The Odd Career Path of Vance Worley

Heading into the 2008 draft, Baseball America concluded their scouting report on Long Beach State right-hander Vance Worley by saying this:

Command is the primary concern with Worley, not in terms of walks but in quality of pitches and efficiency, as he frequently finds himself in deep counts. With refinement of his secondary offerings, he could develop into a mid-rotation starter in pro ball, but his power arm makes a conversion to the bullpen a solid option.

Worley had struggled in his junior season at LBSU, but had impressed enough in the Cape Cod League the summer before that the Phillies ended up selecting him in the third round of that 2008 draft. After a two start stint in the short-season New York Penn League, he finished he season at low-A Lakewood and pitched pretty well, running a 53/7 K/BB ratio in 61 innings. Of course, as a college pitcher facing a string of teenagers, anything less would have been a significant disappointment.

The Phillies moved him up to Double-A in 2009, a more appropriate level of competition for a guy with his experience. This didn’t go so well. He threw 153 mediocre innings, walked 49 batters, struck out just 100, and gave up 17 home runs on the way to posting a 4.39 FIP and 5.34 ERA. His 15.2% strikeout rate was perhaps the most alarming sign, as guys who don’t miss bats in the minors generally don’t make successful conversions as they climb the ladder.

Because of his struggles, the Phillies started him back at Double-A in 2010. At age 22, he wasn’t necessarily behind in his development, but guys are generally expected to show significant improvement if they’re asked to repeat a level, and Worley was only marginally better than he had been the year before. His strikeout rate rose modestly to 17.4% and he got his home run problems under control, but the gains were more incremental than dramatic, and Worley still looked like a guy whose career would probably lead him to the bullpen.

He spent the final two months of 2010 in Triple-A and actually improved with the promotion, as his strikeout rate went up to 19.3% and his walk rate fell to 5.3%. It was an encouraging end to the seaosn, but it was still just 45 innings and he was more good than great, showing stuff that still profiled as more of a back-end starter or a middle reliever.

Worley didn’t rate in any Phillies top 10 prospect list. He was seen as just a guy, a typical minor league pitching prospect with decent stuff but not enough of an out pitch to be an impact big league pitcher. He was a classic fringe prospect, a guy you like having in your system but not someone penciled in as a significant part of the future.

Then, last year, he just got better. He started the year back in Triple-A and posted a 24.8% strikeout rate in 45 innings before getting called up to replace the injured Roy Oswalt. And, despite having only a short track record of getting strikeouts, Worley just kept on rolling in the big leagues. His line for the season – 113 IP, 8.3% BB%, 21.5% K%, 39.3% GB%, 95 xFIP- was quite good for any pitcher, much less a rookie with a spotty minor league track record.

Rather than regression, 2012 has started off even stronger, as Worley’s generating more ground balls (46.9% GB%) and his strikeout rate is as high as it was in Triple-A last year, and ranks as the ninth best mark of any starter with at least 30 innings pitched. His strikeout rate is higher than the one being posted by Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, or Clayton Kershaw. His 83 xFIP- ties him with Matt Garza and puts him in between Dan Haren and C.J. Wilson. Seemingly out of nowhere, Worley has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since arriving in Philadelphia a year ago.

Take a look at starting pitchers 24 and under since the start of the 2011 season. Of the 17 arms to throw at least 150 innings over the last seven months, Worley ranks second in ERA (behind only Kershaw), fifth in FIP (tied with Mat Latos), and fifth in xFIP. In a little under one full season worth of innings, Worley has been worth +3.2 WAR, a performance that would make him a borderline all-star in most years.

It’s difficult to ascribe his dramatic improvement to any one thing. He didn’t see any significant spike in velocity, and his fastball still sits 87-93 on most days. He hasn’t added a new breaking ball, nor has he drastically increased his rate of swinging strikes. In fact, Worley has a below average 5.4% swinging strike rate, the lowest total of any of the 17 under-24 pitchers we just looked at, and a number that is the fourth lowest in baseball among starters of any age. Batters make contact with Worley’s pitches more frequently than they make contact on swings at pitches from Bronson Arroyo, Joe Saunders, and Mark Buehrle.

So, what’s the deal? How is Worley racking up so many strikeouts – seemingly out of nowhere – while maintaining his status as a contact pitcher?

