SCOUTING STATCAST (Vol. III): Kikuchi throwing way harder and added a cutter; Grisham and Lowe; more
Last week, we opened Vol. II of this weekly feature with a glowing review of Marlins SP Sandy Alcantara. Shortly after, it was reported he was among the Marlins COVID-19 positive as an outbreak spread through the organization. Swell.
But hey, at least we highlighted Tyler Chatwood's increased cutter usage. So, it wasn't all bad. This week's edition:
During Spring Training, Yusei Kikuchi's fastball velocity was a discussion, and it was so long ago I think many people forgot about it, especially after a so-so start to open the season. The lefty from Japan was back on the mound this weekend and overpowered the A's over 6.0 innings with nine strikeouts, one walk and just three hits. But about that velocity...
After his four-seam fastball averaged 92.5 MPH last season, Kikuchi's heater is up to 95.5 MPH on average this year. Hell, his cutter, a new pitch, is a pitch he's throwing harder at 92.8 MPH on average than his fastball last season. More on the cutter in a second, but focusing on the heater velo: Kikuchi touched 97.8 MPH during his first start of the season, and has thrown six fastballs 96.0 MPH or harder; last year, his fastball only averaged more than 94.0 MPH in three starts and never higher than 94.7 MPH.
Additionally, Kikuchi's fastball spin rate is up 164 RPM on average. Combine that with his velocity and perhaps more spin efficiency as well, and you get a dramatic whiff% increase from 16.0% in 2019 to 38.7% thus far in 2020. In a jam during his first start of the season, Kikuchi reached back for 97.8 MPH and put it on the corner to get a punchout on his 64th pitch of the game. This came after earlier in the same inning with the bases loaded and no outs he struck out Carlos Correa swinging with a changeup.
As for the cutter, the lefty didn't just add it. He's throwing it more than another other pitch at 45.3%. Kikuchi ditched the curve and continues to throw his slider, another pitch with a significant boost in spin, and changeup to give him two "slower" offerings. Of the 72 cutters he's thrown, Kikuchi has given up just two hits and has a 37.0 whiff%. Again courtesy MLB and Baseball Savant, here's Kikuchi hitting his spot down and in and freezing Michael Brantley, one of the most difficult guys to strike out in baseball.
I was able to grab Kikuchi in a couple leagues and he's lined up at home against the Rockies this week. It's obvious after his sparkling outing against Oakland he's suddenly a much, much more intriguing pitcher and perhaps poised for a breakout. Keep an eye on Seattle's rotation in general. Taijuan Walker was excellent against Oakland, Marco Gonzales was very solid against the Angels, and Kendall Graveman is throwing much harder.
Heading into the season, no one knew for certain if Padres outfielder Trent Grisham would be relegated to a platoon role. So far, only nine more players in baseball have more plate appearances, and Grisham has often hit near the top of the lineup.
Say it again with me... it's early. However, Grisham has cut his K% from 26.6% to 22.2% and part of recipe for a little more success is chasing less (down from 21.4% to 11.1%) and making contact (zone contact% up from 83.2% to 86.0%). He's also hitting the ball in the air and harder more frequently, which is making him an intriguing five-category player because he ranks in the 96th percentile in sprint speed and his .263 batting average isn't that fair away from respectable for fantasy purposes.
Speaking of platoon discussions, speak of Mike Trout's WAR well when you see Brandon Lowe's small-sample 187 wRC+. Yes, we loved Lowe and his batted-ball profile, which was eerily similar to Ronald Acuna, Jr.'s. But with the Rays, you never quite know how the lineup is going to work.
While he has been out of the starting lineup on occasion, Lowe has appeared in all 10 of the Rays' games thus far with 40 plate appearances, making him an easier player to insert into NFBC or weekly lineups because of how often he'd pinch-hit with his defensive flexibility.
Like Grisham, Lowe has lowered his K% (34.6% to 27.5%) despite a similar whiff% because he's chasing at a much improved rate (down from 30.9% to 14.7%). The quality of contact isn't up to his 2019 standards, but it's coming because his launch angle, and barrel% are very similar to 2019, which softens the blow of seeing a slugging percentage of .657 despite an xSLG of .486.
Prized prospect Jesus Luzardo is joining the rotation, but after a stellar performance against the Mariners, Chris Bassitt shouldn't be leaving it. With a 0.93 ERA over 9.2 innings, the Oakland righty is making a strong case as a key pitching piece for a playoff contender. Why? He's increased his K% from 23.0% in 2019 to 31.6% so far in 2020 while also
Despite being about 1 MPH slower on average, Bassitt's sinker is generating more whiffs despite almost identical horizontal break. The big change has been the slider/cutter improving. Bassitt's cutter was tattooed - .597 xSLG and .411 xwOBA in 2019 - last season, and so far his slider has a 41.7 whiff%, a massive improvement because the righty has never thrown a pitch with a whiff% higher than 36.0%. Yes, I'm referring to it by two different names because Statcast labels it a slider now after labeling it a cutter in the past.
Interestingly, Brooks Baseball shows some change in horizonal movement - 1.22 inches to 2.07 inches - in the pitch, but that's not that different from 2018. What Bassitt is doing a better job of is throwing his four-seamer, when he uses it, up and his slider down at an increased rate. And he's also, generally, throwing those pithces to the same side of the plate.
Courtesy Baseball Savant
Why is that important? Think of a hitter seeing both a four-seam fastball and slider often approaching the same areas of the plate. If the slider is thrown well, it gives the appearance of a fastball before it breaks. Ideally, a pitcher would want those pitches to play off each other so the slider can generate swings and misses with the appearance of a fastball. Now consider Bassitt is doing a better job throwing the four-seam up and slider/cutter down.
I'm always a little leery of guys who don't throw very hard, but Bassitt is generating whiffs at a much higher rate and finished last year with a respectable 3.81 ERA and 4.01 xERA.
Photos courtesy AP Images