A Quick Note About Brandon Maurer

Dave · May 1, 2013 at 1:09 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Marc talked about this in the game thread last night, and lots of other people have noticed this before, so I’m not breaking any news here, but Brandon Maurer has a pretty serious flaw, and it was on full display last night; he’s got nothing to throw left-handed batters.

Maurer has four pitches, but he’s primarily a fastball/slider guy. He throws his slider a lot, in fact. Among qualified starters, PITCHF/x only has three pitchers throwing more pitches classified as sliders than Brandon Maurer this year. As you probably know, the slider has the biggest platoon split of any pitch in baseball. There’s a reason every situational reliever in baseball throws a million sliders. It’s why the Mariners have a bullpen full of match-up guys who just come in and throw slider after slider.

The slider is not a good pitch to opposite handed hitters, but it’s great against same-handed hitters. Pitchers who throw a lot of sliders tend to have huge platoon splits. Brandon Maurer has huge platoon splits.

Vs RHB: 17 2/3 IP, 16 H, 1 HR, 2 BB, 16 K, .250/.304/.359
Vs LHB: 12 IP, 19 H, 4 HR, 6 BB, 2 K, .359/.424/.717

A lot has been made about how bad Maurer was early, then how he “found it” for three starts, then “lost it” again last night. In reality, what actually happened is that he faced two teams with a decent number of LHBs in his first two starts, then had three starts against the RHB-heavy Rangers and Angels, then had to face a bunch of lefties again last night. His up-and-down performances have basically been tied to how many left-handers the opponent has been able to stack against him.

In general, right-handed starters are going to face more left-handed hitters than right-handed hitters, since most teams have enough hitters from boths sides to play the match-ups and get the platoon advantage against pitchers with big splits. For a pitcher to succeed in the rotation, he essentially has to be able to keep opposite handed hitters at bay, at least to a reasonable degree. The way most pitchers do that is with a change-up, which has a reverse platoon split.

Brandon Maurer has a change-up. When facing lefties this year, he’s thrown it 43 times. It has produced terrible results. Opposing batters have swung and missed at his change-up just twice, and they have a higher contact rate against his change-up (93.8%) than they do against his fastball (89.2%). Maurer knows his change-up isn’t a very good out pitch right now, which is why when he gets to two strikes against left-handers, he’s actually throwing 55% sliders and only 3% change-ups. When he wants a swing-and-miss, even against a lefty, he goes to a pitch that dives right into LHBs hot zones.

The difference between his slider against RHBs and LHBs tells the story. Per BrooksBaseball, Maurer has gotten 20% called strikes and 22% swinging strikes on his slider against right-handers. Against lefties, he still gets 19% called strikes, but the swinging strike rate drops to 10%. At-bats by RHBs that end with a slider result in a .194 average and .278 slugging percentage. At-bats against lefties that end with a slider result in a .438 average and .750 slugging percentage.

Brandon Maurer’s slider is a real weapon against RHBs, but he can’t keep featuring it against lefties like he is now. It is not an out pitch against opposite handed hitters. Pitches that move horizontally towards a hitter generally do very poorly. The change-up, curveball, and splitter do well against opposite handed hitters because they move up and down, not side to side.

Maurer has a curve ball, but he doesn’t throw it very much, and his change-up isn’t very good right now. He’s young, so it’s certainly possible that these pitches will develop and give him weapons against LHBs in time, but right now, he’s basically a righty specialist being asked to start. When he runs into RHB heavy line-ups, he’ll look great, because his FB/SL combination is very good against RHBs. When he runs into LHB heavy line-ups, well, you’ve seen what happens.

I like Brandon Maurer, and I think there’s potential for him to turn into a good starter at some point. But, right now, Brandon Maurer is at least one pitch shy of being a good big league starter. Either the change-up or the curve need to take a big step forward, or else he’s going to keep getting pounded by line-ups that have good left-handed hitters. There are a lot of good left-handed hitters in baseball. Asking Brandon Maurer to get them out right now is simply not fair to him, nor is it helping his development.

