Thursday, April 16, 2009

Pavano's Adjustments Pay Off in KC

Based on how poorly Carl Pavano pitched in his last start (1.0 IP, 6 H, 3 BB, 9 ER), I said it would take a miracle for him to come up with a quality start against Kansas City. Well, Pavano must have gotten whatever was ailing him out of his system because he looked like a completely different pitcher in his second start with Cleveland. Pavano finished with 4 ER, 8 H, 0 BB, and 8 K over six strong innings. That may not seem like much, but if he can provide those kinds of starts on a regular basis I think Cleveland will be very pleased with him. Plus, Pavano proved that he's not just damaged goods and actually has some gas left in the tank.

The guy's arm seemingly came back from the dead in the span of a week, although I'm still not sure where on this spectrum of extremes Pavano will eventually settle. Maybe all he needed was a wake-up call after a gruelingly long spring, but whatever the case Pavano bought himself a "get out of jail free card" by bouncing back against Kansas City.

I was curious as to what type of adjustments Pavano made between his first and second starts. To do this required more than just the typical box score stats. I wanted to track any changes in velocity, movement, and location on Pavano's pitches between starts. Fortunately, archives the results from its Gameday application over the course of a season, allowing fans to access Pitch f/x data for every batter a pitcher faces.

I've ventured into more detailed Pitch f/x analysis on occasion, but I'd like to take a new approach today and try to glean some insight from only a small sampling of individual at-bats. I decided to keep the number of batters from each start down to three this time in order to keep the presentation and workload simple. I did review the data from the entire start before drawing any conclusions, so any analysis tends to be within a broader context. The idea is to key-in on specific pitches and see how their velocity and break may have changed, in addition to how effective they were (like if a certain pitch was thrown for a strike more consistently than before). If you haven't seen MLB's Gameday application before, this link offers a basic explanation of what's displayed in the images below.

4/9/2009 at Texas: TEX 12 - CLE 8

Michael Young - 1st Inning

M. Young 1st 1 87 3" 17" FB Called K

2 88 5" 14" FB Foul

3 88 3" 16" FB 2B

Pavano's approach to Michael Young is pretty typical of his pitch selection to the 12 batters he faced. With the exception of an occasional changeup or slider, Pavano rarely went to anything other than an 86-88 MPH fastball. This allowed Texas to get comfortable early and just sit on the same type of pitch the entire time Pavano was on the mound. Five of Pavano's six hits came off that bland 86-88 MPH fastball. Pavano also did a poor job of locating his pitches. He took an overly cautious approach throughout the game, nibbling around the edges of the strike zone (this trend appears in all three featured at-bats). It didn't take long for Texas to realize that Pavano wasn't going to challenge them, so they started hacking away at anything that crossed into the zone.

Marlon Byrd - 1st Inning

M. Byrd 1st 1 79 8" 8" CHG Ball

2 87 3" 13" FB Ball

3 87 4" 13" FB HR

Pavano continues to skirt the strike zone against Marlon Byrd due to either a lack of control or a lack of confidence in his pitches. Here, Pavano fails to establish himself in the count by getting behind 2-0. When he does manage to find the zone, it's with a nearly identical, flat, 87 MPH fastball which Byrd launches into the stands for a two-run homer.

Ian Kinsler - 2nd Inning

I. Kinsler 2nd 1 86 3" 17" FB Ball

2 88 5" 14" FB Ball

3 86 5" 16" FB HR

At this point, Pavano had already given up five runs and just walked Omar Vizquel to start the second inning. He's really got nothing to lose in being more aggressive and trying to throw something other than a fastball (although honestly, I'm not sure how big a role Shoppach played in the terrible pitch selection). Instead, he goes to the exact same type of pitch that got him hammered in the first and gives up another two-run homer after falling behind 2-0.

There's really no excuse for going to the exact same type of pitch and watching it get hit every time. I knew Pavano had to realize what was going on, yet he made little to no adjustment in his approach even after heading to the dugout for half an inning.

4/14/2009 at Kansas City: KC 9 - CLE 3

Coco Crisp - 1st Inning

C. Crisp 1st 1 88 5" 12" FB Ball

2 88 7" 13" SNK Foul

3 82 9" 6" CHG Ball

4 82 6" 13" CHG Ball

5 79 14" 10" CRV Pop-up (out)

You can see a difference in Pavano's approach against Kansas City from the very first batter. Note the variety of pitches that he uses against Coco Crisp here. Pavano starts out with a nice combination of fastballs and off-speed pitches. The subtle difference between his sinker and standard fastball (both are thrown at similar speeds, but the sinker has more bite to it) fools Crisp and causes him to foul off a pitch that probably looked like another outside fastball before breaking.

