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Entries in walks (6)

Tuesday
Feb252014

Criticism Aside, Harper Keeps Improving

Bryce Harper is 21 years old, launched more home runs during his age 19 and 20 seasons (42) than any hitter since Tony Conigliaro a half-century ago, and racked up as many Wins Above Replacement over that period (nine) as Ty Cobb. Yet, for all of Harper's early-career accomplishments -- or perhaps because of them -- we like to nit-pick his performance. Can Harper, limited to 118 games last year due to a left knee injury, learn to avoid brain-rattling outfield collisions while retaining his competitive fire? Why hasn't he joined fellow phenom prospect Mike Trout among the game's truly elite? Was it really such a good idea for Harper to challenge Jesus Montero to an eating contest during the offseason? (He lost, apparently.)

With the focus on Harper's playing style and off-field plate discipline, some might have overlooked his across-the-board offensive improvement in 2013. Harper boosted his batting average (from .270 as a rookie in 2012 to .274), on-base percentage (.340 to .368) and slugging percentage (.477 to .486) while also sharpening his strike-zone control (his walk-to-strikeout ratio climbed from 0.47 to 0.65). His park-and-league-adjusted OPS spiked from 18 percent above average to 33 percent above average. By any measure, Harper's bat became even more lethal in 2013.

How, exactly, did Harper post arguably the best offensive showing by an age-20 corner outfielder since Tony C? Here's a closer look at his gains in controlling the zone and clubbing pitches deeper into the gaps.

No More Trouble with the Curve

Harper increased his OBP by nearly 30 points thanks to a more refined plate approach in 2013. After walking in 9.4% of his plate appearances as a rookie, Harper drew ball four 12.3% of the time last year. Granted, pitchers tiptoed around the Nationals slugger, throwing him fewer pitches in the strike zone last season (41.2%) than in 2012 (42.3%). Only Pablo Sandoval (37.2%) got a lower rate of in-zone offerings among players batting at least 400 times in 2013. Still, to Harper's credit, he did a better job of laying off those pitches tossed off the corners and in the dirt.

Harper chased less often no matter the pitch type, but he made the biggest strides in containing himself versus curveballs. While he chased hooks at the fifth-highest clips among all National League hitters in 2012, Harper displayed above-average discipline in 2013.

Harper's chase rate by pitch type, 2012-13

 

Harper lunged at plenty of low-and-away curveballs as a rookie. Last year, he let pitches thrown below the knees go by. His chase rate on low curves plummeted, from 45.6% in 2012 to 28.3% in 2013.

Harper's swing rate vs. curveballs, 2012

Harper's swing rate vs. curveballs, 2013

Fewer punchouts 

Harper also connected on pitches more often last year, paring his strikeout rate from 20.1% to 18.9%. While he whiffed more often against changeups, he more than offset that uptick by making more contact versus fastballs and breaking stuff. Once again, Harper improved most against curveballs.

Harper's miss rate by pitch type, 2012-13

 

Deeper drives, More Pull Shots

At first blush, Harper's already-impressive pop didn't improve much from 2012 to 2013. His Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) barely budged, from .206 to .212. Dig a little deeper, though, and Harper looks primed to hit bombs and blow kisses more often in 2014.

Harper swatted fly balls an average of 273 feet as a rookie, which was slightly above the MLB average (269 feet) and in the same range as second basemen Jose Altuve and Neil Walker. Last year, Harper hit fly balls an average of 285 feet -- the same as David Ortiz and Joey Votto, and farther than Trout (281 feet). That helps explain why Harper's home run per fly ball rate climbed from 15.7% to 19.2%, cracking the top 20 among MLB hitters.

He also put the ball in play to the opposite field less often in 2013 (28.5%) than in 2012 (36.8%), instead cranking more pitches to center field and the pull side. Like many hitters, Harper does more damage when he pulls the ball (career .853 slugging percentage) or lines a pitch to center field (.564) than when he goes oppo (.484). With Harper hitting deeper -- and more frequent -- shots to center field and the pull side, he could top 30 homers next year.

Bryce Harper isn't at Mike Trout's level, at least not yet. And yeah, he does need to stop face-planting into fences. But let's not forget that he's already a star-caliber major leaguer despite being the same age as this year's top college prospects, and he's constantly improving. Let's stop nit-picking, and enjoy the beginnings of an inner-circle Cooperstown career.

Monday
Jan062014

How to Dominate With Mid-80's Heat, By Greg Maddux

In this polarized age of Hall of Fame voting, when debates center on how to evaluate stars associated with PEDS and whether the limit of ten players per ballot should be abolished, one man unites the masses: Greg Maddux. Newly eligible for Cooperstown, Maddux is expected to soar past the 75 percent threshold for induction and perhaps even challenge Tom Seaver's record vote percentage of 98.84, established in 1992.

It's easy to see why Mad Dog will achieve baseball's highest honor. He was durable, eclipsing 5,000 innings pitched during his 23-year career, and dominant, posting the tenth-best park-and-league-adjusted ERA (32 percent above average) among starting pitchers (minimum 3,000 frames). There's also his record 18 Gold Gloves, the product of a silky-smooth delivery that left him square to the batter and surprising athleticism for guy who looks more like a CPA than an MLB legend.

