When the Hard Hit Rates Don’t Match the BABIP (and other notes from 6/29/15)

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Clay Buchholz of the Red Sox kept the bats of a powerful Blue Jays offense in check all evening on Monday and he defeated them by posting a line of 8 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 5 K.  He improved to 6-6 with a 3.48 ERA and 1.24 WHIP with both healthy strikeout and walk rates (8.55 K/9, 2.05 BB/9).  Buchholz’ issue this season is that he has the occasional blow up game to cancel out some of the great work that he does.  And as I said after his last start, if he can receive some better fortune then he could have better looking stats.  It’s probably too late now, but he would have been in a position to be the Red Sox All-Star representative if he had some better luck up to this point.  To see how Buchholz is sitting on the wrong side of things, we look at league stats for pitchers hard hit rate and BABIP.

Hard hit rate is a statistic that is becoming more prevalent in the conversation in the performance of players, similar to the way that BABIP (batting average on balls in play) did several years ago.  Hard hit rate is just what it sounds like — it is the rate at which a ball is hit at a “hard” impact and it can be used for evaluating both hitters and pitchers alike.  For hitters, the harder a ball is hit, the more that it shows that they are squaring up the ball with good contact and the greater likelihood of a hit and positive offensive production.  For pitchers, the harder the ball is hit against them would suggest that they are more likely to have poor results, giving up more hits and runs.  BABIP for hitters is the rate at which balls that are put in play (i.e. any official at-bat that does not result in a home run or strikeout) go for hits.  For pitchers, BABIP is the rate at which they allow hits on balls that are playable by a defense.

So using the stats provided by FanGraphs, looking at the top 15 in lowest hard hit rate for pitchers entering June 30, 2015, we find Buchholz come in at the 11th lowest with 23.9%.  So with a pretty low hard hit rate, we would expect that Buchholz would have a pretty low BABIP or at least around the league average in BABIP, which is generally somewhere around .300. But it is the exact opposite that we are seeing from the Red Sox righty.  Buchholz actually has the 12th highest BABIP at .332.  So the fact that he has been one of the better pitchers in limiting hard contact but has one of the higher BABIP marks in the league would suggest one of two things (or both): 1.) Poor defense behind him  2.) Lots of bad luck

So now we turn to defensive statistics, yet again on FanGraphs, to see what the Red Sox defense has been doing this season.  They come in below the league midpoint in DEF (defense rating) and UZR (ultimate zone rating), but they are not ranked too low in either — 17th in DEF at 0.3 and 19th in UZR at -6.4 — so they can more or less be classified as a league average defensive team as opposed to a poor defensive team.  Because of this, we would have to lean towards attributing Buchholz’ contradictory hard hit rate and BABIP to bad luck, and it can further be shown in the fact that his xFIP of 3.19 and SIERA of 3.22 sit a bit lower than his 3.48 ERA.  As we approach the season’s official 81-games played halfway point (the All-Star break is commonly given the misnomer as the halfway point), Buchholz could be in for some better times if he keeps pitching at the level that he is (or better) and receives some added luck on his side.

Using this same method, there are a few other pitchers whose hard hit rates don’t match up with their BABIP.  Let’s take a look at the following:

  • Gio Gonzalez – .354 BABIP (2nd highest), 25.6% hard hit (21st lowest) / Nationals: -8.7 DEF (22nd), -10.7 UZR (22nd)
  • Tyson Ross – .346 BABIP (5th highest), 24.1% hard hit (13th lowest) / Padres -31.6 DEF (29th), -34.6 UZR (29th)
  • Jose Quintana – .335 BABIP (10th highest), 24.7% hard hit (15th lowest) / White Sox: -37.6 DEF (30th), -34.6 UZR (30th)
  • Jeff Samardzija – .329 BABIP (16th highest), 26.1% hard hit (24th lowest) / White Sox: -37.6 DEF (30th), -34.6 UZR (30th)
  • Mike Pelfrey – .315 BABIP (29th highest), 20.5% hard hit (1st lowest) / Twins: -6.2 DEF (19th), -4.2 UZR (18th)

Gonzalez comes up ten thousandths of a point shy of having the highest BABIP in all of the Majors (Nate Eovaldi currently has the highest), but he isn’t getting hit all that hard.  However, his Nationals defense has been pretty bad.  I would expect some regression here just given how high his BABIP is, but with the poor defense and career high line drive and ground ball rates, it’s not necessarily all bad luck that he is receiving.

