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Know Your Astros Starters: Wandy Rodriguez

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For this next segment in our Pitch F/X series, let's look at one of the starters, Wandy Rodriguez.

Wandy emerged as the best starter on the Astros staff in 2009, going 14-12 with an ERA of 3.02 and 193 strikeouts in 205 2/3 innings. While his stats ranked him as one of the best pitchers in the majors, most of the projection systems have him taking a step back in 2010. I'm not so sure about that.

His strikeout rate has been stable for the past couple of seasons and his BABiP dropped slightly from .323 to .306 in 2009. His home run rate stayed the same and his walk total dropped just slightly. The only real improvement in his stats that might not be sustainable was his LOB percentage, which jumped from 72.6 percent to 79.4. His FIP of 3.54 in 2009 was one-tenth under his 2008 FIP.

This article on Bloomberg Sports supports the theory that Wandy's success in 2009 is sustainable. Is there a deeper answer to the question, though? Does Wandy have the kind of stuff to make him an elite starter? When Roy Oswalt called Wandy Rodriguez' curveball the best in the majors, I immediately thought about looking at the Pitch F/X data. I wanted to see what one of the best pitches in the majors would look like.

Let's look at his arsenal of pitches first.

Type Count Selection Velocity (mph) Max Velocity Vertical (in) Horizontal (in)
Fastball 1854 55.9% 90.2 94.4 11.11 5.01
Curve 1068 32.2% 76.7 91.1 -7.03 -4.94
Slider 170 5.1% 79.4 88.4 -1.80 -3.70
Change 162 4.9% 84.0 87.3 6.81 7.90

His fastball is a pretty good pitch. It's got some riding action and can be pumped up to 94 when needed. The curve is pretty nasty, especially when compared to the fastball. That's a wicked difference in velocity from the fastball to the curve (throw out that max velo number for the curve, was probably a falsely recognized pitch). The slider and change aren't much more than 'show-me' pitches.

Two pitches that he uses 88 percent of the time? That doesn't seem right. The problem here lies in the way his fastballs are categorized. Right now, 1,854 of his 1,911 fastballs are seen as four-seamers by the Pitch F/X cameras. That's probably not right, since we know he throws a two-seamer as well. So, onto the location maps.

Wandy_movement_medium

Now, that's a little more clear. It looks like about half of those 'four-seamers' should be called two-seamers. They have more drop and more horizontal movement than his four-seam fastball. For some reason, the cameras just didn't pick up on that for this data set. With that mystery solved, let's move on to his percentages:

Type Count Strike Swing Whiff
Fastball 1854 66.2% 42.2% 6.0%
Curve 1068 63.2% 50.2% 14.0%
Slider 170 64.7% 39.4% 8.2%
Change 162 67.3% 54.3% 8.6%

 

Again, he throws all his pitches for strikes and gets swings on most of them. If anything, Wandy gets more swings on his curve than he does the fastballs. I'm sure this percentage is thrown off by all the misreported fastballs, but it's still a good rate, especially the whiff rate. It also shows how much his control has improved, since he can throw all his pitches for strikes easily. The drop in his walk rate over the years appears to be pretty legitimate and encouraging for more of the velocity-challenged control pitchers in the farm system.

Enough about his pitches, let's focus on the curve itself. One of the interesting additions over at Texas Leaguers, where I get all this wonderful data, is the MLB averages for all the movement, speed and spin charts. Looking at the MLB average for all pitches identified as curves thrown by lefties, we see the vertical movement is at -6.10 and the horizontal movement is at -4.01.

Compare that to Wandy's numbers of -7.03 and -4.94. That's almost an inch more vertical drop and horizontal movement. That's a difference, sure, but not a huge one. If you look at Tim Lincecum's curve (though coming from a righthander), he gets +1.39 inches of vertical movement over the league average and -1.35 less horizontal movement. Basically, Lincecum has a more 12-6 curve, while Wandy's drifts a bit off the edge of the plate.

Looking at his percentages, Wandy throws his curve for a slightly higher percentage of strikes than the league average (63.2 to 57.9) but gets a ton more swings (50.2 to 38.7). His whiff rate is also slightly better (14.0 to 10.4). Looking at Lincecum's numbers again, he didn't quite hit the league average for strikes thrown, didn't hit the league average on swings and was just underneath it on whiff rate. Clearly, Wandy's pitch may not have the most movement, but it fools hitters into swinging at it. Here's the chart of Wandy's release points:

Wandy_release_point_medium

The deception probably starts here. That tight cluster in the middle shows that his release isn't any different for the curve than it is for the fastball. With a 13 MPH differential between the two pitches, a batter has to try very hard to pick up on the spin immediately to get his timing down. Otherwise, he's going to be late on the fastballs and early on the yakker.

Looking at the top view, it's even harder on batters.

  Wandy_curve_top_view_medium
That's a tough location. Right handers can't do much with that pitch. So, it appears that the secret to Wandy's curveball lies not in the pitch itself, but more in his location and control of it. By putting it exactly where hitters can't get it and still throwing it for strikes, a batter must swing at it, even when it's in the dirt.

The extra vertical drop also ensures that most batters will not square it up and hit the top of the ball, leading to a high ground ball rate. Fittingly, Wandy has a GB rate of 43.5 percent for his career and had a 44.9 rate in 2009.

Looking at the leaderboards on FanGraphs, Wandy threw his curve more than any pitcher in the majors last season. The only guy who came close was A.J. Burnett (31.1%), followed by

Going further, here's the top five pitchers in both runs above average on the curve:

Name wCB
Wandy Rodriguez
23.9
Adam Wainright 23.3
Javier Vasquez 17.2
A.J. Burnett 15.4
Jason Hammel 14.6

 

Wandy leads the category, but is just a nose in front of Wainright. With a pitch that is this good at preventing runs, it's no wonder why he doesn't try to add another breaking ball. But, Wandy threw a ton more curves than most of these guys. What happens when we normalize per 100 pitches?

Name wCB/C
Dallas Braden 5.49
Edwin Jackson 3.66
Jason Hammel 3.57
Livan Hernandez 3.33
Javier Vasquez 3.25
Aaron Harang 3.22
Brad Bergesen 2.93
Bronson Arroyo 2.81
Adam Wainright 2.71
Gavin Floyd 2.69
Tommy Hanson 2.36
Tommy Hunter 2.27
Joel Piniero 2.00
Wandy Rodriguez 1.97

 

Yeah, I had to extend this list down to 14 names to find Wandy. This just backs up my theory that Wandy's curve itself isn't the best in the majors. What makes it so great, and by extension what makes him so great, is how he deploys the pitch. By mixing it in nearly unhittable locations, Wandy is able to get a ton of strikeouts and ground balls, which makes his curve one of the best in the game.

So, you are vindicated Mr. Oswalt, as long as you qualify the statement.