To put it nicely, Brett Cecil has had a rough start to 2016. Coming off of an absolutely dominant second half in 2015, Toronto Blue Jays’ fans were probably expecting something better from their elite left-handed reliever. Instead, he’s been downright pedestrian.
Through the second half of 2015, Cecil’s OPS-against was .326. This season, Cecil’s OBP-against alone is up at .400. His OPS-against is .900. To put that into perspective, the average hitter against Cecil is 2015 Anthony Rizzo. But what’s actually wrong with Cecil? We can look at the statistics all we want, but what is he doing differently?
Is it just noise?
Cecil’s BABIP is about .100 points higher than his career norm. His strand rate is also about 10 percentage points lower than last season. That might indicate he’s experiencing some bad luck. Furthermore, we’re working with a very small sample size of only 9.1 innings. That doesn’t tell the whole story though, as Cecil has faced 46 batters. That means he has faced 19 more than the minimum, which is at least enough plate appearances to start noticing some patterns.
For what it’s worth, I still believe Cecil will straighten this out. But a FIP of 3.61 and a WHIP of 1.82 indicate that some slumping is going on.
First, I usually like to check pitch velocity: it’s a quick and easy place to start. The only pitch that seems to be down any notable amount is his changeup, which has decreased from 85.3 mph to 83 mph on average. There are two reasons this doesn’t actually raise any concern: the speed of a changeup isn’t what makes it effective, and Cecil has only thrown it 5.7 percent of the time. That’s 10 pitches. Even further, it’s been his best pitch so far and has shown an increase in movement. That’s a good sign and definitely isn’t what’s wrong with Cecil.
While we’re looking at specific pitches, let’s take a look at Cecil’s swinging strikes then. Only nine percent of Cecil’s pitches have resulted in a swing-and-a-miss. This is decidedly down from his 2015 mark of 15 percent, and even further from his 2014 mark of 16.7 percent. Whiffs are good, and Cecil just isn’t getting them as much so far this season.
The pitch that seems to be the biggest culprit to this regression is the one you probably suspect the most: the curveball. In 2014, Cecil’s curveball got offered at and was missed 29.3 percent of the time. In 2015, when Cecil threw the curveball, major league hitters hit nothing but air 27.7 percent of the time. That’s an otherworldly rate at which to embarrass the best hitters in the world. However, in 2016, Cecil’s curveball has only generated an 11.4 percent whiff rate. The pitch that accounted for a .373 OPS in 2015 just isn’t missing bats. But why?
Pulling zone profiles from Brooks Baseball for pitches identified by PITCHf/x as ‘curveball’ and ‘slow curve’ unfortunately doesn’t afford us much comparison. Here’s the second-half of 2015:
Here’s 2016 so far:
They’re almost identical. In fact, you could argue that Cecil had more ‘mistake’ pitches in 2015. Instead then, let’s look at where Cecil generated his whiffs on those pitches:
Cecil is getting way fewer whiffs on his bread-and-butter pitch: the curveball low to his glove side; down-and-in to righties, down-and-away to lefties. The surrounding zones have also suffered quite a bit. Perhaps batters are just learning to lay off that pitch, knowing that it will break out of the zone for a ball.
Judging by the 2015 usage, Cecil’s curveball can still dominate opposing hitters when left in the bottom-third of the strikezone. But let’s make sure:
This is such an unbelievably small sample. In the second half of 2015, Cecil’s curveball was only put into play 48 times… and six landed for hits. In 2016, 21 have been put into play and seven have already landed for hits. Again, hitters seem especially educated on that low curveball (down-and-in to righties). They’re swinging at it less and, when they do swing at it, they’re not missing it.
It really is such a small sample by which to proclaim an ‘easy fix.’ Apart from being a victim of some bad luck, it looks like Cecil just isn’t getting as many swings at the low curveball. And there’s just no quick fix to that at all; unfortunately you can’t tell opposing hitters just to swing more.
Right now, just over 34 percent of Cecil’s curveballs are finishing in a zone other than the four bottom-left quadrants. In the second-half of last year, Cecil was throwing 42 percent of his pitches to other parts of the zone. Perhaps Cecil is just being too predictable now. Varying location on the curveball a little bit more could help throw off some hitters.
Roughly the same percentage of curveballs are ending up in the strikezone compared to the second-half of last season, but Cecil is choosing to miss in one specific zone almost exclusively. That could be hampering that location’s effectiveness if it’s just too predictable.
It doesn’t strike me as a common occurrence that a pitcher hitting his best zone leads to struggles, and that can be read one of two ways. The pessimist may argue that Cecil can no longer make that pitch work; that ‘the book’ is out on him, so to speak. The optimist however, would argue that Cecil is just locating it too well. He knows his strongest zone and he is sticking to it. But maybe he’s just sticking to it too well. But if a pitcher has that level of control, it seems like a reasonable expectation that Cecil can get himself out of it by precisely locating elsewhere when he needs to.
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