The Struggles of Johnny Cueto

Recently, San Francisco Giants $130 million dollar man, Johnny Cueto, had been reported to have blisters on his pitching hand. This had explained his recent struggles, which had been highlighted by a poor performance against the Chicago Cubs Tuesday night.

 Johnny Cueto has been no stranger to rough stretches too. After the Kansas City Royals had invested a lot in him during a World Series run by giving up three nice pitching prospects, he scuffled along the final months of the season, going 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA.

This didn’t scare away the San Francisco Giants though, as they gave him elite money during the 2015 offseason. Cueto was more than fine in 2016.

But 2017 has been a different story. The worries are back. Sure, it might be just a simple blister. Don’t tell Rich Hill that.

Problems

The problems for Cueto this season have been all over the place. It’s everything. Velocity is slightly down. Spin rate is down. The Movement is whack. Look at how much more of the plate he is catching.

Here is a heat map of his pitches last year.

This isn’t particularly a good thing when you’re not spinning your pitches as well as you have. For example, in 2015 and 2016 combined, Cueto ranked in the top third of baseball in spin rate on fastballs. This year he ranks 353rd out of 475 pitchers with at least 25 fastballs thrown. But what really is suffering is his changeup. Last year, it spun at an RPM of 1522. This year it is at 1408. That is 146th out of 153 pitchers with at least 50 thrown changeups this year.

Another concerning thing is the movement on his stuff. Take a look at this visual from Brooks Baseball on the vertical movement of his pitches every month of his career.

Look at the end of this chart. The month of May has been disastrous. I want to highlight his changeup. He's usually had great 12-6 movement on it. This made hitters put some bad swings on the ball. Among the 88 pitchers with at least 50 changeups put in play last year, Cueto posted the 19th lowest launch angle at 3.2, the eighth highest mark in the majors.  This led to Cueto producing a lot of ground balls on this pitch. 

Cueto doesn’t have that same 12-6 movement this year, and his groundball rate is down by 38%. If Cueto pitched the 219.2 innings he did last year, he’d be on pace to only get 48 ground balls off his changeup.

 Just take a look.

The GIF from 2016 shows that great changeup by Cueto getting Carlos Gonzalez to groundout to first to finish a complete game.

The one from 2017 lacks that same snap. It is left out over the plate for Jake Lamb to demolish. Speaking of getting demolished, that's happening to Cueto a lot more often this year.

xStats

So far this month, Cueto is posting a Value Hit percentage (high quality contact) of 8.5%. That is the second highest mark since 2015 when the stat became available. Cueto's worst month in 2016 was only 7.4%, although there seems to be a general upward trend over time when you factor out the peaks and valleys between each month.

VH% by Month

Last year, Cueto had an xSLG of .392. This year, though in a small sample size, he is holding a xSLG of .513. 

For even further measure, here is a chart of the monthly average exit velocity for Cueto since the beginning of 2016.

Exit Velocity by Month

Since about the middle of last year, hitters have been making better contact off Cueto.

Conclusion

These issues can easily be attributed to Cueto’s reported blister this year. But also, let’s not forget that this may of been steadily happening since the middle/end of last year.

Could this suggest Cueto has an injury going on behind the scenes? Could/should this warrant a DL stint? I don’t know. Cueto says no, according to CSN Bay Area.

“That’s the type of efficient performance the Giants came to expect from Cueto last year. Cueto still expects it from himself, but his fingers aren’t cooperating. Asked if he would take a short stint on the DL to get right, Cueto said he can’t. He needs to keep pitching and have callouses form. Plus, any break without throwing would be a significant blow to a team trying desperately to stay within shouting distance of a playoff spot.
“Basically, it makes no sense whatsoever,” to take a break, Cueto said.”

I believe this shouldn’t be taken lightly.

