First Half Pitching Report | The Process Report

First Half Pitching Report

With the close of the first half we finally have a good time to take an honest retrospective look at how the Rays have fared. I will be heavily leaning upon my research into park-adjusted expected production on balls in play that also folds in strikeouts and walks (plus hit by pitch). Due to the massive amounts of data league-wide this analysis will focus solely upon the American League East, as it is of utmost interest to any and all Rays fans. As such, baseline xwOBA* will be based upon the weighted average of this particular subset of the total population of players. This first report will focus on pitchers with a subsequent report taking a similar approach to all non-pitcher batters in this division. Lots to cover so let’s dig in:

Starting at the most zoomed out level you can see how these teams rank over the course of the season. Toronto, New York and Boston are all fairly similarly better than average, though each arrives there differently. The Blue Jays rely upon inducing weak contact, while the Red Sox run marvelous strikeout and walk rates. The Yankees split the difference by issuing weaker contact than the Red Sox, and better strikeout to walk figures than the Blue Jays. The Orioles have been abysmal in all regards suitably earning their terrible pitching figures. The Rays manage contact on par with the Yankees, but fewer strikeouts and more walks leave them on the wrong side of the tracks, but they can hear the train on all, but the soggiest days. Let’s move on to the individual leaders:

The above and below leaders and laggards are more for the reader’s benefit than something I’m going to give a detailed rundown upon. You can see just how far above the pack Chris Sale is, and where the Rays various pitchers rank amongst these leaders. No surprise that Chris Archer has been the Rays best pitcher, though he does trail at least on pitcher from each of the other teams.

Moving on to the worst performers you can immediately see why the Orioles have seen such horrendous numbers. However, the Rays join them with a few starters, or longmen forced to start in the case of Erasmo Ramirez. Several other Durham Shuttle candidates show up here, as well, and while a couple are no longer with the team, it is likely that at some point the team will need them to get outs against at some point this season.

Let’s switch our focus here to just the Rays. Here you can see each player ranked by their xwRAA+, which gives us a good way to look at, not only expected production, but also the volume that each has been able to provide. Again, this ranking is more for the reader’s benefit as each of these figures are fairly self explanatory. Instead of spending time reading this to the reader the author would prefer to delve into each individual with a suitable sample size via a couple of different charts. As a reference for the raw exit velocity and launch angles here are my derived xwOBA* figures for each set of coordinates:

For those with larger sample sizes the author will be use rolling 50-plate appearance averages, and for those with less of a track record a 20-plate appearance rolling average will be used. Look down to the bottom-lefthand corner when in doubt as to what is being represented. Exit Velocities correspond with the left-hand axis, while Launch Angle is portrayed using the right-hand axis.

Arch shows solid bookends when it comes to weak velocity off the bat, and in between has been pretty good other than a couple of humps up over the 90 MPH band. The first came early on, and it looks like he was able to adjust. Additionally, that early heavy velocity also came with elevated launch angles before ironing out the crease.

Note that unlike my usual offerings comparing xwOBA* to actual wOBA* (awOBA*) I will be including walks and strikeouts, though neither have been adjusted for park in either case. Including these vital components generates my True wOBA* (twOBA*), which can then be compared to the player’s actual production, again, including non-ball in play events.

Unsurprisingly, Archer’s worst sustained stretch of the season came during that early period where he was allowing harder contact at higher angles. His actual performance was favorable compared to expectations, but still saw him as a worse than average starter. It got better. His expectations drove well below the entire league’s baseline (dashed line), and stayed there for a good part of the season. His actual performance started to creep closer to the average as time went by, making him look worse than you should expect upon regressing his balls in play to expectations. The last stretch has gone poorly with both metrics converging at close to the .400 mark, but that bump seems to have started to reverse back into the good as he closed his first half.

After our best starting pitcher comes our best relief pitcher over the first half. Seeing a fairly linear increase to his launch angle over the course of the year is a bit disheartening, but high launch angles on their own are fine if they do not have the necessary velocity to carry from can of corn to over the wall status. Suppressing exit velocity would appear to be a forté of Tommy Hunter as you can see he hasn’t breached 90 MPH off the bat all season, though the most recent performance does creep up. This will be something to monitor as Hunter has always been thought of as something of a groundball getter. Weak contact should be the goal, because getting that means the angle doesn’t matter a whole lot. However, high angle and velocity is a recipe for disaster.

With the smaller sample guys you’re going to see more volatility so keep that in mind. You can see the affect of the injury on his performance as he showed increasingly poor performance to start the year before coming back like gangbusters. His expectations have mostly leveled off in the quite good range, though actual performance shows a tremendous spike during what should have been sustained goodness.

