Texas Rangers OF Nelson Cruz, PITCHf/x, and Plate Discipline

Trip Somers • April 20, 2009 • Analysis

In limited action in 2008, Nelson Cruz finally started hitting Major League pitching to the tune of .330/.421/.609. Given the small sample size, people openly questioned whether he had actually turned the corner.

Through Friday, April 17, 2009, Cruz was off to a .282/.356/.718 start, more or less a continuation of his 2008 success. Using PITCHf/x data through the first 10 games of 2009 and some stats from Nelson Cruz's FanGraphs profile, here's a little plate discipline analysis to see if it supports his impressive start.

The black boxes in these charts are approximations of the actual strike zone. Based on average PITCHf/x data for Cruz's at-bats, the bottom of Cruz's strike zone is about 1.6 feet from the ground, and the top of his strike zone is about 3.4 feet from the ground. The left and right edges of the zone are approximated at 1 foot to either side of the plate based on half the plate's width (8.5 inches) plus some wiggle room for pitches that scrape the black (3.5 inches). (NOTE: All location graphs are from the catcher's perspective.)

The first chart shows us what Cruz has been swinging at by location and by pitch type.

Nelson Cruz Pitch Location for Swings

Based on this chart, Cruz has mostly been swinging at strikes. According to his O-Swing% at FanGraphs, only 20.2% of these pitches are outside of the strike zone. That is the lowest of his career. Since his 2006 Rangers debut, his O-Swing% has dropped every season - 29.4% in 2006, 26.5% in 2007, and 23.1% in 2008.

Notice that Cruz hasn't swung at many pitches near the bottom or near the outside edge of the zone. This has helped Cruz lay off of breaking pitches away. Through 10 games, Cruz had not swung at a single pitch off the outside edge of the plate.

The second chart shows us what Cruz hasn't been swinging at by location and by pitch type.

Nelson Cruz Pitch Locations for Takes

This chart fills in the obvious holes from his swings chart. There are a lot of pitches in the zone low and away that Cruz has not swung at. According to his Z-Swing%, Cruz has swung at 78.5% of pitches in the zone. Based on that stat, the chart doesn't exactly match up. It appears that he's been taking pitches in the zone more often than 21.5% of the time. This could be the result of the PITCHf/x strike zone not matching up with the zone being called by the umpires.

Without getting in too terribly deep, here's a quick look at the righty-lefty split broken down by location and pitch result. The small sample against lefties in the first 10 games doesn't give us much to look at, but the righties scatter plot is interesting.

Nelson Cruz Pitch Locations and Results (versus RHP)

Nelson Cruz Pitch Locations and Results (versus LHP)

The PITCHf/x strike zones for Cruz appears to be pretty accurate. Keep in mind that some of the strikes outside of the zone were swung at.

Let's look at Cruz's Z-Swing% again. My rough count based on my unofficial strike zone suggests a 61:23 ratio or a 72.6% Z-Swing%, which would still be a career high for him. From 2006 through 2008, Cruz's Z-Swing was very steadily between 70% and 71%.

This year, he's swinging at strikes more often, but he's also swinging at fewer pitches overall - 46.8% in 2009 versus 50.8% in 2006, 49.6% in 2007, and 47.1% in 2008.

April 19, 2009 Update: Cruz has reached base safely in all 12 games this season on 13 hits and 7 walks against only 10 strike outs. He is now hitting .289/.377/.667.

The numbers and charts say he's being more selective than ever. This can only be good news for Cruz, the Texas Rangers, and their fans. I believe that Nelson Cruz has finally arrived.

Some other observations:

  • Very few pitches have been thrown low and in to Cruz. I wonder if his AAA scouting report says to stay away from that quadrant.

  • Righties stand a good chance of getting Cruz to put the ball in play by throwing him up and in.

  • Cruz's first-pitch strike percentages by year: 62.3% in 2006, 63.4% in 2007, 52.6% in 2008, 51.0% in 2009. It's a small sample size and might not mean anything anyway, but it is interesting.

  • One step further, Cruz is seeing fewer strikes than ever: 52.5% in 2006, 52.4% in 2007, 50.2% in 2008, and 45.7% in 2009. Combined with the stat above, I'm pretty sure this means something.

  • One concern: what happens when opposing pitchers start hammering that outside corner?

Dr. Mike Marshall on MLB Network

Trip Somers • April 18, 2009 • Training

This aired back on March 25, 2009. The link below will take you to a 7-minute segment from MLB Tonight which airs on MLB Network. In this clip, Harold Reynolds is joined by Dr. Mike Marshall and his left-handed student Joe Williams.

