A lesson in baseball analytics for pitching staffs! #Nats

Happy New Year and if Mike Rizzo of the Washington Nationals reads just one of our articles, we hope it is this one. The new-age of baseball analytics blossomed years ago and with software and high-speed cameras you would think any team could replicate what Adam Ottavino did last year when he reinvented himself in a New York City storefront on his own dime between West 124th and 125th Streets on St. Nicholas Ave. in Harlem. On one side of Ottavino’s space was a Dollar Tree store and a Chuck E. Cheese on the other side, and his hard work has turned Ottavino and his successful storefront investment into one of the hottest relievers in free agency. While spin rate and movement does not make the pitcher without other ability, what you can learn with analytics is part of the continual improvement that Ottavino put into action during a remarkable 2018 season. The Nationals are just far behind the curve so to speak. 

When you look for analytics success in pitching staffs, the Dodgers and Astros are two of the bellwethers. Both are coming off of sustained success including World Series appearances for both teams, and both have done it while spending less money than you might think on their “active” payrolls. The Astros 2018 season was one of the best in modern baseball with their 3.11 ERA which wasn’t just the best in baseball — it was 24% better than the rest of the American League when you consider park adjustments according to MLB.com statistics.

“There really was not any focus on analytics at all,” Astros G.M. Jeff Luhnow said before he joined the team in December of 2011. “It was a traditional scouting organization. The Astros had done a nice job of scouting and developing some really good players—players like Dallas Keuchel, George Springer, and José Altuve, who were in the system when I took over. But in terms of the analytic capabilities of the organization, if I were to rank it, Houston would have been in the bottom five for sure.”

These teams are not doing it with “openers” like the Tampa Bay Rays rather the Astros and Dodgers like the Nationals still rely on great starting pitching. The Dodgers have figured out lefty tilt and bringing back the curveball to great success along with keeping their pitching staff fresh. Look no further than what the Dodgers did when they took 36½ year old Rich Hill off the scrap heap. Since 2007, Hill had not thrown more than 76 innings in an MLB season until they acquired him in mid-2016. They lowered his ERA in-season from 2.25 to 1.83 then got him up to 135 innings in back-to-back seasons in 2017 and 2018 in his age 37 and 38 seasons. Does that make your head spin? They were not sure they would get more than 110 innings out of him, but analytics guru Andrew Friedman loved the improvement they could tweak on Hill on the hill. His starts, twenty-four in 2018, were the third most on the Dodgers staff last year. This year is Hill’s last in a 3-year, $48 million deal he signed through his age 39 season.

Maybe the transformation of Gerrit Cole last year from a 4.26 ERA with Pittsburgh to a 2.88 ERA in the American League was even more mind-blowing when the Astros acquired him. Cole’s sinker was finding holes for hits in Pittsburgh, and he threw it 14% of the time. The Astros immediately had him scale back the sinker to 6% and mostly when he needed doubleplay balls, and he threw a few more sliders — and like the Dodgers pitchers — a lot more curves. The other difference was pitching his 4-seam fastball to his defense alignments like Verlander, and of course the inner-workings there are proprietary information he would not disclose on that. Maybe this was a reason the Braves went after Astros catcher Brian McCann who could bring his new wealth of knowledge from Houston to be a further advocate for change in Atlanta where their G.M. Alex Anthopoulos brought a heavy dose of analytics with him after 2-years with the Dodgers.

The Astros 2017 World Series champion season included trading for Justin Verlander on the final day you can possibly add a new player to make them eligible for a postseason roster on August 31st. The Astros needed Verlander to waive his no-trade clause which he did in the last seconds to strike a deal in that blockbuster trade which was Luhnow’s last piece to make a run at the 2017 World Series. The late acquisition of Verlander gave them little time to work their analytics on him. They taught him on the fly how they pitch to their defense. Don’t all teams do that? It sounds simple that you don’t pitch a lefty outside if you want him to pull the ball to a right-side shift, but it is a concept lost on too many teams. From understanding the concept to a full buy-in to executing are the vital steps and Verlander was a believer from start to finish.

