February 14, 2013 at 11:00 am by Andrew Sisson under Atlanta Braves
Personally, it’s hard to believe that this is Tim Hudson’s ninth season in a Braves uniform. He will enter 2013 pitching his age 37 season. In baseball terms, he is getting kind of old. Among active pitchers, Hudson ranks third in career innings pitched (only five innings behind Roy Halladay for second), and fifth in career pitches thrown. Having thrown 30,000+ in-game pitches, not to mention any offseason, spring training and bullpen work, it is only a matter of time before even the most durable pitchers hit a steep decline. So, on that pessimistic note, I think there are a couple of pressing questions and concerns relating to Hudson and how he will perform in 2013.
It’s no secret that pitchers generally start to show a steeper decline as they enter into their mid to late 30′s. Whether it is injury or just wear and tear on the body, eventually father time catches up to their ability to throw a baseball overhand at speeds close to 90 mph. Looking back at Hudson’s injury history, we have already begun to see some signs hinting in this direction. While having Tommy John is very common these days and has high success rates, it is still a procedure on the elbow of a pitching arm. If there is a bright side, elbows seem to be a less or an injury concern than shoulders. Hudson also had surgery on his back (lumbar spine-fusion) back in November of 2011. It caused him to miss the start of last season, but it supposedly cleared up many back problems he’d been pitching through for the past couple years. Again, it may have cleared up previous issues, but it was still an operation on an important part of an pitching motion. Hudson has also dealt with nagging injuries in his ankle (bone spurs) that reportedly have bothered him over the past couple seasons and caused him to miss a couple of starts in 2012.
In the end, it is almost impossible to predict any type of future injury. As we have mentioned before on here, there will always be an inadvertent risk to pitching. At Hudson’s age, along with some injury concerns we have seen over the past few season, he does seem to carry additional injury risk. I am not predicting any type of injury will occur this season, but the chances of him making 30 healthy starts this year is pretty unlikely.
Stemming from the fact Hudson is getting older, he has begun to lose some zip on his fastball. According to PITCHf/x, Hudson fastball velocity dropped to 89 mph in 2012, after consistently sitting between 90-91 mph for the past number of seasons. This isn’t the end of the world, pitchers can still be effective when velocity drops, especially when they weren’t flamethrowers to begin with. At 37, it is unlikely Hudson will be able to add more movement or better locate the ball like younger pitchers are often able to, to offset any velocity loss.
Jeff Zimmerman, who has done some fascinating work with player aging curves, gave a basic summary about a pitchers velocity drop.
“As long as a pitcher is able to maintain a certain velocity… the player can generally pitch with the same results year after year. It’s only when the pitcher begins to lose velocity that he sees his stats degrade at a higher rate. Sure, velocity isn’t everything with a pitcher — but it’s important.” – Jeff Zimmerman
Hudson saw a bit of a spike in contact rates against him last season, which we could probably relate to the decrease in velocity across the board. But, all of this is what we ultimately expect with age, a decline in “stuff” and therefore performance. Even if Hudson is healthy, we may see an expected increase in BABIP due to aging, LOB and HR/FB rates return to career levels, which could suggest an ERA closer to 4.00 this season (league average). To put it simply, Hudson is a ground ball pitcher and will rely on getting enough ground balls that will have to be fielded and turned into outs by the defense behind him.
Adding onto that point of being a ground ball pitcher, getting those balls in play turned into outs may be a bit harder considering the defense behind him. Hudson will pitch in front of an infield made up of Freeman (
Gold Glove slightly below-average), Uggla (below-average), Simmons (well above-average) and either or both of Juan Francisco (average) and Chris Johnson (well below-average) for most of the season. First off, Simmons is probably close to the best, if not best, defensive shortstop in the game. Yes there are still sample size issues, but so far he has confirmed what the eye test told us to expect. It is somewhat encouraging that the position where most ball are hit to is played by the well above-average defender, but it won’t be enough to negate the three other infielders who resemble something closer to that of Stonehenge. A ground ball pitcher having that collection of infielders behind him doesn’t necessarily project well. On the other hand, it is a very similar alignment to the one he pitched in front of for most of last season.
I think Hudson should definitely be looked at as one of the bigger question marks in the rotation this season. As I alluded to earlier, he has been an innings eater throughout his career, posting above 200 innings eight times. The doesn’t mean he will continue to do so this year or in coming years. There seem to be a lot of different factors working against Hudson. They actually appear to be the same type concerns we were worried about at the beginning of last season, but will this be the year we start to see a significant drop off?
Injury and PITCHf/x data courtesy of Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs.
February 13, 2013 at 10:00 am by Mark Smith under Atlanta Braves
Kris Medlen was awesome in 2012.
Once he gained a foothold in the rotation on July 31st, there was no looking back for the diminutive righty. Over his 12 starts, he threw 83.2 innings (7 innings/start), had a 0.97 ERA (2.22 FIP), struck out a batter per inning (27% of hitters), walked 1 per 9 innings (3% of hitters), and had a 1.95 GB/FB rate. If the goal of a pitcher is to strike a bunch of guys out, walk very few, and keep the ball in the yard (which it is, I think), Kris Medlen did an amazing job. Just to put a few things in perspective, the best FIP in the majors among qualified starters was 2.82 (Gio Gonzalez), the 10th best K/9 was exactly 9.00 (Clayton Kershaw), the best BB/9 was 1.19 (Cliff Lee), and the 12th best GB/FB was 1.93 (Adam Wainwright). With all of that, Medlen set a major-league record when the Braves had won in 23 consecutive Medlen starts (though 11 of those were from a previous season). In other words, Medlen was really, really, really good. But you knew that already. What we want to know more about is how he did it and, more importantly, if he can continue to do it.
Our first step is to look at something Medlen is known for – pitch location. Here are his pitch locations against league-averages.
Not surprisingly, Medlen’s pitch locations back up the consensus thoughts on him. He throws a higher frequency at the corners, especially the low corners, and the pattern is much tighter than that of the rest of the league. What this indicates is that Medlen has control (the ability to throw strikes) and command (the ability to locate specifically within the zone). Though it’s a little hard to see here, Medlen does a little better at also keeping the ball down, with a stronger frequency nearer the corners than the League. These certainly help explain the low walk rate and high ground ball rate, but what about the strikeouts?
One of things I’m curious about is pitch location with two strikes. My theory coming in was that Medlen’s command allowed him to pitch out of the zone more efficiently than other pitchers. Most pitchers, in my opinion, throw a lot of 2-strike pitches nowhere near the zone. This would get some strikeouts, but it would also lead to more balls (and thus more pitches and a deeper pitch count). My thought was that Medlen stayed nearer to the zone but still outside of it, inducing swings-and-misses, caught-lookings, or weak contact. Going back to the heat maps.
On 0-2, he definitely hugs one side of the plate (in to lefties and away from righties), but he stays in the zone or just outside. The League goes a little further out of the zone and hits more of the zone.
