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Entries in Los Angeles Dodgers (48)

Thursday
Feb062014

A More Patient Yasiel Puig in 2014?

Yasiel Puig was a bat-flipping, stop-sign-defying, cutoff-man-missing marvel in 2013. The Dodgers outfielder tied Ted Williams for the second-best park-and-league-adjusted OPS ever for a rookie getting 400-plus plate appearances (60 percent above average), placing just behind Johnny Mize (162 OPS+) and ahead of Albert Pujols (157 OPS+). Here's a scary thought for pitchers and catchers getting set to report for spring training: the 23-year-old is still learning the strike zone, and he's proving to be a quick study. Considering the progress Puig made in tightening his plate approach down the stretch, pitchers shouldn't count on retiring him with junk pitches in 2014. Puig's newfound patience may even earn him the leadoff role in L.A. this year.

When Puig debuted back in June, he displayed the patience of a kindergartener hell-bent on cracking open a Hershey-stuffed pinata. He swung at 38.3 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, which was far above the 28 percent major league average and second-highest among all National League hitters that month (Alfonso Soriano was first, at 46.6 percent). Puig was particularly hack-happy on pitches thrown inside, chasing 36.2 percent of the time.

Puig's swing rate vs. inside pitches, June of 2013

  Puig was ridiculously productive in June, of course, as seemingly every ball he put in play evaded leather. He walked in just 3.7 percent of his plate appearances, however -- fine if you're racking up hits like Teddy Ballgame and Ty Cobb, but problematic otherwise. To his credit, Puig quickly began to shrink his eyes-to-ankles strike. He chased fewer inside pitches out of the zone in July, August and September.

Puig's swing rate vs. inside pitches, July of 2013

 

Puig's swing rate vs. inside pitches, August of 2013

 

Puig's swing rate vs. inside pitches, September 2013

 

After chasing 36.2 percent of inside stuff in June, Puig went after 32.5 percent of those pitches in July, 26.3 percent in August, and just 22.3 percent in September. That newfound patience is crucial to Puig's long-term success, considering that pitchers try to bust him in on the hands more often (43.7 percent of the time) than any other big league hitter. Overall, Puig's chase rate was close to the league average by the season's final month (30.5 percent in September), and he boasted a double-digit walk rate during in both August and September.

Gifted as he is, Puig might be considered a "disappointment" by some in 2014 because he set such a high bar for himself as a rookie (the Oliver projection system forecasts Puig for a still-excellent .292/.362/.512 line next year, compared to  his actual .319/.391/.534 in 2013). But the gains he made in controlling the strike zone figure to carry over into next year and beyond, as changes in a hitter's swing rate take on meaning after about 50 plate appearances. Combine Puig's light-tower power with a more polished plate approach, and you have the recipe for a perennial MVP contender. If this guy's not getting himself out, who will?

Monday
Feb032014

Regressing Power Leads To Michael Young's Retirement

Michael Young officially closed the book on his storied 14-year career last Thursday, choosing to “spend time with his family” rather than pursue a free-agent contract with a major league team any further this winter, according to a report by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal. The 37-year-old utility infielder had received offers from several teams – including the Dodgers, who were heavily interested in bringing him back after he posted a .314/.321/.392 slash line and 102 OPS+ over 21 games with the franchise to finish out 2013. If he remains retired, Young will own a career slash line of .300/.346/.441 to go with a 102 OPS+ in 1,970 games.

As a young baseball fan who watched ESPN's Baseball Tonight religiously, I remember taking in a lot of Young's big-time hits with the Rangers. Many of those hits featured a common theme: Young's ability to go generate ridiculous power on "inside" pitches -- often taking those pitches to right field with ease.

Here's a perfect example of what I'm referring to. In an at-bat against Seattle's Jason Vargas in 2012, Young took a pitch located on the inner portion of the plate and drove it to right center with a flick of his wrists for a home run. For me, this home run embodies what Young did so exceptionally well during his 14-year career: Dominate the inner-half of the plate. Ironically, this may well be a reason for his retirement.

Diminishing Inner-Half Power

From 2008 to 2011 -- his age 31 through 34 seasons -- Young dominated the inner-half of the plate to the tune of a .345/.374/.544 slash line and .392 weighted on-base average. The driving forces behind those gaudy numbers were his 26.3% line-drive rate (best among batters with at least 1,000 plate appearances in that span) and .401 well-hit average, which was trumped only by Miguel Cabrera (.418) and Albert Pujols (.404) among qualified batters. His best season in this strech was perhaps in 2011, when he led baseball with 213 hits (as a 34-year-old, no less), posted an insane .368/.385/.548 line and mustered up a .428 WHAV against inner-half pitches.

