The Jay Land (With apologies to T.S. Eliot)
APRIL is the cruellest month, losing
Games out on the cold land, freezing
Ligaments and desire, whiffing
Dead bats causing spring pain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
T.O. in forgetful snow, feeding
Too much hope with press releases.
The offseason surprised us, coming towards the ‘dome
With a shower of money; we stopped in the blizzards,
And went on in sunlight, into the beer garden,
And drank pitchers, and talked for hours.
Buehrle, Johnson, Reyes, Dickey, Cabrera, it is done!
And when we were children, listening on the radio,
My friend’s, he took me out for some hacks,
And I was terrible. He said, Jon,
Jon, swing more softly. And out it went.
In the fields, there you feel free.
I read, much of the season, and go to Cuba in the winter.
A quick post-mortem (literally) on Dickey’s start last night…remember from last post how sitting consistently around 79 mph was one of the keys to his Cy? Here’s a graph of his velocity (all types of pitches) from one of his stellar starts – a 12K one-hitter against the Rays as an example of how he’s throwing when at his best. Except for fastballs and at the very end of the game, Dickey threw over 80% of his knucklers in the 78-80 mph range back then:
And now here’s the same thing for him last night:
Not so much. It’s hard to tell, but it almost looks like he’s gone back to the ‘slower’ version of his knuckler that he for the most part ditched last season. Dickey also threw more fastballs than usual, including two that left the yard off the bat of Will Middlebrooks. The first time, Dickey seemed frustrated after allowing 4 consecutive hits to start the game, and put it on a tee for him on the first pitch — perfectly down the middle, straight as a board, letter high, 84 mph. Surprise value kinda goes out the window when you throw a meatball like that.
The second time, Dickey fell behind 3-0 on knuckleballs and then threw three fastballs in a row: 1) Called strike, 2) swinging strike 3) giant bomb on exactly the same pitch as in the first inning. I kind of get it if Dickey wasn’t feeling the knuckleball anyway, but seems like an odd call. Middlebrooks, again, was not so surprised.
Incidentally, I was in the first row behind the VIP section for that debacle (the best seat I have ever had and most likely ever will) and Dickey’s knuckle looked awesome as he warmed up between innings. He threw a half-dozen wicked darters for strikes that made me gasp, but once the cameras were on seemed to have trouble finding the plate with anything other than the slower, tumbling variety.
To make a long story short, as soon as R.A. Dickey was acquired this offseason I set off to write the definitive work on why he was so great last year and what to expect in this one, and completely and utterly failed. It turns out quantifying and/or predicting the evolution of that damn pitch is just about as hard as hitting, calling, or catching it…I mean, let’s face it — the man has discovered a pitch that nobody has ever thrown before which makes him great at an age that nobody has ever become great. There is simply no comparison, no career arc, no regression to the freaking mean. And if you saw any of his shutouts last year, it was clearly not a sample size or once-around-the-league-with-a-new-pitch type of thing.
Ah well…not that anybody made any solid predictions as to where his numbers were going to wind up this year on the spectrum running from a) pretty decent as he has been for most of his late career through b) Cy Young winner as he was last season, all the way over to c) best-ever-what-the-heck-is-even-going-on-who-gave-this-guy-the-cheat-codes-to-baseball that he was for about a month in June.
And I did make some pretty graphs as I floundered about. Here’s a nice one, about the speed of his knucklers last year (red) compared to his previous seasons (blue):
Averages can be misleading…Dickey actually threw fewer knucklers over 80 mph last season than in the previous two — but he used to throw two slightly different knucklers, one in the low 70’s, and one in the high, and then started to favour his harder one heavily last year. Here it also looks like he managed to bunch up his fast knuckler at the top of his range (without overthrowing it) much more often as well.
Annnnd this next one might shed some light on why that is the case:
There’s probably a better way to show this than bar graphs, but before last year, Dickey could only get his slower knuckle over the plate for strikes consistently. 50% is kind of a magic number for me in terms of first pitch strikes, fastball strike %, etc…anything below it is either trouble or a chase pitch. The fact that Dickey was able last year to throw his 74-78 mph knucklers in the zone more often than not has to have been a huge factor in his instant success — it makes his strikeout pitch the same as his get-me-over pitch. And even when it wasn’t over the plate it was getting more strikes — it’s no big surprise that hitters miss Dickey’s knuckler more the faster it is — but they also swing at it more often.
|Speed||In Zone %||Swing||Miss %||Chase %|
|Under 75 mph||53||25||40||15|
Now here’s where I got kind of lost…Dickey throws harder knucklers on 0-2, 1-2 counts, and although side-to-side movement on a knuckler is basically random, his harder ones do tend to stay ‘up’ more. Here is a chart of movement, with pfx from side to side and pfz the vertical ‘rise’ on his knucklers compared to gravity.
|Under 75 mph||-1.03||-0.26|
So while the movement on his pitches is random, you could say that R.A. has some control over his knuckler in that he locates with softer ones and then puts hitters away with his hard ones — but last year, he just threw them all hard and in the zone and was incredibly effective as a result.
