I love talking about pitching. Pitching pitching pitching. They say a team can never have enough pitching. The same goes for me. Pitching!
When the Blue Jays exchanged Brandon League for Brandon Morrow over the offseason, they knew they were dealing one inconsistent young righty with great stuff for another. What made the trade doable from their perspective was that, while League was a reliever, Morrow could start, or at least had the potential to be a starter. Starters with a repertoire like Morrow's don't come around very often, so Toronto jumped at the opportunity to bring him in, even if they were unsure how he would pan out.
In the early going, things didn't go so well. Through Morrow's first seven starts, he walked 26 batters in 35 innings, continuing with the problems that plagued him in Seattle. He'd been labeled as a guy with great stuff but no control, and early on in Toronto, he lived up to it.
But all along, he was still missing bats. And since the middle of May, Morrow has cut down on his walks while maintaining a high strikeout rate. Over that ten-start span, he's posted a K/BB of 3.2, which would be one of the better marks in baseball. Morrow, it seems, is beginning to figure things out, and since a disastrous game against Boston on May 10th, he's pitched like a legitimate front-of-the-rotation starter.
Brandon Morrow stands as evidence that, when you throw great stuff, you don't have to be perfect to be successful. Including his start to the season - since we can't just ignore it - Morrow has struck out 107 of the 412 batters he's faced. This rate of 26% ranks him eighth in baseball among guys with at least 50 innings, between Yovani Gallardo and Josh Johnson. Yes, the walks are there. Even of late, he's had some trouble throwing strikes consistently. But you can afford some walks when you strike out more than a quarter of the batters you face. Striking out that many batters limits their opportunities to do damage.
The key to Morrow's success is that he throws such a good fastball. For a lot of guys, the fastball is their primary pitch, but it isn't necessarily a difficult one to hit. It's one they use to set up other pitches. More unhittable pitches. For Morrow, the fastball is his primary pitch, but it's also a pitch he throws in the mid-90s with deception and movement, and the result is that batters have made contact with it just 76% of the time that they've swung. That's a rate that's well better than the league average. Morrow's fastball is hard to square up, making him dangerous in any count. When he's ahead, he can go to any one of his four sharp pitches. And even when he's behind and you know a fastball is coming, it's still a really fast fastball that's tough to catch up to. The batter is never really in control.
Brandon Morrow is making progress before our eyes, and he's making progress as a starter for the first time in his young and highly unusual career. He's not yet an ace, but he clearly has the weapons, and given the steps forward he's already taken, it may not be long before he starts to scrape his ceiling. While strikeouts aren't everything, they can help make up for an awful lot of shortcomings, and Morrow can punch batters out like few pitchers can. He's going to be a fun pitcher to watch. He is the very definition of electric.
If we're going to touch on Brandon Morrow's development and strikeout rate, then I'd be remiss for not touching on Jered Weaver's development and strikeout rate as well. As mentioned before, Morrow's strikeout rate currently ranks eighth in the Majors. You know whose ranks first?
Yep. Jered Weaver, of all people.
Now, Weaver has long been a good pitcher. From his first ascent to the bigs, he's whiffed a good number of bats, he's limited his free passes, and he's taken advantage of his environment as a flyballer in a big park. But Jered Weaver isn't Jered Weaver anymore. A year ago, Weaver struck out 20% of the batters he faced. This year, he's shot all the way up to 28%. This year, he's blossomed into a true ace with a better K/BB than guys like Zack Greinke, Adam Wainwright, and Josh Johnson. Weaver has taken an enormous step forward that few people, if any, saw coming.
So what's he doing differently? The secret, it seems, may lie in the fact that he's improved his two-seam fastball and started mixing up his fastballs more often. Weaver's had two different fastballs for a while, but he didn't really mix them with much regularity. This season, thanks in part to the influence of Joel Pineiro, Weaver's changed course, with astounding results.
Let's combine both of his fastballs, shall we? Let's see how they've done:
2009: 86.5% contact rate
2010: 80.6% contact rate
With a more even mix between his standard fastball and his two-seamer, Weaver appears to be confusing the hitters. By confusing the hitters, he keeps them off-balance, and by keeping them off-balance, he gets them to miss. Weaver's never really been known for having much of a good fastball at all, but now that he's using them unpredictably, he's making both of them work.
The fastballs, of course, aren't the only contributing factor, here. Weaver's contact rate on his slider - a pitch he uses with great regularity - has also dropped from 71% to 60%. But then, it isn't hard to imagine that this might be due to the fastball mix as well. A slider is thrown with a fastball motion, and looks a lot like a fastball out of the hand. This would only serve to keep hitters even more off-balance, as they have to pick up the spin quickly and figure out which of three pitches Weaver is throwing. He's always had three such pitches, but now that he's throwing the third one more often, it's right there in the hitter's mind.
Jered Weaver tops out in the low 90s and spends a lot of his time hovering in the 87-89 range. He is much more finesse than power, and seldom if ever blows a hitter away. As such, Weaver stands as a shining example that there's more to pitching than stuff. It makes for an interesting comparison to the aforementioned Morrow. Brandon Morrow succeeds through brute force. Jered Weaver succeeds by throwing five different pitches and constantly keeping the hitter guessing. They are two very different approaches to two very similar strikeout rates, and each approach is equally valid.
The Kansas City Royals are seven games under .500. Which, obviously, isn't good, but it looks better when you consider that they were 11-23 in the middle of May. Ned Yost has somehow guided them to a 27-23 record since the dismissal of Trey Hillman, and with Billy Butler establishing himself while the farm system flourishes, dare I say that things in Kansas City might finally be looking up.
