June 21, 2010

The new and improved Delmon Young

I come to praise Delmon, not bury him.

- William Shakespeare (if he was a Twins fan)

In the fall of 2007 the Twins acquired Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie from the Rays for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan. I wasn't a fan of the trade, in part because I felt Young was an overrated prospect and in part because I felt the Twins were selling unnecessarily low on Garza and Bartlett. Three years later I still believe those things to be true, and for the first two years the trade looked worse and worse for the Twins.

Young batted just .288/.325/.413 with an ugly 197-to-47 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 260 games through his first two seasons in Minnesota, which along with horrible defense made him one of the worst regulars in baseball. While he was being disappointing on nearly every level, Garza logged 388 innings with a 3.87 ERA and Bartlett hit .306/.361/.429 in 265 games as the Rays had the first two winning seasons in franchise history and advanced to the World Series.

In terms of value gained from the trade it was a blowout in the Rays' favor after two seasons and the scale may never swing all the way back to the Twins' side, but this season for the first time the gap isn't widening. And it's not because Garza has turned into a bum (his ERA is 4.16) or the Twins are getting value from the other two guys in the deal (Harris is hitting .157, Pridie is at Triple-A for the Mets). No, it's because for the first time Delmon Young is playing well.

After starting slowly for the third straight year Young has been on fire for the past month and is now hitting .307/.345/.502 in 61 games for the sixth-best OPS among AL corner outfielders. He's still not walking much, but after two frustrating seasons of flailing away at breaking balls and grounding out weakly to second base or blooping singles into right field on fastballs Young is finally making the solid, damage-creating contact that was supposed to be his calling card.

Even better, after losing 30 pounds during the offseason Young's defense in left field has gone from horrible to merely poor, with the occasional flashes of good mixed in with the still-present penchant for cringe-inducing awkwardness. He certainly hasn't turned into the second coming of Frank Robinson or Albert Belle that so many comparisons at the time of the deal laughably suggested, but he has turned into the guy the Twins thought they were getting in 2007.

How has he done it? Well, first let's look at some of the basic components of his performance:

              BB%      SO%     K/BB      GB%      FB%      LD%     ISOP
2008-2009     4.5     19.0     4.19     53.0     30.2     16.7     .125
This Year     6.2     11.2     1.64     45.7     37.2     17.0     .195

Not only is Young walking 38 percent more and striking out 41 percent less compared to those disappointing first two years in Minnesota, he's hitting the ball on the ground 14 percent less. In other words, his approach at the plate has improved dramatically and the type of balls he's putting in play have gotten much better as well. He's putting together much better at-bats and giving himself a chance to actually for hit for power by getting the ball in the air.

Young has eight homers in 61 games, which puts him on pace to shatter his career-high of 13, but the actual percentage of his fly balls that have gone over the fence hasn't really changed. Last season 11.4 percent of his fly balls were homers and this year 11.4 percent of his fly balls have been homers. The big difference isn't that he's suddenly crushing longer fly balls, it's that he's simply hitting more of them. Young's fly-ball rate is up 23 percent compared to 2008/2009.

When the Twins traded for Young the widely held assumption was that he'd hit for big power because he's a big guy and that's what the glowing scouting reports from his high school and Single-A days said, but grounders never turn into homers and guys who're among the league leaders in ground balls never turn into power hitters. Young still isn't putting the ball in the air nearly as much as the game's best sluggers, but he's now doing it enough to inflict damage.

How is he walking more, whiffing less, and hitting the ball in the air? Here are his swing stats:

              ZONE     SWNG     CONT     Z-SW     Z-CN     O-SW     O-CN
2008-2009     50.2     59.6     75.8     80.3     85.4     38.7     55.6
This Year     47.9     57.8     83.6     78.7     90.3     38.7     71.0

Based on the improved strikeout and walk rates you'd think he's been swinging at fewer balls outside the strike zone, but that's not actually the case. He's swinging at essentially the same number of pitches as 2008/2009, including nearly identical rates on pitches inside and outside the strike zone, but the difference is that he's making contact significantly more often on both types of offerings.

The biggest change is that Young has made contact 28 percent more often swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. He's still hacking at more pitches than anyone in the league except Vladimir Guerrero and still chases non-strikes as much as before, but this year he's actually hitting those pitches. I'm not sure whether that can be chalked up to randomness or a change in approach--or whether it's a sustainable improvement either way--but the difference is huge.

