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Entries in Toronto Blue Jays (32)

Wednesday
Dec192012

R.A. Dickey Showing More Zip on His Knuckleball

Finding historical comps for R.A. Dickey is a fool's errand -- he's a baseball unicorn. We have never before seen a 38-year-old pitcher who lacks an Ulnar Collateral Ligament and launches "power" knuckleballs toward home plate, looking like Leonidas the Brave while doing so. Will Dickey pitch far into his forties like the Niekro brothers, Tom Candiotti and Tim Wakefield, or will he fade faster due to his (relative) reliance on velocity with the pitch?

No one knows for sure, but Dickey showed no signs of slowing down during his Cy Young 2012 season. He put more zip on his knuckleball last year, greatly increasing his percentage of flutterballs thrown over 75 miles per hour and inducing lots of swings and misses with those pitches:

Distribution of Dickey's knuckleball velocity, 2010-12 

Dickey threw about 87% of his knuckleballs at 75 MPH or faster in 2012, compared to about 73% in 2011 and 66% in 2010. His miss rate with those power knucklers was nearly 28%, up from 20% in 2011 and 21% in 2010. That's how Dickey boosted his strikeout rate from the mid-to-high fives in 2010-11 to nearly a batter per inning last season. He got most of those extra whiffs on pitches thrown at or above the belt. Check out Dickey's opponent contact rate on knuckleballs thrown at 75+ MPH in 2010-11, and then in 2012:

Dickey's opponent contact rate on 75+ MPH knuckleballs, 2010-11

Dickey's opponent contact rate on 75+ MPH knuckleballs, 2012

Batters swung through about 30% of Dickey's power knucklers thrown in the upper half of the strike zone, a marked increase from slightly under 22% in 2010-11.

We don't know whether Dickey will remain an ace-level pitcher for another couple of years or a decade. If 2012 is any indication, though, there's plenty of power left in his ligament-challenged right arm.

Tuesday
Nov202012

Jays' Johnson, Morrow Feature Wipeout Sliders

The Toronto Blue Jays' starting rotation in 2012 was both pained (Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison underwent Tommy John surgery) and painful to watch (they ranked 10th in the American League in ERA). GM Alex Anthopoulos hopes he solved those rotation woes by taking on salary in the Marlins' latest roster purge, acquiring Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle as part of a 12-player deal.

Johnson will team with the Jays' other brittle-but-brilliant ace, Brandon Morrow, to give the club arguably the game's best pair of sliders among starting pitchers. Johnson and Morrow unleash upper-80s breakers that they bury at hitters' knees, producing precious little hard contact. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has his Picassos, but Anthopoulos and the Jays are fine slider connoisseurs.

Both right-handers feature power sliders, with Johnson averaging 86.9 MPH (10th-highest among qualified starters) and Morrow sitting at 87.2 MPH (sixth-highest). But these guys do more than merely throw hard -- they command their sliders exceptionally well. Take a look at Johnson and Morrow's pitch location with their sliders this past season:

Johnson's slider location in 2012

 

Morrow's slider location in 2012

 

Johnson threw his slider to the bottom third of the strike zone about 78% of the time, trailing only Zack Greinke among starters. Morrow also stayed low, locating the pitch down about 66% of the time. For comparison's sake, the MLB average for starters is about 54%.

Why does that matter? Pitchers thrive when they keep their sliders down. MLB starters surrendered just a .266 opponent slugging percentage on low sliders this past year, far lower than their .472 mark on middle-zone sliders and .367 slugging percentage on high sliders. By routinely cutting off batters at the knees with sliders, Johnson and Morrow limited extra-base knocks. Morrow had the lowest opponent slugging percentage on his slider among all starters, and Johnson also cracked the top 15:

Lowest opponent slugging percentage among qualified starting pitchers, 2012

PitcherSlugging Pct.
Brandon Morrow .197
Nathan Eovaldi .209
Matt Moore .227
Matt Cain .229
James McDonald .232
Yu Darvish .236
Colby Lewis .238
CC Sabathia .244
Felix Hernandez .250
Jarrod Parker .253
Mat Latos .254
Homer Bailey .259
Jason Hammel .265
Kyle Lohse .267
Josh Johnson .271

 

Sunday
Sep162012

Carlos Villanueva: Strikeout Artist?

The 2012 season has been rife with crooked numbers -- and elbows -- for the Toronto Blue Jays' starting rotation. The Jays rank 10th in the American League in starter ERA, with Ricky Romero imploding and the likes of Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison undergoing Tommy John surgery. It hasn't been all bad for Toronto, though. Carlos Villanueva, thrust into the rotation once trips to Dr. Andrews became a weekly affair in the Jays clubhouse, has emerged as an unlikely strikeout artist.

Villanueva has punched out 79 batters in 85 innings pitched as a starter, posting a 3.49 ERA in the process. He's making hitters miss as often as aces like Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale:

Highest Miss Rate among AL Starting Pitchers (Min. 1,000 pitches thrown)

PitcherMiss Pct.
Francisco Liriano 31.2%
Yu Darvish 28.6%
Max Scherzer 28.2%
Matt Moore 27.1%
Justin Verlander 25.6%
CC Sabathia 25.4%
Jason Hammel 25.2%
Zach Britton 24.7%
James Shields 24.4%
Felix Hernandez 24.4%
Chris Sale 24.3%
Carlos Villanueva 24.2%
Jarrod Parker 23.8%
Kyle Drabek 23.6%
Freddy Garcia 23.4%
AL Avg. for SP 20.6%

 

The 29-year-old righty is hardly a prototypical power pitcher, sitting around 88 MPH with his fastball and mixing in breaking and off-speed stuff (changeups, sliders and curves) more than half of the time. Villanueva's cornucopia of secondary pitches seems to help his modest fastball play up, getting lots of swings and misses:

Villanueva's miss rate by pitch

PitchPct. ThrownMiss Pct.AL Avg. for SP
Fastball 47.1 19.1 14.5
Changeup 23.2 22.9 29.3
Slider 18.4 37.7 32.2
Curveball 11.3 18.2 29.6

 

Finesse repertoire or not, Villanueva gets whiffs both when he pounds hitters at the knees and when he throws one near the letters. Here's his contact rate by pitch location as a starter:

Villanueva's contact rate by pitch location

Batters come up empty 33.3% of the time that they swing at Villanueva's low stuff (31.2% AL average for starters), and 23.4% when he challenges them high in the zone (19% average). During a season in which most everything else has just plain broken, Villanueva's breakout is a welcome sight amid all those surgical scars.