What’s Eating Joe Blanton?

Rob tackled the Phillies’ Blanton issue on his blog:

When Blanton pitched for the Athletics, he gave up relatively few home runs, just 0.82 per nine innings. But then Blanton joined the Phillies, and that number jumped to 1.35 over 2008 and ’09 despite the shift to a less powerful league (if only because of the pitchers hitting). This year it’s 2.1 home runs per nine. And it’s not just the difference in Blanton’s home ballparks. Since joining the Phillies, Blanton’s ground-ball rates have trended steadily and dramatically downward.

Essentially, everything that could go wrong is going wrong. Blanton’s striking out fewer hitters. He’s giving up more fly balls, and a higher percentage of those fly balls are flying over the wall.

Some of this will naturally self-correct. But some of it, maybe a lot of it, will not. Right now, without a major rebuilding effort, the best case for Blanton might be a decent No. 5 starter. Which would be fine, except the Phillies already have two of those.

Joe Blanton has a 7.28 ERA but a 4.82 SIERA. While a near-five SIERA is pretty bad — Blanton’s ranks 108th out of 140 pitchers with at least 47 innings — it is much, much lower than his ERA which leads us to conclude that Blanton has been the victim of some bad luck along with his poor pitching.

His BABIP so far is .332, even higher than Hamels’ was in his tumultuous 2009 season. Since he isn’t striking anyone out (averaging just under five K’s per nine innings), BABIP becomes more of an issue since hitters are putting more balls in play.

Additionally, while Blanton’s HR/FB rate is at about the same spot as it was last year, Blanton is allowing six percent more fly balls (and six percent less line drives). While pitchers don’t have much control over their HR/FB rate, they do have control over the amount of ground balls and fly balls they allow. 99 times out of 100, you love it when a pitcher reduces his line drive rate for more fly balls. That means the hitter is making poorer contact with the pitches. Unfortunately, hitters are enjoying a 2.7% higher BABIP on fly balls (.152 to .125) and a 2.3% higher BABIP on ground balls (.275 to .252) this year compared to last year for Blanton.

If Blanton wants to enjoy success between now and the end of the season, here’s what he can do:

  • Increase his strikeout rate from 4.98 per nine closer to where it was last year, at 7.51 per nine. Even getting it to 6.0 would be great.
  • Wait for his BABIP to regress.
  • Go back to inducing ground balls. His GB% was around 45% with the Oakland Athletics, but has been around 40% with the Phillies. It’s easy to say “just do it like you used to” as inducing ground balls relies on pitch movement as well as location. Blanton, who was on the disabled list with a strained oblique earlier this season, may not be able to generate the same movement and mastery of his pitches as he used to.

How Cole Got His Groove Back

Cole Hamels is back, ladies and gentlemen. What did he do to bounce back from a tumultuous 2009 season (and April 2010)?

Nothing.

Just as he did nothing to contribute to the swift descent following his impeccable 2008 in which he won the World Series MVP award, the Cole we have watched through 13 starts (12 if you exclude his rain-shortened outing in Atlanta on June 1) has similarly remained constant.

Sure, he added a cut fastball but it has been his worst pitch according to the pitch type values found on FanGraphs. He has actually reduced the use of his three other pitches in favor of the cutter and he still finds himself 11th in the National League in SIERA (among pitchers with at least 65 IP). In his latest start against the Boston Red Sox in which he allowed only one run over seven innings, 65% of his pitches were fastballs and 27% were change-ups. In fact, the fewer cutters Cole has thrown, the more successful he has been.

Hamels has beefed up his strikeout rate, averaging nearly one per inning and about one more per nine innings than in ’09 and ’08. His walk rate has hurdled above three per nine but it hasn’t meant much since he is stranding nearly 83% of base runners. The big key to his success — and this should come as no surprise if you have been reading this blog for a while — has been a regression in batting average on balls in play (BABIP).

In 2008 when he had tremendous success, his BABIP was .270, much lower than the traditional .300. In ’09 when he was painful to watch pitch, his BABIP was .325. This year, which has thus far met his ’08 and ’09 seasons somewhere in the middle, his BABIP is .308. Since pitchers don’t have much control over BABIP, the regression is simply due to Phillies’ defenders turning batted balls into outs and good ol’ fashioned luck. The extra strikeout per nine has been icing on the cake, as is his newfound dominance over left-handed hitters.

What else could have contributed to his success?

I noted after his second start in April that he may be toying around with release points but Pitch F/X guru Harry Pavlidis was helpful in reaching the conclusion that the machines were calibrated differently as the two starts were at two different ballparks. The calibration, though, seemed to only affect vertical measurement. Hamels has shifted his release point towards the left-handed batter’s box as the following graphs will illustrate:

The release point hasn’t made much of a difference though because hitters are making the same amount of contact and swinging and missing at similar rates as last year.

Season Contact% SwStr%
2006 72.3% 12.8%
2007 73.9% 13.6%
2008 76.9% 11.5%
2009 75.2% 11.9%
2010 75.6% 10.7%

Others will note the increase in velocity, as his fastball hit 94 MPH or higher 46 times in his most recent start in Boston. While it was great to see, his fastball hasn’t been like that all year as the velocity chart from FanGraphs illustrates.

For the third straight year, you can chalk up most of Hamels’ performance to BABIP luck. Just imagine how good he’ll be when his HR/FB rate (over which pitchers also have little control) regresses down from 16.5% to the more appropriate 10-11%. He has the potential to reach Nolan Ryan territory if he can kick the Twilight habit.