Sunday Notes: Forsythe’s Breakout, Britton’s Aim, Bullpen Banter, more

Logan Forsythe isn’t sure he can explain his breakout. At least not definitively. The Tampa Bay infielder points to consistency, but that’s more byproduct than causation. He indirectly cites BABiP – “I’ve had some balls fall this year” – but it’s not as though his .323 mark is outlandish.

Opportunity might be a bigger factor. His high-water mark for seasonal plate appearances had been 350 – with the Padres in 2012 – and he’s already come to the dish 606 times. He’s taking advantage of the increased playing time. A .235/.343/.303 hitter coming into the campaign, Forsythe is slashing .282/.359/.446, and his 17 home runs are nearly double his career total. He’s been worth 4.1 WAR.

The 28-year-old second baseman was fielding a familiar question when I inquired as to why he’s having a good year. He’s been asked that a lot – not a bad problem to have – and his response suggests it’s largely the regular reps.

“The biggest thing is being consistent,” Forsythe told me. “That’s the recurring word I keep using. I expected to be that super-utility type again, but we had a few guys go down with injuries. That sucked, but it did give me an opportunity. I’ve had stints in my career where I’ve taken a simpler approach – I’ve just stayed in a routine – and the consistency of my play took over. This year reminds me of when I was playing every day in the minor leagues.”

It’s hard to say whether the Rays expected this type of production when they acquired Forsythe from San Diego in a seven-player deal prior to last season. His versatility was his calling card, but he possessed other qualities as well.

“When I first came over, they said my ball-off-the-bat speed was high,” explained Forsythe. “They said my zone recognition was, too.”

The latter plays a role in his emergence. Forsythe feels he’s “maybe started to attack more balls in the zone and not be as passive.” The reason for doing so circles back to the regular reps.

“Seeing pitchers multiple times throughout the year, instead of just once or twice, has really helped,” said Forsythe. “I have a better idea of what they throw and what their patterns are. That’s makes a difference when you’re playing that cat-and-mouse game.”

Compared to recent seasons, a lot of the pitches Forsythe is catching up to are leaving the yard. Given the value of middle infielders with pop, it would be easy for Forsythe to begin fashioning himself a home run hitter. The temptation is there, but it’s risky to mess with success.

“The power numbers aren’t impacting my mindset,” said Forsythe. “I might have gone through a little stint where I was like, ‘You know what?’ and tried to hit for a little more power – maybe my average wouldn’t be as high, but I could have more home runs. That was a thought, but it was a thought for maybe two days. Then I realized that I’m having success with what I’m doing, so what I need to do is just stay consistent. I keep going back to that word.”

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Jackie Bradley, Kevin Kiermaier and Kevin Pillar all play in the American League East. All are gifted defensive center fielders who have shown flashes, but remain works-in-progress with that bat. All are 25 or 26 years old with between 229 and 255 big league games under their belts. Each plays the game all-out.

If you could have any of the three, who would you want going forward?

I asked that question to a manager, and his initial response was a long pause. Careful deliberation followed, as well as a qualifier that his decision was along the lines of a 51-49 margin. Who did he ultimately opt for?

Kevin Kiermaier got the nod.

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Zach Britton is having an interesting statistical season. The Orioles closer has 34 saves and a 2.04 ERA, but those aren’t the only numbers that stand out. His ground ball rate – a worm-killing 77.9% – is the best in both leagues for the second year running. Impressively, it’s even higher than the 75.3% he put up in 2014.

Then there’s his relationship with the baseball gods. Britton has a lower hard-contact rate and a lower line-drive rate than a year ago, yet his BABiP has jumped all the way from .215 to .313. For the most part, he’s unfazed.

“You can’t control hits that come from weak contact, and maybe that’s a little frustrating,” Britton told me on Friday. “I have given up more infield hits this year. But commanding the ball in the strike zone is something you can control, and I’ve done a better job of that. I’m commanding my sinker better, dropping my walks, and missing a few more bats.”

Britton has an 11.9 strikeout rate to go with his 2.04 walk rate. Both are career bests. While the southpaw considers himself “a pitch-to-contact guy,” he’s smart enough to realize that “it’s good to decrease the chances of getting runners on base.” He’s begun going to his slider – “I have a really good swing-and-miss rate with it” – when he needs a punch-out.

Ultimately, his sinker is his bread-and-butter. He throws it close to 90 percent of the time, at an average velocity of 95.8 mph. How he’s gone about improving his command of the pitch is every bit as interesting as his numbers.

“I’m throwing to spots on the catcher’s body, rather than to the glove,” explained Britton. “For instance, they have the Under Armor symbol on their catcher’s gear, and that’s a spot I’ll focus on. If I aim there, the ball will be at their knees.”

Pitchers commonly aim breaking balls at shoulders or shin guards, but that’s seldom the case for fastballs. In other words, Britton’s two-seamer moves, and it moves a lot.

“Either I could continually throw it in the dirt, or I could make an adjustment and command it better by throwing to a spot,” said Britton. “I learned that I can control that pitch a lot better than I thought I could.”

