Carlos Villanueva Keeps Rolling As Starter

For a little while, Toronto was showing the makings of a playoff contender. An excellent offense built around Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion and a surprisingly solid starting rotation built around Brandon Morrow kept the Blue Jays in games for the first half of the season. But the injuries piled up, particularly on the pitching end, prompting inquiries into record-setting injury paces.

And so it’s no surprise the Blue Jays own one of the league’s worst starting rotations with respect to WAR (+4.5, 26th) and ERA (4.81, 25th). From beneath this heap of pain and misery, however, one bright spot has emerged. Rotation replacement Carlos Villanueva continued to groove as a starter Thursday against the Rays, tossing six shutout innings with seven strikeouts and just six baserunners allowed.

Perhaps taking part in a shutout of the Rays isn’t terribly impressive any more — the Jays’ effort Thursday marks the ninth time Tampa Bay has gone scoreless this season. But this is a lineup reinvigorated by the presence of Evan Longoria, with a sharp 108 wRC+ in August largely thanks to the power of their centerpiece.

Villanueva did it with a fastball that didn’t tip 91 all night. But for Villanueva, it isn’t about the fastball, and it never has been. He threw just 26 four-seamers out of his 93 pitches, sprinkling in 16 sinkers, 21 changeups, 15 sliders and 12 curveballs; on the season, he’s gone to the fastball just 33% of the time (43% if you include the sinker), sprinkling the slider and changeup just over 20% and the curveball 10%.

Villanueva’s reliance on the breaking stuff is nothing new. “He loves his changeup,” Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said after a July 15 loss to the Jays’ righty. “If he thinks you’re aggressive or trying to jump on a ball, you’re going to get a changeup or a back-foot curveball.”

The Rays didn’t have many opportunities to be aggressive Wednesday night — Villanueva threw 63 strikes in 93 pitches, making just 12 pitches in hitters’ counts. But when he got behind, Villanueva stuck with his typical plan — as Kipnis suggested, the changeup was popular in these few hitters’ counts:

Villanueva went to the changeup six out of 12 times, and although it did give up one of his five hits, he also earned a swinging strike, two called strikes and a foul tip, all coming on pitches within the strike zone. Overall, Villanueva’s changeup was excellent at keeping hitters off balance and allowing him to progress further into (or towards) pitchers’ counts — of his 21 changeups, 17 were strikes, and of those 17 just two were put in play.

Villanueva has his ERA down to 3.10 on the season and although his 4.01 FIP is just average, his fielding independent numbers have been significantly better out of the rotation — a 3.82 K/BB and a 3.53 FIP. Villanueva’s arsenal is well suited to a starting role — his changeup allows him to keep hitters of both sides at bay, and his ability to mix in other pitches to go with his fastball allows him to get outs without lighting up the radar gun.

For a summer that saw Jays pitcher after Jays pitcher falter on the mound or fall to an injury, it’s refreshing for those north of the border to see a bright spot in the rotation. Villanueva looks like he can more than help Toronto patch together its starting rotation as they head into 2013.

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23 Responses to “Carlos Villanueva Keeps Rolling As Starter”

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  1. Bret says:

    Is the conclusion here that Villanueva looks like he can up this type of performance?

    He’s a tough case for the Blue Jays as he’s a free agent this offseason. If you resign him and pencil him in as a starter, how many innings can you expect from him? Coming into this year, the most he’s pitched has been 115.

    And just last year, Villanueva had another good run in the rotation, before coming undone a bit – potentially because of injury issues, but potentially not.

    It’s a tough case. But certainly, if he can be expected to pitch like this, you don’t want to let him walk.

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    • tbjfan says:

      If a six-man rotation were used, and Villaneuva averaged 6 innings per start, that would mean he has 162 innings pitched. And 162 should be a reasonable target for 2013.

      But is it worthwhile to purposely create a 6 man rotation just to cater to Villaneuva? Probably not.

      Skipping starts is another solution, but I don’t think it’s good for the rhythm, nor is it feasible to work around the schedule.

      The last thing I could think of is to use Villaneuva out of the bullpen for the first 4 weeks. Let a rookie pitcher get a taste of the big-leagues, and after that month, the rookie is demoted and Villaneuva joins the rotation. Repeat the same process in September. That should limit Villaneuva to 22 starts.

      Basically, 4.25 weeks as a reliever, 17.5 weeks as a starter, 4.25 weeks as a reliever. That should set Villaneuva at around 175 innings.

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      • Skin Blues says:

        The Jays don’t even have enough arms for a 5 man rotation, never mind an extra one.

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      • tbjfan says:

        @Skin Blues

        Try reading my original comment in its entirety.

        I said a 6 man rotation is not feasible, necessarily for the same reasons, but still, the same conclusion.

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    • Tino Martino says:

      At the age of 28, isn’t he well out of the injury nexus for starting pitchers? I thought the Verducci Effect only applied to pitchers who were 25 and under.

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  2. Radivel says:

    Villanueva certainly deserves to be a starter next year – he also performed well if not spectacular in a starters role last year. I would take a chance on him with something like a 3yr/12mil or 2yr/9mil deal or something like that. He doesn’t have the flashy K or MPH numbers and he probably won’t throw a complete game, but he gets the job done and has got the job done well enough to get a chance as a starter.

