Revisiting James McCann Catching Jacoby Ellsbury
If you happen to follow along with me on Twitter, you’re no stranger to my commentary on great catching. I grew up catching, so while you couldn’t classify me as “naturally talented,” I’m a student of the craft. And James McCann put together a dandy on Monday. Here’s me reacting live.
And here’s the throw live:
Notice a couple things. First, Gardner is bluffing the bunt which keeps McCann back. Second, it’s not a great pitch to throw on because it’s low. Third, watch how quickly McCann unloads this throw while keeping it right on the money. You couldn’t hand that ball to Kinsler in a better location.
But that’s not all. The base runner is Jacoby Ellsbury and Ellsbury is one of the best base runners of his era. He’s added 30 runs just via stolen bases in his career and another 10 runs doing other good base running stuff. From 2013-2014, he was worth about 2 WAR in base running alone. And you can see it in the little box in the corner, he got a good jump.
Another angle, tells the story. It wasn’t the best jump in the history of baseball, but he’s off and running and gets to top speed quickly. When McCann gets the ball, Ellsbury is about halfway to second.
I’m an Avila fan, but James McCann isn’t to be trifled with.
Porcello’s Release Point Slid, His Results Tumbled
Remember the first six weeks of the season? Those were simpler times. Let’s not talk about what’s gone wrong writ large. Let’s talk about one problem and it’s root cause. Rick Porcello was awesome through May 17. Don’t believe me? Here are numbers!
|Through May 17||8||52.2||2.91||3.22||3.34|
Tremendous! Great work Rick! Not only did you carry your 2013 improvements over to 2014, you’re actually getting better against lefties and with men on base. Everything’s coming up Milhouse!
Uh oh! That’s not very good. If you’ll recall, after that great start on May 17, Porcello got a couple extra days of rest due to an injured left side. The Tigers said they wanted to be very careful and I don’t know if the two things are certainly related, but take a look at his release point adjustment since May 17 when the injury was revealed:
Porcello might not be healthy, or he may have gotten into bad habits to protect the once injured side. It could be nothing, or it could be something.
One Quick Thing: Alburquerque’s Walk Rate Plummets!
This post isn’t going to require much context. It’s going to short and to the point because it doesn’t require a lot of fancy “words” to grab your attention. This is Al Alburquerque’s 2014 season in three graphs.
First, his walk rate by year.
Then, his walk rate with men on base.
Then his percentage of pitches in the zone with men on base, using the Baseball Savant classification. Note: Same pattern holds using other definitions of the zone.
Alburquerque hasn’t walked anyone with men on base this year! He’s throwing more strikes when he gets into trouble and it’s working. You’d much rather allow a batter to make contact than issue a walk and Al-Al is doing just that when he has men on base behind. Given how good his stuff is, challenging hitters is probably a good idea. You don’t have to be that cute when your slider moves like his does. With relievers it’s always small sample size, but this is at the pitch level, so it’s not useless. If he isn’t done posting walk rates in the 15% range, he’s going to be nails.
One Quick Thing: Smyly’s High Pitch to Altuve
So listen. Smyly didn’t have his best day, but that’s okay. It wasn’t a bad day or anything. In times like these, we should take comfort in the parts of the game that are fun, even if the sum of their parts didn’t go our way. I’m obviously talking about Jose Altuve. Particularly, a pitch Smyly threw to him in the fifth inning.
Altuve is short. We get it, but one of the fun things we can see at Brooks Baseball is where Pitchf/x draws his strike zone. For Altuve, the top of the zone is 2.97 feet off the ground. Which is kind of amazing. That had my attention all week. Then, Smyly threw a really high pitch and it made me wonder if that was the highest pitch anyone has ever thrown to Altuve!
Here’s the pitch:
It’s 5.1 feet off the ground, according to Pitchf/x. Graphically:
Based on data available at Baseball Savanat, we can find 15 pitches in Altuve’s career that were higher. Several were intentional walk/pitchouts, which don’t count. The highest real one came on April 12, 2013. It was 5.985 feet off the ground! So Smyly didn’t break a record, but he was close. Enjoy:
One Quick Thing: Is Verlander Much Better or Much Worse?
Since it’s no longer April and 1) we can feel better psychologically about discussing small sample size statistics and 2) I have dramatically more free time, it’s worth looking into some early season trends. Unfortunately, this is a Tigers website and the team has only played like seven games this season due to the rainouts and off days, so we’re a little behind everyone else. To that end, Justin Verlander.