On 1-2, Medlen shifts away from the side of the plate and to the bottom of the zone, but again, he’s hugging the border of the zone with the League still going further out of the zone. This makes sense as the count favors the pitchers, and they don’t need to be in the zone. Back to the part of the zone aspect, I find it fascinating how Medlen pitches. On 0-2, he varies his vertical pitch locations, but on 1-2, he focuses on switching his horizontal locations. As the pitching philosophy goes, he pitches up and down, in and out.
Medlen is now all over the zone, but he still tries to stay away from the middle of the zone. The League is back within the zone (need to throw strikes now) but is all over the zone, including the middle.
For giggles, let’s look at 3-2. Medlen is definitely within the zone now, with the small sample size showing some red spots way out of the zone. The League is definitely within the zone now as they don’t want to walk anyone.
This confirms my hypothesis somewhat. Medlen does, in fact, do a better job of keeping the ball nearer to the zone with 2 strikes, but those were simply against the League. What about specific players in counts that strongly favor the pitcher (0-2 and 1-2)?
Scherzer, Kershaw, and Verlander are very good strikeout pitchers, but they tend to run up pitch counts occasionally. Again, going so far out of the zone could mean a few ridiculous swings, but it also ends in a lot of balls. Verlander, a man who throws a lot of complete games, keeps the ball closer to the zone in pitcher’s counts, but even he gets way out of the zone. Actually, Medlen’s best comp might be Cliff Lee.
This is what “pitching to contact” should mean. It shouldn’t mean just throwing the pitch over the plate. While throwing strikes is certainly part of it, it’s not a very nuanced understanding. The phrase should be “pitching so there’s a possibility of contact, though not hard contact”. All of these pitchers throw strikes in 2-strike counts, but Medlen shows the ability to throw the ball just out of the zone and closer to the edge of the zone with more precision and accuracy than other pitchers. Let it go and risk strike three. Swing and miss? Strike three. Swing and hit it, and you’ll hit it weakly. Medlen’s Chase% (swings on pitches out of the zone) was 32% (against League 29%) and was in the 81st percentile. Meds isn’t messing around, and it helped him get through innings faster (13.7 against the league average of ~16) while still striking batters out. Strikeouts are good things, and if you can get them quickly like Medlen, you’ve perfected the craft of pitching.
After all this, we still have one question left – can he sustain this. This is, unfortunately, not a question we can answer. What I can tell you is that Medlen has great mechanics that he can repeat, which helps his command. I can tell you he throws a two-seam and cut fastball that keep hitters guessing which way the fastball will break, which leads to swings-and-misses and weak contact. I can tell you that he throws an excellent change-up with sink and fade, and it is 9 mph slower than his fastball, which is very good and off-sets timing. And I can tell you that the pitching models we use (FIP, etc.) all think his performance was legitimately awesome last season, though not 0.91 ERA good because that’s just absurd for a starter. If Medlen continues to throw strikes and throw quality strikes as he has, the comps to Greg Maddux might be the first comps to Greg Maddux that are actually accurate.
Now we just have to hope that he’s healthy and that MLB hitters don’t find a way to adjust against him without Meds being able to adjust back.
February 12, 2013 at 2:00 pm by Ethan Purser under Prospects
We begin this week with a third baseman who showed significant improvement in 2012 and has legitimate riser potential heading into 2013.
30. Carlos Franco: 3B | S/R | 6’2”, 170 lbs. | Age: 21 | Signed out of the DR, 2008
Performance: 2012 was a breakout year of sorts for the young third baseman, as he posted averages of .271/.408/.380 with 11 extra-base hits and a 37:36 walk-to-strikeout rate in 206 plate appearances for Danville. He led the team in walks and walked twice as frequently as his leaguemates while posting an OPS that was 10 percent better than Appalachian League average. He committed 12 errors in 135 chances.
Tools: Franco is everything one could hope for in a third base prospect. He has the ideal frame for the position and an above-average arm. His fielding skills will need work as he climbs the ladder, but he’s an ideal candidate to make the necessary improvements. Franco displayed the ability to put the bat on the ball this season against Appalachian League pitchers, striking out in only 17 percent of his plate appearances, well below the league average. He should grow into some power as his body continues to develop and he continues to add loft to his swing. He controls the strike zone extremely well, which should help the utility of his hit tool play up as he climbs the ladder.
Future: Franco will move to Low-A Rome in 2013. There’s a lot to like here, and while he is a long way away, Franco has the potential to shoot up this list by midseason. If he continues to improve at the rate at which he did last season, we could be looking at a legitimate breakout prospect for 2013.
29. Justin Black: OF | R/R | 6’0”, 195 lbs. | Age: 19 | 4th round, 2012
Performance: Like fellow 2012 draftee Fernelys Sanchez, Black struggled statistically in his 2012 debut for the GCL Braves, posting averages of .182/.292/.258 with two home runs and a 19:54 walk-to-strikeout ratio. His rawness extended to other areas of his game, as he was caught stealing in four of seven attempts. He spent time left field and center field, committing four errors in 66 chances between the two positions.
Tools: Black is a toolshed in terms of the physical skills desired to play the game; he’s a blazing-fast runner with the physicality and athleticism to stick in center field as he climbs the ladder, depending upon how his body matures. If his body eventually necessitates a move to a corner, he should grow into over-the-fence power, thereby making the move from center less painful in terms of shifting down the defensive spectrum. He has a lightning-quick bat that is short and direct to the ball. He has displayed a slight uppercut in his swing path in the past, a move that limits the amount of time the bat head stays in the hitting zone (good for adding loft, bad for making contact consistently). Again, plate discipline is not a tool, but Black did post a walk rate that was better than league average while also co-leading the team in this category.
Future: Black hails from Billings, Montana, an area that is not exactly known for its amateur baseball prowess due to the weather and the inability to play year-round. Thus, he is EXTREMELY raw and will require the utmost patience from fans and prognosticators alike. Black is one year older than your typical high-school draftee, putting him one year closer to his peak in terms of baseball’s aging curve. This is not a serious issue in the grand scheme, but it does place importance upon Black showing signs of progress during his age-20 season. He will likely get a do-over in the Gulf Coast League this summer.
28. Daniel Rodriguez: LHP | L/L | 6’0”, 185 lbs. | Age: 28 | Signed out of Mexico, 2012
Performance: After leading the Mexican League in strikeouts from 2011 to 2012, Rodriguez was signed by the Braves in August. He was immediately sent to Triple-A Gwinnett, allowing one earned run with a 4:7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in six innings pitched. He also pitched in the Liga Mexicana del Pacifico for the Tomateros de Culiacan this offseason, allowing 52 hits and 28 runs while posting a 29:17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38.2 innings pitched.
