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The Rangers’ “Lucroy Era”

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Jonathan Lucroy has help define a new plan of attack for the Ranger’s battery.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Texas Rangers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Hi all my name is Blake and I am a new contributor here at Lone Star Ball. I’ve recently took up my obsession with the Rangers to the keyboard and began a personal blog and contributed a Fanpost on Rougned Odor’s potential for 2017 and beyond. I look forward to contributing articles that this viewer base looks forward to reading. Thank you!

The New Guy

On August 1st, 2016, Jonathan Lucroy became a Texas Ranger claiming the primary role from Robinson Chirinos, Bobby Wilson and Bryan Holaday. Chirinos obviously remained a Ranger but now as a backup to Lucroy. The Rangers became a better team that day, but Lucroy and the pitching staff faced a challenge that Lucroy and even the local Fox Southwest broadcast team pointed out soon after his arrival. That is the rapport, working relationship, and trust between Lucroy and his staff.

The idea for this article first evolved around Martin Perez. I believe he is currently mid-breakout and I see Lucroy has instilled confidence in his breaking pitches and his change-up. That has been a huge weapon for Perez during the second half. I find his season splits and I notice his walks have dropped, his HR allowed have dropped, FIP has dropped, K% has increased, hard hit % decreased, and popup % increased. But his ERA, BABIP, LOB%, Hits allowed, and infield hit% have increased. The 1.6% increase in infield hits accounts for a very small part of the .021 point increase in BABIP (about .006 points) and some of that I’m sure correlates to a decrease of 3.6% in hard hit contact. I expand my search and instead of looking at season half splits. I look at pre-Lucroy and post-Lucroy splits and I include Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels & A.J. Griffin. I’ll also discuss Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and smaller contributors to the rotation that contrast the pre/post-Lucroy narrative.

The Post-Luc dates do include all dates past 8/1/2016 and Chirinos did get 15 game starts in this time frame. Four times for Perez, three times for Griffin, three times for Lewis, twice for Harrell & Holland, and once for Darvish. I’ve extracted the numbers of those games that Chirinos caught for Perez, Griffin & Darvish.

Lucroy, forced to learn his staff on the fly, made a great decision to highlight Perez’s change-up and breaking balls more often, while a less fruitful decision to call for more A.J. Griffin meatballs than breaking balls. Darvish and Hamels, for the most part, had Lucroy as their primary catcher until season’s end. We saw an uptick in call for Darvish fastballs opposed to breaking balls. However, this could be relative to neck & shoulder tightness he experienced after debuting the season. Lucroy also saw to highlight Hamels’s change-up as well calling for it 4% more often than previously. However, in most all cases, in terms of ERA, FIP, and BAA, performance dropped once Lucroy arrived.

I recognize that the same plan of attack is not used for every single game by each pitcher. Sometimes you make a team look silly each at bat by knee buckling curves and off-speed offerings that at least the thought of that team expecting it next time has to cross your mind. So maybe a change of plans is in order at that point. I’m simply looking at the outcome from a high level, so that it is inclusive of all said “game plans”.

Also, Lucroy’s framing RAA for the Rangers was -1.5, far from the advertised production the front office saw in him with Milwaukee of 5.5 which was good enough to be 16th best in the MLB. Still, the framing game was leaps and bounds better than Chirinos who came in at -9.5. There were only 8 other catchers in all of MLB who had a worst framing RAA than Chirinos in 2016. The more Lucroy works with his staff, the more comfortable the staff and he will become and the better his framing will become.

Lucroy and the staff will need to refine their game plans a bit more and the staff will ultimately need to at some point give in to the plan. There were too many times the staff shook Lucroy off only to give up a hit or worst a home run. Lucroy will have plenty of time to reestablish trust and confidence in the rotation before April. With that said, outcomes should be more successful than not contrasting that of which we saw in August and September/October of last season.


Darvish

Numbers are quite skewed on Darvish as he appeared in only 6 games prior to Lucroy joining the club. Plus there was a very short setback after his debut due to tightness in his neck and shoulder. He threw 512 pitches pre-Lucroy and 1,050 pitches post-Lucroy.

