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Astros Starter's Week: Paging Felipe Paulino

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Day 3 of Starter's Week bring us to Felipe Paulino. Who is the real Felipe Paulino, though? Would the real Paulino please stand up?

If I were to tell you he's struck out 8, 11 and 7 batters in his last three starts, what would you guess his record was over that span? Well, you're smart Astros fans, so you know he's 0-3. In fact, Paulino has a bit of a dubious distinction right now. He's lost every one of his starts since taking a no-decision in his first trip to the mound back on April 10.

I'm manipulating the data a little here, but if I also told you that Paulino has given up 4, 5, 2, 2, 4, 1 and 7 runs in his seven starts, you'd expect that he'd have at least one victory, right? Well, those are earned runs. His total runs allowed are at 4, 5, 5, 6, 4, 2 and 7 over that span. It's not nearly as pretty and explains a little why Paulino can dazzle with his stuff but not perform like a top-of-the-rotation starter.

What are his numbers this season? In 39 1/3 innings over seven starts, Paulino has given up 40 hits, 33 runs (25 earned) while striking out 41 and walking 22. ZiPS only projects him to finish with 119 innings, but that's probably because of his role as fifth starter.

The question we have to ask here is why hasn't Paulino been more successful? Here are some more numbers to deepen the mystery. In 39 1/3 innings, Paulino has given up one home run. Compare that to last season, when he gave up 20 home runs in 97 innings. Many baseball writers around the web cited Paulino as having better talent than his results last season indicated. Indeed, Paulino did have a high BABiP last season at .368. The weird part, though? His numbers this year aren't much better.

Yes, his strikeouts are up a bit (K rate from 8.57 to 9.38) and he hasn't given up home runs, but his BABiP is still high at .358 and his left on base percentage is very low at 50 percent. That's slightly shocking. Half the guys he puts on base come around to score? No wonder he's had such crummy luck.

So, is it the defense behind him? Let's look at who played on the infield for his seven starts.

First Base Second Base Shortstop Third Base Unearned Runs
Pedro Feliz Jeff Keppinger Tommy Manzella Chris Johnson


Pedro Feliz Jeff Keppinger Tommy Manzella Chris Johnson 0
Lance Berkman Kaz Matsui Tommy Manzella Geoff Blum 3
Lance Berkman Kaz Matsui Jeff Keppinger Pedro Feliz 4
Lance Berkman Jeff Keppinger Tommy Manzella Pedro Feliz 0
Lance Berkman Kaz Matsui Jeff Keppinger Pedro Feliz 1
Lance Berkman Jeff Keppinger Tommy Manzella Pedro Feliz 0


That's seven starts we're dealing with, but you can see that the two where he gave up the most unearned runs had Geoff Blum at third base in one and Jeff Keppinger at short in the other. Both of those are probably not great choices defensively, but the Astros haven't been playing well defensively as a team lately. Any time you have to practice with your outfielders on catching fly balls, there are problems. Any time Geoff Blum becomes one of the team's best options at shortstop, there are problems.

When we look at his splits, however, there is a wider disparity on the number of balls hit to the outfield than on the infield. In 45 plate appearances, batters hit grounders to the infield and Paulino has a .070/.070/.070 line on those. Of course, four runs did score on those plays, but at least two of those could have come via sacrifice hits. I also am not totally sold on this to let the infield defense off the hook, since errors don't count towards batting average.

But, when you compare that to his percentages on ground balls (.306 BA), fly balls (.244) and line drives (.875), you can see that all three are higher than the league average. Something must be happening on those ground balls, which may be explained by a lack of range by the infield.

One last note about defense. In the past two starts, Paulino was caddied by Kevin Cash. In those starts, he's walked four and struck out 18 over 11 2/3 innings. It's too soon to tell if Cash made an impact on his control, but it certainly looks like something is happening there (the seven-run start in SF nonwithstanding).

