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Entries in Chicago White Sox (34)

Wednesday
Jan152014

Bumgarner or Sale: Who's the Best Young Southpaw after Kersh?

No one will argue that Clayton Kershaw isn't the best pitcher in Major League Baseball at 25 years old or under, and I doubt many will refute the idea that he's well on his way to being the best pitcher of my generation. Heck, he just signed a seven-year, $215 million deal with the Dodgers -- giving him the largest average annual salary for a player in baseball history -- and has led all qualified starters in ERA in each of the past three seasons. Based on these facts alone, we can conclude that Kershaw takes the cake when it comes to dominant pitchers (both young and old).

But who's the next-best 25-or-under southpaw in baseball right now? This is a difficult question to answer, if only because there aren't many elite lefties. While Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, and Jose Fernandez are the obvious leaders of an insanely talented crop of young right-handed pitchers, the same cannot be said for young southpaws outside of Kershaw. Two names stand out above the rest, however, and that's Chris Sale and Madison Bumgarner.

Both are 24 years old. Both are entering their fifth full season in the majors. Both own career ERA marks around 3.00 (3.08 for Bumgarner, 2.97 for Sale). Both finished in the top 10 for their respective league's Cy Young Award voting last season. Both are exceptionally towering in stature (Bumgarner is 6'5", 235; Sale 6'6", 180) and both played for teams that didn't make the playoffs in 2013. The similarities are almost uncanny, am I right?

Unnaturally similar resumes aside, though, these two have clearly established themselves as the top 25-or-under southpaws in baseball after Kershaw. Which one is "better", you ask? Let's find out by evaluating the two in these areas: Command, ability to generate strikeouts and batted ball results.

Command/Control

Though Sale and Bumgarner boast similar pitch frequency heat maps over the past two seaons, one holds a distinct advantage in respect to command and control -- an aspect that is crucial to consider when evaluating starting pitchers. You can pump upper-90s fastballs around the plate all day long, but if you can't hit the mit where you need to, you won't last long in the majors.

  • Pounding the zone: Since 2012, Sale owns a 52.9% zone rate compared to Bumgarner's 49.9% mark. Yes, throwing more pitches in the zone doesn't always lead to success, but in this case it does: Sale's 37.9% called strike rate (third best among LHP since 2012) trumps Bumgarner's 32.5%.
  • Restricting free bases: Given his ability to pound the strike zone and paint the corners at a high rate, a lower walk rate has followed suit. Sale owns a 5.9% walk rate over the past two seasons while Bumgarner retains a slightly higher 6.7% walk rate, which is nearly at the 7.2% league average mark.

Command Advantage: Sale.

Strikeout Ability

If command is the most important means by which to evaluate a starter, then strikeout capacity and ability is an easy second, at least for me. Fortuitously, this is an area in which both Sale and Bumgarner have excelled to this point in their respective careers.

But the way in which the two go about punching out opponents is different; a whopping 49.8% of Sale's strikeouts occur in the strikezone (third-highest among qualified lefties since 2012) while Bumgarner uses his deception to expand opponents zones, as 59.4% of his strikeouts transpire outside the zone.

  • Expanding the zone: Since 2012, Sale owns a 30.4% chase rate juxtaposed to Bumgarner's 29.1%, so Sale gets the slight nod here. Neither are dominant in this area, though, as the league average mark in the last two seasons is 28.5%. We should consider that opponents swing more frequently at Bumgarner's stuff (47.7%) than Sale's (45.4%), however.
  • Swing and a miss: Sale separates himself from Bumgarner a bit more in generating swings-and-misses, however, as he owns a 25.2% miss rate opposed to Bumgarner's 23.6% miss rate. Neither are exceptional in this respect, again, as the league mark is 21.2% and league lead is owned by Francisco Liriano at 30.7%. The two are nearly identical when it comes to swinging strikes, with Sale boasting an 11.5% swinging strike rate and Bumgarner an 11.2% rate.
  • Simple Strikeouts: Then there's the generic strikeout rate. Sale reigns supreme here again, holding true to a 25.5% strikeout rate (sixth-best since 2012) compared to Bumgarner's 23.6%.

