June 27, 2016

Matt Carpenter is something else

by Daniel Conmy

While the Cardinals are nine games out of first place, they are still four games over .500. The Cardinals ability to remain relevant is impressive to say the least. We've seen Jeremy Hazelbaker provide positive value before flaming out and being optioned to Triple-A. Aledmys Diaz, although atrocious defense at short, continues to fire on all cylinders at the plate. These are players that have performed above expectations, but there is one Cardinals player that is seemingly getting better each year and that is Matt Carpenter.

The left-handed hitting infielder has 54 walks to 53 strikeouts and has continued to raise his ISO every year since 2014. What does that tell us? Carpenter has elite control of the strikezone, but now he is damaging pitches farther and at a much higher rate than in years past. Carpenter has a 167 wRC+, which is better than his best mark in 2013 when he posted a 146 wRC+. We cannot assume that Carpenter will keep up his blistering pace, but we can dig into the numbers to see if there is some sustainability to the numbers put forth.

We already noted that Carpenter has elite ability with his understanding of the strikezone. To add to that Carpenter has raised his contact rate inside the zone. Last year, Carpenter hit 87 percent of the balls pitched inside the zone and this year he's raised that number to 92.8 percent. That's quite an uptick within the zone. Outside the zone, he's lowered his rate by a measly 1.5 percent, but every percentage point makes a significant difference over a 162-game season.

Another piece of information to look at before believing the numbers put forth are his splits. It's been noted that there are usually splits between same handedness batter and pitcher. And, yes, Carpenter faces that issue, but he is still 43 percent better than league average when facing a left-handed pitcher.

Now, for my favorite Matt Carpenter piece of information. Carpenter's hard hit percentage has risen while his soft hit percentage has fallen below ten percent. Carpenter now makes hard hit contact on 43.9 percent of the balls he puts in play. While his ground ball, fly ball, and line drive rates have remained seemingly constant over the past couple years, Carpenter is in the top ten in average distance on every batted ball. This is can begin to explain why Carpenter has seen his isolated power improve from .103 in 2014 to .285 in 2016.

While these numbers show extreme improvement from the infielder, this is half a seasons worth of data and plenty of things can change from here until the rest of the season. This is a cautionary note, but with Carpenter's elite contact skills, I see no reason from him slowing down his torrid pace. While all credit should be placed on Carpenter's ability, you have to wonder how the St. Louis Cardinals continue to develop great players deep in their draft classes.

June 21, 2016

Midseason-ish report on Clayton Kershaw

by Daniel Conmy

I must admit that I overvalue the walk a lot, but there is an extreme fascination when it comes to batters walking often or pitchers not walking batters at a high rate. Last season, I talked about some batters and their ability to walk. Today, I will talk about the amazing Clayton Kershaw who really can do no wrong.

Before getting into why Clayton Kershaw is becoming one of the most prolific pitchers in all of history, let's chit chat about a story about how I came to realize my weird obsession with four pitches outside the zone.

Recently at a bar with my friends, I noted that Kershaw walked his seventh batter of the year. One friend, with a lengthy background in baseball understood my reasoning behind such a discussion topic. The other just asked, "Why? It's just a walk." Just a walk? No, this is not just a walk. This is a walk from a pitcher that is on pace for the best WHIP in a single season and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) in history. As I was frantically stating the significance of walking another batter it came to fruition that maybe people just don't care about walks as much as I do. And that's a fair level-headed assumption. I take walks as my holy grail. You cannot give up free passes as a pitcher and as a hitter you should take as many as you can get.

Now, let's jump into the mind-boggling ability of Clayton Kershaw. Before we get too far, let's note that last night was Kershaw's 15th start of the season. That is less than halfway for a pitcher, as aces usually get 33 starts. Barring any injury, we can call this a midseason-ish report because this is clearly going to be very cut and dry as to what to expect for the rest of the season and what he has already done. No, of course not. That is what make projections fun. They are hypothetical marks that a player can get to if they continue on the current trend of the season or can exceed said marks if they continue to get better. Let's get to some number, shall we?

Kershaw is on pace to strikeout 310 batters this year after taking into account his 15th start of the season. Last year Kershaw amassed 301 strikeouts, the first time someone did that since 2002 when Randy Johnson struck out 334. To go along with that, Kershaw is on pace to have the second best field-independent pitching (FIP) numbers since Pedro Martinez's historic 1999 season. After giving up six hits in seven innings against the Washington Nationals, Kershaw raised his walks/hits per inning (WHIP) to .67, which is still better than the best mark by Pedro Martinez. Although these are all incredible numbers, we haven't even begun to discuss my favorite fun fact with this superstar from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Clayton Kershaw has walked seven people all year in 115 innings pitched. That's unimaginable. Even the best pitchers walk people, right? Well Clayton Kershaw did not get the memo. His walk rate is down to 1.7 percent. It is improbable that Kershaw continues to get better, yet nothing should amaze us at this point.

