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James Paxton Has Hit a Bump in the Road

Through the first month of the season, it looked like James Paxton was going to build on his breakout 2018 season and elevate himself into the upper echelons of the pitching ranks. Through May 3, he had posted a 3.11 ERA backed by a 2.59 FIP and a ridiculous 33.6% strikeout rate. On May 3, Paxton exited his start with a knee injury and wound up missing four weeks of play, and since his return from the injured list, he just hasn’t been the same.

In his eight starts since May 29, his FIP has shot up to 4.65 and his strikeout rate has fallen to 24.7%. A vintage 11-strikeout performance in his last start on July 7 is propping up that strikeout rate, too; he struck out just three batters in each of his two previous starts before that. The league average strikeout rate for a starter is 22% so complaining about Paxton’s dip in results feels a little like picking nits. It would be easy to chalk up his post-IL results to the lingering effects of the knee injury or just a string of bad luck. But a deeper look into his pitch repertoire reveals some concerning trends.

Back in early May, Sung Min Kim wrote an article detailing the changes Paxton had made to his pitch mix. In short, Paxton “basically swapped the usage rates of his cut fastball and curveball.” And why wouldn’t he want to throw his cutter more often? He generated a ridiculous number of whiffs with the pitch last year (37.2% whiff rate) and batters simply could not square it up when they did make contact with it (6.5% barrel rate). But the effectiveness of the pitch has waned with greater exposure.

In the past, it’s been a put-away pitch Paxton turned to when he was ahead in the count. He would use his fastball and curveball to get ahead and then earn a strikeout with a well placed cutter. Because he’s throwing his cutter more often this season, he’s had to use it earlier in at-bats. There are only so many two-strike counts to throw it in, so some of those extra cutters have come when the count is in the batter’s favor. Here’s what Paxton’s cutter usage has looked like by count over the last four seasons:

James Paxton, Cutter Usage
2016-2018 2019
Batter Ahead 11.9% 17.6%
Even 39.7% 43.3%
Pitcher Ahead 48.4% 39.1%

Not only is he throwing it more often earlier in the count, he’s also throwing it less often when he does get ahead. Trying to steal a strike with his cutter early in an at-bat isn’t necessarily a bad thing — he used his curveball to do exactly that last year — but it becomes a problem when he can’t locate his cutter in the zone:

Paxton’s cutter is at it’s very best if he can locate it down and in against a right-handed batter, right over their back foot. That location takes the pitch out of the strike zone to get a swinging strike. But he’s actually spotted his cutter in the zone more often than you might expect. In years past, he’s thrown his cutter in the zone around 47% of the time, a touch below the league average zone rate for a cutter. Even though it feels high for a put-away pitch, it never really affected his ability to earn a swinging strike. This year, he’s locating his cutter in the zone around 35% of the time, the lowest zone rate of any cutter thrown more than 100 times:

James Paxton, cutter results
Zone% Swing% SwStr% Whiff/Sw%
2016-2018 46.8% 57.9% 21.8% 37.2%
2019 34.9% 48.2% 18.7% 38.7%

He’s locating the pitch as though he was ahead in the count and looking for a whiff, but those pitch locations aren’t exactly ideal earlier in the count. Batters are content to just take a cutter when they hold the advantage, knowing that they’re likely to either whiff or it’ll end up out of the zone as a ball. So even though Paxton’s whiff per swing rate on his cutter is just as good as it has been in the past, because his overall swing rate on the pitch is down almost 10 points, his raw number of swinging strikes is down.

Since 2017, Paxton has added more than two inches of horizontal movement to his cutter. It’s possible that additional movement has affected his command of the pitch:

If he’s throwing his cutter the same way he did last year, aiming at a target that would locate the pitch in the zone, that extra horizontal movement could be carrying the pitch out of the zone despite his intent.

