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Entries in Chicago Cubs (33)

Thursday
Jan052012

Volstad's Act Against Lefties Predictable

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer accomplished two goals on Thursday by sending Carlos Zambrano on the next flight out of town and adding cost-controlled pitching depth, picking up Chris Volstad from the Marlins. Volstad, 25, has three years of arbitration eligibility remaining and could end up being a quality mid-to-back-of-the rotation arm. The towering righty actually had a better Fielding Independent ERA than Zambrano last year (4.32 to Z's 4.59), though Volstad's ERA was over a half-run higher due to a whopping 15.5 of fly balls he gave up leaving the park.

Considering Chicago's bleak hopes of contention in 2012 and the dearth of pitching at the upper levels of the minors, adding Volstad is a nice upside play. But if the 2005 first-rounder is ever going to more than a passable rotation piece, he will need to stop being so predictable -- and hittable -- against left-handers.

Over the last three years, Volstad has allowed fellow right-handers to hit .278/.333/.411. That is by no means great (the average for righty starters versus righty batters is .258/.314/.409 over that time frame), but it looks stellar compared to his work against left-handers. Portside hitters have violated Volstad for a .284/.345/.492 line since '09 (.268/.335/.427 average for righty starters versus lefty hitters).

Volstad mixes up his pitches against lefties, tossing four-seamers (about 30 percent of the time), sinkers (30 percent), changeups (23 percent), curveballs (13 percent) and sliders (four percent). The problem is, everything he throws is on the outside corner. Look at his pitch location against opposite-handed hitters, compared to the average for right-handed starters to lefties:

Volstad's pitch location to left-handed hitters, 2009-2011

Average pitch location for right-handed starters to left-handed hitters, 2009-2011Most righties pitch lefty hitters outside, but Volstad takes it to another level. Volstad has thrown 60 percent of his pitches on the outside corner to lefties (53 percent average for righty starters versus lefty hitters), while going inside just 18 percent of the time (24 percent average).

Lefty hitters seem well aware of Volstad's outer-third approach. Check out their swing rate by location against Volstad's pitches, and then the average swing rate by location for lefty hitters against righty starters:

Left-handed hitters' swing rate by pitch location vs. Volstad, 2009-2011

Average swing rate by pitch location for left-handed hitters vs. right-handed starters, 2009-2011

Lefties have swung at slightly more than 43 percent of Volstad's pitches thrown on the outer third over the past three seasons, well above the 39 percent average. With few inside pitches, lefty hitters are waiting for those outer-third pitches and then racking up extra-base hits.

Volstad is young, fairly inexpensive (MLBTradeRumors' Matt Swartz projects he'll earn $2.6 million in arbitration) and does a good job of limiting walks and getting ground balls. That is an appealing package for a team starved for talent on the right side of 30. But right now, left-handed hitters have no reason to worry about getting pitches in on the hands and are taking advantage of Volstad's predictable outside strategy. Maybe pitching coach Chris Bosio can help him develop a cutter to keep lefties honest.

Thursday
Jan052012

Hitters Teeing Off on Big Z's Heat

I can't wait for the third and final season of HBO's Eastbound & Down to start in February, but Kenny Powers' antics might look downright prudish compared to what goes down in the Miami Marlins' clubhouse next year. You've got a brand new park arousing SEC suspicion, a manager in need of a three-second tape delay, two star shortstops on the left side of the infield, an Elvis-impersonating closer, and a Twitter-loving left fielder. And now, add Carlos Zambrano to that South Beach powder keg.

The Cubs shipped Big Z to the Marlins for young but lefty-and-homer-prone starter Chris Volstad. Chicago will cover $15 million of Zambrano's $18 million salary for 2012 (no word on whether the Cubbies will chip in for the extra Gatorade dispensers and Louisville Sluggers the Fish will inevitably need). Zambrano waived a $19 million option for 2013 that would have vested if he finished in the top four in Cy Young voting.

