Dodgers @ Giants April 15, 2014: Jackie Robinson Day

attpark

First, the good news: Brian Wilson is back! That really shouldn’t be understated. When he first came up complaining of elbow soreness two weeks ago after looking terrible in blowing a game against San Diego, I think we all thought the worst for the two-time Tommy John survivor. Had you told me on that day that we wouldn’t see him again for the remainder of the season, I wouldn’t have found it all that surprising. Now, after only two rehab games and the minimum time needed on the disabled list, he’s back. Assuming he’s healthy, that’s very, very good.

But of course, nothing good comes without a price, and that price is being paid by Paco Rodriguez, who was optioned back to Triple-A to make room for Wilson. Though disappointing, it’s not all that surprising, since the team wasn’t going to jettison Brandon League — sorry — and Chris Withrow has been so good that it would have been extremely difficult to let him go. Since only Withrow and Rodriguez have options, it had to be one or the other.

Dodgers
Giants
10:15 pm PT
San Francisco, CA
2B
Gordon
CF
Pagan
LF
Crawford
1B
Belt
SS
Ramirez
3B
Sandoval
1B
Gonzalez
C
Posey
RF
Puig
RF
Pence
LF
Ethier
LF
Morse
3B
Uribe
SS
Crawford
C
Federowicz
2B
Hicks
P
Beckett (R)
P
Lincecum (R)

Rodriguez has actually never pitched in Triple-A, having gone straight from Double-A to the Dodgers in 2012 and spending all season with the big club in 2013. He had, however, pitched in eight of the team’s first 13 games, and while he was fine, he wasn’t dominant. (Eight baserunners allowed in 5.2 innings.) Since he’ll so obviously be back as soon as another reliever is injured, which should be, oh, any second now, being without him for a few days or weeks isn’t really as concerning to me as I imagine it may be to many.

Of course, this does leave the Dodgers with just one lefty in the pen, J.P. Howell. I can’t say I love that. But that’s how it’s going to be for now.

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In other news: Carl Crawford is back, having missed the final two games of the Arizona series with minor right side tightness and “facing a lefty-itis.” That gives Matt Kemp the honor of being the extra man tonight against Tim Lincecum, and I don’t exactly hate the idea of having one of these four guys on the bench in the late innings every night.

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In news that’s less good: Chad Billingsley didn’t make it through his scheduled bullpen appearance, and is headed back to Los Angeles for an MRI after “tightness and discomfort.” We once thought his rehab was going so well that we might have seen him by early May. Now, I don’t think there’s any realistic ETA for his return. Discouraging, to say the least.

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But to end on a good note: Joc Pederson hit another homer tonight! That’s his fourth of the season, coming off Keyvius Sampson in the third inning. As I type, the Isotopes are in the middle of putting up a six-spot in the third against El Paso — they’re still batting — with Matt Magill on the mound.

Paco Rodriguez’ Mechanical Fix

Early last month, I looked into the disastrous end of Paco Rodriguez‘ 2013 regular season. The most common question that I received after posting the article was “was Paco tipping his pitches?” It’s a natural question, given his unorthodox delivery (pictured above).

On Monday, this question re-surfaced, when Ken Gurnick reported that Rodriguez has made a mechanical tweak in his delivery:

Paco Rodriguez and the Dodgers’ staff believe they’ve found a mechanical flaw … [the flaw], noticed when he breaks his hands at the start of his motion, grew progressively worse last year.

“Once I figured it out, it was like, ‘Wow, that’s how it feels,’” said Rodriguez. “I was pitching so well, but my arm slowly came up and it took away from my ability to hide the ball. It’s like night and day… I was showing the ball more than I normally do. Just one outing and it feels better.”

“Mechanical fix” is used almost as frequently as “best shape of his life” during spring training, but luckily it’s pretty easy to look for changes. We’ll start with two games from last year. On the left is a pitch from Rodriguez’ first regular season outing of 2013, which occurred on April 2nd. The delivery on the right is from September 15th (Rodriguez allowed a home run later in the atbat). Both pitches are cutters to right-handed batters, played at 25% speed.


GIF Link

The changes are pretty easy to spot. Rodriguez’ glove hand dropped away from his body a lot more quickly in the September delivery. In September he reached the apex of the wind-up (the point when the ball is at its highest behind Rodriguez’ head) faster and held the ball at the apex for longer. It appears that the ball might be a little bit higher in the September delivery, but the difference is extremely minor.

Gurnick’s article reports that Rodriguez first put the fix into place on Saturday, so let’s add that into the comparison.


GIF Link

While the different camera angle makes the changes a little more difficult to compare, the results of adding in the spring training game are interesting. When I only had the comparison between April and September, I thought the glove staying “in front” of the ball might have made the ball less visible to hitters and might have been a portion of the mechanical change. However, the glove fell away as quickly in the spring training pitch as it did in September. It’s also pretty hard to see much of a difference in the actual breaking of Rodriguez’ hands, which was specifically mentioned in Gurnick’s article.