Verlander’s 2017 season took him from a 3.82 ERA with the Tigers to a 1.06 ERA in that final month of the season with the Astros. Was that change all about pitching to defense? The 1.06 ERA was not sustainable, but Verlander still pitched to a 2.52 ERA for 2018 and a second-place finish in the Cy Young voting. The big adjustment the Astros and Verlander made in 2018 was a change to the height of his release point which resulted in increased downward movement and spin on his fastball and slider and returned him to where he was back in 2013. Why didn’t the Tigers analytics department take note when he was in their employment?

Graphic from MLB.com Statcast

The other stark difference is Astros’ architect Jeff Luhnow drafted middle infielders atop of the draft boards with success in his first few years as G.M. and in his very first draft chose Carlos Correa  at number 1 overall instead of going with a star pitcher. Of course he swung and missed the following year with high school pitcher Mark Appel at number 1 and after that the 2014 debacle with #1 overall pick Brady Aiken who did not sign leading to what seemed to turn to a strategy of drafting up-the-middle talent when he took Alex Bregman with Aiken’s “comp” pick. Correa and Bregman became the left-side of his infield and a key to winning that World Series and if it was a strategy to acquire pitchers through trades and free agency and then put those pitchers into the Astros analytics protocol, it worked. Appel was later traded in the Ken Giles package with Philadelphia, and Aiken last appeared in A-ball in 2017 for the Indians organization. The Astros only had 3 home-grown pitchers last year on their 2018 post-season staff (Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr. and seldom-used reliever Josh James) and Keuchel is a free agent.

With Verlander’s career on the Tigers looking like it was regressing out with age, he now has been re-imagined as a soon-to-be 36 year old next month. Cole was headed to back-of-the-rotation status of disappointments in the Pittsburgh rotation with a 4.26 ERA and a ballooning HR/9 of 1.4 which was nearly tripled from his previous season. Luhnow and staff saved Cole from the clutches of a promising player who was heading towards being a bust. Like Ottavino, their use of high-speed cameras and data analysis software with “super nerds” who can decipher and analyze the information in ways that make other teams lost in the same space have been game-changers in Houston. Bill Gates would be proud of these baseball nerds and same with those NASA engineers. Old-school players — not so much. This is where Jayson Werth and Daniel Murphy would disagree with each other.

“They’ve got all these ‘super nerds’, as I call them, in the front office that know nothing about baseball but they like to project numbers and project players,” Werth said after the 2018 season.

Uh, Jayson, there are plenty of nerds who know baseball and SABR fills rooms with a diversity of talent including some Ivy Leaguers who would debate your point. Ottavino went to Northeastern University in Boston and studied math and engineering. Is Ottavino a nerd?  That old-school approach by some players like Werth and still followed by many teams has just allowed progressive teams to improve over teams who are still fighting traditional change in the game. Which side of the fence does Mike Rizzo really stand on? The days of pitchers throwing 220 innings during the regular season is what former G.M. Jim Bowden recently called “stupid” for teams with postseason aspirations as you need your arms fresh going into “October” as he said.

Again, many of these Astros’ pitchers have also gone from the NL to the American League where ERA’s are supposed to rise and add to that that Minute Maid Park is supposed to be  a hitter’s park in Houston. Since the 2015 season in a multi-year sample, this is what the Astros have done with pitchers they have acquired:

With Houston
2.78 ERA, .206/.270/.342, .612 OPS, 30% K rate

With other teams
3.57 ERA, .238/.300/.378, .678 OPS, 23% K rate

Those stats don’t include  Collin McHughBrad Peacock and Tony Sipp, who were all with Houston prior to 2015 and they were similarly transformed with Peacock as one of the World Series stars of their 2017 champion team. Another role player who Luhnow targeted was Ryan Pressly who was a non-heralded Minnesota reliever with extremely high spin rate.

“We targeted [Pressly], we watched him progress,” Luhnow said. “He really made some big strides the past couple of years, and I don’t know why he was not more of a household name because what he was doing in terms of his arsenal and getting guys to swing and miss. It was pretty impressive.”

After Houston acquired Pressly, he struck out 32 and walked just 3 batters in over 23 innings and took his best-in-baseball curveball spin and his Top-10 fastball spin, and made some very Astros’ changes, but it was the immediate decrease in walks which was stunning and that is what haunted Pressly in Minnesota. That BB/K rate went from 3.63 to 10.67 which was a 293% efficiency increase. Just remarkable and the WHIP went from 1.364 to 0.600.  This is going to sound familiar: More curves at 37% from 25% and fewer fastballs. Does that sound like the Dodgers also?

