Results tagged ‘ Jeremy Hellickson ’

Hot Stove Rundown: Do the Rays Need to Trade a Pitcher?

One of the most commonly held notions going into the 2012-13 hot stove is that the Tampa Bay Rays, those gluttons of pitching, need to trade away at least one of their starters to pick up a nice middle-of-the-order type bat. A cursory look at Tampa’s stats from a year ago give credence to this idea.

Tampa Bay had the best team ERA in baseball. They piled up the most strikeouts in baseball. The Rays even had the lowest batting average against any staff in baseball. Basically general manager Andrew Friedman and company have stockpiled arms like the Americans and Soviets had during the Cold War. Meanwhile, the Rays offense struggled to produce even meager run totals, resembling something similar to the Eastern block of Europe during the 1950s, to stick with the Cold War theme. They struggled to hit consistently for power, they were abysmal at hitting for average, and in the run scoring department they ranked a meager 18th in baseball, trailing every one of their AL East rivals.

The solution appears to be simple on the surface. Trade a little bit of the enviable starting pitching depth for a little bit of premium offense. The Rays won’t miss one of their frontline starters too much with all their depth and with some more pop at the plate, a playoff appearance and maybe even a parade could be coming to St. Pete in a matter of no time. But it’s not that simple. The Rays could stand pat and decide to peruse the free agent market for offense, hoping to turn trash into treasure yet another time. And if they deal a pitcher, who goes, who stays, and what do they want in return?

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Previewing a Wild Final Day in Baseball

Even though all 10 playoff spots have already been claimed this year, the last day of the season still has the potential for fireworks, particularly in the American League. There are plenty of important story lines floating around out there including: the American League West having a winner-take-all game out in Oakland, the AL East dogfight finally reaching a conclusion , and a Triple Crown coming into fruition, among other things. Let’s take a sneak peek at some of the more intriguing bits of news still left in the regular season.

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Rays of Hope

“You’ve got to believe it. If we didn’t learn anything from last year you have to keep playing until you’re mathematically eliminated. In the meantime, believe that you can — and I do.” – Joe Maddon, commenting on his belief that the Rays can still make the playoffs

If any team in baseball history can pull of miracle finishes in back-to-back seasons it would have to be the Maddon-led Tampa Bay Rays. In 2011 the team sat 9 games back of a playoff spot on September 3rd before racing to a 16-8 finish to edge out the Red Sox and ride into the history books. Well, this year the Rays are vying to repeat history in what may turn out to be even more unlikely fashion. Tampa Bay is trying join the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals and the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers as the only teams to make up a 6 game deficit in the standings with 14 or fewer games left. Led by a strong pitching staff, a finally healthy Evan Longoria, and a surging BJ Upton, the Rays have already cut the deficit in half. And thanks to a potentially favorable schedule the rest of the way, they have the chance to do much, much more.

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Taking a Look at the Verducci Effect

For the past couple of seasons, Sports Illustrated’s excellent Tom Verducci has written a pre-season article concerning the “Year-After Effect”, which has since been named the Verducci Effect. This link, contains the 2012 version of Verducci’s list, which was published all the way back in mid-January. This type of thinking is especially important when we consider innings caps for young pitchers, as evidenced by the recent shut downs of Stephen Strasburg, Jeff Samardzija, and others.

Basically Verducci tries to highlight young pitchers who have seen a considerable increase in their workloads from one season to the next. It’s interesting research mostly because it attempts to spotlight at-risk pitchers, ones who may see a substantial increase in ERA at best, and ones who may become injured at worst.

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Contenders, Pretenders Emerge as September Baseball Arrives – AL Edition

The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.

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King Felix Reigns Supreme

Yesterday Felix Hernandez threw the 23 perfect game in baseball history, dispatching the Tampa Bay Rays with a variety of perfectly located fastballs, earth-shattering sliders, and mind-bending curveballs. Watching him dispatch one Tampa Bay hitter after another was akin to watching Van Gogh paint his starry night or catching the Beatles during the recording of the White Album. King Felix turned one afternoon in Seattle, in front of his adoring court, into his personal thesis on pitching. Here’s just a few thoughts on what I saw: (more…)

Examining Jeremy Hellickson’s Success

Reigning AL Rookie of the Year, Jeremy Hellickson, is showing his success from a year ago was no fluke, and is now looking like one of the top pitchers in the American League. Hellickson is 4-1 on the season with a 2.73 ERA in 56 innings pitched and has struck out 38 batters against only 19 walks. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that he has made 6 of his 9 starts against elite offenses that rank in the top-10 in baseball in runs scored. Let’s take a look at how Hellickson has been able to have success during the 2012 season.