Faria is the newcomer to the staff, but is showing remarkable ability to suppress velocity off of the bat. It does come with elevated flyball rates, but again, weakly hit fly balls are nearly as good as strikeouts. The angle has subsided after reaching an incredible peak closing in on 30 degrees, and a corresponding increase in exit velocity may indicate that batters are starting to see him a little better.

It would appear that Faria seems to lose something over the course of a start as early success starts to bleed out. It’s only a handful of starts, and as the only starter with this small of a sample it’s quite possible that the others show similar trends of starting strong before losing a bit over the course of a game. In a 50-plate appearance average these things get smoothed out, but without the benefit of a large sample we can only monitor going forward. It should be noted that even his peaks show him as essentially a league average pitcher, which is pretty dang good for a rookie starter.

Alex Colome shows less than ideal launch angle for the majority of the season after a strong start that saw lower angles. Additionally, you can see the slow and steady creep as his speed off the bat has gradually ratcheted up as the season has worn on.

The highs have been high and the lows low, but the troubling concern should be the most recent period where you will notice worse than average expected production that is dwarfed by his off-the-charts, somehow worse actual results. Readily evident is how incredibly good he can be when things are going right, but Colome has also shown some bad stretches for the first time since converting to relief.

Balls in play haven’t been the major issue for Farquhar in the first half. His launch angles can be a little scary, but he mostly does a good job of keep batters from hitting the ball hard. Some stretches are better than others, and during that time he can be a very useful weapon. When he isn’t at his best, however, he becomes more of a fungible piece.

While his balls in play have been mostly ok you see just far too many walks that keep him from being a special piece that the team can regularly rely upon. The twin peaks of late show a guy that has the chance to blow up hugely, but the very good stretch is what looks like the outlier, here. More of that and he can come back up to play.

Whitley had done a good job of lowering his launch angle over the course of the season until a fairly sharp spike over the most recent term. During that 60 – 100 ball in play stretch he looked like a guy that could combine the best of both worlds getting weak contact on the ground or on a low line. The spike in the most recent term also shows increased velocity. Perhaps this is a sign of wearing down, which should correct with rest afforded by the All Star break, but certainly something to monitor for a team that needs Chase Whitley to be a reliable, shutdown reliever.

No surprise that his most recent performance has been some of his worst of the year. His early exceptional performance looks to be a good bit of blessed fortune, but the middle period shows a guy that is, at worst, a league average pitcher with the capability to be a good bit more than that.

Alvarado generates low angles off the bat to go with fairly low velocities, as well. He was a little better at each earlier on, but his progression hasn’t been erratic. Of course, balls in play hasn’t been his major issue.

The walk, on the other hand has really hurt him. He was unsustainably good early on, but after around his 40th batter you can see a large jump in both metrics despite maintaining fairly consistent velocities and angles as shown above. What he has turned into isn’t all that good, but there should be hope that he can get back to throwing strikes and making batters look silly as he did earlier in the year.

Jumbo appears to give up some of the higher elevation that we have seen so far to go with a generally increasing batted ball velocity, but like Hunter, Diaz spent some time on the disabled list earlier this year. He looks better for it. His most recent performance has shown obscenely low exit velocities to go with some of his lowest sustained angles of the year.

The problem, however, is that weakly hit balls on that trajectory might not go for power, but they do often lead to base hits in front of outfielders. Compounding this with a continued inability to throw strikes consistently means the opposition has enjoyed some nice production of late. He has had stretches where he was very good from both perspectives, but not nearly enough to counterbalance the bad.

The third starter on this list, Alex Cobb, has shown two long stretches, in which, he was able to continuously lower his exit velocities. Encouragingly, his highest levels came at the start of the season when he was still acclimating to the loss of his elite-level change up. There was some hump up in the middle between the two nadirs, but even plateauing at 90 MPH isn’t bad as far as it goes. His launch angles have mostly trended between 10 and 15 degrees leading to low liners that may fall in, but don’t often lead to dangerous extra base hits.

You can see, though, that when he’s allowing higher angles in addition to higher velocities then you should expect bad things. The early part of the season and then that later mid-season spike stand out, but if you focus on the negative you miss very good performance in the second quarter and most recent performance. Cobb looks different than the guy we’ve seen in the past, but he’s still a useful starter that looks good when he’s able to wiggle off the hook.

High velocity hasn’t really been an issue for Pruitt outside of his one spike in the middle of his run, but he is another player that is seeing balls at a trajectory that lends toward low liners.

Pruitt has shown mixed success in these volatile small samples, though his most recent run has shown him to be an average or better pitcher. The problem is the big spikes at the start of the year and then again in the middle. It is encouraging to see a young pitcher tinker, and then go on to have a little success. For the 2017 Rays, though, it is very difficult to allow a pitcher enough rope to truly learn on the job when every game is of such importance.

