Koji Uehara is Trimming the Fat

With no AL or NL West teams in this World Series, we at Midnight Baseball will turn our focus to Red Sox and Cardinals players who used to play out west. Out of all of them, Koji Uehara probably has the highest profile right now. So, with apologies to Carlos, we start with Koji.

Few could have seen such dominance coming this season from Koji Uehara. The Red Sox signed him for one year and $4.25 million, or less than the market value for one win. We can therefore imagine that his suitors were few and miserly. He entered the season behind Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey for the closer’s gig, which doesn’t always go to the best pitcher but shows what the Red Sox thought of him. Bullpens are like totem poles, or pyramids of cheerleaders. They are constructed with a hierarchy, and the people doing the constructing may not have the best criteria behind that hierarchy. The prettiest cheerleader might not be the swellest, the one who deserves the top spot on the pyramid. Coming into the season, Uehara was like a girl who, after many tryouts, finally gets accepted into a cheer squad, but only on the condition that she buy her own uniform, or something. And it’s totally not fair because she has this one awesome, game-changing cheer move, and the baffling thing is, they’ve all seen it before.

The splitter. A rare bird nowadays. Pitchers can send the ball left, right and down, or any combination thereof, but sometimes it seems like one of those directions is prominent for a few years at a time. They fade in and out of favor every few years. A few years ago the cutter was a-buzzing. Sports Illustrated even did a story about it title, “This Is The Game Changer.” There’s been backlash since, notably from the Orioles organization, which has stated that they don’t want their pitching prospects throwing cutters because they think it weakens the arm and saps velocity out of the regular fastball. They may be right, or they just be fucking with the rest of the league. Is Dan Duquette laughing in his office with his underlings, saying “I can’t believe they bought it!”? Is Dan Duquette even the GM of the Orioles still? Is this paragraph going anywhere?

Anyway, on the back of the splitter, Uehara has tossed a historic season for baserunner prevention, as Jonah Keri already described. Perhaps relievers around the league, borderline major leaguers and replacement-level types, will copy the pitch hoping to apea small part of his success. A split-finger renaissance! That’d be cool, but that’s not something we can measure just yet. We can measure how valuable the splitter’s been: the most valuable pitch of its kind in the league, and with the most value per one hundred pitches thrown among pitchers with minimum 50 innings pitched.

Right about now you are probably thinking that Uehara’s great year is the result of some lucky fluctuation–BABIP maybe, or park factors. Uehara’s always had the splitter, ever since he was a suckling babe, and in seasons past he merely very good. What gives?, say you, because you get angry when curious. Well, give me a second, damn it. I can explain.

Uehara’s splitter is good enough that he doesn’t need to instill uncertainty in the hitter to be successful with it. (Look at this page again. Of all breaking pitches, Uehara’s splitter is like eighth-most valuable in the league, even though he’s pitched fewer than 80 innings.) Every pitcher has one or two pitches that just plain aren’t as good as his feature stuff. The reason they keep those pitches around is to give the hitter more things to think about. The more pieces you have in chess, the more moves you can make. Except Uehara is finding out that his splitter works just fine even if the hitter doesn’t have to worry about his cutter and even if he throws it more than the fastball. By cutting out the worst parts of his game, Uehara improved.

kojipercentgraph

w/Rangers means from 7/31/2011 to the Wild Card game in 2012

Don’t worry about the curveball. He’s threw three of them this season, so you can’t even see it on the graph. One of those three went in for a strike. Here it is.

That leaves two main takeaways: 1) Uehara has dropped the cutter this postseason and 2) he’s been increasing usage of his splitter ever since 2011. It has always been his put-away pitch, thrown more in two-strike counts. This postseason, and to a lesser extent this season, he has thrown the splitter as much as he used to when he wanted to strike motherfuckers out. And now, when he has two strikes, the odds of him throwing a splitter are less like a coin flip and more like the odds of getting a prime number when rolling a die. (EMBRACE THE NERD INSIDE.)

koji2strikesgraph

You would think the splitter’s value would dilute with all the extra volume but it doesn’t The graph below suggests that in some aspects it is actually getting better results.

creepykojisplittergraph

 

Hitters swung at the splitter a little less but when they did they whiffed more, or if they made contact it was more likely to be into the ground, this season compared to last. So far this postseason, hitters are flailing more than ever. Despite these gains, the bottom half of the graph suggests that Uehara’s improvement is tied strongly to BABIP. The colored bars add up to slugging percentage, and their height matches up well with the BABIP line, suggesting that cursed fluctuations are at least partly guilty for that abominable .168 slugging hitters put up against the splitter this season. Even with a normal-ish BABIP of .267 (as it was in 2012), Uehara’s splitter still held hitters to .283 in slugging. And if you take out Jose Lobaton’s definition-of-an-aberration homer, Uehara’s slugging allowed this postseason would be substantially less than the still-very-low .300. There’s really no way to make these numbers look bad.

