Five Numbers: Joe Mauer's Missing Power, The Reds' Reinforcements, And More

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.

Posting this one day late makes it 14% better.

1.      4

Joe Mauer is not a power hitter. That much should be made clear from the get go. Even though Mauer went deep 28 times a season ago and hit the ball out to all fields, he was still thought of as a line drive guy who hits to the gaps, and for good reason - that's what he'd been his entire career, and that's what his swing looks like. The Twins and their fans, certainly, count on Mauer to produce, but they don't necessarily count on him to hit 30 dingers a year.

A dropoff in his power output, then, isn't the end of the world. Even with that in mind, though, this has to be a little worrying:

Career: 44 plate appearances per homer
2009: 22 plate appearances per homer
2010: 84 plate appearances per homer

Last season, Mauer broke out in a big way, taking a huge leap forward in terms of his slugging. This season, he's given a lot of it back. More than most people figured. As of this writing, he's gone deep just four times as a regular player, tying him with other guys like Marco Scutaro and teammate Orlando Hudson.

It's the kind of decline you don't often see from a guy when he turns 27. It's interesting to look at his 2009 and 2010 spray charts, as provided by Texas Leaguers:

Mauer2009_medium

Mauer2010_medium


There's no real change in batted ball distribution. Rather, there's just a change in batted ball distance. Most of those balls that were clearing the fence a year ago are now coming up shorter, with corresponding results. Never a guy who hit a ton of no-doubters, Mauer has seen many of his potential wall-scrapers die on or near the track.

For the record, it's not like Mauer has completely given away all of his power gains:

Career: 12 plate appearances per extra-base hit
2009:
10 plate appearances per extra-base hit
2010:
11 plate appearances per extra-base hit

He has sustained some of his 2009 improvement. It's just that a bunch of those homers have turned into doubles. Mauer is currently on pace to shatter his previous career high for two-baggers, already having drilled 26.

Why has Mauer lost so many of his home runs? That question isn't real easy to answer. Some people want to blame little nagging aches and pains. Some people want to blame the new ballpark. Some people want to blame simple statistical regression. Whatever the case, it seems pretty clear that 2009 didn't establish a new baseline. Rather, it would appear that 2009 may forever stand out as an anomaly on the back of Mauer's baseball card.

Joe Mauer is a phenomenal player and a long-term franchise cornerstone. He says himself:

 "I think people make a big deal of home runs in general - power numbers, things like that," said Mauer, who has hit four homers on the road. "I just want to have good at-bats."

He's right. The important thing is just having good at-bats, of which Mauer continues to have plenty. Still, it's worth noting that his eight-year, $184m contract extension doesn't kick in until next April, and for the sake of feeling comfortable with that amount of money, one would've preferred to see him hang on to at least a few more of the homers he hit in 2009. A Joe Mauer with more home runs will have an easier time of living up to that contract than a Joe Mauer with fewer home runs.

On the other hand, he remains the best catcher in baseball. So that's something.

2.      91.4

Yesterday I made the careless mistake of underrating the Rockies, and while I could always just forget about it and move ahead with my life, I am nothing if not determined to prove to people that I'm not a complete idiot, so for Colorado fans, here's a little section on the unknown and surprisingly effective Jorge de la Rosa.

If you don't know who Jorge de la Rosa is, you shouldn't beat yourself up over it. The lefty has been all over the place. He was originally signed out of Mexico by the Diamondbacks, then went back to Mexico, then got signed out of Mexico again by the Red Sox, got dealt back to Arizona in the Curt Schilling trade, and later got sent to Milwaukee in the Richie Sexson trade before he ever made it to the bigs. When he did make the Majors, he struggled. Ineffective with Milwaukee, de la Rosa was traded to Kansas City in 2006.

With the Royals, de la Rosa continued to struggle, and he ended up a PTBNL in a deal for reliever Ramon Ramirez in 2008. 27 years old and the owner of a career 5.85 Major League ERA, it didn't look like de la Rosa was on the path to becoming anything special.

That's when the Rockies decided to put him in their starting rotation. And that's when things got turned around. Success didn't come immediately, but it came before long, and de la Rosa started striking out a batter an inning. 156 starting pitchers have thrown at least 200 innings over the past three years. Jorge de la Rosa's strikeout rate ranks tenth among them, ahead of names like Jake Peavy, Justin Verlander, and Javier Vazquez.