Pavano also does a good job of using the entire plate, giving Crisp multiple locations to worry about in the at-bat rather than clustering all his pitches in one quadrant like he did against Texas. I really like the way Pavano started out Crisp with the fastball before gradually decreasing his velocity and ramping up the break of each consecutive pitch. He eventually gets Crisp to pop-out on a 79 MPH curveball.

He may not be pounding the strike zone in this particular example (there was plenty of that later on), but he gives the batter a reason to protect the plate and actually swing at a few pitches outside the zone as opposed to just giving them the exact same look every time.

Alex Gordon - 2nd Inning

A. Gordon 2nd 1 92 5" 17" FB Swinging K

2 81 8" 11" CHG Ball

3 91 6" 15" SNK Swinging K

4 83 8" 13" CHG Swinging K

Pavano is very aggressive against Alex Gordon, striking him out on four pitches. This approach resulted in Pavano throwing 70% of his pitches for strikes against the Royals, which is excellent given the stuff he had on display that night. Check out the two 91-92 MPH fastballs Pavano serves to Gordon (he hit 90 MPH on a regular basis throughout the start). I didn't even know Pavano could still throw that fast, let alone nail the inside corner with it. Pavano gives Gordon a tempting look inside with a legit heater, inducing a swinging strike. He then moves down and away with another heater before cutting 8 MPH off the previous pitch with a breaking changeup for the strikeout (this time he would have struck out Gordon whether he swung or not).

It was clear early on that Pavano wasn't going to give the Royals batters any room to breathe.

Mike Jacobs - 6th Inning

M. Jacobs 6th 1 90 6" 15" FB Called K

2 89 5" 13" FB Foul

3 82 8" 5" CHG Called K

Jumping ahead to the sixth inning, Pavano is faced with home run-threat, Mike Jacobs. The set-up for this at-bat is similar to what Pavano faced in Texas. He knows Jacobs can easily take him out if he makes a mistake and there are already two runners on base ahead of him. Unlike with Texas, Pavano chooses to go right after Jacobs with a called strike up and in on the hands. Pavano doesn't allow Jacobs to get his arms extended on the swing and tries to jam him up and in for a second time. This does a great job of setting up the changeup which completely catches Jacobs off-guard after fighting off the last pitch inside. The changeup is located right along the border of the strikezone, but away from the barrel of the bat as Jacobs takes the bait for the strikeout.

This is another example of Pavano setting up his pitches and effectively changing speeds, something sorely lacking in Texas.


Normally, I wouldn't be so interested in a 6.0 inning, 8 H, 4 ER day by the team's third starter. However, Pavano's outing against Kansas City is significant because it answers the question of what Pavano is still capable of in a Major League game. The fact that he racked up 8 strikeouts while walking none leads me to believe that he has the potential to be even better in the future. He displayed the ability to command multiple pitches for strikes, change speeds, set-up his pitches, and get out of jams. Pavano could have easily gone seven innings in this game (he only threw 80 pitches), but Wedge probably decided to sit Pavano in case trouble found him again (a similar approach was taken with Paul Byrd, who was notorious for his late inning breakdowns, although this isn't necessarily the case with Pavano).

Granted, this was all against a struggling KC offense, but a start like this could really boost Pavano's confidence and encourage him to continue this aggressive, varied approach. He may have even validated some mechanical adjustments between starts, as evidenced by the additional 2-4 MPH on his fastball the second time out.

With the pitching staff still sorting itself out, any quality starts from Pavano will give Cleveland some much needed stability in the starting rotation as they struggle to get their season back on track following a 2-7 start. I still have no idea which Pavano will show up in New York on Sunday, but the flash of potential in KC is reason enough to be at least a little more optimistic about his future with the Tribe.

All Pitch f/x images were generated by MLB's Gameday application.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tribe Pitching Falls Flat in Opening Week

Cleveland's pitching staff hasn't done much to disprove the idea that they could be the team's Achilles heel this season. In fact, the blame for three of the team's last four losses sits squarely on the shoulders of the pitchers. Simply losing five in a row to start the season was unnerving enough, but to see the team's biggest potential weakness establish itself so early is not a good sign. Even the supposedly sturdy bullpen has had its share of blowups, with Rafael Perez, Jensen Lewis, and Kerry Wood all getting roughed up fresh out of Spring Training.

