Thursday, April 24, 2008

Pitch f/x and Colorado

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the percentages of pitch types thrown by the top pitchers in baseball. I was going to do a similar post about the pitch types seen by the top hitters when I got sidetracked by a portion of the research that I was doing.

I was combining the types of fastballs that the hitters had seen (normal fastball, sinker, and cutter) to get a sense of which hitters had seen the most off-speed pitches when I found that Matt Holliday's numbers stuck out like a sore thumb. 70.62% of all pitches that Holliday saw last year were fastballs, sinkers or cutters. I was comparing the top 20 homerun hitters last year and the next five highest results were:

2) Ken Griffey, Jr. - 63.9%
3) Ryan Braun - 63.69%
4) Adam Dunn - 62.16%
5) Lance Berkman - 62.09%
6) Carlos Lee - 62.01%

Aside from Holliday's 70.62%, the rest of the top 20 were fairly evenly distributed between 50.23% (Ryan Howard) and those listed above. So I wondered if this anomaly extended to other hitters for the Rockies - here are the percentages for the top eight Rockies hitters by at bats in 2007:

1) Matt Holliday - 70.62%
2) Troy Tulowitzki - 63.23%
3) Garrett Atkins - 64.37%
4) Todd Helton - 65.48%
5) Brad Hawpe - 65.16%
6) Kaz Matsui - 65.93%
7) Yorvit Torrealba - 59.68%
8) Wily Tavarez - 68.47%

Except for Torrealba and Tulowitzki, all eight are higher than any of the top 20 homerun hitters from last year. I then looked up the league average, and the percentage was 60.85. It is clear, then, that the Rockies are seeing a significantly larger amount of fastballs than the rest of the league.

I then turned to the Rockies pitchers, to see if they were throwing a larger percentage of fastballs than the league average. Here is the top five Rockies pitchers, as ranked by innings pitched in 2007:

1) Jeff Francis - 57.49%
2) Aaron Cook - 52.38%
3) Josh Fogg - 61.99%
4) Jason Hirsch - 56.85%
5) Taylor Buchholz - 60.87%

Only Josh Fogg threw more than the league average and he barely threw 1% more than the average. Interestingly, though, except for Taylor Buchholz (who only throws fastballs and sliders), the Rockies pitchers did not throw more breaking balls. Jeff Francis, Josh Fogg and Jason Hirsch relied on the changeup, while Aaron Cook threw the splitter as his primary second offering. The league average for changeups is 12.84% and Francis, Fogg and Hirsch threw 28.54%, 25.28% and 22.6% respectively (Aaron Cook threw 22.71% splitters compared with a 2.18% league average).

The conclusion we can draw from this is that the commonly-held belief that breaking pitches are less effective at altitude, whether it is scientifically accurate or not, has taken hold in major league baseball. The Rockies response to that belief, however, is different from that of the rest of the league. The Rockies pitchers do not throw more fastballs in response, they throw more changeups. I can't say whether this response is calculated or not. Perhaps the Rockies came to this conclusion and acquired and developed pitchers with good changeups or perhaps the Rockies stumbled into this response.

The real question is whether the strategy works, and by the numbers it certainly appears to. There was a lot of publicity about how the humidor in Colorado was keeping the scoring down and while that may be true, that should be true for the home team as well as the visiting team. This difference in strategic reactions to the belief that breaking pitches are ineffective at altitude should show up in the home and away splits for the offense and pitching of the Rockies.

At home last year the Rockies scored 478 runs, or about 25% more than they scored on the road. The Rockies gave up 396 runs at home last year, which is only 9% more than they gave up on the road last year. It is unsurprising that the Rockies pitchers would cope with the park effects of their home park better than their opposition, even without a different strategy, but it hardly seems reasonable that "home cooking" could account for a 16% difference.