Also, Dickey’s knucklers that veer up and away from right-handed batters are by far his most effective – not entirely surprising, since that is the the only pitch movement that is totally unique, and not replicating the general movement of either a curve/slider (down and away), changeup/2-seamer (down and it) or 4-seamer (‘up’ and in). The only other pitch that sort of does that is Mariano Rivera’s cutter, or the Doc’s at his best — they travel almost exactly side to side instead of like a semi-slider.
|R.A. Dickey Knucklers by direction|
|Dominant Movement||In Zone %||Miss %||Swing %||Strike %||Hit %|
|Up left (into RHB)||0.50||0.33||0.30||0.43||0.0600|
|Up right (away from RHB)||0.47||0.49||0.29||0.49||0.0427|
Hitters swing through them almost twice as often as ones that sink down and in, and get fewer hits when they do make contact. Especially from the television perspective, it’s a strange thing to get used to — his best pitches are the ones that stay up and over the plate, which for most other pitches is a sign of a mistake. Coming off a start where he didn’t have the greatest control it will be interesting to see if he goes back to his slower knuckler to try to get more strikes until he can consistently locate the hard one that won him the Cy.
Seeing that I don’t even have the time to wrap up the rather interesting stuff that I’ve been working on for months, I think this blog is just going to become a depository for completely ridiculous statistical statements this season, as was its original intention. So here weeee goooooo! Arash Madani, are you freaking kidding me?
Anthony Gose’s ascension to the big-leagues was fast. His progress in the show –15 stolen bases and a batting average of .340 with balls in play through 56 games with Toronto last season — was encouraging.
As I’ve ranted, BABIP is interesting for pitchers, and almost completely useless and/or misleading for everyone else. Having a high BABIP is equally likely due to a low contact rate (or luck — HR hurt it, too). If you take huge cuts and strike out instead of making weak contact on every 2 strike count, congrats! Your BABIP goes up! (Isn’t this just a terrific modern stat?) Obviously Madani trying to imply that this means Gose’s speed means he often reaches base when he does put the ball in play, but the real reason is that if Gose’s AB were extrapolated over an entire season, he would have struck out the 5th most times in major-league history (with only Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds above him). Ummm, yeah…that’s highly encouraging for a powerless slap hitter with great speed…totally…
At first I was excited to learn that Romero is using pitch f/x information to diagnose his 2012 woes, but that passed quickly to outrage at the fact that it was provided in the form of printouts from Brooksbaseball by Brandon freaking Morrow. It continues to flabbergast me that teams show basically no interest in applying modern technology and analysis to get the most out of their multi-million-dollar investments on the field.
Romero is obviously open to and interesting in using this type of information, and the pitch f/x system takes an incredibly detailed picture of every pitch he throws. Yet, it takes a combination of internet hobbyists and a fellow pitcher taking the initiative for such stunningly useful and freely-available information to make its way to Romero, so he can be “amazed” by it. Le sigh. With apologies to Archimedes: give me a laptop and a place to stand in the dugout, and I will change your WAR!
Because yeah…in my not-so-humble opinion, Morrow botched the analysis (although obviously a standing ovation for him doing anything at all). When you look at more of Romero’s career than just the last two seasons, there is just no way to come to the conclusion that the key to Romero’s struggles is a lack of sinkers. He threw considerably more sinkers to RHB in 2012 (19.3%) than he did in 2010 (14%), and almost as many (16.1 compared to 17.5) to LHB. It was a mix that worked for him fine two (and three) years ago, not something that changed before the debacle that was Romero’s 2012 season.
***Note*** It’s up for debate/kind of arbitrary where your pitch-classifying algorithm draws the line between fastball and 2-seamer/sinker, as there is overlap in terms of movement as well as velocity. The way I split them, it’s a much more modest overall drop than Brooks’ numbers in terms of 2-seamers anyway, from 25% to 18% between 2012 and 2011. Here are a couple of graphs of pitch f/x ‘movement’ to give you an idea of the blurring between the two offerings, and because my contract stipulates I have to include at least one (x,y) chart per article:
The real reason for there appearing to be a sudden drop is that Romero’s sinker use soared in 2011, most likely to compensate for his AWOL changeup. As I argued at some statistical length a while back, everything else about Romero’s repetoire pales in comparison to the fact that his change now moves like a completely different pitch, with almost 6 (!!) inches more drop than average. But, with that transformation it has turned from being his primary offspeed pitch (and a great one at that) to hittable trash that he is quite rightly completely unwilling to throw to lefties.
Unless Ricky is trying to redefine himself as a true sinkerballer, the 26% of 2-seamers he threw in 2011 is very high, not some kind of career norm that he needs to return to in order to find his old levels of success. The one good thing about Romero’s sinker comments was that he seemed to be willing to throw it for strikes and let it be put in play. The percentage of Romero’s 2-seamers that were located in the zone fell to an ludicrous 34% last season, so concentrating on pounding the zone with it in spring training can’t hurt. Romero certainly should be getting more strikes and grounders by throwing it to contact instead of as a chase pitch — but he’ll never be the Ricky of old without his changeup.
