Monday, December 25, 2017

Your 2018 Giants: Spin Rate Spinning Stratton into #4 Starter

Merry Christmas!

As was noted in one of my recent posts, the beat writers noted that with the trade of Moore, Stratton, based on what he did at the end of 2017, will be the #4 starter.  And the stats do support that, in black and orange:  last 9 starts (I see others using his last 8 starts, which has a higher ERA, but think it better to include his whole "part of the starting rotation" experience), basically after he was placed in the rotation, 2.42 ERA, with 43 strikeouts in 44.2 IP, though also 20 walks, high, but doable if he can get that down a little, 2.15 K/BB is becoming pretty below average in today's strikeout happy world.  His BABIP was a bit high, as well, at .317, so he could improve there if he can get that down to the league mean.

There is a great Pavlovic Giants Insider Podcast on November 9, where Stratton is interviewed and discussed afterward.  Alex noted that Stratton's spin rate was elite in THE MAJORS in 2017, among pitchers with at least 100 pitches thrown:
  • 2nd in all of baseball in curveball spin rate to Garrett Richards, shows how tough
  • 22nd in fastball spin rate to Aroldis Chapman
  • 21st in slider spin rate (FYI:  Crick was 1st!)
As noted in the podcast, the higher the spin rate, the lower the batting line against the pitch.  Also notes that a fastball with a high spin rate rises (one of Matt Cain's bread and butter, once upon a time, with his high rising fastball) and is very effective up in the zone.  Hundley and Federowicz told him to keep the ball up because hitters weren't handling the pitch and he said that he would continue until hitters adjust, at which point, he'll adjust. 

I found an SI article that touted Stratton as a breakout candidate based on his spin rate (article was noting Astros success with spin rate analysis), similar to Morton:
The problem: Stratton has a mediocre four-seam fastball (91.8 mph) and, if you lower the bar to 100 curveballs thrown, the fastest-spinning curveball in baseball (3,105 rpm). Batters hit .292 against his fastball, but only .100 against his curveball. But he’s stuck in an old-school way of pitching: 61% fastballs and only 18% curves. 
The symptoms: Lefthanded hitters crushed Stratton, lighting him up for a .811 OPS, while he held righthanded hitters to a .670 OPS. Stratton throws his curveball even less often to lefties (17%) than to righties (21). 
The mechanics: They need work. Stratton has poor arm deceleration, meaning his arm and hand brake too soon after release. He can improve velocity by working on better deceleration. He also can throw harder by driving his head and torso more toward the plate; he has a tendency to drift toward the first-base side of the mound while releasing the ball. Bottom line: there’s more in there. 
How to get Morton-ized: Increase curveball percentage to lefthanded hitters, work the high fastball/curveball tunnel more often, and tighten mechanics.
The problem the article noted was that the Giants are one of the leaders in the majors in using the cut fastball.  It also noted how some pitchers were talked into using their better pitches more often and their fastball less.

His coaches have been very positive about his chances.  Bochy was very complimentary of him.  After the last game of the year, he said, "He's made a really big statement, I think, if you look at his body of work.  Just watching him pound the strike zone, he's got two good breaking balls and a changeup. He's locating well and he finished up on a good note tonight."  Gardner was reported to say that he thought Stratton has good stuff.  And Bochy backed his feelings up by not removing Stratton from the rotation when Cueto returned from the DL, noting that "he's throwing the ball to well for that", as he has "deceptively good stuff" and "He's doing stuff that elite pitchers do. It's good to see him pitch at this level."

ogc thoughts

Spin rate has got me dreaming on Stratton.  I was very high on Stratton when he was first drafted, because he had four pitches that were considered average or above, but his struggles as a pro deflated those dreams.  His 2016 season got me back in his corner, which is why I included him in my Big 6 Prospect List for the 2017 season.  But his 2017 was a breakout season, I can see now, looking at what he did once he was in the rotation for good.

