Table of Contents

Friday, July 25, 2014

The New Aroldis Chapman

The Reds' worst-kept secret is how amazing Aroldis Chapman has been this year, and the story of what he is doing differently to become so dominant.  Chapman is arguably in the midst of the best season of his career:
(sorry about the size of that one--click to make it bigger).

I know he had the 1.51 ERA is 2012.  But his strikeouts are at to 2 k/inning (18 k/9) on the season, his walks are stable, and he's allowed just one home run on the year.  He's been ridiculous***.

***This calls for a graph dump!

So how has he done it?  Well, part of it is that his velocity is up about two mph this year after averaging "just" 98 or so the prior three years.  Here's Brooks' Baseball's graph of that:
Aroldis has had months in which he has averaged over 100 mph.  But he's never had three consecutive months like this before in terms of sheer power.

The other thing that appears on this graph, of course, is that Aroldis is throwing his change-up again for the first time since 2010.  Here's a look at all of his games on the year in my favorite plot for identifying pitches:
It's pretty straightforward.  Chapman throws crazy-hard, with a fastball that breaks back away from a right-handed hitter while traveling at roughly the speed of sound.  And on top of that, he has a change-up that breaks almost 10 inches away from a righty, and then a slider that breaks in toward the right-handed batter's back foot.  The change-up and slider break opposite directions and travel roughly the same velocity.

Chapman is throwing both of his secondary offerings much more often this year:
After living almost exclusively with this fastball at times from 2011-2013, he's dropped his usage of that pitch into the high 60% range.  Instead, he's now throwing a quarter of his pitches as sliders, and is working in change-ups at a consistent, low rate.

The change-up has been very effective for him:
When he first started throwing it in May after coming back from the DL, batters had no idea what to do with it, and were swinging and missing 50% of the time he threw it.  They've since learned to lay off it (because they can't hit it: the pitch has a 95% whiff rate when they do swing on the season!!), and so we're seeing that whiff rate decline.  But, concurrently, we're seeing a spike in his fastball whiff rate.  So far in July, his fastball has induced the highest percentage of strikeouts of any month in his career.  It's correlational, but it sure looks like the use of his change-up has strengthened the impact of his fastball.  'Cause the fastball wasn't already an amazing pitch....

One last thing: on a recent Redleg Nation Radio, Bill Lack asked whether Aroldis gets beat more often when pitching down in the zone than when pitching up in the zone.  Here is are opposing batters' slugging percentages against Chapman in different parts of the zone.

First, left-handed batters:
(also known as "good luck, fella").  Lefties have gotten good wood on the ball when throws in the strike zone down and away, but otherwise are basically hopeless against him.

Now, right-handed batters:

Bill's perceptions hold true here.  When Chapman is throwing in the bottom half of the zone against righties, he's actually been hit pretty well during his career.  When he elevates the ball, however, it's been pretty much lights out.  And this isn't the pattern you always see either.  Here's a link to Cueto's graph; he gets it up in the top part of the zone as well.

Chapman seems to have noticed.  This year, he's throwing up in the zone more than in prior years, especially with his fastball:

All of Chapman's success this year is made all the more amazing by the fact that he suffered a serious head injury in spring training.  He's been one of the bright spots on the team thus far.  I don't know if he'll still be on the team by the end of the year, as he would seem to be a nice trade chip if Jocketty decides the Reds need to sell off some parts.  I think someone would overpay for him.  But it's fun to enjoy him while he's still a member of the Reds.

All graphs courtesy of the amazing Brooks Baseball.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

That Roadtrip: Setback, or Correction?

The Reds were on quite a tear as they finished their schedule leading into the All-Star break, and pushed their playoff odds to 50% for the first time since the season began.  They were seven games over 0.500, 1.5 games behind the NL Central-leading Brewers, and unquestionably right in the thick of the NL Central race.

We're six games into the second half.  And a lot seems to have changed.  Six games in July shouldn't have that big of an effect on the season.  That said, it's hard to feel anything but beat down after what happened.  The Reds were swept twice, and are now in their worst losing streak of the season.  They are now just one game over 0.500, a full 5.5 games behind the Brewers, and three games behind the Pirates and Cardinals.  Their playoff odds have similarly dropped by a whopping 30% this week:

Yes, that 7-day delta on the Reds is EASILY the worst among any team in baseball.  The next worst are the Mariners and Cardinals at -10.4% each.

