Friday, June 2, 2017

Walk Off Talk 1.1: Can the Braves Rotation Improve?

In this new series, Ryan Cothran and I have a back-and-forth as we discuss a subject. It's informal and we hope you guys get something out of it. This week, we’ll look at the starting pitching staff. At times, we’ll agree. Other times, we’ll disagree. Join the conversation and tell us where we are misguided in the comment section. 

Ryan,

By Arturo Pardavila III [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Thank God for the Reds. I mean it. Without them, the Braves might have the worst starting staff in baseball. They came into Friday with a 4.81 ERA and 5.14 FIP. The only good thing you possibly say about their collective performance to this point is that they have given the Braves innings. Not a wealth of good innings, but innings just the same.

No matter where you look, there is massive disappointment. Let's start with Bartolo Colon. Two months in and he's only hitting the strikezone on 50% of his pitches according to PITCHf/x. It was 57-58% with the Mets. That might not sound like a lot of difference, but when you depend entirely on getting hitters to swing at your pitch, it's worrisome to me. And what's worse is that his zone rate is declining as the season progresses rather than improving. His last start, against the Pirates, saw him hit a typical strikezone according to PITCHf/x just 48% of the time. You can't throw quality starts that way when you don't have the stuff to entice hitters into swinging at balls out of the zone.

Please tell me I'm just being pessimistic. Tell me that Bartolo Colon will turn it around.

-------------------------------

Tommy, you’re putting me in a pickle here and that’s the real dill.

I can’t tell you for sure that Bartolo will turn it around as I’ve always been befuddled Bartolo stayed effective when everyone knew what was coming and that it wasn’t going to be with a swiftness. As you eluded to, it was his ability to control the entire strike zone with pitches darting to-and-fro that brought him success. His K/9 are the lowest they’ve been since 2013, and his BB/9 is the highest since 2011. However, his BABIP against is at .341, well above his .291 career mark, and there aren’t any velocity changes to warrant that type of increase, which leads back to location. FIP and xFIP suggest Bartolo’s ERA will likely drop, but even taking that into consideration, it’s still high (5 or above) and not what you’d want from a pitcher. So, will he improve? In all likelihood, yes. Will he be effective? I cannot say yes with confidence.

I suggested this a few days back in a Tweet and it’s something that I hope Coppy is checking on, and that is a bad contract swap. Braves have pitchers that could benefit from MLB time (Sean Newcomb or Lucas Sims) but Kris Medlen will likely be ready before either of them. If the Braves could land someone like Todd Frazier in exchange for Bartolo and have the Toddfather platoon at 1st (or 3B), it could create a win that helps strengthen 4 areas:

-Platoon of Rio Ruiz and Adonis Garcia at 3B
-Platoon of Matt Adams and Todd Frazier at 1B
-Bench strengthen with 2 of the above available to pinch hit
-Remove Bartolo, insert Kris Medlen

---------------------------------

Ryan,

I would love to have optimism that a team would be interested in acquiring Colon. Right now, I just can’t see it. There definitely is room for improvement, but like you point out, even if his BABIP regresses closer to his career and his LOB%, which is a shockingly low 58%, is closer to his career rate of about 73%, unless he’s able to improve his ability to throw quality strikes, this looks like the end of the road for Colon.

This is supposed to be the prime of Julio Teheran’s career, though. He's in his Age-26 season and came into 2017 with four full years in the majors. In three of those four seasons, he had between a 2.5 fWAR and 3.2 fWAR. He's remarkably durable and consistent outside of 2015. So...what is the problem here?

A lot has been made of his home struggles. I'm not sure I really buy that being a big factor, but the results definitely give us some reason to think SunTrust Park has not been a friend to him. Unlike Colon, it's a bit harder to find a stat and say, "there! There's the smoking gun." He's throwing a bit less in the strikezone, though only 2% less than last year when he was very successful.

On one hand, it's probably a good thing that I can't figure out what's really wrong with Teheran beyond bad performance. Might mean it's mechanical and an easier fix. With Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, even if I was too young to see it, the warning signs were there (most notably decreased velocity). Teheran doesn't have that glaring issue to me, but what do you think?

----------------------------

Tommy,

Thanks for the flower arrangement welcoming me to the blog, but the xoxo’s were a bit much. My wife wasn’t impressed.

