Category Archives: Player Profile

Understanding Mike Fiers

You may remember that I picked Mike Fiers as my dark horse to snag a few Cy Young Award votes. No? Well, read it. This is an update on my pick as well as a chance to help you better understand the season he’s having.

Based on his 1-5 record and 4.53 ERA, it’s easy to say Mike Fiers has had one hell of a lousy season. Luckily, a pitcher’s win/loss record and Earned Run Average are silly stats. By using stats that actually mean something, you’ll realize that Fiers has been the best starting pitcher on the Milwaukee Brewers. Yes, I know. The Brewers stink and so does their rotation. Saying Fiers is Milwaukee’s top pitcher isn’t saying much. But maybe it’ll mean more if I say Fiers has been one of Major League Baseball’s top 41 pitchers in 2015. Maybe it’ll mean more if I say Fiers has been just as valuable as Cole Hamels (2.98 ERA) and Michael Wacha (1.87 ERA). Do I have your attention now?

Despite his fat ERA, Fiers has actually been a very solid starter for the troubling team in Milwaukee. He’s been worth 0.9 WAR in 10 starts, and ranks 30th among starters in Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP).

Fiers has been good, but he could be even better. But before we get to that, let’s look at the one big aspect of his game in which he’s flourished the most.

Strikeouts and Walks

Fiers has always been a strikeout guy, a trend he’s continuing in 2015. He’s punching out over 26% of batters he’s faced and only 10 starters have a higher rate. More importantly, after a plethora of walks in his first few starts of the year, Fiers has done an excellent job of limiting free passes. This is one of the reasons his ERA should starting dropping. Additionally, his K-BB% is outstanding. A pitcher’s in-season K-BB% (strikeout percentage minus walk percentage) tells us a lot about his future performance. If a pitcher’s K-BB% is great, he’ll most likely be a great pitcher throughout the rest of the season, and vice versa. Fiers’ ratio is great. It sits at 19.6%, the 15th-highest mark in baseball. He’s striking out batters at a huge rate and not walking them. That’s just want you want out of a pitcher.

Based on this, Fiers’ ERA should be much lower; however, there are two glaring issues that he needs to correct. One involves a lot of unluckiness, but the other is all on him. Let’s tackle the latter first.

Home Runs

Fiers has given up seven home runs (six of them off his four-seam fastball), and as a result, is giving up 1.22 home runs per nine innings and owns a 12.1% HR/FB ratio.. Sadly, those aren’t even the highest marks on the Brewers. With a slow 88-90 mph fastball and a sometimes hanging curveball, Fiers has to hit his spots perfectly in order to get outs. When he doesn’t, this happens.

Take a look at Fiers’ placement of pitches hit for home runs this season (as of 5/26/2015).

chart (3)

All of those home run pitches were in either in the middle of the zone or toward the top. He missed his location on every one.

But Fiers is a guy that’s going to give up home runs. He always has and that’s just who he is. He won’t be able to hit his spots perfectly every time, meaning some pitches will end up in the bleachers. He still, however, can limit them a bit more.

Batting Average on Balls in Play

Like Ryan Braun (read this), Fiers has also been a victim of some pretty rotten luck in 2015. Although in Fiers’ case, his luck isn’t as bad luck as Braun’s.

Out of every qualified starter in Major League Baseball, Fiers is allowing the highest batting average on balls in play. His .386 BABIP allowed beats the next guy by 11 points. Almost every ball put in play is falling against Fiers, and a part of that has to do with his hard-hit rate. Fiers has a crazy high BABIP and a 1.55 WHIP — this is the first time I’ve mentioned WHIP on this, so be glad you’re witnessing history — because hitters are making hard contact 42.2% of the time. Once again, just like his BABIP, no one in baseball has a higher percentage than that. So it’s really no surprise that so many balls are falling for base hits.