I'm trying to decide if I believe the magnitude of those changes.  30% seems high, and I've felt all season that these playoff odds seem to be a bit overly sensitive to the ups and downs of the baseball season.  But the Reds have fallen at the same time that the Brewers and Pirates have surged.  Getting swept by the team you're chasing hurts, especially when it cements a 6-game losing streak.

What makes this particularly painful is that it largely undoes much of the good that happened in July and early July.  BPro hasn't changed their rest-of-season projection for the Reds: they still see them as a 0.500 ballclub.  FanGraphs is a bit lower, but still has the Reds right around 0.500 the rest of the way.  From that perspective, one could argue that this losing streak is more a correction toward true talent levels than a temporary setback for a genuine playoff team.

The Reds aren't out of the race...but are far more of a longshot than they were just a week ago.  sigh.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Update on Latos Velo

Just a quick update.  I wrote last week about Mat Latos's drop in velocity so far this season.  While his most recent start was not particularly inspiring, I was pleased to see that his fastball velocity was up!

He also showed better swinging strike rates (9.5% vs. 7.5% for the season...still below his career average), and better strikeout rates (5k's in 5 IP).  Lots of fly balls, and obviously too many home runs...but if you wear the Rose-colored classes, it's a step in the right direction!

Reds playoff odds over 50% at All-Star Break

With the Reds' series win over the Pirates this weekend, their playoff odds have risen to over 50% for the first time this season!  At least, they have according to Baseball Prospectus:

The Reds are currently on pace for 87 wins.  BPro sees a slight regression over the rest of the season, and projects them at 85 wins.  The Brewers are projected for virtually the same record.  That means they are splitting most of the non-Cardinals NL Central division winner berth with the Reds, along with whatever chances 85 wins gives you at a wild card (quite good, it appears, about 25%).

FanGraphs isn't quite as optimistic.  This seems to be driven by more pessimism about the Reds' rest of season winning percentage (0.491 vs. 0.506) as well as more optimism about the Pittsburgh Pirates (0.517).  FanGraphs puts the Reds' over/under at 84 wins by the end of the season, which means the Reds will usually miss a playoff spot (37% chance).

With so many teams in the Central within a few wins of each other, and with whoever loses between the Braves/Nationals and the Dodgers/Giants also in contention for a wild card, these percentages are all pretty volatile right now.  But we've seen the Reds playoff chances fall below 10% this season, so to be in the 37-51% range is pretty exciting.  It's been a very up-and-down season thus far, but it's nice to go into the All-Star break with a certain degree of optimism about this year.  

Really, after the way this team began in April, just being in contention for a playoff berth into September would be a pretty decent success.  It's pretty exciting that the Reds have already been able to undo so much of the damage they did to their record.  Let's hope they still have a bit more in the tank for the second half!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Should we worry about Mat Latos?

Outside of his ERA, Mat Latos's numbers
are concerning.
Photo Credit: SD Dirk
In my series preview today at Red Reporter, I noted that Mat Latos's season numbers are a little bit concerning:
I wonder if we should worry a little bit about Mat Latos?  His fastball velocity is down 2 mph compared to prior years, he's not striking guys out, and he's allowing a lot of fly balls.  About the only thing he is doing well is avoiding the walk.  It could be that he's still not up to full strength after dealing with so many injury troubles earlier in the year.  It's a small sample, so I dunno, but I have my eyebrow raised.

Here's his line at FanGraphs.  Sorry for the size, but I wanted to show the whole table.  Click on it to make it bigger.

Everything comes with small sample size warnings.  His ERA looks good.  But everything else is well off pace.  He's showing a 2.4-mph drop in his fastball velocity thus far.  His strikeout rate is way down, his ground ball rate is down, and his swinging strike rate is way down from his career norms (7% vs. 10%!).  The only positive thus far is his walk rate, which has been very good.

I'm less concerned about the strikeout and walk rates.  Sometimes, I think I've seen pitchers show increases or decreases in both rates over small sample sizes.  That might be about their approach to pitching: maybe guys are trying to "fill up the zone" over a stretch of 5-10 starts, and as a result are getting more contact and avoiding walks.  If the Luck Dragons have been going Latos's way, he might be content to pitch to contact not go for the strikeout.  When the winds change, the might try to miss bats a bit more.

