Vance Worley and Losing the Magic

Vance Worley just got clobbered again, this time by the Braves. There’s no set and certain point at which a start turns into an official clobbering, but looking through Worley’s 2013 game log, I’d say this was the fifth or sixth time he’s been clobbered, in ten games. That’s an ugly ratio, and to make matters worse, recall that Worley was Minnesota’s opening-day starter. The Twins’ de facto ace owns an ERA over 7, with 82 hits allowed in just under 49 innings. His strikeouts are way down and on Wednesday he was chased by a double that followed an Evan Gattis grand slam. Two seasons ago, Worley finished third in the voting for the National League Rookie of the Year.

On May 17, Worley allowed one run in a start against the Red Sox, and he credited his improvement to mechanical tweaks he’d made in recent side sessions. He finished that start with three walks and a strikeout. At the end of April, following a rough appearance, Worley said he was throwing the way he wanted to be throwing. His pitches were fine, and his movement was normal. The results just weren’t present, for him. They still aren’t, and the only consolation for Minnesota is that Ben Revere has been bad, too.

Worley, of course, was hardly a dominant sort with the Phillies. But he was undeniably effective over consecutive years of starting. Despite allowing a high rate of contact, he ran the same strikeout rate as Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson. He matched his ERA- to Haren’s, he matched his FIP- to Josh Beckett‘s, and he matched his xFIP- to Daniel Hudson‘s. A key for Worley, and what made him unusual and interesting, was that he relied on deception. Over those two years, hitters swung at just 56% of Worley’s pitches in the strike zone. That was the second-lowest rate among starters, between C.J. Wilson and Doug Fister. Worley survived all the contact he allowed because hitters didn’t swing as often as they could’ve and probably should’ve.

In 2011, Worley finished with one of baseball’s highest called strike rates. In 2012, he again finished with one of baseball’s highest called strike rates, suggesting it was something he was doing. Something about Worley made hitters lock up. Baseball-Reference provides a ratio of called strikes to overall strikes. Among guys who threw at least 1,000 pitches, the correlation between 2011 and 2012 is 0.67. Generating called strikes can be a skill, and Worley could’ve been said to possess it.

It’s not 2011 or 2012 anymore. We can consider Worley’s Z-Swing% against:

  • 2011: 57%
  • 2012: 56%
  • 2013: 65%, coming into Wednesday

We can also consider Worley’s strikes looking over strikes:

  • 2011: 34%
  • 2012: 35%
  • 2013: 28%, coming into Wednesday

On Wednesday, Worley threw 55 strikes. Braves hitters swung at all but nine of them, driving Worley’s rates further down. Used to be that Vance Worley was deceptive. I don’t know a better word to describe what he was doing, statistically. That now seems to have all gone away, leaving the Twins with a guy who gets hit a lot and who can hardly defend himself with quality stuff.

An explanation is difficult to come by, in that I haven’t come by one yet. Worley hasn’t lost any velocity, that I can tell. The movement on his pitches hasn’t really changed. His pitch frequencies haven’t really changed, and the heat maps didn’t scream at me. For whatever it’s worth, even though Worley changed teams, he’s maintained a constant rate of pitches in the zone called balls, and a constant rate of pitches out of the zone called strikes. Maybe Worley’s just throwing down the heart more often. Ryan Doumit certainly didn’t do anything to give Worley some borderline called strikes on Wednesday:





Worley did have elbow surgery last August, to clean some things up, and it’s not impossible that could have taken some toll on his command. Worley needs his command to be present more than most other guys do. But for whatever reason, batters have been more comfortable swinging at Worley’s strikes, yielding the following list.

Biggest drops in called strikes/strikes, 2012-2013, through 5/21

And Worley’s drop only got bigger on Wednesday. There’ve been more swings at strikes, and since Worley throws hittable strikes, there’s been more contact and therefore more hits, at the expense of some strikeouts.

I don’t think this is Worley’s problem on its own. I think this is a symptom, indicative of a bigger problem. Worley’s command, perhaps, is worse than it was. Worley’s catchers, perhaps, aren’t setting up so much on the edges. Or Worley’s act, perhaps, has simply been adjusted to. I don’t know if it’s fair to suggest the league has adjusted to Worley, since he just switched from the NL to the AL, but if a guy relies on deception, then somewhat intuitively it makes sense he could be figured out. Yet Worley’s called strike ability didn’t change between 2011 and 2012, so. It would be weird for an adjustment to happen suddenly, instead of gradually. And as easy as it would be to pin this on Worley ending up in the AL, look at McCarthy up there, and remember that he just made the opposite switch. This, probably, is a complicated issue.

But it ought to be a high priority for the Twins and Worley to figure it out. When Worley’s been at his best, hitters have been caught in between. So far this year, hitters have been a lot more willing to swing, presumably getting better reads of the baseball, and Worley allows far too much contact for that to be a positive. Worley’s strength was throwing strikes that didn’t look to the hitters like strikes. Now they’re looking like strikes. Now they might just be looking like meatballs.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

37 Responses to “Vance Worley and Losing the Magic”

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  1. Tobias Fünke says:

    I am also looking for the magic.