The surprising thing is, however, that up until this season, Fiers had only allowed a .295 BABIP. And that makes sense. Fiers is a strikeout pitcher and strikeout pitchers usually generate weaker contact. That was true for Fiers until 2015 rolled around. Yet, there’s really no way batters can continue having this much success on batted balls. Regression to the mean should take its course.

Forget about Fiers’ win/loss record. Forget about his ERA. If you do that, you’ll realize that Fiers has pitched quite well this season. If he can at least keep the ball in the yard a little more frequently, and if batters stop crushing the ball off him, Fiers should only get better.

And who knows? Maybe my Cy Young prediction will turn out to be right.

 

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Who are the Brewers getting in Chris Perez?

Cheap and low-risk signings have been a common theme for the Milwaukee Brewers over the last few weeks. On Jan. 30, they spent $3 million on Neal Cotts, and on Wednesday, they inked reliever Chris Perez to a minor-league deal worth $1.5 million plus incentives if he makes the major league club. The former is a steal for Milwaukee while the latter is more of a lottery ticket with a minimal prize. If Perez is a lottery ticket, the jackpot is anything over 0 WAR. The Brewers are hoping he pitches better than replacement level, something Perez has failed to do since 2012.

For his career, Perez owns an ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 3.51/4.23/4.23, resulting in 0.1 Wins Above Replacement. He’s never been worth more than a win in a single season, only coming close in 2010 and 2012 (0.8 WAR). Perez isn’t much of a ground ball pitcher, gives up a decent number of home runs and has walked batters at higher rate in each of the last three seasons.

So, why were the Brewers interested in him?

It’s a question that deserves multiple answers, but let’s start with this:

Obviously, a minor-league deal comes with no promises, but it shows the Brewers aren’t going to give him any hand-outs just because he was once a “successful” closer. He has to earn a job, and if he somehow makes the 25-man roster, it’ll be deserving, because even though the bullpen has problems, most of the current pieces in it are better than Perez.

The main reason the Brewers snagged Perez is because they coveted an arm with closing experience. Perez has 133 saves in his career. The Brewers by no means want him to close (if that happens, I’m becoming a Cardinals fan. I swear I’ll do it), so I find it odd that Doug Melvin feels it’s necessary to have former closers taking up room in his bullpen. Maybe Perez is solely insurance in case a multitude of relievers go down with injuries. That would make the most sense.

But Perez also comes cheap. Spending $1.5 million on a fringe MLB reliever isn’t going to break the bank, and honestly, I’m okay with any signing the Brewers make for $1.5 million. If they want to bring back Trevor Hoffman for that amount, why the heck not?

Now, back to a statistical standpoint. Perez utilizes two pitches — a fastball and slider. He used a changeup for the first time in his career last season, but only threw it 3.6% of the time, so don’t count on it seeing in 2015. Perez’s fastball is exactly that…fast. It averages in the mid-90s and topped out at 96.7 mph last year. His slider is a slow slider, averaging just 83 mph, and up until last year, it was worth positive runs (excluding his rookie campaign).

Perez has struggled more in high leverage situations than in any other circumstance in his career. He strikes out fewer batters, and allows a .312 wOBA in high leverage situations, while only giving up a .309 wOBA and a .301 wOBA in low and medium leverage situations, respectively. For a closer, who almost exclusively pitches in crunch time, that’s not what you want to see.

Additionally, his strikeout rate has decreased and walk rate has increased consistently since 2012.

Year K% BB%
2012 24.4% 6.6%
2013 22.2% 8.6%
2014 19.5% 12.5%

Even if Perez makes the team, the likelihood that he’ll actually help the team is small. Still, signing him to a low-cost minor-league deal involves almost zero risk.

Who are the Brewers getting in Neal Cotts?

The Milwaukee Brewers made waves (not really) Thursday when reports indicated that they had signed left-handed reliever Neal Cotts to a one year, $3 million deal. This acquisition, though somewhat under-the-radar, was a necessary one for Milwaukee. It gives them a pitcher who can create swinging strikes, and another southpaw to compliment Will Smith in the bullpen. With the market for relievers essentially bare, getting Cotts was a nice, cheap pull.

