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January 30, 2009
The Wild Bunch
What can be done with the potential-laden hurler who can't control his pitches, who is able to complement his plus-offerings with only random flashes of brilliance, and can just as unexpectedly drop into extended bouts of ineptitude? Because of their promise and raw talent, struggling power pitchers can be repeatedly given shots as reclamation projects as teams try to find a formula for extending those brief flashes into consistent success. Pitching coaches and some analysts might tend to focus solely on the solid outings, meticulously working to isolate the components, either mechanical or psychological, that go missing during their down periods. Very few of these pitchers are able to harness their talents without major adjustments, yet they're still able to command lucrative contracts on the market, based more on their potential upside than on any actual results.
With that in mind, it's time to play everyone's favorite game, "Guess That Pitcher!" Here are the seasonal averages, from 2006-08, of two wild and crazy guys:
Pitcher A seems more apt to strike hitters out and limit hits, while Pitcher B appears moderately more durable. With an NRA mark lower than his DERA, a safe assumption is that Pitcher A performed in front of solid defenders, which helps to explain the difference in BABIP. The differences between the two pitchers are minor, and a case could be made for either as the superior performer. Who then are these mystery men? Pitcher A is Oliver Perez, the 27-year-old lefty most recently seen in a sans-Domino's logo Mets uniform, while Pitcher B is Daniel Cabrera, the 27-year-old righty formerly with the Baltimore Orioles.
Cabrera was non-tendered by the Orioles in December, while Perez hit the market as a free agent in November. Despite their similarities Cabrera quickly signed a one-year, $2.6 million deal with the nearby Nationals, while Perez is angling for something in the vicinity of four years and $44 million from prospective suitors. What is that makes these two so different from one another when teams were free to sign one or the other?
To answer this question, let's take a look at their plate discipline stats over the past three seasons, including frequency of pitches thrown in the strike zone, the rate of swings induced out of the zone, contact on out-of-zone swings, and overall contact rate.
Perez Zone% Osw% O-Con% Con% Cabrera Zone% Osw% O-Con% Con% 2006 52.3 22.3 52.3 79.4 2006 45.7 22.7 48.2 75.6 2007 49.3 26.1 56.9 78.8 2007 46.9 21.8 55.4 81.9 2008 51.5 22.2 51.3 79.1 2008 50.6 18.9 69.5 87.6
Additionally, here's what we know as far as the velocity and movement data for their fastballs, sliders, and changeups.
Pitcher FB Vel FB Move SL Vel SL Move CH Vel CH Move Perez 91.2 7.2/9.2 79.8 4.4/1.6 79.6 2.2/4.7 Cabrera 92.6 7.4/7.7 81.9 3.2/1.8 81.7 0.4/2.1
Cabrera's negative trend as far as hitting the zone and getting strikes virtually nearly leaps off the page. On pitches out of the zone last year, he induced swings just 18.9 percent of the time, the lowest such rate of anyone in the big leagues. Contact on these pitches rose exponentially, which necessitated a higher zone frequency and increased his overall contact rate to the fourth-highest in baseball. In contrast, Perez stayed relatively consistent in these metrics, with his marks hovering around average. You can also see that Oliver throws his pitches with slightly less velocity, but notably more movement. Both of the tables above conform to Cabrera's steady decline in performance from 2006-08, and also point to Perez as the more sound investment, but another question of interest remains: What separates this type of pitcher, with their high-level potential, inconsistent control, and frustrating results, from the rest of the league?
Over the past three seasons, the league-average rate for pitches thrown within the strike zone was 52 percent. In the same span, Cabrera threw 48 percent of his pitches in the zone, while Perez was at 50 percent; both are below-average marks, but not nearly as much as you'd expect. I've long held the theory that what wild pitchers do is not nearly as important as when they do it; that pitchers like Cabrera and Perez will feature overall velocity, movement, and zone percentages that are similar to those of the non-wild, and that the actual differences will surface in a much more granular way, such as in selected ball-strike counts, or certain base-running situations.
