What Happened to Matt Downs?

May 30, 2012; Denver, CO, USA; Houston Astros infielder Matt Downs (16) warms up before the first inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE

Last season, Matt Downs was one of the most effective bench hitters in the major leagues. He hit .276/.347/.864 (Avg/OBP/OPS) in 2011, with 10 Home Runs in only 199 At Bats. His success as a pinch-hitter and occasional starter prompted many Astros fans to call for his insertion as the every day Third Baseman starting in 2012.

On June 3, 2012, Matt Downs was sent to the minor leagues after hitting .169/.224/.576 in 35 games for the Astros this season. What went wrong?

During an investigation into the Astros' Spring Training Third Base competition, several things were observed about Matt Downs' career statistics:

  • Historically, Downs is most successful against low-octane fastballs and changeups.
  • Historically, Downs struggles against really fast fastballs (94 mph and above).
  • Historically, Downs struggles against Right-Handed Pitching.
  • Historically, Downs mashes Left-Handed Pitching.

Discussion continues after the jump.

General Statistics

Other (Career Avg) 2011 2012 Change Career Avg
BABIP (.260) 0.315 0.164 -0.151 0.260
BB% (7.7%) 7.7% 5.3% -2.4% 7.7%
Contact % 77% 81% 4.0% 77%

The first thing to note here is that Downs' contact rate has increased from 2011. On the surface, one might think this is a good thing. But increased contact rate is a bad thing if the player is making contact with pitches that are placed to induce a pop-up or ground ball. Down's walk rate is decreased, which also might imply that Downs is having more trouble laying off of pitches that he should be watching sail by. Most unsurprisingly, given his unprecedented success in 2011 and abysmal show in in 2012, he has seen his BABIP drop by 50%. As discussed previously, BABIP doesn't necessarily mean "luck", though these numbers show that Downs played above his career level last season and far below this season.

Pitch Success Rate

Opponent pitching coaches must have read the previous TCB article about Downs' success against certain pitches. Data shows that thus far in 2012, pitchers have been taking advantage of his tendencies and pulling back on the pitches he has been traditionally successful with.

Pitch 2011 2012 Change
Breaking Ball % 31% 23% -9%
Fastball % 61% 69% 8%
Fastball > 94 % 8% 17% 9%
Changeup % 7% 5% -3%

Pitchers have thrown Downs his favorite pitch, the changeup, three percent less often than they did in 2011, while increasing the number of fastballs he's seen. Much of this is influenced by the pitchers the Astros' have faced, but if that is the case then the coaching staff has done a poor job of matching Downs up against the types of pitchers he's had success with in the past. The pitch Downs struggles the most with is the high-octane fastball, and he has seen a nine percent increase in those pitches in 2012. This alone could explain a good portion of his struggles.

Looking at POPS, or Positive Outcome Per Swing (Positive Outcome is "Run Scored" or "In Play, No Out"), it is evident that BABIP, swing selection, and pitcher strategy have taken a toll on Downs' production:

Pitch POPS (2011) POPS (2012)
Breaking Ball 19% 0%
Fastball 13% 8%
Fastball > 94 5% 0%
Changeup 23% 0%

Sadly, this chart indicates that Downs has had....no success in generating positive outcomes when he has swung the bat this season.

Pitcher Handedness

Downs has traditionally performed better against Left-Handed Pitchers than Right-Handed Pitchers. Versus RHP's, his 2012 numbers are similar, indicating he had just as little success against them this season as in 2011.

vs RHP 2011 2012 Change
# of Pitches 629 153
Positive Outcome per Pitch % 6% 5% -1%
Positive Outcome per Swing % 12% 9% -3%

Meanwhile, data shows that for the first time in his career, he has been completely befuddled by lefties.

vs LHP 2011 2012 Change
# of Pitches 185 78
Positive Outcome per Pitch % 9% 1% -8%
Positive Outcome per Swing % 19% 3% -16%

The manager was correct by playing Downs against LHP because of his career success. In 2012, however this backfired, as he only generated a positive outcome on 1% of the pitches thrown to him by lefties. To put that into perspective, a drop from an overall 8% POPP to 1% POPP could be the difference between a 100-RBI player and a 30-RBI player.

Conclusions

Nobody wants to see a player on their home team fail, and Downs' fall from Pinch Hitter Par Excellence to le garçon de pisse has been difficult to witness. Downs' 2012 struggles seem primarily due to utter failure against Left-Handers--traditionally one of his strengths--plus pitch selection by opponents that seem tailored to exploit his areas of least success.

The good news for Downs and his fans is that many of his struggles were due to a low BABIP and bad plate discipline. Both of these things are correctable. BABIP should correct itself with time and approach his career averages, and plate discipline can be fixed by recognizing when pitchers are trying to induce contact on their pitches instead of waiting for one that he can turn into a positive outcome with a higher success rate.

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