This one's for Allen. He hasn't enjoyed Brandon League's recent inability to save one-run ballgames.* Allen asked me what's wrong with League, and I said nothing. We went back and forth for a bit, and I steadfastly stuck to my initial statement. However, I have to admit that I haven't seen League pitch much this season (I follow on the radio for the most part), and I didn't have any numbers in front of me as Allen and I texted back and forth.
*I haven't either, for the record.
I've looked at the numbers. Brandon League is different, but he's still Brandon League. The only thing that might be wrong is League's pitch selection, but that's nothing new.
Sample size is a significant issue with early season reliever data, but that's only if we are worried with predictions. Data helps us paint an exact picture of what's already happened, and that's at the heart of what Allen asked anyway. So, let's look at the numbers so far.
There are concerns in Brandon League's 2012 performance. Through 14 innings, his K/9 is 5.14, which would easily be a career low. His BB/9 is 3.86, which would be about a walk per 9 innings above his career average. League's ground ball rate is currently at 48.8%, and if that holds, it would be the first time he posts a rate below 50%. These are all troubling numbers.
However, League has counteracted the issues with some good fortune (or a newfound skill?) He has stranded 77.8% of baserunners so far, which is a rate 10% better than what we've seen out of him his past couple seasons as a Mariners. Also, with more fly balls, League should be more susceptible to home runs. However, he is yet to give up one!
The pros and cons of Brandon League's 2012 performance have roughly balanced each other. His ERA is at 2.57, which would be his lowest ERA as a Mariners, if it holds. The numbers suggest that Brandon League has been a bit more of a heart attack this season, but ultimately as effective.
The stranded runners and lazy fly balls won't last forever though. League has some concerns. The issues are connected, and hopefully can be fixed.
Let's start with League's low strikeout rate. It has always been confounding that League doesn't strike more batters out with what appears to be such electric stuff. There are a couple hidden trends that might explain why batters make so much contact against League.
First of all, League's stuff is far from static. He's always tinkering, which might keep him from mastering pitches. The power sinker has been the only pitch consistently in League's repertoire in its current form. League, in his final year as a Blue Jay, basically threw the sinker 2/3 of the time, and a change-up the other 1/3 of the time...
...sort of. League actually featured a splitfinger, but Pitch F/X data classified it as a change up. The two pitches are closely related, even though they have different grips. The baseball's spin is similar, and both pitches rely heavily on fooling the hitter into thinking it is a fastball with a fastball arm action. The splitfinger has been classified as a splitfinger ever since League came to the Mariners, and that could simply be a refinement in data collection. However, League's "change-up" averaged 85.5 MPH, and his splitfinger has clocked in at 86.8 and 86.7 MPH the last 2 seasons. League might have altered his grip a bit.
What's undeniable is League's different pitch selection patterns. League mixed a slider back into his repertoire when he came to Seattle, which lowered his use of the splitfinger. Who knows why League felt compelled to do this, given that his last year in Toronto was his best, but he did.
League isn't using his slider this year though. He's back to being a sinker-splitfinger pitcher, but the results don't look much like what he got at the end of his stint with the Blue Jays. This might be due in part to League's pitch selection.
Brandon League has thrown his sinker 73.3% of the time this year. That's up from 67.1% of the time last year. It's always been a hittable pitch, although hitters tend to pound it into the ground. League's other stuff (particularly his splitfinger) isn't nearly as hittable. In fact, League's two highest strikeout rates of his career have come in the seasons he used his sinker the least.
It's not surprising that League has struck out fewer batters with heavier use of his sinker. I went over to TexasLeaguers.com to break League's pitch selection down by count, and I became even more sure that this is the issue with his strikeout rate. So far, League has thrown his sinker 60% of the time in 0-1 counts, and 57% of the time in 0-2 counts. Last year, he threw his sinker in 32% of 0-1 counts, and just 21% of the time when he was 0-2 on a batter. Again, the non-sinker offerings are League's swing-and-miss stuff. I can't find a good reason that League is throwing so many more sinkers when he is ahead. He seems to intentionally be pitching to contact.
When League is behind in the count, he has always pumped in his sinker with reckless abandon. That hasn't changed this year. League has thrown his sinker 98% of the time when he is behind in the count this year, and that is exactly what his rate was last season as well. With this kind of extreme pattern, getting ahead of hitters has always been crucial to League's success. Strikes are important for any pitcher, but League doesn't mix his pitches at all unless he is ahead of a batter. You can bet hitters know this too.
It's easy to see why League's added walks are so troubling. They are indication that League is throwing fewer strikes, which means he's in the counts where he throws 98% sinkers more often. On top of that, even when he's ahead in the count, he's throwing the sinker more often.
The scouting report on Brandon League has to be four words: sit on the sinker. Why would a hitter do anything else?
Hitters are making more contact off of League this year thanks to a massive spike in contact on pitches outside the strike zone. Batters have hit 74.2% of pitches they've swung at outside the strike zone so far, which sticks out given that the rate against League is 54.6% for his career. League's line drive rate is also at a career high. Hitters are swinging at something, and squaring it up more than in years past.
On paper, it looks like hitters know what is coming from Brandon League. League can help himself out some by throwing more strikes, because that will get him in counts where he's more comfortable mixing pitches. I think it is a safe bet his control will improve as the season wears on.
League still needs to throw more offspeed pitches though, regardless of his command. He's simply a better pitcher when he mixes in things beyond his sinker more often. That's nothing new. Brandon League is still Brandon League.