It’s also possible that batters are able to identify his cutter more easily this year. Paxton took a big step forward last year when he started to tunnel his high four-seam fastball with his curveball. But his cutter also benefited from that pitch tunnel as well:

James Paxton, fastball-cutter tunnel
Year Pitch Sequence Batter Hand PreMax PreMax Time
2018 Fastball-Cutter RHB 1.25 0.157
2019 Fastball-Cutter RHB 1.46 0.162
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

Last year, Paxton’s fastball-cutter pitch tunnel was excellent. The perceived distance between the two pitches in sequence (PreMax) was well above average and they separated in flight (PreMax Time) just a few milliseconds before the tunnel point. Both measures have deteriorated a bit this year and it’s likely due to the location of these pitches in sequence. Paxton’s pitch tunnel works best when his cutter is located right at the bottom of the zone but not too low. THe average location of his cutter this year has given opposing batters a few extra milliseconds to identify whether a pitch is worth swinging at.

I can’t explain why Paxton has swapped the number of curveballs and cutters he throws this year. Maybe he’s lost the feel for his curveball. But the effectiveness of his secondary pitches has waned with the altered usage pattern. The solution is likely a little more complicated than just swapping back. He’s going to have to figure how to locate his cutter a little better, especially if he needs to use it earlier in counts to keep batters off his fastball.

Liam Hendriks, AL All-Star

The past year has been a whirlwind for Liam Hendriks. A little over a year ago, he was designated for assignment by the Oakland Athletics. At that point in the 2018 season, he was sporting a 7.36 ERA with an ugly 6.43 FIP while also missing more than a month with a groin strain. No one claimed him on waivers and he was sent outright to Triple-A. He worked hard to regain his confidence while also honing his repertoire. He was recalled in September and pitched well enough as an opener to get the start in the Wild Card game against the Yankees. However, that game didn’t go to plan after an Aaron Judge two-run homer got the home team on the board early.

Even after all those setbacks, Hendriks has flourished as a critical piece in the A’s bullpen this year. He started the year in a familiar role, making a couple of opener starts and coming out of the pen as a middle reliever. But as the back-end of the Oakland bullpen began to struggle, Hendriks found his way into higher leverage situations. The climax of his year-long turnaround came when he was named to the American League All-Star team as a replacement for Charlie Morton.

Here’s how Hendriks stacks up against his fellow All-Star relievers and a few other top candidates.

American League All-Star Relievers + Others
Liam Hendriks 48.2 5 4.07 1.85 21 45 1.8
Brad Hand 37.1 23 5.50 1.49 46 41 1.5
Aroldis Chapman 34.2 24 4.17 0.62 39 38 1.4
Ryan Pressly 39.2 3 7.83 1.61 31 57 1.2
Shane Greene 33 22 3.40 1.27 24 80 0.7
Ken Giles 31 13 5.89 1.19 32 32 1.4
Roberto Osuna 37 19 6.50 1.73 44 60 1.2
Ty Buttrey 42 2 4.17 0.39 58 62 1.2
Taylor Rogers 39.2 12 7.29 2.56 39 59 1.2
Ian Kennedy 35 11 5.25 -0.19 78 51 1.1
Highlighted relievers selected to All-Star roster.

Any of the other candidates listed above could have been chosen and no one would have batted an eye (ok, maybe not Ian Kennedy). But Hendriks leads the AL in WAR as well as park- and league-adjusted ERA. He’s been terrific, and the adjustments he’s made since last September are driving his newfound success. Read the rest of this entry »

The Braves’ Luke Jackson Is for Real

Luke Jackson has blown six saves this season, tied for the major league lead. His struggles as the Braves closer have given rise to a play on the chorus from OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson”: Back in mid-May, after blowing two save opportunities in a row, fans on the Atlanta airwaves and Twitter started singing “I’m sorry Luke Jackson (oooh).” His problems — and the singing — only got worse in early June after he allowed runs in five of his first seven appearances in the month. But if you look at Jackson’s peripherals outside of their game context, the next line in OutKast’s song becomes a lot more appropriate: “I am for real.”

