitch were sub par. It comes as no surprise to anyone who watches Nats games that Stephen Strasburg‘s changeup is a double threat and one that Pavlidis admits to arguably being the best in baseball. Also garnering high marks but ultimately labeled a grounder type of changeup was Tyler Clippard‘s change of speed, which he pairs with a fastball that he keeps up in the zone to get batters to produce a large number of strikeouts and flyballs. This pairing as well as the part of the strike zone Clippard lives in is not a common approach to get hitters out, but Clippard’s track record is plenty of proof that it can be effective.
Getting back to the changeup, I had a look at the differences between Clippard’s and Strasburg’s changeup, looking for what made Stras’ a double threat and Clip’s just a grounder. Both fantastic pitches, but what was the secret to Strasburg’s offspeed success? While the velocity differences do show some significant disparity — Clippard’s changeup is of the ‘Bugs Bunny’ variety, with a ton of velocity bled off of it compared to his fastball, while Strasburg’s is closer to his fastball velocity, occasionally touching the low-90’s — perusing the PITCHf/x data of each brought to light another difference between the two elite Nats changeups.
What each of these gifs shows is the overlay of the release points of each of the changeups and fourseam fastballs thrown by each pitcher in 2013. With Clippard, we see a bit of a disparity between the fastball and changeup release points, while with Strasburg, we see all pitches essentially coming out of the same arm slot — both pitches are leaving Strasburg’s hand at essentially the same spot every time, making it difficult for hitters to distinguish between the two, making the changeup even more effective. It isn’t until the hitter has committed to swing at what is believed to be a fastball that they realize it’s not a fastball, but a changeup. From there, the hitter is not only victim to the change of speed, but also the arm side tail and movement of the pitch that makes Stras’ changeup so devastating. While Clippard’s changeup is no slouch, we do see two relatively distinct clusters, which can possibly make his changeup a tad easier to pick up versus Strasburg’s. Could this tiny difference in release point be the difference between a good changeup — either a whiffer or a grounder — versus a double threat? Possibly. Yet, like with so many other aspects of pitching, there’s more than one way to do things and do them well, and with the two Nats pitchers discussed, we see a difference in philosophy and approach that leads to the same result — a bad swing from a confused hitter.
There were a number of table (and head) turning plays in the Cincinnati Reds 6-3 win over the Washington Nationals yesterday, giving the Reds the rubber match for the early season series in what portends to be a budding rivalry of National League powers.
Nats Kurt Suzuki‘s game tying 3 run homer in the 2nd inning? Literally head turning, and a hit that created a 22% swing in win probability towards the Nats.
While it didn’t have the pizzaz of a scorched home run, or a perfectly choreographed double play, Werth’s single at the heels of Suzuki’s homer was important in how well Werth battled Reds SP Johnny Cueto and stayed true to his hitting approach, in spite of facing some tough pitches.
Let’s take a look at the at-bat with the help of PITCHf/x and Brooks Baseball:
The greenish-blue square, out of the zone and labeled ‘5’, is what Werth hit into left-center, off of an 83 MPH changeup. OK, so not all that impressive when presented in this fashion.
With the help of Twitter celebrity Jayson Werth’s Beard, let’s have a look at the fifth pitch of the at bat that produced the single from a couple of angles:
It’s a little tough to see, but watch Werth’s back-end – his lower half has already committed, and his swing is slightly off-balance, which hints at Werth looking fastball and getting a changeup. To put it another way, he got fooled. Cueto’s career resurgence of the last year or so has been at the hands of his further developing the changeup into the devastating pitch it is, so Werth has nothing to be ashamed of – it’s a fantastic pitch.
Let’s look at the at bat from the first base side:
Looking at it from this angle, we have a better appreciation of what Werth did to get his single – fooled by the change of speed and possibly by the sink and tail of the pitch, Werth does some impressive improvisation of his swing to get his bat on the ball, and is rewarded with a single.