But from that point on, things changed. Young's age 35 season (his last with Texas) in 2012 and last season (where he spent time with Philadelphia and Los Angeles) garnered a still respectable .299/.320/.424 line and .323 wOBA against inner-half stuff, but his line drive rate fell to 23.4% (compared to 26.3% from 2008-2011) and WHAV dropped to .266 -- a decrease of .135 from where it had been previously.

When a hitter's best asset regresses with time, his statistical output tends to follow. In this case, Young's innate ability to place quality contact on inner-half stuff regressed, which was probably a key reason for why he decided to call it quits.

Monday
Jan202014

Clayton Kershaw's $215 Million Curveball

There are myriad reasons why Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw just earned a seven-year, $215 million contract extension, becoming the first player in history to pull in more than $30 million a season. Kershaw, 26 in March, boasts the fifth-best park-and-league-adjusted ERA (46 percent above average) ever for a starting pitcher during his first six seasons in the majors, trailing only Walter Johnson (164 ERA+), Mordecai Brown (158 ERA+), Smoky Joe Wood (152 ERA+) and Christy Mathewson (150 ERA+). He's a workhorse, having topped 200 innings pitched in each of the past four seasons, and he has fooled hitters like no other lefty (9.2 strikeouts per nine frames) this side of Randy Johnson (9.4 K/9) to start his career.

Yet for all of the breathtaking stats that Kershaw has compiled since making his debut at Chavez Ravine back in May of 2008, this one may be the most remarkable: he has thrown a total of 2,155 curveballs during the regular season, according to our Pitch F/X data, and exactly zero of those hooks have landed in the cheap seats. That's right -- Kershaw has never surrendered a regular-season homer on the pitch that earns him comparisons to Sandy Koufax. Batters have launched 1,945 home runs off curveballs dating back to '08, but nobody has gone deep against Public Enemy Number One.

What in the name of Vin Scully is going on here? How has Kershaw been so thoroughly dominant with his curveball, which has smothered hitters to the tune of a major league low .145 opponent slugging percentage from 2008-13? Here are three reasons why Kershaw's curve seemingly can't be taken deep.

Batters can't tell whether it's a ball or a strike -- or just don't think they can hit it

To go deep, you obviously have to swing the bat -- and opponents rarely do when Kershaw unleashes a curve. Batters have swung at just one-third of curveballs seen from Kershaw since '08, compared to the 40 percent major league average. Even when the pitch ends up being thrown in the strike zone, hitters pull the trigger less than half of the time (47 percent, compared to the 55 percent MLB average). Either batters can't discern whether it's over the plate in time to swing, or they figure it's futile to even try.

Hitters' swing rate by pitch location versus Kershaw's curveball, 2008-13

Kershaw's curve induces weak contact

When hitters do swing at Kershaw's curve, they often just pound the pitch into the infield grass or hit a weak fly ball. Kershaw has generated grounders 55.2 percent of the time that batters have put his curve in play, north of the 52 percent MLB average. Those who manage to loft the pitch into the air have won a moral victory, but little else. Batters have hit fly balls off Kershaw's curve an average of 244 feet -- second-lowest among all qualified starters dating back to 2008.

Lowest Average fly ball distance on curve balls put in play, 2008-2013 (min. 800 curveballs thrown)  

Kershaw can add and subtract with his curve

L.A.'s ace has thrown his curveball at an average of 73.4 MPH during his career. But he can dial it way up (topping 82 MPH on the gun) or way, way down (he threw a 49 MPH yakker to Yasmani Grandal on September 9, 2012 -- Grandal didn't swing, of course). That might be part of the reason why hitters so rarely swing at Kershaw's curve -- it could be a power pitch, or it might arrive at home plate slower than a Prius traveling on Interstate 5.

Kershaw was wild with curveball when he first arrived in the bigs, throwing it for a strike less than half of the time, but he has gradually learned to control the pitch (57 percent strike rate last year) while adding precision to his power arsenal. His curve, like the rest of his game, has only gotten better. That's a scary proposition any hitter dreaming of finally going yard off the pitch.

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