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Friday
Jul222011

Clayton Kershaw's Platoon-Proof Slider

Is the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw the best starting pitcher in baseball? If not, he's in the discussion. The 23-year-old left-hander has taken yet another step forward this season, increasing his strikeout rate, issuing fewer free passes and posting a 2.39 fielding independent ERA (FIP) that's bested by that of only Roy Halladay. Kershaw is enjoying his best season yet by shutting down right-handed hitters, and he's doing it with a wicked, platoon-proof slider.

Kershaw has long been death on fellow lefties, but his numbers against opposite-handed hitters have improved dramatically

Kershaw versus right-handed hitters:

2008: 1.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio, .269 batting average/.349 on-base percentage/.393 slugging percentage

2009: 1.41 K/BB ratio, .208/.325/.291

2010: 2.13 K/BB ratio, .218/.301/.298

2011: 4.52 K/BB ratio, .221/.271/.316

Basically, Kershaw is turning every righty hitter that he faces into the 2011 version of Alex Rios. Those righties are hitting his fastball pretty well, with a .314/.368/.432 line against the pitch that's well above the .273/.351/.431 average for righty batters versus lefty fastballs. But Kershaw's slider is another story.

Kershaw is using his slider against righ-handers 22 percent of the time this year, compared to 19 percent in 2010, five percent in 2009 and less than one percent in 2008. Righties just plain can't make contact with the pitch.

First, here's the average contact rate for right-handed hitters against left-handed sliders:

Now, here's the contact rate for righties against Kershaw's slider:

Right-handers have missed 41 percent of the time that they have pulled the trigger on a Kershaw slider, compared to the 28 percent average for righty hitters versus lefty sliders.

What makes Kershaw's slider so remarkable is that it's a killer pitch against batters swinging from both sides of the plate. Overall, sliders have one of the largest platoon splits of any pitch, with opposite-handed hitters faring much better against the offering. In 2011, left-handed pitchers have a .183/.212/.258 line against left-handed hitters when throwing a slider. Right-handed batters have a .207/.255/.326 slash against lefty sliders. But Kershaw's slider? Lefties are hitting .130/.167/.196, and righties have an even worse .087/.120/.173 line.

Most pitchers can't shut down opposite-handed batters with the slider, but Kershaw seems to be the exception to the rule. His increased use of that hard breaker and subsequent improvement against right-handers puts Kershaw in the same class as the Halladays, Lees and Lincecums of the world.

Friday
Jul222011

@LoLoMarlins: Where Are The Walks?

On May 27, Logan Morrison was hitting like an MVP candidate for a Florida Marlins team in the thick of the NL East race. The lefty batter had a .330 batting average, a .424 OBP and a .585 slugging percentage, and the 29-20 Fish sat just two games back of the Phillies.

Flash forward to late July, and Morrison's line has nosedived to .257/.331/.469. And at 15 games back, the Marlins can't see first place with a high-powered telescope. Morrison is still hitting for power, but his walk rate has evaporated in the summer heat:

Morrison's walk rate, by month

April: 15.2%*

May: 10.4%*

June: 7.1%

July: 3.8%

* Morrison served a DL stint for a left foot sprain from late April to mid-May

That plummeting rate of free passes taken suggests that Morrison has started hacking at the plate. He certainly isn't showing the same level of discipline that he did last year, when he swung at just 19 percent of pitches thrown out of the strike zone, but he hasn't morphed into Delmon Young, either:

Morrison's chase rate, by month:

April: 29%

May: 27%

June: 24%

July: 27%

Overall: 26%

League Average: 28%

Throughout the year, Morrison has swung at more pitches thrown high out of the zone:

Morrison's swing rate by pitch location, 2010

 Morrison's swing rate by pitch location, 2011

Those extra swings at pitches thrown up the ladder play a large part in his sharply declining walk rate. But there's another problem, too: Morrison is taking more strikes as the year progresses. Check out his called strike percentage by month:

April: 30%

May: 28%

June: 35%

July: 38%

League Average: 31%

Pitchers are pounding the zone low-and-away against Morrison more often since June:

Pitch frequency by location against Morrison, April-May

 

Pitch frequency by location against Morrison, June-July

And Morrison is taking many of those strikes:

Pitch frequency of Morrison's taken strikes, June-July

You'll note that some of those low-and-away pitches that umps have called for strikes, well, aren't really strikes as defined by the zone. But Morrison can't take it for granted that those borderline pitches will go his way. In general, umpires stretch the outside corner of the strike zone with left-handed batters at the plate:

League average pitch frequency of taken strikes for left-handed hitters

For Morrison to start drawing walks again, he'll need to lay off those high, out-of-zone offerings and perhaps swing more often on low-and-away pitches that umpires tend to give to pitchers. That last part may seem counterintuitive, but this is where Game Theory -- the cat-and-mouse contest between batter and pitcher -- comes into play.

Right now, Morrison is keeping the bat on his shoulder on low-and-away pitches, and pitchers are taking advantage of that by throwing there more often. If Morrison starts to take big cuts at more of those pitches, pitchers might throw there less often, locating the ball farther off the plate or somewhere else where they're less likely to get the benefit of the doubt from the man in blue. That, in turn, would mean more balls, fewer strikes and a better chance of drawing a walk. Maybe someone should send Morrison a Tweet.

Thursday
Jul212011

Rockies Versus Freddy Freeman

Thursday afternoon, Fredie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves hit his 15th homer of the season, but it was his sixth longball against the Colorado Rockies. The question then comes up, "What are the Rockies doing wrong?" He's played one tenth of his games against Colorado, but those games produced 40% of his home runs.

When it comes to slugging, Freeman covers the strike zone very well.

Freddy Freeman, in play slugging, 2011.Looking at that heat map, pitchers should aim low and away.  In fact, that's what they do:

Freddy Freeman, pitch frequency, 2011.The Rockies staff, however, has not been consistent in hitting the lower outside corner.

Freddy Freeman, pitch frequency against Colorado, 2011.The Rockies staff put plenty of pitches inside and up in the middle of the plate this season, just where Freeman likes to smack the ball.  Today's home run was outside, but it was a slider that didn't slide and a bit up.  Freeman's home runs against Colorado came from poor execution by the Rockies staff.