Author: Chris Moran

Stetson Allie – Is there Enough Juice in His Bat?

AllieThis Saturday I had the opportunity to catch a Bowie Baysox game at lovely Prince George Stadium. Unfortunately, there weren’t any high-profile prospects on display as the Altoona Curve ended up winning in a one-sided affair that ended in a score of 11-0. I did observe Curve first baseman Stetson Allie, a former second round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The 23 year-old Allie is an Ohio product who starred at St. Edward High School. Due to his high bonus demands and a commitment to the University of North Carolina, he fell to the 52nd overall pick. Pittsburgh managed to convince him to forgo college by offering him a $2.25 million signing bonus. Prior to the 2011 season, Allie debuted on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 100 list at No. 39. Allie began his professional career as a pitcher with the State College Spikes, the Pirates Low-A affiliate. In 26 innings, he struck out 28 hitters. However, he also issued 29 walks and hit nine batters.

He began his 2012 season with the West Virginia Power in the Class-A Sally league. In two appearances, he issued eight walks while recording only two outs. The Pirates shut him down, and attempted to transition him to third base, where his cannon arm could still be a factor. After he made eight errors in nine games, they settled on first base and designated hitter. At the plate he produced a .213/.314/.340 batting line with only three home runs and a 28.9 percent strikeout rate.

Allie began the 2013 season in the Sally league, and had his way with opposing pitchers, slugging 17 home runs in 66 games to go along with an impressive .324/.414/.607 slash line. His results were less impressive with the High-A Bradenton Marauders, as he hit just four home runs in 66 games with 82 strikeouts. Strikeouts are still an issue for Allie, as he’s fanned 98 times in 85 games with Double-A Altoona, for a 28.2 percent rate. He has hit 14 home runs and owns a .238/.342/.426 line.

Offensively, Allie’s raw power is evident almost before he steps into the box. At 6’2 and 230 pounds, he looks the part of a slugger. He rocketed a couple of balls through the left side almost before the infielders could take a step. There’s a lot of loft in his swing, but the bat doesn’t stay in the hitting zone for very long. Whereas he previously used a more crouched stance with a leg lift trigger, he hit from a more upright position. He can take a free pass as evidenced by a 12.9 percent walk rate. Allie reached base five times on the night with three singles and two walks.

In the field, the remnants of his throwing issues are still present. He clearly has a strong arm, but twice he fired the ball past the shortstop when throwing the ball around the horn after recording an out. His concentration on defense left something to be desired, as he got a slow jump on a ball down the first base line and also missed a lob throw from the pitcher. Allie has plus-plus arm strength, but he’s far too wild to play anywhere but first base. Even that may be a stretch, and he’s committed 13 errors there already.

At the very least, a switch from pitching to hitting was necessary to preserve Allie’s mental health. His offensive game is far from refined, and he will have to depend on his raw power to advance. He’ll either have to make more contact or make more of the contact he makes to make his raw power more playable. At the risk of scouting a stat line, his strikeout rate is enough to make you believe the bat won’t be able to get him to The Show in a starting capacity.

Mike Zunino’s Successes and Struggles

mike-zunino-marinersMike Zunino has been up and down at the plate. He jumped out to a .274/.299/.479 batting line in March for a 111 wRC+. Since then he’s cooled off, and now sports a .219/.279/.388 slash line for an 84 wRC+. The power is there, but a 32 percent strikeout rate combined with a 4.1 percent walk rate has limited his offensive production. At the same time, he’s down an excellent job behind the plate, especially with regards to pitch-framing.

In the first month of the season, Zunino was an extreme hacker, sporting a 61.8 percent swing rate, the highest in the major leagues. He swung at nearly half of the pitches he saw outside of the strike zone, and 75.2 percent of the pitches he saw in the strike zone. There’s a lot of swing and miss in Zunino’s game, and he managed just a 65.5 percent contact rate in April. With all that swinging and missing he drew just one walk against 22 strikeouts. A .347 in-play batting average and eight extra-base hits helped him produce good overall numbers.

