10,000 Pitches in the Wind
So the Rays just finished up their 100th game, and coincidentally enough their next start should see them also roll over 10,000 pitches from their starters on the season. These two otherwise meaningless milestones coming at roughly the same time creates too good of an opportunity to pass up reflecting on the season to date. I’ve mostly shied away from evaluating the pitchers, mostly due to time constraints, but let’s dig in to take a look at how the Rays starters have performed this year.
Per usual, run values are calculated using data from Baseball Savant and Ian Malnowski’s excellent per-pitch run value research. Above, you will see 300-pitch trends for the Rays starters this year, chronologically, for both their earned run values and the Zips-projected wOBA for batters faced. Much like in a game you want your pitchers to be allowing fewer runs, but you’ll immediately notice that there have only been two stretches where the team was even better than average. The first flamed out early, but the second is currently taking place so it will be interesting to see if they revert back to the one run per hundred pitches worse than average where they have mostly oscillated around on the year or if they can keep this thing going.
The encouraging thing about this current stretch is that it’s coming against some pretty good hitters for the most part. Of course, this makes it all the more frustrating when you realize that some of their worst performances of the year came against some of the weakest hitters. For the majority of the year the starters have been just plain bad. Let’s dig in deeper to hopefully figure out where the strengths and weaknesses lie by looking at how each pitcher has evolved over the course of the year.
Chris Archer” width=”600″ height=”408″ />
Starting with the staff ace we can see that Archie got off to an abysmal start approaching nearly four runs worse than average per 100 pitches. He seemed to figure it out against similar competition before spiking again. Easier hitters brought better results that got him back around the average, but there was another spike prior to his current run of pretty solid performance. It’s not ideal to see this much variation, and he has put it together for similar stretches this year, but Arch might be starting to figure it out a bit.
Jake Odorizzi” width=”600″ height=”408″ />
Jake Odorizzi has spent most of the year being around a run or two worse than average per 100 pitches, though there was a very nice period where he was significantly better than that. He’s currently riding a nice wave, but as we have seen all year that has a tendency to get blown up before taking another ride on the carousel.
Drew Smyly” width=”600″ height=”408″ />
It was a hell of a start to the season for Drew Smyly who was incredibly good through his first 10 or so starts, but it has been straight hell since. The overall trend has continued to inch up over the course of the year to where he now finds himself in the two runs worse than average area. The horrendous spike in the middle showed his nadir, and he has been a little better than that of late, but Smyly looks to have settled in as a pretty lousy starter. There is still time to right the ship, but it’s going to take some real work on his end to bring that to fruition.
Matt Moore” width=”600″ height=”408″ />
One of the few success stories of the year has been how Matt Moore has been able to figure it out over the second half of his season. A good start melted into a brutal stretch, but before the wick was burnt he found a way to stay lit. For close to half a season now he has been an average or better starter and it’s all coming at the right time as it looks like he put those early season woes behind him. Continuing to be averse to the homer can only help, but it will be interesting if he can bring back some of the strikeouts that he has seemingly traded for soft contact and walk suppression.
Blake Snell” width=”600″ height=”408″ />
Now here’s a story to get excited about. Snell’s transition to the majors for good started with a rocky stretch that pales in comparison to the bad stretches seen by the other starters. From that early stretch he has only seen continual improvement into the land of very good starters where he now finds himself. Make no mistake, Snell is the most exciting starter on this team with each of his opportunities making for must see TV. I don’t know that he can continue to improve even further, but if he’s able to nestle in at this point he’s going to be able to make good on all that promise.
Matt Andriese” width=”600″ height=”408″ />
The other side of the coin brings us to the final starting pitcher, Matt Andriese. The groundball getter started off fantastically, but the league began going to work figuring him out nearly instantly. There’s a reason he is no longer in the rotation, though it is perhaps hidden by his year to date figures that hide some of the recent-term failure. I think there’s a good starter in there even if it’s unlikely he’ll ever provide starts that consistently see him tear through a lineup three times, but there’s a ton of value in a spot starter/swingman/longman that can go get outs.
