Reds 8, Tigers 4
We were told to expect a pitcher’s duel tonight, and we sort of got one. David Price (14 GS, 97.1 IP, 2.50 ERA, 2.94 FIP) and Johnny Cueto was effective ahead of the rain delay but both gave up a home run before giving it to the bullpens. The Reds tied it at three, then Collins pulled ahead with a home run, and then the Chris Dominguez tripled in the tying run. That 4-4 score carried into extras. The Tigers looked cooked in the 10th, but a Martinez-Kinsler-McCann relay nabbed Bruce at the plate to extend the game. In the 12th, the Reds put two men on but Krol survived to put two more on in the 13th before giving way to Soria, who surrendered a walk off slam. The game was well-played for a while, and then it became a mess. Justin Verlander (1 GS, 5 IP, 3.60 ERA, 6.11 FIP) goes Thursday.
The Moment: Collins delivers a pinch-hit, go-ahead home run in the 8th.
Reds 5, Tigers 2
In the end, the Tigers will probably regret the “who cares if they hit solo home run strategy.” The three solo shots were the difference in the ballgame as Frazier hit two and Bruce took one against the starter Kyle Ryan (2 GS, 19.1 IP, 3.26 ERA, 5.69 FIP), and then the Reds threw two more on the Tigers pen. The Tigers nabbed a run in the first and an error opened the door to another in the 5th, but they couldn’t put together anything too substantial. They split the games in Detroit and will shift to Cincy with David Price (13 GS, 92.1 IP, 2.44 ERA, 2.89 FIP) going in game one.
The Moment: James McCann nails Billy Hamilton trying to steal.
Anibal Sanchez Night in America.
Tigers 6, Reds 0
The Tigers put together a big four-run 6th inning on Monday, but Anibal Sanchez (14 GS, 91 IP, 4.65 ERA, 3.98 FIP) only needed one. He allowed two hits and faced one over the minimum en route to a CGSO and a 90 game score. Sanchez set down the final 16 men he faced and dominated, and admittedly weak Reds lineup. We were also treated to a homer from Martinez and a glorious misplay from former Tiger Brennan Boesch. Bask in it, folks! Kyle Ryan (1 GS, 13 IP, 2.08 ERA, 4.33 FIP) goes Tuesday.
The Moment: Sanchez finishing the job.
With Alex Avila out for an extended period of time, James McCann stepped in to take the everyday catcher reins. Offensively, he’s provided a solid .264/.293/.400 line (90 wRC+), which puts him slightly above the average catcher at the plate. He’s not Buster Posey, and won’t ever be, but he’s an above average hitter in his first season at a position that usually lags behind in offensive development.
We’ve also seen McCann nail plenty of would-be-base-stealers. According to Baseball-Prospectus’ new base running statistic, James McCann has been the 7th best catcher when it comes to preventing steals per opportunity. The names ahead of him this year are: Molina, Posey, the other McCann, Bethancourt, Ramos, and Realmuto. For the most part, this is a who’s who of base runner assassins.
His bat checks out and his arm is doing some heavy lifting. The only thing left for McCann to do is receive the pitching staff. And that’s where we run into some concerns. By the most popular metrics, McCann has been a terrible pitch framer. BP has him 3rd worst at -21 strikes (about -3 runs) and Stat Corner has him at -50 calls and about -7 runs.
Before we get into the real analysis, a word of explanation. First, the two numbers are different because BP uses a more sophisticated model that attempts to control for a lot of other factors. StatCorner is basically just modeling the probability of a strike and whether he gets it. As a result, you would expect to see the BP numbers more constrained. In other words, pay attention to the fact that both models have him in the bottom three, and that they say he’s costing the team 3-7 runs with his glove so far. You can probably expand that out to 1-2 wins per season if it were to continue.
So if this is true, it’s a problem. Avila’s framing has been up and down over the years, but has seemingly been a very effective backstop. How do we make sense of this new data with McCann?
