Nationals Baseball: Get excited about ZNN, just not too excited, but still pretty excited

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Get excited about ZNN, just not too excited, but still pretty excited

Jordan Zimmermann went out last night and pitched another masterpiece. He hasn't given up more than 3 runs in any start (and he only did that once) and his ERA sunk ever closer to 1.50.  Is he the ace of the Nats staff? So far in 2013, (in about a 6th of the season) there is no question. Will he remain the ace of the staff? Ehhhhh

Let's go through the fancy numbers! (I know you don't think this allows for growth but it does. Guys can get better.  It's just that they rarely get THAT much better overnight and a lot of times they are helped by out-of-whack luck on things they don't have much control over. Remember how we did this with Detwiler? Remember how he had a 0.90 ERA in his first 3 starts and we said it couldn't last and then in his next 3 starts he had an ERA of 4.50? That's why you need to pay attention here)

The Ranges - stats that can vary by pitcher but fall within a typical range. 
BABIP (ranges between .250 - .325) 
Career: .287  Last year: .288  This year : .209

Sorry, right here is a big reason ZNN is among the best pitchers in the NL right now. This early in the year, this is usually all it takes. Find a surprisingly low ERA and there is usually a surprisingly, and unsustainably, low BABIP behind it. Don't believe me? Jason Marquis has a 3.50 ERA and is 4-2. His BABIP is .223. This is going up. 

HR/FB (6%-13%)
Career:  9.0%  Last year: 9.2% This year: 4.9% 

Jordan has always been decent at keeping balls in the park. As you'll see below he's pitching in a way that we'd expect fewer homers.  Still, 5% is too low. This will also rise.

LOB% (66%-80%)
Career:  75.4%  Last year: 79.3%  This year: 84.6%  

Hey a pattern! Luck going completely for ZNN in a way that just can't be kept up.

You might be saying, "why can't these things be kept up?".  Well, I can't give you a specific physical reason.  What I can tell you is that the entire history of baseball featuring thousands of pitchers tells us a story. It tells us that outside of singular fluke years, the ranges fall where the ranges fall. Like take BABIP. The lowest pitcher in the history of the game with 1000 IP has a career BABIP of .240, the highest .330. That .240 (and those around it) are from a different era. Since the strike? It's .262 and it's Mariano Rivera. Unless you think ZNN is possibly the greatest pitcher of all time you can't believe he will keep these numbers up.

But that doesn't mean he's not pitching well or getting better. Let's now look at the personal fancy stats

The personal stats - is he getting better?
Career :  43.2% Last Year : 43.4% This Year : 50.3%

ZNN in the past has been more of a flyball pitcher. Flyball pitchers tend to live and die by the strike out and the walk because flyballs will become home runs, and you have to make sure you don't have runners on base when that happens. Groundball pitchers have a little more leeway. ZNN this year has been a pretty solid GB pitcher.

K/9, BB/9
Career 7.30 / 2.07 Last Year : 7.04 / 1.98  This year : 6.00 / 1.59

He's also walking fewer people.  While you don't want to see a drop in Ks the drop in walks is actually a bigger drop percentage wise (20% to 15%) and more important as he's moved from being a flyball guy to a ground ball guy so a drop in Ks matters less.

Pitch F/X data suggests that this isn't just fluky early season data.  ZNN is pitching differently. Yes, more change-ups, but also more fastballs and fewer sliders. A better mix of offspeed stuff and more reliance on a top-notch fastball.

While the pitch effectiveness of the curve and the change remains mediocre the movement has improved on each. (thanks to for the graphs)

And the whiffs on each pitch have increased dramatically. 
So while it's likely that his biggest mistakes are still with these pitches (which would explain the mediocre pitch effectiveness) they are doing their jobs overall. They are keeping the hitters off balance so that the he can finish them off with weak contact on the fastball.

You see, before 2013 ZNN would try to finish off hitters with an off-speed pitch. Despite being only 23% of his total pitches, the slider accounted for 30+% of his strikeouts. The same thing was seen with the curve, about 12% of his pitches, but 17% of the strikeouts. Meanwhile with the fastball, you saw the opposite.  He threw it over 60% of the time but it was only the "outcome" pitch (pitch where the AB ended) around 55% of the time and the K pitch around 50%. 

In 2013 things have flipped. It's a little early to be sure if he's laying off the curve (he doesn't throw it that often) but the slider K percentage is down to 21%. The fastball has been thrown more (68% of the time) and its use as the outcome pitch has jumped dramatically (69%) as well as the K pitch (55%.) 

This may not seem like much but there's a definite change here. The fastball,which is arguably his best pitch, is more entrenched as his out pitch. Which is as it should be. 

Anyway, wrapping this all up what does this mean? It means that even though ZNN has gotten lucky, will experience some regression and is not likely to be in the Cy Young conversation at year's end, he is pitching better.  He is throwing like a low-level #1 which, if Strasburg can pitch to his talent and Gio can pitch like last year, would give the Nats a 1-3 as good as anyone has had in a while.


Wally said...

Agree with your post. I'd add one extrapolation: if he continues using his best pitch as the outcome pitch (FB), he should also see an uptick in k%. Which is what we have seen over the last few games. If he sustains that, it puts him at a higher level.

Good stuff. Can't be an ace striking out 6/game, but you can still be pretty good.

Kenny B. said...

