Red Hot Scheppers

Scheppers
On Saturday night, Tanner Scheppers was called in to pitch the eighth inning against the Detroit Tigers. He was tasked with facing the meat of the Tigers order, which is arguably the meatiest (literally and metaphorically) of any team in baseball – Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder.
To Hunter: Fastball (inside corner, called strike), fastball (inside corner, foul), fastball (inside corner, foul), fastball (ball), fastball (off the plate inside, weak groundout to pitcher)

To Cabrera: Fastball (off the plate inside, groundout to third)

To Fielder: Fastball (inside corner, groundout to second)

Seven pitches, all fastballs, none were closer to the middle of the plate than the black on the edges of it, and three weak ground balls induced from the teeth of the Tigers offense.

It was just another ho-hum performance from Scheppers, not unlike many of his appearances in 2013. 

Scheppers was called into action again on Sunday night, and Cabrera got him for a home run. But on that night, Cabrera looked like no one was going to get him out. Look at how Scheppers pitched Cabrera – it’s not exactly like he did anything wrong, Cabrera is just a bad, bad man. 

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Scheppers ERA now sits at 0.79, which is good for top-10 in baseball among qualified relievers (Robbie Ross is quietly the league leader).

He has faced 84 batters this season, and allowed only 18 to reach base, with only three of those via an extra-base hit. The lone two runs he has allowed were two solo home runs, one in a game the Rangers were leading by six runs, and last night they were leading by four runs. He’s only inherited three runners this season, but has not allowed any of them to score.

Tanner Scheppers is in the conversation for being one of the most dominant relievers in baseball this year. Yesterday, Sarah Powers said she’d like to see Scheppers be Joe Nathan’s successor at closer if or when the need arises.

And yet, Scheppers has a 5.16 K/9 rate this season. The league average for relievers is 8.34 K/9. He just isn’t striking out many guys; only 15.5% of the batters he’s faced, when the league average is 22%. Among relievers, he has the 15th-lowest K/9 rate.

Strikeouts are on the rise all throughout baseball, and have been at a significant clip since 2005. In concert with that, run scoring has been decreasing as well. This has now become ingrained in our analysis – strikeouts are good, more strikeouts are better, and more strikeouts mean fewer runs scored and more effective pitchers. And yet, here is Tanner Scheppers sawing batters off at a consistent pace, not striking them out, and dominating.

It’s not as though Scheppers can’t strike batters out, or doesn’t have the stuff to do so. In the minor leagues, he averaged striking out 9.6 batters per nine innings. In 2012 in the major leagues, he struck out 8.4 batters per nine innings. His ERA in the minors and last season was over 4.00. Now this year, the strikeouts have gone way down, but so has the ERA.

So how has he done it? Well, mainly, it’s because he’s inducing a .180 batting average on balls in play. The league average is .286 for relievers. The simple view of BABIP is that it will tend to regress to the average, but that’s not always the case, especially for pitchers. Scheppers has succeeded with such a low BABIP because he is generating incredibly weak contact, is getting more ground balls and infield pop-ups, and fewer line drives and fly balls.

Additionally, Scheppers has started throwing far more sinkers in 2013 than he did in 2012, which could be a reason for the positive improvement he has made in his BABIP and ground ball rates. Here are his pitch usages in 2012 and 2013 according to Brooks Baseball

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The game plan for Scheppers in 2013 has been to just pound hitters on the inside corner with these heavy fastballs that are running in on right-handed hitters (who have a .143 batting average against Scheppers), as he did Saturday against the Tigers.

Basically, to this point in 2013, Scheppers has been a right-handed, reliever form of 2011-12 Matt Harrison.

Based on his K/9 and BABIP, I would typically be suggesting that Scheppers is a candidate for some ugly regression.  While I don’t think Scheppers is going to set the new record for ERA by a reliever in a season, and he isn’t going to be a great pick-up on your fantasy baseball team, there is more to what’s going on with the hard-throwing righty than only these two statistics. 

He is dealing big-league stuff, which is really awesome to watch, and if he can keep sawing off hitters like Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera, he’s going to keep being the shutdown reliever out of the Rangers bullpen.

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM
Peter Ellwood

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