Results tagged ‘ PITCHf/x ’

Inside the 2013 Cubs: Scott Baker

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Cubs got their offseason started with a value play last week, signing veteran right-hander Scott Baker to a one-year contract with a reported base salary of $5.5 million. Baker spent his entire career with the Twins, who selected him out of Oklahoma State in the second round of the 2003 draft. When healthy, he was often one of Minnesota’s top two or three starters. Various ailments, however, kept him under 200 innings in all but one season, and he missed all of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery. Still, Baker could be a bargain if he’s able to recover his form.

That’s because few major league pitchers have been able to match Baker’s command of the strike zone. Though he needs another 42 innings to make Baseball-Reference’s leaderboard, Baker’s career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.4 would rank 22nd best all time. His K/BB improved each year from 2008-11 largely because of a strikeout rate that reached its peak of 22 percent in 2011 (MLB average is roughly 18 percent). During that season, he had a career-best 3.15 ERA, a big drop from the 4.49 and 4.37 marks of the prior two seasons. He did it by making the most of a fairly limited arsenal, according to PITCHf/x data tagged by

There are some caveats to Baker, however. He’s an extreme fly-ball pitcher, who may face some challenges when playing against Wrigley Field’s notorious headwind. (Remember Ted Lilly? The two have identical career GB/FB rates of 0.53.) Baker is comfortable locating his fastball up and has generally done a decent job of limiting home runs, but his margin for error will decrease if his strikeout rate goes down. Theo Epstein acknowledged there is risk to pitchers coming back from elbow surgery, though historical evidence suggests the 31-year-old Baker may be able to regain some of the velocity he lost during the 2011 season.

Epstein also said Baker is on track to be ready for Opening Day, but the front office will monitor his rehab and won’t be concerned if he needs more time. At the very least, Cubs fans can expect a pitcher who will throw strikes, hit his spots and show veteran pitchability in the middle of the rotation.

2012 Player Profile: Alberto Cabrera

Alberto Cabrera could get a shot in the starting rotation in 2013. (Photo by Stephen Green)

2012 Innings Pitched: 21.2 (25 G, 0 GS)
2012 Pitching (all per 9 IP): 6.23 RA, 6.6 H, 7.5 BB, 0.4 HR, 11.2 K
2012 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs): 0.1
2013 Contract Status: Signed (Pre-Arb, First Year)
Repertoire (Avg. MPH): Four-seam (94), Two-seam (94), Slider (83), Change (87)

If there’s a project worth keeping an eye on for 2013, it may be the one that pitching coach Chris Bosio started with Alberto Cabrera this season.

Bosio focused on making simple, yet fundamental, changes in pitchers this past Spring Training—things like grips, arm angles, pressure on the landing foot and other small tweaks that can unlock a pitcher’s potential. Cabrera was one of his earliest success stories, as Bosio had the (then) 23-year-old change his sinker grip, producing immediate results. The velocity of the pitch jumped into the mid- to high 90s, and it began darting away from left-handed hitters a lot like Steve Carlton’s slider, in the words of Bosio himself.

Now the Cubs feel they may have a future rotation candidate in Cabrera, who is slated to be stretched out in Triple-A Iowa to start next season.

There’s a lot to like with Cabrera, who was signed as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 2005. He stands 6-foot-4, has a live arm and throws with a free-and-easy delivery. In his first tour through the majors last season, he also showed an effective third pitch with his change-up.

He’s taken his lumps at every level along the way, but he’s shown the ability to bounce back and improve his second time through. The 2012 season represented his best yet in a number of areas, including a career-best 3.11 ERA in 55 innings between Double-A and Triple-A.

Nowhere was Cabrera’s improvement more apparent than in his strikeout rate, which doubled from about 15 percent a year ago to more than 30 percent this season. And he was able to more or less maintain that standard in his brief major league stint, in which he struck out more than 27 percent of batters faced. Meanwhile, his walk rate halved from 10.3 percent to 5.7 percent, though he struggled with free passes in the majors. But the development was apparent across several of his component stats.

