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May 13, 2008

Furcal En Fuego

What He's Seeing, and What He's Doing With It

by Eric Seidman

Past experience can generate expectations. Certainly, when they signed Rafael Furcal to a three-year, $39 million deal following the 2005 season, the Dodgers believed that the former Braves leadoff batter would provide a significant spark to their offense. He did not disappoint in 2006, finishing 14th in NL MVP voting. Last year, however, a nagging ankle injury suffered in spring training kept him out of action for the first couple of weeks as well as the final weeks of the season; it also hindered his production level during the 138 games in which he played. A player whose modus operandi involves speed playing with an ankle injury is not a good combination.

Similarly, when Joe Torre signed on to manage the team this offseason, he was fresh off of managing a shortstop that happened to be the longtime face of the most prominent franchise in sports. He may have known his new shortstop could produce at an all-star level even, after that rough 2007. Suffice it to say he could not possibly have had any idea Furcal would be this productive.

It's doubtful that anyone really could have known that, through 32 games, Furcal would be capable of posting a .366/.448/.597 slash line, rank in the top five in VORP, and post an OPS of 1045; his OPS+ of 169 suggests his performance has been 69 percent better offensively than a league-average player. I say it's doubtful anyone saw this coming in part because, from the time he Pipp-ed Walt Weiss in 2000 until now, he had only experienced a handful of 32-game stretches with an OPS over 1000, and all of them came between April 13th and June 15th back in 2003.

How has he been doing this? Before getting into the Pitch F/X data, take a look at his balls in play statistics:


Year    AVG  BABIP   LD%   GB%   FB%  xBABIP
2006   .300  .335   20.9  49.9  29.2   .329
2007   .270  .298   18.7  49.7  31.6   .307
2008   .366  .386   17.9  49.1  33.0   .299

In his first two years as a Dodger his line-drive frequency did a great job of predicting his BABIP. This year, however, he has greatly exceeded what his LD% would suggest. While it is not entirely uncommon for players to exceed their xBABIP for an entire season, conventional wisdom says that either Furcal will regress towards expectations as the year goes on, or this will not be a great indicator of what to expect in subsequent seasons.

Using the Baseball Info Solutions swing data available at Fangraphs, we can see that Furcal is laying off of more pitches outside of the strike zone than last year; however, he is making contact more often. From 2006 to 2007 he increased his swing frequency at pitches out of the strike zone from 19 percent to 26 percent; the amount of pitches seen in the strike zone drastically decreased from 51.8 percent to 40.1 percent. The likely reason for seeing fewer pitches in the zone deals with his increased tendency to swing out of the zone. Consider the proposition from the pitcher's perspective: Why throw something in the zone that could potentially hurt you if the batter has shown a lack of recent plate discipline? Take a look at Furcal's performance on pitches outside the zone (O-Swing% and -Contact%) and inside of it (Z-Swing% and Z-Contact%):


Year  O-Swing%   O-Contact%   Z-Swing%  Z-Contact%   Zone%
2007    26.2         79.2       68.1       95.0       40.1
2008    23.5         83.3       62.7       95.7       43.6
Career  21.0         75.4       63.5       95.1       48.7

This year, Furcal's frequency of pitches seen in the strike zone and rates of swinging are closer to his career averages. Despite this, his contact rates have all increased. This poses another possible explanation for his hot start--more contact equals more opportunity for that contact to result in hits.

Moving into the Pitch F/X data, what pitches does this former Rookie of the Year see in certain counts and what are the results of those pitches? And how are pitchers attacking him?


Count     #   Ball   CS   SS    F   HIP-OIP
Neutral  148   63    63    1    7     5-9
Ahead    175   60    29    4   44    18-21
Behind   254   111   15   13   55    22-38

Count     #    FA    CU    SL    CH
Neutral  148  0.68  0.11  0.08  0.13
Ahead    175  0.75  0.03  0.03  0.17
Behind   254  0.53  0.11  0.13  0.18
CS: called strike, SS: swinging strike; F: foul; HIP: Hits In Play, OIP: Outs In Play, FA: fastball, CU: curveball, SL: slider, CH: changeup

The results and pitches seen were separated by the types of counts rather than each individual count because certain counts lacked sufficient data to merit standing on their own. The same can be said for the types of pitches seen; he's seen some cutters and splitters, but they've been so few and far between that it made little sense to include them. The counts were assigned to these categories based on their linear weights run expectancy. Starting with the lone neutral count, 0-0, Furcal is seeing fastballs 68 percent of the time, and has taken 85 percent of all first pitches thrown. On the rare occasion that he does swing at the first pitch, via the data recorded by the Pitch F/X system, he has only missed one pitch and has had some success getting hits.

