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Entries in control (2)

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
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.