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Astros Starter's Week: Mr. Wizard Roy Oswalt

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You know him, I know him, we've talked about him quite a bit this season. Still, let's take a moment during Starter's Week to talk about Roy Oswalt.

Heading into the season, there were questions about Oswalt's back holding up, about whether he could overcome a downward trend in his stats to become a top-flight starter again. None of us could have predicted the actual results. Just look at his excerpt from the 2010 Baseball Prospectus.

Oswalt reached the 30-start plateau for the sixth straight season, but a degenerative disc in in his back took a toll on him, particularly in the second half. As a result, his ERA topped 4.00 for the first time, and when the season ended, the Astros were seriously concerned about his health for 2010. On the bright side, his peripherals were pretty much in line with his 2007 and 2008 seasons and he did manage to get through virtually the entire season before being shut down in late September. He'll have to become very serious about conditioning and stretching in order to stay on the field, but if he does, you can expect he'll provide additional reminders for the reason that not every right-hander has to stand 6-foot-4 to be a quality big leaguer.

In 55 innings over eight starts, Oswalt has given up 46 hits and 17 runs (16 earned) while striking out 52 and walking 13. That's good for a K rate of 8.51, the highest he's had since his rookie season in 2001. It's not even a question of a hot start. Oswalt's career K rate in the first two months of the season is 6.51. Last season, his month of May looked similar to this, but when combined with a slow April, this season clearly trumps it.

What that means is Oswalt is having a resurgent season for a team going nowhere. He should rightly be in the running for his first Cy Young award, though his 2-5 record probably won't allow that to happen. Still, let's dive deeper into why he's been so successful.

Oswalt's strikeouts have been up by quite a bit, but let's look at the teams he has faced this season. He's faced the Giants twice, Philadelphia, the Cubs, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Arizona and the Padres. The Diamondbacks, Padres and Reds are Nos. 1, 2 and 4 in the National League in most strikeouts. 24 of his 52 strikeouts came against those two teams. However, 10 more came against the Giants, who have been the second toughest team to strike out in the National League this season. The toughest? That's right, your very own Houston Astros.

The Cubs and the Phillies are also in the bottom five of the National League for strikeouts. Since Roy totaled another 14 strikeouts with them, he's got an even 24 against three of the best and three of the worst. That's pretty indicative of how good his stuff has been in 2010.

Still, there's more to tell. His BABiP is low right now at .280. That means despite all his griping and complaining lately, his teammates have been picking it up behind him defensively. His batting averages on all three batted ball types are low, and he's only given up hits to line drives about 50 percent of the time. So, that explains a little why his BABiP may be low.

Let's look at another set of numbers: 5.23, 4.67, 4.37, 5.01 and 2.24. If you read clack's article Wednesday, you won't be surprised to find out those are Oswalt's run support numbers for the past five seasons. He's had two runs or less scored for him in five of his eight starts this season. The most times he's been supported this little? In 2002, 2005 and 2008, he had double-digit games with two or less runs scored for him. In 2005, the Astros had 12 games with two or fewer runs and 11 in 2008. Of course, that's to be expected. For the past five seasons, he's been pitching in the No. 1 spot of the rotation, meaning he's facing each team's best starter. Teams are not going to score a lot of runs in those situations. So, I have little sympathy for his continued griping. Has anyone told him that Felipe Paulino is getting jobbed in much the same way?

One of the things that impresses me most about Oswalt this season is how he uses all his pitches effectively. I've talked about it before, but look at this.

Type Count Selection Velocity (mph) Vertical (in) Horizontal (in) Spin Angle (deg) Spin Rate (rpm)
FF 247 29.9% 92.6 10.18 -3.40 199 2,127
SI 221 26.8% 92.4 7.88 -6.33 219 2,011
SL 135 16.4% 84.3 3.78 2.14 146 905
CU 125 15.2% 72.8 -7.26 3.42 41 1,271
CH 97 11.8% 83.1 4.34 -7.08 240 1,546


So, the thing I wanted to look at here is not his fastball/changeup combo. It's also not his slider or his curveball (both excellent pitches, BTW). No, the thing we're looking at here is the two fastballs together. They profile very similarly, as they are about the same speed, Oswalt throws them about the same number of times and their spin rates and angles are very similar. What's the difference? One tails in on righthanders while diving down two inches more than the other. That's damned hard to distinguish. How hitters know whether it's going to be a two-seam or four-seam fastball is a mystery. I'm sure they have to basically just swing and hope for the best.

That reason explains why Oswalt's fastball is one of the few in Houston with a positive run value. FanGraphs combines both seamers in its numbers, but here, they really work in concert with each other. There weren't as many similarities when we looked at Wandy's two fastballs. In fact, the key there was his change. Here, Roy's change rotates slower, has a more pronounced spin angle with more horizontal and vertical movement. It's a good pitch, but not one he needs to throw all the time.

True to form, Oswalt has positive run values for all his pitches. The fastball combo is his lowest rated pitch, but it's in a low-rated grouping. The best fastball by run value is just in the 2.00's per 150 pitches, so there's not a lot of difference between that and Roy's 0.66 run value. Some of the breaking pitches do have a bigger disparity, but fastballs are all on a smaller scale of difference.

Type Count Selection Strike Swing Whiff Foul In Play
FF 247 29.9% 73.7% 51.4% 11.7% 20.2% 19.4%
SI 221 26.8% 67.9% 43.4% 3.6% 19.0% 20.8%
SL 135 16.4% 68.1% 43.0% 9.6% 17.8% 15.6%
CU 125 15.2% 58.4% 44.8% 13.6% 16.0% 15.2%
CH 97 11.8% 60.8% 50.5% 13.4% 16.5% 20.6%


His best two pitches are the curve and the change, as far as swing-and-miss stuff goes. His four-seam fastball is pretty solid as well, getting more swings at it than the league average fastball. His two-seamer is more in line with the league averages, but he pitches more to contact with that pitch. That makes sense, since it'd be the pitch he's using to induce ground balls.

In a surprise for him, Oswalt seems to be throwing less pitches inside the strike zone than in previous seasons. His career average on Zone percentage is 57.1, but he's at 50.1 percent this season. That could correlate to his higher strike number, if he's throwing his curve and fastball out of the zone more and batters are still swinging. IT'd explain the whiff rate and the swing percentages staying similar.

I don't think Oswalt will maintain his high strikeout rate. It'll probably fall back to around 7 per nine innings, but I do think Roy's back issues are not affecting his pitching this season. He's as sharp as he's been since his rookie season in a lot of ways. Now, if Houston's offense could just score him a couple more runs...