Let’s take a quick look at Cabrera’s PITCHf/x data, using the proprietary tags and tools provided by and Baseball Prospectus (player card). It’s a limited set of information based on just 21 major league innings, but it does provide a glimpse of his relative strengths against batters on both sides of the plate.

Against right-handed hitters, Cabrera largely relies on his four-seam fastball and slider, using power stuff to blow away hitters. He deals with left-handers, on the other hand, by mixing in a hard change-up that fades away from the batter like his sinker, but it travels about seven miles per hour slower. He can also mix in his slider, attacking the batter inside and tying up swings.

The Cubs feel Cabrera may be more ready than ever for another shot at the rotation, where the organization tried him in the minor leagues up until this year. With the right-hander starting to truly unlock his live arm, it’s a project worth keeping an eye on.

2012 Player Profile: Carlos Marmol

Carlos Marmol recovered his velocity and fastball/slider mix in his second-half rebound. (Photo by Stephen Green)

2012 Innings Pitched: 55.1 (61 G, 0 GS)
2012 Pitching (all per 9 IP): 3.90 RA, 6.5 H, 7.3 BB, 0.7 HR, 11.7 K
2012 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs): 0.2
2013 Contract Status: Signed (through 2013)
Repertoire (Avg. MPH): Four-seam (94), Slider (85)

We saw both the good and the bad with Carlos Marmol in 2012—so which version will we see next season? That’s a tough question to answer, but after a great second half, the Cubs closer looks like he’s piecing together some of his old form.

The 2012 season was a bit of a roller coaster for the (then) 29-year-old closer. Marmol struggled with his command early on, lost the closer’s job in May and suffered a thigh strain that sidelined him for a couple of weeks. By mid-June, he did step back into the ninth inning role, where he saved 18 of his last 19 opportunities and had a 2.09 ERA. Pitching coach Chris Bosio worked to simplify things for Marmol, including getting him to stop shaking off his catchers for one game in early July. The experiment was a success, and the right-hander said it was a lesson that would stick with him.

Getting their closer right is important to the Cubs, who hope to rebuild their bullpen from within as they divert most of their resources to starting pitching. Since Marmol became a full-time big leaguer in 2007, he’s picked up 115 of the team’s 231 saves, including 92 in the past three seasons as the primary closer. His 32.7 strikeout percentage ranks seventh among MLB relievers who have pitched at least 100 innings since 2007, and his .167 batting average against is baseball’s fourth-best mark. On the flip side, his 15.3 walk percentage ranks last and has been a persistent problem in recent years.

Let’s take a closer look with PITCHf/x data, using the proprietary tags and tools provided by and Baseball Prospectus (player card).

Marmol fits in the category of two-pitch power relievers—the kind who trust the quality rather than quantity of their stuff. He throws a mid-90s four-seam fastball that has some run and a sweeping slider that, at its best, is one of the game’s true wipeout pitches. Early in his career, Marmol would throw his slider as much as his fastball early in the count, particularly against right-handed hitters. But he, via his catchers and coaches, has become a bit more conventional in his usage. This season, he threw a fastball in more than two-thirds of his first pitches before turning heavily to the slider when ahead in the count. His patterns versus right- and left-handed hitters are similar.

The nature of his slider has changed a bit in the last few seasons, as it’s lost some of its two-plane depth. In 2011, Marmol started throwing a smaller version of his slider—manager Dale Sveum said in February that he considered it a cutter—that somewhat blurred the large velocity and movement distinctions between his two pitches. That was scrapped this season. PITCHf/x movement data shows that the 2012 version of his slider ended up being more of a downward-biting pitch (particularly in relation to his fastball).

Marmol also threw his slider harder than ever before—reaching more than 85 mph on average by season’s end. But it’s important to note he was throwing his hardest overall since the beginning of 2010. This increase in velocity coincided with large improvements in all of his numbers, including hits, walks, strikeouts and runs allowed. That’s a good sign if Marmol can carry it into next season.