To go along with the amazing walk rate, Kershaw also is absolutely shattering the strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) single-season record with a mark of 20.14 strikeouts to one walk. The next closest pitcher was Phil Hughes who recently broke the record with a 11.63 clip. Kershaw would have to walk the next five batters without recording a strikeout to get to an 11.75 mark.

These are numbers that have conceivably been the result of a change in Kershaw's pitching style. So, did Kershaw change anything this year from his last historic season that can make sense of these jumps to even higher praise? Well, Kershaw is using his slider more often. The Dodger ace is throwing his slider a third of the time. Every year we've seen a slight increase in Kershaw's sliders except for a small dip in 2015. Obviously this trend will not continue and will plateau eventually, but the slider has been such a weapon, that if it is used more, it can lead to more and more strikeouts. We recently saw Matt Shoemaker throw his splitter more frequently, which led to incredible results. Could Kershaw be doing that same incremental increase with his slider? Possibly, but one thing Kershaw can keep constant is the armslot where he delivers his pitches.

From this chart, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, we see very small variations in Kershaw's vertical release point for every pitch from 2007 to 2016. While his horizontal release point has changed a significant amount, all pitches - fastball, slider, curveball - come from the same location no matter the horizontal change. Of course, you have to give or take a few inches with each of these numbers, but can a major league player adjust that quickly and spot the error when Kershaw throws a fastball or when he throws a slider? No player has consistently figured out Clayton Kershaw and that's why is brilliance still remains.

June 18, 2016

Max Scherzer and Home Runs

by Daniel Conmy

On my trip across the country to Illinois, I discovered something that I wish came into my life sooner. I found podcasts. Yes, podcasts. Podcasts are where two people talk about a certain topic that varies from 30 minutes to multiple hours. My topics of choice are baseball and baseball. Surprise, right? Well if you are a fanatic like I am, then I recommend Effectively Wild with Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, Statcast Podcast with Mike Petriello, and Fangraphs podcast with Carson Cistulli and a plethora of guests. Now, you might not understand how this piece is about Max Scherzer just yet, and really I don’t know either. All I know is Scherzer has given up plenty of home runs this year. We will look at his career numbers and his season numbers if we can see any discernible change from past years.

First off, Scherzer has given up 17 home runs before play on June 18. He gave up 27 home runs all last year. So is we extrapolate those numbers for a full season, Scherzer would give up 40 (!) home runs. That would place him tied for 13th most in all of Major League Baseball (MLB) history. That is an absurd amount of home runs. 

Scherzer absolutely loves his fastball. I don’t blame him. With an average velocity of 94.2 mph, he is able to challenge plenty of hitters and beat him on that pitch. Although he challenges and wins often, Scherzer is on pace to give up 21 home runs on fastballs, most since 2011. This is definitely a concern, but when looking at heat maps from 2014, where Scherzer only gave up nine home runs, and 2016, there is no noticeable difference between where Scherzer throws his fastball. Arguably, Scherzer was better in 2014 with throwing inside off the plate than he is this year. Maybe that is where Scherzer needs to adjust. If fastballs leak over the middle of the plate, big league hitters are more than capable hitting them over the fence. 

That's not the only place where the Nationals ace has struggled. Scherzer tied his career-high of home runs given up on sliders through 14 starts, tying his total in 2011. There are plenty of reasons for this, one easily could be that Scherzer is not locating his slider. In 2016, Scherzer is throwing many of his sliders over the outside corner to right handed batters. This would be fine, but the majority of his sliders are leaking up in the zone and over the middle of the plate. This is a very similar situation to what we saw on his fastballs. 

Overall, Scherzer is still striking out the opposition at a rate higher than 30 percent, which is definitely elite. There is a slight uptick of home runs per fly ball compared to last year (10.5 percent in 2015 and 16.5 percent in 2016). Also, the Nationals star is walking batters at a 6.7 percent clip compared to a 3.8 percent clip last year. With all those numbers, Scherzer can easily make a small change and continue to be one of the most successful pitchers in the game. He can start this change by facing off against a light hitting Padres team tonight at Petco Park.

