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Crafting a gameplan for Antonio Senzatela

Colorado Rockies news and links for Wednesday, September 28th

In what’s somewhat of a theme for Rockies starters, 2022 was a tough season for Antonio Senzatela. After being quite good between 2020 and 2021, with a 4.11 ERA (120 ERA+) and 3.92 FIP to match across 230 innings of work, his ERA rose to 5.07, he missed some time in the middle of the season and then went down for good with an ACL tear on August 19th at St. Louis, the finishing blow to a very frustrating season. Before going any further, here’s to hoping Senza comes back stronger than ever.

However, if you do just a surface level look-over at Senza’s numbers in 2022 and compare them to 2020-21, you might just shrug and say that most of what he can control remained steady, and he’s due for positive regression. What do I mean by that? Well, his home run, strikeout and walk rates were quite similar. His home run rate remained steady (2.2%, quite good), his strikeout rate in 2022 was just about identical to 2020 when there was also a universal DH (13.1% and 13.5% respectively), and his walk rate was also in the ballpark (5.6%, compared to 5.1% between the two previous seasons and again excellent). As a result, his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) went from 3.92 in ‘20-’21 to... 4.06 in 2022. Both figures are better than average, especially for a Rockies pitcher. So what went wrong?

Damage on Balls In Play

What went wrong is the fact that Antonio Senzatela allowed a whopping 133 hits on 92 13 innings in 2022, 13 hits per nine innings. Let’s put that in perspective here, shall we? In the 21st century, there have been 3399 individual pitching seasons of at least 90 innings. Senza’s 12.96 hits/9 is the fourth highest rate out of all of them. Fourth worst among 3399 seasons is no joke, and those 13 hits per nine come thanks to a .383 (!!) BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play). MLB average is typically in the .290/.300 range, by the way.

Just how bad is that .383 BABIP? Among those 3399 individual seasons of at least 90 innings. Senzatela’s 2022 (92 13 frames) has the second highest BABIP against out of all of them. Second highest out of 3399 is absolutely incredible and highlights just how much damage on contact batters did against him this season, but while part of that is batted ball luck, it would be very wrong to dismiss it as just poor luck and come back next season with the same plan of attack. Mainly because his expected batting average against on balls in play was .356, tied for second highest among pitchers with at least 1000 pitches thrown this season. Clearly, something isn’t working, and changes need to be made. Let’s go over some of Senza’s strong points, his weaknesses, and some of the adjustments that can be made with that in mind to give him a better shot at being successful.

What Senza Does Well

First, let’s take a look at what Antonio Senzatela is good or solid at (a.k.a. things we probably don’t have to fix) so we can get a picture of what our building blocks look like. This is the key for pitcher development, of course: find what a pitcher does well, have him do more of that, and then build from there.

Solid velocity

Senzatela sits around 93-96 MPH and can reach back for 97+ in a pinch, quality velocity for a starting pitcher even in today’s game. It’s not a true plus quality, but it’s also not something we have to fix, so we can focus on other things. Moving on.

Unconventional fastball shape

As I’ve mentioned before in my piece about Ryan Feltner’s sinker, average fastball shape coupled with average velocity is the devil every pitcher should run from. Senza’s velocity may not be a plus, but the shape of his fastball does deviate from average, even if it’s not in the intuitive way. Senza’s four-seamer has natural cut, and its low spin (2100ish RPMs on average) and poor spin efficiency (82%) also give it natural sink. It may not be a perfect comparison because it’s a right vs. a lefty, but his fastball is a relatively mirror image to Braves ace Max Fried’s four-seamer. Senza’s has a bit more sink, Fried’s has a bit more cut, but they’re just about even elsewhere, including velocity and release point height. It’s not a fastball you can count on for swings and misses, but neither is Fried’s and his performs extremely well. At the end of the day, if a pitch moves in a way that differs from average, it can probably be effective. More on how Senzatela’s four-seamer can succeed in just a bit.

Two solid breaking balls

Senza has two different and well defined breaking pitches, a curveball and a slider, both with vastly different shape, velocity and purpose. And while some of the changes to their shape and deployment can be made (and we’ll be going over those soon enough), having both a workable slider and curveball gives you far more options than having just one or the other. The more options you have, the more a batter has to think and/or guess. The more a batter has to think and/or guess, the higher your chances of succeeding against him are.

Plus feel for location and overall control

One of the things that makes Senza fun to watch when he’s on is that his feel for locating his pitches is truly fantastic. He’s capable of dotting the fastball to both sides of the plate and locate his slider down and away over and over again, almost like a robot sometimes. Since he changed his workout routine entering 2020, his control has gone from middling to plus, and this another weapon to use when thinking about how to get batters out.

So, among the strong points, we have good velocity, two solid breaking pitches, great feel for location and fastball shape that deviates from average, which sounds like a good place to start.

What Senza Doesn’t Do Well

Now, let’s get to some of his shortcomings. Pay attention to what these shortcomings are mostly about, by the way.