I would add here that Chris had a big obstacle to doing well, after getting hit in the head by a batted ball very soon into his professional career, and we have no idea what that did to him in terms of holding him back, both in terms of the concussion that it caused (and the damage to his brain from it) and in terms of any innate hesitation that might subconsciously resulted from being hit in the htead.  Obviously and fortunately, he appears to be over it and showing the potential that he had when he was drafted.  Heck, probably greater potential, as his differentiator when he was drafted was him having 4 good to average pitches, and now with spin-rate data, shows that he might have three elite pitches at his disposal, if he can keep this going over a full season.

SI analysis is interesting because Stratton's big issue is with getting left-handed hitters out, and if he can start to get them out, he would definitely be elite, because he is already getting right-handed hitters out a lot.  I have trust in the Giants pitching brain trust that they will change his pitching patterns to improve his ability to get hitters out, more than SI does.

Good Players Are Hard to Find, Let Alone Pitching

Elite pitching is what has defined the Giants Dynasty Era.  I've seen many complaints about the lack of development, but once the Giants got away from the great early picks where they selected Lincecum, Bumgarner, Posey, and Wheeler, and started winning in 2009, they got overall picks 24 (Brown), 29 (Panik), 20 (Stratton),  25 (Arroyo), 14 (Beede), 18 (Bickford), and 19 (Ramos). 

Out of seven picks, that roughly adds up to a probability of 110% of finding a good player.  Of course, that's no guarantee, for you can build out the results tree from that and still end up with not one good prospect.  Obviously, we struck out on Brown, but Panik could be a hit (depends if his future is more like 2015 or 2016-17).  The rest are yet to know, but given these odds, it would not be unusual to see the Giants miss on all of them, but it is more likely that they will hit on at least one prospect, perhaps more.  Given that it can take up to 6 years for a prospect to hit, it is not unusual to see a long time lapse before you see results.

It does not help much that the Giants hit so well on Lincecum, Bumgarner, and Posey.  It helped them win 3 championships in 5 years, but because they were not lingering in the farm system, they are all grizzled vets already and yet we are still waiting on the lesser prospects like Stratton, Arroyo, Beede, Bickford to figure things out.  Though, of course, Ramos looks pretty good; but still, a long way to rise, and we all saw what happened with Brown, he was good until he wasn't good, and that trip up can happen anywhere, A-ball, Advanced-A, AA, AAA, and majors.  But if they had taken as long, they would have made the majors in the 2012-2014 timeframe, heck, Lincecum hit his MLB decline stage around when others like Stratton, are just entering the majors.

The journey is truly a gauntlet, knocking down even what some consider the best prospects (check any Top 100 MLB Prospect List, say from 5 to 15 years ago, and see how many actually became good; and these are the creame de la creame, not lowly prospects as most Giants prospects have tended to me, as few ever make it into the Top 100, and some of those never do anything, Alderson, AnVil, for examples).

So it is not unusual to have such a long lapse in prospect development among first rounders (just imagine how much worse it is in later rounds, where the odds of finding a good players is exponentially lower).   One can blame the team, but it is very hard to discern whether it is the management who are the screwups or if it is just the very poor odds screwing with our human brains, as we are not that familiar with dealing with poor odds like that.  Hence, unless they haven't done anything good in the draft over a long period of time, I would stay away from definitive statements whether a GM is good or bad.

That is why I prefer to look at the overall picture.  Is the team made up of mostly homegrown players, more than other teams?  Have they traded away good players, screwing up their player development timing?  Did they hit when they had the high picks?  Once you start winning, it could take up to 6-10 years to find that next one.  Expecting anything faster is necessary for maintaining a good team, but it is near impossible for a winning team to do that (Cardinals are the only team I've seen that seem to be able to pull rabbits out of their hats regularly enough to stay competitive near continuously) when they are getting poor draft picks, beyond the first 10 overall.  As I noted about the Yankees, until Judge, they had not hit with a first round draft pick in 20 years.

