Friday, May 28, 2010

What is behind Nick Blackburn's improvement?

When April concluded, Nick Blackburn was struggling. Despite escaping the month with a respectable 1-1 record, the right-hander was splattered for a .653 slugging percentage thanks to 16 extra base hits including six home runs. In addition to the hard-hit balls, Blackburn was not the same precision-guided pitcher, often falling behind hitters and eventually walking them with a higher frequency then we have come to expect (eight walks in 23.2 innings). Surely this was not the same Nick Blackburn from a year ago but rather a doppelganger equipped with the same luxurious beard.

As the month concluded, Blackburn revealed that he was experiencing elbow discomfort, needed to tinker with his mechanics and then was sidelined for a family emergency for 10 days. When he returned, the tendinitis pain was gone and his mechanical kinks were ironed out. After his first start in the month, manager Ron Gardenhire told Sid Hartman that:

"We had the little issue where his mechanics were a little out of whack, and you know what, now he's fine. He's actually healthy and his mechanics are good again. We got his arm, got that little situation out of there, and he's throwing the ball really good. It's sinking again."
Whether it is the mechanical adjustment or just a healthy elbow, Blackburn has been a far better pitcher as of late. He is 5-0 with a 2.65 ERA in his five May starts, giving up just nine extra base hits and only five walks in 37.1 innings of work, making a resounding pitch for AL Pitcher of the Month.
Part of the reason behind this improvement appears to be his ability to avoid locating pitches in the mid-section of the strike zone:
As you can deduce from the graph above (which is a shot of his average pitch locations) of last night’s game, Blackburn worked the Yankee lineup consistently at or just off of the corners of the strike zone. Combined with changing speeds regularly, this kept a strong lineup off-balanced for the duration of the game.
Compare that graph to the following graph depicting Blackburn’s locations against the Chicago White Sox on April 11th:
Blackburn’s offerings were clipping far too much of the plate, entering some Danger Zone air space. Predictably, the White Sox launched three home runs off of him in that game.
The tweaks and clean bill of health have allowed Blackburn to move pitches down in the zone and away from the middle of the plate, resulting in fewer hard-hit line drives and less long fly balls:
Line Drive Pct
Because he is consistently near the strike zone, Blackburn will undoubtedly give up numerous hits. After all, his 94% contact rate as well as his 42% in-play rate is currently the highest in baseball. The trick for the Twins righty is to avoid the heavier contact that goes for extra bases. This means keeping his pitches on the edge of the zone as he did against the Yankees. If he can continue to do so, Blackburn should be able to provide the Twins with quality starts throughout the rest of the season.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Selectivity and connectivity propelling Morneau's monster start

Without question, Justin Morneau is off to the best start of his career. He has been hitting pitchers so hard that he is probably violating some aspect of the Geneva Convention.


What has made Morneau so good in 2010? Almost every ball that the Twins first baseman connects with is on a violent trajectory but at the same time he is making opposing pitchers labor in almost every plate appearance. Morneau told Sid Hartman that he was making a concerted effort to not press too hard in the batter’s box:  


"Right now I'm trying to be patient, take what they give me and not make something out of an at-bat that isn't there. With [Michael] Cuddyer, [Jim]Thome, [Delmon] Young and all of those guys in the lineup hitting behind me, I feel if I get on base they can hit a home run just as easily as me swinging at a bad pitch and blooping something in."


The numbers certainly confirm Morneau’s testament. Compared to past seasons, he’s shown schoolmarm-ish discipline. Now an established veteran of nearly a decade, Morneau has been selective on pitches both outside and inside the strike zone while keeping his bat on his shoulder more:


Morneau’s Plate Discipline:

OOZ swing%

IZ swing%

Overall swing%














After chasing almost 30 percent of pitches out of the zone in 2008 and 2009, he’s trimmed the fat down to below the league’s average through almost two months of the season. Of course, pitchers have enabled this newfound discipline by pirouetting around the strike zone, attempting to avoid his heavy lumber by bending and changing speeds. In the past, a younger Morneau may have expanded the zone for the pitcher by reaching for an inferior pitch. This year’s model is swinging on his own terms which have translated to more favorable counts and a higher walk rate.