I probably would have done more of this if I wasn’t completely statistically gassed by the time the fact that Josh Johnson even HAD a curveball rolled around. But as pointed out in the comment, any excitement over a new pitch has to be tempered by the fact that it won’t be a novelty for long. Only time will really tell, but here’s a look at the evolution of JJ’s new pitch as the year progressed:
1a) Movement — Side-to-side (pfx)
Pfx is where the ball ended up along the horizontal plane compared to where it would have without spin, in inches. Clearly, there is a lot of variation from one pitch to the next but also a downward trend, which means the pitch moved less from right to left as the season went on. Also, there was less spread, which is most likely a sign of increased consistency from JJ. His first 200 curveballs had a standard deviation of 1.93, and his last 230 were at 1.79 (to try to get at what that means in baseball terms would be stupid).
Also, see that patch right over the 200 mark where every single curve is below 4? That corresponds to July 4-18, 3 starts where JJ got shelled in an otherwise excellent stretch.
1b) Movement — Up-down (pfz)
I took the liberty of splitting these pitches up by start to address the elephant in the room — right in the middle of those three crappy starts mentioned above, Josh Johnson’s curveball dropped an extra half foot for one start (immediately after the All-star game, incidentally). Then for the rest of the season, the ‘drop’ on his curve steadily decreased. Experimenting with a new grip? Broken nail? Craft your own narrative…
1c) Movement — Bend (break_length)
Looks like an increasing amount of ‘bend’ early in the season, then a shaky patch around the all-star break, and a downward trend at the end of the season. The single start highlighted in red is his August 25 start, which was his one other blowup of the year after the break. For some reason leading into that start his curveball started to flatten out, and then was atrocious as the Dodgers pounded him for 10 hits and six runs through three innings.
I’m not trying to imply that it was all due to his curveball, but I find it really cool that there are usually completely obvious reasons for a sucky start rather than all the hocus-pocus about ‘not being sharp’, or ‘leaving a few pitches up’ we hear. I mean, of COURSE he’s not going to spill the beans on national TV after the game, but you know JJ was thinking ‘what the heck is wrong with my curveball, we gotta get on that’ after that game. Someday, every pitcher will get post-game reports like this, as umpires do (did?) with QUESTEC.
2a) Results — Miss %
What I did here was plot for every swing whether the result was a hit or miss, and then run a rolling average (series=15). So apparently the league started to make more contact against JJ’s curve after a certain point
2b) Results — Hits
Same thing, with hits/balls put in play. Sample size is starting to become an issue, but that’s a very clear spike in the middle of the season.
2c) Results — In Zone %
2d) Results — Chase out of zone
Just including these to be complete…nothing really pops out as conclusive for me.
- Johnson tightened up his Curve into more of a pure 12-6 as the season went on.
- He was getting more and more drop on it until the all-star break, when something went horribly wrong. From then on, that trend reversed.
- It was getting more and more ‘loopy’ until late in the season, when again, after a terrible start, things started moving in the opposite direction.
- The league was more and more able to make contact with his curve as the season went on.
- This lead to more and more hits coming against it until the midway mark, at which point, yep, things reversed dramatically.
Lumping all this together, I would say that Johnson was working on making his curve more and more nasty as the league was catching up to it, and then somewhere around the mid-way point (possibly spurred on by it falling apart) wisely switched his focus to making it more controllable so he could place it more effectively. But that might be just because I know that’s what happens to every rookie pitcher and it makes sense that it would for a veteran with a new toy…
3ai) Random — average # of Strikes in count when throwing curveball
Just a cute, not-particularly-scientific way of seeing if he was throwing it more often later in the count, i.e. a punchout pitch, as the year went on. Yep. With one crazy stretch where he gave up on it. Doing the same thing for this slider suggests that he went back to using his slider later in the count after the break:
3aii) SLIDER — average # of Strikes in count when throwing slider
Annnnnd I’ll just bury at the very bottom of another long post a semi-apology to Bot Elliott after he clarified the Johnson #3 comment during in his online chat with: “Right now they have a lot of No. 3s or maybe Morrow is a No. 2 and Johnson could be if his shoulder allows him to add missing MPH”. That is without a doubt the most informed reason for saying that, although I still think it’s quite the bombshell to drop without any context or attempt to back it up.
Update: Ok, I take that back. Random comments from mystery men at the winter meetings is just not compelling journalism. YOU’RE IN THE HALL OF FAME, BOB. Have an opinion! Say something! Don’t just pass on this scuttlebutt like it’s this incredible inside information but you just…can’t…give up your source. Putting together that Lawrie runs and Gibby is a red light did not exactly require Deepthroat in the parkinglot, y’know?