The velocity drop worries me, though.  Here it is graphically:

That's a big drop in fastball velocity.  And it's been consistent in each of his five starts this year.  This is not a matter of small sample sizes (at least not in terms of measurement--I'm not saying it's predictive).

Latos did not have a normal offseason due to his elbow surgery, and missed most of spring training due to the torn meniscus in his knee.  He didn't even have a "normal" rehabilitation due to forearm tightness and the calf issue that flared up in his second-to-last rehab start.  For all of these reasons, it makes sense that he is not at his best this season.  And that means I'm not particularly worried about him long-term.  But in the near-term, I'm a bit concerned about how long it will take for him to get back up to speed--or whether that is possible during the regular season.

The Reds need a strong Mat Latos in the rotation, and I'm not sure that they really have that right now.

Ben Lindbergh leaves Baseball Prospectus

Ben Lindbergh announced today that he is stepping down as Editor-in-Chief at Baseball Prospectus, passing the reigns to his fellow Effectively Wild podcast host, Sam Miller.

Since I failed so miserably at doing so on twitter, I wanted to take a moment to just recognize what Ben did for Baseball Prospectus during his tenure there as editor.  Baseball Prospectus was hugely important to sabermetrics as it got off the ground in the late-90's and early-2000's, but my perception is that by the mid-to-late oughts it had begun to fall behind.  Some of the old guard authors seemed overly antagonistic, archaic, and even elitist (to me, anyway)as they continued to cling to metrics they'd created and relied upon a decade before.  Outside of a few, important authors there, like Dan Fox (now with the Pirates), they seemed slow to acknowledge the work of talented new authors at the Hardball Times and FanGraphs.

That seemed to change over the last five years or so.  I could have sworn that I wrote about it at the time, but I can't find it.  In any case, they've now made a habit of grabbing some of the top minds and writers in the blogosphere, including many who have already moved on to work for teams.  The list is getting really long, but includes names (in no particular order) like Mike Fast, Colin Wyers, Russell Carleton, Harry Pavlidis, Dan Brooks, Jason Parks, and Max Marchi.  Once a place of stasis, BPro is now a leading source for pitchf/x data (thanks to their affiliation with Brooks Baseball), salary information (affiliation with Cot's Contracts), roster information (affiliation with mlbdepthcharts), and catcher framing information.  Not all of that happened under Lindbergh's tenure, but I think a lot of it did.  He has been quick to embrace The New, and to make sure that Baseball Prospectus is positioned as a leading source of innovation and insight in baseball.

On top of all that, I think the thing that might be most important about Ben is his humility.  He's a smart guy, and has accomplished a lot despite being quite a bit younger than I am (and I still consider myself young...ish, anyway).  He has a critical mind, and has done neat work in catcher framing.  But whereas past generations might have come off as haughty, Ben always came off as a guy without much of an ego.  He was respectful to those he disagreed with (at least in public!), and always seemed more helpful and inquisitive than abrasive.  
I've listened to Ben and his replacement, Sam Miller, for well over a year on their superb podcast, Effectively Wild.  I'm relieved that the two of them will continue to podcast there, as they are a mandatory, daily listen.  Sam is a great guy, and shares many of Ben's qualities.  I hope that Baseball Prospectus continues on this path of innovation, research, and humility.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

A Sabermetric Voice in the Reds' Front Office

This week in SABR 101x featured an interview with Lewie Pollis, a young sabermetrician with good ideas.  I enjoyed watching this interview with him, especially given that he is now an intern in the Reds Baseball Operations department.

Mentioned in the interview is this piece at BPro that echoes the importance of being reluctant to throw aside sabermetric principles for apparent outliers.  It follows nicely from the work by MGL and Dave Cameron last month talking about the importance of in-season projections.

He also mentions his senior thesis, which attempts to place a value on front office personnel.  I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but it's something I've along been interested in doing (e.g. this poor attempt of mine to evaluate Wayne Krivsky from long way was poorly done, lacked controls or comparisons, etc).  I'm interested to see how he attempted to control the innumerable confounds needed to evaluate front office moves!