Fastball Barrel Board: An Intro

Building on my expected batting average by type of pitch analysis from last year, I’ve decided to take a look at an advanced statistic that stabilizes faster and is more predictable than batting average, and tells us much more about a player. Enter the fastball barrel board. Looking at barrel rate trends over the last few years can tell us a lot about skills growth and decline, and which hitters to take notice of. To do this analysis, I’ve compiled a list of players who had at least one barrel in both 2018 and 2019/2020 combined – 477 hitters in total – into an interactive scatter plot:

Barrel Rate Trend Analysis

Click the picture to go directly to the interactive trend analysis.

The x-axis shows the percent increase/(decrease) of barrel rates on fastballs from 2018 to 2019/20 combined. For example, you’ll see that Miguel Sano increased his barrel rate an absurd 13% in that timeframe. The y-axis shows the 2019/20 combined barrel rate on fastballs. Sano’s was 24%, nearly tops in the league. If you haven’t already looked, I bet you can’t guess who had a better barrel rate than him! If a player has a dark green circle, this means that the player has an elite barrel rate – we don’t care so much about the trend analysis. If the shade is light green, this player has an average or plus barrel rate, along with an increase in barrel rate from 2018 to 2019/20. If the shade is yellow, that player has an average barrel rate with a declining barrel rate. Finally, if you have a red circle, you should just go home, because this means the player’s barrel rate on fastballs is awful and/or they had a significantly declining barrel rate.

A few things that you should know. I’ve combined 2019 and 2020 into one data set, since 2020 was too small of a sample to analyze separately. When applicable, we can dive into massive differences between 2019 and 2020. Mystery man from above, could that be you?

I’ve decided to look at fastballs first, since fastballs have the highest barrel rate and are thrown the most (at least for now). For your reference, the average barrel rate in 2019/20 on fastballs was 8.55%, 7.18% on breaking balls, and 6.84% on offspeed pitches. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Fastballs are the fastest pitch, so if you hit one of those, the ball should leave the bat at a higher speed and create a barrel more often than typical secondary pitches.

My advice to you, the reader? Play around with it. Use the filters and have some fun. Go search for the Minnesota Twins with the “Team” filter on the right, and see how many players increased their barrel rate from 2018 to 2019/2020. Hint: it’s quite a bit. What was in the water in the Twin Cities? You can also use it to filter by position, to see where your favorite third base sleeper stacks up against the competition.

When you come back from messing around with the data, you’ll find three guys below who have high barrel rates on fastballs, and we tie them into the #DataMonster to see what helped drive that barrel rate, and then finally, look at their pitch mix to determine if, based on their results, they may see a change in pitch mix going forward.

Gary Sanchez (C – NYY)
2019/20 FB barrel rate: 25%
2018 vs. 2019/20 increase: 5%

The mystery man himself! Sanchez has a history of having trouble making contact, but absolutely mashing when the bat does meet the ball. The jump from 2018 to 2019/20 seems to be from a two MPH increase in average exit velocity. In fact, he averaged nearly 95 MPH off the bat on fastballs in 2020, which ranked tenth in all of baseball. He also dropped his launch angle from 24 degrees to 18 degrees, which is the recipe for a great barrel rate.

What doesn’t make sense is his .000 average on 30 fastballs down the middle in 2020, the chart on the left below.

.                         

I believe that Sanchez’s true colors are more in line with 2019 (on the right), which has over double the sample size of pitches. The #DataMonster shows us that Sanchez swings and misses a whole bunch, which we already knew. In fact, he ranks as one of the league laggards in that department, which we can see below. These are percentile rankings, not actual whiff rates.

On top of that, based on pitch location/type/count, he doesn’t swing at enough pitches in the zone, and swings at too many pitches out of the zone. His lack of controlling the zone resulted in a swinging wOBAcon of 9% better than all the pitches he saw, consistent with both 2018 and 2019. Unfortunately, this ranks in the bottom third of the league. Putting the finishing touches on, we can see that Sanchez’s xlwOBA (expected woBACon based on pitch location/type/count) was better than 2018 and 2019, but still ranked in the bottom quartile of the league. This solidifies his terribly low average, high slugging floor.

I’ve painted a relatively bleak picture for Sanchez. The one silver lining in his down 2020 is that perhaps as a result of having lower success on fastballs in a small sample, he saw a four percentage point increase in fastballs from 2019 (and a three percentage point increase from 2018). Based on his lack of success, this trend could definitely continue, and Sanchez could easily take advantage, since he crushes fastballs over a larger sample. Was his 2020 really bad? Yes, of course it was. However, it doesn’t seem like a true reflection of his talent, based on the underlying skills. If he continues to see an increase in fastballs, he could reemerge as a top-five fantasy catcher.

Brandon Lowe (2B/OF – TAM)
2019/20 FB barrel rate: 21%
2018 vs. 2019/20 increase: 7%

It’s important to note that Lowe had just 18 total barrels in 2018, but his monstrous fastball barrel rate is a talking point in itself. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Lowe on Fantasy Baseball Twitter, ranging from pointing out his playoff struggles to his platoon splits. However, a barrel rate in the top two percent of the league, fueled by the 21% barrel rate on fastballs, should get him ample playing time to hit 35 bombs. He posted a 94.7 MPH average exit velocity on fastballs in 2020, the same as Sanchez. That means that, according to FanGraphs hard-hit rate, he hits a fastball hard nearly half the time. And we’re worried about playing time?

via GIPHY

According to the #DataMonster, Lowe also struggles with whiffs, as he whiffs more than Sanchez overall. In fact, he’s been in the bottom 10% of all hitters in terms of Whiff Influence (In_Whiff) for his career. This fits his swing and miss profile, given that he whiffs more than we might expect.

