Few Astros had more fan-love than Brandon Backe did after the 2005 Post Season, but the post-Tommy John surgery Brandon Backe has quickly turned that fan-love in cries for his head. What went wrong for poor Backe in 2008 -- besides his brawl with the law?
There were clearly two distinct Brandon Backe's in 2008: "Flashes of the 2005 Post Season" Brandon and "Non-Tender Candidate" Brandon. The question I want to ask and answer is: why? To do that, I'm going to use Brooks Baseball's pitch/fx tool to highlight some attributes of Brandon Backe in his Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde routine.
August 6th: Astros @ Cubs:
3.1 IP, 11 ER, 6 BB, 0K, 9 H, 4 2B, 2 HR
Clearly an ugly performance for Mr. Backe. Lets see what his pitch/fx data might tell us about what went wrong.
You're looking at side view of the average trajectory of his fastball, change up, slider, curve on their way to the plate. One thing that people who have studied pitch/fx have already discovered is the importance of a curveball staying relatively close to other pitches in the horizontal plane. Otherwise, the hitter can see a clear "hump" in the curveball and tee off, foul off, or lay off accordingly. This was the result in the third in which Mark DeRose went yard off just the 5th curve ball that Backe delivered (the previous two had resulted in a walk to Aramis Ramirez). He would only throw eight all game and because he obviously did not feel comfortable with the pitch, had to rely on his less than stellar fastball.
August 11th Gaints @ Astros:
7IP, 1ER, 6K, 0BB, 4H, 3 2B
Backe changed his mind and when he walked to the mound five days later was dominant. If my loose observation/hypothesis is going to hold any water, the pitch/fx data should show his curve ball closer to the horizontal plane of his other pitches.
The difference isn't much, but clearly the curveball is tighter than it was five days prior. The important spot to look is at about 40 ft. because it's when the "information gathering" ends for a hitter. There's a huge difference at 40 ft. this start than the one that precedes it. As result of this, Backe was able to effectively mix his pitches throwing 31 curves balls vs. the 8 he had thrown the week before.
Luckily the entire month of August represents an every other week flip-flop for Backe (just about).
August 16th: D-backs @ Astros:
5.2IP, 11ER, 5BB, 6K, 9H, 3HR, 1 2B
ANNNNND it's back. Backe's curveball regains the hump and suddenly he loses deception from the pitch. His first few curveballs went well -- they were called strikes and swinging strikes. Most of the rest were balls early in the count or foul offs that prolonged the count (although, he did strike Chris Burke out swining with it...but does that count?).
August 23rd Astros @ Mets:
7IP, 3ER, 4K, 1BB, 5H, 1HR, 1 2B
Certainly a sold outing. Does the curveball hypothesis hold?
There's a clear spread between the fastball/change up and the curveball/slider, but still at 40 ft. the hitter is left guessing more so than he was in Backe's previous start. However, he only threw nine curveballs so there's not at lot to take away from this. Luckily his very next start was another brilliant performance.
August 28th Reds @ Astros:
6.2IP, 2ER, 6K, 1BB, 6H, 1 3B
That's good Backe we saw and his curveball, well it was pretty tight in the horizontal plane:
His curveball sits tight in the horizontal plane and he was dominant.
So this small sample size has at least validated the idea that if his curveball had a hump in it, then he didn't fair very well, but if he kept hidden, then he was a solid top of the rotation pitcher.
To drive the point home I'm going to rattle off a few more Good Brandon / Bad Brandon starts to drive home the importance of his curveball being effective and the efficacy of the curveball being derived it not being readily apparent to the hitter.
Flashes of the 2005 Postseason Brandon:
April 22nd Padres @ Astros
He had the hump, but all 12 curves he threw were strikes. So the curve was still effective, which is really what my hypothesis is.
May 23rd Phillies @ Astros
Tight, like a tiger.
July 13th Astros @ Nationals
Non-Tender Candidate Brandon:
April 17th Astros @ Phillies
No hump because it's close to the slider, but he was all over the place apparently.
June 11th Brewers @ Astros
September 27th Braves @ Astros
So the hypothesis wasn't perfect, but I think the pattern is apparent. Backe is a much better pitcher when he throws a tight curveball that stays hidden. Just about all the games we looked at show that if he had an effective curveball, he had a strong outing and we know from pitch/fx that two things are important for the curveball: vertical drop and the horizontal plane. Thus, it's pretty clear that if Brandon Backe wants to avoid being optioned back to Round Rock in 2009 (or just released), he needs to figure out how to have a consistently tight curveball.
Anyone who goes to Spring Training will have to report on their observations.