A first-round draft pick by the Texas Rangers in 2010, Jackson never really lived up to his pedigree with his original organization. By 2015, he had transitioned to the bullpen full-time, though he did make his major league debut that year. He was traded to the Braves in an unheralded, change-of-scenery move in December 2016 for Brady Feigl (no, the other one) and Tyrell Jenkins. He was just as unremarkable in Atlanta, getting designated for assignment three separate times, each time going unclaimed on waivers. He made the Opening Day roster this year as a fall back option after injuries decimated the team’s bullpen during spring training.

In his first appearance of the season, he gave up a grand slam to Rhys Hoskins. Luckily it was a low-leverage situation since the Braves were already three runs behind. With Arodys Vizcaino injured and A.J. Minter and Dan Winkler ineffective, Jackson found himself thrust into high-leverage situations by mid-April. But despite the aforementioned struggles, he’s been the best reliever in the Braves bullpen this year. If you compare what he’s doing this year to what he was doing before, he looks like a completely different pitcher:

Luke Jackson, 2015-2019
2015-2018 109.3 17.7% 10.1% 44.4% 5.19 4.51 -0.2
2019 41 33.1% 7.6% 67.7% 2.85 2.69 1.1
Change 15.4% -2.5% 23.3% -2.34 -1.82 1.3

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The Next Man Up in the Rays ‘Pen

Since August 1, 2018, the Tampa Bay Rays have compiled the third best record in the majors, winning just over 60% of their games. Their pitching staff has been the stingiest in all of baseball during this period, allowing just 3.5 runs to score per game. Their rotation deserves a ton of credit, as their starting five— and openers —posted a league and park adjusted FIP 24% better than league average. But their bullpen, including their bulk pitchers, has been almost as effective, posting a league and park adjusted FIP 11% better than league average. That’s even more impressive when you consider the sheer number of innings their relievers have thrown due to their opener strategy.

Here’s a list of relievers who have thrown 20 or more innings for the Rays since the beginning of August last year, with bulk pitchers removed:

Rays Relievers, Aug 2018–June 2019
Player IP K% BB% ERA FIP gmLI
José Alvarado 43 1/3 37.9% 12.4% 2.70 1.91 1.70
Emilio Pagán 29 1/3 32.4% 7.2% 1.23 2.44 1.27
Adam Kolarek 53 16.7% 5.9% 3.40 3.36 1.25
Hunter Wood 31 1/3 17.3% 6.3% 2.87 3.78 0.82
Chaz Roe 38 1/3 26.3% 12.9% 4.23 4.14 1.38
Diego Castillo 48 27.7% 9.7% 3.38 4.26 1.49
Serigo Romo 20 28.2% 4.7% 5.40 4.61 1.53
(min. 20 IP)

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Christian Walker is Making the Most of His Opportunities

Christian Walker has always been able to hit well. While he was coming up through the Orioles organization, he compiled a 124 wRC+ across five minor league seasons. Unfortunately, Chris Davis and his massive contract blocked Walker from breaking into the big leagues with Baltimore and they designated him for assignment after the 2016 season. He bounced around that offseason and was claimed by two other teams before finally latching on with Arizona, and he’s continued to hit since joining the Diamondbacks organization. He compiled a 142 wRC+ across two seasons in Triple-A, but was again blocked by Paul Goldschmidt at the major league level.

By 2018, Walker had managed to accumulate just under 100 plate appearances in the majors but couldn’t break through. The dreaded “Quad-A” label was looming. Then the Diamondbacks traded away Goldschmidt this offseason, and suddenly Walker had a path towards regular playing time. He earned a part-time job out of spring training that quickly turned into a full-time job after Jake Lamb injured himself five games into the season. Walker seized the opportunity. He collected seven hits in his first 15 at-bats and continued to produce well through the first month of the season. In April, he collected 17 extra-base hits while posting a 152 wRC+.

Despite the hot start to the season, there were a few warning signs that his performance wasn’t sustainable. He struck out almost 30% of the time in April, and his BABIP was elevated at .393. Unsurprisingly, he came back down to earth in May.