Hellickson, in his 2nd big league season now, has never been a dominant strikeout pitcher, possessing a mediocre K rate and a below-average K/BB rate. The Rays righty uses 4 pitches a fastball, cutter, change-up, and curveball, all of which are above average, with none being spectacular. When Hellickson does get his strikeouts he primarily uses his 90-93 mph fastball and baffles batters with his change-up, which is his most effective pitch. He accumulates only 6 outs per every 9 innings pitched from strikeouts, so Hellickson has to find another way to get batters out. This is where his ability to generate ground balls and the positioning of the Rays defense come into play.

For the 2nd straight season the Rays righty has had one of the lowest BABIPs in baseball. BABIP stands for batting average on balls in play and the league average most seasons sits around .295. Last season Hellickson posted the lowest opponent’s BABIP in baseball at .223, which means that the average batter turned into a deadball-era hitter when the put the ball in play. And this year its been more of the same as he has limited AL hitters to a .247 BABIP, another 50 points below league average. Some around baseball assumed that Hellickson is just getting lucky but he shrugs that off as well saying “I hear it; it’s funny,” Hellickson said. “I thought that’s what we’re supposed to do, let them put it in play and get outs. So I don’t really understand that. When you have a great defense, why not let them do their job? I’m not really a strikeout pitcher; I just get weak contact and let our defense play.”

Hellickson’s strategy is one of the most intelligent in baseball and he has become the master at manipulating batters to hit into one of Tampa Bay’s many shifts. A year ago the Rays had the best defense in baseball, turning a league leading 72.4% of all balls in play into outs. Tampa also had the best fielding percentage in the league, and was rated highest in defensive runs saved as well. This trend has carried over in 2012 as well.

Tampa Bay’s defense hasn’t been great this season, and while its too early to look at defensive statistics due to small sample size, the Rays have committed the most errors in baseball, ranking in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency. They do rate 3rd in baseball in defensive runs saved, and Joe Maddon’s shifts coupled with Hellickson’s pinpoint location can carve up opposing offenses, reducing hitters to meek ground outs and infield pop-ups.

A perfect example comes from his most recent win against the Boston Red Sox, when the shift took away multiple hits, including a couple from David Ortiz. Hellickson pounded Ortiz low and away repeatedly with his fastball and cutter, getting the Boston slugger to successfully roll over for groundouts into the overshift. The Rays young right-hander dominated most of the Red Sox lineup in a similar fashion, winning his May 16th outing 2-1.

Hellickson has also been able to up his ground ball rate so far this season. He currently generates ground balls on an excellent 40.3% of all batters he faces. This is a very important skill because ground balls are more easily turned into outs and far less likely to go for extra-base hits when they do get through the infield. This also allows Hellickson to keep his pitch count down and work deeper into games, because he can get hitters out earlier in at-bats, a tough skill for young, talented pitchers to master. This will pay dividends over the long season, and should keep Hellickson’s arm strong deep into September.

It should be no surprise that Jeremy Hellickson has been able to repeat his success from last season. Anyone who says that he is a lucky pitcher who only relies on his excellent defense to bail him out is missing the point. Instead of trying to get every hitter out himself, Hellickson allows batters to make weak or partial contact with the baseball, which generates easy outs, creating a very pleasing style of pitching to watch.

Joe Maddon, Spray Charts, and Defensive Shifts: Part I

Part 1 of a season long series to discover the effects of the shift, particularly in Tampa Bay where its most ardent supporter manages.

Joe Maddon has employed many different varieties of shifts this season and I’ve tried to watch as much of the Rays as I can so far this season to gain a feel whether the shifts are working or not. From what I am seeing so far, the result tends to be a net positive, because very few hitters actually hit the ball to beat the shift, plays usually result in an out. This is just an early estimation, and because defensive numbers are so unreliable, particularly with a small sample size, we will have to put that judgment off for another day.

First let’s take a look at a few reasons Tampa can use the shift more liberally. One of the big reasons is that Tampa Bay has an excellent, hard-throwing pitching staff that ranks 4th in the American League in strikeouts. A couple of their pitchers, Jeremy Hellickson and James Shields like pitching to the shift, and will even position infielders themselves, based on which pitch sequence they want to throw. This caliber of pitching staff tends to further exaggerate the success of the shift a little bit, but could also play a role in getting inside hitters’ heads.

