Your place for Minnesota Twins and New Britain Rock Cats coverage, analysis and opinion.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Trevor May and First Pitch Strikes

Trevor May
Courtesy of Kevin Pataky
Last season in New Britain, I watched 4 or 5 of Trevor May's starts. I'm still higher on him than most people are, because a few things became apparent to me after watching him -- all of which are fixable (to a degree, anyway): 1) the defense behind him was sometimes lousy (I'm looking specifically at the left side of the infield -- Danny Santana and Miguel Sano), leading to extra pitches made and extra batters faced to get the job done; 2) control issues plagued May, despite the fact that his walks/9 decreased somewhat; and 3) it seemed like he didn't get ahead of batters often enough, thus forcing him to work from behind in the count too often. It's that last item that I want to focus on in this post.

Unfortunately, there's no data tracking first pitch strikes for minor league pitchers, like there is for major leaguers (If you find a website that aggregates this in a searchable way for minor leaguers, do not send it to me. I spent too much time doing this on my own to realize now that there's a website that's done the work for me). But because this interested me, I decided to go through May's starts, game-by-game using Gameday so I could view what happened in each at-bat. This took a while, as you can imagine. I'm pretty confident that I didn't make any errors, but even if I did, I ended up with around 150 innings worth of data, so 1 mistake wouldn't make much a difference. Trevor May started 27 games for the Rock Cats in 2013. There's no first-pitch strike data for 2 games -- a 5 inning, 4 earned run performance; and a 2 and 2/3 inning, 8 earned run performance. Accordingly, I compiled data the remaining 25 games. Here are my findings:

Trevor May threw a first-pitch strike to 52.9% of batters he faced for New Britain in 2013. Yes, good that it's over 50%, but it is by no means an encouraging number.

What's an average first pitch strike percentage in the majors? 59 or 60 percent. May, then, is well below. But why does that matter? Well, here's some interesting data compiled from over 15,000 MLB plate appearances in the 2013 season (same source as previous link): Hitters that get ahead 1-0 have a .269/.383./.442 slash line, while hitters that fall behind 0-1 have a .221/.261/.341 slash line. That ends up being a pretty huge difference over the course of a single game, let alone an entire season. Now, I'm not suggesting that May (or any other pitcher) should just groove the first pitch of every at-bat, but it's also important to note that only 7.3 percent of those first pitch strikes turned into hits.

Because it's not as simple as "hey, throw strikes all the time on the first pitch, Trevor," let's look at May's first pitch strike percentages in some more depth. May had 11 quality starts in 2013 (meaning at least 6 innings pitched and 3 or fewer earned runs). Of those 11 starts, May had 50% or higher first pitch strikes in 9 of those games.

Here's a rough breakdown of May's 2013 season with respect to first pitch strikes. There were 2 games with first pitch strike percentages in the 30s; 6 games with first pitch strike percentages in the 40s; 13 games with first pitch strike percentages in the 50s; and 4 games with first pitch strike percentages in the 60s.

But there's not necessarily a magic correlation for May between first pitch strikes and dominant performances. May's most efficient performance -- in terms of first pitch strikes -- 67.8%, was in a 5 inning, 4 earned run performance in which he gave up 5 hits and walked 3 batters, proving that strike 1 isn't always effective when you are very hitable on the night and are still walking batters.

And how about his least efficient night? May had a 36.8 first pitch strike percentage night in a 4 inning, 2 run performance where he walked 3 and struck out 7. As you can see, although the strikeouts were there, the control issues, and the inability to get ahead in the count, cost him the ability to stay in the game.

I also wondered this: for May, is there a correlation between first pitch strikes and going deeper in ballgames? Short answer, "yes, but ...." For his 2 games with first pitch strikes in the 30s, May averaged 5 innings pitched; for the 6 games with first pitch strikes in the 40s, he averaged 5.6 innings pitched; for the 13 games with first pitch strikes in the 50s, May averaged 6 inning pitched; and for the 4 games with first pitch strikes in the 60s, he averaged 5.58 innings. In a general sense, then, May does do better the more he throws first pitch strikes, but only up to a certain level. All these numbers are interesting to me, but I think they're a little more meaningful when you look at what other pitchers do.

Fangraphs tracks the first pitch strikes in baseball. Here's the list for 2013 of the top first pitch strike hurlers. The Top 30 is by no means full of all-stars, but generally is a list of solid pitchers. Read the list for yourself, but just for fun here are the Top 5: Patrick Corbin (70.2); Cliff Lee (68.5); David Price (67.7); Jordan Zimmerman (66.9); Ervin Santana (65.9). Other notables in the Top 30 include Bronson Arroyo, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Adam Wainwright, Max Scherzer, Matt Harvey, John Lackey, Cole Hamels and Chris Sale. Those players are all over 62 percent.