His four-seamer doesn’t play well up in the zone

Because of his four-seam fastball’s shape and Senza’s relatively over the top arm slot, his fastball tends to generate a quite steep VAA (Vertical Approach Angle, a shallow one being highly correlated with swing and miss rates on four-seamers) even when thrown high in the zone. This means the pitch simply doesn’t figure to play well at the letters or above unless perfectly spotted, and high heat shouldn’t be a prominent part of Senza’s strategy. Now, while this doesn’t mean his fastball has no utility (far from it) it does mean it shouldn’t be deployed like the conventional wisdom would tell you to throw a four-seamer. Just like how not everyone should throw fastballs at the knees, not everyone should throw them upstairs by default.

Way too many fastballs

Combining the four-seamer and his less used sinker, Senza threw almost 60% fastballs in 2022, way higher than MLB average (48.4% this season). He had some of the highest fastball usage of any starter this season, and the top 20 was made up mostly of guys having poor seasons (Patrick Corbin, Sean Manaea, Senza himself, etc) or pitchers with an elite fastball(s) such as Spencer Strider, Carlos Rodón, Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler, Alek Manoah... you get the idea. It doesn’t matter if you have solid velo, good location and different-than-average movement -if hitters can know your fastball is coming because you throw it three out of five times, they’re going to crush it unless it’s a truly plus-plus pitch. Spencer Strider can get away with throwing 67% fastballs because he has a true 80-grade heater. Senza can’t. That’s the first flaw related to approach.

Highly predictable sequencing and location

Last season, Senza threw first-pitch fastballs 67.6% of the time, and his career average is around 66%. For reference, MLB average in 2022 is 52% and the highest rate of the entire pitch tracking era across MLB is 64.1% in 2009. It’s been on a steady downturn ever since the early 2010’s and for good reason, because as a whole MLB hitters have batted .344 and slugged .563 against first-pitch heaters since 2008. Batters hit .421 and slugged .579 against Senza’s first pitch fastballs in 2022, so there’s an adjustment to be made right away.

Of course, it’s not the only one. For another example: in 2022 Senza threw 55.8% of his pitches away from batters, the second highest rate in baseball among starters with at least 50 innings. Remember how I compared Senza’s fastball to a mirror image of Max Fried’s? If we follow that idea, it would make sense that their approach with the pitch would be quite similar, but it isn’t. Their approach against same-handed batters is relatively similar, as they both throw their four-seam fastballs away. Against batters with the platoon advantage, however? This is Fried’s four-seam location against righties:

Baseball Savant

And this is Senzatela’s four-seam location against lefties:

Baseball Savant

Fried’s style will be quite familiar to Rockies fans, because he pitches similarly to Kyle Freeland against right-handed batters: getting in on their hands and jamming them. Senza, whose fastball has similar cutting and sinking action to Fried’s, throws the heater mostly down and away from hitters regardless of the handedness. He had one game all season in which he pitched up and in to lefties with consistency: June 19th, facing the Padres at Coors Field. In that game, he threw 51 fastballs to lefties. You can see the location below, and the Padres generated just three singles against them. The average exit velo against was 77.4 MPH. *Shrug*

Baseball Savant

Where’s the curveball at?

Senzatela’s curveball may just be his best pitch. It gets chased out of the zone more than his slider (30% vs 26.7% since 2020 started, respectively), and he’s given up just one home run on 440 curveballs thrown since 2020. And because of course, his curveball is also his least used pitch in the last three years. He’s thrown it just 6.7% of the time, even less than his changeup. The pitch also basically disappears when he’s behind in the count: he’s thrown it 3.4% when the batter is ahead, by far the lowest of any of his pitches.

Remember what I said about Senza having “two workable breaking pitches”? Well, in practice that’s more like one workable pitch (his slider) because he barely throws his curveball. It leaves him a two-pitch starter with a fastball that’s basically a contact magnet and predictable location/sequencing. Bad idea.

No viable armside offerings

The last thing I’ll mention as far as shortcomings go is that both his sinker and changeup are not good pitches right now. His changeup has no bite and, weirdly enough, has almost the same exact spin rate as his four-seamer. “Killing spin” is an expression I’m sure you’ve heard before when talking about changeups, and Senza doesn’t do that. His cambio is, more or less, an 87 MPH fastball. You can see how little movement it gets relative to his fastball (changeup is the green dot, four-seamer the red dot. The gear-shaped dots are league avg movement for the pitch type):

Baseball Savant

Unlike the curveball, I don’t believe in this pitch moving forward with its current shape and velocity. There’s going to need to be some sort of pitch design adjustment to unlock movement on that pitch, because it won’t work long term the way it is now. His sinker is more interesting to me, and we’ll get to why shortly.

Notice how most of Senza’s shortcomings have more to do with approach that anything else? Anyway, here’s where we come in to finally honor the title of the piece. Let’s create a basic pitching gameplan for Antonio Senzatela.

The Gameplan

With those strengths and weaknesses explained, it’s time to move on to the gameplan. As far as “gameplan” goes, we’re going to go over pitch usage, location and some development/pitch design priorities moving forward, I’d love to simply explain the answer for making Senza’s changeup filthy overnight, but I lack those powers. Let’s get to it, and please remember that this is a general overview. During a game, your usage is going to change a bit depending on feel and the batter at the plate (steep vs flat bat path, aggressive or patient, etc).

