For many, Friday represents the end of a long work week that’s filled with heavy doses of drudging, sludging and other words that don’t actually exist but rhyme with “udging” and connote menial and tedious tasks that are ultimately distasteful. It’s my hope that at the end of such misery, at that moment in time that only occurs on a Friday afternoon when it’s too far away from closing time to leave work early, but too late in the day to start anything new, you’ll join us here to read some random observations about baseball and contribute your own thoughts on the subjects that are broached.
So, without further ado, I present this week’s Ten Stray Thoughts On A Friday:
Johnson Is Unable To Josh
Earlier on Friday, the Toronto Blue Jays announced that scheduled starter Josh Johnson would be skipped over in the rotation to rest his right arm, which has recently experienced some tightness. It’s easy to suggest that Johnson’s early season struggles, which are real, but perhaps overblown by the very small sample that comes from four starts, are a result of his arm feeling uncomfortable.
While this may be true, it’s not a magical thing wherein arm trouble automatically equals poor outings. There is data available that let’s us see the areas in which Johnson has been less than effective. Most notably, this seems to have occurred with the location of his breaking pitches, and how batters are approaching his slider and curve ball.
Johnson has thrown 75 sliders this season, and no starter in baseball who has thrown at least 50, has earned a higher percentage of misses when batters swing at the pitch. That seems like great news, except that only two pitchers have lured batters into swing less at their slider. A similar discrepancy, although not as dramatic, exists for his curveball.
Both pitches possess some of the lower strike to ball ratios for individual pitches in the league.
The location of his slider …
… and his curve …
… may not seem exceptionally awful. Yes, more pitches are outside the zone than in it, but when these pitches are used in “pitcher’s counts” they typically don’t have to be located in the zone to be effective.
What I think might be happening is that Johnson has been playing the same style of poker for too long. Word is out around the league that he is a bluffer. If you’re constantly bluffing in a regular game of cards, eventually the competition is going to realize it, and begin calling you on it. Suddenly, your style, which may have been working well prior to the collective realization, is rendered useless. This seems to be what’s happened to Johnson, as it explains the incredible low percentage of swings on his breaking pitches, and the resulting balls being called.
There’s also the no-small-matter of his fastball.
Whether accurate or exaggerated, much has been made of the declined velocity of Johnson’s four-seamer. While we might assume that lower speeds on his fastball will make that pitch more hittable to batters, it also has a negative effect on the pitches he throws with more break. They’re not nearly as much of contradiction in velocity, meaning that batters Johnson has to locate better if he’s going to tempt batters into swinging at the pitches at which he wants them to swing.
Not surprisingly, Johnson uses his breaking pitches most often when he’s ahead in the count, usually as an attempt to collect a third strike. When batters don’t swing, they more often than not gain back the advantage in terms of balls and strike count. They then force Johnson to throw his lesser fastball.
The solution: Other than increasing his ability to throw breaking pitches for strikes, I wonder if pitching backwards, or at least mixing things up a little bit in terms of when he throws his curve and slider might affect an opposing batter’s approach.
What’s Up With V-Dub?
Vernon Wells is playing really well right now, which is surprising to anyone who has watched any bit of Vernon Wells playing baseball over the last three years. In fact, the New York Yankees outfielder currently possesses the third highest percentage of hard hit balls in the league. Never in his career, has he hit so few ground balls.
This is interesting because earlier this season, after working with Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long, Wells said that in the past he had focused too much on trying to hit home runs instead of merely driving the ball. While trying to hit fewer deep fly balls, it seems that Wells has begun hitting more than he ever has before, especially against right-handed pitchers to whom he’d normally ground out if and when he made contact.
His home run tally is certainly benefiting from an unsustainably high home run to fly ball ratio, but even without the inflated power numbers that come from a lucky string of home runs, Wells is still hitting at an above average rate.
