False Alarm: Aaron Judge has not eliminated his leg kick

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It wasn’t until Saturday that position players were due to report to Tampa for Spring Training, though, like several others, outfielder Aaron Judge showed up to camp early. He spent the offseason working with hitting coach Alan Cockrell (and others?) on his lower half, and that work has presumably continued in Tampa in recent weeks.

A little more than a week ago videos hit Twitter showing Judge taking batting practice, and in those videos he had no leg kick whatsoever. Judge had a normal sized leg kick in 2015 and a much bigger leg kick in 2016. Now he was using no leg kick. I wrote an entire post about it. It seemed Judge had again tweaked his leg kick as part of his continued adjustments to big league pitching.

As it turns out, that was a false alarm. Judge has not changed his leg kick. Or at least he didn’t eliminate it completely, as the videos suggested. Here’s what Judge told Pete Caldera about his offseason work recently:

“Just kind of working on being consistent, repeat the swing, repeat the mechanics,’’ Judge said of his offseason work. And he’s not abandoning the left leg kick he adopted as a timing mechanism.

“Somebody posted a video about me that I was changing my stance,’’ Judge said of his flat-footed stance earlier in workouts. “That was just kind of warming up, making sure my swing feels right.’’

Well, so much for that, huh? Keep in mind this doesn’t necessarily mean Judge hasn’t changed his leg kick at all. It just means he hasn’t eliminated it completely. That would have been a pretty drastic change. I was pretty shocked to see no leg kick when I first saw the videos. It sure seemed like a pretty big deal. That’s what I get for jumping to conclusions.

Either way, leg kick or no leg kick, the goal for Judge remains the same. Win the right field job in Spring Training and keep it for the next six years. That’s what the Yankees want to happen and I’m guessing that’s what most fans want to happen. Judge, like every young player, is still figuring out what it takes to succeed at the big league level, and these continued lower half changes are part of that process.

Even without many lefty power hitters, the Yankees will still be able to take advantage of the short porch

Carter. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)
Carter. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)

Once the new Yankee Stadium opened and it became clear the short right field porch was even shorter than it had been at the old ballpark, the Yankees started to build their roster around left-handed pull hitters. I mean, they’d always done that, but there was an increased emphasis for sure. It made complete sense too. You tailor your roster to your ballpark since that’s where you play the majority of your games. Every team does it.

The Yankees sought left-handed pull hitters whenever possible. When they needed a short-term designated hitter, they signed guys like Nick Johnson and Raul Ibanez and Travis Hafner. Filling out the bench? They brought in Kelly Johnson and Eric Chavez. Brian McCann‘s pull power from the left side of the plate was one of the biggest reasons the Yankees signed him. No doubt about it.

At the moment the Yankees have three left-handed hitters in their projected 2017 lineup: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Didi Gregorius. Greg Bird can make it four should he win the first base job in Spring Training, and he’s the only one of those four you’d truly consider as a power hitter, right? Gregorius hit 20 homers last season and that was awesome, but I don’t think anyone is counting on him to be a big run producer going forward.

The Yankees actually have more power from the right side of the plate right now. Chris Carter, who will play first base on the days Bird does not, smacked 41 home runs last year. He’s hit the eighth most homers in baseball since 2014. Gary Sanchez, Matt Holliday, and Starlin Castro all topped 20 homers in 2016. Sanchez and Holliday didn’t even play full seasons. Aaron Judge hit 23 homers in 120 games between Triple-A and MLB.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, the Yankees lineup leans towards the right side of the plate. Go back throughout history and most successful Yankees teams had big lefty bats, from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Reggie Jackson and Graig Nettles and Chris Chambliss to Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez. Left-handed power and patience is the franchise’s trademark. That isn’t the case so much right now.

“The power is not prevalent from the left side. That is the way the dominoes have shaken out,” said Brian Cashman to Joel Sherman recently. “There is no think-tank, philosophical change to get away from lefty power. It is how it has shaken out as we tried to upgrade each individual position.”