However, 2020 was his best season by Whiff Influence, as he was in the 9th percentile. However, he also saw the highest xWhiff of his career (11th percentile). So this suggests that since xWhiff can fluctuate a decent amount, it could trend back towards league average. If he maintains his small Whiff Influence gains, we could see his actual Whiff rate continue to improve. Maybe there’s upside here that we aren’t considering, which would raise his batting average and provide even more upside to his tantalizing power.

Finally, Lowe doesn’t see a lot of fastballs – just 47.4% in 2020, which was consistent with 2019. Based on my research last year, the average major league hitter sees fastballs about 55% of the time. So, Lowe is likely to see more fastballs in his future than less. His minor league track record suggests he can continue to lower his strikeout rate. If he saw even more fastballs, potentially by lowering that whiff rate, he could develop into a top-30 overall player.

Harrison Bader (OF – STL)
2019/20 FB barrel rate: 16%
2018 vs. 2019/20 increase: 9%

This is one of the last guys I expected to see on this list. But, here we are. Similar caveats apply with Bader as they did to Lowe, as Bader only had 18 barreled balls in total in 2018. There’s also concern that he struggles severely on non-fastballs, as evidenced by his four total barrels on secondary pitches in 2020. However, the fact that he mashes fastballs is a great sign.

So, how did Bader get here? He upped his average exit velocity on fastballs nearly three MPH, and cut down on the whiff rate drastically. His 2019 was much better than his 2020, but after seeing just 286 fastballs in 2020, I’m looking more at his 2019 success on fastballs.

Diving into the #DataMonster, Bader’s relative lack of success stems from being too passive at the dish, which has been a problem throughout his career. This is one tweak he needs to work on to stay in the lineup. Given how hard he hits fastballs, he should be able to sustain success by making this adjustment.

Finally, Bader saw about the league average in fastball usage over the past three years. Based on his success on fastballs relative to secondary pitches, we should expect a decrease in fastballs moving forward. At least, that’s what I would do if I was a team game planning for him. A decrease in fastballs could mean a lower hitting floor, which is concerning given the existing holes in his hitting profile. With that said, his superior defense, baserunning ability, and knack for hitting fastballs hard should keep him in centerfield. He’s going past pick 500 in NFBC drafts since the calendar turned, meaning there is zero risk here. If Bader simply continues to show this success on fastballs while being more aggressive in the zone, he will likely be a value by the end of 2021.

We hope you identified some players who are making you dig deeper and up your fantasy baseball knowledge. Let us know who you want us to do a deep dive on next, based on your barrel board observations!

@MattWi77iams 2021 Player Breakdowns Index

Matt Williams has been diving through interesting players for 2021 Fantasy Baseball drafts this offseason and is giving extended thoughts through Twitter threads. The projection portion of these threads is subject to change due to roster moves and other circumstances. However, the research and overlook is still valuable information.

This is an alphabetical index of those threads to make it a little easier to find the player you are looking for. This list will be updated as Matt creates new threads throughout the offseason.

Below are links to each player, click on your choice for the full thread, and hit Matt up on Twitter (@MattWi77iams) with any questions.

 

 

Be sure to subscribe to the Turn Two Podcast (@TurnTwoPodcast) hosted by Matt Williams (@MattWi77iams)

Subscribe now: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/turn-two-podcast/id1450234685

GPS Pitch Location Report: Corbin Burnes

We are reaching somewhat of a breaking point in fantasy leagues. Owners are scrambling to make those last major moves to ensure victory or they are taking chances with their roster looking to chase down the top spot. As I have done all season I am once again taking a look at the state of pitching with the help of ERA estimator Stuff-ERA. The model has helped guide many of my pitching decisions this season and has been a big part of my success For the first time since the initial run of this article, we have a new leader. You’ll just have to keep reading to find out who has unseated Shane Bieber.

Corbin Burnes

Quite frankly, the Brewers have been a massive disappointment. Their offense has struggled much of the season and their starting rotation has been overall dreadful. However, there has been one massive bright spot for the team and that is the emergence of Corbin Burnes. Burnes who once won the teams Minor League Pitcher of the Year award has had an uneven start to his MLB career. He has looked at times like a future ace but has yet to put it all together at the Big League Level. However, 2020 has been a different story. Burnes has been electric all year posting an ERA of 1.99 across his six starts. This includes an absolute dismantling of the Tigers yesterday. He allowed one hit and struck out 11 in seven innings. As many pitchers I have discussed have proven, a breakout like this usually comes with a pitch mix change.

As you can clearly see from the chart above Burnes changed his mix drastically. He has almost completely abandoned the fastball and replaced it with two pitches, a sinker, and a cutter. The interesting thing about this is that while the fastball was hit extremely hard in the past, 0.460 xwoba; the two new pitches are world beaters, 0.420 for the sinker, and 0.342 for the cutter. However, looking it over Burnes has been locating the two pitches exceptionally well. Among all pitchers with at least 300 Fastballs (Sinkers, Cutters, 4 and 2 Seams) thrown this season, Burnes has the 4th lowest location-based xwoba. The chart below shows how he’s been avoiding the danger zones extremely well with the pitch.

What you can see is that Burnes has expertly located his fastballs missing the heart of the zone frequently. He’s been attacking the bottom of the zone extremely well as well as locating the cutter to the corners. Compare the above chart to Kevin Gausman, the pitcher with the highest location-based xwoba on fastballs.

