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Zorilla Feasting On High Pitches

Tampa's switch-hitting Swiss Army Knife, Ben Zobrist, could end up on the American League All-Star squad if the fans deem him worthy of Major League Baseball's Final Vote contest. It's hard to argue against Zorilla: His 4.1 Wins Above Replacement this season tie him with Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun and Dustin Pedroia for tenth among position players.

Zobrist is playing like a darkhorse MVP candidate due to a resurgence at the plate. He batted a mild .238/.346/.353 in 2011, with a .115 Isolated Power. But this year, he's hitting .265/.349/.461 and has a .196 ISO. Zobrist might not be going yard like he did in 2009, when he hit 27 home runs, but his total of 41 extra-base hits ties him with Carlos Quentin for fourth in the AL behind Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Bautista and Curtis Granderson.

Zobrist is splitting the gaps and occasionally clearing the fence by feasting on high pitches. Take a look at his in-play slugging percentage on pitches thrown high in the zone in 2010 and 2011:

 Zobrist's in-play slugging percentage on high pitches, 2010

Zobrist's in-play slugging percentage on high pitches, 2011Zobrist's .358 slugging percentage versus high pitches in 2010 was well below the .382 league average. In 2011, however, Zorilla has crushed high pitches for a .655 slugging percentage (.375 league average). Seven of his nine homers have come on pitches thrown in the upper third of the zone.

A cerebral player who once worked with "Swing Mechanic" Jamie Cevallos to add power to his game, Zobrist has a near-.200 ISO from both sides of the plate. Whether he nabs that final All-Star spot or not, Zobrist's rangy D and rediscovered power stroke make him on of the most valuable players in the game.  


Phil Hughes Returns, Sort Of

Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes made his first major league start in nearly three months last night at Progressive Field, taking a loss against the Indians while allowing two runs in five innings pitched. Hughes, on the DL since mid-April with right shoulder inflammation, walked and whiffed two Indians apiece while also beaning two batters and tossing a wild pitch.

The Bombers' would-be number two starter behind CC Sabathia regained some, but not all, of the zip that was conspicuously absent on his fastball in April. Hughes averaged 91.5 MPH with his heater against Cleveland, topping out at 92.9 MPH.

That's certainly better than his 89.3 MPH showing in the season's opening month. Still, he didn't look like the same pitcher who sat at 92.5 MPH and maxed out at 96 in 2010. Hughes didn't get a swing and miss on any of the 40 fastballs that he threw. By contrast, Hughes' near-20 percent fastball miss rate last year ranked just outside the top 10 among starting pitchers.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi ascribes the lack of whiffs to Hughes elevating his fastball too much:

I think that's because he was up a lot. When it's up, it's flat; when it's flat, it's easy to keep your bat on the same plane. He's got to get a better downhill plane the next time he goes out.

 Here's the frequency of Hughes' fastball location from last night's start:

Girardi was right. It seems like Hughes is trying to use the same pitching approach as last year, but without the same quality of stuff.

Hughes elevated his fastball a lot last season, and to great effect. Forty-four percent of his fastballs were thrown up in the zone, and hitters managed just a .241 Weighted On-Base Average against the high heat (.328 league average). Forty-nine percent of his fastballs have been in the upper third of the zone this season. In a small sample, hitters have a .418 wOBA against Hughes' elevated fastballs in 2011.

Climbing the ladder with a fastball that can hit 96 on the gun is a different story than trying to do the same with an offering that doesn't break 92. Hughes' high heat could be a problem if he can't rediscover that extra gear on his fastball.


The Venters Difference

Most pitchers work off a fastball.  The fast ball sets up an off-speed pitch, a change up that looks like the fastball out of the hand of the pitcher, but comes in slower and at a different angle.  Jonny Venters of the Atlanta Braves works differently. He throws a fast pitch, but it is a split fingered fastball or power sinker.  He only uses the traditional top-spin fastball about 7% of the time he throws a hard pitch.

Jonny Venters, fastball movement, 2011.His fastball stays up and comes in pretty straight.  He shows batters this pitch mostly to keep them honest.

Jonny Venters, sinker movement, 2011.

Venters gets a nice two-dimensional difference between his fastball and his sinker/split finger pitch.

Instead of a change up, Venters throws a slider:

Jonny Venters, slider movement, 2011.This pitch offers another two-dimensional difference.  The sinker comes in at 94.5 MPH, the slider at 85.6 MPH.  While the sinker breaks down toward the catcher's right hand, the slider breaks to the backstop's left.

Overall, Venters throws 73% sinkers and 19% sliders.  With two strikes on a hitter, however, he throws 51% sinkers and 41% sliders.  Saving the slider for those situations makes it his out pitch, as 37 of his 56 K have come on the pitch.

Note, also, that when Venters comes into a game late, batters are almost always going to used to seeing a traditional fastball/change up combination from earlier in the game.  Venters forces batters to adjust to a fastball that sinks, and a slider off that with great movement.  That's why he's on the All-Star team.