Getting Brad Boxberger Back on the Beaten Path
In last night’s game (August 5th) the Rays ended their rare winning streak by giving one away in the 10th on a walk off walk. This was the fifth time in 2015 that Brad Boxberger got walked off, though only the first time that he walked in the winning run. As odd as it is to lose on a bases loaded walk this isn’t his weirdest finish. That honor probably goes to the July 4th loss to the New York Yankees in this fashion:
Wow, that sucked. Unlike the soft single to Christian Yelich on April 10th or the homer yielded to great-story Paulo Orlando on July 7th or even the Rule V wunderkind Odubel Herrera beating Boxberger on July 22nd last night’s walk seemed worse somehow. Nobody wants to lose on a walk off walk and that has the hackles up on a Rays fanbase that has never been more vocal. Thanks Twitter! The thing you might notice in those dates though is that Boxy was pretty lousy in July, but he has been pretty good since then so does he deserve a pass? Let’s explore:
If you have followed my previous site you know that I like to use the matchup tool developed by Ian Malinowski of Draysbay fame and myself. The idea is that we can adjust each plate appearance for the quality of the batter, the park in which the game is played, the number of times the batter and pitcher have squared off this game and whether or not the batter is a pinch hitter. This gives us a good idea of what the pitcher should have done, a.k.a. xwRC+. You can read more here. I then park-adjust the actual result of the matchup using 2015 wOBA values to create wRC+. Plotting leads to a mess, but if we use moving averages you can start to glean some information. Here we can see he was very good early, then pretty bad, before pitching close to league average and his own expectations over the most recent period. Clearly, he hasn’t been good, but can we attempt to figure out what is going wrong? Let’s start with the pitch f/x data courtesy of the excellent Baseball Savant:
Throughout this piece I will be using rolling averages which work really well for smoothing noise, while still showing trends that hopefully mean something. It can be difficult to tell when a season begins or ends due to this so I have approximated years using colors. The blue will be for 2012, then red for 2013, yellow for 2014 and black for 2015.
With run values negative means that the pitcher did better than the batter and vice versa. I use the values that Harry Pavlidis used to host at Cubsfx.com, which is now defunct. E-mail me if you want to see the values, but they adjust each outcome (ball, strike, single, etc…) based on the count. We can see that Boxberger did have a stretch in this season where he was pretty lousy. About as bad as he has ever been in both volume and length of poor play, but it wasn’t always like that. He started very well at the beginning of the season and he has slowly improved over the course of the season so that he’s back in a pretty good place. Until last night, which helps fuel that very most recent spike. He certainly hasn’t been as good as he was in 2014, but he has had long stretches of being good. Let’s look at some summary statistics:
Starting with % of pitches you can see that he’s throwing the fastball a little less even though velocity is essentially the same. In place of the heaters he has ramped up his usage of the change slightly and the breaking ball quite a bit. Per 100 pitches that probably makes some sense as his change is only slightly worse, but his breaking ball has been surprisingly good. We can see that his fastball hasn’t been near as good as the elite one he featured last year. Lastly, we can see that while his vertical movement on the fastball and change are mostly the same he is getting more run on both. So we see that his primary pitches haven’t been as effective despite similar velocity and he’s getting more run in on righties and away from lefties. This gives us much to dig into.
I wanted to start with his release point since that can often tell us much about whether a pitcher is hiding an injury or implementing a new arm slot or placement on the rubber. You can see that the first thing the Rays did was move him towards the first base side of the bump and the next is that it looks like he’s utilizing essentially the same arm slot. We can check that using the average for each year:
We can see right away that 2014 (yellow) and 2015 (black) have essentially the same exact release point. His two years with the Rays do show a leftward shift, most likely on the mound, but he is neither higher nor lower indicating he is not coming more over the top, and telling us that the extra run he is creating isn’t likely to be coming from a lower arm slot. Nuts to that. What else can we check?