If the Yankees wanted lefty power, they could have added it this offseason. They could have brought in Pedro Alvarez and Brandon Moss instead of Holliday and Carter, for example. Or maybe Adam Lind and Luis Valbuena. There were left-handed pull hitters on the market this winter waiting to be signed. The Yankees went righty instead of lefty, probably because Holliday is a better pure hitter than those guys and Carter has more power than all of them.

The team’s lack of left-handed power — Carter hit more homers than Gardner, Ellsbury, and Gregorius (and Bird) combined in 2016 (41 to 36) — does not mean the Yankees will be unable to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch in 2017. Last year we saw Castro drive the ball to right field with authority. Holliday and Carter have been doing it for years as well. Check out their line drive and fly ball rates by direction from 2014-16:

LD+FB% to Pull LD+FB% to Middle LD+FB% to Oppo
Carter 51.8% 80.0% 90.1%
Castro 31.3% 51.6% 74.5%
Holliday 33.9% 54.3% 77.9%
MLB AVG for RHB 33.7% 35.3% 51.1%

When Carter has hit a ball the other way over the last three seasons, it’s been a fly ball or a line drive more than nine times out of ten. That sounds ridiculous, and it is, but it’s not unheard of. Other top right-handed power hitters like J.D. Martinez (90.1%), Kris Bryant (88.6%), and Mike Trout (88.0%) are in the same neighborhood. The best power hitters are the ones who hit the ball out to all fields.

Castro and Holliday don’t hit as many line drives and fly balls when going the other way as Carter, but they’re still way above the league average for right-handed batters. Roughly three out of every four balls they’ve hit to right field over the last three seasons have been airborne. Want to take advantage of the short porch as a right-handed hitter? You’ve got to get the ball in the air when you go the other way, and Carter, Castro, and Holliday are all very good at it.

(Last year, after Tyler Austin hit his walk-off home run against the Rays, I noted how rare it is for a right-handed batter to hit an opposite field home run on an inside pitch. Only eleven righties had done it up to that point last year, and three are now Yankees: Austin, Carter, and Holliday.)

Holliday. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty)
Holliday. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty)

Now, here’s the rub: those three don’t hit the majority of their batted balls the other way. When they do hit the ball to right field, it tends to be in the air, but like most hitters they mostly hit back up the middle and to the pull side. Since 2014 only 23.0% of Carter’s batted balls were to right field. It was 29.9% for Holliday and 22.5% for Castro. This is important context. It’s not like these three are hitting every other ball to right field. It’s just that when they do go to right field, they often do so in the air. That’s good given the short porch.

During their brief big league cameos last season we saw Sanchez and Austin, as well as Judge, hit home runs to right field. All five of Austin’s big league homers were opposite field shots at Yankee Stadium. Sanchez hit two out to right field and Judge hit one. Their scouting reports coming up as prospects indicated those guys have opposite field power, especially Sanchez and Judge, so what we saw last year wasn’t out of character.

The Yankees aren’t very left-handed at the moment. Their best lefty power hitter is Gregorius by default, though a healthy Bird would take over that title. The good news is the Yankees do have plenty of power from the right side, including several righties who are equipped to take advantage of the short right field porch given their tendency to hit the ball in the air the other way. They’ll be able to use the short porch without all the annoying grounders pulled into the shift.

Another Spring Training, another new leg kick for Aaron Judge

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last year Yankees fans got their first glimpse of Aaron Judge at the big league level, and it started out great with a home run off the top the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar in center field. Things went downhill after that. Judge struck out 42 times in his 95 big league plate appearances before an oblique strain ended his season in September. The occasional dinger was nice. The strikeouts were not.

