Scoreless Streak: Hunter Cervenka is a Scrap Heap Hero

Hunter Cervenka is probably a handsome man according to many accounts. Objectively though, he appears more ’80s era MLB space filler than modern era stand out.

Doesn’t matter.

cervenka stache

courtesy of MiLB

Hunter Cervenka has started his big league career this season in sterling fashion, as far as results go. He has yet to give up a run in 14 games. Further, in the Atlanta system, he has yet to give up an earned run over 30 appearances from double A to the bigs.

This is all despite the fact that Cervenka was pithing for the Skeeters of Sugar Land, Texas, only about a year ago.

The Skeeters are part of an independent league, the likes of which are regularly groomed by MLB clubs. It’s not often, though, that players graduate from these little-known leagues and become impactful big leaguers.

So far, so good for Hunter Cervenka, then. Here are the top scoreless appearances streaks for relievers beginning their Braves career:

braves scoreless relievers

That chart no doubt amounts to a ‘fun fact.’ I make no insinuations as to any real significance to Cervenka’s start to 2016, beyond how unique and interesting that it is. We should all see it as overwhelmingly likely that Cervenka will look more human by the end of the season.

Until then though, we best celebrate the small stuff, Braves fans. Hunter Cervenka has been a real scrap heap hero, if there ever was one.

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Who is the Real Julio Teheran?

Julio Teheran’s career arc thus far can seem a little uneven. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly who he is. Let’s try, though.

Early Days

Julio Teheran was signed as a 16 year old out of Columbia on July 3, 2007. From the time he signed, he was heralded as a big time prospect. Indeed, Baseball America listed him as the Bravos’ 10th best farmhand at the time of his signing… as a 16 year old. He stayed on BA’s top 10 Braves list for six straight season (I’ll be referring to BA prospect rankings from here on out). Suffice it to say, Julio was on everybody’s radar from day 1.

After the 2008 season, Julio was ranked third in the organization, behind some dudes named Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward. After 2009, 2010, and 2011, he ranked as the Braves’ top prospect.

That’s hot stuff. But, it’s helpful to remember that he was also touted heavily in the baseball world overall; he ranked as the number five overall prospect among MLB systems after the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Yep. As a rule, the taste makers were sky high on some Julio.

This recap comes as no surprise to many readers. It is likely a source of frustration and distrust towards Teheran for many. When a player is the next big thing for that long, it’s tough for expectations to come to full fruition. After all, how much in life truly lives up to our hopeful lusting?

Bump in the Road

Photo credit: Gwinnett Braves 2011Julio Teheran Gwinnett Braves 2011.

Julio Teheran for the Gwinnett Braves, circa 2011. Credit unknown. 

Frank Wren and company decided Teheran needed some mechanical tweaking ahead of the 2012 campaign, as some Braves fans will remember. The stated intent was to improve his command and reduce what the Braves perceived as injury risks posed by the pitcher’s delivery. The results were disastrous, if minor league performances can be categorized as such. His strikeouts dipped, his home runs sky rocketed, and his overall results followed suit. 2012 saw Teheran’s prospect stock drop from #5 overall in MLB to #44. Frank Wren and his brethren decided to let Julio assume his former delivery after the experiment.

The electric Columbian joined the rotation full time in 2013, and rewarded his club’s decision with a great year on the hill, posting a 3.20 ERA. It was a solid 185.2 innings, and it was followed up with an even better 221-inning effort in 2014. Julio triumphed to a sparkling 2.89 ERA that year. The righty was worth 2.5 and 3.2 fWAR in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Given his large sample size habit of outperforming his FIP, it’s fair to conclude that those WAR figures undersell his value a bit (as Fangraphs calculates pitcher WAR with FIP).

Julio figured into the front end of two fine Braves rotations in 2013 and 2014. Atlanta’s starters ranked 5th best during that two year span in terms of ERA (3.46), 6th best in terms of FIP (3.59), and 8th best in terms of starting pitcher fWAR (25.9).