However, there are some visible differences between the spring training delivery and the delivery from the end of last season. The ball reached the apex more slowly during the spring training wind-up than it did in the September wind-up. Despite the change, the spring training delivery reached the apex point of the wind-up slower than it did last April.

After visual examination, it can be concluded that there are some very small delivery changes present. It’s hard to know what this actually means until we get a meaningful sample of regular season pitching. It does give ups something else to point to if Rodriguez returns to normal. The reduction in fatigue, as described in my article earlier this year, will also have a positive impact. There are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Rodriguez’ chances to contribute next season.

 
D’Backs (ss)
   
Dodgers
 
1:05pm PT
   
Glendale, Ariz.
CF
Campana
 
RF
Puig
2B
Pennington
 
LF
Crawford
SS
Gregorius
 
SS
Ramirez
1B
Jacobs
 
1B
Gonzalez
LF
Tuiasosopo
 
CF
Ethier
3B
Marte
 
3B
Figgins
RF
Duncan
 
C
Ellis
C
Blanco
 
2B
Gordon
P
Lee
 
P
Greinke

The big news for today’s spring training game is the return of Zack Greinke to the mound after missing nearly two weeks with a strained calf. Greinke won’t be ready for Australia, but if he feels well after today’s start he’ll be on track for the series against the Padres. Greinke started the regular season on time last season after missing a significant portion of spring training due to elbow issues. The rest of the line-up looks pretty similar to what we’ll see on opening day, other than a day off for Juan Uribe.

In other news, Red Patterson was cut from the spring roster. He was cut before yesterday’s game, so it was a bit odd that he was not included with the other roster cuts on Monday. Patterson looked somewhat impressive during his limited spring training outings, giving up one run in 6.1 innings of work. Patterson is not ranked on Dustin’s prospect list, and will likely reprise his role as Albuquerque’s spot starter and long reliever.

What Happened to Paco Rodriguez?

For most of the year, Paco Rodriguez was one of the most dependable pitchers in the Dodgers’ bullpen. He was unhittable against lefties and nearly as good against right-handed hitting. This lasted until September, when he completely fell apart. He was so ineffective at the end of the season that he was left off of the NLCS roster against a Cardinals team that could not hit left-handed pitching.

Here’s a table showing the magnitude of Rodriguez’ fall:

Month BA OBP SLG wOBA FIP
April .179 .267 .222 .230 2.21
May .100 .206 .200 .196 3.37
June .167 .268 .171 .202 2.39
July .103 .138 .107 .117 0.77
August .135 .179 .216 .180 2.08
September .296 .438 .731 .468 9.84
October* .667 .750 1.167 - 28.55

*Playoffs. Extremely small sample (8 batters faced), and Fangraphs does not calculate playoff wOBA. This sample is combined with September’s as often as possible in this article.

The purpose of this piece is to look deeper into the end of Rodriguez’ season to see what happened in greater detail and to see if there was any visible cause of his rapid decline.

Walk rate/control

One major issue that plagued Rodriguez was a large spike in his walk rate. In September and October, Rodriguez walked 11 batters (4 intentional) in 7 innings. From April to August, he walked 13 batters (1 intentional) in 48 innings. In addition to the extra walks, Rodriguez found himself working from behind in the count more often at the end of the season:

Paco_2013PitchSituation

In September and October, Rodriguez threw 35% of his pitches while behind in the count, and just 35% while ahead. Looking at how the Rodriguez’ pitch selection changes by situation can help show the impact of pitching from behind in the count:

  Ahead LHH Even LHH Behind LHH Ahead RHH Even RHH Behind RHH
Fourseam 2% 7% 13% 7% 5% 5%
Sinker 6% 9% 11% 9% 30% 14%
Cutter 20% 38% 39% 35% 30% 53%
Slider 73% 45% 37% 31% 21% 13%
Change 0% 1% 0% 19% 13% 14%

When Rodriguez was ahead of left-handed hitters last season, he threw his slider nearly 3/4 of the time. After falling behind, the use of his slider was halved. As a result, he had to rely more on his sinker and cutter. Rodriguez’ pitch distribution changed against right-handed hitters as well, though the difference was not as extreme. While ahead in the count, he used his cutter and slider most often while frequently mixing in a change. After falling behind, he relied more on cutter, reducing usage of both the change and slider.

Overall, when Rodriguez was ahead in the count, he threw his best pitches in the locations that were hardest to hit, as most pitchers do. Last season, Rodriguez allowed a batting line of .116/.141/.217 while he was ahead in the count, and .204/.420/.347 while he was behind. This doesn’t fully explain Rodriguez falling apart at the end of the season, but it was definitely a factor.

