Three for a flyball

Alessandro Zilio
9 min readJun 3, 2021

The AL West is such a weird division: apart from the Rangers who were supposed to be where they are, bottom feeders due for a rebuilding they don’t seem to want to go for, every other team has somehow betrayed or overcome all expectations and predictions.

From the top, the A’s are still rocking a 0.5 lead with a negative run differential: while their offense is enjoying Matt Olson and Mark Canha everyone else is bringing close to nothing; starters are holding the fort although Cole Irvin may not be an out-of-nowhere 3 and Frankie Montas is still an enigma; in the pen there’s Diekman, a sliding Lou Trivino, yet Burch Smith turns out to be their best arm.

They shouldn’t be there, yet they find a way to win: when they score a couple the pitching holds up, when the latter falters the offense goes off, that’s how you win a lot by a few.

Seattle is bonkers: they are a .500 team by means of one of the worst lineups in the game, one that features the likes of Jose Godoy, Jake Fraley, ex-Astro Jack Mayfield, a bevy of AAA+ stalwarts. Kyle Lewis is back on the IL, Jarred Kelenic is flailing at air but they manage thanks to the return of Mitch Haniger and an always solid Kyle Seager.

They are good at pitching though: Yusei Kikuchi is the gift that keeps on giving, and firing 99 mph fastballs, Dunn and Sheffield are fulfilling in part their lofty prospect pasts, the pen has late life in the M’s of Middleton, Montero and Misiewicz.

I’d rather not speak about the Angels and their squandering yet another season of baseball God Mike Trout, now hurt, and anime protagonist Shohei Ohtani: they don’t have a single starter you can trust, and that’s all that needs to be said.

What about my Stros though? Eh, some good and some bad. Lineup-wise it’s a party: Kyle Tucker is on a hot streak, Altuve hits, Correa walks too and, even without Gurriel and Air Yordan, the team has the best RPG, Runs per Game, in all of MLB. What the bats do though, the pen dissolves: aside from Ryan and Ryne, you can start crying for help because it’s going to be a walk and HR fest.

The issue that all the pundits pointed to was the rotation. After the Framber injury Houston signed Jake Odorizzi and he also caught the bug, Lance McCullers is on the IL too but…the Astros rotation is still damn good!

Zack Greinke is a classified bullpen savior, Framber and Odo are back, yet the reason Houston is still on the A’s tracks is due to a trio of guys that everyone booked for the bullpen or Triple A.

What makes them interesting is that they belong to the first page on a leaderboard that doesn’t scream greatness, even less in the 2020s: they all allow a ton of flyballs. Still there are flies and flies, and that’s what I’m going to look at.

For each one I’ll consider their allowed BIP, Balls In Play, in this first third of the season, as at 110+ we are in the realm of predictive, then I’ll cluster them as I’ve done in the past and compare the findings to search for differences and clues as to how they are minimizing the damage stemming from their flyball-happy ways.

First off is a known hurler in this neighborhood, a favorite of mine: invisiball artist Cristian Javier.

You know his deal by now: he throws a 92–94 mph fastball that no one seems able to square up, relies on a slider/curveball in the zone to get back into counts, and most importantly, he gets an absurd amount of flyballs. Among pitchers with at least 50 IP so far he’s third in FB% at a crisp 50%, slightly behind Freddy “Fastball” Peralta and Max Scherzer.

It’s been a two-faced season for him: a marvelous start, 18+ innings of spotless baseball, then a fall from grace due to a Verlander-esque propension for solo shots and, warning, serious control issues.

While Javier has never been Kyle Hendricks, there’s no saving a 43% Zone rate and a 45% 1st Pitch Strike%: he’s getting behind in the count too many times, walking people (11% BB rate) and getting shelled (43% HardHit). There’s also his slider, which he’s now throwing on the corners avoiding the zone: he traded sweep for drop and speed, getting a ridiculous 50% Whiff but lacking the ability to recover ABs. That explains why, according to Savant, he’s being lucky, moreso looking at a 4.25 xERA against his “real” 3.08 ERA. ZiPS loves him though…Javier is a hard one to project!

What about his balls in play?

Cristian Javier, 2021 BIP clustering

tabled

Cristian Javier, 2021 BIP clustering table

He’s allowing a good 30% of his BIP with an avgxwOBA over .700, although the rest of his flyballs, around 38% of his total BIP, are got unders and warning track shots. Still this is a far cry from his successful 2020:

Cristian Javier, 2020 BIP clustering table

While we are at only 122 BIP in 2021 against 138 in 2020 he has already given up more no doubters and barrel zone balls and in general the avgEV on barrels and grounders has gone up, a fact reflected by a much higher damage to be expected given LA and EV.

Javier is now a part of the bullpen, a much needed bolster for such weak ranks, but his future success relies on fastball control, with a focus against LHB, and slider location. That said, he’s one who’ll always beat his projections and mantain low BABIPs so I’m keen on seeing him back into the rotation when his mechanics will be on track.

The second of our Trés Amigos comes from Mexico and he has been arguably the best starter in the Astros rotation not named Greinke: José Urquidy has been that good of a pitcher.

His M.O. is eerly similar to that of Javier: a fastball topping in the mid 90s that is eluding bats (.268 xwOBA) and a slider that is his finishing weapon against RHB. But wait, didn’t Urquidy have a great cambio? Yes, and it’s back after a struggling start: as of late his changeup has resurfaced against both lefties and righties, with good results (30% Whiff).

