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The Astros’ Bizarro World Ace Reliever: Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet Tony Sipp.

Is he the Prodigal LOOGY come home, or just a little lucky lately?

MLB: Houston Astros at Chicago White Sox Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

You know Bizarro World right? The place where everything wrong is right? Where the crazy is sane? Where high is low, where gothic black is the color of love, where Whataburger features a spinach, beets, tofu burger? The universe where the Yellow Birds from Baltimore are bombing the Bronx nine, and the Mookie Betts Bosox trail the Orioles by 24 games?

So if I asked you, which Astros pitcher has the best ERA since May 1st, and you could choose between Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Charlie Morton, Lance McCullers, Chris Devenski, Will Harris or Tony Sipp, who would you pick?

Well, in the “real” world just about any one of those names could make sense at one time or another. All but one that is. But since, apparently, we now inhabit Bizarro World, the right answer is: Duh Duh.......Tony Sipp.

And left handers are hitting .327 and slugging .408 against Will Harris. And in the last two weeks there are ten teams pitching better than the Astros, led by the Seattle Mariners, who are now in first place.

But forget all that, let’s focus on the really weird.

After posting a 5.79 ERA, 5.22 FIP, actually pitching below replacement level at -0.2 fWAR in 2017, this year Tony Sipp is experiencing something of a career renaissance, with a 2.84 ERA and even better 2.56 FIP. He has contributed a +0.2 fWAR through one third of the season in limited time. He is holding opponents to a .200 BA, and his WHIP is 1.11, both numbers far better than last year’s.

In 16 appearances he has been scored upon only 3 times. He has had only one “meltdown,” as defined by Fangraphs, compared to 7 all last year. He has not given up a home run.

Since April 21st his ERA has been 0.93, FIP 1.88 in over 9 innings. He has not surrendered a run since May 7th, the longest such stretch in his career since 2015, when he was THE LOOGY, and Astros fans were proud to call him that. That was the year he earned the big $18 million, 3 year contract, the contract most fans, and the front office no doubt, have considered an albatross ever since.

One might object that he has not been used very much this year, (only 12.2 innings) and mostly in low leverage situations. But that is beginning to change. Last Sunday against the slugging Red Sox, with the game still in doubt, Sipp came in for the struggling potential all-star, Charlie Morton, who had just gotten bombed for 6 runs in 5.1 innings. Sipp got two up, three down with a big strikeout. He was followed by Collin McHugh, who “held” the Red Sox to 1 run in 1.2 innings, and then Ken Giles, who surrendered 3 runs in one inning. Only Tony Sipp held the Red Sox at bay that day.

As he did the day before in a close game, facing four Red Sox, retiring all of them, striking out two. During this time since May 7th he has made nine appearances, pitched 6.1 innings, allowed 3 hits, 2 walks, and as already mentioned, no runs. Most of the batters he has faced during this run were from the hard hitting Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

Of course the big question here is: Is this a fluke, and if not, what is Tony Sipp doing differently to make himself better? Let’s take a deeper look.

According to Statcast, out of 438 pitchers with 30 or more batted ball events in 2018, Tony Sipp ranks 64th in average exit velocity at 85.9 MPH. Only Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock rate better on the Astros. This is just a smidge lower than Brad Hand, at 86.3 for comparison purposes.

There have been no barreled balls recorded against Sipp this year, and in the percentage of hard hit balls he ranks sixth, at 20.6% by Statcast ratings.

Of course, we are dealing with a small sample on all 2018 Tony Sipp stats, and this point will be reiterated.

And yet, thus far he is clearly doing better. And so what is he doing differently?

First, he has completely ditched the sinker.

Secondly, he has seen a slight uptick in velocity. In 2017 his fastball averaged 91.07 MPH, his slider 82.87, and his splitter 78.19. This year the corresponding numbers are 91.83, 83.55, and 79.43. However, in May these numbers improved even more, 92.27, 83.60, and 81.02. The following graph breaks it down.

Sipp’s Velocity Table

Year Fastball mph Slider mph Splitter mph
Year Fastball mph Slider mph Splitter mph
2017 91.07 82.87 78.19
2018 91.83 83.55 79.43
May-18 92.27 83.6 79.89

Granted, these are not dramatic differences, but perhaps help account for the difference between an occasional barreled ball, and just a medium contact fly ball.

Oddly, perhaps counter-intuitively considering Sipp’s improvement this year, he has lost a little movement on his fourseam and a lot of movement on his slider this year compared to last. In fact the slider doesn’t seem to slide at all. One wonders why it isn’t creamed every time he throws it, which he does about 30% of the time. However, he does have improved movement on the splitter, which he uses about 15% of the time. See table below.

