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Wednesday
Feb052014

Chris Johnson: Junk-Ball Hitter Extraordinaire

Chris Johnson isn't what most would deem a "lethal threat" in the batter's box. With a career slash line of .289/.328/.438, 108 OPS+ and 6.7 offensive wins above replacement over his five years in baseball, the statistical output from the former fourth round selection of the Houston Astros has been more toward that of league average production (.263/.331/.418 since Johnson's 2009 rookie campaign) than anything close to lethal. But last season did shed some light on his most 'lethal' attribute as a hitter: Hitting bad pitches.

While Johnson has maintained a reputation for finding holes in defenses (owning a .361 BABIP since his entrance into the league in 2009), he was exceptional in his respect in 2013, posting a .394 BABIP that ranks as the highest single-season in-play average among qualified batters since 2008 -- second only to Austin Jackson's .396 mark in 2010. But Johnson's insane in-play average mark last season was considerably higher than his .354 mark two seasons ago. As we're about to find out, this increase is confusing for a few reasons.

Two seasons ago, Johnson garnered a .354 BABIP thanks in large part to his 24.4% line drive rate. This LD% was not particularly dominant, mind you, but it did narrowly miss (by 0.4%) the cut to be among the top 10% of all qualified batters that year. Last season, Johnson posted a league-best .394 BABIP, but his line-drive rate actually decreased to 24.3%.

If you can recall past research, no other factor correlates to a player's BABIP better than his line-drive rate. In fact, since 2008, for every 3% increase in line drive rate, a player's BABIP increases by roughly .020 points. Boost your LD% by 6%, and you're looking at a .040 BABIP jump. Considering this, I bet you're wondering: How the hell did Johnson's BABIP rise despite a steady (albeit minimally decreasing) line drive rate? This is where those 'junkball' hitting skills come into play.

Comparing Johnson's out-of-zone BABIP over the last two seasons

Johnson's BABIP on pitches in the strikezone last season was .385, up from .361 in 2012. This again defies logic, as his line-drive on pitches in the zone two years ago was 26.4% compared to 25% last season. But when we shift our focus to pitches out of the zone, we begin to understand his overall BABIP increase. On non-zone pitches last season, Johnson posted a 21.3% line drive rate en route to a .434 out-of-zone BABIP -- second only to Carlos Gomez (.452) among qualified batters. This is a stark increase from 2012, when only 17.6% of Johnson's out-of-zone hits were line drives, giving him a .329 in-play average that was much closer to the .278 league average BABIP on non-zone pitches since 2012.

Call him 'lucky' if you must -- I certainly think luck has at least something to do with it -- but Johnson showed last season that he's getting better at hitting bad pitches, which gives reason to believe his career .361 BABIP mark is sustainable.

Plate discipline be damned.

Tuesday
Feb042014

Why Rick Porcello Will (Finally!) Break Out in 2014

Now a half-decade into his big league career, Rick Porcello has yet to become the stud pitcher the Tigers envisioned when the club made him the most handsomely-paid high-schooler in draft history. Porcello has been good for about 170 innings pitched per season, avoiding the injury pitfalls that claim many young arms, but those innings have been pedestrian. His career ERA, adjusted for park and league run scoring levels, is five percent below average. Not terrible, but not what you're hoping for from a guy who received more guaranteed cash than than any 2007 draftee not named David Price.

But don't despair, Tigers fans -- Porcello looks primed for a breakout in 2014. The 25-year-old will at long last get some defensive support from his infielders, and he now has a reliable breaking pitch that's missing bats and helping his fastball play up.

Goodbye Prince, Hello Jose Iglesias

As a ground ball-centric, pitch-to-contact starter, Porcello couldn't have been a worse fit for Tigers teams of recent vintage. Detroit basically punted infield defense over the past few years, tolerating the fall-down range of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder at the corners in order to churn out as many runs as possible. Porcello suffered: He had a .263 batting average on balls in play on grounders last season, which was 23 points higher than the major league average.

In 2014, though, Porcello's infield D might actually do him some favors. The Fielder-Ian Kinsler swap transformed Detroit's infield, bringing in a superb second baseman, shifting Miggy Cabrera to the cold corner and jettisoning Fielder's iron glove. Kinsler was 11 runs better than an average player at the keystone in 2013, according to John Dewan's Defensive Runs Saved metric. Cabrera was terrible at third (-18 DRS), so replacement Nick Castellanos merely needs to show more range than a mastodon stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits to be an upgrade. At first, Cabrera should be less of a liability than Fielder (-13 DRS).

