Junior Guerra, A Split Fingered Success Story

Junior Guerra’s road to the major leagues has been a strange one. Drafted as a catcher by the Atlanta Braves in 2003, it is not until now, 13 years later as a 31 year old rookie for the Milwaukee Brewers that he is making his mark. He’s no longer a catcher, having long since converted to pitching, but Junior Guerra has found a fantastic tool to make his time on the rubber successful, a splitter.

In 2016 Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka has thrown the splitter more than ever (31.3%) to combat a fastball was losing effectiveness. He is finding success with this newfound approach posting a 3.12 ERA to go along with his 3.23 FIP. Angels right hander Matt Shoemaker was getting shelled to begin the 2016 season and made a change. His best pitch has always been the splitter so he decided to throw it way more often. Check out the monthly usage splits:

Shoe Spltter Usage

ShoemakerPitchType 2016

Shoemaker has just one start in July so far, and only so much can be gleaned from monthly splits, but it is abundantly clear the decision to change his approach and ride his best pitch was for the best. After the rough start to 2016 his ERA sits at 4.40 with his FIP an encouraging 3.42, making him the most reliable Angels starter by a wide margin.

Both of these examples illustrate that if a splitter is good enough, it can be the cornerstone of a pitcher’s repertoire. Junior Guerra’s splitter fits the bill. Among starters with more than 50 IP his 26.8% splitter usage rate ranks 3rd in baseball, behind the aforementioned Shoemaker and Tanaka. He has a slightly below average groundball percentage on the pitch at 40% but a well above average swinging strike rate on it at 20.7%. The splitter averages 84.8 MPH which provides a healthy 8.4 MPH of separation from the 93.2 MPH average of his fastball which he throws 57.5% of the time. When he wants to drop down even further Guerra will break off a slider 15.7% of the time averaging 81.6 MPH. It’s not easy to be a successful starter with only three pitches, but Guerra is able to make it work as at least two of the pitches are plus offerings (the fastball and splitter).

While he does have three pitches, Guerra does not mess around with location. He makes his living down in the zone, using the splitter and slider to control both sides of the plate while keeping most everything down. Check out the visualization of his zone profile (Overall, Splitter, Slider):

output_CqEVkh

The splitter has a reputation for being a difficult pitch to throw and one that perhaps leads to an increased risk of injury (although that is not necessarily true as shown by Chris Moran at Beyond The Box Score here). However the few who are able to incorporate a plus split finger offering substantially into their pitch mix do tend to find success. 

With the exception of Fangraphs’ Carson Cistulli including Junior Guerra in his “Fringe Five” prospect lists often in 2015, there was little anticipation or acclaim for the 31 year old rookie. He’s acquitted himself well to the majors though (currently with a 2.93 ERA and 3.55 FIP), and given his aptitude for the split finger fastball, we should keep him on our radar for the foreseeable future.

Trade Chips: Left Hand Hitting Outfielders

As the trade deadline approaches and teams are nearing the decision of whether to buy or sell, there has emerged three left hand hitting outfielders that look like they’ll be available. The similarities between the three are striking.

LHOF Contracts

First off they are all 28 or 29 years old, so presumably all three will enter the decline phase of their careers in the next couple of years. Of course you can’t predict these things but to predict current levels of production past the next couple of years would be a mistake. The point is moot with Josh Reddick as he will be a free agent at the end of the 2016 season. It’s also not a huge consideration with Jay Bruce as he has a team option for 2017 at a reasonable $13 Million, with his buyout being only $1 Million should he tank and show bad performance indicators in the second half of 2016. Kole Calhoun is the most interesting case here because he is the cheapest option this year, and is just now entering his arbitration years. If a team is looking to improve this year while acquiring a long term asset, Calhoun is their best bet.

LHOF 2016Off

LHOF CareerOff

When looking at the offensive output of Bruce, Calhoun, and Reddick in 2016 keep in mind that Josh Reddick missed a significant amount of time with a fractured thumb so his sample size is considerably smaller than the others. That said, all three are having fine offensive seasons posting wRC+ numbers of 129, 123, and 122 respectively. They have also all posted below career strikeout percentages. The main distinction between the three is that Calhoun and Reddick are hitting for less power than normal while Bruce is posting an ISO 70 points higher than his career number. Half a season’s worth of numbers aren’t enough to draw definitive conclusions about the trio’s power numbers, but it’s not exactly bold to say that if you’re looking for power, Jay Bruce is the guy to target.

