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Entries in Cincinnati Reds (36)

Friday
Feb212014

Checking in on Aroldis Chapman’s Fastball 

The Aroldis Chapman experiment enters its fourth (full) season in Cincinnati this spring, and if this season goes anything like the first three, the Reds can rest easy knowing the back end of their rotation will be one of the best in baseball in 2014. Since his debut on August 30, 2010, the ‘Cuban Missile’ owns a 2.40 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 40.9% strikeout rate and 77 saves – enough for seventh, fifth, second and sixth-best among relievers with 198 innings since that date. Now that Homer Bailey is sewn up through 2020, general manager Walt Jocketty now turns his attention to extending Chapman to solidify the backend of his bullpen for the prospective future.

Yet while Chapman has been one of the most dominant relievers in the game since his debut, his game hasn't come without a few shortcomings. Chapman's first three full seasons have been rather inconsistent, at least from a statistical perspective. Let's take a quick look at the numbers.

Chapman has been brilliant at racking up strikeouts, but his rocket arm has also cost him a good number of walks. The league average strikeout rate for relievers with at least 100 innings since 2011 is 22.9%, so we knew Chapman is elite in terms of punching batters out. However, his fluctuating walk rate is concerning, as the league average mark for those same relievers is 8.6%, and as we can see, Chapman has only one full season to his credit (2012) in which he posted a walk rate lower than that mark. He took several steps backward last season, adding another earned run to his 1.51 ERA from 2012. Opponents had much more success against his stuff in the meantime, posting a career-high .544 OPS against him. Consistency is king for closers, and though Chapman has been elite, there's room for improvement.

So, what's the problem? Chapman is becoming too reliant on his fastball. In his first full season with the Reds in 2011, Chapman tossed his fastball at a 79.4% clip -- fourth-highest among relievers with at least 50 registered innings that season and well above the 49.1% league average mark. During his best season to date in 2012, Chapman increased his heater use to 81.6% -- fourth-highest in the league once more and again noticeably higher than the 48.3% league average use. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound southpaw went to his fastball at a career-high 82.6% rate last season, however, which was third-most among lefty relievers with at least 60-innings.

Consequences of More Fastballs

While Chapman's fastball has maintained a steady (if not slightly increasing) velocity over the last three season, his fastball simply isn't generating the 'elite' type of results that we'd expect. His ground ball rate has plummeted incrementally from 42.9% in 2011 (compared to the league average mark of 38.4%) to 35.5% last season, which was actually below the league average mark of 35.5%.

And while opponents are putting fewer of his fastballs in play than ever before (21.5% in-play rate last season), they're doing more with those balls they do put in play, shown by a 2013 HR/FB ratio of 12.8% -- highest among relievers who threw at least 800 fastballs last season. Could Chapman's increase in zone% have anything to do with his ground ball decrease? Absolutely. Since 2008, the trend with relievers is that when you throw more fastballs in the zone, your ground ball rate tends to decrease roughly three percent with every five percent increase in fastball use.

When we think about relievers, we tend to think about the development of their secondary (i.e. non-fastball) offerings at a young age, particularly in the minor leagues (which Chapman didn't spend much time in). Often times, development of these pitches proves critical later in their careers, since fastball velocity tends to wane with age and young pitchers can't blow past batters with their heaters. Chapman seems to be going in the opposite direction in this respect; relying too heavily on his fastball, which has hampered the offering's ability to generate easy outs in critical late-game situations.

Monday
Feb102014

Bronson Arroyo Stretches the Strike Zone, Survives Gopheritis

Admit it: you have no idea how Bronson Arroyo's still doing this. He's a wisp of a human being by starting pitcher standards, he slings more slop than a school lunch lady, and he coughs up home runs worthy of their own frequent flyer program. He was cut loose by the Pirates over a decade ago, back when their ace was...Kip Wells? A few years later, Boston swapped him to Cincinnati for prolific out-maker Wily Mo Pena. Yet, Arroyo keeps logging 200 innings a season and cashing checks: The Diamondbacks just signed the soon-to-be-37-year-old to a two-year, $23.5 million deal that includes an $11 million club option for the 2016 season.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Arroyo's unlikely longevity is how often -- and how epically -- he allows batters to take him deep. During his 14-year career, Arroyo has served up 314 home runs in 2,278.2 innings pitched (about 1.24 homers per nine frames). Pitchers who get blasted that often don't stick around the big leagues, much less perform well and pull in nearly $100 million in career earnings. Just five pitchers in MLB history have thrown 2,000-plus innings while allowing at least 1.2 homers per nine (Steve Trachsel, Brad Radke, Pedro Ramos, Arroyo and Woody Williams). And just three of those guys (Radke, Arroyo, and Williams) have managed to compile an above-average ERA once you account for park factors and leaguewide run-scoring levels.

Like Radke and Williams, Arroyo has overcome his severe case of gopheritis by displaying exquisite control. And the older he gets, the stingier he becomes with the free passes: Arroyo has lowered his walk rate in each of the past six seasons, from 3.1 per nine innings in 2008 to a mere 1.5 per nine in 2013. He nearly gave up more homers (32) than walks (34) last year, a bizarre feat that Arroyo actually accomplished back in 2011.

In his mid-to-late-thirties, Arroyo has become a devout follower of the Radke approach to pitching: Fill up the strike zone, walk no one, and learn to live with the solo and two-run bombs. Arroyo has steadily thrown more pitches over the plate (from 44.3 percent of his total offerings in 2008 to 53.8 percent in 2013), and he's getting more calls on the edges of the zone. Take a look at his called strike rate by pitch location back in '08, and then in 2013. Pay especially close attention to pitches thrown up around the letters, and at hitters' knees.

