April 27, 2012
The April Anomalies That Matter
Looking at leaderboards in April is a lot like looking at a familiar face reflected in a funhouse mirror: some features are clearly recognizable, but others are badly distorted. Matt Kemp leads the league in almost everything, which makes sense. Look a little harder, though, and oddities start to appear. Jack Hannahan, a career .235 hitter, is batting .308. If Jack Hannahan is still batting .308 at the All-Star break, we’ll have to start paying attention (and possibly packing away survival supplies). Until then, it’s safe to dismiss Hannahan’s hot streak as a small-sample fluke.*
*Very, very safe. When I first wrote that sentence, Hannahan was hitting .364.
But not all early-season statistics are illusions. Some stats stabilize more quickly than others, and the more innings and plate appearances players accrue, the more signal we start to see amidst the statistical noise. It’s even easier to spot a meaningful change when a player does something he’s never done before, like learn a new pitch or adopt a different delivery or batting stance. As tempting as it is to dismiss anything that happens in April as the product of a small sample size, it’s not too early to pinpoint a few players whose performance is attributable at least in part to a conscious change in approach.
Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners
Swing rate is one of the quickest stats to stabilize: while what happens to a ball after it’s put in play is largely out of the batter’s control, the decision to swing is largely self-determined. As a result of the new stance and swing rate, we can be fairly confident that there’s a change in approach behind Ichiro’s change in performance. The latter change has been dramatic: Ichiro has experienced the fifth-biggest boost in line-drive percentage and the biggest boost in groundball percentage of any batter this season, to the point that he’s now hitting grounders at barely above the league-average rate, after profiling as an extreme groundball hitter ever since entering the league. Ichiro’s quickness turned many of his grounders into infield hits, so it remains to be seen whether keeping the ball off the ground will help him. However, if his foot speed is eroding more quickly than his bat speed, driving the ball might be a more sustainable path to success.
Jason Hammel, Orioles
Hammel’s 45.7 percent groundball percentage was the 38th lowest among the 95 starters with at least 160 IP last season. At the urging of Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair, Hammel started throwing the sinker in the second half of spring training, and he hasn’t stopped since, delivering it 35 percent of the time. That pitch has induced the highest rate of grounders of any of his pitches, and his overall groundball rate has climbed to 61.8 percent, which ranks fifth among all pitchers who’ve thrown at least 20 innings. He took a no-hit bid into the eighth against the Twins in his first start, and after four outings, he has a 1.73 ERA, not to mention nearly a strikeout per inning. Here’s a clip of Hammel using his new toy to break Edwin Encarnacion’s bat and get another grounder in Wednesday night’s 3-0 win over Toronto:
Will Hammel continue to rank among the top 10 pitchers in groundball percentage? Not necessarily. Will he keep his ERA under three? Almost certainly not. But Hammel does have a new weapon at his disposal, and we have a new reason to expect success.
Zack Greinke, Brewers
Danny Duffy, Royals
Duffy learned the cutter from former Royals (and current Red Sox) pitching coach Bob McClure last season and refined it over the winter. The pitch, which Duffy has thrown almost exclusively down and in to lefties, has a sweeping break, making it more of a “slutter” than a true cutter. The sample size is still tiny, but almost a third of the cutters Duffy has thrown thus far have resulted in whiffs, easily the highest rate of any of his offerings. One of those whiffs came courtesy of Colby Rasmus in Duffy’s start against Toronto last Sunday:
Further Duffy developments will have to wait at least until next week against Detroit, since the lefty was scratched from his Friday start due to elbow tightness that isn't believed to be serious.
Barry Zito, Giants
It’s not just that Zito is throwing his slider more often this season, though. As Grant Brisbee noticed, this simply isn’t the same slider we saw from Zito two seasons ago. In 2010, Zito’s slider moved over twice as much, boasting over six inches of horizontal break. This season’s model is much straighter, averaging less than three inches of horizontal movement—in his start on Wedneday night, he appeared to throw a harder version of the pitch with even less movement to lefties. The evolution of the slider is easy to see in the following two pitches to Prince Fielder (2010) and Josh Harrison (2012):
Through four starts, including a shutout effort in Colorado, Zito has recorded a 1.67 ERA. Since his surprising improvement has coincided with a heavy reliance on the remodeled slider, it’s difficult to avoid drawing a connection between the two. However, while the slider has met with great success so far, the underlying outcomes of the pitch haven’t been particularly impressive: its movement and lackluster whiff rate don’t suggest a wipeout pitch. Zito still doesn’t get strikeouts and throws slower than any non-knuckleballer not named Jamie Moyer. In his case, it’s probably not a new approach that’s buoying his numbers, but a .188 BABIP that won’t be that low for long.
Bradley Ankrom provided research assistance for this article. All pitch classifications courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .