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D-Train Returns to Majors

At the All-Star break, the Cincinnati Reds have a record of 45-47 and look up at the Pirates, Brewers and the Cardinals in the National League Central standings. The defending division champs sit in fourth place due mostly to a disappointing starting rotation. Cincy's rotation was supposed to be a source of strength, boasting  great depth if not ace-caliber talent. Instead, injuries and uncerachievement leave Reds starters with the second-worst fielding-independent ERA in the major leagues.

Showing just how thin the club's staff has been stretched, the Reds turned to Dontrelle Willis on Sunday to start in place of Edinson Volquez, who was optioned to Triple-A to rectify his control issues. Willis, the 2003 NL Rookie of the Year who averaged better than three Wins Above Replacement with the Marlins in his early-to-mid-twenties, has since contracted a serious case of Steve Blass Disease.

The left-hander scarcely pitched at all upon being traded to the Tigers along with Miguel Cabrera, missing time in 2008 with knee and forearm injuries and then seeking treatment for anxiety disorder in 2009. Last year, he was acquired by the Diamondbacks for a song during the summer and was released a month later, latching on with the Giants to finish the season. His strikeout-to-walk ratio in the majors from '08 to '10 was 82-to-119 in 123.1 innings pitched.

Prior to his call-up, the now-29-year-old D-Train showed some signs of getting back on track. He posted a 67-to-20 K/BB ratio at Triple-A Louisville, with a 3.12 fielding-independent ERA and a ground ball rate above 50 percent in 75.1 innings. Making his first MLB start in over a year on Sunday against the Brewers, Willis allowed two runs in six innings pitched, surrendering six hits while walking and whiffing four hitters each.

Here's a look at his pitch break and velocity from Sunday:

Willis relied on a fastball/slider mix, with a few changeups and seemingly a cutter thrown in as well. His fastball sat at 89 and topped out at 92, his slider averaged around 81 and his cutter came in a few ticks higher than the breaking ball. The changeup averaged 84 MPH.

He got ahead of hitters at a surprising clip, getting a first pitch strike to 19 of the 26 batters that he faced while throwing almost exclusively fastballs in those situtations. So, why did he still issue four walks? Willis got strikes with his fastball about 64 percent of the time and his cutter 66 percent, locating those pitches within the zone often:

 Pitch frequency of Willis' fastball and cutterBut Willis tried to use his slider and changeup as chase pitches, with little success. Batters went after just two of Willis' 15 out-of-zone sliders, and none of his three changeups that were off the plate.

 Pitch frequency of Willis' slider and changeup

The D-Train's first start with the Reds was a mixed bag. He threw his fastball and what looked like a cutter for strikes while recording 10 ground ball outs, but his slider was sloppy and hitters accordingly laid off the pitch. It's hard to envision long-term success for Willis, but the fact that he's even on a major league mound constitutes major progress at this point.


Breaking Down Team Ortiz's Dingers

Tonight at 8 p.m. E.T., eight of the game's most prolific sluggers will take their cuts in the 2011 Home Run Derby at Chase Field. For the first time, each league has a captain who handpicked three other teammates for the contest. National League captain and 2009 Derby champ Prince Fielder selected Matt Holliday, Matt Kemp and Rickie Weeks. American League honcho David Ortiz, who won last year's derby, called on Jose Bautista, Robinson Cano and Adrian Gonzalez.

Here's a quick breakdown of Team Ortiz, which offers a mix of pull power and all-fields thump.

Jose Bautista

Where he hits 'em: The leader in the home run clubhouse at the break with 31, Bautista is all about the pull power. Twenty-four of his shots have been ripped into the left field stands this season, with four clearing the center field fence and three going the other way. Believe it or not, that's actually a more even dinger distribution than in 2010, when Bautista pulled 47 of his 54 homers.

