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Pedro Báez has found consistency

The much-maligned Dodgers reliever is having a fantastic season due to some notable improvements.

NLCS - Chicago Cubs v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Mention the name Pedro Báez and two things happen: Dodgers fans bristle as they recall home runs allowed at inopportune moments and everybody else gets exasperated with even the thought of how long he takes to throw a pitch. Baez has not been an easy player to watch or root for, a fact made clear by Twitter when he takes the mound.

And my personal favorite:

Here’s the thing about Pedro Báez though: he’s having a great year. In 30 23 innings he owns a 1.47 ERA, and is putting up a career-high 16.3 percent swinging strike rate and allowing a career-low 68.8 contact rate. Now, is Báez a true-talent sub-two ERA player? Probably not. His FIP of 3.89 tells us we should be a little wary of his season to date. It’s due mostly to a career high walk rate of 11 percent and his 8.1 home-run-to-fly-ball rate, a number that isn’t a career low, but is nearly half of last year’s mark. He’s is also carrying an almost certainly unsustainable 97.5 percent left-on-base percentage.

A bit of regression will almost certainly come calling for Báez, but he is still an excellent reliever. A fact we should acknowledge by trying to work past our gut reaction upon hearing his name. Yes he takes a long time to throw the ball, but Báez has made tangible improvements this season. Let’s take a look at them.

Picking up the pace

He still takes a long time between pitches, but Báez has gone from first to sixth among all qualified relievers in FanGraphs’ “Pace” metric by shaving .7 seconds off of his time between pitches from 2016 to 2017. That’s not a lot, but it’s something. There are plenty of variables that “Pace” does not account for, so it’s an imperfect measurement, but it is a simple way to back up the eye test.

As Doug Padilla detailed for ESPN.com in April, speeding up his tempo has been a point of emphasis for Báez this year.

“I didn’t think I took that long. I thought it was normal. Now I understand after they talked about it. I’m working on it. I’ve been working on it since then to speed it up a little bit.”

...

“Just working to be faster pitch to pitch,” he said. “I’ve been working hard just on that, working to get faster between pitches.”

In that same piece, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen said he thought it would be beneficial for Báez to work with a quicker pace.

“I think it will be good for him to speed up a little bit and have more tempo,” Jansen ultimately admitted. “He has too good of stuff to go slow every time. ... I think he will get a little more rhythm out there, faster with a little more tempo and will have really good success with it.”

Everyone seems to agree that working with a sense of purpose to cut out the needless delay would be beneficial for Báez, but there’s not really a way to quantify that with certainty. So to determine if he really has sped up we’re left with the “Pace” metric, the opinions of those close to the situation, and anecdotal observation.

As someone who watches a ton of Dodgers baseball I’ll jump in with the anecdotal part of that equation. While I’m not watching games with a stopwatch in hand, it does genuinely seem that Báez is pitching with a better, more expedited tempo this season. The constant long walks circling from the front of the mound to the back for some alone time upon receiving the ball from the catcher appear to be gone, or at least far less frequent.

There’s no way to prove this is a factor in his improved performance, but it does stand to reason that a pitcher finding a comfortable rhythm could help to improve consistency. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing from Báez this season.

More Consistent Release Points

In his fantastic piece on pitch tunnels for The Hardball Times, Dan Blewett had this to say about pitching mechanics as they relate to release points:

The main thing a pitcher can control is the repeatability of delivery, which in turn directly affects release point. Coaches have always emphasized to pitchers: Practice repeating your delivery! If you want to throw more strikes, learn to repeat your delivery!

With a quick look at Báez’s release points from this year compared to last, we can reverse engineer the conclusion that his delivery has been more repeatable this year. The below comparison takes 2016 from June on, because that’s around the time when Báez moved towards the first base-side of the rubber.

Charts via Baseball Savant

What stands out immediately is how much tighter the 2017 cluster of release points is compared to 2016. There still might be some stragglers in there if Báez was tinkering with the move on the rubber throughout June, but by and large we can extrapolate that his arm action has been more consistent this season.

The improvement can also be seen in his pitch tunneling numbers.