The best explanation seems to be deception and location. For whatever reason, opposing batters have only swung at 40.9% of the pitches Worley has thrown as a starter. The only pitcher in baseball to generate fewer swings over the last seven months is Trevor Cahill, but Cahill has had a history of poor command and high walk rates. Worley and C.J. Wilson are the only two pitches in baseball to throw pitches classified as strikes by Pitch F/x more than 50% of the time and see batters swing at them fewer than 43% of the time. The list of low-swing pitchers is almost entirely made up of bad command guys with high walk rates who bury pitches in the ground with regularity, but that doesn’t describe Worley at all.

Worley appears to be throwing pitches that look like they’re headed out of the strike zone, but they rarely actually do. Here’s a heat map of his cut fastballs against right-handers last year, for example:

The yellow areas show the concentration of pitch locations, and you can see that a great majority of them end up on the outer half of the strike zone. Now, here’s the same image, just with his slider instead of his cutter.

While the cutter is more often up and away and the slider is thrown breaking down and away, you can see that they end up in a similar part of the strike zone, and he’s been able to paint the outside corner with his slider. Sliders and cutters can be difficult to distinguish, and if a right-handed batter is reading slider breaking away, but the pitch ends up as a cutter with less horizontal movement, he’ll likely end up starting at a strike.

Worley’s ability to locate his pitches effectively have made him a rare bird indeed – a pitch to contact strikeout machine. In fact, if you look at starting pitchers since 2008, it’s basically impossible to find anyone who sustained this kind of division between their strikeout rate and contact rate over a long period of time. The most extreme examples of strikeouts with contact are Jordan Zimmerman (20.1% K%, 83.4% contact rate) and Cliff Lee (21.4% K%, 83.1% contact rate). The highest strikeout rate by any pitcher with a contact rate over 85% is Kevin Millwood at 15.5%.

At some point, hitters are going to adjust and start swinging at Worley’s pitches more often. It’s essentially impossible to see him sustaining his current strikeout rate without getting batters to swing and miss more often. Of course, he’s already defied most his detractors by pitching so well early in his career, so perhaps he’ll make the necessary adjustments and continue to perform like one of the game’s best starters.

No matter what happens, his career has certainly been unorthodox, and he’s succeeded in a way that few others have ever managed to pull off. What that means for his future is still unclear, but Worley’s story is pretty darn interesting.



Print This Post



Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
sam
Guest
sam
4 years 2 months ago

the man loves a backwards K

nik
Guest
nik
4 years 2 months ago

I read somewhere that he gets pretty ridiculous movement on his 2-seamers.

NEPP
Guest
NEPP
4 years 2 months ago

His 2-seamer is ridiculous. He gets a ton of SO looking with it.

vince9663
Member
vince9663
4 years 2 months ago

Reverse platoon split too, which is always fun.

nik
Guest
nik
4 years 2 months ago

Its always fun when guys like Worley and Beachy who are shunned by prospect rankings do so well.

Marc
Guest
Marc
4 years 2 months ago

and Tommy Milone and Doug Fister and Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis and Alex Avila and Ryan Howard and Dan Hudson and Cliff Lee and Dan Haren, etc.

Those “gurus” over at Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus really know what they’re doing!

Remember those future 1st ballot Hall of Famers Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Brian Matusz, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Homer Bailey, BJ Upton, and Delmon Young?

jim
Guest
jim
4 years 2 months ago

i suppose you have a better system, or are better at talent evaluation?

Marc
Guest
Marc
4 years 2 months ago

I actually am better at talent evaluation than them.

Avila was in my top 25 while he was left off ENTIRELY on BA and BP’s top 100. FAIL SO HARD UNIVERSITY SON!

Tommy Milone was also in my top 25 while he was left off of BA and BP’s top 100 entirely. Again, FAIL SO HARD UNIVERSITY SON!

Sure, Milone doesn’t throw hard at all but he’s a lefty clone of Shaun Marcum with vastly superior mechanics (see: cleaner arm action and more efficient lower body drive). Milone has a very nice cutter and curve and a devastating plus-plus changeup. He also has phenomenal command and poise.

The fact that they missed on these two guys is a travesty, especially considering that they literally ranked dozens and dozens of guys who will do nothing at the Major League level (approximately 65-70% of top 100 prospects bust).