Here’s a still pic to better show how off-balance Werth was, and how impressive it is that he made as solid of contact as he did on the Cueto changeup:
While it didn’t play a huge role in the outcome of the game, Werth’s at bat against Cueto did highlight a couple of the things that makes Werth a great 2-hole hitter – he has the ability to take pitchers deep into counts and make solid contact with any pitch a pitcher might offer, be it fastball or offspeed. While his pitch recognition will continue to improve as the season progresses and the off-balance, let me throw my bat out and hope for the best swings will subside, the fact that he is already making good contact and putting the ball in play, even when fooled, bodes well for a productive season for Werth in the 2-spot in the Nats lineup.
Coming into spring training, the expectations for the 2013 Washington Nationals, needless to say, are much different from those placed in front of them in 2012. A NL East championship, an unfettered Stephen Strasburg (at least innings-wise), and a couple of fresh faces in the form of Denard Span and Dan Haren all add weight to the already heady prognostications set forth by those who…uh…prognosticate.
These are but a small sampling of what’s shaping DC expectations; beyond them is what is being impatiently expected out of the age 20 season of NL Rookie of the Year
and future curer of cancer Bryce Harper. Thus far in his 33 spring training plate appearances, Harper is doing everything he can to silence critics that forecast a sophomore slump, hitting at a .438/.455/.750 slash line in his Florida environs. This of course, has Nationals fans’ hearts aflutter, thinking of what his 1.205 spring training OPS will translate to, once the regular season begins and teams start playing for keeps – All Star appearances, MVP’s… championships?
Or nothing at all?
The chronicles of baseball lore are strewn with the names of rookies who sparkled, only to immediately fade once season two came upon them; who can really say for any certainty that this won’t happen to Harper? Who can say that spring training stats *are* useful, and possibly prognosticators of a fabulous follow-up season?
Well, for this post, we can. Let’s get to it.
To preface our little exercise, let’s have a look at what Matthew Kory recently wrote about Harper and the expectations surrounding him and his 2013 season. For those of you too lazy to click the link, I will paraphrase – what Harper has done at age 19, using home runs and OPS as measures of success, hasn’t been done very often, and typically not in the same way that Harper did it in 2012. As such, his encore performance in 2013 is hard to predict, given his unique skill set.
So we have a tough task ahead of us, fair enough. Let’s take what Kory has given us, fiddle with the numbers a bit, and add a little something more, shall we?
Thanks to Baseball Reference, we have all of Harper’s numbers at our fingertips – let’s compare them to what others have done at age 19 historically, looking at both OPS+ and BRef’s version of Wins Above Replacement – rWAR. For Harper, he came in at a respectable 119 OPS+ and a 5.0 rWAR in his age 19 season – so respectable, that no one else in baseball history has performed above that OPS+/rWAR combination as a teenager. Let’s loosen the criteria a tad – the only other players in MLB history aside from Harper to have an OPS+ greater than 119 along with a rWAR greater than 2.0 as teens were Ty Cobb (132 OPS+/2.3 rWAR) and Mel Ott (139/3.7), both of whom were mentioned in Kory’s article. As a rough guide, a 2.0 rWAR is considered starter level output; anything at 5.0 or above is All Star quality.
The numbers so far are historical, and may or may not be predictive of future performance. Of course, we won’t know for a while whether Harper will repeat his 119 OPS+/5.0 rWAR 2012, but we can see if Cobb and Ott duplicated or bettered their age 19 seasons as 20 year olds, as measured by OPS+ and rWAR. To the numbers (courtesy of Baseball Reference)!
Well, then. If history is to be trusted, Harper has some work ahead of him this year, if he is to equal his historical equals with regards to his age 20 season. Looking only at rWAR, Cobb’s age 20 saw a 187% increase in rWAR, with Ott showing a 97% increase in rWAR the year after his age 19 3.7 rWAR season. For Harper to emulate these jumps in performance, he would have to finish 2013 with at least a 9.8 rWAR; 56 seasons of 9.8 rWAR or greater have been seen in MLB history, the most recent being Mike Trout‘s 2012 10.7 rWAR season… at age 20.
