Saturday, June 29, 2013

What's Wrong with Justin Verlander?

Tigers fans are all asking the same question: "What's wrong with Justin Verlander?"  The man widely regarded as the best pitcher in the American League over the past two years is not quite the same pitcher who won the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards in 2011 and finished runner up for the former prize in 2012.  In this post, I'm going to discuss just how much he is lacking and use the Pitch F/X data do explore what the problem is.

It's not all bad for the Tigers supposed ace this year.  His 10.2 strikeouts per game is the best rate of his career and places him fourth in the league.  He has a 2.87 FIP (Fielding Independent pitching ERA) which is slightly better than last year (2.94) and seventh best in the American League.  That and his elevated Batting Average on Balls in Play or BABIP (.347 in 2013 versus .287 for his career) suggest that he may be having some bad luck on balls in play this year.

The bad news is Verlander's 3.90 ERA, up from 2.40 in 2011 and 2.64 last year and it's not all misfortune.  At 3.2 batters per nine innings, his walk rate is up about a full walk per game over last year ( 2.3) which he has only himself to blame.

While he can perhaps share some of the responsibility with fielders for his high BABIP, he has been hit harder this year than in the past.  Verlander's 23.2% line drive rate on batted balls is the worst of his career and his rate of extra base hits per nine innings has risen from 2.3 in 2012 to 2.8 in 2013.  The higher batting average and additional power allowed has resulted in his OPS against increasing from .601 to .708. 

So, what is happening? I don't think there is a simple answer, but the Pitch F/X data at Brooks Baseball gives us some clues.  Figures 1 and 2 below show that this year seems to be part of an ongoing transformation from power pitcher to finesse pitcher.

Figure 1 shows that the velocity of his average four-seam fastball has gradually fallen from 96 MPH in 2009 to 93 MPH this year.  This is not alarming and I don't believe it is out-of-line with the typical progression of a pitcher his age.  The fact that his strikeout rate has not dropped at all should tell us that decreased velocity is not his main problem. 

FIGURE 1 (|SI|FC|CU|SL|CS|KN|CH|FS|SB&startDate=03/30/2007&endDate=06/28/2013&minmax=ci&var=mph
Figure 2 shows that his pitch selection is changing along with the decreased velocity which makes sense.  He threw 68% fastballs in 2009 and is down to 56% now.  Moreover, his most frequent secondary pitch is no longer his biting curve, but rather his change-up.  He has gone from 20% curves and 10% change-ups in 2009 to 12% and 19% respectively this year. 

He surely is not a finesse pitcher yet and will probably never fully reach that point, but he is trending in that direction. So, one possible reason for his struggles is that he may have reached a point in his evolution where he is not yet comfortable with the amount of finesse which is now required. 
FIGURE 2 (|SI|FC|CU|SL|CS|KN|CH|FS|SB&startDate=03/30/2007&endDate=06/28/2013&minmax=ci&var=pcount
Figure 3 shows an unexpected change in his mechanics.  I don't know if it's a calibration issue or whether it's completely real, but the chart shows that the release point of his pitches has increased between 3 and 4 inches between 2011 and 2013 with a lot of that coming this year.  Pitching coaches typically get more concerned when a pitcher's release point drops, but every pitcher is different.  I have to believe there is such as thing of too high of a release point especially when he was performing at an elite level before the change.


I don't know much about pitching mechanics, but when a ball is thrown from a different angle, it can change the way the ball spins out a pitcher's hand.  It would make sense that this could result in different movement in pitches.  Figure 4 shows a decrease in movement (closer to 0 the y-axis) on both his fastball and curveball.  


How is the decreased effectiveness of both his fastball and curve affecting his performance?  The whiffs (swings and misses) per swing on his fastball have gone from 21% in 2012 to 16% in 2013.  So, it's been easier to hit and they've been hitting it hard with the line drive rate increasing from17% in 2012 to 26% this year.  Consequently opponent batting and slugging averages have risen from .246/.417 to .301/.454.