I mean it was so obvious. Avila tore up AA and the Majors (admittedly a small sample) 1 year out of college which is unprecedented. The guy showed excellent power for a catcher and terrific plate discipline. Also showed strong receiving skills and a strong accurate arm?

You’re Baseball America or Baseball Prospectus and YOU EVALUATE PROSPECTS FOR A LIVING! How on earth do you miss on such an elite talent? That’s a travesty!

The next guy they are bound to fail on is 21 year-old lefty Robbie Erlin. Lefty clone of Ian Kennedy. Average fastball but great changeup, curve, and off the charts command and pitchability.

fivetoolmike
Member
fivetoolmike
4 years 2 months ago

The thing with prospects is that you’re going to be wrong. If you’re sure that you’re better, write about it and publish and explain your reasoning, then you’ll have a track record, which is what the people at BA and BP have done, which is why you’re reading them. From what I understand, Erlin is probably going to look better than he is because of his park, but that he’ll be decent. You think he’ll be better?

BTU
Guest
BTU
4 years 2 months ago

Were you supposed to be showing us your superior predictive abilities? Cause I think I missed it.

Simon
Guest
Simon
4 years 2 months ago

Where are your lists published? Surely you must have a paying job doing this given your obvious superiority to everyone else. Or is the problem that you can only make up your lists after the event?

Dan in Philly
Guest
Dan in Philly
4 years 2 months ago

I noticed the extremely low swinging strike rate last year with Worley and predicted a big fall for him. So far he’s defied my predictions and belief. At some point, when you get a pitcher who breaks your prediction model you have to examine the assumptions behind the model and wonder why it doesn’t seem to apply to this particular man.

As a phillies fan, I certainly hope he’s broken the mould in some way which will seem obvious 5 years from now. Time will tell.

Andrew
Guest
Andrew
4 years 2 months ago

The Legend of (Bagger) Vance Worley

Pat
Guest
Pat
4 years 2 months ago

Spoken like a true Philly hater.

LTG
Guest
LTG
4 years 2 months ago

I gave this comment a thumbs down. Either it is sarcasm, in which case it is lame. Or it is earnest, in which case it is non-sense.

Vance Worley
Guest
Vance Worley
4 years 2 months ago

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERYjgb-VuvA

here are some of my highlights from last year

as you can see, ton of looking ks

im the BEST

byosti
Guest
byosti
4 years 2 months ago

little surprised no comparison to doug fister(at least 2010’s version)

kozilla
Member
kozilla
4 years 2 months ago

I know its just anecdotal but I feel like he has gotten a ton of called strikes that were outside of the zone. Perhaps this is related to the lack of swings that he has received.

Is there any way to check the percentage of called strikes outside of the strike zone a pitcher has accrued? Then we could see if my observation has any merit.

nik
Guest
nik
4 years 2 months ago

Obviously the Vanimal has developed psychic powers to fool umpires.

NEPP
Guest
NEPP
4 years 2 months ago

To be fair, he gets a lot of calls against LHBs just off the outside black…but then so do a ton of other pitchers as Umps tend to expand the zone that way due to the way they stand behind the plate…Worley is not unique in that in any way…he just manages to take advantage of it with great location on that part of the plate.

WofMan
Guest
WofMan
4 years 2 months ago

There was an article recently on Philly.com and they asked him about the strike outs. He claimed that while in the minors, he was on a pitch count limit. He wanted to pitch late into games, so he would pitch to contact.

Not sure if that’s the truth, or a way of rewriting history.

Dan in Philly
Guest
Dan in Philly
4 years 2 months ago

May be truth, but doesn’t explain how he gets so many called strikes.

WofMan
Guest
WofMan
4 years 2 months ago
Jake
Guest
Jake
4 years 2 months ago

Because I live near Philly I get to watch a lot of his starts on TV and I’d be willing to bet that at least 75% of his K’s vs left-handed batters are two-seemers taken looking that start on the hip and run back to the inside corner. He also gets a few right-handers with this (on the outside corner) as well, but it’s amazing how many lefties just take that pitch.

Paul
Guest
Paul
4 years 2 months ago

I had him on my radar based on the early success, then took a look at just one of his games from late 2010 and I was sold. Identical story to Beachy, really. What you describe is very true. He is so effective against lefthanders that it makes him look dominant overall. And this is really what separates the wheat from the chaff. What talent evaluators missed was that Worley had the skill of repeating a strength with such focus and consistency that it covers up his weaknesses. Beachy does the same thing in different ways.

