Drew Hutchison’s Slider Nonsense

Drew is looking to find his slider, which unfortunately is not located to the right of the page. Image via Fred Thornhill/The Canadian Press (http://news.nationalpost.com/sports/mlb/toronto-blue-jays-reportedly-send-drew-hutchison-to-triple-a-ahead-of-road-trip)
Drew is looking for his slider, which unfortunately is not located to the right of the page. Image via Fred Thornhill/The Canadian Press

I’ve only been an emotionally-invested fan of baseball for about 15 years, and prior to this October my experience with the post season was almost entirely imaginary; yet I can say with some significant level of confidence that a pitcher going from Opening Day starter in the spring, to fringe roster-worthy in the summer, to off the playoff roster altogether in the fall – without any involvement of injury – is a pretty rare occurrence. As you’re all very well aware, this is precisely the story of Drew Hutchison’s 2015.

Taking the place of injured ace Marcus Stroman, Hutch won on Opening Day in the Bronx in what was the pinnacle moment of his year, as things unravelled immediately thereafter. In four of his next five starts, Drew failed to complete five innings, but thanks to borderline unprecedented run support, he didn’t lose his first game until his ninth start, on May 20th. He wasn’t able to shake the spring struggles, either; in a ten start stretch from June 12th through August 5th, he completed six innings just once. “Quality starts” are largely a useless statistic, but it speaks volumes that Hutch met the embarrassingly low threshold in just nine of his twenty-eight starts. Drew was briefly sent to Triple-A in mid-August as the team temporarily shifted to a four-man rotation, but this wasn’t even his lowest point – that would be the entire month of September, in which Hutchison allowed 24 hits (including 7 home runs), walked 4, and surrendered 18 runs in just 11.2 innings of work.

When the Blue Jays began post-season play, Hutchison understandably found himself off the 25-man and down in Dunedin, staying in shape just in case he was needed. On October 9th, it looked like it might happen; shutdown lefty Brett Cecil tore his calf on an innocent enough looking play in game two of the ALDS, necessitating an addition to the roster. Instead, in perhaps the most damning indication of Hutchison’s remarkable fall from grace, the organization called on Ryan Tepera. To compare this to a more relatable office setting; it’s like starting a project as the lead, and just a few months later, your manager doesn’t even trust you to make the photocopies.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In 2014, his first season back from a year-long Tommy John-induced layoff, Hutchison looked really good. The rust was still apparent, but the stuff had come back and then some. His 11.0% swinging strike rate was the 14th best among qualified starters, slotted just behind aces Stephen Strasburg and Madison Bumgarner, and a nose ahead of Garrett Richards, Alex Cobb, and David Price – unquestionably elite company. What really had fans excited for Hutchison’s 2015 was how the right hander concluded the season. In September, he had a 15.8% swinging strike rate and 67.8% contract rate, which ranked first and second respectively among qualified starters. It felt like a legitimate breakout, as Hutchison seemed almost unhittable.

Amidst the throes of a long winter and an even longer offseason, the internet was flush with articles linking Hutchison’s excellent second half to a potential dark-horse run at a Cy Young Award – and not by biased Blue Jays fans, either. The most tantalizing of such stories was written by Tony Blengino of FanGraphs who, in accounting for batted balls type, batted ball authority, and strikeout/walk rates, suggested Hutchison’s “TRU” ERA in 2014 was 3.19, and concluded that a top-five finish in the Cy Young was not out of the question in 2015.

Most of the credit went to an intriguing development with Hutchison’s slider. As these pieces at FanGraphs and Bluebird Banter detail, over Hutchison’s last seven starts of 2014, his breaking ball transformed from a hard, horizontal spinner that almost resembled a cutter, to a notably slower pitch with a lot more vertical depth. Jeff Sullivan concluded his FanGraphs piece with “Somewhere in August, Drew Hutchison figured out his breaking ball. Now it’s on the league to try to figure out Drew Hutchison.”

Unfortunately, the league never had to adjust to Hutchison’s new slider, because at some point between October and March, he lost it himself. The analysis below focuses on the velocity, movement, spin angle, and spin rate of his slider on a month-by-month basis over the course of the last two seasons, and it shows just how sporadic the breaking ball became as its owner seemingly delved into every nook and cranny of its existence in search of answers.

