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The Wheelhouse: Stubborn or Stupid?

Derek VanRiper

Derek VanRiper

Derek is the Senior Baseball Editor for RotoWire.com, where he's been a two-time finalist for the FSWA's Baseball Writer of the Year award, and winner of the Best Football Article on the Web (2009) and Best Baseball Article on the Web (2010) awards. Derek also co-hosts RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (XM 87, Sirius 210) from 11a-2p ET on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

I think it's only the former, but I can't completely rule out the latter.

Rather than lean on one writer's valuation of players in-season, the editorial staff created a feedback group of sorts to provide suggestions on changes to be made to the cheat sheets from April through September. Of course, before the season begins, the rankings are tied to the raw projections on the site.

I am divided on the quantity and magnitude of the tweaks we should be making to our rankings after a pitcher has made five or six starts (30-40 innings) or has taken the ball for 10-12 innings out of the bullpen. The same holds true for hitters, of course, as we're hovering around the 25 games played mark for players that have been healthy since the start of the season.

On the one hand, being the first to acknowledge a significant change in value (in either direction) is extremely beneficial, but mistakes are equally costly.

The knee-jerk sort of responses to these small sample sizes just don't feel right to me.

You've seen this before - at least this season and early in 2012 - linked in Jason Collette's weekly article here. It takes time for many of the valuable metrics we lean on to normalize for hitters and pitchers. From the research of Russell Carleton (currently) of Baseball Prospectus, we can take a more appropriate view of early-season numbers.

If we believed that Jarrod Parker was a top-40 pitcher for 2013 in November, December, January, February and March, should his April really persuade us of anything radically different?

How much does his shorter track record impact his present value than say, Roy Halladay?

If the early-season numbers don't paint a complete picture, where should we turn?

The vast majority of us will never get a chance to receive formal training as part of the Major League Scouting Bureau's Development Program (Scout School).

Still, we need to learn how to trust our eyes to draw meaningful conclusions that could portend significant shifts in value.

Without a scouting approach, we might draw the following conclusions or make these statements:

"Ervin Santana's fast start is a fluke." (Jason actually covered this in his column this week, definitely worth a read.)

"Clay Buchholz is bound to regress."

"Matt Cain is going to be fine."


All three of those claims could wind up being completely true, but what if they don't?

Sure, the early-season levels we're seeing from Santana and Buchholz are likely unsustainable, but as we talked about throughout the winter with Mike Trout (among others), what will they regress to? Where is Santana's true baseline now? Is he a mechanically different pitcher in 2013 than he was over the last six years in Anaheim? Perhaps Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland spotted something in Santana this spring that has been corrected (it appears to be the case), and that has left us with a pitcher finally poised to deliver on his once-high potential?

Similarly with Buchholz, maybe the return of John Farrell has gone a long way toward helping him get back on the right track? Maybe Buchholz is simply healthy after a couple of seasons at something well below 100 percent? Or perhaps, it's some combination of both? (Of course, Jack Morris has his own theory on Buchholz's rebound.) Another video breakdown is likely in the offing here.

Statistically speaking, Cain looks like the same pitcher we've been leaning on throughout the bulk of his career. It would seem as though the nine homers he's allowed this season (eight on the road, for what it's worth) are the result of a fluky run of bad luck.

As Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area detailed, Cain has only given up one of those nine home runs after falling behind in the count.

How about the tumultuous start of fallen Brewers closer John Axford?

After giving up runs in each of his first four appearances to start the season and losing his closer job to Jim Henderson, Axford reeled off a stretch of eight frames where he allowed one run on three hits (a solo homer) and carried an 8:0 K:BB before crumbling against the Pirates in his most recent appearance Wednesday.

On the surface, a three-run frame from any reliever looks terrible and the angry mob in Milwaukee was quick to forget about his recent rebound while calling for Axford's release after Starling Marte took him deep for the sixth time this season in just 11.1 innings.

Observe:



For Axford, the issue earlier in the year was missing up in the strike zone, and often losing command of his curveball. The home run he gave up to Marte on Wednesday looks like a very good piece of hitting, rather than a mistake from Axford.

