Why are hitters slicing up the Big Potato?
Jose Valverde is throwing the same mix of pitches he did last year, when he was perfect as a closer despite giving up his share of baserunners. However, hitters are far more aggressive and making far more contact with his pitches so far this year.
That’s what the pitch data on fangraphs.com is showing, at least.
You might remember that Valverde changed his mix of pitches last year, going from the near-even mix of fastballs and splitters he used in his first season in the American League back to the fastball-heavy arsenal he used for a lot of his career. On average, he has stuck with that so far this season, though his mix has gone up and down from one outing to the next.
According to the pitch f/x data through MLB.com Gameday, disseminated through Fangraphs, Valverde went from throwing fastballs with less than half of his pitches in 2010 to 78.4 percent in 2011. Through Sunday, he was at 76 percent this season. His splitter, which comprised more than half his pitches two years ago, was at 20.5 percent last year and 21.5 percent entering play Monday.
The difference isn’t in what he’s throwing. It may be in how he’s throwing it, though the velocities are generally the same. There’s definitely a difference in how hitters are reacting to it.
Fangraphs uses two different sets of data — one for Pitch f/x, another that takes that data and adds a human element from Baseball Information Solutions — but they say much the same thing. Hitters are swinging at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone. In the case of the BIS criteria, it’s 36.1` percent of his pitches. And when they do, again according to BIS, they’re making way more contact than they did a year again, nearly 70 percent.
When they swing at pitches inside the strike zone, the contact rate is huge — 89.4 percent according to Pitch f/x, 87.5 percent according to BIS.
STATS Inc. breaks down swings and misses by pitch type. According to STATS, hitters missed on 23.1 percent of their swings against Valverde’s fastball, and 31.9 percent of their swings off the split-finger, including 63 percent of swings on splitters outside the strike zone. So far this season, they’ve missed on just 18 percent of swings off the fastballs, and 28.6 percent of swings off the splitter.
The overall contact rate, too, is at a career high. About 80 percent of the swings hitters are taking at his pitches make contact. His career rate is just over 70 percent.
Valverde’s strikeout rate has been dropping for several years, but he more than made up for it with the ability to get ground ball and fly ball outs. The rate of contact and the hit totals are suggesting he’s not benefiting from that like he used to. And as everyone has noticed, when guys get base hits off of Valverde and get on base, they usually end up on second. If they’re not there already, they can steal the base against him. Do that often enough, and guys won’t need big hits to get to him.
Does that mean he’s done? Not likely. Sure, he’s 34 years old, but that’s not exactly twilight for late-inning relievers.
Does that mean he has to approach American League hitters like he did the National League for his two seasons in Houston before he signed with Detroit? That might be the better question.