There has been a lot of research into park factors and the development of park-neutral statistics. What those numbers don't take into account, however, is that some of those factors are impacted by the way teams construct their rosters and design strategies to make the unique aspects of their parks work in their favor. In Colorado's case, it certainly appears that they are addressing the aspects of Coors Field in better ways than their opposition, which gives them an advantage.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Watched - Matt Morris

I can't say that I exactly feel bad for Matt Morris - he has earned $56,311,850 playing baseball (according to - but there is something sad about watching the downside of his career. Matt was the 12th pick overall in the 1995 draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. He came up two years later and finished second to Scott Rolen in the Rookie of the Year balloting. He was injured in 1998 and missed all of 1999 after having Tommy John surgery. He came back in 2000 and made 31 appearances in relief.

Matt broke out in 2001, winning 22 games and striking out 185 batters while posting a 137 ERA+. He was third in the Cy Young balloting. At the age of 26, the Cardinals thought they had found their Ace for years to come. But 2001 was the last time that Matt put together a truly great season. He was very good in 2002, with a 117 ERA+ and striking out 171, but thereafter settled into the "solid, but unspectacular" category, reaching double digits in wins every year and eating a lot of innings, but never dominating. He was an integral part of the Cardinals teams that led the majors in wins in 2004 and 2005, but he wasn't their best pitcher. Many people viewed him as the heart and soul of the pitching staff, though.

I think what I like so much about Matt is that he had been great and had great potential and even though injuries and age sapped him of that potential greatness, he still gave everything he had and found ways to be a successful pitcher. What makes me sad about Matt is that he was not on the Cardinals team that won a World Series in 2006. He was so much a part of the build up to that World Series - the close calls in 2004 and 2005 - that he seemed like he should have been celebrating with the team on the field in 2006.

I watched Matt's start last night against the Florida Marlins for old time's sake. Unfortunately, the experience was a little depressing and made me feel old (I am about two months older than Matt). During his early, dominant, years, Matt threw in the low 90's with his fastball and had a put-away 12-6 curveball. As he settled into his career, his fastball was about 89-91 and he still had a great curveball. He also learned to mix in a cutter to give hitters a different look. Last night Matt had the same repertoire, just slower. His fastball was anywhere from 83 to 88 (but it still had great movement), his cutter was in the upper 70's, and his curveball was in the upper 60's. The curve had a bit of a loop to it and he hung a couple.

Matt is clearly not the pitcher he was even three years ago, but I think that it is possible to be a league average pitcher with the stuff that he has. He is willing to throw any of his pitches on any count and if Matt could locate his fastball on the corners and low in the strike zone, he can still be successful. Unfortunately, Matt's biggest problem last night was that he couldn't locate any of his pitches consistently.

Matt lasted only four innings, giving up eight runs on nine hits, a walk and a hit batsman. He struck out two and threw 99 pitches. He gave up a couple of homeruns, the first to Hanley Ramirez on a 71mph hanging curveball that looked like it had been set on a tee for Ramirez. The second was on an 83mph fastball that was right down the middle to Josh Willingham. The first homer didn't bother me as much as the second. When a pitcher relies on his curveball as much as Morris does, he will hang a few on occasion. The pitch to Willingham, though, looked like Matt was just out there throwing batting practice. Unfortunately, it looked like that a lot in the four innings Matt threw. Almost all of the nine hits were hit hard - he also gave up 5 doubles - and seven of the nine hits were off of the fastball.

I hope for the best for Matt, because he has always been one of my favories, but the Pirates can't afford to keep sending him out there the way he's been pitching - no matter how much they are paying him.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Miguel Tejada and Gotcha Journalism

By now you have probably heard that Miguel Tejada is two years older than previously thought. He lied to the Oakland A's when he was first signed as an amateur because of the pressure to find a way out of poverty. The excuse doesn't make it right, although my guess is that the A's, or any of the teams that have signed or traded for him since, would not have changed their decision based on the two year jump in age (Houston might not have been willing to give up such a big package for him, but then again, we are talking about Ed Wade).

