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Breaking bad: What pitches are fooling Reds' hitters so far?

It's not a wicked slider that's plaguing Jay, it's being distracted by camera flashes.
It's not a wicked slider that's plaguing Jay, it's being distracted by camera flashes.

It sometimes seems like the Reds hit stretches of looking completely hopeless against breaking balls, change-ups or other off-speed nonsense. This might simply be because getting fooled is especially frustrating to watch and creates a larger impression for the fan.

I wanted to find out which pitches are confounding the bats in the early-going, while acknowledging that we're only looking at 10% of the season.

In general, curveballs, sliders and other pitches laced with movement or deception are harder to make good contact with than fastballs. If they weren't, there might not be such a thing as a "quad-A hitter." They're also used as "out pitches" by a lot of pitchers and deployed in pitcher-friendly counts. So you expect some added difficulty for most hitters in getting solid contact.

This is a look at which Reds' struggles are tied to pitch types through the first weeks of the season.

Pitches faced and whiff rates

After the jump, there's Pitch F/X data (via Texas Leaguers) on what kinds of pitches Reds' hitters are seeing (with fastball types lumped together), how often they're whiffing and some humble guesses about their pitch-ual orientations.

Pitch frequencies

I made the cut-off 40 PAs (through Game 15), to save on effort and not include sample sizes that are too outrageously small:

Player PAs FB Change Sinker Slider Curve
Brandon Phillips 40 45.3% 8.2% 16.4% 22.0% 8.2%
Zack Cozart 64 43.8% 9.3% 17.3% 23.2% 6.3%
Drew Stubbs 61 42.6% 11.3% 13.1% 24.4% 8.5%
Joey Votto 67 47.7% 10.5% 17.1% 16.7% 7.3%
Ryan Ludwick 42 41.8% 16.3% 13.8% 23.1% 5.0%
Jay Bruce 60 38.6% 18.5% 14.6% 18.5% 9.4%
Scott Rolen 52 41.4% 8.0% 21.9% 21.9% 7.0%

Swing-and-miss rates by pitch

Player FB whiff CH whiff Sinker whiff SL whiff CB whiff
Brandon Phillips 9.7% 7.7% 0.0% 25.7% 23.1%
Zack Cozart 5.76% 9.1% 4.9% 7.3% 20%
Drew Stubbs 12.0% 8.3% 7.1% 15.4% 22.2%
Joey Votto 11.4% 0.0% 4.3% 15.2% 5.0%
Ryan Ludwick 9.7% 30.8% 0.0% 24.3% 25%
Jay Bruce 10.9% 12.1% 8.8% 18.6% 9.1%
Scott Rolen 4.03% 12.5% 2.3% 20.5% 7.1%

It's a pretty small sample, influenced by the mix of pitchers the Reds have seen through 15 games. Also, a raw percentage doesn't tell us a whole lot, removed from the context of an at bat and how pitchers may be trying to sequence pitches and set up a hitter.

However, there are a few tendencies here that could continue over the season:

  • Brandon has always been good at digging out the low stuff and I'd expect that to continue if he's healthy. He may see more curve balls as an adjustment to his big year in 2011. He's been nursing a sore hamstring over the last 10-15 PAs, so maybe we should throw this out entirely.
  • Zack Cozart can hit a fastball, but may struggle with breaking stuff over his first full year in the majors. For that reason alone, returning to the second spot behind someone fast (BP or Stubbs) and front of Joey Votto could be ideal.
  • Drew Stubbs has struggled with off-speed stuff throughout his career, but it's hard to hone in one pitch that's especially troublesome. I think he can hit sliders better than curveballs or changeups, but the book on him may say to use the slider when you want the K. Like, when you want it more than usual.
  • Joey Votto has seen the most fastballs on the team and the fewest sliders. This may be partly because he handles the slider well, but can be rung up by changing speeds. So far in 2012, it also seems like the result of opponents pitching around Votto A LOT, while opting for the fastball so to decrease the risk of throwing one away or hopefully catch a corner.
  • Votto is struggling mightily with the sliders he's seen, but I don't expect that to continue - especially with the staffs the Reds will see over the next few weeks.
  • Ryan Ludwick has seen the steadiest diet of breaking and off-speed stuff and has had a whale of a time trying to get a bat on curveballs, sliders and change-ups. It hasn't always broken down this way for Ludwick (the pitch selection, his hitting ability) but he's going to have to make much better contact.
  • Jay Bruce is having contact problems across the board, evidenced by his 25% K-rate to date (higher than any previous single-season mark). It's not so egregious that I'm overly concerned. I think Jay's problem is location - that low outside corner being ice cold - rather than pitch type, but sliders (and slurves) are trouble pitches partly for that reason.
  • By observation, Rolen hasn't been finding the strength to dig out low pitches. If his bat speed is also on the decline, it's going to be very hard for him to get down and do anything with pitches low in the zone. That might explain why he's seeing so many sinkers.
  • Rolen has always been great at making contact, but his whiff rates don't tell us about how weak his contact is right now.

Pitch ratings

Here are the weighted pitch values assigned by FanGraphs - indicating how much the hitter changes the expected run value in an inning when he faces a pitch; they appear along with the "hates to face" pitch from MLB Gameday.

Player PAs "Hates to face" wFB wCH wSL wCB
Brandon Phillips 40 Changeup -2.0 -0.3 1.4 -0.9
Zack Cozart 64 Slider 2.2 -0.7 0.2 1.1
Drew Stubbs 61 Cutter 1.1 0.5 -0.9 -0.6
Joey Votto 67 Cutter 2.8 -0.1 -2.4 1.0
Ryan Ludwick 42 Curveball 1.3 -0.6 0.8 -0.2
Jay Bruce 60 Cutter 2.1 0.7 -1.9 0.0
Scott Rolen 52 Cutter -4.8 0.8 0.0 0.6

A few more notes:

  • Ludwick and Stubbs are the two hitters I'm most concerned about hitting breaking stuff. Phillips, meanwhile, may struggle with changing speeds at least as long as he's: (1) playing injured and (2) getting off his timing by playing every other day.
  • Rolen is struggling to hit anything square. His cellar-dwelling fastball value might support the theory that he has a bat speed problem. His K-rate is up, but he's also fouling a lot of pitches off. I see some hope in his ability to still get wood on the ball.
  • We have to take all of this with a grain of salt and a stiff drink. I don't buy that half the starters fear cutters the most, but Rolen, Phillips and Ludwick's "hate to face" pitch ring true at least. I wonder if it might actually pay for Ludwick to be continue being aggressive and seize on any count and situation he's going to see a fastball. If you're going to get a sub-par on-base skills, you might at least squeeze some power out of it.
  • I think Votto's struggles against sliders are mostly a blip, but his selection is not going to improve if one (probably two) or Bruce, Ludwick and Rolen don't get going behind him.
  • Cozart might be better at handling the curve than his whiff rate suggests, but we just don't know yet. He needs to be exposed to big league breaking stuff without drowning in it.
  • Stubbs is also a good candidate to hit second because the less movement he sees, the better.
  • I'm not concerned about Jay Bruce yet. Over his MLB career, he's improved his ability to hit lefties to the point of having flat platoon splits and he's shown improvement laying off the garbage and using more of the field. The slider may be the next frontier.