While Big Z was once good for 200-plus innings and a sub-four ERA, he's a far cry from Cy Young form these days. The 30-year-old right-hander is coming off his worst season in the majors, striking out a career-low 15.9 percent of batters faced, surrendering a career-high 1.17 HR/9 and posting a career-worst 4.59 Fielding Independent Pitching in 145.2 innings before calling it quits on August 12 after a five-homer outing against the Braves. Volstad actually had a lower FIP, at 4.32.

Zambrano's on-field woes can mostly be traced to his heat. His fastball didn't miss nearly as many bats as usual, and his sinker, well, didn't.

In 2009, hitters slugged .381 against Z's fastball and missed the pitch 16.6 percent of the time they offered at it. Zambrano's fastball was even better in 2010, limiting batters to a .242 slugging percentage with a 21.6 miss percentage (those are just his numbers as a starter, to make an apples-to-apples comparison). But in 2011, opponents teed off to the tune of a .513 slugging percentage and they missed Z's fastball just 11.5 percent. Lefties were especially troublesome, slugging .589 and missing just 10.4 percent of fastballs swung at. Z has lost some zip on the pitch, averaging 90.2 mph compared to 90.6 in 2010 and 91.5 mph in 2009.

In '09 and '10, Zambrano did a good job of limiting contact on fastballs thrown at the knees or at the tip of the strike zone. Check out his fastball contact rate by pitch location, compared to the league average:

Zambrano's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2009-2010

Average fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2009-2010

This past year, though? Zambrano was seeing red just about everywhere in the zone, and that was particularly the case in the lower half:

Zambrano's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2011While Z's fastball got hit more often and harder, his sinker refused to stay down. Zambrano threw about 14 percent of his sinkers high in the strike zone in 2009. That increased to 25.5 percent in 2010 and spiked to 28 percent this past year (the average for starters is about 23 percent).

With Zambrano putting more sinkers on a tee, opponents' slugging percentage against the pitch climbed from .343 to .444 to .489. Those high sinkers are the ones hitters scorched last year:

Opponents' in-play slugging percentage vs. Zambrano's sinker, 2011

Zambrano threw fewer fastballs and sinkers than usual in 2011 (a combined 50.5 percent, down from around 54 percent the two previous years), yet 13 of the 19 homers he coughed up came on those pitches.

The Marlins aren't taking much of a financial risk in adding Zambrano to a rotation that already includes Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and Mark Buehrle, and the club's new stadium may well play as a pitcher's park that aids Z in keeping the ball in the park. But if Zambrano doesn't miss more lumber with his fastball and get his sinker to sink, Miami could regret giving up three years of Volstad for one year of mercurial mediocrity.

Friday
Dec232011

Reds Get Marshall at High Cost

The Cincinnati Reds swapped some highly-regarded but partially redundant prospects to get top-of-the-rotation arm Mat Latos from the San Diego Padres last week, and now the club has acquired a Francisco Cordero replacement by getting Sean Marshall from the Chicago Cubs for Travis Wood, Dave Sappelt and Ronald Torreyes. Marshall is a big upgrade at the back of the bullpen and is cheap in 2012, but the Cubs may ultimately win this deal by getting an underappreciated starter under team control for years to come.

A sixth-round pick in the '03 draft out of Virginia Commonwealth, Marshall was an unremarkable starter with the Cubs in 2006 and 2007 and a swingman the next two years, but he has since emerged as a high-strikeout ground ball machine as a full-time reliever. The 6-foot-7 lefty has 10.1 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 and a 56% ground ball rate in 150.1 innings pitched over the 2010-11 seasons, ranking 10th among all 'pen arms with 4.4 Wins Above Replacement. Tyler Clippard, Jonny Venters and Matt Belisle are the only relievers to log more innings.

While Marshall's fastball doesn't get much past 90 on the gun, he complements it with a quality cutter and what might be the best curveball among relievers. Marshall's high-70s bender, thrown nearly 40% of the time, has silenced hitters to the tune of a .194 average and a .236 slugging percentage over the past two years. The overall averages for curveballs from relievers are .201 for average and .299 for slugging percentage.