Unfortunately, there's one concern - Zack Greinke. Greinke hasn't quite been the guy he was a year ago. The guy he was a year ago, of course, won the Cy Young, so you can't expect a repeat performance, but Greinke has nevertheless taken a considerable fall.
As an unabashed and shameless contact rate fanboy, I just can't help myself. I led off by talking about Brandon Morrow's ability to miss bats. I followed that by talking about Jered Weaver's ability to miss bats. And now here I am, talking about Zack Greinke's ability to miss bats. And that ability seems to have gone away, at least relative to what he did a year ago. To the splits!
2009: 77.7% contact rate
2010: 85.2% contact rate
The league average contact rate, by the way, is about 81%. Last year, Greinke hung around with names like Ubaldo Jimenez and Clayton Kershaw. This year, he's in the company of guys like Kevin Millwood and Nate Robertson. It's not quite the same. Greinke's contact rate has climbed rather significantly, and his strikeout rate, in turn, has seen a precipitous drop.
Unlike with Weaver, this one I can't really explain. Greinke talked about some little mechanical adjustments he made prior to a 12-strikeout game in June, but even since then, his contact rate has still been below average. Hitters continue to put the bat on the ball more often than they did a year ago, and the year before, and the year before that.
Now, it's important to remember that, even with this contact issue, Greinke remains a damn fine starting pitcher. He still gets his strikeouts. His walk rate is the lowest it's been since he was a rookie. Zack Greinke is in no way, shape or form a problem, as he's still one of the more effective arms in the American League.
But it always raises eyebrows when a guy sees this kind of dropoff. It makes you wonder what's up. It makes you wonder whether it's going to continue, whether it's going to worsen, and how the pitcher's going to adjust. Greinke's a smart pitcher, and he's clearly figured out a way to get by even with more frequent contact, but the pitcher he was a year ago was out of this world, and I want to see that guy again. Or at least something close.
Now let's take a step back from individual players and teams for a moment and talk a little about baseball fundamentals. Getting ahead in the count. Everybody knows you want to do it. Coaches never stop insisting on its importance. The number of first-pitch strikes is one of those stats that announcers will point to when a pitcher's having a really good or a really bad game. But much as is the case with home-field advantage, while everyone knows that getting ahead in the count is important, I wonder how many truly understand the magnitude of said importance.
This is all very easy to show. So far in 2010, the league average OPS is .734. Now guess what that OPS drops to once a pitcher gets ahead 0-1.
.620. If a league-average hitter is someone like, I dunno, Ryan Sweeney, then by getting ahead 0-1 in the count, a pitcher turns that league-average hitter into Cesar Izturis. It's just a massive boost and a massive advantage.
If that doesn't spell it out enough for you, let's look at what 0-1 counts have done to some really good hitters for their careers:
Career, overall: 1.050 OPS
Career, after 0-1: .931 OPS
Career, overall: .961 OPS
Career, after 0-1: .815 OPS
Career, overall: .810 OPS
Career, after 0-1: .698 OPS
After falling behind 0-1, Pujols has been mortal, A-Rod has been merely good, and Ichiro has struggled. And these are some of the best hitters in baseball. Just for funsies:
Career, overall: .625 OPS
Career, after 0-1: .539 OPS
When a pitcher gets ahead in the count, it puts him in control of the plate appearance. Suddenly, he can throw to other locations. He can throw some other pitches. There are more options available, and with more options, the batter has less of a chance of guessing right. The batter is put on the defensive. Getting ahead isn't everything, but it does greatly shift the balance of power.
The same idea, naturally, goes for falling behind in the count, in the opposite way.
Now, it's important to understand the difference between throwing first-pitch strikes and getting ahead in the count. A first-pitch strike can be put in play. Batters have hit .338 when putting first pitches into play so far in 2010. If a pitcher throws a bunch of first-pitch strikes, but they're always getting hit, then that's not really doing much. But even still, there's a very strong correlation between guys who throw a lot of first-pitch strikes and guys who get into a lot of 0-1 counts, and so it's obvious why coaches fall in love with a guy who can pound the zone early. A first-pitch ball in play isn't the end of the world, and a first-pitch strike that isn't put in play changes the entire dynamic of the at bat. It's a bigger boost than most people realize.
Pinch-hitting is important. Not so much in the American League, but certainly in the National League, where teams do it nearly three times as often. They do it so often, naturally, mostly because pitchers are terrible with the bat, and subbing in a guy off the bench can represent a gigantic leap forward in expected offensive performance.
Now, pinch-hitting is not the reason why the Phillies currently sit six games back of the Braves in the NL East. The biggest factors there are inconsistency and debilitating injuries. But what isn't helping is that Philly's pinch-hitters have, over 121 trips to the plate, managed just a .434 OPS, the lowest mark in the NL and a full 350 points below Atlanta's .784. Pinch-hitters frequently come up in late-inning, clutch situations, where a knock can cause a dramatic swing in win expectancy. Philly's pinch-hitters haven't been providing those knocks. Pretty much ever.
Ben Francisco, Greg Dobbs, and Ross Gload have accounted for 93 of Philly's 121 pinch-hitting appearances. Francisco's been fine, going 6-20. But Dobbs and Gload - who, to date, have been the lefty options off the bench - have gone a combined 9-66 with four walks. And everybody else has gone a combined 0-29. Many of these have been critical at bats, and in said critical at bats, the Phillies have been making out after out.
Of course, we shouldn't expect this to continue. The ‘true talent level' of Philly's bench - no matter how it's constructed - is higher than a .434 OPS, and over time you'd look for something like this to even out. But while the Phillies should get better pinch-hitting from here on in, what's done is done, and those appearances are already in the books. Those big outs and lost games are already recorded, and there's no getting them back. One can only wonder what kind of difference a few more hits could've made for a team that all year long could've really used some breaks.