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
- Vance Worley, -7%
- Brandon McCarthy, -6%
- Ross Detwiler, -5%
- Wade LeBlanc, -5%
- Dan Haren, -5%
- Joe Blanton, -5%
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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