Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs: Which Jays are Serving Up the Swedish Classic?

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Meatballs are an absolutely beautiful thing, unless you're a pitcher...

One of the hardest things to do when watching baseball is to determining where blame or credit lies regarding any individual outcome. When R.A. Dickey gets taken out of the yard by Chris Davis sometimes it's hard to tell if Dickey has thrown a bad pitch or Davis just put an unbelievable swing on the ball. When Mariano Rivera blew two saves last week due to the heroics of Miguel Cabrera, was he pitching poorly or was Cabrera hitting well? Commentators tend to take about "mistake pitches" leaving the park and attribute home runs allowed to the pitcher. There is usually truth to that, but there are times when a pitcher puts the ball right where he wants to and the batter hits a home run nonetheless. Ultimately, it takes two to tango.

While it is difficult to attribute responsibility at times, there is one scenario where you can put the blame on the shoulders of the pitcher. That scenario is when a pitcher throws one right down the middle of the plate about belt high, aka the "meatball". I'm sure if I searched long enough I could find a player in the MLB who has had trouble with a pitch right down the middle, but by and large, if you've made it to the big leagues you are able to not only hit a pitch in that location but clobber it. For example, since 2007 (the beginning of the PitchFx era) Miguel Cabrera has hit .475 on pitches right down the middle of the plate. Here's an aesthetically pleasing look at his isolated power by pitch location:

Cabrera is a monster anywhere in strike zone or inside but if you put one down the pipe you are in serious trouble. You don't have to be Miguel Cabrera to hit a pitch like that because it's the easiest pitch in baseball to hit. When the ball is placed in that location and it gets destroyed it is fair to say that the pitcher was at fault.

Given that the Blue Jays pitching staff has been wretched this year and has been especially victimized by the long ball I thought I would give a look at which pitchers are serving up the most meatballs and how hard those meatballs are getting hit. So far I have described meatballs as simply pitches thrown down the centre of the plate, but there is one condition. For the purposes of these rankings I will not include pitches thrown on 3-0 counts because they are commonly thrown down the middle and rarely swung at and as such it is hard to blame pitchers for throwing them there. Additionally, their inclusion would water down the amount of damage down on the mistake pitch type meatballs I am trying to describe. The Brooks Baseball diagrams I will be using will include these 3-0 pitches which accounts for the differences between my numbers and theirs. Unfortunately, there is no way that I know of to show a diagram of "everything except 3-0 counts". The cutoff for inclusion on this list was 40 IP so I could include the key relievers (Cecil, Janssen, Delabar and Loup) as well as the starters. I will also use the acronym "MB" for meatballs throughout the article because people seem fine with seeing the same short form over and over again but word repetition really grinds their gears. I don't know why that is but it just seems to be the case. Now that you've skimmed through the terms and conditions we are ready to get started. Here are the Blue Jays pitchers who've thrown the highest percentage of meatballs in 2013 in ascending order with the biggest distributor of meatballs earning the infamy of the title: "Swedish Chef":

Casey Janssen

Pitch Location in 2013:

MB% 2013: 3.4%

MB% 2007-2013: 4.9%

This is what it looks like when someone has excellent command. Wow. It seems like that command is only getting better with age also.

Results when throwing a MB

Time Period

AVG against

ISO against

Whiff% per Swing

2013

.300

.500

21.1%

2007-2013

.309

.223

14.7%

Janssen has thrown a MB so infrequently in 2013 that the line for this year is virtually meaningless, his numbers since 2007 are far more standard.

Mark Buehrle

Pitch Location in 2013:

MB% 2013: 3.9%

MB% 2007-2013: 3.9%

Mark Buehrle keeps being Mark Buehrle. He was never a threat to wear the chef's hat.

Results when throwing a MB

Time Period

AVG against

ISO against

Whiff% per Swing

2013

.333

.222

10.9%

2007-2013

.377

.203

6.8%

Once again Buehrle basically does what he does. Like anyone he is hurt by pitching in this location but he hasn't been slaughtered like some of his compatriots.

Josh Johnson

Pitch Location in 2013:

MB% 2013: 4.8%

MB% 2007-2013: 4.7%

One could argue that nibbling around the edges of the plate has been a bigger issue this year than coming over it, but it is frustrating to see yet another measure where Johnson seems to be pitching like he's done his whole career except for the fact that this year he is getting annihilated day in and day out.

Results when throwing a MB

Time Period

AVG against

ISO against

Whiff% per Swing

2013

.441

.559

13.7%

2007-2013

.364

.206

13.2%

Johnson hasn't thrown any more juicy ones over the plate but when he has they have been punished harder. Perhaps when he had his big time velocity it was easier to get away with the odd mistake, perhaps a tougher park and tougher lineups are the issue. There are probably multiple factors at play.

R.A Dickey

Pitch Location in 2013:

MB% 2013: 5.2%

MB% 2007-2013: 6.1%

I'm a bit astounded that Dickey is throwing fewer balls down the pipe than his career average but that career average does include some rough years pre-2010. He has also had more trouble finding the strike zone in general in 2013 so it ‘s understandable. It is a bit hard to call any knuckleball a true meatball due to its unique movement. At the same time we can't give up on analyzing Dickey and say "Oooo he's a got a special pitch with special powers sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't" because that's lazy and at the end of the day he is a pitcher like other pitchers who has to do the same things to succeed.