The issue for me, though, is how this story was broken (which makes this post less about baseball and more about journalism, sorry). ESPN set up an interview with Tejada and sat him down in front of a camera and asked him how old he is. Tejada seemed a bit confused by the line of questioning, expecting the interview to be about his new team or the start of the new season. When Tejada answered that he is 31, the questioner asked if he was sure and then pulled out a birth certificate showing that Tejada was born in 1974, not 1976. Tejada then became very confused, then upset. He said something to the effect of "I didn't come here to talk about this kind of thing," and then took off the lapel microphone and left.

This kind of journalism sickens me. The story is legitimate news, but why does ESPN think it has to pull the Jerry Springer move with Tejada to break it? They brought Tejada in under false pretenses and then ambushed him with embarrassing information. Is that entertainment? ESPN should be ashamed that they have turned to this kind of gutter journalism to get a cheap pop.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Watched: Twins @ Royals

Using "Watched" might be a little strong in this case. "Shivered through" is probably more appropriate. I attended the Twins @ Royals game this evening, but the temperature hovered around forty degrees and there were snowflakes in the air throughout the day. The Royals wore their throwback, powder-blue jerseys, which were pretty cool (although they wore them with white pants that looked ridiculous):

I really can't break down much of what happened during the game because 1) it was too cold to take notes, mental or otherwise; and 2) everyone's performance is a bit skewed because of the conditions (for example, both starting pitchers, Brett Tomko and Boof Bonser, pitched very well - which in and of itself should prove that the results are unreliable).

So, in lieu of any analysis, here is a picture of Royals legend Frank White throwing out the first pitch:

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Watched: Johnny Cueto

Johnny Cueto's major league debut on April 3rd was the talk of the baseball world last week. The 22 year old struck out 10 in seven innings, giving up only one hit, a Justin Upton solo homerun. Cueto (pronounced 'Kway-tow') was signed by Cincinnati out of the Dominican Republic as a 19 year old and flew through their minor league system.

Tonight was Johnny's second start, so I decided to check him out. I have read comparisons between Cueto and a young Pedro Martinez, and I can understand that: they are both Dominican, they are both slight of build (Cueto is a bit stockier, though), and they both have electric stuff. Tonight, though, the FSN Ohio crew showed a side-by-side comparison of Cueto's pitching motion next to Bob Gibson's motion and they are very similar. Gibson is a bit taller than Cueto, but the motion and especially the follow through (falling off towards first base) are very similar.

Cueto pitched well again tonight, although he wasn't quite as dominant. He came out of the game after 6.1 innings, having given up 5 hits and 2 earned runs, while striking out 8. The statistic that I find most impressive is that he did not walk a single batter (which gives him a total of zero on the year so far in 13.1 innings). He throws four plus pitches: a 2 seam fastball, a 4 seam fastball, a slider, and a changeup. He seemed to mix them well, throwing any of his pitches on any count. It seemed that he gave up on his 2 seam fastball after missing a few times with it early - it was coming in at 91-92mph and had a lot of run to it. His 4 seam fastball sits around 94-96mph, but was very straight [edit - note: pitch f/x seems to disagree with me here, as almost all of his fastballs show at least some movement]. The few times that he got in trouble (other than a hanging slider that Bill Hall hit over the leftfield fence) it seemed like he relied too much on the 4 seam fastball and the Brewers hitters were able to sit on it.

Both his slider and his changeup can be used as put-away pitches. The slider is the type that is usually thrown out of the strikezone to get the batter to chase, which works well with his fastball. The changeup is used similarly, as he has very good arm action and the pitch fades down and in to a righthanded hitter. He used both pitches as strikeout pitches and to setup a high fastball for the strikeout.

One of the concerns with Cueto is with his workload. He is not a big guy and his manager (Dusty Baker) has a history of overworking his young pitchers (Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, please pick up a white courtesy phone). I was especially curious to see how Dusty would handle him as the game wore on. The Reds were down 1-0 in the top of the seventh inning when Cueto's spot in the lineup came up with a man on second and one out. He had already thrown 86 pitches at that point, but Dusty did not pinch hit for him. Cueto grounded out to short, moving the runner to third (who eventually scored). I couldn't help thinking of Mark Prior and wondering if Dusty would run Cueto out there for 120 pitches. In the bottom of the seventh Cueto gave up a leadoff homerun to Hall (on the aforementioned hanging slider, which probably made every Reds fan scream obscenities at Dusty for not pinch hitting for the kid), but then struck out Corey Hart on some of the nastiest pitches he had thrown all night. Then Dusty took him out after 96 pitches.