Of course, in terms of changing the valuation of relievers in season, it's all about the present as far as who possesses the ninth-inning opportunities at any particular time. The rankings process is almost as simple as a job security list where a pitcher's skills and peripherals merely break ties for us.

So, what about Parker?

I reviewed a large portion of his start from September 21st of last season against the Yankees for the sole purpose of seeing what he looks like when things are going well. Not surprisingly, Parker's changeup was in top form that night and he went eight innings while giving up just one run on six hits while striking out seven and going without a walk.

In that outing, Parker was consistently ahead in the count - and the Yankees were unable to pounce on his first-pitch offerings despite a collective aggressiveness after seeing him for a start in Oakland two months earlier.

For this season, I was focused specifically on the fifth inning of Parker's last outing April 30th against Anaheim.

Parker was very effective overall last September, and here's a look at those numbers against April of 2013:

September 2012: 35.0 IP, 30 hits, 27:6 K:BB, .238/.267/.310
April 2013: 29.1 IP, 43 hits, 18:16 K:BB, .350/.434/.520

For the sake of comparison, let's review his pitch usage and outcomes from April of this season (courtesy of Brooks Baseball :

PitchABSOBBHBP1B2B3BHRBASLGISOBABIPTAv
Fourseam (FA)2506290000.3600.3600.0000.3600.313
Sinker (SI)51231124040.3920.7060.3140.3560.378
Slider (SL)1232032000.4170.5830.1670.5560.364
Curveball (CU)200010000.5000.5000.0000.5000.349
Changeup (CH)26132043000.2690.3850.1150.5380.249


And compare that to the same information from September of 2012:

PitchABSOBBHBP1B2B3BHRBASLGISOBABIPTAv
Fourseam (FA)2914052010.2760.4480.1720.2590.289
Sinker (SI)4272092000.2620.3100.0480.3140.225
Cutter (FC)000000000.0000.0000.0000.0000.260
Slider (SL)1740021000.1760.2350.0590.2310.159
Curveball (CU)200001000.5001.0000.5000.5000.479
Changeup (CH)31150060000.1940.1940.0000.3750.151


First off, the changeup is still very effective in terms of weak contact (.115 ISO), but he's getting BABIP'd so far with a .538 BABIP with that pitch thus far (compared to .375 in September). In terms of the arsenal, the pitch selection really hasn't changed in a significant way as Parker is still using his fastball more than any other pitch, just to a much worse result (watching video, I think his bad fastballs are being registered as sinkers).

Command also seems to be a bit more of an issue as evidenced in three hit batters this season compared to zero in September. Not surprisingly, walks have been much more of an issue early on for Parker as well.

Here's a look at the four homers that Parker has surrendered this season.

April 2 (Mike Morse):



April 14 (Austin Jackson) - No video was available for this one, but watching the at-bat on MLB.tv, Parker was wild (throwing a wild pitch and falling behind 3-1 in the count) before leaving a 93 mph fastball with little movement out over the plate.

April 20 (Matt Joyce):



April 25 (Chris Davis):



Big league hitters will crush mistakes - and in a couple of these instances, the target selection from Derek Norris and John Jaso behind the plate weren't particularly great.

Mechanically speaking, I did not see anything in the sequences I reviewed (which were limited, and not slowed down) to believe that Parker is overwhelmingly different in his delivery. However, he threw an all-out bullpen session between starts before his April 30 outings against the Angels in an effort to get back on track. Keep an eye on his command in the immediate future to see if he's able to hit his spots more consistently.

Parker is still getting ahead of opposing hitters often with first strikes (up to 55.3% after checking in at 54.6% last season) and he's getting even more swinging strikes (up to 10.7% from 9.9), but so far he's getting fewer swings outside of the strike zone (28.9% compared to 32.2% a year ago). There has also been an increase in his groundball rate from 44.3% to 47.2% this season.

Across the board, his velocity is down very slightly compared to last season, but given that we're still in April, it may prove to be completely negligible. There is still enough good here even with Parker's brutal start to consider him as a pickup in shallow leagues where he's been dropped, or as a buy-low in situations where you could acquire him on the relative cheap.
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