With only 7 minutes in which to work, Dr. Marshall has to skim over a lot of things, but he sums up his arm action very succinctly. He briefly explains the muscles that are involved in his arm action and mentions how pronation helps protect the elbow.

Dr. Marshall also has Joe demonstrate a couple of drills. Pay special attention to the second base pick-off drill. It's a drill he has mentioned in the past when talking about re-training traditional pitchers to correct the flaw of horizontal shoulder flexion.

With the football drill, Dr. Marshall and Joe show Harold how to throw a pronated curveball. The video isn't the best, but if you look closely and use some imagination, you can see the ball spinning forward instead of backward.

MLB Network: Dr. Marshall talks pitching
[Update 2019: Link no longer works after MLB.com made changes to their video library.]

Post questions and comments here, and I will do my best to address them.

Texas Rangers Prospects: Neftali Feliz and Tae Kyung Ahn

Trip Somers • April 15, 2009 • Scouting

Neftali Feliz. 6' 3", 180 lbs; Born: May 2, 1988. Feliz is already famous for the ease with which he tosses up 100 mph fastballs. He's gone as high as 102 mph, and I've personally seen him hit 101 mph several times. He sits comfortably in the 95-98 mph range and routinely goes higher than that. The velocity is accompanied by significant arm side run and occasionaly sink.

Robbed from Atlanta in the July 2007 Mark Teixeira trade, Feliz isn't just a one trick pony. His curveball has very serious potential. In 2008, he struggled with a consistent release, often throwing his curveball at a different arm angle than his fastball. When it's on, the pitch is easily a plus.

Feliz also throws a change up that can be anywhere from 79 to 85 mph. The pitch strikes me as an average offering that plays up a little bit because of the sheer velocity of his fastball.

Feliz uses his legs very well to generate hip rotation. His stride is very controlled which allows him to maintain his balance through the delivery. Feliz's spine remains upright, and he keeps his shoulders closed very well. Feliz simultaneously flexes his trunk forward and rotates his shoulders. This generates serious velocity at his pitching shoulder.

He brings his elbow pretty far behind his back, but by the time his shoulders start to turn, it appears to be back in line with his shoulders. Feliz's forearm isn't quite vertical when his shoulders start to turn, so there's some late forearm turnover and a reverse forearm bounce. His layback phase seems to have a lot of torque, so I will be interested to see how Feliz's elbow holds up with higher pitch counts and more innings.

Feliz's low 3/4 arm slot results in a large lateral component in his arm acceleration which causes forearm flyout. This flaw tends to be more of a performance flaw than a health flaw, but in Feliz's case, his performance doesn't seem to suffer. The associated health risks are strongly mitigated by pronation. At this angle and at 210 frames per second, it's almost impossible to tell if Feliz pronates on his fastball. He appears to pronate well, even if accidentally, on both his curveball and his change up.

I really like his follow-through. Feliz has a high and controlled finish. His arm doesn't fly across his chest and his back muscles, particularly his latissimus dorsi, do a very large majority of the work in decelerating his arm.

Tae Kyung Ahn. Ahn was signed as a free agent out of South Korea in 2008. He was the first major acquisition from the Pacific Rim after bringing Pacific Rim specialist Jim Colborn into the front office. Ahn was a big prospect as a junior in high school, but had a so-so senior season that caused a lot of teams to back off. The Rangers were not one of them.

Ahn was throwing at least 3 pitches when I saw him. He didn't really have command of any of them. Ahn's fastball seemed like it hit every radar reading between 83 and 92 mph. I didn't see an actual radar gun, but on his fastball, neither velocity nor location was very predictable.

In the video, you can see him throw a few change ups. At times, the pitch was a little firm and may have contributed to the seemingly wide range of fastball velocities. His breaking ball looked like it was probably a slider.

He looked extremely raw, but he's young and definitely has some pretty good upside - even if this report isn't exactly glowing.

One of Ahn's idols growing up had to be fellow South Korean right-handed pitcher Chan Ho Park. If you're familiar with Park's mechanics, it's hard not to see similarities.

Ahn seems to land too heavily on his front leg. His weight is so far forward when he lands that he has no room left for weight transfer. His shoulders turn open and his arm action begins before his front foot lands. Try pausing the video right as his foot contacts the ground; notice the position of his arm and shoulders.

