Is Tanner Scheppers ready to handle the ninth inning?
Tanner Scheppers pitched in the majors in 2012 and 2013, but he was only nominally the same pitcher. He still kept his blazing fastball and knee-buckling curveball, but the shape of the former was radically different, as were his results with it. His fastball gained about 1.4 inches of horizontal movement and lost 2.5 inches of vertical movement, which transformed it from a four-seam to a two-seam fastball. This transformed Tanner Scheppers from a traditional fastball-breaking ball relief pitcher to more of a power 2-seamer-breaking ball pitcher a la Garrett Richards. (Richards’ is closer to a sinker while Scheppers’ has more run, but both have fast, high-movement fastballs and good breaking balls.)
This change also jacked up his groundball rate. When he used his four-seamer, his GB% was 41%, and increased 10 percentage points in 2013 with his two-seamer. I’m not 100% sure why. Some of it could be sample size (he threw 32.1 innings in 2012 and 76.2 in 2013). Some of it could be that he was able to get more weak contact (his O-Swing% (pitches outside of the strikezone) also increased from 24.7% to 34.8%) that manifested caused more grounders. (This theory isn’t particularly plausible, since the correlations between O-Swing% and grounders is essentially nil, but it is at least worth a thought). There there is no question, whatever the theory, that he was able to get hitters to swing at bad pitches.
He also threw better pitches when he was in the zone, especially against righties. Look at the heatmap.
(Thank you Fangraphs)
Look how many more pitches are on the inside edge. This would help explain why he allowed a .352 batting average against righties in 2012 vs. a .210 in 2013, despite his Z-Contact% (contact in the strikezone) not changing all that much. The bloopers from hitters swinging outside the zone didn’t hurt either. His O-Contact% was roughly the same as well, meaning that hitters made almost as much contact–it was just a lot worse.
(In my experience, it is almost impossible to watch a high movement and no control pitch without one of the analysts suggesting the catcher put his glove in the middle of the strike zone and let the pitch find the corner by itself. It appears that is what Tanner Scheppers is doing, and it had done wonders for his career.)
But his fastball is not the only story. His curveball took a huge step forward too, which is odd since its movement didn’t changed that much. It did, however, get faster by 1.2 miles per hour. Scheppers has also forced a swinging strike percentage 6.5% higher this year than last with it. Part of the success was that he just seems to be controlling the pitch better. I won’t clog up the screen with more heat maps, but trust me when I say that he threw fewer curveballs up and in to righties in 2013 and threw fewer high curveballs overall. It’s also possible that Scheppers arm-side moving fastball complemented his glove-side moving curveball better than did his four-seamer.
But the elephant in the room is his xFIP. It was more than twice as high as his ERA. Some of that could be due to weaker contact. Certain pitchers, like Clayton Kershaw, can consistently beat their xFIP because they have such good stuff they can consistently induce weak contact in a way that less talented pitchers simply can not. Because Scheppers only has two seasons under his belt, it is impossible to tell whether or not he is in this camp. There is no doubt that he is due for some regression. But I don’t think he will regress in the way Steamer and Oliver expect him to (3.56 and 3.73 ERA, respectively). ERA’s don’t correlate particularly well season to season, so judging his 2014 season off of what he did in 2013 is almost useless. xFIP’s correlate better, I do think he will beat his 2013 xFIP. How much so? Honestly, I don’t know. His stuff is so nasty that I honestly believe he will consistently beat his xFIP, even if only by a little bit. I won’t even venture a numerical guess, except to say I expect his ERA to jump at least a run.
But would that make him a good fit for closer? If his ERA jumps a run, that would put him right around Neftali Feliz. But he is a legitimate contender. I’ll analyze Feliz next week and give a definitive answer, but no matter who wins, the Rangers have the ninth inning in good hands.