Let’s stand and observe a moment of silence for the good ole days of recent memory, as far as Atlanta Braves starting pitching goes. Good. Please be seated. 

Needless to say, Julio was a bona fide top flight prospect for a long time and from a young age. His numbers backed it all up as he crept through the system, eliciting drool from Braves faithful that were tuned in. He had a set back that seems straight away attributable to foolish tinkering by his organization (they didn’t try that noise with Alex Wood a few years later), and then burst onto the scene with two above average to great seasons of work.

Where are we now?

Here we’ve arrive at the crux of these digital scribbles. I’ll be the first to express that it feels like Teheran is somehow wavering in the wind between two labels: top of the rotation starter and another in a long line of top pitching prospect let downs. Objectively though, the more pessimistic of the two conclusions is based on one poor season and the memory of his brief struggles as he was on the cusp of the big leagues.

It’s news to no one that Teheran was quite bad in 2015. Not just disappointing for a guy we handed the ball to on Opening Day. Julio was lousy in general. His ERA of 4.04 ranked 55th best out of 78 qualifying pitchers. His BABIP was identical to his 2013 rate, so we can’t dismiss his poor results by profoundly mumbling “bad luck” – as much as we’d like to.

Of course, there’s more to discuss when describing Teheran’s 2015. He was maddeningly different at home and on the road. If you take only his home starts, Teheran sported the 12th best ERA among qualified starters in the bigs, taking his tea directly between Max Scherzer and Madison Bumgardner with a sparkling mark of 2.89. Pretty good company. Take only his road numbers, however, and he was dead last in both ERA and FIP.

The prudent thing to do is probably just not make too much of these splits, as Grade-A-Befuddling as they are, and just look at 2015 for what it was: a troubling season on the heels of two encouraging ones. Maybe Julio become temporarily afraid of airplanes and strangers, or some such thing.

Still, his Jekyll and Hyde 2015 does afford us the ability to isolate a sample of peak Julio and landfill Julio. If we can identify a canary in the coal mine to characterize the failures of his road starts in 2015, then we may be able to draw some conclusions about what makes Good Julio tick, and Bad Julio, well, hang dormant on the wall or whatever.

Julio 1julio 2

Some key numbers that jump off the page when looking at the home/away splits from 2015 are the K%, BB%, OBP, and HR/9 (% of fly balls that are home runs). The data here and below are directly from Fangraphs.

Bad (road) Julio struck out 5.6% fewer batters, walked 1.7% more batters, allowed an OBP nearly 100 points higher, and surrendered slightly more than 1 full HR more per 9 innings. That last one is pretty amazing. Pitchers don’t succumb to home runs that often. That Bad Julio was tagged for long balls that much more frequently than Good (home) Julio is already quite explanatory. When you couple that with Bad Julio’s higher rates of allowing base runners, you can see how his ERA ballooned.

The HR/9 rate seems to be the main driver here, so lets dig in and see what we find.

julio 3

GB: Ground Ball; FB: Fly Ball; LD: Line Drive; IFFB: Infield Fly Ball

On the road, balls put in play against Teheran were fly balls 3.1% more often than during his starts at home. That doesn’t account for the huge difference in home runs, though. It’s the home run per fly ball rate, on the right in the graphic directly above, that tells the story. A WHOPPING 16.7% of Bad Julio’s fly balls left the yard. Teheran gives up a high rate of fly balls, so he’s in big trouble when they start flying out of the yard more often. For context, only 6 pitchers surrendered homers on more than 15% of their fly balls in 2015. If we remove the two pitchers from that short list whose FB% (percentage of balls in play that are fly balls) is lower than 30%, these are the ERA results: 3.91, 4.28, 4.67, and 4.73.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves

Apr 9, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves shortstop Erick Aybar (1) talks with starting pitcher Julio Teheran (49) on the mound during the game against the St. Louis Cardinals during the second inning at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Simply put, Teheran can’t be Good Julio when his HR/FB rate is high. Especially when he is concurrently allowing a higher rate of batters to reach base.