The 34-year-old Cotts almost saw his pitching career end due to an abundance of injuries. He underwent Tommy John surgery and four hip procedures and was unable to pitch in the majors for three consecutive seasons (2010-2012). It’s really a miracle Cotts found work after that. Even before the injuries took him for a ride, Cotts never had success at the major league level. From 2003 to 2009, he posted a 5.32 FIP and was worth 0.4 WAR. But even so, the Texas Rangers took a chance on him in 2013, a move that revitalized his career.

Cotts spent the last two seasons with the Rangers, accumulating 2.6 WAR in 123.2 innings. Among the 64 relievers who pitched at least 120 innings during that time span, Cotts ranks 16th in that category. His four-seam fastball sits in the low 90s with his cutter reaching the high 80s. He also throws an effective slider (10.9 career wSL) at around 85 mph. As you can tell, Cotts is anything but a power pitcher, but, as we saw with Zach Duke a year ago, blowing fastballs by hitters isn’t the only way to get hitters out.

Cotts is an interesting case study. Unlike most left-handed relievers, Cotts is anything but a left-handed specialist. In fact, he has reverse splits, meaning he fares better versus right-handed batters. Take a look at his splits.

IP wOBA HR
vs LHH 161.1 .328 25
vs RHH 218.2 .308 21

The numbers aren’t drastically different, but still significant for a lefty. Here’s what Cotts had to say about his interesting splits:

“Over my career, I’ve been better against righties than lefties. I don’t know what to attribute that to. I enjoy going out there for an inning. It benefits everybody if you have guys who can face both sides. It helps extend the game until you get to the closer.”

The Brewers now have two pitchers in the bullpen with reverse splits, Brandon Kintzler being the other one.

Aside from Cotts’ split irony, he doesn’t force many ground balls. And that’s tough for me because I love ground ball pitchers, which is why Zach Britton is one of my favorite players (go look at his ground ball rate; it’s insane). Ground ball rate is the first thing I look at when analyzing a pitcher. So when I looked at Cotts’ GB%, I admit I was a little disappointed. Cotts had a 34.7 GB% last season (league average GB% among relievers in 2014 was 45.3%), and owns a 41.9 GB% in his career. So, because he doesn’t have an admirable ground ball rate, he sure as heck better have at least a decent strikeout percentage. If he doesn’t, well then the Brewers probably made a mistake on him. But luckily, Cotts does. In 2014, Cotts struck out 22% of the batters he faced. The year before that, he struck out 29.2%. And as I mentioned earlier, a lot of those strikeouts have come from whiffs (career 10.5% swinging-strike rate). Of Cotts’ 63 strikeouts in 2014, 44 of them came via the swing-and-miss.

I doubt Cotts will be used in high leverage situations, at least to start the season. The Brewers would much rather have Jeremy Jeffress and Smith fill those roles, but, with that being said, Cotts’ RE24 has been above average the last two years, most notably in 2013 when he posted a 17.65 RE24 (12th in MLB). That means he can fill in for whatever situation, whether it be high or low leverage, and still get the job done.

Cotts fits nicely in the Brewers’ bullpen. Not only did Milwaukee sign a cheap pitcher, they signed an effective one. . As long as the strikeouts continue to be there, there’s no reason to think Cotts won’t be successful.

Before I let you go, here is what I’m projecting from Cotts in 2015:

Position Name ERA FIP xFIP SIERA HR K% BB% GB% WAR
RP Neal Cotts 4.10 3.31 4.02 3.66 4 23.0% 8.0% 39.3% 0.3

Mike Fiers is in for a huge season

Mike Fiers is my dark horse for the Cy Young award, and while I don’t necessarily think he’ll win it, I very much believe he’ll garner at least a few votes. I might be the only one who thinks he’ll be that good in 2015, but I’m not alone when I say he’s the best pitcher the Brewers’ rotation has to offer. You may find that hard to believe with arms like Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza stuck in there, but Steamer is projecting Fiers to be worth the most wins among Milwaukee pitchers with a 2.0 WAR, and Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs says he “might be the best one” among them. It’s crazy to think Fiers won’t be dominant in ’15, as he is ready to build on his last two seasons as a starter (2012 and 2014) and become the ace of the Brewers.