Sipp’s Movement Table

2017 pfx Hmov in pfx Vmov in
2017 pfx Hmov in pfx Vmov in
fourseam 5.12 10.28
slider 7.88 8.72
split 4.74 0.4
2018 * *
fourseam 4.88 9.84
slider 0.15 1.17
split 5.87 -0.86

Whiff percentages seem to correlate with these changes in movement. In 2017 the slider induced swing and miss 21.19% of the time, the splitter, 11.94%

In 2018, his less darty slider got a swing and miss only 15.87% of the time while his more volatile splitter got 16.67% of swing attempts to result in a miss. His miss rate on the fastball was up slightly about 1% to almost 9.

This is my theory as to the difference between Tony Sipp 2017 and Tony Sipp 2018. I believe that this year he is willing to pitch more to contact, working inside the zone more, and using his slider less like a put away pitch, and more like a cutter.

Compare the following heat maps, the first from 2017, the second from 2018.

See those bright red strips on the right and bottom edges of the first map? That’s Tony Sipp in 2017 trying to “put away” a left handed batter with a swing and miss slider. That’s a place where a lot of really good slider throwers like to live. Apparently Tony Sipp was no longer one of those really good slider pitchers.

But this year that extreme part of the map is a cold zone. Instead, he is heating up the strike zone much more, including that low outside corner and areas just below. He is pitching to contact.

Numbers bear this out.

65% of his pitches are strikes this year, compared to 62% last year. 46.8% of his pitches are in the zone this year compared to 41.6% last year. The contact rate is actually up this year, to 76.1%, from 73% last year. His K rate is down from 23.6% last year to 22% this year.

The nature of the contact is also different this year. While hard contact is down 2%, to 29.4%, soft contact is down even more, 13% to 11.8%. For Sipp, the typical hit, and out, is on medium contact, which is up in 2018 almost 14% to 58.8%

It’s almost like, if I can conjecture a bit, Brent Strom whispered in Sipp’s ear and said, “son, throw your 90 mph fastball, the one that doesn’t move very much, and throw that slider that acts like a cutter that doesn’t hardly move at all, and throw them in the strike zone, and let the batters hit em. Let’s see what happens.”

Bizarro indeed.

And so far, in 2018, the combination of slightly increased velocity, improved command, and just enough movement on the pitches has kept batters just enough off balance that they haven’t been able to barrel the ball against Sipp. Not once.

To illustrate, when asked who was the toughest pitcher he had ever faced, Ted Williams said Whitey Ford. He said: (I paraphrase) “He never struck me out, but I could never get a barrel on his pitch.” I’m not saying Tony Sipp is Whitey Ford, but that pretty well describes his style in 2018, and so far it has worked. Of course, we are dealing with a very small sample. See, I reiterated.

One of the most dramatic changes in Tony Sipp this year is his left right splits. This year Sipp is pitching like a real LOOGY. Last year he was equally ineffective against both right and left handed batters, and maybe even a little worse against lefties. See charts below.

Sipp against Lefties

2017 0.243 0.353 5.72 1.25
2018 0.087 0.077 1.55 0.026

Sipp Against Righties

2017 0.243 0.335 4.74 1.53
2018 0.318 0.424 4.11 2.4

This year, so far, Sipp has been almost unbeatable against left handed hitters, and is getting hit by right handers even worse than he was last year. He has become a true LOOGY again, the perfect counterpoint to right handed Joe Smith who, in our Bizarro universe, has an even lower ERA than Sipp during the period from May 1st.

Will Sipp continue? Does he obviate the need for a Brad Hand at the trade deadline?

Metrics indicate some regression is due. Sipp’s BABIP, though not ridiculously low, at .265, does indicate some luck. He will give up some barreled balls, and he will give up a home run some time this year, I hereby predict.

Although his FIP at 2.56 is actually lower than his ERA, his xFIP, which factors in expected home runs on fly balls, is at 3.98. Another predictive metric, SIERA, similarly projects Sipp at 3.97. Both these numbers, although they predict regression, are still slightly better than league average.

So after two years of doing without, perhaps finally Sipp has become that LOOGY we thought we had after the first playoff run in 2015. He was good once, just maybe he’s good again. (Of course, we’re dealing with a small sample, in case you missed my last reiteration) No doubt a Brad Hand would be an upgrade if you think it’s worth the price, but IF Sipp can continue pitching the way he has this month, or at least as well as projections would indicate, the cost/benefit analysis of such a trade takes on a whole different aspect. Let’s see.

Go Tony go. you’re GRRRRRRRRREAT.

Editor’s note: According to Statcast, Tony Sipp has an xWOBA, (expected weighted on base average) of .298, ranked 127 of 422 among pitchers who have faced at least 50 batters.