How SunTrust Park May Impact Freddie Freeman

Yesterday The Hardball Times published my article about estimating the home run rate of SunTrust Park. You can read that article here. Today I will publish a snippet regarding Freddie Freeman which was left on the editing room floor.

You may be interested in reading another piece I wrote about Freeman on Rotographs, which sought to address a similar concern, albeit prior to finalizing the data for SunTrust Park.  I recommend reading both of these articles prior to reading this one.


How It May Impact Freddie Freeman

You can’t talk about the Braves without mentioning Freddie Freeman, especially when they bring in the right field fences. Freeman is the most prolific left handed power hitter on the team. However, Freeman has never been a pull hitter, instead displaying power to all fields.

I took all of Freeman's batted ball data and—using xStats—determined his expected home run totals to each section of Turner Field over the prior two seasons, along with a projection for 2017 in SunTrust Park.  You can see the results in the chart below.

Indeed, he seems to have more home runs in SunTrust, 21.7 as opposed to the 20.6 in 2016. While the difference is projected to come from right field, I'd hardly say one home run is the boost many people expected to see for Freeman after moving in the fences between 13 and 18 feet.

The cut off for what may be considered center field or the gaps is a bit arbitrary, so the exact locations of these balls might be fungible. My models for SunTrust Park claims 25% of Freeman’s balls hit above 87 mph with a launch angle greater than 15 degrees will be home runs. Last season, in Turner Field, 23% of those balls expected home runs—meaning they would have left a neutral ballpark—and 17% were actual home runs. So, in his home games, that is a 8% increase in expected home run totals, and a 47% increase from his actual 2016 home run total.

This means Freeman will be disproportionately helped by the new ballpark, but only by a small margin. The bigger difference in performance will come from leaving Turner Field, which held him back significantly.

Last season he also hit 19 home runs on the road, versus his 15 at home. In other words, he hit roughly 26% more home runs on the road. This is roughly on par with where Turner Field home run rates compared to league average home run rates.

Turner Field was 29% below average, so with 15 home runs there, you’d expect roughly 19.4 home runs on the road. Obviously you can't hit .4 of a home run, so 19 is the closest integer.

Long story short, you could expect Freeman to hit about 19% more home runs during a season while calling SunTrust Park his home.

Granted, there is a very real possibility that Freeman could adapt to pull the ball more in order to take advantage of the right field wall. The right field dimensions are especially friendly for high fly balls down the line, which may be an alluring target for any left handed batter on the team.

 

Francisco Lindor is a Legit Power Threat

It isn’t a secret. Francisco Lindor is a phenomenal baseball player. Whether it’s making an amazing play at shortstop, generating great contact, or even drawing a walk, Francisco Lindor is drawing the attention of baseball fans.

Francisco Lindor has never been thought of as a power hitter. He doesn’t appear as one either, standing at 5-11, 190 lbs. Here’s what ESPN Prospect Writer, Keith Law had to say.

 
“Lindor doesn't look like a power hitter but has exceptional lower-half strength and his swing will allow him to eventually get to that power even though he doesn't finish with a ton of loft. Even at 12-15 homers, which is probably a neutral projection for him, he'll be an All-Star thanks to grade-70 defense and OBPs up near .400 with plenty of doubles and 20-plus steals a year.”

And John Sickels of Minor League Ball.

 
That's in the short term. In the long term, I suspect that Lindor can develop into a better hitter than most people currently expect. I like his swing. He makes easy contact, controls the strike zone reasonably well, and should grow into more gap power as he matures physically. He isn't going to be a 20-homer guy, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him hit 10-15 homers per season at maturity, with a respectable number of doubles and above-average batting averages and OBPs. Add that to his defense and you'll have a helluva player by the time he's in his mid-20s.

This was a reasonable statement too. Many viewed Lindor as an all-around, good baseball player. Great plate discipline, switch hitter, great glove, great baserunning, etc. Many also believed there was power in that small frame. And like Keith Law said, the strength in his lower body was capable of spraying the ball all over the field with a line drive approach. 12-15 homers was a foreseeable amount for him, an amount most teams would take for one of their middle infielders.

