This is Alex Stumpf’s seventh and final piece as part of his May residency at FanGraphs. Stumpf covers the Pirates and also Duquesne basketball for The Point of Pittsburgh. You can find him on Twitter, as well. Read the work of previous residents here.
Zach Strecker sat alone in his Florida hotel room. He wasn’t ready to pack. He had a plane to catch and a Sweet 16 game to watch with his dad, but his mind was elsewhere.
After an offseason of preparation and work, the 23-year-old righty reliever thought he was going to be a part of the Twins organization for another year. He had turned a strong senior season with the University of Kentucky in 2016 to a contract as an undrafted free agent with Minnesota nine months earlier, thanks mostly to the testimonial of former coach Brad Bohannon. He even pitched well in Rookie ball, leading the Gulf Coast League Twins in saves.
But today, he heard the same dreaded words every low-level minor leaguer who is losing their job will hear: there just isn’t a spot for you.
It’s a brutal business. He knows that. He wasn’t even expecting to play professional baseball when he graduated from Kentucky. That’s why he has two degrees: one in accounting, the other in finance. He was going to give baseball a shot until there’s no future in it. The day might have come.
Thoughts started to run through his head. “Am I really leaving right now?” “Is this it?” “Am I really ready to go home and join the real world?”
It was the longest 30 to 40 minutes of his life. That was until he got a call from Tony Buccilli, the director of team operations with the Washington Wild Things. Their season was starting in seven weeks, and they were looking for relief pitchers.
“I gave it some thought, but there wasn’t much thought,” Strecker said. “I wanted to play ball, so let’s give it a shot. It’ll be fun.”
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This is Alex Stumpf’s sixth piece as part of his May residency at FanGraphs. Stumpf covers the Pirates and also Duquesne basketball for The Point of Pittsburgh. You can find him on Twitter, as well. Read the work of previous residents here.
Lowering the hands has become the “have you tried turning it off and back on again?” of the baseball world. Eric Thames lowered his hands and was one of the hottest hitters in April. Aaron Altherr lowered his hands and has been one of the hottest hitters of May. Miguel Sano, Jean Segura, Jake Lamb and plenty of others have done the same. If your favorite team has a slugger who’s broken out in recent years and you want to know why, check if his hand position has changed. Chances are it has.
Mechanically, it makes sense as to why it’s catching on. According to Phillies hitting coach Matt Stairs — who’s an advocate for low hands — when a batter goes to the launch position with low hands, he goes straight to the baseball. If the hands are high at the start, the batter has to drop them and then explode to the ball. Lowering the hands eliminates an unnecessary movement and allows the batter to get the ball in the air better. Bat speed also tends to go up, which is a good way to counter fastballs that are getting faster almost every year.
Stairs lived through the struggles of having poorly positioned hands during his major-league career. In his days as a pinch-hitting extraordinaire, he liked having his hands chest high. When they rose, that’s when his trouble started.
It took Stairs 10 years before he finally figured out how to keep his hands in the right spot. When he started his first spring training as a hitting coach this year, he had a simple message to his young pupils: “Don’t take as long as it took me to figure it out.”
Recently, Stairs noticed that, during Maikel Franco’s slump, his hands were too close to his face. They worked on lowering them again, and Franco rattled off hits in eight consecutive games after making the adjustment. Franco didn’t know they were a problem until Stairs spotted it.
So who could refute a swing change that is tailor-made to generate more bat speed, fly balls, and most likely more offense? Enter: Pete Rose.
This is Alex Stumpf’s fifth piece as part of his May residency at FanGraphs. Stumpf covers the Pirates and also Duquesne basketball for The Point of Pittsburgh. You can find him on Twitter, as well. Read the work of previous residents here.
On the whole, the Phillies’ offense appears to be taking a big step forward in 2017. Entering play Sunday, their combined wRC+ was 14 points higher than it was the previous year and the highest it’s been since 2011. The team’s batting average, slugging, and on-base percentages are all up, putting them on pace to score 113 more runs than last season.
But they’ve been doing it without much help from Maikel Franco.
After a strong rookie campaign and then slump in his sophomore season, Franco has taken another step back in 2017. His wRC+ has dropped from 129 two years ago to 74 today — the second lowest out of Philadelphia’s regulars and 25th out of 27 qualified third basemen.
The results he’s had don’t reflect the positive steps he’s taken this season, however. He vowed at the end of last year to be more patient at the plate. So far he says he’s done that, which is why his walk rate has crept up and his strikeout rate is going down. He is able to get those better numbers because is he is chasing out of the zone a lot less, dropping his chase percentage 7.2 points from a year ago. According to PITCHf/x, he was swinging at 26.5% out of the zone entering play Sunday. And while his output is down, his average exit velocity is holding steady with last year, which is still up from 2015.