Tools: Rodriguez brings a solid three-pitch mix to the mound, including a solid-average fastball with the type of sink and arm-side run that keeps the ball on the ground, a solid-average changeup that keeps righties honest, and a plus 11-to-5 curveball with depth and swing-and-miss potential. While the arsenal is sound, his mechanical profile leaves a bit to be desired and contributes to his below-average command and control. The athletic lefty has a prototypical tall-and-fall delivery* with a slight hip-turn at his balance point, but his long arm action and big, extended arm circle offer little in the way of deception and cause significant timing issues in his delivery**. In a sense, his arm must catch up with the rest of his body; coupled with his high arm slot, this leads to poor posture at the release point, which he will intermittently struggle to find. He doesn’t firm up his front side well or in a manner that will inhibit his front shoulder from flying open on occasion. From time to time, he will drop down to a lower release point, perhaps to give hitters another look. All in all, the mechanics are very “meh” and further exacerbate the concerns about his ability to locate pitches.
Future: Depending upon how one views the situation, Rodriguez could either be the second, third, or fourth contingency plan for the position of fifth starter, assuming a veteran is not picked up prior to Spring Training***. Otherwise, he’ll be insurance at Gwinnett, where he will look to fine-tune and harness the command of his arsenal.
*I’m not a huge fan of this style of delivery. I’d rather see a pitcher drift through his balance point and get momentum going toward the plate quickly.
**This is what I was alluding to on the podcast when I stated that his arm becomes “detached” from his body during his delivery. Looking back, that was a rather poor way to describe what is actually happening in his sequence. I don’t do well with the whole “talking” thing sometimes.
***This is probably a poor assumption.
27. Fernelys Sanchez: OF | S/R | 6’3”, 210 lbs. | Age: 18 | 16th round, 2012
Performance: Sanchez scuffled in his debut after recovering from a fractured fibula sustained prior to the draft. He posted a .155/.269/.224 line with a home run and a 9:32 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 67 plate appearances. He swiped three bags in four attempts while splitting his time between the outfield and designated hitter.
Tools: Sanchez is a top-flight athlete with the potential to be an impact player at the highest level. If not for his injury, Sanchez would have been a much higher pick in this year’s draft. The injury also leaves questions about how his money tool — speed — will translate to professional ball. Sanchez has a large, athletic frame upon which one can wax poetic. There is potential for big power in the bat, as his pure bat speed from both sides of the plate mixed with his large frame lead to high grades on the future power. Big questions linger about the hit tool. His swing mechanics from both sides of the plate are very unrefined with length and lower-half inefficiencies present. His arm is solid-average.
Future: Sanchez is incredibly raw with wide discrepancies between his present and future grades in each area of his game. As a cold-weather kid, Sanchez will likely take some time to develop and will require patience. Due to his leg injury prior to the draft, it is reasonable to give him a mulligan for his performance upon entering the professional ranks in 2012. He’ll likely begin the 2013 season in the Gulf Coast League.
26. William Beckwith: 1B | L/R | 6’2”, 220 lbs. | Age: 22 | 21st round, 2010
Performance: Beckwith put together a solid 2012 campaign in Rome, posting a .291/.360/.478 line with 15 home runs and a 33:92 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 426 plate appearances. The massive first baseman also added 17 stolen bases in 26 attempts.
Tools: Beckwith does not offer much in the way of tools beyond the bat. He is decently athletic for his size, but that’s not saying much; his frame is bulky and does not offer a ton of projection for the future. He’s a poor defender at first, lacking lateral agility and skills around the bag. While he has had success in the stolen-base department thus far in his career, he seems to be more of an instinctual runner who relies on good jumps and savvy as opposed to pure foot speed, as the best home-to-first times I have clocked leave him as a well below-average runner presently. His power is legitimate, however, displaying good raw pop to all fields in both batting practice and game action. His ability to continue to hit for average as he climbs the ladder is a question mark, as his swing can get long and loopy, leading to struggles against fastballs on the inner-third and fastballs above his hands. While his strikeouts are certainly not atrocious for a power hitter, it’s worth noting that his strikeout rate was worse than South Atlantic League average. He will sometimes cheat at the plate, gearing up for fastballs in an attempt to yank them out of the park. While this is not a huge problem at his current level — a good majority of pitchers in Low-A have a hard enough time commanding their fastballs, much less their off-speed pitches — he will undoubtedly struggle against pitchers with quality secondaries as he climbs the ladder.
Future: As a first baseman, Beckwith will have to hit his way to the majors. He will move to Lynchburg in 2013 and will likely be below the median age of competition as a 22-year-old.
25. Josh Elander: C/OF | R/R | 6’1”, 215 lbs. | Age: 21 | 6th round, 2012
Performance: After hitting only seven home runs in his first two collegiate seasons, Elander pounded 11 home runs as a junior for the TCU Horned Frogs, producing a .314/.436/.525 line (.368/.484/.596 park/schedule adjusted) with a 44:42 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 223 at-bats. The Braves took him in the sixth round of the Rule 4 Draft and sent him directly to Danville, where he posted averages of .260/.366/.439 with four home runs and a 16:19 walk-to-strikeout ratio in 145 plate appearances. He spent a majority of his time behind the plate, throwing out 29 percent of base stealers while allowing four passed balls in 22 games.
Tools: While Elander was drafted as a catcher, there are signs that the team will be moving him to the outfield in 2013*. He has experience in the outfield, spending a majority of his time there as an underclassman at TCU. He has a good arm and is fairly athletic for his size. Don’t be confused, however: this is a move to expedite his bat, which is his most valuable asset. Elander begins his swing from an open stance and utilizes a big leg-kick trigger. His actions are a bit loud, which is an issue that may need to be addressed as he climbs the ladder. With that said, Elander is a smart hitter with plus raw power and a developing knack for the utilization of this power during game action. While not a tool, one of Elander’s best traits is his plate discipline, a skill that can be traced back to his days at TCU.
Future: Elander will likely move to Low-A Rome in 2013 and will look to build upon his fine debut. The bat has legitimate potential. If he is in fact moving to the outfield, however, he’ll have to hit a ton to prove that he isn’t just another dude.
*Big ups to @CygnusXS for the heads-up on this article.
24. Juan Jaime: RHP | R/R | 6’1”, 230 lbs. | Age: 25 | Signed, 2011
Performance: The Braves signed Jaime to a minor league deal after he had been released by the Diamondbacks in August of 2011. He spent all of the 2010 and 2011 seasons on the disabled list after having Tommy John Surgery. There was obviously inherent risk involved with the signing, but the potential was too hard for the Braves to pass up. In 2012, he showcased his power arsenal in Lynchburg, posting a 3.16 ERA/3.53 FIP with a 73:33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 51.1 innings pitched, allowing only 31 hits over this span. His strikeout rate was 66 percent better than the Carolina League average; his walk rate, on the other hand, was 85 percent worse than the league. He was Lynchburg’s primary closer, finishing 37 of the 42 games in which he pitched.
Tools: For Jaime, it’s all about arm strength. He can pump his fastball into the upper-90s and touch triple digits on occasion with a slider that has a fairly decent shape. The only problem: he has absolutely no idea where the ball is going when it leaves his hand. There were multiple times this season when his slider would travel over the head of a right-handed hitter and sail straight to the backstop. This pitch was a work in progress all season; at times he showed good arm speed with the pitch, but at others he showed a deliberately slow arm action, which was used in order to locate the pitch more effectively. While this can certainly help with location, it will not work against upper-level hitters. He can locate his fastball marginally better, but his command of the pitch is still loose in the zone due to his inability to locate it on a consistent basis. His mechanics are violent, featuring a big arm recoil as he falls off the mound toward the first base side. The arm action is long, which is troublesome due to the fact that his front side will occasionally rush the rest of his body, leaving his arm to do most of the work and seriously affecting his control.
