Jays Try To Regroup After Streak Snapped

The Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Seattle Mariners 10-2 on Sunday afternoon. They were unable to build on the consistent results against Seattle and Boston early in the week, and scored early and often.

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Manager John Gibbons was victimized by unexpected efforts from bench players Rajai Davis and Mark DeRosa, both of whom contributed on the offensive side well beyond expectation. Melky Carbera also threw off the team’s plans, homering for the first time this season. Gibbons was asked about the end of the four game losing streak in the post game scrum. He was subdued, as usual. Continue reading

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Brandon Morrow: Fan Mail

I must confess, my original thought was to call this ‘Brandon Morrow, a Love Letter’. Then I rolled that around my head for thrity seconds and became uncomfortable with it. I don’t love Brandon Morrow. I don’t know the man, really, so it would be presumptuous of me to say whether I really loved him or not. I am a fan, that’s for certain. A fan, specifically, of what he has been doing with baseballs lately. He has been throwing them very effectively. The Brandon Morrow of the last two years is beginning to fade into the distance. That’s ok, we all change, and it seems that Brandon has changed into a better version of his pitching self.

This was written after a wonderful pitching clinic that Brandon conducted in Chicago. He shut out the White Sox for 9 innings, allowing 2 hits and 2 walks. He ended the game with a swinging strikeout. He’s been doing the complete game thing a lot this year, or at least a lot for him. He had one in his career before this year, and he blew through the 130 pitch mark to get there. He has 3 this year, which ties him with Justin Verlander for the league lead, he has completed all three without breaking the 120 pitch mark. All of those games are shutouts, the most in MLB.

Continue reading

WPA: A stat for everyone (except Francisco Cordero)

I understand a lot of the resistance from old-school baseball people and fans to advanced stats. I really do. Advanced stats can be confusing and, because of both their naming and the math that goes into them, intimidating. There’s also the problem that, dammit, I just want to talk baseball and not what somebody might theoretically do over the next so many years, especially considering this or that park factor.

Can’t we just talk about what happened last night?

Can’t we just talk about where our team is in the standings and how they got there?

If the above describes how you feel, I sympathize. I’m not in total agreement, but I do share your feelings to a certain degree. And I have good news — if you’re like me and seeking a middle ground, at least — there is an advanced stat just for you! Continue reading

Start of June, AL East : Where my starters at?

The AL East is regarded as a very tough division to play in. In all of Major League Baseball, the two teams with the deepest pockets, the Yankees and Red Sox, inhabit the same division. In the same group of 5 teams, there are also the Tampa Bay Rays, arguably the most efficiently run team out of all 30 in the league. They have made the playoffs multiple times on a limited budget. The fourth team in the group, the Blue Jays, is run by the most aggressive GM in baseball, widely credited with knowing more about every player available than anyone else in his position, willing to angle any deal he can to improve his team. The division’s traditional doormat, the Orioles? Still in first place at the start of June.

With a high stakes game being played in this division every year, it all comes down to the players on the field, and how they stack up against one another. It is a simple fact that 72 of the 162 games each season are played against opponents in one’s own division. I  looked at the offensive production within the AL East in my previous post. Now I’ll take a look at the pitching side of the equation. Who are the dominant starters of the AL East, and which pitchers are taking it on the chin by being in the best division in baseball? Continue reading

Fastballs Illustrated

I like baseball on TV. Not that going to a game isn’t a thrill, because the arc of the ball, as viewed from field level, is unique to me. There is something special about the tumbling seams on a pop-fly, or the rapidly receding circle of a double into the gap. I think that those views are special to me because I only go to a few games a year, at most. My season tickets are with my LCD tv.

Pitching, on television, is nothing like pitching live. I know, because I umpired minor (kids and teenagers) baseball for three years. It is the closest you can possibly get to pitching and catching, and not be responsible for touching the ball. There is a very real hiss to a baseball coming in at anything over 50mph. The impact into the mitt of a 60 or 70 mph fastball is something that reverberates in your ears. You can feel it when it hits the mitt. To lean into that at MLB game speed would make me flinch.

I know that my eyes and ears could not tell me the whole story as an umpire. All I had to focus on was where the ball was when it hit the front edge of the plate. That isn’t really hard to do, with a little practice. Measuring what happened before and after that never really entered my head at the time.