Likewise, the decision to throw fewer fastballs and even fewer strikes in general is presumably an attempt to tangle with the hitters down the order from Morneau rather than challenge the league’s best hitter. While the logic is sound in theory, in practice however this has been extremely advantageous for the Twins. First, this off-speed recourse has a rather nasty side-effect: Morneau is hitting it at a very good .392 clip with six of his 11 home runs coming off of non-fastball offerings. Secondly, the decision to pitch around Morneau has ultimately led to more runs. Coming into Sunday’s game, Morneau has been issued 33 free passes. On five of those occasions, he eventually scored.   


In addition to abstaining from the wayward pitches and embracing the higher dosage of off-speed stuff, Morneau has been increasingly particular about his in-zone pitches as well, taking more pitches for strikes. With this added quality-control, he has been able to hone in on his proverbial “pitch”. This has translated into more squarely hit balls.


Morneau’s batted balls:

Line Drive%

Ground Ball%

Fly Ball%










After beating the ball into the ground at a career 40 percent rate, he’s elevating it more this year – shooting more fly balls and line drives around the park instead of towards the turf. While one would like to see the grounders exchanged for line drives, as fly balls are typically the most frequent of the three to be converted into an out, Morneau has been exercising a fly ball BABIP nearly a 100 points higher than the league and his career average. Also, the depressed ground ball rate has also kept him from hitting into any double-plays in ’10 despite having baseball’s second-highest at-bats in double-play situations (48) behind teammate Michael Cuddyer (50).


Aside from the batted ball levels which may not be sustainable throughout the season’s duration and eventually regress back towards his career norms, clearly Morneau has implemented a sound approach at the plate and is capitalizing on it whenever he pulls the trigger. If the organization can refrain from wearing him out at the end of the year and keep him from his second-half swoon, Morneau could be a runaway for AL MVP.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Slowey slip, slidin' away?

Following yet another abridged start by Kevin Slowey on Monday in Toronto, Ron Gardenhire implored his marksman to throw to contact more. “That’s how he will get away from those 100-pitch, five inning performances,” Gardenhire said Monday night, “by making guys swing the bat.” In truth, opponents have been swinging just fine against the Twins righty. Slowey’s opposition is swinging at 48.8 percent of his pitches, well-above the 44.7 percent league-average.


Gardenhire continued by saying “[He needs to] pitch to contact better because he’s got great stuff and he can move the ball in and out. [He] just has to not try and be so fine and get them to hit the ball.” Likewise, contact does not see to be a problem for opposing batters either. According to, since ’08, Slowey’s swinging strike percentage has dropped from 8.6 to 7.7 to just 5.8 this year. His contact rate has jumped from 82.3 percent to 83.5 percent in ‘09 to his current 87.7 percent.


The Twins manager is correct in assuming Slowey has been too fine at his approach at the plate. As he has nibbled outside the zone more frequently this season, the right-hander has found himself behind hitters more often. In ’08 and ’09, opponents were in favorable counts 26 and 25 percent of the total plate appearances. This season, that percentage has increased to 32 percent. Seeing more favorable counts has led to more hittable pitches thus the higher contact rate.


But there’s more. Slowey’s not getting nearly the same movement on his pitches this year as he had up to this point in his career. Here is a view from above on Slowey’s pitch mix in 2010:


Compare that to what his assortment looked like in 2009:



Or to 2008:



In comparison to the two prior years, it is obvious that Slowey’s pitches in 2010 are flat and not experiencing the same type of movement. Furthermore, there is a glaring difference between several pitches in his repertoire, the most notable being his slider. In the previous two seasons, Slowey’s slider cut through the space in front of the plate from right-to-left and on average wound up outside of the strike zone.


Without the movement of the slider, Slowey has taken on heavy fire from right-handed opponents:



















Aside from his fastball, Slowey turns to his slider nearly 20 percent of the time when dealing to righties. Whereas in past seasons when he was able to avoid hard contact and occasionally rack up a strikeout, same-sided opponents have feasted on his assortment.