It's hard to really see his arm action from this angle, but it appears as tough he completely avoids reverse forearm bounce despite an extremely late forearm turnover. His release looks clean, but his follow-through looks a little abrupt at the very end.

Freshmen to Watch: Taylor Wall, Trevor Bauer, and Logan Verrett

Trip Somers • April 13, 2009 • Scouting

At the Houston College Classic, I came across three freshman pitchers that really stood out to me. I've put together a brief scouting report for each pitcher as well as a short video clip comprised of pitches filmed at 210 frames per second.

Put these guys on your follow list.

Taylor Wall, Rice Owls. LHP, 6' 2", 180 lbs. When I heard that Wall was a freshman in the weekend rotation of one of the top baseball schools in the country, I pulled out my camera and took some notes. I was very impressed with his fastball, but it turns out that the radar guns only had him at 85-86 mph. He has a very fast arm, and he repeats his mechanics very well. He turns his change up over very well and has a promising curveball. If his fastball improves, he could find himself high up on someone's draft board.

Wall has a unique stride. I really like that he lands open, but I find the position of his foot to be a little odd. In the video, you'll see that it points far toward third base. He has a traditionally flawed ball pick-up with late forearm turnover and some reverse forearm bounce. He gets excellent shoulder rotation and has a near-vertical arm at release which I like. His follow-through looks pretty clean to me with no violence or signs of recoil.

2009 Season Statistics (as of April 12, 2009)

Pitcher ERA W-L IP H R ER BB K
Wall, Taylor 4.07 4-3 48.2 48 27 22 15 46

Trevor Bauer, UCLA Bruins. RHP, 6' 1", 175 lbs. According to one source, Bauer was a projected first round pick coming out of high school in 2009. He won't even be draft-eligible, though, because he graduated high school in December and joined UCLA in January. He should be in the middle of his senior year in high school, but instead he's logging heavy innings for UCLA.

His fastball can get into the mid-90s, and he's got the makings of a plus curveball. His command was a little off when I saw him, and his curveball was easy to identify coming out of his hand. He's been dealing ever since, so I imagine he's resolved those issues.

His mechanics are similar to those of Tim Lincecum, and his arm action is pretty similar as well. Bauer is a student of Jaeger Sports (www.jaegersports.com) where they teach a "pull down phase" that's evident in his motion. Like Wall, Bauer gets his arm to a near-vertical position at release, but he also has a torque-heavy ball pick-up.

Because of his stuff, Bauer is already on the follow list for a lot of organizations.

2009 Season Statistics (as of April 12, 2009)

Pitcher ERA W-L IP H R ER BB K
Bauer, Trevor 3.10 5-3 52.1 49 22 18 12 49

Logan Verrett, Baylor Bears. RHP, 6' 2", 170 lbs. Verrett came on in relief of Shawn Tolleson, and I was immediately impressed. Verrett showed command of three pitches, each of which was at least solid-average. When I saw him, all three pitches were working, and it was impressive to watch him mow down the University of Houston hitters with excellent command. His change up had great fade to it, and his fastball was 91-94 mph. His slider also showed good potential. (Baylor's coach said Verrett has command of four pitches, but in this outing, I couldn't identify a fourth.)

Verrett has very traditional mechanics, so the common flaws are present including late forearm turnover, reverse forearm bounce, and some forearm flyout. He opens up his front shoulder a little early, but it doesn't seem to affect any of his pitches. His arm is up an ready before his shoulders turn even though his front foot hasn't landed yet. This keeps his arm from having to play "catch up." He repeats his delivery very well and seems to be quite an athlete.

Verrett must have had a very strong commitment to Baylor because he went undrafted out of high school in 2008. He looked so good when I saw him in Houston, that it was easy for me to imagine him leaving Baylor for a junior college in order to gain eligibility for the 2010 draft. If his arm and stuff hold up for the next two years, I think he could jump into the mix with Gerrit Cole and Bryce Harper at the top of the 2011 draft class.

2009 Season Statistics (as of April 12, 2009)

Pitcher ERA W-L IP H R ER BB K
Verrett, Logan 3.79 7-1 40.1 48 18 17 13 50

Brandon McCarthy PITCHf/x: Sliders, Curves, and Slurves

Trip Somers • April 10, 2009 • Analysis

News broke late this winter that Texas Rangers RHP Brandon McCarthy would be experimenting with a slurve, a pitch half-way between a slider and a curveball. It was later confirmed that this pitch was intended to replace McCarthy's curveball. I had always believed his curveball was a plus, so this news left me confused.