Arroyo's called strike rate by pitch location, 2008

 

Arroyo's called strike rate by pitch location, 2013

Arroyo has stretched the strike zone vertically, getting the benefit of the doubt from umps on both high and low pitches. His overall called strike rate, which sat at 33 percent back in 2008, climbed into the mid-to-high-thirties over the years and then shot all the way up to 41.4 in 2013. The only qualified starter with a higher called strike rate last season was Cliff Lee (42.2 percent).

Last year, we found that there's a connection between velocity and called strike rate: the slower you throw, the more calls you get from the ump. Arroyo certainly seems to be benefiting from this phenomenon. Never one for lighting up radar guns, Arroyo has become shown even less zip lately. He threw his seldom-used fastball an average of 86.8 MPH last year, down from 88.3 MPH back in '08. Arroyo's soft stuff is softer, too -- he averaged 75.1 MPH when lobbing a slider, curveball or changeup in 2013, compared to 76.3 MPH during his higher-walk days in '08. 

Despite Arroyo's durability and control, there's plenty that could go wrong over the next two years. His body could finally break down as he approaches 40. His receding fastball could enter Jamie Moyer territory. He could become even more homer-prone. But Arroyo has succeeded thus far by throwing his pedestrian pitches over the plate, benefiting from calls on the edges of the zone and tolerating the fireworks displays at his expense. It's not glamorous, but the D-Backs would gladly take another 400 innings of league-average slop-tossing from Arroyo.  

Monday
Jan202014

Homer Bailey's Strikeout Development Legitimizes Contract Extension

In an offseason where contract extensions for starting pitchers have become in vogue, multiple reports suggest that the Cincinnati Reds aren't far away from extending Homer Bailey, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent next winter. According to MLB.com's Mark Sheldon, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty is "optimistic" that a multi-year deal will get done despite Bailey rejecting the team's arbitration offer last Thursday. In the final year of his arbitration eligibility, Bailey had vouched for a $11.6 million 2014 salary that was significantly higher than repoted $8.7 million Jocketty was willing to pay for him at that juncture.

Whether or not this stark difference in value will affect Bailey's willingness to re-sign with the Reds remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Homer Bailey is (finally) transforming into the 'ace' type starter Cincinnati recognized when its front office staff drafted him with the seventh overall pick in 2004.

It wasn't always like that, though. From his first true season in 2009 to the end of 2012, Bailey was nothing more than an average starter -- at best. In 94 outings (all starts) over that span, the La Grange (TX) High School product held true to a 4.18 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 7.4 K/9 ratio and 2.8 BB/9 ratio compared to the league-average starter's 4.05 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 6.9 K/9 ratio and 2.8 BB/9 ratio. In most cases, Bailey would have been considered a decent back-end starter. But for a former top prospect in a system that housed Joey VottoJay Bruce and Johnny Cueto, numbers like this were largely disappointing.

Then 2013 rolled around, and several things changed. Aside from setting career-best marks in ERA (3.49), WHIP (1.12), ground-ball rate (46.1%), opponents' OPS (.660), Bailey increased his strikeout ratio (K/9) to 8.6  -- a year after punching out a near league-average ratio of 7.3. For those keeping tabs, that's nearly a five percent increase (19.2% in 2012, 23.1% in 2013) in strikeouts per 100 plate appearances, which last season was on par with Justin Verlander's 23.5% strikeout rate.

How was he able to accomplish this?

Comparing Bailey's Strikeout Pitch Frequencies, 2009-2013

Looking at Bailey's strikeout locations over the past five seasons, we notice that his strikeouts have progressively shifted away from the middle portion of the plate toward the "edge" of the strike zone, particularly in 2013. This observation is a correct one, as Bailey's strikeout zone% (pitches thrown in the strike zone) has decreased steadily, beginning at 53% in 2009 and finishing at a career-low (keep this in mind) 43.2% last season. The same can be said about his overall zone%, which started at 51.2% in 2009 and shrunk to a career-low 49.6% in 2013.

What's the Correlation?

How has Bailey's exodus to the outer-portion of the strike zone affected his total number of strikeouts? As we can see, there is a clear correlation between the two: As Bailey has thrown fewer pitches in the zone (see 'overall zone%' data trend), his strikeout rate has increased, albeit not in perfect progression. Simultaneously, his chase, miss and called strike rate have increased on a steady incline, and his strikeout zone% has, as already noted, decreased over the last five seasons. Normally, you'd think throwing less pitches in the zone equates to fewer called strikes, and thus, batters would be less willing to chase those offerings.

What's the trend?

Comparing starting pitchers' zone% and strikeout rate since 2009

If you thought that, you were correct. Since 2009, the trend suggests that as a pitcher's zone% decreases, his strikeout rate should follow suit. But this is not the case with Bailey, as we've discussed -- he's drifting outside the zone, yet his strikeout rate has increased. Throwing any more pitches out of the zone would really be pushing his luck with home plate umpires, at least in my mind.

Whatever the case may be, it seems Bailey has discovered the key to increasing his strikeouts: Throwing away from the middle of the plate and working the edges of the zone -- even if that means throwing less pitches in the zone. Whether or not Bailey can get away with throwing progressively fewer pitches in the zone while increasing his strikeout rate remains to be seen, but for right now, it seems this strategy has transformed him into one of the more lethal right-handed starters in the game.