Perhaps this is lingering effects of his off-season wrist injury. After all, in February Slowey remarked that his throwing wrist had a new sensation and wasn’t certain if it would ever feel the same again. The wrist is heavily utilized in pitching to put various spin on the ball hence moving it in different directions in the zone. Without spin and deflection, Slowey’s margin for error decreases that much more. 

Without question, Slowey deserves several more starts to find the right track. However, if he continues to exit in the fifth inning and further tax the bullpen, Brian Duensing is always available as a potential replacement.


Friday, May 14, 2010

A different Delmon

As Delmon Young tore through pitching August onwards in 2009, the only accoutrement he was missing was a toned down approach at the plate: He drew just five walks in nearly 200 plate appearances. He was launching the ball all over the field but was still susceptible to hacking at it with total disregard for human life.  Of course, this was business-as-usual for Young, as he has been a low-walk, high-strikeout individual since, presumably, his inception.

Even though he completed the first month of the 2010 season with a less-than-stellar showing, posting a .222/.292/.381 batting line in 72 plate appearances, there were positives to dwell on. For instance, the undercurrent of that substandard line was 7 walks, a large quantity for someone who drew only 12 in 416 plate appearances in 2009. Then, the April showers gave way to May flowers as Young went ballistic on the baseball, hitting .419/.438/.677 in his 32 plate appearances and dropping line drives at a 21 percent clip.

Could this be the season Young final produces at his potential? There are several signs that it might:

Via Inside Edge

Over the course of his three years in a Twins uniform, Young has clearly trimmed his tenacity towards stray pitches. In the past, he’s been a non-discriminating free-swinger, leading to just 47 free passes in 2008-2009. To this point, he’s withheld the lumber on those pitches that would normally elude him. Although he is still hacking at out-of-zone pitches at a rate higher than average, he’s increased his contact on the less-than-choice offerings, driving the ball rather than missing it altogether.

Non-Competitive Chase%

Young has also improved in his ability to refrain from swinging at non-competitive pitches (like those that are cruising at 32,000 feet). These are offerings that have just as much of a likelihood of smacking against the limestone backstop as they do the catcher’s mitt. In his first season as a Twin, Young swung at 36 percent of those types of pitches, the second-highest in baseball behind teammate Carlos Gomez. In the following season, despite whittling it down to 35 percent, he led all of baseball in this dubious honor. So far this season, Young has kept his overzealous tendencies in check, chasing after 22 percent of non-competitive pitches. Again, keeping his bat cemented to his shoulder leads to more walks and/or better pitches to drive as he slips into hitter’s counts.

K% in PA that reach two-strikes

In addition to his embargo on laughable pitches, Young has shown signs of life in otherwise terminal counts. After laying down and striking out in 45 percent of his plate appearances that bled into two-strike territory in 2009, the left fielder has struck out in just 26 percent of plate appearances that has reached two strikes in 2010 (much better than the league’s 35 percent average).  This battle tendency is part of the reason Young has been able to trim his strikeout rate in half.
If he can maintain this pace without relapsing for the season’s duration, Young could eventually reach that teeming potential that has been associated with him since his draft day. People often forget that at 24 years old, Young is at an age that most prospects begin to find their way into the majors. Admittedly, he’s demonstrated little in the way of plate discipline up to this point, but at the same time, he’s been give little opportunity to let it develop as he has been accelerated through the minor league system. Understandably, the season is still in its infancy so there is plenty of baseball remaining for things to go awry – after all, Young has not shown that he can sustain such discipline over an entire season – yet these are all strong indicators that he has progressed at the plate.   