Setting aside the questionable game management, I think 96 pitches is probably a smart limit for Cueto. He is only 22 years old and has less than 350 innings as a professional prior to this season. He is a dynamic talent and the Reds need to protect their investment in him. Hopefully Dusty Baker has learned from his failure to manage Prior and Woods' innings properly and Cueto won't suffer the same fate.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A Far-Reaching Trade

I read today that the Arizona Diamondbacks have reached a six year agreement with their young outfielder, Chris Young. Young is an extremely talented young player - he hit 32 homeruns and stole 27 bases last season as a 23 year old rookie. His on-base skills have yet to develop at the major league level, but his minor league history seems to indicate that he will improve in that area.

While Chris is an interesting ballplayer and I think the D-Backs will get good value out of this contract, what I find most interesting is how he got here. Chris was drafted out of high school by the Chicago White Sox and was their top prospect. After the 2005 season, however, the White Sox traded Chris to Arizona. You may recall that the White Sox won the World Series in 2005. Apparently, they believed that the key to maintaining their success was to upgrade their pitching. So they traded Chris, Orlando Hernandez (a key to their pitching staff, but one that was already at least 39 years old), and Luis Vizcaino to Arizona for Javier Vazquez. Vazquez was enigmatic, pitching well for Montreal from 2001-2003, but struggling with the Yankees and Arizona thereafter.

Two months into the 2006 season, the D-Backs flipped Orlando Hernandez to the Mets for Jorge Julio. Julio finished the season with Arizona, but they then traded him to Florida in exchange for Yusmeiro Petit. At the time Petit was a young starting pitching prospect with a lot of upside, but his K/9 rate has dropped his last two seasons in the minors (in truth his rates began deteriorating much earlier - maybe Florida knew something before they traded him).

Luis Vizcaino, the other piece the D-Backs received with Young, was flipped to the Yankees before the 2007 season as part of the trade to acquire Randy Johnson. So, to sum up, the Diamondbacks gave up a talented, but enigmatic starter in the prime of his career for a potential 30/30 outfielder just about to break into the major leagues, a fringy pitching prospect at the cusp of the major leagues, and a spare part used to acquire a once-dominant hero of the franchise that could still be a quality starting pitcher if used properly.

I would say that the D-Backs "won" the trade, although it is certainly a defensable move by the White Sox if Vazquez becomes an anchor of their staff and leads them to the playoffs. How much better would the Sox have been last year if they had Young in the outfield instead of Scott Podsednik, Jerry Owens, etc.? How much better would they be this year with Young? Instead, they were forced to trade four prospects to shore up their outfield: three to Oakland for Nick Swisher and one to Arizona for Carlos Quentin.

Trades like this one fascinate me because of the domino effect with the other trades that occurred and because so many of the names involved are impact players.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Profile - Brian Bannister

Brian Bannister is getting a lot of publicity lately. This post by Joe Posnanski provides a good overview of why Bannister is a good player to root for. The short version is that Bannister does not have overwhelming "stuff" and has dedicated himself to studying statistics to find any edge he can to succeed. And he has found success at the major league level.

Brian is the son of former major league pitcher Floyd Bannister and presumably grew up around major league baseball. He was undrafted out of high school and went to USC. His Sophmore year at USC he put up decent numbers out of the pen, with a 2.83 ERA in 54 IP. Brian had elbow surgery the following season, which he red-shirted, but was drafted by the Red Sox in the 45th round anyway. He returned to school instead and put up sub-par numbers his Junior year (2003). He went 6-5 with a 4.53 ERA in 93.1 IP; his WHIP was 1.38 and his K/9 were only 5.4

The Mets drafted him in the 7th round after that season anyway, apparently believing that Brian's struggles were only due to his recovery from surgery. This time Brian signed and joined the Mets Brooklyn affiliate immediately and was successful, with a 2.15 ERA over his first 46 professional innings.

