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One thing to watch: Braves pitchers

Things to espy when the Braves’ hurlers are on the mound

New York Yankees v Atlanta Braves - Game One Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Compared to pitchers, position players are relatively simple. Offensive components are some combination of exit velocity and launch angle, with pitch type, location, swing-take decisions, and contact ability factoring in. Oh, and you have defense. But pitchers? Pitchers are a full-on tangle of stuff. Not only do you have a whole bunch of component pieces: spin, movement, consistency of release, consistency of location, etc., but you have them for a bunch of different pitches, and even then, there’s no guarantee any of this actually translates to success that you can discuss. Seam-shifted wake is probably a big deal, but how you talk about it in the context of the knife-edge between success and failure is a little beyond me at this point, though I’m trying to learn. In any case, here are the things I at least think I understand well enough to look for them in the 2021 season.

Charlie Morton - Return of the fastball

In his first eight seasons as a big leaguer, Morton compiled a 119 ERA-/107 FIP-/104 xFIP-, numbers befitting a just-fine but nothing special starter. Since then, he’s reinvented himself to a 79/76/78 tune, ascending to baseball’s elite in his mid-30s. However, Morton did post his highest xFIP- (90) and second-highest xwOBA-against (.307) in that span.

Morton’s money pitch has been his curveball — it’s been a devastating hard sweeper that’s allowed a sub-.200 xwOBA (until 2020) with a whiff rate consistently north of 35 percent (until 2020). While hitters jumped on it somewhat more than usual during the shortened season, it was still fine, and the contours of the pitch didn’t change much. The four-seamer, though, had a bunch of changes, including diminished effectiveness. Not only did Morton allow an above-average xwOBA on the pitch in 2020 (the only one of his 2020 offerings with that fate), he lost over a tick on it for the second straight year. Morton’s four-seamer has always been an unusual offering, with mediocre spin giving it some unhelpful natural sink, but a ton of armside fade that helps him work east-west with a curveball that really skitters the other way. In addition to the velocity loss, Morton lost some of that fade on the pitch, and it’s possible that this negatively affected both the four-seamer as well as the curveball, since the two weren’t quite-as-different as before. Somewhat concerningly, 2020 was also the first year since his reinvention in which he threw the four-seamer notably more than the curve.

All of the above said, Morton was “off” with his four-seamer for the first few starts of 2020, which kind of torqued his overall numbers given that it was a short season, and the fact that he missed about a month with shoulder inflammation. His velocity post-IL stint was more in line with 2019, as was his xFIP-. Still, the story with his four-seamer is something to keep an eye on, especially since it’s likely there’ll be some velocity decline he’ll have to work around.

Max Fried - Which flavor?

I don’t have too much more to say about Max Fried after the many words spilled here, but the question is the same one I posed therein: we’ve seen Fried be a near-elite traditional pitcher by limiting walks and ringing guys up (2019), and we’ve seen him throw the ball on the edges and get a bunch of weak contact while giving up some of those strikeouts and eating some more walks (2020). Is he going to list towards one side or the other? Is he going to somehow combine them and become the ur-pitcher?

If those don’t satisfy you, just take a look at the amusing charts at the end of the post. In 2019, Fried’s FIP refused to come down to his xFIP, while his ERA started out below his xFIP and then joined his FIP in its obstinacy. In 2020, he flipped the script, with an ERA and FIP both well below his xFIP. What silly, non-convergent pattern will his ERA estimators show us in 2021?

Mike Soroka - Surviving the sinker

When Soroka returns from his unfortunate injury, he’ll reclaim his place as somewhat of a throwback in today’s game — a sinkerballer. In a league that’s all about strikeouts, Soroka posted a 79 FIP-/87 xFIP- in 2019 with a below-average strikeout rate because he rarely walked anyone and got batters to beat the ball into the ground. It’s his plan, but generally, it’s not the plan. Soroka threw the sinker more than 40 percent of the time in 2019, and he was fantastic (4.0 fWAR, yeee) — yet the sinker itself allowed a .340 xwOBA despite an average launch angle of zero degrees.

In short, it seems like there should be some room for Soroka to maneuver. Sinkers have been de-emphasized for a reason, and in some ways, it’s been his worst pitch. But, on the other hand, it’s not clear where Soroka can pivot. His four-seamer has been fairly easy to elevate and doesn’t “rise” at all — it’s basically a mini-sinker. His slider is great, so maybe it’s just about throwing it more. (The changeup is serviceable and fairly generic.) In any case, it’ll be Soroka and His Sinker versus Baseball’s Harried Evolution once again in 2021. Will Maple Maddux emerge victorious once again?

