Player Write-ups

Crafty Tom Wilhelmsen

By: Jared Ellis

Follow on Twitter: @jarlyjarhead

No one measures my overall performance each day at work and this is completely normal. If I finish less documentation on Thursday than I did on Monday there isn’t someone analyzing my keystrokes to determine that I typed z more often on Thursday and thus that must be the reason I finished less documentation. Or that my coworker spun his chair around to chat an average of two additional times on Thursdays which lends itself to my lack of production. If I have three straight months of work that are less than stellar, chances are likely that only I, and maybe my management, are aware of these struggles. But certainly not journalists or our customers, that’s silliness.

Hey, did you guys hear that Tom Wilhelmsen was terrible with Texas this season?

Wilhelmsen was one of the first causalities of the Jerry Dipoto era, but not necessarily for lack of production. Dipoto wanted to get more athletic and needed a centerfielder, enter Leonys Martin. Dipoto bought low on Martin, which explains having to only get rid of a right handed reliever that wasn’t especially great, but not so bad either. What Texas got was a reliever that wasn’t a closer, but could close in a pinch. He pitched 62 innings in 2015 with an ERA that stood at 3.19 and averaged about a strikeout per inning pitched.

Except Texas didn’t get what they traded for, not even close. A guy that could close if circumstances dictated had become a liability that bounced between Texas’ AAA affiliate Round Rock and the big league team. An ERA in the low threes in 2015 jumped to nearly 11(!) in Texas. His strikeouts per nine was cut in half, et cetera, et cetera.

This post isn’t so much about what Texas got in the trade though, Texas bloggers have probably covered that already. I imagine CAPS were used in addition to many exclamation points. This is more about what Seattle got after Texas, which is pretty much the same thing that he was prior Texas. At least in terms of surface production, but he’s succeeding in different ways.

I would surmise that the SABR-inclined Dipoto was open to trading Wilhelmsen for more than the fact that he needed a starting center fielder, but also that he saw Wilhelmsen beginning a decline. At his best and when he was a closer (2012) Tom was a great strikeout pitcher at nearly 10 K/9. But for the most part he’s hovered around 8 K/9 which is above average and still makes for a functional relief pitcher. But a Tom without strikeouts is a less effective version than himself, he just wasn’t used to getting outs in other ways.

This was part of the problem in Texas, his K/9 cratered, hovering just above four strikeouts per nine. But it wasn’t for lack of throwing strikes, his walk rate remained about the same. He wasn’t getting hit much harder than the season before either. He simply couldn’t end at-bats and enough of those bats ended in hits, sometimes loud ones, that it made an impact.

Fast forward to June 22nd, Wilhelmsen is signed by Seattle after being released by Texas, and makes his first appearance on July 2nd. This time around however, Dipoto and the coaching staff are aware of the pitcher that Tom is today and have a plan to utilize him.

The changes are to his pitch craft, and are multi-layered. For starters he has completely stopped throwing sliders to lefties. And by completely, I mean he hasn’t thrown a single slider to a lefty since he has been with Seattle in 2016. This is in comparison to around 10% of the time when with Texas. He has instead replaced his slider with increased usage of his changeup. I’ll always believe that a pitcher that breathes the same air as Felix will have a better changeup and that is true of Wilhelmsen. He’s not only throwing his changeup more often but has also increased the movement of this pitch since coming over from Texas.

Team Changeup Horizontal Movement (inches)
Rangers -3.57
Mariners -5.57

 

However, I think the biggest change that’s been made is using different pitch locations to induce weaker contact rather than trying to miss bats. This isn’t a change from Texas either, it’s a change for Wilhelmsen as a whole. He has begun pitching low and outside a lot more than at any point of his career up to this point.

When discovering the link between his current performance and his previous performance, I was reminded of a post covering the Houston Astros that was posted on Grantland. The Astros, in an effort to mitigate pitchers on their staff with low velocity, began pitching on the low outside corner at a rate of 34.8% of the time. Wilhelmsen is pitching in that same area, he’s just doing it a lot more, at around 50% of the time to righties and around 30% of the time for lefties. He’s more than adopted that philosophy of pitch craft, it’s now his practiced religion.

As a result, he’s remained effective despite doing so in a different way. His strikeout numbers are down, but he’s now inducing more soft contact.

Season Team Soft Contact Medium Contact Hard Contact
2015 Mariners 19.40% 60.00% 20.60%
2016 Rangers 17.20% 43.70% 39.10%
2016 Mariners 23.50% 41.20% 35.30%

 

In addition to inducing more soft contact, the location of most of his pitches also force certain hit types. He’s forcing more hitters to the opposite field than he was than with Texas and also is increasing on the number of groundballs induced. Hitters simply aren’t making great contact.

