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Wednesday
Feb192014

Can Kemp Reclaim Inner Part of the Plate?

Matt Kemp hasn't yet been medically cleared to run this spring, but the Dodgers star owed a combined $128 million through the 2019 season is putting as much distance as possible between himself and all of the fourth outfielder talk. The 29-year-old is coming off a season wrecked by shoulder, ankle and hamstring injuries that limited him to just 73 games and a career-low .395 slugging percentage -- nearly 200 points below the mark he posted while finishing as runner-up to Ryan Braun in 2011 NL MVP voting. But he told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Mark Saxon that "Beast Mode" should return in 2014 now that his swing is no longer compromised:

I couldn't really get through the ball. If anybody knows my swing, when y'all see that go up in the air like that," Kemp said, lifting his left arm over his head, "you know something good happened. I was cutting my swing off. I couldn't get extension, man. I couldn't do a lot of things.

The impact that Kemp's ailing left shoulder -- surgically repaired in each of the past two offseasons -- had on his game last year was most apparent when pitchers tried to bust him inside. He throttled inside pitches during his halcyon 2011 season, swatting 14 home runs and slugging .698. Kemp wasn't as much of a monster against inside stuff in 2012 (seven homers, .554 slugging percentage), but he was still way above average (MLB batters slugged .416 versus inside pitches that year).

Last year, though? Kemp admitted he couldn't do a lot of things while his body betrayed him. One of those things he couldn't do was drive inside pitches: he didn't hit a single home run on an inner-third pitch while slugging .290. Among the 249 hitters seeing at least 350 inside pitches last season, Kemp ranked 225th in slugging. A couple years ago, he did more damage than Miguel Cabrera when pitches challenged him inside. Last season, he inflicted less pain than Jose Tabata and Gregor Blanco.

Back when he was healthy and competing for MVP hardware, Kemp had no problem getting extension versus inside stuff. He sprayed the ball all over the diamond, hitting nearly as many home runs to center field (six) and he did to left field (eight).

Kemp's spray chart vs. inside pitches, 2011

 

Unable to fully extend his swing in 2013, Kemp pulled more inside pitches to left field (57.7% of balls put in play, compared to 42.9% in 2011) but did little more than roll over the ball, leading to lots of 5-to-3 outs scribbled on the score card.

Kemp's spray chart vs. inside pitches, 2013

Kemp's clearly no fourth outfielder when healthy, but he did hit like one last year when pitchers came inside. Perhaps opponents are starting to catch on, as he has seen more inner-third pitches three years running (29.3% in 2011, 30.9% in 2012, and 33.4% in 2013). Plenty of scouts will scrutinize Kemp's swing during spring training. If he looks vulnerable against pitches on the inner third, expect pitchers to make him prove that his mended shoulder will finally let him get extended in 2014.

Monday
Feb172014

Jean Segura's Ground Ball Problem

One of the more predominant spring training story lines at the Milwaukee Brewers' complex in Maryvale, Ari., this month will be the development of 23-year-old shortstop Jean Segura, who in his first full season of professional ball posted a .287/.326/.423 slash line with 44 stolen bases and earned a reserve roster spot on the National League All-Star team last July. It was a heck of a rookie campaign for the former Angels top prospect, and the Brewers may be on the verge of extending him in the near future because of it.

But Segura's 2013 season also yielded a few concerns -- chief among them being his offensive inconsistencies from opening day onward. From April to the end of June, Segura mashed his way to a .327 batting average (sixth-best among qualified batters), .511 slugging percentage (best among qualified shortstops) and .873 OPS (also best among qualified shortstops). But from July to the end of the season, Segura's batting average dropped to .241, his slugging percentage fell to .322 (ninth-lowest for qualified batters) while his OPS descended to .613.

How could Segura go from being baseball's most productive offensive shortstop to one of his club's biggest liabilities in one season? It starts with his inability to lift the ball off the ground.