One thing we cannot evaluate with available PITCHf/x data is command—in other words, the ability to hit a particular spot (as opposed to just the strike zone in general). Of course, that’s always going to be a key to Marmol’s success, and anecdotally, many thought it improved later in the year.

Marmol is now entering the final season of a three-year contract extension that bought out his first year of free-agent eligibility. It’s important for him to prove he can build on his second-half recovery when he takes the mound in 2013.

2012 Player Profile: Starlin Castro

Castro has proved himself as the Cubs’ top player and will be in Chicago through the end of the decade. (Photo by Stephen Green)

2012 Positions Played: SS (100%)
2012 Batting (AVG/OBP/SLG): .283/.323/.430 in 691 PA
2012 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs): 3.3
2013 Contract Status: Signed (through 2019, plus club option)

When Theo Epstein joined the Cubs, he said the organization would focus on acquiring impact talent. He did, however, know he had one out of the box in shortstop Starlin Castro.

In August, the Cubs locked up Castro through the end of the decade, buying up three years of his free-agency eligibility (with the option to snag a fourth, in 2020). The idea behind an extension like this is simple: The player gains security from the risks of injury and underperformance, while the team in turn gets cost certainty and the chance to hold a true bargain contract.

Castro’s extension has an additional feature, however—a relatively flat salary structure. The reported annual salaries range from $5 million in the first year to $11 million in the last. The takeaway is that Castro’s contract shouldn’t ever become a burden to the team. It’s common for general managers to backload contracts so that they can maximize their payroll flexibility in the present while, presumably, planning for the future. Instead, Epstein and Jed Hoyer have sent a real signal here of their long-term thinking and intentions to build a consistent winner.

Since Castro’s hit tool already is so strong—somewhere around plus-plus, or a 70 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale—his approach becomes the key to unlocking another level in his game. And there’s reason to believe there was real progress made in that area under manager Dale Sveum and hitting coach James Rowson.

The 22-year-old’s walk rate by month tells a visible story of improvement. Entering 2012, Castro’s career standard was just over 5 percent, and he was trailing that below-average figure pretty well over the season’s first three months. But starting in July, he made tangible strides in his plate discipline that brought him closer to the NL non-pitcher average of 8 percent walks. His strikeout rate showed an opposite trend overall, peaking at 18 percent in June before dropping to 14, 16 and finally 9 in the last three months.

Let’s take a closer look with PITCHf/x location data, as presented by and Baseball Prospectus (player card), to see if we can identify a difference in Castro’s first- and second-half approaches.

In the first half of the season, Castro was susceptible to swinging at any pitches middle-in to inside, including those off the plate or above/below the zone. In the second half, he cut his chase percentage in these areas significantly, to the tune of about 13 percentage points. He correspondingly let loose on more pitches in the zone, and he did more damage on pitches low and in.

(Note: The outside edges here are to scale—so they include pitches within about seven inches of the strike zone, not further.)

Another part of Castro’s game that appeared to improve this season was his defense, where he showed above-average range and more consistent throwing. He got to balls at a higher rate than before, especially relative to the league. A lot of that credit goes to Sveum, bench coach Jamie Quirk and the front-office analysts whose intel better positioned Cubs fielders than in the past. But their indirect effect on Castro’s improved throwing was also apparent. In 2012, Castro made a throwing error on 1.7 percent of his chances (assists plus throwing errors). That was half the rate from 2011.

Now, Castro didn’t universally show improvement this year, as his .283 batting average was the lowest of his career—and it brought his on-base percentage down with it. But there appears to be meaningful under-the-hood development. It’s a positive trend that the Cubs organization is betting continues over the next several seasons.

2012 Player Profile: James Russell

James Russell stepped up in the late innings and proved he can pitch to more than just lefties. (Photo by Stephen Green)

2012 Innings Pitched: 69.1 (77 G, 0 GS)
2012 Pitching (all per 9 IP): 3.63 RA, 8.7 H, 3.0 BB, 0.6 HR, 7.1 K
2012 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs): 0.7
2013 Contract Status: Signed (Arb eligible, First Year)
Repertoire (Avg. MPH): Four-seam (90), Two-seam (89), Cutter (87), Slider (82), Change (82), Curve (74)

After two consecutive successful years in the Cubs bullpen, James Russell has proven he’s no one-trick pony. But for a failed, emergency trial in the starting rotation last season, Russell has settled into one of the bullpen’s most vital roles: A late-inning lefty who can get both lefties and righties out.

