The Best Pitch In Baseball

In only his second start as a major leaguer, Jake Thompson took the mound against the Colorado Rockies and, despite the mathematical issues that make such an accomplishment improbable, proceeded to record four strikeouts in a single inning, becoming the first Phillies pitcher to do so since 1902. To execute such a feat, Thompson took advantage of an archaic and confusing baseball rule that, for the benefit of the reader, may be loosely translated as follows:

If, with two strikes in the count, a batter proceeds to swing at a pitch so far removed from the strike zone that it is not only unhittable, but uncatchable by the very player whose designation is to catch the baseball, then the batter may commence as if he, by virtue of his own skill, put the ball in the actual field of play.

The seemingly inane rule allowed us to witness a pitching event that occurs more infrequently than the much celebrated no-hitter. But more relevant to the author’s intentions, it has given us a pretense upon which to discuss the pitch not only directly responsible for the rule’s enforcement, but also largely instrumental in the consequent four strikeouts. That is, Jake Thompson’s slider.

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Hector Neris Sure Looks Like An Elite Reliever

Entering the season, Hector Neris was in possession of one of those beautiful back-of-the-bullpen starter kits. He had the requisite devastating, whiff-inducing secondary pitch as well as a solid fastball off of which to work. However, as we have seen time and again, possession of a promising pitch arsenal does not an elite reliever make. The proof is in the pudding or whatever your preferred cliché is.

At the start of the season, it looked as though Hector Neris was whipping up a fine batch of proof that he would be able to put it all together. Through the month of April, he posted a stellar 0.63 ERA to go along with an equally as impressive 43.4 K%. Much of this success was attributed to a splitter which was downright unhittable.

But then, as you might expect, his stat line appeared to regress towards the mean. He posted a 4.95 ERA and pedestrian strikeout and walk rates (21.8 K%, 12.6 BB%) over his next 20 innings. As a result, Neris found himself on June 15th with an uninspiring 3.15 ERA next to his name. He looked like a pitcher who had pitched over his head in April and it was natural to wonder if, perhaps, the magic of his splitter had worn off. But then something changed.

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Finding Professional At Bats

The Phillies are a bad offensive team. They have their moments, where the hits seem to fall in bunches, but as is often the case with bad offenses, reality brings them crashing back to earth. And when the offense goes into an especially brutal stretch of ineptitude, we often hear Pete Mackanin say he’s looking for more “professional at-bats”. It seems like a low bar to set for a major league team, but in the absence of actual hitting talent, it’s probably a good place to start. But what constitutes a professional at-bat? Well, according to Pete Mackanin:

“We just need to get to that point. We need to work the count, we don’t walk a lot. For me, we take too many fastballs for strikes and we swing at too many – we expand the strike zone too often. Right now there’s nobody there that’s risen to the challenge. We’re looking for that guy.”

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Who Had The More Encouraging Game: Nola or Velasquez?

The biggest story of the start to the Phillies 2016 season was the emergence of their talented young rotation. Although Jerad Eickhoff has has his moments of greatness, the two biggest stars were Vincent Velasquez and Aaron Nola. Velasquez grabbed headlines across baseball with his 16-strikeout performance against the Padres in his second start of the season. Nola soared towards the top of league leaderboards in the first two months of the season. But then, almost simultaneously, everything began to crumble for the duo. Over the past 48 hours, however, they have both put together stellar starts that have caused Phillies fans to hope that maybe their struggles are behind them. Is the optimism provided by their post-All-Star-Break debuts justified?

Vince Velasquez

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All About xFIP

This morning, the Phillies’ official twitter account somewhat bizarrely sent out the briefest of introductions to xFIP.

Considering the organization’s, shall we say, hesitance to embrace sabermetric analysis in the pre-Klentak era, this little pebble thrown into the gaping chasm of the interwebs — even if done so with tongue planted firmly in cheek — came as a bit of a surprise. So, instead of mocking the team for doing what people have been criticizing it for not doing…

and at the risk of explaining something already known to an audience that actively seeks out this site for its sabermetric bent, indulge me in a (very) broad overview of xFIP.

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Phillies First Half Infographic

As the All-Star festivities have quieted and teams officially turn their full attention toward the proverbial second half of the season, I went back through the 2016 Phillies’ season from April to the All-Star break to put together a first half infographic for those visually inclined, like myself.

