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Wednesday
Jan222014

Hiroki Kuroda and Throwing in the Strike Zone 

Hiroki Kuroda cashed in $15 million last season for the New York Yankees, which was the second-most of any starter on the roster (save for C.C. Sabathia's monster $24 million salary). At the end of July, it seemed as though the 38-year-old righty would easily live up to his lofty billing, having posted a 2.38 ERA and 1.03 WHIP (sixth and tenth-best, respectively, among qualified starters up to that juncture) over 22 starts.

And then August happened.

Starting the month by allowing just three earned runs over his first two starts, Kuroda proceeded to allow 15 earned runs in his subsequent three starts (16.2 innings) to finish out the month. His struggles continued from that point on as he posted a 5.70 ERA over five September starts -- enough to raise his 2.38 ERA over the first four months of the season to 3.31, which was only slightly better than the 3.51 league average for qualified starters by the end of the regular season.

The reason for Kuroda's ERA spike? He stopped throwing in the strike zone.

Comparing Kuroda's Pitch Frequencies over both spans

Notice the shift in command toward the "inside" corner on right-handed hitters.To be fair, Kuroda has never been one to pound the strike zone at a high frequency. Since his rookie 2008 campaign, his zone% (pitches in the strike zone / total pitches) stands at just 44.7% -- including this past season -- which ranks as the seventh-lowest rate among qualified starters. This is over four percent lower than the 49% league average since 2008, and a whopping 13.8% lower than Cliff Lee, whose 58.5% zone rate since 2008 is easily the highest mark in baseball over that span.

Most of Kuroda's plate discipline numbers remained relatively steady over both spans last season. And in some cases, they actually improved -- his miss rate jumped to 23.5% from August to September and his chase followed a similar trend, increasing to 32.7%. The same cannot be said about opponents in-play average (increasing nearly .100 points) and home-run-to-fly-ball rate, which nearly doubled from August on.

From the beginning of last season to the end of July, 45.2% of Kuroda's pitches fell in the strike zone (somewhat close to the 49.8% league mark over that span). That number dropped to 38.1% from that point to the end of the season, which was the lowest mark of any qualified starter and a whole 5.3% lower than the guy with the next-lowest mark (Francisco Liriano's 43.4%). Consequently, Kuroda's zone% shrinkage directly affected opponents' increase in BABIP.

How he stacked up with the league...

...from April to July...

...and from August to September.

As we see, there seems to be a correlation between zone% and opponents BABIP last season -- when you throw less pitches in the strike zone, batters tend to have more success at finding holes in defenses. When Kuroda's zone% remained near his career average from April to July last season, his opponent BABIP (.255) was low. But when he deviated away from that mark by throwing only 38.1% of his offerings in the zone from August on, batters had much more success at finding holes in Joe Girardi's defense. Normally, you would think throwing more pitches in the zone would give batters a better opportunity to square up pitches and thus have a higher BABIP, but this clearly isn't the case.

My advice to Kuroda: Throw more pitches in the strike zone. 

Tuesday
Jan212014

Andrelton Simmons: Two-Way Threat?

Everyone knows that Andrelton Simmons can pick it. The Atlanta Braves shortstop and 2013 Gold Glove Award winner, possesing range that makes trotting out a third baseman optional and gun-you-out-from-the-seat-of-his-pants arm strength, has saved more runs through his first two major league seasons (60) than any player in history, according to Baseball-Reference. But don't sell Simmons' bat short, either -- the 24-year-old excelled offensively during the second half of the 2013 season, crushing fastballs with a more polished plate approach. Is he about to emerge as a two-way terror?

Simmons fit the all-gove, no-hit archetype during the first half, batting just .243 while getting on base at a .282 clip and slugging .348. That's lousy, even by banjo-strumming standards of the position (shortstops batted a collective .254/.308/.372 last year). After the All-Star break, however, Simmons morphed into a slugger (.255/.316/.472). His Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) more than doubled, from .105 to .217, and he hit fly balls over 20 feet farther on average (240 before the break, 262 after). As the season progressed, the potential heir to Ozzie Smith as the game's greatest defensive shortstop started lashing fastballs into the gaps and over the fence.

Simmons' slugging percentage vs. fastballs before the All-Star break, 2013

Simmons' slugging percentage vs. fastballs after the All-Star break, 2013

Simmons slugged a paltry .309 versus fastballs during the first half, which was 120 points below the MLB average and fifth lowest among qualified batters. But after the Midsummer Classic, he boosted that mark by nearly 200 points (.508 slugging percentage). A better grasp of the strike zone played a part in Simmons' improvement: he swung at 64.6 percent of fastballs thrown over the plate in the second half, up from 60.1 percent before the break and above the 64 percent big league average. That change benefited him in two ways: he fell behind in the count less often by taking fewer called strikes, and he took a cut on the sort of pitches that hitters tend to pummel (MLB batters slugged .502 when swinging at fastballs thrown in the strike zone in 2013).