In the minors, Maurer could simply be told to throw x number of change-ups and curveballs each game in order to further develop those pitches. In the majors, his job is to get hitters out, and so he leans on the pitches he trusts the most. The problem is that he’s not really pitching that well, and featuring his fastball and slider on a regular basis won’t help his change-up or curveball get any better.

Unfortunately, the Mariners don’t really have any pitching depth. Aaron Harang would probably be on the chopping block if the team had any decent Major League starters in Triple-A, and they’d need two MLB starters in order to dump Harang and get Maurer more time in the minors. It is not clear where the Mariners can find another decent big league starter — Erasmo Ramirez doesn’t sound like he’s anywhere close to returning, and given the quiet nature of the team’s updates around him, I suspect we might not see him at all this year — much less two. So, Brandon Maurer is probably going to stay in the rotation, and he’s probably going to keep having these up-and-down performances based on how many LHBs the opposing manager can stick in the line-up against him.

Hopefully, his change-up and curveball can improve at this level, even without getting a lot of in-game practice. He needs more than just his slider.


18 Responses to “A Quick Note About Brandon Maurer”

  1. thurston24 on May 1st, 2013 1:14 pm

    Hopefully the Mariners are aware of this and he’s throwing mostly curveballs and changeups in his bullpen sessions.

  2. bookbook on May 1st, 2013 1:18 pm

    Good analysis. To what extent were Steve Carlton, and maybe Schilling, mostly FB/SL guys?

  3. globalalpha on May 1st, 2013 1:24 pm

    How did Maurer get out lefties in the minors? Was he able to just get by against lower quality hitting with his fastball?

  4. Sports on a Shtick on May 1st, 2013 1:35 pm

    Why the hell did this team release Jon Garland again? Shiny potential is appealing and all but this definitely turned out to be a rush job.

  5. marc w on May 1st, 2013 1:52 pm

    Great question, globalalpha –
    His minor league FIP was great against lefties. This may just be another demonstration of how MiLB numbers can deceive. At some levels, just having a change-up can make a pitcher really effective. MLB is not one of those levels, and it’s one reason guys with so-so stuff and even a very good change-up struggle in MLB (this is the Yusmeiro Petit Principle). Could be the change-up was good enough at lower levels, and it could be good fastball command was enough. I’m sure the slider worked fairly well down there as well – his strikeout rates against lefties were quite high.

    bookbook –
    Schilling had a splitter for a lot of his career, as did Randy Johnson. For the early part of his career, RJ clearly *was* a pure FB/SL guy, however. Just helps to throw 99.
    The guy who’s most similar to Maurer (in my mind) and who somehow makes the FB/SL thing work to opposite-handed hitters is Madison Bumgarner, who throws 1/3 sliders to righties and 1/3 sliders to lefties. Like Maurer, he’s got a lower arm-angle, so I’d assume righties get a very long look at both his FB and SL. But it hasn’t seemed to matter – his whiff/swing against lefties is 27%, and against righties it’s 24%. Lefties actually put in play more often than righties. So it can be done, but it’s incredibly rare, and unless the M’s have a very good idea of how Bumgarner does it, then just intensive work on his change-up seems like the best prescription.

  6. steve_lse on May 1st, 2013 2:18 pm

    Good analysis overall, but I think it’s overstating it to say his entire success/failure this year is linked to how many left-handed batters he’s faced. His performance against the Astros, for instance, was genuinely abysmal – he only managed two outs (one of which was against a lefty) and got nailed in pretty much every at bat.

    We can definitely expect variation based on how many left-handers he faces, but not to that kind of extreme level. Whether that was genuinely nerves or just a random poor performance is anybody’s guess.

  7. Westside guy on May 1st, 2013 2:52 pm

    This may be a dumb question, but…

    If the team has no good options anyway, would it make sense longer term to send a valuable prospect like Maurer down to work on those pitches, and meanwhile give his spot to someone whose long term prospects aren’t particularly good, like Beavan or Noesi? Either way the pitcher is going to suck in a number of starts; and it’s not like there’s a 2013 playoff berth the team will be in the running for.