Lastly before I get to firstly, Bartolo’s been worth 0.3 fWAR, Frazier 0.1fWAR, both under contract for this year, and ChiSox could be just as desperate for Frazier to go seeing as though they have a 3B playing well and a need at SP. Dream big, my friend.

Onward to Teheran, it’s all about the splits man, and I think the league is fully aware now as teams have been challenging him by playing their left-handed hitters more regularly against him, It’s paying off for them as well...to the tune of an .874 OPS. This isn’t a new problem as his career splits against numbers against LHHs aren’t much lower, .797 OPS. But this next part is new. Check this out:

Career PAs against Julio Teheran
  • RHHs- 1819 (50.4%)
  • LHHs- 1823 (49.6%)
Nearly identical, eh?  Now look at this year

2017 PAs against Julio Teheran
  • RHHs- 120 PAs (43.7%)
  • LHHs- 152 PAs (56.3%)
Yes...the league knows, Julio. So what to do? Unfortunately for the Braves, they’re playing in a new park that doesn’t bode well for Julio and his problems against left-handed hitters (LHHs vs. Julio at Suntrust, 1.186 OPS), but surely there’s something that can be done.  Well...maybe. If I were trying to fix Julio, it’d be to completely change his approach when facing lefties. Sure, keep the arsenal full, but throw the arm-side moving pitches much less (which have been destroyed by LHHs), focus more on the 4-seamer, the slider, and keep them low. Big shoutout to Lee Trocinski for aiding me in this research!

--------------------------

Ryan,

You will take your hugs and kisses and like it. It’s the Walk-Off Walk way.

That sounded entirely too illegal.

Anyway, moving on, the bit on Teheran is very interesting. It’ll be something to watch moving forward if the disparity continues, but we definitely need to see improvement. We’ve seen that from the lefthander in the rotation. Jaime Garcia, a career #3 or #4 pitcher, is pitching like a #3 or #4. Or in Atlanta Braves 2017 terms, an ace. But am I right to think that it's Garcia - not Colon - that should get the boot from the team first? Preferably in a trade to acquire a decent prospect or two?

I know this will wreck the team's distant hope to get into the Wild Card argument, but as I always try to do in fantasy baseball, sell-high. Garcia's ERA of 3.18 is over a run less than his FIP and xFIP. He's unlikely to keep his BABIP 50 points below his career average all season either. Is Garcia, who seems like the least of our troubles, the guy the Braves should consider dealing the most?

I should say - in his defense - his last three starts have been excellent. FIP around 2.70, 21.2 innings, just five walks, and a groundout rate over 70%. He's hot right now and maybe his FIP will drop rather than his ERA explode. But the little John Coppolella that lives in all of us Armchair GMs is feeling antsy. Have to get my fix and make a trade happen and selling high on Garcia seems, to me, like the right route. What say you?

-------------------------------------

Tommy the Tulip,

Like most pill-pushers of the planet, no argument here on the idea of “selling high” on “High-May”. The point I’ll lay my hat on is his health. He went three years in which staying on the field was a big challenge and it just seems like Braves have guys in the MILB that are ready to test the waters that won’t be a big dropoff in production. Jaime being able to stay on the field AND stay productive has been a pleasant surprise, but let’s not push it. Trade him and let’s see Newk get a shot. Might I suggest Cleveland for a destination? They’re riding the struggle bus in starting pitching and also lack a LH starter. Maybe Braves could get Cleveland to sell low on Brady Aiken? It seems almost too easy, right?

--------------------------------------------

RyGuy,

It’s scary how quickly you concur with me. The kool-aid has worked quite well.

I was very much on the Mike Foltynewicz bandwagon coming out of last season. He appeared to grow up as last season progressed with a few stinkers mixed in, but this season has been a mixed bag with some success and a good deal of failure. His velocity is good and his control (previously thought of as a problem) is actually an asset. But the K's are down 3%, the homers are on the rise, and he's not getting a lot of soft contact. At 16.9%, his Soft% is down about 3.5%.

Certainly, it's not time to give up on Folty and regression is never good to see. Nevertheless, I want to believe he'll improve as the season progresses. Maybe it's just a need to feel optimistic about something. So, to paraphrase Futurama, why not Foltberg?