While the whiff rate on his curve has not suffered and it's still a dominating pitch, he is allowing harder contact on that pitch as well.  The line drive rate has gone from 18% to 26% and the averages from .135/.199 to .156/.250 between 2012-2013.

This is all exploratory, but those are two basic theories of why he is struggling: (1) he is going through an evolution from power pitcher to finesse pitcher.  (2) his pitch release point has changed too much.  Both seem fixable to me. I'm a numbers guy though and no expert on the process of pitching, so would welcome the input of anyone who knows more.

Remember, I did a similar analysis of Porcello a while back showing why he had improved and he's been awful in the two starts since then.  Maybe, Verlander can reverse his fortunes in a good way tonight., 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Tigers Team Defense Still Lacking This Year

By most accounts, the Tigers were one of the weaker defensive teams in baseball last year, especially in the first half.  If you couldn't tell by observation, the statistics told the story as they finished near the bottom of Major League Baseball in all advanced team defensive metrics.  They have made moves in the past 12 months to shore up their defense swapping out Ryan Raburn, Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch for Omar Infante, Andy Dirks and Torii Hunter. 

Early this season, the new defensive alignment appeared to be working, at least based on observation.  In recent weeks, however, they seem to have reverted to their poor form of the first half of 2012.  Other than Infante, the infield is still greatly lacking in range and Hunter appears to have slowed down a step in right field. So, it appears the only above average defenders are Infante and center fielder Austin Jackson.  Individual defense is difficult to measure at this point in the season, but team defense can be gauged reasonably well now and that will be my focus here.

If you just look at errors, then there does not seem to be a problem.  The Tigers Fielding Percentage - the proportion of total plays ( putouts, assists and errors) which result in a putout or an assist - is .989 which is fifth best in the majors and up from .983 last year.  Fielding Percentage is a reasonable measure of sure-handedness, but it is not a complete measure of defense.  It penalizes players for their errors, but fails to dock them for balls they could not reach.   This is a problem because not getting to playable ball is generally as costly as making an error. 

A better measure of overall team fielding is Defensive Efficiency Ratio (DER), first introduced by Bill James in the 1978 Baseball Abstract.  The DER metric is the percentage of batted balls in play, not including home runs, which are converted to outs by a team's fielders. The Tigers have converted 69.1% (.691 DER) of batted balls in play into outs which is 29th in the majors.  Only the Twins are worse at .685.   

It is easier to turn a batted ball in play into an out in some parks than others, so Baseball Prospectus adjusts DER for ballpark with Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE).  The Tigers PADE is -1.89 which says that they have been 1.89% worse at turning batted balls into outs than the average team.  That might not sound like a lot, but each percentage point is worth about 13 runs meaning that fielding has cost the team an estimated 25 runs above average.  They rank 28th in the majors on that statistic.

An alternative to DER/PADE is Total Zone Fielding Runs (Rtot) found at Baseball-Reference.  Developed by analyst Sean Smith, Total Zone considers the following: plays made, errors, batted ball type, handedness of pitcher and batter and park adjustments.  Plays made above average are calculated and converted to runs using situational run expectancies.  The Tigers are 35 Total Zone Fielding Runs below average which is worst in the majors. 

One more option is Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) created by John Dewan at Baseball Info Solutions (BIS). 
Using detailed play-by-play data recorded by BIS video scouts, this system breaks the field into small areas and determines the probabilities of players making plays in each area of the field based on location, speed (hard, medium, soft) and batted ball type (ground ball, fly ball, line drive, bunt).  The system uses these probabilities to determine how many plays each player was expected to make and how many he actually did make in comparison to the average player.  Plays made are then converted to defensive runs above average.  The Tigers have a DRS of 11 runs worse than average which is 21st in MLB.  

