Thursday, November 12, 2009

Jason Varitek’s Fast Decline in 2009

 Note: I wrote this as a side project about a month ago. With yesterdays news that Varitek is returning to the Red Sox, I thought I should just post it here.

Jason Varitek’s hot bat early in the 2009 season appeared to justify the 2-year contract the Red Sox handed him in the offseason. However, his production nosedived late this year. Since the acquisition of star catcher Victor Martinez, Varitek hit just .134 while striking out one out of every three at-bats.  Many wondered whether the Martinez acquisition would affect the playing time of third baseman Mike Lowell and first baseman Kevin Youkilis but it is quite clear that Varitek’s playing time has suffered the most.

Varitek’s .209 batting average during the 2009 season was far and away the lowest of his 12-year career.  The strikeout percentage of his at-bats last year (24.7) reflects his career rate of 24.6 percent so his paltry .238 batting average of balls in-play (BABIP) shares the most blame for his sinking batting average.  Only three hitters in the big leagues, Ken Griffey Jr., Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro, had a lower batting average on balls in-play.  

Normally, a BABIP that deflated likely indicates a great deal of unsustainable bad luck avoiding defenders, but Varitek made it quite easy for them.  Sixteen percent of his fly balls ended up in the infield, a rate among the league leaders in the category. Digging a little deeper, the strike zone graphic below shows the pitch type and location of the pitches he popped up when he batted lefty (seen from the catcher’s view.)  Evidently, most of his pop outs came on fastballs located up-and-in.

After running this query, my first inclination was to examine Varitek’s ability to hit the fastball.   Has he lost a significant amount of bat speed and his ability catch up with big league heat?  This is where the scouting and statistical perspectives convene.  With Pitch F/X, we can examine statistically how Varitek fared against the fastball.  By grouping the types of fastballs together and analyzing the outcomes of Varitek’s swings across the season, we can see some trends below.

Calculated on a monthly basis, Varitek’s percentage of swings against the fastball resulting in a hit decreased from June to Sept/Oct. Of the 47 hacks against the fastball in Sept/Oct, only three produced a base hit and fourteen completely missed contact, generating a hit and whiff percentage of 6.4 percent and 29.8 percent respectively.  It’s also worth noting that pitchers have fed him a season-high 58.9 percent fastballs in the most recent time period, albeit by a slight margin.

Looking at this in aggregate, Varitek’s problems with fastballs increased this year relative to last.  His swing-and-miss percentage against fastballs grew from 18.2 percent in 2008 to 20.8 percent this season, with a larger percentage toward the end of the season.   Without bat speed information, Varitek’s low batting average is apparently less bad luck than it is a product of failing to make strong contact with a pitch he sees so frequently.

Another Pitch F/X component we can use to find Varitek’s weak spots is his pitch location.  Are pitchers exploiting a specific zone against Varitek?  To answer this question, we can chart all pitches to Varitek and examine the pitch densities in the strike zone. For example, this chart displays the pitches Varitek when he bats from the left side.
Judging from the high density of outside pitches, pitchers targeted Varitek away as opposed to jamming him on the inside half of the plate. Is Varitek unique in this respect? To explore this I compared Varitek’s pitch location zones percentages to those of the average major leaguer.  The strike zone template key below explains the meaning of each zone.  The (left or right) handedness of the hitter is incorporated and blended into one chart for visual simplicity but the zones are not visually adjusted for size.
This chart confirms that opposing pitchers preferred to pound the outside to Varitek and not the inside.  More than one third of the pitches that Varitek saw fall outside the strike zone away.  The largest difference between the two samples lies in the up-and-away zone (8.8 percent to 14.2 percent).   Pitchers tend to work hitters away in general but this tendency strengthened when Jason Varitek stood in at the plate.

The final step in the analysis involves combining two findings: Varitek’s fastball weakness and the heavy concentration of outside pitches.  Is there an area where Varitek swing-and-misses the fastball more often? Where are the fastballs that he can drive for hits? In the next graphic, we can see the answers.

The number of hits on the inner half of the plate in the strike zone [X,Y area (0-1,1.5-3.5)] are about even with the sum of swing-and-misses.  However, looking at the up-and-away region, swing-and-misses drastically outnumber the base hits.  Recall the information in the pitch location charts.  Pitches target this zone with their heat perhaps because they understand Varitek struggles to make strong contact there. 

If Varitek struggled this much against any other pitch, it wouldn’t be as big a concern.  But because opposing pitchers elect to throw the fastball more often than not, Varitek must adopt changes in his hitting or else he will continue to show deteriorating results.


RZ said...

Apparently opposing teams are not pitching him like this since he is still seeing less than 60% fastballs. Looking at Fan Graphs, his pitch run value against the fastball is directly tied with his wOBA.

I question whether pitchers are intentionally pitching away to induce contact or Vartiek is really not that good anymore?

Tom Haberstroh said...


Fastball value and wOBA are generally tied for most players, given how often they are thrown. To answer your question, those two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.

Nick Steiner said...

Good stuff Tom! This was a very enjoyable read.

I have a couple of questions. Is the MLB Average location chart for all hitters or just the LHH ones?
Also, just a pointless tip, the LHH strike zone is going to be pushed over about 2.5 inches to the third base side, so that may explain why it seems like he's swinging at so many pitches outside.

Tom Haberstroh said...

Thanks, Nick. Glad you enjoyed it! I ran this about a month ago but IIRC, the MLB avg was just LHH. I've seen different strike zones in the past so I was unclear whether to line it up the way Dan Brooks does or extend it. Thanks for clearing that up.

Nick Steiner said...

Yeah, I generally used the strike zone coordinates shown at the end of this article by John Walsh:

To convert to feet, just divide by 12 obviously. Also, just to confirm your theory, I ran rv100's for Varitek's fastballs on the outer third (between -.5 and -1.5 px) as a lefty. This year, he's at -1.85 (from the pitchers perspective) compared to a league average of -.37. So he's really sucked.

Tom Haberstroh said...

Is the opposite of impressive depressive? That's depressive. It would be awesome to have access to pitch rv's for this type of study. Glad you ran it.

Nick Steiner said...

Do you have access to a Pitch f/x database? I would be happy to send you my query, and you could calculate run values yourself.

Tom Haberstroh said...

Yes, I do. Thanks, Nick. My email is tom dot haberstroh at gmail dot com.

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