Often times a player will struggle in an organization to the point that he is eventually designated for assignment resulting in his being optioned to the minors, traded, released, or sold. More often than not moving from one organization to another is not a magic elixir to cure whatever ills may have ailed the player but every once in awhile their is a sudden and vast improvement. The player that couldn’t get on base or record an out in their previous organization suddenly carries a potent bat or becomes a force in the center of the diamond with the new organization.
Such is the case with Indians relief pitcher Esmil Rogers, who has seemingly found himself with the Tribe after struggling mightily with the Colorado Rockies. Prior to being designated for assignment on June 9th he had worked 25.2 innings and posted an 0-2 record with an 8.06 ERA. Despite the ability to strike hitters out (22.1% strikeout rate) he was unable to command the strike zone and carried a walk rate of 13.7% while the opposition hit .278 (36-for-111) against him. (Just for the record, he was not victimized by playing in Coors Field as the opposition posted a slash line .325/.400/.400 at home and .323/.488/.677 away.)
The Indians decided to take a flier on Rogers because he possesses one skill that cannot be taught: velocity. With the Rockies in 2012 his fastball averaged 96.1 mph and he has reared back and touched 99 mph on several occasions.
So far, the decision has paid immediate dividends. Since being acquired by the Indians on June 12th he has appeared in 15 games (19.2 innings) and has a sparkling ERA of 2.29. He has struck out 24 batters (32.0%) while walking only three (4.0%), and has held the opposition to a .157 average against (11-for-70). Is his newfound success due to some sort of mechanical change? Did he add a specific pitch to his repertoire? Or is he benefiting from the move from the National League, where hitters were familiar with him to the American League, where the hitters don’t have the same book on him yet?
- Mechanical Observations
A player’s statistics mean much more when they can be paired with visual observation; therefore, in order to observe any changes between Rogers as a member of the Rockies and as a member of the Indians I watched video of each of his relief outings in 2012. The first thing I noticed was his positioning on the extreme third base side of the pitching rubber. The more video I watched the more perplexed I was at this positioning on the rubber, and it became clear that right handed batters were hitting him hard and left handed hitters had an easier time drawing walks.
Against right handed batters it seemed that he was catching too much of the hitting zone with his fastball, and if his slider didn’t have a lot of bite it would end up in the middle of the plate. Meanwhile, it seemed that left handed batters were taking his fastball, which seemed to have a natural tail away, and getting ahead in the count. The splits matched up with the observation. Right-handed hitters are hitting .400/.417/.617 off of him, while lefties are hitting only .235/.381/.314. His walk rate against righties was 8.8% (6 walks in 68 PA’s) but against lefties that number jumped to 19% (12 walks in 63 PAs).
Could the early success with the Indians be attributed to a simple move off the extreme third base side of the rubber? After watching video of Rogers with the Indians, it’s clear that his positioning on the rubber has not changed. Meanwhile, I observed no other changes in his mechanics.
- Change in Approach and Pitch Selection
The question that I wanted to answer here was whether or not he had added or dropped another pitch since coming to the Indians? Utilizing the Pitch F/X data from Texas Leaguers by texasleaguers.com, it appears that he is using his fastball slighty more against right-handers and has changed his approach versus lefties by cutting down his reliance on the slider and using a two-seam fastball more . These trends with the Indians are based a sample size which is about half of the amount of pitches thrown while he was a member of the Rockies, but they are good to look at for comparative purposes.
- Hitters’ Adjustments
One of the last items to look at is are hitters have responded to his pitches since he arrived in Cleveland. The question that I wanted to answer here is whether or not his success is simply a reflection of a league that hasn’t seen enough of him. When looking at this aspect of Rogers’ success, we have to keep in mind that five of his 15 appearances with the Indians have come against NL teams. In those five appearances he went six innings and gave up two earned runs while striking out eight, walking zero, and held holding opposition to a .174 average against (4-for-23). In his 10 games against AL teams he has pitched 13.2 innings, allowing three earned, striking out 16 and walking two, and has held the opposition to an average of .149 (7-for-47).
Using the Pitch F/X data on fangraphs.com we can see how hitters reacted to Rogers in Colorado and note any changes in approach against him as a member of the Indians. Specifically, we’ll examine the the O-Swing% (the percentage of pitches a batters wings at outside the strike zone), Z-Swing% (percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone), Swing% (the overall percentage of pitches a batter swings at), Zone% (overall percentage of pitches a hitters sees in the strike zone), and SwStr% (the percentage of pitches a batter swings and misses on).
From the data presented above we see the following trends:
- The percentages of pitches that players are swinging at outside the strike zone (O-Swing%) has increased dramatically from 27.3% to 36.8%, which is much higher than his career average of 26.1%.
- The percentage of pitches that players are swinging at in the strike zone (Z-Swing%) has decreased from 68% with the Rockies to 62.5% with the Indians, which is much lower than his career average of 68.2%.
- The percentage of pitches that a player swings at (Swing%) has increased from 44.5% while with the Rockies to 48.0% with the Indians, which is much higher than his career average of 45.6%.
- The amount of pitches a hitter sees in the strike zone has remained relatively unchanged at 42.3% with the Rockies and 43.6% with the Indians. Both numbers are slightly below his career average of 46.3%.
- The amount of pitches at which hitters swing and miss (SwStr%) has increased dramatically from 9.6% with the Rockies to 12.5% with the Indians, which is well above his career average of 8.6%.
- The amount of first-pitch strikes has increased from 58.0% with the Rockies to 62.7% with the Indians.
After looking at possible mechanical changes that Rogers may have made, examining his approach against the opposition in terms of pitch selection, and looking at how hitters have responded to him as an Indian the conclusion I draw is that Rogers is the same pitcher in Cleveland that he was in Colorado with much better results.
One of the biggest differences between the positive results he’s had in Cleveland versus the negative results he had in Colorado has to do with Rogers’ command of the strike zone. With the Rockies he threw 39% (222 of 565 pitches) for balls as opposed to only 33% (100 of 303 pitches) for balls with the Indians.
Another difference has much to do with the plate discipline of the hitters that he’s facing. At some point in the near future, American League hitters might stop swinging at so many pitches out of the strike zone and force Rogers to come over the plate. When this happens we will see the walk totals creep up, and since hitters will be working in more favorable counts we are more than likely going to see a higher batting average against.
When this occurs I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Indians move him off the extreme third base side of the rubber, which would enable him to not have to come across the hitting zone every time he attempted to hit the outside corner against right-handed batters and afford him the ability to throw a flat slider without it ending up right over the plate. Additionally, moving on the rubber would give him more of the plate to work with against left-handed batters and allow him to take advantage of the natural tail he has on his fastball.