Matt Andriese shows a little oscillation in his trends, but mostly sits within defined bands between 87 and 90 MPH and five to ten degrees. His most recent performance looks like some of his worst with increased vertical angle and some of his higher velocities, which may or may not be related to the hip issue that has currently forced him to the shelf for at least 60 days.

Sure enough, the most recent stuff has been some of his worst, but it comes on the heels of his best stretch for both metrics. Early on he saw better results than he should have expected, but when he’s healthy it looks like he should be something like a league average starter, maybe a little worse. The team could do a lot worse when it comes to stocking up the back of a rotation.

Progressively higher exit velocities aren’t a good thing for any pitcher, but it looks like Snell has gotten back to softening the blow in his second stint starting for the Rays this year. His launch angles consistently sit around ten degrees, which works better with lower velocities, but can be problematic when harder contact comes calling. That makes it all the more encouraging to see him getting back to the weaker contact he allowed earlier, but if you’ve followed Blake Snell you know that balls in play aren’t really his issue.

Factoring in his nauseating walk levels you still see someone that has been something like a league average pitcher of late, and certainly better than his earlier performance. The problem is that his actual results have been much worse than they should have been of late leading the more emotional sects of the fanbase to go Queen of Hearts on a promising young starter. Keeping those expectations around will bring more success in the future, but the team will need to see his actual results regress to expectations if Blake wants to continue to make starts for the club.

Jake’s first few starts were going reasonably well and only getting better as far as diminishing exit velocity. Then in his third start he came out early ultimately heading to the disabled list for a short stint. It doesn’t look like he has been fully right since then as he has sat consistently higher since coming back. There is a slight downward trend that could lead to better results if continued, which is no guarantee. Odorizzi is a notorious flyballer, and it shows up here with his elevated launch angles, but the last few starts have seen him push it to another level. At that angle he is essentially playing with fire. Bear in mind that this is an average so there are going to be similar amounts of balls that are higher and lower than that angle. His velocities behave the same way. Balls hit at 25 to 30 degrees and over 100 MPH almost always go for extra base hits, and even at lower velocities he also can expect to give up some soft singles. For Odorizzi to have success he is going to need to induce even higher angles or get that velocity back down in the low 80’s.

His early success was pretty good, though his actual results do show an unsustainable gap early on. These two things converged upon his return, and have mostly stuck around. This has left him as a worse than average starter for a while now, and his expectations of late show a solid upward trend over the last hundred or so batters. It’s hard to put a guy out there when you expect him to be that bad so hopefully the rest will do him well in getting back to the things that have led him to have much historical success.

Finally, we get to longman/swingman/spot starter Erasmo Ramirez. His velocities peaked in an awful place after a promising start, though he has begun to see those things slowly trend downward. Seeing that continue could allow him to be a useful bullpen piece, but with the lower velocities have come a steady increase to his launch angle. If those continue to diverge then it’s quite likely he could see some success, but it would seem that lowering the launch angle would be more in his control due to him controlling the type of pitch that is thrown.

If you’ve watched Erasmo then this probably makes a lot of sense. He looked very good early on, but much of that was driven by fortune on balls in play. Both metrics converged to show him as a pretty useful guy, but since then it has almost solely been upward in production yielded. There has been some improvement of late as he is re-acclimating to the bullpen, but that will need to continue on that path before considering Erasmo to be an essential part of the team.

All in all the Rays have a lot to be happy about. They have a legitimate ace backed up by two other pretty good starters, and all three should continue to be well-thought of going forward. Snell has shown some things to be happy about, and they have a few options for the last rotation spot that may benefit from the week off. Andriese will eventually come off the disabled list, and none of this mentions perhaps the Rays best hope, Brent Honeywell who has now ascended to be, perhaps, the best pitching prospect in baseball. Honeywell is going to get a chance at some point, and Lord willing it will come in the rotation to give the Rays one of the better rotations in baseball.

Equally, the bullpen has shown some bright spots. Colome is going through one of his worst stretches in the big leagues but he has been much better, and should be able to get back to that point. Hunter looks like a reliable guy, and he’s not alone. The problem is that most of the guys that have had a little success have also shown performances going in the other direction. It is difficult to trust someone that goes through cycles of being good and then pretty bad. Getting a multitude of offdays of late has helped the team focus on using their best relievers when it matters most, but the team will go back to a more normal schedule in the second half that will mean more of the lesser than relievers will have to come in to get outs in a crucial moment. They have shown success, at times, but there needs to be more consistency. The team has a plethora of options that share this feature, and the team has not been shy to shuttle players back and forth with Durham so the hope should be that they can have enough guys pulling in the same direction at the same time to go on a real run. Boxberger’s success in an extremely limited sample so far bodes well, also. Having him as a reliable guy in high leverage would be enormous as it pushes everyone else down to a more comfortable leverage.

 



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