What Blake Beavan Did In AAA

Jeez, feels like a while since I've done a FanPost with any actual analysis in it... but hey. It's way too late on Saturday night, and I have more important things to be doing, but I can't focus on any of them so what the hell, right?

Anyways. In my quest for topics to write about, I happened upon something interesting regarding Blake Beavan. (Yes, I know, shut up.) I should clarify. I am not the world's biggest Beavan fan. Blake Beavan is like the Vanilla Ice of starting pitchers, only by Vanilla Ice I mean not the rapper but the food. He is like ice that is flavored with vanilla. It tastes OK some of the time, but there's no nutritional value and occasionally there are sharp chunks that cut your mouth open while you're eating and you go oh jeez now I'm bleeding everywhere why did I think this was a good idea again? I've been quoted several times as saying Beavan is the biggest hole on the Mariners' roster (or was, before Vargas was traded and that torch was passed to Hector Noesi). Point is, he's not the most popular guy around the Mariners blogosphere. Or around the Mariners me-o-sphere.

Of course, what the blogosphere thinks ultimately doesn't mean much, and our dislike of Beavan's pitching probably won't stop Beavan from pitching next year. I'm pretty much resigned, at this point, to the idea that Blake Beavan will begin 2013 in the Mariners' starting rotation. He probably won't last the whole year unless someone gets hurt or the prospects all faceplant, but I'd bet we're going to see a lot more of Beavan than we'd like to next year. Unless, that is, he gets traded before spring training starts. (If Jack Z trades him within the next week, I will be simultaneously happy because no more Beavan and sad because augh I wasted time writing about Beavan.)

But you know what? It's time for a little of my patented optimism. Blake Beavan, as you will probably recall, was quite bad early last season. Before his demotion to Tacoma on June 12, he was posting a 5.45 FIP with a 5.92 ERA. Those are pretty disgusting numbers. But Beavan, like Justin Smoak, appears to have done something rather significant with his time in Tacoma: when he got back, he posted a 3.40 ERA with a 4.43 FIP for the rest of the season. So what gives? How did Beavan improve? In other words... what did Blake Beavan do in AAA?

For our answer, we'll need to look a little bit deeper than just ERA and FIP. Delving into Beavan's peripherals, we find the following table of results.

Pre-AAA: 4.33 K/9, 1.59 BB/9, 1.73 HR/9

Post-AAA: 3.70 K/9, 1.30 BB/9, 1.10 HR/9

Well, OK, he wasn't striking out more dudes. He was walking a few less dudes, but that doesn't seem like a big enough gap to have had the FIP impact that it did. The difference, it seems, is in the dingers. Sure enough, Beavan had a 12.5% HR/FB before his demotion, and a 9% HR/FB afterwards.

Well, dang. That isn't very encouraging. That's a small gap that looks like random variation. Did Beavan really improve, or was he just getting lucky? Based on the above data, I probably would've concluded "lucky". Then I checked out his PitchF/X page on TexasLeaguers and noticed something interesting.

Set the end date in the bar up top to June 12, the day Beavan was demoted, while leaving the start date at the default figure. Then open up a new tab with Beavan's page in it and set the beginning date to June 13 while leaving the end date at the default. See anything unusual? Here, I'll just tell you:

Blake Beavan changed his slider.

The change is about as obvious as they come. His pre-demotion slider in 2012 had the same motion as his slider did in 2011; about four inches of horizontal break and not much of anything vertical. When he came back up from Tacoma after the All-Star Break, his slider had kept the horizontal movement but added one and a half inches of downwards break.

That doesn't seem like an enormous change, but you can see why it'd have immediate benefits. A slider with no vertical break, or a "flat slider", is also often referred to as a "fat slider". Because they're really easy for hitters to smash. Adding two inches of downwards movement to his slider would presumably increase the number of whiffs on it while decreasing the number of home runs hit on it.

Sure enough, pre-demotion Beavan's slider got 9.8% whiffs, while post-demotion Beavan's slider got 11.7% whiffs. Of course, Beavan didn't see his strikeout numbers climb at all post-promotion, so what we should really be looking at are home runs, not whiffs. But the numbers look good there, too. The new slider cut Beavan's home run to slider ratio by 30 percent; it also reduced the number of doubles he allowed while doubling his GIDP rate on sliders. In short: Beavan's new and improved slider represents a clear and fairly significant improvement. Theoretically, as long as Beavan uses this new slider next year, we should expect him to strike guys out at a higher rate and allow fewer home runs than he did in the first half of 2012.

Of course, Beavan had his new slider in the second half of last year, too. And he didn't strike more guys out. What gives? Well, Beavan made another change: he started throwing his curveball for more strikes. There's actually a jump of ten whole percentage points, from 55 to 65 percent. If the slider experiment was a success, this was the opposite of that. It increased foul balls significantly, but also made a big cut in the curveball's whiff rate and increased the home run rate. Stranger, Beavan started throwing the curve more often, which was also a bad choice. Bad Blake Beavan! Throw your curveball out of the zone! You are not Tom Wilhelmsen!

So what's the overall takeaway? Fairly optimistic, actually, as far as one can be optimistic when talking about Blake Beavan. The mistake he made--throwing more curveballs--is pretty easily rectifiable. It's easy to change pitch mix; it just takes a catcher who has a clue. What's much harder to do is adding break to a breaking ball, which is what Beavan succeeded in doing last year. He's a better pitcher now than he was. Which still isn't saying a whole lot, you know. But pre-AAA Beavan put up -0.3 WAR, while post-AAA Beavan put up +0.6. There's reason to believe that Blake Beavan might be more like a 1 WAR pitcher than a 0 WAR pitcher next year.

The moral of the story? Any player can change, and any player can improve. Especially young players. We saw it with Michael Saunders. We hope that we've seen it with Justin Smoak. And it looks like we're seeing it with Blake Beavan. Maybe he'll never be a superstar or even a league average pitcher, but he's newly 24 years old and he just added an inch and a half of break to his slider. That's something. That's not nothing.

Hope springs eternal.*

*unless you're a Marlins fan

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