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Entries in strikeouts (19)

Tuesday
Feb042014

Why Rick Porcello Will (Finally!) Break Out in 2014

Now a half-decade into his big league career, Rick Porcello has yet to become the stud pitcher the Tigers envisioned when the club made him the most handsomely-paid high-schooler in draft history. Porcello has been good for about 170 innings pitched per season, avoiding the injury pitfalls that claim many young arms, but those innings have been pedestrian. His career ERA, adjusted for park and league run scoring levels, is five percent below average. Not terrible, but not what you're hoping for from a guy who received more guaranteed cash than than any 2007 draftee not named David Price.

But don't despair, Tigers fans -- Porcello looks primed for a breakout in 2014. The 25-year-old will at long last get some defensive support from his infielders, and he now has a reliable breaking pitch that's missing bats and helping his fastball play up.

Goodbye Prince, Hello Jose Iglesias

As a ground ball-centric, pitch-to-contact starter, Porcello couldn't have been a worse fit for Tigers teams of recent vintage. Detroit basically punted infield defense over the past few years, tolerating the fall-down range of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder at the corners in order to churn out as many runs as possible. Porcello suffered: He had a .263 batting average on balls in play on grounders last season, which was 23 points higher than the major league average.

In 2014, though, Porcello's infield D might actually do him some favors. The Fielder-Ian Kinsler swap transformed Detroit's infield, bringing in a superb second baseman, shifting Miggy Cabrera to the cold corner and jettisoning Fielder's iron glove. Kinsler was 11 runs better than an average player at the keystone in 2013, according to John Dewan's Defensive Runs Saved metric. Cabrera was terrible at third (-18 DRS), so replacement Nick Castellanos merely needs to show more range than a mastodon stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits to be an upgrade. At first, Cabrera should be less of a liability than Fielder (-13 DRS).

Porcello will also benefit from a full season of Jose Iglesias' breath-taking D at shortstop. The former Red Sock rated as an average defender according to DRS last year, but he was +7 in limited time in 2012 and has a sterling reputation. Plus, dude can do this.

Porcello's New Weapon

While Porcello should get far more support when he puts the ball in play, he's already helping himself by removing defense from the equation entirely. Porcello's strikeout rate spiked from 13.7 percent of batters faced in 2012 to 19.3 percent in 2013, which actually bested the MLB average for starters (18.9 percent). What changed? The righty threw fewer fastballs and made his curveball a vital part of his arsenal, equipping him with a quality breaking pitch for the first time.

Porcello used his fastball about 67 percent of the time in 2012, the third-highest clip in the AL behind Henderson Alvarez and Joe Saunders. He had to lean heavily on his heat, because his breaking ball of choice -- a short mid-80s slider -- pretty muched turned every hitter he faced into Miggy (opponents slugged .633 against the pitch).

In 2013, though? Porcello cut back on the fastballs (61.7 percent) and nearly shelved his slider in favor of a high-70s curveball (thrown 16.6 percent of the time). Porcello's hook got swings and misses 29.6 percent of the time, slightly above the 29.2 percent MLB average. While his slider got slaughtered, Porcello held opponents to a .303 slugging percentage with his curve. Porcello's curve might make his fastball more effective, too considering that he now has a less predictable pitch mix. He got a whiff with his fastball 15.9 percent of the time in 2013, up from 13.3 percent in 2012.

Still in his mid-twenties, Porcello has treaded water to this point in his career by displaying sharp command and preventing homers. Now that he's backed by quality defenders and can fan hitters with his curve, this former bonus baby is about to bust out.

Monday
Feb032014

A.J. Burnett Racks up Ks with New Two-Strike Approach

Now that he's committed to pitching in 2014, A.J. Burnett could well alter the playoff landscape -- and prove to be the best free agent value of the offseason. The 37-year-old is still at the peak of his abilities, punching out a major league and career-best 9.8 hitters per nine frames last season, he's looking for a short-term deal, and he won't cost teams a draft pick because the Pirates didn't make him a $14.1 million qualifying offer. Burnett could pitch every bit as well as, say, Masahiro Tanaka in 2014, and clubs won't have to commit the years and dollars that typically lead to free agent pitching deals exploding like cheap ACME bombs. He's basically the NL version of Hiroki Kuroda.

Just how did Burnett manage to post the best strikeout rate ever for a starting pitcher during his age-36 season this side of Randy Johnson (12.6 K/9) and Curt Schilling (10.4 K/9)? He drastically changed his two-strike approach against right-handed hitters, tossing more pitches off the plate and relying on hitters to hack their way back to the dugout.