I also know that the single outfield camera does not convey or measure what is going on at home plate. It just isn’t in the right place, or at the right distance to really tell how and where a pitcher releases the ball.

Combine these methods with the play-by-play and colour announcers on TV, and everything gets jumbled up. Some fastballs have ‘late life’, some have ‘hard sinking action’, some are ‘backdoor cutters’. Cute, but how do you tell which of those descriptions is anywhere near accurate? None of the guys in the booth has crouched down to catch the pitcher in question, they are relying on a story from someone else. And if you’ve ever tried to convey a story through two or three people, you know how any description can get jumbled up.

Pitch f/x to the rescue. If you are not familiar with pitch f/x, there is a primer here. All of my data comes from the very comprehensive data at brooksbaseball.net. Very briefly, 2 cameras are positioned in each park to give accurate data about the behavior of every pitch thrown in the Major Leagues.

I have 2 charts to compare the fastballs of the current five members of the Toronto Blue Jays rotation. As of this writing, they are Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Henderson Alvarez, Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison.They are identified by their initials in the charts.

Behold, Chart 1

Speed and Spin Direction

Taken as an average from all pitches thrown in 2012. This is pretty much just speed differences. I was hoping, when I input the data for spin direction, that the sinkers would cluster apart from the four seamers. Not so lucky. And can you tell I haven’t made any charts since my second year at community college? But enough about me. Four seamers are blue data points, sinkers (usually thrown with 2 seam grip), are in red. Kyle Drabek is the only one who throws enough cutters to be of any note. That’s the yellow diamond. Notable points, Henderson Alvarez is the hard thrower of the bunch, not Brandon Morrow, as you may have guessed. Drabek next, then Morrow. These are all above 94mph and are very good fastballs, especially for MLB starters. The other odd thing is Drabek’s two data points are very close together in the MPH, unlike a typical pitcher, changing to the sinker grip doesn’t cost him even 0.5 mph.

Behold, chart the second.

Movement, including gravity.

This chart shows us movement from the catcher’s perspective. It tells us that Rickey Romero may, in fact, be left-handed. I’ll check into that later. Also, the two purple circles are Romero’s and Alvarez’s sinkers. Getting ground balls happens naturally, as even mistakes are carried down under the bat quite often. The green circle is Morrow’s ‘rising’ fastball, and it makes it easy to see why he’s a natural fly ball pitcher. Here we can cross-check if Drabek’s sinker (which we saw him throwing extremely hard, above) has had any of its movement cancelled out by his extra velocity. I would have to say no. The distance between his straight and sinker data points is similar to both Morrow’s and Hutchison’s. Also, Drabek’s cutter does, in fact, cut its way back across the middle of the chart with a little reverse break.

So, next time somebody tells you who they think throws the hardest, now you’ve got some pictures to back up your own arguments. This also gives an idea of how far from straight even a ‘straight’ four-seam fastball can be.

If anybody would like to see any other pitch types broken down this way, or two pitchers and their pitch mixes put head-to-head, put it in the comments, and I’ll try to cook something up.

Brandon Morrow, and his new toys.

I’m going to say this right off the top, again, for those of you who don’t know. My favourite Blue Jay pitcher is Brandon Morrow. Even before he sent seventeen Tampa Bay Rays back to the dugout holding a letter “K” in their hands, I really loved to watch him pitch. He throws anywhere from 92 to 97mph. Sometimes his slider comes over the plate at 88mph. Seriously. Remember Brad Mills? He huffed the ole fastball up there at around 86. Mr. Slider and Mr. Fastball could get in a race, slider running around a big bend in the road, because he has to, you know, he’s a Slider. He still beats the silly little straight riding Mr. Fastball to the destination.That’s pretty ‘sick’, as the kids used to say.

I could go on about my admiration for the raw and deadly repertoire of Mr. Morrow, but I’ve got to save something for my inevitable follow-up posts, so let’s get on with it. Brandon Morrow had a makeover, and like that thing that my wife did with her hair a couple of years ago, I’m not sure what to think. He’s had a few starts to show off his new look, and I know one thing for sure. He doesn’t seem as sexy as he did. It’s because he doesn’t strike people out anymore, and we know strikeouts are sexy. At least, that’s what I though I knew about the new Brandon Morrow. Lots of people did, I’m sure. This person wrote about it. Then the new Brandon Morrow rolled into the Rogers Centre and struck out nine Mariners in 6 innings. Which is a letter “K” for everybody in the lineup, if they want to share it out like good friends do.