Porcello will also benefit from a full season of Jose Iglesias' breath-taking D at shortstop. The former Red Sock rated as an average defender according to DRS last year, but he was +7 in limited time in 2012 and has a sterling reputation. Plus, dude can do this.

Porcello's New Weapon

While Porcello should get far more support when he puts the ball in play, he's already helping himself by removing defense from the equation entirely. Porcello's strikeout rate spiked from 13.7 percent of batters faced in 2012 to 19.3 percent in 2013, which actually bested the MLB average for starters (18.9 percent). What changed? The righty threw fewer fastballs and made his curveball a vital part of his arsenal, equipping him with a quality breaking pitch for the first time.

Porcello used his fastball about 67 percent of the time in 2012, the third-highest clip in the AL behind Henderson Alvarez and Joe Saunders. He had to lean heavily on his heat, because his breaking ball of choice -- a short mid-80s slider -- pretty muched turned every hitter he faced into Miggy (opponents slugged .633 against the pitch).

In 2013, though? Porcello cut back on the fastballs (61.7 percent) and nearly shelved his slider in favor of a high-70s curveball (thrown 16.6 percent of the time). Porcello's hook got swings and misses 29.6 percent of the time, slightly above the 29.2 percent MLB average. While his slider got slaughtered, Porcello held opponents to a .303 slugging percentage with his curve. Porcello's curve might make his fastball more effective, too considering that he now has a less predictable pitch mix. He got a whiff with his fastball 15.9 percent of the time in 2013, up from 13.3 percent in 2012.

Still in his mid-twenties, Porcello has treaded water to this point in his career by displaying sharp command and preventing homers. Now that he's backed by quality defenders and can fan hitters with his curve, this former bonus baby is about to bust out.

Monday
Feb032014

Regressing Power Leads To Michael Young's Retirement

Michael Young officially closed the book on his storied 14-year career last Thursday, choosing to “spend time with his family” rather than pursue a free-agent contract with a major league team any further this winter, according to a report by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal. The 37-year-old utility infielder had received offers from several teams – including the Dodgers, who were heavily interested in bringing him back after he posted a .314/.321/.392 slash line and 102 OPS+ over 21 games with the franchise to finish out 2013. If he remains retired, Young will own a career slash line of .300/.346/.441 to go with a 102 OPS+ in 1,970 games.

As a young baseball fan who watched ESPN's Baseball Tonight religiously, I remember taking in a lot of Young's big-time hits with the Rangers. Many of those hits featured a common theme: Young's ability to go generate ridiculous power on "inside" pitches -- often taking those pitches to right field with ease.

Here's a perfect example of what I'm referring to. In an at-bat against Seattle's Jason Vargas in 2012, Young took a pitch located on the inner portion of the plate and drove it to right center with a flick of his wrists for a home run. For me, this home run embodies what Young did so exceptionally well during his 14-year career: Dominate the inner-half of the plate. Ironically, this may well be a reason for his retirement.

Diminishing Inner-Half Power

From 2008 to 2011 -- his age 31 through 34 seasons -- Young dominated the inner-half of the plate to the tune of a .345/.374/.544 slash line and .392 weighted on-base average. The driving forces behind those gaudy numbers were his 26.3% line-drive rate (best among batters with at least 1,000 plate appearances in that span) and .401 well-hit average, which was trumped only by Miguel Cabrera (.418) and Albert Pujols (.404) among qualified batters. His best season in this strech was perhaps in 2011, when he led baseball with 213 hits (as a 34-year-old, no less), posted an insane .368/.385/.548 line and mustered up a .428 WHAV against inner-half pitches.

But from that point on, things changed. Young's age 35 season (his last with Texas) in 2012 and last season (where he spent time with Philadelphia and Los Angeles) garnered a still respectable .299/.320/.424 line and .323 wOBA against inner-half stuff, but his line drive rate fell to 23.4% (compared to 26.3% from 2008-2011) and WHAV dropped to .266 -- a decrease of .135 from where it had been previously.

When a hitter's best asset regresses with time, his statistical output tends to follow. In this case, Young's innate ability to place quality contact on inner-half stuff regressed, which was probably a key reason for why he decided to call it quits.

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