Five Numbers: Edwin Jackson's New Skill, The Race For Offensive Ineptitude & More

CHICAGO - JULY 26: Members of the Seattle Mariners watch the 9th inning as they lose to the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field on July 26 2010 in Chicago Illinois. The White Sox defeated the Mariners 6-1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/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.

Need a break from constant deadline coverage? Get in line. So here's a big giant distraction, with a handy Edwin Jackson segue for those of you who need a little push.

1)      50.5%

Arguably the Diamondbacks' biggest problem so far this year has been the home run. Not the home runs they've hit, but the home runs they've allowed. The pitching staff has allowed a league-leading 137 longballs on the year - 15 more than their closest competitor, and 18 more than anyone else in the National League - and that, more than anything else, has sunk them to extraordinary depths.

The issue bit Dan Haren. It bit Rodrigo Lopez. It bit Ian Kennedy. It bit much of the bullpen. It's been a problem with just about every arm on the team. And one of the only exceptions has been the recently-traded Edwin Jackson. Jackson's 13 homers allowed in 134.1 innings is perfectly reasonable, especially in a hitter-friendly ballpark like Arizona's, and he stands as one of the few arms to survive what's been a miserable year for the DBack staff.

How did Jackson manage to post a lower home run rate with the Diamondbacks than he did in a spacious park like Detroit's a year ago? One answer could be ‘fluke'. But that doesn't appear to be it - as a matter of fact, a greater percentage of Jackson's fly balls allowed have left the park this year than last year. Rather, the key for Jackson has been a sudden increase in groundballs. Last season, and also in 2008, 39.1% of the balls put in play against Jackson stayed on the ground. So far in 2010, that's jumped all the way up to a well above-average 50.5%. The more balls a pitcher keeps on the ground, the fewer balls he puts in the air, and the fewer balls a pitcher puts in the air, the fewer home runs he allows.

What's the secret to Jackson's turnaround? It doesn't appear to be anything related to his repertoire. He's thrown the same four pitches as always, heaving favoring his mid-90s fastball and sharp slider. His pitches have shown the same velocity in 2010, and they've shown the same movement.

So if it isn't the pitches themselves, our next idea is pitch location. And this one looks more promising. Via Texas Leaguers, this is a chart showing the location of every pitch Edwin Jackson threw in 2009:

Jackson09_medium

It's very very messy, and for that I apologize. That's what happens when you show a chart with thousands of data points. But I think something becomes clear when you compare that to the location of every pitch Edwin Jackson has thrown in 2010:

Jackson10_medium

Jackson worked up in the zone a year ago. Open the two images in separate tabs. Go back and forth between them. See what's happening? Jackson's 2010 pitches shift downward. He's worked a lot more in the middle and lower sections of the zone, and he's avoided pitching up to a much greater degree.

Intuitively, low pitches get hit on the ground, and high pitches get hit in the air. Location isn't the only factor in determining groundball rate, but it's a big one, and with Jackson, that appears to be the key. Possibly because he was aware of the way the Arizona ballpark plays, Jackson has worked lower in the zone in 2010 than he has in the past, with the result being a spike in the number of groundballs he's allowed.

Jackson has his issues as a starting pitcher - his control can be inconsistent, and he doesn't miss a ton of bats. Being able to keep the ball on the ground, however, is a valuable skill, both in Arizona and in Jackson's new home of US Cellular in Chicago. Both parks are bandboxes, so keeping the ball out of the air as often as possible is important. Is Jackson a great get for the White Sox? I don't think he is. I like Daniel Hudson. But I do like seeing a guy work to change his results, and Jackson's increased groundball rate is a huge swing. If he keeps this up, walks may continue to be a problem of his, but home runs shouldn't be a huge concern.

2)      1.013

Too often, injuries - even minor injuries - are used as excuses for poor play, even when they aren't contributing factors. Teams may put a player on the disabled list with some little ache or pain following a miserable outing or two. And fans will certainly excuse a player's struggles by pointing to, say, a bruise, or a knee problem, or what have you. Injuries and returns from injuries become endpoints when there's every reason to believe those endpoints may be artificial.

However, while many injuries have little significance, every so often you come across one of them that was clearly a huge deal. A few years ago, for example, Mariner fans saw Raul Ibanez absolutely take off after getting over some leg problems. And this year, in what's probably the clearest example in baseball, I present to you Aramis Ramirez, pre- and post-disabled list:

Pre-DL: .517 OPS
Post-DL:
1.013 OPS

In June, Ramirez went on the DL to get some rest for a sprained thumb that had been bothering him for a while. He came back later in the month, homered in his second game, and hasn't really slowed down, blasting ten homers and 17 extra-base hits over 121 trips to the plate. Though the Cubs aren't in the race, they can at least rest easy with the knowledge that Aramis Ramirez still has an awful lot of life left in his bat. He has literally just about doubled his pre-DL OPS.