As a response to Zunino’s hyper-aggressiveness, pitchers have thrown him fewer pitches in the strike zone. Since April, Zunino has cut his swing rate by ten points. That’s resulted in a higher walk rate of 5.5 percent. His contact rate has remained the same, and his strikeout rate over the last month and a half is a whopping 33.7 percent. Zunino’s in-play batting average has flattened out to .260 since April, and while he hit four home runs in May, he’s yet to leave the yard this month.

All in all, Zunino’s batting line is a little below average for the major league catcher. His swinging strike rate of 17.8 percent is the 4th highest of any hitter with at least 200 plate appearances. The updated projection systems see a few more walks and not so many strikeouts, but with a little less power, this is where ZiPS and Steamer think he’s at offensively. Perhaps that’s a little disappointing to Mariners fans, but it’s not as if Zunino tore up AAA last year. In fact, he produced a .227/.297/.478 line with a 28.8 percent strikeout rate. This is just his third professional season, and he turned 23 just before Opening Day.

Zunino has excelled with regards to pitch-framing. StatCorner has him as the 4th best catcher in the major leagues at nine runs above average. That’s a vast improvement over Mariners catchers from previous years. His backup, John Buck, rates as one of the worst in the game both on a cumulative and a per game basis. He’s caught all 16 of Felix Hernandez‘ starts, and King Felix has seen a bump in his called strike rate. Perhaps as a result of Zunino’s framing ability, Felix has thrown 16.4 percent of his pitches in the bottom third of the zone, an increase of two percentage points from last year. Hisashi Iwakuma has followed suit by throwing 19.8 percent of his pitches in the lower third as compared to 16.7 percent last season. Iwakuma is having an excellent year, and Hernandez is having his best season yet. Both have trimmed their already low walk rates.

Zunino’s offensive production has been subpar, and it could be that his contact issues will prevent him from becoming more than an average or slightly worse hitter. However, his defensive chops have really stood out, making him an above-average catcher on the whole. If it’s possible, he’s both underperforming and underappreciated.

Felix Hernandez Dissects the Rays

FelixSeattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez has been one of the best and most durable pitchers in baseball since his first full season, which came at the age of 20. His dominance has been such that it’s almost taken for granted. This year, the M’s hurler might be having his best season ever.

With the possible exception of his perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays two years ago, King Felix had perhaps his best outing on Sunday against the Rays. In the third inning, the Rays broadcast crew remarked that Hernandez wasn’t as sharp as they’d seen him, a statement which they recanted the next inning.

At the end of the day, Felix went seven shutout innings, facing 26 hitters. He struck out 15 of those hitters, while allowing just four hits and one walk. His single game FIP and xFIP were -0.78 and -0.22, respectively. Back in 2011 he managed a -0.22 FIP in an eight inning start against the San Diego Padres, a game in which he notched 13 strikeouts without issuing a walk. Never before had he posted a negative xFIP, and no other starting pitcher has done that this year. Felix struck out at least one hitter each inning, and struck out the side three times. Furthermore, he did that with just 100 pitches. It was the fewest pitches in a 15 strikeout game since at least 1988.

Overall Hernandez garnered 20 whiffs on his 100 pitches, the bulk of which came via his changeup. He threw the pitch 43 times, and Rays hitters swung 23 times, and on all but ten of those swings they came up empty. It wasn’t quite Opening Day where the Los Angeles Angels missed on 17 of their 20 swings against the change, but it was close. The other seven whiffs were sprinkled between his sinker, curveball and slider.

