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Sizzling to Shivering: Hot Starters Currently Cold (And Vice Versa)

Brian Cassella - Chicago Tribune

Is anybody hotter than Corey Kluber? And what happened to Ivan Nova’s explosive start?

In 2015, Chicago Cubs ace Jake Arrieta won the National League Cy Young Award. His season totals sure do look like that of a Cy Young winner: 22-6 record, 1.77 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 236 strikeouts in 229 innings, and league bests in hits per nine innings (5.9) and home runs per nine innings (0.4). Yet Jake Arrieta did not make the All-Star team in his 2015 Cy Young season. Hector Santiago, the Los Angeles Angels starter who pitched to a 4.77 FIP and gave up a league-leading 29 homers in 2015, was an All-Star. Not Arrieta.

Winning the Cy Young and failing to make the All-Star team in the same season is not exactly unheard of. Rick Porcello of the Boston Red Sox did so in the American League last season, and before Arrieta there was Corey Kluber in 2014. After all, it only takes a strong first half to earn a nod in the Mid-Summer Classic. It requires a full season of work to win one of the major awards, and in Arrieta’s case his absolutely dominant second half was enough to take home the prize.

After a tepid first half that did not get him to the 2015 All-Star Game, Arrieta became the definition of hot in the second half. Similarly, in 2017 we have witnessed players take their game to another level recently after a slow start. On the other hand, there are also players who exploded out of the gate only to cool off rapidly as the season progressed. As FiveThirtyEight recently revealed, there is more to momentum in baseball than “forcing narratives on random patterns.” Not including the far-too-obvious cases of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, here are three players who lately are simply scorching and three players who started hot and are now ice cold.

Not-to-Hot

Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians

Image titleJason Miller - Getty Images

When Kluber landed on the disabled list with a lower back strain in May, his ERA stood at 5.06. Outside of a complete game shutout against the Chicago White Sox, his first six starts in 2017 were forgettable to say the least. Since he came off the DL on June 1st, however, Kluber has been on some kind of tear. He is 8-1 with a 1.85 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, three complete games, and 151 strikeouts to just 17 walks over the past two-and-a-half months.

Since Kluber essentially pitched like Kenley Jansen as a starter, he is putting himself forward as a challenger to Chris Sale’s seemingly inevitable AL Cy Young. In fact, among starters only Sale tops his insane strikeout rate (35.8%) and K-BB% rate (30.2%). While we have never seen Kluber as great as he is now, we have seen Kluber trend like this before. When the Klubot took home his aforementioned 2014 Cy Young award, his 15-game rolling average in ERA, FIP, and xFIP looked like this:

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Here is the same data, only with his 2017 numbers:

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Like a fine wine, Kluber gets better with age. Or rather, when Kluber is hot, the starts compound with each other and become dominating stretches. The Indians are only 9-5 in his starts since June 1st, but as Kluber heated up so did his team; Cleveland cumulatively made up seven games in the standings and currently sits atop the AL Central by 4.5 games. Kluber will continue to chase the record for most consecutive starts with eight or more strikeouts, but it would not hurt the Indians if he saved a few bullets in his arm for the postseason.

Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies

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Nick Wosicka - Icon Sportswire

Something I did not know about Charlie Blackmon is that his middle name is Cobb. Yes, like Ty Cobb, the Hall of Famer whom Blackmon has hit like over the past month or so. Over the past 30 days, Charlie Blackmon batted a blistering .398. Only the great Jose Altuve, who hit nearly .500 in July, beat out Blackmon over that same span.

The book on Blackmon was that his increase in offensive production came from a decline in his ground ball rate. If you play half your games in Coors Field, you bet you want to get the ball off the ground and let it travel through the thin, mile-high air. Yet oddly, even though Blackmon leads baseball in total bases (291) and is putting up the highest single-season OPS (1.008) of his career, his ground ball rate is rising towards his career average:

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Given that this season he cracked an ankle-high pitch over the right-center field wall, it is not as if Blackmon abandoned his lifting approach. He is hotter than ever, and launch angle does not fully explain why. Is Blackmon getting lucky, or is this the Coors Field effect at its finest?

The answer is a bit of both. Blackmon’s BABIP (.376) is the eighth-highest in baseball and about 40 points above his career average. As for his home road splits, they are literally the most extreme in history. At home, Blackmon is slashing .398/.469/.815. On the road, he becomes a .285/.331/.452 hitter. Charlie Blackmon outside of Colorado is still a good hitter, but the gap in OPS is over 500 points! Since the Rockies finish the season with more games at Coors (24) than away (20), Blackmon’s extreme splits are not a bad thing for their wild card push. His BABIP luck might regress, but if he continues to feast on the thin Denver air Blackmon could make a very strong case for the NL MVP.

Steve Cishek, Tampa Bay Rays

Image titleWill Vragovic - Tampa Bay Times

Since Cishek is a reliever and relievers are flighty beasts with small samples, it is tricky to pinpoint statistically how hot or cold he was or is at a given moment. Sometimes he has it, and sometimes it eludes him. Since the All-Star Break and his trade from the Seattle Mariners to Tampa, Cishek has had it. He possesses the third-lowest batting average against (.111) among all pitchers (min 10 IP) in the second half.

