A Closer Look: Atkins, Buchholz, and More

The Atkins Slump

Much has been made of Atkins season long funk, ranging from a problem with his swing, plate approach, and just plain unluckiness.  Luck, or lack thereof, seems to be the current belief, as the "hit it right at them" card has been played on many occasions, but I'm not sure it is that simple.

Luck, as it relates to numbers, starts with BABIP, or the percentage of balls put in play that land for hits, and this clearly has not been in Atkins' favor.  Prior to Tuesday's game, Atkins' BABIP was .248, where the league average is close to .300 for the year.  This would back the theory that Atkins has hit too many directly at defenders, yet this still may be a poor read into Atkins' troubles or expectations.  In his banner last season, Atkins' BABIP was .340, up from .315 from his rookie year.  That currently makes three very distinct BABIP's for his career, one very low, one very high, and one moderate (around what one would expect for a hitter with half his games in Coors).  This doesn't make Atkins unique, as most hitters suffer wild fluctuations, but many of your stars will consistently keep this number high (see Matt Holliday).  In a better year, I think we could expect a BABIP for Atkins close to his .315 from his rookie season, which is short of expectations for many, but such is the folly of overvaluing one season.

I'd like for that to be it, but we're far from done in crunching the numbers.  While we can all agree that Atkins has hit too many balls at or in close vicinity of defenders, where I disagree is in the nature of the batted balls.  Atkins hit types are tending in the wrong direction.  For starters, his line drive rate has dropped from 22% in '06, to 18.9% in '07, which isn't terribly bad, but stay with me.  What is hurting Atkins is his increase in flies, specifically, weak flies.  Someone in a game thread the other day suggest that Garrett seems to be hitting more infield flies than ever, and looking at his infield fly percentage this is true, as it has climbed from 4.6% of balls in play to 7.7%.  For a guy with little to no speed, having your rate trend from high GB% to higher FB% is a good thing, but when a good chunk of those flies are in the infield, you won't be increasing your homer rate on flies.  Subsequently, the percentage of fly balls that leave the yard for Garrett has decreased from 13.2% to 3.8%.  In pitchers this number can fluctuate, but in your better hitters it doesn't vary by this wide a degree, so this also suggests that Atkins is not making contact with authority.  When you combine the drop in line drives with the increase in weak flies, you get a plummeting ISO (SLG-BA, a pure look at a player's extra base power), and Atkins has been cut in half, from .228 last year to .113 this year, far below what should be expected of a hitter in a run producing spot in the order.

Are these really troubling?  Not exactly; If you browse some of the numbers of the leagues' better hitters, you'll see many with a higher infield fly rate, and fluctuating line drive percentages.  Yet, what you don't see is the extreme drops in ISO and the percent of flies that become homers (must sluggers are above 11-12%, and rarely drop below 9%).  I'm not sure these numbers help to explain the slump, other than that it isn't like he's smashing balls at defenders, he's weakly popping up to them.  What we can start to assume is that '07 might have been his career year for him, as everything broke right:  His BABIP jumped to .340, he kept infield flies to a very low 4.6%, and bumped his HR/FB to 13.8%.  Could he do this again?  Possibly, but not so probable that the team and fans should expect a '07 every other year.  For a good expectation for Atkins, I'd take his rookie year numbers and add a bit to his average and slugging.

Lastly, Atkins is compounding problems with his approach.  Even if he was to correct his BABIP, he's still increased his K% by 3.5%, and dropped his BB% by 1.3%, so he's not just going to need more luck, but better judgment of pitches at the plate.

While Atkins has to play to break this funk, if the team continues to play great around him, he could quickly become a burden if he's not slugging in the middle of the order.  There are no great solutions.  Stewart needs this year to prove to the organization and himself that he is the player everyone expects him to be, and dealing for a big ticket third baseman would only increase the upcoming log jam this off-season.  I think Atkins still has a high trade value, but moving him really leaves the team short at third for the moment.  One idea would be to buy low on Morgan Ensberg, who may not be having a great year himself, but he is exceeding Atkins in VORP and plays better defense.  He could come in and share third for the time being with Garrett, or, if the Rockies fight back into the thick of the race, could deal Atkins to Houston in combination with Quintanilla/Barmes for Ensberg, Lidge (who has picked it back up), and Burke, who all could fill roles in a playoff run, and both Burke and Lidge carrying value into future seasons.  

