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Diagnosing Kyle Crick’s Walk Problem

Kyle Crick’s control problems have come back in 2019 in a big way. What is the cause? Photo by AP.

I’m not going to lie, this one snuck up on me. I’ve had plenty to write about this year, especially from the pitching side, so I really didn’t pay as much attention to Kyle Crick as I probably should have. After all, it appeared he was coasting along fine through the first half of the season. Sure, it seemed like he was pitching out of jams more often this year, but he was keeping men off the plate.

Eventually, those runners he was letting on base started to score, and now his ERA is up almost a run and a half from last year and his FIP is well over 5. Turns out we should have been paying more attention to how he was getting into those jams.

Courtesy of FanGraphs. Click to enlarge.

Entering play Monday, Crick had the worst walk rate among qualified relievers, whether you want to look at it as free passes per inning (7.7 BB/9) or as a percentage of his batters faced (18.6%). Both walk rates are more than double his 2018 figures. His 30 walks are the most among NL relievers. The only pitcher with more ball fours is the Astros??? Joshua James, who has 31 walks on the year, but has also pitched 15 more innings than Crick.

So Crick is having some control problems.?? Or is he? In his first dozen games this year, he had a 9.1% walk rate, virtually identical to his 2018 total. Since then, he has walked 22.3% of his batters faced. But going by his zone percentage (as compiled by FanGraphs), he has been in the strike zone the same amount: 40.4% in his first 12 games, 40% since. That is a little worse than the league average (41.8% for relievers) and his 2018 clip (43.9%), but it???s not bad enough to explain such a drastic increase in free passes. What changed?

Let???s examine the common theories for his struggles first. The first instinct is injury, as he was seen in the clubhouse with his side wrapped in early June. In a now deleted Tweet, Crick denied that he was injured, though his results have taken a nosedive since then. Starting on June 4- the last time he pitched before those reports came out- he has recorded a 6.06 ERA and walked 20 in 16.1 innings.??

The second is the ball itself. This year???s allegedly juiced baseball is putting the 2016 allegedly juiced baseball to shame, and some of the game???s best pitchers are saying something feels off when they throw it, especially sliders. For what it???s worth, the league has seen its slugging percentage jump over 30 points against sliders from 2018 to 2019, and it is currently at a record high. This could explain another problem Crick is having with the long ball. He???s doubled his career home run total in 2019, serving up five this year.

And the Pirates??? pitch framing has been far worse 2019. Entering play Monday, their catchers have cost their team 10.9 runs, the worst in the NL. Only the Baltimore Orioles are a little bit worse. Elias Diaz has been the worst framing catcher in the majors, and he hasn???t done Crick any favors. There have been 19 times where he???s thrown a pitch in the Gameday strike zone and it was called a ball. That’s one of the highest totals among NL relievers. You can see Diaz and Crick haven’t been a winning combo this year.

Courtesy of Baseball-Reference. Click to enlarge.

With those overarching explanations out of the way, I want to look at Crick???s delivery. His vertical release point significantly dropped in early May, and it has stayed down. That lower slot has had its consequences.??

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball for chart, FanGraphs for data. Click to enlarge.

Crick had a higher release point in his first 12 games and a walk rate that matched his 2018 clip. Since then, the arm has gone down and the walks have gone up. It???s worth noting that even his April release points are lower than they were in 2018.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball. Ignore the outlier. No, Crick did not grow two feet and raise his delivery point by that much for one random game in 2018. Click to enlarge.

That lower arm slot has come at the cost of his vertical movement on his slider. Crick uses a curveball grip on his slider, and it helped him get vertical movement to go along with some elite horizontal break. That vertical drop started to go away on May 4 against the Athletics– one of the first games where his arm slot lowered. It has not come back since. While he’s added a little more run horizontally, this is making Crick’s slider more of an east to west pitch rather than a true breaking ball.

Crick has also had a change in pitch location, and once again, it’s not for the better. His fastball and slider are not playing off of each other as well as they did in 2018. Their relationship last year was ideal: fastballs on the upper part of Crick???s hand side, sliders on the lower part of his glove side.

Crick 2018 fastball location. Courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Crick 2018 slider location. Courtesy of Baseball Savant.

The pitches tunneled, meaning a slider would like a fastball up to the moment where the batter had to decide to swing or not. To illustrate, here’s a GIF from Rob Friedman showing Crick making Rizzo look foolish with both pitches.

This hasn’t been the case in 2019. Crick’s fastball has dipped, landing closer to the center of the plate and the low, outside corner where his 2018 slider sat.

Crick 2019 fastball location. Courtesy of Baseball Savant.

The slider is also being hung down the middle more often, but the most common location is just off the low, outside corner. That newfound horizontal break may not be the good thing if it is taking him out of the zone.

Crick 2019 slider location. Courtesy of Baseball Savant.

There’s also been no consistency to where Crick’s slider is going. Of course you don’t want to be too predictable, but low and away is his bread and butter. He hit that spot in April, but hasn’t since.

Crick slider location by month. Courtesy of Baseball Savant. Made with GIPHY.

Each month has a lot of pitches just missing that low and outside corner. To make matters worse, he’s getting less chases with his slider, too. Here is how often batters have offered at a slider outside of the strike zone per month.

April: 15/30, 50%

May 13/37, 35.1%

June 17/47, 36.2%

July 7/35, 20%

Crick is missing with his slider more and getting fewer chases. His slider whiff/called strike rate has dropped from 38.1% in 2018 to 36.5% with his higher arm slot to 30.3% with his lower slot. It’s no surprise his walks are up. The slider may still have legendary spin and elite results, but he is relying on his fastball to get by. This is why his zone percentage has stayed mostly steady. He can still hit the strike zone, but not as often with his kill pitch.

Perhaps Crick really is hurt and it???s tanking his results, but I don???t think it???s that simple. His change in arm slot and pitch location happened well before he was seen in bandages, so unless he was hiding it for a month before and a month after being spotted in June, I don???t think it???s the root of his problems. He isn’t attacking batters the same way. Crick had walk problems while in San Francisco’s farm system. Is this a blip or a return to those struggles?

Tip of the cap to @EvilNeal for identifying Crick’s change in release point.

Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.