Which is why I’d like to talk about Clayton Kershaw.

Not that I’m giving up on Morrow, but I’d like to talk about Kershaw, as a path to saying something about Morrow. Besides, Clayton Kershaw is plenty interesting in his own right. For example, did you know he won the National League Cy Young Award last year? He did. I kind of assume that they just give that award to Halladay or Lincecum after a game of rock-paper-scissors, but they must have changed that process last year.

Back to Clayton Kershaw. He strikes out lots of people, walks very few, and threw a very accomplished 233 innings last year. He has found his keys to success, it would seem. I might have chosen Roy Halladay for this comparison, but everyone knows Halladay is a cyborg from the future, and who wants to compare a mere human being to a cyborg? I looked Kershaw up on Brooks Baseball, and, after wading through a few of the graphs, I assembled this picture from four of Kershaw’s 2012 starts.

Four starts from 2012, Horizontal and Vertical movement.

As the caption says, these are all the pitches Kershaw threw in four different starts this season. Vertical movement is on the vertical axis, Horizontal movement is on the horizontal. Different colours indicate different pitch types. Brooks has several other ways of breaking down a pitching performance, which could only be put into one graph if you could draw in 6 dimensions. My photo editing program doesn’t have a button for that, so we’ll go with 2 dimensional graphs for now. First, please note the similar overall shape of each game. The game in the lower left was played in Houston, where the pitch cameras that make this system work may be calibrated a little differently. Even considering that, we have the same thing happening each game. A cluster of rising fastballs in green at the top, the tighter the cluster, the more identical each pitch is on arrival. Why do I call this a rising fastball? Funny thing, there is so little sink on these fastballs, compared to the effect of gravity on a normally thrown ball, that the fifteen inches of ‘rise’ in the Brooks Baseball graph cannot contain them. These fastballs care not for the limits of your standard graph! That’s just ridiculous. Remind me never to step in the box against Kershaw. There are a few changeups in yellow just to the right of the fastball cluster, these fade a little more than the fastball. He throws a good selection of biting sliders, shown in orange, and about four or five big curveballs that have a huge drop on them. I’m sure he mixes those in just to keep everybody honest in the batter’s box. Four pitches, four similar sized clusters, Clayton Kershaw is going to ride this horse until it drops. And why not? He’s 2-0 with a 1.78 ERA as I write this.

Now, since I went to all that trouble to look at the very steady methods of Mr. Kershaw, allow me to do the same with one Brandon Morrow.

What lovely pitch clouds we have here! Now, 2 of these starts are away, and two are at Rogers Centre, so the two on the right will be more consistent than the other two. However, without looking at the scatter diagrams, we can see from the legend, that Morrow uses between 4 and 6 different pitches per start. Now, that 6th pitch may be some confusion on the part of the pitch f/x computer, which assigns a name to pitches to the best of its ability. Morrow was throwing a cut-fastball last year, and the computer may be trying to find it where he hasn’t thrown it at all. There is more going on here than computer error, though. Sometimes the curveballs have more sideways break than the sliders, other times they are right about the same. Ptich f/x also sees four seamers, 2-seamers an sinkers, sometimes overlappnig clusters, sometimes not. That nice tight cluster of fastballs that Kershaw shows us is only there in his first start, on the upper left graph, with Morrow. His fastball will slide across the zone in a variety of ways. This might make him effectively wild some days. Other days he might have trouble with the heater not being where he wants it all the time.

Even in his most recent start against the Mariners he has three curveballs that didn’t drop at all. Flat breaking pitches are often the kind of pitches that get turned into extra base hits. Morrow has not been shy about using his new pitches, but the results seem to show that he hasn’t been able to count on getting them to do what he wants all the time. I’m not surprised by that, but it’s nice to have the pictures to back it up.

The new Brandon Morrow has spoken about getting quicker outs and being efficient. I think the idea of pitching to contact, of getting deeper into games, is a valid one. Where a fireballer like Morrow might want to leverage his ability to get swings and misses, is only after he’s found himself in trouble. The knock against Morrow, in the past, has been his inability to work out of trouble with runners on base. So, what’s been happening when he’s been in trouble?

