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Monday
Feb102014

Bronson Arroyo Stretches the Strike Zone, Survives Gopheritis

Admit it: you have no idea how Bronson Arroyo's still doing this. He's a wisp of a human being by starting pitcher standards, he slings more slop than a school lunch lady, and he coughs up home runs worthy of their own frequent flyer program. He was cut loose by the Pirates over a decade ago, back when their ace was...Kip Wells? A few years later, Boston swapped him to Cincinnati for prolific out-maker Wily Mo Pena. Yet, Arroyo keeps logging 200 innings a season and cashing checks: The Diamondbacks just signed the soon-to-be-37-year-old to a two-year, $23.5 million deal that includes an $11 million club option for the 2016 season.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Arroyo's unlikely longevity is how often -- and how epically -- he allows batters to take him deep. During his 14-year career, Arroyo has served up 314 home runs in 2,278.2 innings pitched (about 1.24 homers per nine frames). Pitchers who get blasted that often don't stick around the big leagues, much less perform well and pull in nearly $100 million in career earnings. Just five pitchers in MLB history have thrown 2,000-plus innings while allowing at least 1.2 homers per nine (Steve Trachsel, Brad Radke, Pedro Ramos, Arroyo and Woody Williams). And just three of those guys (Radke, Arroyo, and Williams) have managed to compile an above-average ERA once you account for park factors and leaguewide run-scoring levels.

Like Radke and Williams, Arroyo has overcome his severe case of gopheritis by displaying exquisite control. And the older he gets, the stingier he becomes with the free passes: Arroyo has lowered his walk rate in each of the past six seasons, from 3.1 per nine innings in 2008 to a mere 1.5 per nine in 2013. He nearly gave up more homers (32) than walks (34) last year, a bizarre feat that Arroyo actually accomplished back in 2011.

In his mid-to-late-thirties, Arroyo has become a devout follower of the Radke approach to pitching: Fill up the strike zone, walk no one, and learn to live with the solo and two-run bombs. Arroyo has steadily thrown more pitches over the plate (from 44.3 percent of his total offerings in 2008 to 53.8 percent in 2013), and he's getting more calls on the edges of the zone. Take a look at his called strike rate by pitch location back in '08, and then in 2013. Pay especially close attention to pitches thrown up around the letters, and at hitters' knees.

Arroyo's called strike rate by pitch location, 2008

 

Arroyo's called strike rate by pitch location, 2013

Arroyo has stretched the strike zone vertically, getting the benefit of the doubt from umps on both high and low pitches. His overall called strike rate, which sat at 33 percent back in 2008, climbed into the mid-to-high-thirties over the years and then shot all the way up to 41.4 in 2013. The only qualified starter with a higher called strike rate last season was Cliff Lee (42.2 percent).

Last year, we found that there's a connection between velocity and called strike rate: the slower you throw, the more calls you get from the ump. Arroyo certainly seems to be benefiting from this phenomenon. Never one for lighting up radar guns, Arroyo has become shown even less zip lately. He threw his seldom-used fastball an average of 86.8 MPH last year, down from 88.3 MPH back in '08. Arroyo's soft stuff is softer, too -- he averaged 75.1 MPH when lobbing a slider, curveball or changeup in 2013, compared to 76.3 MPH during his higher-walk days in '08. 

Despite Arroyo's durability and control, there's plenty that could go wrong over the next two years. His body could finally break down as he approaches 40. His receding fastball could enter Jamie Moyer territory. He could become even more homer-prone. But Arroyo has succeeded thus far by throwing his pedestrian pitches over the plate, benefiting from calls on the edges of the zone and tolerating the fireworks displays at his expense. It's not glamorous, but the D-Backs would gladly take another 400 innings of league-average slop-tossing from Arroyo.  

Thursday
Feb062014

Receding Stuff Makes Craig Kimbrel (More) Expendable

Craig Kimbrel got the short end of the monetary stick this week when the Atlanta Braves elected to sign Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward to contract extensions. Just six years into a 20-year local TV contract that has and will assuredly limit the team's cash assets for the foreseeable future, the organization has been put in a difficult financial situation this offseason, and these limitations have manifested through not being able to sign players to long-term deals, such as Kimbrel.

In a perfect world, the Braves would extend each of their three budding superstars. But we don't live in a perfect world, which meant Atlanta essentially had to decide whether Heyward or Kimbrel was more valuable for the organization moving forward (since Freeman seemed a near guarantee to get his extension after a career-best 5.4 bWAR 2013 campaign). With three consecutive 40-plus save seasons and a 1.48 ERA that ranks best among pitchers with 200 innings since 2011, one could certainly make the argument that Kimbrel deserved to get paid -- not Heyward, who owns an underwhelming career line of .259/.352/.443.

But for as dominant as Kimbrel has been since his rookie 2011 season, he actually regressed in several areas in 2013, which more than likely had a big say in Atlanta's decision not to extend him.

