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August 11, 2009

Checking the Numbers

Scouting the Cubs/Phillies Series

by Eric Seidman

As each of his On the Beat columns draw to their close, John Perrotto highlights a short list of three- or four-game sets worth keeping an eye on. The series are not chosen at random, and tend to boast either compelling storylines or intriguing pitching matchups. In an attempt to be synergistic, I thought it would be fun every now and again to pick a series touted in his column and go to town creating series previews, in essence scouting the series as a whole as opposed to a key player or two. The Phillies and Cubs showdown that will be contested from tonight through Thursday serves as the perfect starting ground, as it features both storylines and intriguing matchups, with the former largely encompassing the latter. In fact, the storylines surrounding the pitching matchups were so topsy-turvy that I wrote this entire piece on Sunday and had to drastically revise it Monday afternoon in light of developments.

Following the weekend, a flurry of speculation has been expended on the subject of Pedro Martinez. When will Pedro start? Who will gets bumped from the rotation? Why does Eric Bruntlett still get at-bats? OK, scratch that last one, even though it has certainly been on the minds of many, but the possibility existed that J.A. Happ might not be making his start tonight. Though I plan on delving into the Phillies' supposed pitching dilemma later this week, their pitching depth kept fans and analysts alike in the dark as to whether or not Happ or Martinez would square off against Rich Harden to open the three-game set. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. ended the speculations when he announced last night that Happ would start today, with Pedro making his Phillies debut Wednesday night, and Cliff Lee closing out the series on Thursday afternoon.

Pedro's debut was also originally supposed to involve a contest with Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano, but recurring back spasms have forced Big Z onto the disabled list. The Cubs will instead hand the ball to Notre Dame standout Jeff Samardzija, a man whose last name makes me sound increasingly drunk with each pronunciation attempt. Seidnote: Samardzija is one of three Notre Dame alumni in this game, and 100 Seidpoints will be credited to the account of whomever can name the other two.

Lee will take on Ryan Dempster in the finale, bumping Joe Blanton back a day, and absolutely destroying my paragraphs comparing Blanton and Dempster, including the similarities in the flight patterns of both their sliders and changeups. The decision to move Lee back a day struck me as quite odd, given that the reigning AL Cy Young Award-winner's regularly scheduled start would be on Wednesday. Why not simply let Pedro debut on Thursday? Alternating between lefties and righties in a lineup makes sense, but not so much with regards to pitching matchups in a series.

Game One: J.A. Happ vs. Rich Harden


Pitcher    GP   GS   IP      H   HR   BB   SO     ERA
Happ       26   14  114.0   92   12   37   86    2.74
Harden     19   19  104.0   95   20   45   124   4.41

As one of the frontrunners for the National League's Rookie of the Year Award, Happ has been fantastic for the defending champs this season, providing a bullpen boon early on, and proving to be an even more significant asset as a member of the starting rotation. Nevertheless, Happ has been forced to endure question after question after question regarding his job security since the onset of the season. Throughout spring training, the major storyline revolved around the final spot of the rotation, which was to be given to either Happ or Chan Ho Park. As a free agent, Park had a loose verbal agreement with the Phillies that he would be afforded the opportunity to prove he could be a starter. Each pitched well in March, but Happ did not perform better enough to cause the Phillies to renege on their promise to Park. Park struggled as a starter-in seven turns, he threw 33 1/3 IP while posting a 7.29 ERA-so the team swapped him for Happ by the middle of May. Happ has not disappointed since becoming a regular member of the starting rotation. But then the Roy Halladay rumors began to swirl, and for the Phillies to have pulled off a deal of that magnitude, many figured that Happ would need to be included in the return package. Then Amaro signed Pedro as an insurance policy, perhaps with the mindset that Martinez could be immediately employed if Happ were to be traded. After the rumors subsided and the Phillies instead acquired Cliff Lee without dealing Happ, the young lefty should have been able to feel safe in his job.

As my tone suggests, this still isn't really the case. Martinez's ability to retire minor league hitters and his status as one of the best pitchers of all time prevents the team from merely parting ways with him, having made their investment. Pedro is going to be given at least a couple of outings to prove his worth, and with Lee/Hamels/Blanton having locked rotational spots and Jamie Moyer realistically going nowhere despite a severe case of ineffectiveness, barring their resorting to a six-man rotation, Happ stands to be the odd man out. Happ-ily, a complete-game shutout with 10 punchouts convinced everyone that the rookie will not be moving anywhere, a fate that does not, however, preclude him from being skipped a time or two through the rotation. Happ has never experienced a workload this heavy, and despite topping 160 innings in MLB/MiLB combo action in years past, the team will likely be very cautious in an attempt to maximize his production while minimizing his workload.