As you can see many of Gausman’s fastballs are being located near the heart of the zone. The change seems to be impacting Burnes positively overall as his secondary pitches have all seen improvements in xwoba from 2019. Stuff-ERA is a huge fan as he is fourth-best in baseball according to the metric (minimum 600 pitches thrown). If Burnes can continue to locate his sinker and cutter extremely well, he should continue to get great results from his entire arsenal and he may be the Brewer starter who we consider among the ace tier in 2021, not Brandon Woodruff. I am fully buying into the Burnes breakout and am kicking myself for not drafting more of him this offseason.

Stuff ERA Leaders

 

Stuff-ERA Leaders
Min 600 Pitches
Pitcher Stuff-ERA
Jacob deGrom 2.1927
Zac Gallen 2.2087
Shane Bieber 2.3325
Corbin Burnes 2.7647
Lucas Giolito 2.7650
Kenta Maeda 2.8052
Yu Darvish 2.8081
Aaron Nola 2.8913
Dylan Bundy 2.9131
Clayton Kershaw 3.0197
Dinelson Lamet 3.0696
Walker Buehler 3.0814
Andrew Heaney 3.1160
Adam Wainwright 3.1294
Zach Davies 3.1720
Max Fried 3.2685
Jose Berrios 3.3244
Dallas Keuchel 3.3876
Lance Lynn 3.3936
Zack Wheeler 3.4029
Brad Keller 3.4123
Tyler Mahle 3.4245
Trevor Bauer 3.4336
Max Scherzer 3.4898
Ryan Yarbrough 3.5140
Spencer Turnbull 3.5537
Marco Gonzales 3.5840
Dakota Hudson 3.6210
Jesus Luzardo 3.6743
Tyler Glasnow 3.6864
Zack Greinke 3.6974
Sonny Gray 3.7004
Masahiro Tanaka 3.7022
Framber Valdez 3.7069
Kevin Gausman 3.7102
Dustin May 3.7184
Pablo Lopez 3.7237
Antonio Senzatela 3.7300
David Peterson 3.7467
Frankie Montas 3.7505
Carlos Carrasco 3.7517
Kolby Allard 3.7621
Yusei Kikuchi 3.7630
Brandon Woodruff 3.8064
Alex Cobb 3.8207
Julio Urias 3.8898
Lance McCullers Jr. 3.8918
Cristian Javier 3.9161
Taijuan Walker 3.9202
Blake Snell 3.9227
German Marquez 3.9228
J.A. Happ 3.9439
Justus Sheffield 3.9592
Martin Perez 3.9773
Justin Dunn 3.9955
Mike Minor 4.0090
Chad Kuhl 4.0863
Kyle Hendricks 4.0994
Hyun Jin Ryu 4.1089
Gerrit Cole 4.1518
Brady Singer 4.1546
Dylan Cease 4.1649
Josh Lindblom 4.1805
Aaron Civale 4.2135
Chris Bassitt 4.2562
Logan Webb 4.2594
Griffin Canning 4.3253
Randy Dobnak 4.3315
Ryan Castellani 4.3680
Garrett Richards 4.3979
Johnny Cueto 4.4290
Tyler Anderson 4.4339
Luis Castillo 4.4348
Trevor Richards 4.4686
Alec Mills 4.4720
Elieser Hernandez 4.4893
Zach Eflin 4.5236
Danny Duffy 4.5687
Jon Gray 4.5691
Kris Bubic 4.6062
Kyle Freeland 4.6086
Mike Fiers 4.6259
Kyle Gibson 4.6400
Alex Young 4.6448
Jordan Montgomery 4.6558
Patrick Corbin 4.6679
Mike Clevinger 4.7079
Erick Fedde 4.7112
Chris Paddack 4.7287
John Means 4.7524
Matthew Boyd 4.7528
Ryan Weber 4.8360
Robbie Ray 4.9321
Asher Wojciechowski 5.0405
Luke Weaver 5.0837
Tanner Roark 5.1162
Adrian Houser 5.1193
Brett Anderson 5.1354
Rick Porcello 5.1496
Jordan Lyles 5.2228

GPS Location Report: Jose Berrios

Welcome to Week 2 of the GPS Location Report. This is my weekly dive into pitcher location and pitch usage to determine why a given pitcher is succeeding or struggling. Last week I dove into Dylan Bundy and determined that he was using his breaking balls to start at-bats and it was leading to a ton of success. He continued that success again on Tuesday making me look like a genius.

As my Twitter feed and my Tyler Alexander recommendation shows, I am not a genius. I will make mistakes and I will suggest things that end up being wrong but that is all part of the fun. Today, instead of looking at a pitcher who is having a career-best season, I’ll be diving into Jose Berrios who is having one of the worst years of his career.

 

Jose Berrios

 

Berrios has looked like a budding ace in the past few seasons. While he has always had stretches of true dominance mixed with struggles, but he had been a mid-3s ERA pitcher each of the last three seasons. However, the start of his 2020 has been brutal. This season he has posted an ERA just below 6. His hard-hit rate is rising and his K rate has dropped significantly.

The first thing I like to look at when I see massive changes in a performance like this is pitch mix. For Berrios, the main difference this season is a drop in sinker rate being offset but an increase in change-up rate. Overall, this would seem like a positive trend as his sinker has been historically hit harder than his change. So far in 2020, his change-up has been getting crushed. This could be a part of the issues he has been having but the change is still the pitch he uses least often.

The big difference in what I am seeing so far is that his fastball is getting torched. So far he has allowed a wOBA of 0.571 and an xwOBA of 0.522 according to Statcast. The average Exit Velocity on his Fastball is 96 MPH. Plain and simple, the pitch is just getting destroyed. This led me to consider that his ability to locate the fastball has regressed. Below I have included the location chart for his fastballs on top of expected wOBA.