The following season, 2004, Brian started the year at Port St. Lucie, the Mets advanced A level club. Brian threw 110.1 innings with a 4.32 ERA at Port St. Lucie and was very stingy with the free passes, walking only 27 against 107 strikouts (that's a 2.20 BB/9 and a 8.65 K/9). He was promoted to AA Binghamton for his final 44.1 innings of the season and while his ERA improved slightly (to 4.06), his rate stats did not. His BB/9 increased to 3.45, his K/9 lowered to 5.68 and his WHIP rose to 1.40.

At 24 years old, he started the 2005 season back at Binghamton and dominated. He logged 109 innings and his ERA was only 2.56. His rate stats went back to the levels he had attained in Port St. Lucie, with a BB/9 of 2.23 and a K/9 of 7.76. The strikeout rate is what held Bannister back from ever being considered a top prospect. Regardless of minor league ERA or other measures of success, the K rate is viewed as being the best indicator of future success in the major leagues (and statistical studies have proven this to be true).

Nevertheless, the Mets promoted Bannister mid-year to their AAA affiliate at Norfolk and continued to impress. In his 45.1 innings he had a 3.45 ERA and improved his K/9 rate to 9.53, while keeping his BB/9 rate at 2.58 (although his WHIP jumped to 1.35). Brian was named the Mets Minor League Player of the Year for 2005.

2006 was an up and down year for Brian. On the down side, he was placed on the 60-day disabled list with a hamstring problem, which limited him to only 80.1 innings pitched the whole season. On the up side, however, Brian made his big league debut for the Mets early in the season and after rehabbing at Port St. Lucie and Norfolk, he stuck with the Mets for the rest of the season. His rehab stats were very similar to his previous minor league stats, but he struggled a little in the majors. While he had a 2-1 record with a 4.26 ERA over 38 innings, his BB/9 was 5.21 and his K/9 was only 4.50 and his WHIP was up to 1.47.

Scouts and statistical analysts alike believed (and many still believe) that Brian lacked the "stuff" to consistently get major league hitters out and considered him a marginal starter for the back of a rotation at best. Brian very rarely breaks 90 mph with his fastball, sitting at 86-88 usually - according to Josh Kalk's Pitch f/x database, the initial speed of Brian's fastball averages 89.48 mph. He throws curves, sliders and changeups in addition to his fastball, with a slight preference for the slider (19.89%), but he mixes in the curve and changeup at good rates also (13.98% and 12.98% respectively).

Prior to the 2007 season the Mets traded Brian to the Royals in exchange for Ambiorix Burgos, a flamethrowing reliever that had worn out his welcome in Kansas City with his lack of control. Burgos is quite likely Bannister's complete opposite as a pitcher. Bannister made 27 starts for the Royals and posted a 3.87 ERA in 165 innings. His walk rate stayed low (BB/9 of 2.4) but his K/9 was also low, at 4.20. Bannister's BABIP (that's batting average on balls in play - which is often used to determine how 'lucky' a pitcher is because BABIP has been shown to be something largely out of the pitcher's control so if a pitcher's BABIP is significantly higher or lower than the MLB average - last year the MLB average was just over .300 - then they have been 'lucky' to the extent that they differ) last season was .266, which he has acknowledged as a key to his success. In fact, Brian spoke at length about his low BABIP last year. He also said (in the Posnanski blog linked above) that he believes he will need to decrease his walk rate slightly and increase his k rate slightly to compensate for the expected increase in BABIP (statistically: regression to the mean).

Walking fewer hitters will certainly be difficult, as his BB/9 last year was already excellent, but I suppose it is possible - 21 pitchers posted better BB/9 than Bannister last season (the lowest was Greg Maddux at 1.14). Striking out more hitters seems like a more attainable goal, though. He will almost certainly never get back to his minor league rates, but if he could just get to league average he should be able to retain his success of 2007 and then some. So far in 2008 he's off to a good start (BB/9: 0.0; K/9: 5.14).