It’s not as if Walker’s success in April was completely BABIP driven. His average exit velocity ranks in the 83rd percentile in the majors and he’s making hard contact nearly half the time he puts the ball in play. His expected wOBA on contact ranks 28th in the majors. Read the rest of this entry »

A Brief History of the Bunt Double

The use of the infield shift has exponentially grown over the past few years. Teams have employed a defensive shift on more than a quarter of the total pitches thrown this season. That’s by far the highest usage rate in the Statcast era (2015-present). It’s become so prevalent, Major League Baseball is reportedly considering changing the rules of the game to curtail teams from shifting too often.

A common argument that comes up when the rise of defensive shifts is brought up goes like this: “Why doesn’t a batter just bunt against the shift? They’re just giving him an easy single.” Ignoring the incredible difficulty of actually bunting successfully, I’m sure every team in the league would happily allow a bunt single to Joey Gallo if it meant he was giving up an opportunity to hit a double or a dinger.

But what if one of those bunt hits went for extra-bases anyway? Read the rest of this entry »

Ramón Laureano’s Rocket Arm Doesn’t Make Him a Good Fielder

In August of last year, Ramón Laureano burst onto the scene with the Oakland Athletics. A mid-level prospect with the Astros, the strength of their big league outfield and the depth of their farm system pushed him out of the picture in Houston. He was traded to Oakland for a pittance in the fall of 2017 and made his major league debut on August 3. Just a week into his time in the majors, he made The Throw. You probably remember this one:

He hasn’t stopped throwing runners out with his rocket arm.

He’s made four more outfield assists since the above tweet was posted, giving him 15 across 115 career games in center field. Over the past two years, he’s second in the majors in outfield assists behind Teoscar Hernández, who has almost 400 more innings in the field than Laureano. The advanced defensive metrics back up what all those assists tell us. Since the beginning of 2018, he’s sixth in the majors in UZR’s ARM component and seventh in DRS’s rARM component. And remember, he didn’t make his major league debut until well into last season, so he’s had far fewer innings to accumulate positive marks for his throws. Read the rest of this entry »

Carlos Santana Goes Another Way

Editor’s note: Jake has previously written at Lookout Landing, and was a FanGraphs Resident in 2018. He’ll be contributing to FanGraphs a few times a week, and we’re excited to welcome him.

With “elevate and celebrate” now a totally normal part of the current baseball vernacular, it’s easy to assume that any given offensive breakout is being driven by an increase in launch angle and a corresponding surge in power. Carlos Santana isn’t exactly breaking out; he’s already a well-established and productive hitter. But after a down 2018 in Philadelphia, he’s rebounding in a big way back in Cleveland, and the most interesting thing about Santana’s resurgence is how his batted ball profile has changed.

From 2010 to 2017, Santana was a fixture in the middle of the Indians lineup, compiling a 123 wRC+ across more than 4,700 plate appearances. He’s made at least 600 plate appearances in each full season he’s played, showing a remarkable amount of consistency and durability. A strong approach at the plate has led to an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio throughout his career, forming a solid foundation for his overall offensive contributions. But he’s always struggled with a low BABIP. He’s not the most fleet of foot and his 13.9% career pop-up rate is far too high. That has led to some streaky hitting based on the whims of the batted ball gods.

That flawed batted ball profile really betrayed him in his one year away from Cleveland. In Philadelphia, Santana posted his highest fly ball rate since his rookie year and the second-highest pop-up rate of his career. Opposing teams have often shifted against him, but that rate increased a significant amount last year. As a result, his BABIP floundered to a career-low .231, and he ended up posting the second-lowest wRC+ of his career — just 109.

Traded back to Cleveland this offseason by the Seattle Mariners, Santana has regained his hitting stroke. He’s posting career-highs across his slash line, leading to a 144 wRC+, the ninth-best mark in the American League. Just a glance at his batted ball profile reveals a completely different hitter: Read the rest of this entry »

Finding the Next Edwin Díaz

This is Jake Mailhot’s fourth post as part of his May Residency at FanGraphs. A lifelong Mariners fan, Jake now lives in Bellingham, Washington, just a little too far away from Seattle to make it to games regularly, which is sometimes for the best. He is a staff editor at Mariners blog Lookout Landing. He can be found on Twitter at @jakemailhot. Read the works of all our residents here.

