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Monday
Jan272014

Garza Brings Wicked Slider to Milwaukee

After a few days of uncertainty, the Milwaukee Brewers officially announced their signing of free-agent starter Matt Garza Sunday afternoon, a deal that's reportedly worth a guaranteed $50 million over the next four years with a vesting option for the fifth year. Garza, who spent the first half of last season with the Cubs before being dealt to the Rangers, posted a combined 3.82 ERA and 1.24 WHIP over 24 starts in 2013 en route to a 1.4 bWAR, which was his lowest single-season wins above replacement total since 2007 -- back when he was still tossing for the Minnesota Twins as a mere 23-year-old up-and-comer.

Yet while Garza was largely a disappointment from a pure 'value' standpoint last season, his strongest asset as a starter actually become more lethal than ever before. The asset I am referring to is of course none other than his 'wipeout' slider, which has developed a reputation for being one of the best in baseball. 

More Whiffs than Ever Before

Since 2010, Garza's slider has progressively induced more swings and misses with each passing year. Posting a 38.3% miss rate with the offering four seasons ago is nothing to sneeze at, especially compared to the 30.1% league average that year. However, that number increased to 41.7% in 2011, stayed steady at 41.4% in 2012, and increased to an impressive 44.9% last season, which was the highest rate of any right-handed pitcher who tabbed at least 150 innings.

What makes these improvements somewhat perplexing is the fact that Garza has thrown the pitch in the strike more often with time. In 2010, his slider zone% stood at 38.5% and jumped to 43.4% the following season. By the end of 2012, Garza threw 44.6% of his sliders in the strike zone, and last season remained near that mark, placing 43.7%f of his wicked sliders in the zone. Typically, as pitchers throw more sliders in the zone, their miss% decreases, but Garza's slider seems to be bucking the trend in this respect.

Best in the League? Almost.

Now that we've got a good sense for how Garza's slider has improved in the last four seasons, it's time to see how he stacks up with the competition.

PK%Miss%SwStr%InPl%Chas%
1. Chris Sale (CWS)2,25749.9%40.7%16.5%29.4%33.3%
2. CC Sabathia (NYY)3,18947.9%40.3%18.5%30.6%37.7%
3. Clayton Kershaw (LAD)3,12644.5%42.1%22.5%27.4%38.6%
4. Francisco Liriano (PIT)3,40944.3%42.8%22.3%27.5%41.9%
5. Matt Garza (TEX)2,20343.1%41.8%22.4%30.6%40.8%
6. Justin Masterson (CLE)2,57742.3%37.7%15.8%30.3%29.6%
7. Carlos Marmol (LAD)2,64740.4%37.5%16.2%28.1%32.1%
8. C. J. Wilson (LAA)2,10839.2%37.2%18.5%30.9%39.4%
9. Mat Latos (CIN)3,20538.0%40.7%21.5%32.4%41.4%
10. Ervin Santana (KC)4,82235.6%39.1%18.3%32.2%37.8%

As we can see, Garza's slider has produced gaudy numbers across the board, ranking in the top ten of all pitchers in miss% (41.8%), swinging strike% (22.4%), chase% (40.8%), in play% (30.6%) and strikeout rate (43.1%) who've thrown at least 2,000 sliders since 2010.

Will a change in scenery affect Garza's slider next season with Milwaukee? Only time will tell. But for now, let's just appreciate how masterful the offering has been. 

Monday
Jan272014

Sizemore Unlikely to Beat Out Bradley Jr. for CF Job in Boston

By now, Grady Sizemore was supposed to be burnishing his Hall of Fame credentials. Sizemore had it all -- power, speed, strike-zone awareness, Grady's Ladies -- and was about as valuable during his age 22 to 25 seasons (24.6 Wins Above Replacement) as Frank Robinson, Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr. But today, the Indians' erstwhile franchise center fielder is merely a 31-year-old scrapping for a roster spot with the Red Sox following seven surgical procedures that have prevented him from taking the field since September 22, 2011.

What do the defending World Series champions see in Sizemore, whom they signed to a one-year, $750,000 deal that could reach $6 million if he hits performance bonuses? Where could he contribute in 2014? Here are a couple ways that Boston could deploy Sizemore, assuming he makes it through spring training in one piece.

A Jackie Bradley Jr. alternative in center field

This seems to be the angle that's getting the most play in the media. Boston, looking to replace new Yankee Jacoby Ellsbury in center, might be reluctant to give an everyday job to Bradley Jr., given the 23-year-old's wretched showing in the majors last season (.189 AVG/.280 OBP/.337 SLG in 107 plate appearances). It's a sexy story ("broken down star beats out hot shot youngster"), but Sizemore likely won't be trotting out to the middle pasture come opening day.

