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Javier, McCormick and some things to work on in the off-season

Reacting to a couple of articles about the ALCS.

MLB: ALCS-Texas Rangers at Houston Astros
Javier is removed during the first inning of Game 7 of the ALCS.
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

After the ALCS ended, Fangraphs published a number of articles about the series. A couple of those articles spurred me think about issues to examine during the off-season.

Cristian Javier

Based on ERA, Javier was the Astros’ 2d best starting pitcher in the post-season this year.

Post Season ERA / FIP

Verlander 2.95 / 5.00

Javier 4.09 / 5.62

Urquidy 5.63 / 8.65

Valdez 9.08 / 6.51

Overall, the Astros’ starters didn’t fare well in the post-season. The sample size can distort the stats somewhat, but Urquidy and Valdez were not effective. Verlander significantly out-pitched his periperhals and put up an ace-like ERA. Javier’s ERA was almost exactly the same as his final 28 days of the regular season (4.01 ERA). His batting average-against was an impressive 0.195 in the post season, which was even better than his very good .202 batting average in the final month of the season. While Javier’s FIP is elevated in the small sample, it’s worth noting that the components of FIP (K/9, BB/9, and HR/9) are expected to be elevated during the post season, compared to the regular season.

However, Javier’s post season stats were not distributed well among his three games. Coming into Game 7, Javier’s post season ERA/FIP was 1.69 / 4.19. The Rangers blew things up in the first inning of Game 7 and he was removed, which is the type of action we’ve come to expect in a post-season Game 7. In a regular season game, Javier probably wouldn’t be subjected to that quick a hook, and it’s possible he would have righted the ship in subsequent innings.

Fangraphs’ article about Javier’s Game 7 start, entitled “The Curious Case of Cristian Javier’s Fastball,” discusses Javier’s abbreviated six batter outing prior to his removal with 1 out in the 1st inning. The article focuses on Javier’s fastball, because his “rising” 4 seam fastball (sometimes called the invisi-ball) is the pitch which is almost unhittable, when right. The “ride” on the fastball is what makes it difficult to hit. (I put “rising” in quotes, because the pitch doesn’t rise, but gives the optical illusion of rising.)

As the article notes, the Rangers seem to have been well-prepared and ready to get on top of the “rising” fastball. Semien and Seager were taking early swings, trying to ambush the FB. The first hitter, Semien, hit a fastball into the ground for an out. But Javier couldn’t keep his fastballs in the zone, and issued a damaging walk to Carter. Next, Seager hit a 113 EV HR off the 4 seam FB. As the Fangraphs article notes, the pitch was not in a bad location, and it gives Seager most of the credit. Javier subsequently gave up 3 consecutive singles, two of which were off the 4 seam fastball. However, Javier may have experienced some bad luck, because the Garcia and Garver singles had a x-BA of .140 and .040, respectively.

According to the article, Javier had the best stuff of the season on his fastball. The fastball was 95+ mph and the ball was riding vertically more than ever. But stuff is not the same as command. The article confirms Maldonado’s post--game comment that Javier was over-amped and trying too hard to win the game by himself. With the higher velocity and ride, Javier had difficulty commanding the pitch to a location just above the zone.

Why didn’t Javier try pitching backwards (off speed or breaking pitches early in the count)? Javier probably is less capable of executing that kind of strategy because he is primarily a two pitch guy (Fastball and Slider), and the slider may not draw swings outside the zone until batters have seen the fastball. Javier only rarely throws a change up or curve ball, and the change up is not very effective (at least by run value). The lack of an effective change up also may be a reason that Javier has more difficulty with lefthanded batters like Seager. Javier allows a 119 OPS+ to LHB and 76 OPS+ to RHB.

Perhaps during the off-season Javier would be well advised to add a more effective off-speed pitch to his repertoire. If his current change up is not effective, maybe he needs to consider a different type of pitch as his change up. Or maybe consider adding a cutter or splitter.

I’m reminded of Roger Clemens’ quotes from years ago. Clemens was a believer that starting pitchers need to add new pitches from time to time, and he encouraged his fellow Astros’ starters to work on it during the spring. He felt that this is necessary to stay ahead of batters. In the latter part of Clemens’ career, he added an effective split finger pitch which seemed to reverse a rising ERA.

Bat Diversity With a Focus on McCormick

Fangraphs has an article discussing the post-season teams with the best bat path diversity. Bat diversity involves examining lineup factors like handedness and bath paths. The theory is that a diversity of bat paths for LH and RH bats will create a more balanced lineup, which becomes more difficult for pitchers to navigate, particularly during the post-season. I’m not sure if the theory is true, but it makes logical sense.

The critical variable is “vertical bat angle” VBA. The article explains: If you aren’t familiar with VBA, it’s the vertical orientation of the bat at contact, where 45 degrees is a diagonal bat. It is pitch height dependent – the number goes down as height increases (flatter bat) and goes up as height decreases (steeper bat), making it vary within a player’s own swing profile. There is also variance player to player.

As you may have noticed, this issue has some relevance to the post-season adjustment process described in the Javier article above. Some batters’ path paths can more easily do damage on either high or low pitches, for instance.

Last year, the author found that the Astros’ lineup was number 1 in bat diversity among the post--season teams. However, in 2023 the Astros’ lineup was 11th out of 13th in swing path diversity among post-season teams. (The Phillies were No. 1 this season.)

The ranking below shows the amount above or below average in lineup bat diversity.

Swing Path Diversity 2023

So, why did the Astros’ lineup move from the top of the list in 2022 to 11th in 2023? Yuli Gurriel, with a very flat swing, was replaced by Jose Abreu, who is middle of the pack in swing path. Previously Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker provided variability among LHBs in the lineup because their VBA were at opposite ends. However, the two batters changed bat paths this year to converge to more similar positions. This reduced the diversity among LHBs.

More interestingly, Chas McCormick who was top ranked in VBA in late 2022 apparently suffered a decline in VBA in September 2023. The article states: Chas McCormick’s swing flattened significantly in the final month after being almost perfectly diagonal for most of the season (and last year).

Chas’ change in VBA also may have negatively affected his offensive production in September 2023. McCormick’s OPS+ by month in 2023: April 143; May 48; June 139; July 201; August 120; September 91. The severe decline in May is explainable—he was injured and on the IL for most of the month. However, the notable decline in September seems to coincide with the VBA change referenced in the article. The September decline was most significant in the last two weeks of the season (OPS+ of 57).

For most of the 2023 season, proponents of the VBA metric praised McCormick, as indicated by the tweet.

Note that this tweet (now X) in early August references McCormick’s swing in July, 2023, when Chas had a 201 OPS+ for the month. However, on Oct. 3, the same SwingGraphs account updated VBA scores, and included the following note: C. McCormick & M. Brantley VBAs down a lot - definitely something to keep an eye on.

The VBA scores are proprietary, but the information seems to indicate that McCormick’s swing orientation changed significantly in September. It’s unclear what the reason might be. Did he make a conscious change in his swing path? Did opposing pitchers begin to adjust by pitching him in different zones, which led to a change in swing path? I don’t know the answer. It’s also worth noting that Kyle Tucker, whose swing path was the most like McCormick’s earlier in the season, apparently also had a decline in his VBA score. Both McCormick and Tucker did not hit well in the post season.

Hopefully, the Astros will use the off-season to put McCormick’s and Tucker’s swing paths back to their high point of production in July 2023.