Cishek has been a solid reliever for most of his career, as indicated by his career 3.02 FIP that has never been above 3.86 over a full season. However, Cishek’s success this year appears to be a mirage. His strikeout numbers have diminished from last season (29.5% K-rate to 21.8%), his velocity is down a tick, his left-on-base percentage is an exceedingly high 88.2%, and his BABIP against (.162) is unsustainable for a guy who has a 60% ground ball rate. To Cishek’s credit, his rate of soft contact (28.2%) is in the same company as elite relievers like Kenley Jansen, Wade Davis, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances. Without the same strikeout stuff as those aforementioned relief aces, however, it is difficult to see Cishek sustaining this kind of pace.

Hot-to-Not

Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals

Image titleMark J. Rebilas - USA Today Sports

Oh April, where have you gone? Justin Turner was still hitting .400, Eric Thames was mashing, and nobody was hotter than Ryan Zimmerman. At the end of April, Zimmerman was fourth in baseball in WAR (1.8), slashing .420/.458/.886 with a league-high 11 long balls. In mid-August, Zim is still having a renaissance season, with his 140 wRC+ the best it has been since 2010 (and a huge improvement over last year’s disappointing 67 wRC+). But his cumulative WAR went from 1.8 at the start of May to just 2.3 over three-and-a-half months. On May 6th, Zimmerman peaked with a 250 wRC+, tops in baseball. Since then, he has been at a 98 wRC+ pace, or 107th out of 147 qualified hitters over the past three months. 

There was no way Zimmerman (or anybody else) was going to keep up his .448 BABIP in April long term. The streaky first baseman had evidence of similarly hot periods in the past, but this time his numbers appeared to be a product of the launch angle movement. During his decline, his GB% and FB% have regressed to be more in line with his career numbers. Still, after three months of a declining OPS, Zimmerman may have turned a corner in August. The Nationals will need his production with Bryce Harper out indefinitely.

Yonder Alonso, Seattle Mariners

Image titleDoug Duran - Bay Area News Group

Yonder Alonso went from a contact-hitting first baseman to one of the most written about hitters in the league, and the stories about him nicely summarized his 2017 season. Alonso tore up spring training, then became the poster boy for baseball’s launch angle craze. As the Oakland Athletics fell further out of contention, trade rumors began circulating until he was an August acquisition for the Mariners. With Alonso struggling on his new team, we now ask our fly ball poster child, “What happened to the fly balls?” 

What made Alonso such a dangerous power hitter, seemingly out of nowhere, was his newfound ability to lift the ball. Over the first two months of the season, Alonso was pretty good about driving balls in the strike zone rather than pounding them on the ground:

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Since June, however, Alonso lost the fly ball mojo, likely as pitchers adjusted to his new approach:

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Here is a look of Alonso’s fly ball rate against hard, breaking, and offspeed pitches over the course of the season, also courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

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Perhaps it is encouraging that, as pitchers began busting him more inside, he is getting better at lifting the ball in that location. Perhaps it is also encouraging that Alonso is lifting fastballs in this abbreviated August sample, even if during that same span he has yet to put a breaking or offspeed pitch in the air. If his interviews are any indication, Alonso seems to feel he is not far off from returning to form.

Given that Safeco Field is at its shortest in right and right-center field, Alonso needs to regain his fly ball stroke if he wants to maximize his power. Mariners first basemen are collectively slugging .388, third-worst in baseball. Seattle needs Alonso’s power now more than ever, as they sit just two games behind the second AL wild card spot.

Ivan Nova, Pittsburgh Pirates

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Dilip Vishwanat - Getty Images

When Ivan Nova appeared in the “Sample Size” series, it was because he was giving up more fly balls than usual without being damaged by them, emphasizing his fastball more often, and beating his peripherals. Over the last few weeks, Nova has certainly regressed. His LOB% and BABIP are now much more in line with the league averages, but in other areas regression hit him like a freight train.

Since the start of June when he had an ERA below 3.00, Nova has made 12 starts. In those 12 appearances, he has allowed 17 home runs. His HR/FB rate through the first two months of the season was unsustainably low at 7.5%. But since June, it has been unsustainably high at 23.9%. Over the past 30 days, he has been the second-worst starter in baseball at preventing fly balls from leaving the yard.

His control is as good as ever, meaning his new proclivity for the long ball is not as catastrophic as it could be. However, as batters adapt to his uber-aggressive pitching style, it might be to Nova’s benefit if he throws more pitches out of the zone to coax a swinging strike here or there. Regression accounts for why Nova is not as dominant as he was at the start of the year, but bad luck more than anything has plunged him into his current slump.


All statistics are accurate as of August 13th, 2017 and, unless otherwise noted, were obtained from Baseball-Reference, BaseballSavant, Brooks Baseball, and FanGraphs, respectively.

Edited by Jeremy Losak, Kat Johansen.

SQuiz
Ryan Zimmerman was the runner-up for the 2006 NL Rookie of the Year award. Who won?
Created 8/14/17
  1. Ryan Howard
  2. Hanley Ramirez
  3. Prince Fielder
  4. Troy Tulowitzki

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