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Entries in Arizona Diamondbacks (25)

Saturday
Nov102012

Grounders Grind Justin Upton's Progress to a Halt

Who is Justin Upton -- the guy who hit 31 home runs in 2011 and seemed set to join baseball's inner circle of sluggers, or the guy who went deep just 17 times in 2012 and drew the ire of Uptown? GMs must ask themselves this question before piecing together a trade package for the 25-year-old, who is once again on the market according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. If Upton is to re-establish himself as one of the game's great young talents, he'll have to cut back on the power-sapping ground balls that became all too common in 2012.

In 2011, Upton's ground ball rate (about 37%) was far below the average for big league hitters (about 44%). He rolled over when he chased below the knees, but he otherwise put the ball in the air more than the average hitter:

Upton's ground ball rate by pitch location, 2011

In 2012, however, Upton hit far more grounders on low and low-and-away offerings:

Upton's ground ball rate by pitch location, 2012

His ground ball rate spiked to a league-average 44%, as pitchers pounded him at the knees more often. Upton got a low pitch half of the time in 2012, up from 46% in 2011 (the MLB average is about 41%). He had the biggest increase in grounders on breaking stuff:

Upton's ground ball rate by pitch type in 2011 and 2012

Pitch20112012MLB Avg.
Fastball 32.3 37.6 40.9
Sinker 43.8 48.7 53.1
Curveball 48.6 61.5 50.3
Slider 39.8 53.3 44.9
Changeup 41.2 37.3 48.7

 

It's possible that Upton has already started to adjust to the deluge of low pitches: He decreased his ground ball rate to 2011 levels during the last month of the 2012 season (36%) while hitting six homers and slugging north of .500. Upton has to keep lofting pitches to tap into his considerable power, no matter what uniform he's wearing next spring.

Wednesday
Jun202012

Two-Strike Takes Hurting Justin Upton

Justin Upton entered the 2012 season as a trendy pick for NL MVP, and for good reason. The D-Backs' franchise player cut his strikeout rate from the mid-twenties to slightly under 19 percent in 2011 and posted a career-best 139 OPS+. But instead of competing for hardware, Upton has struck out in nearly a quarter of his plate appearances and has an 86 OPS+ in 2012. The 24-year-old's hitting woes are partially the result of too many takes on two-strike pitches thrown over the plate.

As you might expect, hitters let it rip when a pitcher throws a two-strike offering in the strike zone. Batters swing about 88 percent of the time in such situations. During his torrid 2011 season, Upton mirrored that mark pretty closely. Check out his in-zone swing rate on two-strike pitches, and then the league average:

Upton's in-zone swing rate with two strikes, 2011

 League average in-zone swing rate with two strikes

Upton swung at 89 percent of two-strike pitches thrown in the strike zone in 2011. In 2012, however, Upton is keeping the bat on his shoulder much more often:

Upton's in-zone swing rate with two strikes, 2012

He has taken a cut just 73 percent of the time on two-strike pitches thrown over the plate, which is dead last among qualified MLB hitters. In related news, Upton leads all big league batters in called strikeouts:

Most called strikeouts, 2012

HitterCalled Ks
Justin Upton 30
Corey Hart 27
Rickie Weeks 25
Ike Davis 24
Adam Dunn 22
Jose Altuve 21
Drew Stubbs 21
Cameron Maybin 21
Jordan Schafer 21
Dustin Ackley 21

 

Fans and analysts often talk of plate discipline in terms of not swinging at junk pitches thrown off the plate, but in-zone discipline is also paramount. Right now, Upton is letting two-strike pitches he needs to swing at to stay alive pass him by, and his K rate has climbed as a result. If this MVP-caliber talent is to help the D-Backs get back in the playoff race, he'll have to tune up his two-strike approach.

Monday
Dec192011

Kubel to Arizona a Head-Scratcher

The Arizona Diamondbacks signed outfielder Jason Kubel to a two-year, $15 million deal on Monday to become the club's starting left fielder. The move might provide the D-Backs with a moderate offensive upgrade over incumbent Gerardo Parra, but it's a net loss overall that makes Arizona older and  defensively-challenged at the position-- a particularly bad scenario given the fly ball-slanted nature of most of the team's starting pitchers.

Kubel, 29, is coming off a season in which he hit .273/.332/.434 and had a 111 OPS+ in 401 plate appearances, missing the better part of two months with a sprained left foot. Parra, meanwhile, batted .292/.357/.427 last year, with a 113 OPS+ in 493 plate appearances. Granted, Parra wasn't nearly as effective in 2009-2010 (84 OPS+ in 884 plate appearances), and his improved walk rate last season was largely the result of 16 intentionals because he often batted in front of the pitcher.

Moving forward, Kubel probably has the offensive advantage over the 25-year-old Parra. Bill James projects a .274/.343/.466 line for Kubel in 2012, compared to .293/.352/.427 for Parra. Over the course of a full season, Kubel is about 10 runs (or one win) better with the bat if you go by Bill James. But the equation isn't that simple. Parra is a plus fielder, Kubel is a born DH, and Arizona's staff takes to the air more than most.

Over the course of his three-year career, Parra has saved about 11 runs more than the average left fielder per 150 defensive games, according to Ultimate Zone Rating. The 220-pound Kubel, who has a blown knee in his past in addition to the foot issue, has been 17 runs below average per 150 games in an outfield corner. Even if you think Parra isn't quite that swift afield and that Kubel isn't that much of a plodder, the defensive difference wipes away any advantage Kubel holds over Parra at the plate.

Compounding matters, several of Arizona's starters give up a lot of fly balls. That's not the case for newly-acquired Trevor Cahill (29% fly ball rate last year), but Ian Kennedy (42 FB%), Dan Hudson (41%) and especially Josh Collmenter (50%) allow hitters to loft the ball more than the average starter (35-36% fly ball rate in 2011). Barry Enright, who projects as the team's 5th or 6th starter to begin the year, also gave up fly balls 44% of the time batters put the ball in play.

Overall, this move looks like a waste of resources for the Diamondbacks. Kubel may well provide an offensive upgrade, but he gives that back and perhaps then some when you consider that Parra is an elite corner outfielder and Kubel covers ground like someone replaced his cleats with cement blocks. The better course of action would have been to bring in a much cheaper right-handed hitter -- say, Andruw Jones -- to spot for Parra against tough left-handed pitching. Instead, Kennedy, Hudson and Collmenter will cringe every time a fly ball heads Kubel's way.