By Robert Cunningham, AngelsWin.com Staff Writer -
Disclaimer: PLEASE NOTE: THESE ARE EARLY RETURNS ON THE 2014 SEASON. SAMPLE SIZE IS QUITE SMALL!
The newly formed core of the Angels starting rotation has gotten off to a mixed start in 2014. Pitchers who we thought would do well haven’t and those that we were unsure about have turned in good performances.
But do those mixed performances obscure some underlying fundamentals that tell a different story? Is Jered Weaver really as bad as his ERA indicates? Is Wilson really carrying over his performance from 2013? Is Santiago bad or really unlucky? Is Richards throwing too hard and losing control? Is Skaggs really turning a corner?
In order to answer some of these questions we will first take a look at their peripherals, then their Pitch F/X numbers, and finally I’ll make some comments regarding observations I’ve made and/or have been reported by other baseball writers that I think shed light on the Angels starters.
Peripherals and Pitch F/X
So first let’s take a look at the starting rotation peripherals after their first two starts. In order to compare and analyze their 2014 performance, I grabbed their yearly numbers from 2011-2013 to act as a baseline. Please remember that Richards, Santiago, and Skaggs numbers in that timeframe are skewed due to less innings pitched, bullpen work, and limited exposure to actual MLB playing time. I’ve highlighted changes between the two selected time frames that are worthy of note:
Now let’s take a look at Pitch F/X (courtesy of FanGraphs) pitch type, velocity, horizontal and vertical pitch movement, and finally pitch value. Please remember that Pitch F/X data is sometimes incorrect in classifying pitches (for instance in Greg Bird’s, “The Santiago Files”, Hector stated he doesn’t throw a Sinker nearly as much as Pitch F/X seems to think he does):
Pitch Type Frequency of Use:
Horizontal Pitch Movement (in Inches):
Vertical Pitch Movement (in Inches):
So Weaver, after two starts, has a 6.00 ERA? Yikes! However as you look at his peripheral numbers and statistics you see a really different story that points to one particular issue.
Looking at Jered’s K/9 and SIERA this year they are actually better so far than his previous 3-year average. In fact Weaver’s BB/9, WHIP, and BABIP are in-line or slightly elevated when comparing the same two timeframes.
The one thing that stands out like a sore eye is the 3.00 HR/9 rate this year. Over the previous 3-years his average HR/9 rate has been 0.89. There are two potential issues: One, batters may be catching up with Weaver’s reduced-velocity and two, Weaver’s control might not be as precise as it normally has been.
As Mike DiGiovanna, of the Los Angeles Times, reported on April 6th, Jered related the following regarding his 2nd outing against the Astros:
"It just hasn't been consistent mechanically for me," he said. "The way my arm is feeling, there are no restrictions. It feels good coming out. I've just got to stay on top of that fastball. I'm getting underneath it, and that's causing them to be elevated. Sometimes I try to manipulate the ball when I shouldn't…. I made a couple mistakes, and they didn’t miss them…. It was pretty much a home run derby out there."
So I believe Weaver when he says he feels good from a health standpoint. However, it is very clear that he has significantly reduced velocity based on the first two games of the season. There is a clear velocity drop of approximately 2 mph across his entire repertoire of pitches. For a pinpoint control pitcher with quality speed differentials across his pitches this isn’t the bigger issue for Jered at this moment.
What the Pitch F/X data does show and I think is contributing to Weaver’s early woes is the fact that most of his pitches appear to be moving away/down from the strike zone, i.e. the horizontal movement is moving farther to the right (from the view of the catcher/umpire) and/or the vertical movement is moving further down when compared to Jered’s previous 3 seasons.
Basically a pitcher like Jered has made a career out of extremely fine-tuned painting of the corners and now his pitches are not landing quite where they normally would resulting in additional hits, walks, and home runs (Again sample size but I feel semi-comfortable stating that opinion).
In particular right-handed hitters appear to be making some higher quality contact (home runs) while left-handed hitters are slapping more singles and drawing some walks.
If Jered can regain the “feel” for his pitches and make the needed adjustments to compensate for the extra movement it would seem like he could be as efficient as he has been in previous years. Perhaps if he can’t get the feel back he might consider moving an inch or two to the right of the rubber to help compensate.
Note: I was finishing this article and watched Weaver’s 3rd start. He continues to experience the same problems in this game against the Mets with the long ball and missing the corners. Otherwise though he pitched fairly well and kept the team in the game.
