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Getting the Most Out of Robbie Erlin

Free agent left-hander Robbie Erlin threw 55.1 innings across 37 appearances in a mediocre 2019 campaign. He gave up a lot of hard contact (43.7%), posted a 5.37 ERA, and saw his walk rate balloon to almost three free passes per nine innings. Erlin’s WHIP also skyrocketed from 1.14 in 2018 to 1.57 last year.

We can’t ignore that some bad luck may have found him; his BABIP was .373, almost 60 points higher than his career norm. That, coupled with the big jump in walk rate (2.7% to 6.0%), put Erlin in a lot of bad situations. Although he did manage to post a 3.61 FIP, that doesn’t sound like a pitcher destined for an especially promising 2020 season, if he’s picked up at all. So what value can be drawn from Erlin?

Well, for starters, Erlin mixes his pitches really well. The ability to keep hitters on their toes is advantageous regardless of how good your stuff is. In Erlin’s case, his stuff needs to be good, and there are ways in which he can make that happen.

Let’s first take a glance at Erlin’s five-pitch arsenal: a two- and four-seamer, a slider that is sometimes mistaken for a cutter, a curveball, and a changeup: Read the rest of this entry »


Pitch Design: Tyler Glasnow Can Be More Elite in 2020

The 2020 Tampa Bay Rays arguably have one of the best front-end starting rotations in the American League, with Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, and Tyler Glasnow as the headliners. Last season, Glasnow flashed moments of brilliance prior to and following a mid-season injury that halted his torrid start in early May and kept him out of the rotation until September. Glasnow already has the ability to be the ace of the Rays staff — in his 60.2 innings, the right-hander was worth 2.3 WAR and posted a 1.78 ERA and 2.26 FIP — but a couple of minor adjustments could vault him into 2020 Cy Young Award discussions.

Glasnow, who avoided salary arbitration last Friday by agreeing to a one-year, $2.05 million deal, operates with three pitches: a straight, backspinning four-seam fastball that has some carry and can sometimes have cutting action; a 12-6 diving curveball; and a hard changeup that exceeds 90 mph.

Let’s start by looking at Glasnow’s four-seamer, one of the straightest in baseball with a good amount of rise:

Read the rest of this entry »


Colin Poche Doesn’t Need To Throw So Many Fastballs

No pitcher who took the mound for at least 50 innings in 2019 threw their four-seam fastball more than Tampa Bay Rays reliever Colin Poche. Utilizing the pitch just over 88% of the time, it went far beyond the league average four-seamer deployment rate of 37.7%. As part of 2019’s strongest bullpen, the 25-year-old Poche produced 0.6 WAR with a 3.79 K/BB rate, which was juxtaposed by his 4.70 ERA (and 4.08 FIP).

There are a few pitchers who are able to live and die by their four-seamer. The question isn’t whether Poche should continue to throw his four-seam fastball roughly nine out of every 10 pitches he throws; it’s whether he actually needs to throw it that much?

Last year, Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel put a 70 FV on Poche’s four-seamer, noting in their write up last year:

Essentially, Poche has an average fastball with three separate characteristics that make it play up. Big league hitters may be less vulnerable to one or more of these characteristics, but if not, Poche’s fastball is going to play like a 7 or 8.

He throws his fastball with almost pure backspin, which creates 99%+ spin efficiency. Under these conditions, Poche (who led the league in FA-Z, min 50 IP) is able to induce a lot of rise on his fastball, or rather, the pitch drops much less than a typical four-seamer. This is advantageous because he lives high in the zone. Hitters who try to square up the elevated four-seamer may end up swinging under the pitch because they expect it to drop more, but in Poche’s case, Mangus Force keeps the pitch up longer than anticipated. That could at least partially explain how Poche was able to produce his 34.8% strikeout rate despite his elevated ERA. Read the rest of this entry »


Wade Miley’s Cutter Should Be a Lot Better

Veteran southpaw Wade Miley recently signed a two-year deal with the pitching-minded Cincinnati Reds. Last year with the Houston Astros, Miley posted his highest WAR since 2015, which should come as little surprise since he was under the guidance of one of the best pitching coaches in baseball, Brent Strom, though he ended the year on a sour note. While he’s likely in the twilight of his career, the 33-year-old will once again be working with another elite pitching coach, Derek Johnson. What kind of production might the Reds see from Miley in 2020? While I’m sure the folks in Great American Ballpark have their ideas, I see a basic change to his favored pitch, the cutter, which could help Miley in the long run.

