Brad Boxberger has gone from the golden boy in the Tampa Bay Rays’ bullpen to the pitcher that fans least want to see. It is not as though he has actually been bad on the whole, but an inconsistent closer costs his team disproportionately–seemingly sure wins turn into losses or at least extra-inning games (which have been losses for the Rays anyway). Why has Boxberger gone from one of the best relievers in baseball in 2014 to an average or worse late-inning reliever this season? The obvious answer is many more walks allowed along with less strikeouts, but a more interesting explanation is a shift in Boxberger’s pitch locations.
Let’s start with Boxberger’s fastball against right-handed pitching, first 2014 and then 2015 using Brooks Baseball.
Those two pictures tell a story of a pitcher that has fallen in love with fastballs away, specifically down and away. This graph is from the catcher’s point of view, so the leftmost columns are inside to righties batters while the rightmost are outside.
In 2014, Boxberger threw 31.83% of his pitches inside (first two columns from left), 27.94% down the middle (middle column), and 40.32% away (first two columns from right). In 2015, however, his percentages have shifted to 24.99% in, 26.5% down the middle, and 48.51% away. He isn’t going in nearly as often, and he has also gotten away from the fastball up.
Boxberger was extremely reliant on the elevated fastball in 2014, throwing the pitch in the upper two rows of the strike zone 40.31% of the time compared to 23.88% in the middle row and 35.80% in the bottom two rows. This season, that has almost entirely flipped. He has gone up at a 29.85% clip, to the vertical middle 22.39% of the time, and down 47.76%.
So let’s get this straight–a lot of pitchers are criticized for not going inside enough, and Boxberger was doing so at a a nice clip only to reverse the trend. And on the Rays, a team that has helped pitchers like Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly break through with high fastballs, Boxberger is throwing up in the zone less frequently. In addition, doesn’t it help set up his changeup down? Something doesn’t add up about that. Boxberger’s changeup usage against righty batters is almost identical this season compared to last, so don’t look there for a solution either.
What’s especially strange, though, is looking at Boxberger’s tendencies with his fastball against left-handed batters, against whom he has performed better than against righties each of the last three years.
Against lefties, Boxberger is also throwing away more often, although not to the same extent. In 2014, he threw outside 60.93% of the time, to the horizontal middle 18.21% of the time, and inside at a 20.86% clip. In 2015, that shifted to 64.52% outside, 18.81% to the middle, and 16.68% inside. That doesn’t seem like a great trend–we know how dangerous going inside to lefties can be, but he was already going away so often before. At the very least, though, the shift is around 4% more towards the outer edge compared to 8% versus righties.
In terms of elevating the fastball, though, Boxberger’s tendency has been the exact opposite of what we saw above. He has gone from 36.08% up, 26.16% middle, and 37.76% down to 40.17% up, 23.5% middle, and 36.34% down. That sounds pretty good–throw the ball down the middle less and up more while only mildly decreasing the number of pitches down. Boxberger hasn’t dominated lefties to the same extent this year, but there is a certain point where you say that the league was going to adjust to Boxberger and he needed to refine his fastball locations.
Once again, Boxberger hasn’t really adjusted his changeup usage, but the additional fastballs up at least could set it up better. However, that brings us back to the question of Boxberger’s fastball spots against righties. He had something good going, but instead of staying pat or making a slight adjustment, he made a drastic change away from his bread and better by throwing the fastball down so much more frequently. Boxberger is at his best, just like several other Rays pitchers, when he is throwing fastballs up and changeups down. How does it make any sense that he is doing that so much less often now?
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In regards to the additional pitches outside against righties, on the other hand, part of that might be a lack of creativity in pitch selection. Boxberger will always primarily pitch away, but just the occasional pitch in can be so valuable for him and the Rays’ catchers simply aren’t calling the pitch enough. It may also be a matter of confidence–Boxberger may feel that there is less risk of leaving pitches in hittable spots when throwing away, and sure enough, despite his struggles, he has actually lowered his HR/9 this season. The downside is that hitters are more comfortable leaning out over the plate to hit Boxberger’s pitches on the outer age, leading to more foul balls, and the pitches away may be more likely to miss the zone.
The Tampa Bay Rays have made so many adjustments to pitchers that have changed their careers for the better, but this may be a case of one of their alterations having the opposite effect. Boxberger was due for regression after his incredible 2014, but his struggles this season present as clear of an argument as it gets against his shift to throw more fastballs down against right-handed batters as well as his newfound paucity of fastballs inside. Hopefully Boxberger can get back in his comfort zone and find more consistency in the season’s final month.
(This analysis has another layer–I didn’t really get into Boxberger’s results in the various locations in the zone because of my time constraints–but I would be glad to discuss that next if there is interest.)