But maybe there is more.

Ball in the Air

To get an overall understanding of Lindor’s tendencies, let’s rewind back to his rookie year in 2015. That year, Lindor posted a vertical angle of 4.5, well below the major league average of 10.5 that year.

Not surprisingly, these numbers led to a very above-average 50.8% groundball rate.  But with his great speed, this was a good thing. Out of 252 batters that hit at least 100 groundballs in 2015, Lindor ranked second in BABIP at .337. Though, this did hurt his power game, as his xSLG was at .432 in 2015.

Lindor then made some improvements in 2016, posting a vertical angle of 9.3, more than doubling the number from the previous year. In doing so, he was making better contact, increasing his exit velocity, average batted ball distance, and line drive percentage.

With this, we started to see some power.  In 2016, he hit 19 home runs, with xStats tabbing him at 15.4.

Looking back at Lindor’s average launch angle by month, I noticed something. In September Lindor posted the highest launch angle of his career by a decent margin, coming in at 13.9. But the results weren’t showing. From the looks of it, Lindor was struggling to make good contact posting the highest PH% of his career.

Results

Now, if you’ve seen Francisco Lindor in so far this, it’s scary. He’s on pace to have the best month of his career by far. It looks like he’ll have the highest xSLG, xOBA, and xOBA+ in any month of his career.

And this all because of a drastic change in his launch angle.

Like I said, Lindor had the highest launch angle of his career by a decent margin last September. Well, this April has been a different world. Lindor has had a launch angle of 17.3 so far this year. And guess what, that isn’t even his biggest change.

Lindor is swinging the bat faster. On well strick balls (21 to 36), he is swinging the bat 68.2 MPH, well above his career average.

Put this all together, what do you get? More homers! Lindor is leading all of the majors in xHRs, at 6.7. Next closest is Khris Davis at 5.9. He’s second among qualified hitters in xSLG.

Conclusion

This power streak by Lindor might be here to stay. As long is keeps digging the bat downwards, his lower body strength and quick swing (ranks 2nd in swing speed with launch angle of 21 to 36) will generate some serious pop for a middle infielder.

Lindor’s power might be heading more in the territory of someone like Carlos Correa or Corey Seager. He might not have quite the pop of some of the elite power shortstops, but he’s trending there.

And if this is for real, Francisco Lindor might be on a path that leads him to Cooperstown.

xStats and Fantasy Uses for Statcast

This is the most up to date article about xStats. It describes the current methodology and the descriptive and predictive qualities of the stats. It also delves into a quick and dirty method for adjusting the stats using a histogram of their exit velocities.

This article was featured on the Hardball Times on March 9th, 2017, and it is even John Sickels Approved. I consider it a must read for anyone even tangentially interested in xStats or Statcast in general.

Introducing xFantasy Parts I, II, III, and IV.

xFantasy is a system based on xStats that integrates hitters' xAVG, xOBP, and xISO in order to predict expected fantasy production (HR, R, RBI, SB, AVG). The underlying models are put together into an embedded "Triple Slash Converter" in Part 2. Part 3 compares the predictive value of xFantasy (and therefore xStats) vs. Steamer and historic stats, ultimately finding that for players under 26, xStats are indeed more predictive than Steamer.

First Published 12/22/16 Written by Ryan Brock

First Published 12/23/16 Written by Ryan Brock

First Published 1/21/17 Written by Ryan Brock

 

First Published 2/24/17 Written by Ryan Brock

Fitting Running Speed into xOBA and xBABIP.

A general introduction to the methods I use to incorporate running speed.  The system remains almost entirely intact, but I have since added a few small corrections here and there to fix small problems.  I'm not happy with this system, and I would love to get rid of it, but I haven't found a better solution.  Which is a low bar, since I don't feel this solution is very good.