Craig Kimbrel
 AVGwOBAK/BBZone%Miss%Chas%ClStk%InPl%
2012 .126 .170 8.29 52.9% 41.6% 34.1% 40.9% 21.0%
2013 .166 .222 4.90 50.5% 32.5% 30.7% 34.0% 28.7%

 

Across the board -- both in terms of opponents' weighted on-base average against him and in "miss-ability" of his offerings -- Kimbrel's stuff depreciated significantly. And while it seems silly to expect anyone to consistently perform at a level he did in 2012 (where he posted a 1.01 ERA, league-best 0.65 WHIP and 16.6 strikeouts per nine innings en route to a 3.3 bWAR), regressions such as these shouldn't go unnoticed. Of course, now the question becomes: Why did he take a step back last season?

Erractic Release Point

Kimbrel's Release Point Frequency, 2012

 

Kimbrel's Release Point Frequency, 2013


 

As a true two-pitch reliever (fastball and slider), deception is of the utmost importance for Kimbrel, whose gaudy strikeout numbers have been more of product of his ability to generate swings-and-misses (accounting for 89% of his career strikeouts), rather than called strikes (11%) in order to punch out batters. While wacky deliveries and varying arm slots can be deceptive, Kimbrel's traditional 3/4 arm slot makes vital the repetition of his release points between fastball and slider, as a more limited arsenal makes pitch recognition easier for batters if release points aren't consistent.

Surely enough, this was Kimbrel's downfall last season. Take a look at the first image shown above, which depicts the release point frequency of Kimbrel's offerings two seasons ago. Looks to be very consistent, no? Now take a gander at the bottom image, showing his release point frequency in 2013. While the red and yellow areas of his release points remain nearly identical as two seasons ago, his overall release points were much less defined.

Evidently, batters picked up on this lack of consistency and capitalized off it, increasing their in-play rate against his stuff by 7.7% over the last two seasons while generating a .222 wOBA against him, up from .170 in 2012. What's more, Kimbrel's inconsistent release point caused opponents to swing at roughly 5% less, chase at 4% less and swing-and-miss nearly 10% less in 2013 than two seasons ago.

For Kimbrel, deception is the name of the game. Last season, he didn't have it (as much), which is probably a main reason why Atlanta chose to extend Heyward over him.

Thursday
Feb062014

A More Patient Yasiel Puig in 2014?

Yasiel Puig was a bat-flipping, stop-sign-defying, cutoff-man-missing marvel in 2013. The Dodgers outfielder tied Ted Williams for the second-best park-and-league-adjusted OPS ever for a rookie getting 400-plus plate appearances (60 percent above average), placing just behind Johnny Mize (162 OPS+) and ahead of Albert Pujols (157 OPS+). Here's a scary thought for pitchers and catchers getting set to report for spring training: the 23-year-old is still learning the strike zone, and he's proving to be a quick study. Considering the progress Puig made in tightening his plate approach down the stretch, pitchers shouldn't count on retiring him with junk pitches in 2014. Puig's newfound patience may even earn him the leadoff role in L.A. this year.

When Puig debuted back in June, he displayed the patience of a kindergartener hell-bent on cracking open a Hershey-stuffed pinata. He swung at 38.3 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, which was far above the 28 percent major league average and second-highest among all National League hitters that month (Alfonso Soriano was first, at 46.6 percent). Puig was particularly hack-happy on pitches thrown inside, chasing 36.2 percent of the time.

Puig's swing rate vs. inside pitches, June of 2013

  Puig was ridiculously productive in June, of course, as seemingly every ball he put in play evaded leather. He walked in just 3.7 percent of his plate appearances, however -- fine if you're racking up hits like Teddy Ballgame and Ty Cobb, but problematic otherwise. To his credit, Puig quickly began to shrink his eyes-to-ankles strike. He chased fewer inside pitches out of the zone in July, August and September.

Puig's swing rate vs. inside pitches, July of 2013

 

Puig's swing rate vs. inside pitches, August of 2013

 

Puig's swing rate vs. inside pitches, September 2013

 

After chasing 36.2 percent of inside stuff in June, Puig went after 32.5 percent of those pitches in July, 26.3 percent in August, and just 22.3 percent in September. That newfound patience is crucial to Puig's long-term success, considering that pitchers try to bust him in on the hands more often (43.7 percent of the time) than any other big league hitter. Overall, Puig's chase rate was close to the league average by the season's final month (30.5 percent in September), and he boasted a double-digit walk rate during in both August and September.

Gifted as he is, Puig might be considered a "disappointment" by some in 2014 because he set such a high bar for himself as a rookie (the Oliver projection system forecasts Puig for a still-excellent .292/.362/.512 line next year, compared to  his actual .319/.391/.534 in 2013). But the gains he made in controlling the strike zone figure to carry over into next year and beyond, as changes in a hitter's swing rate take on meaning after about 50 plate appearances. Combine Puig's light-tower power with a more polished plate approach, and you have the recipe for a perennial MVP contender. If this guy's not getting himself out, who will?

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