So, the three defensive metrics do not agree on the number of runs fielding has cost the Tigers, they all say the Tigers are in the bottom third of the majors defensively once again this year.  The Tigers are built around immobile sluggers, so there is not much more that can be done to help the defense at this time.  Fortunately, they generally have enough hitting and starting pitching to overcome their defensive failings.  At times, when the hitting or pitching is not clicking though, the poor defense becomes quite noticeable. 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Closers of the Eighties

Modern-day bullpen usage, can be maddening to baseball fans.  Tigers fans blame Jim Leyland for the team's bullpen problems this year, and maybe some of that criticism is legitimate, but many of the things they complain about are pretty standard in Major League Baseball today.  The closer role, in particular, is set in stone.

All teams have a primary closer and each has the same job description.  They come into games in the ninth inning, typically at the beginning of the inning with no outs and the bases empty, with a lead of three runs or fewer.  If they are able to close out the game with their team still in the lead, it is considered a success even if they allowed base runners and runs in the process.

It doesn't generally matter if another pitcher on the staff might seem to be a better fit for the particular situation such as a left-hander facing opposing left-handed batters in the ninth instead of the right-handed closer. Similarly, if the set-up man strikes out the side in the eighth and the closer has been struggling as of late, the ninth inning guy is still going to handle the ninth.  Generally, the only way a closer doesn't pitch the ninth in a save situation is if he has pitched too many days in a row and the manager decides that he is unavailable that game.

Not only do closers handle all save opportunities, but they are seldom used in any other scenario.  They are rarely used in tie games or with runners on base, two situations where it would seem to make sense to employ your supposedly most reliable reliever.   They also almost never pitch more than one inning.

A good example is Jose Valverde, the Tigers reliever who was designated for assignment just yesterday.  I'll go back to 2011 when he had is best year in terms of converting save opportunities into saves - a perfect 49 saves in 49 opportunities.  In every single case, he entered the game in the ninth inning with nobody on and nobody out and got three outs.  He had 15 leads of three runs, 18 of two-runs and 16 of one-run.  There was not a lot of creativity going on there.  He did pitch in 26 other games, but they often came in blow outs where he was only used because he needed work. 

One might argue that his role was logical that year as he was successful in it and was not pitching well in non-save situations.  However, it made less sense last year and this year when he was being used the same way even while struggling to close out games. 

In the case of truly dominant closers, it makes even less sense on the surface to restrict them to one role.  Why automatically use your best reliever with a three-run lead and nobody on base and never bring him into a game with runners on base in earlier innings?  Why not use him in a tie game?

The answer we are usually given is that pitchers are more comfortable in set roles and thus specialization makes a bullpen more effective.  While it may make for happier pitchers, I don't believe there is any strong evidence that teams are significantly better at holding on to late-game leads today than they were thirty years ago when bullpen usage was a lot different.  Like it or not though, the closer role is probably not going to change anytime soon, not until some daring and influential manager commits to changing it.

It hasn't always been like this.  Prior to extreme specialization or La Russarization, bullpens were used more creatively and seemingly with just as much or even more success in some cases than today.  Examples can be found on two of the best Tigers teams in the past 40 years - 1984 world champions and 1987 division winners.

The Tigers had their glorious 35-5 start in 1984 and went on to win 104 games before plowing through the Royals and Padres in post-season.  Willie Hernandez, their primary closer that year, was so good that he won both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards.  Whether he really deserved either award is arguable, but he was dominant in 1984 posting a 1.92 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in in 140 1/3 innings.

Hernandez also converted his first 32 of 33 save opportunities that year with his only blown save coming on the second to last game of the season.  The 32-save streak was actually a big deal at the time and probably the main reason why he won awards.  So saves were revered back then as they are today, even if they were not accomplished in such generic fashion.  .     

The first clue that Hernandez was used differently than modern closers that year was his 140+ innings pitched.  Of his 80 appearances, 44 were for more than one inning and 15 were for three or more innings.

Manager Sparky Anderson was not afraid to use his exceptional left hander with runners on base.  He inherited runners is 23 of his appearances including 10 of his saves. Because game-finishing relievers of that period were often brought in with runners on base in tight games, they were generally referred to as Firemen rather than closers.