Moving on to Ross, I talked about bad defenses and how they can affect pitchers in “Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense,” and his defense has been the second worst in all of baseball.  So while he should improve some, his 62.8% ground ball rate is not conducive for the poor infield defense that he has behind him and things may not get too much better.

Then both Quintana and Samardzija pitch in front of the league’s absolute worst defense (also mentioned in “Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense”), so it is no surprise that we see them appear in this statistical review.  Like with Ross, some improvement should be seen, but if the White Sox keep deploying the same defensive players and strategy then it might be tough sledding for them to show drastic improvements in their overall stats.

Then there is Pelfrey who got obliterated for the second time in four starts on Monday to give him a much uglier stat line and to push him up the BABIP charts a lot.  He’s more in the same boat as Buchholz with a mediocre defense rather than a poor one.  So he could see some better days, but because of his minimal strikeout appeal, he is not a great fantasy target to begin with.  But with some better luck, he can provide decently in ERA.

Something interesting though that all six of the aforementioned pitchers have in common is that they all appear in the top 21 highest medium hit rates.  So while they may not be allowing a lot of hard hit balls, they all give up a lot of medium hit ones.  So perhaps it is these medium hit balls that these average or below average defenses are struggling to defend due to either poor range or misguided defensive alignments.  Nonetheless, I would still expect Buchholz to have some better days ahead of him if he continues to pitch at the level he has been.

Let’s now look at the remainder of Monday’s action!

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D.J. LeMahieu Spins the Hits (and other notes from 6/8/15)

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Move over Afrojack, Skrillex, Calvin Harris, and Deadmau5.  There’s a hot new French D.J. in town based out of Denver, Colorado by the name of LeMahieu, and he’s here to drop some sick beats and the illest remixes that will bring all the ladies to the club.

Actually, not really.  D.J. LeMahieu is not really a music D.J.  Instead, he is the second baseman for the Colorado Rockies who is most well known for his glove work on the defensive side of the ball, but this season he has been laying down the beat by spinning the hits game after game.  His latest “mash-up,” if you will, came on Monday when he went 3 for 5 with an RBI and 2 runs scored, and he is now slashing .342/.394/.439 with 3 HR, 28 RBI, 27 R, and 5 SB.

LeMahieu began the season hitting 8th for the Rockies, but has since worked his way up to be the regular 2-hole hitter.  The move up in the order likely has something to do with the fact that the Rockies have had to deal with injuries to Corey Dickerson and Justin Morneau, and slumping performances from Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, but LeMahieu has surely earned it.

LeMahieu’s .342 AVG is being supported by a high .403 BABIP, but he did come into the season with a career BABIP over .330 and he does call Coors Field his home.  So while the BABIP over .400 is not sustainable, he still should be able to post a higher than average clip, especially given the way that he is hitting line drives at 29.2% of the time for 4th highest mark in the league, and how he is avoiding soft contact with the ball at 10.4% for the 10th lowest in the league.  He is one of four players to appear in the top 10 in each of those categories (Brandon BeltJason Kipnis, and Freddie Freeman are the others).

What is also encouraging about LeMahieu is that even though his home stadium is Coors Field in the thin air of Denver, he has been hitting well on the road as well despite being a much better home hitter in his previous Major League seasons.  So far he has posted a home triple slash line of .358/.414/.472 and a very respectable road line of .322/.371/.400.  Also in his favor is that he has traditionally been better against same-handed pitching, which is right-handed for him, and since the majority of the pitchers in the league are right-handed, he has a bit of an edge there.  He is hitting .356/.396/.483 versus righties this season.  Furthermore, LeMahieu is spraying the ball to all parts of the field, which displays his maturation as a hitter and gives even more reason to believe that he can remain a .300 hitter for the first time in his career.  His pull % has dipped from 28.1% last year to 19.6% this year.

However, something that has been a bit disappointing from LeMahieu in his time in the Majors is his lack of power.  Whenever I watch him play, he looks like a pretty monstrous sized player, especially for a second baseman, and I wonder how he does not have better power at the plate.  He stands at 6’4″ and 205 lbs. so he’s surely got a big frame that I would imagine can have more power.  LeMahieu will soon be 27 and with that size I think that he should have some double digit HR seasons in him as he enters his prime.  Maybe it won’t be this year, maybe it will, but it’s quite the wonder how his previous season high at any professional level has only been 5 HR.

