A week. It's been a week. A long week. I don't really know where to begin after such a lengthy layoff, so I guess I'll begin by thanking Mike for picking up some of the slack, talking about a few things that have been accumulating in my head during that week, and trying to figure out where we go from here:
● Last week, Jeff Sullivan took a Pitch f/x-based look at the matter of expected strikes and the number of called strikes that various teams/pitchers would have received over the course of the 2012 season if umpires called every taken pitch in compliance with the Pitch f/x-defined strike zone. You can read more about the methodology here if you're so inclined, or you can skip over to Adam's post that builds off Jeff's work and makes the point that, based on Jeff's calculations, the Rangers would have/should have allowed 24 fewer runs over the course of the 2012 season if only they had received the league-average rate of expected strikes.
I took a crack at the same problem using the same Pitch f/x data set, but a somewhat different strike zone measurement (the ESPN Stats & Info interface seems to apply a larger, more generous strike zone than FanGraphs), and came up with a figure of 10 runs below average, as my calculation has the Rangers needing 77 additional called strikes to hit the league-average expected strikes mark. It's not the 24 runs below average mark from above, but it's also not terribly far off, and the implication is still the same -- Texas lost 1-2 wins this past season due to poor luck with umpires, poor pitch framing, or (most likely) some combination of the two.
The issue that I really wanted to dig down into, though, was the possible late-season impact of Geovany Soto on this area of weakness. First, we already knew that he had graded out well in terms of pitch-framing in the past, and second, we heard a great deal after his late-July arrival about how well he was settling in and working with the staff ... but did he have a perceptible impact on these rates? Below, we have the league-average called-strike data on pitches inside the zone for the entire 2012 season, that same filter for the first four months of the Rangers' 2012 season (caught primarily by Mike Napoli and Yorvit Torrealba), and then that same filter for the final two months of the Rangers' 2012 season (caught primarily by Soto, with Napoli catching about one-third of the time):
MLB Average: 125,304 takes inside zone, 100,148 called strikes, 79.9% called strikes
Rangers, Apr.-July: 2,812 takes inside zone, 2,146 called strikes, 76.3% called strikes
Rangers, Aug-Sept: 1,676 takes inside zone, 1,364 called strikes, 81.3% called strikes
It's not a great idea to attribute the entirety of that five percent gain over the last two months of the season to Soto's presence behind the plate (particularly since Soto only caught about two out of every three games during that stretch), but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the Rangers had soured on Torrealba's pitch-framing skills (among other things), and that they viewed Soto as someone who (a) would be controllable through 2013, (b) might be able to re-energize the bat in a new environment, and (c) was able to bring out the best in his pitching staff by way of quality pitch-framing, among other things. And if you could attribute even, say, a 1 percent improvement to Soto, that's a full-season gain of 45 additional strikes over 4,500 takes inside the strike zone, or 5-6 runs. It adds up quickly.
Soto, of course, didn't hit with the Rangers, and perhaps if he had hit a bit more the Rangers would still be alive today. I don't care to engage in that conversation, though, because there are a hundred different things one could bring up as consequential reasons why the Rangers falling short. Soto, however, could still hit next year, and it may be that there's something the Rangers particularly like in his game-calling/pitch-framing/et al. skill set that will cajole them into paying more for Soto than we might expect them to pay for a catcher coming off a really bad offensive year.
● I'm not especially happy about being forced off the grid for an entire week, but I am rather glad that the heat resulting from Nolan Ryan's on-air condemnation of Josh Hamilton timing -- specifically, his sense of timing as far as attempting to kick his smokeless tobacco addiction during the middle of the season, as opposed to before or after the season when it wouldn't adversely affect his performance -- came and went without me really having to think about it. I don't know that it necessarily kicked up much dust within the Rangers' blogosphere proper, but it was a pointed, critical remark that could be interpreted as Nolan showing a callous disregard for Hamilton's health, and that's the sort of eye-grabbing material that the sports media is always more than happy to seize upon.
No, Nolan probably shouldn't have said what he said, but the fact that he did say it does, I think, reflect the great degree of frustration that Nolan (and almost certainly others within the Rangers' inner circle) continue to harbor towards Hamilton over the off-the-field aspects of his season. I'm not telling you all anything you haven't had hammered into your skulls for the last 3-4 months, but this all runs deeper than Josh's wildly vacillating production -- this is all just as much about the oft-speculated reasons for his mediocrity over the final two-thirds of the season, and about Josh's unfortunate propensity for saying and doing things that convey a lack of full-on dedication and attention to the game of baseball. I think the perception is that most of his problems this past season in terms of performance/P.R. were avoidable/controllable, and that he didn't do nearly enough to address/curtail them.
This may all amount to just a small piece of the Hamilton discussion, but I believe that it's a meaningful piece, the kind of piece that can (and probably already has) further eroded organizational trust in Hamilton as both a current asset and a longer-term investment. And the more I think about this, the more I feel like the time that we're alloting to this subject could be better utilized elsewhere -- if the Rangers do eventually tender Josh an offer, I'm expecting they'll float a short-duration, high-base offer across the table, I'm expecting that the guaranteed money on that offer will be easily trumped by someone else, and I'm expecting that Josh will be gone. It could all still play out in some other manner, but I'm currently at the point where I'll be absolutely shocked if he's back next season.
● This is sort of an apropos of nothing bullet point, something that doesn't really have anything to do with anything else but has kind of been on my mind lately: in 2012, Derek Holland pitched 205 of his 1,884 fastballs (10.9%) at a velocity of 95 mph or better. In 2011, Holland pitched 871 of his 2,132 total fastballs (40.9%) at a velocity of 95 mph or better ... and, perhaps more impressively, logged 232 and 230 such fastballs respectively in August and September 2011. In other words, Holland threw more 95-plus mph pitches in each of the final two months of the 2011 regular season than he did during the entire 2012 regular season. We knew that Holland's velocity trended back down this past season, but I didn't expect such a wide disparity at the upper end of the velocity scale from one year to the next.
I think this is something to keep in mind going forward because of the reasons that have been noted both here and elsewhere: upper-tier velocity expands your margin for error and gives you a more effective base from which you can deal your secondary offerings, and, in Holland's case, those 3-4 months at the end of the 2011 season where he kicked his velocity into a higher gear coincided with the apex of his success as a major league pitcher. What's interesting is that Holland actually worked through April 2012 with the same basic velocity profile that he had in April 2011 (averaging 93 mph, maxing out near 96 mph), but never gained that extra 2 mph that he developed down the stretch in 2011, as he came down with a bizarre stomach ailment in May and never seemed to fully recover from his illness in terms of either stuff or effectiveness.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of all of that. I want to believe that Holland can be a consistent mid-rotation starter on a playoff-caliber team with a fastball sitting around 92-93 mph, but we've seen enough of Holland to this point that it seems unlikely unless the command takes a step forward or the secondary-pitch deficiencies are ameliorated. Given that, I also want to believe that the second half of 2011 wasn't an aberration and that a healthy Holland actually can work safely and consistently in the 94-95 mph range over an extended period of time ... but if he can't, well, what then? He's a perfectly useful rotation piece locked in at a reasonable price through 2016, and the ship won't be capsized by sticking with him, but I can't help but think that the Rangers, minus all unreasonable media-fostered expectations, were hoping that Holland would develop into something greater than a high-variance No. 4 starter.
And if one of those two aforementioned scenarios doesn't materialize next year, I feel like that's what the Rangers may end up having on their hands yet again -- a high-variance No. 4 starter who will persist in driving us absolutely crazy.