I really enjoy watching Antonio Senzatela when he takes the mound. The 26-year-old righty is one of the last of a dying breed in the Majors: the pitch-to-contact starter. Those kinds of hurlers used to be really common across MLB, but as deep, hard-throwing bullpens have become common, and as the art of pitching has quickly transformed into the science of bat-missing, the pitchers who could be described as “contact managers” are almost extinct at the highest levels of play.
And in 2020’s shortened season, Senzatela really made the approach work. He went 5-3 and posted an excellent 3.44 ERA across 12 starts, averaged over six frames per outing (73.1 IP total), and did it all despite the lowest strikeout rate of any qualified starter, as he punched out just 13.5% of batters faced. How did he do it?
Well, for starters, he rarely walked hitters (5.9%, tied for 10th-best for qualified starters with Gerrit Cole), and he got a good amount of grounders (50.8%, 9th-best). He was also efficient (3.74 pitches/PA, well below MLB average), and very good at limiting hard contact when opponents hit the ball in the air against him, a lot better than average.
In 2021, it hasn’t been the same story so far. Senza is currently sporting a 1-5 record and a 4.97 ERA through 10 starts, is barely averaging five innings a night, and has been on the bad end of a couple of ugly outings. However, the numbers I mentioned before are virtually unchanged: his walk rate is slightly higher, but still very good (6.6%), the groundballs are coming (52.6%), and he’s remained efficient (3.76 pitches/PA). So what is it? Two things have changed: he’s getting crushed when hitters get the ball in the air (91.9 MPH exit velo, .415 wOBA, .413 xwOBA), and guys have stopped chasing his pitches altogether.
That last part is the most alarming to me. There have been 143 starters who have tossed 200+ pitches out of the zone this season, and you can see some predictable names at the top of the list. Guess who’s last? That’s right, Senza is. Just 16.4% of all pitches he’s thrown out of the zone have been swung on, an astronomically low rate that is 2.2% lower than the next-worst guy on the list (Chad Kuhl, 18.6%). For reference, Joey Votto has chased just 16.5% of all pitches out of the zone since Statcast tracking began in 2015, so the average hitter Senza has faced this season has been about as disciplined as on-base savant Joey Votto. Not a great recipe for soft contact.
And that’s not all. His slider hasn’t been chased this season whatsoever, but that’s for later. This is the location of all his chased fastballs:
That almost total lack of chases up in the zone is worrying, because while Senza is not a strikeout pitcher, his current inability to keep the threat of the high heater on the hitter’s mind is costing him dearly. Here’s Jack Flaherty’s chased fastballs chart, for example:
I picked Flaherty on purpose, mind you, because the Cardinals ace has similar velocity to Senzatela, and he also has a four-seamer without a ton of movement. Yet, there he is, getting hitters to go after the high hard one and keeping them honest. Oh, you think a non-Coors starter isn’t a fair comparison? Here’s Germán Márquez:
There’s something wrong there, clearly. Anyway, let’s move on and check out those sliders. Senzatela has the least-chased slider out of all starters to toss at least 100 of them out of the zone, and it’s not particularly close. After his 18.3% mark, the next worst is Lance McCullers Jr. at 21.6%. If we use Flaherty and Márquez as comparisons again, we can see they’re at 32.9% and 37.8% respectively. Germán’s slider gets chased almost twice as often as Senza’s! Sliders that get chased are usually down and away from righties, so location can’t be a factor here. What about release point?
I might be onto something. Here’s Flaherty:
And finally, Senza:
That looks less compact than the other two. Is it possible he’s tipping, similar to how Freeland tends to do with his slider? I think it’s certainly a possibility. Maybe he doesn’t tunnel the two pitches all that well, but that’s not something I think I can figure out right now. Mainly, this is just me making a bunch of hypothesis about why Senza is struggling so much to get hitters to swing at pitcher’s pitches. Hopefully he can figure this out soon enough, because it’s not fun watching him struggle.
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From a few days ago, but a really enjoyable article from Groke detailing four individual pitches that had a huge impact on the outcome of the series the Rox played against the Mets this past week. Includes sliders from Gomber and Márquez, a deGrom heater, and a Freeland change.
A miserable team-wide offensive performance so far, no qualified .300 hitter for the second time in franchise history, and a bullpen dragging the team’s pitching staff into below average territory despite the best efforts of a very steady rotation.
On The Farm
After only the Isotopes took the field on Monday, all four Rockies affiliates saw action on Tuesday.
It was a repeat from the previous game, as the Isotopes once again fell to the Skeeters 2-3 in the series finale. Ryan Castellani settled in nicely after giving up three runs in the first, but the ‘Topes offense could only muster two runs on three hits and a couple of walks. Albuquerque is now 7-17 after dropping five of six against Sugar Land. Of note: Nº 3 PurP Ryan Vilade went 2-for-4, with a single and his first Triple-A homer, and is now slashing .291/.371/.419 on the season. A call-up to the Show feels somewhat imminent.
- Double-A: Bowie Baysox 7, Hartford Yard Goats 2
It’s honestly a miracle that the Yard Goats managed two runs against in the series opener against Bowie yesterday because while they did draw six walks, Hartford batters struck out a combined 18 times in nine innings, an astonishing number. While every single Yard Goats pitcher allowed at least one earned run, Baysox hurlers didn’t allow a single extra-base hit all afternoon, and the Yard Goats dropped to 7-18 after the loss.
Spokane got shut down by the Dust Devils in the first outing of the six-game series between both teams, coming up with just four hits and four walks that only led to one lone run on the scoreboard. Indians lefty Nick Bush didn’t pitch all that poorly, as all the damage came on a three-run homer (6 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 9 K, 80 pitches), and 25-year-old righty Andrew DiPiazza tossed three scoreless innings in relief. The bats couldn’t get it going, however, and the Indians dropped their first matchup of the year with Tri-City. Spokane now sits at 9-16 on the young season.
Fresno was the only Rockies affiliate to win on Tuesday, and they did it behind an absolutely dominant outing from Nº 23 PurP Will Ethridge. The righty allowed a leadoff single to begin his outing, and that would be all the Rawhide would get against him. Ethridge retired 18 straight batters from that point on, and his final line (6 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 8 K, 79 pitches) may not do him justice. Fresno got a lot of offense from Nº 16 PurP Julio Carreras (3-for-4 with a pair of doubles), and Nº 8 PurP Drew Romo (2-for-4 with a double and a stolen base), and they won the contest with ease. The Fresno Grizzlies improved to 15-10 and are two games behind of the Low-A West lead.
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