It is truly amazing how similar all these guys are in the numbers laid out in the tables I’ve put together. Check out the average exit velocity from each below:

LHOF EvVelo
courtesy BaseballSavant.mlb.com

Only .3 separates them from each other!

And if you look at the percentage of balls hit hard (with 90, 95, 100, and 105 MPH as benchmarks) not one category has a difference greater than one percent! That’s staggering, these guys are incredibly similar. Looking at the average distance one can infer that Josh Reddick does not have the same launch angle as Bruce and Calhoun, which would explain the near 20ft difference in distance. Sure enough, at 44.7% he does have the highest groundball percentage of the trio, by far (37% for Bruce and 34.2% for Calhoun).

Defensively it’s always tough to evaluate because the defensive metrics are considered the least reliable. This is good news for Bruce as the defensive metrics HATE him this year:

LHOF Defense.jpg

That said he has a positive DRS and UZR for his career so I don’t think you can put a ton of stock into the numbers. Without the new statcast defensive data available to the public we can only evaluate based on these numbers and what we see with our eyes. Anecdotally all three have very good arms, with Reddick’s being the one I consider great. He is the guy widely considered to be a premiere defender and I think the class of this group. Living in Southern California and having watched Calhoun quite a bit, I can say with confidence that he is at least a league average defender with a plus arm. His routes are consistently good and he rarely finds himself out of position. I don’t get to see Bruce quite as often but I think he is a tad better than the metrics indicate.

So, who do you want? Who’s the guy you should trade for? Depends on your need.

Kole Calhoun will cost the most because of his team control. Everyone knows the Reds want to trade Jay Bruce so despite enjoying his career year it shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. There has been talk that the A’s want to sign Josh Reddick to an extension, but if they can’t get that done he’s a cheap outfielder in his walk year. The cost for him shouldn’t be prohibitive for a contender.

Personally, I’d want Reddick. Despite his injury history I think he is the most complete all around player, admittedly though, I’ve found myself placing a higher emphasis on defense than most. Not having a long term commitment to a guy heading in to his age 30 season is also a plus.

I’d say Kole Calhoun is the least likely to be moved just because it’s unclear if the Angels are going to go all out rebuild or try to fix this thing on the fly. It’s definitely worth keeping an eye on all three of these guys as the trading deadline nears and I expect at least two of them to be on the move.

The Mets Ran Into Kershaw’s Slider

Clayton Kershaw was his usual dominant self on Thursday night against the Mets. As is the case with many pitchers you can tell early on in a start what is working for them and what is not. It was clear from the get go that Kershaw had one pitch in particular that was more filthy than normal.

KershTweet

I tweeted that in the Top of the 2nd inning and despite my inexcusably putting the apostrophe in the wrong place, the observation remained true all night. Clayton Kershaw threw his slider 27 times out of 109 total pitches (24.8% of the time) which as you can see is actually less than usual for him this year.

Kershaw Pitch Usage

Now let’s check out the whiffs he generated on each pitch type against the Mets.

KershawWhiffs

Wow, that is spectacular. 40.7%!! Of the 27 sliders Kershaw threw to the Mets he got 11 whiffs and only 2 were put in to play. Based on the paltry 3.3% whiff rate on his fastball it appears that the Mets were sitting on that pitch, perhaps making them more susceptible to the slider. Let’s check out the Heat Map on his slider from Brooks Baseball and then see if the pitch characteristics were any different than normal:

KersSliderMets
courtesy BrooksBaseball.net

KershVeloMOv

So, once you get over the remarkable consistency in velocity you can see there are tiny differences in the movement. Kershaw averaged a half an inch more horizontal break on the pitch against the Mets, so it was breaking glove side a little bit more than usual. The vertical break is a little bit more pronounced as there was a more than half an inch of rise added to the slider from what it typically has done this year. What really stands out here is the spin rate. He’s throwing the slider with more spin than usual as the spin rate has jumped from 2015 to 2016. In this particular start against the Mets however it was almost 300 RPM higher than the already higher than normal 2016 average. That right there is a partial answer as to why the movement on his slider was different. As Jonah Pemstein explains for Fangraphs in his piece about how spin effects movement (here), more spin will add glove side run on a slider but will not effect vertical break.