Earlier this offseason, Brian Cashman confirmed Judge was working with hitting coach Alan Cockrell on some adjustments, particularly with his lower half. “Alan Cockrell was working with him on his lower half, and continuing the efforts and adjustments they started last year,” said the GM. “The lower half is the final adjustment that they’re working through — his front side and staying calm and trying to stay balanced — and so I think that’ll help.”

Judge has made a lot of changes with his lower half over the last two years, specifically with his leg kick. He had a relatively small leg kick two years ago, then came to camp with a much bigger leg kick last spring, after working with the organization’s hitting coaches over the winter. Now Judge has no leg kick. Here’s a clip of Judge in the batting cage last week, via Bryan Hoch:

It’s only batting practice and we should be careful not to read too much into it, but there’s no leg kick there. None at all. Considering he’s been working on his lower half since at least last offseason, I don’t think Judge is just messing around there. It’s pretty safe to assume the lack of a leg kick is a result of whatever he and Cockrell (and others?) worked on earlier this offseason.

In theory, eliminating a leg kick increases contact and reduces power. Dumping the extra pre-swing movement makes it easier to get the bat on the ball. At the same time, the leg kick generates momentum. Fortunately, Judge is so damn big and strong he has power to spare. “I try not to think of myself as a power hitter. I try to be — honestly — a contact hitter. I feel like with my strength and size, it allows me to drive balls out of the park,” said Judge to Dan Martin last week.

If nothing else, all these lower half changes — small leg kick in 2015, big leg kick in 2016, no leg kick in 2017 — tell us Judge is willing and able to make adjustments. He struggled in his first taste of Triple-A in 2015, added the bigger leg kick over the winter, then had success in Triple-A in 2016. Judge then struggled in his first taste of MLB last year, and now he’s making another adjustment.

“I don’t want to strike out. Nobody does. It’s just something I’ve got to work at,” said Judge to Martin last week. “I went out there and a lot of times didn’t get the job done. You have to handle failure. I’ve got plenty of that. My first year at Fresno State, in freshman fall ball, I think I hit .190. It’s frustrating. You deal with it and make the right adjustment.”

I can understand why all the tinkering would make someone nervous about Judge going forward. He and the Yankees keep changing his swing mechanics — he also lowered his hands a bunch last year too — and at some point it might be too much. They risk breaking something that didn’t need to be fixed, you know? I don’t see it that way though. Judge has shown the ability to make adjustments in the past. He did it just last year to conquer Triple-A. This is a positive.

Now Judge is working to conquer big league pitching, and that’s a never-ending battle. He came up last year, pitchers took his lunch money, and now he’s working to fight back. Having the baseball aptitude and the willingness to made significant changes — what Judge has done with his leg kick the last two years qualifies as significant to me — is in no way a bad thing.

“Failure always gives you an opportunity to see something you need to improve on. It’s a learning experience,” added Judge while talking to Martin. “I got a chance in the Major Leagues. It was kind of like a practice test in school: You get a feel for it, so next year coming in I kind of know what to expect and prepare for.”

Will the no leg kick approach work? Who knows. The right field job is there for the taking this year and long-term, and you know the Yankees want Judge to hold the job for the next six years. If he needs more time to adjust to MLB pitching the way he needed time to adjust to Triple-A pitching, so be it. Judge is trying though, and that’s really all you could ask for.

Judge a Key to Lengthening Lineup

(AP)
(AP)

It’s pretty damn difficult for a guy who’s over six and a half feet tall to get lost in the proverbial shuffle, but it seems that’s what’s happened to Aaron Judge during this offseason. Most of the focus has been on just about anyone and anything but him. Even guys yet to make their Major League debuts, like Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres, have gotten more attention than Judge has during this Hot Stove season. Despite the relative lack of chatter about the big outfielder, his role in 2017 is nonetheless strikingly important.