  • 45% fastballs, 30% sliders, 20% curveballs, 5% changeups. For now, let’s keep the changeup usage low while we’re in the background working on improving it. Since Senza’s profile does not lend itself to swings and misses, we need to go for the junkballer mold. Tons of sliders and curveballs, less than half fastballs.
  • Pitch inside to lefties. We’ve gone over this already. I’m perfectly cool with keeping the four-seamer away from righties, it’s where it plays best (and we can run sinkers in on the hands of righties), but the four-seamer needs to be mostly inside against lefties and we should work on throwing sliders down and in against them, as well as curveballs landed for strikes. Speaking of the curveball:
  • Throw the curveball in the zone more often. For his career, Senza’s thrown his curveball in the zone around 35% of the time, a lower rate than MLB average (40%ish). Since his curve is around 77-79 MPH and fulfills the role of “bigger, slower breaking ball” in his arsenal, that pitch should land for strikes a bit more frequently. It can absolutely work as a chase pitch, but let’s not go crazy with that idea and narrow the scope of pitches we throw for strikes to just our fastball and slider. Never be predictable.
  • Consider making a switch with the slider. Senza’s slider is a pretty average pitch: it’s harder than the usual slider, which comes at the cost of a bit of movement, but it’s likely a wash in that regard. It’s also not either a sweeping slider (obviously) or a hard gyro slider -it’s sort of in the middle, not one or the other with its 39% active spin. This isn’t a main priority, but I would consider trying to throw a more vertical gyro slider with an extra inch two or three inches of drop during a pitch design session just to see how it feels, and how it works. I’ll say that I have a hunch that it might just work a bit better than his current one and generate more swings and misses, without hurting the tunnel with his curveball. But this is speculation on my end more than anything I have concrete evidence for.
  • Changeup and sinker development is a must. Senzatela is a solid candidate for a seam-shifted wake sinker: he’s a guy who throws from a high three-quarters release point and doesn’t spin his fastball a ton, both in terms of raw spin (around 2100 RPMs) and spin efficiency (in the low-mid 80’s for both his four-seam and sinker). I obviously can’t say what exact changes to his grip and finger pressure he should make, but the data points to this being a possibility for him. As far as his changeup goes, finding a way to kill spin on it is a must when it comes to developing a Coors-proof changeup. Both pitches are very important for him if we’re trying to help him develop into a consistently good starter: the sinker to run it in on the hands against righties and the changeup to have something that moves away from lefties. Professional pitching coaches and pitch design labs can say a lot more about this topic than I can with the data I have available.

So there we have it, a (relatively) detailed explanation and gameplan for Antonio Senzatela moving forward. We’re trying to find Senza’s strengths and build on them, all while we try to fix his weaker points. It’s unlikely that he’ll develop into a legitimate strikeout pitcher, but if we help him be less predictable and deploy his good tools in a better way, he can be a very good and very steady mid-rotation starter who throws any pitch in any count, keeps the walks down and gets his groundballs anyway. There’s a lot of good clay to mold with Antonio Senzatela, and it will be intriguing to watch where he goes from here. Here’s to a quick recovery and a new, reinvented Senza in 2023.

★ ★ ★

Coors Field not the oasis it once was for Rox |

The Rockies finished the 2022 season with a 41-40 record at home and were outscored by 20 runs, a bad showing compared to recent years.

On The Farm

Triple-A: El Paso Chihuahuas 10, Albuquerque Isotopes 2

After routing El Paso in the first game of the last series of the season, Albuquerque (61-86) was on the other end of the beatdown in their second to last contest of the season. Karl Kauffmann (Nº 18 PuRP) took the ball in this one and managed to limit the damage despite struggling with his command (4.0 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 5 BB, 2 K, 1 HR), throwing just 38 of his 79 pitches for strikes. He left the game trailing 1-0, but the Chihuahuas put up seven runs (six earned) on seven hits against Will Gaddis in the top of the 5th, and that was the ballgame. Albuquerque’s bats didn’t fare much better, as they managed just one extra-base hit all game, went 2-for-10 with RISP and struck out a whopping 17 times. Brenton Doyle (Nº 25 PuRP) had been on a tear as an Isotope, but he had a rough afternoon, going 0-for-5 and striking out all five times for a rare platinum sombrero. It speaks to how much Doyle was clobbering the ball, however, that he can have an off day of that extent and still have a .382/.432/.765 slash line in Triple-A. The Isotopes will send Logan Allen (0-3, 6.95 ERA) to the mound today for the very last game of their 2022 season.

Double-A: Hartford Yard Goats (COL) season concluded on Sept. 18 (Final record: 77-60)

High-A: Spokane Indians (COL) season concluded on Sept. 11 (Final record: 64-66)

Low-A: Fresno Grizzlies (COL) season concluded on Sept. 20 (Final record: 83-49)

★ ★ ★

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