Game 152, Mariners at Royals
Roenis Elias vs. Yordano Ventura, 5:10pm
Not sure if Jeremy Guthrie’s going to make the Royals playoff roster. Yesterday’s disaster start did serious damage to his FIP, and pushed his fWAR (which is based on FIP) down from -0.5 to -0.9. By runs allowed, the picture is somehow even worse: -1.0 WAR thanks to an RA that’s now over 6.
I didn’t come here to bury Mr. Guthrie, however. Rather, I wanted to note that the Royals have surged to the top of the AL despite a second consecutive down year from their all-star catcher, Salvador Perez. In a development pattern that’s bizarre to everyone except M’s fans, Perez has put up the following wRC+ figures since his debut in 2011: 126, 114, 106, 92, 86. Perez’s bat-to-ball skills are freakishly good, and even now he strikes out much less than most hitters, but his return on all of the balls in play he produces have grown steadily worse, and while his walk rate was never good, it’s now a real red flag. 43 catchers have had at least 200 plate appearances this year. By OBP, Perez’s .276 mark ranks 39th. In case you were wondering, Rene Rivera spared Mike Zunino the ignominy of having the lowest OBP by putting up a remarkable .180/.214/.279 line that looks like it’s from the dead ball era. Perez started from a much better place than Zunino, but the trajectory looks familiar. I wondered if other catchers fit this profile, but they’re pretty hard to find. Like most players, catcher offense benefits from experience and normal aging curves. As Perez *has* reached the 20 HR mark for the first time, I wondered if he was selling out for power, but there’s not a lot of evidence for that in his pull percentage or GB/FB ratio. I bring it up not because it’s crippled the Royals – they’re pretty obviously doing fine – but because I’m fascinated, and oddly encouraged, when I see other teams have development…oddities like the M’s.
Today’s starter, Yordano Ventura, has had an eventful year. From odd cramping problems, to a suspension for plunking Brett Lawrie to a mid-year demotion to AAA, you’d think Ventura would be having a year to forget. It hasn’t been *good*, but Ventura’s starting to turn his elite stuff – the fastest starting pitcher fastball, for example – into strikeouts. When he came up, he put up great results without strikeouts thanks to oddly low BABIPs and good ground ball rates. This year, his GB% is even higher, and he’s finally above the league average in K%. His curve has developed into a great pitch, and while he has some platoon splits, they’re minuscule thanks to a good-if-erratic change-up. That said, his nearly-100mph fastball’s been oddly hittable. This year, batters are hitting .367 and slugging .600 on Ventura’s four-seam fastball – he’s got a sinker as well, but the four-seamer’s the one he uses most often. Last year, the league hit .235 off of it. Obviously, sample’s an issue here, and his true talent is probably in between these two marks, but the point is: Ventura’s fastball’s sucked, and Ventura’s paying a price for it.
Back in June, Jeff Sullivan noted that Ventura led the league in pull% – the percentage of balls in play allowed that were pulled. This was true of fly balls as well as grounders, and generally made a mockery of the small but consistent inverse correlation between velocity and pull%. For some reason, batters find it really easy to turn around Ventura’s fastball. Checking in now, Jered Weaver’s got him beat, but Ventura’s still #2. Fangraphs’ numbers don’t break out grounders (which tend to be pulled more often) from other balls in play, so it’s not a big surprise that much of the top of the list is made up of ground ball guys like Felix, Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton. So: batters pull the ball against Ventura, and batters have destroyed Ventura’s fastball. So are they pulling his fastball? Strangely, not really. Here’s a balls-in-play heatmap of *left* handers against Ventura’s fastball:
The righty version looks much the same. What I think may be happening is that hitters have to start so early on his fastball, that they invariably pull pitches that come in slower, like his change-up. Ventura’s change averages 88mph, so it must be tempting to either get more sink on it (so batters swing over the top) or slower speed (so they get their bat out of the zone before the pitch arrives), but I can imagine both of those things are easier said than done.
What Ventura *has* done is tweak his delivery a bit. He’s much more 3/4 as opposed to more over the top, and thus his vertical release point’s come down. That’s taken some of the “rise” off of the four-seamer while adding a bit of horizontal run. No idea if that change has made it easier to see, but it has coincided with much lower fastball whiff rates and *higher* breaking ball/offspeed whiff rates. Add it all up, and Ventura’s got a solid FIP but a mediocre ERA and RA thanks to a high BABIP – and Ventura certainly can’t blame that on poor fielders. Ventura’s always been a polarizing prospect/player, and I can imagine few players would generate a wider spectrum of answers as to how to value him.
1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, DH
4: Cano, 2B
5: Gutierrez, LF
6: Smith, RF
7: Trumbo, 1B
8: Miller, CF
9: Sucre, C