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Pirates pitchers and the times through the order penalty

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A lesson from Juan Nicasio’s 2016 season

MLB: Miami Marlins at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With the first games of Spring Training nearing, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the sobering and disappointing performance of last year’s Spring Training darling, Juan Nicasio. Nicasio was signed to compete for a spot in the rotation, and after a dominant spring that featured 24 strikeouts in 15 scoreless innings, Nicasio solidified a starting role and left fans dreaming of success out of the back of their rotation.

In his first start, he whiffed seven Cardinals in six innings of one-run ball. Unfortunately, that is about as exciting as it ever got. Nicasio started 11 more games during the first half of the season, but it became obvious with each game that the he didn’t belong in the rotation.

Virtually every game he started went the same way; Nicasio would stroll through the lineup the first time, looking as dominant as anyone, and then the subsequent time through the order he made the other team look like the second coming of “Murderer’s Row.” Check out how obvious this decline was statistically each successive time through the order (TTO):

TTOP statistics: Juan Nicasio

J. Nicasio 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO
J. Nicasio 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO
Season wOBA wOBA wOBA K% K% K% BB% BB% BB% FIP FIP FIP
2016 0.323 0.419 0.272 36.1% 13.9% 16.4% 7.4% 12.0% 7.3% 3.19 7.69 2.71

The 36 percent strikeout rate the first time against a lineup is nothing short of incredible, and in fact, it was better than anyone else in all of baseball. But Nicasio couldn’t sustain the rate as the game went on. Instead, he saw a precipitous drop in strikeouts brought his K rates to almost a third of the initial rate when he faced hitters a second time, which in conjunction with other factors led to a miserable 7.69 FIP the second time through.

While Nicasio ultimately found a role in the bullpen that he’ll reprise this season, it’s worth examining how the other Pirates’ starters fared each time through the order in hopes of shining some light on the underlying numbers of the young and reclamation pitchers that are currently slated for the rotation or competing for a spot.

The Times Through the Order Penalty (TTOP) essentially underlines the notion that the more a lineup sees a pitcher in a game, the more success they will typically have against him. Although an extreme of this effect is illustrated in Juan Nicasio’s profile, a table is provided below that displays the average TTOP on starting pitchers over the past five seasons in hopes of revealing the typical scope of the effect:

TTOP statistics: MLB 2012-2016

TTO wOBA K% BB% FIP
TTO wOBA K% BB% FIP
1st 0.310 21.0% 7.3% 3.78
2nd 0.319 19.1% 7.3% 4.06
3rd 0.332 17.5% 7.6% 4.41

For a more complete breakdown of TTOP, take some time to read Mitchel Lichtman’s two pieces: “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Times Through the Order Penalty” and “TTOP and a Starting Ptcher’s Repetoire.”

TTOP: Breaking down the Pirates’ starters

MLB: Miami Marlins at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Gerrit Cole

TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO
TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO
Season w OBA w OBA w OBA K% K% K% BB% BB% BB% FIP FIP FIP
2013 0.322 0.242 0.288 19.9% 24.0% 20.2% 4.1% 5.9% 8.9% 2.685 2.533 3.758
2014 0.285 0.277 0.388 27.8% 25.8% 18.2% 7.1% 5.1% 9.4% 2.085 2.969 5.311
2015 0.294 0.249 0.276 22.9% 27.4% 22.0% 5.9% 3.8% 5.9% 2.622 2.260 3.235
2016 0.327 0.295 0.342 20.6% 21.6% 16.4% 6.9% 6.8% 7.8% 3.055 2.493 4.417

After a stellar 2015 season, injuries and inconsistency prevented Cole from living up to the lofty expectations thrust upon him. Still, he managed to be among the top five pitchers in the major leagues his first two trips through the order. Yet, uncharacteristically low strikeout rates coupled with the highest wOBA’s of his career during those initial two times through the order likely sapped his ability to be as effective by the time he faced hitters a third time.

Granted, some of the struggles the third time can be attributed to poor luck, as his strand rate was a mere 56 percent, and there were some abnormalities in his batted ball profile. For instance, his line drive rate and consequently his hard contact rate were significantly higher than what he’s accustomed to seeing.

Anyway, there’s nothing in his TTOP history to suggest this past season’s profile will be replicated if Cole can stay healthy.