    People also don’t remember this, but he was essentially also the “throw in replacement pitcher” in the Lawrie-Marcum deal, which looked good for the Jays on that alone. Given the results of the last two years, Marcum for Lawrie & Villanueva seems pretty lopsided.

    Marcum brWAR as a Brewer: 4.1
    Lawrie & Villanueva brWAR as Jays: 7.1 + 4.0 = 11.1

    Let’s just hope his starter contract doesn’t end up like Josh Towers…

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    • Kyle says:

      Villanueva wasn’t part of the Marcum/Lawrie trade. He was traded (for cash) on December 3rd, Lawrie came over from Milwaukee three days later.

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  3. exxrox says:

    As a huge fan of Villy, here’s a bit of knowledge that might be of interest:

    While the Blue Jays had him starting last year as well as this year, it has never been part of the plans; in fact they were reluctant to go to him even after the injuries this year (despite him being the clear best option) because of how he reacted to his increased workload last summer (he wore down and developed a dead arm/shoulder tendonitis or something of the sort). Essentially, they were trying to protect him and have never seen him as a guy who can stand a starter’s workload despite his arsenal clearly being built for that.

    Regarding his impending free agency, he has stated that he enjoys Toronto but will likely explore the market to see if he can land a job in a rotation somewhere. There is still a chance that could be in Canada, but the organization might not view him in that way still. Personally, I think he is one of the best pitchers in their organization right now and they should work hard to please him and keep him around.

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    • exxrox says:

      Source on his FA comments:

      “If we’re going to get something done it will be easier before I hit free agency,” Villanueva said Wednesday. “It has to be both sides taking a gamble here. If it’s Sept. 30 and nobody says anything to me until then, at that point why wouldn’t I test the market?

      “My main thing is I really want to be here if the Blue Jays want me to be here.”

      Starting “would be the ideal, the thing I’ve always wanted is 30 starts,” he said. “I want to see what I can do without worrying about the rough stretch every pitcher goes through, the team panics and pulls me.

      “I think if I’m healthy, which I am, I can compete for a full season.

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      • Steve K says:

        While has done well, if he has his heart set on being a starter, I would think that the Jays should let him go. He has not pitched more than 115 innings in a season. It would be hard for him build up endurance to put in 150 innings a season at age 30. If the Jays put him back in the pen, they risk having an unhappy and maybe an unproductive player.

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  4. K says:

    To jack Moore: I know this is random but Romney or Obama?

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    • Mike Green says:

      Mediocre junkballers both of them. Stick with Villanueva.

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    • Cliff says:

      Can you name 1 good thing that’s happened in the last 4 years?….other than adding 6 trillion to the national debt(more than any other president ever), having unemployment rates double, expanding(therefore more $$$) an already oversized government, and creating a nationalized healthcare plan that actually penalizes employed Americans who choose to use private healthcare(therefore not spending taxpayers money).

      But hey Mitt Romney is a successful wealthy American…what a horrible person…let’s see we’ve got an enormous economic crisis going on in this country, and a current president that’s only made things worse….

      Yeah, why on Earth would we ever want a successful businessman as president..

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      • Cuh says:

        Yah, I mean, you’d basically have to be a retard if you didn’t want more tax cuts for the rich. Those things work!

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      • Cliff says:

        In fairness, you can’t exactly give a tax cut to the poor since they pay no federal taxes (other than FICA which is for their social security benefit). Only the top 50% pay any income tax anyway.

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      • Cliff says:

        Btw there are two Cliffs and I am not the same guy as the original poster…

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      • Alfred says:

        Without delving completely off-topic into tax policy wonkery, I just want to point out that only talking about “federal taxes” is so arbitrary. Generally speaking, US total tax payments are actually pretty regressive:

        Note that Romney would then further shift the burden onto middle and lower-class families.

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      • Rob says:

        Do you know how wealthy people get rich?

        By putting themselves first and not giving their money away.

        Why again would you want that in a President?

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      • Al Oliver says:

        Taxes are also at their lowest in how long now? It’s worked beautifully! Where are all of the magical jobs that were supposed to be created by the wonderful job creators?

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    • Rob says:

      They both suck. Find a replacement level starter and use them instead.

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  5. 81 says:

    Totally irrelevant but I’ve served Carlos food dozens of times and he’s an incredibly nice and approachable dude that (like most professional athletes) eats 3-4 times more than most people. How this plays into his free agency is anyone’s guess.

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  6. Bruce says:

    The reason why Villanueva’s stuff is suited to the starting rotation is that he throws his changeup to both righties and lefties. Romero, for instance, won’t throw his to lefties, and that makes him more predictable (i.e. if you’re a lefty sit on Ricky’s fastball, which is easier to hit this year because it won’t sink. And since Ricky can’t throw his curve for strikes anymore, lefties can either get a fastball down the middle or take a walk).

    Carlos is good because he changes speeds and locations while mixing in all his pitches in all counts. With some improvements (e.g. adding/subtracting on his fastball a bit more), he could be a #3 starter (or better) on any championship team (think: a right-handed version of Cliff Lee).

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