Is Something Wrong With Ryan Rowland-Smith?

Entering the 2010 season, the Mariners starting pitching was a question mark. After Cliff Lee was sidelined early in Spring Training with an abdominal strain, the bottom half of the rotation came under further scrutiny. As the Mariners evaluated questionable candidates for the bottom half of the rotation, fans and the front office could at least rest easy thatFelix Hernandez and Ryan Rowland-Smith were healthy and prepared to start. 

What a difference forty days can make. Doug Fister and Jason Vargas have been among the few pleasant surprises in Seattle this season, while RRS has seemingly lost the confidence of the coaching staff. Last night, RRS gave up two more long balls and he was removed in the bottom of the third inning. It was his second start in a row he did not record an out in the third inning. 

It isn’t difficult to see that Rowland-Smith has been struggling. He hasn’t pitched into the seventh inning since April 17th, and hasn’t made it to the sixth in three starts. He’s allowed ten home runs in thirty-nine innings while walking more men than he’s struck out (17-16.) All of this leads to a gruesome 7.15 FIP and a troublesome 5.91 xFIP. Furthermore, 25% of balls put in play against Rowland-Smith have been line drives, leading to a9.10 tRA

He’s also having a problem generating swinging strikes. It isn’t that he is having control issues; he’s throwing strikes at virtually the same percentage this year as he was last season. His problem is generating swinging strikes, particularly on pitches out of the strike zone. Last year, hitters made contact on 69.3% of pitches they swung at outside of the strike zone. This year, that number has climbed all the way to 78%. This would explain his inability to strike people out, as he can’t lure batters to swing at good pitches out of the zone. 

Considering the high xFIP, tRA, and contact rate on balls outside of the strike zone, one has to wonder if there is some hidden problem in his game. My best guess would be that something is wrong with his fastball. Last year his heater was 4.4 runs above average. This season, his fastball has been worth -6.6 runs below an average offering. Let’s look a little deeper.

In 2009, Rowland-Smith worked almost exclusively with a four seam fastball (when throwing fastballs of course.) This year, all of his fastballs have been two-seamers. Perhaps the adjustment from four-seamers to two-seamers has been part of the problem. Though his fastball velocity down only a tick, hitters are really teeing off against it. 

I’ve pored through his pitch F/x data, looking for some differences between his pitches this year and last year. The most striking difference between the two years I can find is his struggle to find a consistent release point this year. Take a look at the difference between 2010 and last season. (Pitch f/x data is courtesy of Texas Leaguers.)

RRS has particularly had trouble with consistently releasing his two seam fastball. I’m not sure if an inconsistent release point is responsible for his struggles this year, but this is something to monitor over his next couple of outings. He’s releasing his two-seamer closer to the strike zone than the other two pitches, which could explain why hitters, and lefties in particular, are seeing the ball better than they did last year. His two-seamer doesn’t have much movement, and perhaps the lack of movement, slightly reduced velocity, and limited horizontal movement have turned his heater into a poor pitch. 

I can’t be sure that RRS’s release point issues are the cause of his poor performance to date in 2010. At the same time, I would like to see him become more consistent with his release point. If he corrects that flaw and is still struggling, we can re-examine his case. Until then, I’m assuming that he’s releasing his fast-ball on a more over the top plane than his other pitches, and that is either causing it to break less or is tipping off hitters.

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5 Responses to “Is Something Wrong With Ryan Rowland-Smith?”

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  1. This is an excellent analysis. But I wonder if mathematics can solve his problems? It has been a rough few weeks for Aussie Ryan Rowland-Smith, but what he needs right now is the support of all stakeholders (fans, coaches, team mates etc). Given how horrible his last start was he can only go forward. We all like to win, but sometimes winning is supporting those people who we know are capable of more. Perhaps these figures and observations can also help shine a light towards improvement. Nicholas R.W. Henning – Australian Baseball Author

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  2. Derek says:

    Great post, but one thing I wanted to ask about was the idea that RRS isn’t having command problems. I know you said he was throwing strikes at the same rate as last year, but having watched a few of his outings, it really seems like he isn’t hitting his spots. If this is true (I know “seems like” doesn’t mean much, but it’s all I have!) then I think your findings about his release point are a much bigger deal.

    And to Nicholas, I think this is a very supportive post. If RRS sucked, then nobody would be writing about him. He’s had success in the past, and believe me, M’s fans all think he’s a great guy and would love to see him succeed. I for one am hoping that he puts things together and gets his confidence back.

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  3. Melkmizzle says:

    Is it possible hes trying too hard to get sink/2-seam action and exaggerating his release point? Seems like a fixable problem regardless, the Mariners generally are a smart organization so i wouldn’t bet against RRS.

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  4. Brendan Gawlowski says:

    Derek- I’d agree with that, particularly with his two-seamer. I’ve watched most of his starts this year, and he doesn’t seem to have the command of his pitches he had last season.

    Melkmizzle: It definitely seems fixable. I’d much rather have a pitcher with a release point issue than a bad arm, or something like that.

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  5. Mike Fast says:

    It looks to me like there was something different in his 5/6 start. Otherwise his release points look pretty much like last year’s.

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