With Andy Pettitte looking at a late week return from the disabled list, news began filtering out the Yankees plan on skipping Javier Vazquez in the rotation for the third time this season.  While Vazquez has returned to the rotation after those two previous sojourns, indications are this move will be a little more… permanent.  

Of course, there will be those who insist Vazquez’s struggles have to do with an allergy to pinstripes or some sort of nonsense.  While the mental aspect of struggles are always lurking underneath the surface, there are other, more ominous signs that point to larger issues.  

One issue has been the loss of giddy-up on his fastball.  Throughout his entire career, Vazquez has lived in the 91 mph neighborhood with his fastball.  This year has been a different story.  For the first time ever, he’s struggling to break 90 mph with his fastball. 

Also, Vazquez has moved away from the slider this year.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing as his slider has traditionally been his fourth most effective of his four pitches.  However, it has served to set-up his other pitches – namely his curve and change.  What follows is a table breaking down each pitch by frequency thrown by Vazquez over the last three seasons.  This season represents a significant departure from his recent (and successful) approach.

By throwing fewer sliders and more curves and change-ups than in the past, it’s rendered all three pitches less effective.  The loss of velocity of his fastball, combined with that declining effectiveness means Vazquez is really having difficulty keeping hitters off balance.  When you look at his .264 BABIP, you may think he’s been a bit unlucky.  That’s the lowest rate of his career and is well below his .300 BABIP he’s averaged through 13 big league seasons.  However, hitters are making contact on 80% of his pitches this year, also the highest rate of his career.  Even though his batting average on balls in play is low, there has been more contact this year and more balls in play.  He’s basically running on the pitching treadmill from hell.  

So while his hit rate of 8.5 H/9 is solid (and better than his career rate of 8.8 H/9) his undoing this season has been his lack of command.  He’s walking a career worst 3.7 batters per nine.  As mentioned earlier, his fastball and slider aren’t his most effective pitches, but they are the ones that set up his change-up to left-handed batters and curve balls to right-handed batters.  For Vazquez, this season, his set-up pitches aren’t exactly doing the required heavy lifting as he’s throwing them for fewer strikes.

I highlighted the key areas in red… Large decline in the percentage of his fastball and slider thrown for strikes and the corresponding decline in whiff percentage on his curve and change.  Like most pitchers, Vazquez likes to start his opponent off with a fastball, although his second choice on first pitch is his slider.  He’s throwing both the fastball and slider for fewer strikes this year, so he’s not jumping ahead in the count as frequently as he did in 2009.  That correlates to a decline in whiff rates on his curve and change…  Because he’s falling behind in the count, hitters are wisely laying off the curve and change (historically Vazquez’s best pitches) that fall out of the zone.  Fewer swings, plus more pitches out of the zone, equal more walks.  His walk rate has jumped so much, his 1.36 WHIP is his worst rate since 2000. 

Short term, with Vazquez exiled from the rotation, CC Sabathia will pitch on Saturday on his normal rest (as opposed to his normal turn) and will be followed by the return of Pettitte on Sunday.  That would set up Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett to start the first three games of the Yankees final homestand of the season at the beginning of next week.  You probably dropped Vazquez a while ago.  This demotion is just the final nail in his 2010 season.

Long term, because Vazquez’s struggles have lasted the entire season he should be downgraded on your draft board as we approach 2011.  The sudden (and consistent) decline in velocity along with control issues point to problems that just aren’t limited to the mental aspect of the game.