Jameson Taillon

TTTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO
TTTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO
Season wOBA wOBA wOBA K% K% K% BB% BB% BB% FIP FIP FIP
2016 0.373 0.290 0.200 19.8% 20.5% 21.5% 3.7% 6.8% 0.0% 4.17 4.32 2.08

Quite frankly, Taillon had some of the more pecuiliar TTO statistics that a rookie could ever have. He was absolutely terrible in the first inning, posting a FIP, near 5.00 which was exacerbated by a 26 percent HR/FB ratio the first time opposing teams came to the plate. However, there was arguably no one as lights out as Taillon the third time he faced a lineup. His opponents’ .200 wOBA during that TTO was nothing short of remarkable, and his 2.08 FIP trailed only Clayton Kershaw, Jose Fernandez, and Lance McCullers.

In even crazier fashion, Taillon held batters right around the Mendoza line both the second and third trips through the lineup while striking out 20 percent of batters and walking none in the latter TTO, which is unheard of for a first year player.

Everyone knows the old adage “if something looks too good to be true, then it probably is,” so it’s likely wise to let that keep expectations for Taillon’s sophomore season in check because it is, after all, just one season, and there are a few areas where he’s set to regress. Regardless, it was an incredibly encouraging season.

It is hard to predict if rookies will struggle to make the initial jump like Tyler Glasnow did or if they’ll excel until hitters become more familiar, but Taillon’s is the type of success a team wants to see. Plenty of rookies have the raw stuff to succeed the first time or two through the order, but few get better as the game goes on, and even fewer dominate the third time a batter sees them.

In the end, these statistics aren’t necessarily predictive, but they are better than the opposite problems. One factor that could be interesting to explore is how Taillon’s pitch selection changed as games progressed.

Ivan Nova

TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO
TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO
Season wOBA wOBA wOBA K% K% K% BB% BB% BB% FIP FIP FIP
2010 0.259 0.304 0.440 20.6% 14.3% 6.1% 9.5% 1.6% 21.2% 3.60 4.58 6.27
2011 0.288 0.319 0.325 12.4% 15.2% 14.7% 7.0% 6.2% 10.6% 4.08 3.59 4.35
2012 0.312 0.411 0.350 25.0% 19.4% 17.9% 7.5% 7.7% 7.8% 3.60 5.42 4.85
2013 0.332 0.281 0.292 23.9% 17.4% 16.7% 5.6% 9.3% 9.7% 3.07 3.36 4.14
2014 0.550 0.386 0.411 25.0% 5.6% 4.6% 2.8% 5.6% 13.6% 7.18 6.71 7.42
2015 0.380 0.298 0.354 15.7% 16.0% 14.2% 7.2% 8.0% 9.4% 4.02 4.32 6.93
2016 0.330 0.316 0.362 19.2% 21.4% 15.5% 2.6% 4.3% 7.8% 3.81 3.51 6.08

Nova’s profile is pretty depressing all around, so it might be more intriguing to see the improvement after he arrived in Pittsburgh. While he still experienced a precipitous drop in performance the third time through the order, his FIP progression of 2.23 to 1.90 to 4.76 was much more palatable than the ones displayed above. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of that success was that Nova only allowed zero, one, and two walks each successive time through the order, which is insane for a player with a 7 percent career walk rate.

Some of this success can be attributed to the adjustments Ray Searage & company had Nova make because he began to attack the zone with strikes 70 percent of the time while also trying to keep the ball down as much as possible by cutting usage of his four seam fastball. This also enabled him to lower an exorbitant HR/FB rate from near 20 percent to around 5.6 percent in his time with the Pirates.

It isn’t safe to expect him to come out looking like one of the league’s premier pitchers, but if he can carry even a modicum of his success as a Pirate the first two trips through the order, he could be a very effective pitcher and an incredible bargain. Given the consistent struggles the third TTO, though, the team should consider pulling him slightly earlier than they would some other guys.

Chad Kuhl

TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO
TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO
Season wOBA wOBA wOBA K% K% K% BB% BB% BB% FIP FIP FIP
2016 0.320 0.322 0.347 17.5% 19.3% 14.3% 9.5% 4.2% 5.4% 3.88 4.21 3.59

The numbers don’t look too shabby for the one of the more surprising members of the rotation last season, but there is a pretty standard TTOP upon the solid back-of-the-rotation numbers. If not for a first inning where Kuhl allowed a .293/.406/.509 slash line, he could have had an even more impressive number. In a smaller sample like his, getting shelled early in a couple of games like Kuhl did will skew your numbers the first two times through without necessarily effecting the third TTO numbers, so there might not be a lot of similarity in the 2017 profile as Kuhl matures.

Nevertheless, of particular encouragement is the improvement Kuhl made in strikeout and walk rates deeper into games he pitched. He also displayed an ability to induce roughly 5 percent more ground balls each successive TTO while also limiting home runs later in the game.