Now that we know what his peripherals look like, let's see what he's been throwing.

Type Count Selection Velocity (mph) Vertical (in) Horizontal (in) Spin Angle (deg) Spin Rate (rpm)
FF 405 55.3% 95.6 9.22 -6.12 214 2,299
SL 209 28.5% 86.6 -0.48 -1.14 221 624
CU 80 10.9% 77.5 -4.08 -0.09 191 793
CH 26 3.5% 87.1 4.63 -4.89 237 1,340


Not surprisingly, Paulino relies mainly on his fastball. Since the pitch averages 95 MPH, that's to be expected. His slider is also quite good and you can see a little of the reason why. The velocity is good, but is almost 10 MPH slower than the four-seamer, so it works as an effective change of pace. The two pitches don't profile similarly, but what makes this pitch unique is that it has more horizontal movement back towards right-handers than most sliders. In effect, the pitch is backing up on them. Combine that with more vertical drop than a league-average slider, and it's a pretty deceptive pitch.

When I say it breaks in on righties, I immediately think "Is that a screwball?" After all, that's what video games have taught me a screwball does (as compared to cartoons, where Bugs Bunny taught me screwballs make a corkscrew motion in mid-air). Looking at screwball impresario Daniel Ray Herrerra of the Cincinnati Reds, his pitch breaks much more prominently back inside with a lot more drop. Basically, the pitch is a curveball that breaks the opposite way that it should.

Paulino's pitch is more of a sinker with tailing movement, except it has much more vertical drop than most sinkers. Also, it's rotation is much, much slower than any sinker and is even slower than his curve. Which means the pitch is more like a knuckle slider than it is anything else. At 624 RPMs, Paulino's slider rotates less than either Tim Wakefield's or Charlie Haeger's knuckle ball. But, it hops in there at damn near 90 MPH, compared to the 65 MPH those guys averages. It also has more downward break than either knuckle ball, which makes it a perfect hybrid. Just a funky, funky pitch.

As a test, I looked through Joe Lefkowicz's data here for an average of all sliders and their spin rotation. The average was 814, with 15,001 pitches thrown in 2010. About a third of the pitches in the data set spun at a rate lower than 640. Looking just at righthanders, the average vertical movement is 1.75 while the horizontal movement is 2.41, which means it's still unusual for Paulino's slider to break more vertically and back up horizontally. The average spin rate for righthanders also didn't change. While there are pitchers who have that tailing motion on occasion with their sliders, no one that I found averages negative movement.

Type Count Selection Strike Swing Whiff Foul In Play
FF 405 55.3% 57.3% 40.7% 4.4% 18.3% 18.0%
SL 209 28.5% 68.9% 46.9% 18.7% 15.8% 12.4%
CU 80 10.9% 57.5% 45.0% 15.0% 20.0% 10.0%
CH 26 3.5% 46.2% 42.3% 19.2% 19.2% 3.8%


Does that funkiness translate to success with the pitch? Actually, yes it does. Paulino is able to throw it for a strike consistently, is able to get great whiff rates with it and a pretty small percentage of the pitches are put in play. Actually, what's more surprising there is how few of his fastballs are put in play. Compare those numbers to his plate discipline stats at FanGraphs. Paulino has the lowest percentage of swings on balls outside the zone, yet throws one of the highest percentages of first-pitch strikes on the team. His curve has also been a good pitch, but he just can't get that many swings at any of his pitches.

Why is that? Is it his reputation for wildness? Certainly a 5.00 walk rate doesn't help that. Or, is this a chicken-or-the-egg thing, where Paulino is only walking guys because there not swinging at his good pitches? Are umpires squeezing him? Is that what Cash has improved, the pitch framing for Paulino? It's too soon to tell. What I can tell you is that Paulino's curve and slider both have pretty good positive run values. His fastball is negative in run value, but not much under -1.00. In fact, all Paulino's pitches play pretty well, he just needs to start getting more strikes.