Jays From the Couch looks into whether the Toronto Blue Jays have a common plan of attack for their starting pitchers
The Toronto Blue Jays started the year with a potential starting rotation that looked poised to carry them to their third straight postseason. Things obviously haven’t worked out that way. With such a disappointment of a season, there is bound to be much written about what went wrong in 2017. Breakdowns and analysis will fill your timelines.
What follows is one such breakdown. While there appears to have been a lot of making things up as they went, I wanted to see if the Blue Jays actually had a plan for their starting rotation. While you can’t plan for injuries and whatnot, you can plan for how starters will attack lineups, etc. Obviously, without being in on pre-game meetings, it would be impossible to know what directives the pitching staff is given. So, as best as we can, let’s take a look at whether Toronto starters seemed to follow a plan of attack.
[Ed. Note: Jays From the Couch has reached out to Blue Jays’ staff and we’re awaiting thie rinput on this
The Blue Jays also started this year with a very nice looking infield set up. With Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis and Justin Smoak supposed to take regular reps and Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney as back ups, this year was supposed to defensively solid. Because of this, it would make sense for the team’s pitchers to take advantage of the gloves, pitching to induce ground balls.
Think about how effective Marcus Stroman is when he is getting grounder after grounder. The best way to do this (and avoid hitters launching bombs) is to pitch low in the zone. It would behoove the pitching coach, Pete Walker, to get his starters to follow this pattern. But, has this message been delivered?
For this exercise, we’ll look at those starters we would have seen regularly in 2017: Stroman, Aaron Sanchez (can we call him a regular?), Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano. Just for comparison, we’ll look at Mike Bolsinger as well.
Stroman is the easiest example of this approach simply because it is how he works anyway. His 2017 zone profile (pictured here) is right in line with what we’ve seen from him over his career to date: working low in the zone. When he is most effective, he is consistently in the lower part of the strike zone. When he is up in the zone, he gives up more hits and is generally less effective. His approach is what allows him a career groundball rate of 59.5%. This season, he is seeing more, at a 62.6% rate.
It is also worth noting that the movement, etc on his pitches contributes to the number of groundballs he sees. But, generally, attacking the bottom of the zone is what keeps his offerings from being hit hard, etc. Stroman might not be the best sample for this examination since pitching down in the zone is what he does on his own. Walker wouldn’t really have much of a message, other than ‘keep doing what you’re doing’.
Marco is an interesting study in this context. First, he is a fly ball pitcher. Secondly, he does a great job of using his change up/ fastball combination, which he uses the upper part of the zone to his advantage. That said, if we look at his career profile (pictured left), he has worked down in the zone, but his offerings bleed into the zone. For his successful 2015 and 2016 campaigns (pictured center), he seemed to live in the bottom of the zone a bit better. In his up and down 2017 season, he has caught too much of the middle part of the zone. It is interesting to note that Estrada is seeing his lowest ground ball rate (30.4%) since 2013 and his HR/FB rate (11.1%) has almost risen to his 2013 Brewers rate. This combination very well could be a result of not being able to stay down consistently. If there is a message from the team, Estrada seems to have had difficulty executing it this season.
If the Blue Jays have a plan for their pitchers, perhaps Happ would be a good place to show some evidence of this. We’ll look at his 2014 stint with the Blue Jays (image 1), his time away from the club in 2015 (image 2) and his 2016 return (image 3) compared to this season (image 4).
We all remember how painfully average Happ’s previous tenure with the Blue Jays was. 2014 saw him give up 40.6% ground balls and catching too much of the strike zone at 46.3% as the first image above would corroborate. We also know that his time away from the Blue Jays resulted in some Ray Searage magic and newfound success. Take a look at image 2 and see where his offerings were located.
Last season, when he won 20 games, Happ was making good use his offerings down. He was catching less of the strike zone and enjoying an increased GB% (42.5%). It wasn’t Stroman type ground ball stuff, but it was an improvement. Here we are in 2017, and image 4 shows us that Happ has been sneaking up into the strike zone more. But, his groundball rate (45.8%) is the highest of his big league career. While he is catching that bottom corner of the zone, he appears to be working low.
Like Stroman, Liriano is a guy that has made an effort to work low over his career (left image), not that it resulted in an astronomical groundball rate. It hasn’t. His career mark is 49.1%. He was able to get more swings out of the zone in previous years compared to 2017. This year, he has stayed down, (a bit more, give or take), but has has caught the zone to the tune of 39.4%, which is his highest mark since 2010.
So, while he may have been given a directive to keep working down, he’s given up the highest contact rate of his career: 76.8%. Obviously, if this is the philosophy of the team, he would have to be better at carrying it out. High contact, and a 44% GB rate – a mark far below what he’s used to – make for a very frustrating student of the ‘stay low’ game.