Pedro Báez Pitch Tunnels

YEAR Tunnel Differential Post-tunnel Break Flight Time Diff Plate Diff Release Diff Break:Tunnel Release:Tunnel
YEAR Tunnel Differential Post-tunnel Break Flight Time Diff Plate Diff Release Diff Break:Tunnel Release:Tunnel
2016 0.8398 0.1487 0.0185 1.6044 0.1804 0.1770 0.2149
2017 0.7457 0.1455 0.0183 1.5038 0.1558 0.1951 0.2089
Difference 0.0941 0.0032 0.0002 0.1006 0.0246 -0.0181 0.006
Data via Baseball Prospectus

Báez has decreased both his release and tunnel differential this season while increasing his break-to-tunnel ratio. What this means in theory is that compared to last season his pitches look more similar at both the release point and the “tunnel point” — 23.8 feet in front of home plate. While his post-tunnel break on its own is down slightly, the improvements in consistency with regard to his release and tunnel points mean that his overall break-to-tunnel ratio has improved.

How much a consistent release point matters varies from pitcher to pitcher, depending on whether they are trying to deceive hitters in that way, but this improvement from Báez does seem to suggest that he’s effectively repeating his delivery. As Blewett points out in his article, while pitch tunneling is not a mechanical skill in and of itself, the repeatability of a delivery does directly effect one’s ability to tunnel pitches. That mechanical consistency seems to have made an impact not just on Báez’s release point, but his pitch locations as well.

Less Variation Between Pitch Location

MLB.com’s Mike Petriello recently wrote about how the Dodgers’ bullpen is throwing more high fastballs than any other team in baseball. It’s an approach that Báez had last season as well, but he’s doing a much better job executing the plan in 2017. As you can see from the heat map below, his four-seam fastball is finding the middle of the plate much less often this season.

Heat maps via Baseball Savant

He’s keeping his four-seamer elevated in a much tighter area of the zone, and we can see similar location improvements in his other pitches. Here’s his slider, which is more concentrated on the outside corner this year than it was in 2016. The frequency with which the pitch leaks back over the heart of the plate has decreased dramatically.

Heat maps via Baseball Savant

While less striking visually than the slider, Báez’s changeup has also seen an improvement in location consistency as he’s leaving it up in the zone much less often.

Heat maps via Baseball Savant

It stands to reason that the ability to more consistently locate each pitch type ties directly into his steady release point and presumably more repeatable mechanics. With each individual offering it seems that Báez is making fewer mistakes than he has in the past.

Secondary Pitch Confidence

Now that Báez is having more success locating his slider, he’s gone from a 12.2 percent usage rate to 16.0 percent. It’s not a huge shift — he’s still primarily a four-seam fastball pitcher — but the increase in usage and quality of his slider has led to an increase in swings against both that pitch and his changeup. Against the slider opposing hitters have gone from swinging 34 percent of the time in 2016 to 43 percent of the time in 2017, and on the changeup they’ve gone from a 45 percent swing rate to a mark of 52 percent.

More swings against those pitches are great, but only if they are also generating more whiffs — and boy are they.

Chart via Brooks Baseball

(Note: the decrease in whiffs shown against Báez’s sinker/two-seamer are mainly because, according to Brooks Baseball, he’s thrown very few of them in 2017. Baseball Savant disagrees, but that’s a whole other issue. We’re focusing on the slider and changeup today.)

He’s locating his slider and changeup better than ever, and in turn inducing more swinging strikes on both. Not to play totally unqualified amateur psychologist, but it makes sense that both of those things might lead to an increase in confidence for Baez’s non-fastball offerings. Indeed, looking at his usage rate by count, that seems to be the case.

Charts via Baseball Savant

Last year, if a hitter was ahead 2-1, or 3-0, they could pretty much sit fastball. This year, while they’re still most likely to see a fastball, the changeup must be accounted for. There are also noticeable differences on 0-0 and 0-2, where Báez has gone to his slider much more frequently. With the exception of the 3-0 count, these are all pretty small changes in the grand scheme of things. But mixing up usage rates for the slider and changeup are signs that his non-fastball offerings have improved.

Pedro Báez is far from a perfect reliever, but he’s pretty darn good and only getting better. Remember that Báez has only been pitching since 2013, when the Dodgers converted him from third base. There’s still room for development and growth, a process we are witnessing first hand this year.


All stats current through June 18, 2017.

Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @MrChrisAnders.