Nick Pivetta’s Breakout

If you wanted to call Nick Pivetta the unluckiest pitcher in 2017, you’d have a solid case. 105 pitchers managed 130 or more innings last season. Pivetta had the 6th worst BABIP, 8th worst strand rate, and 10th worst HR/FB%. If you wanted to call Pivetta mediocre away from luck, you’d have a fine case. His 109 FIP-, 91 xFIP-, and 4.26 SIERA were all within ten percent of league average. Adjustments as the year progressed, however, indicated Pivetta could be a better pitcher. Further refinement, more experience, and Nick Pivetta is a legitimate MLB starter. The question is, how high can he go.

Pivetta’s statistics are better across the board. He’s getting more strikeouts while reducing the free pass. ERA, FIP, and SIERA are all much better than 2018. Screen Shot 2018-06-09 at 2.52.23 PM

One of the primary reasons for Pivetta’s breakout has been the increased usage of his high spin curveball. In 2017, hitters slashed .289/.333/.474 on his curveball. Pivetta left many curves close to the heart of the plate.

Pivetta curve 2017
Pivetta’s Curveball Location in 2017

As the 2017 season wore on, Pivetta’s curveball velocity increased, something that has carried over to 2018. Furthermore, the pitch had slightly more drop. Pivetta made a major change to the way he grips the baseball. A report from The Athletic mentioned he had changed his curveball grip. Instead of utilizing the common curveball grip where the fingers are placed on the baseball, Pivetta now utilizes a spike curveball, the same variation of curve that fellow teammate Aaron Nola uses. The modification brought forward a mediocre offering into a very good one.

In 2018, the curveball features more horizontal movement and nearly double the drop compared to 2017. Both factors have lead to a better groundball and swinging strike rate on the pitch. Pivetta’s curve now induces a grounder three times for every five balls in play compared to one grounder for every two balls in play in 2016. Swinging strike rate has increased from 10.9% to 13.5%. Location looks better too. newplot(11)

He’s doing a better job of locating at the outside part of the strikezone. Still not as pristine as one would like, but it shows progression. Batters have hit .175/.197/.238 this season on the curve.

Lastly, the spin on the curve is a major reason for it being a tough pitch to square up. Pivetta’s curve has elite spin. There are only 8 pitchers who have a higher spin rate. The grip modifications likely helped turn that spin into more useful spin.

Whether it’s the small changes to release points, Pivetta’s slider has been better from a swing and miss perspective. The slider gives Pivetta a second strong breaking pitch. He’s mostly used it as a put-away pitch against right handed hitters.

A better curve in addition to an already good slider, one that featured a 17% swinging strike rate with above average groundball rate, the Canadian right hander has three good pitches with the possibility of the curve and/or slider being elite.

Much was made of his poor walk rate last year. A positive indicator was Pivetta’s zone percentage was one of the best last season. His 51.7% zone percentage would have been tied with Justin Verlander and RA Dickey had he qualified, for fifth best in the league. So far this season, the zone percentage number is down. The offspeed stuff has been getting strikes, but the fastball hasn’t. Two good breaking pitches is a good fallback for games when the fastball isn’t working. The zone percentage is still good however, suggesting that there are gains to be made and kept in the walk department.

He’s also operating at different release points.

 

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Pivetta’s Changing Horizontal Release Point

 

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Pivetta’s Changing Vertical Release Point

The Phillies are coming together. With an ace in Aaron Nola, the emergence of Nick Pivetta gives them 3 good pitchers in the rotation. If Jerad Eickhoff can rediscover his form from 2016 or Zack Eflin continue to shine, the Phillies will have one of the best major league rotations. The hitting is also improving, led by Rhys Hoskins. The Phillies will no doubt be major players during free agency.

Pivetta in 2017 had a rough go but showed some signs of being a good pitcher. He worked at his craft to develop a strong breaking ball, tinker with his release points, and utilize his arsenal to the best degree. If Pivetta can keep it up, he can establish himself as the Phillies number 2 pitcher. The Victoria, BC native has a bright future ahead of him.

