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Entries in Atlanta Braves (42)

Monday
Jan132014

Which Pitchers Pull a Glavine, Pull the String vs. Same-Handed Hitters?

It's one of the first baseball commandments that young pitchers learn: Thou Shalt Not Throw Changeups to Same-Handed Hitters. If you pull the string in such a situation, the thinking goes, you'll end up getting clobbered as batters turn on a pitch that flutters low and inside -- directly to their power zone. Most hurlers adhere to this teaching, lest they get burned for all eternity by their pitching coaches: lefty starters threw a changeup to lefties just 4.6 percent of the time in 2013, and righties tossed one to same-handed hitters 6.7 percent.

Newly-elected Hall of Famer Tom Glavine was a blasphemer, however, and a very successful one at that. During his last season in the majors in 2008, Glavine tossed a changeup to lefties a whopping 53.2 percent of the time. No other lefty came close, with Phillies Jamie Moyer (29 percent) and Cole Hamels (28.1 percent) ranking a distant second and third, respectively.

While Glavine struggled during his final year in the majors, he still managed to baffle lefties with his changeup. He induced more whiffs with his change (39 percent) than the league average (31 percent), and he also limited hard contact (.353 opponent slugging percentage, about 50 points better than the MLB average for lefty-on-lefty changeups).

Glavine excelled against lefties with his signature pitch by almost never locating low and inside. Instead, he pounded the outside corner. Against southpaw hitters, Glavine threw 78 percent of his changeups away:

Glavine's changeup location vs. lefty hitters, 2008 

 

Now that Glavine has reached Cooperstown by breaking the changeup commandment, it's worth asking: Which current starting pitchers share the Atlanta lefty's rebellious streak? As it turns out, a Tampa Bay righty has taken over Glavine's title as the game's biggest changeup iconoclast.

Jeremy Hellickson pulled the string 33.6 percent of the time versus same-handed batters last season, by far the highest clip among all qualified starters. Unlike Glavine, the man dubbed Hell Boy had no problem challening hitters inside with his changup:

Hellickson's changeup location vs. righties, 2013    

 

Among other righties, Ian Kennedy (20.1 percent), Kyle Kendrick (19.9 percent), Edinson Volquez (18.6 percent) and Kris Medlen (18.4 percent) also threw a bunch of changeups to same-handed batters. Medlen (.250 opponent slugging percentage) had the most success with righty-on-righty changeups out of this group, followed by Kennedy (.348) and Hellickson (.393). Volquez (.533) and Kendrick (.536), meanwhile, were smote by righties.

What about lefties? Mark Buehrle tossed the high rate of lefty-on-lefty changeups in 2013 (21 percent). Like Hellickson, Buehrle eschewed Glavine's approach by throwing plenty of low-and-inside changeups to lefties:

Buehrle's changeup location vs. lefties, 2013

Hamels (18.3 percent), Eric Stults (15.5 percent), Felix Doubront (9.1 percent) and Chris Sale (8.3 percent) pulled the string frequently versus lefties, too. Doubront (.185 opponent slugging percent) dominated batters, as did Stults (.189). Buehrle (.315), Hamels (.333) and Sale (.375) didn't get cut down for breaking the changeup commandment, either.

Monday
Jan062014

How to Dominate With Mid-80's Heat, By Greg Maddux

In this polarized age of Hall of Fame voting, when debates center on how to evaluate stars associated with PEDS and whether the limit of ten players per ballot should be abolished, one man unites the masses: Greg Maddux. Newly eligible for Cooperstown, Maddux is expected to soar past the 75 percent threshold for induction and perhaps even challenge Tom Seaver's record vote percentage of 98.84, established in 1992.

It's easy to see why Mad Dog will achieve baseball's highest honor. He was durable, eclipsing 5,000 innings pitched during his 23-year career, and dominant, posting the tenth-best park-and-league-adjusted ERA (32 percent above average) among starting pitchers (minimum 3,000 frames). There's also his record 18 Gold Gloves, the product of a silky-smooth delivery that left him square to the batter and surprising athleticism for guy who looks more like a CPA than an MLB legend.

Maddux was still schooling hitters at the end of his career in 2008, despite possessing raw stuff that wouldn't have landed him so much as a minor league deal. He had no fastball to speak of, throwing the pitch at an average speed (84.3 MPH) that bested only Jamie Moyer (80.9 MPH) among qualified starters. Just about nobody swung through Maddux's "heat," as his whiff rate (7.1 percent) was barely half of the league average (14 percent). Yet, Maddux got elite results with an ultra-slow pitch that elicited scads of contact. Among qualified starters, only Ryan Dempster and Daisuke Matsuzaka had a lower opponent slugging percentage on fastballs thrown:

Lowest opponent slugging percentage on fastballs, 2008

 

How did Maddux do it? The then-42-year-old triumphed over the radar gun by stealing strikes on pitches thrown just outside of the strike zone, avoiding the fat part of the plate, and generating bushels of ground balls.

Stealing Strikes

Maddux was the dean of expanding hitters' strike zones. In '08, he had the highest called strike rate (42.8 percent) among National League starters and trailed only another deserving, though much less acclaimed, Hall of Famer in Mike Mussina (43.8 percent) among all pitchers. Maddux was especially adept at getting called strikes on borderline pitches. Check out his called strike rate on pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, compared to the league average:

Maddux's called strike rate on fastballs thrown outside of the strike zone, 2008

League average called strike rate on fastballs thrown outside of the strike zone, 2008

Overall, pitchers got called strikes 13.1 percent of the time they threw something off the plate in 2008. But Maddux? He got a called strike 20 percent of the time, ranking behind only Livan Hernandez (21.7 percent) and Jake Peavy (20.5 percent). If there's one saving grace in being a soft-tosser, it's that umps tend to give you more calls compared to power pitchers.