Since 2011, Fiers has made 50 appearances (35 starts) as a major leaguer; he became a full-fledged starter in 2012. In that 2012 season, he was worth 3.1 WAR in 22 starts. Yeah, he was that good. Only Zack Greinke and Marco Estrada were more valuable to the Brewers’ pitching staff that year. Gallardo, who made 11 more starts than Fiers, was only worth 2.5 wins.

But then 2013 rolled around, Fiers’ toughest year not only as a baseball player but as a human being. He lost his mother after a long battle with a chronic disease, and the pain in his heart was evident on the field. When it was all said and done, Fiers made 11 appearances with the Brewers, finishing with a 7.25 ERA and 7.17 FIP. His season ended after being struck in the right forearm by a line drive while he was pitching for Triple-A Nashville. After throwing lights-out ball in 2012, Fiers’ future with the Brewers was thrown into jeopardy.

Fiers had to work his way back to respect in 2014 and force the Brewers to take notice of him. He accumulated a 2.55 ERA in 17 starts in Triple-A and struck out 129 batters in 102 innings. Unable to ignore those numbers, the Brewers made the call, and Fiers became Milwaukee’s best pitcher during the last three months of the season. As a starter, he led the rotation in ERA (2.09), FIP (2.79), xFIP (2.94) and LOB% (81.8%) in his 10 starts.

And that brings us to now. He’s cemented himself into Milwaukee’s rotation, but can he continue rolling over hitters with such ease? I believe so.

There are two key reasons why I’m a big believer in Fiers. 1. He’s a strikeout pitcher and 2. he does a nice job limiting walks. That combination is why Fiers has been so successful in his short career, and why a lot of pitchers have success in MLB. In the two seasons in which he made at least 10 starts, his strikeout rate was never below 25%. Last season he struck out 29% of batters he faced, and aside from Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and Yu Darvish, no starter had a higher strikeout rate (min. 60 innings). That’s pretty impressive company. Additionally, his K-BB% was third-best in baseball among starters with the same inning requirements. Since he strikes out more than his fair share, he induces weak contact as is evidenced by his .221 BABIP and low 19.2% line drive rate. And because balls hit off him aren’t hit that hard, he can get away with a high fly ball rate despite his below league average ground ball rate.

His sample size is small; 223 innings isn’t much to hang your hat on. But he’s also had an extremely high K/9 down in the minors as it never dipped below 8 K/9. He’s shown he can strike out the big boys at an even higher rate than he did in the minors which leads me to believe his success is sustainable.

Even though Fiers is strikeout guy, he doesn’t throw hard. FanGraphs says none of his pitches average over 90 mph, while Brooks Baseball claims his fourseamer barely touches it. (see graph below).

Brooksbaseball-Chart (1)

But no matter which website you read, one thing is clear; he’s not a blow-it-by-you pitcher. And yet, he makes it work. He relies very heavily on his fourseam fastball (62.8%), but it saved 16.5 runs according to wFB and caused 73 swings-and-misses. Fiers does a nice job switching up his locations, and his elevator-drop of a curveball complements it nicely. He also hides the ball well and it’s difficult for hitters to pick up on it. Fiers’ 89 mph fastball looks more like 95 mph because it creeps up on hitters so quickly.