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  2. Krog says:

    Doumit seems to throw his whole body at those pitches. I didn’t realize how truly awful he is at receiving pitches until now.

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    • Patrick says:

      The couple of studies that I have seen have almost universally called out Doumit as one of, if not, the worst catchers at pitch framing in the majors.

      Those Gifs make it look kinda obvious why that may be true.

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  3. BookWorm says:

    Per Twins beat writer Rhett Bollinger, Worley will be figuring things out in AAA.

    I can’t look at any more pitches on the edge of the strike zone that Doumit is trying to receive — he’s just the worst.

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  4. HP says:

    Worly’s lead glove action is not very orthodox. I dont know that I have seen many pitchers do that with their lead arm. Jake Peavey perhaps?

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    • Michael says:

      I don’t remember him pulling it up all that excessively when he was with the Phils. Maybe it affects him a little bit…but might also just be the camera angle that brings it out a little more.

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  5. Michael says:

    A bad catcher like Doumit definitely hurts him. Even in his Rookie year he needed those Maddux-like calls on the low corners. Wasn’t getting them all that much last year and now with that guy, even more so with Mauer behind the plate he’s never gonna get any of them. Strikeouts are down, he’s tired of paintin’ the corners, throws it more down the middle and gets hit around. Plain and simple…

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    • Ian says:

      I wonder if Mauer, being tall for a catcher, hurts him a bit as well? Mauer is good at framing but better at framing high in the zone but with a lot of guys nibbling down/away he might not be helping them as much.

      But Worley has been horrible and the catching framing is only a small part of it.

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  6. MNzach says:

    I’ve seen Worley pitch before this year, but until he joined my local squad, never live. My season tickets are on the first base line and I was really shocked to see how short of a step he takes when he pitches. It is really an ugly motion from the side. I don’t know if this changed from years past but I commented to a friend that there is no way a person can succeed with as little drive as he appears to be getting on his pitches. I hate this guy and I was hailing the Worley/Revere trade as a win for us. Not looking good for either side at the moment.

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  7. Dustin says:

    The 2nd gif isn’t really Doumit doing or not doing anything. The ball hit the glove and it was called a ball. He’s awful, but that gif isn’t why.

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  8. George says:

    It’s interesting that four of the six biggest drops in called strikes/strikes are with pitchers that moved to a new team (Worley, McCarthy, Haren, Blanton). It could be a coincidence, or it could mean that an unfamiliar catcher on a new team has a harder time framing pitches of unfamiliar pitchers.

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  9. KM says:

    I watched most of Worley’s starts with the Phils, and a significant amount of those called strikes came on a sinker that would start inside on a lefty and break back over the plate. Didn’t look like that pitch was in any of those gifs… I’d be curious to see how it looks now.

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    • I Agree Guy says:

      You’ll probably find that pitch among those that went over the fence.

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      • KM says:

        I wasn’t very articulate… By “over the plate”, I meant to say “catches a bit of the plate”. It was a pretty effective pitch that guys would generally not square up. Not that it matters that much, was just a bit curios if maybe he lost his location on it or something.

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    • Paul says:

      Exactly. And I could swear somebody on FG wrote a piece about the effectiveness of that pitch for him. I don’t know if he’s changed something, but his motion looks like he’s coming around the ball instead of driving over the top on that stiff left leg. Commenter above mentioned the short stride. I’m wondering if they are trying to lengthen it and it’s changed his release point.

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  10. Tim says:

    At this point we have to be getting close to a preponderance of evidence that the Twins’ organizational pitching approach is actively terrible, don’t we? It’s not just a matter of picking guys that don’t strike anybody out. They continue to move pitchers toward getting fewer strikeouts.

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    • Ian says:

      Not sure. I think it’s more complicated than that. Ryan was in control until 08 when he left, replaced by Bill Smith, and they also replaced Radcliff (draft guru) with Deron Johnson. The early 2000 Twins strength was pitching. Johnson’s drafts have mostly focused on flame throwers, with some limited success (being kind, none of his pitchers have made the majors yet but they’ve also been bitten by the injury bug). Arguably, the best value they got was when they traded hard throwing reliever Bullock to the Braves for soft tossing Scott Diamond. (Gibson will eventually show to be the best value pitcher that Johnson has drafted). Ryan focused this year on adding strike out guys to the system – May and Meyer were both traded for.

      At the ML level, the Twins have had success using both strike out guys – Santana and Liriano were both traded for by Ryan and control pitchers – Radke, Pavano even Blackburn had a couple solid seasons. My feeling is that the Twins did a decent job for a while drafting/trading control pitchers over velocity and getting some good value out of that – Baker, Blackburn, Slowey, Duensing, Silva, Lohse all had strong seasons and none were 1st rd picks.

