What Is Hector’s Achilles Heel? (and other notes from 7/10/15)

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Hector Santiago was a pitcher that was acquired by the Angels via trade before the 2014 season and the Angels primarily used him as a starting pitcher for the 2014 season, but he more or less proved to be the same type of pitcher that he had been in his couple seasons prior with the White Sox.  He showed that he had a decent left-handed arm that had some strikeout potential but walked a lot of batters and was inefficient with his pitch counts, and he finished the season with a 3.75 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, and 108 K/53 BB in 127.1 IP.

So entering the 2015 season, much of the same was to be expected from Santiago as he opened the season with a spot in the back end of the Angels rotation, but he has surpassed anyone’s expectations.  The Angels starting rotation looked to be in some big trouble this season with Garrett Richards starting the season on the DL, Jered Weaver having extremely diminished velocity, C.J. Wilson coming off a career worst season as a starter, and the 2014 surprise Matt Shoemaker surely unable to repeat his rookie season numbers.  But even with all those question marks with the starting pitching, it would have been hard to predict that Santiago would be the Angels’ best, most consistent and reliable pitcher through the first half of the season.  So we have to acknowledge the fine job that he has done to this point, and with another strong start on Friday at Seattle, Santiago will enter the All-Star break with a 6-4 record, 2.33 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 98 K/34 BB in 108.1 IP.  Unfortunately, there are some red flags for Santiago that call for some regression as we enter the second half of the season, and he may not be quite as fortunate from here on out.

Santiago currently sports the 3rd lowest BABIP among all Major League pitchers at .244.  Santiago’s low BABIP can possibly be substantiated by the fact that he has been the most extreme fly ball pitcher in the entire league this season with a 50.8% fly ball rate.  Fly ball pitchers are more capable of maintaining low BABIP marks due to the fact that fly balls that stay in play are generally easier to record for an out than ground balls, which can go for hits in a number of ways unless it is hit directly at an infielder.  So at first glance, his low BABIP isn’t a terrible issue, but then upon examining his hard hit and soft hit rates, it becomes much more of a question if the low BABIP is something that he can maintain.  Currently, his soft hit rate is the 11th lowest in the league at 15.3% and his hard hit rate is the 8th highest at 33.4%.  What this reflects is that when hitters are making contact against Santiago, they are generally able to avoid hitting it softly and instead they hit it at a medium impact or a hard impact — and of course logic will say that hard hit balls will go for base hits much more often than soft hit balls. So the fact that Santiago has been able to rank so well in BABIP despite being on pace for career worst soft and hard hit rates, it would suggest that he has been rather fortunate.

In Santiago’s favor though is that he has one of the better outfield defenses in the league, much in part to the reigning American League MVP Mike Trout who seems to track down a myriad of fly balls that seemingly few center fielders would be able to get to.  So as I mentioned about the Indians pitchers and how their poor defense grossly affects them in “Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense,” it also works in the opposite way with pitchers who have good defenses backing them.  So because Santiago has Trout and others roaming the outfield behind him, he’s going to get a lot of should-be gappers hit off him that will be caught, which helps keep his BABIP down as a fly ball pitcher.  But even so, he should see some sort of regression in the area if he continues to allow hard contact at such a high rate because even Trout can’t catch them all.

Another thing of note with Santiago is that his 88.9% strand rate is the 2nd highest in the league next to Zack Greinke. That type of strand rate is astronomically high as the league average tends to hover around 72.0% and last year’s highest was Doug Fister at 83.1%.  So Santiago is bound for some regression in this area, especially as a fly ball pitcher.  Fly ball pitchers generally allow more home runs, and home runs obviously clear the bases of all runners so that none of those base runners allowed would count as stranded/left on base.  And indeed, Santiago does allow his fair share of home runs at 1.08 HR/9 this season, which matches his career mark as well.  His career strand rate has been relatively high at 79.8%, so perhaps it is somewhat of a skill, but nonetheless it should begin to regress.  Looking at the other pitchers with a strand rate of 80.0% or higher this season, most of them are ground ball pitchers because pitchers with higher ground ball tendencies are able to induce ground ball double plays to strand runners.

One final caution regarding Santiago is his innings count.  He came up through the White Sox farm system as primarily a relief pitcher, and that is what the White Sox used him as initially when he reached the Majors as well.  So his career high in innings pitched is only 149 set in 2013, but he is currently on pace to finish the season with 203.1 innings pitched.  While it is not as great of concern as his hard hit rate, BABIP, and strand rate, it definitely is something to watch once he surpasses his previous career high.