It’s not really compelling to discover that inflated HR and OBP rates lead to worse pitching outcomes, even coupled with the knowledge that such trends are particularly damaging for fly ball pitchers. What we’d really like to know is why Julio surrendered homers and base runners at his highest rates in 2015.

As I was gathering information for this article, I noticed that the writers at Beyond the Box Score have done some interesting analysis about Teheran in the last two years, complete with great graphics that I’m not including here for sake of space. It’s a great site full of great writers; you should check ’em out. I’ll summarize their conclusions and link to their work, and add some insight from my own observations before finishing up.

  • Murphy Powell demonstrated that Teheran threw pitches up in the zone far less frequently during the first half of 2015, and that this may have led to his reduction in fly ball rates and strike out rates, and an increase in BABIP via higher line drive rates.
  • Kevin Ruprecht found that despite an overall trend of pitching down in the zone more often, Julio kept using his four seam fastball up in the zone as he had in the past. He used this pitch more often in the second half than in the first, which which Ruprecht reasons may have led to much improved HR rates and K rates later in the season.
  • Lastly, Shawn Brody dissected Teheran’s struggles against lefties in 2015, including some interesting analysis of Julio’s move to the opposite side of the rubber in August of that season.

Those three pieces together serve as an excellent analysis of Julio’s down year in 2015. I think that I have something to offer that they are leaving out, though.

Swing Rates on Pitches Outside of the Strike Zone

I’ve already mentioned that Julio walked more batters, struck out fewer, and surrendered a noticeably higher rate of HR per fly ball in 2015, relative to his work during 2013 and 2014. The fellas from BTBS above hit on some interesting factors that may have led to this. But check this out.

The gif below shows swing rates against Teheran’s pitches by zone. There are two ‘slides.’ One shows the rates during his good work during 2013 and 2014, and the other during his poorer work in 2015 (dates are on the top). The ‘hotter/redder’ the zone, the higher the swing rate in that zone, and the ‘colder/bluer’ the zone, the lower the rate. This view is from the catchers perspective, and the 3X3 zone in the middle represents the strike zone.

Atlanta Braves Julio Teheran Swing Rates

These heat maps are courtesy of Brooks Baseball, which is awesome.

Look at the drastic difference in swing rates outside of the zone in the two heat maps. It’s very plain to see: batters offered at pitches that they had a low chance of success against (balls) far more in Teheran’s first two seasons as a full time starter in Atlanta. In 2015, that trend came to an abrupt halt.

It’s clear that it’s to a hitter’s advantage to lay off balls outside the zone. Pitchers will have a tougher time striking you out if you don’t chase, and you will earn more walks this way, as well. Further, if you make contact on pitches outside the zone less, you will naturally get yourself out via weak contact less.

Julio Teheran built his early career success on better than average strike out and walk rates, and by limiting fly ball distance very effectively. He went from above league average in those areas in 2013 and 2014 to below league average in 2015, a season during which hitters also stopped making contact with pitches outside of the zone so much. That does seem pretty compelling.

But why would this happen?

Scouting Reports: it’s very possible that teams wised up. If fans and bloggers can access a pitcher’s habits, just imagine what the data analysts employed by MLB teams have at their disposal. Perhaps the book is out on Teheran’s tendency to pitch out of the zone to get punch outs and weak contact, and the league has adjusted. So far in 2016, it appears batters are chasing a bit more than in 2015, but still less than the previous two seasons.

Command: not all balls are created equal; batters will chase a fastball 3 inches above the zone much more often than a pitch up in the eyes. The same of course goes for anywhere in the zone. An overall decline in ability to throw pitches in an area where batters are likely to chase could have fueled this.