On a macro level, Judge, along with the other young players on the team, represents the future, the success or failure of this recent rebuild. Fairly or unfairly, he and Gary Sanchez will be under a lot of pressure to perform; and if they don’t, I foresee a lot of fans (though not necessarily those reading this site, who tend to be a bit more even tempered about these things) questioning the wisdom of abandoning ‘SPEND SPEND SPEND’ as a team building strategy in favor of rebuild/reload.

On a micro level, Judge’s presence in the lineup, even if he’s at a lower position in the batting order, will go along way in determining how strong the Yankees are at the plate. The top of the order seems fairly predictable, reliable, even; we pretty much know what we’re going to see from Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, as well as Matt Holliday. Sanchez’s bat is also a question, but not in terms of talent; we just need to see if he can keep up the power. In the middle and bottom of the order, Greg Bird‘s shoulder health is a question, as are the statuses of Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius; they both had great years (relatively speaking) in 2016 and repeating those isn’t a guarantee. Which Chase Headley will show up? With improvement from last year, Judge can be a steadying presence in the bottom of the lineup, adding value with power and patience.

Both of those things were on display last year. Judge socked four homers in his 95 plate appearances and posted a .167 ISO. Those aren’t horribly impressive numbers, but they’re not close to what his true talent level is. With adjustments, we’re likely to see those numbers climb. Additionally, he walked 9.5% of the time in 2016, a solid mark for anyone, let alone a rookie with a big strikeout problem.

Aside from those whiffs, Judge will need to improve against lefties, who exploited him big time last year. He hit just .067/.222/.067 against them last year with a 55.6% (!!!!) strikeout rate. The 16.7% walk rate is all well and good, but when it comes with nearly 60% strikeouts and literally zero power, it doesn’t mean too much. And how did they do it? Changeups.

Against that pitch, Judge whiffed on 81.82% (!!!!!) of the swings he took. Unsurprisingly, he hit .000 with a .000 slugging against left-handed changeups. If we take a look at this image from Mike’s post reviewing Judge’s year, we can see a pictorial representation of Judge’s struggles when pitchers pulled the string.

Aaron Judge whiffs

Improvement in general and improvement against lefties are the goals for Judge in 2017. Any progress on those fronts obviously means something good for him, but it also lends credence to a lineup with a lot of questions. Even if he’s in the seven, eight, or nine spot, a big year from Judge can make a big difference in the Yankees’ offensive production.

The catcher’s interference record is a symptom of Jacoby Ellsbury’s problem at the plate

... dude. (Presswire)
… dude. (Presswire)

Last year Jacoby Ellsbury shattered the very obscure single-season catcher’s interference record. He reached base 12 times (12 times!) because his swing hit the catcher’s glove. The previous record was eight by Roberto Kelly with the 1992 Yankees. There were 39 instances of catcher’s interference around the league last year and Ellsbury had nearly one-third of him. Hey, that’s why they gave him all that money, to smash records.

Anyway, Ellsbury has always had a knack for catcher’s interference — he has 26 in his career, second all-time to Pete Rose, who had 29 in 10,924 more plate appearances (!) — so it’s not a complete surprise he set a new record last year. But going from two or three catcher’s interferences a year to a dozen in one season is staggering. It’s like averaging 10-15 homers a year and then suddenly having a 60-homer season.

The catcher’s interferences were a fun running gag, and hey, any way Ellsbury can get on base helps the team. That said, they’re a symptom of a larger problem. Ellsbury’s swing is out of whack. He’s swinging too deep in the strike zone and not making good contact out over the plate. Hitting coach Alan Cockrell discussed this last week and said they’ve been working on it this offseason. From Bryan Hoch:

“For me, the biggest thing with Jacoby is moving his contact out front a little bit more,” Cockrell said. “I’ve never seen a guy hit the catcher’s mitt like he did. I think when Ells’ contact point was maybe three, four more inches more out front from where it is right now, he can stay on balls. We’re not looking for power production, but he can be a very, very productive hitter.”