Only once we have seen how these guys have trended over the course of the year can we now begin to take a look at their overall numbers. While the snapshot of their total season figures is a great resource you, the reader, should be viewing these things through the context above. Very rarely is a guy the same pitcher every time out over the course of the season. The ebbs and flows tend to get lost in a singular static figure, but incorporating both should give a good sense of how each pitcher has performed. Let’s start with some of the things I find important when looking at all pitches on the year:
There’s a lot to take in here, and a lot of it is for your own benefit, but I do want to touch on some of the things that stand out to me. Note, I hesitated to include the one spot start that Erasmo Ramirez made earlier this year, but I think this readership is smart enough to gloss over what he did on that one day. Batters have mostly thrown a patient approach at Snell as they’re very willing to take his pitches. Part of that is due to his fastball being above the zone quite often, but a lot of credit should be given to the dearth of production they have provided when they do decide to swing. Him, and Moore, are diabolical when they do get batters to chase out of the zone, but Moore lags behind when they leave the bat on their shoulder.
Odorizzi is interesting here as he isn’t harmed as much as his brethren on out of zone takes, but batters are feasting on when they do swing at these would be ball offerings primarily because of his refusal to throw anything inside to righties. They can lean out over and turn pitches off the plate into something that approximates a pitch that is on the outer edge. Joining him on bad results for out of zone swings is Drew Smyly who is seeing these normally good mistakes being pounded.
Moving into the zone we see that the patience displayed against Archer is leading to a fair amount of taken strikes helping his Run Value per 100 pitches look very strong on in-zone takes. Unfortunately, when they do decide to swing only Smyly is seeing worse results, though Moore is basically on the same level. Snell is the clubhouse leader on this high wire act, but Odorizzi does a mostly fine job of getting batters to do little damage on swings within the zone. Let’s continue down this path by refining our population to only those pitches that batters chose to swing upon:
Again, I have split this by swings in and out of the zone, because the former can lead to destruction, while the latter is the difference between an ok or great day. On all swings you can see that Archer is an absolute beast as despite his flaws he’s still getting swinging strikes on roughly 27% of all pitches swung upon. This leads to fewer balls in play and a secondary, albeit oft hidden benefit, is that the empty swings do not prolong at bats the way a foul ball can. This shows up noticeably when looking at Odorizzi who is even better at limiting balls in play, but this comes at the cost of very few whiffs. In fact, Odorizzi is garnering a foul ball on 47% of his swings, which is just obscene when contrasted with the team rate of 40% that he certainly buoys upward. Fouls are great early in the count, but they can become frustrating and lead to bad mistakes when a batter is allowed to prolong an at bat.
The ball in play suppression for Odorizzi continues when focusing upon just the swings that were at out of zone pitches, but again Archer offers an interesting context as he yields even fewer balls in play while showing an incredible swinging strike rate of 45%. I don’t mean to bury this point, because that is an outstanding rate that has helped maintain the luster on a guy that has lost a little from a results standpoint. His foil, Odorizzi, again lags behind in whiff rate with the other guys slotting somewhere in between.
Another hidden point here is that Snell’s whiff rate is on the lower end for the team, but 48% of the swings he induces are on these out of zone pitches. You would think that one would follow the other, but instead of whiffs it looks like he’s getting a ton of weak contact as his RV/100 is best on the team. Matt Moore shows that there is more than one way to skin a cat, however, as the vast majority of his swings are on pitches in the zone, yet he still shows a good balance of limiting balls in play and getting whiffs, which sees him tied with Snell atop the team leaderboard from a run suppression standpoint.
Swings within the zone are generally to be avoided, but as this is a balanced game that does not seek to give either opposition side an advantage they become a cost of doing business. The trick is to be able to write off the losses while protecting the assets. In that regard, Andriese and Snell do the best job overall though it comes with a ton of whiff-avoidance. Balls in play force the defense to do it’s job, and sometimes they’re better at that than others. Both of these guys seem to have done a good job of limiting damage on balls in play, though I think here is where Odorizzi really shines. He pairs a good whiff rate on in zone pitches with few balls in play. The foul ball does indeed cut both ways, and I think most pitchers would prefer to have a ton of foul balls on in zone pitches while putting guys away out of the zone. It’s a way to get ahead of impatient hitters and can help set them up to leave the zone.
The lefties Smyly and Moore pace the team in whiffs within the rulebook strikezone, though Smyly sees fewer balls in play on a rate basis than Moore. Of course, Moore has done a better job of turning those balls in play into outs where Smyly has been mostly battered worse than a plate full of chicken tenders slapped from your mother’s hand.