In three major league seasons-small sample-size warnings abound-Happ has increased his GB/FB ratio from 0.29 to 0.73 to 0.78, inducing more worm-beaters than ever before thanks in part to a sneaky and deceptive fastball. Though the radar gun rarely displays digits in excess of 91 mph with Happ on the hill, he hides the ball very well and has enough length on the delivery that the ball leaves his hand closer to home plate than most others. As Phillies farmhand Michael Schwimer has discussed recently (and is in the process of quantifying), a pitch released with a lesser distance between the batter and pitcher offers that much less reaction time, simultaneously creating the illusion of increased velocity. This might not be news to anyone, but Happ's 89.7 mph average on his four-seam fastball might look a couple of ticks faster than that to hitters. Here's a look at the relationship between his movement components:

Happ Horizontal Movement

There are certainly those out there who will see the disconnect between his ERA and QERA or his ERA and FIP and deem his numbers as fraudulent-and his 84% LOB clip and .251 BABIP don't help matters-but let me once again reiterate that the aforementioned metrics are most useful based on their predictive value, not their value in describing what has actually transpired. Happ has been a very good pitcher this season, even if certain numbers point to a performance decline in the near future.

His opponent, Harden, has not come close to experiencing the same success as he enjoyed last season, when he posted a magnificent 1.77 ERA in a half-season of work after playing second-fiddle to the Brewers' acquisition of CC Sabathia. The major cause for Harden's falloff this season can be found in his balls in play statistics; after ranging between 1.2 and 1.5 on the GB/FB scale from 2003-06, Harden's ratio currently rests at 0.85. Used in conjunction to a career-high rate of homers among his fly balls (16.9% have left the yard) and a HR/9 over twice that of his career mark, and it comes as no surprise that his ERA has relatively ballooned to 4.41 in spite of keeping both his strikeout and walk rates intact.

Harden really only throws two pitches these days, which is somewhat rare for a starting pitcher, but he induces more swings and misses than any other starter in baseball on his heater, a 92-93 mph pitch currently offered over 60 percent of the time. The charts below display the relationship between Harden's velocity and both his horizontal and vertical movement:

Harden pfx

Harden pfz

Though Harden's season as a whole has been disappointing, he has kicked the gears into overdrive lately, producing a 1.80 ERA and 4.6 K/BB ratio in his 30 innings since July 10. Our FLAKE stat-a standard deviation-based measure of per-start consistency-lists Harden as the 74th-least flaky pitcher of the 100 that qualify with 100 or more innings pitched, suggesting that he isn't necessarily having the up-and-down season of Cole Hamels, and is instead just pitching at a worse level than expected throughout. If his last several starts are any indication, Harden may have turned a corner, and ample time still exists for him to beautify his current seasonal rates. If his prior start against the Phillies this season portends anything, the streak of great outings is likely to continue past Tuesday's matchup.

Game Two: Pedro Martinez v. Jeff Samardzija


Pitcher           GP   GS    IP     H   HR   BB   SO    ERA
Pedro Martinez   Not worth quoting 2008, WBC, or rehab stats
Jeff Samardzija   16    0   24.1   31    4   12   13   6.29

Samardzija's now 24 years old, and will be making his first career big-league start on Wednesday following 42 relief appearances spread over the last year and a half. Primarily featuring a fastball/changeup repertoire, Samardzija also works in breaking balls and splitters on occasion. If he plans on making a career as a starter, utilizing more than two pitches is practically a must, as Rich Harden and his two-pitch approach should be thought of as an extreme exception, not the rule by any means.

Last season while ringing up more than a few strikeouts, Samardzija issued too many free passes and surrendered nary a dinger, which goes a long way towards explaining how a pitcher with a .312 BABIP and 70% LOB could produce a minuscule 2.28 ERA. The idea soon became prevalent that if the right-handed flamethrower could reduce his walks, he may become a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, pitching is not akin to bodybuilding, wherein weightlifters can spot-reduce pinpointed areas without adversely affecting other parts of the body. Whether or not Samardzija has actively sought after reducing his free passes, the opposite result has occurred, with a meager decline in walks per nine and a halving of his strikeouts.

Hitters are still making contact on a good number of his in-zone pitches, which is a bit detrimental given that Samardzija's pitches have been in the strike zone with greater frequency this season. Add in an almost exponential increase in out-of-zone contact, and it makes sense that his BABIP would rise to .327. Though a dropoff of one mile per hour might not be anything to worry about, and the sample size in which Samardzija's data has been generated is small, hitters have stopped whiffing, and his strikeout rate is a legitimate red flag, especially when he isn't a ground-ball pitcher.

Samardzija will square off against Pedro Martinez, meaning that as the former makes his first career MLB start, the latter will be making his inaugural 2009 start under the bright lights of an ESPN broadcast on Wednesday night. Earlier in the season I opined that Pedro may still have some gas in the tank, but that he is operating an automobile with a faulty transmission. If he can stay between 91-92 mph with his fastball (as advertised) while mixing in his off-speed pitches effectively, there is absolutely no reason he cannot replicate or exceed the performance of Moyer this season, but it would behoove Charlie Manuel to employ Martinez with a very short leash. The Phillies do not have the divisional cushion to treat a major league outing from Martinez as another rehab start, and if the problems of last year persist, Martinez needs to be pulled.