Trevor May is an interesting case. Maybe he's at his best when he's throwing first pitch strikes somewhere in the 50s? Let's separate the high 50s from the low 50s, just for fun: When May throws first pitch strikes 55-59 percent of the time, he averages 6.57 innings pitched for those starts. That covered 46 innings. And in those games, by the way, he gave up 8 earned runs total, good for a 1.56 ERA. Now for the low 50s -- 50-54 percent first pitch strikes. In those starts, May averaged 5 and 1/3 innings pitched. That covered 42 innings. And in those games, he gave up 20 earned runs total, for a 4.29 ERA. Incidentally, in those games where he was at or above 60 percent first pitch strikes, May's ERA was 7.25. Admittedly, this was a really small sample size, particularly impacted by one game in which he gave up 8 earned runs. Even throwing out that game and the corresponding innings, the ERA for those high first pitch strike games still sits at 4.91.

All together, it's kind of interesting. May seemed at his best last year when he's got ahead of batters between 55 and 59 percent of the time, but he struggles below those numbers, and even had trouble when he was his "most efficient." I think there are 2 takeaways here. The first is that May needs to do a better job getting ahead of hitters. He's wasting pitches, is not maximizing his efficiency, and is allowing (approximately) 5-7 percent of batters to gain an unnecessary edge over him. The second is that perhaps, for May, having a first strike percentage of 65 or 70 percent of the time (like Corbin, Lee, or Price) isn't optimal. Every pitcher is different, and May has to find out what works for him. When he was grooving first pitch strikes last season, May was a little too hitable, too predictable perhaps.

I don't expect that Trevor May will be a 1 or 2 starter on the next Twins playoff team. I do, however, see him as a reliable starter that can strike out double digits in a game -- keep in mind he did lead the Eastern League in strikeouts last season. But in order to get to that level, I see reducing walks, putting hitters away, and getting ahead in the count more consistently as the 3 major (and interrelated) things standing in his May's way.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A New Britain Travel Guide

This is where I generally sit
at Rock Cats games.
Come join me.
Every now and then, I'm asked by someone over Twitter or email about traveling to see a Rock Cats series. Usually the questions are pretty basic -- what airport do I fly in to, do I have to buy tickets in advance -- but sometimes the questions are more detailed. I'm always happy to give information, and in fact I've even met up with a couple "displaced" Twins fans at New Britain Stadium. I thought it might be helpful to give some information and provide links in the event that people reading this blog might want to see Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, and the rest of the gang before they wear Twins uniforms. So what follows is a quick guide to seeing the Twins' AA team.

Getting There: First, I should tell you where New Britain is. It's roughly in the middle of Connecticut, approximately 10 miles southwest of Hartford (capital city), and 30 miles north of New Haven. If you're coming from Minnesota, you'll be flying. If New Britain is your only destination, you'll probably fly into Bradley International Airport, which is located north of Hartford. If you are planning a larger east coast trip, you can definitely fly into Boston or New York, and drive to Connecticut -- I'd say roughly 2 hours from New York or Boston. In addition to air travel, there is also the Metro North Railroad, a commuter train between New York and either New Haven or Hartford. It won't take you right to New Britain, so you'd have to rent a car, but it can get you pretty close. Finally, there are bus services, such as Peter Pan, that transport around New England.

Lodging: Admittedly, I haven't really stayed at any of these places. I live about a half hour from Rock Cats Stadium, and am fortunate that my office is only about 10 minutes away from it. If your goal is to stay as close as possible to the stadium (we'll talk about that in the next paragraph), there is a La Quinta Inn 2 miles away from the stadium. If you don't have a car you can probably catch a ride with Byron Buxton or something.

I'm going to recommend that you stay in Hartford. Hartford isn't a magical city by any means, but it is small, there are great restaurants (see below), and it's only a 15 minute drive to New Britain. There are several good hotels -- The Marriott Downtown, The Hilton Hartford, and the Homewood Suites by Hilton, just to name a few of the reliable ones.

You could also stay in New Haven, which is closer to New York City and home to great pizza and Yale University, but that's a bit of a hike to New Britain.

Finally, it's also worth noting that there are several smaller hotels and B & Bs in the Hartford suburbs that are within a half hour of both Hartford and New Britain. If that's more your style, check out West Hartford, Farmington, Avon, and Simsbury (my town). If you're looking for an authentic "New England Weekend" experience, this is a good option.