 

 

Quite simply as you can see, his fastball location has been brutal. Especially early in the count, he has been leaving his fastball over the heart of the plate. However, the issues do not appear to be limited to solely the first pitch of at-bats. Many of his fastballs are being left over the heart of the plate. This seems to support the destruction currently being done on his fastball.

I decided to query the expected data and compared Berrios’s fastballs to all other pitchers. Among the 80 pitchers who have thrown at least 150 Fastballs, Berrios ranks 18th in location-based expected woba on the fastball. This may not seem terrible, but it also includes his sinker which has been fairly successful in 2020 so far. However, the issue is that while his fastball has a high expected woba, it also has an extremely low expected Whiff rate. Among the same sample of pitchers, his xWhiff is 11th lowest. The critical thing to note here is that among the ten pitchers ahead of him, Berrios has the highest expected woba. So based on where he is locating his fastball, he is not expected to generate many whiffs, and when contact is made the expected woba is extremely high. This is an extremely dangerous proposition for a pitcher and this could explain why he has been struggling so much to begin the season. When Berrios next takes the mound keep a close eye on his fastball location.

 

Stuff ERA Leaders

 

All stats are updated as of Sunday, August 16th. 

 

Stuff-ERA Leaders
Min 200 Pitches
Pitcher Stuff-ERA
Shane Bieber 2.2581
Dylan Bundy 2.6548
Aaron Nola 2.7192
Yu Darvish 2.8812
Frankie Montas 3.0125
Freddy Peralta 3.0912
Lance Lynn 3.1188
Dinelson Lamet 3.1337
Jacob deGrom 3.1364
Corbin Burnes 3.2242
Zac Gallen 3.2927
Carlos Carrasco 3.3862
Max Scherzer 3.3909
Max Fried 3.4068
Austin Brice 3.4263
Zach Plesac 3.4367
Trevor Bauer 3.4393
Alex Cobb 3.4531
Ryan Yarbrough 3.4996
Brandon Bielak 3.5175
Gerrit Cole 3.5185
Kyle Hendricks 3.5357
Sonny Gray 3.5477
Josh Lindblom 3.5556
Kenta Maeda 3.5621
Julio Urias 3.6049
Touki Toussaint 3.6147
Tyler Chatwood 3.6340
Lance McCullers Jr. 3.6445
Walker Buehler 3.6472
Luis Castillo 3.6693
Jalen Beeks 3.6725
Pablo Lopez 3.6782
Kevin Gausman 3.6887
Chad Kuhl 3.6960
Cal Quantrill 3.7003
Spencer Turnbull 3.7265
Brady Singer 3.7356
Zach Davies 3.7418
Phillips Valdez 3.7421
Yusei Kikuchi 3.7550
Jesus Luzardo 3.7587
Clayton Kershaw 3.7604
Alec Mills 3.7625
Zack Greinke 3.7820
German Marquez 3.7862
Griffin Canning 3.7876
Dallas Keuchel 3.8043
Andrew Heaney 3.8197
Yohan Ramirez 3.8297
Chris Bassitt 3.8359
Randy Dobnak 3.8383
Tanner Roark 3.8438
Tommy Milone 3.8441
Kyle Wright 3.8621
David Peterson 3.8848
Merrill Kelly 3.8854
Wade LeBlanc 3.8855
Brandon Woodruff 3.8927
Trevor Williams 3.8955
Justus Sheffield 3.8999
Garrett Richards 3.9008
Zack Wheeler 3.9138
Mike Clevinger 3.9296
Robbie Ray 3.9336
Hyun Jin Ryu 3.9375
Adrian Houser 3.9455
Tyler Anderson 3.9459
Colten Brewer 3.9507
Cristian Javier 3.9842
Lucas Giolito 3.9846
Antonio Senzatela 3.9976
Dustin May 4.0020
Elieser Hernandez 4.0049
Jose Berrios 4.0356
Patrick Corbin 4.0367
Jon Gray 4.0417
Framber Valdez 4.0420
Asher Wojciechowski 4.0508
Patrick Sandoval 4.0536
Joe Musgrove 4.0544
Alex Young 4.0745
Josh James 4.0830
Tyler Glasnow 4.1022
Matt Shoemaker 4.1052
Nick Margevicius 4.1261
Trevor Richards 4.1330
Martin Perez 4.1683
Kyle Gibson 4.1691
Logan Webb 4.1727
Danny Duffy 4.1926
Taijuan Walker 4.1954
Dylan Cease 4.2116
Tyler Alexander 4.2188
Kyle Freeland 4.2282
Kolby Allard 4.2344
Mike Minor 4.2405
Erick Fedde 4.2410
Ivan Nova 4.2592
Marco Gonzales 4.2599

Under the Microscope: Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

Last week I went step-by-step through how I evaluate hitters using Willie Calhoun as an example. Today, it’s Lourdes Gurriel Jr.‘s turn. For a detailed description of the reasons behind each step, please check out the original article. As will become customary, I’ll start with his market and projected values and then move to my own secret sauce.

Note: At the time of writing a season length was not announced, I’ll be using full-season projections.

 

ADP

 

After converting Gurriel’s ADP (collected at Fantasy Pros and the last month of NFBC) to 15-team auction values, his market value is in the range of $8 to $11.

While the auction cost swing seems reasonable, the difference in draft picks, which is firmly in the flat part of the talent curve, is over 50 spots. Just going with the overall average, he’s a 10th round pick in a 15-team league.