Something very positive in Santiago’s breakout season thus far is his big improvement in his control, which has led to greater efficiency with his pitches and being able to work deeper into games.  His walk rates from 2012-14 have been 5.12 BB/9, 4.35 BB/9, and 3.75 BB/9.  However, this year he is all the way down to 2.82 BB/9 and is averaging 6.16 IP/start. And the improved walk rate is backed up by a career high first pitch strike rate of 59.3%.  So as long as he can keep getting ahead of hitters in the count, then he should be well on his way to a career best walk rate — it’s just the other things that we need to monitor as Hector’s possible Achilles heel.

Let’s take a look at the rest of Friday’s slate.

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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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Archer Hits the Bullseye (and other notes from 6/2/15)

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Chris Archer of the Rays flashed nice potential since becoming a mainstay in the rotation in 2013, but he has really taken things to a whole new level this season and this Archer keeps on hitting that bullseye each time he toes the rubber every fifth day.  His latest gem was a 15 strikeout performance on the road at Angel Stadium on Tuesday evening to bring his record to 6-4 with a 2.01 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and 92 K/20 BB in 76 IP.

I have been expecting some regression to happen for Archer, but it just isn’t happening and he is looking stronger with each successive start.  A little regression should still be on its way, but Archer is pitching like a true ace and it’s time to examine what has changed from the previous seasons to spark this transformation.

First, we will look at his control.  In 8 seasons of Minor League work, Archer posted a hideous walk rate of 5.00 BB/9, so the natural thought was that this was going to be a large obstacle for him to overcome once he reached the Majors.  Archer got a taste of the Majors at the end of 2012 and then became a mainstay in the Rays rotation in the middle of the 2013 season.  Since he broke into the Majors from 2012 through 2014, his walk rate was not spectacular but it was respectable at 3.13 BB/9, which was a large improvement from his Minor League performance.  This season he has taken his control to a whole new level with at a very good mark of 2.37 BB/9, which can be largely attributed to his new found ability to throw first pitch strikes.  In 2013, Archer threw first pitch strikes 58.1% of the time, and it was very similar in 2014 at 57.5%.  Now this season, he has bumped that all the way up to 64.0% to back up his solid walk rate.

The next thing that has changed for Archer appears in his pitch data.  According to PITCHf/x, the past two seasons he has utilized both a four-seam and a two-seam fastball, but this year he has nearly ditched the two-seamer and is pitching the four-seamer 48.6% of the time.  Also, he is using his slider nearly 10% more than last season at a 37.7% clip so far, and that slider pitch is also 1.5 MPH greater in velocity than last year.  It would also appear that this year Archer’s release point on all of his pitches has been a bit higher.  And with the slider in particular, his release point has been higher and it has also shifted to the right a little (from the catcher’s point a view) so it resembles the release point of his fastball more, which is probably making it very difficult for hitters to pick up what the pitch is when it is coming out of his hand.  Combine this with the greater velocity and the higher usage of the pitch, and it is no surprise that he is generating swinging strikes on the slider 21.9% of the time (compared to 17.3% last year).

One last thing just for kicks, Archer has also been able to induce more ground balls on all his pitches this season.  Overall, his ground ball rate is at 50.3% as opposed to 46.5% last year.  Great control, lots of swinging strikes, and inducing ground balls in bunches — sounds like a recipe for success to me.  You have to expect his ERA to rise some, but it is becoming more and more apparent that Archer’s improvements surely have validity to them and he should go on to finish the 2015 season pitching at a high level.

Now let’s take a look at the rest of Tuesday’s MLB slate…

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DFS Fun! (and other notes from 5/15/15)

DFS is an abbreviation for “daily fantasy sports” and sites that offer DFS have daily tournaments or head-to-head games with the chance to win a pretty penny (or lots of pretty pennies actually).  I’m sure you’ve seen the commercials for the two leaders of the industry, FanDuel and DraftKings.  I signed up for FanDuel years ago when it first became a thing, but I didn’t have much success as it was a different kind of monster to tackle than the season long leagues I was accustomed to.  And it was not until recently that I tried my hand at it again, as I got into it in the second half of this past NFL season.  After doing some research reading various literature about DFS, I’ve gone on to win a NHL freeroll on DraftKings, beating out a few thousand other people to win tickets to the NHL All-Star Weekend, and I have come close to a couple of big scores where I would’ve gotten 1st or 2nd in large tournaments.  In those tournaments, I was choosing between two players to fill one position, but the ones I chose ended up doing nothing and the ones I did not choose did really well and would have won me a lot of money.  DRAT!

Last night on a site called FantasyAces, which is definitely not as big as FanDuel or DraftKings but is still one of the top 5 sites in the industry, I constructed a lineup that did very well and I had the top or second best score in each game I entered (see below).  So the point of me sharing this is not to brag, but to explain what DFS is all about and introduce it to those who are unfamiliar, and to show that winning at DFS is very much possible.  I would highly recommend playing DFS for fantasy gamers out there, as it is a lot of fun (especially when you win!).

But let’s take a look at Friday’s diamond action now.

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