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Entries in strikeouts (19)

Tuesday
Dec172013

Phil Hughes Getting Lit Up in 2-Strike Counts

The Minnesota Twins' starting rotation has failed to put hitters away for years now. In 2013, Twinkies starters had the lowest strikeout rate (12.3 percent of batters faced) and allowed the highest two-strike slugging percentage (.355) in the majors. Minnesota signed Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes for a combined $73 million to add some Ks to a chronically underpowered staff, but the latter hurler might actually make the club's problem in finishing off opposing batters worse.

Hitters are typically toast by the time they get down to their last strike, slugging just .274 in such situations during the 2013 season. Not against Hughes, though. The erstwhile Yankee prodigy served up 10 home runs in two-strike counts (tied for seventh-most among starting pitchers) and surrendered a .399 slugging percentage. Among pitchers making at least 20 starts last year, only Roberto Hernandez (.405) and Joe Sauders (.404) let hitters do more two-strike damage. The two names directly following Hughes look depressingly familiar to Twins fans: Scott Diamond and Kevin Correia (both at .394).

Why has Hughes, a former top-five prospect who barely has a better career park-and-league-adjusted ERA (five percent below average) than the undrafted Diamond (eight percent below), been so hittable in two-strike counts? The 27-year-old tries to overpower batters, elevating his fastball and nearly scrapping his curveball in favor of a speedier slider. Unfortunately, hitters are making loud, frequent contact against Hughes' supposed put-away pitches.

In two-strike situations, Hughes relies almost exclusively on his fastball (thrown 51 percent of the time) and slider (40 percent). He goes for the kill with the fastball, throwing it harder with two strikes (92.7 MPH) than in other counts (92.2 MPH) and peppering the upper third of the strike zone. Hughes threw 56 percent of his two-strike fastballs high in the zone last year, far above than the 42.5 percent average for MLB starters. Pitchers tend to miss bats with elevated two-strike heaters, but Hughes allowed scads of contact.

Hughes' fastball contact rate in 2-strike counts, 2013 

 

       Average fastball contact rate in 2-strike counts, 2013 

 

Hitters came up empty a mere 13.9 percent of the time that they swung against a high Hughes fastball, compared to the 22 percent average for starters. Correia (14 percent) actually got as many whiffs when he climbed the ladder. It's probably not a good sign when your fastball can be described as Correia-esque.

Hughes' slider also suffers from a lack of swings and misses with two-strikes (27.1 percent, below the 30 percent average), largely because hitters don't chase the pitch outside of the strike zone. Check out opponents' swing rate on two-strike sliders thrown off the plate against Hughes, and then the MLB average.

Hitters' swing rate by pitch location vs. Hughes' two-strike sliders, 2013

 

MLB average swing rate by pitch location vs. two-strike sliders, 2013

 

Overall, hitters chased two-strike sliders out of the strike zone 43.5 percent of the time. But against Hughes? Just 35.6 percent. That's below both Mike Pelfrey (36.6 percent) and Correia (38.8 percent).

As the game's most fly ball-centric pitcher, Hughes will undoubtedly benefit in moving from Yankee Stadium (which has boosted home runs by 19 percent compared to a neutral park over the past three years, per The Bill James Handbook) to Target Field (which has suppressed homers by nine percent). But when it comes to burying hitters, he has far too much in common with his new teammates.

Monday
Dec092013

Breaking Stuff Standing Between Nick Franklin and Potential Stardom

With the 10-year, $240 million mega deal to lure Robinson Cano from New York, the Seattle Mariners signaled to the rest of the league that they're ready to let the Nintendo bucks flow in hopes of contending in 2014. The game plan from the past few seasons -- wait for top hitting talents Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, Nick Franklin et al to complement King Felix -- has been abandoned. Quixotic or not, the M's are gunning for the A's and Rangers right now.