 Another divergence from today's convention  was the use of Hernandez in tie games - 16 in all for the season. This was one of the main reasons for his 11 wins that year.. 

While he was the Tigers primary fireman, Hernandez was not the only Tigers pitcher with a lot of saves that year.  He was frequently unavailable due to pitching multiple innings in previous games and sometimes Anderson preferred to go with a righty against certain teams.  Thus, portly right hander Aurelio Lopez was able to net 14 saves in 15 opportunities.  Lopez also won ten games while posting a 2.94 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 137 2/3 innings.

Senor Smoke also was not used anything like today's closers or set-up men.  He was a true fireman entering games with runners on base 29 times in 71 games for a total of 52 inherited runners.  He pitched more than one inning 41 times including 17 games of three plus frames.

With Lopez gone and Hernandez no longer effective or healthy, the Tigers had a different situation in 1987 than 1984.  They had no primary closer or fireman for most of the year and Anderson had to mix and match with young right handers Mike Henneman and Eric Steven King and and southpaws Hernandez and Mark Thurmond.  None had as many as ten saves, but this didn't prevent the Tigers from winning 98 games and an American League East division title.

They surely did not suffer in close games that year as the the Tigers were an an American League best 26-16 in one-run games. No Tigers fan of the time will ever forget the drama of four consecutive one-run victories versus the Blue Jays which secured the title in the final week of the season.

Two of those late-season victories were completed by Henneman, their most effective closer during the season's second half.  He was not dominant with his 2.98 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 96 2/3 innings, but the 25-year old rookie helped steady a shaky bullpen after his debut on May 11 bailing the Tigers out of jams time after time.

Henneman only had seven saves and finished just 28 of 55 games, but he inherited an incredible, by today's standards, 71 base runners including eight games with the bases loaded.  He also pitched 30 games of more than one inning, including 11 of three or more.  He won 11 games - 5 where he entered tie games, 3 when the team was down and 3 when they were ahead before the 5th inning was over.

We will likely never see the big innings totals for relievers like Hernandez and Lopez in 1984 which might be wise, but a mix of today's more modest workloads and the creativity of earlier years seems achievable.  I, for one, would like to see it. 

Data for this post were extracted from 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Maturing of Rick Porcello

Many Tigers fans were ready to give up on 24-year-old Rick Porcello going into the this season.  He had always shown good control and an ability to induce ground balls, but he frustrated us with his inability to miss bats and failure to pitch deep into games.  With sophomore left-hander Drew Smyly seemingly ready for regular rotation duty, many felt it was time to trade Porcello.  There were rumors about trades for closers or minor league infielders prior to the season, but nothing ever materialized and the Tigers apparently made the right move in holding on to him. 

Porcello had a promising spring training replacing his ineffective slider with a curve and showing an improved change-up. Fans once again became impatient with the right hander though when he got off to a sluggish start and skepticism turned to grave concern when he allowed nine runs in the first inning on April 20 versus the Angels. With his ERA now up to 11.08, disappointed fans could not understand why the Tigers kept putting him out there while Smyly was seemingly being wasted as a long reliever. Even Porcello's most loyal followers were beginning to wonder if he would ever take the next step forward. 

Since that abysmal start versus Los Angeles, Porcello has posted  a 2.84 ERA and fantastic 56/10 strikeout to walk ratio over nine starts and 57 innings.  This is by far the best stretch of his career and the only time he has shown any consistent ability to strike batters out.  For the season, Porcello has struck out a career best 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings.  That is a remarkable improvement over a 5.5 strikeout rate in 2012 and 5.2 for his career.  This is no fluke - strikeout rates do not improve by two per game over 70 innings by accident.

Porcello has not sacrificed anything to increase his strikeout total as his walk rate (1.7 per nine innings) and ground ball rate (56%) are also career bests. His ERA is only 4.37, but that is mostly because of the one awful start.  Take away that one game and his ERA is 3.26. 