Future: Jaime was added to the 40-man roster this offseason. He obviously has a long way to go with his command and control issues, but this kind of arm strength doesn’t come around often, hence the need to protect him. The natural progression would be for him to begin the year in Mississippi, barring any massive improvements or setbacks in the spring. We could see him with the big club in September.
23. Cory Gearrin: RHP | R/R | 6’3”, 200 lbs. | Age: 26 | 4th round, 2007
Performance: 2012 was another up-and-down year for Gearrin in the literal meaning of the phrase, spending portions of the season with Gwinnett and with the big club. As expected, he dominated while in Triple-A and carried his success over to Atlanta, posting a 1.80 ERA/2.79 FIP with a 20:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 innings pitched. He once again showcased his propensity to keep the ball on the ground, posting a very strong 54.7 percent groundball rate. Left-handed hitters took advantage of the sidearming righty, posting a .423 wOBA in 32 total plate appearances. While this is an admittedly small sample, lefties constituted an astounding 40 percent of his matchups last season.
Tools: At this point, we all know Gearrin’s profile. He’s a lanky sidearmer who throws a plus sinker that sits in the high-80s to low-90s, a sweeping high-70s to low-80s slider, and the occasional low-80s changeup. His repertoire plays up against right-handed hitters due to the respective movement of each pitch and the deception in his delivery, as his quick arm, short arm action, and low release point all combine to make his offerings very hard to pick up for arm-side hitters. He’s also extremely quick to the plate upon reaching his balance point, a trait that seemingly makes his pitches “jump” on batters, which adds to the overall deceptive profile.
Future: Due to the massive platoon splits he’s displayed in his brief major league career, Gearrin may be best suited as a right-handed specialist. If the changeup makes significant strides, however, he could be a pitcher who faces both lefties and righties in a pinch, although the presence of dominant lefties in the bullpen should preclude this from happening in tight spots. He seems to have the inside track for the final spot in the bullpen, though he should find competition in David Carpenter and Anthony Varvaro as the spring progresses.
22. Navery Moore: RHP | R/R | 6’2”, 212 lbs. | Age: 22 | 14th round, 2011
Performance: Going into 2012, Moore was considered to be a pitcher with a solid future as a high-leverage bullpen piece in the not-so-distant future, not unlike fellow 2011 draftee Cody Martin. He was used as both a starter and reliever in Rome, however, compiling a 3.86 ERA/3.38 FIP with an 84/45 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 102.2 innings pitched, allowing only 83 hits during this span and posting a 1.33 groundout to airout ratio. His walk rate and strikeout rate were both worse than South Atlantic League average; conversely, his hit rate and home run rate were both better than league average.
Tools: Moore throws four pitches with future potential: a low- to mid-90s fastball with good arm-side run, a mid-80s slider with good lateral movement, an upper-70s curveball with above-average depth, and a changeup that plays well off of the fastball with arm-side sink and fade. While his raw stuff was not as sharp as advertised in his full-season debut, this could purely be a function of the team stretching him out throughout the season as opposed to placing him in the bullpen to pitch in short stints. The athletic righty gets downward plane on all of his pitches due to a high arm slot and does a decent job of getting extended out front, aiding with the perceived velocity of his fastball and with the efficacy with which he finishes his secondary offerings. While both of his breaking balls are still works in progress, both have flashed above-average potential, a description that can also be applied to his changeup. He will telegraph the pitch on occasion by slowing his arm action down, an issue that will need to be ironed out against upper-level hitters. When the pitch is thrown well, however, it flashes the ability to miss bats as he climbs the ladder. Moore is an athletic pitcher with the ability to consistently repeat his delivery, but his arm action is on the long side and he displays a wrist wrap in his arm stroke that is consistent with command issues.
Future: The biggest question concerning Moore’s development is whether he is a starter or a reliever long-term. He certainly has the chance to hone his deep repertoire in a starting role, but he could move up the ladder very quickly in the bullpen. If they develop him as a starter, he’s more of a level-per-year guy. The Braves seem intrigued with his ability to pitch in the rotation and with the utility of his four offerings, so we should see him begin the year in Lynchburg’s rotation.
21. Cody Martin: RHP | R/R | 6’2”, 210 lbs. | Age: 23 | 7th round, 2011
Performance: All signs pointed to Martin developing as a bullpen piece coming into 2012. He finished 20 of the 22 games in which he pitched during his professional debut in 2011, leading to the assumption that the Braves were putting him on the fast track to middle relief. This was not the case, however, as he stepped into a somewhat loaded rotation in Lynchburg and performed rather nicely. In 107.1 innings pitched, Martin compiled a 2.93 ERA with a 123:34 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 0.86 groundout to airout ratio. All of his component statistics compared favorably to the Carolina League, including a strikeout rate that was 38 percent better than the league.
Tools: The big, durable righty possesses impeccable command of four average offerings. His fastball is nothing special in terms of velocity, usually sitting in the high-80s to low-90s, but plays up due to its plus glove-side movement. He throws two different breaking balls, a high-70s to low-80s slider that features tight spin and break along with a low-70s curveball with decent depth. The changeup, while not flashy, keeps left-handed hitters honest while giving Martin an extra weapon against them. Martin has a frame built for innings to accompany stress-free and fairly efficient mechanics.
Future: Martin is a bit tricky to evaluate. On one hand, his peripherals were excellent in his move to the rotation and he was right in line with the median age of competition in the Carolina League. On the other hand, his stuff does not project to miss a ton of bats in the upper levels and he posted a very high fly-ball rate relative to the league, a tendency that may haunt him as he climbs the ladder. Given what we have, Martin’s ceiling resides at the back-end of a rotation with the floor of a middle reliever. He’ll move up to Mississippi in 2013 and look to build upon the success he found in his first full season.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, The Baseball Cube, Minor League Central, and College Splits.
February 12, 2013 at 10:00 am by Mark Smith under Atlanta Braves
I’m risking us having to get the #BanHammer out again, but I do think this is a subject that needs to be discussed. The Braves should consider trading Craig Kimbrel. Before you jump down my throat, I’m not advocating they do it right now. I’m also not suggesting they do it for a bag of peanuts because he is the best reliever in the game. I’m also not saying they have to trade him. That’s what we are here to discuss. The Braves essentially have three choices with Kimbrel – sign him to an extension covering some free-agent seasons, take him year-to-year in arbitration or give him a contract that only covers those seasons, or trade him. Again, all of these scenarios are for AFTER this season because it doesn’t make sense to trade him now.
Why Trade Him to Begin With?
Craig Kimbrel is the best reliever in the game, and there’s no reason to think his performance so far has been fluky or unsustainable (other than the fact that he’s been so good that it’s hard to imagine him keeping it up). There are, however, reasons to consider moving him.
