Jacob deGrom’s changeup not working as well as in 2018

Jacob deGrom, in his first pitch to a batter, should not throw a changeup.

So far in 2019, seven times Jacob deGrom has thrown a changeup as the first pitch. Six of those times the batter got a hit (.857 average). All the hits were singles. Statcast Search

In contrast, in 2018 deGrom threw only 12 first-pitch changeups. Two resulted in hits. Both were singles for a .167 average. Statcast Search

This season, when any Mets pitcher have thrown an off-speed pitch as the first one, they fared much worse than the League average, opposing batters hitting .350 against them. Statcast Search

The problem is not just the Mets’. When any MLB pitcher started a pitch count with an off-speed pitch, opponents have hit .301 (188 for 625). Statcast Search

Jacob deGrom’s problems are not just with first-pitch changeups. This year, he has thrown a changeup as the last pitch 37 times. Eleven of them resulted in hits for a .297 opponents’ batting average. His problems with his changeup are surprising given that in 2018 deGrom was said to have the fourth-best changeup in Major League Baseball.

As a team, the Mets rank eighth-worst, 18 points above the League average, with opponents hitting their last-pitch, off-speed pitches at a .240 pace (93 for 387). Statcast Search Tampa Bay has the best team average, .167, more than a hundred points lower than the Mets.

League-wide, when an off-speed pitch is thrown as the last pitch, opponents are hitting .222 (1831 for 8258). Statcast Search

The Mets starter for whom an off-speed pitch has been the best out-pitch is Noah Syndergaard. Of the 67 he threw — all changeups — that ended an at-bat, only 12 resulted in a base hit, for an opponents’ batting average of .179. Statcast Search

Links to the Statcast Search pages are provided for those interested in seeing how the searches were done.

Mets pitchers faltering with first pitch

If one of the secrets to pitching success is to get off to a good start with each batter faced then the Mets’ pitchers seem to have forgotten it.

While this season the League’s first-pitch batting average against pitchers is .348 (2420 for 6952), opposing batters are hitting .391 (99 for 253) against the Mets’ first pitches.

Statcast Search results | baseballsavant.com

That is the third-highest in MLB, 43 points higher than the league average. Joining the Mets in the top six are the Pirates, Orioles, Marlins, and Reds. All have losing records.

Tops among the Mets starters is Jacob deGrom. Against him, opponents’ first-pitch batting average is .424 (14 for 33).

Statcast Search results | baseballsavant.com

In 2018, opponents batted .378 against him on first pitches, still quite high, but 46 points fewer than this season.

As the Mets’ playoff probability declines — it is now 17.5% — they might want to investigate why opposing batters are hitting a Ted Williams-like average against their starters.

Dodgers hammer Diaz despite his “excellent pitches”

During yesterday’s ninth inning loss, the Mets’ closer, Edwin Diaz, pitched batting practice for the Dodgers. As a result, his ERA in away games jumped to 4.50. At home, it is 2.19.

When he entered the game in the bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers had a 3.4% chance of winning, according to FanGraphs. Then, seven batters and one out later, the Dodgers won the game 9-8.

The graphic below shows how the game’s Win Expectancy shifted in the bottom of the ninth.

Source: FanGraphs

Five of the seven batters that Diaz faced had batted balls: two homers, two doubles, an intentional walk, a single, and a sacrifice fly. The chart below shows the pitch location of five of the six batted balls. (Justin Turner’s double is shown. Cody Bellinger’s is not.)

Source: Baseball Savant

Here are Diaz’s pitches the Dodgers hit (data from Baseball Savant):
– Home run: Slider (Pederson)
– Home run: Four-seam fastball (Muncy)
– Double: Slider (Turner)
– Double: Four-seam fastball (Bellinger)
– Single: Two-seam fastball (Beaty)
– Sacrifice fly: Slider

Diaz threw 30 pitches, but only four- and two-seam fastballs and sliders. Three of the nine sliders were batted balls, but only three of the 21 fastballs were. Further, while 11 fastballs were fouled off only one slider was. But the average exit velocity of the fastballs was 100.1 mph, four mph faster than for the sliders.