His numbers when ahead and behind generally reflect our statistical and game theory intuitions: when behind, he sees a greater percentage of off-speed pitches, as pitchers want to put him away. When ahead, he sees predominantly fastballs, as pitchers do not want to either walk this speedster or fall too far behind. His numbers when ahead are better than when he's behind, but his numbers when behind are still pretty darn good.

Platoon Splits

Being a switch-hitter, Furcal does not have to worry about like-handed pitchers having any sort of automatic advantage over him. For starters, here is a breakdown of what lefties have thrown him:


LHP     #    B  CS  SS   F  HIP-OIP
 FA    127  48  26   2  32   10-19
 CU    23   16   2   2   2    1-0
 SL    13    5   3   0   3    1-1
 CH    41   14   7   2   5    5-8

Lefties have primarily used the fastball against Furcal, opting to go with the changeup or cambio as a nice alternative. They rarely throw curveballs or sliders and, when they do, a large majority have been balls.

Now, here is what righties have thrown him so far this season:


RHP     #    B   CS  SS   F  HIP-OIP
 FA    223  89   43   3  45   18-24
 CU    25   14    6   2   1    0-2
 SL    38   13    9   3   5    3-5
 CH    53   25    6   4   6    6-6

Though he has seen more pitches from righties, the frequency rates are extremely similar--the numbers of curveballs and sliders have changed, but their aggregate percentage has essentially stayed the same.

Location Charts

I find it extremely useful to visualize where these pitches have come it at Furcal, as well as where he has produced the most or least. Make sure to remember that these location charts are from the vantage point of the catcher. Here are the location charts of the fastballs that Furcal has seen:

chart1

Batting lefty, where Furcal has seen the majority of pitches, righty hurlers are favoring the outside corner with their heaters. From the opposite side, much more balance exists and a higher percentage of pitches have been in the zone. Because the vast majority of the pitches thrown to Furcal have been fastballs, and more of these fastballs have been in the strike zone while batting from the right side, it would make sense that his performance would be better as a righty. Here are his statistics split by his hitting handedness:


Handedness       AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS
Hitting Lefty   .366  .458  .573  1032
Hitting Righty  .365  .431  .635  1066

While he has technically performed better as a righty, given that this isn't a huge sample I would be much more inclined to call the splits even.

Next, here are the location charts of the curveballs thrown his way:

chart2

While batting lefty, more curveballs have found the strike zone, although it appears that the umpires missed a few calls. In contrast, here are where the sliders seen have landed:

chart3

Furcal has not seen many sliders when facing lefty pitchers, so nothing can really be learned from their locations. When facing righty pitchers, many more sliders have landed in the zone than out, and Furcal has made contact with half of the non-ball offerings.

Lastly, here are the location charts of changeups seen:

chart4

It should be fairly evident that both groups of pitches have challenged him with changeups towards the outside corner. He doesn't swing and miss much against any particular pitch, so we can assume that the changeups have not fooled him much; he has made contact with 62 percent of the non-ball changeups.

Sequencing Furcal

Sticking with the type of pitches thrown to Furcal, I decided to look at his results based on the different types of pitch sequencing and selection. The sequencing and selection in discussion refers to the mix (or lack thereof) of pitches seen in a given plate appearance. There were a few plate appearances with missing data which were discarded; one-pitch plate appearances were also discarded. They remaining PA were divided into four groups: All Fastballs (All FA), Mostly Fastballs (Most FA), Mix for when the spread of fastballs and off-speed pitchers are even, and Mostly Offspeed (Most OS).


vs. RHP   H-AB    Notes
All FA    9-16    2 x 2B, HR, 5 x BB
Most FA   3-17    2B, 4 x BB
Mix       7-17    2 x 2B, 3B, HR, 2 x BB
Most OS   5-16    3 x 2B, BB

vs. LHP   H-AB    Notes
All FA    3-8     3B, BB
Most FA   6-15    2B, HR, 3 x BB
Mix       3-9     2B
Most OS   3-11    HR, 2 x BB

Although it would not be statistically sound to suggest any one plan of attack method is a surefire way to "get" Furcal, he has posted his worst numbers when righties throw mostly fastballs with an occasional off-speed pitch mixed in. He feasts in plate appearances consisting solely of fastballs and, while we cannot say either of these situations should be exploited or avoided, in the early going it would be wise to attempt to test the validity of the results. Perhaps he will thrive in plate appearances with mostly fastballs as the season goes on, or perhaps these results will hold true and this will be a weakness.

