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Entries in Fastballs (15)

Tuesday
Jan212014

Andrelton Simmons: Two-Way Threat?

Everyone knows that Andrelton Simmons can pick it. The Atlanta Braves shortstop and 2013 Gold Glove Award winner, possesing range that makes trotting out a third baseman optional and gun-you-out-from-the-seat-of-his-pants arm strength, has saved more runs through his first two major league seasons (60) than any player in history, according to Baseball-Reference. But don't sell Simmons' bat short, either -- the 24-year-old excelled offensively during the second half of the 2013 season, crushing fastballs with a more polished plate approach. Is he about to emerge as a two-way terror?

Simmons fit the all-gove, no-hit archetype during the first half, batting just .243 while getting on base at a .282 clip and slugging .348. That's lousy, even by banjo-strumming standards of the position (shortstops batted a collective .254/.308/.372 last year). After the All-Star break, however, Simmons morphed into a slugger (.255/.316/.472). His Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) more than doubled, from .105 to .217, and he hit fly balls over 20 feet farther on average (240 before the break, 262 after). As the season progressed, the potential heir to Ozzie Smith as the game's greatest defensive shortstop started lashing fastballs into the gaps and over the fence.

Simmons' slugging percentage vs. fastballs before the All-Star break, 2013

Simmons' slugging percentage vs. fastballs after the All-Star break, 2013

Simmons slugged a paltry .309 versus fastballs during the first half, which was 120 points below the MLB average and fifth lowest among qualified batters. But after the Midsummer Classic, he boosted that mark by nearly 200 points (.508 slugging percentage). A better grasp of the strike zone played a part in Simmons' improvement: he swung at 64.6 percent of fastballs thrown over the plate in the second half, up from 60.1 percent before the break and above the 64 percent big league average. That change benefited him in two ways: he fell behind in the count less often by taking fewer called strikes, and he took a cut on the sort of pitches that hitters tend to pummel (MLB batters slugged .502 when swinging at fastballs thrown in the strike zone in 2013).

As a junior college product who was originally drafted as a pitcher and barely took 1,000 trips to the plate in the minors, Simmons might just be scratching the surface of his offensive abilities. His Baseball-Reference comps through age 23 indicate that potential for two-way stardom, with Barry Larkin featuring prominently on the list. It's easy to forget that the first-ballot Hall of Famer actually scuffled offensively during his first two years in Cincinnati (81 OPS+ in 1986-87) before evolving into one of the better hitting shortstops in recent memory (116 career OPS+). J.J. Hardy isn't as sexy a name, but he has been quite valuable by playing vacuum cleaner D and routinely clearing the fences.

With sublime, perhaps even unprecedented defensive skill, Simmons merely needs to avoid being an automatic out at the plate to be one of the more valuable shortstops in the game. But if even a portion of his second-half gains carry over into 2014 and beyond, Atlanta could have its first MVP since Chipper Jones 15 years ago.

Tuesday
Jan142014

Big Papi Refuses to Get Old

Red Sox GM Ben Cherington recently said that "the door will be open" for the club to discuss a contract extension with David Ortiz, who will pull down $15 million next season during the last year of his current deal. For most 38-year-olds who don't contribute in the field and on the bases, the door would have slammed shut years ago. But Ortiz, fresh off a season in which he posted the best park-and-league-adjusted OPS (60 percent above average) among qualified hitters this side of Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Chris Davis, just won't get old. Forget slowing reflexes and declining bat speed -- Big Papi is too busy hoisting World Series trophies and sporting WWE championship belts.

In fact, Ortiz's lumber looks as quick as ever. He annihialated "hard" pitches -- fastballs, cutters and splitters -- in 2013, boasting the third-highest slugging percentage in this game against those high-speed offerings.

Baseball orthodoxy says that sluggers lose their quick-twitch fibers and prodigious power as they age. Not Ortiz, who is actually yanking more hard pitches to right field -- and launching them deeper -- as he creeps closer to forty. His pull percentage and average fly ball distance versus fastballs, cutters and splitters has increased three years running.