Season Team Groundball Percentage Line Drive Percentage
2015 Mariners 42.10% 20.50%
2016 Rangers 49.40% 16.50%
2016 Mariners 52.00% 12.00%

 

Weak contact that is on the ground makes for more outs and for a reliever coming into the game, oftentimes with runners on base already, this is a tangible skill. He may not be the first guy out of the bullpen any longer to get a tough strikeout, but he’s still serviceable.

The consequence of beginning down the path of pitch craft rather than relying solely on physical ability is that the end could be near. The life of a reliever is a combustible one and Wilhelmsen has enjoyed a nice career despite that fact. He also still may have a lot of life left, his fastball still averages 96 and his curve still has a lot of bite. Breathing the same air as Felix doesn’t hurt either when considering his changeup. But if he is done soon, at least some schlub with a blog won’t be exhaustively analyzing his work life.

Mike Zunino, Reclamation Project

By: Jared Ellis

Follow on Twitter: @jarlyjarhead

My wife scrolls Pinterest a lot, not quite for hours at a time, but at least for many minutes at a time. I suppose she could be reading a blog post, but if she is, she found that blog on Pinterest. Pinterest is weird. It’s classified as social networking, but there is nothing social about it. She doesn’t follow anyone, or engage in conversation. She doesn’t post anything either. But Pinterest is a hobby of hers, which sounds odd, but hear me out.

My wife loves reclamation projects. When she’s scrolling Pinterest it isn’t a mindless activity, but rather an involved activity. She’s on the hunt for a DIY, cataloging every cute idea that comes between her fingertip and her iPad. She’ll take those non-descript boards of wood, scrounge up some rope and, boom, here’s a shelf. She found some terracotta pots at a garage sale for a dollar once, and now we have a potted plant waterfall thing in our front yard.

She takes pride in improving something, but it’s about the process just as much as it is about the end result. If she cared about baseball, I’m sure she would take pride in the process of Mike Zunino, reclamation project.

***

As I write this, Zunino is hitting in the sixth inning with the Mariners losing to the Yankees 5-3. It’s the end of August, and the Mariners are only one game out of the second wildcard spot. The Yankees are within striking distance of the playoffs as well. This is meaningful baseball. There are two runners on and the Yankees just brought in a right handed pitcher, only one out after their last call to the bullpen. Obviously a same-handed strategy designed to take advantage of the weaknesses of a once struggling Zunino.

Zunino works a full count, at one point down 1-2, and takes ball three in the dirt as he steps out of the box. He shakes his head, reminding himself of what would have certainly been a strikeout this same time last year. The sixth pitch is a slider, on the lower outside corner, a pitch that has haunted Zunino in the past, but this time it’s different. He sits back, waits on the pitch and drives it to the opposite field for an improbable three run homerun. A homerun that would prove to be the difference in this game. This at-bat encapsulates the reclamation project that has become Mike Zunino. He used to be a couple of boards and some rope, now he’s starting to resemble a shelf.

***

This is all very dramatic, but it isn’t without some context. Zunino was a disaster last season. Of all players with at least 350 plate appearances in 2015 (248), Zunino was next to last in wRC+.  That’s bad enough in and of itself, but he also struck out more often than any of those players as well, at just over 34% of the time. He also had the worst batting average and on base percentage of the bunch. Hell, more than 200 players had a higher batting average than Mike had OBP! I could keep going, but no need to pile on and you get the point. Dude was awful.

In 2016, Zunino is just now getting consistency as a regular in the lineup and the sample size is still extraordinarily small. But the reason for hope is in part because of the way that he was handled at the beginning of the year. It’s been obvious to Mariners fans that Zunino was called up too early in his career. Especially without ever really dominating the minors the way one would hope for a high level talent. Jerry Dipoto also realized this and put on his kid gloves with Mike from the start. He signed Chris Iannetta with intentions of him being the starter and traded for Steve Clevenger with the sole purpose of him acting as a backup and put more plainly, to keep Zunino in AAA for as long as possible. It was only after Clevenger got hurt that Dipoto’s kid gloved hand was forced and he moved Zunino up to the big league team. Yet even then Dipoto wasn’t convinced, he sent Zunino back down only a week later and recalled Jesus Sucre from the disabled list. Sucre however didn’t last long and we’re now experiencing our current iteration of Zunino. An everyday catcher still great at defense and pitch framing and also the guy with a wRC+ that currently sits four times higher than his total last year, 189.

All of this is very interesting and inspiring, Zunino seems like a good guy and he certainly deserves this surge. But the more interesting question, is how in the hell he’s made such a drastic improvement. The low hanging fruit is that he has simply become more patient at the plate and he’s swinging less in general. This includes pitches outside of the zone, a weakness of his before and a big reason for his lofty strikeout numbers from last season. This year he’s swinging less on all pitches and has lowered his strikeout rate by more than 10%, which over the course of the season is in the neighborhood of 40 fewer strikeouts.