Quality of Pitchers Faced

Another interesting aspect worth examining deals with the types of pitchers he has faced; going up against Jake Peavy and Brandon Webb is much tougher than, say, Calvin Maduro and Michael Mimbs. (Who? Exactly.) Using the PERA statistic found on the PECOTA cards I classified his pitchers faced with the simple labels of "good" and "bad." Primitive, yes, but it gets the job done. The cutoff for PERA was 4.40; anyone above goes into the bad category, and anyone below goes into the good category. Also, PERA was chosen over ERA because it does a much better job at predicting future performance.

As in any season, there are of course players outperforming their projections. It would not be accurate to use current performance as the indicator of pitcher quality, though, because as Mitchel Lichtman discovered, those with hot or cold starts generally regress to their updated projection as the season goes on. Here are Furcal's numbers split by quality of pitchers faced:


Bad     #     B   CS   SS    F   HIP-OIP
 FA    214   80   39    2   47    17-29
 CU     37   23    6    4    2     1-1
 SL     30    7    8    2    5     4-4
 CH     72   31    9    4   10     7-11

Good   #     B   CS   SS    F   HIP-OIP
FA    155   59   33    3   33    11-16
CU     11    7    2    0    1     0-1
SL     21   11    4    1    3     0-2
CH     22    8    4    2    1     4-3

... and here are the end-result statistics, split by quality of pitchers faced:


Type    AVG    OBP    SLG    OPS  2B-3B   HR    BB-K
Good   .357   .481   .643   1124    4      2    10-5
Bad    .375   .434   .591   1025   10      3     9-10

Though a handful of plate appearances are missing due to missing or limited data, he does not appear to discriminate against either type of pitcher. The raw figures against bad pitchers are higher primarily due to having approximately double the opportunities.

Hot/Cold Zones

Since, among the pitches thrown to him, Furcal has seen a large majority of fastballs, are there certain areas of the hitting zone he suffers in more than others? The hitting zone was divided into nine different quadrants: Up and Away, Up, Up and In, Middle and Away, Middle, Middle In, Down and Away, Down, Down and In. Using the linear weights of pitch results in specific counts as well as hit/out events, it was discovered that, as a lefty, Furcal is has been very adept at hitting fastballs Up and Away, Middle and Away, right down the Middle, as well as Up and In. As a righty it is essentially the same; he hits fastballs the best when they are Up and In, down the Middle, Middle and Away, and Down and Away. In fact, Down and Away while batting right-handed has been his most productive zone.

Though these results are similar to the others in the sense that we are still unable to determine anything is guaranteed to be a successful strategy, he has struggled against both types of pitchers in the Middle In and Down and In quadrants.

Furcalysis

Furcal has missed the last several games with back spasms, and it comes as no surprise that the Dodgers have gone 1-4 in that span. Though Furcal's absence cannot be directly linked to the team's recent struggles, he has been one of the top offensive players in the league, let alone his own team. He should be back in the lineup soon, and it will be very interesting to see if his injury lingers throughout the season or has any sort of effect on his production. His offensive output may suffer from the time off as well, as a hot streak likely to regress as the season goes on may do so more quickly when it's being resumed by a player iced by injury and/or inactivity.

Though everything still suffers from small sample size syndrome, it is definitely clear Furcal has been able to hit pitchers of all qualities and all handedness; he has also been able to produce whether ahead or behind in the count, and against any type of pitch. This may not last all year, but Furcal is currently in the midst of arguably the best stretch of his career. If the Dodgers want to be serious about contending this year, Raffy will need to be back on the field and continue to produce at an All-Star level, even if that level is slightly worse than the torrid MVP-worthy level he's produced in the early going.

Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

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