After checking the more obvious aspects of their pitching metrics, I wanted to take a closer look to determine whether or not their pitches lacked sufficient movement before ruling out any of the overall data. Running a league-wide comparison produced the following results:
Perez Fastball Movement Comps: Jake Peavy, Javier Vazquez, Randy Wolf
There are no red flags here, with their primary offerings-featuring movement similar to that of some elite pitchers, as well as similar velocities and zone percentages-failing to expose any revelations in the overall data. Diving deep into specific situations, I first calculated the average percentage of pitches thrown in a somewhat generous strike zone in each of the 12 ball-strike counts for the entire league. I repeated the process for both Cabrera and Perez, revealing a few interesting tells:
Count MLB Perez Cabrera 0-0 60.5 56.5 58.9 0-1 52.3 52.3 49.1 0-2 37.1 49.7 33.3 1-0 61.7 58.5 55.9 1-1 57.3 54.6 51.4 1-2 45.6 52.2 45.7 2-0 63.3 63.2 68.6 2-1 63.9 64.4 58.6 2-2 55.1 57.9 51.7 3-0 59.5 63.6 63.9 3-1 67.8 57.6 60.7 3-2 64.5 60.9 58.9
Perez only strayed from the average on 0-2, 1-2, and 3-1 counts. Of the two counts that favor pitchers, Perez threw a percentage in the zone well above the league average, but in the hitter's count his percentage was a great deal below average. The results in the 0-2 count are particularly compelling, given that his 49.7 percent zone frequency dwarfed the 37.1 percent league average. Probing my database for starting pitchers with similar 0-2 zone percentages who had a minimum of 60 such counts produced the following list:
Olsen Marlins 56.3 Wakefield Red Sox 55.1 Rasner Yankees 53.1 Buchholz Red Sox 51.7 Morton Braves 50.8 Perez Mets 49.7
Perez ranked sixth among all starters in this area, and he and his colleagues all posted FIPs in the same vicinity. Perhaps Ollie is not fully confident in his off-speed pitches, or fears that a wasted pitch might lead to a lost hitter, but throwing half of your pitches in the zone in such a situation is bound to result in the occasional mistake. The lower zone percentage in 3-1 counts is actually more understandable for a supposedly wild pitcher. Merely arriving at a three-ball count could suggest that he lacks his "stuff" when most of those plate appearances occur. Whereas his 0-2 and 1-2 zone discrepancies may deal more with his decision-making, the results on 3-1 are more likely just out of his control (pun intended).
Cabrera also struggles in these counts, and the only other situation in which Cabrera deviated from the average was in the ever-important 1-1 count. When he found himself in a position to either shift the advantage firmly in his favor or hand it right back to the hitter, Cabrera struggled to locate his pitches. More often than the vast majority of pitchers in the league, he went from 1-1 to 2-1. With his ability to induce out-of-zone swings dwindling over the last few years, and in situations where the count favors the hitter, Cabrera would either have to throw his fastball in the zone and be victimized by contact, or he'd end up in an even more dangerous 3-1 count.
How about their stats with or without runners on base? Pitching out of the stretch can adversely affect mechanics, grips, and pitching motion. Here are the figures for overall zone percentages, fastball velocities, and fastball movement with the bases empty, with a runner on first base, and with runners in scoring position:
Perez Zone% FB Vel FB Move Cabrera Zone% FB Vel FB Move Empty 54.1 91.3 7.2/9.4 Empty 54.4 93.1 7.6/7.9 1B Only 50.8 90.5 7.3/9.1 1B Only 50.2 92.5 7.5/7.7 RISP 50.4 91.5 7.4/8.9 RISP 47.4 92.9 7.0/7.9
As runners moved up on the basepaths, Perez saw a steady increase in the tail of his fastball, despite a drop-off in vertical movement at each juncture. Cabrera sustained the horizontal movement of his fastball with the bases empty or runners on first base, but lost a half-inch with runners in scoring position, while his vertical movement was not affected. The league-average zone percentages were 56.1 with the bases empty, 52.8 with runners on first, and 51.3 with runners in scoring position. Only Cabrera's zone percentage with RISP stands out; he missed the zone more often than not in these situations, but induced so few swings that an added ball to the count seemed like a sure thing. He was forced to come into the zone on hitters when behind in the count, relying heavily on a fastball that had lost two miles per hour from the previous season.
If Cabrera wants to reverse the downward trend in his statistics and make the Orioles regret their decision to let him go, he needs to re-establish the off-speed portion of his repertoire. A reliever with a 93 mph fastball might be able to get away with throwing over fastballs over 82 percent of the time, but a starter needs more variety to sustain success. The problem, however, is that I can't possibly be the first person to come up with such a suggestion. The same goes for a possible solution for Perez: to trust his pitches more, and not be afraid to throw a waste pitch every now and then. At the major league level, these two have probably received this kind of advice ad nauseum.
At this stage in their careers, Perez appears to be the better pitcher, but not by nearly as wide a margin as some might think. At over $10 million per season for three or more years, the Mets would be investing a pretty penny in the possibility that a seven-year veteran who has yet to establish any semblance of consistency will suddenly turn a corner. While an improvement like this is not unheard of, Cabrera's one-year, $2.6 million deal certainly carries much less risk should his struggles persist. Pitchers like Cabrera and Perez do not differ that much from the rest of the league outside of a few granular instances. Regardless of how easy it may seem for either to be able to improve their results in these situations, no guarantee exists that such improvements will take place... ever. Yet each will be given additional opportunities, accompanied by every suggestion in the book. Daniel Cabrera and Oliver Perez may one day figure things out, but they also might play major league baseball for the next decade before anyone realizes that fulfilling their promise was never within their control.