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Entries in St. Louis Cardinals (38)

Friday
Aug302013

Axford Getting Tagged in Two-Strike Counts

Few relievers were as dominant as John Axford during his first two years as the Milwaukee Brewers' closer. Axford placed tenth among qualified 'pen arms in both park-and-league adjusted ERA (183 ERA+) and Wins Above Replacement (3.8) in 2010 and 2011, reaching the apex of his profession after enduring a career arc at times promising (he was a touted Notre Dame recruit) and depressing (he signed as a free agent with the Yankees 2006 after a stint with the Melville Millionaires, a Canadian summer league team that, ironically enough, doesn't pay players).

While he won't be suiting up in Saskatchewan again any time soon, Axford's last two seasons in the majors have been brutal. He has the fourth-worst adjusted ERA (88 ERA+) and ranks dead last in WAR (-1.6) among relievers since the start of the 2012 season, which helps explain how the St. Louis Cardinals were able to pick him up today for a player to be named.

The big difference between the version of Axford closing out games and finishing in the top 10 in Cy Young Award voting and the version mopping up blowouts is home run prevention. Axford surrendered a mere 0.3 home runs per nine innings in 2010-11, but 1.5 HR/9 in 2012-13. He's having a particularly hard time keeping the ball in the park in two-strike counts, when he seemingly should have hitters in his clutches.

Axford allowed just one home run in two-strike counts during the 2010-11 seasons, and he limited batters to a .169 slugging percentage -- more 100 points lower than the MLB average for relievers over that time frame (.260).

Hitters' slugging percentage vs. Axford in two-strike counts, 2010-11

 

The last two years, though? Axford is getting touched up far more often when hitters have their backs against the wall.

Hitters' slugging percentage vs. Axford in two-strike counts, 2012-13

Axford has coughed up the most two-strike home runs among relievers over the 2012-13 seasons (nine), and he's allowing a .318 slugging percentage.

Pitch selection may be part of the problem. He's throwing more two-strike fastballs in recent years (64% during the 2012-13 seasons) than he did as a shutdown closer (55% in 2010-11), an approach he might want to reconsider. Seven of the nine homers that Axford has given up in two-strike counts in 2012-13 have come off of the heat. Breaking out the breaking stuff more often could help Axford finish off hitters in St. Louis.

Friday
Aug302013

Miller, Liriano Dominate Different Parts of the Zone

The most consequential series for the Pirates since Sid Bream beat Barry Bonds' throw to home plate in Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS opens tonight, as the Cardinals (78-55) take a one-game lead in the NL Central standings to PNC Park to take on Pittsburgh (77-56). A pair of power arms kick off the series on Friday with Rookie of the Year candidate Shelby Miller (9.7 K/9, 126 ERA+) facing Francisco Liriano (9.3 K/9, 130 ERA+), a scrapheap free agent find who could become the first pitcher in big league history to win the Comeback Player of the Year Award twice.

While Miller and Liriano are both dealing, they're doing so in far different ways. Miller is firing letter-high pitches. Liriano, by contrast, is pounding the bottom of the strike zone. The common thread? Lots of whiffs, weak contact and long walks back to the dugout for opposing batters.

Shelby Miller

Miller has located 36.2% of his pitches in the upper third of the strike zone this season -- only Baltimore's Chris Tillman (39.2%) and New York's Matt Harvey (36.3%) have climbed the ladder more frequently among qualified starting pitchers. When it comes to getting swings and misses on high pitches, Miller is the best in the game:

Highest miss pct. on upper-third pitches among starters, 2013

The 22-year-old right-hander especially likes to challenge hitters with high heat, throwing 41.4% of his fastballs up in the zone. Miller has racked up an NL-leading 60 strikeouts on high fastballs.

Batters aren't doing much against Miller's high stuff when they manage to make contact, slugging .189 and collecting a whopping four extra-base hits. Miller's opponent slugging percentage against high pitches is more than 200 points lower than the MLB average (.393), and trails only Cincinnati's Homer Bailey (.179) among starters.

Francisco Liriano

Liriano, unlike Miller, lives low in the zone. The 29-year-old lefty has tossed 57.3% of his pitches to the lower third of the zone, third-highest among starters. He also ranks in the top 10 among starters in lower-zone whiffs:

Highest miss percentage on lower-third pitches among starters, 2013

Liriano's go-to offering low in the strike zone is his changeup, which he has buried two-thirds of the time this year.

Batters are slugging a mere .247 versus Liriano's low pitches, which is nearly 80 points below the MLB average (.325) and ranks in the top 15 among starters. Liriano has surrendered just one home run on a low pitch this year -- a slider that Cincinnati's Chris Heisey deposited into the seats on July 19.

Monday
Aug052013

Kershaw vs. Wainwright: Battle of Wicked Curves

Expect to see lots of jelly-legged hitters when Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright take the mound tonight in St. Louis. Kershaw's curveball has been dubbed "Public Enemy Number One" by Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, who knows a thing or two about breakers after watching Sandy Koufax flummox hitters for years. Wainwright's breaker, meanwhile still makes 2006 NLCS Game Seven victim and current teammate Carlos Beltran break out in a cold sweat.

Wainwright has struck out the second-most hitters with his curve (77) among MLB starters, while Kershaw (53) places fourth. To honor all those victims of Uncle Charlie, here are three reasons why both Kershaw and Wainwright's breaking balls are so nasty.

Kershaw

  • The Dodgers lefty gets a whiff about 38% of the time that hitters swing at his curveball, crushing the 28% MLB average and trailing only A.J. Burnett (42%), Madison Bumgarner (42%), Stephen Strasburg (39%), Jordan Zimmermann (39%) and Mike Minor (39%) among National League starters throwing the pitch at least 250 times.
  • When hitters do manage to make contact, they're chopping Kershaw's curve into the grass. His ground ball rate with the pitch (56%) is comfortably above the 51% big league average, which helps explain how Kershaw has yet to be taken deep on a curveball this season.
  • Kershaw rarely leaves his curve on a tee for hitters, throwing just 19% of them to the horizontal middle of the strike zone. The MLB average for starters, by contrast, is 26%.

Pitch location of Kershaw's curveball

Wainwright

  • While Wainwright gets a fair number of swings and misses with his curve (33% miss rate), he excels at getting hitters to expand their strike against the pitch. Wainwright has baited batters into chasing his curveball off the plate 38% of the time, tying him with Jose Fernandez for third-highest among starters. Minor (42%) and Burnett (39%) rank first and second, respectively.  

Hitters' swing rate by pitch location vs. Wainwright's curveball

MLB average swing rate by pitch location vs. curveballs

  • Wainwright buries his curve at hitters' knees, tossing the pitch to the lower third of the strike zone 63% of the time (the MLB average is about 56%). By keeping his curve down, Wainwright has also generated plenty of grounders (53%) and kept the ball in the park (two homers allowed on curveballs in 2013).
  • Part of the reason why Wainwright stays low with his curveball is that the pitch falls off the table like few others in the game. Wainwright's curve drops an average of 9.5 inches compared to a pitch thrown without spin, about four inches more than the big league average and more than all starters save for Barry Zito and Chris Tillman.
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