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Wednesday
Feb122014

Opposite Field Struggles Limit Michael Brantley's Ceiling

Michael Brantley got the first legit payday of his career earlier this week, agreeing to sign a four-year, $25 million deal with the Cleveland Indians -- a contract extension that also includes an $11 million team option for a fifth year. In his first two full seasons in Cleveland's outfield, the former seventh-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers has posted a .286/.340/.399 slash line with 110 OPS+ over 300 games. Compared to the league-average .265/.331/.424 slash line over that span, one could certainly argue the extension was a bit premature -- especially considering Brantley would not have hit the free agent market until after the 2016 season.

Showing an ability to hit for a decent average (.277 BA, .304 BABIP since his rookie 2009 campaign), pick bases at a solid rate (70% career stolen base rate compared to the 73.1% league mark since 2009), minimize mistakes in the outfield (.993 career fielding percentage compared to .987 league average), and show an above-average eye at the dish (10.7% strikeout rate, 7.1% walk rate) Brantley is without question a well-rounded player considering everything he brings to the table.

But there is one glaring void to his game, however, which you may have picked up on earlier: Power.

Since entering the league in 2009, Brantley owns an underwhelming .382 career slugging percentage (fourth-lowest among outfielders with 2,000 plate appearnces since 2009) and .107 isolated power (fifth-worst). Looking at his career spray chart, we immediately notice that most (if not close to all) of his power has come from pulling the ball, predominantly in the right-center gap. Our data backs up this observation, as Brantley has posted a career .551 slugging percentage to that portion of the field.

But on the opposite side, it's a different story. Amassing just 14 career opposite-field extra-base hits in 325 plate appearances, Brantley's career slugging percentage to left field sits at .361 -- worst among left-handed batters with at least 300 plate appearances since 2009, and nearly .200 points lower than his career mark to right field. The reason behind this low number may well be the quality of contact he puts behind these hits -- owning a career .131 well-hit average on hits to the opposite field compared to .281 to his pull-side.

Brantley's SLG% heat map to pull-side


 

Brantley's SLG% heat map to opposite field

Why will it become increasingly more important for Brantley to hit for power to all fields, rather than simply pulling the ball? First and foremost, pitchers are already taking advantage of his weakness, pitching 'away' from Brantley more often (54.8% of offerings against him have been located 'away' since 2012, compared to 51.8% from 2009 to 2011), which will make pulling the ball for power more difficult. Secondly, managers could simply adjust their outfielders' positioning to Brantley's power alleys, which may annul any power he had in the first place.

I commend Cleveland's confidence in Brantley -- he may well turn out to be one of the better outfielders in baseball by the end of it. However, his lack of power to all fields is concerning -- and if not addressed will certainly limit his potential at the big league level.

Wednesday
Feb122014

Lefties Lay Off Rodney's Fastball/Changeup Combo

Excluding a select few bullpen iron men  like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, relievers just aren't built for sustained excellence. Their job -- hurling max-effort pitches, logging what amounts to two months' worth of innings for a starter -- is inherently volatile. Some 'pen arms manage to dominate for a decade-plus, avoiding injury and bad bounces that balloon ERAs, but many more devolve from relief ace to dud quicker than you can say "Derrick Turnbow."

Fernando Rodney hasn't quite fallen to such depths -- he just landed a two-year, $14 million contract from the Mariners, after all. But he's nonetheless a prime example of how transient the "relief ace" label can be. The changeup artist was considered a chronic underachiever entering the 2012 season, posting a career park-and-league-adjusted ERA just one percent above average (101 ERA+) and issuing 4.9 walks per nine innings pitched. Then Rodney, in his mid-thirties, suddenly became an arrow-slinging assassin. He walked a mere 1.8 hitters per nine for Tampa Bay in 2012, with the best single-season ERA+ (638) ever for a reliever working 60-plus frames. After a decade of disappointment, Rodney turned in a year that made Dennis Eckersley's fabled 1990 campaign (603 ERA+) look tame.

Was Rodney a changed man? Apparently not. While no one should have expected a repeat performance of 2012, he was pretty much the same strike zone-challenged pitcher who unnerved fans in Detroit and L.A. for a decade (4.9 BB/9, 113 ERA+ with Tampa in 2013). Left-handed batters proved especially troublesome. While lefties took wild swings against his fastball/changeup combo during his banner 2012, they learned to lay off and trot to first base in 2013.

Rodney enticed lefties to chase his pitches 38.9 percent of the time in 2012, blowing away the 28 percent average for righty relievers against opposite-handed batters and trailing only Red Sox teammates Koji Uehara (48.3 percent) and Junichi Tazawa (39.4 percent) among American League firemen. In 2013, though? Rodney baited lefty hitters 31.3 percent of the time, which matches his overall lefty chase rate during the Pitch F/X era (2008-present).