Strikeout ability advantage: Sale.

Batted Ball Results

Though I'm not the biggest proponent of evaluating pitchers strictly off opponents' numbers against them, they do maintain at least some merit. Looking at how batters fare against a pitcher statistically (i.e. SLG% against) can sometimes shed light on how effective (or uneffective) a pitcher's stuff is from a broad perspective.

  • Limiting XBH: While Sale maintains an advantage in command and strikeouts, Bumgarner gets the nod for holding opponents to lower success rates. Over the last two seasons, he's held batters to a .348 SLG% (ninth lowest among qualified starters) while Sale is just percentage points behind at .362 compared to the .402 league average.
  • More grounders: The ability to generate ground balls is an elite (and frankly unteachable) attribute for any pitcher, and Bumgarner again outperforms Sale in this regard. With a 47.5% ground ball rate since 2012, he outmatches the 44.7% league mark and trumps Sale, as well, whose 45% ground ball rate is essentially average.
  • In play or no? When it comes right down to it, pitchers are considered effective when they limit the amount of pitches that opponents put in play -- less pitches put in play generally leads to less hits. It's really that simple. For Bumgarner, this is another edge over Sale, as he owns a 36.9% in-play rate (fifth-best among lefty starters last season) compared to Sale's 38.8% mark.

Batted ball results advantage: Bumgarner.

So, Who's (Second) Best?

Considering everything we've just discussed, it seems as though Sale is the "better" pitcher, holding advantages in command and strikeouts. However, this is more of a question of preference; do you want a pitcher whose command is slightly better and who strikes out more batters (Sale), or do more ground balls and fewer pitches placed in-play tickle your fancy?

I'll take Sale, but we all know Kershaw is the most elite arm in the game.

Thursday
Dec192013

Missing: Matt Thornton's Fastball

Matt Thornton finally learned how to tame his upper-90s fastball in his thirties, emerging as one of the game's most lethal relievers after walking the yard in the minors and during his first few years in the majors with Seattle. The durable lefty dominated from 2008-11, posting the fifth-highest strikeout rate (10.7 per nine innings) and eighth-best park-and-league-adjusted ERA (59 percent above average) among qualified 'pen arms. Hitters knew what was coming -- Thronton threw his meal ticket fastball an MLB-high 86 percent over that time frame -- but that knowledge didn't help them look any less foolish at the dish.

The Yankees just signed the 37-year-old Thornton to a two-year, $7 million free agent deal, hoping he can serve as a lower-cost alternative to power lefty Boone Logan (now a Rockie after inking a three-year, $16.5 million contract). Unfortunately, Thornton seems to have misplaced his meal ticket. These days, Thronton's throwing his fastball slower -- and leaving it over the heart of the plate far too often.

Back in 2011, Thornton boasted the highest average fastball velocity (95.8 MPH) of any lefty reliever not named Aroldis Chapman. But his average heater declined to 95 MPH in 2012, and 94.2 MPH in 2013. As Thornton's fastball velocity dipped, hitters' contact rate against the pitch spiked:

Thornton's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2011

 

Thornton's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2012

 

Thornton's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2013

 

Batters whiffed at Thornton's fastball 22 percent of the time that they swung in '11, well above the 18 percent average for relievers. However, that whiff rate dropped to 16.4 percent in '12 and just 13.9 percent this past year. For comparison's sake, J.P. Howell -- who throws 88 MPH gas on a breezy day -- got whiffs 13.6 percent of the time. Connecting much more frequently, opponents raised their batting average off Thornton's fastball from .256 to .275 to .298.