Ian Anderson - Low... rising... fastballs?

I could probably expound on this topic for a few thousand words, but, dude:

That is a bizarre four-seamer heatmap for pretty much anyone, but it’s especially bizarre for someone like Anderson, who has really good “rise” on everything he throws, including his fastball. Note that this is at least somewhat deliberate — if you go to two strikes, the heat map changes to the expected up-and-out-of-zone concentration. Your guess is as good as mine as to why the overall heatmap looks like this — maybe Anderson likes the ball down in some counts to further flummox hitters with low changeups and curveballs — but it’s just weird. It makes me wonder whether there’s more to be gained by just never throwing the fastball down and letting natural pitch motion bamboozle hitters, so I really want more data to see whether this trend continues, and if it does, whether it seems like a sustainable pathway to success.

Note that on a comparison of Anderson’s four-seamer location against other hurlers who have similar four-seamer movement profiles, his is very much the only one that tends to be concentrated middle-down rather than middle-up. The fact that the two-strike heatmap is so different suggests that this is very deliberate, but we’ll see whether it’s still a thing throughout 2021.

Drew Smyly - Curveball rate

Drew Smyly’s curveball is backward, and it’s spectacular. The question is, where do he and the Braves go from here? Despite it being the bread-and-butter of his effectiveness, his usage of it “only” hit 36.5 percent in 2020, by far a career high. There seems to be a clear path to success to him just throwing the curve more, but it remains to be seen whether that’s in the Braves’ plans, or whether something else will take precedence. And if he does throw it more, what are the limits of that increase? At which point does it get too predictable in a way that hurts his performance?

In any case, those questions can wait. Let’s just hang on for a moment and see what his curveball rate actually ends up being, first.

oh no why did I decide to do one thing for each player when the Braves decided to go with 10 relievers on their Opening Day roster argh

Chris Martin - Vagaries of homer fate

In 2020, Chris Martin gave up a homer in the season opener. It was the sole run, courtesy of Yoenis Cespedes (who later opted out of the season) in a loss to the Mets.

In 2020, Chris Martin gave up a solo homer to Cody Bellinger in NLCS Game 7. Bellinger dislocated his shoulder on the celebration. The Braves’ season ended shortly thereafter, as they couldn’t scratch across another run with their six remaining outs.

In 2020, aside from those two, Chris Martin gave up no other homers. In fact, since Martin became a Brave, only 17 pitchers have thrown as many or more pitches as him and allowed three or fewer homers. Martin’s other homer allowed as a Brave, in 2019? A walkoff two-run shot by Miguel Sano.

Will Chris Martin give up a boring, meaningless homer as a Brave? Stay tuned.

Will Smith - Slider location

Will Smith’s 2020 was horrible, and was capped off by losing his Gemini Man matchup in a horrible, series-defining way. Why was it horrible? Well, uh...

League xwOBA on sliders is .270. League xwOBA on sliders in the zone, though, is .300. Take away the edge of the zone, and it’s up to .343. League xwOBA on sliders hanging dead-center, and we’re up to .371.

Will Smith allowed a .431 xwOBA on his slider in 2020. In the zone, it was .608. In the heart, .637. Down the pipe, .880, including three homers (and a fifth that got pretty close) in 10 hanging sliders. He threw three more in the postseason, all of which were fortunately fouled off. (The Will Smith homer off Will Smith came on a fastball down, though.)

This is what Will Smith did with his slider against hitters in 2018, when he put up 2.0 fWAR as a reliever:

This was 2019, less effective, but still essentially elite:

For a sneak peek at whether Smith might dud again, look at where his slider is going.

A.J. Minter - Cutter drop

This probably should be about the fastball, as Brent (who is much smarter and more right than me) has pointed out previously. But instead, let’s talk about the cutter. Or, really, this:

That’s not the only thing going on here, but Minter’s pitch location kind of tends to be a mess, so he really relies on these types of differentials to defeat hitters. The relationship is fairly complex — there’s no uniform trend where more separation means more whiffs and better results, and Minter’s huge vertical separation between the two pitches in 2020 led to fewer whiffs and a lot of weak contact — but if you see the cutter looking like it’s going “up,” again, that might be cause for concern.