Ortiz's pull percentage and average fly ball distance vs. hard pitches, 2011-13

        

In addition to his World Series and pro wrestling gold, Ortiz can now claim his place as one of the all-time great batters among old dudes. Ortiz has the fourth-highest OPS+ ever for a hitter from age 35 onward (minimum 1,500 plate appearances). A chemically enhanced Barry Bonds, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth are the only batters who mocked Father Time more effectively than Big Papi, though those guys continued raking into their forties.

(Source: Baseball-Reference.com)

Should the Sox pony up one last time for Ortiz? History hasn't been kind to similar sluggers. The list of DHs who have thrived from age 38 onward is an awfully short one: Just Edgar Martinez (132 OPS+), Brian Downing (130 OPS+) and Harold Baines (111 OPS+) managed to be at least 10 percent above average with the bat while logging 1,500+ plate appearances. And keep in mind, these are guys who only contribute offensively. Still, are you going to bet against Big Papi at this point? Eventually, he's going to slow down. But if there's one thing we've learned while perennially writing his baseball obituary, it's that Ortiz cares little for typical aging curves.

Thursday
Sep052013

Can Boston Handle Nova's Low Heat?

Historically, Red Sox hitters have tagged Ivan Nova. The Yankees righty takes the mound  tonight having allowed a career .298 batting average, a .375 on-base percentage and a .430 slugging percentage against the Sox, essentially turning the average Boston batter into Dustin Pedroia circa 2013.

This time could be different, though. The Red Sox have yet to take on the 2013 version of Nova, who has transformed from one of the most homer-prone starting pitchers in the game last season (1.5 home runs allowed per nine innings in 2012) to one if its stingiest with the long ball. With 0.41 home runs surrendered per nine frames, Nova trails just Francisco Liriano (0.34 HR/9), Matt Harvey (0.35), Jhoulys Chacin (0.37) and Clayton Kershaw (0.39) in homer rate among starters throwing 100-plus innings.

Nova has slashed his home run total by pounding hitters at the knees with his fastball, generating lots of weak grounders rather than majestic souvenirs. Boston, however, thrives against knee-high heaters. Who will prevail tonight when a resurgent Nova takes on Boston's low-ball sluggers?

In 2012, Ivan Nova had about as much success with his fastball as Charlie Brown. He served up 14 home runs and allowed batters to slug .597 against his fastball -- only soft-tossers Chris Capuano, Jake Westbrook, Bronson Arroyo and Bruce Chen got hit harder. This year, though? Nova has allowed only three homers off his fastball, and he has an opponent slugging percentage (.398) that's comfortably below the major league average for starting pitchers (.442) in 2013.

Keeping his fastball low has been key for Nova. Check out his fastball location last year, and then in 2013:

Nova's fastball location, 2012

novafastballloc12

Nova's fastball location, 2013

novafastballloc13

He located about 29 percent of his fastballs to the lower third of the strike zone in 2012, but he has bumped that figure up to 40 percent this year. You might also notice that Nova is throwing many of those low fastballs to his arm side (about 57 percent of his low fastballs have been thrown to his arm side this year, up from just 31 percent in 2012).

Throwing more low, arm-side heat, Nova has increased his ground ball rate with his fastball from a league average 44 percent in 2012 to 54 percent. The only AL starters burning worms more often with their fastball are Rick Porcello, Doug Fister, Joe Saunders and Derek Holland.

Nova's new fastball approach will be tested against the Sox, who have collectively cranked 16 home runs against low heat (fourth-most in the majors) and slugged an MLB-best .505. David Ortiz (.726 slugging percentage vs. low fastballs), Mike Napoli (.659), Pedroia (.536) and Daniel Nava (.500) have done the most damage when pitchers throw low gas. Will Big Papi (a career .308/.400/.615 hitter in 15 PA versus Nova) continue to own Nova, or will the new-look Yankee scorch the earth against the Sox? Stay tuned.