It's difficult to pinpoint just what might have caused his statistical epiphany. It is interesting, though, to glance at his average fastball velocities over the years:

2006: 92.1mph
2007:
91.4mph
2008:
92.8mph
2009:
93.3mph

Jorge de la Rosa has long been thought of as a guy with plus stuff, and with the Rockies, he's proven it. He's thrown a very live fastball, a pair of breaking balls including a sharp slider, and probably his best pitch is an 83-85mph change that he uses to keep righties off balance. It's rare to find a southpaw capable of striking out even the most dangerous right-handed bats, but in large part because of his changeup, de la Rosa finds a way.

The overall package is that of a guy who deserves more credit than he gets. Though de la Rosa has a lot of trouble with walks and is by no means a perfect pitcher, I've said it before and I'll say it again - you can make up for an awful lot of shortcomings when you post a high strikeout rate. Given de la Rosa's unhittability, his ability to pitch to both sides, and his slight groundball tendencies, he's a force. His numbers match up almost perfectly with Clayton Kershaw's, and Clayton Kershaw is considered one of the premier young aces in baseball.

Ubaldo Jimenez has commanded all the attention so far, which is perfectly understandable. But don't make the mistake of thinking the Rockies are a one-arm staff. With Jimenez, de la Rosa, and Jason Hammel in the rotation, and Huston Street, Jhoulys Chacin, Matt Belisle, and Rafael Betancourt in the bullpen, they're as deep as they need to be to make another run in October.

3.      206

The Cincinnati Reds might consider themselves lucky to be where they are. I don't think anybody ever thought they'd be bad, and the players themselves certainly had high hopes, but not a whole lot of people thought they'd be leading the NL Central over the Cardinals beyond the midway point in the season. And if you look at the numbers, you can make a pretty convincing argument that the Cardinals have been playing better baseball. Though their offense has been a bit worse, their run prevention has been better to the tune of 0.6 runs per game. One notices that St. Louis has a fair lead in run differential.

So it's a bit of a surprise to see the Reds clinging to a narrow lead, and it would be easy to look over the rosters and the numbers and conclude that Cincinnati is due for a reality check. To date, their rotation and their bullpen have both ranked among the NL's worst, and it's hard to think that a team can compete with those arms when they don't have an elite-level lineup.

But those numbers can mislead. Because of the 90 games started by Reds pitchers on the year, only 12 of them have been started by Homer Bailey, Travis Wood, and Edinson Volquez.

It's hard to believe, but the Reds are at a point where they have too many starters to fit on one staff. Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake have been effective all year. Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang have been less effective, but they've been durable. Homer Bailey is almost back from shoulder inflammation. 23 year old Travis Wood is up and nearly threw a perfect game in his last start. And Edinson Volquez is back from surgery rehab and a concurrent 50-game suspension.

The Reds' best possible rotation at this point probably includes all three of Bailey, Wood, and Volquez, and leaves Arroyo and Harang on the outside looking in. Something tells me that isn't quite how they're going to work it, as Wood will likely get the shaft, but the point remains that the Reds' pitching staff looks a lot better going forward than it does looking back. Bailey seemed to have taken a step forward before going on the DL. And Volquez has the potential to be one of the most unhittable starters in the league.

Coming back from Tommy John Surgery, as Volquez is attempting to do, is never an easy task. His stuff, though, has looked good over six rehab starts in the minors, and one must remember that it was just two years ago - in Volquez's last healthy season - that he posted the second-highest strikeout rate in all of baseball. His 206 strikeouts in 196 innings put him between Tim Lincecum and A.J. Burnett, and so it was that, even with a high walk total, he was able to have great success. Batters struggled to keep up with his mid-90s heat, and they had little prayer when he spun off a good changeup or breaking ball.

With four pitches and excellent velocity, Edinson Volquez has ace-level stuff and ace-level ability. It's funny how he's almost become a forgotten man, because the Reds could use his strikeouts something terrible, and if everything goes according to plan, they're about to start getting them. People have said the return of Carlos Beltran to the Mets will be the biggest deadline acquisition in the NL. Beltran's a big one, to be sure, but it's within the realm of possibility that Volquez could end up having the bigger impact on the playoff race. The Cardinals have probably outperformed the Reds up to now, but the Reds of the second half will look different, and they should look better.

4.      11%

 Everybody, I think, has at least some cursory understanding of park factors, and what they mean. We have pre-humidor Coors Field to thank for this. Coors Field was a launching pad, and people started to take the statistics with a grain of salt, because the ballpark was causing way more home runs and way more offense.

And if Coors Field can have an effect on the play of the game, then it follows that other stadiums can have an effect, too. Not necessarily to the same degree, as Coors Field was and remains fairly extreme, but there are shades of gray. There can be big park factors and there can be little park factors.