Russell’s role was elevated in 2012 largely because of the Cubs bullpen makeover. Sean Marshall was traded to the Reds as he approached free agency, Kerry Wood retired in May, and it took half the season for Carlos Marmol to recover the closer role fully. As you’ll see in the November issue of Vine Line, Russell and Shawn Camp were basically the No. 2 relievers this season (based on average Leverage Index), with Russell getting a greater share of the team’s critical innings as the season went along. He became a more substantial bridge to Marmol as well. In 2011, Russell faced just one batter in 20 percent of his appearances; in 2012, he did that in just seven of 77 games.

Let’s take a closer look with PITCHf/x data, using the proprietary tags and tools provided by and Baseball Prospectus (player card).

Against left-handers, Russell becomes more or less a two-pitch lefty, primarily relying on his low three-quarters arm angle to sweep sliders away. He also pitches backward. He threw a breaking ball 76 percent of the time on first pitches and went with 39 percent fastballs when ahead in the count. The first-pitch slider seems to work because it resulted in a ball only 24 percent of the time—and in a 0-1 count on 62 percent of first pitches.

On the other hand, you can see Russell’s roots as a starter in how he attacks righties. The overall mix of hard and soft stuff (blue and green, respectively) is about half and half, and his cutter, two-seamer and change-up all play a more significant role. Using his full repertoire gives him a continuum of speeds and movement.

Against both lefties and righties, Russell pitches almost exclusively away—and he does this more than the typical left-hander. His splits this year were virtually equivalent. He allowed a .262/.309/.417 slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) against lefties and a .250/.317/.419 line against righties. The average platoon advantage for 2012 NL lefty pitchers versus lefty hitters was 39 points of average, 39 points of on-base percentage and 87 points of slugging percentage.

Russell’s strikeout percentage was about 19 percent against both. He did walk 9.4 percent of righties faced, as compared to 5.4 percent of lefties. But let’s control for things a bit better than that. Manager Dale Sveum asked his reliever to intentionally walk a right-handed hitter seven times this year. Remove those plate appearances, and Russell’s walk rate against righties dips to 5.7 percent. His overall walks also dips from a borderline-high 3.0 per nine innings to a quite-good 1.7 per nine.

Is the Cubs’ lack of a platoon split sustainable? Not necessarily—Russell had a more typical advantage against lefties in 2011, and we’re just too early in his career to know which is real. But the versatility of his repertoire is convincing. He can leverage his arm angle against same-sided hitters, while keeping righties guessing. But it’s his ability to command the ball that makes him so effective.

Russell has three full years of service time, so he enters his first year of arbitration in 2013 and will get a modest raise. The Cubs have him under team control through at least 2015.

2012 Player Profile: Travis Wood

Travis Wood relied heavily on his fastballs this season. (Photo by Stephen Green)

2012 Innings Pitched: 156 (26 G-26 GS)
2012 Pitching (all per 9 IP): 4.62 RA, 7.7 H, 3.1 BB, 1.4 HR, 6.9 K
2012 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs): 0.7
2013 Contract Status: Signed (Pre-Arb, Third Year)
Repertoire (Avg. MPH): Four-seam (90), Two-seam (89), Cutter (87), Slider (80), Change (80), Curve (74)

Travis Wood came a long way in his first year as a Cub, playing himself into a key, middle-of-the-rotation spot in 2013.

Wood was acquired in one of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer’s first moves with the Cubs organization. The left-hander was part of a three-player package for set-up man Sean Marshall. (Outfielder Dave Sappelt and minor league infielder Ronald Torreyes also came to Chicago.) The goals were explicitly stated: Epstein and Hoyer wanted to 1) bolster the rotation’s depth and 2) flip a player who was one year away from free agency for players who would be under team control for several more seasons.