----------------------------------------------

Twinkle-toes Tommy,

Folty has been Fol-tee on several occasions this year as he’s served up a few on a platter.  When the trade went down in which Braves sent Evan Gattis to the Astros for Folty,  Rio Ruiz, and Andrew Thurman, my heart was torn out. More than any other trade the Braves had/have made. Loved Gattis, the story, and loved his ability to defy all the doubters and become a good MLB catcher. After the initial sting, I looked at the 3 in return and still wasn’t enthused. I’ll admit that I thought Folty was destined to the bullpen, Rio destined for life in AAA, and Thurman, maybe, a long reliever at best. Time will tell who “won” the trade, but it looks like the scale is tilting toward the Braves with Rio’s recent call-up and success. Back to Folty…before we get into debating his future, let’s look at his 4 pitches with the aid of Pitcher List.

I’m no pitching expert here, but in comparing his best game vs. his worst game, both games essentially show the same data:  No matter the location, up, down, middle, he’s very effective when he stays on the outer ⅓ of the plate. Also, the slider seems to be his pitch that either looks GREAT...or sits over the PLATE with no movement.  It’s been his least effective pitch for his career yet he’s throwing it nearly ¼ of the time. In the video above, the slider looks very hittable with little movement. However, I can understand the reasoning why Folty would like to keep it because when he has it, it’s phenomenal. Here’s a video of one of his best.


It seems the secret to his slider success is to keep the velocity up, as the samples that I have seen in which it’s deadly is when it’s in the lower 90s, not mid-80s, although throwing the slider at an increased speed could lead to injury. Such a fine balance.

I don’t know Folty personally so this next piece is just heresy, but if it’s a between-the-ears issue, making Mike a 3 pitch pitcher, focusing on harnessing the fastball, slider (or curveball), and changeup, could be a good decision. While it’s stereotypical for a starting pitcher to have 4 pitches, a good hard fastball that’s complimented with a nasty change and slider would suffice plenty. While his curveball has been effective this year, it’s also the pitch that batters can lift and in Suntrust that’s not good.

So, my overall suggestion: Stay on the outer ⅓, ditch a pitch, keep the increased velo on slider, use the change as the true out-pitch that it can be, and master 3 instead of 4.

----------------------------------------

Ryu,

I think that might be a good trick to getting him rolling in the right direction. I admit I wasn’t hugely thrilled about Folty to begin with and considered him more of a reliever than a starter. The bullpen still may be his best role in the majors, but it’s definitely worth trying out every single possible thing to try to get him turned into the right direction. The kid has a lot of projection still left in that flamethrowing right arm.

Lastly, there’s R.A. Dickey. He’s been bad - worse than I thought he was going to be but I still have this feeling that he’ll still post a high 4 ERA, low 5 FIP, high 4 xFIP. Basically, exactly what you think of a fifth starter. He gives you innings and not much else. On a team with a better rotation, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

I guess I just don’t care too much about Dickey’s performance. He’s underperformed what I expected out of him for sure, but I didn’t expect all that much in general. Am I wrong to basically give him a pass?

----------------------------------------

I don’t normally go for W/L record as a measurement for a starting pitcher, but the Braves are 5-5 when R.A. is on the mound, and that’s about what I expect of him. As many games as he’ll help you win, he’ll help the other team win as well. The downside of Dickey (and I’ve never thought about this until Lee Trocinski brought it up) is that ERA is not a full measurement of a knuckleballer as passed balls are just going to be part of the game. In 60 innings (or 6 ⅔ games if you’re measuring by ERA), RA has 4 unearned runs and Kurt Suzuki is leading the National League in passed balls. Therefore, if you’re measuring RA by ERA, ya might want to add an extra 0.3-0.5 to it so it reflects his true production.

Honestly, RA being in the rotation is so meh to me I don’t even know why I wrote a paragraph on it. I was meh when he was signed, and still meh after 10 starts. However, if his option is picked up, I’ll be much worse off than meh, and I’ll likely let this blog and Twitter know of my displeasure.

So, for this year...fine. Whatever. Eat innings. Save the arms, the whales, save everyone. He seems like a good dude and is easy to root for, so let’s just leave it at that.

3 comments:

  1. One aspect that I'd like to withdraw from this piece is the idea of trading for Brady Aiken. After doing further research on why his results are so bad, I found that his FB isn't getting out of the 80s. I like buy-lows, but that's a bit too low for a guy coming out of high school throwing 97.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Too late, we are all going to point and laugh at you now! Ha! Ha, ha!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Shoot. Well...cheers to him finding some undetectable PEDs.

      Delete