“We looked at all the video from his really big year in Boston, and his contact point was probably three or four inches more,” Cockrell said. “So we tailored his cage routine and his maintenance work to where we’re moving contact — not a lot, not a foot and a half, but just three to four inches more in front of his body.”

As far as I know there’s no data on where the hitter makes contact within the zone. The point of contact is not something PitchFX records, and if Statcast has that data, I have no idea where to find it. Anecdotally this makes sense though. Ellsbury is not necessarily losing bat speed. His swing path is all screwed up. It’s too long in the back.

In theory, moving Ellsbury’s contact point up a few inches means there will be more leverage in his swing when the bat strikes the baseball, allowing him to better drive pitches. When he makes contact deep in the zone, there’s not much swing behind it, so he’s not impacting the baseball all that hard. At least that’s what I think is happening here, anyway. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Cockrell mentioned they’ve been working on this since last year, so it’s not a new development. They didn’t review tape after the season and discover the flaw. They’ve known about it a while but haven’t had much success fixing the problem. “It’s one of those midseason things that feels awkward, and it’s tough to go out and play every night and think about something like that. This is something that we’ll talk about in Spring Training,” said the hitting coach.

I’m not terribly optimistic Ellsbury will be an above-average hitter going forward. He’s hit .264/.326/.382 (95 wRC+) in nearly 1,800 plate appearances with the Yankees and ZiPS projects a .269/.324/.383 (97 OPS+) batting line in 2017. That sounds about right to me. I don’t think moving his contact point out a few inches will be a magic cure-all, and if Ellsbury can stay within 5% of league average next year offensively, I’ll take it.

The catcher’s interference record was a weirdly entertaining sidebar to the season, and while reaching base is a good thing, they were part of a much larger problem. Ellsbury is not anywhere close to the player the Yankees thought they were getting based on what they paid him, but if Cockrell can move his contact point up and turn some of those catcher’s interferences into base hits, it’ll help Ellsbury contribute more to the offense, and the Yankees could sure use it.

Austin’s quick adjustment last season bodes well for 2017

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Hands down, my favorite moment of last season was Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge socking back-to-back home runs in their first career at-bats. (Gary Sanchez‘s two-month rampage was awesome, but not really a “moment.”) The Yankees had just sold at the deadline and turned things over to the kids, and they provided instant gratification. That was such a fun afternoon.

As you know, both Austin and Judge slipped into slumps following their home runs because the big leagues are hard, especially when you’re just getting your first taste. Judge hit a few more mammoth homers along the way but his slump basically lasted until he suffered a season-ending oblique injury on September 13th. That was pretty lame. The good news is Judge is healthy and working on things this winter.

Austin, on the other hand, came out of his slump in September and finished the season strong, which included a handful of clutch late-inning home runs. Overall, Austin hit .241/.300/.458 (102 wRC+) in his 90 plate appearances with the big league team last summer, which isn’t too shabby for a kid getting his first taste of the show. Here’s a fun graph showing how Austin reached that 102 wRC+ at season’s end:

tyler-austin-wrc

He started with a bang, slumped hard for a bit, then gradually climbed his way back to respectability, all in a relatively short period of time. Austin recently admitted to Brendan Kuty he was trying to hit a home run each time he went to the plate early on, which got him out of whack mechanically. After some work with hitting coaches Alan Cockrell and Marcus Thames, Austin got back on track and finished strong.

“My head was flying out, swinging at everything — in and out of the zone,” said Austin to Kuty. “That’s not me. That was just me trying to hit a home run every time up and trying to pull anything I could. When I’m right, I can hit the ball out of the park using all parts of the field.”

We certainly saw that all fields power last season. Well, no, actually. That’s not true. Austin hit five home runs and all five were to the opposite field at Yankee Stadium. It really was an impressive display of opposite field power. We’ve yet to see Austin pull the ball over the fence, though I suspect it’s only a matter of time until that happens. The kid clearly has some power.