2018 Draft Is Critical For Any Hopes For The Next Giants Dynasty Era

That is why 2018 is such a critical draft year for the Giants.  The #2 pick you would think is like shooting fish in a barrel, but you would be surprised to learn that most do not work out.  On average, over the first 45 drafts, average of 15.3 bWAR looks pretty good for the #2 pick, that's how Baseball Prospectus analyzed the draft.  But using my methods, where you need to reach 18 bWAR to qualify as good, then you end up with only 13 out of 45, or roughly 30% (whoa, I might have to lower my odds calculations; I'm hoping to work on updating my draft study before Opening Day arrives).  I consider 9-17.9 bWAR to be useful, and only 8 of 45 were in that cluster, or roughly 18%.  Marginal players are from 0.1 to 8.9 bWAR.  There were 12 of them, or 27%.  That means that 13 of them either never made the majors or were negative in bWAR.  And 25 out of 45, or 56% of them never really amounted to much in the majors.

And the Giants really hit with Lincecem, Bumgarner, Posey, and OK with Wheeler.  I would note that Sabean missed with Grilli long ago, the only other Top 10 overall pick.  Hitting on a similar top line player, particularly pitcher, would really give a boost to the team sometime in the 2020-2024 time frame, which should be the back end of Posey, Bumgarner, Belt, Crawford, and Panik's careers.  Add in hopefully Ramos kicking in around the same time, and that's our new Posey/Bumgarner pairing (could be two hitters instead, but just need good players).

Spin King(s)

MLBAM has a tool, Baseball Savant, and with it you can search on a variety of metrics from PitchF/X and StatCast, one being spin rate.  Here is how Stratton ranks on the pitches he threw in 2017, I'm bolding all the Top 20 ranks:
  • Fastball-4 seam:  #11/275 (2,491 RPM)
  • Fastball-2 seam:  #5/225 (2,474 RPM)
  • Fastball-Cut:  #20/113 (2,499 RPM)
  • Slider:  #9/220 (2,717 RPM)
  • Changeup: #166/240 (1,657)
  • Curveball:  #1/172 (3,105)
As you can see, he's pretty elite with his spin rate.  In fact, when you look across these six pitches, he ranked 2nd in all of the majors in 2017, out of 280 qualifying pitchers (I used 1,000 pitches as the minimum, I think he was just over that).  Surprisingly, #1 is Gearrin!

Here is the downside of that:  while Cain was not Top 20 much (just one, Ffastball-2 seam), he was Top 40 in 3 pitches, and over these six pitches, he ranked 33rd out of 280.  So clearly, it is not a guarantee of success.  Still, Greinke was #34, so Cain was just missing something that kept him from being very effective.

But a lot of good pitchers are up there in the leader ranks.  For these pitches, Rich Hill was #5, Verlander #8, Kenley Jansen #9, Jake Arrieta #11, Yu Darvish #15.    Morton, who was the Astro's Find of 2017, was only ranked #77 himself among these pitches.  Among Giants, current and old, Kontos was #73, Wheeler #96, Casilla #115, Moore #173, Bumgarner #193, Yusmeiro Petit #203, Cueto #204.   Obviously, more than one way to skin a fish or get a batter out.

Anyway, here is the Top 10 for those six pitches above:
  1. Cory Gearrin (2,675 RPM)
  2. Chris Stratton (2,639 RPM)
  3. Mike Minor (2,631 RPM)
  4. Carl Edwards, Jr (2,624 RPM)
  5. Rich Hill (2,603 RPM)
  6. Edubray Ramos (2,589 RPM)
  7. Miguel Castro (2,581 RPM)
  8. Justin Verlander (2,581 RPM)
  9. Kenley Jansen (2,581 RPM)
  10. Josh Tomlin (2,570 RPM)
Whoa:  xwOBA is Good to Great

Another tool from Baseball Savant is the Expected Weighted OBA (xwOBA) for each ball in play, which is then broken down by pitch. While the above Spin Rates shows superiority in that aspect, xwOBA shows how good the pitch for that pitcher is in keeping the opposing batter from producing runs.  This runs on a scale on par with OBP, and .324 was the average OBP in the majors in 2017 (this is an assumption on my part based on their language; unfortunately, there was no guidance as to what exactly is the base for 2017).

