Jamey Wright Improving With Age

Jamey Wright turned 39 on December 24, and he celebrated by signing a one-year deal worth $1.8 million with the Dodgers. As far as offseason signings go, it’s a relatively minor one, and coming as it did in the midst of the holiday season and the far bigger stories of Shin-Soo Choo and Masahiro Tanaka, it — quite reasonably — went unmentioned here. In fact, as far as I can tell, the last time he was even mentioned on the regular FG site was way back in 2009, and even that was a Jeremy Affeldt article that barely referenced Wright.

That’s neither surprising nor unexpected, because Wright’s claim to fame — if he even has one — is that he’s been surviving on minor-league deals for longer than most current players have even been in the big leagues. After eight consecutive years making seven different teams as a non-roster invite, he’s finally managed to collect a big-league deal for the first time since 2005. That’s great for him, but is otherwise a minor piece of trivia in the larger baseball world.

Still, we’re talking about him today because — well, okay, because no one can stand to talk about the Hall of Fame any longer — his age 35-38 seasons have looked like this: 

wright_jamey_k9

This is from a guy who struck out 59 in 149.2 innings as a 23-year-old Colorado starter in 1997. In the first 14 years of his career, Wright’s K/9 was a mere 5.0; in the four years since, it’s been 6.6. Some of that, no doubt, is due to the fact that he’s been around for such a long time — remember, he made it to Colorado before Todd Helton did, and at least four men from his first MLB game (Bruce Ruffin, Dante Bichette, Eric Young, and Shawon Dunston) now have sons in the pros —  that he’s seen a sea change in the game as far as the increasing number of strikeouts. In 1996, hitters struck out 16.5% of the time; in 2013, it was 19.9%.

Still, that’s not enough to explain a kind of steady improvement like that, especially at an age when most pitchers are either declining or already long gone. He has to be throwing harder, right?

Nope:

wright_pitch_velocityIf anything, the exact opposite is happening — Wright’s 89.5 MPH average fastball for Tampa Bay in 2013 was his lowest since at least 2007.

Now let’s look at another chart. It might not completely explain his trend over the last few years, but we can certainly see a big difference in pitch selection in 2013:

wright_pitch_selection

Wright ditched his longtime sinker in favor of a cutter — unsurprisingly, his groundball rate was his lowest since 2004, though still above-average — and started throwing a change that we’d almost never seen before. So that’s part of it; obviously, a cutter is generally more likely to miss bats than a sinker is.

But there’s also this: while Wright has never really had a huge platoon split over his career (.343 wOBA from lefties, .330 from righties), he has, counter-intuitively, had more success striking out lefties. Over his career, his K/9 against lefties was 6.34; against righties, it’s 5.05.  In 2013, it was 9.50 against lefties, and 6.67 against righties.

Joe Maddon and the Rays took advantage of that by making him the rare righty reliever to face more opposite-handed batters:

wright_jamey_rh_lh

Wright’s 25.4% strikeout percentage against lefties was a top 20 mark in the majors, just behind Jose Fernandez and just ahead of Felix Hernandez — great company to keep. When the Rays needed a bullpen game against a lefty-heavy Oakland lineup in September, it was Wright who got the call for his first start since 2007.

Really, this is exactly the kind of thing the Rays excel in — find an undervalued asset, identify something nontraditional that he’s good at, and take advantage of it. For Wright, it’s earned him a guaranteed contract for the first time in years. Now we’ll just need to see if the Dodgers keep the trend going, or if age will finally catch up to Wright.



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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.


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Amy
Guest
Amy
2 years 7 months ago

I like this! Nice work, Rays and great job Mike!

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 7 months ago

Begin multi-part comment:

1. On the Dodgers I think sub-optimal usage is more likely to catch up to Wright before age does.

2. I imagine that throwing a baseball in Coors field in 1997 must have been like throwing a beach ball. Striking out 59 in 150 innings obviously isn’t good, but I’m tempted to chalk that up to something like “moon gravity.”

3. Wright’s pitch f/x page is very interesting. His cutter actually moves somewhat more like a slider than a cutter. A cutter is a fastball with some cut, and they typically have between 5 and 10 inches of vertical movement. Wright’s actually had only 3.4 inches last year, which is less rise than most sinkers. Here are some examples, all right handed so the horizontal movement is comparable:

Cutters
Player Vertical Horizontal
Jamey Wright 3.4 2.2
Mariano Rivera 7.0 2.3
Kenley Jansen 9.8 2.4
Mark Melancon 5.4 2.1

Sliders
Player Vertical Horizontal
Addison Reed 3.0 2.9
Huston Street 2.9 0.0
Joe Nathan 2.6 2.1

Sometimes I don’t totally understand where pitch f/x gets it’s classifications, but that pitch seems more like a slider to me. Maybe they call it a cutter because its velocity is too similar to his fastball. Either way, sliders tend to be the most effective strikeout pitches, so if he can consistently throw a 8.7 mph pitch that looks like a slider, that bodes well for his K rate.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 7 months ago

So this comment page really screwed with my table formatting, ew. I guess you’ll just have to look at that and read the first number as vertical movement and the next as horizontal movement. The point is that Wright’s cutter looks a lot like the pitches in the slider group.

CircleChange11
Guest
2 years 7 months ago

When a threw a cutter in college it moved more like a slider than a cut fastball. Imo its due to the placement of the middle finger on the outer part of the seam and applying a lot of pressure with that finger.

For a RHP to a LHB, the cutter should be a good pitch bc its moves away from the barrel and has some downward action.

The Dude Abides
Guest
The Dude Abides
2 years 7 months ago

I would submit that increased use of the changeup is also contributing to his high strikeout rate vs LHB.

Steve K
Guest
Steve K
2 years 7 months ago

I think the surprising thing is that he keeps getting on the major league roster. He has a career WHIP of 1.55 and a walk rate almost equal his strike out rate.

Good for him that he has been improving the last few years, but what is he doing that convinces teams to keep putting him out there?

Snowman
Guest
Snowman
2 years 7 months ago

Despite the odd way he gets there, he’s been something close to average in the last couple of years, and more times than not before that. There’s value in that.

Dan Greer
Member
Dan Greer
2 years 7 months ago

League average reliever who gets a ton of ground balls and doesn’t have major platoon problems is really quite valuable.

jim
Guest
jim
2 years 7 months ago

and you’re using career stats of a player who first appeared in 1996 because…?

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