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The Knuckleball Effect — on Russell Martin

Dickey's knuckleball has ravaged Martin's production. Image via Jon Blacker/CP (http://www.sportsnet.ca/baseball/mlb/blue-jays-could-make-move-to-protect-russell-martin/)
Dickey’s knuckleball has ravaged Martin’s production. Image via Jon Blacker/CP

From the Niekro brothers, to Tim Wakefield, and now to R.A. Dickey, baseball has had a prominent knuckleballer in the game dating back as far as the mid-sixties. Coming hand-in-hand with these blue-grass physicists is the mythos of the knuckleball effect – a metaphorical hangover for batters following a game against a knuckleballer, as they struggle to adjust from the unpredictability of the spinless monster back to a state of fastball, breaking ball, and changeup normalcy. Employers of the knuckleballers often try to manifest this disruption even further, by offering the opposition the unwanted pleasure of facing a strong-armed flamethrower the following day; the premise being that a 95 mile-per-hour fastball is about as much of a polar opposite to the fluttering knuckleball as you’ll find.

Even within the small, bizarre, sideshow-esque fraternity of knuckleballers, R.A. Dickey is something of an abnormality. As an article by Rob Neyer from June 2012 over at SB Nation details, no other player in baseball’s illustrious history has ever thrown a pitch quite like Dickey’s “angry” knuckler, which, at least back in 2012, regularly eclipsed the almost unfathomable 80 mile-per-hour threshold. The velocity has fallen back since that 2012 peak, but has still averaged roughly 76 to 77 miles-per-hour over Dickey’s three seasons in Toronto – a full ten miles-per-hour harder than his predecessor, Wakefield.

With Dickey’s velocity more closely resembling that of a hard curveball or slow slider – as opposed to Wakefield’s, whose only parallel was an eephus – you’d expect the knuckleball effect to be somewhat diminished. Back in September, Shi Davidi of Sportsnet looked into this phenomenon within the constraints of Dickey’s 2015 season, and found, as he describes, “interesting but not necessarily definitive answers.”

In terms of ERA, the arms following a Dickey start pitched to a 3.33 ERA (versus a 3.77 mark for the season), and their fielding-independent pitching (FIP) improved to a similar degree, from 4.04 to 3.76. Most other metrics, including strikeout rate and contact quality – the two areas you’d most expect to see a drastic shift if working under the assumption of a disruption in timing – remained practically unchanged.

The thing about a knuckleball is that it’s a double-edged blade; it can be just as much of a bitch to catch as it is to hit. For this very reason, historically, teams that employ a knuckleballer seldom have their primary catcher behind the plate on the day that he’s pitching. With Wakefield, that honor went to Doug Mirabelli as Jason Varitek rode the pine, and over the preceding five years, Dickey was caught almost exclusively by the woeful triumvirate of Henry Blanco, Mike Nickeas, and Josh Thole.

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2016 Blue Jays Prospect Rankings, Part Three: Comparison

Anthony Alford! Image via John Lott/National Post (http://news.nationalpost.com/sports/mlb/toronto-blue-jays-prospect-anthony-alford-who-aspired-to-be-two-sport-star-now-happy-to-focus-on-just-baseball)
Anthony Alford! Image via John Lott/National Post

Part One: Backround
Part Two: Rankings and Analysis

The past twelve months have likely been both trying and rewarding for the developmental staff within Alex Anthopoulos’ front office. While a sense of pride must be felt from seeing the kids you picked out of obscurity in the 40-round amateur draft and chaotic July 2nd signing period go on to become important contributors on big league rosters or key elements in massive trades, there’s likely a certain point where after all the graduations and departures you can only turn to your boss and scream “dear god man, leave me something to work with!”

As opposing teams seldom ask for the dredges of the farm system in trades, understandably, the losses take center stage in the uppermost tiers. The graph below plots the top 37 prospects entering 2016 (blue) and 2015 (red). An additional line was added, in green, indicating what the farm system would have looked like today, had Alex Anthopoulos chose to sit on his hands rather than deliver this fan base eleven magical post-season games.

Prospect Rankings System Comparison

Neither of the 2016 lists has the four graduates – Dalton Pompey, Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna, and Devon Travis, which is why the 2015 list remains ahead of the pack within the first few spots. After that, however, things really open up. Starting with the number six prospect, 2016 really begins to fall behind 2015, whereas 2016 (minus trades) starts to boast the incredible volume of high upside talent the farm system had accumulated leading up to the July 31, 2015 trade deadline. As a quick comparative reference, the number 37 prospect on the green line had a score of 46.98 – roughly equivalent to the number 31 prospect in 2015 and the number 24 prospect in the current 2016 reality; a difference of 13 spots!

I mentioned that the brunt of the losses was felt in the top fifteen. Last Wednesday, the article concluded with a look at the current top-fourteen prospects (plus Vladimir Guerrero Jr). What would that look like without the trades, you might be wondering? The table below is formatted the same, with the prospects highlighted in green having since departed the organization.

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