July 20, 2011
King of the Royal Rotation
It’s not stretching the truth to say that Felipe Paulino was an afterthought heading into the 2011 fantasy season. “Afterthought?” you say. Okay, he was so far off the radar, he was in another universe. After bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen for the Houston Astros the last couple of years, you could be forgiven if you paid scant attention to the right hander. Traded to Colorado last November for Clint Barmes (Clint Barmes! How low can you go?), the Rockies ticketed Paulino for the bullpen despite lacking depth in the rotation.
As it turned out, Paulino and Coors Field was a combustible mix. In just under 15 innings (all in relief), he posted a 7.36 ERA and a 2.03 WHIP. The low point of his tenure in Colorado came in early May when he entered three consecutive games with the score tied in the eighth inning or later and took the loss. Three consecutive games. After that stretch, he was trusted about as much as Rupert Murdoch with a bunch of voicemail passwords. The end came on May 20 when the Rockies and Brewers played 14 innings in Milwaukee. With a one run lead in the bottom of the 14th, Jim Tracy had run through his bullpen (ironically, Huston Street blew a save opportunity pitching the 13th with a one-run lead) and had to turn to Paulino. Three batters later, Prince Fielder hit a walkoff, two-run blast to right. Two days later, he was designated for assignment.
At our Baseball Prospectus event in Kansas City earlier this month, the Royals’ Director of Baseball Operations, Jin Wong, discussed his role with the organization. He told the assembled guests that one part of his job entailed compiling lists of players that would fit on the Royals, should they become available during the season. (“Excel is my best friend,” Wong told us. I don’t doubt that.) Wong specifically mentioned Paulino as a pitcher the Royals identified last season as a candidate if he was dangled on the market. He stressed Paulino’s velocity—his average fastball was clocked at 95.5 mph in his previous two seasons in Houston—and he mentioned his strikeout rate (8.4 K/9 over the previous two seasons) as just two of the reasons that the Royals had him on their radar.
Although Paulino was shipped to Colorado in November, Wong and the Royals kept him on their short list of players in whom they held interest, and once he became available at the end of May, they pounced. Their reward has been handsome: Since joining the Royals rotation, Paulino has a 3.60 ERA, a 3.35 FRA, and a 3.23 SIERA while maintaining his strikeout rate of 8.7 per nine. This is a radical improvement for a guy who looked washed up in middle relief.
It appears Paulino’s success is based on overhauling his pitch selection. Since arriving in Kansas City, he has decreased the frequency with which he uses his four seam fastball in favor of his secondary pitches.
As I said, this is radical shift… and one that’s paying dividends.
Although Wong mentioned Paulino’s velocity as a selling point for the Royals, his fastball is far from his strongest pitch. He throws it for a strike roughly 63 percent of the time and, although he throws hard, major league hitters (generally) have little difficulty catching up with a straight heater. Only seven percent of the strikes Paulino generates with his fastball come when the hitter swings and misses, and when the hitters are tracking a pitch that well, they are going to come up with more than their share of base hits. The opposition is hitting .361 when he resolves a plate appearance with a fastball.
To compensate, Paulino is throwing his slider and his previously neglected curve more frequently. The slider has long been his most effective pitch, and it makes complete sense that he throws as often as he can get away with it. Hitters are swinging at his slider 56 percent of the time they see it, and they’re missing on 18 percent of those swings. When they happen to make contact and put the ball in play, well, let’s just say that they’re not exactly making good contact. Hitters have a .169 batting average against Paulino’s sliders.
While his curve isn’t on par with his slider, it’s still a plus pitch. Like his slider, he’s getting swings 56 percent of the time. Hitters are getting nothing but air on 16 percent of those swings and are hitting .250 against the curve.
The proof is in the results. Here were Paulino’s four most common plate appearance resolutions while with the Rockies:
Compare that to his most common plate appearance resolutions with the Royals:
Hitters have gone from reaching base via a walk or a single 36 percent of the time in Colorado to 28 percent of the time in Kansas City. That eight percent change has been enough to move Paulino from the fantasy scrap heap onto fantasy rosters.
A byproduct of his pitch selection, for the first time in his career Paulino is managing his walk rate. Entering the 2011 season, he was issuing just under four free passes per nine innings, and it was as high as 4.3 walks per nine while he was with Colorado. Since moving to the Plains, however, Paulino has cut down his walk rate to a much more tolerable 2.1 BB/9. The key to the decreased walk rate would seem to be the increased usage of his off speed pitches. Batters are offering at pitches outside the zone over 34 percent of the time, which is well above his career rate of 26 percent.
As long as Paulino continues to lean on his slider and curve, he should be able to maintain his current level of performance—or at least not fall too far back towards his old numbers. He’s getting ground balls almost half the time the ball is put in play, and with a 0.9 HR/9, he’s not hurting himself with the home run. Although Paulino has only a single win in his tenure with the Royals, there’s no reason to think that he can’t pick up several between now and the end of the season. The Royals’ offense has been roughly average among American League teams, clocking in at 4.3 runs per game. The wins should come as he’s simply been unlucky in the run support category, getting a mere 3.5 runs per start to this point.
It’s starting to look like Paulino will have a solid second half. If you’re in need for starting pitching, he has emerged as a surprising option.