Exploiting Bottom of the Zone Amplifies Phils’ Dominant Curveballs

Last week I explored the Phillies’ pitching staff’s ability to make hitters chase pitches while keeping swing rates down on balls in the zone. The numbers are staggering, but how exactly are they doing it? The answer: their most potent weapon, the curveball, plays incredibly well off their location-based, non-overpowering fastballs.

Exploiting the bottom-most edge of the strike zone makes a lot of sense given the current make-up of the arms manager Pete Mackanin sends to the mound. The staff as a whole lacks the dominant velocity that allows some leeway when leaving balls up in the zone. Despite an average fastball velocity only better than the Angels and Astros, according to Statcast, opponents haven’t punished the Phils’ offerings up over the plate.

Opponents are slugging .494 (eleventh-lowest in the league) against Phillies’ fastballs up in the zone with middle tier .224 isolated power. The teams with the three highest opposing batting averages against fastballs up in the zone all rank in the bottom five in average fastball velocity. But the Phillies are the outlier. Continue reading…

Let’s Talk About Maikel Franco

Maikel Franco is not off to the start Phillies fans hoped to see. He’s posted a 91 wRC+ and his 0.2 fWAR ranks 25th of 26 qualified major league third basemen. Last night, he hit his ninth home run of the year and over his past ten games he’s batting .306/.350/.500; so, maybe a corner has been turned. But whether brighter days are on the horizon or not, it’s worth taking the time to look at what’s gone wrong.

I’ve stopped and started writing an analysis on Franco’s struggles multiple times over the past month, and the reason why I haven’t completed one until now isn’t good. It’s been hard to find an interesting or compelling angle on this analysis because what Franco has been doing is in line with his known profile. To be clear, there have been changes and areas where we can expect to see Franco improve going forward, and we’ll get to those; but, overall, what’s happened in 2016 so far aligns well with what we know to be true about him. Maikel Franco has been Maikel Franco this year and, given the results, that’s a scary thing.

If you were to boil down Franco’s offensive profile to one sentence, it might look something like this: Franco is an aggressive hitter with power and strong bat-to-ball skills. Now check out Brooks Baseball’s automatically generated profile of Franco at the plate in 2016:

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The Spin On Bailey’s Fastball

Andrew Bailey‘s four seam fastball is a remarkable pitch. At 2693 RPM, it leads all major league fastballs in spin rate. To quote directly from the Statcast glossary on the benefits of increased spin on a pitch:

“As more data have become available, most experts have agreed that fastballs and breaking balls are tougher to hit when they possess higher Spin Rates. In fact, some data suggest that Spin Rate correlates more closely than Velocity to swinging-strike percentage.”

The results that Bailey has received from his fastball attest to this statement. While major league pitchers average around a 7% swinging strike rate on the four seam fastball, Bailey has gotten whiffs at a 15.7% clip this year.  And when batters have put the pitch in play, the resultant exit velocity is on par with that against Clayton Kershaw‘s fastball.

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Against Starting Rotation, Opponents’ Plate Discipline Vanishes

Past the 50 game-mark, it’s time to—ever so slowly—place the small sample size disclaimers in the rearview mirror and appreciate the corps of young arms that has single-handedly made this Phillies team not only watchable, but an above .500 ball club for the vast majority of the season despite a wholly depressing offensive effort.

The rotation, averaging just over 25-and-a-half years old on the second-youngest team in the bigs (averaging 27.4 years old), ranks seventh in the league in WAR (5.6) even after coming back to down to earth a bit in the last handful of weeks. With surprising depth, it is believed the starters have sped up the rebuild by as much as a full year. But, while the jury is still out on the exact timetable, it’s important to note just how this rotation is succeeding without much major league experience—besides elder statesman Jeremy Hellickson, six years removed from winning the American League Rookie of the Year—or overpowering arms. Continue reading…

Don’t Go Soft On Odubel

Among the reasons behind Odubel Herrera’s continued breakout, none is more notable than his improved plate discipline. The story is well known by now. He was a bit of a free swinger last year, offering at 35.1% of pitches outside of the strike zone. This year, he’s cut that down to 29.4%, which is right in line with the league average. The effects have been apparent. He’s drawing walks at a much improved rate, and he’s getting himself into more favorable hitter’s counts. The result is a .441 on-base percentage that ranks second in the league. But Odubel has made another adjustment this year, and one that has been equally important to his success as a hitter.