In the game in Kansas City, Morrow recorded three strikeouts.Two of them came with a runner on third base. The third was against a hitter who had homered of Morrow in an earlier at-bat. Against Seattle, he struck out nine, as I said before, but Seattle has the second highest strikeout total in the AL right now, that’s going to happen. Whenhe needed strikeouts, what did he do? Every time Seattle had a runner in scoring position, Morrow came up with a strikeout. Maybe he’s trying to be his own high leverage relief pitcher. That’s an idea from this Fangraphs article about Roy Halladay. If it is part of the mentality, of rearing back to make the high effort pitches only when necessary, Morrow is certainly blessed with the arm to do that.

What am I getting at here? Well, I think I’ve come to believe two things. The first one is that the old Brandon Morrow is gone. I don’t think he’ll ever find himself in a position to strike out 17 ever again. The second thing is that the new Brandon Morrow has not arrived yet. I don’t think we’ll really know what he’s done with himself until much later. Maybe after the All-Star Break? He’s not been afraid to play with his new pitches, but he really hasn’t broken them is yet.

It is unusual, and interesting, to see this kind of change in a pitcher. It seems to be what happens after surgery, and many try to re-invent themselves after abject failure. Ask R.A. Dickey. Morrow hasn’t hit bottom, or had his arm fall apart, though. He’s made these changes because he thinks he can be better for them. That’s really the kind of talent and thought that make me happy he plays for the team I cheer for every day.

Brandon Morrow, then and now.

The Blue Jays acquired Brandon Morrow over the winter of 2009-2010. He came to the Blue Jays with a wicked fastball, and almost total inability to find the strike zone. He walked 26 batters in his first 35 innings. Then Bruce Walton and he decided it would be prudent to drop his arm slot.

Morrow’s fortunes turned around, and he’s been the Blue Jays’ de facto ‘Number 2’ starter ever since. He has had his ups and downs, but after a strong finish to last season he seemed mentally ready to take the ‘Ace’ label and run with it. He signed a 20 million dollar extension over the winter of 2011/2012. His quotes from that day, (go ahead, click the link, I’ll be here when you come back), indicate his confidence was quite high. Mine would be too, on the day I got extended.

I was curious to see what Brandon Morrow had actually changed in the 400 or more innings he’s logged since 2010. Especially since there was all the excitement last year over his having developed a cut fastball.

So, just for fun, I grabbed 2 months from Brooksbaseball.net and took a look at Morrow’s pitch selection, and the kinds of outcomes he’s generated from his pitches. I took June of 2010, the first full month after the arm slot change, and the first 2 starts of 2012.

First, the pitch mix.

First off, the sinker has disappeared. From 18% of the time to 2%. It also doesn’t sink nearly as much when he does use it, with three inches less vertical break than back in the old days. Second, the four-seam fastball is much straighter, with only 2 inches of horizontal movement now, compared to almost 7 inches in 2010. The rest of his pitch usage is quite similar, and the change-up has really been falling off the table, with 7 more inches of vertical break. The cutter? Don’t see it on the chart do we?

Now, Brandon started 5 games in June of 2010, and only 2 so far this month, so when we chart outcomes, 2012 is only looking at a good game against the Indians, and a homer happy night at Rogers Centre against Baltimore. I should probably revisit this chart in May.

From the top down, the first thing I would note is that the lack of movement on the fastball has had a huge impact on Morrow’s results. When the whiffs go from 28% to 11%, all that contact has to go somewhere. Same number of grounders, and a 15% jump in fly balls means a bunch of balls leaving the yard. The change-up used to be one of his better groundball options, but even with the extra break I noted above, two-thirds of those that are hit are getting lifted in the air too. Also interesting, its only a 46 pitch sample over these 2 months, but none of Morrow’s curveballs were put in the air, maybe that’s his better double-play inducing pitch.

So, to summarize, the fastball looks almost as hard, but much too straight.I would think he has, indeed made an effort to master the change-up, but it hasn’t got him a single whiff yet this year. Looks like the cutter was an experiment that’s been put on the shelf for now.

I am fascinated by Morrow and his electric arm, so I’ll be sure to come back to this in a couple of weeks and see what adjustments he’s made. Hope you’ll join me.