Wilson has had a bad start and a good start to the young 2014 season.
Looking at his peripherals you can see that his K/9 this year is sitting at a very nice 9.88 which is above his previous 3-year average of 8.00. Additionally C.J.’s BB/9 is at a very respectable 1.98 which is a significant improvement over his previous 3-year average of 3.53. This is an area that Wilson has wanted to improve in and he is off to a good start in 2014.
Both C.J.’s Batting Average Against and BABIP are in line with his previous 3-year average indicating business as usual, however, as mentioned above, Wilson reduced his BB/9 rate resulting in a bright, shiny 1.10 WHIP versus his previous 3-year average of 1.29! That is a solid start, especially for a ground ball pitcher like C.J.
Although Wilson’s ERA currently sits at 4.61 his FIP sits at 3.49 and his xFIP sits at 2.72, indicating that his performance isn’t nearly as bad as his ERA indicates. Even C.J.’s SIERA is at a 2.62 mark so when you combine this information with the above, you have to feel good about a more consistent performance akin to his 2nd start against the Astros.
Like Weaver, Wilson has suffered from some of the home run “malaise” in these first two starts. His 1.32 HR/9 rate in 2014 is significantly higher than his previous 3-year average of 0.71.
Finally, the Pitch F/X data does show that C.J. is throwing most of his pitches a little vertically higher than in previous seasons. It is noticeable across his whole repertoire but is particularly noticeable in his fastballs. This might be a possible contributor to the higher home run rate but it is just too early to really know if Wilson’s higher vertical movement or home run issue will continue.
Two starts into the season and two losses for one of our newest Angel starters. Ouch! Although Hector has had poor results to start off the season there are some signs that he can improve and turn in a respectable year.
One of those signs is his high 9.64 K/9 rate in his two starts so far in 2014. This is significantly higher than his previous 3-year average of 8.73 (which included bullpen appearances). High K/9 pitchers tend to have better success in the Majors.
That being said his BB/9 rate of 5.79 is also significantly higher than his previous 3-year average of 4.53. In Hector’s 2nd start of the 2014 season he was throwing his fastball sometimes as high as 95 mph. Although this certainly led to more strikeouts it can also lend itself to less control and more pitches out of the zone resulting in an increase in walks.
Hector is a young left-handed pitcher who can throw fastballs over 90 mph so that is a big selling point and one of the reasons the Angels picked him up in the first place. However it seems he needs more time to work out his issues.
Beyond the high number of walks one other number that REALLY stands out in his first two starts is a .407 BABIP! Along with his .316 Batting Average Against it is clear that many of the balls put into play have found holes in the infield and outfield defense leading to base hits. Santiago’s previous 3-year average BABIP is .275! Houston we have a problem! No seriously in Houston, Santiago had a problem.
Hector’s SIERA points to a 4.45 ERA which is slightly above league average. His FIP and xFIP are a bit higher but clearly Santiago has been affected by a high walk rate and an absurd amount of bad luck with balls that have been put into play.
Santiago’s issues appear to revolve around finding a happy medium between velocity and control. As I pointed out here Hector has some incredible movement across several pitches in his repertoire. Also, as we saw in the 2014 Pitch F/X data, he needs to refine his feel and placement on his breaking balls.
Hector’s issues won’t go away overnight but I feel very confident in saying that when Santiago finds the right mix of velocity (maybe throwing it just a touch slower, say 1 mph less) and pitch placement he will find a good rhythm and balance between his strikeouts and walks.
Once he is better able to control where the ball is being pitched he can then look at his videotapes and Pitch F/X data and see where his arsenal of pitches are landing on a regular basis. Part of pitching involves velocity differentials but it also involves changing the hitters eye level and Santiago has both of those components so he just needs to know how the hitter sees his pitches and how he can mix those pitches up to fool batters.
In the short term I think Hector will improve a bit and in the long term I’ll take the over on Santiago as he has some great, pure movement on his screwball and slider/curve. If he gets his four-seam, cutter, change up, screwball and slider working all at once he will be a force to be reckoned with in the Majors.
It has been an interesting two starts for Garrett and he currently sits at a 0.75 ERA! Great for us and good for him!
Richards has the best velocity and mix of quality pitches on the team. I think he has a bright future and we are lucky to have such a young, cost-controlled pitcher on our team.