It is also difficult to weigh the mental effect the shift has on hitters, because when many hitters see the shift they change their approach and get frustrated. After seeing the shift during the Opening Series in Tampa, Nick Swisher said, “Righties, lefties, it doesn’t really matter. It feels like there’s 15 guys on the right side of the infield or the left side of the infield.” Other hitters, such as Albert Pujols, have also appeared frustrated by the shift after seeing a normal base hit go directly toward a fielder.

The numbers are interesting as well so far, with the Rays having shifted 125 recorded times so far this season, according to ESPN. According to baseball prospectus, the Rays rank 2nd in baseball in defensive runs saved. However in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the number of balls put in play that are turned into outs, they only rank 20th. It’s way to early to put stock into any of those numbers, as defensive efficiency and defensive runs saved require very large sample sizes. Tampa used the shift more times than any other Major League team a season ago, and produced a fantastic defense, so Maddon’s decision to use it even more this season isn’t too much of a surprise, just him pushing the envelope.

So we have 125 cases over the course of the 1st month of the season. Let’s take a look at a few of the times the shift has worked this year, and a few of the hitters that Maddon has had particular success with, and why.

Curtis Granderson

Curtis Granderson, as evidenced by his spray chart, is a dead pull ground ball hitter.

He has grounded into 2 outs this season on the left side of the infield, and 17 times he has hit a grounder to the left side for an out. This is not a recent trend either, because Granderson has always been a pull hitter, especially on ground balls. Joe Maddon knows this and intelligently deployed his shift, taking away multiple base hits from the Yankee centerfielder. In this particular video, Maddon places Sean Rodriguez, the shortstop, just to the right of 2nd base. He has his 2nd baseman, Elliot Johnson, playing deep in the hole with 1st baseman Carlos Pena holding the runner. The Rays ended up winning the game by 1 run, 7-6, and this double play was a rally killer for the Yankees. Rodriguez also took another hit away from Granderson, in nearly the same spot later in the game as well.

Albert Pujols

Maddon has also taken his shifts one step further this season, employing them nearly as often on right-handed hitters as lefties. Pujols saw the shift in all the games of a recent series. Maddon placed his 3rd baseman Evan Longoria on the line, his shortstop was planted deep in the hole, and his 2nd baseman was located on the left side of the base, shaded toward the middle. It was the perfect alignment for the struggling slugger because Pujols has been a pull hitting machine this year. 

Pujols has 2 total outs to the infield on the right side this season, and is making outs all over the place on the left side of the infield. Maddon’s wisely deployed shifts stole hits from Pujols as well. One rocket line drive down the line was snared by a waiting Evan Longoria, taking away a double, and a sharp hit grounder in the hole was easily handled by Elliot Johnson. Again the Rays played a couple of close games in the series against Los Angeles, and Maddon’s maneuvering could be giving the Rays a slight edge.

Mark Teixeira

The Rays also employ various shifts for switch-hitters as well. Mark Teixeira, the Yankees slugging 1st baseman, saw infield alignments that included 3 players on both sides of the infield, depending on which way he was batting. As you can see from Teixeira’s spray charts, he is a dead pull hitter when he hits the ball on the ground, and Maddon played him that way.

Batting left-handed

Batting right-handed

The Rays were able to turn multiple hits into outs on Teixeira as well. Teixeira hit a hard liner that was right at shortstop Sean Rodriguez, who was playing up the middle, and the Rays also took away a grounder in the hole with the shift.

Maddon is particularly adept at calling these shifts against the Yankees, and in the Opening Series of the season, he was able to successfully use the shift on half the New York lineup. This is an encouraging sign for Tampa Bay, because any advantage they can get on their wealthier rivals helps.

Over the course of the season I plan on looking at cases where the shift fails, the Rays pitchers who like the shift (particularly Hellickson), and the variety of shifts which Maddon will employ.

Pitchers in Need of a Bounceback

Yesterday was the 2012 debut for quite a few pitchers who had forgettable 2011s. Phil Hughes, Carlos Zambrano, and Bronson Arroyo were all abysmal a season ago, and each took the mound on Sunday looking for bigger and better things in 2012. Arroyo and Zambrano faced off against each other in Cincinnati, while Hughes took on the Rays in Tampa. Lets breakdown the day each pitcher had.

