Astros Starting Five: Wandy Rodriguez

I'm kicking off our first ever Starter's Week here at TCB. Think of it like Shark Week with less feeding frenzies and more stats-based analysis. Each day this week, we'll look at the Astros starter scheduled for that night from a statistical, Pitch F/X and subjective angle. We'll also end every post by asking you to give your opinion on how the starter has done this season. Caveats will abound. After all, we're only six weeks into the season, guys have only started six or seven games each, so we don't have a ton of data. Still, there's enough there that we can begin to see trends or answer some questions.

First up? Wandy Rodriguez, starting Monday night in Chavez Ravine. Let's run through all the traditional looks at Rodriguez' season. In seven starts, Rodriguez is 2-4 with a 4.81 ERA in 39 1/3 innings. He's struck out 26 and walked 12 while giving up three home runs and hitting two batters. He also has a WHIP of 1.55, which is the second, highest of his career and is nearly two-tenths higher than his career average. But, that's just the start...

Rodriguez is giving up a career-high in hits per nine innings at 11.2. His home run rate is down a tad from previous totals as his his walk rate. The biggest drop is in his strikeout rate, which is at 5.8 Ks per nine innings. His BABiP is also higher than normal at .351, which partly explains his high hit rate. He also has a LOB percentage of 62.9, which is way down from the past two seasons, but isn't too far out of line from the beginning of his career. Basically, all the progress Wandy has made in the past two seasons seems to be coming undone. 

Still, his peripheral stats seem to suggest he's been the victim of some bad luck. His FIP (3.84) is much lower than his ERA, as is his xFIP of 4.06. That's probably due to two things. First, not only is Wandy's home run rate down, his home run per fly ball rate is lower than the past couple of seasons. That means he's probably been a little luckier on which fly balls left the yard than he should have been. Thus, the slightly elevated xFIP. On the plus side, his high BABiP rate can also be tied to his bad luck when you see that Wandy is inducing a career-high 50 percent ground balls. 

Going deeper, Wandy is giving up a high percentage of infield hits, has a noticeably higher line drive percentage and a very low fly ball percentage. Almost 40 percent of those fly balls have also been infield fly balls, so Wandy is doing something right to limit those home runs. Neither of those rates are probably sustainable, though. 

Is there some correlation to what he's been throwing? Let's look at the Pitch F/X data:

Type Count Selection Velocity (mph) Vertical (in) Horizontal (in) Spin Angle (deg) Spin Rate (rpm)
CU 200 32.7% 75.9 -7.40 -5.61 319 1,548
FF 178 29.1% 89.6 11.09 1.98 170 2,199
FT 157 25.7% 89.5 7.04 7.36 133 2,018
CH 75 12.3% 84.5 5.44 6.30 130 1,581

Not surprisingly, Wandy's most used pitch is the curveball. He's thrown 32 percent of them this season and it's been fairly effective. He's also working in two fastballs with mixed results. His four-seamer has been pretty straight without a lot of horizontal movement, while the two-seamer has good drop and ride back in on the hands of left-handed batters and away from righties. 

The other big change here is his changeup has made an appearance a lot more. As we've discussed previously, the big key to a change is how different it is from other pitches. Here, Wandy's change is basically a five-mile per hour drop from the two-seamer, with more vertical drop and a little less horizontal movement. I don't normally use the spin data, but you can see that the spin rate is almost identical for both the curve and the change. The only difference is the spin is much more pronounced on the curve, leading to greater movement. The two-seamer and change have almost identical spin angles, which leads to more confusion as to which pitch is being thrown.

ype Count Selection Strike Swing Whiff Foul In Play
CU 200 32.7% 62.5% 51.0% 12.5% 16.5% 22.0%
FF 178 29.1% 54.5% 30.9% 1.7% 10.7% 18.5%
FT 157 25.7% 60.5% 40.8% 4.5% 12.1% 24.2%
CH 75 12.3% 80.0% 68.0% 24.0% 18.7% 25.3%

Again, I caution about the sample size, but we can see immediately why Wandy is getting a 24 percent whiff rate on the change. Even if he only throws it 12 percent of the time, it's profile is so similar to the two-seam fastball (which he uses quite a bit) that it would be very hard for a batter to tell the difference until it was too late. That also explains why there are so many swings on the pitch. It doesn't help that Wandy throws the change for a strike 80 percent of the time. In fact, the only pitch he's struggled to throw for a strike is the four-seamer (which we've seen through the start-by start breakdowns). That probably explains the ridiculously low swing percentage, as well as the low whiff rate. 

The curveball has also been less effective than in past seasons. He's still not getting many balls put in play on the curve, but batters are not swinging as often at it. Looking at the historical data, Wandy is definitely throwing his fastballs less overall than in previous season, is down a little with his curve percentage but the change has made a big appearance. Unsurprisingly, the change is the only pitch where Wandy has a positive run value. That's actually a bigger deal than one sentence can give it justice.

For instance, last season, Wandy's curve was 23 runs above average. This season? It's negative-4.1. His fastballs have suffered a similar drop, as they were at 8.3 runs above average last season and are now negative-4.1. Part of this could be guys laying off the four-seamers until he can throw them consistently for strikes. It could also be that Wandy's back injury has robbed him of a little extra movement on the pitches. 

His saving grace has definitely been the change. In fact, Wandy has the third-best run average per 150 pitches for his changeup in the majors, just behind Justin Masterson and David Bush and right ahead of TIm LIncecum. Of course, that's normalizing the number of pitches thrown too, which can bump up seldom-used pitches. Lincecum throws his change a lot, so has a 10.3 run average with the pitch before normalizing it for 150 pitches. Wandy is still in the top 10 of the raw, unchanged data, behind such luminaries as Lincecum, Dallas Braden, Shaun Marcum, Felix Hernandez, Ubaldo JImenez, Carlos Silva, John Danks and Ian Kennedy

On the other hand, his curve has the second-worst run average in the majors, ahead of Ben Sheets at -10.7. If Wandy is going to turn it around this season, he really needs to get his curveball working again. He can only work off his change for so long before batters start hitting it. 

The last thing we'll look at is a graph of his release points:

Release_medium

For the most part, that's a pretty normal graph of release points. However, those outliers there with the two-seam fastball are disturbing. Was this a product of him pitching through the back injury? Or was this just the explanation for why his fastball has been hit so well this season? If hitters know he drops his arm down a bit when throwing the sinker, don't they have a better chance of hitting it? I'm not sure, but it certainly doesn't fill me with warm fuzzies. I'm sure it's not serious, but it needs to be corrected, like, tomorrow.

So, what do you think? What do you see? Is Wandy still pitching hurt? What's up with the curveball? Will he return to form against the Dodgers tonight?

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