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Entries in Toronto Blue Jays (32)

Tuesday
Dec102013

Doc Halladay Checks Out

Roy Halladay retired as a Blue Jay on Monday -- thirteen years, 2,700-plus innings and two Cy Young Awards after his career appeared to be over. In 2000, a 23-year-old Halladay was clubbed for the highest single-season ERA ever (10.64) for a pitcher tossing at least 65 innings. His ERA was the better part of a run higher than Steve Blass (9.85 ERA in 1973) -- and they named a disease after that guy. But rather than becoming the latest skeleton in the ever-expanding graveyard of failed top pitching prospects, Halladay re-emerged as one of the greatest hurlers of his generation.

His 131 ERA+ ranks 14th all-time among pitchers throwing at least 2,500 career frames, between Greg Maddux and Hal Newhouser. With 65.6 Wins Above Replacement, Doc places 33rd and keeps company with the likes of Luis Tiant and Bob Feller. At his peak, Halladay was a 220-plus inning a year horse who surrendered homers and handed out walks as if doing so would get him shipped back to Triple-A Syracuse, like he was during that apocalyptic 2000 season.

Unfortunately, the 36-year-old's ailing back and shoulder will prevent him from forging yet another comeback. But, instead of lamenting Halladay's premature retirement, let's celebrate the blend of efficiency, command and craft that made him so difficult to square up. Four of Doc's peak seasons (2008-11) came during the Pitch F/X era. Here's a closer look at how Halladay carved up hitters over that time frame, potentially earning himself a bust in Cooperstown.

He jumped ahead of hitters from the get-go

Halladay tossed a first pitch strike about 66 percent of the time from 2008-11, blowing away the 59 percent MLB average for starters and trailing only three deans of pitching efficiency: Mike Mussina, Maddux (still sharp during their final seasons in '08) and Cliff Lee. By putting hitters at a disadvantage from the moment they stepped into the box, Halladay compiled a 6.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio over that four-year stretch.

He expanded batters' zones

Doc induced hitters to chase his stuff off the plate at the highest clip (33.6 percent of the time) among all National League starters. And, in typical Halladay fashion, he didn't accomplish that with just one offering. Rather, he used everything in his kitchen sink repertoire to bait opposing batters:

He had surgical command

Halladay threw lots of strikes, but they were also quality strikes. From '08 to '11, MLB starters tossed about 24 percent of their pitches to the horizontal middle of the strike zone. Pitches catching that much of the plate get hammered (a .500 opposing slugging percentage from 2008-11). Halladay avoided hitters' hot spots, however, throwing just 20.8 percent of his pitches to the middle of the zone.

In fact, no starter threw more pitches "on the black" during that period. A pitch is considered "on the black" if the center of the ball is at least 8.5 inches away from the middle of the plate, but part of the ball is still in the strike zone. Hitters do far less damage against such well-located pitches, slugging a mere .369 overall and .338 versus Halladay.

Now that Halladay is done, the conversation inevitably turns toward his Hall of Fame candidacy. In terms of WAR, he's in the same neighborhood as the average Cooperstown inductee (69) and ranks ahead of luminaries like Juan Marichal, Whitey Ford and Sandy Koufax, himself a star who shone brilliantly for a shorter period of time. Halladay might not have enjoyed 20-plus years in the majors, but he was truly elite during a more condensed career. If it worked for Koufax, it should work for Doc, too.

Friday
Nov222013

Josh Johnson: This Winter's Francisco Liriano?

When it comes to joining baseball's uber-rich via free agency, timing is everything. Hit the market after a career year, and you might just land a $100 million deal despite a longer track record suggesting you're more league-average innings muncher than ace (hello, Ervin Santana). But enter the bidding after a season defined more by DL stints and quick hooks than quality starts, and you're staring at the prospect of a one-year, "prove it" contract that pays a fraction of what you used to make.

Case in point: Josh Johnson. While the former Marlin and Blue Jay hasn't proven near as durable as Santana, Johnson easily bests him on a per-inning basis (Johnson's career park-and-league adjusted ERA is 23 percent above average, compared to exactly average for Santana). But Johnson, who recently agreed to a one-year, $8 million deal with the Padres, reached free agency at the worst possible moment. He's coming off a 2013 campaign in which he tossed just 81.1 innings due to triceps, knee, forearm and elbow injuries. And those innings were terrible: His 66 ERA+ was sixth-worst in the majors among starting pitchers throwing 80+ frames, ahead of just Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong, Brandon Maurer, Edinson Volquez and Joe Blanton.

Johnson, who raked in $13.75 million during his first and last season in Toronto, will take a sizeable pay cut in 2014 despite teams throwing around cash like Kenny Powers on a bender. But health permitting, Johnson may prove to be a major bargain. Here are three reasons why the 29-year-old could be this winter's version of Francisco Liriano, reclaiming ace status through a combination of better luck and knockout breaking stuff.