Miley generally works with four pitches: a backspin cutter (his main pitch), a circle change, a four-seamer, and a lightly used curveball.

Notice anything in the above GIF? A quick inspection of the arm-slot pause shows a decent amount of release point variation between Miley’s cutter (and, to a lesser extent, his four-seamer) compared to his changeup and curve. Since Miley’s cutter usage is on the rise, we’ll focus on that pitch and, for the sake of argument, ignore the four-seamer; that version of his fastball has been on a steady decline, though there was a slight uptick in its use last year. Read the rest of this entry »


Pitch Design: Is There Any Hope for Chris Archer’s Two-Seam Fastball?

Chris Archer was bad in 2019. In fact, he was as bad as he’d ever been, posting his lowest WAR total and the worst FIP, ERA, walk rate, and HR/FB rate of his career. The performance has made the trade that sent him to the Pittsburgh Pirates from the Tampa Bay Rays look like a complete abomination.

Yet he shouldn’t have to walk the plank just yet.

For Archer, who turned 31 at the end of September, it’s something of a long shot that he’ll be able to return to being the pitcher he was during his heyday with the Rays. As you can see, what was once a good arsenal has devolved into a group of mediocre, if not weak, pitches:

Chris Archer Career Pitch Values
Season Team wFA/C wSI/C wCH/C wSL/C wCU/C
2012 Rays -1.37 2.59 2.17 2.05 6.92
2013 Rays 0.59 0.11 -1.72 1.13
2014 Rays -0.65 0.48 0.05 0.85
2015 Rays 0.11 0.43 1.87
2016 Rays -0.80 -0.05 1.61
2017 Rays -0.18 -0.91 1.3
2018 2 Teams -0.99 -0.43 -0.40 0.59 -0.81
2019 Pirates 0.08 -3.00 -0.92 0.30 -2.01

The most significant dip for Archer came in the effectiveness of his two-seam fastball. The pitch worked well for him earlier in the decade, and after removing it from his arsenal in 2015, he brought it back three seasons later. Archer’s “new” two-seamer, which hasn’t been good (especially in 2019), was used sparingly against both left- and right-handed hitters. Read the rest of this entry »


Michael Pineda Was Elite at Pitch Tunneling

The Minnesota Twins brought back another piece of their 2019 starting rotation when they re-signed righty Michael Pineda to a two-year, $20-million contract (pending physical). With another 39 games left in his 60-game suspension due to testing positive for PEDs (hydrochlorothiazide), the deal works out to roughly $17.6 million over two years.

Prior to his suspension in September, Pineda was instrumental in helping the Twins capture the American League Central. Anchored by a top-20 rated changeup (minimum 15% usage), Pineda accumulated 2.7 WAR (his highest mark since 2016) and posted his lowest ERA (4.01) in five years. The rest of Pineda’s stats were in line with his career averages, although his xFIP and hard-hit rate was by far the worst of his six seasons in the major leagues.

Nevertheless, Pineda was helped by an element of deception as he was one of the best overall pitch tunnelers of 2019, as exemplified in the chart below sorted by PreMax (average distance between back-to-back pitches at the tunnel point). Read the rest of this entry »


Pitch Design: Reimagining Mike Minor’s Slider

Designing a pitch can be an arduous but rewarding process for a pitcher. When you find two or more pitches that have the potential to work well together, it may be worthwhile to make some changes if, for example, one isn’t yielding positive results. It’s not always as simple as it sounds, and sometimes the option of not using the pitch at all ends up being the best choice.

For an older pitcher, this process tends to be harder, though not impossible. They’ve gone through the majority of their career throwing a pitch with certain mechanics or gripping the ball in a particular way. Changes to either of those can be uncomfortable, which may create a developmental roadblock. However, there may come a point when becoming a more dynamic pitcher is necessary, especially as the aging curve starts its downward trend.

At 31 years of age, the Rangers’ Mike Minor put together the best season of his eight-year career. He posted a 3.59 ERA, an almost 3-1 K/BB rate, allowed his lowest ever contact rate in the strike zone, and had career highs in strikeouts (200) as well as innings pitched (208.1).