Segura ground ball rate by pitch location, April to June 2013

 

Segura ground ball rate by pitch location, July to September 2013

Segura struggled with ground balls throughout last season, posting a 57.6% grounder rate that ranked second only to former teammate Norichika Aoki (59.2%) among qualified batters last season. But as we can see, Segura's ground ball problem was much more overt from July on, where his 62.1% ground ball rate was the highest among qualified batters.

The most concerning part about Segura's increase in ground balls? Where those ground balls came from. Segura's grounder rate on pitches located out of the strike zone from April to June stood at 63.6%, and increased to 68.4% from then on. More noteworthy is his ground-ball rate on pitches in the zone, however, which increased from 50.2% from April to June to a whopping 60% (highest among qualified batters) from that point forward. On pitches located in the vertical and horizontal middle of the zone (essentially batting-practice offerings), Segura's grounder rate increased from 36.6% to 48.3%, too.

It's one thing to turn bad pitches into ground balls, but it's another thing to turn quality (or in-the-strike-zone) offerings into grounders at such an alarming rate, which Segura did toward the end of last season. If he plans on directing the Brewers' infield for the prospective future, he'll need to shore up this area of his game.

Monday
Feb172014

Teheran Gets Paid; Can He Tame Lefties Next?

The Atlanta Braves have locked up another franchise cornerstone, signing Julio Teheran to a six-year, $32.4 million deal that includes a $12 million option for the 2020 season. The 23-year-old righty was arguably the best of the Braves' home-grown rotation as a rookie. Teheran compiled the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.78) among qualified rookie starters and posted a park-and-league-adjusted ERA that was 21 percent above average, trailing just Miami's Jose Fernandez.

While Teheran has already established himself as one of the better young arms in the game, he could enter elite territory by limiting hard contact against left-handed hiters. He's not Charlie Morton Jr. or anything, but Teheran showed a sizable platoon split in 2013. He shut down righties, striking out 26 percent of batters faced and limiting them to a .317 slugging percentage. Against lefties, however, Teheran whiffed only 17 percent of hitters and allowed a .483 slugging percentage. To become platoon-proof, Teheran must miss bats with his fastball and better locate his breaking stuff.

Teheran isn't really a power pitcher, with an average fastball velocity (91.4 MPH) slightly below the big league average for right-handers (91.7 MPH). Don't tell that to righty hitters, though -- they swung and missed 24.4 percent of the time against Teheran's modest heat, the highest clip for an NL starter in righty-vs.-righty confrontations and fourth in the majors, behind Yu Darvish (28.4%), Hisashi Iwakuma (26.4%) and Anibal Sanchez (25.6%). Lefty hitters, by contrast, didn't have near as much trouble connecting against Teheran's fastball.

Righties' contact rate by pitch location vs. Teheran's fastball, 2013

 

Lefties' contact rate by pitch location vs. Teheran's fastball, 2013

Lefties swung through Teheran's fastball 13.3% of the time, below the 15.5% MLB average for righty starters against opposite-handed hitters and barely above the likes of punchout-challenged arms like Jeremy Guthrie and Kevin Correia. Righty hitters barely made a peep against Teheran's fastball (.339 slugging percentage), but lefties routinely reached the gaps (.490 slugging percentage).

Teheran's low-80s slider and slurvy, low-70s' curveball were also much more effective versus same-handed batters than lefties. Though he generated an equal number of whiffs with his breaking pitches (hitters on both sides of the plate swung and missed a third of the time), Teheran stifled righties (.315 slugging percentage) and got lit up by left-handers (.490).

Why the big difference? Command. Teheran threw 23.7% of his sliders and curves to the horizontal middle of the plate versus righties (under the 24.2% average), but 27.7% against lefties. Pitchers get pummeled when they leave breaking pitches over the middle of the plate -- hitters slugged a collective .451 last season -- and that's especially they case with Teheran. When he left a breaker over the middle, left-handers took him deep five times and slugged .765.

Teheran is remarkably polished for such a young pitcher, and he's already an asset despite a big platoon split. If Teheran starts deceiving lefties with his heat and spotting his breaking stuff, GM Frank Wren will look like a genius for buying out his potentially pricey arbitration years and a season or two of free agency.   

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