A Look at Today’s Pitchers: 10-5-13

The postseason is off to a great start, with both National League Division Series tied at one game apiece. Later today, the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics will attempt to even their respective series. Barroom trivia aficionados may be interested to learn that the postseason has never started with all four series split at one game apiece. There is a roughly 25 percent chance of that happening today and if it does, TBS will have another fun fact to share in the next pregame show.

Today’s match-ups are chock full of potential story lines for the national media. In Boston, David Price will officially make his first start of the postseason after twirling a complete game shutout in Game 163. Jeff Sullivan already succinctly described Price’s start. He wasn’t unusually dominant in any one way, working efficiently from the first pitch to the last. Within that article, Jeff compared Price to Cliff Lee, which deserves a second glance.

Despite a rough start to the season, Price finished with excellent numbers. His most Lee-like attribute was a stingy walk rate of 1.30 BB/9. That ranks as the 36th-best rate over the last 20 years. Lee holds the second, 22nd, and 35th ranks on that list. What distinguishes Price and Lee from many pitchers on this list is the ability to also generate an above-average strikeout rate. If we add an arbitrary strikeout parameter — say greater than 7.00 K/9 — Price climbs to 10th on our short list.

Best walk rates for pitchers with greater than 7 K/9:

Pitcher BB/9
Cliff Lee 0.76
Greg Maddux 0.99
Roy Halladay 1.08
Curt Schilling 1.15
Cliff Lee 1.19
Ben Sheets 1.22
Curt Schilling 1.24
Dan Haren 1.25
Cliff Lee 1.29
David Price 1.30

As a pitcher, you can’t ask for better company, and it bodes well for Price that Sheets’ injury-hampered career was by far the worst of the bunch. Price has been especially dominant since he returned from the disabled list, as he has walked only 13 batters in 18 games. The Rays will hope this trend continues as they attempt to even the series. Teams facing the Red Sox know that not walking batters is one of the [Insert Corporate Sponsor] Keys to the Game.

Today’s pregame show may focus on Price’s dominance of the Red Sox in 2013. He faced Boston more than any other team this season, squaring off a total of five times. Over 119 plate appearances, the Sox managed a pitiful .167/.186/.289 batting line. Basically, they turned into Danny Espinosa. Of course, we’re talking about 119 plate appearances coupled with a .195 BABIP, but the national broadcast will probably gloss over that caveat.

The Rays will be opposed by John Lackey. Those who don’t follow the American League East may be surprised to learn that Lackey turned in one of the best seasons of his career after a couple clunkers. While his stuff doesn’t visually stack up to Price, Lackey posted similar numbers, managing 7.65 K/9 against just 1.90 BB/9. Like Price, he generates plenty of ground balls and whiffs.

According to his Brooks Baseball player page, Lackey has leaned more on his slider than in seasons past, while mostly eschewing his curveball and changeup. This strategy has worked well, with nearly one-third of all swings against his slider counted as whiffs. He also controls the pitch as well as his fastball, which has allowed him to use it in any count. Expect that to continue today.

We may observe some interesting early game strategies used in this game. The Red Sox and Rays are known for drawing walks in bunches, but as we’ve discussed, these pitchers tend to avoid free passes. Both offenses may be swinging early and often, looking to square up fastballs rather than work the count.

Three and a half hours later, the A’s will host the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers will turn to Justin Verlander to bring an imposing lead back to Detroit. Verlander has been remarkably inconsistent start-to-start, but finished the season by stifling two weak offenses in the Twins and Marlins. His average fastball velocity has wandered between 91 and 96 mph throughout the season, although it generally improved as the year progressed. He’s also had problems with walks at times, although those particular outings were clustered in the middle months of the season and linked with a mechanical issue.

If the Tigers fail to advance beyond the ALDS, today’s start will set the tone for all Verlander narratives this offseason. A poor outing undoubtedly will translate into dozens of articles predicting impending doom and falling skies. A strong outing and all the un-Verlander-like happenings of 2013 will be forgiven (if not forgotten).

Readers of FanGraphs know that one outing shouldn’t change expectations (barring injury). Could the mechanical change have restored Verlander to his former glory? He identified an issue with his shoulder angle as the culprit. PITCHf/x doesn’t track shoulder angle, but it does track release point, which would likely be affected by the angle of his shoulder. For visual purposes, I have broken his season into three parts — April to June, July, and August to September. The cutoff of June 30 was chosen because the Sporting News article where he discussed his mechanics ran July 1. Presumably, Verlander was working on the issue prior to informing news outlets.

Verlander Release Point April-June
Verlander Release Point July
Verlander Release Point August-September

His observed release points are consistent with the story that he worked on his mechanics throughout the month of July before arriving at a stable release point. The overall change was a subtle horizontal shift towards center. This breakdown also suggests an explanation as to why July was one of his wonkiest months — he was working through mechanical changes, which led to inconsistency with his velocity and stuff.

Verlander is opposed by Sonny Gray, who is making his first bid to become a household name. Gray was briefly used out of the bullpen in July before being sent down and reactivated in August to take regular turns in the rotation. As a starter, he posted a 2.85 ERA, with a 2.83 FIP and 2.99 xFIP. He struck out over a quarter of the batters he faced, walked just under eight percent, and generated ground balls on over half of balls in play. Not too shabby.

Gray features a classic strategy on the mound and that predictability may cause problems against the stacked Tigers lineup. Basically, he pitches forwards. As you can see from the graphic below, he frequently uses fastballs in early counts while turning to his potent curveball once he’s ahead in the count.

Sonny Gray Pitch Usage

You will notice that he also throws what is classified as a slider. Eno Sarris discussed the pitch with him recently and learned that his slider is the same as the curve, except it is thrown harder. The primary observed difference is a greater whiff rate on the slider and more ground balls from the curveball. Given his usage of the pitches, we may be able to conclude that he has a better feel for the slower curve. It’s also possible that Gray may get in trouble with hanging sliders — note the line drive rate on that pitch (small sample size warning).
 Sonny Gray Pitch Outcomes
All told, we have the potential to witness two classic postseason games. Price versus Lackey promises to force two patient lineups to put balls in play. Across the country in Oakland, Verlander will look to regain his former super-ace status against one of the best young pitchers of the 2013 season. Now go finish your Saturday errands, there’s postseason baseball to watch in just a few short hours.

You can follow me on twitter @BaseballATeam

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10 years ago

If Gray pitches well against the Tigers (say 2 ER in 6 innings), does he become a “household name”? Or does he have to beat the Tigers in order to do so?

I hope both the Rays and A’s even up the series….it would make a far more exciting post season.