It’s also interesting to note that Wells is swinging more, making less contact and seeing fewer pitches in the strike zone all while still finding results. It’s rather counter intuitive, even if most of his success with the bat is from inside fastballs. It’s very strange, but it seems to be working, and Wells may just be able to ride out this string of whatever it is into an everyday job even after Curtis Granderson returns from injury.
How Fans See Games
On Wednesday afternoon, as the Toronto Blue Jays were playing the Baltimore Orioles, I was trying to write about the way in which we, as fans, tend to only ever see one team on the field, court or rink – the one for which we cheer. In baseball, when your favorite team scores runs, it’s because your favorite team is awesome. When they don’t score runs, they are terrible. Similarly, when your favorite team gets opposing batters out, your favorite team is amazing. When they allow runs, they’re horrible.
Very little mind is actually paid to the opposition.
I didn’t think of it at the time, but even as I was writing my post, I was experiencing this sort of narrow minded focus, not only from myself, but also on Twitter with the large number of Blue Jays fans I follow. It wasn’t so much of a game between the Blue Jays and Orioles, as it was the Blue Jays and Toronto.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think it enhances the experience of being a fan. It is however helpful from time to time to consider that maybe the success/failings of your favorite players will occasionally have something to do with the success/failings of someone else’s favorite players.
The Uproar Over Jose Valverde
A lot of smart people seem to be up in arms with Jim Leyland and the Detroit Tigers for bringing back Jose Valverde. The reliever was used in a save opportunity on Wednesday in his very first outing for the team since a disastrous post season hindered any active pursuit from free agent suitors this off-season. It all led to Valverde being forced to sign a Minor League deal with his former team. He’s certainly not likely to be the most reliable closing option, but if he can help the team in any way, even if he gets by on less than encouraging advanced metrics, there’s no reason to complain about production at the low price at which Detroit acquired him.
The fear, I suppose, is that after a run of good luck, Leyland instills him as the closer come hell or high water, while a certain young reliever capable of triple digit velocity withers away in a diminutive role or even in Triple-A. I suppose it’s a possibility, but in reality, the Tigers are likely good enough that whatever wins a Valverde encore costs, they’re probably going to be negligible.
That’s not the best reasoning for putting a pitcher in a role, but it’s true. If Valverde blows Detroit’s chances at the post-season, I’m guessing there were additional issues at play that were probably more concerning than a reliever overstaying his welcome.
The Will To Win (TWTW)
On Thursday, Chicago White Sox commentator Hawk Harrelson appeared on the MLB Network to debate sabermetrics with Brian Kenny. It went about as well as could be expected. They argued. Fans of analytics expressed outrage at Harrelson through social media. Presumably, those who hate analytics expressed outrage at Kenny through social media. Harold Reynolds came across as even more unnecessary than normal. And some gluttons for manufactured conflict are even writing about it today.
It settled nothing and no minds were changed by the discussion. However, we’re talking about it, and that’s probably good for MLB Network, or at least, it’s not bad.
I do, however, think that in our collective rush to mock Harrelson, who did his own argument no service by not really arguing and instead repeating the same unreasonable epitaphs, we may have missed out on a bit of insight. What Harrelson refers to as TWTW or The Will To Win isn’t as much of a ridiculous intangible quality as it may seem.
At an analytics conference last Spring, Los Angeles Angels GM Jerry Dipoto was asked what he looks for first in a player as it relates to acquisitions. He prefaced his answer by saying that those in attendance might not like it, but that he puts a lot of emphasis on something he called, “The Want To.”
The term that Dipoto used essentially refers to a player’s effort, his desire to work toward a goal. It’s not that far off from what I think Harrelson meant by The Will To Win, and it makes sense that this is a highly sought after attribute in professional sports.
Perhaps I’m projecting a little bit, but I think we often dismiss the idea that even at the Major League level, there’s a variance of effort being put forth by players. I don’t mean in terms of running out grounders or attempting to bowl over catchers. I mean in training, in exercise, in video study and in metrics understanding.