Speaking of velocity, Richards has been averaging about 96 mph on his fastball so far in this young season. In his two starts he has a pretty nice K/9 rate of 9.75 versus the previous 3-year average of 6.14!
However the velocity comes at a price and Richards has walked an uncharacteristic amount of hitters already with a BB/9 rate of 6.00! Ouch! Garrett’s previous 3-year average is 3.33 so clearly there is a tradeoff happening here that may or may not be sustainable.
In fact Richard’s xFIP and SIERA sit at 4.04 and 4.42, respectively, in 2014. Now Richards has been more of a ground ball pitcher in his career so his FIP is probably more indicative of his talent level and it currently sits at 3.07.
The mitigating factors in getting too excited about Richards at this point in time, in addition to his very high BB/9 rate, is the absurdly low .148 BABIP (his previous 3-year average is .302!) and a really high left on base (LOB) rate of 91.7%. Although I think Richards will rein in the walks his BABIP will likely rise resulting in more batters reaching base and scoring. As Richards grows as a pitcher the results you’ve seen so far this year might be more indicative of his future performances in the near future.
Finally one very important detail that is related to Garrett’s K/9 rate is his very low batting average against of 10% and his stellar 1.00 WHIP. Basically his WHIP is all walks as he has really suppressed base hits in his first two starts.
So to recap: Garrett Richards has some high quality plus pitches with excellent velocity. Garrett might consider taking a touch off of his velocity to regain some control but every pitcher has to find the right mix (just like Santiago above) and sweet spot. As long as Richards has a good infield defense behind him he will continue to enjoy success at the Major League level. Oh and by the way Richards Curveball has the deepest vertical drop of any pitcher in Major League Baseball, averaging over 13 inches of vertical drop! Outstanding pitch to put any left-handed hitter down for the count.
For the rest of 2014 Richards will probably not continue to be so successful at preventing runs but he will continue to be pretty darn good! Walks are okay up to a point as long as you are generating strikeouts and/or weak ground balls that turn into double plays.
So are we getting a glimpse of one of our future front-line starters in young Tyler Skaggs this year? His first two starts have been tremendous and it mainly has to do with a new two-seam sinking fastball that he suddenly pulled out of his tool kit.
The first thing you notice is that he has a 5.40 K/9 rate which is lower than his previous 3-year average of 7.54. But who cares! He has a stellar K/BB rate of 9!!!! In his first two starts he has a BB/9 rate of 0.60! A HR/9 rate of .60! A WHIP of 0.93!
I am tentatively excited that the Angels have committed grand theft in re-acquiring Tyler Skaggs. They have stretched him back out and reverted Tyler back to his previous mechanics, resulting in a nearly 2-3.5 mph increase in velocity across all of the pitches in his repertoire!
The results have been staggering in Tyler’s first two games as the new sinker has led to a 60.9% groundball rate which is a complete turnaround from some of Skagg’s previous fly ball tendencies. Additionally Tyler’s curveball and changeup have played very well so far in this very young season.
You can see the results of Skagg’s new sinker and improved curve in the limited sample size splits as right-handed hitters have been limited to a .246 wOBA against him. Tyler hasn’t faced too many left-handed hitters to get a read on his success but his changeup should prove very useful as the season progresses.
In the end Skagg’s performance so far appears to be very sustainable if he can continue to limit the walks like he has so far. The Angels really have a tremendous young talent that they have reacquired and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Tyler leading the rotation in the coming years. That is nothing against Weaver as I love Jered and what he brings to the team. But the future is right in front of us and a potential 1-2 of Skaggs/Richards is a possibility if they both continue to improve and excel.
The 2014 Angels starting rotation is a real improvement over the previous 3 years. Although Weaver and Wilson are starting to show signs of age (velocity decline) they are still quite effective and they are both smart enough to make the adjustments they need to compensate for any declines in their performance.
Skaggs, Richards, and Santiago are the future of the Halo’s pitching staff and they are an exciting group to have. All three of them have some of the sharpest pitch movement (Skaggs and Richards sinker and curveball and Santiago’s changeup and screwball) among all Major League pitchers and they all have good velocity to boot!
Although we may lack reasonable depth behind this starting five you can’t help but feel good about the Angels chances with this group. Jerry Dipoto and Mike Scioscia are all in on this starting pitching staff and I can’t help but like their chances, despite the bumpy start.