Tyler Matzek - I wanna see more of the cutter

Load basically any Tyler Matzek player page for the 2020 season and behold a glorious sight. Basically everything was great for the comeback kid, The real thing to watch is really just how much of his dominant 2020 Matzek can repeat, but I want to see more of his cutter.

Matzek had (has?) the tools to bedevil hitters in 2020, with a hard “rising” fastball that paired well with a slider with good downward break. As a short-stint reliever, he didn’t need much else, but he also mixed in a curveball (basically just his slider but a little more exaggerated and a bit slower), and a cutter. The cutter is interesting, as it’s basically halfway between his fastball and slider, as you’d expect — but whereas Matzek threw the fastball in the zone while the slider was middle-down and spotted on the low glove-side corner most often, the cutter was basically never, ever thrown in the zone.

I’ve watched basically every cutter Matzek threw in the 2020 season, and there were really two varieties. First, it’s important to know that the pitch was always called in the exact same way — over the plate and low — but its natural motion carried it to the glove side and generally off the plate. When Matzek executed it, it stayed low and really ran; when he didn’t, it kind of frisbeed and wafted high in the zone, but avoided major damage because hitters were unprepared for not-quite-a-fastball-not-quite-a-slider. The best-case scenario was this:

The worst-case, well, it never happened. But you figure Matzek wouldn’t get away with every frisbee like this one:

The net result was that Matzek got an insane 50 percent whiff rate on the pitch, which makes sense given that it rarely hit the zone. He rarely threw it in a three-ball count (three times total, twice to Corey Dickerson in the same PA, the second of which shows up in the video above), so he didn’t have a walk problem with it. The xwOBA-against was .256, in line with his other offerings.

In short, I just want to see it more. What if he can get it closer to the zone and get more silly swings? What if he can locate it partway between his fastball and slider, driving hitters nuts? Let’s see some more cutters, Mr. Matzek.

Josh Tomlin - Whatever was going on with his curveball before he started starting

The 2020 season was short, but not so short that it precluded Josh Tomlin, Relief God from becoming a thing. In his first eight outings of the season, Tomlin threw 11 13 innings, struck out 16 batters, and allowed zero homers. His pitching triple-slash was 35/27/57. Then he went to starting, got absolutely creamed (139/118/125), and finished out the year with some nowhere near Relief God-level relief work (113/115/86).

I don’t have a great explanation for exactly why Tomlin was Relief God, and then he wasn’t. A lot of things you’d expect to change, like pitch usage, velocity, zone rate, blah blah blah, were all pretty similar. He threw his curve a bit more as Relief God, but the effectiveness was off-the-charts different compared to its usage. To wit: on the season, Tomlin’s xwOBA-against on PAs that ended with his curveball was .356, which is a pretty horrid number. Yet, through August 11, it was .046 (albeit with just eight such instances). It’s hard to say that much was different; most things about the curve and its usage stayed pretty much the same, or weren’t very distinctive in either period.

So, I don’t know why Josh Tomlin was Relief God, but I’ll be watching to see what the returns on his curveball are.

Luke Jackson - Edge sliders

In 2019, Jackson’s slider was very effective in the zone — remember from the Will Smith piece above that slider xwOBA is around .270/.300/.340 for sliders/sliders in the zone/sliders in the heart of the zone. In 2019, Jackson’s slider was .189/.259/.288 — even hanging it didn’t really hurt him badly at all.

Yet in 2020, the zone performance was still fine (around .290), yet Jackson nibbled with it on the edges a bit more frequently (around four percent of his sliders moved out of the middle of the zone to the edge, and some of the less competitive ones did as well). Despite this, xwOBA on his sliders-on-the-edge increased from .179 to a ghastly .330. Note that edge sliders are where the league tends to make its money results-wise, with an aggregate .226 xwOBA-against, so Jackson’s reversal here was pretty brutal. He did a thing that’s usually better, but things for him got far worse.

It’s possible that this has something to do with his slider losing a tick and over 100 rpm, and/or it having less separation with his fastball (which lost close to two ticks). Jackson’s adjustment to this was to throw his slower-slider-curve-thing more, which worked out decently for him but is a much worse solution than just dominating with the slider. In any case, watch his slider mph and spin, and if it’s still down, see if it’s still getting not having the intended effectiveness on the edges. If so, that is going to bode pretty poorly for Jackson and the Braves.