Effort is a real thing. It’s often dismissed by us because we can’t measure it precisely, and when others attempt to use it to justify an assumption, they typically sound like an uninformed idiot. So, we avoid it and mock it. But think just how valuable a player who possesses The Want To would be to a team.
In addition to increasing the likelihood of maxing out his true talent capabilities, the player who works hard would theoretically be an inspiring source to teammates in a competitive environment. If you and I feel badly for leaving work early while a co-worker is still plugging away, just think about how a young professional athlete might react. Again, there’s a lot of assumptions in that analysis, and obviously, the psychology of every player/person is different, but that doesn’t discredit a team who follows certain best practices when dealing with the type of player they would prefer on their roster.
Victor Martinez Is A Smart Baserunner
I know. I know. It might seem odd to write positively about a player who completely gives up on the possibility of scoring a run in order to avoid conflict immediately after writing about the overlooked importance of desire and effort. However, Victor Martinez shows some incredibly smart restraint.
Martinez missed all of last season with an injured knee. Yes, he could have been the tying run, but it was the end of the third inning of a game. Martinez is worth far more to his team healthy and active for multiple games rather as a pawn used to score a single run, even in a match against a division rival. And just to put an emphasis on this fact, in his very next at bat, Martinez hit an RBI single.
Word To The Wise
There’s a strange and growing trend in baseball writing to refer to simple research or quick references as studies being done by your place of publication. For example, after listing some of the data that I looked up to examine Josh Johnson’s season to date, it would be like me referring to it, even though it was likely found in a simple Play Index search on Baseball Reference, as “research conducted by theScore.com.” It’s really annoying, and it reeks of attempting to give cherry-picked data more authority than it actually deserves.
We discussed the saintly features of Todd Frazier last week, and he continued his heavenly ways this week with a home run that has yet to land.
No, seriously. There isn’t any conclusive proof that his monstrous shot against Jeff Samardzija has since landed. No video evidence. Even Hit Tracker couldn’t register the true distance of the moonshot because there’s no record of it landing.
Here’s Frazier’s home run from last Thursday, which according to Hit Tracker had a true distance of 421 feet.
The dinger against the Cubs went even further, and might be the most ridiculous home run I’ve seen so far this year. Okay, maybe not. There’s still this Anthony Rizzo one with a true distance of 475 feet:
The DH Rule
This topic seems to come up multiple times through the course of every season, and it reared its head yesterday on The Getting Blanked Podcast in an unplanned fashion. I really don’t like the DH Rule. I prefer the National League’s rules to the American League’s.
I understand the argument in favor of designated hitters, and to me, that’s fine if you prefer the possibility of more offense to additional factors informing strategy. I think of it a lot like I do atheism. I don’t believe in a god. I also don’t feel the need to go proselytizing for my anti-religious stance. I’m glad we live in a country where I’m free to believe in what I want to believe, and you’re free to believe what you want to believe even if we both believe each other to be wrong.
Similarly, I’m glad to watch Major League Baseball where 50% of the teams play be the rules that I like, and 50% of the teams play be the rules that you like. It seems like a good compromise, and I’m fine living with a sport in which two parties agree to disagree.
In other words, my brand of baseball includes the idiots who think their brand is better.
Happy 20th Anniversary Hal McCrae Meltdown
This seems like it was a whole lot longer ago.
If you haven’t been already, start keeping an eye on Jean Segura of the Milwaukee Brewers. In addition to proving to be a welcome addition to Milwaukee’s lineup, he seems to be performing at least one amazing defensive play at shortstop per game. He reminds me a bit of John McDonald for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2007, when you wished every single ball was batted to him because he’d almost always do remarkable things.
Even better for the Brewers is that, unlike McDonald, it appears as though Segura can actually hit. I’m not sure two transactions have ever been timed and handled better than Milwaukee acquiring Zack Greinke – whom they used to acquire Segura from the Angels – and then unloading him after maximizing his usefulness to them.