Year Swing Percentage Strikeout Percentage
2015 49.60% 34.20%
2016 46.00% 23.00%

 

He is also starting to make better contact. Zunino, and a player with a similar profile, will rarely be league average or better as a contact hitter. He likes to swing hard, hit dingers and clear bases. But even an all-world player like Giancarlo Stanton has contact rates well below league average. So that isn’t necessarily the problem to begin with, but an improved contact rate certainly helps.

A nice little byproduct of both swinging less and making more contact is that Zunino is starting to get on base a lot more in the way of walks. His walk rate is more than double what it was a season ago, a change in more than 20 additional times on base over the course of a season.

So Zunino is beginning to eliminate outs and effectively replace them with walks. He’s also changing the way in which he hits the ball. His BABIP is actually lower this season than it was in 2015, so luck isn’t a factor. What is a factor though is that his line drive rate has increased, his groundball rate has decreased and oh shit his HR/FB ratio has nearly tripled.

Year LD Percentage GB Percentage HR/FB Ratio
2015 17.40% 32.60% 10.10%
2016 19.20% 28.80% 29.60%

 

More important than being more selective and making better contact, is that he is also beginning to take advantage of areas that were recently exploited. In 2015, he was mostly challenged on the low outside corner of the zone (the four lower right squares of image).

Zunino2015ZoneBrooks.JPG

Nearly 30% of all pitches that Zunino saw last year were in the low and outside quadrant of the strike zone. And he didn’t do well.

Zunino2015ZoneSLGBrooks.JPG

To be clear, these are slugging percentages not batting averages. Zunino had a clear weakness and major league pitchers aren’t one for charity.

For comparison, below is the percentages of pitches per zone for 2016.

Zunino2016ZoneBrooks.JPG

Once again pitchers continue to attack Zunino in the same area and do so about 30% of the time. But he has begun to improve and has applied a child’s size Band-Aid to this area.

Zunino2016ZoneSLGBrooks.JPG

He still struggles with pitches in this area that are outside of the strike zone, but we know that he mitigates that by swinging less at those pitches. But in the strike zone for that area, the dude is raking. A weakness can only be a weakness for so long until the player begins to evolve.

Time will tell if Zunino’s play is sustainable, but it’s nice to see that there is actually data to back up his surge. With Zunino’s already strong reputation as a defender, even becoming an average offensive player will make him a better than average big leaguer. Then again, he is a high end draft pick with the talent to match, perhaps Dipoto has created his potted plant waterfall thing that will sit behind home plate and hit in the middle of the order for years to come.

 

A look at strikeouts

By: Jared Ellis

Follow on Twitter @jarlyjarhead

Baseball is a simple game. You throw, catch, hit and run. The team that scores the most runs wins the game. The winner of the last game of the season is the champion. When put simply, yes, baseball is a simple game. When put less simply, it is anything but. The statistics that were on the back of my childhood baseball cards of Batting Average (AVG), Earned Run Average (ERA) and home runs (HR) have evolved into statistics that aren’t as intuitive. Now we analyze the game using Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), Weighted Runs Created (wRC) and perhaps most importantly Wins Above Replacement (WAR). These and many other advanced statistics are the new normal for the ever changing sabermetric baseball world.

Thing is, I don’t know how to analyze most of these statistics; at least not as quickly as I would the now arcane statistics. They require reading and sometimes rereading the description before fully grasping the stat. And then after a few months, I’ll probably need a refresher of reading and rereading the description again.

The question I ask myself with most of these stats is:

  1. What new stats are the most important?
  2. When can we trust the stats?
  3. What is league average for these stats?

The answer to the first question is that there probably isn’t only one way to analyze a player. Sure WAR encompasses all that a player does, but there are inconsistencies with it. The first and most obvious inconsistency is that there are multiple versions as both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference have their own formulas. In addition WAR uses defensive metrics that vary, as both Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) are considered. Not only do they have different ways to measure performance but are often times far apart in the actual analysis on an individual player. In addition, WAR doesn’t tell specific stories about the player’s statistics, it is simply the long range view. The reason why a hitter struggles against right handed pitchers will require some additional digging.

Questions two and three are what I hope to cover over a period of time on this blog. The sabermetric community will often times cite small sample size (SSS) when analyzing a player. What is so neat about SSS is that someone incredibly smart has found out when a specific stat will stabilize (you can find the tool here) and becomes a large enough sample to have proper context. And to find league average of each these stats, we have decades of data to apply to what is now a very large sample size.

To begin in this young season of only April, a time when a more casual observer will say that the Milwaukee Brewers are destined for a championship and that Charlie Blackmon will be our first .400 hitter since Ted Williams, we have two stats that have stabilized for most regular players around the league. The first we’ll cover is strikeout rate, a stat that stabilizes at 60 plate appearances. Since this is a Seattle Mariners blog, we’ll stick to them.

