Lakeland Launcher Has Landed
Your Tampa Bay Rays have (finally) made their first real foray into free agency during this final prelude to the 2016 season. Per the usj the Rays targeted a guy coming off of a down year with plenty of other questions about his track record, but this is the tank they swim in and there are probably several reasons to get excited about ex-Oriole, new Ray Steve Pearce. Those that have watched the team day in, and day out realize what a monster Pearce has been facing the Rays over the last couple of years. Let’s dig into some stuff to see where he has been and to give us an idea of where he is headed.
Let’s start with the pitch f/x data courtesy of the majestic Baseball Savant. I’m going to start with some stuff that should be familiar to you if you’ve read me in the past and if you haven’t I promise to be gentle.
In the above you will find 1,000-pitch rolling averages for his Swing%, Zone% and Run Values. Swing% is fairly obvious, and I want to mention that Zone% utilizes the rule book strike zone so these figures will probably be a touch lower than other sources that use the commonly called zone. Lastly, for my run values I use Joe Sheehan’s research that adjusts each event’s run contribution by the count. The dashed line corresponds with the average player’s run values so that you can get a good idea of when he was above average and when he was below.
The vast majority of his career he was a well below average hitter before getting it going in 2013 and then bursting on the scene in 2014. The increased productivity seems to correspond with a more aggressive approach, and you can see that pitchers tried to counteract his more swing happy approach by throwing a slightly lower rate of pitches in the rulebook zone. Pearce continue his newly-found aggressive ways into this past season, but you can see that his run values tailed off considerably. I wonder if maybe a small comedown in that swing rate might lead to better results as the pendulum may have swung too far away from patience. The encouraging thing is that he did improve over the course of 2015 and even his worst performance was better than the disappointment that marked the beginning of his career.
Moving from all pitches to just those that were put in play we can trace a similar pattern above upon looking at his batting average, slugging percentage and isolated power on contact. After an initial power spike to start his career he became a very low power guy despite similar BACON. You can see the 2014 breakout feature not only an increase on his BACON, but a tremendous spike in his SLGCON, which is probably easier to see in the moments when his ISOCON eclipses the .300 mark. Unfortunately, the BACON regressed to former levels to a point that I would project to continue to sit at going forward. More on that in a bit, but in the meantime I’m encouraged that the power increased over the course of 2015 and looks like something that should stick around going forward. To recap, I think the batting average on contact will be around .300, but the SLGCON should be around .600 leading to an ISOCON in the .300 range, which is on the level of a very good power hitter. Let’s focus on that increasing power over the course of the year using batted ball velocity.
Rumors of a wrist issue led to a DL stint that was stated as an oblique issue. It looks like he got healthy as the season went on and that is reflected in the pretty large uptick in batted ball velocity, which basically plateaued just shy of 90 MPH to finish out the season. If he’s truly over the injury(ies) then there is good cause to think that he will continue to display the very good power that he featured over the second half of 2015 and throughout his breakout 2014.
One last thing over his career that I wanted to look at is the pitch mix that he saw from opposition hurlers. Pitchers like throwing their fastball. If you don’t make them pay for that then they’ll just continue to fill up the zone with heaters, but success forces adjustments and that shows up in how he was pitched. During the height of his reign of terror he was only seeing around half of his pitches as fastballs (four-and-two seamers, cutters, sinkers) with an accompanying massive uptick in breaking balls seen (sliders, curves, knuckle curves). As he moved further away from that success pitchers started to eschew the breaking ball for more fastballs, but again we see that dip at the end of 2015 indicating that pitchers started to get nervous again. Pitcher fear bodes well, though the stretch was so short that we all should be wary of drawing too broad of a conclusion. Change up usage is relatively consistent throughout his career, though there is one thing that I like. Prior to the increase in breaking balls it looks like pitchers first tried to use the change against him, but quickly switched over to the spinners. I think we can extrapolate that he had some pretty good success with the pitch and pitchers haven’t tried to go back to that any more than 15% or so. When he’s going well he’ll get more breaking balls so I think it’s beneficial to look at what his whiffs look like throughout his career:
That’s a lot of swinging strikes on the breaking ball within the zone, but also out of it, so I think it’s pretty easy to see why pitchers use the breaking ball to go after him. You see a lot of fastballs up and a lot of change ups just below the zone, but the breaking ball starting on the plate and moving off or starting off and backdooring on look like a real weakness. It appears that something that isn’t a weakness is that inner third area where you see very few whiffs. Another area of encouragement is that he doesn’t miss soft stuff up. That’s not abnormal for a hitter, and it’s generally a missed location for the pitcher, but it’s nice to see him hammering these mistakes. We can see these strengths pretty well when we look at his doubles and homers:
Pitches inside he’s able to get to both up and down with power, but you can see that the further away from him the more his power production tightens up to cover a smaller area. This looks an awful lot like a pull hitter that can get to the pitch inside, but his swing plane doesn’t allow him to have similar coverage on the pitch away. Take that in conjunction with the whiffs chart and you get an idea of a guy that struggles with soft stuff away, but if you miss your spot and it drifts over or in he can really make you pay. Take a moment to really look at this last chart and I think you can see what I see where the power distribution really dries up to be little bigger than the width of the bat on pitches away. This is a good segue to what I want to focus on next so let’s switch gears a little bit away from the pitch f/x data and focus on my latest research.
