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Predictable Burnett

A.J. Burnett of the New York Yankees produced an interesting fastball graph this season.

A.J. Burnett fastball over time, 2011.Note that over the course of this season, his fastball velocity stays very even.  Batters, however, swing at it less.  Their contract rate remains the same, but they are producing a higher average when they hit the ball.

I have a bit of a background in machine learning.  This kind of improved output over time from a learning algorithm would make the programmer very happy.  Batters have learned to recognize the fastball when to swing and when not to swing, and that's leading to more balls falling for hits.  You can especially see this in counts where A.J. holds the advantage over the hitter.  In April and May, batters hit .218 against Burnett's fastball in pitcher's counts with a .251 wOBA.  Since then, his BA allowed is up to .318 in those situations with a .286 wOBA.

Burnett's fastball became predictable, and batters are taking advantage.


The Uggla Truth

Dan Uggla of the Atlanta Braves turned around a horrible season with a 25 game hitting streak.  Since the streak started on July fifth, Uggla's approach at the plate is very different.

The story starts with where pitchers threw the ball.  They worked Dan away:

Dan Uggla, pitch frequency, through 7/4/2011.That was a good approach, because Dan did not swing at those pitches as much:

Dan Uggla, swing rate, through 7/4/2011.He liked going after pitches inside, especially those off the plate.  That was about the only place he made contact.

Dan Uggla, contact rate, through 7/4/2011.Uggla made his best contact with balls outside the strike zone, which in general leads to poor performance.  By not swinging as much a the outside pitches, he also put himself in a hole:

Dan Uggla, taken strikes, through 7/4/2011.He gave the pitchers nearly half the plate.  The combination of all the above led to a poor heat map when he put the ball in play:

Dan Uggla, in play average, through 7/4/2011.As you can see, all that inside contact did him no good.

Since the start of the streak, pitchers still work Uggla away:

Dan Uggla, pitch frequency, since 7/5/2011.But Dan swings more at the strikes thrown:

Dan Uggla, swing rate, since 7/5/2011.He really cut down on swings on inside pitches.  Concentrating more on the middle of the plate, Dan makes better contact.

Dan Uggla, contact rate, since 7/5/2011.He's also taking fewer strikes:

Dan Uggla, taken strikes, since 7/5/2011.All of that leads to a much better in play heat map:

Dan Uggla, in play average, since 7/5/2011.Uggla moved his concentration from the inside to the middle part of the plate, and that's given him much better plate coverage.  He'll need to keep this up for a while to get his season back to his career averages, however.


Bobby Abreu's Option Vests, But Should It Have?

For better or worse, Bobby Abreu is now under contract with the Angels for the 2012 season. Abreu signed a two-year, $19 million extension with L.A. two offseasons ago that included a $9 million option for 2012 that vested with 1,100 total plate appearances over the 2010-2011 seasons.

Abreu, 37, once had a sublime blend of patience and power. But his days of popping 20-30 homers per season are well over, and that $9 million may well be an overpay.

The former Phillie and Yankee still works the count like few others. Abreu has chased only 17.4 percent of pitches thrown out of the strike zone, which is the second-lowest rate among MLB hitters (Kosuke Fukudome has the lowest chase rate). As a result, Abreu has worked a walk in 15.3 percent of his plate appearances. Only Jose Bautista, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Santana, Lance Berkman, Joey Votto and Prince Fielder have taken ball four more often.

In the power department, though, Abreu falls flat. The left-handed hitter has just four home runs this season. His .090 Isolated Power is a full 50 points below the league average and places him in the same company as banjo-hitters like Mark Ellis and Cliff Pennington.  

Abreu hit for modest power during his first two years with the Angels (.161 ISO), at least remaining somewhat dangerous on inside and high pitches:

 Abreu's in-play slugging percentage by location, 2009-2010

In 2011, though, his heat map is ice-cold except for a single spot up and in:

Abreu's in-play slugging percentage by location, 2011

He has yet to hit a homer off a lefty and has a .051 ISO against same-handed pitching.

If Abreu played a premium position on the diamond or was a defensive standout, then his patient, punchless bat would be valuable. But in reality, he's a DH who occasionally plays a poor corner outfield. That means he has to been an offensive standout, not merely an above-average hitter like he has been in 2011, to earn his paycheck.

Most of the other DH-types who hit the free agent market last winter -- Johnny Damon, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Hideki Matsui -- signed deals worth $2 million to $5 million. And Fangraphs shows that Abreu's performance this season has been worth less than $2 million. Unless the Angels have reason to believe that Abreu's power will return, they might have been better off letting him take some nights off against lefties and keeping his plate appearance total under that vesting option. It would be hard to the Players Union to cry foul when it's not clear whether Abreu should be playing every day at this point.