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Nelson Figueroa's Future With The Astros

Lots of exciting things to think about in the next week, like the fact that the season will be over (wait, that's sad, not exciting) and that we can finally start looking at an entire season's worth of data for analysis. With that in mind, I'm getting a head-start by looking at one Nelson Figueroa's tenure with Houston.

His start on Wednesday figures to be his final appearance of the season for the Astros. After being claimed off waivers from the Philadelphia Phillies, Figueroa made his first appearance with Houston on July 23 and started eight games and appeared in eight more as a reliever. He has an ERA of 3.81 on the season and a 2.28 ERA in August and 6.12 in September. His xFIP during that time was 4.13 and 4.98, so he was very lucky early in his Astros tenure and somewhat unlucky in the past month.

In 48 2/3 innings over the past two months, Figueroa has struck out 38, which is a K/9 rate of 7.02. His walk rate is in the high 3's, which means his time as a starter will be hard to sustain. As a long reliever, he'd be able to get by with those rates, though.

The real question is what do the Astros have in him? Let's look at what he threw this year to see if he could sustain his success for next season.

First of all, FanGraphs shows him throwing four pitches, a fastball, a slider, a curve and a changeup. The fastball and slider were both above average pitches for him and the breaking stuff was not great. However, if you look at his Pitch F/X breakdowns, there is a lot more complexity to his arsenal. Here's a breakdown of his pitches thrown as an Astro:

Type Count Selection Velocity (mph) Vertical (in) Horizontal (in) Spin Angle (deg) Spin Rate (rpm)
FF 257 27.1% 88.4 8.59 -5.75 213 2,004
FC 219 23.1% 87.7 8.17 -3.49 203 1,694
SL 195 20.5% 81.3 2.08 3.95 124 870
CU 152 16.0% 74.1 -5.25 9.28 60 1,697
CH 88 9.3% 81.4 4.38 -8.97 241 1,799
FA 34 3.6% 86.7 5.49 -7.03 232 1,717
FT 4 0.4% 89.7 4.53 -7.18 239 1,660

Figueroa worked off his four-seam fastball, his cut fastball and his slider, with his curve mixing in with his change. He also threw two other kinds of fastballs that were similar to his cutter, but had slightly different movement patterns and were classified differently by Pitch F/X.

The first thing that should jump out at you is that Figueroa isn't a hard thrower. His velocity hovers in the upper 80s without every really breaking into the 90s. Both his four-seam and his cut fastballs have good sink, which you can see with their lower vertical movement readings (an average four-seamer has a movement around 11). Here's another interesting thing about the fastballs...the cutter did not move as much in towards right-handers as the four-seamer did.

His curve is a big sweeping thing that dives as much away from right-handers as it does towards the ground. The change profiles very much like his cut fastball and his slider is his in-between pitch. It's the only one that doesn't spin as fast as the others (down under 1,000) and yet, it was his best pitch at times. The slider also doesn't break as much as the others do, though it does dive down quite a bit when compared to the fastball.

Type Count Selection Strike Swing Whiff Foul In Play
FF 257 27.1% 68.1% 42.0% 6.2% 19.5% 16.3%
FC 219 23.1% 68.5% 50.2% 5.9% 28.8% 15.5%
SL 195 20.5% 64.1% 50.8% 10.3% 22.6% 17.9%
CU 152 16.0% 61.8% 50.7% 11.2% 20.4% 19.1%
CH 88 9.3% 53.4% 44.3% 3.4% 17.0% 23.9%
FA 34 3.6% 47.1% 20.6% 5.9% 5.9% 8.8%
FT 4 0.4% 25.0% 25.0% 0.0% 0.0% 25.0%

Now that we have an idea how the pitches move, let's look at how successful they were. By far, the best pitches for swing-throughs were the slider and the curve. That's probably because of the change in speed, as that slider averaged 81 and the curve was at 74. Even that seven or eight MPH difference could be enough to miss some bats. Really, though, Figueroa missed more bats than I expected. That's in large part to the movement he gets on his pitches. Every one of them has a ton of horizontal movement (compared to some other pitchers on the team and in the league).

In addition to his whiffs, Figueroa had a ton of foul balls off all his pitches, which is to be expected with his movement. It's probably hard to square up that cutter or that slider, so hitters just foul it off instead. If Figueroa had 5 or 10 more MPH on his pitches, he might be able to just blow those right past hitters. As it is, he needs that contact going foul to avoid getting rocked.

Figueroa also does a pretty good job with his control. He can throw all four of his main pitches consistently for strikes, even though he does give up a few too many walks. That seems to be because he doesn't get a correspondingly high number of swings at his pitches to the number of strikes he throws. Given that he's bounced around to six different teams in his career and missed the entire 2005 and 2007 seasons, Figueroa doesn't figure to get many calls from umpires, but still...I imagine hitters will start to swing at those pitches if Figueroa keeps putting them in the strike zone.

Look at his movement graph below:


The cool thing about this is you can see the progression of the pitches. Those fastballs are clustered up there, with the cutters differing from the four-seamers by their presence on the right side of that cloud. The changeups are right by the fastballs but have more sink to them, while the slider and curves both drop off sharply to the right bottom.

There are a lot of different pitches there, but the fastballs could probably be counted as one pitch, with their similar movement patterns. Let's look, quickly, at that same graph with gravity added:


What's cool about this graph is that you can see how the breaking balls differ. That change isn't grouped quite so tightly with the fastballs, because it does fall more since it's going slower. The slider falls about the same amount, but has drastically more horizontal movement, while the curve bottoms out and really proves its distance from the slider.

What does all this mean for Figueroa? First, let's talk about his status on the Astros. Figueroa will go into arbitration for the first time this winter. That makes him a prime non-tender candidate, unless the Astros are content to pay him about a million dollars. FanGraphs WAR calculations show he was worth 0.4 wins above replacement, which is worth about 1.5 million on the open market. So, awarding him any less than that makes him a bargain.

Is he a bargain the Astros should keep? Before I looked at what he throws, I figured he'd be another throwaway fifth starter who the Astros wouldn't necessarily need back. He could compete for a job next spring if they wanted him to, but that was Felipe Paulino's spot, as long as Beardy is healthy.

Looking at his pitching repertoire, though, Figueroa is a guy who should turn a corner some day. That's why so many teams have taken a chance on him. He's got good stuff, but hasn't been able to put it all together yet. Maybe Ed Wade and Brad Arnsberg can be the genesis of a career rebirth. Either way, for solid pitching depth, I'd spend a million dollars of Drayton McLane's money in a heartbeat. Now, I definitely think Figueroa is quailty depth and think the Astros should bring him back next season.

What do you think? Has Figueroa done enough to earn a spot (or earn a shot at a spot) on next year's pitching staff? What are your impressions of what he throws? Were they the same as what Pitch F/X shows?