Finishing Off Hitters

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - MAY 28: Pitcher Matt Moore #55 of the Tampa Bay Rays starts against the Chicago White Sox May 28, 2012 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Two strike struggles have come up from time to time with Rays pitchers. It first came up with Scott Kazmir who would struggle with high pitch counts as he was seemingly unable to put batters away but the numbers don't show that same story. It was not until Kazmir's last season with the Rays that he became below league average in two-strike counts against batters. From 2005 to 2008, his sOPS+ in those counts was 84, 85,69, and 82 but 2009 saw that metric spike up to 114 and it never recovered.

More recently, the same issue was noticed with Wade Davis. He was called up in 2009 and had no issue at all putting guys away with a 32 sOPS+ and a .356 OPS in two-strike counts. In 2010 and 2011, he was 16 and 23 percent below league average as that OPS jumped up to .569 and then .579. The move to the bullpen has put Davis back on the right track so far as opponents have just a .377 OPS against him in two-strike counts which gives Davis a 48 sOPS+ this season.

How are the healthy starting pitchers doing so far in 2012? It is a mixed bag of results.

James Shields is the most experienced pitcher on the staff, David Price is entering his fourth season as a starting pitcher, while Jeremy Hellickson is handing the training wheels over to Matt Moore as the new kid on the block. With such a mix of experience in the rotation, you would expect different results in situations. The table below shows how each pitcher has done in two-strike counts to date in 2012.

Rk G PA BB SO SO/BB BA OBP SLG BAbip sOPS+
1 James Shields 11 167 15 74 4.93 .160 .241 .287 .278 105
2 David Price 10 153 8 57 7.13 .176 .229 .225 .282 77
3 Matt Moore 10 138 14 58 4.14 .195 .283 .350 .317 145
4 Jeremy Hellickson 10 132 14 41 2.93 .205 .290 .350 .268 148
Team Total 51 1049 87 412 4.74 .168 .243 .266 .267 98
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/31/2012.

The experienced pitchers are doing well against the league average so far this season. Shields is slightly below league average in two-strike counts while Price is well ahead of the league average. In his career, Shields has only been below league average in two-strike counts three times: his rookie season of 2006, his disastrous 2010 season, and this season. Last season, his sOPS+ was 62.

It should come as no surprise to see Price pacing the team this season as he has been better than league average in two-strike counts his entire career. Last season was his only season in which opponents had an OPS over .500 against him in such counts and opponents were at just .501 last season.

The two youngsters are not fairing as well this season. Hellickson had no such troubles last season as he limited opposing hitters to a .437 OPS in two-strike counts and had a 68 sOPS+ in those situations last season. This season, he has struggled even more than Moore in that regard.

The sortable table below shows each pitcher's pitch mixture as well as the results of those pitches in two-strike counts this season:

Pitcher Pitch Count Freq Ball Call Str Swings Fouls Whiffs BIP
Moore 4-seam 153 51% 36% 5% 59% 25% 16% 18%
Moore 2-seam 43 14% 40% 2% 58% 26% 9% 23%
Moore Curveball 48 16% 44% 4% 52% 31% 4% 17%
Moore Changeup 58 19% 29% 2% 69% 19% 17% 33%
Hellickson 4-seam 131 49% 38% 5% 56% 24% 6% 25%
Hellickson 2-seam 12 4% 25% 0% 75% 25% 0% 50%
Hellickson Cutter 17 6% 47% 6% 47% 24% 6% 18%
Hellickson Curveball 36 13% 56% 3% 42% 11% 11% 19%
Hellickson Changeup 71 27% 38% 0% 62% 15% 18% 28%
Shields 4-seam 53 15% 36% 6% 58% 32% 9% 17%
Shields 2-seam 6 2% 33% 0% 67% 33% 0% 33%
Shields Cutter 99 28% 44% 14% 42% 19% 9% 13%
Shields Curveball 32 9% 38% 6% 56% 22% 13% 22%
Shields Changeup 160 46% 33% 0% 66% 24% 18% 24%
Price 4-seam 52 17% 23% 4% 73% 37% 10% 27%
Price 2-seam 119 39% 38% 11% 50% 21% 7% 22%
Price Cutter 82 27% 33% 9% 59% 26% 10% 23%
Price Curveball 18 6% 56% 0% 44% 0% 28% 17%
Price Changeup 33 11% 27% 0% 73% 18% 12% 42%

In terms of pitch frequency, both youngsters are using their 4-seam fastballs approximately 50 percent of the time while Shields is using his moneymaking change-up 46 percent of the time and Price is featuring his 2-seam fastball 39 percent of the time. The fact that Moore and Hellickson are throwing so many 4-seam fastballs in two-strike counts shows how often they are pitching from behind in the count.

Hellickson has had 20 more plate appearances this season where he has been behind in the count than he has been ahead of the count. The league has a 1.106 OPS against Hellickson when they are up in the count, which is 26 percent worse than the league average. When Hellickson is ahead in the count, the league has a.438 OPS. Moore has had nearly the same amount of plate appearances ahead in the count than he has behind in the count, but his OPS splits are even more drastic. Opposing hitters have a 1.207 OPS against him when up in the count with just a .393 when behind in the count. That is a sOPS+ split of 149 to 55. Despite those struggles, Hellickson has still been able to win four games and defy FIP woes while Moore has actually pitched right to his FIP.

In terms of balls in play, Hellickson's pitching approach shows up in the table as three of his offerings are most frequently put into play by the opposition while the other two are some of the toughest to put into play. It is encouraging to see the secondary offerings of Price and Shields to be the two toughest pitches to put in play with two strikes while Moore holds the fourth and sixth lowest BIP% on the chart. It may come as a surprise to see that the changeup whiff rates for the starters are nearly identical except for Price's but more surprising is how effective Price's breaking ball has been this season in two-strike counts when he has used it.

This animated gif shows the pitch plots of each pitcher in two-strike counts so far this season:

2strike1_medium

When compared to the other starters, Moore's issues are rather obvious as he has thrown several pitches well out of the zone both high and wide, pitches that batters are unlikely to offer at. Shields and Hellickson have rather similar plots in that they both love going to their offspeed in two-strike counts and like to back-door their cutters. Price's plot is a thing of beauty as he has worked the corners all season, particularly in on the righties and away on the lefties.

The veterans need to keep doing what they are doing, while the kids each have a different task at hand. Hellickson would be best served working to get ahead in counts where batters have to expand the zone against his off-speed pitch while Moore needs to be more efficient while working on his sequencing and staying ahead of batters.Both of these pitchers did this their last time out against potent laundered lineups so hopefully those starts were signs of things to come as the team needs effective starting pitching now more than ever while key cogs in the offense are still on the mend.

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