Roy Oswalt heads into the off-season with about as much uncertainty as he’s ever had as a major league pitcher. After suffering through some back injury and flirtations with retirement, Oswalt, 34, will be a free agent unless the Philadelphia Phillies exercise his $16 million dollar option. Rather nebulous on an epic scale, GM Ruben Amaro has mentioned they’re having “internal discussions” about whether or not to pick up that option. Now, internal discussions could be serious consideration or it could be smoking cigars and playing Donkey Kong — we’re merely left to speculate.
Smart money says they aren’t likely to pick up the option, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want him back on more team-friendly terms. Obviously, where he ultimately lands will have implications for his fantasy value, but before we can make any determinations about park factors and defense, it’s worth looking at how Oswalt has evolved over the past couple of seasons and investigate what kind of performance we can anticipate going forward.
Oswalt has historically been an awfully sturdy starter, or at the very least, he’s awfully good when he pitches through pain. In his 11 major-league seasons, Oswalt has thrown more than 200 innings seven times and made 30+ starts eight times. And looking at his career, there isn’t a tremendous amount of fluctuation in his performance relative to the ERA predictors, xFIP and SIERA, although there has been a bit more volatility in the last three years:
While many pitchers will make modifications as their career progresses, not many pitchers have changed their approach quite like Oswalt — part of it may be out of good old veteran savvy, but part of it might be out of necessity.
Earlier in his career, Oswalt was mostly a fastball/curveball pitcher and over the last several seasons, a number of things have changed. His repertoire has changed to be more diverse, mixing in roughly 35-40% secondary pitches evenly distributed among the slider, curve, and change-up. And while his fastball velocity has been relatively stable over his career, it was off significantly in 2011 and he interestingly started to rely far more heavily on his change-up, using it almost 20% of the time. The following graphs help illustrate the changes:
Again, referencing the stability of his overall xFIP and SIERA during this time is rather impressive given the dramatic changes in his repertoire. However – how that fastball velocity chart trends in 2012 is going to have a pretty major impact on his performance and value, I’d suspect.
And while we’re on the subject of changes in repertoire, it’s worth noting that the data presented on fastball usage includes a sinker that he uses. Relative to 2011, there was a pretty significant change he made before and after his back injury. Using pitch f/x data from texasleaguers.com, looking at the 14 starts Oswalt made up to June 23rd and the 11 starts he made thereafter, his mix of fastball to sinker is dramatically different:
Some of these changes are going to only be explained by Mr. Oswalt himself and perhaps his pitching coaches, but it seems pretty clear that the sinker fell out of favor, and it could be explained by the fact that he was producing just a 5.3% whiff rate on the sinker and during his time off he re-tooled his approach. The change could also be related to injury of course, but what occurred when he returned was a shiny-new version of himself:
It seems hard to imagine that abandoning the sinker led to such a dramatic increase in strikeouts and across the board performance, but the results are certainly there. He was at his worst during May and June, and perhaps he was simply playing through pain prior to taking all of July off. It’s worth pointing out that the trend line on his fastball after he returned from his injury in 2011 is clearly headed in the right direction, with his final start seeing his average fastball at 93.4 mph, which is a half mile an hour better than his career average:
Oswalt is obviously a smart pitcher possessing the aptitude and the wherewithal to know when it’s time to change in order to maintain his level of performance. Some of those changes happen from year to year, but as we can see in 2011, some pretty big changes took place mid-season in order to address shortcomings in his strikeouts and overall effectiveness. Despite being 34 and for all practical purposes, without a team, Oswalt seems to have a lot left in the tank. As stated earlier, his landing spot is going to impact his fantasy value to a degree, but if he’s able to give you 180 innings as a fantasy manager, he should give you a good source of wins and a solid ERA with a WHIP that won’t sink your team. His resurgence in strikeouts in 2011 towards his career average make him far less of a risk than a cursory glance would indicate, and at 180 IP, he should still be good for 150 strikeouts.
You can have your own “internal discussions” on where you think that places his value on draft day.
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