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Monday
Jan062014

How to Dominate With Mid-80's Heat, By Greg Maddux

In this polarized age of Hall of Fame voting, when debates center on how to evaluate stars associated with PEDS and whether the limit of ten players per ballot should be abolished, one man unites the masses: Greg Maddux. Newly eligible for Cooperstown, Maddux is expected to soar past the 75 percent threshold for induction and perhaps even challenge Tom Seaver's record vote percentage of 98.84, established in 1992.

It's easy to see why Mad Dog will achieve baseball's highest honor. He was durable, eclipsing 5,000 innings pitched during his 23-year career, and dominant, posting the tenth-best park-and-league-adjusted ERA (32 percent above average) among starting pitchers (minimum 3,000 frames). There's also his record 18 Gold Gloves, the product of a silky-smooth delivery that left him square to the batter and surprising athleticism for guy who looks more like a CPA than an MLB legend.

Maddux was still schooling hitters at the end of his career in 2008, despite possessing raw stuff that wouldn't have landed him so much as a minor league deal. He had no fastball to speak of, throwing the pitch at an average speed (84.3 MPH) that bested only Jamie Moyer (80.9 MPH) among qualified starters. Just about nobody swung through Maddux's "heat," as his whiff rate (7.1 percent) was barely half of the league average (14 percent). Yet, Maddux got elite results with an ultra-slow pitch that elicited scads of contact. Among qualified starters, only Ryan Dempster and Daisuke Matsuzaka had a lower opponent slugging percentage on fastballs thrown:

Lowest opponent slugging percentage on fastballs, 2008

 

How did Maddux do it? The then-42-year-old triumphed over the radar gun by stealing strikes on pitches thrown just outside of the strike zone, avoiding the fat part of the plate, and generating bushels of ground balls.

Stealing Strikes

Maddux was the dean of expanding hitters' strike zones. In '08, he had the highest called strike rate (42.8 percent) among National League starters and trailed only another deserving, though much less acclaimed, Hall of Famer in Mike Mussina (43.8 percent) among all pitchers. Maddux was especially adept at getting called strikes on borderline pitches. Check out his called strike rate on pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, compared to the league average:

Maddux's called strike rate on fastballs thrown outside of the strike zone, 2008

League average called strike rate on fastballs thrown outside of the strike zone, 2008

Overall, pitchers got called strikes 13.1 percent of the time they threw something off the plate in 2008. But Maddux? He got a called strike 20 percent of the time, ranking behind only Livan Hernandez (21.7 percent) and Jake Peavy (20.5 percent). If there's one saving grace in being a soft-tosser, it's that umps tend to give you more calls compared to power pitchers.

Avoiding hitters' wheelhouse

Everyone knows that Maddux threw a ton of strikes -- you don't compile the best career strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.37) this side of Mussina, Cy Young and Curt Schilling by nibbling. But Maddux threw quality strikes as well, painting the corners and rarely missing his spots. Take a look at his fastball pitch location against lefties and righties in '08:

Maddux's fastball location vs. left-handed hitters, 2008

 

Maddux's fastball location vs. right-handed hitters, 2008

For Maddux, it was all about avoiding the center of the plate. He threw fewer pitches to the horizontal middle of the strike zone (21.2 percent) than the average starter (23.3 percent), instead living on the outside corner against lefties and righties alike. Maddux tossed the fifth-highest rate of fastballs to the outside corner (60.6 percent) among all starters. That kind of command is the difference between getting clobbered (hitters slugged .500 that year against fastballs thrown down the middle) and entering Cooperstown (they slugged .355 versus fastballs thrown away).

Burning worms

Mad Dog knows that chicks dig the long ball, but he was notoriously stingy in giving them up. He surrendered just 0.6 home runs per nine innings pitched, second-lowest among starters who have logged 3,000+ innings since his big league debut in 1986 (Kevin Brown is first, at 0.57 HR/9). During his swan song season, Maddux still ranked in the top ten among starters in fastball ground ball rate:

Highest ground ball rate on fastballs, 2008

Maddux is a prime example of why so many former Little League and high school players, eventually forced out of the lineup, still love the game. He wasn't big. He didn't throw hard. He had crappy vision and wore the biggest glasses this side of Harry Caray before eventually undergoing LASIK surgery. He was like us. Or, at least it felt that way. Appearance and stuff aside, Maddux is in a class all his own when it comes to outwitting hitters.

 

Tuesday
Dec312013

Can Tanaka's Splitter Top These Guys?

Masahiro Tanaka will likely become the first Japanese star to earn a $100 million contract in the states, thanks to a confluence of factors including unprecedented TV money permeating the game, a new posting system that shifts more cash from Nippon Professional Baseball teams to players, and the 25-year-old's youth, power and precision on the mound. Statistically, Tanaka compares favorably to other top Japanese starting pitchers who have made the jump to Major League Baseball. He's got the stuff to match up, too. While the Rakuten Golden Eagles ace and reigning Sawamura Award winner can best hitters many different ways, his splitter garners the most international acclaim.

