In a post from late Sunday evening, I mentioned a few reasons the Atlanta Braves could be the National League's surprise team in the playoffs, even if they don't win the NL East title. One reason mentioned was Mike Minor's second-half improvement: 5.97 ERA before the All-Star break, 2.28 ERA after the break. (Buster Olney also wrote here how the Braves have learned from 2011's late-season collapse.)
What has caused Minor's improvement? Let's dig a little deeper. Below are his first- and second-half breakdowns against left- and right-handed batters including his opponents' batting line, walk rate, strikeout rate, percentage of strikes thrown, home run to fly ball percentage, groundball percentage and batting average on balls in play.
In the first half, right-handed hitters slugged .510 off Minor; in the second half, they're slugging .284. While he has cut down on his walk rate, the numbers indicate a classic example of a pitcher who was "unlucky" in the first half and "lucky" in the second half. Before the break, he allowed home runs on 15.8 percent of his fly balls; that's down to 4.0 percent in the second. Meanwhile, his BABIP has dropped to .230.
But it's not just as easy as saying Minor was unlucky and is now lucky. Maybe he's changed his approach or his pitch selection or location. Here are his heat maps versus right-handed batters:
There are subtle differences here. He's thrown 48 percent of his pitches "away" in the second half versus 40 percent in the first half (this is against right-handed batters only). That certainly has to help the long ball prevention. An additional thought was maybe he's simply throwing more first-pitch strikes and getting into better counts, but that's not really the case: He threw 59 percent first-pitch strikes in the half, but 55 percent in the second half.
Looking at all the home runs he's allowed, I noticed he allowed six home runs on changeups in the first half, just one in the second. Check out the counts on those six home runs in the first half: 0-0, 1-2, 1-2, 1-1, 3-2, 1-1. None were obvious hitter's counts. At least with his changeup, it's been about better location:
You can see the more precision location for his changeup in the second half: Low and away or off the plate, exactly where a pitcher who isn't overpowering like Minor needs to paint. After throwing 62 percent of his changeups away in the first half (out of 244 pitches), he's thrown 76 percent away in the second half (149 pitches).
Maybe Minor has been a little lucky with his home run rate in the second half. But he's also been a better pitcher. There is a fine line between success and mediocrity and it appears Minor may have found it.
(Data from ESPN Stats & Information resources.)