Then again, you also need to give credit to the Phillies. A lot of orgs have guys like Luke Hochevar trying to throw 6 different pitches instead of just riding the gravy train and focusing on what works (not that Luke Hochevar is good, but he would better as essentially a 1970’s sinker/slider guy with a change thrown in on occasion). But then again, a lot of times pitchers get bored or want to tinker with pitches just because they are cartoonish in a bullpen session – or they’re just not very bright (Hochevar). Worley is just a professional. And for whatever reason that descriptor does not appear to show up on scouting reports.

Calm Like A Bomb
Member
Calm Like A Bomb
4 years 2 months ago

Could a contributing factor be Chooch doing a good job of framing pitches?

Ian
Guest
4 years 2 months ago

Brian Schneider actually catches a majority of his starts.

jorgath
Guest
jorgath
4 years 2 months ago

Schneider’s not bad at it either.

Richard
Guest
4 years 2 months ago

this is less true this year, thus far

LTG
Guest
LTG
4 years 2 months ago

As I recall, studies show neither Chooch nor Schneider have more than average framing skill. By the naked eye it sometimes looks as if Chooch is downright bad at it, but I don’t trust my eyes that much.

Otis
Guest
Otis
4 years 2 months ago

If you have a good 2-seamer and a good cutter you are pretty f’n hard to hit. See Chris Carpenter.

S move opposite.

RRR
Guest
RRR
4 years 2 months ago

I am a Phillies fan and have watched quite a few of his starts..that “come backer” pitch is very similiar to Greg Maddux’s….they just watch it tail back to the outer corner of the plate. The TV guys keep saying the hitters don’t pick up his pitches but I can’t see that he does anything particularly deceptive in his motion…

Phantom Stranger
Guest
Phantom Stranger
4 years 2 months ago

Pitchers also have many more resources available to them at the MLB level to scout videotape of hitters. A smart starting pitcher can prepare for practically every single hitter he is going to face in a start at the MLB level. You have to believe that a few pitchers will see some improvement from that alone over the minors.

Bat Rastard
Guest
Bat Rastard
4 years 2 months ago

Phantom, your point is certainly a good one, and I am sure many pitchers use this available tool better than others. Whorley just happens to not be one of them, apparently. As a Phils fan getting more in local coverage of the team, it has become somewhat of a joke about just how minimally Whorley prepares for his starts.

Bat Rastard
Guest
Bat Rastard
4 years 2 months ago

As an edit that isn’t, I stupidly put a “H” in his name. Fortunately, the extra “E” would have been even more embarrassing had I not caught it.

Gregory
Guest
Gregory
4 years 2 months ago

He wears glasses so this explanation seems like the best one to me.

Bill
Guest
Bill
4 years 2 months ago

I don’t know who proves me wrong more often, Worley or Johnny Cueto. I’m sort of turning around my opinion on Worley, but Cueto still leaves me seriously unimpressed every time I see him.

Governator
Member
Governator
4 years 2 months ago

Another thing: Worley was young for his year when he was drafted. He didn’t turn 21 until September of 2008. So he had a little more maturation left than the typical college draftee.

Daniel
Guest
Daniel
4 years 2 months ago

Dude got lit up by the nats crap offense yesterday

Paul
Guest
Paul
4 years 2 months ago

I’ll just quibble with the notion that he came completely out of nowhere. If you watch baseball and all you notice is how hard a pitcher throws or how “filthy” his stuff is, instead of how hitters react to a guy, you’re going to miss out on guys like Worley performing their craft. A few rookies who continued to be downgraded well into last year should not have been based simply on watching them. Worley, Beachy, Leubke are three. Folks finally caught on to McCarthy, but I would surmise that that was based off of his early years scouting reports as a flamethrower with a wicked curve.

In my opinion, the major benefit of statistical models is to identify outliers. Then you can go watch them and see for yourself. I have zero interest in watching a guy who the model says is supposed to be good but isn’t. Most of the time those guys are hard to watch because they throw a ton of worthless pitches (but with great velocity or bite). I would much rather have the model say Worley or Beachy are not as good as their numbers, then be surprised when I watch them that they are succeeding because they are so much better at the craft of pitching than guys with more talent.

wpDiscuz