So, Clayton Kershaw clearly had a little bit more nasty on his slider against the Mets. Even though he threw it less than normal, the Mets clearly sitting fastball allowed the pitch to dominate. I’m not sure what the answer is for opponents in the future because sitting fastball actually seems like the right approach against Kershaw. His slider and curveball are so devastating that the only chance you really have against him is to square up a fastball or punish the one or two times he will hang one of the breaking pitches in the zone. With the incredible command Kershaw has on the fastball it’s easy to see why this too is most likely a losing proposition.

The Mets did nothing wrong. I’m sure Terry Collins made like Robin Williams and reassured his guys that it wasn’t their fault.

giphy

They just ran into the best pitcher on the planet on a night when his slider was extra filthy.

Good job. Good Effort.

Justin Turner’s Pop Up Problem

In his first two years with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Justin Turner was a revelation. He’s played so well that some Dodgers’ fans now affectionately refer to him as ‘Ginger Jesus.’ Picked up off the scrap heap after being designated for assignment by the Mets, Turner posted the 11th best wRC+ in baseball for 2014 and 2015. I mean just look at the names he’s surrounded by on this leaderboard:

wRC+ leaders 2014-15

The guys around him on this list are all perennial all-stars and future hall of famers. There’s a reason that the Dodgers didn’t keep Todd Frazier for themselves in the offseason and instead helped facilitate his trade to the White Sox by trading prospects for prospects. The Reds were after the prospects from the Dodgers not the White Sox. The Dodgers absolutely could’ve kept Frazier, but they saw the production that Turner had provided in his previous two years and thought that not only would he hold down the hot corner just fine, but there’s a good chance he would be a better option than Frazier.

We are only a month into the 2016 season but Justin Turner has underperformed. Plenty of players have a bad April and bounce back just fine, it’s still so early that you have to be careful not to overreact. His wRC+ plus sits at an underwhelming 89, but like I said, it’s early, no reason to freak out. There is one statistic that is a bit worrisome however and should be noted. Justin Turner is popping the ball up like crazy.

This is one of those things that I kept noticing while watching the Dodgers and was backed up when I looked to see if my eyes were correct. Here’s Turner’s fly ball and infield fly ball rates for the past six years:

Turner IFFB

Now, infield fly ball rate typically stabilizes at the earliest in 250 plate appearances and Turner is only at 101 for the season so it’s far to early to panic and say that his batted ball profile has completely changed. The numbers are a tad disturbing however and if they continue Turner will have become a completely different player.

The reason this is potentially such a problem is because for all intents and purposes a pop up is the same as a strikeout. Sure, occasionally a fielder can drop a pop up allowing you to take a base, but it’s so rare that we can confidently refer to a pop up an automatic out. As shown by Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs (here), high and inside pitches without downward break (cutters and fastballs) are what induce the most pop ups. Lets check the breakdown of Turners 2016 pop ups to see what’s up (courtesy of Baseball Savant):

Turner Pop Ups 2016.jpg

Of his 9 popups 5 have come on sliders, 3 on four seam fastballs, and 1 on a two seam fastball.

Justin Turner (1)
courtesy Baseball Savant
Justin Turner
courtesy Baseball Savant

Only two of the pitches are classified as low in the strike zone but neither of those two are borderline. All but three pitches are classified as middle-in but none of those three are on the outer edge of the zone. Only one of these pitches is not a strike. I suppose what’s most interesting is just how seemingly hittable 5 or 6 of these pitches are. You can spin that whichever way you want of course. The pessimist will say that Turner is failing to barrel up hittable pitches, indicating that his batted ball profile and skill level has changed and he is headed for a down year. The optimist will say that because it’s early and the sample size is still so small, popping these pitches up instead of driving them is a trend that is bound to change because these pitches are not all ideal for generating pop ups.