Marshall has uncanny control and command of his curve. He has thrown 51% of his curveballs in the strike zone -- way above the 43% average -- and he rarely hangs a cookie high in the strike zone:

Location of Marshall's curveball, 2010-2011Just 11% of Marshall's curves were tossed high in the zone in 2010-2011, compared to the 18% average for relievers. All those well-placed breaking balls result in whiffs (hitters miss 38% of the time they swing, one of the top 15 rates among relievers) and grounders (Marshall's 55 GB% is in the top 20).

So Marshall is nails, and he'll earn only $3.1 million next year -- also known as "what Jonathan Papelbon will make by May." But Marshall can chase his own free agent riches after 2012, and in acquiring him the Reds weakened their rotation depth. Sure, Cincy can point to a one-through-five of Latos, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Homer Bailey and Bronson Arroyo. Rotation plans have a way of exploding like a cheap ACME bomb, however, and their options are murky after that.

Aroldis Chapman's conversion may be waylaid by a sore shoulder. Sam LeCure dealt with a forearm injury last year, and Matt Maloney was claimed off waivers by the Twins. On average, MLB teams called on 9-10 different pitchers to start in 2011. It would be quixotic to think the Reds' rotation, with Latos, Cueto and Bailey all serving DL stints for shoulder ailments last year (and Arroyo's ego getting wounded by so many big flies), won't need extra arms. Unless the Reds are OK spending real cash on a free agent starter, they're stuck scraping at the bottom of the barrel with the Jon Garlands and Brad Pennys of the world.

Which brings us to Wood, an undersized southpaw who won't hit free agency until after the 2016 season. Twenty-five in February, Wood pitched better as a rookie in 2010 (7.5 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 3.42 FIP in 102.2 innings pitched) than as a sophomore (6.5 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 4.06 FIP in 106 innings), but a 65 point swing in his batting average on balls in play made the difference look more extreme (3.51 ERA in 2010, 4.84 ERA in 2011).

Wood has a kitchen-sink approach, flinging changeups, curveballs, cutters and sliders as well as a fastball that crosses 90 on a windy day. Perhaps because hitters aren't quite sure what they're going to get, Wood's fastball has been sneaky good. Opponents have hit .259 and slugged .385 against the pitch over the 2010-11 seasons, while starters have allowed opponents to hit .278 and slug .440 versus fastballs over that time frame. He's not bashful about going up the ladder...

Location of Wood's fastball, 2010-2011

...And his high heat is highly successful despite its lack of velocity...

Opponent in-play slugging percentage by pitch location vs. Wood's fastball, 2010-2011

Wood has held hitters to a .355 slugging percentage on fastballs thrown high in the zone, 30 points below the league average for starters. It's very rare for low-octane fastball like Wood's to fare so well high in the zone. Take a look at the average slugging percentage on high fastballs, by velocity. The more zip you've got, the better off you are:

88-90 mph: .427 slugging percentage

91-93 mph:  .375 slugging percentage

94-96 mph: .315 slugging percentage

96+ mph: .239 slugging percentage

Marshall is a superb reliever. But The Hardball Times' projection system, Oliver, expects Wood to out-WAR him in 2012 (2.5 to 2), to say nothing of the four years after that when Marshall will get paid like the top late-inning option that he is and Wood will draw just a fraction of his free-agent worth. Wood's projected WAR total next year tops that of Arroyo and Bailey, too, and he won't be there as an option when the Reds inevitably need a sixth, seventh and eighth starter. The prospects also going Chicago's way aren't elite, but Sappelt (.313/.377/.458 at Triple-A Louisville in 2011) could be a decent extra outfielder, and Torreyes (.356/.398/.457 at Low-A Dayton) is a tiny teenage middle infielder with a promising bat.

It's a lot to pay for one year of Marshall, durable and dominant as he is. Chicago, meanwhile, should get credit for cashing Marshall's one year of remaining team control in to get some assets that could be part of the next competitive Cubs club.

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