Thornton's fastball velocity isn't the only thing on the wane, though -- his command has also suffered. He has thrown more pitches over the vertical middle of the plate three years running (31 percent in '11, 36.3 percent in '12, and 36.8 percent in '13). When pitchers toss a belt-high fastball, hitters pretty much morph into Dustin Pedroia. They rarely whiff (a collective 14.2 percent miss rate in 2013), hit for average (.291) and drive the ball into the gaps (.464 slugging percentage). Poorly located fastballs lead to laser shows.

With diminished zip and command, Thornton's K rate has dipped from 9.5 per nine frames in 2011 to a career-worst 6.2 in 2013, when he couldn't crack the Red Sox playoff roster. It's not like the Yankees shelled out big bucks to bring him aboard, considering that $7 million now buys about a win on the free agent market. But, like many of his formerly elite teammates in the Bronx, Thornton has seen better days.

Thursday
Aug222013

Killing the Win won't kill Max Scherzer

For those of you who are not on Twitter, get on Twitter. There is a trend that was started not too long ago by MLB Network's, Brian Kenny. That trend is aptly titled, "Kill the win." And it is a sentiment that I fully endorse. Especially in the cases of pitching analysis, projection and, in November, hardware handouts. 

Pitchers rarely actually deserved his team's "win." But I think even Brian Kenny would agree that when Clayton Kershaw, in his Opening Day start for the Dodgers, threw a complete game shutout while driving in his team's only run that day with a home run, truly earned the "W" next to his name. 

But in most cases, pitching wins are silly.

Let me show you what I mean. 

Let's compare two pitchers:

  • Pitcher A is fly ball pitcher and has a slight upper hand in the strikeout department.
  • Pitcher B is getting more outs on the ground but is better at limiting free passes. 

Neither of them is separating himself from the other, and are close enough to be considered similar. 

Let's go a little deeper 

  • Pitcher A has an advantage in OPS against by 82 points. Which is pretty significant.
  • But he also has a BABIP-against that is 43 points higher than Pitcher B, also significant. 

Luck has played a major factor in the success of Pitcher A.

And not to spoil the surprise, but that .248 BABIP-against is 56 points below Pitcher A's career average. Just saying.

Let's go a little broader

 

The wins and losses should be a telling sign of, at least, who Pitcher A is. If you haven't figured it out, Pitcher A is Tigers starter, Max Scherzer

Pitcher B, is Chris Sale

Why is it important that I compare these two pitchers?

Because Max Scherzer is the front runner for the American League Cy Young Award. And rightfully so. He has been dominant all season long. But Sale has been almost equally as dominant.

The biggest difference is run support. 

 

  • The Tigers average 5.9 runs per game when Pitcher A Scherzer is on the mound.
  • When Pitcher B Chris Sale makes a start for the White Sox, the Pale Hose average 3.1 runs per game.

 

Who would you rather pitch for? 

 

  • The White Sox have scored two runs or less in support of Chris Sale eight times this season in 24 starts. That's more than one-third of his starts.
  • That has happened only twice in the 26 games that Max Scherzer has started. 

 

 

  • The Tigers have scored more than five runs 17 times in support of Scherzer.
  • Chris Sale has received similar support only seven times this season.

 

Unfortunately for Sale, this is a matter of circumstance. He pitches for a bad team. The White Sox have the third worst record in baseball, and are only four games better than the Giancarlo Stantons Miami Marlins. Chris Sale would have had to have pitched like Clayton Kershaw this season to overcome what is one of the weakest offenses in baseball (they rank 29th in baseball in runs).

But aside from ERA - and maybe WHIP - Cy Young voters aren't going to be worried about whether or not Sale's K% was on par with Scherzer's when they fill out their ballots at the end of the season. They are going to see the numbers "19-1" and "9-12."

For as far as the BBWAA came when they handed the CYA to Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez in 2009 and 2010, respectively, they still have a long way to go before they would look at two pitchers like Sale and Scherzer and find any similarities. 

Kill the win? 

Maybe not "kill it." But I would advocate beating it until it is in a vegetative state and unable to sway awards voters one way or another.