What separates him from Javier is a completely different approach to the strike zone: whereas Cristian avoids it, José fills it entirely. His 58% Zone rate and 63% 1st Pitch Strike% are among the highest for qualified starters: Urquidy starts the AB looping a breaking ball or firing a straight dart down Broadway and he gets ahead a lot, to that follow a minuscule walk rate (5% BB%) and a friendly 33% HardHit that compensate below average strikeout numbers. Oh, he also decided to adhere to the Mark-Buehrle-style pace of play if it means making hitters uncomfortable.

And as one of the three flyball friends, he lets it go up to a tune that is less than Javier but still around 46% of his BIP, a top 10 rate among pitchers with at least 50 IP.

Are those flyballs different from Javier’s ones though? Given better results they should…let’s see!

José Urquidy, 2021 BIP clustering

and tabling the graph

José Urquidy, 2021 BIP clustering table

There’s a stark difference: Urquidy is allowing far less dangerous BIP, avgxwOBA > 0.700, as barrel zone and no doubters account for only 10% of his balls in play, but he’s also getting hurt by bloops hard and often. What he’s salvaging from barrels is getting on no man’s land or returning on a hard liner, still less damaging than a Barrel itself.

Everything else almost matches his friend now in the pen. Urquidy gets a little more warning track shots and grounders to the expense of got unders, as Javier rules him in the air, but what stands out is a simple fact: Urquidy is getting hit much less hard than Javier, so Barrels are blooping or lining for singles or extra bases instead of bombs, an exchange that bodes well for José’s peripherals.

In his return from the IL Urquidy quieted the Red Sox being as efficient as an Astro pitcher has been this season, getting into the 6th inning on a pitch count and allowing a mere run to one of the best lineups in the AL. He’s back, and he’s here to stay.

Last but not least the most unexpected of the three flyballers, a random named arm who never pitched above A ball and was trusted into action last season to amazing results, gaining a berth to Game 5 of the ALDS. So far so good, Luis Garcia!

I’d like to tell you something different stuff-wise but the blueprint is the same as the other two boys: 92–95 mph fastball with some spin and a slider/cutter combo to finish off RHB (both over 40% Whiff). Against lefties more fastballs and a small share of changeups and curveballs (.087 xwOBA for the latter).

As they did it on purpose, Garcia is the missing piece between Javier and Urquidy. He walks some (8% BB rate), more than the latter but less than the former, he also strikes out more hitters than Urquidy while being hit harder but not as hard as Javier. Strikes? His Zone% is 49%, far better than Javier but not as strike-throwing machine José, same for the 1st Pitch Strike% at a good 59%.

If there’s anything quirky about Garcia is his windup, a rythmic and elaborate dance that is the complete opposite of Urquidy’s high BPMs pace. What all of them share is a consistent FB% and, wouldn’t you know, Garcia sits in the middle between Javier and Urquidy, a 49% rate that ranks 5th on the min. 50 IP leaderboard.

What about them flyballs?

Luis Garcia, 2021 BIP clustering

and tabled

Luis Garcia, 2021 BIP clustering table

Luis Garcia, king of the popouts! He allows a ton of got unders, less, and more painful, warning trackers than the others but his bloops don’t hurt as much as Urquidy’s. He’s also much better than Javier, but a tad worse than Urquidy, in the dangerous BIP department, as his no doubters and barrel zones are around 18.5% of his allowed balls in play.

Savant loves him as much, if not more than the other two members of the trio: he’s Urquidy on the strike zone, walking a smidge more, but he adds Javier’s strikeouts. His Whiff% are the best of the bunch, and he’s finally winning games, a 4–0 streak after a rough start devoid of run support.

After McCullers comes back from the IL, Dusty is going to have some difficult choices to make. Garcia could be the one having to reconcile with Javier on the bullpen, although he might be better than 3/5 of the Astros projected rotation if his last four starts are to be believed.

One of the hottest arguments around baseball has been the new ball: it seems like it’s not amounting to much as far as avg distance for FB is concerned, but it’s also hampering lower launch angles while being hit harder than the previous edition, a general raise in Max EVs that is troubling Barrels, their worth and definition, and maybe causing a HR decline.

For Houston’s flyball trio opinions are mixed: Urquidy and Garcia are fine, Javier would like the old ball back if it leads to less HardHits. However a high rate of balls in the air is not the sole common feature: they are all 50–60% gas and then breaking balls, with Javier and Urquidy also relying on a change and Garcia cutting into batters.

All of them are bringing their (minimum wage) money’s worth: ERAs around 3 and WHIPs around 1.00 are a boon for a rotation that missed a lot of Framber, some Odorizzi and now Lance McCurves.

They go about it the same way, with varying shades of control, yet they allow different contact profiles, flyballs sure, but not all are created equal. Still, I’d love to have them keep on going, either from pitch one or called upon in the middle of the game. You can never have too many good starters, not when the league is getting hurt as a war zone.

All stats and data from Baseball Savant, updated to June 1st.

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Alessandro Zilio

Italian baseball stathead. I’ll write about MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball and Korean dramas/shows. A lot of graphs, Astros related content and references.