Results when throwing a MB

Time Period

AVG against

ISO against

Whiff% per Swing

2013

.417

.521

25.5%

2007-2013

.332

.231

16.7%

Dickey may not be throwing MB's as often as he traditionally has, and he has actually got a few more whiffs with them, but he is getting destroyed when he comes over the centre of the plate. There are a number of possible explanations but the bottom line is that when Dickey comes right down the plate the results have been devastating.

Esmil Rogers

Pitch Location in 2013:

MB% 2013: 5.3%

MB% Career: 6%

Rogers has improved at keeping the ball away from the heart of the plate this year and the diagram above shows a strong tendency to keep the ball down in 2013.

Results when throwing a MB

Time Period

AVG against

ISO against

Whiff% per Swing

2013

.375

.275

6.3%

Career

.384

.326

5.8%

Pretty standard stuff here. Interesting that for a guy with some velocity Rogers can't get a whiff down the plate to save his life.

Steve Delabar

Pitch Location in 2013:

MB% 2013: 5.7%

MB% Career: 5.5%

Steve Delabar has demonstrated some spotty command in his tenure with the Jays, which can be forgiven on account of his dynamite stuff. At the very least this picture seems to suggest that when he misses he misses down.

Results when throwing a MB

Time Period

AVG against

ISO against

Whiff% per Swing

2013

.412

.353

28.6%

Career

.385

.385

26.6%

Delabar gets absolutely pounded on the MB, but at the same time he still manages to generate a respectable amount of whiffs. Sounds about right.

J.A. Happ

Pitch Location in 2013:

MB%: 6.7%

MB% Career: 5.4%

This is not very encouraging by Happ, especially when represented visually. He's never had fantastic command and this picture is a demonstration of that.

Results when throwing a MB

Time Period

AVG against

ISO against

Whiff% per Swing

2013

.294

.059

10.6%

Career

.338

.286

14.1%

Happ seems to be getting away with his MB's this year. That has to be a function of a small sample size and he has shown in the past he gets hit around on these pitches just like everyone else.

Aaron Loup

Pitch Location in 2013:

MB% 2013: 6.8 %

MB% Career: 6.5%

I bet you wouldn't have guessed you'd find Aaron Loup down here. Loup pounds the strike zone but this one was really surprising for me. Note how he never, ever leaves the ball up.

Results when throwing a MB

Time Period

AVG against

ISO against

Whiff% per Swing

2013

.364

.318

6.1%

Career

.310

.241

5.6%

Loup definitely isn't blowing anyone away down the middle, which makes sense given his lack of swing and miss stuff.

Brandon Morrow

Pitch Location in 2013:

MB% 2013: 6.9%

MB% Career: 5.2%

It's possible that we have part of an explanation for Morrow's struggles this year here, though there have been so many other pitching struggles since then that they seem like a distant memory. We know that Brandon can be better than this; it's just a matter of getting him healthy for 2014.

Results when throwing a MB

Time Period

AVG against

ISO against

Whiff% per Swing

2013

.314

.286

12.7%

Career

.302

.297

13.7%

No surprises here. A few whiffs but largely a shelling.

Brett Cecil

Pitch Location in 2013:

MB% 2013: 7.1%

MB% Career: 5.4%

We have a winner! A winner I would have never have guessed, though one with the smallish sample that comes from being a reliever, but a winner nonetheless. Cecil dons the Swedish chef's floppy hat of shame on account of the copious amounts of meatballs he's been serving up.

I have to say I'm pretty stunned by this result. I would not have guessed this in a million years. Cecil has been so effective this year I would have assumed he was painting the corners of the plate and staying away from the heart of it. Apparently that's not exactly the case.

Results when throwing a MB

Time Period

AVG against

ISO against

Whiff% per Swing

2013

.500

.458

11.4%

Career

.377

.347

8.8%

Given how successful Cecil has been this is some pretty crazy stuff. It shows how dominant he's been when he locates anywhere else. Give that Cecil is our Swedish Chef he deserves a little bit more of detailed analysis. Here is his batting average against by zone this year:

He's pretty much unhittable in the vast majority of locations, but down the middle he has conceded 30% (12/40) of his hits against. The visual is even more profound when we look at isolated power against:

I guess my big tip for Cecil then would be STAY AWAY FROM THE MIDDLE OF THE PLATE. It's not even remotely close to that easy but sometimes it's fun to put a write something in all capitals.

At the end of the day there it seems that meatball percentage is unlikely to become the next big thing in baseball analysis as it correlates fairly poorly to overall success. Throwing a pitch down the heart of the plate is a terrible idea and often results in disaster. However, it is an uncommon enough event, between 3% and 7% among Blue Jays pitchers, that knowing its frequency doesn't actually tell us that much about a pitcher's overall results. That makes this whole endeavor more about fun than serious research, but I can live with that. I'm fairly pro fun and I would hope most of you are as well. More than anything I hope the nickname Brett "Swedish Chef" Cecil becomes a thing because that would validate everything I've done with my life to this point. I've got a sneaking suspicion that validation will have to wait for another day...

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