Eating & Drinking: If you're at all like me, you like local food and drink when you're traveling. In and around Hartford, there is a great restaurant group called the Max Restaurant Group. Over the years, I've been to almost all of their restaurants. They are not cheap, but hey, you're on vacation and are "only" paying minor league ticket prices. All their restaurants are distinct, but I've never had a bad experience, and the food is always great. There is an authentic German restaurant right in New Britain, called East Side. I've never dined there, but have had their food multiple times at catered events -- and it's great. It seems like the kind of place where you'd have to really work to not have a fun time. Another place, just a half mile from the stadium, is Portofinos Italian Restaurant. I've never been there, so I can't recommend it, but maybe it's worth a try. Here are a few other Hartford restaurants I wholeheartedly recommend: Firebox; Salute; La Kerencya (Peruvian!); Franceso's. Honestly, for a small city, you can really find anything you want in/around Hartford. I have a bunch more spots that I enjoy, but this is a good beginning list.

Now on to the beer and wine. I'm lucky in that the greater Hartford area has a couple wonderful breweries/brew pubs, and wine bars. My favorite local brewery is the Thomas Hooker Brewery, located in Bloomfield, about 5 miles north of Hartford. Also in Bloomfield is a relatively new brewery, Back East Brewing Company. Both places offer tours and samples, but are strictly breweries -- no food/brewpub atmosphere. But if you are looking for brewpubs, I have two places -- City Steam (right in Hartford and basically connected to the Homewood Suites), and The Cambridge House, in Granby, CT (about a half hour away from Hartford, but worth it). If you like wine, like I do, I'd strongly recommend Bin 228, a very affordable wine bar right in Hartford. Also, Max Downtown has (arguably) the best wine list in Hartford.

Hey, What About Baseball?: Oh yea. You want to watch some baseball! I can help you there. New Britain Stadium, home of the Rock Cats, is easy to find. It's right off a pretty major highway (Route 9). Parking is $5, or $7 for VIP (right next to the stadium entrance). Cash only, of course.

The stadium itself is nice. Nothing too fancy, but it's not "old" by MiLB standards, having opened in 1996. The Rock Cats do a very good job there. The tickets are affordable. If you're going all the way out here, I'd spring for the good seats. In my opinion, those are the $17 "Club Seats" located right above the home and visitor dugouts. What I like about these seats is that they are so, so close to the action that you can hear the guys talking, but also you're not obscured by the netting that wraps around behind home plate. Bring a glove, though, or at least a friend you can use as a human shield if necessary. Most of the "Field Box" level seats are great, as well. And to be perfectly honest, there really isn't a bad seat -- there's only like 7,000 of them to begin with, and you can get in the gates for $8. My seat is above the home (first base) dugout. The plus is that I can hear and see the Rock Cats players during the game as they goof around. The negative part is that the first base side, in the summer, gets the evening sun, and can get uncomfortably hot. So if you need a little shade, I'd recommend the third base/left field side of the ballpark.

Food & Drink @ the Ballpark: I'd recommend the grill located in the upper deck behind third base. The hot dogs, sausages, etc., are better (even if a dollar or so more expensive) than the normal concessions. Additionally, every Thursday there is a Sam Adams Happy Hour before the game, where Sam Adams drafts are $1 off in that upper deck/left field part of the stadium. Otherwise, you can't go wrong with Long Trail drafts (in a concourse kiosk more or less behind home plate), and the basic hot dog/nachos/peanuts available everywhere. I'll admit to having had, and enjoyed, the chicken fingers and fries, in a pinch.

Autographs & Related Stuff: Because I have a press pass, I don't ask the players for autographs. But I can tell you, generally, that they are very accommodating. I saw Miguel Sano sign endlessly on one of his off days last summer. And as a rule, the Twins make sure that their minor leaguers treat fans well. Of course, they cannot sign during games, but I have seen fans catch the guys on the way back to their cars after the game is over.

Summary: Connecticut probably isn't the coolest state in the Union, and Hartford is no Boston on San Francisco. But there is a lot going on here. I've neglected to mention that the entire New Haven area is on the ocean and full of beaches, that there is an area in Massachusetts (about an hour north of Hartford) that is comparable (though not as great IMO) as "Lake Country" in northern Minnesota, and that you could even make it to Philadelphia in 4 hours, give or take, to watch the aging Phillies demonstrate how to really ruin an organization. If you come for a Friday-Sunday Rock Cats series, there's plenty to do within 20 minutes. If you choose to spend a week here, you'll need to expand your horizons a little, but it really is a great part of the country.

If anyone reading this decides to travel to CT for a Rock Cats game or series, please drop me a line. If I'm around, I'm happy to meet up at the stadium. Beers on me!

Anyone who has been to New Britain, please comments for places I've neglected to mention!

(Please note: I don't do get any revenue from this blog, or from linking to or mentioning restaurants or other businesses. These links are just my own personal opinions, and I'm a normal paying customer at all of these places.)