Stats & Info: Eno Sarris

FanGraphs: Johan's slow decline

June, 11, 2010
Old Johan Santana, he ain’t what he used to be, ain’t what he used to be. Oh sure, it’s tempting to look at his 2.96 ERA and 1.20 WHIP and say he’s still the same old dominant Santana, maybe with a tiny bit missing off of his fastball. But that’s just not the case.

At FanGraphs, we have a "dashboard" where you can select the stats you’d like to see for each player. Let’s recreate a dashboard for Santana here so his decline can come into stark focus. We’ll start in Minnesota in 2006, just because that was seemingly the beginning of the downward turn for him.

FanGraphs: What's Lackey lacking?

May, 17, 2010
John Lackey has never been a strikeout artist. He’s never struck out 200 in a season nor reached the hallowed ground of recording one K per inning for a season. But this year, it’s getting a little ridiculous. He’s striking out batters at a career-low rate (5.58 per nine innings) and he’s getting battered around the park, such as he did in a 5-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers on Sunday. This isn’t what the Red Sox thought they were buying with their $85 million.

Normally, when a pitcher has an unexpected bad start, the traditional "luck" statistics (batting average on balls in play, strand rate and home run rate) tell the tale. But in this case, they don't. Lackey has a .308 batting average on balls in play (which usually ends up at .300 across baseball) and has stranded exactly 70 percent of runners, which is also right around league average. He’s even giving up the standard amount of home runs per fly ball (8.5 percent this year, usually around 10 percent across baseball). It’s not a case of poor luck, it seems.

Looking at batters' swing rates when they step in the box against Lackey doesn't help much, either. Batters are reaching at offerings outside the zone about as often as usual. It seems that Lackey is missing the zone a little (45.2 percent in the strike zone, 50.4 percent career) and batters are making more contact than usual (84.1 percent contact rate, 80.3 percent career). But why are batters making more contact with his pitches?

He hasn’t lost any velocity. His fastball and curveball are within 0.2 mph of their career levels. The slider and changeup have actually gained oomph, but perhaps that is part of the problem. The difference between his fastball and changeup has gone from 8.2 mph for his career to 7.1 mph this season. But Lackey throws the changeup only around 5 percent of the time, so that effect probably isn’t huge.

The answer may lie in Lackey’s curve in the end. At FanGraphs, we keep a statistic that tries to put value on the results of each type of pitch in a pitcher’s arsenal. By using game state statistics before and after a slider, for example, we can assign value to that pitch. Looking at Lackey’s career, his fastball (plus-27.6 runs career) and curve (plus-51.8 runs career) have always been his best pitches. His slider has usually been around scratch or better (plus-6.4 runs career).

This year? His fastball (plus-1.1 runs) and slider (plus-1.2 runs) have been doing fine. For only the second time in his career, however, the curveball is currently negative (minus-1.6 runs). Though neither the horizontal movement, vertical movement nor the velocity numbers show anything really unique about his curveball this season, the pitch is just not providing good results for Lackey this year. Why? It's hard to know, but don't be surprised if we start to hear murmurs about him tipping his pitches.

On Sunday, Lackey threw the curve 31 times. It actually resulted in a strikeout three times, so it wasn’t terrible, but the curve also resulted in three singles and Ramon Santiago's two-run homer. If you’re wondering what Lackey is lacking, it seems it’s his signature curve.

Eno Sarris is a writer for FanGraphs.

FanGraphs: Ryan Ludwick is well-protected

May, 3, 2010
On the heels of Ryan Ludwick’s somewhat innocuous 1-for-3 performance Sunday against the Reds, it might seem odd to focus on the Cardinals right fielder today. But there was a lot of intrigue in those few at-bats, and a lot of food for thought.

Ludwick's strong season to date has garnered some notice. He is batting .290, he's walking more than 10 percent of the time, and he has an isolated power above .190. These all are benchmarks he met back in the halcyon days of yore (aka 2008, when he also hit 37 home runs), but fell short of last year. So what has changed?

For starters, manager Tony La Russa has him hitting second this year after usually batting him fourth or fifth the past two seasons. The stated reason for the switch was to get Ludwick more fastballs while hitting in front of Albert Pujols. So far, so good. Thus far, Ludwick is seeing fastballs 57 percent of the time, which is the most he's seen in five years. In Sunday's win against Cincy, 10 of the 13 pitches Ludwick got were fastballs.

This would seem like a silly new strategy because Ludwick crushes fastballs. A statistic on FanGraphs measures a batters’ effectiveness versus each type of pitch and produces a runs above average figure for each offering. In his career, Ludwick has been most successful against the fastball, to the tune of 53 runs above average. Compare that to his success against the curve (plus-3 runs) and the change (plus-7.8 runs), and you get a sense of how much he enjoys the fastball. His run-producing single Sunday came on a fastball.

So why are pitchers throwing him the fastball? Convention wisdom says that Pujols lurking in the on-deck circle has something to do with it. Fastballs find the strike zone 54.1 percent of the time across baseball, compared to 44.7 percent of the time for curveballs and 42.9 percent of the time for changeups. (Thanks to Daniel Moroz of Beyond the Box Score for those numbers.) If pitchers are worried about Pujols coming up next, it makes sense they’d want to make sure not to walk Ludwick and use a pitch that they could command against him.

Lineup protection is an easy explanation for all the fastballs Ludwick is seeing, but there has been research that shows that lineup protection is a myth. Whether you are inclined to believe J.C. Bradbury or conventional wisdom of lineup protection, the bottom line is that Ludwick is seeing more fastball this year. And that's a boon to his bottom line.

Eno Sarris is a writer for FanGraphs.

FanGraphs: Jason Heyward reality check

March, 29, 2010
Maybe you heard that some guy named Jason Heyward made the Atlanta Braves' Opening Day roster. It could have something to do with the sound of the ball coming off his bat, which was a daily discussion at Champion Field in Orlando, Fla. Or maybe it was all those cars that Heyward dented with his devastating drives over the right-field wall.

But more likely, it had to do with how Heyward -- despite being all of 20 years old -- has dominated every minor league station and seems ready for the majors. While toying with minor league pitchers, he constantly showed his trademark patience -- he had 105 walks to 138 career strikeouts, an elite strikeout-to-walk ratio for a young prospect. He also showed more power as he advanced, an excellent sign for his future.

There have been some recent prospects who came to the majors with similar pedigrees at this young age. But a quick scan of their debut seasons might be reason for pessimism regarding Heyward’s upcoming season.

Not quite the list that an Atlanta Braves fan would want to see. But this is why age factors so prominently in the appraisal of prospects -- the fact that Miguel Cabrera could come up at age 20 and even put up a slightly above-average season at the plate meant that his future was bright. But if he put the same season up four years later, there would not have been much reason for excitement. So the fact that Heyward will create an entry for himself on this list is almost as important as his results.

But there are also reasons to expect better from Heyward. His minor league walk-to-strikeout ratio (0.76) is miles better than Miguel Cabrera’s decent 0.5 minor league number. His .190 career minor league ISO (slugging percentage minus batting aveage) is barely bested by Justin Upton’s .193 and Delmon Young’s .200. So to put Heyward’s skills in focus, relative to other recent young debuts, he’s got plate discipline better than Miguel Cabrera along with power comparable to Justin Upton.

Eno Sarris is an author of FanGraphs.