Stratton's excellence does not look as shiny as above, but there are key pitches for him.  Below is a similar list as above, but showing his rank and xwOBA by pitches, plus average for MLB starting pitchers who had 200 results (from the article):
  • Fastball-4 seam:  #136/166 (.383 xwOBA; MLB avg .351 xwOBA)
  • Fastball-2 seam/sinker:  #12/132 (however, he only had over 50) (.301; .359)
  • Cutter/Slider:  #138/143 (.378; .272)
  • Curveball:  #5/87 (however, he only had over 100) (.176; .257)
  • Changeup:  #61/92 (however, he only had over 50) (.311; .302, so roughly about average)
As we can see above, high spin rates for Fastball-4 seam and Cutter/Slider did not do much for Stratton.  However, for Fastball-2 seam/sinker and Curveball, he would have ranked in the Top 5/12 had he qualified, with great xwOBA.

So it appears that he needs to use his 4-seams much less, in fact, probably need to get rid of it from his repertoire, while emphasizing his 2-seamer, sinker, and curveball more.  Basically it seems like he should replace all his 4-seamers with 2-seamers or sinkers.  His changeup, while low in rank, is not much higher than average, and thus he could continue to include that in his repertoire to give him four pitches to work on hitters.

Thoughts on Stratton in 2018

Still, even with his difficulties with his 4-seamer, he was able to keep his ERA down to a good 3.68 in 2017 (4.34 ERA was the average in the NL in 2017), which was a 114 ERA+, 89 ERA- (the more advanced pitching stats were not as kind, viewing him as roughly average). 

And as I noted, he had a 2.42 ERA in his 9 starts to end the season, so the hard hitting against him was pretty much neutralized during that part of the season, perhaps they had already made the adjustment I or SI noted, throwing in more of the pitches he uses to great effect, and much less of the one (mainly 4-seamer) that he does not have an advantage with (in spite of his good spin rate with it).  Perhaps that is the pitch he noted above, the high rising fastball that seems to work batters good.

2018 will be very interesting:  enough for me to entertain thoughts of winning the NL West Division Title, if Stratton can keep his ERA significantly under 4.00.   Such a performance would fulfill the requirement for another ace, and if Samardzija continues his good end to 2017, then that would give us four aces, and a similar season to 2011, when we had Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, and Vogelsong doing great for us, keeping us in the pennant race when Posey was out. 

Even if only one of the two can ace 2018, then the Giants should be good enough to win one of the Wild Card spots.  Either way, the Giants should have enough to make the playoffs in some way in 2018, if we get good performances from at least one of these two (and assuming Cueto can get back to his old ways).   Our offense should be greatly improved just from the addition of Longoria, as he's a very consistent hitter, which combined with very good pitching brings us back to 2009-2012 standards.

Side Note:  Samardzija is Also Spinning His Way To Prominence

Since I was looking at Stratton's stats, I collected the other starters, and while we knew that Bumgarner looked good and Cueto looked bad in 2017, Samardzija was also a spin rate leader as well as xwOBA leader.  I will write up his numbers, similar to here for Stratton, as they are also very encouraging too.


  1. Exceptionally valuable post, ogc. It should add, I think, that since the Giants have a new pitching coach, whose interest in analytics and whose need to increase familiarity with his new team’s pitchers should increase chances of his reading articles and stats like the ones in SI, past assumptions about the Giants’ pitch preferences may no longer hold.