The first is pitcher attrition. Joakim Soria, Brian Wilson, Joe Nathan, Juan Carlos Oviedo, Jonathan Broxton, Neftali Feliz, Andrew Bailey, Sergio Santos, and Kyle Farnsworth are all closer-type relievers that have been injured for most of or entire seasons within the past few years, and while I’m not saying Kimbrel will definitely get hurt, it’s probably a more likely scenario than any of us would like to admit. I hate when players get hurt (in any situation), but we have to be realistic here.
The next reason is asking what price the Braves are likely to pay for his services. Below are some comparable contracts for closers reaching arbitration (purple) and beyond (orange – club options; green – free-agent contract).
If the averages hold true and is close to what Kimbrel receives, the Braves should have no problem affording Kimbrel’s production. But of course, arbitration works more off of comparables, which is why I separated Soria and Papelbon from the rest. Below is an fWAR comparison of their first three seasons (Note: I realize arbitration judges don’t use fWAR during cases. I’m using this as a shorthand because, well, Kimbrel does really well in saves, ERA, and getting awards. I just want to make a point of comparison.).
Kimbrel is not only comparable to those two, but he’s better than those two (and everyone else). Soria was signed to an extension at the same point in his career that Kimbrel is currently in. Papelbon went through arbitration year-by-year with no extension. If Kimbrel can be signed for the averages, that’s a lot of money but manageable, but if it’s closer to or above Papelbon (which Kimbrel will likely be able to argue), the risk mentioned above might be too great to spend over 10% of the budget (especially when other player’s salaries are beginning to escalate as well) on Kimbrel. Trading Kimbrel and also saving the millions he will cost would also net the Braves young players in return.
What Could the Braves Get in Return?
The above table refers to recent (somewhat) trades of closers. It doesn’t paint a very bright picture, but it’s worth mentioning that Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, and Andrew Bailey were the only ones traded at similar points in their careers, with Bailey the only one with a strong resume to that point (and his stock had declined due to an ERA that jumped almost 2 full runs). Bailey netted Reddick (not as highly thought of as he is now but solid), Miles Head (decent prospect whose stock was on the rise), and Raul Alcantara (filler). Kimbrel, as we’ve stated before, is a much better reliever than Bailey with a stronger resume, and he should require more in return.
To get a theoretical idea of what value Kimbrel has, let’s look at some projected values.
(Note: I used the average salaries above for the “Conservative” cost because, in that scenario, he’s not as good and wouldn’t require as much money. In the other scenarios, I used Papelbon’s comp because he will still have posted strong numbers even if it’s not as good as he had been. I suppose he could make less than this, but he has “precedent setter” written all over him. As for the values, I went with $5.25M, $5.5M, and $5.75M. It may not be precise, but it gives us an idea.)
If Kimbrel’s season isn’t so good this year, the “Conservative” estimate puts him at a surplus value around $13M. According to Victor Wang’s research, that means he’s worth a top pitching or hitting prospect that ranks in the 25-75 range on a Top 100 list. The Braves would be selling low as well in this scenario, and if Kimbrel only nets them one prospect, he’s not worth trading. Bailey’s trade would be the best comp there. Bailey’s ERA went up almost 2 runs, though his peripherals were still strong, and he netted more but less quality prospects in return. Reddick worked out wonderfully, but that wasn’t expected at the time. Again, in this situation, I’d keep Kimbrel to see if he bounced back and restored value before considering this again.
If Kimbrel has a very good but down season for him, we’ll look at the “Realistic” scenario. Oddly enough, Kimbrel’s value is pretty similar to the “Conservative” version because he’s likely to cost more as well. Because the perception of him is still likely to be positive, his value might be a little higher than $14M. In this scenario, netting a very top pitching prospect or a top 50 hitting prospect is more likely, and to help the deal be made, the Braves might also grab a lower-level prospect with some upside. At this point, I’m more likely to be enticed, but I’m probably hoping for a bidding war to up the reward. It depends on the offer.
In the “Optimistic” scenario, Kimbrel has repeated his brilliance for a third time, and his value is around $22M. At this point, a top 50 hitting prospect plus a lower 50 (in a Top 100) pitching prospect is a more likely scenario. A top 20 hitting prospect (though probably not a Top 10) is also a possibility with the chance at a lower-level flier on top of it. In all of these possibilities, the Braves would likely be looking for someone who was ready to perform at the MLB level, and the quality in return would probably be worth trading Kimbrel, clearing some salary, and filling a need elsewhere. At this point, the Braves may even be able to boost the value through the “He’s the Best in the Biz” tactic and grab a little extra value somewhere. As a further note, these trades for Kimbrel will be for quality, not quantity. It wouldn’t make sense to get 4 guys of little value in return.
Who could afford/need Kimbrel and have the pieces to fill holes (Note: the list below is simply prospects that the teams have who would fit the bill; these are not necessarily trade scenarios)?
But Let’s Say the Braves Keep Him?
Let’s say there are no acceptable trade scenarios. Here are the most applicable comps and some possible numbers through a seven-year deal (I chose seven because someone suggested it in the comments, and it went through Papelbon’s guaranteed years; five years is probably a better guess).
Those are the three most likely comps, and I gave you a few other scenarios. The “Average” and “Possible” arbitration years basically follow along Brian Wilson’s arb path, and I find that fairly realistic. Adding 2 years at $15M would bring the total to 5 years/$49 M. If Kimbrel is feeling frisky in negotiations and pushes the Papelbon comp, two more years at $15M would bring the total to 5 years/$57M. A creative solution would be a structure similar to the one used with Soria in which the arbitration years were guaranteed while the free-agent seasons were club options. Adding in club options while keeping higher salaries limits the risk for the Braves as they could decide whether or not their financial situation would allow them to keep a closer at that cost while locking in his arb years. Kimbrel would gain some security on the front end, but it is asking him to take some risk at the end as well as possibly leaving money on the table. He’ll be 29 when he “reaches” free-agency. Adding the two years after that still leaves him at the age of 31 and able to get another big contract. Papelbon chose to break records. Will Kimbrel? Only time will tell.
So Now What?
You’ll hate me for saying it, but it depends. A contract of using Wilson’s arb years for Kimbrel’s ($4.5M, $6.5M, $8.5M – $19.5M) plus 2 club options for $12M for a possible 5-year, $43.5M extension would be interesting and limits risk for the team. It’s impossible to know if either side would be amenable to this, however. It’s still a lot of money for a reliever, but Kimbrel’s earning power might also easily exceed this deal. If it gets more expensive than this, a trade is something worth considering. One can’t be sure if any of the teams from earlier would be interested in Kimbrel and willing to deal top prospects for a closer.
In the end, what I hope I’ve done is lay out the options. I’m not strictly advocating for either side, and I imagine that the Braves are likely to hold onto Kimbrel, making this mostly an academic exercise. But while trading an All-Star closer who may very well be the best in the game might not be the most popular one, it is something to consider for a team whose payroll may not skyrocket over the next five years. Heck, it’s probably something to consider regardless.
