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Entries in contract extension (12)


With Improved Fastball Command, Felix Still King

Not since the days of Roger Clemens, Doc Gooden and Bret Saberhagen has a starting pitcher had as good of a start to his career as Felix Hernandez. But the curly-haired teenager throwing upper 90s gas who debuted with the Mariners back in 2005 would scarcely recognize the crafty 26-year-old who's set to sign a contract extension that will pay him the highest average annual salary ($27.1 million) ever for a pitcher. King Felix's fastball no longer sizzles toward home plate, but he has extended his reign with improved command of the pitch.

Hernandez's fastball averaged 94.4 miles per hour at the beginning of the Pitch F/X era in 2008, a mark bested only by Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana among qualified starting pitchers. Last year, Felix's average velocity with both his four-seam fastball and sinker was 92.4 MPH -- just a tick above the 91.2 MPH average for right-handers. Yet, batters didn't really do all that much more damage against Hernandez's fastball last year (.410 slugging percentage) than they did in 2008 (.396).

How has Felix remained so effective with seemingly run-of-the-mill velocity? By hitting his spots. He's throwing fewer fastballs over the heart of the plate as he makes the transition from flame-thrower to marksman:

Hernandez's percentage of fastballs thrown over the horizontal middle of the plate, 2008-12

2008: 22.9%

2009: 22.4%

2010: 23.4%

2011: 20.3%

2012: 19.8%

MLB AVG for SP: 23.6%

Fastballs left over the middle of the plate tend to get thumped (batters slugged .502 last year) and Felix's is no exception (.525 opponent slugging percentage), so avoiding that spot is key. Few did a better job of that in 2012: Dan Haren (19.6%), Doug Fister (19.5%), Jason Vargas (19.1%), Tommy Milone (18.9%), and Jeremy Hellickson (18.5%) were the only AL starters who threw a lower percentage of fastballs over the horizontal middle of the plate.

King Felix, power pitcher, is dead. Long live King Felix, command-and-control artist.  


Cubs Commit to Starlin Castro

The Chicago Cubs are reportedly on the verge of signing Starlin Castro to a seven-year, $60 million contract extension that includes an option for the 2020 season that could push the total value of the pact to $76 million.

Still just 22 years old, Castro has drawn the ire of manager Dale Sveum for occasionally spacing out on the field. Others wonder whether he can stick at shortstop long term, though he has seemingly made some progress using his strong-but-errant arm). But despite those concerns, Castro's performance at such a young age stands out. Among shortstops getting at least 1,500 plate appearances from age 20-22, Castro's 104 OPS+ bests the likes of Alan Trammell (97), Robin Yount (92) and Edgar Renteria (84). In fact, the only shortstops meeting those criteria who fared better are all-time greats Rogers Hornsby (153; he shifted to 2B), Alex Rodriguez (139), and Arky Vaughan (137).

Just what type of hitter Castro will become in his prime years remains an open question. There are two competing trends manifesting at the plate for the Cubs shortstop -- one pushing him toward potential stardom, the other constraining his progress. Castro is gradually tapping into his power potential, putting more pitches in the air and hitting to the pull side more often. But he's also giving away some ABs with a Soriano-sized strike zone.

Castro didn't show much pop as a 20-year-old rookie back in 2010, hitting three home runs and posting a .108 Isolated Power (ISO) in 506 plate appearances. He didn't really hit many pitches skyward, as you can see by comparing his fly ball rate by pitch location to the league average: 

League Avg. Fly Ball Rate by Pitch Location


Castro's Fly Ball Rate, 2010


Castro hit a fly ball a little less than 27% of the time he put a pitch in play, well under the 36-37% MLB average. He began to trade some grounders for fly balls in 2011, raising his fly ball rate to 31%. Castro's homer total climbed to ten, and his ISO increased to .125 in 715 PA:

Castro's Fly Ball Rate, 2011


This year, Castro's fly ball rate sits at 34%. He has gone deep 12 times already in 508 PA, and his .148 ISO ranks seventh among qualified shortstops. Castro's lofting most anything thrown upstairs:

Castro's Fly Ball Rate, 2012


He's also pulling the ball a little more, with his percentage of pitches put in play to left field rising from 41.1% in 2010 to 43.3% this season. But while the 6-foot, 190 pounder is hitting more forcefully, he's also turning into a hacker.

Castro was a little more jumpy than most hitters in both 2010 and 2011, chasing about 32% of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (28% MLB average). Comparing his swing rate by pitch location to the league average, he lunged at a bunch of low pitches as a rookie (contributing to that low fly ball rate) and swung at lots of inside pitches in 2011:

League Avg. Swing Rate by Pitch Location


Castro's Swing Rate, 2010


Castro's Swing Rate, 2011


In his third MLB season, Castro has taken that tendency to swing on inside stuff to the extreme:

Castro's Swing Rate, 2012


Going after so many inside offerings, Castro's overall chase rate has spiked to slightly over 37%. That's eighth-highest among qualified hitters, topping teammate and noted hacker Alfonso Soriano. And, as we noted last week, many of Castro's chases are on truly awful pitches.

As one might expect from a player thrust into the majors at 20 with scarce experience in the upper levels of the minors, Starlin Castro remains raw. But for all the consternation, Castro has managed to perform at an above-average level -- a level some future multi-time All-Stars and Hall of Famers didn't reach -- at an age when most players are sharpening their skills in high Class-A ball. He's exciting. He's exasperating. And his development may be the biggest factor in how quickly the Cubs climb from the depths of the NL Central standings.


Encarnacion Cashes in on 2012 Power Surge

Stop me if you've heard this one before: A seemingly unremarkable major leaguer, cast off by other clubs, is enjoying an out-of-his mind power year at age 29 in Toronto. Edwin Encarnacion's slugging exploits this season might not be on par with Jose Bautista's. But the once-reviled "E5," who entered 2012 with a career .453 slugging percentage and a homer every 23 at-bats, is ripping pitchers for a .565 slugging percentage at a big fly every 13 at-bats. That power has earned Encarnacion a three-year, $27 million contract extension with a $10 club option for the 2016 season.

The biggest difference for Encarnacion in 2012 is his slugging on outer-half pitches. Check out his slugging percentage by pitch location in 2011, and then this year:





Encarnacion slugged .425 against outer-half pitches in 2011, not far from the .413 MLB average for qualified batters. This year, though? He's slugging .598, which ranks fourth among all hitters:

Highest slugging percentage vs. outer-half pitches, 2012

BatterSlugging Pct.
David Ortiz .629
Carlos Gonzalez .610
Andrew McCutchen .602
Edwin Encarnacion .598
Robinson Cano .568
Jason Heyward .567
Shin-Soo Choo .563
Dexter Fowler .550
Carlos Ruiz .546
Josh Hamilton .545


Encarnacion likely hasn't suddenly morphed into one of the game's premier power hitters (ZiPS projects he'll slug .491 during the second half), but the contract hammered out by Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos doesn't value EE as such. If Encarnacion retains some of his slugging gains and the damage done by his iron glove is limited, this should end up being a deal neither side regrets.