Before we go any further, McCann is only a couple thousand framing chances into his big league career. While the people who make the framing stats will tell you that a couple thousand pitches is a pretty good sample, I don’t agree with that perspective entirely. For one, there may be a learning curve for catchers making their debuts for lots of reasons. Learning the pitcher, paying attention to their offense, not knowing the umpires well. 2000 pitches might be a fine sample for a veteran, but I’m not sold that can be applied to rookies.
Second, we don’t actually care much about the total number of pitches eligible for framing. Obviously, we want to exclude swings and the stats do that, but not every pitch is equally framable. This is also factored into the metrics, as they hang a probability of being called a strike into the model. But let’s say we’re looking at 100 called pitches. Then let’s say you wind up with +2 strikes for that game. That’s like .3 runs or so of value above average.
The key, however, for determining ability is how well you did on each individual pitch. If you have 100 pitches but 95 of them were going to be a ball or strike 95% of the time, you are only being judged on five pitches, essentially. Where the pitcher throws the ball not only determines how valuable a frame job is, but how many chances you have to show your stuff. And we don’t know how those chances are distributed per catcher each year.
For this reason, the high level data does not convince me that McCann is a bad framer. It doesn’t prove the opposite, but I want to be clear that the observations we have so far could be misleading.
Framing is hard to measure
While I admire the work that’s been done on framing, it’s far from finished. I won’t go into a ton of detail, but while framing stats control for lots of factors, the models treat the observations as independent when they most certainly are not. Imagine a pitch perfectly on the corner gets called a ball even though it was well-framed. Based on every factor involved, the umpire would normally call that a strike 75% of the time (number made up). But he calls it a ball.
If that happens, the model updates its prediction about the umpire’s zone, and let’s say the identical pitch would now be a predicted strike 74% of the time. Let’s pretend the exact same pitch unfolds right after. Same everything.
Ball or strike? The odds still say strike, but the umpire is probably more likely to call a ball because of the path dependent nature of the last call. Umpires have variable strike zones and they make a clear effort to maintain a single zone over the course of game. If they blow one call, they likely feel obligated to maintain that zone for the rest of the game, at least.
Now I don’t have numbers to demonstrate this theory, but I believe very strongly that it is true. And if it’s true, the framing metrics we have are much less precise than we think they are. Without getting off on a tangent about where I’d like to see the research go, I’ll leave you with this point as it relates to McCann. Experienced catchers are in a better position to adapt to these changing conditions. McCann might have framed both pitches beautifully, but he’s not getting credit. Yadier Molina might learn from the first and adjust for the second. It comes with experience, not ability. Framing is partly mental and you would assume the mental aspect creates a larger snowball effect.
Basically, new catchers are more open to deviations from true talent. And that could be happening with McCann. I don’t know if it is, I’m just saying the numbers on the page could easily be misleading about how well he’s framed pitches.
Because that’s just it. Framing is about making a ball look more like a strike and about making a strike look like a strike. If you were to contend that McCann has gotten fewer calls than the average catcher so far, it would be harder to argue than if you said he hasn’t framed well. A 75% strike and a 60% strike have varying degrees of difficulty, but if you get five 60% pitches and one 75%, a “26% framer” only gets one call even if he does the same job on each pitch. In other words, the payoff is ‘yes/no’ while the skill is not. That’s a problem.
So let’s talk about McCann
All of this prelude has suggested that there are lots of non-McCann reasons why the numbers themselves shouldn’t worry you. I don’t really think the first 2000 frames are reflective of a catcher’s talent level. There’s a lot going on about framing that we haven’t measured just right. The real thing we want to measure is where the ball crosses the plate relative to where the umpire thinks it crosses the plate. It doesn’t matter if you get an extra strike, it matters how much you increase the probability of a strike. The metrics measure you in the aggregate and that might not tell us what we want to know.
Baseball Savant has 2,745 framable pitches for McCann. Let’s compare balls and strikes.
Now let’s try Posey, who rates very well.
The different sample sizes are hard to parse, but notice in McCann’s there are a few more balls called in the center of the zone. This is a great example of the problem we might want to study. The umpire might have totally blown those calls, but McCann gets dinged because the umpire almost always gets it right. If the umpire gets the call right 98% of the time, but is 100% to blame for the mistake in this case, the catcher gets a huge penalty even though it isn’t his fault.