Hernandez’ swinging strike rate is more than two percentage points higher than last season. The whiff rate on his changeup is just shy of 29 percent, which if four percentage points higher than last year. When hitters swing they are missing half the time, and when they make contact it has a 73 percent ground ball rate. Also, the overall whiff rate on his slider isn’t higher than usual, but that’s because hitters aren’t swinging at the pitch as frequently. It has a whiff/swing rate on par with the change. Hitters have always chased a lot of pitches against Hernandez due to all the movement, but this year he’s getting a career-high 37.0 percent O-Zone swing rate. That’s resulted in a 4.4 percent walk rate despite the 9th lowest zone rate among qualified pitcher. Oh, he also has the lowest FIP by almost half a run and the lowest xFIP.

2014 could be Hernandez’ best year. We’ve marveled at how he’s managed to post such excellent numbers despite diminishing fastball velocity, and now some of the velo is back, while the secondary stuff just keeps getting better. Masahiro Tanaka is having a sensational debut season, Chris Sale continues to dominate, and Yu Darvish and Clayton Kershaw are as good as ever. But, King Felix has at least as good a claim to being the best pitcher in baseball as any of them.

Roenis Elias, a Pleasant Surprise

RoenisIt wasn’t supposed to be like this. Going into the season, the Seattle Mariners expected to have Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma atop the rotation. Erasmo Ramirez would occupy a spot, and highly touted prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton would fill out the Opening Day rotation. Beyond that, Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan could start if needed. However, if even the best-laid plans go awry, then surely poorly-laid ones do as well. Iwakuma hurt his finger, Walker suffered through shoulder soreness, and Maurer dealt with a back injury. Accordingly, Roenis Elias, a 25 year-old Cuban left-hander who had not pitched above Double-A, made the team.

Two months later, Iwakuma is back, but Walker is still a ways off, Paxton suffered a lat injury after making two starts, and Ramirez and Maurer have been predictably ineffective. Not only has Elias held onto his rotation spot, he has thrived. After shutting out the Detroit Tigers on Sunday, Elias has the second-highest fWAR of Mariners starting pitchers, and only Hernandez and Paxton have a lower FIP than his 3.80 mark. All in all, the lefty has been a pleasant surprise.

Prospect Insider’s Brendan Gawloski offered a review of Elias just before Opening Day, telling fans to temper their expectations for the young left-hander. Gawloski predicted that Elias would have trouble with right-handed bats due to his slurvy breaking ball and the lack of bite on his changeup. Likewise, Steamer and ZiPS projection systems figured him to be a replacement-level player. Finally, the left-hander did not appear among Baseball America’s top-30 Mariners prospects.

The slurve and changeup have both been useful pitches for Elias, who is also showing an average fastball velocity of 92 miles per hour, a figure that only six left-handed starting pitchers can best. His slurve, which is Elias’ most frequently used secondary pitch, has a whiff rate of 15 percent, and hitters are missing on 36 percent of their swings. When batters do put the pitch into play, they’re beating it into the ground, as shown by the 64 percent ground ball rate.

Contrary to earlier reports, Elias’ changeup has shown good depth and bite. It’s ground ball rate matches that of his slurve, and the whiff rate is only a little behind. Overall, Elias has registered a solid 48 percent ground ball rate, and despite concerns about his ability to miss bats, he has a league average 9.0 percent swinging strike rate, and a 21.3 percent strikeout rate.

Furthermore, Elias has been able to keep opposite-handed hitters in check. Thus far right-handers have hit .258/.344/.404 against Elias, compared to .216/.278/.380 for left-handed bats. Looking a little deeper, Elias has a 4.44 FIP against righties and a 2.73 FIP against lefties though a look at xFIP reveals a less drastic 3.97 and 3.08 split. Overall he’s been good enough against right-handed bats and very tough on lefties.

Interestingly enough, Elias’ updated Steamer projection is almost an exact match for Walker’s. Both are projected for an ERA that is just a shade above 4.00. That’s not to say that Elias is better than Walker. After all, these projections are working mainly off minor league data, and they’re least reliable for players in this stage of their career. Rather, it goes to show how much the left-hander has exceeded expectations. In a rotation that’s perilously thin, he’s pitched like a solid No. 3.