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mauer's getting aggressive on the outer-half

After reviewing the team’s data on their off-day, one stat drew my attention: Joe Mauer has expanded his hitting zone and is now following after a significantly higher amount of out-of-zone pitches. After offering at 21% of pitches outside the hitting zone in ’09, he’s up to 30% in the season’s initial month. This has not affected his performance per se; it’s simply a curious trend for the reputably selective Mauer.
Or maybe there’s a little more to that statistical jump.
It was no secret that in 2009, Joe Mauer loved to take the ball to the opposite field. When going away, Mauer was able to lift the ball at a 48% clip which resulted in 16 of his 28 home runs as well as a .911 slugging percentage.  Pitchers would enable Mauer’s habit by locating over half of their pitches in the outer-half of the plate, thereby playing to his strength. As opponents continued to pour pitches away to the Twins catcher, Mauer displayed some zen-like discipline, chasing after just 44 pitches (5% of his overall total) on balls thrown outside the strike zone away.
This year has seen slightly different results for Mauer. While he has leveled out the lofty fly balls -- his fly ball rate in that direction is down to 37% as his line drive rate has shot up to 44% -- he is still stroking the ball solidly. Despite not sneaking the ball over the fence with as much ease in the current season, Mauer is slugging .656 with six extra base hits to left. Similarly, Inside Edge’s numbers show that he is exercising a .244 well-hit average on pitches away while the rest of the league is hitting just .095. What is interesting, and probably reflective in his overall chase increase, is that he has swung at 25 pitches (17% of his overall total) on balls thrown outside the zone away.




Chase% (Away)



Fly Ball% (Opposite Field)



Line Drive% (Opposite Field)



Well-Hit Average (Away)



Via, and
Perhaps in the season’s early going Mauer has pressed a bit more and has expanded his hitting zone in hopes of reaching a few more seats in the outfield. Perhaps it simply is Mauer cheating a bit on the outer-half of the plate as pitchers are favoring that locale. Whatever the reason, he is still handling the pitch well, as indicative of his line drive rate and well-hit average, it is just that he is simply go after it more frequently.
To be fair, the bar was set freaky high in 2009 as Mauer completed his superhuman first month of his season  with a .414/.500/.838 batting line and 11 home runs – topping his 2008 tater total in just 30 days. Mauer’s home run totals were almost certain to subside from the prior season as his 20.4% HR/FB rate was well above his career norm. This year Mauer has been an image to his regular self. His batting average is high (.345), he is reaching base at a 40% clip (.406) and slugging at .500. With the exception of the heel injury that took him out for a handful of games, things appear business-as-usual with the Twins’ franchise player.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Did Nick Blackburn subtract a pitch?

Nick Blackburn’s triumphant return to the mound on Tuesday night was punctuated with a high percentage of groundballs, a downright retro-performance by his standards while lasting the duration of the ballgame. Earlier in the week, Blackburn was in vintage lawnmower form: Of the Tigers’ 33 balls that were put into play, he coaxed 21 of those to remain on the ground. This was a terrific sign for a pitcher who had opponents launching an all-out aerial assault in the prior month, tagging him for six home runs and a hefty .653 slugging percentage.

Sticking mostly with his two-seam fastball with sink action, Blackburn tested the integrity of Target Field’s sod all night long. Assisted by an infield slowed by rain, 19 of the 21 waterlogged grounders were converted to outs. Despite working through the lineup proficiently and using only 94 pitches, Blackburn was seemingly flirting with disaster right up until J.J. Hardy’s game-saving defensive decision as 11 other batted balls became hits.

After the game, Blackburn told LaVelle E Neal that he “threw just a handful of sliders because his slider wasn’t very sharp.” Not only was the slider apparently lacking bite on Tuesday, but it has been missing all season. According to the pitch f/x mapping over the past two years, there is a pitch that is noticeably absent in his repertoire:

What these two charts indicate is that Blackburn is no longer throwing his slider. As a pitcher that relies heavily on movement and command, losing one bullet in his arsenal is potentially problematic. In 2009, Blackburn was in the bottom five in the categories of Swinging Strikes, Contact Rate and Balls in Play. This season, Blackburn is the lowest among all qualified starters across the board:

Blackburn’s pitch results
Swing Strike%
Balls in Play%

The natural assumption is that the decline in these marks is a direct correlation to his discarded slider. And that would be fairly accurate. In 2009, Blackburn’s slider - with a 10% whiff rate - was his pitch most likely to receive a swing-and-miss. This season he has been filling this void with more hittable fastballs and changeups thus the higher contact totals.