Yesterday afternoon, Brandon McCarthy debuted his new slurve against Cleveland and PITCHf/x was ready to go. On television, the new pitch didn't look that new, seemingly just a little harder with a little bit sharper break, and more than one person wondered if McCarthy was throwing both a slider and a curve ball.

I grabbed the PITCHf/x data from yesterday's game (April 9, 2009), and decided to compare it with a similar outing. I settled on McCarthy's April 9, 2007 start at home against Tampa Bay. In each start, PITCHf/x identified 4 different pitch types: fastball, curveball, slider, and change up. PITCHf/x data is never perfect, but there's still a lot of great information.

Let's first compare his release points from the catcher's perspective.

Brandon McCarthy's April 9, 2007 pitch release points.
Brandon McCarthy's April 9, 2007 pitch release points.
Brandon McCarthy's April 9, 2009 pitch release points.
Brandon McCarthy's April 9, 2009 pitch release points.

At first glance, it appears that McCarthy's release point has moved about 6 to 10 inches toward third base in the past two years. While definitely interesting, this may or may not actually be the case. In 2007, release points were measured at 55 feet from the back corner of home plate, but the 2009 release points were measured at 50 feet from the back corner of home plate.

Taking a bit of a deeper look reveals that McCarthy's release of his change up is very consistent with that of his fastball with a few stragglers straying up a couple of inches. In 2007, McCarthy's curveball release was a little higher and a little closer to first base, but in 2009, his curveball/slider release is noticeably higher but directly above his fastball release.

Take a look at the pitch movement scatter plots below. Vertical movement is calculated compared to gravity - an approximation of the Magnus effect. This means that zero vertical movement is equal to gravity's effect, while a negative number drops more than gravity and a positive number drops less than gravity.

Brandon McCarthy's April 9, 2007 pitch movement.
Brandon McCarthy's April 9, 2007 pitch movement.
Brandon McCarthy's April 9, 2009 pitch movement.
Brandon McCarthy's April 9, 2009 pitch movement.

Based on the PITCHf/x data shown in the graph, McCarthy's slurve is measurably different from his 2007 curveball. To further illustrate the difference, I grabbed velocity data for the two pitches as well. His average curveball velocity in the 2007 game was 73.47 mph, and his average slurve velocity in the 2009 game was 79.81 mph.

The most important difference between the old curveball and the new slurve is pretty simple: control. In the 2007 game, McCarthy threw 40% (10/25) of his curveballs for strikes. In the 2009 game, McCarthy threw 75% (15/20) of his slurves for strikes.

Yesterday, McCarthy threw 10 of 13 change ups for strikes. He had outstanding overall command of his off-speed stuff, but he really struggled with his fastball command, throwing only 34 of 60 (56.7%) for strikes.

I've noted this in the past, and it's still a major issue. McCarthy has a tendency to drag his arm behind his body when he throws his fastball. This is usually caused when the front shoulder "flies open" by turning toward home plate before the arm is ready to throw. The pitching arm tries to play catch up, but pitches usually wind up high and a tick or two slower when this happens.

In the 3rd inning, pitching coach Mike Maddux trotted out to chat with McCarthy. When he left, McCarthy's fastball jumped from 86-90 to 89-92 for his last 2.1 innings, and he was throwing it down in the zone. PITCHf/x is missing 5 pitches in this span, but after the visit, McCarthy rattled off 10 strikes on his next 12 fastballs.

Outside of that stretch, McCarthy threw only 50% strikes with his fastball. On the up side, Maddux appears to be on top of this, and I expect improvement in this aspect of McCarthy's game throughout the season.

Here are some quick shots:

  • In the 2007 game, McCarthy's fastball was 10" to 15" above gravity, and his curveball was 8" to 13" inches below gravity. That's a visual 18" to 28" of vertical separation between the two pitches. I don't have a comparison ready, but that's a huge difference.

  • McCarthy's fastball is straighter than ever. He's getting better back-spin, so the ball might appear to rise more, but his fastballs are all clustered around zero horizontal movement. In the 2007 game, he was getting a lot more arm-side movement.

  • McCarthy is a tall guy, but it's pretty crazy that he lets go of the baseball when it's nearly 7 1/2 feet off the ground. A fastball to the bottom of the strike zone travels vertically down nearly 6 feet!

  • Joey Matschulat at Baseball Time in Arlington took a look at McCarthy's PITCHf/x data as well - Profiling Brandon McCarthy: A Pitch F/X Snapshot.