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Axford's Highs and Lows

John Axford of the Milwaukee Brewers may or may not lose his closer role to Francisco Rodriguez.  Axford has been striking out batters at a high rate this season, thanks to his ability to change the level of his pitches.  Axford throws his fastball high in the strike zone, and batters chase it:

John Axford, swing rate on fastballs, 2011.While they swing high, they don't make contact high:

John Axford, contact rate on fastballs, 2011.The high fastball presents the batter with less time to swing, and a poor angle for making contact with a slight upper cut.  Twenty six percent of plate appearances against John that end in fastballs end in strikeouts.

The high fastball also sets up the curve.  John's curve breaks sharply down.  Batters are good at recognizing  a curve in the strike zone:

John Axford, swing rate on curve balls, 2011.The problem, however, is that they are recognizing those as high pitches, so they swing and miss:

John Axford, contact rate on curve balls, 2011.Forty-eight percent of plate appearances that end on a curve go down as strikeouts.  By buzzing batters high, and then breaking the ball low, Axford gets opposing batters to generate a lot of wind, and earns saves for the Brewers.


Scott Rolen's Vanishing Walk Rate

Possessing a rare combination of patience, power and defense that belies his burly frame, the Reds' Scott Rolen has put together one of the most impressive careers of any third baseman in history. According to Baseball-Reference, Rolen ranks seventh all-time in Wins Above Replacement among those who played at least three-quarters of their games at the hot corner.

But, as good as Rolen has been for a decade and a half, his selection as an injury replacement for the 2011 MLB All-Star Game was more a commentary on the sad state of third base in the National League this season than a ringing endorsement of Rolen. The 36-year-old is turning in perhaps his worst offensive season in the majors, batting .241 with a .276 on-base percentage and a .398 slugging percentage. The most surprising aspect of Rolen's year is his nonexistent walk rate: he has drawn a free pass in just 3.5 percent of his plate appearances, compared to a career rate between 10 and 11 percent.

Rolen's lack of walks can be attributed to two factors: pitchers are throwing him more strikes, and he's chasing more often when they do decide to throw something located off the plate.

Last year, between 48-49 of the pitches that Rolen saw were located in the zone. That rate has increased this season to slightly more than 51 percent, which is well above the 48 percent average for non-pitchers. It's harder to work a walk when pitchers are challenging a batter more often.

And, on pitches that are thrown out of the zone, Rolen isn't showing as much patience.

Here's the league average swing rate on pitches located out of the zone:


 Now, here's Rolen's outside swing rate in 2010:

Rolen's swing rate on outside pitches, 2010

Rolen chased his share of high pitches, but he rarely offered at pitches off the corners or below the knees.

In 2011, however... 

Rolen's swing rate on outside pitches, 2011

He's still chasing lots of high pitches, but he's also going after more outside, inside and low pitches. His overall chase rate has increased from 24 percent last year to 30-31 percent in 2011. The league average for non-pitchers is about 28 percent. If the Reds are to stay in contention in the NL Central race, they'll need Rolen to start getting on base in addition to playing top-flight defense.


Ubaldo Jimenez on the Market?

It's July, and you know what that means: trade rumors aplenty. The juiciest one yet came from Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi, who report that the Cincinnati Reds are interested in Colorado Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez.

Loaded as the Reds' farm system is with major league-ready talent, any deal involving Jimenez is a long shot. Colorado won't part easily with the 27-year-old right-hander, who ranks tenth among starters in Wins Above Replacement since the beginning of the 2009 season. He is signed to a contract that pays him just a fraction of what he would command on the free agent market: Jimenez will pull in $2.8 million this season, $4.2 million in 2012 and he has club options for $5.75 million in 2013 and $8 million in 2014, though he can void that '14 option if he's traded.

But, while Jimenez would no doubt bring back upper-echelon prospects, his performance in 2011 hasn't been on par with his pitching in 2009 and 2010. Perhaps that makes the Rockies more inclined listen to offers. Look at Ubaldo's Fielding-Independent ERA (FIP) over the past three seasons, compared to the league average:

Jimenez's 2011 FIP looks just slightly worse than his work in 2009 and 2010, right? But we have to consider that run-scoring has been down across the game over the past few years.  Take a look at the league average FIP -- it has fallen sharply in each of the past two seasons. That means that Jimenez's pitching, relative to his peers, hasn't been as good this year. His FIP was 27 percent and 28 percent better than average in 2009 and 2010, respectively, but his 2011 FIP is 16 percent above average. Still very good, but not the sort of mark that puts a guy in Cy Young contention.

Why hasn't Jimenez been as sharp this season? His fastball and slider appear to be the culprits. Here's how those two pitches have fared this year, compared to 2009 and 2010:

Both the fastball and slider are getting hit harder this year, especially the slider. And both pitches are garnering fewer misses and ground balls. Velocity could be a major factor: Jimenez's fastball, which averaged 96 MPH from 2009-2010, is down to 94 MPH in 2011. His slider averaged a little over 86 MPH in '09 and '10 but is at 83-84 MPH this season.

Jimenez hasn't thrown his fastball in on the hands of hitters near as much:

 Frequency of Jimenez's fastball location, 2009-2010

Frequency of Jimenez's fastball location, 2011

Thirty-seven percent of his heaters were thrown inside in 2009 and 2010, but that's down to 26 percent this year. Jimenez's ground ball rate with the fastball is typically highest on inside pitches. So that, along with the decrease in velocity, could explain the lower grounder rate.

With the slider, he's going down and away to right-handed batters less often:

Frequency of Jimenez's slider location, 2009-2010

Frequency of Jimenez's slider location, 2011

And when he has located the ball down and away, hitters have smoked it:

Jimenez's in-play slugging percentage with his slider, 2009-2010

Jimenez's in-play slugging percentage with his slider, 2011Jimenez still ranks on the short list of the game's best arms, he makes peanuts compared to what a free agent acquisition of his caliber would earn, and he has pitched better of late. Those factors make it likely that he'll continue to wear black and purple for years to come. But it's not totally out of the realm of possibility that the Rockies look at Jimenez's decreased velocity and performance and decide to sell, raiding another team's farm system in the process.