Five Numbers: Stephen Strasburg's Professional Track Record, Derek Jeter's Troubling Trend, And More

TORONTO - JUNE 6: Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees makes contact at the Rogers Centre against the Toronto Blue Jays June 6, 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

Each week, SB Nation's Jeff Sullivan provides commentary on five up-to-date statistics you'll probably want to know. They are not the five most important statistics in baseball, but much like SB Nation's Jeff Sullivan, they're kind of a big deal.

What a week. What an amazing week it has been.

1)      73.4%

We all saw it. We all saw what Stephen Strasburg did. His wasn't only perhaps the most incredible debut in Major League history; it was one of the most impressive and dominant pitching performances I've ever seen. I wouldn't put it at number one on the list, but the fact that it even merits consideration says all that needs to be said about what Strasburg did to the poor, underprepared Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pirates, of course, struck out 14 times, a clear indication of how untouchable Strasburg really was. But rather than strikeouts, I prefer to look at swinging strikes. Strasburg threw 94 pitches. The Pirates swung at 41 of them. Of their 41 swings, 17 of them missed. That leads to a contact rate of 24/41 = 58.5%. The Pirates made contact with just 58.5% of their swings. The Major League average is 81.1%.

Not only is the Major League average 81.1%; the Major League leader among starting pitchers is Clayton Kershaw, at 71.6%, and the Major League leader among relief pitchers is Carlos Villanueva, at 68.6%. It's when you look at those comparison rates that the true scope of Strasburg's performance comes into view.

But the question now, now that Strasburg's debut is behind us, is what we can expect from him in the future. And this is when it gets tricky, because it's not like there are a whole lot of guys with comparable stuff. The good news, though, is that Strasburg does have a professional track record. He has thrown more than one game against high-level hitters. A greater sample size of data affords us a better understanding of what Strasburg can do.

We turn to Strasburg's performance in AAA. AAA is the home of the next-best hitters in the world, and Strasburg made six starts with Syracuse before coming up, spanning 33.1 innings and 464 pitches. Of those 464 pitches, opponents swung at 218 of them. Of their 218 swings, 58 of them missed. That leads to a contact rate of 160/218 = 73.4%.

Stephen Strasburg's contact rate in AAA, over six starts, was 73.4%. If you want to put them together, Stephen Strasburg's combined contact rate between AAA and the Majors is 71.0%. Very, very good. But more terrific, and less otherworldly.

Now, one is free to question how much stock we should put in Strasburg's AAA numbers. He was on a pitch count. Maybe he was trying to put the ball in play and get quick outs. Maybe he wasn't putting as much oomph into his pitches. Maybe something else. Maybe Stephen Strasburg's numbers with Syracuse don't reflect Stephen Strasburg at 100%.

But then, Randy Johnson's career contact rate was 72%, with a best of 67%. Pedro Martinez's career contact rate was (is?) 71%, with a best of 63% in one of the most dominant seasons of all time. We only have numbers for the tail end of Nolan Ryan's career, but his contact rate in 1989 was 67%, when he struck out 301 hitters in 239.1 innings.

Stephen Strasburg has amazing stuff. He's an amazing pitcher. But while there has never before been another Stephen Strasburg, there have been other amazing pitchers. And those amazing pitchers have tended to post contact rates in the high-60s and the low-70s.

Which is all to say what might be obvious - Strasburg isn't going to keep striking out two batters an inning. He could very well end up leading the league in swinging strikes, because he clearly has the weapons to do so, but guys like Kershaw and Tim Lincecum won't surrender their positions on the leaderboard without a fight. As he faces better lineups, Strasburg's going to look significantly more hittable than he did against Pittsburgh. Not hittable, but more hittable. And how he responds to that will allow us to determine just how magnificent he truly is.

2)      3

Over the last two weeks, 13 different Angels hitters have taken at least ten trips to the plate. How many of those hitters have posted an OPS under .700 over that span of time?

Yeah. Three. Or, if you'd prefer, eight of them have posted an OPS over .770. Five of them have posted an OPS over .830. Nine of them have slugged at least .400. Since May 25th, the offense as a whole has batted .288 with an .828 OPS.

On May 24th, the Angels stood at 21-26, closer to the bottom of the division than the top. They won three out of four to gain some momentum, but then Kendry Morales injured himself celebrating a walk-off grand slam, and the majority opinion at that point was that the Angels were cooked. Their offense had been mediocre, and that was with Morales supplying much of the pop. Without him, many said, the Angels didn't stand much of a chance.