Strasburg will be back to dominance very soon. I get that he's trying to go deeper, but personally, I'd rather have him do his thing and just mow guys down. I think he's actually struggling to *not* strike guys out. Just accept that he's a K guy and not a 9-inning guy, as nice as that would be.

I haven't had the chance to watch Gio this year. Can we get a statistical rundown on him and whether he's likely to perform anywhere close to last year? Also, I'm curious about what we can learn as to whether Haren is getting lucky lately or whether he has, as they say, "figured it out" by dropping his velocity.

Also, Det is still performing better than a #5 should. Gio is the one I'm most concerned about right now, so I would appreciate seeing some stats that make me feel better.

Anonymous said...

to Wally: Maddux seems to have spent most of his career in the high 5's to low 7's k%-wise. He was pretty good at pitching.

Froggy said...

Check out Harper and his fancy smancy graphs! Now that's what I'm talking about!

As to Haren, we will see if he really made any adjustments or if last outing was a fluke. If so, Fielder, Cabrera and Co will make him pay dearly.

Looks like a perfect day for, would someone buy my tickets off StubHub please!

Wally said...

Anon - ok, you got me. I'll change 'can't' to 'very, very, very rare'.

But I don't think it is a high probability expectation to think Jordan will be one of the 5 best pitchers of all time. I'd be pretty happy to be wrong, though!

blovy8 said...

The other slight thing to notice is it seems like his curve and slider are coming in a mph slower than in the past, while his fastball is just as fast. So, along with using the FB a little more as a finisher, it has that extra separation from the off-speed stuff.

Eric said...

According to Mark Z on Nats Insider, Gio's heavy use of the change up, which is apparently very unusual for him, was something Ramos really pushed him to do in Pittsburgh. It was VERY effective. It will be interesting to see how it factors in going forward, particularly in games (like Sunday) where he has poor control over his curve.

Harper said...

Wally - maybe. I don't know if that how it correlates. I imagine you swing and miss more on off-speed stuff you aren't expecting. Last year he used more off-speed finishes got more strikeouts.

KB - We can - what strikes me quickly about 2013 Gio is he's ALOT like 2011 Gio. take out the super high walks and I think you might have "real Gio" who is very good but not an ace like he was last year.

Anon - Maddux was best in the high 6's. Walks were down around 1.5 too. So I guess you can be an ace in the 6s... though again it's a new world with a lot more K's. Today's 6 k/9 isn't 1995s 6 K/9

Froggy - I'm betting no and a big Tigers win.

blovy8 - yeah - which is one of the issues with Gio - everything is getting slower so no better separation just easier to hit. But...

Eric - the bigger issue is NO control with the curve. If he's lost it then you can pretty much sit on anything up in the zone, be it a fastball or a sinker that is hanging. The change will help but he's never been a change guy, so can it be as effective as the curve was? I don't think so.

Greg Moody said...

"He is throwing like a low-level #1."

I'd have to disagree with that statement. I think what you meant is that by the end of the year, he will be the equivalent of a low-level #1. RIGHT NOW, though, there's no question he's throwing like a high-level #1.

Greg Moody said...

"He is throwing like a low-level #1."

I'd have to disagree with that statement. I think what you meant is that by the end of the year, he will be the equivalent of a low-level #1. RIGHT NOW, though, there's no question he's throwing like a high-level #1.

Kenny B. said...

"take out the super high walks and I think you might have "real Gio" who is very good but not an ace like he was last year."

Interesting theoretical question: Is the "real Gio" better than the "real ZNN," and if not, will ZNN get moved up in the rotation at some point?

Froggy said...

You are kidding me right...a graph that tracks 'horizontal movement' in inches over years by pitch?

That is some geekdom stuff there. ;-)

TheManBearPig said...

"Find a surprisingly low ERA and there is usually a surprisingly, and unsustainably, low BABIP behind it."

Here, let me fix that for you:

Find a low BABIP and there is usually a pitcher with excellent command of his pitches behind it.

DezoPenguin said...

Find a low BABIP and there'll be a bunch of wishful-thinking hometown fans insisting that the pitcher in question is the exception to the general rule.

Or Matt Cain.

Harper said...

Moody's Store for Men - well I'd say he's throwing like a low-level #1 but getting the results of a high-level #1. For prediction purposes knowing the former is nice, but really the latter is what matters.

KB - well if ZNN has improved and Gio has returned to his 2011 form then ZNN would be better. That's a couple ifs though. I doubt he'd get moved up in the rotation though. If Gio is still very good, Davey (or whoever) would like to keep the RLRLR thing going. Now if Strasburg doesn't get it together this year could ZNN be #1 and Stras be #3? That's an interesting question... for later.

Froggy - baseball had been tracking all this pitch stuff (you may have noticed if you ever followed an mlb gameday) and they let it out there for the public. Lots of interesting stuff people are doing with it.

tMBP - though you might think that it doesn't correlate like that. Looking at BB/9 (which I think would be the best correlary to command) and BABIP you don't see what you'd hope. Best BABIP in the 10's? Jeremy Hellickson - an average control pitcher. 4th worst BABIP? Joe Blanton who's got pretty good control. Cliff Lee is known for his control. Got a very average BABIP.

I'd say low BABIP tend to go with high K flyball guys. in other words with "stuff" not control. But that's a huge generalization

DP - Nailed it.

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