With the installment of Lucroy we saw an uptick in Darvish’s fastballs thrown and fastballs thrown for strikes by a good bit. The alarming trend here are the 5 home runs allowed off his fastball with Lucroy calling. Maybe these were pitches Darvish went to after shaking Lucroy off? Maybe they were just terribly located? Darvish has good success when he hits any of the 4 corners of the zone, but we see here that he left too many over the plate and the results of that on the right:

Darvish threw his most successful out-pitch, his slider, 8% less post-Lucroy. This might have been a sign of him backing off a a pitch that led to his neck/shoulder tightness in the first place. However, his slider was slightly less effective at a 7% lower whiff rate. Instead, his focus drifted to more fastballs. His cut fastball saw good improvement and was his most effective pitch with a 17% whiff rate thrown for a strike 61.8% of the time but only accounted for 8% of his total pitches.

Hopefully, command will improve as he becomes more comfortable. We already saw his spin rate gradually return the second half. If Darvish feels good and confident with his new surgically repaired elbow coming into 2017, he won’t be as hesitant to throw more sliders and should return to a similar effectiveness of what we saw in 2014 and prior.


Hamels

Hamels is another guy who makes his living outside of the zone. But we do see some discrepancies to this standard post-Lucroy in regard to his 2-seam fastball and his cutter. His cutter was his least effective pitch post-Lucroy but his most effective pitch pre-Lucroy.

The pre-Lucroy heat-map looks very nice, as we see Cole for the most part is using his cutter as a weapon to right-handed batters and really burying it in there. Post-Lucroy, Cole lacked confidence to command this pitch. His cutter ended up all over the zone so he went away from throwing it as the season went on. In fact, in the month of September he only threw this pitch a total of 17 times in 5 starts. This affected his effectiveness versus right-handed hitters, and in fact had 10 points higher BAA post-Lucroy. Instead we saw an increase of 2-seam fastballs thrown to right-hand hitters inside, utilizing the upper part of the zone.

Lefties hitting only .068 on his z_Pitch 2-seam fastballs post-Lucroy utilizing the lower inner part of the zone, Hamels took chances against right-handed bats with this pitch inside and up in the zone. Hamels will need to re-establish his cutter control and location to become the effective Hamels that we saw in the first-half of the 2016 season. Otherwise he will be forced to rely on his lesser effective pitches to get right-handed bats out, and we saw how his second-half turned out due to his command with his most effective out pitches.


Perez

Perez was my inspiration for writing this article. He has come a long way and I believe Lucroy really helped Perez discover himself after he arrived. Sure, some of his his post-Lucroy/second-half statistics are not very desirable, mainly his ERA and LOB%. But there is a lot to like in other areas. His walk rate, his hard hit rate, his pop-up rate and more importantly his whiff rate on his change-up and breaking pitches. Perez has been battling injuries to get back to what got him his multi-year contract in 2013 and I believe we are seeing him mid-breakout. The coming season will be a big year for Perez. This season will make fans believers, or non-believers pending his performance. However, I think signs are pointing to a more positive outlook. We have seen his spin-rate on his fastballs since 2013 increase by a rate of about 15%. He also is coming off of a season in which he pitched 198+ innings.

Perez has the platform and stage set, and Lucroy will be able to help mold and define Perez this year to come. We see Lucroy has recognized that Perez has a very good out-pitch in that of his change-up. Perez threw his breaking pitches more often too, and increased his whiff rate as well as allowing only 1 home run off of any three of these pitches post-Lucroy. Hitters hitting only .080 on his z_pitch curve post-Lucroy opposed to .156 pre-Lucroy. What we saw as a decline was arguably his most effective pitch that gave Perez notoriety of setting the Texas Ranger record for gound-ball double plays with 36. His two-seam fastball was in the zone 7% more, saw a decline in whiff rate, and also threw the pitch 9% less than pre-Lucroy.

The two-seam fastball not as effective now in the zone, however more effective out of the zone. It would be easy to just instruct Perez to not throw his two-seam fastball for strikes now but why has he changed his plan of attack when pre-Lucroy his two-seam was effective already? It’s because Lucroy is molding Perez into a strike-out pitcher. On 2 strike counts, no longer do we see Perez throw a 2-seam fastball to induce a ground-ball, but instead we see more change-ups and breaking pitches.

The fault in this approach is that Perez is throwing the 2-seam fastball for a strike almost 16% more often and giving up more 2-strike hits which is supported by the AVG/P graphic above.

Look toward Perez to be a huge factor in this rotation come this season. Lucroy has already evolved Perez into a more effective pitcher and give some credit to Perez for this improvement. We have seen him come quite a ways and has continued to improve and excel in whatever plan of attack is mandated.