I pointed out last week that he’s clearly over his mid-2013 struggles. If you look at his numbers dating back to last September, postseason included, you’d be very pleased. In 15 starts, he’s thrown 102.2 innings and turned in a 1.93 ERA and 1.84 FIP. That’s Pedro Martinez at his peak kind of stuff, and we’re talking about a half season’s worth of data.
But if you look at only the 2014 season, there are a couple of red flags. Should we worry?
His strikeout rate is way down (18.2%) and his walk rate is slightly up (8.8%) over last season, and last season wasn’t his best work. We’re talking about a 7% drop in K rate and 2% increase in walk rate from his 2011-12 peaks. That’s more balls in play and more free bases. Fortunately, he’s suppressing home runs extremely well so far this season, which means his ERA and FIP look great. But his xFIP is a gaudy 4.37, which isn’t encouraging. If his HR/FB% regresses back to his career norm, his 2.48 ERA is going to increase along with it. Now Verlander has always been better than average when it comes to limiting home runs, but he simply cannot continue to allow a 1.9 HR/FB%. That’s not something of which a person is capable.
The reality is probably that his HR rate will jump but that his strikeout rate will join it, creating something of a balancing effect. Verlander hasn’t been getting extremely lucky, so it’s not like a huge number of hard hit balls are going to start falling and he’s going to wind up struggling to get through four innings. He’s also been worse against RHH than LHH, which is almost certainly something that won’t continue.
I’m not at all worried. His curveball has looked very good and he’s been in control during most of his starts. He’s preventing runs for now, and should start picking up more strikeouts as that becomes necessary.
One Quick Thing: The Smyly Transition
Drew Smyly was a starter and then a reliever and now he’s a starter again. After spending a couple of weeks in the pen, Smyly makes his second start of the season tonight against the White Sox, so let’s take a quick look at how he performs as a starter compared to as a reliever.
We all know that Smyly was better on an inning by inning basis in 2013 while pitching out of the bullpen. That’s pretty common. When you’re only asked to go one or two innings, you do better than when you have to throw five to seven. Smyly increased his strikeout rate, decreased his walk rate, allowed fewer runs, got more ground balls, got batters to swing more often, and got batters to make less contact when they swung.
In pretty much every way, Smyly performed better as a reliever. But something that’s very curious about the whole thing is that Smyly didn’t throw harder out of the pen. Pitchf/x (per the classifications at FanGraphs) has Smyly throwing about a mile per hour softer on every pitch (four seam, two seam, cutter, slider, and change). That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it’s strange that he would move to the bullpen, throw softer, and get better. That’s not a typical progression at all.
Now it’s not as if this velocity change was dramatic or worrisome, but normally we think of guys moving to the bullpen and throwing harder because they don’t need to save as much energy for later innings, and as a result, they tend to pitch a little better. That isn’t how Smyly improved. It also doesn’t seem like he got much more bite on his pitches.
One potential explanation is that he did a better job in 2013 of releasing his fastball and breaking ball from the same spot, meaning it was harder for the batter to distinguish between them, but even those differences are slight.
Another explanation is that Smyly killed lefties in 2013 to the tune of a .212 wOBA against compared to .304 for RHH. The 2012 gap was .293/.327. In 2012, he faced lefties 31% of the time and saw them 43% of the time in 2013. That can explain some of the basic results because he had the platoon advantage more often, but it doesn’t explain why he got way better against lefties and only a little better against righties.
Perhaps we can turn to the times through the order penalty (TTOP). In 2012, Smyly allowed a .282 wOBA the first time, .359 wOBA the second time, and .315 wOBA the third time. In 2013, he was almost never asked to face batters multiple times in one game.
*If someone notices an error in that calculation, let me know. Used a shortcut. Could be a rounding error here or there.
Unfortunately, this isn’t super encouraging. The TTOP is a very real phenomenon and it appears that Smyly isn’t immune. He didn’t really get better, he just didn’t let guys get multiple looks against him. Pitchers have to struggle with this constantly and it will be important for him to mix his pitches and give different looks as he tries to pitch deep into games. He was still a solid starter in 2012, but we probably shouldn’t expect his 2013 gains to carry over.
One Quick Thing: Verlander’s Resurgence
Verlander got off to a great start last April, but after a disaster outing in Arlington on May 16th, the wheels came off relative to what we’ve come to expect of the Tigers’ ace. In 20 starts from May 16 to August 27, Verlander had a 4.45 ERA and 4.12 FIP. Those aren’t so rough that you’re moving him to the bullpen or cutting him loose, but man, for the guy who was the best pitcher in the league over the previous four seasons, it doesn’t look good.