February 11, 2013 at 12:21 pm by Franklin Rabon under Atlanta Braves
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Franklin, Ben, Mark and Ethan discuss the Braves hitting prospects in our top 40 prospects list:
5 Christian Bethancourt
8 Jose Peraza
9 Edward Salcedo
10 Todd Cunningham
11 Evan Gattis, aka “The Second Coming”
12 Joey Terdoslavich
13 Tommy La Stella
14 Matt Lipka
15 Bryan De La Rosa
17 Kyle Kubitza
25 Josh Elander
26 William Beckwith
27 Fernelys Sanchez
29 Justin Black
30 Carlos Franco
31 Connor Lien
32 Joe Leonard
34 Johan Camargo
36 Blake Brown
37 Ernesto Mejia
We also discuss wOBA, TrAv, Secondary Average, wRC+, ISO and BABIP in our sabermetric primer series.
Open – The Tom Collins – TKMT
Middle – Mavis Staples – Down In Mississippi
Close – Oasis – F’ing in the bushes (feat. Ethan Purser)
February 9, 2013 at 6:01 pm by Franklin Rabon under Atlanta Braves
One major project that we’re going to undertake this year at CAC is to have a sort of ‘educational’ series, to explain some of the concepts behind the way we analyze baseball. If you’ve done a lot of the ‘required reading’ in the links above, a lot of this will be redundant, however we are also going to go into some more detail in actual blog postings as well. For some of our more regular readers, you may find some parts of this series to be addressing issues you already understand, but hopefully even the most ardent readers may at least find a new way of thinking about topics you’re already familiar with.
Today we analyze that old chestnut of the traditional baseball writer/announcer, the RBI. Perhaps no single stat, outside of maybe pitcher wins, is more divisive between so called ‘sabermetricians’ and ‘traditional baseball media’ guys and gals. The RBI has long been a staple of backs of baseball cards, the line that pops up below a hitter when they come to the plate in a television broadcast and it’s one of the Triple Crown stats that Miguel Cabrera so famously lead the American League in last year.
Traditional media will expound upon the fact that knocking in runs is the whole point of offense (which is undeniably true) and thus the RBI should be king. In some ways that’s a simply compelling argument, so we better come strong if we’re going to challenge the throne of the RBI. Further, if you take any given list of the best hitters in the league, they’re inevitably amongst the higher RBI guys. Sure, there may be an exception here and there, but mostly they’re highly intertwined. Between 1919 and 1928, Babe Ruth was undeniably the best hitter in the game, in those 10 years, he lead the league in RBI 6 times, with two of the years he didn’t being years where he was injured. Further, one of the two non-injured years, he had 164 RBI, but finished second to teammate Lou Gherig’s 175. Surely, where there is smoke, there is fire. RBIs have to be important, right? They’re soooo highly linked with great hitters, and obviously the whole purpose that a batter comes to the plate is to cause his team to score runs, right?
Let’s take a detour for a second from baseball, and consider something that baseball players have a fondness for, red sportscars. Having worked in insurance before, I’m aware that statistically, red sportscars are substantially more likely to be involved in an accident than grey sportscars. The simple act of having red paint on your car can often cause your insurance premiums to rise in some states. So, let’s consider my hypothetical friend Bob. Bob has a red sportscar, but Bob, like many of us, doesn’t exactly want to be in a wreck, so Bob trades in his red sportscar for the same model black version. Now, most of us have enough sense to call Bob an idiot. However, Bob would object to you that STATISTICS PROVE that black sportscars get into fewer wrecks than red sportscars.
What we all sort of intuitively understand, but perhaps can’t explain is that our friend Bob has confused correlation (a statistical fact) with causation. Specifically in Bob’s case he’s confused the fact that more ‘flashy’ drivers tend to buy flashy red sportscars, and are more likely to drive ‘flashy’ and pass somebody in the suicide lane during rush hour to skirt through a changing light, and get into a wreck. The red paint and more accidents are both effects of the same root cause (wanting to be flashy while on the road), but Bob has assumed that the paint’s ability to absorb high frequency light waves is causing more accidents somehow.
Now, lets add one further analogy, and apply it to the sports world. Rushing yards and team victories. One common statistic that you’ll often hear NFL announcers spew out nearly every game is something along the lines of “Team X’s record when they rush for over 150 yards is (insert very good record), so obviously they need to make it a mission to get (running back’s name) his yards, no matter what!” Seems to make sense, when the team rushes for a lot of yards, they almost always win, so they should try to rush the ball a lot. How can you even argue that point? Well, what do teams do when they have sizable leads in the fourth quarter? They run the ball in order to drain the clock. What do teams do when they’re trailing in the fourth quarter? They pass the ball in order to score while taking as little time off the clock as possible. Thus, it’s often the case that winning is causing rushing yards, and losing is causing a lack of rushing yards, instead of the other way around. The team is running because they’re winning, not winning because they’re running.
Now, how does this apply to RBI? Well, let’s consider what it takes to get an RBI: Men on base and a solid hit, a homerun, or a walk with the bases loaded (obviously that’s simplified, but okay for our purposes here). In all cases, RBI are drastically increased if a batter has lots of men on base in front of him. In our first paragraph, we mentioned the astounding fact that Babe Ruth and Lou Gherig had 164 and 175 RBI respectively. How in the heck did that happen? Well, because the 1927 Yankees had a MIND BOGGLING SIX guys in the regular lineup with on base percentages over .380. Virtually every time Babe or Lou stepped to the plate they were hitting with 1-2 guys on base in front of them. Sure, they were fantastic hitters, but having the rest of your team get on base at nearly a .400 clip as a team makes you look much better in the RBI department.
Next, let’s consider how lineups are formed by managers. What do you want your first two guys to do? Get on base as ‘table setters’ and even perhaps use speed to get into scoring position for your 3-4-5 hitters. You want your #3 hitter to get on base a lot as well, in an ideal world. What do you want from your number 3,4,5 hitters? More than anything else you want them to just be flat out great hitters, so they can best take advantage of your 1,2,3 hitters being on base a lot. It’s the spot in the lineup and quality of the lineup in front of the hitter that’s causing the RBI mostly. He also happens to be a great hitter, but he’d be a great hitter regardless of what team or what spot in the batting order he hit in. Babe Ruth would have still been a great hitter if he was (obviously idiotically) forced to bat ninth. What we see is that being a great hitter is causing the batter to hit 3rd, 4th or 5th, but batting in those positions are actually what are causing the RBI more than anything else. It’s already a convoluted chain at that point, and the convolution is further compounded by the fact that the quality of the 1,2,3 hitters (which the batter getting the RBI has no control over whatsoever) drastically impacts RBI totals.
Well, so what? RBI are still often fairly well correlated with how good of a hitter a player is, who cares if the causal chain is murky at best? The reason is that RBI aren’t so much an inherently poor stat as much as a comparatively bad stat. That is, in a world where we only had RBI totals to judge hitter quality, things wouldn’t be hopeless. But we don’t just have RBI.
