Friday, June 21, 2013

The Rejuvenation of Brett Cecil

By: Alex Hume

Even with the improvements to the Blue Jays lineup and rotation, the bullpen remained a primary area of concern for the Blue Jays heading into the season in which they were attempting to break their 19-year playoff drought.  However, despite the improvements, the lineup and rotation have been wracked with injuries and inconsistency, while the bullpen has become a fixture.  Early in the year Casey Janssen was the model of dominance and was one of the top three relievers in baseball.  However, over the last six weeks, while Janssen has regressed from superhuman to merely very good, the bespectacled lefty named Brett Cecil has become the stalwart.

After unintentionally walking the first batter he faced on May 31 against the Padres, Brett reeled off a steak of 25 straight batters retired that was broken up by another intentional walk, this time to Michael Cuddyer of the Colorado Rockies, and has since retired all five men he has faced since that point.  Cecil has not allowed a hit to any of the last 38 batters he has faced (a franchise record) and the ten plate appearances before that were also hitless.  In Cecil’s last 50 batters faced, he has given up no runs, two hits and three walks (two intentional).

Brett has discovered success out of the bullpen with increased velocity and a simplification of his repertoire.  Cecil has seen an uptick in velocity from 89.50 mph the last two years (2011-2012) to 93.10 mph this year.  Part of the increase can be attributed to a full-time move to the bullpen, but also a weighted ball program that Steve Delabar brought with him to the Blue Jays when he came over from Seattle at the 2012 trading deadline.  The program results in shoulder strengthening and velocity increase; and the Blue Jays see so much potential in it that they have signed Jamie Evans,  the originator, to an exclusive consulting contract as they try to implement it throughout the organization.  The increased velocity and shift in role has allowed Cecil to significantly modify his repertoire.  Cecil has historically thrown his four-seam fastball about 35 percent of the time, followed by his changeup, sinker and slider all between 14 and 19 percent.  He has rounded out his repertoire with a curve (9.90%) and a cutter (7.02%).  In 2013, without the need to be able to face hitters multiple times in a game, he has essentially pared his repertoire to four pitches, abandoning the slider entirely and throwing his second-most abundant pitch (sinker – 16.14%) 2.69 times as frequently as he throws his changeup (5.98%).  He has also abandoned the changeup to left-handed hitters only throwing it twice all year.  The curveball, which he used sparingly, has now become his primary pitch.  After generating 23.79% whiff/swing coming into the year (590 pitches), Cecil has generated 54.55% whiff/swing on the pitch this year.  The increased whiff rates have led to a sharp increase in strikeout rate to 30.7%, compared with 17.4% in his career.

Perhaps the biggest change in Cecil isn’t necessarily the whiff rates, but most importantly his ability to keep the ball on the ground.  After spending his career around 40% in terms of groundball rate, the number has jumped to 50.6% this year on the backs of three of his pitches, the aforementioned curve, his cutter (which he is working in over three times as frequently as in years past) and the sinker which are generating groundball rates of 57, 62 and 39% respectively.   Not only is Cecil keeping the ball on the ground, but the balls in the air are being turned into easy outs.  Cecil has a career-low line drive rate this year at 18.1% and career low flyball rate at 31.3%.  Only 3.6% of Cecil’s flyballs have left the yard (Vernon Wells got him on April 19...HA!), a rate that can’t be expected to continue and has helped to depress his 1.46 ERA and 1.94 FIP, but even normalizing to a his career average home run rate, it would produce an xFIP (using personal average instead of league average) of 2.85, which would rank 18th in the league (instead of 10th) and still, best on the Blue Jays staff.

The true talent level of Brett Cecil likely lies somewhat below the level to which he has performed so far this season, but tanks to proper role identification and the help of a training program, Cecil is no longer a lost cause, but a low-cost valuable asset, and one that Alex Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays should be proud to have.

Statistics from Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball

Alex is a fourth-year university student studying science.  He blogs about the Blue Jays at Hume's Jays Bullpen and blogged about fantasy baseball for a time at Bullpen Banter.  He can be reached on Twitter @AHume92.

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