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Sal Butera caught Mike Flanagan when the two were teammates in Toronto, in 1988. Butera was a backup for five teams over parts of nine seasons. Flanagan was, in Butera’s words, “a great pitcher for many years.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the southpaw did have a long and successful career. Pitching from 1975-1992 – mostly with the Orioles – “Flanny” won 167 games, including 23 in his 1979 Cy Young Award season.

Butera, who is now scouting and coaching with the Blue Jays, shared the following anecdote earlier this month:

“This one particular day, I’m catching him and he doesn’t have any fastball at all. First couple of guys get on base and I go out to the mound to find out what he wants to do. Flanny said to me, ‘Let’s just go curveballs.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Every pitch?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, let’s go curveballs every pitch until I find my rhythm.’ He did that for an inning or two, got his rhythm, and ended up going seven or eight innings. It wasn’t all the same curveball – he’d change speeds and angles on it – but it was all curveballs.”

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Some predicted a breakout season for Brett Lawrie when the Athletics acquired him in last winter’s Josh Donaldson deal. It hasn’t happened. Lawrie heads into the final week of the season hitting .265/.304/.419, with 16 home runs. Compared to what Donaldson is doing in Toronto – 40 bombs and a .950 OPS – those numbers are downright depressing.

This isn’t to say Lawrie won’t one day come into his own. The raw talent is there, and the 25-year-old third baseman clearly enjoys swinging the bat. What he doesn’t enjoy – unlike Donaldson – is talking about his craft. Earlier this summer, Lawrie responded to one of my questions with the following:

“I couldn’t even tell you, man. I don’t like talking about that stuff, to be honest with you. I’m not that big on talking about hitting.”

Perhaps that’s not always the case – the platitudes that preceded that quote may not be what he shares with Oakland beat writers – but for whatever reason, Lawrie didn’t want to share much with me. He did express that he needs to “continue to get in the box and keep pounding it out, keep riding it out, keep grinding it out.” When push comes to shove, doing matters more than talking.

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Based on what I’ve been told, a lot of bullpen conversations would make your ears burn. The language and subject matter can both be a little juicy. Other times, it’s more mundane. In Tampa Bay, it delves into stat-based tests of knowledge.

“We do a trivia game out there,” explained reliever Brandon Gomes. “(Bullpen coach) Stan Boroski created it, and it happens in the first or second inning, before we need to really start locking into the game. He uses the game notes. For instance, the notes will include Kevin Kiermaier being in the top 10 for UZR, and we need to say who else is in the top 10. We’ll be throwing names out and he’ll tell us if we were right or wrong. We find out a lot of interesting stats from that.”

Who is the best stat-trivia guy in the Rays’ bullpen?

“Whenever we get stumped, we tend to go to (bullpen catcher) Scott Cursi,” said Gomes. “Scott has been around the game for awhile and is pretty big on trivia. As for the rest of us, I’d like to say I have a pretty good record. I’m at least in the ballpark with most of my guesses.”

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The Red Sox announced their 2015 Minor League award winners yesterday. Among those honored was 20-year-old (as of two days ago) shortstop Javier Guerra, who was named the organization’s defensive player of the year.

The native of Panama boasts more than a good glove. Playing as a teenager in the low-A South-Atlantic League, Guerra put up a .778 OPS and slugged 15 home runs in 434 at bats.

When I asked Guerra how important power is to his game, his answer was “a lot.” The lanky left-handed hitter elaborated that you “have to know where to put the power in an at bat,” and that “in some situations you want to get into your power a little bit, and in others you don’t.”

Where does Guerra see himself hitting in a big league lineup some day? He told me “probably seventh or eighth,” but then acknowledged that he aspires to much more.

“I would like to be a third batter,” said Guerra. “I want to be a very good hitter.”

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I recently asked a very good pitcher how his arm is feeling. He told me that it was fine, but at the same time, it feels like it’s September. There’s a reason managers limit innings late in the season – Mattingly lifting Kershaw after five is an example – and it makes a lot of sense. Arms aren’t fresh in September, and for some, postseason innings await.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Starling Marte had 13 hits in Pittsburgh’s four-game sweep of the Rockies this past week. The last Pirates player to have that many hits in a four-game series was Pie Traynor, in 1928.

David Ortiz now has 581 career doubles, which ranks him 20th on the all-time list, one ahead of Albert Pujols, and right behind Cap Anson (582) and Robin Yount (583).

Earlier this week, Dallas Keuchel equaled Mike Cuellar’s record for the most strikeouts in a season by a Houston Astros lefthander. Cuellar fanned 203 in 1967.

On this date in 1953, the St. Louis Browns played their final game before a crowd of 3,174. The franchise moved to Baltimore in 1954 and was renamed the Orioles.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Jeremy
6 years ago

As someone who has watched Britton extensively this year, I can say with confidence that I’ve never seen any pitcher yield such consistently weak ground ball contact. It’s so uncanny that I think he could be the first pitcher to justify pulling the infield in on every play. It’s frustrating as an Os fan to see so many weak squibbers go for hits. His elite overall performance despite the high BABIP is a testament to how dominant he has become.

LHPSU
6 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy

You really need a better defensive 3B than that Machado guy, don’t you?