What was it that made Chipper Jones a great hitter? Was it that he had a lot of runs or RBI, or that he walked a lot, hit a lot of doubles and a lot of homeruns? Obviously the latter. We wouldn’t call Chipper Jones a poor hitter if he hit ninth and got much fewer runs and RBI, we’d call the manager an idiot who was mismanaging his talent. It’s walks, extra base hits and homeruns that matter, not runs and RBI. And luckily for us, we have those statistics. We can easily look them up. We can, with a little calculation even figure out the rates at which those outcomes occur.
Essentially, using RBI to judge hitter quality is like trying to read a book through a stained glass window from 10 feet away, when you could simply walk over, pick the book up and read it normally with minimal effort. Sure, you could maybe sorta make out the words of the book through the stained glass window, but why would you even try? Why not just walk over and pick up the book and read it normally? Looking at a hitters walks per plate appearance (BB/PA), singles per plate appearance (1B/PA), doubles and triples per plate appearance (XBH/PA) and homeruns per plate appearance (HR/PA) give you a razor sharp view of how well the player performed (though, due to ball in play luck, may not tell you exactly what his skill level is, but that topic is for another day, remember, results and skill aren’t exactly the same thing). Knowing that information, the only other thing RBI would tell you is whether or not the guys who hit in front of him were good at their jobs. Why would we judge a hitter’s quality based on the quality of other people who just happen to be on his team and just happen to bat in front of him. Only in a few very small cases is the hitter the manager, and never has he been the GM, so it seems quizzical at best to judge him on those merits. Thus, we see that RBI, while not totally awful, only serve to obscure a judgement that can otherwise be crystal clear. Using RBI is like trying to listen to your favorite song over a static-y radio station when you have the CD with the song on your CD player.
Finally, let’s talk briefly about weighted on base average (wOBA) and true average (TAv), two similar statistics pioneered by Tom Tango and the Baseball Prospectus staff, respectively. We just talked about what I often call the component stats of a hitter, in a very simplified form, what these stats do is that they take those component stats, and then weight them based on how historically important the various components are (ie how much more important is a double than a single, a triple than a double, a homerun than a triple, etc), then re-scale them to give a number that roughly corresponds with our notions of what a good OBP is (wOBA) or a good batting average is (TAv). True average also takes into account a few other aspects, like bunting, and hitting into double plays as well, but (for “saberists”, unsurprisingly) that seems to not have a huge impact, and the biggest difference is simply scaling to batting average v. scaling to OBP. If you really have to have a single number, these are great, as is the league and park adjusted version of wOBA, wRC+. (we go into more detail on these three statistics, and more in the sabermetric primer series of the podcast that will be released late tomorrow/early monday).
In conclusion, the problem with RBI is that it’s essentially a distorted reflection of a hitter being a good hitter, while we have ready access to stats that are much more informative, and less distorted by teammate quality and spot in the batting order. RBI is more of an effect of an effect (batting order position) of a cause (being a good hitter) plus teammate quality, it’s not the reason why a hitter is a good hitter. There simply isn’t a good reason why we should care about RBI, other than empty tradition. Tradition isn’t necessarily bad… if it makes sense, but in the case of RBI there just isn’t any sense in using it. When you use RBI as a measure of hitter worth, you’re confusing correlation with causation. How a hitter hits is the causation. It just happens that how many people are on base in front of him is sort of roughly correlated. You shouldn’t use ‘sort of roughly correlated’ stats when you have simpler stats representing the clear causation.
February 8, 2013 at 2:17 pm by Franklin Rabon under Atlanta Braves
In the first of this year’s “plate approach series” we’ll look at brand new Brave, Justin Upton. In many ways Upton’s approach is kind of boring in that it’s not quirky at all. It’s a very solid approach, aimed at making pitchers give in to him, waiting for pitches in his wheel-house and then crushing them. But anyway, let’s just jump right into the graphs (note: all charts are generated for full career numbers, as these sorts of charts are best over really large samples):
First, we’ll start with his swing rate on 0-0 counts. In many ways this is THE defining count for a player’s overall approach, as how they approach 0-0 counts changes the entire rest of the at bat, as they’re either in the drivers seat with a favorable count, or at a disadvantage in a pitcher’s count. On the one hand, you certainly don’t want to get yourself out by making weak contact on a ball outside the zone, or even a pitcher’s pitch inside the zone. However, you also don’t want to bypass meatballs that you could likely crush while simultaneously giving the pitcher a sense that the first pitch is a ‘free strike’ for him. You need to make the pitcher afraid to throw you a get over strike, but also not get yourself out with weak contact.
Here is Justin’s swing rate graph in 0-0 counts:
and for a point of comparison, here’s a league average swing rate chart for 0-0 counts:
Basically Justin is looking for fastballs and hangers up and slightly in. Translation, he’s cherry-picking pitches he can crush. This translates to Justin having a .351 batting average and .601 slugging percentage, with a 5.2 homerun % on 0-0 counts. While Justin’s outside the strike zone chase % is league average for 0-0 counts, if you take out pitches slightly above the strike zone, where he actually still hits the ball very well, he has one of the lower chase rates. That means that he typically won’t swing at a pitch in a 0-0 count that he’s likely to make weak contact on. You may not see him swing at a pitch low and away on a 0-0 count ALL SEASON LONG.
Next, let’s try to understand how pitchers pitch Justin in 0-0 counts. First, let’s look at location:
Here is where pitchers pitch Justin in 0-0 counts:
And here is League Average for right handed hitters:
First look and they seem roughly similar. However, you will notice that the league average hitter does get more pitches over the heart of the plate. Essentially this is simply a reflection of pitchers being rightfully afraid to come over the plate to Justin Upton in early counts, especially inside or up. Essentially, the pitcher’s strategy is to try to paint one on the black low and away to Justin. Which is obviously common sense, but I think it is instructive to see how much more careful they are to Justin than a league average type hitter. To look at the raw numbers, pitchers throw Justin a strike on the first pitch 57% of the time, compared to a league average of 60% of the time. While this may not sound like a huge difference, it is relatively large, as it’s enough to mean that Justin is in the 77th percentile for fewest strikes seen in 0-0 counts.
Now, lets look at release velocity, to get a rough feel for pitch type:
and here’s a league average RHB:
The biggest thing to notice is the 1 MPH difference in the low and away portion. While this may not sound huge, it does mean that Justin is seeing significantly more changeups low and away than an average hitter. He is in the 85th percentile for most off-speed pitches seen in 0-0 counts. in other areas, velocity is nearly the same, or just slightly lower, indicating that he does see more off-speed stuff across the board, but its especially prevalent low and away.
Now let’s look at how Justin handles those pitches a bit more, first with contact rate:
league average RHB:
The thing to note is his extremely high contact rate on pitches inside compared to a league average. What this tells you is that he’s even more mentally selective in 0-0 counts than even the swing rate chart above would indicate. What this is telling you is that when Justin swings in 0-0 counts he’s almost always looking for the ball to be middle-in, and that when he swings at pitches outside of that zone, it’s more that he was fooled on the pitch than that he actually intended to swing there. On balls middle-in, Justin locks in and almost never misses the pitch in 0-0 counts. He’s definitely looking for a specific pitch in those counts.
