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Brett Cecil’s issues begin on the first pitch

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A look at Cecil’s struggles in his first year wearing the birds on the bat.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Cecil has been a hot topic this year. From the moment he and the Cardinals agreed to a four year deal for $30.5M, he - and the Cards’ front office - has been subject to quite a bit of criticism. Four years seems like a lot for a reliever. $30.5M is a small sum for a free agent starting position player or starting pitcher, but the idea of that kind of guarantee for a guy who pitches around 60 innings a year seemed dubious to many.

To be clear, I didn’t feel similarly. I saw the deal as a good one compared to others for relievers last year, likening it to a smart off-brand purchase. Of course, things haven’t worked out as planned. Cecil got off to a rough start, then had a string of strong performances, and has since started having poor results again.

In the aggregate, you can’t call the 2017 season anything but a disappointment thus far for Cecil. Since becoming a full-time reliever in 2013, here is his xFIP by year: 2.99, 2.51, 2.39, and 2.87. His 2017 xFIP: 4.21. His strikeout and walk game is more than a full run per nine innings worse than any other season.

As Cardinal broadcasters have frequently pointed out, his troubles have often come against lefties, when he should have the platoon advantage. To start things off, here’s some stats from 2016 and 2017, broken down by handedness:

Brett Cecil handedness splits breakdown

Brett Cecil K/9 BB/9 FIP xFIP
Brett Cecil K/9 BB/9 FIP xFIP
2016 vs. LHH 10.8 1.62 3.21 3.05
2017 vs. LHH 5.94 4.32 5.61 5.73
2016 vs. RHH 11.25 2.25 4.00 2.73
2017 vs. RHH 8.76 1.82 2.86 3.18

Woof. Cecil has seemingly forgotten how to get lefties out. His xFIP vs right-handed hitters is up slightly, but if that was the bad part of his 2017, things would be fine. It’s the left-handers that have been giving Cecil problems, and that’s what we’ll focus on today.

Backing away from handedness for a second though, Cecil’s stuff is relatively the same. His fastball velocity is up a half a tick, and his curve ball (his main out pitch and indeed his most commonly thrown pitch) has lost an inch of drop. That’s not helpful of course, but I doubt that’s what’s causing Brett’s problems.

Looking at the plate discipline however, we see some drastic changes. His Zone% has dropped from 48.1% to 41%. For context, league average in 2017 is 45.1%. So Cecil has went from being in the zone more than average to less than average. For more context, among 122 relievers with 30 innings in both seasons, Cecil has experienced the fourth biggest drop. That seems like a good place to start.

In a related category, Cecil also has the fourth biggest drop in first-pitch strike percentage, or F-Strike%. The league average F-Strike% is 60.4%. Cecil threw a strike 66.2% of the time in 2017, but that’s dropped to just 54.3% in 2017.

Furthermore, there seems to be a pattern connecting the two. Thanks to Fangraphs.com, Here’s Brett’s 5-game rolling average in two stats: xFIP and F-Strike%:

It’s not perfect, but these two seem to be related. When Cecil’s xFIP is peaking, his F-Strike% is cratering. That happened earlier in the year, and it appears to be happening again right now. The change is more pronounced when it comes to left-handers. Cecil had a 68.1% F-Strike% vs. lefties in 2016, and just 51.9% in 2017.

This seems to have something to do with Cecil’s cutter, a pitch that Cecil has turned to more often in 2017. Let’s look at his pitch selection against lefties in 2016 and 2017, courtesy of BaseballSavant.com:

For one we have to point out that in 2016, Statcast classified his breaking ball as a curve ball. In 2017, they see a knuckle curve. Maybe he adjusted his grip, I don’t know. They mostly look like the same pitch, so we’ll just refer to it as a curve ball going forward.

The biggest difference we see so far is that Cecil is turning to his cutter - abbreviated as FC, for fastball (cut) - much more often against lefties, 0.8% to 26.2%. Getting back to the theme of the first pitch though, here’s his pitch selection in 0-0 counts:

In 2016 against LHH, he used three pitches almost equally on his first offering. His curve (CU), four seamer (FF), and sinker (SI) all came in pretty close to a third of the time. In 2017, the cutter has been his go-to on his first offering, mostly at the expense of the curve and sinker.

That cutter is where this problem on the first pitch seems to manifesting itself the most. Here’s a heatmap of Cecil’s cutter location in 2017 vs left-handed hitters, first with no count and then in all counts:

Cecil is using his cutter on the first pitch against lefties more than any other pitch, and it’s off the plate very often. Going back to F-Strike%, he sits at just 45.7%. In total, he’s able to find the strike zone more often. This is a problem because a 0-0 count is almost the least likely count that hitters will swing on. Here’s a breakdown of league Swing% by count for 2017, found using Statcast search at Baseball Savant:

Swing rate by count breakdown

count Swing% Pitch%
count Swing% Pitch%
3-0 9.5% 1.2%
0-0 28.7% 25.6%
1-0 41.8% 10.1%
2-0 42.6% 3.6%
0-1 46.9% 12.7%
0-2 50.7% 6.4%
1-1 53.4% 10.2%
3-1 56.7% 2.2%
1-2 57.4% 9.4%
2-1 58.3% 5.3%
2-2 64.4% 8.1%
3-2 72.8% 5.0%

On 3-0, hitters swing less than one out of ten times. No count is the count with the second least swings. Since a 0-0 count happens more often than any other count - it’s the only count that occurs in each plate appearance - it’s the much more important situation.

It’s not just the cutter though. Let’s look at his curve ball location vs lefties in both years, first in all counts:

Cecil worked his curve mostly in the low-outside part of the zone to lefties last year. He’s still hitting that spot sometimes, but the highest concentration has moved well off the plate. And now let’s look at curve balls in the first pitch of each plate appearance:

Again, we see the location wondering off the plate. With no count, hitters are very patient. As a pitcher, you want to throw a strike in that situation as much as possible. Cecil is having a hard time doing that against lefties in 2017. The curve has an even lower F-Strike% than the cutter against lefties, at just 36.3%. That’s down from 53.8% in 2016, which was still a below average mark. This is less of a problem than the cutter though, because he’s thrown it less.

Four seamers are also down as a first pitch to lefties, 75% to 60.1%. At least the four seamer is still at a league average rate. His cutter went from never being thrown on the first pitch to a lefty to his most common choice. That’s where most the first pitch balls are coming from, but he’s doing worse on all pitches when it comes to first pitch to lefties.

Cecil’s strikeouts are way down, but his contact rate is virtually the same. That, to me, was the first clue that this was a problem in approach. That problem seems to be that he isn’t throwing strikes when hitters are unlikely to swing. He’s falling behind, and that puts him at huge disadvantage for the rest of the plate appearance. And really it extends to more than just the first pitch, as evidenced by the large drop in Zone% we saw earlier. This is just where he’s having the most problems.

“Throw more strikes” seems like a simplistic plan of action going forward, but it looks like the right one here. I don’t know if he’s having some mechanical issues; I’ll leave that to the scouts. Maybe he’s gun-shy after an elevated homer rate last year. He seems to be having command issues, as the higher concentrations of his pitches are wider in some cases. But the highest concentrations are also simply farther off the plate, so it doesn’t look like it’s just a matter of missing location more often. Either way, the data paints a clear picture: Brett Cecil is hurting himself by falling behind too often on the first pitch. Let’s hope that Cecil and the coaching staff can fix this going forward.