Grant Dayton - Watch and laugh

Dayton’s outings are always amusing. His one thing to watch is pretty much him pitching. Levity is good! Dayton has a fastball with good “rise” that he pairs with a curveball with good drop. It’s an obvious go-to mix. The problem is that his fastball has no zip, clocking in at 90.6 mph on average last year.

Dayton isn’t unique in this regard, as guys like Brent Suter, Mike Minor, and Matthew Boyd also live at the top of the zone with a slow fastball. (Side note: can the Braves acquire Brent Suter? Is he the weirdest pitcher in baseball? That’d be a thing to watch.) But he’s still in the top 10 of doing his somewhat ill-advised activity, and it more or less works for him, in the sense that it’s kept him employed and rostered for the last few seasons. Only Suter threw more sub-93 mph fastballs in the upper third of the zone or higher last year, and Suter kind of doesn’t count because his fastball isn’t really a fastball.

But really, this is just all about amusement. Behold, a Silly Sequence, courtesy of Grant Dayton and Trea Turner.

Okay, strike one on the upper corner. Fine.

Same idea, execution is a little worse, but a blown call/stolen strike give Dayton a very favorable count.

Grant Dayton has run a strikeout rate 15-20 percent above league average for both 2019 and 2020. Batters making faces like this doesn’t justify every bit of his replacement-level innings-eating, but it justifies some. I’ll be watching for more expressions like Turner’s.

Sean Newcomb - Reverse a trend, please

Granted, 2020 was a teeny-tiny sample for Newcomb, before he was banished to the alternate site... but if you leave it in, he’s got some brutal trends. In every year from 2017-2020, he has:

  • Decreased his strikeout rate. Given that the league strikeout rate is climbing, this is even worse than it seems at first glance.
  • Increased z-contact against him. Fewer whiffs in the zone is a good way to make any pitcher’s life harder. He was able to get an average amount of whiffs in the zone in 2017, and it has evaporated since.
  • Increased o-contact against him. It started off as average, and whiffs anywhere have become increasingly hard to come by for Newcomb.
  • Decreased whiff rate (duh, given the above). From above-average to average to welp.

The tradeoff has been a decreased walk rate in every year as well, going from one of the worst in baseball to an average-y one in his 2020 sample. But has it really been worth it? Has focusing on limiting free passes at the expense of fewer whiffs, a move to the bullpen, and the overall transition from a frustrating-but-average starter to whatever his role is now been worth it? I’ll be looking to see if Newcomb can reverse any of these trends.

Huascar Ynoa - Four-seamer output

If you look just as his pitches, you can see why the Braves hurried Ynoa through the minors in 2019, and are likely to use him in a variety of roles in 2021. He has a strong one-two fastball-slider pair, with the fastball having good two-plane movement and the slider carrying some good downward bite. The slider, too, has mostly lived up to its billing, generating a whiff rate of 37 percent and a sub-.260 xwOBA-against last year.

But the fastball has been horrible — an xwOBA-against of nearly .450, and a whiff rate of just 11 percent, despite averaging around 95 mph. You might think part of this is the walks, given that Ynoa has handed out free passes left and right in his young career (12.1 percent walk rate), but the quality of contact on the fastball has been awful (for Ynoa) as well.

Any fix is probably multifaceted. Ynoa has inconsistent release points, but you’d think this would affect the slider more than the fastball, though it apparently hasn’t. His fastball location has been poor, as it often ends up in the same general low-ish area as his slider, though this is likely less a gameplan thing than just the fact that his command has been atrocious (see walk rate). One thing to look into is the fact that hitters don’t seem to be getting under Ynoa’s fastball at all (might be location-related, might not): only Tyler Rogers, Yhency Almonte, and Brad Keller had lower average launch angles against their fastballs than Ynoa last year, and each of those guys has an obvious explanation: Rogers is a submariner whose fastball isn’t comparable, Almonte’s is more of a sinker despite the grip, and Keller’s fastball is this bizarre two-plane cutter that he uses in combination with his more traditional sinker. Yet Ynoa’s “rising” fastball has resulted in hard, but not high, contact. It could be a small sample thing for sure, but it’s strange either way. Maybe he’ll just start locating it higher in the zone, and then we’ll see whether it keeps up or not.

Nate Jones - Throw a four-seamer, Nate!