So, Porcello is experiencing sustained success for the longest period of his career, but we have to dig a little deeper to understand why.  The  top theories as to why he is doing better are:
  • Less reliance on sinker
  • Adopting the curve as his primary breaking pitch instead of a slider
  • An improved change-up
The encouraging thing is that the data back up all these ideas.  Figure 1 below from Brooks Baseball shows the change in his pitch usage.  He clearly is is using his sinker less (down from 54% in 2012 to 40% in 2013) and his change-up more (14% to 19%).  The chart also confirms that he has essentially replaced his slider with a curve. 

Figure 2, also from Brooks, suggests why his curve is better than his slider. While the slider was very straight, the curve has quite a bit of horizontal movement, especially this year.  I'm not sure how much that is driving the results, but the numbers are excellent.  Last year, his slider was tattooed for a .410 batting average and .638 slugging average.  This year, batters have hit his curve at a very reasonable .238/.416 clip. 


Figure 3 gives us a clue as to the effectiveness of his change-up.  The Whiff Percentage (or percentage of change-ups that result in a swing and miss) has increased each year, with the biggest jump coming this year (13% in 2012 to 16% in 2013).  You'll notice that the Slider Whiff Percentage is also up, but you can probably ignore that as he rarely throws it this year.  Anyway, the more effective change-up is showing up in the results.  Last year, he allowed a .250/.410 BA/SLG on change-ups.  This year it's down to .215/. 308 and he has almost as many strikeouts on change-ups (17) as his trusted sinker (18).  


 Finally, Figure 4 shows where all the ground balls are coming from.  The ground ball rates on his sinker (60% in 2012 to 70% in  in 2013) and curve ball (43% to 63%) have both increased substantially.


It's still too early to say that Porcello's career has turned around and that he will keep pitching like a number two or three starter as he has the last nine starts.  It's clear though that he is using a very different approach this year and getting much better results so far.

There are not a lot of fans asking for Porcello to be traded anymore and those that still want a trade are demanding much bigger returns. 

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Cabrera on Pace for Best Batting Season Ever for a Tiger

There is much talk about the possibility of Tigers superstar Miguel Cabrera winning an unprecedented second consecutive triple crown.  That would be a remarkable feat, but most of you are aware of the limitations of the triple crown statistics.  From a sabermetric perspective, 2012 was not even Cabrera's best season.  According to more advanced numbers, his 2011 and 2010 seasons were even better.  This season, however, he is on pace to do something truly historic.

I'm going to use the Batting Runs statistic to show where Cabrera's prformance stands among the greatest seasons in Tigers history.  The Batting Runs metric was first introduced in The Hidden Game of Baseball by Pete Palmer and John Thorn in 1984.  It is an estimate of the number of runs a player contributed above an average player based on the number of singles, doubles, triples, home runs, bases on balls, hit batsmen and outs accumulated throughout the season.

Cabrera currently has 30 Batting Runs to give him a narrow lead over Orioles slugger Chris Davis (28).  This means that Cabrera has created an estimated 30 runs more than an average player would have been expected to create given the same number of outs.  If we project from the 60-game sample to 162 games, the Tigers slugger would have 81 Batting Runs by season's end.  How awesome is that?  As great as he was in 2010-2012, he accumulated only 55, 65 and 53 respectively in those years.

The table show that 81 Batting Runs would be the most in the history of the franchise eclipsing first baseman Norm Cash's 76 in 1961.  Not even the legendary Ty Cobb had that many in any season.  If we include base running, then Cobb's 1911 season might be better, but based just on batting Cabrera would be number one.

Table 1: Tigers Single-Season Batting Runs Leaders

Batting Runs

*Projected for a full season

The 81 Batting Runs would also be the 24th highest total in American League history.  Cabrera would be in great company as he would join Babe Ruth (9 times), Ted Williams (6), Lou Gehrig (5). Mickey Mantle (2) and Jimmie Foxx (1) as the only American League players with more than 80 Batting Runs in a season.  Cabrera would be the first to do it since Mickey Mantle (84 Batting Runs) and Ted Williams (83) in 1957.  Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have surpassed 80 in the National League since then.