 

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Lance McCullers Is Changing It Up

In his last start against the Angels, Lance McCullers Jr. threw more changeups than curveballs. That’s a big deal. His bread and butter has always been a devestating knuckle curveball.

While he eventually reached a usage over 10% for the changeup in 2017, McCullers never seemed to trust the pitch and it wasn’t particularly good. It’s one thing to throw a pitch enough to keep hitters off balance, it’s another thing if it’s actually good.

McCullers Pitch Usage

McCullers increasing changeup usage has been a key development for the Tampa, Florida native. The chart below shows his curveball and changeup usage in every game he’s been a part of.

mccullers pitch game per

McCullers is throwing the changeup once for every four pitches in May, his highest monthly average. The next closest month has been a 16% usage rate in June of last year. There’s good reason for McCullers trusting the pitch more. The 2018 iteration of the changeup is the best he’s had. It combines excellent horizontal movement with more drop. Hitters are swinging and missing on nearly a quarter of changeups thrown (22.6 SwStr%) and have a wRC+ of 0.

It’s filthy.

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McCullers’ 2017 Pitch Heatmap

McCullers left plenty of changeups low and away in the zone in 2017. The other big concentration of changeups was also low and away, but outside the zone. Hitters were able to better recognize balls from strikes.

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McCullers’ 2018 Pitch Heatmap

In 2018, McCullers has exhibited better command of the pitch. It’s just outside the zone making it tough for hitters to distinguish whether the pitch is a strike. Since it moves so much and has above average drop, McCullers is successful with the pitch.

Furthermore, the changeup helps the sinker. Both pitches have excellent arm side movement. Here is the combo in action courtesty of Pitching Ninja:

In 2016, McCullers abandoned the fourseam fastball for the most part. It didn’t “rise” and was relatively flat.

Is he necessarily better? Statistically, McCullers hasn’t been much better. Many performance metrics such as FIP- and SIERA are similar. Baseball Prospectus’ Desereved Run Average is 2.80, the best mark of his young career. Results aside, the changeup gives him a greater foundation for future success. Pitching is a tough science. On one hand, using that third pitch that you may not trust enough or is not effective can be good because it gives the batter one more pitch to worry about. On the other hand, it might get smoked. McCullers can now rely on a third pitch.

The 24 year old needs to improve his control, thus helping him get deeper into games.  McCullers zone percentage has hovered around 44% the past three years. His walk rate this year, 9.9%, is right in line with his career rate of 9.3%. The one positive is a better first pitch strike rate (64.6%). Something that used to be among the league’s worst, McCullers is now getting ahead of the count. In addition to better control, showing greater durability, and the changeup remaining good will be key if he takes the leap from good second starter to ace.

Lance McCullers was already a good pitcher coming into 2018. He’s become even better with the refinement of the changeup. He’s got ace calibre stuff, and is fun to watch. McCullers is at a pivotal stage in his development. He’s marked off the third pitch aspect and is only getting better.

Brendan Gallagher’s Impressive Resume

Brendan Gallagher’s quite the player. Drafted in the fifth round, 147 overall in 2010, Gallagher managed to break into the NHL at age 20. Despite being a late round pick, he has the 11th highest games played total from his draft class. He’s shown a nose for the net and is a positive anytime he’s on the ice. Now in his sixth season, Gallagher has shown he should have a greater role.

A key aspect of Gallagher is just how good he is at even strength. Before even getting into shot differentials or shot quality when he’s on the ice, Gallagher’s ability to score is very good. Since 2014, he ranks 30th in primary points per 60 at even strength. For reference, that’s just as good as Artemi Panarin and James van Riemsdyk.

Gallagher dominates shifts. Few players have the type of impact he does on the ice. Gallagher smaller

Gallagher’s in elite company when it comes to shot differentials and shot quality. Very few players have his type of impact.

gally rel bigger

When on the ice, Gallagher makes his team substantially better. His skill-set lends him to be effective in both the defensive and offensive zone. He has good sense of where to be and works hard to both create and destroy space.

One of the fascinating features of Gallagher is how proficient he is at getting into good scoring areas. Individual expected goals isn’t necessarily an evaluation of shooting talent although it has some components. Like any stat, it doesn’t tell the full story. Sniping is an art. Steven Stamkos and Patrick Laine are two examples of shooters who’s individual expected goals are nothing special, but are incredible at finding the tiny holes in nets from far out.