Joe Biagini is an interesting addition to this group. He was thrust into the rotation this season, having been a reliever in 2016. He made 11 starts this year. It was enough for the club to feel confident in stretching him out for their 2018 campaign. With every other entry on this list, we could look at their profile and see where they threw the ball. For Biagini, we can do the same, but focus on the percentage of offerings in each spot since his 2016 profile (left) would yield a far lower raw number of pitches than his starter sample (right). So, percentage is best to work with. That said, take a look:
As a reliever, Biagini made good use of that far bottom corner – down and in to lefties, down and away to righties. But, as a starter, Biagini featured a higher percentage not only in that corner, but expanding to both sides. Based on this, we can extrapolate that there was an effort made to better utilize a ‘keep it down’ philosophy. This has resulted in a 56.8% ground ball rate when Biagini started, which is up from his 52.2% last season.
Many might take exception to Sanchez being included in this little examination. After all, he’s made very few starts thanks to his $%!!$@$ blister issue. So, the argument can be made that there isn’t as much data to go on. Fair enough. As well, the blister issue would have an impact on his ability to execute any game plan his team would have for him anyway. So, we acknowledge this and continue.
There is a rather dramatic difference in Sanchez’ profile. On the left, we have where he’s located the ball over his career. On the right, we have his 2017 results. In the first year where the plan was to have him start without inning limits, etc., it would appear that the goal was to have him work low (and away to righties).
This wouldn’t seem like much of a challenge, given his career GB% of 56% (it was 65% in 2014). The oddity in 2017 is that he has seen a lower GB% (47.5%) than the last few seasons, which would certainly not fall into line with the logic of pitching low. Having a blister could account for spin rates, etc impacting the ability to get balls hit on the ground. As well, 2017 saw him in the zone at a rate of 42.1%, which is much lower than we’ve seen over the last couple seasons. So, we can’t really come to a definitive conclusion with The Sanchize, even if, on the surface, it looks like there was an attempt at a focused approach to pitching low.
In order to add to this search, I wanted to include someone who came from outside the organization and could likely look to incorporate a new team philosophy. As well, we would have to use someone who gave Toronto more than a start or two. No one should expect Bolsinger to represent an organizational philosophy, but it would be an interesting addition to the conversation.
Bolsinger is a tough entry in this study since his walk rate was almost 14%, which is well above his career mark (9.6%), so command was obviously an issue, which would have an impact on him following any kind of directive, if there was one. It is interesting to note that he saw an increase in GB% this season (48.8%) over his 2016 Dodgers rate: 33.7%. His 2017 profile shows a higher percentage of offerings down and away to right handed batters, which could be a result of instruction from the team and would explain the jump in GB rate.
It would appear that the argument can be made that the Blue Jays have asked their starters to focus on pitching down. With the exception of Estrada, it seems like the hurlers are following the plan. With Estrada having a down year, the fact that he has had difficulty staying low could be a factor.
Capitalizing on a talented infield would certainly be an effective plan, if the players counted on were there. Injuries and whatnot have led to a somewhat disappointing defensive campaign in 2017. That doesn’t mean that the plan is flawed. Generally speaking, keeping the ball down is a great strategy. The strategy depends on the players executing, of course. Blisters and command issues would hinder said execution. What is it they say about best laid plans?
After completing this exploration, I reached out to a source within the organization to confirm the “keep it down” philosophy. As it turns out, there may not be a common philosophy being put on Blue Jays starters. It would appear that having a common plan of attack is not really how this team operates. Instead, they prefer to look at a pitcher’s stuff and how to get the most out of it:
In general, someone with big sink like Sanchez is going to benefit from working down but someone with 4 sm life like Marco is going to benefit more working at the top of the zone. Throwing a 4 sm with “hop” at the bottom of the zone has it “hop” into the hitting zone. Someone with both a 4 sm and a 2 sm like Stroman can work to both areas of the zone.
Additionally it seems like there’s some evidence that some hitters over the past 3-4ish yrs have adapted to seeing a ton of pitches down in the zone and have changed their swings to get to those pitches and working up in the zone might be a better way to attack those hitters now. Eventually hitters will realize (if they haven’t already) there are more pitches up and another way to attack them will be needed (some teams seem to be doing this with having their pitchers throw a ton of breaking balls or not facing a lineup 3 times or something else that isn’t as public).
This excellent piece at Fangraphs by David Laurila looked at the cat and mouse game of pitching that leads to pitchers working up in the zone. In it, Laurila asked for the input from various entities across MLB. The one that really stands out for our purposes is Derek Shelton, Blue Jays quality control coach. Shelton says that for players are trying to elevate the ball, working down in the zone may actually be a bad idea. He says that he thinks organizations are trying to identify players who can spin the ball up in the zone (hello, Marco) since it is more effective on guys who are trying to lift the ball. Given the proliferation of home runs, that likely includes a good number of hitters.
The comments from the team, and the piece by Laurila would lead us to believe that perhaps, this whole exploration might have been an exercise in identifying coincidence. Based on profiles, etc it would appear that the club is asking its starters to pitch low in the zone. But, if we can ascertain anything, it sounds like their approach is to utilize spin up in the zone.
More to the point, it would appear that the Blue Jays are sticking with the tried and true methodology of adjustments. It has been said that baseball is a game of adjustments. If this exploration has led to any conclusions, it would be that sticking with one blanket approach is not how this team operates.
*pitching profiles via Brooks Baseball / GB, etc data via Fangraphs
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*Featured Image Credit: Arturo Pardavila III UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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