Game Three: Cliff Lee vs. Ryan Dempster


Pitcher         GP   GS   IP     H    HR   BB    SO    ERA
Cliff Lee       24   24  168.0  175   10   36   122   2.95
Ryan Dempster   20   20  122.2  122   15   48    99   4.04

Since June 6, Dempster has put together a 3.54 ERA in 48 1/3 innings, although hitters have managed an overall line against of .291/.361/.467, certainly worthy of some concern, even in light of the improved ERA and controllable rates. Overall, Dempster has allowed a triple slash line of .266/.335/.429 that seems relatively harmless at first glance, but becomes a bit more troublesome when compared to the slash line showing the average quality of his opponents faced: his opponents' .252/.326/.396 that ranks as the 19th-lowest OPS from pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched this season. Such comparisons should be implemented much more often when discussing how hitters have performed against certain pitchers, because this data suggests that lesser hitters have amped their game up, on average, against Dempster.

So far, Dempster's platoon splits haven't been very noteworthy in the directions of their qualities or the discrepancy between the two, at least with regards to the expected production variance between same-handed and opposite-handed opponents, which bodes well for Dempster given the multitude of tough lefties he will face in the Phillies' lineup. With Rollins and Victorino both switch-hitters, the first five batters in the Phillies' lineup are likely to stand on the left side of the plate.

A groundballer for practically his entire career, here are flight patterns of the chief components of his repertoire:

Dempster Flight

Dempster's slider and changeup appear to follow similar paths, although the changeup drops a smidge more. The four-seam fastball will obviously drop much less, as it is considered to be a "straighter" pitch, but it still gets some fairly decent drop.

His opponent, Cliff Lee, is also ground-ball pitcher, or at least he became more of one last year. After several seasons with a greater propensity for balls lofted in the air, Lee went to the minors, altered his approach, and resurfaced as a quick-working, zone-pounding inducer of grounders. Earlier in the year I investigated pitchers with vast jumps in their ground-ball rate from one year to the next, and ultimately concluded that although such occurrences are rare in the annals of time, those capable of making the adjustment were generally able to sustain the new rate in the subsequent seasons. Lee's current balls-in-play breakdown supports the assertion, and his equally low walk rate confirms that last season was no fluke, even if the confirmation biases of many fans are still reigning supreme, causing the active search for reasons to discount his success.

After two shaky starts to begin the season, Lee has been absolutely spectacular, producing a 2.51 ERA in 158 innings. While it is sloppy to remove starts in order to make a point, the fact that Lee has been this dominant since a certain point very early in the season and not in a range with an endpoint prior to his most recent start suggests that he is very much the same pitcher as a year ago, when he took home hardware. He may lack the pedigree of a Roy Halladay, but as Joe Sheehan aptly summed up, the Phillies got 85 percent of Halladay for 65 percent of the price.

One of Lee's big calling cards is the pounding of the zone, consistently working in and out to hitters from both sides of the plate. Dave Allen of Baseball Analysts and Fangraphs was gracious enough to discuss his heat map creation process, expanding on his talk from the PITCHf/x Summit last month, and through his help I was able to create maps of my own, looking below at the run values of contacted fastballs to batters from each side of the plate. Keep in mind that the legend and colors change a bit for each, and that the positive numbers refer to positive events for the pitcher.

Lee and lefties

Lee and righties

The box within the box is the strike zone itself, and the maps basically show where Lee was most effective. While righties have experienced a bit more pronounced success in an area or two, Lee has dominated same-handed hitters, with their most productive contact zone barely besting an average run value. A four-pitch hurler, Lee will have to remain quite sharp in order to keep an offense really coming on as of late at bay. Interestingly, Lee has sustained a 43-44 percent rate of grounders in his two starts as a Phillies employee, but his GB/FB ratio has decreased. In 16 senior circuit innings, Lee has allowed grounders 44 percent of the time, and generated fly balls 44 percent, so he's enjoyed the benefit of a ludicrously low line-drive rate of 12 percent, signaling that hitters simply are not making decent contact on his pitches.

If the last thirty days are any indication, both Lee and Dempster may have trouble with the following hitters, data accrued through Sunday:

Francisco, thought of mostly as a throw-in when the Phillies dealt for Cliff Lee, has actually provided a fairly decent boon to the bench, ably filling in when injuries strike and providing power from the right side off of their bench. The Phils' bench primarily drew power from lefty sources such as Greg Dobbs and Matt Stairs, but Francisco can help neutralize lefty-on-lefty matchups late in the game, at the very least causing the wasting of a relief arm when strategy comes into play. Interestingly enough, he isn't very likely to play much in this series, despite being the hottest hitter on the team.

Another interesting development is with the Phillies' bullpen, as J.C. Romero experienced a setback in his rehab assignment, Brett Myers is moving ahead of schedule, and Scott Mathieson has been lighting up the eyes of scouts in Double-A after recovering from two Tommy John surgeries. We're approaching the middle of August, and the Phillies' first-place team has pitching depth in spades that will need sorting out, even if roster expansion is on the horizon. John Perrotto was right-this series certainly is worth watching, as Lee makes his third start in a Phillies uniform, Samardzija makes his first career start, Pedro Martinez begins his perhaps short-lived tenure with the team atop the NL East, and the Cubs boast five of the hottest hitters in the entire sport.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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