Is it all because of the thumb? This, we can't prove. For one thing, the thumb wasn't a problem from the start of the year, and Ramirez was batting .134 in late April. For another, the thumb still isn't 100%, and Ramirez re-aggravated the injury soon after coming off the DL. And lastly, this is a classic correlation/causation issue. We see the DL stint and assume the following hot streak has to do with injury recovery, but we can't actually know for sure.

Still, the evidence is so strong and so compelling that we have to figure the thumb plays at least some role. It seems obvious how a thumb injury would have a negative effect on someone's swing. It seems obvious how improving the thumb - even by just a little bit - would make the swing better. So it makes intuitive sense how getting Ramirez's thumb some rest could have led to his hot streak. We can't say for certain that one led to the other, but we can express it with a high degree of confidence.

Aramis Ramirez has a $14.6m player option for 2011. Recently, he said he's leaning towards taking it, which is obvious, since he wouldn't get $14.6m anywhere else. The Cubs can't be thrilled to be on the hook for that kind of commitment, but they can be thrilled that it now looks like a much more palatable situation than it did just a month or two ago. Ramirez may not be a superstar, but he's proven he can still be a contributing player.

3)      29.6%

People know Florida's Michael Stanton for one primary reason: he's really strong. The 20(!) year old outfielder racks up his share of strikeouts, but he also slugged 88 home runs over a 2.5-year span in the minors, and upon his promotion to the bigs, many instantly put him in the argument of being the strongest raw hitter in the Major Leagues. Adam Dunn? Ryan Howard? Powerful guys, but not markedly more powerful than Michael Stanton. Or so the story goes.

Stanton, to date, has hit eight home runs with the Marlins over 169 trips to the plate. That's good for a rookie. Over 600 plate appearances, that's a 28-homer pace for a guy who hasn't yet turned 21. Beyond that, Stanton's hit 36 fly balls and eight of them have cleared the fence for a home run/fly ball rate of 22.%, seventh-best in baseball. Dunn's career rate? 22.2%. Howard's? A more impressive 30.2%. Prince Fielder checks in at 20.5% for his career, and 21.4% so far this season. The early evidence is that Stanton clearly belongs.

But when you look at Stanton's player page, you notice something: he's hit a number of infield pop-ups. Nine of them, out of 36 fly balls. The average rate of pop-ups per fly ball is something like 9-10%. Stanton's come in at 25%, which just so happens to be the highest rate in baseball. Clearly, it's a small sample size, but clearly, it's a high number. That's a lot of infield activity.

Pop-ups, we can assume, are bad contact. Mis-swings. Pop-ups are, for all intents and purposes, automatic outs, no better than a strikeout. So I was curious - what happens if we remove pop-ups from the equation? What happens if we look at Stanton's home runs against the balls he's actually hit to the outfield? This may be a better measure of strength. When Stanton makes actual, solid fly ball contact, how often does he hit the ball out?

Eight home runs, 36 fly balls, nine pop-ups. You can do the math yourself, but the answer ends up being 29.6%. 29.6% of Stanton's outfield fly balls so far this season have left the yard. And that rate bumps him all the way up the leaderboard to second-best in baseball, narrowly behind Travis Snider's 30%.

Now, it's important to understand two things. For one, we're dealing with very small sample sizes here. Stanton has eight dingers. Snider has six. The numbers we get won't be super meaningful. For two, home runs per outfield fly ball is just a casual statistic, and not something of monumental importance. There are other measures of power, and there are other measures of productivity. It's more fun than it is anything else.

The bigger point here remains, though - Mike Stanton is a powerful man, and when it comes to turning his fly balls into home runs, he's off to an incredible start as a 20 year old first-timer. Already, Stanton has posted some remarkable numbers, and as he ages, he's only going to get a better idea of Major League pitching, and he's only going to get physically stronger. He's just another terrific talent for a Marlins franchise that's always churning out some really impressive youth.

4)      4

600 runs scored for a team in a season is kind of an arbitrary threshold. There's not really anything more significant about 600 than there is about 599 or 601. But as we're witnessing now with Alex Rodriguez's pursuit of 600 career home runs, people really like those big round numbers, and don't really care for their crookeder neighbors. We want our milestones and benchmarks to be divisible by ten and 100 whenever possible, dammit, and that's the way it's always been, and that's the way it's always going to be.

So 600 runs scored for a team in a season represents the line between being bad and being legendary. If a team's offense pushes 610 runs across the plate in a season, then, man, was that ever a really bad offense. If a team's offenses pushes 590 runs across the plate in a season, then, holy crap, that offense was historically awful. That ‘5' out in front really drives people to histrionics.