There is a long way to go and it will be difficult for Cabrera to maintain his current pace, but he has chance to put together a season for the ages in 2013.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Smyly Among Top AL Relievers, But Is He Being Used Optimally?

In a recent post, I used the RE24 statistic to measure batting contribution including situational hitting.  The statistic is appealing because it gives batters more credit for hits with runners on base than for hits with the bases empty.  This concept can also be applied to pitchers, relievers in particular.

Statistical evaluation of relievers is difficult for a couple of reasons:
  1. They pitch so few innings that their statistics can be influenced heavily by a couple of really bad outings.
  2. Their actual value depends on game situations more than any other player (this problem will be addressed here)
Using ERA to evaluate relievers is problematic because relievers often make appearances with runners on base and give up other pitcher's runs. So a pitcher could have a low ERA without actually being that effective. FIP ERA which is based on walks, strikeouts and home runs allowed rather than runs allowed is better but it still does not consider the game environments in which a reliever pitched.

The RE24 metric estimates the number of runs a pitcher saved or cost his team based on his numbers of singles, doubles and all other events allowed including outs.  It also considers the situations in which these events happened.  For example, if Tigers southpaw Phil Coke enters a game with two men on base and nobody out and retires the side he will get more credit than if he comes in with the bases empty.  Coke gets more points in the first scenario because there was a greater potential for run scoring.  Thus, Coke saves the Tigers more runs if he frequently pitches well with runners on base than if he always starts an appearance with the bases empty.

The American League RE24 leaders among relievers are shown in Table 1 below.  Texas Rangers right hander Tanner Scheppers leads the league with a RE24 of 12.9.  This means that he has saved the Athletics an estimated 13 runs compared to an average pitcher with the same number of outs. This is not too surprising given his 0.64 ERA and relatively large workload (28 innings).  There are two Tigers in the top ten - Drew Smyly (10.6) and Joaquin Benoit (8.4).

Table 1: AL RE24 Leaders Among Relievers

Tex 12.9
  Data source:

Other Tigers relievers with 10 or more innings are listed in Table 2 below.  Darin Downs, Jose Valverde and Jose Ortega have all saved the team runs while Phil Coke and Al Alburquerque have been below average. This might explain why Alburquerque was briefly demoted to the minors.
Table 2: RE24 for Tigers Relievers
Data source:
Smyly has been the team's most effective reliever, but has he been used in situations which help the team win?  Table 3 lists the average Game Leverage Index (GmLI) of the Tigers relievers when they enter a game.  Leverage Index, a concept developed by Tom Tango, measures how critical a given plate appearance is in determining the final result of the game by looking at the difference in win probability between the best and worst case scenarios.

For example, suppose Smyly enters a game in which the Tigers have a nine-run lead with nobody on base in the ninth inning.  In that situation, there is little difference between giving up a home run and getting the batter out on the probability of winning the game.  This is an example of a low-leverage situation. However, if Smyly comes into a game with two on and nobody out and a one-run lead in the ninth inning, then allowing a home run will be much more damaging than getting the batter out.  This is a high-leverage situation.

A value of one is assigned to an average game situation.  Higher-leverage scenarios have values of more than one and lower-leverage scenarios have values less than one.  These values are averaged together to get a pitcher's index for the season.  Coke has a GmLI of 2 which means that, on average, he has entered games in situations with twice the impact of an average at bat.  Smyly, on the other hand, has been used in only average situations (1.0 GmLI).  This is low for a reliever, especially a good one, as they are typically used at important moments in games.

Table 3: Leverage Index for Tigers Relievers
Data source:

This is fuel for the fire for those who think manager Jim Leyland is not using Smyly optimally.  Smyly is saving the team runs, but it's not usually happening at the most crucial points of games.  There is probably more to the story as I suspect it is an organizational decision to stretch out Smyly as a long reliever, so he can be ready to start if necessary.  One can certainly question though whether he would have more value to the team as a back-end reliever than as a starter in waiting.


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