Weak Sauce

One of my favorite things about the Shutdown Sauce nickname for Alfredo Simon was how easily it would be converted to Weak Sauce when he blew a game, which was bound to happen eventually (at the time he was perfect). And so it was – almost – yesterday, as Simon was entrusted with a one run lead in the ninth and gave up a home run to blow the save. (Luckily Brian Roberts bailed him out with his walk-off blast in the bottom of the 10th.) Perhaps I’m a bit biased since I attended the game against the Yankees earlier this year in which he picked up his first major league save, but I’m still a fan of the Sauce despite 4 blown saves* and a propensity to give up the longball (1.5 HR/9).

* At 17/21, his 81% conversion rate is 24th out of the 30 pitchers with at least 10 saves this season. 85% is pretty standard, and the average rate for those 30 is indeed 85.1%.

I briefly discussed Simon’s struggles with Heath (of Dempsey’s Army) on Twitter last night, mentioning my surprise that a guy who gets so many groundballs (49.2%) would give up so many home runs. Not only does he not allow a lot of flyballs (31.7%), but over 10% of them are of the harmless infield variety (all these figures are from FanGraphs). His 15.8% HR/FB rate is high, and I think it’s mostly a matter of bad luck. Of course, he’s had “good luck” in other ways, which is why his ERA (4.62) is now right in line with his xFIP (4.59). Anyway, Heath brought up that despite his groundball tendencies in 2010, (1) he had never posted those kinds of numbers before and (2) he’s given up a fair number of line-drives as well (19.2%), which can also go over the fence.

Taking the second point first, Simon’s rate of line-drives plus non infield flyballs is 47.6% of balls in play, which is a fair bit below average (~52%) and wouldn’t explain such a large divergence between Simon’s HR/FB rate and what one might expect it to be (~10%). Unless one thinks that there’s something particular about Alfredo being especially homer prone when he leaves a fastball over the plate or whatever (more so than your average pitcher, despite Simon having good stuff), then his home run rate should go down towards 1 HR/9 instead of staying at 1.5.

L0oking at the homers:

8/9, Paul Konerko: first pitch fastball – 95 mph but pretty straight – about thigh-high (maybe a little lower) on the inner third of the plate

8/8, Ramon Castro: 2-2 fastball – 95 mph with some movement – just under belt-high in the middle of the plate but towards the inner part

7/30, Alex Gordon: 1-0 fastball – 95 mph with some movement – belt-high in the middle of the plate

7/27, Jose Bautista: 2-2 slider – good movement – right down the middle

7/6, Miguel Cabrera: 1-1 splitter – good movement – lower third of the zone right on the inside edge of the plate

5/15, Austin Kearns: 0-2 splitter – not a ton of tailing action – thigh-high on the inner third of the plate

I’d say of the 6 home runs, only the hanger to Kearns was really bad, I think. On 0-2 you need to bury that pitch down and out of the zone. The homers to Castro and Cabrera were issues of pitch selection in my opinion. He threw Castro five consecutive fastballs in the at bat, with four of them being right in the same area as the home run ball. Against Cabrera he threw two fastballs before the split, but had gone to the splitter extensively in the outing (using it over 40% of the time, instead of the usual 25% or so) and it looked like Miggy was looking for it. If I recall correctly, he went down to one knee as he swatted it out of the park. So I don’t think there’s anything special with regards to Simon giving up home runs – sometimes he makes a mistake and they hit it out, and sometimes he doesn’t really make a mistake and they hit it out – like with all pitchers really.

Back to Heath’s first point. Simon’s career minor league groundball rate is something like 47-48%*, so 50% isn’t a huge stretch (and it’s been 50% in his limited time at Norfolk in 2008 and 2010). And besides, since coming back from Tommy John surgery – and pitching in relief – he’s been a different guy. The fastballs is now 95 instead of 92 with more sink and way more tail on it. His splitter is 5+ mph harder with way more drop. His slider is upwards of 7 mph harder with more bite. He doesn’t go to the curveball much anymore, but he does appear to have a slow breaking-ball in his repertoire as well (and that’s coming in faster than it used to too). So with his stuff and career minor league numbers, I think it’s fair to assume the groundballs rates he’s posting this year are pretty real (maybe not 50% exactly, but at least better than average).

* Combining various years of stats from FirstInning.com.

So we’ve got a groundball pitcher with a 95 mph fastball and wicked off-speed stuff (the whiff rates on his slider and splitter – 34% and 44% – are good and great, respectively). Given that Simon is able to miss more bats than your average pitcher, one would think his strike-out rate would also be above average* (it’s not, at only 6.6 K/9). The control is obviously an issue with his 4.4 BB/9, but command is often the last thing to come back after Tommy John and Simon’s got a 3.2 BB/9 career in the minors (3.0 at Triple-A).

* Contact% against for pitchers correlates very highly with K/9. At Simon’s 78.5% contact rate, we’d expect more like 8 K/9.

A reliever with 8 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, and 1 HR/9 is still no great shakes. That’s about a 4.00 FIP guy, who’s valuable but not an ace closer. And that should be the Sauce. Sometimes he’ll shut the other team down. Sometimes he’ll blow the game. We’ll add the appropriate adjective in either case.