What people might not know, however, is that ballparks don't only affect things like doubles and home runs. It turns out that ballparks can have an effect on pretty much anything and everything. And it's with that in mind that I'd like to talk about Florida's Sun Life Stadium. Because it turns out that Florida's Sun Life Stadium has a dramatic effect on strikeouts.

How much of an effect? According to work done by Matthew Carruth and as shown on StatCorner.com, Sun Life Stadium increases strikeouts by about 11% - 11% for right-handed hitters, and 12% for left-handed hitters. Both of those rates are the highest in baseball, ranking ahead of Seattle's Safeco Field, San Diego's Petco Park, and Toronto's Rogers Centre (all of which also provide significant boosts).

It's a difficult park factor to explain, but just because we don't quite understand why it exists doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It very clearly does exist, and it's very clearly rather significant. Just look at the splits so far this season. The average hitter in the Majors strikes out 17.5% of the time at home and 18.8% of the time on the road. Marlin hitters, though, have struck out 22.3% of the time at home and 19.0% of the time on the road, while their pitchers have generated 21.4% strikeouts at home and 16.2% strikeouts on the road.

The splits are dramatic, and they make you look at players on the Marlins a little differently. Perhaps nobody has felt the effect to a greater degree than young ace Josh Johnson, who has a career K/BB of 3.1 at home but 2.2 when away. Florida isn't an extreme park when it comes to run-scoring, but it is an extreme park with certain components, and those components are important.

Some park effects are widely familiar, but others, like this one, are both fascinating and relatively unexplored. When evaluating a certain player or comparing him to someone else, just remember that you must always always always take ballpark environment into account. Ballparks do things. They do some weird things.

5.      90mph

This one isn't about any particular player or any particular team. Rather, we're going to close this week's article by talking a little about something that's very important but rarely discussed: the difference between actual velocity and perceived velocity. A radar gun will report a pitch's actual velocity, or the speed with which it's moving forward through the air. But more important than how fast a pitch is going is how fast a pitch seems like it's going. And it turns out there are a few things a pitcher can do that can have a dramatic effect on how fast it seems like his pitches are going.

The first one's pretty intuitive. Let's say you have two guys who are both throwing 90mph. One of them is throwing from a mound that's 60 feet away, and the other one is throwing from a mound that's 30 feet away. Which one's going to be harder to hit? Obviously, it's the second one, because as a hitter you're given much less time to react. It follows that the less distance there is between where a ball is released and the plate, the faster that pitch will seem, relative to how fast it's actually going.

The consensus opinion among professionals has long been that one foot = 3mph. In other words, for every extra foot closer to home plate a pitcher can release the ball, his pitch will seem faster by about three ticks. Baseball Prospectus' Eric Seidman looked at this last year and, by studying individual release points, found similarly striking results. Consider the 6'10 giant Chris Young. You know how Chris Young succeeds with a straight fastball in the mid- to high-80s? Because he gets so much forward extension that his fastball doesn't look like it's in the mid- to high-80s. Based on release point alone, the perceived velocity on his fastball gets well into the 90s. This is a big part of why tall pitchers have historically been preferred over little pitchers. Tall pitchers release the ball a lot closer to home, so even if they have the same stuff as a little guy, it'll seem faster to the hitter.

Release point, though, is only part of the picture. Eric Seidman continued his series a couple weeks later and saw that pitch location can also have a big impact on how fast a hitter thinks a pitch is going. This one's less intuitive, but think about it. For any given pitch location - high, low, inside, outside - there will only be one part of the bat off which the hitter can make solid contact - on the barrel. On an inside pitch, solid contact can only be made out in front of the plate, when the hitter gets around on the ball. On an outside pitch, solid contact can be made by letting the ball get deeper and hitting it behind the plane of the front of the plate.

Having to hit a pitch in front of the plate reduces the amount of time a hitter has to react. Having to hit a pitch behind the front of the plate increases the amount of time a hitter has to react. Location, then, clearly has an effect. For the sake of simplicity, you can think of it as distance from the hitter's hands. A high, inside 90mph fastball will seem a lot faster than a low, outside 90mph fastball, because the hitter has far less time to react. Seidman suggests that an up and in fastball in the strike zone might seem as many as 8mph faster than a low and away fastball that's also in the strike zone.

These are big effects. Huge effects. They're effects that I think a lot of people kind of know about on some level, but to which few give enough consideration. And this doesn't even touch on the potential added effects of things like mechanical deception. There is a tremendous difference in velocity between Billy Wagner's fastball and Chris Young's fastball. But there's also a tremendous difference in height and release point relative to home plate, and so there are situations in which Young's fastball might actually seem faster than Wagner's to the hitter. I don't know about you, but I just think that's wild.

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