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Examining Josh Donaldson’s Trade Value

The fate of Josh Donaldson will be one of the key Blue Jays storylines during the offseason. Donaldson, despite missing over 40 games, he managed to be worth 5 wins above replacement (fWAR). On a Win per plate appearances scale, he would’ve been the ninth most valuable position player (minimum 450 plate appearances). In other words, he’s still one of the best players in the game.

We all know the story. The relatively cheap star who won MVP and has arguably the greatest peak of any Blue Jay. The man who has a very good case for best position player behind Mike Trout.  War Leaders 15-17

Donaldson, however, will be 32 when the season starts, and 33 when his new contract would kick in. The Blue Jays finished with a 76-86 record, the fifth worst in the American League. Both factors make keeping Donaldson for a year tricky business. If you don’t think the Jays have a good shot at the playoffs this year and don’t want to sign him for his services starting at age 33, it would be best to trade him and look to the future.

Offensively, Donaldson was still dynamite with a 149 wRC+, the third best mark of his career. Only 10 hitters had superior park adjusted offence. The biggest red flag was his strikeout rate jumping up to 22.4%. Donaldson hasn’t cracked the 20’s since his limited time in 2012. The big spike occurred in July when he struck out in 29% of plate appearances. The good news is that it’s not an overtly major concern just yet. He posted a swinging strike rate of 10.8% which is slightly above his career average (10.2%). Furthermore, Donaldson’s swing rates at pitches outside the zone remained consistent with his career. It’s something to watch for in 2018. With the bat, Donaldson remains one of the most dangerous sluggers.

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Donaldson ranks 10th in fWAR among Blue Jays Position Players in History

Defensively, it’s a different story. Donaldson’s UZR/150 has been falling for four straight years. Over the past three seasons, Donaldson’s UZR/150 ranks fifth among qualified third baseman (17 players). While that’s good, he entered negative territory in regards to UZR this season. Donaldson might still be a capable fielder at third, it’s clear where he’s headed. He’s almost 32 and defence doesn’t get better with age. DRS tells a similar story. A player who saved 11 runs through defence in 2015, Donaldson didn’t get to half of that in 2016 and 2017 combined. The declining defence suggests he will be a below average defender at third and is likely headed to a 1B/DH role in two to three years.

The question to extend Donaldson is a challenging one. But it really comes down to where one sees the team. Challenging the Yankees and Red Sox for the division title seems like a stretch barring a major acquisition. The Wild Card is the most likely scenario if the Jays plan on competing.

Before digging into his future contract, let’s attempt to approximate how much he is worth now and in the future. There are a few of assumptions.

  • Donaldson is projected to be worth 6.3 Wins Above Replacement based on Steamer Projections.
  • Arbitration Award: $20.7M (MLBTR estimate)
  • Donaldson Will Receive a Qualifying Offer. It’s value will be $10M based on past research of draft picks.
  • Cost of War This Season: $9M
  • Cost of War at Trade Deadline: $18M

JD New value

With $46M in surplus value, Donaldson has considerable value. Before looking into the type of haul he could bring, one must assess how much he is worth at the trade deadline. The trade deadline premium is most likely a real thing and the cost per win is roughly double. Donaldson will have about 2 more Wins to contribute and just under $7M left to be paid.Read More »

Stephen Strasburg’s Incredible Streak and His Best Season

There’s always been an aura of disappointment surrounding Stephen Strasburg. The expectations thrust upon him were gigantic. While he hasn’t ever been in the discussion for best pitcher on the planet, he’s managed to rack up an impressive resume. Strasburg is no disappointment. He’s one of the top pitchers in the game.

Since 2012, Strasburg ranks eighth in fWAR (23.9) sandwiched between Zack Greinke and Jon Lester. Among the 68 pitchers who have managed 750 innings since 2012, he ranks fifth in fWAR per innings pitched.  All things put together, Strasburg has been an elite starting pitcher for many years now. 2017 has been Strasburg at his peak.

