A few months ago, I analyzed what went wrong with Trevor Cahill after he was acquired from the San Diego Padres. In this post, I’ll be overviewing another pitcher acquired in that so far disaster of a trade for the Royals.
Ryan Buchter wasn’t good nor bad with the Royals. You could call his 27 innings pitched with the Royals last year perhaps... odd. Just by starting with a simple glance, you’ll notice his peripherals went wack after being acquired by the Royals.
- 2017 with Padres: 3.05 ERA, 4.57 FIP, 11.0 K/9, 4.2 BB/9, 1.6 HR/9, .239 BABIP
- 2017 with Royals: 2.67 ERA, 4.49 FIP, 6.0 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9, .173 BABIP
There’s a lot to digest here, as most of his numbers went all of over the place. He struck out a considerably less amount of batters, which is concerning. Though he also markedly improved his walk-rate. He also kept the ball in the ballpark more often, which helped his overall production. Then the difference in BABIP is night and day, also significantly helping his performance.
So my goal was to figure out caused this dramatic change in Buchter. Was it injury? A change in pitching coaches? A certain alignment of the stars? Here’s were my findings.
First, I found that I could quickly rule out injury. There wasn’t that dramatic of a change in his release points (vertical RP of 5.77 ft vs. 5.82 ft, horizontal RP of 1.82 ft vs. 1.90 ft). The velocity pretty much didn’t change at all (FB velocity of 92.9 MPH vs. 92.6 MPH). Nothing really to see here.
Change in pitching approach?
Here’s where I first started to notice something different. Looking at a basic chart of Buchter’s pitch distribution.
Ryan Buchter Pitch Distribution
So to summarize, Buchter was throwing his fastball less often, doubled his slider usage, threw his cutter a lot more, and curveball less often. Next, I wanted to see what the results were broken down by pitch type.
Ryan Buchter xwOBA by Pitch Type
It looks like the results on his fastball improved, with the results in the cutter and curveball taking a downturn.
And after doing some poking around on Baseball Savant, I found something interesting. Pictured below are two scatter plots, marking a pitcher’s horizontal movement and vertical movement, minimum 50 batted balls. The time frames for the two visuals are adjusted to fit Buchter’s time with the Padres (top) and his time with the Royals (bottom).
This seems like a somewhat noticeable change. After being traded to the Royals, Buchter lost both horizontal and vertical movement on his pitches. Perhaps this can the reason to blame for his fall in strikeouts with the Royals, as mentioned above. In other words, he may just have been more “hittable.”
But what makes this whole analysis even more confusing was the change in quality of contact hitters were making against Buchter. This wasn’t just any change also... it was a very dramatic change. The change in opposing batter’s Exit Velocity against him was absurd. With the Padres, he allowed an average EV of 87.6 MPH, a fairly below-average mark. For a reference point, during the time in San Diego, he had the 134th highest opposing EV out of 465 pitchers with at least 50 batted balls allowed, so about the top third of baseball in that department. Then during his time with the Royals, he allowed an average EV of 80.5 MPH. This was the third lowest mark in baseball during that time period (also minimum 50 batted balls).
To go further along on my point, Buchter allowed five batted balls classified as “barreled” in his 38.1 innings with the Padres. He allowed one in his 27 innings with the Royals, which was a home run allowed to Kolten Wong. And as you would expect, his Hard Hit% declined big time (33.7% vs. 24.4%) and his Soft% went up (23.2% vs. 29.5%).
You could say that Buchter went from a big strikeout reliever that allowed some hard contact along the way (alas a lesser version of Craig Kimbrel) to a crafty reliever that banks on weak contact (Brandon Kintzler like). Yes, it was a fairly small sample size, but nonetheless, that is quite the transformation, especially considering it took place in the middle of the season.
As for what this change in approach means, it’s hard to tell. Typically, it less than ideal to be a reliever with a 6.0 K/9. For the most part, the projections don’t buy a whole lot of the Royals version of Buchter, as Steamer projects the K/9 to stabilize closer to his career norm and the BB/9 to shoot back up to his usual high rate. Steamer also doesn’t buy the ridiculous amount of soft contact that he induced in the second half last year, or quite frankly for all of his career, projecting his BABIP to fly way above his career-average of .216, pinning him at .282 for 2018. Consequently, the overall projections on him turn out to be bad (4.45 ERA, 4.70 FIP, 5.11 xFIP, -0.1 fWAR).
In short, it’s tough to imagine what kind of season Buchter will have in 2018. He probably won’t ever be a good reliever unless he can find some sort of middle ground with the soft contact and strikeouts. And to this date, he hasn’t shown that he can.