There is no real reason to be concerned with Scherzer when looking at his underlying numbers, but it is interesting note that a lack of fastball and slider command has led to a higher walk rate and home run rate. Scherzer will continue to strike out batter after batter, but can he sustain being elite with less control?

June 10, 2016

Cody Allen vs. The Mariners

by Daniel Conmy

Last night, the Mariners had the chance for a walk-off home run against Cody Allen, the Cleveland Indians closer. While the term "closer" is not necessary, we signify Allen as the best reliever on the Indians at this time, or at least that is what Terry Francona thinks. We should not be arguing whether or not Allen is an elite reliever, but more of his ability in the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners. To set the stage, Cody Allen came in with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth and induced a weak ground ball to the second basemen. That concluded the eighth inning.

In the ninth inning, Allen started the inning against Chris Iannetta, Dae Ho Lee, and Nori Aoki. The first at-bat will help set the stage for the rest the inning. Iannetta recently clobbered two home runs in yesterday's game. While recent success is not proven to breed further success, Allen came in with a two-run lead, which gave him the ability to take a chance against Iannetta.

As you seen in the strikezone plot, supplied by Brooks Baseball, Cody Allen tried to work away and down, but his first and fifth pitched leaked over the middle of the plate. Iannetta took the 3-1 offering and scorched a ball to the hole between the third basemen and shortstop. The ball was hit at 97 mph, which usually becomes a hit, but Jose Ramirez, the Indians third basemen made a fine play on the ball. 

That is not an easy play to make and with the slower runner in Iannetta, Ramirez took his time and threw him out with time to spare. The Indians fan appreciated the effort put forth by Ramirez, and I am sure Allen did as well. One out.

Now, Dae Ho Lee is facing off against Allen. Allen starts Lee off with a curveball in the dirt, not the best pitch as you want to obviously start ahead in the count. Allen then proceeds to throw five fastballs in a row, most on the outside corner, but one leaking on the inside half for a ball. Lee struck out on the high fastball. Two out.

Up next, Nori Aoki. Aoki saw two fastballs and smacked the second one up the middle at 97 mph for a single. Two outs, one on. 

Seth Smith stood in the left-handed batters box to face off against Allen. Surprisingly, Cody Allen has reverse splits throughout his career. That means right-handed hitters (.297 wOBA) hit Allen harder than left-handed hitters (.261 wOBA). Aoki does not have significant splits when facing a right handed batter or left handed batter, but Seth Smith has immense splits (63 wRC+ vs. LH and 123 wRC+ against RH). With that noted, Allen starts off Smith with two fastballs on the outside corner, which Smith fouls back. Then Allen comes back with a curveball not placed where he would like for an 0-2 count. Allen throws the curveball over the middle of the plate and Smith hits a line drive into center field. Two out, men at the corners.

Robinson Cano earlier in the game hit two home runs, one coming just the inning before. There is one open base at second and the hitter on-deck is Nelson Cruz. Now as a closer, you trust that your best stuff can beat the opposing teams best stuff, and here we find if that's the case.

We've noted that Allen does not have significant splits when pitching to a right-handed hitter or a left-handed hitter, but Robinson Cano does (137 wRC+ vs. RH and 109 wRC+ vs. LH). He is above league average against both lefties and righties, but certainly hits better against right-handed pitchers. Also, we've seen Allen throw a 12-6 curveball, which helps neutralize any splits when facing a different handed batter. Cano takes the first pitch for a ball high and away. Allen proceeds to throw three more fastballs, one which hits the outside corner, 3-1. This is where Allen does not want to challenge. This is often called a "hitters count" because the hitter can zone in on one certain pitch. What does Allen do? Below, we can see he throws a perfect curveball on the outside corner of the plate for strike two, 3-2.

This chance, this is what you dream about as a kid. Being in a spot where you can hit the game-winning walk-off home run. The Mariners are down by two runs and Robinson Cano, arguably the best batter in their lineup is ready for a 3-2 delivery from Allen. What does Allen do? 

Allen throws the pitch exactly where he should; in the dirt. Three outs, game over.

It is the perfect pitch location for an aggressive hitter who has the ability to hit the ball out of the ball park. Allen was not perfect in this inning by any means, but the last two pitches thrown show his ability to come up in a big spot. Earlier in the inning the same two-strike curveball was left over the middle of the plate. Allen was inconsistent with his placement of the curveball throughout the inning, but he threw the last pitch exactly where no damage could be done. For the Mariners it was a difficult loss, as they see the Rangers lengthened their lead and for the Indians it is a win that keeps them in a four-team race in the AL Central. While this game is only a blip in all 162 games, all of them matter.