Griffin

Griffin leaned more towards his curve post-Lucroy and had better results with it in terms of whiff rate but his fastball was his nemesis even though he posted a higher whiff rate post-Lucroy. I don’t believe the choice in leaning away from his change-up was a good one either. His slider was not as effective and without an off-speed pitch to keep hitter’s attention divided he found that his fastball was not as effective since they would just sit on it.

Griffin also kept his fastball down more post-Lucroy than he did pre-Lucroy, which did not help his M.O. of a fly-ball pitcher. Instead fastballs 88 mph fastballs no longer look like 95 mph + up out of the zone, but much more manageable in the zone or low in the zone for strikes.

Lucroy will need to work with Griffin on his fastball location and work on his change-up a bit more to left-handed hitters in order to keep the ball in the park more often and become more effective overall.


Cashner

We’ve all heard that Cashner has lost velocity over the years. To an extent, that is true since his average velocity on his fastball has dropped over 1 mph since 2015, but his average velocity is about the same as it was in 2014 in a year he had huge success. Not to mention his minimum velocity has not dropped throughout the years. My guess is that since 2014, Cashner suffered from poor command in 2015 and 2016 and decided to really focus on commanding his fastball in 2016 which dropped his average velocity this past season.

Here is one thing I know after evaluating Cashner’s past. The Rangers did an excellent job at scouting Cashner and determining that he is in fact, not damaged goods. Does he need work? Of course, and pitching coach Doug Brocail believes that he can help Cashner get back on track. At first, I was skeptical, but let me show you what I believe the Rangers might have been looking at.

Cashner’s walk rate has increased over the past couple of seasons, that is a fact. He has had issues with his command. Why? Here is the surprise; Cashner’s stuff has actually gotten better. As mentioned above we have seen an increase in spin-rate. Over the past few seasons, we have also seen an increase in movement on his pitches, some more than others. All of his pitches have seen an improvement in this regard.

We’ve seen huge improvements in his slider, curve and change-up. I’m taking a huge leap here and saying that neither Cashner, nor his coaching staff in either San Diego nor Miami saw this. As a result, neither did the necessary work to adjust anything mechanical to compensate for said delta in pitch movement, yielding the ever growing walk rate while Cashner’s stuff actually continues to improve.

I’m Texas and the coaching staff saw that this could easily be corrected via a mechanical adjustment and if that is the case I would seem to agree. With that said, Texas has an excellent coaching staff, and I’m hopeful that they will be able to help Cashner come back around to become a solid MORP for the Rangers in 2017. If this yielding only a marginal increase in performance which resulted in 140+ innings, I’d be happy. Also, having Lucroy as his battery mate shouldn’t hurt either.


Ross

Steamer gives Ross a very generous projection for 2017 at a 3.99 ERA, 113 IP yielding a 1.8 fWAR. If Texas were to get this out of Ross it would be a success. It’s hard to tell how he will feel when he steps back on a mound for his return. I’m sure the going will be slow and Texas will heed caution. The hopeful idea is that he would add to a very dominate 4-man playoff rotation if healthy and performing well if Texas wins the division or wild card. I don’t expect to see 2015 Tyson Ross, nor should anyone else. Regardless, it will be interesting to see how this acquisition panes out.


The Rest...

Chi Chi Gonzalez encountered regression on his stuff in 2016. I’m cautiously hopeful he will bounce back and contribute in some degree to this rotation, just not in 2017.

Nick Martinez also encountered a very similar season, coming off of a good 2015 season similar to Chi Chi, his stuff regressed as well. His fastball was flat, and did not rely on his slider as much as he did in prior seasons. He too will look to bounce back and regain confidence but I don’t see him as a huge contributor to this season.

Mike Hauschild was the rule 5 draft for the Rangers in December of 2016. Mainly taken as insurance to what might have been an unsuccessful offseason, I don’t see him as being a huge contributor this season either. Nonetheless, he be given a chance to compete for a role on the opening day roster. He would have most likely have been a long arm in the bullpen. But due to the signings of Tyson Ross, Tyler Wagner, Dillon Gee, Brady Dragmire & Anthony Bass, I don’t see Hauschild wearing a Ranger uniform on opening day.

Yohander Mendez had a tremendous 2016. He struggled with command at Round Rock prior to being called up in September. I expect Mendez to start at Round Rock as he still has a bit to refine, and we could see him up in September starting a game or in long relief given a huge Ranger lead or deficit in the AL west.