Next let’s look at his in-play ISO in 0-0 counts:
League Average RHB:
Keep in mind here that a league average ISO is around .150, so any of the black to dark blue area is actually pretty good. It’s a little odd that Justin has such large red areas low and away. However, because Justin swings and makes contact in those areas so rarely, it’s partly a function of small sample size. One further point to make is that it also seems that while Justin TENDS to lay off these sorts of pitches, he occasionally goes to the plate looking for them, hoping that he will catch a pitcher trying to get a ‘lazy’ outer half first pitch strike, and he then punishes the pitch. So, part of those outside red areas are simply a function of Justin very selectively looking for them at times, to prevent pitchers from believing that anything over the outer half is a free strike. He’s basically saying “sure, I won’t swing at those pitches most of the time early in counts, but if you get lazy, you’re playing roulette out there, you better not only hit the outside, but it better be a good pitch or it way well get deposited into the seats.”
So, in summation for 0-0 counts, basically we should expect to see a lot of Justin taking changeups low and away. We should expect the occasional pitcher to challenge him middle in (either by idiotic choice or mistake), and we should expect Justin to handle such pitches very effectively. Further, we should occasionally expect Justin to cherry pick pitches low and away early in counts and punish them, if a pitcher has shown that he’s just going to live out there early in the count.
Next, we will look at three categories of counts: Hitters counts (1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 3-1), pitchers counts (0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2) and neutral counts (1-1, 2-1, 3-2). While 0-0 counts have a robust sample size, due to every at bat having one, the other counts need to be grouped to have an effectively large enough sample to make graph analysis such as this effective. Further, it saves us from doing this for all of the 12 possible pitch counts.
First, let’s look at neutral counts (1-1, 2-1, 3-2):
Swing rate for Justin in neutral counts:
League average RHB in neutral counts:
The first thing to notice is that while Justin is more aggressive in 0-0 counts than a league average hitter, he’s less aggressive in neutral counts than a league average hitter. While an average player takes the vast majority of first pitch strikes, in many cases just giving the pitcher a free strike, Justin makes the pitcher earn it. Conversely, in neutral counts the league average batter will swing at a lot of pitches that he is likely to make weak contact on, while Justin is still looking for pitches he can drive. Again, the theme is making the pitcher earn his keep. While the pitcher doesn’t get a free strike in a 0-0 count merely by chunking the ball over the plate, he doesn’t get weak contact in neutral counts merely by getting it anywhere near the plate either.
In many circles, you’ll hear talk of either being a ‘patient hitter’ being a virtue, while in other circles the ‘aggressive hitter’ is better. What Justin shows is that neither view is really correct, a hitter must be both appropriately patient and aggressive, depending on the count and game situation.
For these neutral counts we are going to skip going over where and how pitchers pitch to Justin, because it would largely be rehashing themes from above. Pitchers tend to be more extreme to Justin with pretty much only fastballs up and only off speed down with Justin than they are to a league average batter, just further showing the theme of pitchers simply being more careful with their pitch selection with Justin than an average hitter.
Next, let’s look at neutral count contact rate for Justin (we won’t bother with league average contact rate here, since it is virtually indistinguishable from 0-0 league average contact rate)
The only thing to note here is that the contact rate is a little further spread out, though still skewing towards inside. Essentially this further reflects the observation from above that Justin is still pretty selective and looking for pitches to drive in neutral counts, though he does swing more than in 0-0 counts.
Finally, let’s see his in-play ISO, to get a sense for how hard he hits the ball in neutral counts:
League Average RHB:
The biggest thing to note here is that Justin does serious damage throughout the strike zone in neutral counts. Low and away is a bit of an area where pitchers can get weak contact, but that’s true for most any hitter. Pretty much the entire rest of the plate he has not only covered, but is primed to punish baseballs for entering. Yeah, he’s good, I suppose.
Next, let’s shift to pitchers’ counts (0-1, 0-2, 1-2, 2-2):
Justin’s Swing Rate in pitchers’ counts:
League Average RHB:
While obviously Justin swings at more pitches, because he is forced to, it’s worth noting that he’s still more selective than a league average RHB in these counts. Justin is in the 95th percentile for lowest swing percentage in pitchers counts. ie 95 out of 100 RHB’s swing more often in these counts than Justin does. However, he actually is right at league average in called strike percentage, ie he doesn’t actually take more called strikes in pitchers’ counts, despite swinging at FAR FEWER pitches in these counts. Justin is confident in his sense of the strike zone and while he’s a bit more defensive, he’s still looking for pitches he can drive.
Let’s now look at how successful he is at driving pitches in these counts:
Justin In-Play ISO in pitchers’ counts:
League Average RHB:
While most league average hitters can do a little bit of damage in these counts on balls right around the middle of the plate, we see Justin does serious damage to mistakes, even in pitchers counts. Further, when you combine this with the fact that Justin isn’t swinging at nearly as many pitchers’ pitches in these counts, we see that he’s making a lot more solid contact than your league average hitter. This leads Justin to a .325 slugging percent in pitchers’ counts, which is in the 71st percentile in such counts. So, even when he’s at a disadvantage, Justin is still a very dangerous hitter.
Finally, let’s see what Justin does in hitters’ counts (1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 3-1):
Justin’s swing rate in hitters’ counts:
League average RHB:
Similar to the 0-0 counts, we actually see that Justin is more aggressive in hitters’ counts than a league average player is. This discrepancy is compounded by the fact that Justin actually sees fewer strikes than a league average hitter in these counts. So, he swings a substantial amount more than an average hitter. However, this doesn’t lead to poor performance. On the contrary, Justin is in the 88th percentile in wOBA in hitters counts. Echoing his approach in 0-0 counts, Justin is aware that you can’t give pitchers a free strike, even in hitters’s counts. He looks for pitches and seeks to destroy them. Let’s see just how badly with the in play ISO graph:
Well, I had to enter in the raw numbers here, because Justin basically broke the graph, since a .400 ISO is so high that the graph stops registering differences above that. In hitters’ counts Justin had ISOs over .800. An .800+ in play ISO is absurd. This is why in hitters counts Justin is in the 88th percentile in wOBA, 85th percentile in homerun rate, 90th percentile in slugging percentage, 87th percentile in batting average, 65th percentile in walk rate, and 82nd percentile in OBP.
Justin Upton is good at hitting baseballs very hard. And he’s at an age where he should, somehow, continue to get better at that skill. He’s very good in all counts.
Particularly of note is how Justin approaches counts a bit backwards, being more aggressive in counts where an average hitter takes a lot of strikes, and more patient in counts where average hitters get themselves out very often with weak contact. This is how truly elite hitters like Chipper Jones often did it, and while Justin’s approach isn’t quite as refined as Chipper’s was, it is very much on the way to getting there if he shows solid growth, and Justin has even better power than Chipper did.
This guy could be scary good over the next 3 years, and it’s going to be fun to watch.