However, looking at Rodriguez’ Pitch F/X data doesn’t help to clarify the increased walk rate or the increase in pitches thrown while behind in the count:

  April-August September-October
Pitches in Pitch F/X Strike Zone 33.9% 35.2%
Swing rate on out-of-zone pitches 39.1% 40.2%
First pitch called a ball 41.0% 44.7%
First pitch in Pitch F/X Strike Zone 36.4% 36.8%

Rodriguez actually threw more pitches in the Pitch F/X strike zone at the end of the season than he did at the beginning. Additionally, he got hitters to swing at pitches outside of the strike zone at a higher rate at the end of the season.

Rodriguez allowed more balls on the first pitch of an at-bat at the end of the season, which is a primary cause of the increased number of pitches thrown while behind in the count. However, the Pitch F/X strike zone doesn’t agree with this change; his first pitch was in the Pitch F/X zone at almost an identical rate during both time periods.

Overall, these data have some conflicts. It could indicate unlucky umpiring, or just poor luck during a small sample. For now, I’ll move on, and see if we can find a more complete explanation while examining other issues.

Balls in play

Walks were only a fraction of the problems that plagued Rodriguez at the end of the season. Between April and August, Rodriguez allowed an ISO (Isolated power) of .045. During that period, he allowed 22 hits, only three of which were for extra bases (two home runs, one double). In September and October (including the playoffs), Rodriguez allowed an isolated power of .438. At the beginning the season, Rodriguez allowed one extra base per 22.2 at-bats. At the end of the season, he allowed one extra base per 2.3 at-bats, almost ten times the previous rate.

The cause of the increased power is pretty easy to trace. Rodriguez allowed much harder contact at the end of the season:

Paco_BattedBallDistribution

At the end of the season, all lines on the above graph moved in the wrong direction. The lines that should be high (ground balls, infield fly balls) went down, and the lines that should be low (line drives, fly balls) both went up. This is not a recipe for success, and Rodriguez felt the full impact of the results. This is a clear cause of the increased power against Rodriguez at the end of the season, but the cause of the increase in hard contact still needs to be found.

Fatigue/Command

Rodriguez was subject to a higher workload in 2013 than he has been previously. He recently stated that he was a bit tired at the end of the season:

“Last year, I thought I prepared well enough, but at the end I might have gotten a little tired and I didn’t pitch as well as I wanted to. I felt like I had to work a little harder just to get to that point where I can last a whole season.”

If he was tired, it didn’t show up in his pitch velocity:

Paco_VelocityChart2013

However, there was a major change that could have been caused by fatigue. And I think that it could be the root cause of most of the other issues that I have outlined in this article. The chart below shows the horizontal and vertical component of Rodriguez’ pitch movement in 2013. Each point represents a month’s worth of pitches. I’ve highlighted the September data points:

Paco_MonthlyBreakChartSmall

All of his pitches had much less movement in September than they had during the rest of the season. The most dramatic effect was in Rodriguez’ slider, his best pitch for most of the year. According to the data from Brooks, his slider averaged 7.33 inches of horizontal movement between April and August, which decreased to 5.19 inches in September. The vertical movement changed from +2.57 inches to -3.14 inches. Throughout most of the season, Rodriguez’ slider was among the league’s best in horizontal break. Since his slider doesn’t rely on velocity to be effective, a reduction in movement can have severe consequences.

Rodriguez’ cutter also flattened out in September (-0.29 inches horizontal movement, +1.27 inches vertical movement). Rodriguez turns to that pitch more often when he’s behind in the count, which happened more often at the end of the season. Since his cutter had less movement, hitters were able to make better contact. Between April and August, batters hit 6 line drives on the 34 cutters put into play, a rate of 17.6%. In September and October, batters hit 6 line drives on the 17 cutters they put into play, exactly double the rate from earlier in the season.

The reduction in movement explains the increase in Rodriguez’ line drive rate. It also might also explain the discrepancy between Rodriguez’ increased walk rate (and number of pitches from behind in the count) and the Pitch F/X strike zone. The change in pitch movement and fatigue could have caused him to miss his target by more, resulting in fewer called strikes due to poorer pitch framing. It’s not a perfect explanation, but it closes the gap a bit.

Conclusion

Since Rodriguez stated that he was fatigued at the end of the season, there’s a potential cause for the change in pitch movement. The decrease in movement led to the increase in hard contact and potentially the increased walk rate. Rodriguez’ pitch breaks nearly returned to normal in his two October appearances. The results didn’t follow the change, but it’s a lot easier to claim “small sample size” with eight plate appearances. Since fatigue can explain Rodriguez’ late-season results so well, there’s reason to be optimistic about his chances to rebound in 2014.

This post uses the following statistics:

  • wOBA: Weighted on-base average, a statistic used to calculate overall offensive value by using unique weights for different types of hits. Explanation here
  • FIP: Fielding Independent Pitching. Attempts to create an ERA-like number using only plays that do not require defense to complete (K, BB, HR) by assuming the pitcher is playing in front of a league average defense. Explanation here.
  • GB%, LD%, FB%, IFFB%: Ground ball rate, line drive rate, fly ball rate, infield fly ball rate.