It’s been a rocky start to Chris Hatcher’s career with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In just 19.1 innings, he’s suffered four losses alongside a 6.05 ERA, which is 65 percentage points worse than league average after adjusting for park factors.
Hatcher has been erratic, issuing seven walks, hitting two batters, and throwing three wild pitches. Although his 3.11 FIP, .356 BABIP, and 51 percent strand rate hint at some bad luck, his overall body of work has raised questions about his dependability in high-leverage situations.
What’s led to these struggles? After Hatcher pitched a perfect ninth inning in his first game back from the 60-day disabled list, Dodger manager Don Mattingly offered the following diagnosis, via Matthew Moreno:
We saw him use his split and slider today. Another guy that has to use his secondary pitches and sequence himself up.
In other words, Hatcher has relied too heavily on his fastball, so he must do a better job of incorporating other pitches. These charts, derived from Brooks Baseball, illustrate Mattingly’s point:
The tables show how frequently Hatcher has used his four-seam fastball over the past two seasons. Right away, we notice that his overall usage has spiked by 22 percentage points. Whereas he threw the four-seamer roughly two out of every five times last year, he’s thrown it nearly two out of every three times this year.
The increase is even more pronounced when we break it down by count. In 2014, Hatcher’s four-seam usage rate exceeded 50 percent (red-shaded cells) only when he fell behind in the count. In 2015, by contrast, his usage rate’s been above 50 percent in every count except 1–1.
To be sure, we’re working with some small sample sizes, especially in the latter table (for example, there are only 31 pitches in three-ball counts thus far). But the overarching trend is clear: Hatcher’s sequences have been predictable, and opposing batters have simply been able to sit on his four-seamer.
Moreover, when this pitch has actually come, it’s been all over the place. The following Baseball Savant heat maps plot the locations of Hatcher’s four-seamers, and they reveal a noticeable shift between 2014 and 2015:
In 2014, Hatcher had a high concentration of four-seamers in the lower right side of the strike zone, as spotlighted by the red areas there. This year, his pitches have been more fragmented, with a relatively prominent upward tilt.
Here’s a different representation of the same dynamics:
Whereas the red shades dominate the lower-right corner of the 2014 chart, they move to the upper-left corner of the 2015 chart. Specifically, during his brief Dodger tenure, Hatcher has found his four-seamer in the middle and top parts of the strike zone—an “execution” problem that he acknowledged in Bill Plunkett’s recent report.
It has indeed been a problem because opposing hitters have historically done damage in this territory. With Hatcher’s four-seamers in the top six “boxes” of the strike zone, they’ve accumulated a lifetime .314 batting average and .229 isolated power. Again, these numbers are based on extremely small sample sizes, so they must be taken with a grain of salt.
But, if we broaden the analysis and examine the entire league since 2010, we find that locating pitches in the middle and upper sections of the strike zone is a general issue for the average pitcher.
Fortunately, Hatcher is not a lost cause. For all of his troubles with the four-seamer, it’s actually had enough positives to generate some value on net. The same goes for his splitter, which has induced 15 whiffs in 33 swings (a 46 percent whiff/swing rate). If he incorporates this pitch and the slider into his normal repertoire, as Mattingly suggested, he’ll likely see his entire game improve.
In fact, that’s essentially what happened upon his return from the 60-day DL. Hatcher used all of his weapons more or less comparably, and he had the most balanced outing of the year from a pitch-selection standpoint. It yielded good results. We can only hope that he continues to make progress as the Dodger postseason hunt intensifies.