DINGERS FROM THE 6IX
by Quinn Sweetzir
I understand that point has been beaten to death already, but the start of this years incarnation of the Blue Jays has been far from ideal. The biggest of the Jays problems has been their offense, which has ranks second last in runs scored and ranks near the bottom of almost every major offensive statistical category. During the broadcast of the Jays game from last night, Dan Schulman suggested that other teams are throwing more breaking balls in response to Toronto’s struggles in last seasons ALCS. In response, I decided to investigate the pitch usage of opposing teams when facing the Blue Jays in order to determine if the way their being thrown is a factor in their performance.
Even though its early, the Jays are being thrown 3% less fastballs this season compared to last. Instead, teams are throwing more sliders (up 1.6%), curveballs (up 1%) and especially cutters (up 4.5%). This only tells part of the picture however, as if you consider “trick pitches” such as knuckleballs which are thrown less than 3% of the time, the gap becomes more apparent, as fastball the gap between 2016 and 2017 increases to a decrease in fastball usage from opponents by 6.4%, which is more than one less fastball for every 20 pitches.
Although not every player has suffered from a dramatic decrease in pitches which are thrown to them, there are several players who have. In the case of Josh Donaldson, opposing teams have decreased their fastball usage by 2.4%. Though the sample size is small (Donaldson has just 35 PA’s), the most dramatic increase to him has been in cutter usage, which has more than doubled from 5.8% in 2016 to 13.4% in 2017. This could be a result of two factors. Either teams figure that Donaldson is simply not as good at hitting cutters as he is at other pitches, or some of the pitchers he’s faced simply throw a lot of cutters. Even if this is a result of small sample size, it is an interesting trend to watch for the rest of the season.
Unlike Donaldson, Jose Bautista’s early season performance has been simply dreadful. He’s hitting just .118 with just 2 extra base hits and only one RBI early on in 2017. Bautista has seen a decrease in fastballs faced by just 0.4%, hardly enough for us to consider it a cause for this dramatic of a decline in performance. Instead, the pitch type data leads me to believe that an increase in average fastball velocity (up 1.4 mph) is among the biggest reasons for his struggles. I tend to agree with this opinion, as Bautista hasn’t been able to catch up to the fastball in many of his at bats early in the season. Additionally, Bautista has also seen a dramatic increase in cutter usage, which is up 8.8% in the case of Bautista. Again, it is likely a result of small sample size, but this is a trend to watch in the future if Bautista continues to struggle.
Another player who has struggled tremendously is Devon Travis, who is hitting just .091 with a -29 (not a typo) WRC+. Opposing teams have thrown Travis 3.6% less fastballs this season compared to last, however this has been offset with a dramatic increase in slider usage (up 6%) and cutters (up 2.4%). As you can see, the trend of decreased fastball usage in favor of throwing more cutters continues with Travis, and leads me to question whether the Jays are struggling to increase because of this increase in cutters, or because of something else. So, I decided to look at heat maps to decide whether players on the Jays can hit cutters or not.
As you can see, Travis has more or less struggled when hitting cutters, as his slugging percentage is down significantly from his .444 career average; however his sample size of just 233 cutters seen for his career is too small to make a reasoned conclusion.
But what about for Donaldson. His increase in cutter usage is more likely to be a result of teams discovering a weakness in the former MVP's hitting ability, so is he actually worse when facing cutters.
Since Donaldson has hit cutters well for most of his career, this could just be a result of opposing teams trying something they used less in the hopes that Donaldson will struggle given a larger sample size.
However, Jose Bautista is a whole different story, as he has struggled to hit cutters even in his hay day. Just consider this spray chart of his against cutters he's faced since the 2010 season.
As you can see, Bautista has never been able to consistently hit cutters unless they are meatballs right down the middle. Why it's taken so long for anyone to notice this is beyond me, but it is something to keep track of this season. If people continue to exploit Bautista in this way, we should continue to expect struggles.
AS you can see, Dan Schulman was somewhat on to something. Teams are throwing some key players less fastballs, and they can partially explain the struggles. We should however keep in mind that it is still mid April, and this trend could be a result of small sample size rather that intentional strategy change.