One factor that may increase his value in some formats is that he could be qualified at second base (9 games). The market seems set.

 

Projections

 

He’s got a fairly wide range of FanGraphs projected auction values … sort of.

A $13 range extends from $15 with Steamer down to $2 with ZiPS with the $9 average value coming in just under the market cost.

Playing times must first be compared and ZiPS comes in nearly 100 plate appearances behind the other three with also the lowest projected OPS. On the other hand, Steamer has the highest projected OPS and PAs. If the ZiPs projection is removed, the average increases to $11.6. If Steamer is removed, $7.3.

All the projections have him under 600 PA and 138 games. These projections have some playing time upside. Roster resource has him tabbed as the starting left-fielder and hitting third, so if he performs, additional plate appearances won’t be an issue. A locked-in 95% role would be a huge boost over his projected 85% role. This is the biggest factor for a variance in his projected output.

The projections average out to around 25 HR, 8 SB, and a .260 AVG. Hitters projected for similar stats are Ramon Laureano and teammate Teoscar Hernandez.

 

My Process

 

I’ll start with his recent performance, personal projections, and comps.

And his batting profile.

Some stats stick out from the above profile.

  • He has struggled against right-handed pitching and has been worse over his career with .767 OPS against righties and a .928 against lefties. He has a legitimate chance of ending up in the short-side of a platoon. That’s not what I’m looking for in a 10th to 12th rounder.
  • Also, he completely fell apart in the second half with his strikeouts up and power and walks down. He had an Aristides Aquino like outburst with 10 HR and a .337/.381/.683 slash line in June. And not much else.
  • The power profile projects him for ~30 HR if he gets full-season playing time.
  • He has above-average speed and has the potential for double-digit steals.
  • The comparable hitters are completely uninspiring beside Nick Castellanos. There is that chance Gurriel can take off, but the odds seem stacked against him.
  • Almost none of the batted ball information is sitting still. It looks like he is trying to sell out for power (increase in exit velocity, increase launch angle, drop-in contact). While selling out, his max exit velocity and the angle he hits the ball hard stayed the same. When he wasn’t making solid contact, he was a weak groundball machine.
  • The final graph gets to the core of his struggles. He couldn’t hit a fastball and pitcher attacked him because of it. He had a 13% SwStr% against four-seamers and a 9% SwStr% against sinkers. Those are horrible results. He did most of the damage against sliders (1.009 OPS, 10 HR) and changeups (.920 OPS) so he was hoping for offspeed pitches and pitchers moved away from them.

While his full-season projections are healthy and he states that he’s “working on his strike-zone recognition and his two-strike approach“, I’m out at his price. I’d take Willie Calhoun, who I profiled last week, who is going on average 30 picks later.

There is too much downside and I’d need Gurriel at a discount. He could end up in a platoon. He fell apart after June when his tinkering backfired. He’s never played a full MLB season.

It’s not that I don’t see the possible upside in Gurriel, it’s just there are better options available around him at his draft price. I’d rather pay for Kyle Schwarber who is going around the same time. Why not take a shot on Teoscar Hernandez who has the same traits (30 HR power, 10 SB, .250 AVG) but his being drafted 200 picks later? If Hernandez fails, no resources were wasted. I’m still hoping for talent anchors in the tenth round, not projects.

Under The Microscope: Daniel Ponce de Leon

 

Welcome back to another rendition of RotoFanatic’s Under The Microscope series, as this time around Daniel Ponce de Leon will be the player under closer examination.

 

Background

 

You may have heard his story, you may have not, but this is how the legend goes. Daniel Ponce de Leon is a fighter. No, I am not referring to the famous boxer who happens to share a name with the Cardinals’ right-handed pitcher, but am rather alluding to the resilience and drive that the twenty-eight year old has embodied over the past two seasons of his career in the wake of experiencing a very traumatic event on the field on May 9, 2017. While on the mound versus the Iowa Cubs, Ponce de Leon experienced a serious event when he was struck directly in the right-temple by a hard line drive hit up the middle by Victor Caratini.

 

This unfortunate event resulted in a fractured skull and internal bleeding from his brain, forcing the medical staff to rush him the hospital to have emergency surgery performed on his head. After a few months of rehabilitation, Ponce made a full recovery but would not return to Major League Baseball until February of 2018. His path to the major leagues was initially delayed and surprisingly convoluted, but he is now officially here to stay. The pedigree hasn’t been overwhelming but it has existed across all levels. It is unimaginable how difficult it must be to suffer a traumatic head injury on the mound, and even more so to get right back up and improve in the following two seasons. Not even a line drive to the head could knock him out of the game of baseball, which is why I decided to attribute him the nickname of – The Facade.

 

Overview

Believe it or not, Ponce de Leon had been drafted four times as an amateur player (2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014) and did not make his MLB debut until July 23, 2018. It truly was an unforgettable debut, as he spun a “No-Hit Bid” of seven shut-out innings against the Reds while accumulating three strikeouts and three walks in his first cup of coffee at the Major League level. This outing embodies who Ponce de Leon has been as a pitcher over the past two seasons. He may not become a pitcher with astronomical strikeout potential but will rather thrive as a craftsman who understands how to get different hitters out by any means necessary.

He has displayed positive linear growth across each level of professional baseball that he has pitched at, which by default begun to spark some intrigue within the community ever since witnessing his no-hit debut back in July of 2018. Near league-average surface stats have helped keep Ponce de Leon as a hidden gem buried beneath the surface, but when you look deeper there is much more to take away. Daniel Ponce de Leon has a current NFBC ADP of 410, in contrast to his ADP of 545 between February and March of this year. Get your shares now while you can still grab him at a good price. 