In terms of the latter, Wood won’t be eligible for free agency until 2017 at the earliest, giving the Cubs someone who can hold one of the Nos. 3-5 spots in the rotation. And regarding the pitching depth, Wood actually started the season as an extra man, spending most of April and May in Triple-A to iron out command issues. Manager Dale Sveum said that Wood didn’t just address his walk rate—which improved only marginally from 8.6 percent in 2011 to 8.3 percent this year—he also developed an entirely new way to attack hitters.

“He’s able to pitch on his arm side now, where he always pitched to his glove side, and he’s able to use his back-door cutter now instead of just throwing his fastball cutter inside,” Sveum told Vine Line in July. “It’s opening up the whole inside of the plate. He’d never done that in his life before.”

Let’s again take a closer look with PITCHf/x data, using the proprietary tags and tools provided by and Baseball Prospectus (player card).

Wood is a six-pitch pitcher who leans heavily on his hard stuff (blue), throwing about 75 percent fastballs against both right- and left-handed hitters. But there’s still a significant difference within the hard/soft mix: He throws many more two-seam and cut fastballs against righties, which fade away and run in, respectively. Wood then builds in a change-up to keep batters off balance.

Against lefties, he instead looks to leverage the velocity, location and deception on his four-seam fastball. And when he gets ahead in the count, he goes to his slider, which dives away from a same-sided hitter.

Though Wood’s 4.27 ERA was a shade below average overall, his season suffered from a stretch of three horrible starts (22 ER, 9 HR, 15.2 IP) at the end of July. In his 23 other starts, he had a 3.33 ERA. He’s a true fly ball pitcher, and he experienced a huge jump in home runs per fly ball (from about 6% in 2010-11 to 12% in 2012), largely due to those three games. If he can lower that HR/FB rate once again—through better luck or actual skill—he would already have a great chance of improving his ERA in 2013.

2012 Player Profile: Matt Garza

Matt Garza altered his pitch selection this season, becoming more effective with his slider. (Photo by Stephen Green)

2012 Innings Pitched: 103.2 (18 G-18 GS)
2012 Pitching (all per 9 IP): 4.17 RA, 7.8 H, 2.8 BB, 1.3 HR, 8.3 K
2012 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs): 1.2
2013 Contract Status: Signed (Arbitration, Third Year)
Repertoire (Avg. MPH): Four-seam (94), Sinker (94), Change-up (86), Slider (85), Curve (76)

Few major league pitchers show Matt Garza’s fire. And it doesn’t matter if he’s fronting the Cubs rotation or being a top-step teammate. Unfortunately, he had to do a bit too much of the latter in 2012.

It could be said that it was an off year for Garza, but a large part of that was in comparison to his lofty first year in a Cubs uniform. He also missed almost the entire second half of the season due to a stress fracture in his elbow and finished with a 3.91 ERA, a few steps off the 3.32 mark he had in his Cubs debut. This will be an important offseason for the Cubs: Garza is under team control for one more year before he becomes eligible for free agency. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have publicly stated that they’d like to continue pursuing an extension with the soon-to-be 29-year-old, while also saying they’ll keep their options open until that happens.

Garza has perhaps been most notable for how he has reinvented himself as a pitcher since being acquired in a trade two winters ago. He’s induced significantly more ground balls, struck out more hitters and issued fewer free passes since coming over from the Rays.

We can deduce some of the reasons by taking a closer look with PITCHf/x data, as tagged by and Baseball Prospectus (player card). Our graphs to the right present pitch usage as variants of fastballs (blue) and offspeed pitches (green).

In 2011, his first year as a Cub, Garza threw 62 percent more sliders and twice as many change-ups than he did in 2010. While he more or less went away from the change this season, his slider remains his wipe-out pitch. Garza got swings and misses more than 20 percent of the time with his slider, part of a consistent improvement in the effectiveness of that pitch over his big league career.

