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Mat Latos: Velocity, Repertoire, and Command

In 2011, Mat Latos emerged from April with an 0-4 record and an earned run average near five. Even though he’s wearing a different uniform, things must be feeling eerily familiar right now.

After three starts, Latos finds himself winless with his new team and currently possesses an unseemly 8.22 ERA and 1.89 WHIP. Yes, the ERA predictors suggest Latos hasn’t been quite this bad and no, he hasn’t had much in the way of good luck on batted balls. But his command has been off, his repertoire has seemingly changed, and and after his last effort versus the St. Louis Cardinals, giving up eight earned runs over 5.2 innings pitched, there were some serious concerns in Cincinnati about their prize off season acquisition.

But we’ve seen this act before from Latos. In fact, a fairly slow start to the season has rather become his modus operandi, for better or worse:

In both 2010 and 2011, his xFIP in April was, relatively speaking, pretty bad by Latos standards. Although the results each month obviously fluctuate, the trend line is pretty clear — in both years, he tended to achieve better results as the season wore on. In 2012, his xFIP stands at 4.80, which is far and away the worst start to the season he’s had in his career, but there’s not only reason to be optimistic because of his history, but because of his velocity.

Early season results as poor as Latos has demonstrated typically send us running for velocity information — and often times, there’s evidence that the fastball is suffering. But after seeing a velocity drop from 94 mph on his average 2010 fastball down to 93 in 2011, Latos actually appears to have pretty great life thus far in 2012. He is averaging 93.2 mph on his fastball, which is not only better than 2011 overall, but a full mph faster than April of 2011. And in fact, there’s been a notable increase in velocity over his first three starts – even touching better than 97 mph in his last start:

FBv Max
Start #1 91.5 94.2
Start #2 92.8 95.2
Start #3 93.8 97.2

Historically, Latos has been the kind of starter whose velocity improves pretty significantly throughout the season. Considering his average fastball was near 94 mph in his last start, he could see a return to 2010 levels, when he had a career high swinging strike rate of 11%:

While Latos is clearly throwing hard enough, his command and location that have simply not been there. Nothing demonstrated that more perfectly than the at bat by Carlos Beltran on April 18th. In the second inning, Latos and the Reds were already down 3-0 and Latos started Carlos Beltran off with a pitch in the dirt, and then followed with the following three pitches:

A quick note for anyone that isn’t interested in clicking on the images to see location — both pitches are fastballs and both are pretty darn close to the middle of the plate, knee high. So the count is 1-2, there’s a man on third base, one would speculate that he would then go to his best pitch, his slider. Instead he threw this pitch:

For video of the home run, go here. But he basically threw three straight meatballs in the exact same spot to Carlos Beltran. It’s not a huge surprise what Beltran did with the last one.

Why three straight fastballs? I’m not sure, but what’s also pretty clear is that Latos has altered his repertoire since coming over to Cincinnati. In his brief career, he has typically used his slider about 27% of the time. It has historically been his best pitch at just over a run above average per 100 pitches in both 2010 and 2011 and generating a whiff rate at about 24%. But he’s dropped his usage of the slider by about 10% in 2012, with increased reliance on his change:

2010 2011 2012
FF 39.50% 44.1% 39.7%
SL 26.50% 26.8% 16.8%
CH 11.50% 6.4% 16.1%
CU 10.9% 10.3%
FC 9.6%
FT 21.90% 11.8% 7.5%

In addition to the change in repertoire, there has been a noticeable change in his release point from this year to last. To keep things simple, here are two snapshots – one from 2012, and one from a start in September, 2011:

The above is his last start in 2012, and below is a start from late last season:

His release point was quite a bit more upright in this particular start than it has been in 2012, and using the same starts – the movement on the pitches is quite a bit different. The first chart is 2012, the second is 2011.

He’s getting more horizontal movement on his fastball, far less movement overall on his slider, and at this point the result has been a lower swinging strike rate and a much higher walk rate than we’ve come to expect from Mat Latos. With the reduction of the use of the slider and the modification in his release point, it could be the Cincy is trying to avoid injury to Latos, but he obviously can’t be successful with walk rate of 11.1% (versus lefties, a BB% of 16.1%).

We are of course within the dreaded window of small sample sizes, but with Latos there’s good news and bad news thus far. His velocity is up considerably in April, and he has a history of righting the proverbial ship after relatively slow starts to the season. However, while the coaching may have found a way to add some velocity to his fastball, there may be a time that they need to look at finding a happy medium between his mechanics, his velocity, and his location. If his effectiveness continues to suffer, it might also be time to see a few more sliders.

His next three to four starts should be very interesting to track not only his velocity, but his repertoire and command. For the Reds to contend, they need the old Mat Latos to show up quickly.

Many thanks to Chris Benson for the images of the Beltran at-bat.