The Angels are 33-29. They've won 12 of 15, and since Morales went down, they haven't missed a beat. Especially at the plate. Here's what the Angels have done in the 11 games since Morales broke his leg:

.300/.359/.495, 15 home runs, 6.4 runs per game

Sure, the pitching's been better. It's a funny thing when a team goes on a run - everything is good. You don't go on runs if some aspect of your game is struggling. You go on runs when everything is working together. But while the pitchers have stepped up and the defense has been okay, it's clear that the offense deserves the bulk of the credit, as the lineup has responded to the loss of its slugger by coming together and squeezing contributions out of just about everyone.

Call it Scosciaball, if you like. I'm sure Mike Scioscia is one of those managers who reminds his players every day that baseball is about the team more than the individual. His Angels, right now, are playing like one. They're playing like a team, and in classic Angels fashion, they're beating their opponents without having one or two guys leading the way. Everyone's doing it. Everyone's chipping in.

When a star player gets hurt, the coach will always tell the media "if every one of these guys can just play a little bit better, we'll make up for the loss." That almost never happens. For the Angels, right now, it's happening. And they haven't even been getting much from Bobby Abreu or Mike Napoli of late.

We'll see how long this can continue. Overall, the Angels have still had a below-average offense and below-average run prevention. They aren't an elite-level team. But as these Angels have shown time and time again, you don't necessarily need to look like an elite-level team to play like one. Anyone who wrote them off early in the season or after Morales went down made a grave miscalculation.

3)      3.48

The Oakland A's handed Ben Sheets a $10m contract in January. Sheets hadn't thrown a single pitch in 2009, but the A's were aware of his track record, and they saw an opportunity here. The A's looked like they were on the fringe of the division race. If they could find a way to keep Sheets healthy, having him at the front of the rotation along with Brett Anderson could provide a huge boost forward. And if they couldn't keep Sheets healthy, well, it was only a one-year commitment, and it was a worthwhile gamble.

You can imagine how they felt about things when Sheets struggled out of the gate. Through his first six starts, he lasted just 30.1 innings, allowing 25 runs while generating as many walks as strikeouts. His location wasn't great, he was looking altogether hittable, and he just wasn't Ben Sheets. He was a chubby, sweaty, underachieving Will Ferrell look-alike who wasn't doing the team any good by staying on the mound.

Then things turned around almost overnight. There were whispers from the USA Today's Bob Nightengale and ESPN's Buster Olney, among others, that Ben Sheets had been tipping his curveball. And there were declarations that the A's had identified and fixed the problem. The A's, for their part, denied the whole thing, but the difference between early Sheets and later Sheets is striking; sufficiently striking to at least lend credence to the rumors.

IP

BB

K

HR

ERA

Strike%

Whiff%

First 6 starts

30.1

16

16

6

7.12

61%

6%

Next 7 starts

44

14

41

5

3.48

62%

9%


Now, when a pitcher is struggling, rumors come out all the time that he's been tipping his pitches. It's almost cliché, and seldom are they to be taken seriously. With Sheets, though, you have to wonder. In further support of the theory:

First 6 starts: 79.6% contact on Sheets' curve
Next 7 starts: 64.9% contact on Sheets' curve

The curve itself hasn't changed. It's still the same speed, with the same movement and the same location. But batters have been swinging through it twice as often of late, batters in good lineups like Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, and Boston. It's something that makes you think.

Maybe Sheets wasn't tipping his pitches. Maybe it's all a coincidence. But whatever the case - whether Sheets was tipping his curveball or not - all the A's care about is that, after a rough first month, Ben Sheets is pitching like the guy they thought they'd signed. With Brett Anderson on the sidelines for an indefinite amount of time, Oakland's going to need Sheets to keep pitching like this if they want to stay in the race. And, given his recent performance, they have good reason to believe that he can.

4)      69.1%

Derek Jeter has never been one to hit the ball in the air. And, given that he's batted .317 for his career, it's hard to argue with his approach. He's always had the legs to beat out groundballs, and he's always hit just enough line drives and balls narrowly over the wall to keep his numbers looking shiny. Derek Jeter's approach, in short, worked.

But Derek Jeter's approach in 2010 has changed. Or, at least, it's become more extreme. Because a guy who had established a track record of groundball rates in the high-50s has jumped all the way up to a league-leading 69.1%.