Maddux was still schooling hitters at the end of his career in 2008, despite possessing raw stuff that wouldn't have landed him so much as a minor league deal. He had no fastball to speak of, throwing the pitch at an average speed (84.3 MPH) that bested only Jamie Moyer (80.9 MPH) among qualified starters. Just about nobody swung through Maddux's "heat," as his whiff rate (7.1 percent) was barely half of the league average (14 percent). Yet, Maddux got elite results with an ultra-slow pitch that elicited scads of contact. Among qualified starters, only Ryan Dempster and Daisuke Matsuzaka had a lower opponent slugging percentage on fastballs thrown:

Lowest opponent slugging percentage on fastballs, 2008

 

How did Maddux do it? The then-42-year-old triumphed over the radar gun by stealing strikes on pitches thrown just outside of the strike zone, avoiding the fat part of the plate, and generating bushels of ground balls.

Stealing Strikes

Maddux was the dean of expanding hitters' strike zones. In '08, he had the highest called strike rate (42.8 percent) among National League starters and trailed only another deserving, though much less acclaimed, Hall of Famer in Mike Mussina (43.8 percent) among all pitchers. Maddux was especially adept at getting called strikes on borderline pitches. Check out his called strike rate on pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, compared to the league average:

Maddux's called strike rate on fastballs thrown outside of the strike zone, 2008

League average called strike rate on fastballs thrown outside of the strike zone, 2008

Overall, pitchers got called strikes 13.1 percent of the time they threw something off the plate in 2008. But Maddux? He got a called strike 20 percent of the time, ranking behind only Livan Hernandez (21.7 percent) and Jake Peavy (20.5 percent). If there's one saving grace in being a soft-tosser, it's that umps tend to give you more calls compared to power pitchers.

Avoiding hitters' wheelhouse

Everyone knows that Maddux threw a ton of strikes -- you don't compile the best career strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.37) this side of Mussina, Cy Young and Curt Schilling by nibbling. But Maddux threw quality strikes as well, painting the corners and rarely missing his spots. Take a look at his fastball pitch location against lefties and righties in '08:

Maddux's fastball location vs. left-handed hitters, 2008

 

Maddux's fastball location vs. right-handed hitters, 2008

For Maddux, it was all about avoiding the center of the plate. He threw fewer pitches to the horizontal middle of the strike zone (21.2 percent) than the average starter (23.3 percent), instead living on the outside corner against lefties and righties alike. Maddux tossed the fifth-highest rate of fastballs to the outside corner (60.6 percent) among all starters. That kind of command is the difference between getting clobbered (hitters slugged .500 that year against fastballs thrown down the middle) and entering Cooperstown (they slugged .355 versus fastballs thrown away).

Burning worms

Mad Dog knows that chicks dig the long ball, but he was notoriously stingy in giving them up. He surrendered just 0.6 home runs per nine innings pitched, second-lowest among starters who have logged 3,000+ innings since his big league debut in 1986 (Kevin Brown is first, at 0.57 HR/9). During his swan song season, Maddux still ranked in the top ten among starters in fastball ground ball rate:

Highest ground ball rate on fastballs, 2008

Maddux is a prime example of why so many former Little League and high school players, eventually forced out of the lineup, still love the game. He wasn't big. He didn't throw hard. He had crappy vision and wore the biggest glasses this side of Harry Caray before eventually undergoing LASIK surgery. He was like us. Or, at least it felt that way. Appearance and stuff aside, Maddux is in a class all his own when it comes to outwitting hitters.

 

Wednesday
Aug142013

The Freak Getting Hitters to Chase 

While the San Francisco Giants won't have the chance to defend their World Series title this October, Tim Lincecum has plenty riding on the rest of the 2013 season.

The 29-year-old righty hits the free agent market this winter sporting two Cy Young Awards but also a combined 73 ERA+ over the 2012-13 seasons, worst among starting pitchers throwing at least 300 innings over that time frame. From 2007-11, by contrast, he had a 137 ERA+.  (An average ERA+ is 100, with a score over 100 indicating that a pitcher has performed better than the average, and a score below 100 pointing to below-average performance.) 

Lincecum's core stats -- strikeouts, walks, grounders -- suggest he deserves better than the middling 4.18 ERA that he carries into his Wednesday start against the Nationals as indicated by his fielding-independent ERA of 3.49 (FIP determines the quality of a pitcher's performance by eliminating plate appearance outcomes that involve defensive play. The basic pitcher-dependent outcomes are home runs, walks and strikeouts.). What's especially promising for Lincecum's 2014 free-agent prospects is how he has dramatically lowered his walk rate over the course of the season. 

Lincecum's declining walk rate

Lincecum issued a free pass to 13.2% of batters faced in April, well north of the 7.4% average for National League starting pitchers.

That walk rate has declined each month since then, however: 

  • 8.9% of batters faced in May
  • 7.9% in June
  • Just 6.6% in July-August. 

The Freak didn't suddenly start firing more pitches over the plate -- his percentage of pitches thrown within the strike zone has hovered around 50% most of the season, and is actually lower since the beginning of July (45%). Rather, Lincecum has induced more hitters to chase his stuff off the plate.

Check out his opponent chase rate by pitch location:

April

May

June

July-August

Lincecum got hitters to expand their strike zones just 21.4% of the time in April, a far cry from the 27% MLB average. His chase rate has steadily climbed since then: 24.6% in May, 25.9% in June, and 32% in July-August. With that, his batting average against has benefited dramatically because it's hard to get wood on pitches out of the zone. His BAA in May was .294, in June .263, in July .212, in August it's .140.

He's getting more chases with both his changeup and breaking stuff, and most of those wild swings are coming on pitches thrown at or below the knees.

In April, Lincecum had a 25.4% chase rate on pitches tossed to the lower third of the zone. That lower-third chase rate has soared: 26.8% in May, 35.3% in June, and 40.1% in July-August.

It remains to be seen as to whether his value in off-season will soar as well.