Then a funny, or perhaps expected, thing happened. Verlander came back. Since September 1, he’s been incredible.
Among qualifying starters since September 1 (including postseason), only Andrew Cashner has a lower ERA. Only Sonny Gray and Hyun-Jin Ryu have allowed a lower ISO. Only Liriano, Straily, and Scherzer have higher swinging strike rates than Verlander since then. He’s averaged 94.2 mph on his fastball, maxing out at 99.1. No serious platoon issues. Nothing.
I wrote extensively last season about Verlander’s release point mess during the middle of last year and that issue appears to be resolved. Verlander is Verlander again. Everyone can rest easy. He’s not going to be the best pitcher in the league for much longer, or maybe ever again, but he’s still going to be very good for a very long time. He’s going to get worse, which is something we have to accept, but he’s not going to be a below average starter.
Let’s hope the same translation applies to Miguel Cabrera and that his early season struggles are a similar issue requiring a simple tweak.
One Quick Thing: Porcello Deploys The Slider
So for a long time, Rick Porcello’s biggest issue was that he couldn’t quite figure out his breaking ball. He was using a slider, but it wasn’t working for him at all and he famously shifted to a curveball in 2013 which worked really well. Porcello used it to improve his strikeout rate significantly and when paired with his solid changeup and dynamite sinker, he took the leap for which everyone had been waiting.
A funny thing happened on Saturday. Porcello pulled out the slider and it generated some swinging strikes.
If you’re not well-versed in the parlance of the game, pitchers who strike batters out are more likely to be successful, which seems obvious. But beyond that, pitchers who get batters to swing and miss are are more likely to get strikeouts. Apply the transitive property and you have Swings and Misses = Success. It’s obviously not perfect, but it’s a good sign. Porcello was already way better in 2013 without the slider (he threw one about 5-6% of the time). If this becomes something he can tap into on occasion (he threw 10 out of 93 today, including five swinging strikes), things could get very, very interesting for the 25 year old right hander.
One Quick Thing: Anibal’s Magic Pitch
Anibal Sanchez missed a little time this spring with a minor shoulder injury and had some bad fortune with respect to the weather over the last couple of weeks, which meant he had a short leash going into Friday’s start. He had some issues early, but settled in quite nicely during innings 2-4.
Last year, Sanchez had the highest swing and miss rate of his career, due in part to his ability to generate more whiffs with his changeup. On Friday, he threw a “changeup off his changeup” as Dan and Jim put it, taking some extra off the pitch to make Adam Jones look silly. You’ll notice that pitch way down there at about 75 mph.
This is a nice weapon. Not only does Sanchez throw a changeup around 83-84 mph to go with his 92-95 mph fastball, he occasionally breaks out a low to mid 70s version that works quite nicely. He averaged about one a start last year depending on how you divide up the velocity. They weren’t more effective than his normal changeup, but it’s a nice option to have in the ol’ arsenal. Plus, I mean, look at it.
One Quick Thing: Nick’s Defense
If you visited New English D last year you know that we tend to do a lot of in depth analysis. I think that’s the strength of the site, but this year we’re introducing a new feature called One Quick Thing in which we analyze one small aspect of a player or game that doesn’t require 1,000 words and ten graphics. The idea is that these are small samples that may still be interesting. Today, we’ll start with a quick look at Nick Castellanos’ defense on Opening Day.
We have a decent sense that Nick can hit and he showed that on Opening Day with a pair of singles, but it’s unclear how he’ll be able to handle the hot corner. Not that he has a high bar to clear, but adding value anywhere you can is important. He had two chances on Opening Day.
The first was uneventful. A bit of weak ground ball that he had to come in on.
This wasn’t a terribly challenging play and with the runners on the move he could only go to first. Clean transfer and accurate throw. Didn’t trip over himself. Success!
So this one didn’t go as well. This is clearly a matter of Nick not knowing the dimensions of the park well enough, which makes sense given that he’s never played 3B there before Monday. He thought he had about three fewer feet than he did. On this play he needs to glance down for a second and find the wall. That should be a play he makes in the future.
It’s obviously too early to make any real judgments about his performance, but he executed one and botched another. Granted, Cabrera likely wouldn’t have gotten to the pop up, so it’s not as if it’s a net loss. When we have a few more chances to evaluate, we’ll dig in on his footwork to see how it looks after 18 months away from the position.