The Hopper needs more use

My new partner-in-crime here at Marlin Manaic, John Herold, and I have discussed this topic in the past, and I feel like a slow news day like today could use a look into the issue. The topic at hand for this post is the correct usage of one Burke Heinrich Badenhop, aka “The Hopper.”

Most Marlins fans will tell you that the answer to the question “Who has been the best asset from the Miguel Cabrera trade so far?” is Burke Badenhop. The Hopper has logged 119 1/3 innings in two seasons with the Marlins, including 72 innings last season mostly out of the bullpen. The results so far have been a solid if unspectacular 4.11 FIP, including a 3.45 FIP in those 72 mostly relief innings in 2009.

This brought the question of interest between John and I, should we be starting the Hopper?

First off, is he good enough to start? Well, that’s an interesting question indeed. I figured a good way to analyze that would be to check on his peripherals first, then look into some Pitch f/x data. Let’s start with the peripherals.

Badenhop, Career 17.8% 7.8% 12.5% 54.2%
2009 NL Average 18.4% 8.3% 10.6% 44.5%

Looking at those numbers, you might say that Badenhop appears to be an above average pitcher overall. However, that comes with an obvious caveat; when you’re a reliever for much of your career, it is significantly easier to be an “above average” pitcher. In fact, replacement level relievers are close to average pitchers in terms of overall numbers (47% win% pitcher based on Pythagorean as opposed to an average of 50%). So it is difficult to take those strikeout and walk rates too seriously. Perhaps a better comparison for those would be with the 2009 NL average for relievers:

2009 NL Reliever K%: 19.8%
2009 NL Reliever UIBB%: 9.3%

That gives us some better context as to how the Hopper performed. You can see that Hopper is not a big strikeout pitcher, but he does a solid job of controlling the strike zone. The home runs seem a bit fluky given his fly ball numbers, but that aspect of batted ball data is always subject to the scorer’s whims.

One thing we can probably tell a good deal about is Hopper’s ground ball rate; in that respect, he is well above average. Any pitcher who can put up a 50%+ ground ball rate is going to generally bring success to a major league staff, as ground balls will significantly minimize the damage of batted balls. This of course includes minimizing the home runs; even in 2009, in which Badenhop was supposedly lucky on HR/FB%, xFIP still rates his performance similarly compared to his FIP because Badenhop limits fly balls by keeping it on the ground. This is a quality that, when combined with the ability to keep the ball in the strike zone, could prove useful as a major league starter.

But how does he do it? Well, here it may be worth taking a look at what Badenhop throws. First, I took a look at BtB Pitch f/x guru and friend of the Maniac Harry Pavlidis’ preview of one of Badenhop’s starts against the Chicago Cubs to determine what Badenhop generally throws. From there, I picked up Hopper’s Pitch f/x data from 2009 for myself and started digging through his pitches. The data was a bit of a mess, as it showed four different types of fastballs, three of which predominated and were evenly spread out. I went back through and reclassified all of his pitches that were considered “fastballs” into either four- or two-seamers based on their vertical break. Here’s what the pitches generally look like.

Pitch Type # % Thrown Velocity H-Break V-Break
FT 398 34.4% 88.3 -11.3 2.4
FF 366 31.6% 88.2 -10.5 4.8
SL 220 19.0% 79.6 7.9 4.2
CH 169 14.6% 82.7 -9.1 1.2

I’ve not been looking at Pitch f/x charts for a long time, but I’d say this is one of the oddest ones that I have ever seen. Badenhop is no Chad Bradford type with a submariner or sidearm release, but Hopper does throw out of a slightly lower angle akin to a typical 3/4 release, and that must be contributing to the heavy horizontal break that we see here. Also, you can tell that Hopper’s fastballs have much less “rise” than most traditional two- and four-seam fastballs, which must certainly help in inducing those grounders.

Pitch Type BIP GB%
FT 78 65.4%
FF 77 45.5%
SL 30 20.0%
CH 35 65.7%

Badenhop was putting the two-seam fastball to good use in eliciting ground balls. The changeup offering, which provided a similar ground ball rate, is obviously critical for facing lefty hitters, as Badenhop cannot use the slider without the platoon advantage. The slider is the weakest offering for inducing grounders, but it is an important pitch for Badenhop, as it is one of his best whiff-inducing pitches.

So we can see that the ground ball tendencies for Badenhop come with good reason. His pitches with good sink, particularly the two-seam fastball, do show the capability of inducing ground balls. This may be due to the break of the pitch or perhaps some measure of location as well. But how much value could we get out of Badenhop starting rather than relieving? I used CHONE’s projection of a 3.99 FIP for 2010 and calculated his projected WAR based on 65 innings of work and an average leverage index of 1 (Hopper faced an average index of 0.9 last season). That came out to 0.4 WAR on the year. In comparison, I used the estimate of 1 extra ER/9 innings going relief to starting, giving Hopper a projected FIP of 4.99 as a starter. I then calculated his projected WAR in 140 innings pitched and it resulted in 0.7 WAR.

In this case, the added value is not very large, so perhaps leaving Hopper in his current state in the pen may be best, especially given the projected performance of the starters we do have (and we have a lot of them available for work). The other option the Marlins should consider is upping the leverage Badenhop faces. Essentially, if he pitched higher leverage innings such as the eighth and pitched a similar amount in terms of innings, he may up his contribution a small amount, and it may save the Marlins the trouble of seeing one of the more terrifying relievers like Leo Nunez or Renyel Pinto face more high leverage situations. Hopper could and probably should be removed from the long relief role (typically reserved for blowouts) and perhaps moved to a seventh inning role like Kiko Calero’s role last year. It may give him more outings of importance.

Overall, I don’t think these moves would prove entirely beneficial either way. But something of interest that I will look into a little later is how the work of guys like Badenhop can maybe help two current Marlins, Chris Volstad and Andrew Miller, improve their own stuff as well.

Tags: Burke Badenhop Miami Marlins

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