What changed? Lefties stopped bailing Rodney out by swinging at pitches so far off the outside corner that they'd need a telephone pole to make contact. Check out lefties' swing rate by pitch location versus Rodney's fastball over the past two seasons, and then against his changeup.

Fastball 

Lefties' swing rate vs. Rodney's fastball, 2012

Lefties' swing rate vs. Rodney's fastball, 2013

Changeup

Lefties' swing rate vs. Rodney's changeup, 2012

Lefties' swing rate vs. Rodney's changeup, 2013

Rodney's fastball chase rate against lefties dipped from 33.7 percent in 2012 to 24.7 percent this past season. That's awfully close to his overall 26.8 percent fastball chase rate versus left-handers during the Pitch F/X era. He also got fewer chases on the changeup: 47 percent in 2012, and 39.7 percent in 2013. His changeup chase rate against lefties since '08? 39.1 percent. With lefties showing more typical plate patience against him, Rodney surrendered a free pass to 15.2  percent of batters faced after walking lefties just 6.3 percent the previous season. Lefties reached base at a .363 clip, after being held to a .222 OBP in 2012.

Rodney will always have 2012, but he doesn't appear to be a fundamentally different pitcher than the guy who gave Jim Leyland and Mike Scioscia heart palpitations for years. Unless lefties do him a favor by lunging at unhittable, off-the-plate pitches, Seattle's new crooked-capped closer figures to keep walking the yard.

Tuesday
Feb112014

Francisco Rodriguez Bucking The Old Reliever Trend With Age 

While Francisco Rodriguez's uniform has thrice changed since his record 62-save season in 2008 as a member of the Los Angeles Angels, one thing has remained constant: His strikeout totals. Punching out 10.1 batters per nine innings that season, Rodriguez went on to record K/9 rates of 9.7, 10.5, 9.9 and 9.0 in each of his four subsequent seasons, and a healthy 10.4 K/9 combined ratio last season with Milwaukee and Baltimore. After signing him to a one-year deal on Friday, the Brewers will be thrilled if that number perpetuates into 2014.

But as Bill Petti of Fangraphs.com showed in an article last May, the average reliever's K/9 rate drops significantly with age. More specifically, the average reliever's rate at age 26 drops by about 2.0 compared to their age 31 season. Yet as we've already noted, Rodriguez hasn't followed this typical reliever trend, as his K/9 rate has actually increased from his age 26 season in 2008 (10.1) to his age 31 campaign (10.9) in 2013. What makes this more intriguing is his declining fastball velocity, which stood at 91.1 MPH last season compared to 92.2 MPH in '08. Given this, how is it that Rodriguez continues to augment his strikeout capacity with age and declining fastball velocity?

It all starts with his secondary stuff, which he commanded masterfully against left-handed batters last season.

Francisco's non-fastball pitch frequency vs. LHH, 2008

Francisco's non-fastball pitch frequency vs. LHH, 2013

Overall, lefties hit .227/.346/.336 against Rodriguez in 2008 compared to right-handers' .205/.276/.295 slash line. A big reason for lefties' high on-base percentage that year was his lack of command -- walking left-handers at an escalated 13.1% rate (and 29.9% strikeout rate). Those numbers went in opposite directions last season, as Rodriguez struck out southpaws at a 35.2% rate while lowering his walk rate to 7.6% against them. Against his 'soft' stuff (i.e. non-fastballs), these increases were much more extreme -- punching out lefties at a 58.1% clip compared to 38.6% in 2008.

The reason for this sharp increase can be seen in the images above; Rodriguez was more efficient at commanding his changeup and curveball away from lefties last season (51.8%) in comparison to 2008 (36.7%). Not only did this improved command positively affect his strikeout rate, but it also helped him increase is ground-ball rate to 52.9% (juxtaposed to 44.4% in 2008) and boost his called-strike rate to 41.4% (opposed to 32.3% in 2008). In two-strike counts, lefties chased at a whopping 64% of his soft offerings and struck out at a 78.1% rate (fifth highest among relievers with 45 innings).

While sample size should be considered when comparing his 2008 and 2013 campaigns (he registered 68.1 innings in 2008 and only 46.2 last season), this is somewhat of an unsound argument against his strikeout increase moving forward, as I'm certain Ron Roenicke and Milwaukee's managerial staff won't call on Rodriguez more than 70 times next season -- even if he's lights out. They'll need to preserve his aging arm if they're anywhere near contention in September.

Considering everything, we can definitively say that Rodriguez is still every bit the strikeout artist he was in his most dominant years -- even with his waning velocity. And that's a credit to his improved secondary stuff against lefties, who gave him trouble even at his best in 2008.

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