In one of the aforementioned Lichtman articles, the author focuses on the possible effect of utilizing more pitch types on TTOP and discovered (maybe unsurprisingly) that a pitcher who liberally uses three or four pitches generally fares better the more he faces a lineup than his counterparts who utilize less pitches or relies too heavily on two types. Last season, Kuhl utilized three different pitches at least 20 percent of the time and a changeup nearly 10 percent, so he seemingly possesses the type of repertoire to keep batters guessing as the game goes on, especially when paired with consistently above average release and tunnel differentials.

Tyler Glasnow

TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2TTO 3rd TTO
TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2TTO 3rd TTO
Season wOBA wOBA wOBA K% K% K% BB% BB% BB% FIP FIP FIP
2016 0.289 0.408 0.644 25.0% 20.0% 0.0% 11.1% 14.3% 25.0% 3.95 6.43 7.65

In what was an inauspicious first taste of the majors, the Bucs’ top pitching prospect showed an ability to succeed the first time through the order, which was also reflected in his 2.15 FIP as a reliever. The first time TTO numbers as a starter reflect that Glasnow managed to strike out a quarter of opposing batters while limiting them to a .218 batting average. It’s the elevated walk rate even early on that combined with high a wOBA in the second trip that proved too much to overcome as the game progressed.

On the bright side, it’s further evidence that he has a nice floor out of the pen even if there’s no reason too think he can’t live up to the hype after such a short stint with the big league club. Aaron Sanchez struggled with the same issue early in his career, but after substantial time in the bullpen, he seemed to figure things out.

Ideally, Glasnow should, however, add another pitch to his arsenal or hone the changeup, but plenty of players with his level of stuff have flourished later in games.

Steven Brault

TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO
TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO
Season wOBA wOBA wOBA K% K% K% BB% BB% BB% FIP FIP FIP
2016 0.358 0.355 0.404 19.1% 17.5% 12.5% 4.8% 14.3% 8.3% 5.12 4.57 3.71

Steven Brault managed three more starts than Glasnow, but that still isn’t enough to discern much useful information. Even if it were, there’s not much to like TTO-wise, outside of inducing softer contact as the game went on and a slightly better FIP the few times he pitched well enough to face the order a third time. Since he lacks the electric stuff of Glasnow, he’ll need to display far more control to stick in a major league rotation.

Drew Hutchison.csv

TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO
TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO 1st TTO 2nd TTO 3rd TTO
Season wOBA wOBA wOBA K% K% K% BB% BB% BB% FIP FIP FIP
2012 0.253 0.370 0.401 26.9% 16.7% 12.7% 7.5% 10.0% 5.6% 3.09 4.65 6.49
2014 0.313 0.319 0.346 21.9% 26.2% 21.1% 6.9% 6.7% 10.1% 3.63 3.42 5.04
2015 0.345 0.297 0.461 19.4% 24.8% 12.5% 8.3% 6.2% 4.0% 4.09 3.12 7.01
2016 0.312 0.477 0.278 29.6% 11.1% 30.8% 0.0% 14.8% 0.0% 4.58 7.55 5.33

It is easy to forget that Hutchison is only 26 and has just two full seasons in a big-league rotation, so while he’s not a stud, the jury is still out on whether he is a capable starter. From the data above, he looks to do a fine job the first two times he faces a team, but he completely falls apart the third time. For one, he can’t seem to keep the strikeout rate up late without elevating the walks, and his 2015 season saw the wOBA skyrocket later into the game.

He only started one game for Pittsburgh with a handful of non-spectacular innings as a reliever, but in that time, he began to utilize the sinker almost 20 percent of the time, so perhaps a full offseason of work in the Pirates organization will enable him to avoid the high HR/FB% he typically has the second and third times through the order. Anyway, it’s an improvement his game needs to exhibit this spring if he hopes to be anything more than organizational depth.

Final thoughts

TTOP statistics are not necessarily predictive, but they can describe why a player isn’t a good fit for the rotation, as was the case with Nicasio, or reveal trends in a pitcher’s game to enable them to make the necessary adjustments. The Pirates have many young pitchers with small sample sizes, so the statistics are a bit limited in what they can tell us. Still, here is a recap of few things that can be gleaned from these profiles:

  • Jameson Taillon seems to have the talent and strategy to succeed late in games even if there’s bound to be some bumps along the road in his sophomore season.
  • Ivan Nova’s performance massively drops off the third time through the order, so he should likely be spelled by that time more often than not.
  • Glasnow struggled successive trips through the lineup, but stellar numbers as a reliever and through the first battle against a lineup suggest he could at the very least be a fantastic bullpen option. There is, however, plenty of reason for optimism regarding his ability to be a starter in the major leagues.
  • It is imperative for Hutchison to improve the second time he faces batters, so be watching this spring to see if there’s any difference.