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Colby Lewis: How Long Should You Wait?

Michael Young had some comments after the recent Colby Lewis implosion project demonstration:

“Colby’s fine,” Young said. “He was cruising the whole game…Colby’s fine. Don’t worry about Colby.”

What you can take away from this are two things. We now know that Michael Young is bad liar and we know that you should be worried about Colby (if you weren’t already).

It’s easy for the Texas Rangers to not be so worried about Lewis since they’re 14-8, most of it without their MVP. But for fantasy owners who drafted Lewis on the expectation that he could re-create the Colby Lewis magic-bus-happy-ride from 2010, you ought to be concerned. When you give up six runs on seven hits over five innings pitched with four walks and three strikeouts and you consider that outing to have included your “best stuff you had all year,” there’s a problem.

If you watch the video in the link above, you’ll not only be treated to Eduardo Perez talking like he has a mouthful of marbles, but you get to see the three home runs Lewis gave up last night. That article, and many others I’ve seen, marvel at the pitch that Corey Patterson hit which was up around his eyes. Many observers (and even Patterson) thought it was a flukey thing for him to connect with such a pitch, and maybe it was. But check the gun and you’ll see it was an 88 mph fastball. If that was a 91 mph fastball, yeah, it probably would have either been a pop out or whiff as catching up with a ball that high isn’t easy. But Patterson may very well have seen a similar pitch hours earlier in batting practice. The pitch tattooed by Jose Bautista was a hanging curve, and the ball that Juan Rivera launched was a 90 mph fastball right over the middle of the plate. So not only is Lewis not locating, the zip on his fastball hasn’t yet returned.

Several articles say that his velocity was improved last night, and indeed it was. His four seam fastball averaged out at 89.4 mph, which was marked improvement over the 87.8 mph average from his previous start and not that far off from his 90.1 mph average from 2010. Looking at his first four starts from this year compared to 2010, this fourth start begins to put him in a more comfortable range, at least as far as his fastball velocity. I put his fifth 2010 start in there so you can see how his trend continues, and I think it’s important to watch his next several starts to see if they can get into the 90 mph range (click graph to make sense of it).

While his fastball velocity might be starting to normalize (I still think we need several more starts to feel at all confident that it is), his repertoire appears to be really quite different from last season:

2010 2011
FF 56.20% 41.50%
SL 24.70% 24.50%
CU 10.50% 12.90%
CH 8.40% 18%

I understand that Pitch F/X data can be a little wonky sometimes, but assuming this information is correct (lifted from the handy texasleaguers.com site), in 2011, he’s only using his fastball just over 40% of the time and is relying much more on the change than in the past. This could be random noise associated with matchups, so we should monitor this going forward, but in terms of pitch type value, his fastball was his second most valuable pitch last year (per 100 pitches) so to go away from it may suggest a lack of confidence or perhaps they’re recognizing that his fastball is getting torched thus far.  Or maybe he’s hurt. His whiff rate on his best pitch, the slider, is down from 19.6% in 2010 to 13.7% in 2011 and his swinging strike rate has gone from 9.5% to 7.5% overall.

Remember that Lewis has just one good year under his belt, and it very well may be his only good year. While owners sit idly waiting for the 2010 version of Colby Lewis, maybe we’re just getting the 2003 version. A comparison to induce the HJ’s (heebee-jeebees):

2003 2011
ERA 7.3 6.95
FIP 5.77 8
xFIP 4.9 5.02
K/9 6.24 5.73
BB/9 4.96 4.09
HR/FB 17.8 24.2

I know that’s cherry-picking a bit, but he looks a heck of a lot like the Colby Lewis that needed a trip to Japan to resurrect his career than the Colby Lewis we saw last year.

Lewis gets favorable matchups against Oakland and Seattle for his next two starts and the outcomes should shed some light on which direction this season is headed. Recall that the Rangers have a rehabbing Brandon Webb as well as Tommy Hunter and Scott Feldman lurking if Lewis can’t right the ship. Whether your start him or bench him for these starts very much has to do with your league format and depth, but I’d be benching until you can start seeing signs of the old Lewis. And whatever you do, don’t take your fantasy cues from Michael Young.