It’s a little over a third of the way through the season, and the Mariners are sitting at .500 despite giving 24 starts to four separate pitchers that have each been below replacement level. The Oakland Athletics are running away with the division, but the Steamer projected standings give the Mariners a 22.4 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. Healthy returns from Paxton and Walker might be enough to keep the M’s in contention when the other shoe drops with regards to Young’s ERA.

The Evolution of Jeff Samardzija

SharkChicago Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija is leading the major leagues in ERA. Of course ERA isn’t everything, and in a ten start sample, it does a very poor job of predicting the future. But, by almost any measure the big right-hander has been one of the 20 best pitchers in baseball. Samardzija, who will almost certainly be dealt at the trade deadline or before, was connected with the Seattle Mariners in trade rumors this offseason, but nothing materialized.

The Cubs hurler has made some changes to his game, and they appear to be paying off. He’s swapping strikeouts for control. With a fastball, slider, cutter and splitfinger, the Shark possesses an excellent four pitch repertoire. In his first two seasons as a starting pitcher, he posted an 11.2 percent swinging strike rate, which sandwiched him between Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander for the 7th best in the major leagues. His splitter, which had a swinging strike rate of 24 percent, provided a good chunk of those whiffs.

Of course, the splitter can be a very difficult pitch to locate in the strike zone. For his career, the Shark’s split has a 30 percent zone rate, a number that was down to 25 percent last season. His overall zone rate was only 47.9 percent, significantly below the major league average. Accordingly, his walk rate of 8.5 percent was the 16th highest mark among qualified starting pitchers.

This year, Samardzija has swapped out some of his splitters for more heaters, particularly those of the two-seam variety. Not surprisingly, he locates his two and four seamers in the strike zone more than any of his other pitches. Also, he’s throwing first-pitch strikes at a much higher rate than in the last two years. Shark currently ranks 7th in the major leagues in first-pitch strike rate at 67.7 percent, an eight point increase on the previous season. First-pitch strike rate has a base correlation with walk rate of -0.60 and the six pitchers ahead of him have a combined walk rate of 5.1 percent.

With all these first pitch strikes, Samardzija is getting more quick outs than ever before. Here’s a table showing how often Samardzija got an out within the first two pitches of the at-bat.

Year# of 1 and 2 pitch outs% of PAs

This year he’s 6th in that category, behind pitchers such as Adam Wainwright and Sonny Gray. Overall he’s throwing 40 percent of his pitches while ahead in the count, and just 13 percent of his pitches while behind in the count, both improvements on the last two seasons. It might be a smaller difference than you would think, but BABIP and HR/FB ratios go down when the pitcher is ahead in the count.

Furthermore, those two and four seamers generate more ground balls. In 2012, Samardzija threw his four seamer more than twice as often as his two seamer. Last year the ratio was basically even. This season, he’s throwing 40 percent two seamers and 17 percent four seamers. As a consequence, his ground ball rate has increased from 45 percent to 48 percent and now 52 percent. The increased ground ball rate along with a HR/FB ratio of 3.9 percent, has allowed him to drop his FIP from 3.77 to 2.87.

The average velocity on Shark’s two and four seam fastballs is down relative to this time last year, though in his last start against the New York Yankees, his four seamer clocked in at 96.4, and his sinker at 96.6 according to Brooks Baseball. Samardzija isn’t striking out as many guys as last season, but he’s making up for it with a lower walk rate and a higher ground ball rate. Eventually, he’ll give up more home runs and batters will have more than a .198 BABIP with runners on base and his ERA might creep up into the 2 or 3 range.

Prospect Insider has been calling Samardzija an ace since the offseason, and now that his ERA is better than his strong peripherals, it’s hard to disagree. When the Cubs decide to deal him, he’ll command a big return.

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