 

ERA Estimators

 

In 2019 Ponce posted a 3.70 ERA, but it is intriguing that he was able to simultaneously post a 2.81 dERA and a 2.61 wiERA. Developed by Alex Chamberlain, dERA or “deserved ERA”, can be defined as a wOBAcon-based metric that is more descriptive of an ERA estimator than FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. Chamberlain then replaced wOBAcon with xwOBAcon to create wiERA or “what if ERA”, as this ERA estimator accounts for the weak contact that Ponce was able to induce despite results of the batted ball event. Positive growth lies on the horizon for Ponce de Leon.

 

Statcast Profile

 

Let us begin by taking a glimpse at his suite of Statcast Sliders to identify where Ponce ranked among pitchers across the league last season in various performance categories. The first thing to account for within this graphic is the fact that Ponce’s Statcast page is painted red, which represents that the underlying skill set for him continually improve upon pitching performance appears to be alive and well beneath the surface.

 

Statcast Slider profile for Daniel Ponce de Leon (2019)

 

Adam Wainwright and Carlos Martinez have only so much time left as viable rotation assets for the Cardinals, so a spot in that rotation may inevitably await Ponce de Leon if can continue to progress each season. Kwang-Hyun Kim and Genesis Cabrera may be the only two Cardinal pitchers who Ponce de Leon would have to compete with in 2020 or 2021 for any type of open rotation spot, and it looks like both of them are likely destined for the bullpen. 

An interesting observation from this figure is the clear discrepancy between his Average Exit Velocity (51st percentile) and Hard Hit% (96th percentile). One would initially think that a pitcher who possesses a heightened Average Exit Velocity would simultaneously yield a higher-than-average Hard Hit%, but this is clearly not the case for Ponce de Leon. This translates to a pitcher who has the capability to yield average quality of contact while remaining in the top 4 percent of the league for allowing contact events hit equal to or harder than ninety-five miles per hour. 

Since making his debut in July of 2018, Ponce has made measurable linear progress over his first two seasons of pitching in the MLB. The Facade has been quietly impressive to say the least, while his limited sample size of innings pitched across two seasons has allowed for him to fly under the radar while yielding above league-average performance indices. Given the limited sample size, Ponce’s underlying performance metrics from 2018-2019 show more promise for positive growth in 2020 than his resulting surface stats would suggest. 

 

Notable Splits

 

Platoon

 

Given the relatively small sample size of innings pitched (48 2/3) in 2019, Ponce yielded reverse Platoon Splits that sparked a bit of intrigue right out the gate. Keeping in mind that he threw ten more innings against right-handed batters than he did against left-handed batters, Ponce de Leon yielded a 4.30 ERA versus right-handed batters and a 2.79 ERA versus left-handed batters. Even though he walked less batters and had a lower WHIP against right-handed hitters, all six home runs that Ponce de Leon gave up in 2019 were to hitters on this particular side of the platoon. You are likely asking, why?

The answer is fairly straight forward, as it appears that he had been attacking right-handed batters too aggressively over the heart of the plate. The average location of his pitches thrown to left-handed batters is closer to the upper shadow zone in contrast to the average location of pitches thrown versus right-handed batters. This is a major problem that can be solved by elevating the fastball just a bit higher to right-handed batters. Most would think that this small of a detail doesn’t mean very much when performing an analysis, but this could mean life or death for a pitcher who lives and dies with his fastball high in the zone. 

 

Ponce_KDE_RHB

 

 

Home / Away

 

Interestingly enough, Ponce posted substantially better stats on the road than he did within Busch Stadium, which is somewhat surprising due to the fact that Busch Stadium is a relatively pitcher-friendly ballpark. Simply enough, these results were a product of allowing more hits and home runs when pitching at home, as his strikeouts, walks, and BABIP were fairly similar between home and away appearances. Ponce de Leon allowed more runners to reach base when pitching on the road, but ultimately gave up higher quality of contact when pitching at home.

This resulted in giving up more home runs within Busch Stadium and ultimately led to an inflated ERA of 4.55. Ponce de Leon’s FIP was 4.70 at home and 4.02 on the road, signifying that he did not achieve peak performance when pitching in Busch Stadium for whatever reason. Having accrued more walks and strikeouts when on the road, this further suggests that the range in his home and away splits indicates a true lapse in individual peak performance primarily while in St. Louis – as this disparity in FIP tells the true story here. 

 

 

A Tale of Two Halves

 

Analyzing both a player’s “Monthly” and “Through Count” splits in tandem can assist in painting a fairly accurate picture as to why certain successes or failures were reached at various points of a season. The moral of the story with Ponce de Leon is that whenever he has fallen behind in the count to hitters has been when he has given up the vast majority of his fly balls, and by default more home runs as a result. It is worth mentioning that Ponce performed exceptionally well prior to the All Star break in 2019 (2.16 ERA), but he then endured a second half skid (5.32 ERA) that was only successful in clouding the view of fantasy managers from how great of a first half that he actually had. 

He was in the bottom 7 percent of the league in BB%, which in turn inflated almost all of his ERA indicators as a direct result (as seen below). There is stake to be put  into the fact that Ponce is in the 96th percentile for Hard Hit%, as this is reflected in his 3.67 xERA which accounts for type and quality of contact allowed (Exit Velocity and Launch Angle). 

 

Ponce_BaseLines

Table listing ERA estimators for Ponce de Leon’s 2018-2019 seasons pitching in the MLB.