Pitch Sequencing: batters are more likely to chase when they have been set up by the pitch sequencing decided upon by the catcher and the pitcher. During 2015, Teheran threw to a new group of catchers in A.J. Pierzynski, Ryan Lavarnway and Christian Bethancourt. Perhaps these two did a worse job calling the game, and batters reaped the benefits.

It’s difficult to pin point what may have led to the reduced swing rates outside the zone in 2015, but it’s pretty clear that the trend contributed to undesirable outcomes for Teheran.

Looking into the Crystal Ball

2015 was a troubling result for Julio and the Braves. However, we can find some optimism in that he finished the year with positive results during the last two months, and that his numbers are trending in the right direction in 2016 so far. Indeed, his current strike out rate matches his best career mark from 2013, his average length on fly balls is back to a respectable level after sky rocketing to over 300ft in 2015, and his HR/FB rate is back down to just below league average. The walks continue to happen more often than during 2013 and 2014, but they are slightly improved against last season thus far.

That last sentence encapsulates where I think Julio Teheran is right now. He’s better than last year, but not flashing 2014 results, either.

Given his career so far, his start in 2016 should make us feel pretty confident that he is better than the pitcher we saw last season. And it’s not even like he was that bad last year. That being said, there are other trends that should make us skeptical that Julio will consistently dominate the league like we witnessed in his first two seasons as a part of the Atlanta rotation.

Time will tell, as Teheran and the league adjust back and forth to one another in the cat-and-mouse typical of the sport at its highest level. He has good stuff, but as 2015 showed us, he’ll need more than that if he is to regain his early career form and stay at the top of what may be a very good Braves rotation in the future.

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Baseball Is Already Exciting, and Tweaking it Won’t Fool Anyone, Anyway.

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Baseball is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. As it turns out though, there is a lot more to wring our hands over than the puny 162 game schedule would suggest. Just ask the internet.

Exhibit A

For several years now, establishment experts, lauded saber-types, tastemakers, and top brass alike have been lamenting what they see as a dangerous metamorphosis in baseball. In their eyes, the game is losing its jazziness, becoming more boring. The purported risk of this is appealing to fewer young fans and risking the health of the enterprise.

It’s true that age demographics are shifting in baseball, and it’s not something that should be under-appreciated. It’s also true that baseball, as a business, is doing better than ever and is trending upward. So, baseball is healthy, but young people are opting out as a trend. What is the appropriate response to this?

ugly jersey

I used to be more of a fixed-gear bike polo guy, but have you seen that drop in MLB strike out rates lately??? photo via Obsev.com

Generally speaking, writers and representatives of the game have coalesced around the idea that baseball needs more scoring. Increase scoring by a run or two per game, the thinking goes, and the kids will be jitter-bugging their way back to the Polo Grounds in droves. Increase balls in play by, say 10%, and all those extra ground outs, pop ups, and occasional hits will spur adolescents into the streets, fist-bumping in alternate camo jerseys and god knows what other young-person-stuff.

It should be noted here, before I dive on in, that I generally enjoy a game with fewer strike outs, though the occasional display of rabid pitching dominance is certainly not outside of my realm of appreciation. Likewise, I want to go on record as being fully in favor of the current efforts, successful so far, to speed up the game. I harbor this view despite being personally grateful for every second of escapism that baseball affords me. It’s just that I’ve noticed that some other folks actually have other responsibilities and pastimes that they engage in. Go figure.

But dissent is at the heart of these words, because this scoring and strike out rate stuff is of a different ilk than pace of play effots. My position is probably clear by now, but here it is stated plainly: no modest increase in the runs scored in baseball, even those that come via the home run, nor modest increase in balls put in play due to reduced strike outs, nor any other minor tweak, will change how young people or any people perceive the game. Not one iota. 