Derek Jeter has put 217 balls in play, and 150 of them have stayed on the ground. His 69.1% rate is the highest of his career - 12.1 points higher than where it was in 2009 - and it's the highest in baseball, 4.4 points north of Michael Bourn, 8.9 points north of Juan Pierre, and 10.3 points north of Hunter Pence.

The highest full-season groundball rate for any regular hitter since 2004 is '04 Luis Castillo, at 64.6%.  

Derek Jeter, through two months and 277 trips to the plate, has been putting the ball on the ground like few ever have. And with a rate of 69.1% over the last 30 days and 79.5% over the last 14, it's not like things are regressing back to the average. If anything, they're only getting more extreme.

Now, this isn't exactly killing him. You'll note that Jeter's still batting .297 and hitting at an above-average level for a shortstop. He can still be productive. But by hitting so many balls on the ground, he's severely limiting his ability to hit for any power, and with a concurrent increase in his rate of swings at pitches out of the zone, Jeter's walk rate has slipped quite a bit, too.

I know Jeter already has six homers, but he has six homers on 32 fly balls, which isn't sustainable. With this many groundballs, he isn't going to hit for power, and with this many swings at balls, he isn't going to draw a lot of walks. Derek Jeter's batting average is trending towards an empty .300.

For fun, here's a comparison of Jeter's spray charts for 2010, and through June 9th in 2009. You'll notice that the infield's been busier in 2010, and that the fly balls and line drives aren't flying as far. I don't need to tell you that this is alarming.

Jeter0910_medium

(courtesy of Texas Leaguers. Click here for a bigger version.)


Derek Jeter turns 36 years old in two weeks. I'm not going to sit here and declare that we're reaching the end. He could easily stop swinging at balls and start getting a little more loft under his hits. This might all be a small sample size artifact. But while it's wrong to get ahead of ourselves, I think it's right to be concerned. Derek Jeter has changed, and he hasn't changed for the better. With his contract expiring this October and a new one seeming inevitable, Brian Cashman and the Yankees are going to be faced with the unpleasant situation of having to be reasonable about a declining icon without insulting him or his many legions of fans.

5)      39

A few guys have debuted this week. There was Strasburg, of course. There was Jose Tabata with Pittsburgh. There was Brad Lincoln with Pittsburgh. There were probably some other guys, too. And there was Mike Stanton with Florida.

In any other year - in any other Strasburg and Heywardless year - Stanton might be all the rage. Mike Stanton is 20 years old. He got promoted to the Marlins from AA after slugging .726 over 240 trips to the plate. Mike Stanton is an absolute beast, as promising a power prospect as any we've seen in years, if not decades.

I'm not here to give you any sort of obscure numerical insight on Stanton. He's coming from AA. Not only are the numbers there more limited and harder to find - they also mean a lot less. The competition is worse, the environments are more poorly understood, and the scorekeepers are bad. No, I'm just here to point out what I find to be perhaps the most amazing of Stanton's statistical exploits.

It isn't the 1.167 OPS or the 21 homers he hit in AA Jacksonville. No, it's the 39 homers he hit in single-A Greensboro in 2008, at the tender age of 18.

18. Jason Heyward was in the same league in the same year, and he was also 18. Heyward hit 11 balls out of the park. 18 year old Matt Dominguez hit 18. So did 18 year old Freddie Freeman. Jesus Montero hit 17. Mike Stanton finished with a 13-homer lead over second place Cody Johnson, who was a year older.

When Miguel Cabrera was 18, he played in A-ball. He hit seven homers. Adrian Beltre was one of the best teenage prospects baseball had ever seen, and when he was 18, he hit 26. Albert Pujols only hit 19 after being drafted at 20. And so on and so forth.

When Mike Stanton was 18, he hit 39 home runs.

And he's barely slowed down as he's climbed the ladder. His numbers suffered a little bit upon his first promotion to Jacksonville a year ago, but he very clearly figured things out in 2010, and while I imagine he'll face some obstacles after skipping AAA and jumping straight to the bigs, it's impossible not to get excited. Mike Stanton can't drink, and he's already accomplished some things in the professional ranks that few ever have.

Stephen Strasburg in Washington. Jason Heyward in Atlanta. Mike Stanton in Florida. The NL East is the new center of baseball.  

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