Thursday, October 7, 2010

Livan Hernandez and Cliff Lee: Opposites attract (success)

Photo courtesy of Scott Ableman

Livan Hernandez enjoyed a comeback season for the ages in 2010 when he burst back upon the scene with the Nationals posting the lowest ERA (3.66) and WHIP (1.32) of his career since 2004. Beyond those numbers, Livan also had the fortune of posting a team high in wins (10), innings pitched (211.2) and strikeouts (114). To call 2010 a successful year for Livan would be putting it lightly.

To be frank, even the most ardent Washington Nationals fan had to be surprised to see the old warhorse that is Livo resurrect his career one start at a time.

Dazzling hitters with a BP fastball and a brutally slow curveball, Livan pitched like a man that knew his best years were behind him. What he lacked in terms of raw ability, Livan made up for with about as much guile as someone could possibly acquire through years and years of pitching.

When one takes a longer look at Livan’s stats for 2010, you would find that not much has changed for the 35 year old (allegedly). He still doesn’t generate swings and misses 4.6% (2nd lowest total in all of baseball), he still prefers outs via the fly ball and, as always, he racks up the innings with his rubber arm.

So, what changed for Livan in 2010 that he couldn’t achieve in 2005 through 2009? Well, we’ll get back to that in a second; but first, lets take a look at a pitcher that’s about to enter free agency as the most coveted arm in the entire class, Cliff Lee.

Clifton Phifer Lee, or to those of us that are close with him, Cliff, is a 6’3” left handed pitching machine. Currently property of the AL West winning Texas Rangers, Lee is at the pinnacle of his career, poised to score one more massive contract while the going is good. Side note - Lee was originally drafted by the Nationals (Expos 4th Rd – 2000) and then dealt away in one of the most lopsided trades in history.

Unlike Livan, Cliff still has enough giddy up on his fastball (91.3 MPH – average) that he can still blow the occasional hitter away. While Livo survives with his loopy curveball, Cliff punishes hitter with a devastating cutter, an equally tough curveball and a developing changeup that has many a baseball analyst swooning over it.

While Livan had a career revival in 2010, Cliff is in the midst of his heyday. Two years ago he won the AL Cy Young by going 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA. Last year Lee posted a 14 win season with a 3.22 ERA but finished the year strong by going 5-0 in the postseason while singlehandedly carrying the Phillies to the World Series. This year, more of the same as Lee posted the highest pitching WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in all of baseball at 7.0, nearly half a game better than the second best pitcher, Roy “no-no” Halladay at 6.6.

Now that we know the back story on Livan and Cliff, let’s take a look at what made each the success that they were in 2010.

Lee, the ultimate marksmen, posted the second highest K/BB ratio in the history of the game at 10.28, that is, for every walk he allowed, he struck 10.28 batters in the meantime. Livan, on the other hand only managed a paltry ratio of 1.78. Quite the difference, but that’s not where Cliff and Livan diverge from each other the most.

Fangraphs, a think tank for fans that love stats, posts a stat called Zone%. Zone% is the percentage of the total number of pitches thrown that end up in the strike zone*, no matter the outcome (ball, strike, foul, ball in play, etc. etc.).

Lee, as you might have surmised by his massive K/BB rate, leads MLB in the number of pitches that reach the strike zone at 56.6% Livan on the other hand, throws the least number of pitches in the strike zone at 38.3%.

As hard as it may be to believe, Cliff Lee locates his pitches in the strike zone a whopping 18.3% more often than Livan does. That’s not just shocking, that’s bordering on historic.

With the discrepancy in zone% so high, one has to wonder how two pitchers, polar opposites of each other, can succeed.

The answer? First strike percentage.

As with zone% Lee also leads the majors in first pitch strikes at 69.8%. While Livan is not nearly at Cliff’s level, his 58.5% is still plenty respectable (league average is 58.8%).

First strikes are crucial. Cliff and Livan know this, and both do a good job at securing the ever important 0-1 count advantage. In 2010, batters hit (.273/.387/.437) after gaining a 1-0 count advantage. When the hitter fell behind 0-1, the tables were turned considerably in the pitchers favor (.227/.269/.346). Clearly, getting ahead 0-1 in the count is paramount to the success of any pitcher looking to make a long career in the majors.

In what can only be described as one of those indelible quirks that makes the game of baseball so great, Livan Hernandez and Cliff Lee succeeded in the exact opposite manner of one another.

Before I send this blog to print, I want you, reader, to think back to June 23, 2010. Stephen Strasburg was just coming off his first major league loss to the Kansas City Royals when a lively discussion broke out in the post game show between (Former) MASN color commentator Rob Dibble and MASN analyst Ray Knight. Their argument, was Stephen Strasburg throwing too many strikes for his own good?

Rob, a former All-Star closer, found the notion of throwing too many strikes to be preposterous, and Ray, a former All-Star Third baseman, pointed out that when a hitter can’t expect a pitch to always be in the strike zone, it makes batting tougher. What followed was an epic bitch fit between two men clearly frustrated with how the 2010 season for the Nationals was turning out. For your viewing pleasure I’ve included the video from that night.

Truth is, Rob and Ray, as Livan and Cliff have shown in 2010, it doesn’t matter if you throw strikes 60% of the time or 40% of the time, all that matters is you follow the simple pitching credo “Get ahead in the count 0-1, and the rest will take care of itself”.

* - Strike Zone as defined by the electronic Pitch f/x system, not the actual zone of an umpire

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