Getting a couple breaks to raise his .222 BABIP average would help, too, but he isn’t worried about that at the moment. “I have to not think about that stuff,” Franco said. “…I have to do everything that I can control.”
But the good has been outweighed by one major problem. If you’ve seen the title of this post, you probably know what that problem is: he’s struggling against the slider.
This is Alex Stumpf’s fourth piece as part of his May residency at FanGraphs. Stumpf covers the Pirates and also Duquesne basketball for The Point of Pittsburgh. You can find him on Twitter, as well. Read the work of previous residents here.
Andrew McCutchen is struggling early in the season. If you’ve followed him for the last three years, you’re aware that this is nothing new.
In 2015, he hit .194 in April. In 2016, he slumped his way to a .719 OPS through the first four months of the season. After getting benched for a series in Atlanta, he posted an .852 OPS over the rest of the campaign, just north of the .844 career mark he’d possessed entering the year.
Last year’s strong finish created optimism for this season. So far, however, McCutchen is slashing just .212/.218/.401, with a career worst 84 wRC+.
The absence of both Jung-Ho Kang and Starling Marte — due to visa issues and a PED suspension, respectively — means that the Pirates require an excellent performance from McCutchen just to keep the offense afloat. So far, that hasn’t happened. In fact, the results have been even worse recently: entering play Sunday, McCutchen had recorded a .132/.207/.302 line in 58 plate appearances since April 29th.
As usual, though, the results only tell part of the story. The quality of contact is sloping downward, too. In 2015, McCutchens’ exit velocity averaged out to 90.7 mph. In 2016, it was 89.6 mph. Through May 13th of this year, it was 87.6. The rate of balls hit at 95 mph or above is down, from 44.8% in 2015 to 42.6% in 2016 to 39.3% in 2017. The same goes for barrels, too, dropping from 9.5% to 8.5% to 5.6%.
This is Alex Stumpf’s third piece as part of his May residency at FanGraphs. Stumpf covers the Pirates and also Duquesne basketball for The Point of Pittsburgh. You can find him on Twitter, as well. Read the work of previous residents here.
Jared Hughes first realized his sinker might be something special in little league. He was admittedly goofy, uncoordinated and a head taller than anyone else on his team, but he pitched. One day when throwing sinkers during a bullpen session with his dad, he was given very simple advice that he would ride throughout his playing career.
“He said ‘keep throwing that. That’s the one right there that will make you a major leaguer,’” Hughes said.
This is Alex Stumpf’s second piece as part of his May residency at FanGraphs. Stumpf covers the Pirates and also Duquesne basketball for The Point of Pittsburgh. You can find him on Twitter, as well. Read the work of previous residents here.
For the last six years, Tom Gillespie has been scouring the world looking for future Pirates. He says it’s the same as normal scouting: getting a name from beating a bush or a word from a trusted coach. It just happens over in Europe and Africa.
This is Alex Stumpf’s first piece as part of his May residency at FanGraphs. Stumpf covers the Pirates and also Duquesne basketball for The Point of Pittsburgh. You can find him on Twitter, as well.
With one month of the season in the books, the Ivan Nova signing has been the steal of the offseason.
After performing a career 180 following his trade to the Pirates from the Yankees at the deadline last year, Nova has become even more Nova-y in 2017, recording a 1.50 ERA over 36 innings, refusing to walk batters, and working at a record-setting pace.
His 95-pitch Maddux* on Saturday night was his fifth complete game in 16 outings as a Pirate. In that stretch of 100.2 innings, he has faced 396 batters and walked only four, including just one out of the 133 who stepped into the box this season. The last starter to go at least 100 innings in a season with a lower walk rate per nine was George Bradley in 1880. That was the year the number of balls required for a walk was reduced to eight, and four years before pitchers were permitted to throw overhand.
*”Maddux” is a term coined by Jason Lukehart in 2012 to denote a game in which a pitcher records a shutout while throwing fewer than 100 pitches.
Nova has been pitching like he is double-parked all year, challenging hitters right out of the gate and getting a lot of outs early in the count. Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle uses the number of batters retired on three pitches or less as a barometer for a starter’s performance. Nova has done it 57 times over five starts this season. His first pitch has been a strike 66.9% of the time, and he’s in the zone on 51.3% of his offerings. He has said he isn’t afraid to throw strikes, but there’s a fine line between challenging hitters and going out there with a “hold my beer” mentality and daring them to go hacking at the first pitch. They haven’t had a lot of success coming out swinging, combining for a .111 average with a mean exit velocity of 80.6 mph off the bat on the first offering.
That has all resulted in an average of just 12.1 pitches per inning — the lowest since Stats LLC started keeping track in 1988. If Rob Manfred ever institutes a Pace of Play Hall of Fame, Nova would be a first-ballot inductee.