The shortcomings of the pitching staff puts the team's leadership in a difficult position. Obviously, it's far too early to be taking any drastic measures, but Wedge and Shapiro are no doubt thinking ahead as to what they'll do if this trend continues. Unfortunately, I don't think their contingency plan is meant to cover the entire pitching staff, so some of these guys have no choice but to suck it up and do their job next time out.

The real question is at what point should the team start to really worry if the pitching continues to be this inconsistent? I know it's only the first week of a long season and that everything is magnified since all eyes are on the small number of games that have actually been played. That doesn't make it any easier to watch. I can't fault the front office either, since I was cautiously optimistic about the rotation during Spring Training as well (perhaps more so than Shapiro himself).

The only player that I would be willing to pull the trigger on this early is Pavano, but even that isn't as simple as it seems. David Huff (5.0 IP, 4 ER, 5 H, 2 HR, 3 BB), Aaron Laffey (3.1 IP, 5 ER, 6 H, 1 HR, 2 BB), and Kirk Saarloos (6.0 IP, 5 ER, 7 H, 2 HR, 1 BB) all came up short in their Columbus debuts, which leaves me guessing as to who could get called up as a replacement. Regardless of how bad it looked, Cleveland isn't going to cut a starter after just one game. Pavano was supposed to be part of a multi-pitcher attack to provide some (hopefully) quality innings until Westbrook returned, but it looks like that plan will backfire unless the "second wave" of arms is brought up sooner than anticipated. And don't think I'm going easy on Cliff Lee just because I hadn't mentioned him yet, he's got a lot of work to do to silence concerns that his terrible Spring Training was anything more than a meaningless blip on the radar.

The bottom line is that until the team has a larger body of work to go on, all they can do is continue to be prudent in how much slack they cut their pitchers and hope that Carl Willis and his coaching staff can find a solution to the individual struggles holding the rest of the team back.

Cleveland can't afford to get off to such a slow start in what should be a tightly contested division (not to mention the AL East, which will probably be fighting tooth-and-nail for the Wild Card spot all year). The franchise hasn't gotten off to an 0-5 start since 1985 and now join Washington (0-5) as the only teams in the Majors who are still win-less.

Today I wanted to characterize the first five outings from the starting pitching. Despite the end result, there were actually a few positive signs.

Cliff Lee

4/6 @ TX: 5.0 IP, 10 H, 7 ER, 1 BB, 5 SO, 1 HR, 79-53 pitches-strikes, 3-7 GB-FB

I was willing to chalk this start up as an anomaly at first glance. Combine a sore forearm from a deflected linedrive, Opening Day pressure, a very strong Texas lineup, and a career 9.19 ERA over 6 career starts at Arlington and the odds seemed to be stacked against Lee that day. Lee retired the first four batters he faced until being struck in the left forearm by a liner. After being inspected by the training staff, Lee continued to pitch, but allowed five more base runners on four hits and a walk before getting out of the inning. My guess is that the soreness in Lee's arm temporarily broke his concentration or mechanics because he seemed fine in the third and fourth innings. Lee gave up just two hits while striking out four in the middle innings before surrendering a three-run homer in the fifth.

4/11 vs. TOR: 5.0 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 4 BB, 5 SO, 0 HR, 102-57 pitches-strikes, 3-7 GB-FB

The match-up between last year's Cy Young winner and runner-up was supposed to be where Lee redeemed himself after a poor showing on Opening Day. Instead, Lee struggled, but no longer had the benefit of the doubt since he was pitching at home against a tamer Toronto lineup. Lee failed to go beyond five innings for the second straight start after averaging 7.19 IP per start in 2008. In the post-game wrap, Wedge thought his ace was "a little erratic with his fastball. There were times when he was throwing where he wanted to, but he was also missing by quite a bit at times." Lee didn't throw a curveball until the 9th batter he faced (resulting in a K) and relied heavily on his fastball throughout the start.