  8. msfanmike on May 1st, 2013 2:56 pm

    His placement of pitches is the most concern to me. I think he will eventually learn to bury that slider in the dirt/on the hands of lefties while working his fastball away.

    Mariner hitters are constantly swinging at buried sliders in the dirt from opposite handed pitchers and I am sure there must be other hitters in the league with similar pitch recognition skills.

    I think it is more of a command issue for Maurer than a “stuff” issue, at least for now … but he does need to develop a more effective change-up without a doubt.

    I do like the post and the analysis, though.

  9. MrZDevotee on May 1st, 2013 2:59 pm

    “At-bats against lefties that end with a slider result in a .438 average and .750 slugging percentage.”

    OUCH! That’s like Wile E. Coyote bad…

    “Beep-Beep!” (Grand Slam)

  10. MrZDevotee on May 1st, 2013 3:05 pm

    That’s a really good point. He seemed to use the meat of the plate less in spring. And I actually REMEMBER him throwing “junk” in the dirt during Spring in “pitcher’s counts”…

    I also remember an extreme number of strikes to balls in Spring Training, which perhaps now looks more like bad batters swinging at bad pitches they couldn’t hit, than precision pitching by a high level youngster.

    And… Bam. Right back with that info to “You can’t trust Spring Training numbers”.

    I like Westy’s idea too. Give Noesi a proverbial “last chance” while Brandon goes down to find another out pitch.

  11. GLS on May 1st, 2013 4:09 pm

    I’m curious what aspect of his change-up needs work. Is it command, movement, arm-speed/deceptiveness or some combination of all? Also, I’ve heard that the split-finger is the easiest pitch to learn, so maybe that’s an answer?

  12. Choo on May 1st, 2013 4:15 pm

    RE bookbook, Steve Carlton:

    Needless to say, Carlton was pretty awesome. His slider is ranked the #1 slider of all-time in the underrated James/Neyer Guide to Pitchers. I don’t have the book in front of me, but if I recall, Carlton gripped his slider like a cutter, which helped disguise the pitch on its way to the plate.

    If you watch footage of Carlton, one of the first things you might notice is his incredible command. He could change the tilt on his slider at will, anywhere between a nasty, razor-sharp biter to a huge roundhouse slurve that he would often bury into the back foot of opposite-handed batters – even the occasional 12-6 which may have been a completely different pitch.

    As for how he mixed in his fastball, he did what most pitchers do: alternate in/out down in the zone and, when he felt the hitter was looking for the slider, starting the pitch up where he would start his slider to handcuff the batter.

  13. dchappelle on May 1st, 2013 4:24 pm

    So what is the story about Erasmo?

  14. dchappelle on May 1st, 2013 4:26 pm
  15. csiems on May 1st, 2013 5:35 pm

    It should be noted that FB/SL-only guys get by just fine in the major leagues.

    Example: Ryan Dempster from 2008-2012 through between 75%-89% fastballs and sliders. The rest were show-me cutters and split fingers. During that time lefties (Dempster is right-handed) had a .333 wOBA against him. For his career, all hitters have a .324 wOBA against him.

  16. Dave on May 1st, 2013 6:53 pm

    Dempster’s splitter is his change-up. They’re basically the same pitch. Since 2008, he’s thrown splitters to lefties 21% of the time, and 28% of the time with two strikes. It is his anti-LHB out pitch. Pretending that he doesn’t have it is just false.

  17. bongo on May 2nd, 2013 6:07 am

    Any thoughts on whether Danny Farquar, James Gilheeny, Brian Sweeney or Hultzen could help the club this season? Gilheeny looked good in his recent outing, though he’ll probably need a few months to settle in. Bonderman, Paxton and Nunez haven’t been very inspiring so far, and Erasmo is just getting back to throwing so…

  18. csiems on May 2nd, 2013 4:48 pm

    Dave, not trying to pester, but where can I find that Dempster data you’re referencing? I was doing my best with FG’s pitch type charts. How often does Dempster throw the slider to lefties?

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