On how the Arizona starters have become true “diamond” backs (there is such a thing as getting “Butchered” the right way)…Is Junior Guerra just a One-Trick Pony?
I am not sure when “butcher” became mostly a derogatory term in the English language, but because of modern usage it added a few words to today’s opening. But before getting to those specifics, time to walk through a general premise first.
The is an on-going journey across the numbers that measure performances each day of the MLB season, one of the most important tasks for the shrewd handicapper being to understand the “why” behind the numbers. When you get to that important realm, you can better understand what is real and what isn’t, and where the pendulums are headed next.
Yesterday there was a brief take here about the struggles of the Baltimore starting rotation in the first season under Roger McDowell as pitching coach, and in truth it would not have been difficult to put together a similar take regarding the 2016 Diamondbacks, in Mike Butcher’s first season as PC. In fact, I saw a few media folks use the “butcher” phrase with its negative connotations in terms of the performances of that staff, in particular the starting rotation.
It got to the point at which if you saw Butcher picking up the pace you might have believed that he was being run out of town…
But 2017 has been different, much different. The Arizona starters have made a dramatic turnaround, helping lead the team to the #4 win percentage in MLB to this point, and because of the particulars behind it there is a significant “why” case to be made. Let’s get to it.
The base numbers are easy enough to acknowledge, ERA down by more than a run-and-a-half, and a significant drop in FIP as well. What will not necessarily jump out at you is the third category – the Diamondbacks went from being near the MLB leaders in the percentage of fast-balls thrown to a far lower tier.
ERA FIP FB%
2016 5.19 4.50 61.1 (6)
2017 3.53 3.67 53.7 (20)
This is where we begin to build the case that in Butcher’s second season of working with some of the same pitchers there was the ability to do some legitimate tweaking, and in each instance it has meant getting the holdover starters to bring more emphasis to their #2 pitch, the slider for Zack Greinke and Patrick Corbin, and curveball for Robbie Ray and Zack Godley -
Greinke ERA FIP SLD%
2016 4.37 4.12 20.6
2017 2.86 3.16 24.8
Ray ERA FIP CVB%
2016 4.90 3.76 5.5
2017 2.97 3.76 21.7
Godley ERA FIP CVB%
2016 6.39 3.97 25.3
2017 3.09 3.25 31.1
Corbin ERA FIP SLD%
2016 5.15 4.84 26.5
2017 4.66 4.22 34.9
This is not a case of the same guys throwing the same pitches, and getting better outcomes, but instead a mindset throughout the staff. That has made each of those four more effective, and there is a psychology in play that matters – the more confidence pitchers have in their secondary stuff the better they throw it; the better they throw it the more confidence they develop; lather, rinse, repeat…
It is important to note that this is not all Butcher, however. The D’Backs hired Dan Haren, who threw over 2,400 MLB regular innings across a long and successful career, including three seasons in an Arizona uniform, as a “pitching strategist” (their title) this past winter, and Haren has been working closely with Mike Fitzgerald, who heads their analytics department, to create far more detailed game plans of the opposing hitters. Let’s let manager Troy Lovullo take it from there.
“Dan Haren’s expertise from standing on the rubber and being able to see the same sight line as some of these pitchers has been a great value. I know it’s had a strong impact on this organization. It just gives you a certain comfort to know the opposition a little bit more and a little bit better. I think that’s really what we try to do in this game.”
While there may still be skeptics given how much of a leap the Arizona starters have taken from their disappointing 2016, I am a believer in what has taken place, because of the particulars involved. There is indeed a process taking place, and enough raw talent in the rotation for that process to be interesting as the Wild Card race plays out.
I don’t have as much optimism for one particular pitcher, so let’s move on to the Tuesday board.
Is Junior Guerra a One-Trick Pony?
Milwaukee’s Guerra goes under the microscope tonight at Pittsburgh, as he returns from the DL for the second time this season, bringing with
it the usual question of how long it takes a starter to regain their rhythm. But there is added focus from my end because of so many other questions in play.
Guerra exploded on the scene in 2016 with an almost shocking 9-3/2.81, remarkable for a 31-year old that had never previously started at the MLB level. He began with the Braves in 2006 and was also with the Mets and White Sox, never making to the Majors with those organizations, and even spent time in the Mexican League.
But while the outcomes for the seeming journeyman were terrific in 2016, other metrics did not like the actual pitches nearly as much, including xFIP at 4.29 and SIERA at 4.42. What Guerra did to work around some uninspiring peripherals was throw a sharp-dropping split fastball, one that earned him plenty of swings and misses, and enough ground balls when there was contact, to generate those nice outcomes.
But now it is 2017, Guerra is 32 years old, and MLB hitters have seen that splitter, whether it be in the batter’s box, or on video. Guerra returns tonight at 1-3/4.78, far off of the 2016 outcomes, but even worse than that if we use FIP, which calls his 49 innings a 7.14 disaster. For perspective, there are 155 pitchers that have worked Guerra’s load this season, and only Amir Garrett (currently back down at AAA for the Reds, having been rushed to The Show because of injuries to others on the staff) is worse in that category.
Where does baseball science tell us it is going wrong? It isn’t so much a case of what the hitters are doing with the splitter, it is what they are not doing – swinging at it. To see where Guerra’s game has come undone we can look at the walk rate and GB%, prime indications of opponents learning to better read the pitch, and lay off of those low offerings –
2016 3.2 45.3
2017 5.7 34.3
The decline in ground-ball rate is among the most extreme we will ever find for a single season. As for the patience leading to all of those walks,
Guerra has not had a single game of a PPI (pitchers per inning) under 15.3 through his 10 starts, and the last four have all been 19.0 or higher. For perspective, in 2016, half of his 20 outings checked in lower than 15.3. While the two-season resume for Guerra still sits at a 10-6/3.38 that commands some respect, we may have already seen the best that there is going to be from him.
What is the Tuesday strategy? There is nothing wrong with putting a little Pittsburgh in pocket, the Pirates not only picking up some momentum in the series opener, but also getting the bonus of Starling Marte returning (he hit .333 in nine tune-ups at AAA, and that Gold Glove should not need much time to have a defensive impact). But how about this for taking it a step further – those with good In-Running access can watch the early stages closely to see if the Pirates are laying off of pitches dropping below the strike zone. This will be their fifth look at Guerra since the All Star break of last July, which should have them well aware of how to deal with him, and if the first batters set the tone I may be quick on the trigger to take advantage.
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