Among the various career arcs in professional baseball, the conversion from starting pitcher to reliever is one of the more common ones. It’s a last resort for aging veterans and a tried-and-true way to get the most out of middling starters. But when a talented prospect is moved to the bullpen, there are bound to be questions. It has been generally understood that a starting pitcher is more valuable than a relief pitcher, so teams are usually more conservative with their prospects, often letting them at least try to work things out as a starter before pulling the plug. But in an era when relievers are throwing more innings than ever before, a high-octane reliever might prove to be more valuable than just another starter.

Back in 2016, the Mariners moved one of their best pitching prospects from the rotation to the bullpen. Edwin Díaz took to the conversion quickly and was in the majors a few weeks later, completely skipping Triple-A. He was soon installed as the Mariners closer and has been one of the best relievers in the majors since. His already excellent fastball velocity received the usual boost from shorter stints on the mound, and his slider has developed into a plus-plus pitch.

It was a risky move for the Mariners. Instead of letting the 22-year-old try to develop his changeup in the rotation, they shifted him to the bullpen and aggressively promoted him because the major-league team needed bullpen help desperately.

I wondered if any other teams had tried something similar. Below you’ll see the results of a very specific query: every relief pitcher who has thrown at least 10 innings in the majors and had been a starting pitcher in the minors as recently as last year. To narrow the field even further, these pitchers all recorded fewer than five innings pitched in Triple-A and have posted an average leverage index greater than 1.25 when entering the game.

Recently Converted Minor-League Starters
Jordan Hicks 27.2 14.2% 14.2% 1.63 4.02
Brad Keller 22.1 14.6% 7.9% 2.01 3.46
Justin Anderson 15.2 30.9% 13.2% 3.45 4.20
Seranthony Domínguez 11.2 35.1% 0.0% 0.00 1.14

It’s an interesting list. Jordan Hicks, the man with the fastest fastball in all the land, sits atop it with almost 27 innings pitched and just 16 strikeouts to his name. Then we have a Rule 5 pick, Brad Keller, who has recently been in the mix for high-leverage innings in the Royals bullpen. Moving on. Justin Anderson wasn’t a highly regarded pitching prospect in the Angels organization, but he has added more than 6 mph to his average fastball velocity out of the pen and given Mike Scioscia another option in his constant closer carousel. This article was almost about Anderson. But the final name on the list is far more intriguing — and not just because of his 80-grade baseball name.

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When Lance McCullers Stops McCullersing

This is Jake Mailhot’s third post as part of his May Residency at FanGraphs. A lifelong Mariners fan, Jake now lives in Bellingham, Washington, just a little too far away from Seattle to make it to games regularly, which is sometimes for the best. He is a staff editor at Mariners blog Lookout Landing. He can be found on Twitter at @jakemailhot.

Earlier this year, Jeff Sullivan wrote a pair of articles, each about a pitcher who appeared to be McCullersing. That term, of course, is a reference to Lance McCullersJr., who in 2016 began throwing his excellent curveball more often than his fastball. He’s led all of baseball in curveball usage since then. He wound up throwing his curveball an astonishing 75% of the time in Game Seven of the ALCS last postseason. That appearance was peak McCullersing.

He started off this year throwing his curveball around the same amount as last year, 48% of the time. But when the calendar flipped to May, something changed. Just look at this graph of his secondary pitch usage in 2018.

That’s… interesting. In his start last night (not included here), McCullers threw his curveball around 40% of the time. That’s pretty normal for him. But it’s been less normal for him of late. In his start against the Angels last Monday, McCullers actually threw more changeups than curveballs, the latter pitch representing just 21.4% of his total count for the night. The last time his curveball usage fell below 30% was all the way back on August 3, 2015, during his rookie year.

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