Further refining swings to look at only those put in play yields even more information, though doing so does reduce the sample size down to its smallest level yet. Now that we’re looking at solely balls in play we can start to introduce some things that look a little more familiar. Namely, batting average and slugging percentage on contact, or, BACON and SLGCON, respectively. I think this gives a fair bit of context to the stolid, solitary Run Value figures as you can see whether a guy is arriving at that figure via contact, power, or the unfortunate case of both.
Snell and Andriese have received wonderful results on balls in play with both showing below average figures compared to the team in both categories. The SLGCON really stands out here as neither pitcher has given up virtually any power on their balls in play. In my opinion contact is often the fault of the defense or due to luck, two things outside of the pitcher’s control, but power is nearly always within the demesne of the pitcher. While BACON can be fluky in small samples this can be attributed to many variables, while power is almost always due to a poor offering.
We see this most prominently with Smyly who has yielded a SLGCON of .628 on all of his balls in play. That’s, well, that’s not good. Archer isn’t very far behind and then you take a good step down to get to Odorizzi and another to get to Moore. Part of the reason for the elevated power numbers is due to the contact yielded, which we can remove by using Isolated Power on Contact or ISOCON, which is just SLGCON minus BACON. Here we see both guys with an ISOCON over .250, while Odorizzi is in the low .230s, Moore sub-.200 and Snell at a very nice .069. Pitchers are going to give up hits. It’s the nature of the business, but it looks like Snell and Andriese do a great job of limiting the damage with Moore doing a well enough job over a much larger sample.
Moving along we see that Moore has the lowest percentage of his balls in play coming on out of zone pitches, but when batters have managed to make contact they have seen very poor results. He rivals Snell in base hit suppression, though Snell takes it to another level by almost never allowing an extra base hit on these would be balls. The other side of the coin shows that this is another area where Smyly is getting brutalized, and while Archer shows the exact same BACON he is doing a better, though not great, job of limiting the damage in comparison. Odorizzi seems to walk the line of being better at getting outs, but when they do fall in they do a little more damage. I can’t help but feel that this is a byproduct of his flyball tendencies.
In zone contact is where batters earn their bread. Sure, the occasional Vlad Sr. comes along that can punish pitches no matter where they are, but the vast majority require a good pitch to hit if they want a good result. Good pitchers avoid this offering, but again, it can’t be helped when a pitcher falls behind in the count or throws the occasional bad mistake. Again, we see Archer and Smyly getting utterly abused as they’re both yielding a ton of hits and even more power. This is an area, though, where we see Snell join the ranks. When batters are able to square up his in-zone pitches you can see that he’s just as likely as the others to give up a hit, but he does a tremendous job of keeping that hit from ruining his day.
Of particular note here is that I hope you take a second to compare the team totals for in zone and out of zone pitches. You can see here the drastic differences in results on whether you can get a batter to hit your pitch or if he can wait for his. This is the essence of the game that everyone knows about, but these numbers drive the point home better than any sort of hand wave could. Knowing this, it is imperative that pitchers get ahead so that batters are forced to protect instead of sitting on a pitch. Of course, in an era where batters are keen on stroking first pitch fastballs, that becomes a difficult balancing act. Guess what, pitching is hard.
Lastly, I want to look at each of the pitches thrown by these guys. For a guy like Drew Smyly it is nigh impossible to parse whether he is throwing a cutter, curve, or slider because he does such a good job of adding a little velocity to throw it a little straighter or subtracting some to get more break. I always hesitate to break his pitches down so please take them with a grain of salt. For everyone else I think you can have a good level of confidence. Note also that I lump all fastballs together with the exception of splitters, which I label as change ups. Curves, sliders, and knuckle curves comprise the breaking ball segment.
Again, this is mostly for your benefit, but I do want to highlight a few things that I find interesting starting with the totals and working down through the handedness. Unsurprisingly, Archer has the best breaking ball on the team, and I don’t think it’s boisterous to say that his slider is one of the best pitches in the game. It allows him to remains solvent even when the fastball is receiving packages from Amazon Prime on a daily basis. More surprising was seeing Andriese have the second best Run Values amidst the fact that he throws his breaking ball(s) almost as often as Archer. His curve is a really good pitch and sometimes makes me think he could be a junior version of Alex Cobb, but I don’t think his other stuff is on the same level. Snell checks in next while throwing his breakers just a bit over a quarter of the time. Moore and Smyly bring up the rear.