He was ridiculously unlucky in 2013

During his nine-year career, Johnson has surrendered hits on balls in play at a league average clip (.302 BABIP). But his .356 BABIP last season was second-highest among pitchers making at least 15 starts, with only Wade Davis (.362 BABIP) suffering from more bloops and bleeders. Johnson has typically given up fewer home runs on fly balls hit (8.2 percent of the time) than the MLB average (around 11 percent). Last year, though, his HR/FB rate more than doubled to 18.5 percent -- fourth highest among starters. Johnson wasn't giving up lots of towering shots, as opponents' average distance on fly balls hit against him (269 feet) was about league average (266 feet). It's doesn't look like he suddenly turned into a pinata. Rather, Johnson had lousy luck on balls in play and gave up some wall-scraping homers.

He missed bats, especially with his breaking stuff

Johnson's stuff didn't suffer as he endured one ailment after another, as he struck out a career-high 9.2 batters per nine innings. He punched out hitters at the 14th-best clip among starters, sandwiched between a former Sugarland Skeeter who revived his career (Scott Kazmir) and Liriano. Johnson induced about a league average number of swings and misses with his fastball (14.4 percent), but his breaking stuff was wicked. He got whiffs 39.6 percent of the time with his slider, easily topping the 30.9 percent MLB average for starters. His curveball was even harder to square up: Johnson's 49.4 percent miss rate with the pitch bested all starters except AL Cy Young finalist Yu Darvish (50 percent). High ERA aside, Johnson shouldn't be mentioned in the same sentence as soft-tossing, strikeout challenged guys like Blanton and Zito.

He located his pitches

Some might argue that Johnson gave up so many hits on balls in play because missed his spots, hanging pitches over the middle of the plate for hitters to pulverize. That wasn't really the case, though, as he actually threw fewer pitches to the vertical middle of the strike zone (31.1 percent) than the MLB average (32 percent). Johnson was particularly adept at keeping his breaking stuff out of the middle of the zone:

Johnson's pitch location with his slider and curveball in 2013

Johnson threw an MLB-high 77.7 percent of his sliders and curveballs to the lower third of the strike zone, far above the 55.2 percent average for starters. Why does that matter? Hitters rarely make hard contact against low breaking pitches (.253 slugging percentage), but they reach the gaps or clear the fence far more often on belt-high curves and sliders (.475 slugging percentage). Johnson's sky-high BABIP and homer rate look more the product of bad bounces than bad command.

While the ace-turned-scrapheap sign didn't land a fat contract this winter, Johnson could well be in a position to do so next year. He still possesses the talent to evade lumber and spot his stuff, and he'll have the benefit of making home starts at Petco Park, which StatCorner says decreased run-scoring by 15 percent compared to a neutral stadium in 2013. If you're in search of a favorite for 2014 NL Comeback Player of the Year, Johnson tops the list.

Sunday
Jul212013

R.A. Dickey Loses Zip on His Knuckler

During the offseason, the Blue Jays parted with top prospects Travis d'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard and ponied up a two-year, $25 million contract extension to pry 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets. But the knuckleballer hasn't been the top-of-the rotation arm the Jays expected, with his ERA climbing by nearly two runs per nine innings pitched (from 2.73 in 2012 to 4.69 this year) and his strikeout rate tumbling from a career-best 8.9 K/9 last season to right around his career average (6.4 K/9).

Dickey's hard knuckler made him a bat-missing oddity, even among knuckle ball pitchers. Unfortunately, he's not throwing his flutter ball with the same level of zip in 2013. Those fast knucklers induce the most chases and whiffs from hitters.

Distribution of Dickey's knuckleball velocity in 2012

 Distribution of Dickey's knuckleball velocity in 2013

During his Cy Young Award-winning 2012 season, Dickey threw about 87% of his knuckleballs at 75 MPH or faster. This year, he's hitting 75-plus MPH just 63% of the time. Even when he does ramp it up, he's not getting wild swings and misses from hitters like he did in 2012, particularly when he throws one low and off the plate to the glove side.

Opponent swing rate vs. Dickey's 75+ MPH knuckle balls in 2012

 

Opponent swing rate vs. Dickey's 75+ MPH knuckle balls in 2013

 

Last year, hitters chased 36% of the time that Dickey tossed a knuckler at 75+ MPH. This season, that chase rate is down to 29%. Opponents' slugging percentage against Dickey's fast knuckleballs has jumped by nearly 100 points between 2012 (.319) and 2013 (.412).

Dickey seems to have lost his way -- and trademark velocity -- with the Jays. Perhaps it's time to summon Charlie Hough, the Niekros and Tim Wakefield for a meeting of the Jedi Council of Knuckleballers.