Nate Jones throws a very hard sinker that functions like a four-seamer, except that it’s a sinker. He does not throw it up in the zone, and well, there’s your problem: he aims for the lower edge, it rises into the middle of the zone, bada bing bada boom, it’s allowed a .374 xwOBA-against in the Statcast era. Jones has consistently needed to have his sinker bailed out by his slider; even when he was dominant in 2012-2013, the sinker was allowing .350+ wOBAs while the slider was below .230. As he’s aged, the slider has lost bite (.141 xwOBA pre-2018, .271 xwOBA since), which has made the pitch mix less tenable.

What if Jones throws a four-seamer and doesn’t aim low? There have been some scattered reports he might be, but of the 65 pitches he’s thrown this spring in parks equipped with Statcast tech, only one has been a four-seamer, and he’s still basically 50-50 sinker/slider, though on the plus side, the sinkers have been located far higher than they usually are. Maybe it’s not about a four-seamer but just about getting his super-hard sinker up and having it work like a four-seamer. Whatever works, right? It’s basically working like a four-seamer in every respect right now as it is, but for where it’s being thrown.

Bonus: Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson, because their stuff is more interesting than the reliever procession!

Bryse Wilson - Sinker surprise?

Wilson made seven major league appearances in 2020, including two regular season starts, a postseason start, and a few relief outings. The relief outings were forgettable and not particularly successful, but his starts were pretty interesting: five shutout innings with a 7/1 K/BB ratio, then three innings of one-run ball (2/2 K/BB ratio), and then of course, his six innings of one-run ball (5/1 K/BB ratio) in the NLCS.

For his career, Wilson has relied heavily on his four-seamer, throwing it over 70 percent of the time in his tiny-sample major league 2018 exposure, and two-thirds of the time in 2019. In 2020, he worked in a cutter for his relief appearances (not that it helped much). But then, in those last few starts, he went off-script, featuring a sinker pretty heavily. In that final regular season three-inning start, he threw it as often as the four-seamer. In the playoff start, it was his second-most-used pitch. It also bamboozled hitters. Across all 2020 outings, including the postseason, Wilson allowed a subpar .338 xwOBA overall, but just a .156 mark on the sinker. It wasn’t that it got a lot of whiffs or anything (it’s a sinker), but it did net him eight strikeouts in just 39 sinkers thrown — compare that to nine strikeouts on his four-seamer in 90 pitches — in part by surprising hitters and being taken for a strike.

Here’s him baffling Max Muncy:

And Edwin Rios:

I don’t know if anything about Wilson’s sinker is viable or even that interesting — though I should note that it does seem to have better relative movement than his other pitches — but it’s something to watch. Bryse Wilson, Sinker Stunner would be an amusing counter-cultural development for 2021, even if the default prognosis for someone who has to resort to throwing a sinker to improve in 2021 is kind of iffy.

Kyle Wright - Pitch morass

Oh, I wish I kept the receipts. Over the course of 2020, Wright’s pitches went wild. I made a habit of checking this page after every outing: and there would be wild swings in the location of the bubbles each time. Here’s where it stands now — it’s not too crazy, but look how the four-seamer, two-seamer, and changeup are all running into one another. Hrmpf.

At various points during the season, the yellow and blue bubbles moved so much as to either be giant or nearly touching, while the red/orange/green ones were sometimes close to concentric. What does any of this mean? Mostly that Wright’s pitches aren’t “pitches,” they’re amorphous blobs with intense fractal energy. One reason why it’s been hard for Wright to find any kind of consistent success as a pitcher? His pitches just haven’t done the same thing game to game. In addition to everything else a pitcher has to perfect to be viable, that’s a lot to overcome.

There’s another way of thinking about it, too. Check out this spin chart for Wright:

Don’t worry about seam-shifted wake or anything, just look at the spread. The slider alone, appears in six or more “buckets.” Someone like Bryse Wilson has their pitches in one or two buckets, maybe three in an extreme case. Max Fried’s are very taut, with him able to get consistent spin axis on a lot of pitches even if the overall spread fans out a bit. Anibal Sanchez, who I think of as the junkballer that Wright might have to become, has a bunch of semi-overlapping spin axes with relative consistency.

None of this really matters as a be-all, end-all; it’s just stuff that comes together to contribute to how a pitcher plies his trade. But you can be sure I’ll be pulling up that arsenal page for Wright again and again to see what’s going on with his pitches this time around, because it never fails to bewilder.

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