Austin was indeed swinging at everything early on — he went 3-for-31 with ten strikeouts immediately following the debut homer — before settling down and showing some semblance of plate discipline. Here are his in-zone and out-of-zone swing rates:

tyler-austin-swing-rates

His out-of-zone swing rate (O-Swing%) was sky high at first before coming back down to Earth. Austin managed to finish the season with a 30.7% swing rate on pitches out of the strike zone, which is almost exactly league average (30.6%).

As for pitches in the strike zone, Austin’s swing rate was a touch high for a bit before stabilizing. His overall 73.1% swing rate on pitches in the zone was quite a bit higher than the 63.9% average, though swinging at pitches in the zone isn’t a bad thing. The next step is learning to tell a hittable pitch in the zone from one you should lay off, such as a changeup at the knees likely to generate weak contact.

Getting to the big leagues was not easy for Austin, who at one point was designated for assignment and went through waivers unclaimed. And let’s not kid ourselves either, he’s close to a bat only prospect. Austin is not a good gloveman at first and he’s comfortably below average in right field. He’ll have to hit and hit big to have big league value, and the fact he made a quick adjustment to stop chasing out of the zone bodes well going forward.

The Yankees insist the first base job is up for grabs and will not automatically go to Greg Bird, though I’m sure if you could get an honest out of Brian Cashman & Co., they’d say they want Bird to take the job and run with it. Austin could very well be Bird’s platoon mate at first base while also seeing time in the outfield and at designated hitter. If he hits, they’ll get him in the lineup somehow.

Austin had to basically turn his entire career around last season just to get back to Triple-A, nevermind reach the big leagues for the first time. And now that he’s in the show and has had some level of success, he’ll be given the opportunity to remain on the roster. This is hard part. Keeping the big league job. Austin’s quick adjustments last year were nice to see, and he’ll have to keep making them to be part of the Yankees going forward.

What are Baseball Prospectus’ new control and command tools telling us about Masahiro Tanaka?

(Maddie Meyer/Getty)
(Maddie Meyer/Getty)

All throughout the week, the fine folks at Baseball Prospectus are rolling out a slew of new pitching metrics. They’re attempting to measure things that were previously unmeasurable, like command and deception and the effects of pitch sequencing. Last year they revolutionized catcher defense stats, and now they hope to do the same with the guys on the mound.

Two of the tools the BP crew rolled out earlier this week are stats that serve as proxy measurements of control and command. Control is the basic ability to throw strikes. Command is the ability to throw quality strikes, meaning hit the corners of the zone and keep the ball out of the heart of the plate. You can have good control and bad command. Example: Michael Pineda. He rarely walks hitters, but he also struggles to keep the ball out of the middle of the zone.

The article explaining the new stats is free to read, so I recommend checking it out. In a nutshell, Called Strike Probability, or CS Prob, measures control by telling us the likelihood of a pitch being called a strike based on all the other pitches in that location around the league. Called Strikes Above Average, or CSAA, reflects command by telling us whether a pitcher is reliably hitting his spots. CSAA is adjusted for the catcher, umpire, the whole nine. It isolates the pitcher’s contribution to the called strike (or ball).

After scrolling through the leaderboards, the data told me pretty much exactly what I expected. Pineda rates very well in CS Prob and very poorly in CSAA. Dellin Betances rates below-average at both. I’m not sure that will surprise anyone. I was looking through various Yankees pitchers and it all made sense. And then I got to Masahiro Tanaka. Look where he ranks among pitchers to throw at least 100 innings:

Pitchers with 100+ IP CS Prob Rank CSAA Rank
2014 149 134th 32th
2015 141 123rd 10th
2016 144 78th 20th

According to the data, in each of his three seasons with the Yankees, Tanaka has ranked in the bottom half of the league in control but near the top of the league in command. That doesn’t make sense! Intuitively, a pitcher can have good control and bad command, but not bad control and good command. If you can command your pitches and dot the corners of the zone, surely you can throw strikes.