Blackburn has always been the socialist pitcher who regularly redistributes the outs to his fellow defenders yet his strikeouts per 9 innings has fallen from the concerning 4.29 in ’09 to a spit-takingly low 2.48 in ’10. Although he is not anything remotely similar to a strikeout pitcher (a career 4.4 K/9 coming into this season), Blackburn still needs to maintain some level of respectability in this department. More balls put between the chalk lines also creates more opportunities for hits, which is a nasty precursor for runs. Reestablishing his slider could help elevate his strikeout total and reduce the amount of balls in play.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Span's hand placement.

On Friday, I documented Denard Span’s obnoxiously large groundball rate that has skewed from his typical career marks. After hitting under 54% of his batted balls as grounders in his first two seasons at the major league level, Span has seen this rate jump up to over 60%. What’s more is that the increase in worm-burners has come at the expense of his line drives - that figured has dropped from 26% in ’08 to a league-average 19% rate in ’09 to a new low of 15.1%. The consequence of the displacement of liners is a .242 batting average heading into Monday’s game, thanks to a heavily depressed BABIP of .267.
This is a curious trend as the majority of Span’s peripheral numbers have remained intact. He is not chasing more pitches out of the zone or making less contact in general. In fact, his zone discipline may be the best since his arrival with the Twins as he has coaxed a walk in 15.6% of his plate appearances by chasing just 16.3% of pitches out of the strike zone. Similarly, pitchers are throwing him the same mix of pitches that he has faced in the previous two seasons with a healthy emphasis on fastballs, so it is not as if he is getting an influx of breaking balls.  
Because of this radical decline in his liners and inflation in the grounders, I went back to the video archives to see if there is anything different about his swing. Admittedly, Span’s effortless mechanics and lightning quick wrists leave little to be diagnosed. Whereas Delmon Young and JJ Hardy were virtual trainwrecks and had shortcomings that were easy to spot, Span has very minimal amount of moving parts. His entire mechanics are a simple shift of his hips before breaking his hands at the ball.
After staring at several dozen clips of his swings from the past three years, one thing began to jump out that differed this year from 2008-2009 that might explain why Span is having difficulty elevating the ball: Hand positioning. In his first two years, Span kept his hands away from his body, slightly extended and out over the plate. His bottom hand was basically at the same height as his lead shoulder. This season he has brought his hands in closer to his body, tucking his elbow in more and moving his front forearm closer to his chest – a slight yet noticeable variation. Though this may seem like a particularly minor flaw, it can still effect a player’s swing immensely. In Span’s case, it appears to be inciting more bouncers as he is hitting the top part of the baseball because of a downward motion caused by the new hand placement. 
To highlight this, below are two images both from Kaufman Stadium in Kansas City (one from ’09 and one from this season) to ensure that the camera angles are as similar as possible. While these are two isolated clips, I can say that this was a trend repeated over and over in the last two seasons. The first picture is from last season (2009):
Above we find that Span's lead arm angle is near 90 degrees. The following image from 2010 shows a slight change in his arm bend: 
Here's a look at his wrist action as he begins to offer at the pitch:

The clip on the left (from 2009) demonstrates how he was able to keep his swing level and drive at the middle part of the ball with this hand location. It is just a simple turn of his hands and he maintains a very consistent plane, one almost parallel to the ground with his right arm extension. In the clip on the right (2010), Span's has a fraction of a fraction of an second longer to go to the point of contact since his hands are closer to his body. Even though he has very quick hands, this new placement could potentially be the cause of the added ground balls as he appears to be hitting the top-half of the baseball more often as his front arm drives downward instead of extending across. 