    As to the Giants’ chances of getting a winner in the draft, you put it at 110%, but clearly don’t mean that, since 100% probability is certainty. What do you mean? Also, whether Arroyo and Bickford will or won’t work out is a bit academic for Giants fans: both have worked out for us as trade bait

    1. Sorry, probably should have explained that more. It was a simple addition of the probabilities and thus could go above 100%. Going over 100% means that the drafter should have found one good player, among all those picks, if the probabilities are guaranteed. Of course, they aren’t so a more proper way of representing the overall is doing the Markov probabilities, odds of success equals 0, 1, 2, 3, etc.

      Academic I suppose, but good to keep track of to see well (or not) the drafting is going, as well as how good they are evaluating who is keepers.

    2. Thanks, glad you liked it. Great point that Young will be trying different things, thanks for that, gives me great hope that the potential of Stratton and Samardzija can be actualized in 2018.

  2. I have been involved in other games where spin rate is important, ie; Tennis, Table Tennis and Bowling. Spin rate in those sports to me, often can be correlated with ones, potential, or natural ability, but to harness the success of good spin rate, one needs to control the path of the ball, and the direction of the spin. Spin is so important to table tennis, that in the 1970's various table tennis paddle, (bat) manufacturers came out with new surfaces that altered the spin, ie; anti-top spin, faint, and phantom, which revolutionized the game, after in the late 1950's and 1960's they developed surfaces, that imparted maximum spin to the ball, and in order to make that all work the key was and is control. A bowler can spin the ball, usually in a manner called a full roller, a three quarter roller, or a semi-roller. Each has its advantages, under certain lane conditions. A bowler with less spin, but with maximum control, can perform better than a bowler who has maximum spin but less control. The best combination, is maximum spin and maximum control. Also the actual speed of the ball going down the lane, is an important factor. Of interest until about 3 years ago, Greinke and Cain had very similar peripherals, the only thing that was much different was the W.L. record. But since that time Greinke has maintained his abilities, and Cain seems to have lost both velocity and control. Stratton, always showed signs of being an elite pitcher, even in the minors, but his problem was extreme inconsistency. He would pitch an excellent game or two, and then follow it up by getting knocked out in the early innings. I hope my thoughts have contributed. Excellent Post OCG.

    1. Thank you! Exactly what my post needed, command and control is another special sauce to making elite spin rate effective. I greatly appreciate your contribution.

      Happy New Year!

  3. This is great post. It's so good that I'd steal it, but that would be wrong. But I have quoted it. Great work.

    1. Thanks! Appreciate your comment.

      Wishing you a happy and healthy New Year!

  4. I was going to write a similar article on Crick, but then he was traded for McCutchen. There was an article on Fangraphs about the trade and what the Pirates got and I commented the below on him:

    About Crick, I'm disappointed that we are losing him, but you have to give to get. One aspect about him that wasn't captured in this fine article is that he's among the elite in spin rates. BP had him in a list of AFL pitchers a while back: And Crick was #1 in the majors in spin rate for his slider in 2017, albeit, SSS. Overall, his xwOBA was .269 in 2017, vs. actual wOBA of .274, suggesting that he could even be better, having some bad luck with some of his batted balls.

    Given the acknowledgement today that good relievers are very valuable (something the Giants were denigrated for signing their Core Four relievers of Affeldt, Casilla, Romo, and Lopez to what was considered wasteful contracts for fungible relievers), I view the loss of Crick to be more than that of losing Reynolds. That's probably related to the fact he was already in the majors, but also because I can see the value of having a great reliever on the team. The Rivera example here illustrates that as well. And as the saying goes, you can't teach the velocity that Crick brings, but people focus too much on his walk rate when they should either be focuses on his K/BB ratio or his K%-BB%, and they are not that bad. It is something a guy with less than one year in the majors can definitely build upon.



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