And a run total below 600 is, as you might imagine, an infrequent occurrence. In this table, you'll find all the teams who've pulled the feat since 1990, excluding the 1994 season for annoying reasons:

1992 Dodgers

548

1995 Cardinals

563

1990 Astros

573

2003 Dodgers

574

2002 Tigers

575

1991 Indians

576

1992 Angels

579

1991 Expos

579

1993 Marlins

581

2003 Tigers

591

1992 Cubs

593

1992 Mets

599

1990 Cardinals

599

That's 13 such seasons in the past 20 years. Two times in 1990, two times in 1991, four times in 1992, once in 1993, once in 1995, once in 2002, and twice in 2003. Nine by teams in the National League, and four by teams in the American League.

So now we've got the history out of the way. What are we seeing in 2010? Well, if you can believe it, we don't just have one team on pace for a sub-600 season. We don't just have two teams on pace. We don't just have three teams on pace. It's four. Four different teams are on pace to score fewer than 600 runs this season.

Team

Total

Pace

Mariners

341

536

Pirates

357

573

Orioles

367

583

Astros

364

584

The Pirates, at least, were supposed to be bad, and are in the midst of rebuilding. The same goes for the Orioles. The Astros were supposed to be bad, but they play in a bandbox, making this a little more upsetting. And the Mariners, of course, are the biggest disappointment, a big money should-be contender who's blowing everyone else out of the water. Yeah, they play in a big ballpark that reduces run scoring, but they also play in the American League, and the last American League team to score fewer than 600 runs in a season lost 119 games.

It's going to be very interesting to see how this plays out, as we haven't had four teams fail to reach 600 runs in the same season since 1992. Three of these teams at least have some hope of getting hot and eclipsing the mark. For the Mariners, it's going to be more of a challenge. At 341 runs scored after 103 games, they need to score 259 runs over their final 59 games to reach 600, and that's a 4.4 run/game pace that's equivalent to 711 runs over a full season. Can the M's do it behind Ichiro, Russell Branyan, and Justin Smoak? They're going to try, but as of this writing, things look really, really bad.

The Mariners' 536-run pace, you'll notice, would be the lowest total baseball has seen since 1990. Which, for the record, is not the last time such a figure was exceeded, but rather just as far back as I looked. The 2010 Mariners may very well end up a double whammy of disappointing and unforgettable.

5)      66.9%

Whether right or wrong, most every parent or coach will tell you the same thing - a guy shouldn't throw slider after slider, because it's going to damage his arm. Sliders, according to conventional wisdom, are hazardous pitches, and should only really be whipped out when they need to be in order to prevent injury and disability.

Either nobody ever told Michael Wuertz, or Michael Wuertz didn't listen.

After coming over from the Cubs in a trade in February 2009, Wuertz exploded onto the scene in Oakland, striking out 102 hitters in 78.2 innings. How did he do it? By throwing 65.4% sliders - the highest rate in baseball by a comfortable margin over guys like Mitch Stetter and Carlos Marmol. Wuertz wound up posting the lowest contact rate in baseball, not because he was gifted with a terrific fastball, but because he just kept pounding breaking ball after breaking ball, and hitters have a hard time hitting breaking balls.

Wuertz, though, found himself dealing with shoulder soreness during 2010 spring training, a possible consequence either of his high workload, his high rate of sliders, or a combination of both. It kept him away from the A's into early May, and there was reason to be concerned that the very thing that made him successful was also the thing contributing to his health problem. One had to wonder what would become of one of the more dominant relievers in the league.

Wuertz is back in action now, having made 31 appearances since May 4th. How has he responded to his injury? By throwing a league-leading 66.9% rate of sliders, a full 5.8 points ahead of second-place Luke Gregerson.

It sure doesn't seem like Wuertz was deterred by his shoulder issue, as he's gone right back to what made him so good. Slider after slider after slider, to righties and lefties alike, with the occasional fastball thrown in to keep the hitter honest.

The results haven't quite been there yet, mind you. But things are looking up. We're going to play the arbitrary endpoints game. Won't you play along!

5/4-6/24: 12.2 IP, 8 BB, 9 K
6/25-present:
10.2 IP, 4 BB, 11 K

5/4-6/24: 89.2mph average fastball, 83.7mph average slider
6/25-present:
90.0mph average fastball, 84.9mph average slider

Wuertz's arm strength is returning as he gets further and further from his injury, and his results are riding the coattails of his recovery. With his slider getting sharper and his command getting better, Wuertz looks like he's on the path back towards domination.

A number of teams reportedly came calling about Wuertz with the trade deadline coming up on Saturday. Those teams are presumably aware of what Wuertz has done, and what he's capable of. The A's, however, aren't selling, as Wuertz's stock is lower than it ought to be right now, and they still have him under contract through next year with a 2012 option. He's a better arm than his current numbers, and when he's right, he's one of the more unhittable shutdown relievers in the league. All because of one little pitch with a whole lot of break.

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