Right now, Harper is looking at some heady numbers to put up come the regular season to keep up with the Cobbs and Otts of the MLB world, and continue the statistical trajectory he has set himself upon into his 20’s. As previously mentioned, he’s doing a heck of a job of doing just that thus far in spring training. Let’s look at some more data and take a sampling of who is performing as well as, if not better than Harper thus far in spring training, and see if we can gain anything from it, as it pertains to Harper’s potential for 2013. For this table, we are looking at players who have a 1.205 OPS or better in 33 or more spring training plate appearances (PA):
Even as hot as Harper’s bat has been to start 2013, there are plenty of others that are just as locked in; also of note is the lack of star players on the list, aside from Brandon Belt. Looking at it from another perspective, we can also say that Harper is doing all of this against close to MLB quality opponents, as seen with his 8.9 OppQual stat. OppQual – or Opponent Quality – is a new stat from Baseball Reference, which attempts to grade the quality of the pitchers a hitter faces in spring training. Given the number of players invited to participate in spring training, from guys just out of rookie league ball, up to MLB veterans, this value is a nice way to help determine whether spring training hitting stats have some bite to them. While Harper will of course face better pitching come the regular season, it won’t be by much, if OppQual is to be taken into consideration; MLB level quality opponents are scored a 10, with AAA level players scoring an 8 per OppQual. Harper’s 8.9 and Belt’s 9.3 show that they are hitting against just about MLB quality opponents.
While the numbers and methods to the madness that I have presented are in no way the be all, end all, I think they lend themselves some credibility in explaining not only how special a player Bryce Harper has been already, but could possibly be. On the other side of the coin, it also shows that a tempering of expectations is necessary, not only to keep things in perspective regarding Harper’s possible place in baseball history, but also within the context of a season, a season that really hasn’t truly begun. For every Albert Pujols, who led all hitters in spring training OPS in 2012, there’s a Kila Ka’aihue, who ‘won’ spring training OPS honours in 2011, only to follow it up with a 69 OPS+ that season for the Kansas City Royals.
While many will consider this perspective to be one straight out of a Debbie Downer skit, it’s one that allows sanity to remain firmly in one’s grasp, something that many baseball fans can’t boast (see: Cubs, Chicago).
No matter what Harper does in 2013 and beyond, he still has much to be proud of. Harper has already bettered fellow Las Vegan and former Rookie of the Year Marty Cordova, not only in garnering All Star honours – something no position player born in Vegas can boast – but also by not missing games after succumbing to tanning booth sunburn.
Ahh, silver linings.
Much has been discussed about the ‘premature’ shutdown of Stephen Strasburg, as the Nationals head into the last month of the regular season with a commanding lead over the Atlanta Braves for the top spot in the NL East. I won’t inundate you with links for the thoughts, and opinions of many who have weighed in on the matter; a bit of googling or 30 seconds of listening in to the sports talk radio show of your liking will give you all of the fodder you need to keep abreast of the situation. In the end, the decision to keep Strasburg at what many consider to be a pedestrian 160ish innings for the season, postseason be damned, rests with but a handful of people; those people will continue to toe the company line, and say that this decision was done with the best of intentions, not only for Strasburg, but for the collective futures of those affiliated with the Nationals.
While Mike Rizzo, Davey Johnson, and in some respects, super agent Scott Boras bear the brunt of the decision-making, and the vitriol revolving around ending Strasburg’s season, there remains one other person implicated, with of an opinion that bears enough weight to be considered in full, and the only man of this brain trust that has experienced the mental and physical dilemmas that predicate the decision to shut down Washington’s ace.
Steve McCatty, more than most, can and will vouch for the need for a franchise to protect the arms of their pitchers, not only as a pitching coach, but also as someone who wishes to prevent history repeating itself – his own.
While known now as the no-nonsense mustachioed pitching coach, and a man who has nurtured and re-energized the careers of many a Nats pitcher, he himself was a pitcher, and one who enjoyed success, albeit fleetingly.
A member of the Oakland A’s in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, during the reign of Billy Martin, McCatty was part of a feared starting rotation that embodied, and fell victim to, BillyBall.
The early 80’s provided a renaissance of sorts for Oakland baseball, and McCatty was an integral part of this rejuvenation. As much joy as the early ’70s A’s teams brought the East Bay in the form of 3 World Series titles from 1972-74, the late 1970’s brought as much anguish, culminating in a harrowing 54-108 record in the ’79 season. However, as with any managerial changing of the guard, and of a philosophy, growing pains will prevail, and prevail they did under the helm of Martin.
