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Joel Hanrahan's New Approach

One of the biggest reasons that the Pittsburgh Pirates sit just 1.5 games back of first place in the N.L. Central standings is the dominance of Joel Hanrahan in the late innings. The 6-foot-4, 245 pound right-hander ranks in the top 10 among relievers in Wins Above Replacement, and he recently earned his first All-Star bid to boot.

Hanrahan was plenty dominant last season, too, but he's hammering hitters in a different way in 2011:

2010: 12.9 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 47% ground ball rate, 2.62 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)

2011: 7.6 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 55% ground ball rate, 2.21 FIP

The Bucs' stopper has sacrificed whiffs for fewer walks and more ground balls this year. A closer look at his pitch selection and location reveals that he's challenging batters like never before with a blistering fastball, and he's baiting hitters to chase his slider off the plate when he does snap off a breaking ball.

Hanrahan's fastball velocity has jumped from an already-sizzling 95.9 MPH in 2010 to 97.2 MPH in 2011. He has drastically increased his usage of the pitch, firing fastballs 85 percent of the time this year (61 percent in 2010). Chicago's Matt Thornton is the only reliever to throw his heat more frequently.

Hanrahan has often thrown those upper-90s fastballs in the strike zone. Fifty-four percent of his heaters have crossed the plate, compared to 51 percent last season. More fastballs, and more fastballs thrown in the zone -- that helps explain Hanrahan's pared-down walk rate. He's also getting ground balls 55 percent of the time with the pitch, up from 47 percent in 2010.

The other reason that Hanrahan has issued fewer free passes and generated more grounders is his slider. While he's not throwing the slider near as much, he's using the pitch much differently when he does decide to throw it. Check out the frequency of his pitch location with the mid-80s breaker in 2010 and 2011:

 Frequency of Hanrahan's slider location in 2010

 Frequency of Hanrahan's slider location in 2011

Hanrahan located about 46 percent of his sliders within the strike zone in 2010. That zone percentage has dropped to 32 percent this year. Happily, hitters just can't lay off the pitch: they're chasing 44 percent of Hanrahan's out-of-zone sliders. All of those hacks on out-of-zone sliders have led to a sharp uptick in ground balls hit, from 33 percent last year to 60 percent in 2011.

Joel Hanrahan's pitching approach this year is simple, yet devastating. He's forcing batters to take cuts at a fastball that flirts with the triple digits, with the result being weak contact. And he's burying sliders low and away to right-handers or in on the legs of lefties. Hanrahan, once a control-challenged farmhand for the Dodgers and Nationals, is now a focal reason why the Pirates are no longer pushovers.


Bautista Dangerous On Outer Third, Too

Jose Bautista has continued his transformation from Rule V wanderer and bench bat to baseball's pre-eminent slugger in 2011, posting a .329/.467/.679 line that looks like something out of Ted Williams' prime. "Joey Bats" remains a prodigious pull hitter who makes opponents pay when they bust him inside. But he has bested his 2010 production by adjusting to pitchers' tendency to throw him stuff on the outside corner of the plate.

Last year, Bautista blasted pitches located inside and down the middle of the plate. He was mortal, though still well above-average, on pitches thrown on the outside corner:

Bautista in 2010

Inside pitches: .667 slugging percentage (.414 league average)

Middle pitches: .772 SLG% (.475 league average)

Outside pitches: .451 SLG% (.331 league average)

In 2011, opponents have seemingly tried to hit that outside corner more often. Slightly over fifty-four percent of the pitches that Bautista has seen this season have been thrown outside, compared to 51 percent in 2010 and the 48 percent league average.

Bautista is still creaming pitches thrown inside (.685 SLG%, .399 league average) and down the middle (.790 SLG%, .465 league average). But he's also doing far more damage when pitchers throw him something on the outside third:

 Bautista's in-play slugging percentage on pitches thrown on outer third in 2010

 Bautista's in-play slugging percentage on pitches thrown on outer third in 2011

Bautista is slugging .603 on outside pitches in 2011, while the big league average is just .327. Jason Giambi and Laynce Nix are the only batters who have outslugged Bautista on outside offerings.

Inside, middle, outside -- it hasn't mattered this season. Pitchers are getting whacked when Joey Bats pulls the trigger.


Learning the Lefties

Switch hitter Matt Wieters of the Baltimore Orioles improved his batting average and slugging percentage by about 20 points this season, meaning he's hitting on average more singles.  His improvement came almost entirely against left-handed pitchers.  In 2010, he hit .210 against southpaws and .263 against right-handed pitchers.  This season, he's up to .303 against left-handers, with he dropped to .247 against righties.

In 2010, he got very little production against LHP in the middle of the plate.

Matt Wieters, in play average vs. LHP, 2010.He was fine inside and outside, but up and down in the middle was a cold wasteland.  He swung a lot a inside pitches against lefties that year:

Matt Wieters, swing rate vs. LHP, 2010.He swung at 53.6% of pitches inside last season.  This year, that's down to 37.6%.  The difference is obvious on the more recent heat map:

Matt Wieters, swing rate vs. LHP, 2011.Matt now swings in the strike zone where he managed little production in 2010.  The results?

Matt Wieters, in play average vs. LHP, 2011.He's swinging at pitches that are easier to hit, and driving the balls for hits.  Now he just needs to figure out something similar against righties.