Blue Jays in Focus: Brett Cecil’s quiet return to control


Toronto Blue Jays reliever Brett Cecil has developed into one of the game’s most dominant left-handed relievers, and while he’s best known for his devastating curveball, Cecil’s control, or rather his walk-avoidance, has spearheaded his 2015 turnaround. In limiting his level of self-inflicted damage, Cecil has cut his walk rate in half for the Blue Jays.

After an ugly start to the season as Toronto’s closer left his ERA comfortably above 5.00, Cecil has reeled that in to the level of 2.60 entering play on Monday night in Baltimore, 0.10 points below his total from a stellar 2014.

While his K/9 has understandably regressed from 12.8 in 2014 to 11.3, Cecil’s BB/9 has shrunk from 4.6 to 2.3. Across his first 33 strikeouts of 2015, Cecil allowed 11 free passes, but limited his mistakes to just two walks over his most recent 32 strikeouts.

That’s a free base-runner eliminated in roughly one of every four outings, and the primary reason that Cecil’s WHIP has fallen from 1.37 last season to a fantastic 1.00. Cecil’s curveball is the lead singer in this band, obviously, but his fastball usage kickstarted this change in batter control.

According to the above data from Brooks Baseball, Cecil has increased his fastball usage from 21.7% in 2014 to a career high as a full-time reliever of 28.63%. Opponents have also seen their batting average against that pitch drop from .283 to .259.

This has helped Cecil to establish counts in his favor more often, something he struggled to do in the early stages as a closer. Cecil’s curveball benefits so greatly from a pitcher’s count, so these early strikes are invaluable. His first pitch strike percentage has risen noticeably from last season, as well, from 53.9% to 58.5%. Cecil’s overall rate of strikes thrown has also increased more than 2%.

Cecil’s secondary offerings have benefited from a stronger fastball and elite curveball, as well, with FanGraphs’ PITCHf/x data showing that his sinker has improved its value by over four runs above average. As Cecil has moved towards a more curveball-heavy repertoire during this recent stretch, the sinker has often been the main usage benefactor.

The above graphic represents on change that Cecil has made in his release mechanics, an adjustment of vertical release point that trends back towards his starting days. The adjustment of one-to-two inches at the point of release translates onto the plate, where a marginally higher release has allowed Cecil to add an even harsher depth to his sinker and curve, the latter of which is finishing lower in the zone that in seasons past. This has played well off of his cutter, sinker and fastball, which he’s been more comfortable placing higher in the zone.

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You’ll notice that many of these changes are very minor, however, and much of Cecil’s improvement in managing base-runners can be boiled down to BABIP and contact numbers. Cecil’s line drive percentage has dropped over 5% down to a level of 19.3 in 2015, which in combination with a minor bump in soft contact has allowed the lefty to overcome a spike in fly-ball percentage and lower his xFIP- four points to a fantastic 62.

Cecil’s BABIP, both for reasons of skill and chance, has dropped all the way from .344 in 2014 to .285. Since 2011, Cecil’s past five seasons have alternated by swinging above and below the league average for BABIP. Hitters have made contact at a higher rate on pitches both inside and outside of the strike zone, which has saved the Jays some free passes along the way, but Cecil has also been effective in limiting what they do with said contact.

That pendulum will continue to swing, but if Cecil can continue to manage his walks as well as he has and establish advantageous counts, his upper hand quickly becomes an unfair advantage in the form of that curveball. He may not be a closer, with numbers like this, he can be whatever else he wants to be.

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