Breaking the pitches and swings down even further, here are his results by pitch type:

               FB%     FB100      CH%     CH100      SL%     SL100
2008-2009     53.6     -0.36     10.3     +0.25     19.8     -1.35
This Year     56.4     +0.23     10.6     +4.02     17.0     +1.07

Young has never been a great fastball hitter, but he's been better against the pitch this year, generating 0.23 runs above average per 100 fastballs (FB100) after previously being sub par. He's also gone from decent to amazing versus changeups (CH100) and from awful to strong on sliders (SL100). Not shown above is that he continues to struggle against curveballs, which makes drawing any strong conclusions from the pitch-type data even more difficult than usual.

Observationally, the biggest change on a pitch-type basis has been his ability to lay off sliders outside the strike zone late in counts, which is something that really dragged him down in the past. For the most part the numbers back that up with his non-strike contact rate and overall success on sliders. Of course, that he's still hacking at just as many non-strikes muddies those waters, although perhaps Young keeps swinging early but now has more late-count discipline.

Interestingly, while Young has improved across the board his batting average on balls in play is a career-low .308 after he had a .338 mark in 2008/2009. That may very well be due more to randomness than anything else, but it could also be due to the same change in approach that has led to more fly balls and fewer ground balls. In fact, that has almost certainly played a part because in general ground balls go for hits more often than fly balls.

Basically, he's been less effective getting bloopers to drop in and choppers to get through the infield, which is certainly a tradeoff worth taking for more pop. It may also suggest that Young has actually been somewhat unlucky this season--particularly since after losing 30 pounds and getting noticeably faster it should be easier to leg out infield singles--in which case even if his high contact rate on non-strikes declines a bit his overall performance may not suffer a ton.

The top five items on my wish-list for Young likely would've been fewer strikeouts and ground balls, more walks and fly balls, and better range on defense. He's improved all five areas and the result is a far better player who has gone from liability to strength. He deserves credit for getting into shape and hitting coach Joe Vavra deserves credit for altering his approach and stance. Now hopefully he can keep it going and, at age 24, perhaps even build on those gains.

I come to praise Delmon, not bury him.

- William Shakespeare, if he was a Twins fan.

June 14, 2010

F-Bomb 2.0: How close is Francisco Liriano to 2006?

Francisco Liriano has reemerged as an elite pitcher this year and his latest masterpiece came Friday night against the Braves, with 11 strikeouts and zero walks in eight innings of one-run ball. His gem versus Atlanta marked the second straight start in which Liriano has allowed just one run while racking up double-digit strikeouts, and overall this season he's 6-3 with a 2.90 ERA and 87-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 80.2 innings spread over 12 starts.

Now four years removed from Tommy John surgery Liriano has clearly re-established himself as an ace, but because he was the ace prior to going under the knife the temptation will always be there to compare what he's doing now to the 2006 version that eviscerated the league as a 22-year-old rookie. Thanks to abundance of information available at Fan Graphs, we can get a pretty good idea of how Liriano in 2010 stacks up to Liriano in 2006.

Let's start from the top, with his fastball:

FASTBALL          2006     2010
Velocity          94.7     93.5
Percentage        43.6     50.7
Runs per 100     +0.13    +0.50

Liriano in 2006 threw his fastball an average of 94.7 miles per hour, but his velocity has dipped to 93.5 miles per hour this season. While that still ranks seventh in the league, a decline of 1.2 miles per hour is a significant drop in velocity. However, despite Liriano's fastball being slower he's thrown it 16.2 percent more often and the pitch has also been more effective, rating 0.50 runs above average per 100 offerings compared to 0.13 runs above average per 100 in 2006.

In other words, Liriano's fastball has gotten worse but he's gotten better at throwing it, which is natural for a pitcher as he gains more experience and also a credit to the work he's done on the long road back from surgery. Obviously it would be great if Liriano threw 95 mph again, but having better command of the pitch at 93.5 mph can actually be even better. Now let's take a similar look at his slider:

SLIDER            2006     2010
Velocity          87.7     85.0
Percentage        37.6     32.6
Runs per 100     +3.47    +2.71

Surgery cost Liriano even more velocity on his slider than his fastball, with the pitch going from an average of 87.7 mph in 2006 to 85.0 mph this year. Not only did his 87.7 mph slider lead the league in 2006, no one else even cracked 87.0. This year his slider velocity is 13th in the league and unlike with the fastball he hasn't been able to compensate by throwing it better. He's relied on the slider 13.2 percent less and the pitch has been 21.9 percent less effective.

