Two oft-injured pitchers are struggling with performance right now, and have already seen the disabled list this season. And yet they have enough upside to remain on rosters. When they’re right, they are top-half closers. Right now, too much looks wrong.
It’s not like Heath Bell was terrible, or at least he was fine for all of his games save the five in a row in which he gave up home runs. That stretch happened just as J.J. Putz was finishing up his rehab, or the incumbent might have actually taken more time. He’d walked three guys in his four rehab innings, his velocity was not back up, and then there was the small matter that Putz didn’t actually do anything to solve the sprained ligament, strained flexor pronator, and nerve irritation that sent him to the disabled list. Rest and rehab seems sorta puny compared to that group of problems.
There’s evidence that his elbow is still hurting. Check out his release points, first pointed out in Jeff Zimmerman‘s MASH report. On the left are his last two appearances, on the right his year.
The good news is that Putz is back to his normal release points. The bad news, if that single-game data is to be believed, is that Putz is not showing consistency in his release point.
Consistency of release point, consistency of command, and consistency of velocity are the the three things we look for in a healthy pitcher. Jeff Zimmerman‘s PITCHf/x injury finder tests those three things to determine injury probabilities for pitchers. Obviously, the larger-sample starting pitchers are a better match for the tool, but let’s throw Putz in the wringer anyway.
Before he got injured, Putz saw his zone percentage dive in his last two appearances. His velocity spiked, and then he was out for two months. The problem is, he’s a strike-thrower, and as you might expect, shows good consistency with his mechanics. Look at his inconsistency scores, they are low, and steady:
Since Putz has returned to his normal release point and is showing good consistency with his command, we might be able to write him a clean bill of health. Except for his velocity:
Given the state of his elbow (a strain is a tear), his puzzling one-game release point data, and his drop in velocity — which stabilizes quickly — it’s fair to worry about Putz, and to keep Bell rostered.
Andrew Bailey, is in a slightly different situation. He’s been back off the DL for a while, but gave up a ton of home runs and lost his job outright to Koji Uehara. Uehara is not the ideal closer, in that he doesn’t have velocity, allows the ball in the air, and consistently allows home runs (and more to lefties than righties). But Bailey seems broken. Is he?
For the past year, his inconsistency scores have been low other than a spike before he got injured this year. And his strike zone percentage was down early this year. And his velocity? Down in late March. Perhaps Bailey is still hurting? Look at his velocity from last year to this year, courtesy of BaseballHeatMaps.com:
Weird that he came back from surgery, pitched a month… and then lost a mile per hour on his fastball. Well, maybe it’s not the thumb any more, but it could still be the biceps strain from this year. Perhaps he started feeling it last year. Perhaps he’s never healthy.
There are other ways this has manifested itself. From BrooksBaseball.net, we see that the whiff rates on one particular pitch has plummeted:
|Pitch||pre-13 Whiff||post-injury 13 Whiff|
The fastball has lost a mile per hour — down to 94 from 95 — but maybe more importantly, it’s lost an inch of arm-side run. That may not seem like a lot, but none of Bailey’s pitches have arm-side run now. He’s dropped the changeup, and his fastball is straight now. And batters are teeing up the fastball — his homer rate on the pitch is now 3.7%. It was .5% for his career leading up to his injury this year. Last year it was .6%.
Only once in his career has Bailey had an above-average first strike rate. Perhaps he really has lost some control, or perhaps his early-career walk rates were the anomaly. He had up-and-down rates in the minors. He’s still getting the whiffs on his cutter/curve combo, but the fastball isn’t right. At 94, he’s just on the cusp of having the superlative velocity needed to keep homers down and whiffs up, but the velocity is fading. Bailey doesn’t show all the classic signs of an injury, but has had an injury-riddled career.
The tea leaves here are not as easy to read, but until Bailey gets his fastball right, it may be irrelevant. Uehara is good enough if Bailey is giving up home runs on his heater. Any time the pitch that makes up 60% of your arsenal is having problems, you’re having problems.
I’d still roster both of these pitchers, but I’d rather it was in a bullpen handcuff situation where I owned Putz and Bell, or Bailey and Uehara. If I was save speculating, Bailey would still have a spot on my bench, perhaps behind the likes of Jim Henderson, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Drew Smyly, but before the group consisting of Yoervis Medina, Luke Gregerson and Vinnie Pestano, in approximate order.