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Friday
Feb212014

Checking in on Aroldis Chapman’s Fastball 

The Aroldis Chapman experiment enters its fourth (full) season in Cincinnati this spring, and if this season goes anything like the first three, the Reds can rest easy knowing the back end of their rotation will be one of the best in baseball in 2014. Since his debut on August 30, 2010, the ‘Cuban Missile’ owns a 2.40 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 40.9% strikeout rate and 77 saves – enough for seventh, fifth, second and sixth-best among relievers with 198 innings since that date. Now that Homer Bailey is sewn up through 2020, general manager Walt Jocketty now turns his attention to extending Chapman to solidify the backend of his bullpen for the prospective future.

Yet while Chapman has been one of the most dominant relievers in the game since his debut, his game hasn't come without a few shortcomings. Chapman's first three full seasons have been rather inconsistent, at least from a statistical perspective. Let's take a quick look at the numbers.

Chapman has been brilliant at racking up strikeouts, but his rocket arm has also cost him a good number of walks. The league average strikeout rate for relievers with at least 100 innings since 2011 is 22.9%, so we knew Chapman is elite in terms of punching batters out. However, his fluctuating walk rate is concerning, as the league average mark for those same relievers is 8.6%, and as we can see, Chapman has only one full season to his credit (2012) in which he posted a walk rate lower than that mark. He took several steps backward last season, adding another earned run to his 1.51 ERA from 2012. Opponents had much more success against his stuff in the meantime, posting a career-high .544 OPS against him. Consistency is king for closers, and though Chapman has been elite, there's room for improvement.

So, what's the problem? Chapman is becoming too reliant on his fastball. In his first full season with the Reds in 2011, Chapman tossed his fastball at a 79.4% clip -- fourth-highest among relievers with at least 50 registered innings that season and well above the 49.1% league average mark. During his best season to date in 2012, Chapman increased his heater use to 81.6% -- fourth-highest in the league once more and again noticeably higher than the 48.3% league average use. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound southpaw went to his fastball at a career-high 82.6% rate last season, however, which was third-most among lefty relievers with at least 60-innings.

Consequences of More Fastballs

While Chapman's fastball has maintained a steady (if not slightly increasing) velocity over the last three season, his fastball simply isn't generating the 'elite' type of results that we'd expect. His ground ball rate has plummeted incrementally from 42.9% in 2011 (compared to the league average mark of 38.4%) to 35.5% last season, which was actually below the league average mark of 35.5%.

And while opponents are putting fewer of his fastballs in play than ever before (21.5% in-play rate last season), they're doing more with those balls they do put in play, shown by a 2013 HR/FB ratio of 12.8% -- highest among relievers who threw at least 800 fastballs last season. Could Chapman's increase in zone% have anything to do with his ground ball decrease? Absolutely. Since 2008, the trend with relievers is that when you throw more fastballs in the zone, your ground ball rate tends to decrease roughly three percent with every five percent increase in fastball use.

When we think about relievers, we tend to think about the development of their secondary (i.e. non-fastball) offerings at a young age, particularly in the minor leagues (which Chapman didn't spend much time in). Often times, development of these pitches proves critical later in their careers, since fastball velocity tends to wane with age and young pitchers can't blow past batters with their heaters. Chapman seems to be going in the opposite direction in this respect; relying too heavily on his fastball, which has hampered the offering's ability to generate easy outs in critical late-game situations.

Friday
Feb212014

Gerrit Cole Stays Strong in Late Frames

Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates rode a high-strikeout, homer-preventing starting rotation to the club's first playoff appearance since 1992. The Bucs' 2014 rotation, however, is far from a lock to post another top-five ERA. A.J. Burnett took his National League-leading strikeout rate and wicked curve to Philly. Francisco Liriano eviscerated hitters last year, but has yet to log back-to-back great seasons during his eight-year career. Charlie Morton mauls righties with his turbo sinker, but turns every lefty he faces into Shin-Soo Choo. Wandy Rodriguez is 35 and has an arthritic left elbow. Jeff Locke walks hitters like Liriano, without the strikeout stuff. By comparison, Edinson Volquez makes Liriano and Locke look like Greg Maddux.

With Burnett gone and the rest of the rotation volatile, the Pirates desperately need Gerrit Cole build upon his excellent rookie year and become a dominant, durable ace. The first overall pick in the 2011 draft looks up to the challenge. Cole quickly progressed from a guy who chucked little more than mid-to-high-90s fastballs in the over the plate to a pitcher capable of expanding hitters' zones with a pair of sinister breaking pitches. Cole struck out just 10.9% of batters faced in June, but he nearly tripled that whiff rate by September (31.2%) and earned a win-or-go-home start over Burnett in Game 5 of the NLDS against the Cardinals.