It’s so new that I haven’t even written up the piece yet, but the model that I have created mirrors what I posted regarding starting pitchers. The hitter version will be up soon, but when you get the Lakeland Launcher you drop what you’re doing and you try to get a glimpse of this warlock. There are a couple of ways to look at him, but I want to start with what I think of as the overview.
This is exactly the same as the pitcher rating report, with one exception. I have added the row for xBIP, which uses the player’s batted ball profile, number of pull grounders or oppo liners, for instance, multiplied by the league average regressed run values for that trajectory and direction. I think this is a nice way to see where a batter over or under performed expectations due to either skill improvement/erosion or just luck. It’s still difficult to discern between the two even using this level of data mostly due to the smallish samples, but I think it gives a good idea of where we can expect regression and where we can expect continued performance. In this instance we see that Pearce was in the 90th percentile on his actual balls in play, but with his batted ball profile we would have expected that to be more like 74th percentile so I think he may regress a bit from even last year’s step back. More on that in a bit.
I have included Brian Dozier here because Dozier has a similar batted ball profile, which you’ll see more of in the next section. Dozier is a guy that looks like he vastly over-performed reasonable expectations. For those that aren’t all that psyched about getting Pearce I ask how excited you would be if the team had acquired Brian Dozier for strictly cash? Dozier is staring at even more regression next year, but both players have similar CTL (BB+HBP/PA) and K (K/PA) percentiles on plate appearances that don’t end up with a ball in play. The biggest reason they are similar hitters is that both are looking to pull a ton, which is something you may have intuited from the power and whiff charts above:
One caveat that needs to be mentioned again is that in order to harvest the data from Baseball Savant I needed to include some overlap on grounders and liners up the middle. This means that you’re going to see around a 20% uptick in this subset so to get around that I wanted to index each players percentage outcome compared to league average (the right hand half of these tables). Pearce’s 202 %x in 2015 on pop ups means that he’s popping the ball up around twice as often as the league average hitter. That’s not good, as I imagine you surmised. A score of 100 in this column indicates league average and less than that implies the batter is x percent below average. As an example he hits line drives to the opposite field around 48% less often than a league average batter. Look through each of the trajectories and directions and you start to form an opinion that his grounders and liners are very pull heavy. His fly balls are as well, but he hits around 50% more flies than the average so his flies to all fields are above the norm with those to the pull side exaggerated even more so.
As you look at Dozier you see a guy that profiles very similarly. Grounders and liners are predominantly to the pull side and he hits an above average number of fly balls to the outfield with many of those to the pull side. Like Pearce, he also hits around twice the amount of pop ups compared to the norm. From the perspective of how the ball flies off the bat these guys are nearly identical. If you are still with me we can start to move on to the authority with which they hit those balls.
Dozier reaps similar BACON/SLGCON/RV numbers on liners, but saw better results on grounders, and less strong results on his outfield fly balls. Both hit a ton of poppers on the infield, which is not ideal, but they make up for it with their pull-side power. Pearce’s pull flies show very strong numbers, but to get there he needs to make the trade off of lower expectations on his grounders as he’s constantly rolling over soft stuff. If the ball is flying out you’re more than willing to make that trade off, but when it’s hanging up and getting caught then he’s not really providing much value and will be wont to leave guys on base often. That can be frustrating, at times, so fans may need to exhibit some patience if he doesn’t get off to a hot start during the cooler weather. This approach leads to high levels of volatility, but I think there’s very good reason to expect that power to show up even if it’s not right away. You can see in his TotalBIP, which uses his actual BA/SLG/RV figures, and his TotalBIP*, which uses the league average rates applied to his profile, that he probably should have seen better results last year. His power was basically what you would expect at around 3.7% below expected, but his batting average was 11% below expectations. If he displays even league average batted ball authority while keeping this profile then it makes sense to expect an increase in batting average, while maintaining his power numbers. That’s a good hitter. So what should we expect going forward:
Three very strong projection systems have already released what they think Pearce will do next year, though my guess is that Zips will come down towards the others in the power department as it moves him from hitter-friendly Camden to the pitcher-improving Trop. You’re basically talking about a .250/.330/.450 hitter, which would be anywhere from 10-15% above league average. That’s good(!) and there’s reason to think that these may even be a bit on the conservative side as I showed in the last segment of this article. Additionally, while the batting average is around league average due to the pull-profile and slightly worse than league average strikeout rate his OBP plays up due to his pretty solid walk rate. However, the pull-approach that dampers his batting average is a dual-edged sword, because it should also result in his very strong power numbers. Take it all together and you’re looking at a guy that will give you good to very good power while not killing you with his OBP. Going to a team chock full of guys that swing and miss a ton in order to supply their power Pearce will be a nice option that doesn’t have quite as much downside as long as he’s healthy.
Without salary information, nor any idea who the team must shed to add Pearce, it would be a disservice to speculate on those details. You can look forward to either me or Collette covering that as we learn more. In the meantime any and all fans of the Rays should be pretty excited that the Lakeland Launcher has landed in St. Pete. With health and regression he looks like a prime candidate to have an impact on a daily basis in the Rays lineup. The positional flexibility he lends as an average or better defender in LF and plus defender at 1B will allow Kevin Cash to mix and match with the rest of his lineup meaning the Rays way of shielding weaknesses and promoting strengths just found a new best friend. Get excited, Rays fans!