More on Littleton: How He Compares

marc w · March 1, 2010 at 10:49 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

As Jay mentioned just down the page, the M’s added Wes Littleton today, a sinkerballing righty who gets a decent amount of ground balls, and is thus very, very similar to Sean White, Kanekoa Texeira, Levale Speigner and 3-4 minor league free agents Jack’s probably signed since I started this post (it’s handy that you don’t really need a scouting report anymore for these minor pick-ups). Let’s be honest: this isn’t a big deal, but there are still some important differences between these guys – and we’ve got a bit more time to kill before the Cactus League ‘season’ starts.

The Incumbent:
Sean White relies on a sinking fastball, which he throws at 93-94 MPH. He gets next to no swinging strikes (3.7%), which explains his miniscule K rate. That said, the combination of GBs and a low HR/FB rate helped him post an above average FIP and tRA. He’s below-average by xFIP, which assumes that a pitcher has no control over his HR/FB rate (substituting a league average rate for the pitcher’s actual results). He’s got the best velocity in this group (by a wide margin), but his GB rate isn’t eye-popping any more. This shouldn’t be that surprising, as his fastball’s vertical movement (the amount it moves compared to a ball thrown without spin) isn’t all that far from league average.

The Rule 5 Kid:
Kanekoa Texeira came to the M’s in the Rule 5 draft from the Yankees organization. A fastball/slider righty, he had the third-highest GB rate in the Eastern League (amongst relievers). His fastball velocity is lower than White’s, high 80s to 90. And while we don’t have pitch f/x in the minor leagues yet, we can assume his fastball sinks a bit more than White’s. This isn’t to say it’s ‘better’ – just that it’s different. Also, his command isn’t as good as White’s, as his walk rate was higher in AA than White’s was in MLB.

The New Guy:
Wes Littleton turned a 70% GB rate, a low line drive rate, and a batting average on balls in play under .200 into a great (but brief) 2006. His tRA, FIP and xFIP weren’t amazing, but his ERA certainly was. It was only 36 innings, which helps explain his eye-popping numbers: small sample size. For a recent M’s example of this phenomenon, think of 2008 Roy Corcoran, who saw a decent-sized shift in his batted ball profile from LD to GB. The next year? Corcoran was DFAd. The problem for Littleton is that he’s significantly worse than Roy Corcoran. What pitch fx data we have on Littleton shows that his FB has a remarkable amount of sink – it’s equivalent to Sean Green’s sinking fastball during his M’s tenure (Green’s new arm angle means he’s something of a different animal with the Mets). But while Green got batters to swing and miss on his FB 6.1% of the time in 2008, Littleton was down to an unheard-of 1.6% in that same year. That’s about half of Doug Fister’s FB swinging strike rate. A move to the Brewers organization didn’t help, as his GB rate continued to decline. For good measure, Jeff Sullivan noted some problems in his ability to get lefties at Lookout Landing (though to be fair, Littleton couldn’t get righties out last year either).

Even with Sean White’s health still in question, I have a hard time thinking that Littleton has a good shot at making this bullpen. With declining velocity, GB rates and abysmal results, Littleton’s probably going to be battling Levale Speigner to win the job as GB-heavy righty in the Tacoma bullpen. The M’s signed Littleton to a minor league deal, so they’re thinking the same thing. An ‘awesome year’ in Texas is impressive, but 36 IP with unsustainable peripherals doesn’t mean he’s got a leg up – it just means that small sample sizes can produce really odd results.

Some of you may be wondering why the team focuses so much on GB rates, or why we should care. Stuff is stuff, right? Matthew Carruth (of Lookout Landing fame) looked at GBs in a great series posted at Fangraphs. Here’s a summary, but if you’ve got some time, read the whole thing.

Comments

7 Responses to “More on Littleton: How He Compares”

  1. marc w on March 1st, 2010 11:02 pm

    The obvious question arises: if Littleton couldn’t get ANY swinging strikes with his sinker/FB, how was he posting above-average K rates in the minors? How was he getting any Ks in the majors?
    He’s actually got a pretty good change. While he’s nothing at all like Fernando Rodney, but it may be time to adopt Rodney’s change-heavy pitch mix and see if that helps.

  2. gwangung on March 2nd, 2010 10:46 am

    The obvious question arises: if Littleton couldn’t get ANY swinging strikes with his sinker/FB, how was he posting above-average K rates in the minors? How was he getting any Ks in the majors?
    He’s actually got a pretty good change. While he’s nothing at all like Fernando Rodney, but it may be time to adopt Rodney’s change-heavy pitch mix and see if that helps.

    This gets me to a question I have about breaking down the effects of a pitcher’s physical attributes (speed, break, command, repertoire) and his mental attributes (his strategy, etc.). We’ve seen how pitch selection affects Felix. Is there a general rubric or study on this? It’s obvious that not all pitchers have optimal strategies on the mound; is there a study or two that summarizes good strategies for different types of pitchers?

  3. marc w on March 2nd, 2010 12:04 pm

    gwangung,

    Great question – this is something that’s pretty new, so I’d imagine we’ll see a lot of work on this in the future. Here’s a recent piece from Dave Allen, whom you may know from Fangraphs or from his great piece on Cliff Lee in the Mariners Annual. This is looking at a small group of pitchers with a limited pitch mix, but the results are counter-intuitive to me. This is a limited study, but I like the approach – we’ll probably see expanded versions of this soon.

    I fear that this isn’t getting at your question specifically – how a given type of pitcher can optimize his pitch mix strategy – but it’s something anyway.

  4. gwangung on March 2nd, 2010 6:13 pm

    Here’s a recent piece from Dave Allen, whom you may know from Fangraphs or from his great piece on Cliff Lee in the Mariners Annual.

    Wow, you’re right. That IS counter intuitive. But still interesting.

    Not that I think we can take any grand conclusions to it yet; with more data, we might find a grander principle that this fits into (not that I have any idea of what they could be….)

  5. Hobo on March 3rd, 2010 12:47 pm

    So Littleton was signed to a Minor League contract. Kanekoa Texeira was Rule 5′ed so if he’s not kept on the 25-Man Roster he gets offered back to the Bombers. Does Sean White have any Options left?

    On a side-note: now that the Mariners DFA’ed Gaby Hernandez and got picked-up by Boston and was DFA’ed by the Red Sox a month later has a deal for Gaby been made yet? What are the odds that he gets signed to a minor league deal by the M’s if he gets unconditionally released after the 10-day DFA waiting period?

  6. Hobo on March 3rd, 2010 1:11 pm

    Nevermind about Gaby. The Royals just claimed him.

    Does Sean White have any Minor-League Options left?

  7. marc w on March 3rd, 2010 4:57 pm

    Don’t think White does – He’s been in the minors quite a few years (so no 4th option), and presumably used option years in 2007,8 and 9.

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