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Curtis Granderson, the right man against lefties

December 9, 2009 was a date that has had a profound affect on three teams that are in first place today. On that date, the Detroit Tigers sent Edwin Jackson to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Curtis Granderson to the New York Yankees. The Yankees sent Phil Coke and Austin Jackson to the Detroit Tigers. The New York Yankees sent Ian Kennedy to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Arizona Diamondbacks sent Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth to the Detroit Tigers. Talk about deals that deserve the Charlie Sheen Award for WIN-WIN-WIN!

Austin Jackson finished second in the AL last season in the Rookie of the Year voting. Ian Kennedy at 15-4 is getting some Cy Young Award talk this season and now, Curtis Granderson is in the mix for the AL MVP award this season. The Grandy Man leads the league in runs with 114, in triples with 10, in RBI with 98 and has 35 homers and a .965 OPS.

Watching Granderson's improvement has been dramatic. Let me remind you that on July 7 of last season he was hitting .225 and hitting seventh in the Yankee lineup. 

Here's what Granderson looked like up to July 7 last season:

Granderson was hitting a weak .225Granderson only had 8 doubles, 4 triples, and 7 homers.

But it was his inability to hit lefties that was killing him:

Granderson was .198 against leftiesHe had 2 doubles, 1 triple, and 1 homer.

Then along came Kevin Long:

Granderson hit .257 from July 9 onGranderson worked hard with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long and it produced results. He had 9 doubles, 3 triples, and 17 homers to end 2010 strongly.

Here's how he did against lefties from July 9 on:

Grandy hit .257 against lefties and .257 against rightiesAgainst lefties he had 3 doubles and 3 homers, but more importantly he had started getting better plate coverage.

Up to July 7, from the inside to the middle of the plate against lefties, Granderson was getting killed hitting .156. From the middle to the outside of the plate against lefties, Granderson hit .203. From July 9 on from the inside to the middle of the plate against lefties Granderson hit .429. From the middle to the outside of the plate against lefties, Granderson hit .257. 

Jump to 2011:

Grandy is hitting .281 overall this season.

Grandy this season against lefties:

Now Granderson is hitting .281 against lefties and .281 against rightiesOf his 35 homers this season, 13 are against lefties.

Granderson's quick bat against lefties, Inside to the Middle of the plate:

Grandy is hitting .270

Granderson's quick bat against lefties, Middle to the Outside of the plate:

Grandy is hitting .278 with 12 homersLooking at these heat maps you can see the incredible difference in Granderson. Since last July 7, Granderson is hitting .276 with 31 doubles, 14 triples, and 53 homers.

Granderson has clearly been the right man against lefties this season, which means if we are looking at the postseason, the Texas Rangers with their three lefty starters have to prefer to face the Boston Red Sox.


Kraig Kimbrel

Craig Kimbrel has started his major league career by collecting Ks like no other reliever ever has. Atlanta's stopper has whiffed 15.2 batters per nine innings in 83.1 innings pitched over the past two seasons, giving him the highest K rate among relievers tossing 80+ frames during their first two years in the show:

Source: Baseball-Reference; minimum 80% of innings pitched must have come as a reliever

In its 2011 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America called Kimbrel "reminiscent of a right-handed Billy Wagner." That comparison, from Kimbrel's stature to his quick delivery to his repertoire, looks spot-on. Like Wagner, Kimbrel pounds the strike zone with his scorching fastball and sends hitters flailing after a power slider usually located off the plate.

Kimbrel has averaged nearly 96 MPH with his fastball in the majors, topping out at just under 100 MPH. With that kind of velocity, why nibble around the corners? Kimbrel doesn't:

 Pitch frequency of Kimbrel's slider location, 2010-2011

The Wallace State Community College product has thrown about 35 percent of his fastballs down the middle of the strike zone, and just about nobody has been able to turn on those heart-of-the-plate heaters. Opponents have whiffed at 26 percent of Kimbrel's middle-zone fastballs and have a .179/.214/.209 line against those pitches. The major league averages for middle-plate fastballs? A 14 whiff rate, with a .293/.321/.473 triple-slash. Most pitchers get crushed when they catch the fat part of the plate with a fastball, but not Kimbrel.

While Kimbrel goes right after batters with his fastball, he uses his upper-80s slider as a chase pitch:

Pitch frequency of Kimbrel's slider location, 2010-2011Just 38 percent of his sliders have crossed the plate, compared to the 47 percent MLB average. Hitters are certainly going after the breaking ball (43 percent chase rate, 35 percent average), with the result being lots of empty swings. Kimbrel has a 54 percent miss rate with his slider over the 2010-2011 seasons, ranking behind teammate Jonny Venters, Sergio Santos, Greg Holland and Al Alburquerque among relievers.

As the inclusion of B.K. Kim and John Rocker on that K/9 list above shows, trying the map the career path of a young power reliever is tough. And he's got eons to go to prove that he has anything nearing Wagner's longevity. But, equipped with strikeout stuff that would make "Billy the Kid" proud, Kimbrel could be a new-generation Wagner as long as he stays healthy.


Jerome Williams Unusual Fastball

Jerome Williams of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim made a triumphant return to the majors on Sunday.  He did not walk a batter, striking out six during seven innings of work, allowing his only run on a solo homer.  After the game, Torii Hunter commented on Jerome's improvement:

"He just re-created himself," Hunter said. "He's throwing two-seamers, cutters. He's not throwing the straight fastball anymore. He's keeping the ball down and it seemed like he just learned how to pitch."

Hunter makes very good points.  Not only is Williams keeping the ball down, he developed a septum chart, working the edges and avoiding the middle of the plate:

Jerome Williams, pitch frequency, 2011.It's just one start and one relief appearance, but that kind of separation between inside and outside shows up in the best pitchers.  Now look at the spin of his pitches:

Jerome Williams, spin by velocity, 2011.The curve ball (blue smudge) and slider (yellow circle in the middle) stand out.  The green/yellow/orange circle, however, represents his fastball and change up.  It's that orange blob that is intriguing.  The relationship between a normal two-seam fastball and a change up is that the fastball "breaks up and in" more than the changeup.  This fastball does break in more, but it actually breaks down more as well.  In other words, Williams appears to throw this pitch with less top spin than expected.  A two-seam fastball works off the four-seamer.  Pitchers want to throw them the same way, and let the position of the seams cause the rise and dip.  Without a four-seamer, Jerome appears to be concentrating on making the pitch dip.

Hunter also mentioned a cutter, which doesn't show up on the above heat map.  It's there, but Williams did not throw it much:

Jerome Williams, fastball spin, 2011.You can see the tiny smug on the Y axis just above the X axis.  That's the cutter, but he hasn't thrown it enough yet for PITCHf/x to classify it as such.

Williams made a good start against a last place team.  Now he needs to repeat these pitches, and see if he can beat Texas next weekend.