You can take a look at FanGraphs leaderboards and find that Uehara’s splitter doesn’t have exceptional movement. Neither it nor his fastball have overpowering velocity. Deception, guile and location serve to make his splitter exceptional. Here’s a zone map of his spliiter from the ALCS.

Low low low! Lower than the prices at Costco. (My mom works there. Love you, mom.) Dude hits his spots. That’s either command or control. I can’t remember how the nerds are classifying them these days. Just look at these putaway pitches from 2012–since this is a west-themed blog, I looked at his time with the Rangers. I found the games in which he was called to enter into the most crucial situations. Then I found the most crucial at-bats in those appearances. In a fit of noteworthy luck, those at-bats came against Michael Saunders, Evan Longoria, Mike Trout, and Edwin Encarnacion, three of whom are some of the best hitters in the league and one of whom is left-handed. So we get to see Uehara face hitters of both handednesses. All of these are two-strike pitches, all of the two-strike pitches thrown against these hitters.twostrikepitches

 

Aside from Edwin’s all-fastball at-bat, Uehara stuck with the splitter. I think the fastball to Trout was meant to back him off some, but I don’t know if Uehara is one of those guys. I haven’t heard that about him, but then again you never hear announcers call an Asian player a bulldog or a firebrand. Announcers are usually middle-aged white guys and they love Texans and big country gentlemen. They don’t like city boys, such as Zitocakes with his yoga, and they respect Asians from a distance, as with Ichiro. There are plenty of cultural barriers between foreign pitchers and the national media: language, customs, training regimens, expectations of privacy, facial hair. We know, at the very least, that Uehara has busted the last one down.

legolaskoji

Look at those sideburns. He’s Legolas because he’s as accurate with his splitter as Legolas is with his bow. Get pumped for The Desolation of Smaug, folks.

Midnight Player of the Week: J.B. Shuck, Angels OF

This week: .400/.391/.700 (8 for 20), 4 R, 1 HR (first of career), 5 RBI, 1 HR Stolen

All hail J.B. Shuck, whose name evokes corn and that’s it, Midnight Baseball’s inaugural player of the week.

Shuck began the week with his first career dinger off new Ranger Matt Garza and ended it by leaping into the stands to take one away from Jose Bautista, who just couldn’t believe it.

Jose Bautista and friend, surveying the Confederate dead.

Now let me pop some sunflower seeds in my mouth, hike up my pants and talk like an old baseball guy:

This kid Shuck, he, uh, let me tell you, he plays the game the right way. Here’s a guy, just made the best catch of his life, and he springs right back up, fires the ball in there, trying to double up the runner on first. Now that’s heads-up baseball. Your teammates notice that kind of stuff, and believe me, they appreciate it, because they know, “Here’s a guy who’s bustin’ his ass, playin’ to win.”

And after he’s thrown the ball back into the infield, he spits perfectly, with just a hint of contempt. It’s beautiful punctuation.

***

Say you’re intrigued. You are a baseball nerd, so you want to know more about the fourth outfielder on the fourth-place Angels. You’ll start at the beginning.

J.B. Shuck was drafted out of Ohio State in the sixth round (182nd overall) of the 2008 draft by the Houston Astros. Bobby Heck, scouting director for the Astros at the time, told the Houston Chronicle that Shuck was “the best player available” and had the “ability to be a regular at the major league level.” Heck praised Shuck’s energy and baseball IQ, calling him a “plus runner, plus defender, more of an overachiever type of player. We had a lot of good stuff about his makeup as well as his ability to play the game.”

Of course, you’re never going to hear a scout disparage a player he drafted, but Heck was mostly right about Shuck. Defensive metrics don’t love him in the outfield, but clearly he goes all out. Besides, Shuck has only played about 700 innings of defense in the majors. That’s a small enough sample for me to say how small a sample it is. You know the drill.

Four Astros fans bothered to submit a scouting report of Shuck’s defense from his only season with Houston, 2011. The reviews are in, and they’re not good. Let’s move on.

The Astros of the late aughts had one of the worst farm systems of recent memory, so bad that the franchise is only now getting over the talent drought. Still, Shuck never made it into anyone’s Top 10 prospects list. Baseball America ranked him No. 13 among Astros prospects in 2009. In 2010, Baseball Prospectus ranked Shuck No. 17, and gave him a sentence: “He has real on-base ability, but his center field defense is fringy.” John Sickels of SBNation ranked Shuck No. 15 in 2008, also praising his plate discipline.