For these two teams the curveball is back. Astros’ pitching coach Brent Strom also deserves credit for taking the analytics and carrying out the plan whether it was working on improved grips, higher arm slot, or other mechanical changes, Strom has been able to do that with this staff and impart a lot of what he has learned in decades in baseball. He has helped many Astros pitchers with these new-age spin rates, and he was always a fan of Sandy Koufax and what he could do on the mound, especially with a curveball when nobody was measuring RPMs just the amount of “nasty” he had.

It is a team effort on the Astros with buy-in from all team members, and Strom was largely credited with converting Keuchel from a 5+ ERA thrower to a Cy Young winner. The 70-year-old coach who is the oldest in the Majors loves what he does and for an old-school guy he embraced the analytics when he joined Luhnow back in their early days in St. Louis. He also knows that the catchers have to be intelligent enough to call a good game and must work well with these pitchers where defense and execution matters. Strom worked wonders with Charlie Morton also who was another acquisition with roots from Pittsburgh.  Morton has a high-spin curveball too, and like Cole, they transitioned him from a sinkerballer BABIP guy into relying more on lower WHIP. Morton went from a 1.3’s WHIP to a 1.162 last year and his first-ever All-Star selection at the age of 34. The Astros believe that a lower WHIP leads to better pitch efficiency and less runs scored on their pitchers which is their ultimate goals.

“Even in good times, we don’t rest,” Strom said. “This is something that Jeff [Luhnow] has brought to the Astros. We’re still trying to stay ahead and keep our game going because there’s really no time to rest and pat yourself on the back as these things are going.”

One interesting difference with the Astros and Dodgers is innings per starter. Luhnow believes that since his pitchers do not have to bat in American League parks that they do not expend the same amount of energy as their NL counterparts plus they can go deeper into games, but if you look at pitch counts, Gerritt Cole only threw 4-games of 110 pitches or more the entire season which was the equivalent that Gio Gonzalez threw just in the month of May in consecutive games under Dave Martinez. Brilliant! Cole is 27 years old and Gio is 6 years older and a much different body type. If the Astros were not in a dogfight for 1st place for much of 2018, they would not have leaned on Verlander and Keuchel as much as they did but they did go easier on them down the stretch. Verlander averaged 96-pitches in his final 10-starts of the season.

The Astros wealth of front office talent took a hit recently as the Orioles wisely took Mike Elias as their new G.M., and he was able to snag analytics guru “nerd” Sig Mejdal to come wtih him. Mejdal really did work for NASA using his engineering and mathematics background as a biomathematician in the Fatigue Countermeasures Group. Unlike what Jayson Werth thinks, Mejdal played 6 years of baseball in Little League, and had a love of baseball which never left him as he stayed active in sabermetrics as a hobby until he got into baseball at the age of 40 working for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2005.

“Sig Mejdal is one of the most experienced and accomplished analysts working in baseball today,” Elias said. “To have him join our Orioles organization is a major moment for this franchise, and I look forward to him charting the course for all of our forthcoming efforts in the analytics space.”

The Dodgers did not have one pitcher qualify for the ERA crown as they did not have one pitcher go the requisite 162-innings in all of 2018 during the regular season. One of the most important rule changes for the Dodgers was the 10-day DL, and they have used that to rest starters finding creative ways to get pitchers on the DL. They have used their rested starters to carry them to two-straight World Series appearances while moving in fresh arms to much success.

While you look at all of the successful teams of the past few years (including the Washington Nationals), the differences between them seem to be how they think outside of the box. The Nationals don’t seem to color outside the lines as much if at all compared to other teams in what has been described as vanilla and old-school. The Astros were a lot closer to repeating than it might have looked if not for a few great plays by the 2018 champion Red Sox. But look at the payroll the Astros won the 2017 World Series with — $139 million. That is impressive to buck the trend like the Brewers are trying to do. In this new year, we just hope that Mike Rizzo and staff take a look around and embrace some “super nerds” and see if they can climb into more effective analytics that turn into wins for 2019.

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