What we really want to do is evaluate McCann’s performance on individual pitches to see if he was responsible for the calls that went for and against him. Here’s the worst example of this problem. Not his job to frame this pitch and the umpire gives up on it.
Granted, I’m not showing you all of the pitches because that would be crazy. That’s what we want to watch going forward. Look for the calls McCann doesn’t get and decide if he did something wrong. We’ll revisit this when there’s more data.
Tigers 8, Indians 1
With the threat of rain hanging over the metro area, the Tigers played the Indians in two acts on Sunday, winning both bouts. They led 2-0 entering the delay thanks to a massive home run by Cabrera, and they scored six runs on the back nine, thanks in part to a big home run from JD Martinez. Alfredo Simon (12 GS, 76.2 IP, 2.58 ERA, 3.47 FIP) gave them five solid innings before the delay and the bullpen held the line after despite a late scare, giving the Tigers another series win against the Indians, setting up a four game set with the other Ohio team. Anibal Sanchez (13 GS, 82 IP, 5.16 ERA, 4.26 FIP) gets it going on Monday.
The Moment: Cabrera hits another mammoth, 454 foot home run.
Indians 5, Tigers 4
The focus of the afternoon was on Justin Verlander (1 GS, 5 IP, 3.60 ERA, 6.10 FIP). The Tigers didn’t need to win today, but they really wanted to see signs of good things to come from Verlander, and I would argue they did. He sat 93-94 and reached back for 94-97 when he got into trouble in the 5th inning. He didn’t strike many out, but given how long he’d waited to get back on a mound, he looked about as good as we could have hoped. The Tigers lead for most of the day, getting out to a 2-0 lead and then a 3-1 lead before the bullpen let them fall to 4-3 and 5-4. In the 9th, they got a walk from Miggy and a single from Cespedes before JD bounced into a double play. They’ll try to take the series on Sunday with Alfredo Simon (11 GS, 71.2 IP, 2.76 ERA, 3.59 FIP) on the hill.
The Moment: Gose makes a diving catch to preserve Verlander’s 1st inning.
The Platonic ideal.
Tigers 4, Indians 0
This one had everything. It started and ended with a very smooth David Price (13 GS, 92.1 IP, 2.44 ERA, 2.89 FIP), who went the distance allowing 7 base runners and striking out 8 amid his third career CGSO and first career Maddux. Salazar held the Tigers back until the 6th inning, when Cabrera came to the plate with two men on and hit a dazzling home run, even for him (see below). The lead held, thanks to some terrific glovework by Jose Iglesias and business as usual for the Tigers ace. Everything was perfect on this night, setting up quite the event on Sunday. The 2015 debut of Justin Verlander (2015 Debut), who probably doesn’t like the idea of someone else sitting on his throne.
The Moment: Cabrera hits one into the camera well.
Shane Greene is getting sent to the minor leagues and because Shane Greene is not injured, this is bad news and not good news. Greene was acquired this offseason after an impressive 2014 debut despite relatively uninspired minor league numbers. He was gangbusters out of the gate, then got hit around, then was okay, then got rocked. Three good, four bad, three good, four bad. Shane Greene’s season as a Tiger.
The word we’ve heard a lot is “hittable.” Greene’s walk rate is lower this year (good!) and his home run rate, even after the nightmare in Anaheim, isn’t that much higher than it was in 2014 when he was very good. His strikeout rate fell from 23.5% in 2014 to 15.1% in 2015. His BABIP is actually down, but with far fewer strikeouts, that equates to more hits overall even if the rate per ball in play is the same.
So, in a nutshell, yes. Greene is more hittable. This isn’t batted ball luck or HR/FB% luck. Compare his swing, contact and zone rates for each of his seasons. He’s throwing more pitches in the zone, batters are swinging more often, and they are making more contact. That’s a bad combination.
You want to either induce swings at pitches outside the zone to generate poor contact or to generate swings and misses in or out of the zone. He’s not succeeding in either department.
It’s also telling that while he’s throwing more strikes, they aren’t quality strikes. Take a look at Bill Petti’s Edge%. Shane Greene is throwing a lot more pitches in the heart of the plate.