Here, many writers who are reading this piece (if I’m fortunate) are probably quibbling with my characterization of their proposals, some of which I’ll outline below, as minor tweaks. In a way, I fully agree. A 10% reduction in strike outs and a one to two run increase in scoring per 9 is certainly significant… statistically and historically. Heck, you can even make well reasoned inferences that such changes would alter roster construction and offensive approach in the near term. It’s not that anyone is wrong in venturing that the game can be tweaked to increase offense. It almost certainly can. The problem here amounts to missing the forest for the trees. 

A thought experiment, if you will

Let’s place a hypothetical baseball neophyte in front of a television. Not forcibly or anything! We’ll show the newb 2 different games and observe the responses.

Game 1: The game ends in a 5-3 win for… Average Like-ability Team 1 over Average Like-ability Team 2. There was a home run in the game that scored the go ahead run in the 8th inning. There were 16 combined strike outs in the game. The game lasted 3 hours.

Result: the viewer expressed a preference to watch basketball instead.

Game 2: the game ends 7-5. Two home runs were hit, both in the first 4 innings by the winning team. There were 10 total strike outs in the game. One more difficult defensive play was converted, and two more hits were recorded in Game 2 than in Game 1. One of those extra hits were a double. The game lasted 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Result: [insert your inference here]

David Ortiz angry

David Ortiz represents the type of player whose value has taken the deepest dive due to defensive shifts. He also represents the type of hitter most responsible for the rising strike out numbers in MLB. Must we save his brethren? Photo credit: Jim Rogash/Getty Images

What do you think, dear reader? Has game 2 made a dent in the viewer’s resistance to obsessing over our wonderful game? Let me attempt to predict and paraphrase what will be the most common response here: “it depends; there is much more to a baseball game than those numbers. Game 1 actually sounded more exciting because of the late lead change, but I need more information.”

I don’t believe that readers would feel comfortable making the claim that the watchability advantages of Game 2 would convert many non-fans into baseball disciples. Both games look essentially the same. They both look like baseball games.

The quantitative improvements that are being sought via proposed tweaks to the game don’t get at what makes Baseball lovable and exciting. 

Even if you push back on my bolded claim, despite it having been bolded, making it very unlikely to be false, let me add one last wrinkle to my argument. The increases in watchability from Game 1 to Game 2 intentionally represent a shift from the current style and state of the game, to what could be called a full, optimal realization of a battery of fun-ifying proposals for which you can find ready support in the blogosphere and beyond. I’ll list a few:

  1. Move the mound back 6 inches.
  2. Drop the height of the mound.
  3. Juice the ball.
  4. Outlaw ‘violent’ defensive shifts (not my words, even!).
  5. Shorten the game in general.

Don’t take my word for it…

The distance between the mound and the plate has been tinkered with twice since the late 1800’s. When it was moved back 5 feet in 1881, scoring stayed essentially unchanged. When it was moved back an additional 5 feet to it’s modern position, scoring initially rose, but after a few years then fell back to well below previous levels as pitchers adjusted to the distance.

In 1969, MLB lowered the mound 10 inches after “The Year of the Pitcher” in 1968. When you compare the 10 seasons before the height reduction to the ensuing 10 seasons, run scoring did rise… by a mere 0.025 runs per game after the adjustment towards seas level.

In 1911, the livelier baseball was introduced to the game (despite the end of the Dead Ball Era being generally agreed upon as 1919). If you take the 10 seasons before the ‘juiced ball’ was introduced and compare them to the 20 following, you see a rise of 0.5165 runs per game. Just in case you think I’m cherry picking here, I chose those time increments so that I could find any effect at all that could be reasonably attributed to the ball change.

(For the above three paragraphs, I used data from this Baseball Reference page and some insight from this excellent piece by Steve Treder for The Hardball Times on historical strike out rates.)