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There’s Something Wrong with Jerad Eickhoff

Jerad Eickhoff has a problem: he is completely ineffective against left handed hitters. To this point, he’s been able to hide the extent of the issue by maintaining a respectable overall stat line, and he’s done this by keeping right handed batters in check. As bad as Eickhoff has been against lefties, he’s dominated righties to a similar extent.

Batter K-BB% OPS wOBA FIP
Lefty 10% .878 .371 4.76
Righty 25% .502 .218 2.25

The difference is drastic, and the problem is that he’s unlikely to improve on that extreme level of dominance against right handed batters. So if you’re looking for consistency or improvement out of Eickhoff, he’s going to need to resolve the issue against lefties.

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There’s Nothing Wrong With Jerad Eickhoff

This headline could make me look foolish depending on the outcome of tonight’s game, but despite his relative struggles (4.43 ERA this year vs. 2.65 ERA in 2015), there’s nothing to indicate that Jerad Eickhoff has been a worse pitcher this season than last.

First things first, let’s take a look at Eickhoff’s underlying stats this year versus last.

Capture

As you can see, his HR/FB% and BABIP have both increased since last year, while his rate of runners left on base plummeted almost 15 percentage points. However, his FIP, xFIP, and SIERA have hardly changed, despite the roughly 2 run difference in ERA.

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Why Can’t Anyone Hit Jeremy Hellickson’s Changeup?

Three weeks ago, I wrote about the fact that there was a Phillies pitcher throwing the least hittable pitch in the majors as measured by whiffs/swing. You may recall that the pitch I was talking about was Hector Neris‘ filthy, nasty splitter. At the time, Neris had thrown 83 splitters on the season, hitters had swung at 47 and whiffed a remarkable 31 times for a whiff/swing rate of 66.0 percent which topped every other pitch in baseball. Of course, it was a small sample size and in the ensuing weeks, that 66.0 percent rate has dropped to a significantly less imposing 49.2 percent.

There was, however, another Phillies pitcher with a pitch generating whiffs at extraordinary rates. At the time, I (perhaps foolishly) wrote it off as early season weirdness:

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The New Adam Morgan

In those dark months between New Year’s and the start of spring training when baseball writers become desperate for relevant topics to write about, I undertook a series titled “Who Are You“. The purpose of the series was simple enough: to familiarize myself (and by extension, you, the reader) with the overall profile of each new significant Phillies acquisition. We looked at guys like Jeremy Hellickson, Peter Bourjos, and Vince Velasquez whom we may have only had cursory knowledge of previously and attempted to form a relatively comprehensive picture of what to expect from each entering the 2016 season. What we didn’t do at the time was look at returning members of the Phillies in such a thorough fashion because, naturally, we already had reasonably clear understandings of each player.

It’s important to regularly update our understanding of players we already know because major leaguers are constantly adjusting and evolving. We’re able to do this by diving deep into things like Odubel Herrera‘s increased patience at the plate or Hector Neris‘ increased reliance on his killer splitter, but it’s rare to need to do a comprehensive deep dive on a player with whom you’re already familiar. On occasion, however, a player will make such a dramatic change that it’s necessary to completely scrap all prior understanding of a player and start completely fresh. This year, the Phillies have one of those players in Adam Morgan. It’s time to forget everything we thought we knew and ask the sole lefty in the Phillies rotation, “Who are you?”

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Nola’s Other Pitch

Aaron Nola‘s curveball has received a lot of attention this year, and rightly so.  Nola has seemingly ridden an increased use of the pitch to raise his profile from solid starter to hearing whispers of “ace” just a month into the season. His curveball is undeniably excellent, possibly the best in the baseball, and now he’s throwing it more often without any decrease in effectiveness.

Year Thrown% Ball% Strike% Swing% Whiff%
2015 24% 28% 42% 49% 20%
2016 34% 27% 46% 48% 21%

It was a simple adjustment, and one that has been well documented. But while the curveball has gotten all the attention, it’s really only half the story behind Nola’s rise this year. The other half, the one where he has made the bigger adjustment, is the two seam fastball. Continue reading…