Pitching coach Rick Kranitz was one of several coaches fired by the Brewers to open the 2015-2016 offseason. Given the rough campaigns by Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse, as well as some other question marks (Wily Peralta‘s “dead arm” / mechanics; overall fastball struggles across the pitching staff), and the fact that the club has a new General Manager, it should not be viewed as a surprising move. Pitching, much more than batting, was the biggest issue for the 2015 Brewers (it’s actually not close).
When the Brewers began their GM search that ultimately landed David Stearns, “analytics” was one of the buzzwords (to the point of nausea). Aside from fans and writers that falsely equate “analytics” with “stats,” the focus was almost completely on analytics as a roster building tool, instead of its role in mechanics, coaching, and communication. This is one particular area of success for teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, who use their analytical approach to build specific game strategies and land buy-low players to make corrections (Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, Vance Worley, J.A. Happ are just some notable names here). There are other examples across the league, I am certain: the simple fact is, analytics concerns scouting and mechanical data as much as statistics (probably more, actually), and that makes cashing out data through actual coaching strategies a crucial part of the game.
One can potentially add the 2015 success of both Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada to the list of “2015 Brewers scouting, coaching, and mechanical failures,” precisely because the club apparently did not see either pitcher as a potential breakout for 2015 (or, if they did, they viewed the trade returns for other areas of the club to be more important; or, they viewed Jimmy Nelson, Wily Peralta, and Mike Fiers as better options. Neither of these are wrongheaded, they are just frustrating). In fact, both Estrada and Gallardo worked the best seasons of their respective careers in 2015, which bodes well for both as they enter free agency, and they did so by working on simple adjustments.
How did Gallardo and Estrada improve? It’s actually quite stunning that they did:
- Estrada’s strike out rate fell, and walk rate slightly rose (home run rate fell notably).
- Gallardo’s strike out rate fell, and walk rate rose notably.
- Neither pitcher saw a positive groundball: flyball change.
- Both Gallardo and Estrada converted “hard contact” to “medium contact.”
- Both Gallardo and Estrada notably improved their home run: flyball ratios.
- BrooksBaseball says Gallardo learned a cutter (ESPN TruMedia disagrees). Toronto’s manager corroborates this, but the cutter may be a variation of his slider?
- Gallardo returned to his change up (previously his worst pitch. Ironically, his change up was still “poor”).
- Estrada definitely learned a cutter.
|Marco Estrada||Rising FB||Riding FB||Change||Curve||“Cutter”|
|2014||55% (89.9)||2% (89.5)||30% (78.7)||13% (77.9)||0.2%|
|2015||53% (89.9)||.03% (88.7)||28% (79.2)||11% (78.0)||8% (88.5)|
|Yovani Gallardo||Rising FB||Riding FB||Slider||Curve||Change||Cutter|
|2014||37% (92.2)||18% (92.3)||25% (88.1)||19% (80.0)||1% (86.2)||n/a|
|2015||31% (91.6)||22% (91.5)||29% (88.3)||12% (79.8)||5% (85.9)||2% (89.9)|
Let’s be honest: at first view, this is plainly baffling stuff. The Brewers have featured other pitchers that allegedly learned cutters (remember Zack Greinke in 2012?), and have featured actual rotationmates to Estrada and Gallardo that threw the cut fastball (anyone remember Fiers’s cutter?). So, to simply see that both arms essentially changed one area of their approach and changed their contact raises plenty of questions about whether the Brewers thought of teaching the pitch to either starter (or, if they considered it and decided against it, why they made that conclusion).
So, at this basic point, there is a basic answer to the success of Estrada and Gallardo: neither pitcher made absurd Fielding Independent Pitching improvements, or great strides in the groundball department. They limited hard contact, and also limited home runs on flyballs (these two outcomes may be linked to one another). If you’re interested in more detail, I am going to look at ESPN TruMedia strike zones to potentially explain how these minute adjustments worked.
Gallardo’s Change Up
It would be easy to dismiss Gallardo’s change up as a terrible pitch if one simply uses those pitch f/x values from FanGraphs. One could say, “Gallardo returned to the change up in Texas, but it was not a part of his success.” However, looking at his strike zone approach, this does not necessarily seem to be the case, because the key to Gallardo’s success is that both his riding fastball and slider improved significantly in 2015. It could very well be the case that Gallardo’s change up “soaked up” some bad contact as a trade off for weaker contact on the slider and fastball. As some have seemingly suggested about pitch selection, a pitch does not need to be great to be featured in an arsenal, and in fact, if it is used selectively it may improve other pitches in certain situations.
Essentially, here’s what Gallardo accomplished: he used his change up rather heavily in the same pitching zones where he favored his fastball. Even if the change up soaked up some hits (and indeed, Gallardo’s “arm-side” AVG-allowed ticked upward in a low strike zone area), Gallardo had the opportunity to keep batters off of his fastball. Given that Gallardo also moved his slider further to his glove-side, and out of the center of the zone, he essentially worked two off-speed pitches to two completely different areas of the zone. Indeed, Gallardo AVG-against improved in slider areas, which means that perhaps the presence of two off-speed pitches within the strike zone allowed Gallardo to maximize his fastball velocity and his slider (even if one of his off-speed pitches was “bad”).
Ostensibly, Estrada used the cutter in 2015 to solve a 2014 batting average problem: even if batters weren’t “red hot” on his glove-side, they were indeed teeing up quite nicely in most of Estrada’s glove-side areas in the strike zone (and even moreso outside of the zone).
Incidentally, Estrada coupled this heavy glove-side use of his cutter with strong arm-side use of his change up. Like Gallardo’s slider, he moved his change up out of the middle of the zone, and worked it further to his arm-side. This isolated the change up almost completely from the cutter.
I know I’ve been writing about this a lot, especially when writing about Zach Davies and his strike zone adjustments, but it seems to be worth further investigation: adding wrinkles and speed variations in different strike zone areas seemingly gives batters more to think about, and more to time. Estrada’s cutter, or Gallardo’s change up, did not have to be “elite” to succeed in 2015: what both pitches did is increase the usage of either and off-speed or a wrinkle (or both) in the strike zone, in order to offset other more successful pitches.
No one will doubt that Gallardo is a slider pitcher, and Estrada a change pitcher. In fact, that same fact was true in 2014: both pitchers still favored their slider and change, respectively, during their last seasons with the Brewers. What their new clubs and pitching coaches did was to add variation in strike zone offerings and locations: change an eye level with a change up, add a cutter to a new area, and then double-down on your most effective pitch.
Should the Brewers see success with their adjustments in their analytical approach, perhaps fans and analysts will see this type of change from the 2015 Brewers starters. It is not necessarily what a pitcher does with his best pitch, or even his second-best pitch, in order to achieve success on the mound. Rather, a pitcher’s success can rely on many different pitches in many different areas, so far as that pitcher only uses each offering for its specific purpose. This is the story of Gallardo’s 2015 change, and Estrada’s 2015 cutter.