Jose Fernandez and Solo Home Run Situations
Jose Fernandez‘s season-ending injury was devastating. The second-year Marlins ace joins a massive list of players to sustain an ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injury, the precursor to the ligament replacement procedure referred to as “Tommy John” surgery. Fernandez is the best pitcher to sustain a UCL tear since Matt Harvey, which prompted a new line of theories and conversations on causes for the sharp uptick in T.J. surgeries in 2014.
Many factors have been suggested as causes for the increase in UCL injuries. Counting statistics like innings thrown (specifically large increases from season to season) and pitches per start or inning are popular and relevant considerations. Advances in technology allow us to capture more data, which has led some to examine velocity changes, release points, and pitch selection. Many point to heavy usage of sliders and curveballs, which increase stress on a pitcher’s elbow, though correlation does not imply causation.
More likely, Jose Fernandez falls into another category explored by scientists: throwing a baseball causes great strain to the human body. UCL injuries happen to pitchers, but they also happen to non-pitchers whom don’t throw breaking balls (Padres outfielder Rymer Liriano is a recent example). I don’t pretend to know much about biomechanics, but managing the stress on the elbow is paramount to maintaining a pitcher’s health.
The situation in which a pitch is thrown contributes to the stress level. Tim Brown over at Yahoo! Sports spoke with Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke, who has remained healthy throughout his career, about the right-hander’s approach. Greinke, one of the more self-aware and intellectually curious players around, noted the difference between slider and fastball situations:
“In what I would deem a very important at-bat or a very important pitch, yes, I would throw the slider. But with the pitcher up and no one on, you might be able to strike him out on three pitches. Do you really want to throw three sliders to a pitcher? Is it really smart of me to expend full energy on a slider in that situation?”
There are two key points to take from Greinke’s comments. First, breaking pitches are used more frequently to induce strikeouts. Since bursting onto the scene last year, Jose Fernandez ranks second among qualified starters with 10.31 K/9. Among all pitches, Fernandez primarily uses his fastball (49.6% of pitches) and his breaking ball affectionately referred to as the “Defector” (34.6%). The rate in which he uses his breaking pitch jumps to 53.8% in two-strike counts. Most pitchers use their breaking pitch with two strikes; Fernandez is no different. This could be a by-product of the game situation, the team defense, opposing team offense, all, some, or none. But we see a little about Fernandez’s approach: he relies on the strikeout as a primary out source, finding himself in many counts which call for breaking pitches.
Jose Fernandez and “Solo HR” Situations
Greinke’s second point is even more telling, noting “very important” at-bats or pitches call for different pitches. So what are “very important” situations? For as much as advanced statistics attempt to remove the human element from the game of baseball, pitchers are trained to win. Mentally, this means any situation where the outcome of a game chances on one swing, first inning, or last, is vital. For this exercise, we’ll use situations when the score is plus or minus one run, or tied, when it takes one batter (officially, a solo home run) to change the trajectory of a game. Let’s take a look at how often was Fernandez pitching in a solo home run situation:
2013: 172.2 IP overall, 116 +/- 1 run (67.2%)
2014: 51.2 IP overall, 37.2 +/- 1 run (72.9%)
This rudimentary model shows Fernandez pitched ahead or behind by one run, or tied 68.5% of the time as a Major League starter. Granted, we know later innings count more in Leverage Index and Win Probability, but pitchers don’t think this way. In a tight game, every pitch is crucial. The fact is Fernandez pitched primarily when the lead is affected by one swing of the bat. If these situations are “very important” and Fernandez is a strikeout pitcher, he was expending his full energy with few opportunities to put it in cruise control. Fernandez was pitching for strikeouts, using his breaking ball at a greater rate. Over time, pitching with maximum effort may have resulted in increased wear and tear.
Because the Marlins needed Fernandez to dominate to win due to a lack of offensive punch, he rarely had opportunities to pitch to contact with a multi-run lead. When pitchers are staked larger leads, they often become strike throwers who pound the bottom half of the strike zone, challenging hitters to make contact in an attempt to roll quick innings. The result is less pitches and fewer breaking balls, saving those precious bullets for another game.
Mike Newman echoed similar thoughts while watching Carlos Rodon, staked to a three-run lead, still pitching for the strikeout. Take a recent quote from Felix Hernandez about pitching with a 3-run lead: “They gave me three runs and I blew it. That’s not good.” Admittedly, the same could be said for a lead of any runs if the pitcher in question is Felix Hernandez, though a 3-run lead is the point in which back-to-back batters can’t change the game on their own. Fernandez was only afforded that position in 14.6% of Major League innings (32.2 out of 224.1).
In comparison, sinker ballers like Greg Maddux and Rick Porcello play catch on the pitcher’s mound. Maddux’s career strikeout percentage was 16.5% and (for as much data as we have through Brooks) threw a sinker or change-up over 90% of the time. Porcello’s percentage is even lower at 14.2%, with the right-hander throwing his curveball and slider combined in only 20% of his pitches (for reference, Fernandez’s K% is 29%). Maddux and Porcello, along with Greinke, are examples of pitchers who manage(d) games with a focus on efficiency. This doesn’t suggest Fernandez needs to ditch the breaking stuff for a sinker, but pitching to contact more frequently is likely to be a focus upon return.
In his fledgling career, Fernandez pitched with little margin for error. The result was more strikeouts out of necessity given his team’s lack of offensive punch. Though every pitcher is different, it could be that workloads, pitch selection, and biomechanics all matter as much as anything else in determining UCL injuries. But in the case of Fernandez, pitching when a solo home run changes the outcome of a game nearly 70% of the time forced the right-hander to throw his best pitch nearly every pitch. One wonders if the same could be said for Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, Matt Moore, and other young pitchers like Jose Fernandez who have succumbed to Tommy John Surgery. In the coming weeks, we’ll examine other pitchers, both healthy and not, to see if this theory holds true.
19 May 2014 / Ben Flajole / 3
Categories: MLB Analysis