While it’s all a whole lot of fun to try and figure out if Don Mattingly has truly gone off the deep end on us or if he’ll even be managing this team tomorrow — Dylan Hernandez says yes, but we’ll see, and I am terrified about publishing on another topic right now — it only masks the fact that is a team with some serious, actual problems. There’s about eight different directions I could go with after a lead like that, but today we’ll start with “so… just what is Brandon League‘s deal?”
Let’s be clear: few, if any, thought the extravagant three-year deal bestowed upon him by Ned Colletti last winter would actually be worth it. We all know that Colletti’s multiyear deals for non-elite relievers never work out, and so far this one looks worse than any other.
But to be completely fair, I don’t think anyone really expected this, either. League’s 5.19 ERA is close to what a 5.40 FIP says he ought to have; whether you’re using standard stats or advanced metrics, he’s been garbage. That’s surprising, because we all remember his outright dominance last August & September after a mechanical change implemented by Ken Howell & Rick Honeycutt. If not enough to make the contract worthwhile, it did seem to be a viable reason to expect some return on that investment, and gave us all ammunition to strike back at those who just looked at his 2012 as a whole.
Through nearly two months of the season, League has been a complete mess, striking out an atrocious 4.15 per nine. This isn’t due to bad luck that should even out — a .279 BABIP isn’t that far off average — it’s quite simply that he’s not missing bats. Well, that, and that he’s giving up homers at a pace like he’s never done before.
At first I thought, well, okay, perhaps he’s just failing to stick with the mechanical changes and is going back to the old way that cost him his job in Seattle. But in looking through the video, nothing stands out as being obviously different, and as we can see from Brooks Baseball, the change that happened near the end of last year in his vertical release point looks to have stuck so far in 2013:
If charts aren’t your thing, take a look for yourself at two pitches chosen at random over the two seasons. At left, a pitch that struck out Joaquin Arias last October against San Francisco; at right, giving up a double to Miami’s Adeiny Hechavarria on Mother’s Day. Other than the high socks and pink Mother’s Day shoes, do you see much of a difference in his mechanics? I can’t say I do, nor does it seem that he’s moved his position on the rubber.
So he’s throwing it the same way, from the same position. That doesn’t seem to be the problem.
How about his pitches. Are they flat? Are they simply not not moving? While he’s lost some horizontal movement on his pitches, he’s increased the vertical movement at the same time:
Here’s where we get into the weeds where I fully and completely admit that I am not a pitching coach, because if you were to ask me, “well, is one movement better than the other,” I’d say “sure, why not”; the truth is, I don’t have a good answer to that.
But you don’t need to be a pitching coach to know that this next part is a problem. While League has slowly been throwing his sinker less over the years — he used to get grounder rates in the 60-73% range, down to 56.1% this year — his splitter seems less effective because his velocity has been on a steady downturn as well.
That seems damning, but I’m hesitant to put this all on reduced velocity, because it’s not like he was throwing 99 last September and he was doing just fine. But it’s a bad trend, isn’t it? Last September, League got swings on half of his splitters, half of which were missed, resulting in a 27.1% swing-and-miss rate. This year that’s down to 20% misses; his sliders are down from 27% to 13% misses.
Across the board, he’s just not generating missed bats, and it’s difficult to know exactly why. Though I can’t really quantify this in an effective way, it surely seems that while he’s not become suddenly wild — his walk rate is down from last year — he’s not hitting his spots. That is, when he’s getting the strike zone, he’s getting all of the strike zone, and that leads to a lot of solid contact
To be honest, the smartest thinking on the subject might have come in less than 140 characters…
It may just be that League is this awful, but this is usually the moment in the storyline when we find out he’s been pitching hurt all year.
— Jon Weisman (@jonweisman) May 19, 2013
Lowered velocity, lousy command, and fewer swing-and-misses? Something has to be behind all this, and nothing seems clear from a mechanical point of view. An injury would make as much sense as anything else, but until we hear anything on that front, we’ll continue to be grasping at straws — expensive, long-term straws.