So obviously the CS Prob and CSAA data is wrong, right? The stupid made up numbers are broken and the statheads are ruining the game. Yeah, sure, that’s always possible. Before we jump to that conclusion, we should consider exactly what CS Prob and CSAA are attempting to tell us first. CS Prob is quite simply “how likely is it this pitch will be called a strike?” CSAA is a tad more complicated. From the primer article:

Traditionally command is understood as the ability to “hit your spots”—having the ball end up where you intend it to. Over the years this has been studied in numerous ways—most notably by attempting to determine how much the catcher moves his glove to receive a pitch. This is flawed because the catcher’s glove isn’t always the target, and we can’t know where the pitcher is truly intending the pitch to go.

What we can do is come at command from a different angle. A pitcher with good command should be more predictable for the catcher—their pitches often end up in the locations, and with the movement that the catcher expects. This skill results in easier receiving for catchers, and additional called strikes for the pitcher. Once we aggregate the data cross thousands of pitches, CSAA is able to tell us whether a pitcher is reliably hitting his spots.

That make sense? CSAA measures the extent to which the pitcher affects the likelihood of the pitch being called a strike. The BP crew admits CSAA is not a perfect measure of command, but they’ve found the CSAA leaderboard reflects command pitchers very well. Guys like Zack Greinke and Kyle Hendricks are the CSAA kings while others like Betances and Pineda rank among the league’s worst. It passes the sniff test.

We know for a fact Tanaka rarely walks batters — he had a 4.5% walk rate in 2016 and it’s 4.3% in his three MLB seasons — indicating good control. The guy throws strikes. Having watched him pitch with my own eyes the last three seasons, it seems Tanaka lives on the corners of the strike zone. Here, via Baseball Savant, is a heat map of his called strikes since 2014:

masahiro-tanaka-heat-map

Look at that. It’s beautiful. The dark splotches, which indicate where the majority of Tanaka’s called strikes are located, are on the edges of the strike zone. The lightly shaded areas indicate fewer pitches in that location, and for Tanaka, that includes the middle of the strike zone. Every pitcher wants to control the strike zone that way. Live on the corners, stay out of the middle of the plate. Here, I’m going to label the heat map to make things a little more clear:

masahiro-tanaka-heat-map-annotatedThat’s what you’re seeing in the heat map, essentially. If you’ve watched Tanaka pitch at all these last few years, you know he loves to throw that running two-seamer away to righties and in on lefties, and have it dart back over to plate to nip the corner for a called strike. Like this:

masahiro-tanaka-two-seamer

The pitch looks like it’s going to sail way outside to a right-handed hitter — or way inside to a lefty — before moving back over the plate to catch the corner. It’s a wonderfully effective pitch, and generally speaking, that’s the splotch on the left side of the heat map. The lower right blob is splitters — and possibly some sliders and curveballs too — and they’re pretty self-explanatory. They sometimes hit the bottom corner of the zone for a called strike, though they usually dive out of the zone for a swing and miss.

The CS Prob and CSAA data is not broken even though it’s indicating Tanaka has bad control but great command. Tanaka is just an outlier. We know he throws strikes. His consistently low walk rate is evidence of that. The assumption he has good command has always been based on our observations, but now we have some data telling us that yes, Tanaka is reliably hitting his spots. He lives on the edges of the plate, and because those pitches are less likely to be called strikes, his CS Prob rank is poor. But because he’s on the edges consistently, his CSAA is high. Make sense?

For most pitchers, their heat map of called strikes looks like a giant blob over the middle of the plate. Tanaka’s is the opposite. He keeps the ball out of the middle of the strike zone — not all the time, of course, but much more than most — and instead works the edges. That’s why he’s so successful despite not having a blow-you-away fastball. Tanaka is an artist on the mound. We’ve seen it the last three years. Now the CS Prob and CSAA data is confirming what our eyes have been telling us.