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Jason Marquis and that sinking feeling

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ID:	963Once upon a time, in a land far away on the other side of downtown, covered by a beautiful white bubble – where the weather was always a pleasant 72 degrees – there was a starting pitching staff who understood the intrinsic value of working ahead of opponents.

In the last decade, from 2000 to 2010, one of the pillars of the Twins Way was to dominate the airspace above the plate. The starters made it their business to pepper the strike zone from the get-go, leading baseball with a 62.8% first-pitch strike rate. Brad Radke paced baseball with a 69% first-pitch strike rate as other members of the team – notably Carlos Silva, Kevin Slowey and Johan Santana - also finishing within the top ten.

True, the quality of the arms, particularly Santana and Radke, were vastly superior to the current crop, however, by comparison, the 2012 Twins staff have completely deviated from this philosophy. This season, the staff has posted the worst first-pitch strike rate in baseball meaning just barely over half of the pitcher-batter engagements (53.8%) have resulted in the Twins pitcher registering strike one on the first pitch.

While most would think “Liriano” right off the bat, it’s actually Jason Marquis who has been the team’s biggest offender. Heading into yesterday’s contest, Marquis’ 47.5% First-Pitch Strike rate was the second worst in baseball.

Beyond just working ahead, Marquis has struggled to find the zone overall. Once again, while we all peg Liriano as the poster wild child, it is actually Marquis who has been missing the plate more frequently (35% versus Liriano’s 36.2% rate). What’s more is that the veteran is not missing any bats. In fact, his 3.5% swinging strike rate heading into yesterday’s outing against the Indians was the lowest in baseball (minimum 20 innings pitched).

If we are looking for little victories inside his sixth start of the year, Marquis did improve his attack on the strike zone, jumping ahead for a strike 56% of the time on Tuesday afternoon. Likewise, after not inducing many swinging strikes on any of his secondary pitches, he got four (count ‘em, four) swinging strikes: three on his slider, one on his changeup.

After the game, ESPN1500.com’s Phil Mackey relayed Ron Gardenhire’s assessment on the two starters, Cleveland’s Derek Lowe and Marquis:

"He worked ahead in the count for the most part and got groundballs. Jason (Marquis) saw the difference. One guy is throwing the sinkers and getting the ball to the ground, and Marquis is throwing his sinker and it's staying up. They put some balls in the seats and put us in a hole, but their pitcher did what you're supposed to do with a lead."
Two of the home runs Marquis allowed to the Indians came on his sinker, which certainly did not appear to be of the highest caliber that day. But, the most recent performance notwithstanding, believe it or not, his sinker is getting the best results in years.

Those familiar with Pitch F/X know that the system of cameras inside the ballpark captures (almost) every pitch thrown, which measures the release point, speed, movement, spin, where it crosses the plate, and so on. By using this data, we find that Marquis’ sinker is coming in at a different vertical level than it had in more recent seasons.

Before this year, his sinker had averaged vertical movement of 5.2, 6.0, 5.2 and 5.9 inches respectively. This year it’s at 2.9.

Sinkers have a tendency to demonstrate, on average, a rise of five inches (not in the gravitational sense but relative to other pitches). For the past several years, Marquis’ sinker was very consistent with this average. However, this year, it is only rising 2.9 inches – meaning it is staying down.

What makes this interesting is that Pitch F/X research - like the one found at It’s About The Money Stupid from 2011 - has shown that one of the ways ground balls are achieved the most when a pitch is thrown with 0.0 to 3.0 vertical movement. This has led to a near 60% ground ball rate.

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Derek Lowe, who finished the Twins off in short order yesterday by making them burn balls into the ground, had a 63% ground ball rate. His sinker has averaged vertical movement of 1.3, right in that aforementioned sweet spot, helping explain why he incited so many grass-killers off bats.

Of course, in Marquis’ case, this only accounts for when opponents put the ball into play that they are knocking it into the ground. Sure, he has a career-high 57% ground ball rate but prior to yesterday’s game, he had only thrown his sinker for a strike just 48% of the time, well below the 62% mark from 2011. Hitters, not finding a diving ball appetizing, and have swung at fewer sinkers than previous seasons.

This, in a nutshell, is why his results have been so poor. He cannot throw his best pitch for a strike consistently enough to entice hitters to swing. To make matters worse, he has been falling behind hitters to the point where he has to throw one over the plate.

Most importantly, if he wants to that sinker to become even more effective, start with strike one. It is an old recipe that has worked for years.
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