In 2012, Burnett struck out 21.9 percent of the right-handed hitters that he faced. That was solid, but not all that far above the 20.1 percent major league average in righty-versus-righty confrontations.  Part of the reason for A.J.'s good-not-great K rate was that he threw nearly half (48.5 percent) of his two-strike pitches to righties within the strike zone. Most righty pitchers are less aggressive than Burnett was with two-strikes, looking for chases against same-handed hitters (the average zone rate in two-strike counts is about 42 percent).

Burnett's two-strike pitch location vs. righty hitters, 2012

In 2013, however, Burnett decided to bury more pitches in the dirt when righties had their backs against the wall. Hoping that same-handed hitters would retire themselves, Burnett tossed just 39.9 percent of his two-strike offerings within the strike zone. A lot of those off-the-plate pitches were curveballs, as he relied more on his hook with two strikes this past year (55.3 percent) than in 2012 (48.5 percent).  

Burnett's two-strike pitch location vs. righty hitters, 2013

Burnett's less aggressive two-strike approach paid off: righties chased considerably more pitches outside of the strike zone (41.6 percent, up from 30.5 percent in 2012) and whiffed more often (32.2 percent in 2013, 24.3 percent in '12). By baiting righties, Burnett increased strikeout rate against them to 29.6 percent. Among righty starters, only Yu Darvish (38.5 percent), Justin Masterson (32 percent), and Max Scherzer (31.6 percent) fooled right-handed hitters more frequently.

Possessing a mix of strikeout stuff and ground ball tendencies rarely seen -- the only other starters inducing at least a whiff per inning with a ground ball rate north of 50 were Masterson, Stephen Strasburg and Felix Hernandez -- Burnett could make all the difference for a number of playoff bubble teams. Whether he takes the bump in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philly or elsewhere in 2014, Burnett will have righties breaking out in a cold sweat once they're down to their final strike.

Wednesday
Jan292014

Mark Reynolds Getting Beat on Inside Stuff

Since he clubbed his way to the majors in 2007, Mark Reynolds has been a one-tool player. He's got an iron glove, costing his team more runs (76) compared to an average defender than every infielder not named Michael Young, Yuniesky Betancourt or Derek Jeter. And his D looks pretty good compared to his contact skills: Reynolds has struck out 1,276 times, second-most among hitters since '07 (Adam Dunn is first). But Reynolds' one tool -- pure, unadulterated pull power -- is special enough for teams to hold their noses and focus on his epic blasts.

Or, at least it used to be. Reynolds' home run total has dipped from 37 in 2011 to 23 in 2012 and 21 this past season, with his slugging percentage tumbling by nearly 100 points (.483 in '11, .429 in '12, and .393 in '13). Considering how often he punches out, Reynolds needs to maul the ball when he does connect. With elite power, he's a pretty good hitter (his park-and-league adjusted on-base-plus-slugging percentage was 16 percent above average in 2011). With average pop, he's a liability (his OPS was four percent below average in 2013).

The 30-year-old recently signed a minor league deal with the Brewers, though he's expected to make the opening day roster either as the club's primary first baseman or the short half of a platoon with Juan Francisco. Granted, even a diminished Reynolds would be better than the balsa wood-toting brigade that Milwaukee featured at the position last season (a combined .370 slugging percentage). But if he plans on giving Bernie Brewer a workout on Miller Park's homer slide, he'll have to reverse a three-year decline against inner-half pitches.

Reynolds' slugging percentage vs. inner-half pitches, 2011

 

Reynolds' slugging percentage vs. inner-half pitches, 2012

 

Reynolds' slugging percentage vs. inner-half pitches, 2013

            

Reynolds was a beast versus pitches thrown to the inner half of the plate in 2011, posting the eighth-best slugging percentage (.659) among qualified batters. But that figure declined to .575 in 2012, and just .398 this past season. Here's another way of looking at it: Reynolds crushed inside pitches like Jose Bautista and David Ortiz back in '11. In 2013, though? He barely outslugged waterbug shortstops Elvis Andrus and Erick Aybar.

Reynolds simply doesn't have the sort of well-rounded skill set that allows him to hit for good-not-great power. He's either jacking 30-plus homers, or he's riding the bus in Triple-A. Short of a return to elite slugger status, he could be looking at a succession of minor league deals in the years to come.