Tanaka throws his upper-80s splitter around 15 percent of the time, according to the NPB Tracker website. Baseball America's Ben Badler calls the offering "arguably the best in the world," noting that overmatched NPB batters routinely swing over the pitch as it plummets toward the dirt. Tanaka's out pitch will make him an outlier in the majors. Just 1.4 percent of the total MLB pitches thrown over the past three seasons have been splitters, and only 17 hurlers have thrown the pitch at least 10 percent of the time over that period.

If Tanaka truly wants to lay claim to having the world's best splitter, he must top a collection of pitchers including Japanese standouts like Hiroki Kuroda, Hisashi Iwakuma and Koji Uehara. Here's a look at Tanaka's competition for the title of splitter king, with top 10 rankings over the 2011-13 seasons in swings and misses, chases on pitches tossed out of the strike zone, strikes thrown, ground balls induced, and opponent slugging percentage.

Splitter Whiff Rate

 

Percentage of Splitters Chased out of the Strike Zone

 

Splitter Strike Rate

 

Splitter Ground Ball Rate

 

Opponent Slugging Percentage vs. the Splitter

Monday
Dec302013

Masahiro Tanaka, Statistically Speaking

Let the bidding commence! Nippon Professional Baseball's Rakuten Golden Eagles officially posted Masahiro Tanaka last week, opening the door for MLB clubs to land the two-time winner of the Sawamura Award, Japan's Cy Young equivalent. Tanaka will undoubtedly sign the richest contract ever for a Japanese player coming stateside, as the new posting agreement between the leagues essentially allows all MLB teams to pay up to a $20 million fee to the Eagles for the right to negotiate a free agent contract with the 25-year-old ace (the fee is refunded to teams that don't sign him). Previously, the posting fee was uncapped, with teams bidding blindly against one another for the exclusive right to negotiate with the player.

So, why will Tanaka soon blow past Yu Darvish's $56 million cut from the Texas Rangers and potentially ink the first $100 million (posting fee excluded) deal for a Japanese player? He possesses premium stuff, complementing his low-to-mid-90s heat with a devastating splitter, a tight slider and an occasional curveball. His stats are pretty impressive, too, as Tanaka compares quite favorably to other starting pitchers who have made the jump from Japan to the majors.

To see how Tanaka stacks up with the likes of Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hiroki Kuroda and Hideo Nomo, I found the ERA, strikeout, walk, and home run rates for Japanese starters during their last three seasons before arriving in the majors. I then compared them to the NPB league average over that time frame and placed the stats on a scale where 100 is exactly average, north of 100 means the pitcher is above average in that category and under 100 means he's below average. I weighted the stats to put more emphasis on the pitcher's most recent work (50 percent weight to his last season in Japan, 30 percent to the second-to-last year, and 20 percent to the third-to-last year). The numbers aren't park-adjusted, so keep that in mind as you look at the table below (Miyagi Baseball Stadium, Tanaka's home park, appears to suppress home runs).

Tanaka has done a better job of preventing runs than all other Japanese imports, posting an ERA that's 136 percent better than the league average. His strikeout rate, which has dropped three years running, is actually pretty modest (30 percent above average). But he's a stud when it comes to throwing strikes and keeping the ball in the park. Tanaka has the best walk rate (137 percent above average) this side of Colby Lewis, and only Darvish surrendered fewer home runs.

There's another Japanese starter with sparkling numbers who could be posted this winter: Hiroshima Carp right-hander Kenta Maeda. The 25-year-old probably doesn't excite scouts as much as Tanaka, considering his skinny frame, high-80s-to-low-90s velocity and decent secondary stuff. While his K rate is low (17 percent above average), Maeda boasts quality control and is fairly stingy with the long ball.

Masahiro Tanaka vs. other NPB aces

It's useful to see how Tanaka compares to fellow NPB aces, but this table shows that stats alone certainly don't predict how successful a pitcher will be in the states. Nomo walked everybody in his home country with his tornado-like windup, yet he holds the record for most career Wins Above Replacement (21.7) among Japanese-born pitchers. Kuroda (19.4 WAR) will likely surpass him next year. Who could have predicted that, considering his good-not-great work with the Carp in his early 30s? If there's one universal truth in baseball, it's this: pitchers are a strange, unpredictable lot.

To be more like Darvish than Dice-K, Tanaka will have to answer a number of questions. Can he make the transition from pitching on six days' rest to four? Will his heavy workload in Japan (1,315 innings pitched) affect his stuff and durability down the road? Why is he missing fewer bats in recent years? It will be a while before we know the answers, but one MLB team -- the Yankees? Cubs? Dodgers? Astros? -- is about to make a nine-figure wager that Tanaka's stuff and statistical track record will make him a star.