Buchholz' Turnaround

Back when Taylor Buchholz was controversially lifted from a game after throwing several scoreless, I discussed the problems with relying a player that leaves too much to chance.  Following that outing, he improved in eliminating batters himself (7 K's to 1 BB, last Sunday), but the fates of baseball did not help prove my argument by allowing the Giants to still shell him.  Finally, in his last outing, he proved what he is capable of doing within his peripherals and stuff.

Unlike Atkins, Buchholz's faults have practically been tied to one number, his BABIP.  Buchholz has been tagged for a .356 BABIP, making him the most unlucky of the Rockies' starters.  All this has helped to underscore some major strides in Buchholz' game.

For starters, Buchholz has harnessed his control back into his usually low BB rate, down to 2.23/9 this year, all the while increasing his K rate to 6.02, good for a 2.70 K/BB ratio.  Once thought to be a major problem, Buchholz has corralled homers dropping his HR rate from 1.67, to .67 (though this could stem from a dip in his HR/FB, which generally denotes luck in pitcher, but the Rockies appear to have an organizational philosophy to stress sinking fastballs and keeping balls in the yard, so it's too early to explain it away as luck).  These peripherals have led to a Fielding Independent Pitching (roughly an expected ERA based on rates and a normal BABIP) of 3.65, which is second to only Lopez of Rockies' starters whose sample size is also half the size of Taylor's (prior to today's outing).  

So how can Taylor work to correct opponents from teeing off on him?  Well, it could have to do with his pitches.  If you have an ESPN Insider subscription, you may want to check out the Inside Edge numbers for Buchholz.  The book on Taylor has been that his fastball has good life, but he tends to overthrow the pitch.  He also has both a curve and a slider, but the two may be too similar to be successful in tandem.  The curve is also considered his plus pitch, and I've made the argument for him to use the pitch more to keep hitters from teeing off on his fastball up in the zone.  As Inside Edge reports, hitters are performing the best on his fastball, hitting .306 against it (in comparison, the fastball of Francis has an OPP BA of .311, Cook at .295, the difference being Cook's heavy sink).  Buchholz has thrown the fastball 67% of the time, not far from Francis' percentage, but unlike Jeff, Buchholz only throws his change up 6% of the time (Francis 17%), relying instead on two breaking pitches both thrown in roughly equal amounts with very small OPP BA to boot.  What Inside Edge doesn't tell us is the percentage of those pitches thrown for strikes, but we can make the assumption that Buchholz hasn't varied speeds enough to keep hitters off balance; the slider and curve don't have a major separation in speeds, suggesting that Buchholz primarily pitches at two speeds to Francis' three).

Where Buchholz and Francis part is in their use of the strike zone.  According to inside edge, Buchholz' favorite locations are on the outer half of the plate, primarily up and away and the outer middle.  Francis, however, also pitches away from hitters, but more on the bottom half and low and away.  On average, 21% of Francis' strikes are in the bottom three zones compared to 15% for Buchholz.  Perplexingly, this hasn't helped Francis to a better GB%, but it has kept him from giving hitters too many looks in the wheelhouse up in the zone.  Over the weekend, Buchholz' fastball started showing the sink so often suggested in past BA Handbooks, and he appeared to do a better job of changing speeds and keeping the ball out of the middle/upper half of the plate.  Provided he can continue to get sink on the fastball and pitch to the lower half, Buchholz should continue to drop his BABIP, or at the least, lessen the amount of well struck balls.

This doesn't answer every question.  Buchholz still has stamina and durability concerns to address, and he could with a string of quality starts.  What I can say is that Buchholz does have the chance to be one of our better pitchers down the stretch if he can continue to suppress homers, uphold his solid K/BB rate, find favor with the fates of baseball to correct his unlucky hit rate, and continue to get economical outs as he did Sunday to work longer into starts.  With improved luck and better durability, he could yet prove to be a capable number two or three as Baseball America suggested back in 2004.

Other Notes

-While rox girl suggests that SABR types may not yet be pleased with Tulowitzki, they can't disapprove of his fielding statistics.  Baseball Prospectus' fielding rates and Runs Above Average are currently solidly above average, and thus far range has not been as much an issue as originally suggested.

-While Taveras has been solid, this team could do well to improve on him in the starting lineup, and a trade of Ramirez and Jimenez to Tampa for Baldelli in June could help the club for the now and down the road.  It's a buy low move on a player with considerable upside.  His BABIP is currently 90 points below his career average, and the HR/FB is still above 11%.  The power is still there and Coors should help this slender speedster find more room for balls to fall in (plus high grass to leg out more infield hits).  

-Thanks to Fangraphs for the numbers in this story.

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