The interesting aspect here is if this alteration was encouraged by the coaching staff, like hitting coach Joe Vavra and Michael Cuddyer worked on, or if Span himself felt more comfortable with this positioning. In Cuddyer's case, the Twins felt that he could generate more power if he dropped his hands down. So far, that approach has paid dividends for the right fielder (4 HR, .178 ISOP) who has been a historically slow starter. Span, on the other hand, did seem to need much in the way of tinkering. After all, he has hit .305/.390/.422 for his career coming into this season.
It should be reiterated that he has a solid foundation. His plate discipline, wrist action and ability to make contact along with his speed will ensure that he will put up respectable numbers even if he hits a higher than normal amount of grounders. Post-April, Span has gone 7-for-14 with two extra base hits and a 38.5% line drive rate in those past three games. This could be the signs of him either adjusting (moving his hands again) or acclimating to his new approach (knowing which pitch he can drive). As the summer progresses, keep an eye on this stance as well as his ground ball rate. 

Monday, May 03, 2010

Liriano's rubber shifting

In the bottom of the third inning of Sunday's game against the Indians, Fox Sports North commentator and former All Star pitcher Bert Blyleven appeared mystified by what he thought was a new finding: Francisco Liriano was switching his location on the rubber contingent on whether the hitter was left- or right-handed.

During Shin Soo Choo’s at-bat, Blyleven released this nugget: “To be honest with you,” Blyleven confided with the viewers in the third, “I’ve never seen Liriano going to that first base side of the pitching rubber. He’s usually on the third base side…maybe he’s shifting with left-handers and right-handers…we’ll keep an eye on that.”

Following Choo was the right-handed hitting Austin Kearns. Blyleven then noted that “now Liriano, with a right-hander up, you see he’s moving on the pitching rubber…”

“How about that?” Interjected Dick Bremer.

“…over to the third base side.” Blyleven allowed a pitch to pass then added, “You don’t see that too often where a pitcher will move one side [of the rubber] to the other.”

In the ensuing bottom half of the fourth the broadcast threw up a split-screen graphic depicting Liriano’s approach to the left and right-side of the lineup. This was followed by Blyleven’s admission “I didn’t notice that in the other starts for Liriano…maybe it’s something he and Rick Anderson, the pitching coach, have been working on.”

Congratulations. Blyleven may have stumbled upon a discovery that has been an occurrence for the southpaw since '08. According to pitch F/X charts, Liriano has used this approach dating back to his return from Tommy John surgery:

In ’08, Liriano’s release points varied from slight over a half-foot to two-and-a-half feet to lefties but ranged from dead-center to slightly under two-feet to righties. Meanwhile, in this past season, there was stronger visual evidence of this shift:

Last year, Liriano worked the lefties from well-over the half-foot mark to almost three feet away from the middle of the plate. This shows more of a movement down the rubber towards the first base side in the event of left-handed foes. Likewise, his approach to righties were the same as his '08 year -- in spite of some very unfavorable results. Essentially, he kept his positioning static on the third base side and had a release point between dead-center and two-feet to the left of the plate. Here is video evidence of Liriano working to lefties on the first base side then to righties on the third base side in ’09.
As pitch F/X shows in 2010, all of his release points to lefties have been at a foot-and-a-half to two-and-a-half feet to lefties. Instead of working from the middle of the rubber like he had in the past to some lefties, he is consistently staying at the first base side. This has worked extremely well for Liriano as lefties were hitting 2-for-23 (.087) against him in his four starts heading into Sunday’s game. 

So for the past two seasons (possibly longer if we could find reliable '06 data or video), Liriano has transitioned up and down the rubber. This is hardly a new development and definitely not something Anderson and him have concocted this season. Still, in Blyleven's defense, while Liriano at times worked lefties from the middle of the rubber in the previous two seasons, this year he has remained consistently on the far left-hand side of the rubber. 

This emphasis may have made him that much more unhittable to same-sided batters as Liriano's ground ball rate has skyrocketed in this young season comparative the the past two:

Liriano vs LHB:GB%OPS

Despite what Blyleven would levy on air, Liriano has been moving up and down the rubber regularly since ’08. What is different in 2010 is that he appears to be moving to the first base side against ALL lefties and has avoided pitching from the middle as he did in the previous two seasons, which is working extremely well for him so far.