A year ago, one of baseball’s best individual player stories was Kris Medlen, of the Braves. Previously something of a forgotten man, Medlen threw 138 innings as a reliever and then as a starter, allowing just 26 runs and six dingers. The year before, Pirates sinkerballer Charlie Morton made a name for himself by starting 29 times and allowing just six dingers. The year before that, Brett Anderson was outstanding for the A’s when healthy, making 19 starts and riding his sinker while allowing just six dingers. This year, the Royals are looking like an early American League surprise, and one of their best arms out of the bullpen is Kelvin Herrera. But over just 14 games, Herrera has already allowed six dingers, his latest coming on Monday.
Maybe we don’t need to compare Herrera to other pitchers, who don’t have anything to do with him. As fun as it is to compare opposite extremes, if we want to make a point we need only compare Herrera to himself. Already in 2013, Herrera has seen six batted balls fly over the fence. Last season — over a full season — Herrera saw four batted balls do the same thing. Against 17% as many opposing hitters, Herrera has allowed 150% as many home runs, and that’s a thing for us to talk about.
I don’t want to waste your time. I’ll tell you right now about the conclusion to this post: I think Herrera is probably going to be fine. I think Herrera might already be fine, results be damned. I don’t know that for sure, and I don’t know anything for sure, except for Herrera’s numbers to date. That’s what we’re going to get to, so if you don’t find that sufficiently interesting, please be on your way. There might be something else out there more gripping, more worthy of your minutes.
But when you see results like this, they beg to be examined. Herrera requires examination, given the curiousness of his statistics. When a good player struggles, the question will follow: what’s up with Kelvin Herrera? Is Herrera broken, or is he going to straighten things out?
According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, it’s not like Herrera has been coughing up cheapies. Four of the six homers would’ve left every ballpark, and another would’ve left 26. The last would’ve left 14, which is still about half. The Braves went deep thrice off Herrera on April 16. Since then, the homers haven’t come in flurries, but they’ve still come, leading to Herrera’s three losses. Starting pitcher wins and losses don’t tell you very much. Reliever losses can tell you a bit more, and Herrera has as many losses in 2013 as he had in all of 2012.
Interestingly, Herrera’s strikeouts are way up. His pitch velocities haven’t changed significantly, nor have his pitch movements. His contact rate allowed is fantastic, and his groundballs are down (not a pun) (you are awful). His overall pitch mix is very similar. Nothing about Herrera’s heat maps jumps out at me. Three of the homers have been hit by righties, and the other three homers have been hit by lefties. We might as well just look, and here are some .gifs.
Homer No. 1
First pitch, April 16. Jason Heyward got an outer-half fastball and knocked it out to the opposite field. The target was on the inner edge, so Herrera missed with his location, and Heyward muscled the ball over the fence.
Homer No. 2
Second pitch, April 16. This was a changeup, to Justin Upton. The pitch was supposed to be down, and it ended up inside above the belt. Poor location, again, and Herrera was made to pay the ultimate price for it. I mean, not the ultimate price, but a heavy price.
Homer No. 3
Two batters after Upton, it’s Dan Uggla, blasting out the third pitch, in an 0-and-2 count. Instead of a fastball down and in, Herrera threw a fastball up and out over the plate, and Uggla destroyed it, as you do. Uggla would’ve been prepared to swing, behind two strikes. He was given a fastball dead red.
Homer No. 4
A 1-and-1 pitch to Daniel Nava. A low-away changeup was instead a middle-middle changeup, and Nava didn’t miss it. That’s right over the center of the plate, and thigh-high.
Homer No. 5
Here we have a pitch that isn’t bad. It’s a full-count fastball to Ryan Raburn, and though Raburn had seen only fastballs so far in the at-bat, this fastball clipped the outer edge, and Raburn drove it high and deep the other way. The location here wasn’t bad, and Raburn might have taken advantage of some strong swirling winds. Sometimes hitters just hit home runs, and it’s not the pitcher’s fault.
Homer No. 6
In a 3-and-1 count, a hitter is trained to look for a fastball down the middle. Jordan Danks got a fastball down the middle and didn’t make a mistake with it. Ideally the pitch would’ve been a little lower and a little more inside, but Herrera grooved it and got a grooved result.
There are your six Kelvin Herrera home runs already in 2013. A lot of them came on pitches that missed their intended locations, and that could be a clue — Herrera has been missing his spots. A pitcher is less likely to get the results he wants if he isn’t executing his game plan. I suspect that most home runs come on pitches that missed their intended locations, and Herrera’s stuff is such that even when he misses, he shouldn’t get punished that often. A natural guess when confronted by something like this is that the pitcher is tipping his pitches. From April:
Tuesday night Kelvin Herrera pitched the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves and gave up three home runs. I said his location was bad—his pitches were up in the zone—Herrera said he thinks he was tipping pitches.
But, from a few days later:
After the three booming blasts at Atlanta, there was a flurry of speculation that Herrera might be tipping his pitches. That theory since has been emphatically dismissed by Yost, Eiland and Herrera. Like real estate, it’s location, location, location. And Herrera had wandered into the pitching slums.
So Herrera thought he was tipping his pitches, until he didn’t. And though we don’t know what pitch-tipping looks like in the numbers, it doesn’t make sense that a guy tipping his pitches would see his strikeout rate jump from 22% to 32%. The Royals’ conclusion, at least publicly, is simply that Herrera has been missing up. That could be supported by all the home runs. That could be supported by the increase in fly-ball rate. That could be supported by the decrease in contact rate, given that it’s harder to catch up with high heat. Herrera is all but forcing hitters to put the ball in the air more often, and when you do that, dingers can follow.
There’s no such thing as a pitcher who sustains a homer rate like Herrera’s, and it’s going to come way down. Maybe it comes down due to simple regression, maybe it comes down due to a mechanical tweak, or maybe it comes down due to both. Herrera, so far, has been throwing from a slightly elevated arm slot, and that could be a contributing factor. But, for the sake of example: this is an article being written because Herrera’s homer rate is way up. Herrera, also, has already generated as many infield fly balls as he did in 2012 (six). You would find it silly if I wrote an article examining whether Herrera is suddenly an infield-fly machine. So it’s similarly silly to consider whether Herrera is suddenly a dinger machine. The difference between a dinger and a harmless fly ball is extraordinarily slim, and the difference between a dinger and a whiff is only a little bigger. Herrera’s homer rate is way too high, and whether he pitches as he’s pitched or makes a minor adjustment, his stuff is so good that you have to think his numbers from this point forward are going to look a lot more like Kelvin Herrera’s expected numbers.
The worry is because Herrera hasn’t gotten the results he got in 2012. On April 21, 2012, Herrera allowed his third and fourth home runs of the season, in his seventh appearance. Over his remaining 69 appearances, Herrera didn’t allow a single home run. The last time this happened to Herrera, he came away being dominant. When confronted with a guy with excellent stuff and dinger-happy short-term results, expect dominance.