On March 17th, the Reds signed free agent RHP Alfredo Simon to a 1-year, $2 million deal which could be worth up to $3.5 million with incentives. This move should have been a surprise to exactly no one considering Simon was a former Red with some durability and the Reds were in the market for a durable pitcher to throw some pitches.
Most reactions right after the trade aligned with my own. “Meh.” Simon, at this point in his career, is wholly unspectacular, yet affordable. His signing is no cause for alarm and no cause for celebration. Some reactions bordered on disgust, likely based on Simon’s alleged off-the-field activities. I am not a lawman, nor am I adept at discussing off-the-field matters, so I won’t. I like numbers and charts. I think you guys know that about me.
Simon had a decent 2014 with Cincinnati before being flipped for Eugenio Suarez (!) and Jonathon Crawford. Simon did not have a decent 2015 in Detroit after being flipped for Eugenio Suarez (!!) and Jonathon Crawford. What changed from 2014 to 2015? Can 2016 be closer to 2014 than to 2015? This is what we shall explore below.
Here is the obligatory chart showing some basic stats from Simon’s 2014 and 2015 campaigns:
From my point of view, the only major issues here involve the amount of batters walked by Simon and the decrease in his ground ball rate. In almost all cases, walking batters is bad and keeping the ball on the ground is good. Simon’s BABIP increased significantly (to around league average), but that’s something mostly out of his control, as is his left-on-base percentage (LOB%). LOB% has a very low year-to-year correlation (0.05 r-squared, from 1955 to 2012), meaning a pitcher doesn’t have much control over how many runners he strands each year. Seems counter-intuitive, but it’s along the same lines as sequencing. Sometimes three batters will go single-single-homer, and sometimes they go homer-single-single; a pitcher has little control over how these events are sequenced.
Let’s jump right in and look at a heat map of every pitch thrown by Simon in 2014 and 2015 and see if we can discover anything interesting:
This doesn’t seem terribly helpful. In 2014, it looks like Simon had a somewhat lower center of mass when compared to 2015, avoiding throwing as many pitches at the top of the zone. He also threw a few more pitches out of the strike zone on the left side, but fewer on the right side. Again, not terribly helpful. Let’s see if we can dig a bit deeper.
Here is Simon’s performance against left-handed batters and right-handed batters in both 2014 and 2015:
Whoa! A 53-point jump in wOBA against lefties from 2014 to 2015 (and a 106-point jump in SLG) is quite significant. In 2014, Simon made the average lefty look like a Desmond Jennings or Billy Butler-type hitter. In 2015, though, Simon made the average lefty look like future perennial MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Manny Machado. While some of this is attributed to the natural rise in Simon’s BABIP, this seems like a good place to dig. Also, since a jump of 24-points was all that benefitted righties, there is probably something more to this whole “lefties killed him” thing.
[As a reminder, weighted on-base average (wOBA) is a measure that attempts to give proper credit for each event that happens when a batter is at the plate. For example, a single is worth more than a walk. In this example, OBP would over-value the walk (weighting it equally to a single), while SLG undervalues the walk (doesn’t count it at all); wOBA values it correctly. For more reading, click!]
Here is a similar GIF showing the pitch locations to only left-handed batters from 2014 and 2015:
There definitely seems to be a bias towards higher and in-the-zone pitches in 2015 than 2014. Perhaps that was part of the problem. Pitches up in the zone are easier to get airborne, so we’d expect to see Simon giving up more fly balls against lefties in 2015, right? Right! Simon’s fly ball rate against lefties went from 27.2% in 2014 to 33.9% in 2015. That is likely only part of the story. Let’s try to figure out where in the zone lefties were killing Simon:
Well, this shows it fairly obviously. Simon was destroyed by lefties in 2015 on pitches inside. The numbers within each sector are the slugging percentage, which is comprised of total bases divided by balls in play. For example, the middle-inside sector with an 1.154 SLG shows that 13 balls were put in play when Simon threw to this sector, and those 13 balls in play resulted in 15 total bases.
The only pitch Simon regularly threw inside in 2015 was the 4-seam fastball. Here are Simon’s 4-seam fastball locations in 2015, as well as how often he induced a swing-and-a-miss on those pitches:
I think this paints a pretty stark picture. Simon threw the 4-seamer inside to lefties more often than any other pitch. He didn’t induce many whiffs, and he gave up big, crooked slugging numbers on inside pitches. This should be an area for improvement in 2016, especially given the chart below; velocity.
Simon lost velocity on all his pitches between 2014 and 2015. It’s hard to induce whiffs on middling fastballs to begin with. Drops in velocity don’t help. Once velocity starts dropping, it is often hard to stop the descent.
Another interesting thing about Simon’s 2014 and 2015 seasons is the increase in the amount of splitters he threw:
Simon basically doubled his usage of splitters in 2015. Were they effective? You decide. The next two GIFs show Simon’s splitter usage and location, as well as how many whiffs he generated in both 2014 and 2015 against RHH and LHH:
Notice in 2014 Simon threw the splitter mostly towards the right-handed batters box and down. In 2015, he threw primarily down and towards the left-handed batters box. A strategy shift like this could be from any number of things, but my money is on the simplest explanation; this is likely where the Tigers catchers liked calling and setting up for this particular pitch. Now, as promised, the whiffs generated by the splitters in 2014 and 2015:
Together, these show us a pitch Simon used twice as often in 2015 than in 2014 was significantly less effective at generating swings and misses. While some swings might generate ground balls, generally these pitches out of the zone are simply taken for balls.Earlier I mentioned Simon’s overall ground ball rate dropped from 48.2% in 2014 to 43.6% in 2015. These pitches being taken for balls, rather than whiffed at or pounded into the ground, is likely the main culprit of Simon’s increased walk rate between 2014 and 2015.
So, can Alfredo Simon recreate his 2014 magic in 2016 with Cincinnati? It’s certainly possible, but fairly unlikely. You can never count on the BABIP gods to be in your favor, Simon has begun losing velocity, and his new go-to pitch is becoming less effective. If he’s to thrive in Cincinnati, he and Mark Riggins will likely need to find a new game-plan that doesn’t involve throwing inside to left-handed hitters, because the book is out!
And, there’s always this to fall back on…
All heat maps are courtesy of Baseball Savant, all pitch charts are courtesy of Brooks Baseball, and most stats are courtesy of FanGraphs or PITCHf/x.