Of course, less effective is a relative term. His slider has gone from +3.47 runs per 100 pitches in 2006 to +2.71 runs per 100 pitches this year, which is a big drop. Yet even at 21.9 percent less effective than it was before surgery Liriano's slider has been the second-best in the AL. That shows just how devastating his slider was in 2006, but also that, as Chipper Jones put it after facing him Friday, he still throws "some disappearing" and "Randy Johnson-type" sliders.

CHANGEUP          2006     2010
Velocity          83.5     84.8
Percentage        18.7     16.7
Runs per 100     +2.82    -0.99

Liriano's changeup was underrated in 2006 as everyone focused on his mid-90s fastball and ridiculous slider, but it ranked as one of the best in the league at +2.82 runs per 100 pitches. Since coming back from surgery Liriano's changeup velocity has actually risen by 1.3 mph, but that's not a good thing and when combined with a 1.2 mph decline in fastball velocity equals a much less effective weapon. In fact, his changeup has gone from great in 2006 to bad in 2010.

In terms of individual pitches, Liriano's fastball is slower but ultimately more effective, his slider is slower and less effective but still an incredibly dominant offering, and his changeup is faster but significantly less effective. Now let's move on to Liriano's actual results with a year-to-year comparison of his ERA, Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, strikeout rate, walk rate, and ground-ball percentage:

YEAR      ERA     xFIP     SO/9     BB/9      GB%
2006     2.16     2.35     10.7      2.4     55.3
2010     2.90     2.95      9.7      2.4     49.1

Those stats are all more or less what you'd expected based on the individual pitch changes. He's lost one strikeout per nine innings and has induced 11 percent fewer ground balls, which makes sense given the drops in velocity and slider ridiculousness. However, his walk rate has remained constant at 2.4 batters per nine innings, which can seemingly be linked to Liriano's improved fastball command canceling out the decline in raw, blow-it-past-everyone stuff.

What made Liriano so amazing in 2006 is that he combined an incredible number of strikeouts with tons of ground balls, which is the perfect recipe for a pitcher. Surgery has cost him about 10 percent of both his strikeouts and ground balls, but Liriano still ranks third in the league in strikeout rate and 12th in ground-ball rate. In terms of overall effectiveness, he's gone from a 2.16 ERA and 2.35 xFIP in 2006 to a 2.90 ERA and 2.95 xFIP this season.

Here's an even further breakdown of his results, based on strikes, swings, and contact:

YEAR     ZONE     SWNG     CONT     Z-SW     Z-CN     O-SW     O-CN
2006     54.8     47.8     65.4     64.5     76.0     27.5     35.3
2010     47.5     46.9     75.5     63.3     87.1     32.2     54.8

Liriano has actually thrown 13.3 percent fewer pitches in the strike zone (ZONE) this season, which perhaps could be chalked up to his no longer being able to simply overpower everyone with strikes. Opponents are swinging (SWNG) at basically the same number of pitches, hacking at 48 percent in 2006 and 47 percent this season, but they're making contact (CONT) on those swings 15.4 percent more often this year.

On pitches inside the zone opponents are swinging (Z-SW) at the same rate as 2006, but are making 15 percent more contact (Z-CN). On pitches outside the zone opponents are swinging (O-SW) 17 percent more often and also making 55 percent more contact (O-CN). I'm not smart enough to know for sure, but it seems like the slider going from ridiculous to merely excellent and the changeup going from excellent to bad could explain the swing and contact changes.

Add it all up and Liriano clearly isn't the same pitcher he was before elbow surgery. His velocity is down, his slider and changeup aren't as good, he's getting 10 percent fewer strikeouts and ground balls, and hitters are having a much easier time making contact against him on pitches in and out of the strike zone. He's also relying less on his slider and more on his fastball, likely due in part to the injury risk of the slider and in part to his improved command of the fastball.

It seems clear that the phenom who toyed with the league in 2006 is simply gone forever, but the good news is that Liriano was so spectacularly awesome then that even this post-surgery version with obvious declines in numerous areas is one of the elite pitchers in all of baseball. His combination of strikeouts and ground balls still ranks among the best in the league and his raw stuff is still capable of overpowering hitters, as the Braves saw first hand Friday.

Oh, and the other good news? F-Bomb 2.0 is still five months from his 27th birthday.