Interestingly, this year, Garza also started throwing sinkers to right-handed batters at a much higher rate than he did in 2011. That’s the opposite sort of trend we discussed last week with Jeff Samardzija, who tends to lean on pitches that run away from lefties or righties. Instead, Garza went after righties by busting them inside, and he ended up with the highest ground ball percentage of his career (51%).

He primarily uses his other fastball, a four-seamer, to get ahead of hitters, and he had better control of it (less balls, more called strikes) than he has at any point of his career. Not coincidentally, when the ball wasn’t put into play on the first pitch, he has recorded an 0-1 count 59 percent of the time while in a Cubs uniform—compared to 52 percent with the Rays.

On the flip side, Garza didn’t help himself at all in the field, where he committed 10 errors (eight throwing) in the last two seasons. He also gave up an abnormally high—for him—rate of home runs per fly ball, at 16 percent. That’s a statistic known to fluctuate more randomly than a pitcher’s talent, so we’d expect his rate next year to “regress” back to his 10 percent career rate. A few more long fly balls caught at the wall would lead to a tangible decrease in ERA once again, particularly with Garza’s other components looking solid.

Will Garza be a long-term piece for the Cubs building effort or one used to acquire more organizational depth? One thing is for certain: As Hoyer said in Spring Training, the Cubs “need more Matt Garzas, not less Matt Garzas.” It’s easy to see why.

2012 Player Profile: Jeff Samardzija

Jeff Samardzija showed promise in his first major league season as a starter. (Photo by Stephen Green)

2012 Innings Pitched: 174.2 (28 G-28 GS)
2012 Pitching (all per 9 IP): 4.07 RA, 8.1 H, 2.9 BB, 1.0 HR, 9.3 K
2012 Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs): 3.4
2013 Contract Status: Signed (Arbitration, First Year)
Repertoire (Avg. MPH): Four-seam (96), Sinker (95), Cutter (92), Splitter (86), Slider (85)

Perhaps nobody had higher expectations for Jeff Samardzija’s return to the rotation than the pitcher himself.

Samardzija was the Cubs’ most durable, and frequently most effective, starting pitcher this season. And he showed dramatic improvement in several areas that portend continued success.

Chief among them was his improved control. He walked just 7.8 percent of the batters he faced, significantly lower than the 13 percent rate he had in 2011, when he had a successful year out of the bullpen. His strikeouts increased from 23 percent to 25 percent, and his ground ball rate went from 43 percent to 47 percent. Samardzija leveraged his stuff better than before, even while doubling his innings before the Cubs shut him down after his Sept. 9 start.

To take a closer look at his arsenal, we’ll leverage PITCHf/x data as tagged by the excellent folks at Brooks Baseball and Baseball Prospectus (player card). Our graphs here present pitch usage as variants of fastballs (blue) and offspeed (green).

Both of Samardzija’s fastballs sit in the mid- to high-90s, and his sinker is made even more impressive by his ability to run a few extra inches of movement while matching the velocity of his four-seamer. Overall, he likes to move pitches away from batters—using more sinkers and splitters that fade away from lefties, while employing the cutter and slider against righties.

The splitter is Samardzija’s No. 1 weapon, and his improved command of his fastball has made the split even more devastating. Samardzija used the splitter, which averages 86 MPH, 20 percent of the time versus lefties and 12 percent against righties. He rarely threw it on the first pitch but employed it a third of the time when ahead in the count.

And there was specific improvement with the pitch too: Comparing 2011 to 2012, his splitter was called for a ball less often (46% to 37%), got more swings (49% to 59%) and got more whiffs when a batter did swing (43% to 46%). The last number has been part of a career improvement—in 2009 and 2010, Samardzija’s whiff/swing rate on the splitter was 24 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

All of which is to say that the right-hander’s improvement has been real and is likely sustainable. Samardzija, who turns 28 in January, is under team control through the 2015 season. He still stands to improve his consistency, but digging into the components of his 2012 campaign suggests he could be a workhorse atop the rotation for years to come.