HR pitch location: As noted last week, opponents are trying to keep the ball away from Bautista, with little success. Take a look at the pitch location of Bautista's shots this season:

Bautista has hit 12 homers apiece on pitches located down the middle and on the outside corner of the zone. Inside, middle, outside...if Bautista has a weakness, pitchers haven't found it yet.

Pitch type breakdown: Sixteen of Bautista's home runs have come on fastballs/sinkers. He has gone deep six times on sliders, while also hitting three changeups, curveballs and cutters apiece.

Robinson Cano

Where he hits 'em: Playing his home games in Yankee Stadium, a venue that smiles upon left-handed hitters, Cano has pulled all 15 of his home runs this season. That pull-happy tendency might serve the second baseman well on Monday night: Chase Field gives lefty power hitters a 14 percent boost compared to a neutral park, according to StatCorner.

HR pitch location: Cano likes the ball on the inside third of the plate, particularly low-and-inside pitches that he can golf into the cheap seats:

Eight of Cano's homers have come on pitches thrown inside.

Pitch type breakdown: Six of Cano's round-trippers have come on sliders, four on fastballs/sinkers, two apiece on changeups and sinkers and one on a curveball.

Adrian Gonzalez

Where he hits 'em: In contrast to Bautista and Cano, Gonzalez is an all-fields slugger. Seven of his home runs have gone to the pull side, with two going to center field and eight the opposite way.

HR pitch location: As you might expect given his opposite-field slugging, Gonzalez does most of his damage on pitches on the outside corner:

Nine of Gonzalez's home runs have come on pitches located on the outside third.

Pitch type breakdown: Eleven of his homers have come on fastballs/sinkers, with four coming on changeups and one apiece on a slider and a cutter.

David Ortiz

Where he hits 'em: Papi has pulled 12 of his home runs in 2011. He has three blasts to center, and four to the opposite field.

HR pitch location: Ortiz has taken advantage of pitchers who have left the ball over the fat part of the plate:

Ten of his home runs have been on pitches thrown over the middle of the plate.

Pitch type breakdown: Ortiz is making much more contact on fastballs this season, and it's loud contact, too. Fifteen of Ortiz's homers have come on fastballs/sinkers, two on changeups and one apiece on a slider and a cutter.


Weaver's Devastating Fastball

Jered Weaver of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and starting pitcher for the American League All-Stars owns the most devastating fastball in the majors this season.  In plate appearances ending on a Weaver fastball, he recorded the lowest weight on-base average (wOBA) of any pitcher (min 200 PA on fastballs):


PitcherTeamFastball PAwOBA
Jered Weaver LAA 242 0.225
Erik Bedard SEA 201 0.243
Jair Jurrjens ATL 223 0.255
Cliff Lee PHI 270 0.259
Jordan Zimmermann WSH 246 0.262
David Price TB 350 0.270
Ryan Vogelsong SF 228 0.270
Matt Cain SF 271 0.272
Justin Verlander DET 292 0.274
Bartolo Colon NYY 296 0.274


Weaver manages to keep his fastball away from both lefties and righties.  The following graph shows his pitch loationa and movement against left-handed batters:

Jered Weaver, fastball vs. LHB, 2011. Location on the left, movement on the right.Note the great movement toward the left-handed batter.  Weaver can start this pitch outside, and the break brings it back over the outside corner.  Even when he misses, batters sometimes go after the pitch, resulting in a swing and miss.  His wOBA against lefties on his fastball is .224.

Against right-handed batters, he works the other side of the plate.

Jered Weaver, fastball vs. RHB, 2011. Location on the left, movement on the right.Note that Weaver gets even more lateral movement with his fastball against right-handed batters.  He starts the ball inside, and then it breaks over the outside part of the plate.  Batters see a pitch they can pull, but it ends up a pitch they should be driving the other way.  Instead of getting good wood on the ball batters get weak ground balls or flies bunched in the middle of the outfield.  That helps him to a .226 wOBA against righties.