Only 43.3% of the pitchers were in the zone; however, the Dodgers swung at 84.6% of them, showing excellent plate discipline: They made contact with 81.8 % of them.

Source: Baseball Savant

The next chart, a spray chart shows how spread out the Dodgers’ batted balls were.

Source: Baseball Savant

After the game, Diaz said,

“Today was easily the worst day of my career, the worst game of my career, the worst game of the season for me,” Diaz said through an interpreter. “I thought I threw excellent pitches.”

Anthony DiComo — Edwin Diaz blows save against Dodgers | New York Mets

What makes yesterday’s outing particularly surprising is that, after it, left-handed hitters are batting .188/.250/.531 against Diaz; whereas, right-handed batters are hitting .286/.344/.429. Six of the seven Dodger batters that Diaz faced were left-handed.

As, if not more, surprising is that in away games, batters are now hitting .310 against him versus only .196 in home games.

Yesterday, while Diaz was on the mound, Wilson Ramos was behind the plate.

The New Knuckleball

This season, not one knuckleball has been thrown.

In 2018, only one pitcher threw it — Steven Wright. His nickname is “Knucksie.” He threw 824 pitches. Of them, 719 or 87.3% were knuckleballs. This season, he has yet to play because of an 80-game suspension.

In 2017, three pitchers threw them: R. A. Dickey, Steven Wright, and Erick Aybar, with Dickey throwing the most — 2,333.

In an article on NPR’s website, physicist Alan Nathan describes how a knuckleball is thrown.

The ball has to be gripped with two (carefully manicured) fingernails and sort of pushed toward the plate. The object is to put just a little spin on it and let it be nudged around as air flows over the ball’s stitches and any little scrapes or abrasions on the leather.

The article also contains an image of “the knuckleball grip used by Boston Red Sox pitcher Steven Wright.”

Hoyt Wilhelm 1959 (Wikimedia)

Though the knuckleball has brought renown to Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm and others, it’s almost extinct today in the major leagues, replaced by the knuckle curve, an offshoot of the knuckleball. Wilhelm threw his first pitch in Major League Baseball on April 18, 1952 when he was 28 years old, his career lasting until July 21, 1972.

Dan Rozenson, in a Baseball Prospectus article, describes how a knuckle curve is gripped and includes this image.

In a Sports Illustrated article, Gerrit Cole’s knuckle curveball is described as “filthy.” Watch it in action:

This season, as of May 15, 51 pitchers have thrown at least one knuckle curve though eight have thrown just one. Among the pitchers who throw it are Zach Godley, Aaron Nola, and Drew Pomeranz. In 2019, all three have already thrown more than 200 with Godley throwing the most: 48.2% of all the pitches that he has thrown have been knuckle curves, which is the most in MLB: Statcast Search | baseballsavant.com. Of his 341 knuckle curves — out of 708 pitches, batters got 18 hits (5.3%), the lowest percent of the top three, Statcast Search | baseballsavant.com. With his other 367 pitches, batters got 26 hits (7.1%), so he has been somewhat more effective when throwing the knuckle curve.

Last season’s knuckle curve leader, Lance McCullers Jr. (982, 46.6%), has yet to play in 2019 because of Tommy John surgery.

Though to some it seems like a hard pitch to hit, in 2019 batters are hitting .234 (191 for 817) off knuckle curves — Statcast Search | baseballsavant.com — but only .213 (2474 for 11603) against the other breaking pitches (slider, curveball, knuckleball, Eephus) and .217 (1221 for 5616) against off-speed pitches. On the plus side, the league average against fastballs is .266 (6266 for 23533).

Godley’s focus on the knuckle curve has not seemed to benefit him. His 2019 ERA is 7.65 (highest in his career) in 37.2 innings though his fielders must assume some responsibility as his FIP is 5.66, almost two points fewer, and his Contact Percentage is 75.3%, the highest in his career, according to FanGraphs.

Three teams have thrown only one knuckle curve this season: Pirates, Rays, and Braves. Together, they have thrown 18,302 pitches. The Diamondbacks have thrown the most knuckle curves: 526.