At 6-foot-4 and 240-plus pounds, Cole looks the part of a workhorse. But, more importantly, he performed like one during his rookie season. Most starters get hit harder while facing hitters for the second and third time during a game, losing zip on their pitches and no longer fooling opponents now familiar with their stuff. Not Cole, though. The 23-year-old tasked with leading the Pirates back to the playoffs in 2014 didn't waver in the late innings:

Opponent OPS 1st time through the lineup: .713 (.699 MLB average)

Opponent OPS 2nd time through the lineup: .550 (.730 MLB average)

Opponent OPS 3rd time through the lineup: .612 (.760 MLB average)

Cole started a little slow, with an opponent OPS about two percent worse than the major league average for starters while facing hitters the first time. But then, when lots of guys tail off, Cole smothered hitters. His opponent OPS was 25 percent better than average while facing batters the second time during a start, and 20 percent above average while taking on the lineup a third time.

How does Cole stay strong as his pitch count piles up? He never loses his top-flight fastball. Cole threw his fastball an average of 95.6 MPH in 2013, trailing only Miami's Nathan Eovaldi (96.1 MPH) among all starters. Check out his heat by inning:

1st: 95.7

2nd: 95.5

3rd: 95.7

4th: 95.3

5th: 95.6

6th: 95.7

7th: 95.1

8th: 94.8

When hitters face Cole, they're getting mid-90s gas from beginning to end. And as the game progresses, his fastball gets nastier. Cole got swings and misses 15.2% of the time during the first three innings of his starts. In innings 6-8, he induced whiffs 23% of the time. That's seventh-best among starters throwing at least 200 fastballs during those frames, just behind Yu Darvish and ahead of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.

His command of the pitch improves, too: Cole threw 27.2% of his fastballs to the horizontal middle of the strike zone in innings 1-3, but just 18.2% in innings 6-8. That matters because fastballs left over the middle of the plate get plastered (hitters slugged a collective .496 versus middle fastballs last year).

The Pirates surrendered the second-fewest runs (577) in the majors last season, but all of Clint Hurdle's defensive shifts and Ray Searage's reclamation work with broken starters likely won't be enough to keep them at that level (Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA, for instance, expects them to give up 678 runs next year). If Pittsburgh has any prayer of another Buctober in 2014, they'll need to ride Cole's resilient right arm deep into games.

Wednesday
Feb192014

Smart Pitchers Throw Away From B.J. Upton

B.J. Upton would be the first to tell you: He wasn't very good last season.

In his first year donning the Tomahawk, the now 29-year-old posted career lows in batting average (.184), on-base percentage (.268), slugging percentage (.289) and OPS+ (53) en route to a -1.8 offensive WAR (another career-low digit), according to Baseball Reference. He also struck out at a career-high rate (33.9%), stole fewer bases (12) than in any of his 100-plus game seasons prior and again couldn't stay healthy, missing a good chunk of the season with a groin injury.

While Upton has never been one to maintain a high average (.248 career BA), lofty power numbers (.409 SLG%, 100 OPS+) or tremendous plate discipline figures (26% strikeout rate, 10.5% walk rate), his offensive regressions last season are concerning. After all, the Braves paid Upton a healthy $12.5 million last season to be less valuable (-1.8 bWAR) than a replacement-level player and are on the hook to shell out roughly $15 million on average over the next four seasons to the former Tampa Bay Rays top prospect.

Exactly what caused Upton's offensive setback last season? As in most cases, many things contributed. But there was one thing that smart pitchers picked up on: Upton's struggles with the outer-half of the plate.

Comparing Upton's Contact Rates over the Last Three Seasons

Upton's offensive regressions have stemmed mainly from his inability to put bat on ball. In 2011, his overall contact rate stood at 76.7%, fell to 70.6% the following season and plummeted to 66.9% last season with Atlanta, which was the third lowest among batters with at least 400 plate appearances, trumped only by Pedro Alvarez (66.1%) and Chris Carter (65.4%), according to FanGraphs.

Three seasons ago, he was able to place contact on just about any pitch in the strike zone -- boasting a 84% in-zone contact rate, which was just a shade under his career-high mark of 86.8% set in 2006. But over the last two seasons, his contact rate has faded almost exclusively to the inner-half of the plate. This has affected his ability to put outer-half offerings in play, posting a feeble 29.6% in-play rate on such pitches last season, which was fourth-worst among batters with 250 plate appearances. Knowing this, pitchers threw 49.4% of their offerings 'away' from Upton last season -- an increase from 45.6% in 2012.

Word on the street is that Upton showed up to Braves camp this past weekend with an improved swing that's eliminated unnecessary pre-swing movement. "He's a lot more efficient," Braves hitting coach Greg Walker told David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. For Upton's sake, I hope he's right, because pitchers are beginning to recognize and attack his most glaring weakness -- the outer-half of the plate -- which has transformed him from former five-tool prospect to liability for Atlanta offensively.