As a junior college product who was originally drafted as a pitcher and barely took 1,000 trips to the plate in the minors, Simmons might just be scratching the surface of his offensive abilities. His Baseball-Reference comps through age 23 indicate that potential for two-way stardom, with Barry Larkin featuring prominently on the list. It's easy to forget that the first-ballot Hall of Famer actually scuffled offensively during his first two years in Cincinnati (81 OPS+ in 1986-87) before evolving into one of the better hitting shortstops in recent memory (116 career OPS+). J.J. Hardy isn't as sexy a name, but he has been quite valuable by playing vacuum cleaner D and routinely clearing the fences.

With sublime, perhaps even unprecedented defensive skill, Simmons merely needs to avoid being an automatic out at the plate to be one of the more valuable shortstops in the game. But if even a portion of his second-half gains carry over into 2014 and beyond, Atlanta could have its first MVP since Chipper Jones 15 years ago.

Monday
Jan202014

Homer Bailey's Strikeout Development Legitimizes Contract Extension

In an offseason where contract extensions for starting pitchers have become in vogue, multiple reports suggest that the Cincinnati Reds aren't far away from extending Homer Bailey, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent next winter. According to MLB.com's Mark Sheldon, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty is "optimistic" that a multi-year deal will get done despite Bailey rejecting the team's arbitration offer last Thursday. In the final year of his arbitration eligibility, Bailey had vouched for a $11.6 million 2014 salary that was significantly higher than repoted $8.7 million Jocketty was willing to pay for him at that juncture.

Whether or not this stark difference in value will affect Bailey's willingness to re-sign with the Reds remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Homer Bailey is (finally) transforming into the 'ace' type starter Cincinnati recognized when its front office staff drafted him with the seventh overall pick in 2004.

It wasn't always like that, though. From his first true season in 2009 to the end of 2012, Bailey was nothing more than an average starter -- at best. In 94 outings (all starts) over that span, the La Grange (TX) High School product held true to a 4.18 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 7.4 K/9 ratio and 2.8 BB/9 ratio compared to the league-average starter's 4.05 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 6.9 K/9 ratio and 2.8 BB/9 ratio. In most cases, Bailey would have been considered a decent back-end starter. But for a former top prospect in a system that housed Joey VottoJay Bruce and Johnny Cueto, numbers like this were largely disappointing.

Then 2013 rolled around, and several things changed. Aside from setting career-best marks in ERA (3.49), WHIP (1.12), ground-ball rate (46.1%), opponents' OPS (.660), Bailey increased his strikeout ratio (K/9) to 8.6  -- a year after punching out a near league-average ratio of 7.3. For those keeping tabs, that's nearly a five percent increase (19.2% in 2012, 23.1% in 2013) in strikeouts per 100 plate appearances, which last season was on par with Justin Verlander's 23.5% strikeout rate.

How was he able to accomplish this?

Comparing Bailey's Strikeout Pitch Frequencies, 2009-2013

Looking at Bailey's strikeout locations over the past five seasons, we notice that his strikeouts have progressively shifted away from the middle portion of the plate toward the "edge" of the strike zone, particularly in 2013. This observation is a correct one, as Bailey's strikeout zone% (pitches thrown in the strike zone) has decreased steadily, beginning at 53% in 2009 and finishing at a career-low (keep this in mind) 43.2% last season. The same can be said about his overall zone%, which started at 51.2% in 2009 and shrunk to a career-low 49.6% in 2013.

What's the Correlation?

How has Bailey's exodus to the outer-portion of the strike zone affected his total number of strikeouts? As we can see, there is a clear correlation between the two: As Bailey has thrown fewer pitches in the zone (see 'overall zone%' data trend), his strikeout rate has increased, albeit not in perfect progression. Simultaneously, his chase, miss and called strike rate have increased on a steady incline, and his strikeout zone% has, as already noted, decreased over the last five seasons. Normally, you'd think throwing less pitches in the zone equates to fewer called strikes, and thus, batters would be less willing to chase those offerings.

What's the trend?

Comparing starting pitchers' zone% and strikeout rate since 2009

If you thought that, you were correct. Since 2009, the trend suggests that as a pitcher's zone% decreases, his strikeout rate should follow suit. But this is not the case with Bailey, as we've discussed -- he's drifting outside the zone, yet his strikeout rate has increased. Throwing any more pitches out of the zone would really be pushing his luck with home plate umpires, at least in my mind.

Whatever the case may be, it seems Bailey has discovered the key to increasing his strikeouts: Throwing away from the middle of the plate and working the edges of the zone -- even if that means throwing less pitches in the zone. Whether or not Bailey can get away with throwing progressively fewer pitches in the zone while increasing his strikeout rate remains to be seen, but for right now, it seems this strategy has transformed him into one of the more lethal right-handed starters in the game.