Switching over to the change up we see that it’s a pitch that Odorizzi leans upon heavily mostly by necessity. His breaking ball isn’t very good leaving him with little confidence in the pitch, and it’s probably the sole reason he has plateaued as a mid-rotation arm. Still, his split change is an effective pitch that would lead the team in RV/100 if it weren’t for that guy Snell. It’s tough to throw the pitch often and still see good results, but both are doing just that. However, Snell take it to another level. It is incredibly interesting to me to see a 23 year old starter that is already pitching like a grizzled vet. Despite having a fastball that comes from the left side in the mid-90’s he is pitching backwards with great results. This is the benefit of having a fully formed, four-pitch arsenal that allows him to keep hitters off balance even when he doesn’t have the feel for all of them.
Fastballs are straight and boring and who cares, but we can cover it quickly. Nobody is seeing above average results, but that’s kind of the point. The fastball sets up everything else, rarely induces a whiff, and is the one pitch that every batter is sitting on. By necessity it needs to be near the zone or easily spat upon. This means it gets hit sometimes. Or taken for easy balls. Still, it is encouraging to see Moore’s grade out so well even with relatively heavy usage at 64%. It’s also interesting to note that despite Smyly getting trashed with his secondary stuff he is seeing relatively good results on the fastball even with him throwing it roughly 70% of the time. We also get a glimpse of why, perhaps, Snell is unafraid to go to his secondary offerings as his heater has been touched up a bit.
Focusing on the lefty batters we can see that Snell, Archer and Andrise love to throw their breaking ball with only the latter using the change up in any nominal way. Odorizzi shows zero reluctance to throw his very good split change while Archer has surprisingly leaned on the pitch quite a bit against opposite-handers. Smyly could probably benefit from subbing some of his fastballs to same-handers for breaking balls which have graded pretty well this year. Moore is doing a great job of limiting lefties and even throwing a half-decent amount of same-side change ups.
Odorizzi shows a great feel for retiring lefties, but what allows him to excel in that regard hurts him terribly against same-handers. He goes from our best pitcher against lefties to our worst against righties with almost all of the explanation coming from his very poor fastball, which he throws an unconscionable 65% of the time. He will break off the occasional breaking ball, and with good results, but if he is ever going to have success against righties he is going to need to amp that up as the fastball is barely a viable pitch. Moore also sees his fair share of struggles against righties, which is be be a little more expected. None of his offerings have been what you would call good, but he seems to be using them optimally as his overall line isn’t so bad. Righties must get a pretty good look at Snell’s fastball because they’re clobbering the pitch, but he does a fine job of leaning on his very good secondaries to help him get by.
Take it all together and there is absolute reason to get excited about this Rays staff. Blake Snell looks like a future staff ace who provides a full arsenal of very good pitches and a modicum of pitchability that will only improve over time provided he is receptive to feedback. Concerns over his control issues appear to be overblown to this point. Chris Archer looks like a guy that is starting to figure it out, but the record continues to spin as he just has to throw his fastball for good strikes at a better rate than he has so far this year.
Moore has done a great job of re-inventing himself into a guy that crushes lefties while limiting the damage from righties, and if he can figure out how to bring the strikeouts back into the equation it should help him push to be a top of the rotation option giving the Rays three potential guys for that role. Smyly has a ton of work to do to figure out how to make it work, but he does tantalize with his ability to change speeds and locations. Jake Odorizzi will probably never figure out how to get righties, but as long as teams continue to throw a ton of lefties at him it may remain a moot point. I think he’s a finished product as a mid-rotation guy, but if he can ever gain confidence in his breaking ball he does have a little bit of growth potential.
Andriese and Ramirez look like fine bottom of the rotation guys that can get you through a lineup twice before needing to cede the hill to another option. It’s very difficult to amass a ton of talent in a rotation, but I think it is fair to say that this group has under-performed expectations this year. A lot of that is due to poor defense or bad runs of luck, but at the end of the day it is upon each of their million dollar arms to figure it out. I trust this group to do so.