Avoiding hitters' wheelhouse

Everyone knows that Maddux threw a ton of strikes -- you don't compile the best career strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.37) this side of Mussina, Cy Young and Curt Schilling by nibbling. But Maddux threw quality strikes as well, painting the corners and rarely missing his spots. Take a look at his fastball pitch location against lefties and righties in '08:

Maddux's fastball location vs. left-handed hitters, 2008

 

Maddux's fastball location vs. right-handed hitters, 2008

For Maddux, it was all about avoiding the center of the plate. He threw fewer pitches to the horizontal middle of the strike zone (21.2 percent) than the average starter (23.3 percent), instead living on the outside corner against lefties and righties alike. Maddux tossed the fifth-highest rate of fastballs to the outside corner (60.6 percent) among all starters. That kind of command is the difference between getting clobbered (hitters slugged .500 that year against fastballs thrown down the middle) and entering Cooperstown (they slugged .355 versus fastballs thrown away).

Burning worms

Mad Dog knows that chicks dig the long ball, but he was notoriously stingy in giving them up. He surrendered just 0.6 home runs per nine innings pitched, second-lowest among starters who have logged 3,000+ innings since his big league debut in 1986 (Kevin Brown is first, at 0.57 HR/9). During his swan song season, Maddux still ranked in the top ten among starters in fastball ground ball rate:

Highest ground ball rate on fastballs, 2008

Maddux is a prime example of why so many former Little League and high school players, eventually forced out of the lineup, still love the game. He wasn't big. He didn't throw hard. He had crappy vision and wore the biggest glasses this side of Harry Caray before eventually undergoing LASIK surgery. He was like us. Or, at least it felt that way. Appearance and stuff aside, Maddux is in a class all his own when it comes to outwitting hitters.

 

Friday
Nov292013

McCann Bounces Back at Plate, But Can He Stay Behind It? 

During his twenties, Brian McCann raked like few other catchers ever have. McCann has clubbed the eighth-most home runs (176) among regular catchers through age 29, and his park-and-league-adjusted OPS (117 OPS+) ranks 13th, just behind Gary Carter and Thurman Munson. Those credentials -- at a position where sluggers are practically nonexistent -- earned McCann a five-year, $85 million free agent deal from the Yankees, with a vesting option that could bring the contract's total value to $100 million.

Did the Bombers invest wisely in a down-ballot MVP candidate, ending the procession of punch-and-judy backstops who produced a collective .298 slugging percentage last year, or did they potentially waste six figures on another aging star? The answer to that question depends upon how long McCann remains a threat at the plate -- and how long he can keep squatting behind it. Let's be honest: the prospect of paying top dollar to a guy whose occupational hazards include crouching for three hours a day while getting pummeled by foul tips, backswings and base runners is terrifying. But if his resurgent 2013 season and the history of other sweet-swinging catchers are any indication, McCann might just prove to be worth every penny.

Low stuff no longer a problem

The former Brave endured the worst season of his career in 2012, posting an 87 OPS+ as he tried to play through a right shoulder injury that required off-season surgery. He missed the first month of 2013 rehabbing, but he rebounded at the plate to the tune of a 115 OPS+. The big difference was McCann's performance against pitches thrown at the knees:

McCann's slugging percentage vs. low pitches, 2012

 

McCann's slugging percentage vs. low pitches, 2013

McCann slugged a paltry .310 versus pitches thrown to the lower third of the strike zone in 2012 -- ten points below the major league average. This past year, he slugged .437 against low stuff. He wasn't able to loft those low pitches in '12, hitting a grounder about 54% of the time that he put the ball in play, but he took to air in '13 (42% ground ball rate).

Will McCann hold up behind home plate?

Few doubt that McCann will be a massive upgrade for the Yankees in 2014, but what about in the following years? Will he continue to be an offensive stalwart at catcher, or will he be an ultra-expensive DH? Believe it or not, catchers who rake in their twenties like McCann hold up pretty well in their thirties.

Eleven other catchers have posted an OPS+ above 110 in their twenties while logging at least 1,000 games. Using Baseball-Reference's Play Index Tool, I found how these guys performed from age 30 to 35 (the years covered by McCann's contract if his option vests). Joe Mauer was excluded, as we have yet to see how the now former catcher's career unfolds. Thurman Munson, whose life came to a tragic end at 32, was also excluded. That left nine McCann comps: Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Ted Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, Gary Carter, Bill Freehan, Darrell Porter, Lance Parrish, and Ivan Rodriguez.

From age 30 to 35, these players continued to hit and mostly stick behind the plate. Collectively, they:

  • Posted an OPS+ of 113
  • Averaged about 113 games per season, with 81 percent of those games coming behind the dish
  • Averaged 15.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR)

The results aren't really skewed by a few great performers, either: All nine remained average or above-average hitters from age 30-35, and all had at least 11 Wins Above Replacement during that time frame. Nobody busted, and several remained All-Star caliber players.

While this mini-study doesn't prove that McCann will deliver on his mega-contract, it does suggest that he's not necessarily a ticking time bomb destined for the DH spot in a year or two. If he provides the Yankees with 15-16 wins over the course of his contract, it will be $100 million well spent for a team with exceptionally deep coffers and a gaping hole at the position. Many catchers struggle to hold up both offensively and defensively as they age. But, as McCann's career comps show, he's not like most catchers.