The season, in my eyes, could be split into four distinct parts: an “Oh no not this again” 0-4 start fueled by a disastrous bullpen, a five-week run as the most surprising team in baseball highlighted by an .875 winning percentage in 16 one-run games, the subsequent regression to the mean, and the current stretch of surprisingly potent hitting. Enjoy.

First Half Infographic

All suggestions, comments and concerns are welcome.

Checking in on Zach Eflin

It’s been an up and down beginning to Zach Eflin‘s major league career — or, more precisely, a down and up beginning. His major league debut went about as poorly as a debut can go. He struck out the first batter (yay!), but from there it unraveled in almost historic proportions. His line that day: 2.2 IP, 9 H, 9 R, 8 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 3 HR. It amounted to a game score of 5 which is the lowest game score in a debut since someone named Arnie Munoz posted a -7 game score for the White Sox in his 2004 debut. Here’s a list of the most recent pitchers to post a game score that low in their debut:

Player Date Tm Opp IP H R ER BB SO HR GSc
Zach Eflin 6/14/2016 PHI TOR 2.2 9 9 8 3 2 3 5
Arnie Munoz 6/19/2004 CHW MON 3 10 11 11 3 1 2 -7
John Stephens 7/30/2002 BAL TBD 3 10 9 9 1 1 3 3
Mike Busby 4/7/1996 STL ATL 4 9 13 8 4 4 4 2

That’s, uh, not a terribly encouraging group of names for Eflin to join. Munoz never started another major league game while Stephens and Busby combined for 21 more starts in their careers. And, yet, Eflin has followed up this thoroughly inauspicious start with a remarkably promising run of five successful starts.
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Odubel’s Impending Breakout

Much of Odubel Herrera’s offense last year was tied to an incredible success rate on converting batted balls into hits. His .387 average on balls in play led the league, and it led Odubel to one of the most successful Rule 5 seasons in recent memory. But outside of that unsustainable number, the rest of his offense fell far short of impressive. His walk rate, strikeout rate, and power were all below average. And without improvements in any of those areas, the inevitable regression in his BABIP was going to sink his offense altogether.

So coming into the 2016 season, Odubel made immediate improvements in two of those categories. He learned the value of taking a free pass, and even though he’s far removed from what he did in April, he’s still drawing walks at a league average level. He also started making more contact, which significantly lowered his strikeout rate in the process. Those two adjustments alone gave him a sustainable way to maintain a higher on-base percentage, and ultimately raised his floor as a hitter. But there’s yet another emerging trend in his numbers that might portend even bigger things for Odubel.

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The Curious Case of Cameron Rupp’s Exit Velocity

At the risk of sounding like an outdated Charmin Ultra commercial, sometimes in baseball, less is more.

Take Cameron Rupp. Through 118 plate appearances in the first two months of the season, no one in Major League Baseball with at least 20 balls in play recorded a higher average exit velocity (95.7 mph).

Exit velocity is not an established science that, upon its unveiling by Statcast, magically provided the key to understanding hitting. However, several correlations have been drawn to offensive production. Like any new metric, it has shortcomings and limits to its application. In the 2015 season, when segmenting exit velocities into 5 mph ranges (90-94, 95-99, etc.), batting averages rose with each incremental rise in exit velocity. Increased batted ball speeds also correlate to increase slugging percentage. Continue reading…

Surprising Offensive Breakouts in June

Quick, name the Phillies top four performers in the month of June by wRC+. Exclude Edubray Ramos‘ one walk in one plate appearances and you’ll come up with a list of four that might not be terribly shocking if you watched the Phillies all month, but would shock the heck out of you if you were shown the list on May 31st. The fabulous four are as follows:

Phillies Top Offensive Performers – June 2016
Player PA wRC+
Peter Bourjos 67 190
Cameron Rupp 75 148
Cody Asche 90 115
Cesar Hernandez 85 104

There is one other Phillie who recorded a wRC+ above league average (100) during the month of June: Maikel Franco, 101 wRC+. It’s great to see him doing better at the plate, but a league average bat hardly classifies as a surprising breakout for him. Offensive expectations for Franco are high. Offensive expectations for Bourjos, Rupp, Asche, and Hernandez, on the other hand? Let’s just say they’re less high. So what’s going on? Small sample flukes? Legitimate breakouts? The creation of viable trade chips? The development of players who will contribute to the next winning Phillies teams?

Let’s break it down one at a time.

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