Before we look for the “why,” let’s also check to see if there’s a concern regarding decreased stuff overall. Greene’s pitches are going to different spots, but are they worse in terms of velocity and movement?
It looks like his velocity is down a bit.
If we look at movement, you can see some separation between his changeup and sinker and slider and cutter developing this year.
It’s hard to say, but that may be giving hitters more of a chance to identify the pitches. I also pulled release point, but this time I grouped the first three starts of 2015 with the 2014 data:
The release point is elevated this year, but while Brooks controls for park effect, we don’t know how much he mound effects a pitcher’s delivery.
Overall, it’s pretty clear Greene’s problem is too many pitchers over the middle of the plate. Perhaps the pitches have a little less deception and oomph, but it looks more like he’s catching too much plate than anything else. We can observe a minor release point change, but it’s also not drastic enough to feel totally confident about it as the cause.
I think there’s a pretty obvious lesson here. For Greene to succeed, he needs to focus on getting hitters to chase rather than pitching to contact. Pitching to contact is not his friend. He needs to work away from the heart of the plate and get back to the zone coverage he had in 2014. Especially against lefties. Lefties are killing him, to the tune of a .406 wOBA. He wasn’t great against them last year, but this is a 60 point increase compared to a 2 point increase versus righties.
This just about says it all. Pitch location to lefties, last year and this year.
Greene needs to avoid the zone and he needs to do so especially against left-handed batters. Righties are putting the ball in play plenty, but not with the kind of authority that lefties do. He’s got to work on his command. It might be a game plan issue or it might be physical, but to get a useful Greene back in Detroit, he needs to get a little less hittable.
Not so good.
Cubs 12, Tigers 3
On Wednesday, the Tigers [REDACTED]. The Tigers got a big three run homer from Cespedes and McCann made an incredible catch in foul territory, but then [REDACTED]. Unfortunately, the Tigers had to settle for the split ahead of the weekend set with the Indians. David Price (12 GS, 83.1 IP, 2.70 ERA, 3.06 FIP) will kick it off on Friday.
The Moment: James McCann makes a terrific grab.
On Tuesday night, Anibal Sanchez pitched well! This is the opening sentence of a post because it’s a rare occurrence in 2015. It was his 13th start of the season and it was his 5th good start in terms of runs allowed and his 6th good start by fielding independent numbers. No matter how you slice it, that’s not a good percentage.
But Sanchez was very good on Tuesday, so let’s review a couple of points. First, as I’ve been saying all year, his stuff wasn’t the problem and his good outing supports that point. The movement (below) and velocity (not shown) wasn’t too different from the year at large.
His release point is another story, as he seems to have shifted on the mound before his last start. You can see one cluster of circles over there in the first shot of the GIF and then Tuesday’s cluster staying out there. He’s clearly making an adjustment this month.
So on Tuesday, he didn’t come inside to lefties and he lived away.
I made the case earlier this year that it seemed like Sanchez had simply just gotten crushed on mistakes. That makes some sense, given that we aren’t detecting a “stuff” problem. The ball just didn’t go to the right place in some situations and he got nailed for it. Tuesday, he got tagged once and Rajai took care of that problem, balancing his luck.
A lot of people like to think batted ball velocity is the big factor we don’t capture in FIP and xFIP, but at least as it relates to Sanchez this year, Tuesday’s start was very much in the middle of the pack. It wasn’t like he figured out quality of contact suppression.
Lesson of the day: There wasn’t anything wrong with Sanchez, he just made some mistakes. And that’s a good thing. There’s nothing about his stuff that’s preventing him from pitching well and he hasn’t lost his command wholesale. He got jumped for some dingers when he hung pitches, but when that doesn’t happen, he looks fine.
Of course he’s to blame for the home runs, but there’s no reason to think he’s doing something that would systematically lead to more homers going forward. Last night, he pitched well. The balls that were hit hard had a low trajectory so they didn’t go for homers. Every pitcher gives up hard contact sometimes and it looks like Sanchez had just decided to give up that contact in the absolute worst kind of cluster to start the year.
Sanchez is fine and his performance on Tuesday hopefully reminds us of that.