In the speed department, LeMahieu has the upside to reach 20 SB.  In 2013, he stole 8 bases at AAA in 33 games and he stole 18 bases at the Major League level in 109 games, so the speed is there.  However, last year in a full season playing 149 games for the Rockies, he only swiped 10 bags.  But getting more hits like he has been this year to be on base more should open up more opportunities for him to steal bases.  Maybe he doesn’t get to 20, but 15 is well within reach.

So with all this being said, I feel that LeMahieu is an underrated fantasy option, which feels a bit weird to say for any Rockies hitter because usually the Rockies hitters get more than enough love for the favorable home park advantage.  But since LeMahieu has not done much in his previous three seasons with the Rockies, not a whole lot was expected of him in 2015.  But with these improvements that he is showing, he needs to be given much better fantasy consideration, especially if he continues to hit second in the Rockies lineup.  Hitting second for the Rockies makes his run potential very high without limiting his RBI and SB chances a whole lot.  It really is the ideal spot for him.  Oh, and of course the Coors Field factor doesn’t hurt his cause.

For the rest of the season from June 9 onward, I will give him the line of:  .295 AVG, 5 HR, 38 RBI, 54 R, 10 SB, 67 K, 27 BB in 380 AB

Let’s check out the rest of Monday’s action!

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Last Call on Carson Smith (and other notes from 6/6/15)

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After being scored upon in 9 of his last 13 appearances and collecting 2 blown saves and 2 losses in the process,  Fernando Rodney was not the arm called upon on Saturday evening to protect a lead in the 9th inning for the Mariners.  Instead, manager Lloyd McClendon turned to the youngster Carson Smith who had no issues with a clean inning of work with one strikeout to earn the first save of his career.

I have been singing this tune for weeks now as reported in detail on May 23 in “BLOW-PEN Report:  Fernando Rodney and His Broken Arrow,” and even before that I issued some tidbits on the situation.  Rodney just has been horrible this season and it was only a matter of time before Smith was given a chance to close out a game.  However, unlike the situations in Miami and Texas that I also reported on in the BLOW-PEN Report before those closer situations changed, I think that Rodney will get a chance to try and prove himself again.  The fact that McClendon stuck with Rodney for so long in his time of struggle suggests to me that he really prefers Rodney as his closer and/or does not think that Smith is prepared to be thrusted into that role full-time in just his first full season in the Majors.  And as I suggested in the BLOW-PEN Report, it could be a case of Rodney tipping his pitches, which is something that would be fixable if that’s what the ultimate issue is.  But whether or not Rodney does work out the kinks to earn his manager’s trust back is certainly far from likelihood.

For now, I think that Rodney will see one of the next save opportunities and if he does well then he will continue to see more until he blows another.  But obviously Smith needs to be picked up in all league formats as he has very dominant stuff to be very successful as a Major League closer.  If not right now, then Smith should assume the role as closer for the Mariners later this summer when Rodney could possibly get traded if the Mariners are not in contention, or the beginning of next year.  So for keeper and dynasty leagues, he should have been grabbed a while ago.

Smith currently has a 1.08 ERA, 0.68 WHIP, and 29 K/5 BB in 25 IP.

Let’s check out the rest of Saturday’s slate.
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Tex Marks the Spot (and other notes from 6/1/15)

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Landing on the DL in each of the last 3 seasons, which includes missing all but 15 games in the 2013 season, Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira was all but an afterthought in fantasy drafts this season and overlooked by many, including myself.  But he is showing an immense amount in his on-field performance to earn the $22.5 million that he’s due this season.  So after hitting a grand slam off Felix Hernandez on Monday, Tex is now hitting .241 with 15 HR, 39 RBI, 26 R, and 1 SB, but should he be expected to keep up this type of performance?

From 2003-09, Tex hit for over a .300 AVG in three seasons and compiled a .290 AVG over the whole time frame.  With that type of ability to hit for AVG combined with the 35 HR per season on average that he posted in that same period, he had firmly established himself as one of the best hitters of the decade.  But once 2010 came around, his ability to hit for a good AVG took a turn for the worse as teams began to collect and use different types of data more to their advantage.  Tex became just one of many sluggers who became greatly impacted by the increased implementation of defensive shifts by teams all around the league.  So gone were the days of hitting .290-.300.  From 2010-14, Tex hit for a rather paltry .242 AVG as he also began to pull the ball into the shift and fly out a lot more.