 

As Ponce de Leon continued to get ahead in the count more often and displayed the ability to stay ahead with two strikes on the batter, he proved to yield ground ball rates north of 50 percent and HR/oFB rates of approximately 14 percent. It is important to understand that the majority of damage that has been done against Ponce de Leon has occurred when he has fallen behind in the count. This forces a pitcher to try and recover with four-seam fastballs that frequently end up over the heart of the plate (see heat maps below).

Whether you have two or three balls on the hitter, the goal is to never give in by piping a fastball when the batter knows it is coming. Deception and the ability to surprise a hitter in any count is what can turn an MLB pitcher from good to great. This is a growing pain that he will likely be able to correct for the 2020 season and beyond. 

 

BA_2balls

Ponce de Leon’s BA heat map when throwing the four-seam fastball with two balls on the hitter

BA_3ballsfb

Ponce de Leon’s BA heat map when throwing the four-seam fastball with three balls on the hitter

 

 

Plate Discipline

 

Another facet of Ponce’s performance that he improved upon was increasing the amount of swings and misses generated by pitches thrown out of the zone. His plate discipline profile improvements can be seen in the table below, as he was able to increase his O-Swing% to 32.8 percent and his O-SwingMiss% to 35.5%. He experienced a natural decline in Z-SwingMiss% in congruence with a decrease in overall Zone% to a more manageable mark of 39.4 percent. It will be interesting to observe whether Ponce de Leon increases his Z-SwingMiss% or not in 2020, as this could become a very positive sign that he should limit hitter’s xBA even better next time around. Having dropped his Zone% to near league-average should allow Ponce de Leon to reach his full potential with a more refined arsenal.

platediscipline

 

 

Strong Tunneling Ability

 

Tunneling is an incredibly important skill to consider when evaluating whether the successes that a pitcher has  been experiencing is stochastic and fluky in nature or if they can become a sustainable reality for 2020 and beyond. Deception is the name of the game. In a previous deep dive article written for SPStreamer.com, it was highlighted how Ryan Yarbrough’s current inability to tunnel his pitches raises concerns for how long he’ll remain a viable fantasy or rotation asset. Fortunately for Daniel Ponce de Leon, he is a better tunneler than Yarbrough and has displayed an elite ability to tunnel his four-seam fastball and curveball.

Improvements need to be made in order to hone in his cutter so all three pitches appear to be released from the exact same location. This trend does not hold true for his below-average changeup, as this could be a potential mechanical breakthrough if conquered before the start of the 2020 season. This can be seen in the Pitch Tracker data below, which shows the precision and consistency in the X-Y release points for his fastball and curveball. This data also reveals the outlying green and brown dots which signifies that his release points for these pitches are less consistent than for his fastball and curveball. 

 

tunneling_2

Release Point coordinate chart for all pitches thrown by Ponce de Leon.

 

If a pitcher is having above league-average success and is proving to mix and tunnel his pitches like Ponce de Leon is, then the longer it will take for hitters to adjust and make quality contact. As can be seen in the Release Point figure below, Ponce displays an adequate level of repeatability in his delivery with all pitches despite the changeup (green outliers on plot). Having now peered into this particular window of his mechanical make-up, we can dig into each pitch within his arsenal with a greater understanding of the varying levels of success possessed by each pitch. 

 

Arsenal: Pitch by Pitch

 

For reference, the table below shows each pitch type that Ponce de Leon has thrown over the past two seasons and how his usage of those pitches has changed in just one year. To summarize, he started to rely even more heavily on his four-seam fastball and curveball in 2019. The uptick in usage of his two best pitches demonstrates that he has a clear understanding of what has worked for him as time has pressed on. He has shown that he has the ability to have multiple pitches work for him on any given night.

 

arsenal

 

Four-Seam Fastball

 

Ponce de Leon’s fastball usage is almost equally distributed across all counts, as it serves as his go to pitch that has garnered 77 percent of all of his strikeouts in 2019 (forty strikeouts). His four-seam fastball isn’t as straight as one may think, as it possesses almost twelve-inches of horizontal break (68 percent above-average) and fifteen-inches of vertical drop (4 percent above-average). This pitch has a 5.5 percent barrel rate, which is well below league average. The main issue comes down to Ponce de Leon throwing his fastball 70.7 percent of the time while also throwing it inside of the zone 48 percent of the time. This can be visualized in the Pitcher Plinko chart below courtesy of BaseballSavant.com. If he can drop that Zone% closer to 45 percent and fantasy owners will begin to reap the benefits. Predictable fastball over-usage can be a recipe for disaster, but this is Ponce’s bread and butter for striking batters out. 

 

ponce_plinko

Ponce de Leon’s Pitcher Plinko chart displaying usage of each pitch by count. Red = FF, Brown = FC, Green = CH, Blue = CU.

 

Quick Comparison

 

After watching film, one thing that became apparent about Ponce de Leon’s strategy on the mound was his motive to exterminate hitters clearly was to beat them up in the zone with his sneaky good fastball. One comparison to Ponce in terms of the methodology used to attack hitters is Jake Odorizzi. Even though he is very much established within the MLB, Odorizzi happens to get away with throwing his fastball in the zone almost 60 percent of the time while bolstering nearly a 15 percent SwStr%. This usage pattern could also become a reality for Ponce de Leon, who currently possesses near an 11 percent SwStr% on his fastball. The key to improving this pitch is to stop catching the heart of the plate and to shift those hot spots north toward the upper border of the strike zone (see contoured heat map below). 