I tend to agree with the optimist view and think that Justin Turner’s early season pop up troubles are a bit of an anomaly that will change with more ball in play data. This is something that is definitely worth keeping an eye on though as another month or so of these issues and we will no longer be able to write this problem off as one of small sample size. Considering the Dodgers’ depth, if he can’t fix this pop up issue, Justin Turner could end up on the bench as a utility player like he once was with the Mets.

Chris Carter’s New and Improved Approach

Chris Carter is an archetype; tons of power, tons of strikeouts, and a low average. There are plenty of guys who share this profile and this past offseason saw these type of players readily available if you were willing to take a chance. Both Carter and Pedro Alvarez were non-tendered by their old teams, free to sign anywhere, and Mark Trumbo was traded for next to nothing (sorry Steve Clevenger). These types of players can have tremendous value when they are clicking and the homers are flying out of the park, but when they are slumping every strikeout seems inevitable and they feel like a free out for the opposition with every plate appearance. Add to that they typically bring very little to the table in terms of defensive value and it’s easy to see why these sluggers find themselves on new teams so often. However if you can steel yourself to living through the all or nothing approach, there can be a great payoff to employing one of these players on your team. Early on in the 2016 season the Milwaukee Brewers are experiencing just that. Their modest 2.5 Million dollar investment is paying off.

Much of the offseason of Brewers GM David Sterns was spent stripping the big league team of established veterans (Khris Davis, Jean Segura, Adam Lind, etc.) to acquire prospects (Isan Diaz, Jacob Nottingham, etc.) and young players with possibly untapped potential (Rymer Liriano, Garin Cecchini, Ramon Flores, etc.). Chris Carter fits none of these descriptions, but Sterns saw an opportunity to grab an player whose value in the market had cratered. That decision is paying off in the infancy of the 2016 season. Should Carter keep his early season approach and production up he could be a nice trade deadline asset to further the young Brewers GM’s rebuild.

Through Saturday April 23rd, Carter is slashing .281/.353/.667 with 5 HRs, a .416 wOBA, a .386 ISO, and a 155 wRC+ in 68 plate appearances. Yep, that’ll get it done. It’s more than the Brewers could’ve dreamed and of course you’d have to expect some regression, but how he’s achieving these numbers is interesting because it suggests a very positive change in approach. Let’s take a look:

The following numbers are based on Pitch F/X data and gathered from Fangraphs.

Chris Carter Swing

First off, you can see Carter is just not swinging as much. In the past two years he’s cut his swing percentage outside of the zone by 5.5%, inside of the zone by 7.3%, and overall by 8.3%. Along with these cuts his swinging strike rate has fallen 4.6%. These are not insignificant numbers, especially for a perceived free-swinging slugger. Swing percentage numbers stabilize around 50 plate appearances so this years numbers should be reliable. 

Chris Carter Contact

The most encouraging aspect of Chris Carter’s improved approach lies in his contact numbers. His contact outside of the zone has remained relatively steady while his contact inside the zone has improved 8.6 percent. He’s hanging right along side the league average in Z-Contact percentage now. To improve in zone contact and swing percentage while also seeing only a small uptick in out of zone contact means that Carter is being more selective and that it’s paying off. As shown by MLB.com’s Mike Petriello (here), contact outside of the zone can actually be a bad thing, so it’s heartening that the crux of Carter’s improvement is in the areas that will impact his performance positively. Contact rate numbers stabilize around 100 plate appearances so he’s not quite to the point where we can fully trust these rates, but that point is not too far off.

Chris Carter is known for his power though, has any of this change affected his power? Take a look:

Carter_Chris_2016_scatter-1
courtesy HitTrackerOnline.com

By the Hit Tracker Online classifications, 3 of his 5 home runs have been “Just Enough”, but all 3 of those have been to straight away center and are not lacking for distance. According to statcast Carter is averaging 405.03 FT on home runs and he’s 19th in MLB in average exit velocity (min 30 batted ball events) at 93.77 MPH. Power was never the issue with Chris Carter so the point here is that his newfound approach doesn’t appear to be compromising his calling card, which would’ve been the concern.

If these adjustments are for real Chris Carter might have extended his career by a few years and the Milwaukee Brewers have themselves an inexpensive trade deadline piece that could bring back real assets to further their rebuild. That’s a win-win reclamation project signing if I’ve ever seen one.