Phil Hughes

Phil Hughes had an abysmal 2011. He came into Spring Training out of shape, never found his proper velocity, struggled with injury, and ultimately posted a 5-5 record with a 5.79 ERA while allowing more than 10 hits per 9. Hughes went into yesterday’s start coming off a solid spring, where he worked hard and saw his velocity return.

Hughes didn’t quite get the results he was looking for in yesterday’s game, only lasting 4.2 innings while allowing 2 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks. He did strikeout 5 batters, and generated a good number of swing-and-misses, which was a problem in 2011. Hughes’ fastball location was a little up in the zone, which cost him on the Pena homerun, but otherwise the Rays struggled to square up on the heater. When Phil Hughes was dominating during the 2010 season, his fastball generated plenty of poor swings, resulting in strikeouts, so this is a good sign.

His issue yesterday was his inability to stay out of deep counts, which caused him to throw nearly 100 pitches despite his limited workload. The Tampa hitters did an excellent job getting into 3 ball counts, and the game plan seemed to be to make Phil work, which the lineup did an excellent job of. Hughes really needs to work on getting batters out earlier in the count. He would be wise to look at his opponent Jeremy Hellickson, who kept the Yankees off-balance and didn’t reach 100 pitches until the 9th inning.

In terms of pitch velocity, location, and movement, Hughes had an encouraging day. His change-up, which he used frequently, was the best in his Major League career. Hughes fastball also sat around 91-93, and was touching 95 occasionally, which is an encouraging sign. He struggled to top 90 mph at any point last year, so expect more encouraging results in the future.

Carlos Zambrano

Zambrano faced a difficult challenge yesterday, facing an imposing Cincinnati Reds lineup that was 2nd in the NL a year ago in runs scored. Zambrano needs to prove that he is still a serviceable pitcher after a rough 2011 that saw him removed from the Cubs after a mid-August fracas. Yesterday, after a very ugly 1st inning, where Zambrano struggled with his command, he was able to put up an impressive outing.

In the aforementioned 1st inning, Zambrano immediately allowed 2 solid hits followed by 2 walks.  Due to his pitching and in part to some suspect defense by Jose Reyes, Zambrano was tagged for 3 runs. In the 1st, both his location and his velocity were very poor. He struggled to keep the ball on the edges of the plate, either missing entirely or leaving it down the middle. His velocity was barely topping 90 on his fastball and he sat mostly between 87-89 mph.

But for the next 4 innings of his outing, Zambrano shut down the Cincinnati offense. Before he allowed the Bruce homerun in the 6th inning, he appeared dominant, retiring 12 batters in a row. He struck out 6 of the hitters as well, which is a crucial factor to his success. Zambrano’s slider was able to regain its bite, resulting in plenty of swing-and-misses as well as a couple strikeouts.

When Zambrano was an All-Star caliber pitcher, his K/9 rate frequently sat between 8-9. A season ago it was a measly 6.2, which was reflected in his 4.82 ERA. If Zambrano keeps his K/9 rate above 8 like he did yesterday, the Marlins will have themselves a serviceable mid-rotation pitcher.

Bronson Arroyo

Bronson Arroyo had a 2011 to forget, going 9-12 with a 5.07 ERA, allowing an atrocious 10.3 hits per 9, with a K rate under 5. Arroyo has never been a truly great pitcher, but has one All-Star appearance and has made 30+ starts every year since 2004. Yesterday was his opening start of the 2012 season and it went about as you would expect.

The Miami lineup was able to pickup 10 hits in 6.1 innings of work, scoring 5 runs (4 earned). Arroyo has always relied on an array of breaking balls, thrown from any arm angle to deceive hitters. Yesterday he was able to prevent the Marlins from making truly solid contact and was even able to strikeout 4 batters, so that part of the game must be considered a success. But any time you allow 10 hits in just over 6 innings of work, your team won’t be winning many games.

Cincinnati may be in some trouble if Arroyo can’t get his hits allowed under control. During the summer months, when the ball really starts flying, some of those hits will start leaving the park. If Arroyo continues to surrender hits at this rate, Cincy will be lucky to win 10 games this year.

Each of these pitchers saw some encouraging signs in their opening performances. Hughes and Zambrano were able to prevent base runners at an acceptable rate while posting near elite K rates. Hughes in particular looked solid. If he can locate his changeup like he did yesterday, Hughes is a good bet to throw for an ERA under 4.00. Arroyo showed some excellent breaking balls and even struck out some hitters, but his performance will have to improve in the future if Cincy wants to keep winning.

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