Franklin, in particular, is reportedly drawing serious interest as a trade chip to bolster Seattle's 2014 prospects. It's no secret why: he's a 22-year-old switch-hitter with considerably more offensive upside than your typical middle infielder. Franklin posted a collective .819 OPS in the minor leagues, ranking as a top-75 prospect according to both Baseball America and MLB.com. He certainly didn't embarrass himself as a rookie in 2013, with a park-and-league-adjusted OPS that was four percent below the MLB average (96 OPS+). Brian Cartwright's OLIVER projection system expects Franklin to settle in as a three win player in his early-to-mid-twenties, when he'll make just a fraction of his free agent worth. Dirt-cheap, up-the-middle players with potent bats are valuable commodities.

While Franklin has a high ceiling, he'll need to start squaring up breaking pitches to reach it. Take a look at his contact rate versus curveballs and sliders by pitch location last year, compared to the MLB average. Unless pitchers mistakenly tossed Franklin a belt-high breaking ball, he came up empty:

Franklin's contact rate versus curveballs and sliders, 2013

MLB average contact rate versus curveballs and sliders, 2013

Franklin whiffed 43.7 percent of the time that he swung at a curveball or slider, far higher than the 29.7 percent MLB average. In fact, the only players who generated comparable wind power versus breaking stuff were sluggers Adam Dunn (43.7 percent), Giancarlo Stanton (44.5 percent), Chris Carter (47.8 percent), Dan Uggla (48.5 percent) and Pedro Alvarez (48.7 percent). Vexed by curves and sliders, Franklin punched out in 27.4 percent of his plate appearances.

There's plenty to like about Franklin -- pro experience at both second base and shorstop, a pretty good eye (he walked 10.2 percent of the time a rookie), surprising pop, and five years of team control remaining before he can hit free agent paydirt. But while Franklin has pop, it's obviously not Pedro Alvarez pop. He must start connecting on breaking stuff and raise his average out of the .220s to truly be a threat at the plate, be it in Seattle or elsewhere.

Thursday
Sep122013

Cole Putting Hitters Away with Slider, Curve in 2nd Half

Will Gerrit Cole be a starter or reliever come October? Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington isn't tipping his hand as the first overall pick in the 2011 draft nears an unknown organizational innings limit. Whatever his role, Cole looks primed to make make an impact in the playoffs. The rookie has boosted his strikeout rate during the season's second half (from 5.4 per nine innings pitched to 7.9 K/9) and trimmed his ERA from 3.89 to 3.18.

Cole fell in love with his fastball early on during his big league career, but he's pitching more like the ace he's expected to become now that he's mixing in his breaking stuff.

During the first half, Cole threw his fastball about 77% of the time -- more often than any starting pitcher not named Bartolo Colon. In the second half, he's throwing his heater about 67%. The difference is even more pronounced in two-strike counts: 66% fastballs in the first half, and slightly under 54% in the second half.

In place of those fastballs, Cole is snapping off signifcantly more short-breaking, upper 80s sliders (six percent overall in the first half, 21% in the second half). He's throwing his low-80s curveball at about the same frequency (12% in the first half, 10% in the second). Cole is using his slider and curve as chase pitches far more often in the second half, particularly with two strikes:

Location of Cole's slider and curveball in two-strike counts during the first half

 

Location of Cole's slider and curveball in two-strike counts during the second half

Cole threw 44% of his two-strike sliders and curves in the strike zone during the first half, well above the 39% big league average for starters in such situations. In the second half, he's throwing just 33% of his two-strike breaking balls over the plate. Cole got eight strikeouts with his slider and curve in the first half. During the second half? Thirty.

Throwing more breaking pitches out of the zone has helped Cole put hitters away in two-strike counts. Opponents hit .246 and slugged .290 against Cole when down to their last strike during the first half (starters overall allow a .172 average and .257 slugging percentage in two-strike counts). Now that he's using his slider and curve, he's limiting batters to a .151 average and a .264 slugging percentage with two strikes. Starter or reliever? Only Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle know. Either way, Cole looks postseason-ready.