Defensive shifts are shiny and new, so we can only look at the tentative effects that they have on the offensive environment of the game. Employing the shift is definitely on the rise. The main effects of defensive shifts should be found in how many batted balls are converted into hits. Luckily, BABIP gives us a quick way to probe for this effect. In 2010, there were 2,464 defensive shifts. In 2014, there were 13,296 (source: Bill James Online). During that span, BABIP remained at it’s typical levels (source: Fangraphs). Still, according to the Baseball Info Solutions metric Shift Runs Saved (SRS), 2014 saw an estimated 195 runs saved due to modern shifts on the infield. Put that feather in your cap, but do so knowing this: 19,761 runs were scored in 2014, which is about 0.98% lower than the 19956 total that SRS estimates would have been scored sans shifts. Teams scored 4.07 runs per game in 2014. Without shifts, then, SRS estimates that they would have made it home 4.11 times per contest, instead. That’s a difference of 0.04 runs per game.

Lastly, the 2015 time-shaving policies instituted last season led to games that were 6 minutes shorter on average over the course of the year relative to recent seasons. New measures added this season should modestly increase that trend. Other proposals, such as a strictly enforced 20 second limit between pitches, have been floated. You could expect such policies to trim a few minutes more off of the average game if enacted.

Now that I’ve treated these tweaks commonly proposed to the game, let’s return to the differences between Game 1 and Game 2 from above.

4 more total runs scored per game: If we lower the mound and move the rubber farther from the batter, and we increase the liveliness of the ball, an estimated increase of 2 runs scored per game, per team, is still quite liberal.

6 fewer total strike outs / 6 more balls in play and 2 more total hits: After lowering the mound in 1969 and instituting the American League designated hitter in 1973, strike out rates were modestly reduced. From the highest rate of the era in 1967, then 5.99 per team, K’s dropped on average by 0.81 per team during the period between 1968 and 1982. Then they began to rise again. Let’s allow that changes to the mound (and a slimming of the strike zone if you wish, which isn’t discussed at length in this article, but has had similarly modest effects in the past) reduce the current K/9inn rate by 3 full strike outs, or 6 total per game. If we then apply the typical .300 BABIP, which as discussed above has ‘survived’ defensive shifts so far, then we could expect about 2 extra hits per game from those balls in play. You could argue that 3 hits may be a fairer number, but if you do, remember that the K/9inn reduction that I’m using is statistically huge.

One double, one home run, one stand-out play: These are all just arbitrary additions to make Game 2 look better. I won’t belabor the numbers behind this hypothetical, but presenting all three of these outcomes as being a result of the added balls in play and hits that I’ve discussed seems a fully generous assumption.

20 minutes of game time: This is perhaps the most moderate, and most realistic assumption that I’ve built in. Given what has transpired so far with pace of play rules, molding the game into an affair that is 20 minutes shorter than it’s pre-2015 self is reachable. It would still be quite a feat, but it’s the most plausible of the effects that I’ve laid out in this section.

The Upshot

Even if ALL OF THESE THINGS HAPPENED AT ONCE, the contrast of the viewing experience before and after the changes would amount to very little to the uninitiated. Game 2 isn’t going to make more life-long fans out of young people than Game 1. Current societal views towards the game aren’t going to evolve because of the unveiling of a style of play more resembling Game 2, either.

So why all the hubbub?

Wizards v/s Thunder 03/14/11

photo credit: Keith Allison on Flickr

I think we’ve let ourselves become slightly misguided by our penchant for analytics, our desire to think progressively about the game, and by the media echo chamber that we as writers reside in, so to speak.

Seems to me that we’d be better served by forward thinking research and proposals concerning the impacts of potentially exclusionary costs of youth baseball in the U.S., and concerning the causes of the dwindling participation of young, black Americans in the game.

Baseball is baseball, and I humbly submit that it is exciting enough already. Those that disagree won’t be persuaded otherwise by tweaks such as those discussed here. If encouraging changes to the demographics of the fan base are to be realized, MLB will have to dig deeper.

What can we do to help?

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Featured Image credit: PATRICK SEMANSKY/ASSOCIATED PRESS