Stras ERA - updated

A quick note on ERA- and FIP-. Both are league and park adjusted making it easier to compare pitchers season by season. It is scaled to 100, like wRC+. Each point below or above is 1% better or worse than average respectively. Strasburg has generally been near the 80 ERA- range making him 20% better than the league average pitcher. This mark is similar to Chris Sale, Jacob DeGrom, and Carlos Martinez over the past three seasons. His FIP- has been similar to fellow teammate Max Scherzer and Cleveland ace Corey Kluber.

Stras FIP- Plot

Strasburg hasn’t allowed a run in 34 innings! Despite not being close to Orel Hershiser’s record of 59 innings, it is incredible. Strasburg will likely never have a run this good ever again in his career. We are witnessing Strasburg at his peak. He’s been absolutely terrorizing batters.

The big thing going for Stephen this year is his home run rate. Strasburg’s strikeout and walk rates are excellent and consistent with his career. His batted ball profile remains much the same with a slightly better line drive rate. In seasons where he pitched at least 100 innings, Strasburg has given up a career low 0.75 home run per nine innings (he did have 0.79 in 2013). Historically speaking, Strasburg’s slider has been somewhat homer prone having a 22.2% HR/FB%. His changeup comes in at second (14.5%). Strasburg reduced usage of his slider to help with injury issues. And the change has always been a tough pitch to square up. It’s been absolutely incredible posting a -8 wRC+. Yes you read that right. Negative wRC+!

Stephen Strasburg has the best changeup in baseball. Opposing batters have hit .176 against it in the past three years, the best mark among those who hav

Here it is in slow motion courtesy of The PitcherList.

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Understanding Liam Hendriks Struggles and How He May Improve

After being traded to the Oakland Athletics for Jesse Chavez in the 2015 offseason, some felt Hendricks had an ability to be a very good reliever. He came off a season where he pitched to the tune of a 2.92 ERA and a 2.14 FIP. Hendriks K-BB% was excellent (23%) and almost the same as the one that belonged to Wade Davis (23.1%) that year. There was a chance Hendriks could end up as a relief ace and possibly a good closer. In his two years as a member of the Oakland A’s, Hendriks is struggling with consistency. The elite reliever still lurks however, a positive sign for his future in 2018.

K + BB Since 2015
Hendriks Has A Good K-BB Since 2015

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Christian Yelich, Flyballs, and a New Hope

Christian Yelich is a very good baseball player. Since becoming a full time major leaguer in 2014, Yelich has accumulated 13.8 Wins Above Replacement, good for 35th among qualified hitters. Yelich owns a career 120 wRC+ showing he’s a fine hitter. Yet there has always been a lingering question: Can his bat be even better?

Yelich hits the ball hard. Since 2016, only 10 players have a greater average exit velocity (minimum 2500 pitches seen). More importantly, his 94.3 MPH exit velocity off of flyballs is 25th from the same group. If we add in line drives with flyballs, Yelich, 95.7 MPH exit velocity ranks 17th, sandwiched in between Manny Machado and Yasmany Tomas. Exit velocity is only part of the story though. His launch angle is not ideal. Despite hitting the ball more than a mile harder than sluggers such as Bryce Harper, Michael Conforto, and Anthony Rizzo, Yelich has routinely chosen a groundball based approach. Since the all-star break, we might have gotten another indication of a possible transformation. The prospects are tantalizing. Have always been tantalizing.

Last season Yelich saw his wRC+ rise to 130, the best of his career. This was partly related to him increasing his power level as shown by a .185 ISO, the highest of his career. No doubt like every other batter he was aided by a mysterious force (most likely the ball), but he also had a slight approach change. Yelich hit more flyballs, and so far in 2017, he’s expanded on that. Yelich has the 35th highest (122 players) difference between his 2016 flyball rate and 2017 flyball rate (minimum 350 plate appearances in both seasons). Slowly, Yelich might just be embracing the flyball revolution. This is also seen in his launch angle. In 2016, Yelich’s average launch angle was 2.5 degrees. In 2017, it’s 4.9 degrees, nearly double (more on this later).

Yelich Rolling GB:FB

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