Shuck’s good eye has so far stayed with him in the majors. Notice how rarely he chases, except on balls just above the zone.

On-base guys (Shuck had a career .382 OBP in the minors) shouldn’t have to stay in Triple-A as long as Shuck did, not when the major league roster is as underwhelming as the 2010 to 2012 Astros. Sure, Shuck lacks for power, so much that his slugging percentage has historically been lower than his OBP. The fact remains that few bench outfielders will give you a walk rate of eight percent, a contact rate of 90 percent and a strikeout rate of around ten percent. Oh, and all that at close to the major league minimum salary.

J.B. Shuck, roster bargain and king for a week.

Welcome!, 8/31 recap

Welcome to Midnight Baseball, your one-stop shop for all things American and National League West. Right now our operation is small—just my roommate Dan and myself writing for people who know us well enough to throw us a pity-click—but soon, through the magic of me spamming Twitter, we ought to be the Internet’s foremost scholars on the Giants (my team), Mariners (Dan’s), A’s, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Padres, Dodgers, Angels and Rangers (and, once the season is over, the Astros). We believe these nine teams deserve someone’s focus; Big Media cares not about teams west of the Mississippi (or the Hudson)—one of the great Injustices of our time.

So let’s get started with this noble crusade. What follows will be a tale about today’s games involving the aforementioned nine teams. Posts of this type will be a nightly occurrence but certainly not the only kind of content you should expect.

August 31

Chicago 6, San Francisco 4

Young Madison Bumgarner (4.0 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 2 BB, 5 K, 1 HR) had his shortest outing since his first start of the year and not coincidentally the Giants snapped their six-game road winning streak. Buster Posey (4 PA, 3 H, 1 BB, 2 RBI) leads all catchers with 30 doubles, two ahead of the Phillies’ Carlos Ruiz (the Twins’ Ryan Doumit and Joe Mauer are third and fourth, respectively). Gregor Blanco (0-for-4, 3 K) looks less like a starting left fielder with each passing day. There are two enticing options on waivers, the Mets’ Scott Hairston and Andres Torres. Hairston’s pop would be a great improvement, as would Torres’ defensive range, but in either case the Dodgers could block the transaction (waiver claims are made in reverse order of the standings). Stay awkward, Hunter Pence.

Texas 5, Cleveland 3

Ryan Dempster (6.0 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 7 K) pitched well for his third consecutive start, quieting the clamor from the most rabid, stereotypically-Texan Rangers enthusiasts that he should be executed. Adrian Beltre finished a sssssssssizzling August (125 PA, 7 HR, .311 AVG, .295 BABIP, 149 wRC+) with four hits. The Rangers beat the Indians, yawn. Moving on.

San Diego 5, Colorado 4

Cameron Maybin is inching upward to his 2011 form. Since the All-Star break, he’s had an OPS over .700. That’s not good, but he’s the only player the Padres have committed to long-term, so he’s going to play every day. At least now he’s not hurting the team too much. Wilin Rosario went deep again, and now that it is my duty to think about him, I see a bonanza of similarities between him and 2011 Mark Trumbo. If he can improve next year the way Trumbo has this year (a mostly BABIP-fueled improvement, by the way), the Rockies will have the best offensive catcher in the league. Sorry, Team Posey.

Oakland 20, Boston 2

That is not a typo. Every A’s player scored a run. Peculiarly, lead-off hitter Coco Crisp only got on base once, via base on balls in the seventh inning.

Los Angeles, 9, Seattle 1

I’m not going to use any markers to distinguish the Angels from the Dodgers (i.e. “AL” and “NL”). You know they play in different leagues; you can figure out which one I mean by their opponents. For some reason—Mariners manager Eric Wedge was feeling nihilistic, is one I can think of—Dustin Ackley and his .232/.301/.335 slash-line led off. Ackley actually went 2-f0r-4, proving once again that nothing means anything and everything is nothing. Kendrys Morales went deep for the Angels, and is quietly returning to form after breaking his leg in 2010 celebrating a home run. Morales’ saga could inspire others who have faced senseless adversity, but here at Midnight Baseball all it inspires is more nihilism.

Arizona 4, Los Angeles 3 (F/11)

Jason Kubel yacked one in the 11th to mercifully end this game, assisted by a typical J.J. Putz save (1.0 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 2 K, 0 R). Starting pitcher Trevor Cahill scored and knocked in a run. I imagine he likes playing in the National League on nights like this.