One of Lee's keys to success last season was how his fastball and curveball complimented each other. 2008 saw Lee utilize the curveball about 9.6% of the time (a career high) and his heater 70.1%. It's also worth noting that in going to his fastball so often, Lee possessed excellent command of it (something he lacked in his last start). In two starts, Lee has stuck mostly with his fastball (57.0%), cutter (11.4%), and changeup (24.1%), using the curve only 7.6% of the time. It will be interesting to see how Lee's pitch selection evolves after a few more starts and if he finds success by going back to last year's strategy of mixing in the curveball more often.

Fausto Carmona

4/8 @ TX: 5.0 IP, 7 H, 6 ER, 2 BB, 4 SO, 1 HR, 95-59 pitches-strikes, 6-5 GB-FB

I thought Carmona looked better than what the boxscore indicates in this case. He displayed a good range of velocity (84-94 MPH) and had decent action on his sinking fastball. Carmona's undoing against Texas was that he just made too many mistakes. Many of the balls Carmona left up in the zone were punished by the Rangers. Others, like the ball Kinsler golfed from his ankles for a double, seemed a bit unlucky. I think Carmona is the most likely to bounce-back immediately because many of his runs seemed to come from a lack of concentration or a few bad pitches. Overall, Carmona seemed to have decent stuff and was able to find the strike zone 62% of the time, but Texas seemed especially patient at times, making it difficult for Fausto to set-up his go-to pitches.

Look for Carmona to get his confidence and focus back and enjoy much better results in his next outing.

Carl Pavano

4/9 @ TX: 1.0 IP, 6 H, 9 ER, 3 BB, 1 SO, 2 HR, 39-21 pitches-strikes, 1-1 GB-FB

The only way Pavano's debut as an Indian could have been any worse was if Wedge had left him in for more than one inning. If Pavano fails to significantly improve on this first start, there's no justification for keeping him on the team. If Shapiro needs more time to evaluate his options in Columbus he might as well stretch out Zach Jackson to make a couple of starts in lieu of Pavano (the downside of this is that they could realistically need Jackson to fill in the gaps for another struggling starter). The stark contrast between Pavano and Jackson's 4 innings of 4 hit, 2 run ball was laughable. Jackson came out of the bullpen and basically schooled Pavano in how to deal with the Texas lineup, striking out six and walking none. The only good to come out of Pavano's start was that it gave Jackson a chance to confirm he can be an effective long-man or emergency starter in a pinch. I was impressed with the way Jackson attacked hitters (70% of his pitches were strikes) and mixed up his location and velocity to keep hitters off-balance, especially after being called in on short-notice like that.

I wasn't expecting Pavano to have great velocity; at this point in his career that's not his game. But where was the pitch location that's supposed to be his bread and butter? Pavano either couldn't locate his pitches or he had so little confidence in his stuff that he was afraid to throw strikes. Most of his pitches were either elevated or too far outside the zone to even be borderline calls. It felt like Pavano had a very weak presence on the mound and had absolutely no answer for the loaded Texas lineup. At one point, it looked like Pavano was just avoiding the hitters zone as much as possible, going through the motions, waiting to be pulled. I can't blame Wedge for leaving him in even after the seven runs, since calling on the bullpen to pitch almost an entire game would have its own adverse consequences.

Short of a miraculous turn-around, I wouldn't be surprised if Pavano was cut after two more starts.

Scott Lewis

4/10 vs. TOR: 4.1 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 1 B, 3 SO, 2 HR, 94-61 pitches-strikes, 3-6 GB-FB

Lewis looked extremely sharp out of the gate, nailing Martinez's glove and locating the ball well. The 25-year old southpaw showcased his ability to paint both corners of the plate and use his fastball and changeup in tandem effectively. He also didn't seem to get rattled when faced with a lead-off double in the third inning. Toronto's hitters seemed to make the necessary adjustments to Lewis' strategy the second time through the lineup, resulting in a three-run fourth inning. Lewis gave up four consecutive hits in the fourth: two singles, a double, and a two-run homer. He was pulled in the fifth after coughing up a home run to Marco Scutaro on an obvious mistake pitch right down the middle of the plate at the letters (the rain had picked up to a steady downpour at that point, so that didn't help matters). The key to Lewis improving will be if he can counter his opponent's adjustments the second and third time through the lineup. While it's great that he can locate his fastball inside, Jays' hitters were starting to catch up to balls trailing in on them and making contact for hits.

Lewis no longer has the benefit of being an unknown rookie to Major League hitters, so he'll have to adapt to remain effective at this level.