Since 2012, only one pitcher on the Milwaukee Brewers has been worth more in terms of wins than Fiers — Yovani Gallardo. That includes Wily Peralta; he has racked up over 200 more innings than Fiers, and yet Fiers is worth almost an entire win more. I don’t think many people realize how valuable Fiers has been to the Brewers, and with his non-existent year in ’13, that’s understandable. Fiers will be 30 in June, so his window for success is small, but whenever he’s started on a consistent basis, he’s been not only was he the best pitcher in Milwaukee but one of the best hurlers in all of baseball.

Before I wrap this up, I’ll leave you with one more eye-opening statistic. Since 2012, Fiers has the 38th-lowest FIP (3.47) among pitchers with at least 220 innings. But if you take away his traumatizing 2013 season and combine his stats from 2012 and 2014, Fiers owns a 3.04 FIP. He’s good, ladies and gentlemen, and in 2015 he’ll be very, very good.

Who are the Brewers getting in Shane Peterson?

On Tuesday the Milwaukee Brewers announced that they had claimed outfielder Shane Peterson off waivers from the Chicago Cubs. Peterson was only a member of the Cubs for four days, as the club claimed him from the Oakland Athletics on Dec. 19. Peterson will be 27 by the time the 2015 season commences, and has logged just eight plate appearances in the major leagues, but the left-handed hitter should provide some value for the Brewers.

Here’s what Doug Melvin had to say about Peterson:

“We like his versatility. He has played some first base and some center field. Not many first basemen can play center field. It’s nice to get another left-handed bat, too.”

Peterson was acquired to fill depth in the Triple-A outfield, a position barren with the losses of Josh Prince, Kentrail Davis and Caleb Gindl this offseason. Peterson spent the entire 2014 season in Triple A and posted a .381 OBP, a .153 ISO and walked at a 10.6% clip. He also knocked out 11 home runs and stole 11 bases.

If Peterson makes the Brewers out of spring training, he will in all likelihood replace Logan Schafer on the bench. Peterson has considerably more pop than Schafer, and has always gotten on base at a high rate down in the minor leagues (.381 OBP). Schafer has had his time to prove he belongs on a major league club, and after 503 plate appearances and a 63 wRC+, it’s clear that the Brewers should go in a different direction.

Like almost everyone else on the Brewers, Peterson strikes out a lot. And his strikeout percentage will only increase when he faces major league pitching. Still, the Brewers made a nice pickup by adding Peterson. He brings speed, some power from the left side of the plate and has the knack for getting on base. If he hits well during spring training and earns a roster spot, I think he can contribute to the ball club.

Be wary of Scooter Gennett in 2015

Ever since Scooter Gennett made his major league debut on June 3, 2013, fans in Milwaukee have been enamored with the scrappy second baseman. He made a splash in the bigs almost immediately, boasting a .364 wOBA and 130 wRC+ in his first 69 games. That, plus being paired with the decline of Rickie Weeks, who has always been hated on by Brewers’ fans, made Gennett a quick fan favorite.

But, as expected, Gennett’s statistics took a dip in his first full season. His .320 on-base percentage was eighth on the team (min 100 plate appearances), and he created just four percent more runs than league average. He put up these less than stellar stats while only facing right-handed pitchers, and with Weeks completely out of the picture in 2015 and no clear platoon partner, times could get tougher for the 24 year old.

If the Brewers plan on Gennett being the main man at second, he’ll need to starting hitting southpaws. It’s not that he’s bad when facing left-handed pitchers, it’s that he’s horrifically awful. In his career, he has a .150 OBP, .134 wOBA and -29 wRC+ (yes, it is possible to have a negative wRC+) versus lefties. Those numbers are based on an extremely small sample size, just 78 at-bats, but his minor league splits don’t bode well for him either.

And Gennett is well aware of his battles with left-handed pitchers. Here’s an interesting quote from him in late June of this year:

“I would rather play and maybe struggle against a lefty than not play at all. But if that’s what the team can benefit most from, then I’m happy with it at the same time.”