However, something that never really evaporated was his ability to go yard.  Over the last three seasons, his power has been sapped a bit as he only homered once every 19.27 AB, opposed to once every 16.60 AB from 2003-11.  Also, his ISO fell below .200 for the first time in his career in 2012 and 2013.  But this slight loss in power can largely be chalked up to the injuries that he dealt with.  The main injury that plagued his performance was a wrist injury that began as inflammation during the 2012 season and it carried over to 2013 before worsening to the point where he needed to have season-ending surgery to repair it.  While the wrist injury wasn’t what sidelined him in 2014, it surely had to have been something that affected his swing.

This season he is showing himself as healthy as ever, appearing in 49 of the Yankees 52 games so far.  And other than the low AVG, which should be a continuous occurrence because of his inability to hit around the defensive shifts, Tex is a better hitter than ever.  The power is incredibly off the charts with a current .325 ISO, which is well beyond his career high of .279 from his 2004 sophomore season.  But what might be even more impressive is the locked in and refined approach at the plate he appears to have.  Tex is 1 of 8 players in the Majors who currently has more walks than strikeouts, and at a 14.9 BB% and 13.4 K%, he is on pace for career bests in both categories.

One could point to his average distance on his HR + fly balls is only 279 feet compared to 294 feet last season (according to Baseball Heat Maps) and believe that perhaps this rebound in his HR total is a bit of a mirage.  But the ESPN Home Run Tracker shows that only 2 of his 15 HR this year are categorized as “just enough,” as in having just enough distance to clear the fence.  So I wouldn’t worry a whole lot about the average distance since most of his HR are clearing the fence by more than enough — it’s just the fly balls that have stayed in the park that are bringing his average distance down.

There can always be some sort of injury that comes up, but with the wrist appearing to be fully healed and his excellent plate approach and discipline, I remain optimistic for Teixeira to remain productive and a fantasy asset the rest of the season.  I will give him the rest of the season line of (from June 2 onward):   .242 AVG, 21 HR, 68 RBI, 52 R, 1 SB, 54 BB, 70 K

Let’s see what else Monday baseball brought to us…

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Familia-rize Yourself With Jeurys (and other notes from 5/25/15)

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Jeurys Familia took on the role of closer for the Mets early on in the season when Jenrry Mejia went down with an elbow injury and then was suspended for 80 games for PED use.  Mejia being injured and subsequently suspended has turned out to be a real blessing in disguise for the Mets because Familia has stepped right in to exceed most likely anyone’s expectations.  With another perfect inning with 2 strikeouts on Monday to close out the Phillies, Familia now owns a 1.60 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, and 26 K/4 BB in 21.1 IP while converting 14 of 15 save opportunities.  But just who is Jeurys Familia?  Let’s take this time to “Familia”-rize ourselves with the 25-year old hard-throwing righty.

Familia has been in the Mets organization since 2008 and through the 2012 season he was brought up as a starting pitcher, but he posted modest numbers in that role (3.85 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 8.62 K/9, 3.95 BB/9).  Familia received his first taste of the Majors as a September call up in the 2012 season, but he was very ineffective in 8 relief appearances and one spot start.

Familia was able to break camp on the opening day roster as a reliever for the Mets in 2013, but once again he failed to impress because of extremely poor control, something that he also struggled with as a starting pitcher in the Minors.  And also in 2013, he underwent elbow surgery to remove bone spurs and that sidelined him for 4 months before he worked his way back to make one final appearance before the season ended.

For the 2014 season, Familia once again found himself working in the Mets bullpen as that apparently was where they saw him best suited long term.  Familia went on to post some quality numbers with a 2.21 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.50 K/9, and 3.75 BB/9 in 77.1 IP while also chipping in 5 saves filling in at closer when needed.  His SIERA at 3.21 was a full run higher than his ERA, but the improvements that he showed all across the board were encouraging.