The ’79 season gave way to a hopeful 83-79 1980 season, which then brought a great, albeit shortened 1981 season for the A’s, not only due to a player’s strike, but a poor showing in the American League Championship Series, seeing the A’s being swept by the New York Yankees.
Coinciding with this resurgence of winning in Oakland came the progress and apex of McCatty’s pitching prowess. Aside from a handful of innings in 1977 and 1978, Cat’s career didn’t really take off until the ’79 season, which saw him jump from 75 innings pitched in the majors and minors in ’78 to 205.2 innings pitched between Oakland, and AAA Ogden in ’79. Ending the ’79 season with a 11-12 record, good for 19% of the A’s win total that year, McCatty’s innings saw about a 175% increase from 1978. Just looking at his MLB numbers for those two years, Cat saw an 828% increase in workload. Take into consideration the Nationals policy for increasing a pitcher’s workload during the formative years, and the numbers further astound.
While his workload increase from ’79 to 1980 was a more tolerable 7%, and more inline with the natural progression of a young starter maturing into his role as a top flight starter, the wear and tear that BillyBall brought to the arms of the A’s was starting to show. However, McCatty soldiered on, and was rewarded with a fantastic 1981 season, which saw the A’s take the AL West, and McCatty go 14-7, good for a second place finish in AL Cy Young Award voting. He did this to the tune of 185.1 innings pitched, which at first glance, isn’t that much. However, given the strike shortened season, this is deceiving. Were it not for the strike, McCatty was on pace for a 20 win season, with around 250 innings pitched, assuming a typical starter making 30 starts in a season.
That’s not all that was impressive about his 1981 season. For ’81, Cat averaged over 8 innings PER START, with an astounding 16 of his 22 starts completed.
*16* complete games, with two of his starts seeing him go 10 innings.
This was par for the course for Oakland pitchers under the BillyBall philosophy, and it served them well…for two years.
As the calendar turned over to a new year and baseball season, the A’s saw their good fortunes of 1981 fizzle away in 1982 – a 68-94 record, and arm injuries to the starters signified the beginning of the end. As his fastball velocity went down, so did McCatty’s innings. Acknowledging pitching through pain most of those halcyon years, and those following them, Cat became nothing more than a junkballer after 1981, getting by on changing speeds, and veteran guile, his once mighty fastball all but a memory, post 1981.
In the end, McCatty’s promising career careened to a halt in 1986, spending most of his remaining years and innings as a reliever, and mop up man, his days of almost Cy Young caliber dominance exactly that – days past. No one remembers who came in second, and that point is driven home when it’s your middle reliever holding that uncrowned achievement.
Time heals all wounds, and to this day, Steve McCatty doesn’t speak ill of how Billy Martin used him, or the rest of the pitching staff during his days as a Oakland Athletic. He was paid to pitch, and that’s exactly what he did, to the detriment of the team in the end, and to the detriment of his arm, and baseball legacy.
The siren song of taking your horse and using him in a maximal fashion each start is alluring, but the rocks off of the shore of championships, and the glory bestowed upon those who achieve it, are too craggy to navigate without an unfailing compass of knowledge, which is lacking when it comes to the handling of post Tommy John surgery hurlers.
The Nationals have not been there yet, to set foot on the sandy beaches of World Series glory, but the shore is in their sights for the first time in their voyage as DC’s team. There is much to be said about being in the always troubling position of being the one who sets a precedent, be it successful, or a warning to others to not follow in their footsteps; this is the position that the Nationals find themselves in, and their every move along their course to the postseason without Stephen Strasburg is being eyed with hawk-like acuity by others.
The desire to be first is all-encompassing, but it should not be at the cost of the livelihood of any player, and his long-term health, and his career. Steve McCatty has tread those waters before, and drowned in the vortex of winning now, at all costs, all hands and arms on deck.
One can only hope that his career provides enough of a warning to Washington to stay true to the course they have set out on, as the siren sings on.