 

fourseamcontour

Four-seam contour heat map for Ponce de Leon. Via BaseballSavant.com

 

Eleven strikeout videos into this research, and all eleven of those strikeouts were recorded with a ninety-five mile per hour fastball up in the shadow and chase zones (see videos below). Another facet that Ponce de Leon improved upon from 2018 to 2019 was increasing the spin rates on all four pitches that he throws. His four-seam fastball spin jumped from 2217 RPM to 2335 RPM. With this leap he also cemented himself as the twenty-third best ranked pitcher for Active Spin on a four-seam fastball, yielding a 94.2% rate. The patterning behind his success with this pitch became very apparent. He likes to get ahead with the cutter and curveball and then put em’ away with the high heat. 

 

Video of Ponce de Leon striking out Michael Conforto with a high fastball. Courtesy of BaseballSavant.com.

 

Video of Ponce de Leon striking out Anthony Rendon with a high fastball. Courtesy of BaseballSavant.com.

 

Look for Ponce to develop even more control over his fastball in the upcoming season, as he will certainly need a command+ higher than eighty-five to remain a viable pitching option for more than just a few innings. The graphic below portrays the average locations that Ponce de Leon pitches to the most. This is one of the more encouraging visualizations that clearly shows his motive to work high in the shadow zone with the fastball. He has proven this to become a successful method of pitching for Ponce de Leon unless the fastball catches too much of the zone. The heart of the zone still not being color coded as blue is really the only concern here, as his fastball catches too much of the plate more often than it needs to. 

 

LocationFreq_RL

Location Frequency diagram for all pitches thrown by Ponce de Leon in 2019.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Cutter

Just like Ponce de Leon’s curveball and changeup, his cutter managed to bolster a 0 percent barrel% even having been thrown 13 percent of the time. This is largely due to his stronger ability to locate this pitch within the shadow zone, as this can be observed in the contour heat map below.

 

cuttercontour

Cutter contour heat map for Ponce de Leon. Via BaseballSavant.com

 

His cutter has average vertical drop (1 percent above-average) and has below-average horizontal break (-190% below-average), as this is certainly a pitch that he will need to further develop this season to do a better job at deceiving hitters. Ponce currently ranks seventy-eighth among pitchers for Active Spin on the cutter, which somewhat confirms why he might not be getting the most movement out of this pitch. The main issue with his cutter is that it isn’t moving enough to fool hitters. In 2019 his cutter experienced a decline in ability to generate in-zone swings and misses, dropping from 21.2 percent to a measly 7.9 percent.

If he is not able to achieve improvements with horizontal break on this pitch then it will be a struggle to make it better than it currently is. What his cutter does have going for it is the 73.7 percent GB% that it yields, which can likely be attributed to the advanced ability to command this pitch in on the hands of right-handed batters. Hitters put this pitch into play 24 percent of the time, profiling the cutter as his “to contact” out pitch in contrast to the four-seam fastball being his “put away” strikeout pitch.

 

Curveball

 

This is undoubtedly the pitch that Ponce de Leon needs to throw more often as both a putaway pitch (38.5 percent K%) as well as a pitch to generate weak contact low in the zone (.104 xBA). Ponce’s curveball has the potential to become an even more effective strikeout pitch than his fastball if he can continue to throw more often to assist in changing the eye level and timing of hitters. His four-seam fastball and curveball are tunneled beautifully, yet it seems that he has not fully embraced the idea of pairing the two best pitches in his arsenal. This arsenal shift would take some pressure off of his cutter. As can be observed below, Ponce did a fairly good job of keeping his curveball away from the heart of the plate as he peppered the lower boundary of the strike zone.

 

curvecontour

Curveball contour heat map for Ponce de Leon. Via BaseballSavant.com

 

Ponce was able to gain 107 RPM of spin on his curveball (2728 RPM), while 80.2 percent of that is active spin which ranks eighty-third among qualified pitchers. This puts Ponce de Leon’s curveball just behind Lucas Giolito and Clayton Kershaw’s Active Spin rates. If he can add another 5 percent of Active Spin to this pitch then it will rank among the likes of Jack Flaherty, Tyler Glasnow, and Adrian Houser. Ponce’s curveball yielded a 50 percent GB% and a 30 percent K-BB%, showing just how good of a pitch this can become if thrown more often with two strikes on the batter.

 

Changeup

While watching one of Ponce’s starts, it was easy to see that his changeup had stellar horizontal break when thrown low enough in the zone or down and outside of the zone. This observation is supported by the 17.9 inches of horizontal break that his changeup possesses (44 percent above-average), given only a sixty-three pitch sample. Another positive about his changeup is that it has 10.1 miles per hour of velocity separation from his fastball, indicating that the ability to strategically use this pitch and get great results in return. Deceptive velocity combined with amazing horizontal break provides evidence that this pitch is actually be worth spending time on developing. It can be observed in the contour heat map below that he has located the changeup fairly well around the edges of the strike zone, but is still missing high entirely too often for this pitch type.

 

changecontour

Changeup contour heat map for Ponce de Leon. Via BaseballSavant.com

 

Ponce de Leon’s changeup yielded a .216 xBA, .342 xwOBA, .182 xwOBAcon, 34.8 percent Whiff%, and 66.7 percent GB%. He was also able to add 174 RPM of spin on this pitch from 2018 to 2019, which is tangible evidence that should make even further strides forward as a pitcher in 2020. Stabilized results for the changeup should become more apparent when there have been more than seven batted ball events recorded for this pitch. If Ponce de Leon is able to strategically use and command his changeup in most counts then he will have a rounded out arsenal with three potential plus pitches.

 

 

 

Thank you for reading!

 

*All statistics, figures, and graphical representations were extracted from BaseballSavant.com, Fangraphs.com, BaseballReference.com, and Alex Chamberlain’s Pitch Leaderboard on Tableau.