So that brings us to 2015, where despite a relatively spotty track record, Familia has by no means “lucked” his way into the brilliant performance he has given.  His walk rate of 1.72 BB/9 is considerably lower than any rate he has posted in the past, but he is achieving that by getting ahead in the count a lot more often than he has in the past.  From 2012-14, Familia’s first pitch strike percentages were 42.3%, 51.9%, and 52.8%, but this year he is all the way up to 58.2% and obviously it is a lot easier to prevent free passes if a pitcher is getting ahead in the count early and often.

And how about that strikeout rate of 10.97 K/9?  That is also a much higher number than he’s accustomed to, but the improvement is for real.  Familia uses a four-seam fastball, a sinking fastball, and a slider.  It is his slider that has really taken his game to the next level this year as he is getting a little bit different movement and greater velocity on the pitch this year.  In the past it has been a pitch that averaged 86.1 MPH and has fallen out of the strike zone a lot, often times not getting close to the zone which made it easier for hitters to lay off of it.  But this year, he is averaging 88.6 MPH on the pitch and it’s staying higher with a little less horizontal movement, and he is able to effectively throw it in or much closer to the zone to get hitters to swing and miss on it.  With a 31.0% swinging strike rate on his slider this year (compared to 26.4% last year), Familia’s slider has become one of the better ones in the game.  Overall, Familia has an 18.2% swinging strike rate on all his pitches, which is 5th highest among qualified relievers.

His .191 BABIP is a low mark and he will likely see some regression there, but his overall performance is right in line with what the metric systems suggest it would be, as his 1.71 SIERA is not far off from his 1.60 ERA.  So if you were worried about Familia not being able to keep up his amazing performance, this all should ease your worries a bit.

Now let’s take a look at the rest of Memorial Day’s action!

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Hitters Feasting on Some Strasburgers (and other notes from 5/12/15)

Stephen Strasburg pitched at Arizona on Tuesday night and was handed a beat down in one of the worst outings of his career as he only lasted 3.1 IP while allowing 8 runs (7 ER).  On the season, Strasburg is now 2-4 with a 6.06 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, and 35 K/11 BB in 35.2 IP.

I am not sure what exactly is the cause of his putrid performance, but clearly he isn’t doing much right.  Strasburg did leave his previous start with some shoulder irritation, so maybe that played a part in Tuesday’s nightmare, but he hadn’t exactly been sharp in his 6 starts before Tuesday either.  Yeah, he has an incredibly high .398 BABIP and a horrible 60.2% strand rate, but there comes a point where you examine things and just have to say that perhaps he is creating his own bad luck.

There’s not much in his velocity or pitch selection that jumps out in a negative light, besides the fact that his velocity on his fastball has been down 0.4 MPH from last year, but that’s not that great of a difference to think that it is the primary factor in his awful season thus far.  But examining his plate discipline numbers, there are a few stats that stand out (the following stats do not include data from Tuesday night’s game).  First, hitters have been making contact off Strasburg at a rate (84.3%) that is way higher than his career rate (75.9%).  Coincidentally, Strasburg also has been inducing swinging strikes at a rate (7.0%) that is much lower than his career rate (10.9%).  Next, Strasburg is throwing pitches in the strike zone way more than usual (54.2% this year vs. 45.3% career).  And then Strasburg is getting much fewer swings on pitches out of the zone (28.0% this year vs. 32.8% career) and when hitters are swinging on pitches out of the zone, they are making contact on them a lot (73.2% this year vs. 60.0% career).  To me, all this data would suggest that he is creating his own bad luck by just grooving a lot of pitches that batters can easily handle since he is working within the strike zone so much more than he has in the past.  The plummeting swinging strike rate though is a big concern and possibly could be indicative of just losing his stuff so to speak.

Another possible explanation could be he has been pitching with an injury all along, even before the previous start that he left with shoulder irritation.  A possible injury could cause loss of command of pitches, which leads to the pitch grooving.  Also remember that Strasburg did undergo Tommy John surgery in August of 2010, and somewhere I read that the average threshold for a pitcher to have to undergo Tommy John surgery a second time is around 650 innings pitched.  Now I am not sure where I read that or what statistical analysis was used to back up that claim, but I know that I did read it.  So if we want to believe that, Strasburg has now pitched 637.1 innings since his Tommy John surgery.  Perhaps he is due for another surgery, or perhaps it is something else.  Either way, something is not right for Strasburg and he could be in for a long season.

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