Of the Mariners 25 man roster, only eight have qualified for stabilization of strikeout rate. This shows not only how young our season is but also shows consistency with Lloyd McClendon’s daily lineups. And out of those eight, a whopping five are higher than league average in 2014…that’s a bad thing.

K% 2013 2014
League Average 19.90% 20.90%
Corey Hart *24.3% 18.80%
Mike Zunino 25.40% 29.70%
Justin Smoak 22.80% 23.80%
Robinson Cano 12.50% 13.30%
Kyle Seager 17.60% 21.50%
Dustin Ackley 16.90% 18.40%
Abraham Almonte 25.60% 35.10%
Brad Miller 15.50% 30.20%
*2012

My first takeaway from this data is, oh geez this is bad. The youngest of the Mariners’ players are the ones that seem the worst off. Brad Miller’s strikeout rate has nearly doubled since his short stint with the team last year. Mike Zunino has regressed as well and sweet Christ look at Abraham Almonte! This guy is our lead off hitter and he strikes out more than a third of his at bats.

Let’s take an even closer look at these three folks. For a guide on these fancy pants stats, go here.

2014 O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Contact%
League Average 30% 65% 46% 81%
Mike Zunino 47.20% 76.90% 62.70% 66.70%
Abraham Almonte 19.50% 59.10% 39.70% 72.00%
Brad Miller 41.60% 62.10% 51.90% 74.50%

Zunino can be explained as a swinger with limited pitch recognition, the dude swings at everything. His contact rate will obviously be low when he’s swinging at nearly half of the pitches he sees that are out of the strike zone. I also mentioned in an earlier post that he has a high swing and miss rate on fastballs, which explains his high swing rate for pitches in the zone coupled with having a low contact rate.

Miller has pitch recognition issues as well, as his O-Swing% is nearly as bad as Zunino’s. That also explains his contact problems and I think that this is representative of both players being very young still.

Almonte is an interesting case. I think he simply has trouble making contact. His O-Swing% explains why he is at the top of the order as he has a strong understanding of what his strike zone is and while walk rates haven’t stabilized yet for this season he has a history of promising walk rates in the minors. He simply has trouble making contact, once again I believe this is mostly a sign of him being a young player that is still getting used to big league pitching.

While those three young players are concerning and are certainly the outliers when looking at their strikeout rate, it is encouraging to see Dustin Ackley maintaining average strikeout rates considering his struggles up to this point. In addition, Corey Hart has seen a significant dip since his last full season in 2012 and the dude is starting to rake, also an encouraging sign as he is sorely needed in the middle of that lineup.

The past week of Mariners baseball has been tough and it has been the same old story, they can’t score runs. I get the feeling though that as these young guys start to settle into the season and feel more comfortable, that the strikeout rates will drop, the contact rates will increase and we’ll start to see some hits drop in.

Next up on my sabermetric tour will be the counterpart of strikeout rates for batters, but with pitchers!

Brad Miller oh man!

By: Jared Ellis

Follow @jarlyjarhead

There has been talk all spring on other blog sites and people in the know that Brad Miller is really good at baseball, possibly a top level SS already. He broke with the team late last year for a cup of coffee that lasted for 76 games and hit .265/.318/.418 while also smacking 8 HRs. All the while adding defensive and base running value. Early on, it didn’t take people in the know to be able to tell that Miller had a bright future.

To catch you up even further, the dude is awesome. He’s the classic, old school type ball player that fans love to follow. He wears stirrups guys! And you know what else!? He doesn’t wear batting gloves, that’s unheard of and he may be the only active player in MLB that doesn’t. Plus he’s a hard worker and plays the game the right way and all of that other shit we talk about with players like Miller.

Signs of his hard work showed up as he got bigger in the off season, he said that he was in the best shape of his life, another thing that is always said about players in spring. But he may have been right.

I didn’t watch the whole game last night, I was in school, but was tracking on my phone and noticed that he hit a HR earlier in the game and that the Mariners were up early. Here’s his first HR:

BradMillerHR (2)

I got home in time for the top of the ninth, just in time for his second HR. And the sound that it made, I didn’t even need to be watching to know that it was gone. The ball jumped off his bat and didn’t have the arc of the first one but with intense velocity. In fact, his second HR of the night in this young season is the third longest HR of the year in true distance at 427 feet and has the fastest speed off the bat so far as well at just over 112 MPH. He’s a shortstop.

BradMillerSolo (2)

Miller is definitely stronger, there is a noticeable physical difference since last year and these HRs show that the strength is useful. Not to mention he led all Cactus Leaguers in with a 1.314 OPS (i know, i know…it was Spring Training). But with plus defense and power at a premium position we could have a real special player on our hands.