      The Twins are in rebuild mode right now so they’ll go with what they got until the next wave of pitching prospects are ready. That wave has good krate guys like May, Meyer, Gibson, Berrios and (presumably) the #4 pick in this draft. (And whoever they trade Willingham/Morneau for).

      Most of the FA pitchers from last year are struggling – Blanton, Saunders, Marcum, McCarthy, etc so I’m not too upset with the crap rotation they have now. Only Diamond and Worley might be part of 2015 and beyond. Everyone else is just holding down the fort. Considering that Ryan has been able to create a couple different strong rotations, I’d give him more time. Mays, Milton, Radke, Santana, Liriano and Nathan all made at least one all-star game and were acquired by Ryan.

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      • Tim says:

        It’s not so much Ryan for me as Anderson/Gardenhire. It’s one thing to draft and acquire strikeout guys, but that’s not very useful if the major league staff tells them to stop trying to strike people out.

        The strength of the early-2000s team was pitching, but if you look at them individually, you’ve got one freak who succeeded without strikeouts, one strikeout guy who was kept out of the rotation for far too long, one strikeout guy who they ruined, a bunch of soft-tossers, a couple of PED guys in the bullpen, and Joe Nathan. I have a hard time explaining him, except that they probably think closers are special.

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  11. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Vance Worley and Joining the Twins.

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  12. Bruce says:

    Jeff: Your comment re Revere is wrong and based on slow April (SSS). He is hitting over .350 in May and moving in the general direction of what was forecast offensively, plus his defense has been outstanding.

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  13. Paul says:

    Actually, looking at the PitchF/X database, his pitch frequencies have changed quite a bit from last year. They have him throwing 10% more four seamers in an era where across baseball use of the two seamer and sinker is increasing and four seamer usage is decreasing. And as mentioned above, given that the two seamer was such a great pitch for him, that change just seems completely insane.

    If you compare the charts from last year and this, both fastballs are ending up higher in the zone this season than last. Most evident is that instead of starting the two seamer inside to a lefthander and running it back over the plate (easily observed in the pitch virtualization charts, they have him trying to run it in on the hands of righthanders (or away from lefthanders to the outside corner). It appears that they have replaced a really effective pitch to lefthanders with a cutter, which was not a strength. And we know the Twins are one of those organizations who, despite it producing terrible results, continue to emphasize using the four seamer. It should not be a surprise that he is giving up far more homers.

    Texas Leaguers links:

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  14. murphym45 says:

    From 2011-2012, the Marlins, Mets, and Braves had three of the four lowest team swing percentages in the NL (Phillies were the fourth). Maybe Worley’s approach was particularly well suited for a division with the fewest swings in baseball?

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    • Dave Cornutt says:

      That could be… the current Braves roster contains a lot of free swingers. Maybe that’s why they knocked him around so much the other day. Although he’s been kicked around by the Braves before… in three starts against Atlanta last year, Worley give up 18 hits, 8 earned runs, and walked 8 in 15.2 innings.

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  15. Mike A Jones says:

    I would like to have seen Worley’s full motion on those GIFs. His arm seems way out away from his body on those; with the Phillies his deception seemed to come from hiding the ball with his body as long as he possibly could before throwing it. (Which, just observationally, seems to be something the Phillies do organizationally to try to improve marginal pitchers: Worley, Happ, now Pettibone.) Without seeing the rest of the motion (or comparing it to good Worley) it’s tough to say if he really is showing the ball more than he used to.

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  16. Drew C says:

    I’d like to see a comparison each year of the called strikes he was getting on sinkers he would start in at the hips’ of left-handers. That was consistently his best pitch in Philly.

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  17. NatsLady says:

    I really liked this article. On my blog I have a series following Opening Day Starters and I’ve watched Vorley (among some others) sag, and it’s great to see some thoughtful explanation why.

    Also, I see two Nats on that list. Haren is a hired hand, but an inquiry into why that symptom is manifesting in Detwiler would be interesting. Not a new league or new catcher, but does his repertoire include too many fastball strikes? Too predictable?

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  18. ICR says:

    What’s going on with Worley is not as complicated as it is being made out to be; and the answers are entirely in the numbers. It is likely two fold: 1. Hitters are not locking up on his 2 seamer. They are (and had begun to, last year when he was in Philly) sitting on it. He has a lot of break on it, and it uses it exactly how he should, except it tended to be left a little high in the zone. He started it in on lefties and it would come back to the inside corner for a strike, and away from righties and it would come back to the outside corner – at times he would run it in on righties, but most of the time he stayed away. Hitters are now looking for it. The spin is easily recognizable and the league has adjusted. Hitters are staying on it and hitting it (partly because has always left it up). Because hitters are sitting on his 2 seamer, he has substituted his 4 seamer at times, which was never a good pitch for him. He does not throw it on a downward angle and there is a negligible difference in velocity, so it does not blow hitters away, making it a very hittable pitch. Sometimes the story is as simple as it seems.

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  19. adohaj says:

    I think Worley is ineffective because he does that seizure thing before each windup. Comon guys I can’t be the only one that notices…

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