Here we have the horizontal and vertical movement for each of his pitches. These tend to bunch up nicely into the following groups: blue = two-seamers, green = four-seamers, red = cutters, purple = change ups, yellow = sliders and black = curve balls. A few things should jump right off the page. First off, we can see that he has gone away from the slider this year and is focusing on the curve ball. We can also see that he doesn’t have a great feel for the pitch as the movement is taking it all over the place. Some are cutting in towards lefties while others aren’t showing a whole lot of movement at all. You can see the spread of these pitches is all over compared to something like the change up where you see a dense cluster with stragglers mostly centering on the mass.
We can also see that he’s not really throwing with cutting action this year, which is something he dabbled with last year. Instead, we’re seeing more more two-seamer action where he’s trying to get the pitch to bore in on righties more. This may explain why he’s seeing more run on his fastball, and may also explain why his average velocity is down slightly. While we may be shedding a bit of light on what is going on let’s stick with that velocity angle for stretch.
Boxberger’s fastest pitches have come over his most recent stretch. You can notice that he has consistently added velocity over the course of the year, which seems to mirror previous seasons. We do notice that there seems to be more pitches below the 92 MPH threshold and fewer above the 94 MPH threshold so while the average velocity is pretty close we are looking at a guy that has spent a lot of the year not throwing as hard as previously. Still, he’s not all that far off and if you’re thinking injury the only scare was very early in the year. Let’s turn our sights on pitch movement specifically looking at the horizontal and vertical movement of his two primary pitches starting with the fastball:
It looks like he is getting slightly more rise out of his fastball, but it is not egregiously so as we saw with the average movement being pretty close over the last two years. It is interesting to see how the Rays have coaxed all that extra vertical movement out of him since he came over to the club, though. Here’s the horizontal movement:
You will notice some fluctuation here, which may add to the idea that he goes through stretches where he emphasizes one fastball over another, but the ranges within which he is pitching are fairly similar to the second half of last year. The depths are deeper and the peaks not as high so it’s easy to see why the average is showing more run towards the negative (in on righties). The takeaway here should be that it does look like he is generating more run on his fastball. Moving on to the change:
Over the course of the year he has seen less dive on his change up, which is kind of a big deal as Kevin Antonevich has been showing that the better the drop the better the ground ball rate. Grounders are good! There may be hope as he went through a similar stretch last year, but was able to make the adjustment to get another nearly inch of drop comparing the extremes. He could stand to make a similar adjustment in this author’s opinion. How about the horizontal movement:
We see how he has increased his run in on righties (and away from lefties) with the change over time. That had started to reverse over the course of this year, but it looks like Boxy has figured out what was causing the ball to leak back over a bit. What is that extra run doing to his swing and zone rates is a question you may be pondering?
Whoa, that’s interesting. Boxberger was throwing his cambio in the zone a TON more last year. He hadn’t shown the ability to throw it for strikes coming into last year and it looks like he’s back in that similar range of being around 30% pitches in the zone. He’s still getting the chases, especially early this year and most recently, but it would appear that batters are showing a propensity to spit on the pitch. When batters were loathe to swing at the change he started filling up the zone with taken called strikes. I think he needs to make that similar adjustment this year. Get batters swing happy again and I think you will see better results, which can only help the fastball:
Up until recently batters were showing an eerie ability to swing about as often as he was in the zone. Then he stopped throwing it in the zone. Having a fastball strike percentage of 30 – 35% is, umm, not good. This leads me to believe that he needs to start throwing both of his pitches for strikes more, which I’m sure everyone still reading is nodding along with after last night’s walkoff. This kind of ties together the previous two images plus the breaking balls that aren’t worth exploring:
The chases are nice, but he’s going to have to get back in the zone as he did in 2014 in order to become a dominant force again. Lastly, I wanted to show the Run Value trends for each pitch just to further hammer this point home:
His fastball was disgusting last year and it sure would be nice to have that back. Hopefully he can get back to throwing four-seamers up in the zone for strikes instead of two-seamers running off the plate for balls. Get that batters eye-level looking upstairs and then wipe him out with that very good change:
The change has improved over the year, but nowhere near his best stretch last season. Throwing both pitches for strikes more often should help him start to see more synergy between his pitches and lead to overall better results. This is the final stretch so there is no reason to leave anything in the tank. Go out there and do what you have to do to get this team back in the playoffs and give all of us fans a little more excitement. Pulling for you, Box!