For one thing, Bradley Jr. is still highly promising. The former South Carolina star has a career .297/.404/.471 line in the minors, blending superb plate patience with mid-range power. He's also a gazelle in center field, with MLB.com's Jim Callis dubbing Bradley the best defensive outfield prospect in the game. Sure, he was terrible in limited playing time in 2013, but it's hardly unprecedented for a top young player to flail initially and then go on to have a great career. Dustin Pedroia, for example, had an even worse showing at the plate than Bradley (.191/.258/.303 in 98 plate appearances back in 2006). When he got off to a .182/.308/.236 start in April of 2007, some were ready to cut bait. Sometimes, it takes prospects a few hundred ABs to get acclimated.

Bradley's main issue last year was contact, as he punched out in 29 percent of his plate appearances. He had a particularly difficult time squaring up high pitches (he swung and missed 27.1 percent of the time, compared to the 20.3 percent MLB average). But there's not much reason to think he'll whiff like Pedro Alvarez or Mark Reynolds moving forward -- Bradley struck out a modest 17.4 percent of the time on the farm. Chances are Bradley gets on base, drives pitches into the gaps and tracks down fly balls like a boss in 2014.

We also have no idea whether Sizemore is actually capable of playing center field at this point. Advanced defensive metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating considered him a plus fielder during his halcyon days in Cleveland (+4.3 runs saved compared to an average player per 150 games), but that was before Sizemore had microfracture surgery on both knees. Maybe he can still fly, or maybe he gimps around like Kirk Gibson in the '88 World Series. We won't know until he takes the field.

Jonny Gomes' platoon partner in left field

This scenario looks more plausible, though Daniel Nava is more deserving as a guy who thumps righties (.303/.401/.459 in 2012-13) and isn't coming off a two-year respite. Gomes obliterates left-handed pitching (.277/.387/.494 over the past three seasons) but gets shut down by righties (.205/.314/.382). He also plays defense like a guy who had microfracture surgery yesterday. Sizemore, meanwhile, still managed to inflict some damage versus right-handers while his body betrayed him (.254/.333/.450 from 2009-11). A Sizemore-Gomes platoon could be productive. Of course, a Nava-Gomes platoon is already productive.

Mike Carp also hits righties pretty well (.258/.333/.449 from 2011-13). He could be swapped, though I wouldn't bet on GM Ben Cherington showing that much faith in Sizemore's durability.

Sizemore's role in Boston is about what you'd expect for a guy who hasn't seen live pitching since beer-and-chicken-gate -- he doesn't really have one right now. He could contribute, and he has far more upside than your typical 30-something scrapheap sign. Still, nobody's counting on him to crack the opening day roster, much less usurp a top prospect like Bradley.

Thursday
Jan232014

Chisenhall Hacking His Way out of Cleveland's Plans

With the help of Indians infield coach Mike Sarbaugh, Carlos Santana is fielding grounders aplenty this offseason in hopes shifting to third base at least part-time in 2014. Santana's newfound interest in the hot corner has much to do with the emergence of Yan Gomes, who will get most of the starts behind the plate after showcasing a power bat and pitch-framing skills last year. But Santana's attempted conversion also speaks volumes about how far Lonnie Chisenhall's stock has fallen within the Indians' organization. If the 25-year-old can't tone down his hyper-aggressive hitting style, it's going to cost him his job.

Cleveland's first-round pick in the 2008 draft, Chisenhall has been carved up by major league pitching. He has struck out more than four times as often (132) as he has walked (32) in 682 career plate appearances, earning a demotion back to Triple-A each of the past three seasons. From 2011-13, Chisenhall had the third-lowest on-base-percentage (.284) of any third baseman logging at least 600 plate appearances. The only players manning the position who had more trouble avoiding outs were Casey McGehee (who played in Japan last year to re-establish value and signed a minor league deal with Miami this offseason) and Brandon Inge (released in 2013 after getting on base at a .204 clip). That's not the sort of company that a former top-25 prospect wants to keep.

Chisenhall's on-base woes are due in large part to his inability to lay off "soft" stuff -- curveballs, sliders and changeups. The lefty batter has chased 46 percent of soft pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, obliterating (in a bad way) the 32 percent major league average over the past three seasons. He's especially jumpy against breaking and off-speed stuff tossed low and away

Chisenhall's swing rate by pitch location versus soft pitches, 2011-13

 

MLB average swing rate by pitch location for lefty hitters versus soft pitches, 2011-13

Some batters can still rake while routinely chasing soft stuff out of the strike zone, as Adam Jones (49.2 percent chase rate from 2011-13), Pablo Sandoval (48.8 percent) and Chris Davis (48.3) show. Chisenhall has not proven to be one of those skilled hackers. He's hitting .224 (24-for-107) when he swings at a curve, slider or changeup thrown off the plate, with one homer.

Should Santana prove capable of at least faking it at third base, a la Miggy Cabrera, he could make Chisenhall a platoon player (the switch-hitting Santana has a career .855 OPS against lefties, compared to .612 for Chisenhall). That could end up being the best-case scenario for Cleveland's hoped-for franchise third baseman if he doesn't tighten his strike zone.

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