The Brewers have two options. They can put Gennett out there with no regard to who is on the mound and hope he gets better with time (practice makes perfect, right?), or they can find another Rickie Weeks and put together another successful platoon. In 2014, Milwaukee’s second basemen posted MLB’s fourth-best wOBA and wRC+, and 11th-best WAR. There’s no way Gennett will be able to duplicate those numbers by himself, and thus, is in need of a platoon partner. He knows he’s going to struggle, and if he knows that and the Brewers know that, there’s no reason Gennett should be out there with a lefty on the mound.

I’m not going to release my 2015 projections for at least another month and a half, but I’ll give you a sneak peak of what I expect from Gennett if he gets the call every day.

Name AVG HR wOBA wRC+ OBP ISO K% BB% WAR
Scooter Gennett .268 6 .310 95 .314 .125 17.0% 4.1% 1.4

And here’s what Steamer is projecting from Scooter:

Name AVG HR wOBA wRC+ OBP ISO K% BB% WAR
Scooter Gennett .279 10 .314 96 .316 .119 14.4% 4.9% 1.6

Steamer likes Gennett more than I do, but just barely. We both expect him to be below league average when it comes to creating runs, and most of his 1.6 WAR will come from his defense and not his bat.

Gordon Beckham is someone the Brewers must look at. He was recently non-tendered by the Angels, and has a career .341 wOBA and 118 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers, making him an ideal option to join Gennett at second base. Before being non-tendered, MLB Trade Rumors projected Beckham to earn $5 million in his final round of arbitration. The Brewers may not want to pay that for a platoon guy, but after giving Weeks $11 million in 2014 for essentially the same role, $5 million is pocket change.

Adding a player like Beckham would not only take pressure off Gennett, but it would absolutely make the team better. Gennett’s not ready for a full-time role, and I don’t think the Brewers can afford to take that chance yet, not if they expect to compete in 2015.

A pitch Khris Davis can’t hit

Khris Davis is a masher. He crushed pitching as a minor leaguer, and has boomed 33 home runs in 200 career games.

Now, I was leading the ‘I believe in Khris Davis‘ movement even before he surprised everyone during Spring Training in 2013, and I even had the opportunity to interview him last year. But despite my clear bias towards the man, Davis has a fault that pitchers took advantage of in 2014; he can’t hit the changeup.

The Milwaukee Brewers, as a team, weren’t thrown many changeups in 2014 but, according to Baseball Savant, Davis saw 225 of them alone, leading the club. The fastest changeup was 90 mph and the slowest was 74.2 mph. As the season wore on, pitchers began to figure out that the changeup was his Achilles’ heel, and they also discovered that they needed to pitch him down on the corners and out of the zone (see picture below).

Khris  Davis_img

They absolutely dominated Davis with low changeups and stayed away from leaving them up in the zone. With the aggressive nature of Davis, pitchers knew their changeup didn’t need to be a strike for him to take a whack at it, and he ended up whiffing at 25.3% of them.

Here’s a breakdown of what Davis did when we was thrown a change. Spoiler: It’s not pretty.

chart

He swung and missed more often than he put the ball in play, and managed only eight hits for a .131 average. Just five players had worse batting averages versus the change (minimum 50 ABs): Jason Kipnis (.098), Adam Dunn (.100), Brandon Moss (.101), Alex Avila (.115), and Brian Dozier (.122).

After all of this, I probably don’t need to tell you that Davis was worth -5 runs against the changeup, the 10th-worst mark in baseball among qualified hitters. However, with that being said, he was worth positive runs versus every other pitch, with the exception of the split-fingered fastball. The changeup seems to be the only pitch with which Davis has a real problem. Sure, he batted just .217 against the four-seam fastball, but he knocked 10 of them out of the park and garnered a .276 isolated power.

2015 will be a big year for Davis. He’s entering his age-27 season, and will most likely have to compete with Gerardo Parra for playing time. If he can’t be at least average with the changeup and if he continues going fishing out of the zone, pitchers will have a field day with him.