It might be a stretch to expect Minor to repeat his 4.2 WAR season, but it’s not out of the question. He still possesses a decent fastball and has developed a really good changeup. Yet his curveball and slider both took steps back in 2019, so Minor should consider working on at least one of them prior to the 2020 season. Read the rest of this entry »


Taking a Look at Spin Mirroring

There are a myriad of things pitchers can do to get a leg up on a hitter. Changing speeds, eye level, sequencing, and even spin rate are a few of the more popular methods. Changing speeds can interfere with a hitter’s timing, while changing eye levels can force a hitter to adjust to a larger focal point. Varying pitch selection based on the situation can help a pitcher become less predictable, and changing the spin rate can have an effect on the expected movement of a pitch.

But there are other subtle tricks pitchers have up their sleeves. One of these tricks, explored in an article for The Athletic by Joe Schwarz and elaborated on in another by Eno Sarris, is known as pitch or spin mirroring, and with the right pitch attributes, it can be a powerful weapon.

Being able to spot a pitch’s spin can tip a hitter off to what is coming, a skill some hitters claim to have. That’s a big advantage to have in a decision that transpires over the course of milliseconds. When pitches are spinning over 2000 times a minute, is the human eye really that good? Perhaps. As Preston Wilson points out in the piece linked to above, a hitter might see “more white or more red,” which gives an indication as to what pitch is coming. More white would indicate a faster or more abundantly spinning pitch, like a curveball or fastball, while more red could be a changeup.

In theory, a pitcher could use spin mirroring effect to parry those abilities, especially with a fastball and curveball combo because of the high spin on both pitches. Furthermore, if the rotation blur of the ball is mostly white, you’ll have a much harder time deciphering the direction in which the spin is oriented. Read the rest of this entry »


How Andrew Miller Can Return to Dominance

From 2014 to 2017, relief pitcher Andrew Miller was one of the most dominant arms to come out of a bullpen. Miller averaged 2.4 WAR during those four seasons, and in three of those four, he posted a sub-2.00 FIP. In fact, in 2016, Miller struck out nearly 50% of hitters he faced while walking just over 3%.

As we know, decline is inevitable for baseball players. Whether it’s due to playing over your head, the impact of aging, or just loss of ability, the equalizer comes for everyone at some point. By the time Miller landed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019, he was a little bit older and a shell of his former self. His walk rate rose to over 11%, his FIP ballooned over 5.00, and his home run rate became, to date, the highest it had ever been. Be it age or an impending decline, Miller doesn’t necessarily have to succumb to either just yet. Yes, he’ll turn 35 next May, but he might have something left in the tank.

Despite 2019 being one of the worst seasons in his career, Miller showed some flashes of returning to his mid-2010s form. During the month of July as well as the Cardinals’ October playoff run, Miller made a subtle but important adjustment to the pitch that made his career, the slider. It’s unclear if this slider adjustment was intentional, but it made a big difference in its effectiveness. If Miller can keep this particular change more consistent in 2020, the Cardinals could have one of the most dominant relievers in baseball. Read the rest of this entry »


A Plan for Helping Hunter Wood’s Fastball

Pitch movement isn’t as exciting as high velocity these days, especially when talking about four-seam fastballs. The harder you throw, the more attention you draw, and any additional cut, run/ride, or rise you produce is the icing on the cake. So what happens if you throw a fastball with average velocity and minimal movement?

There are a few pitchers who don’t rely on heavy movement and can compensate for unimpressive velocity with things like pitch command or control and being able to use their offspeed and/or breaking pitches with the fastball effectively. While looking at some 2019 four-seam movement data, I came across a few pitchers that produce minimal four-seam action. Since the fastball is essentially the foundation on which all other pitches thrive, I wondered about the capacity of their other secondary pitches working off of this somewhat linear-moving pitch.

I found Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Hunter Wood to be of interest to me. Only a half-win player in 2018, Wood took a small step backward in 2019 after a decent start to the season that went south just before the All-Star break. His HR/9 skyrocketed in that time, going from 0.68 from April to June to 2.84 in July and August, and his fastball was largely responsible for the degradation.

Eventually, Wood was dealt to the Indians in late July after spending his two and a half seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays. Per Wood’s scouting report, he possesses a good level of command. His pitches generally grade out as average, with exception given to his cutter.

Wood’s undeviating four-seamer averages a horizontal break of three-quarters of an inch with the tenth-highest rise of all fastballs thrown in 2019. Given the lack of expected drop to the pitch, hitters generated a fair number of fly balls, a lot of which left the various stadiums they were hit in. Thrown for league-average velocity with the 43rd-highest spin rate, it produced a .280 batting average and a 120 wRC+ against. Below are a couple of his typical fastballs: Read the rest of this entry »