Over the first stanza of the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates season, Trevor WIlliams made a legitimate claim to the title of the club’s best starting pitcher. He earned this title not by pedigree, talent and especially not by virtue of his “stuff,” but rather by going out and providing consistent starts each time out.
Certainly, one would say that — on the whole — Pittsburgh Pirates starter Trevor Williams has blossomed from a throw-in sent to the club for an executive into a bonafide starting pitching option.
In some instances, he has shown an ability to be more than that.
However, since the calendar flipped to May, Williams’ performance has fallen off. Over those 35.2 innings (May 3rd to present), Williams carries a bloated 6.03 ERA, an unattractive 5.69 FIP and a hideous .444 wOBA. He’s given up seven home runs in that time frame, which represents all but one of his home runs given up for the entire year, as well as 50 percent of the 14 home runs he gave up during all of last year.
So, what has changed?
Well, there is a pretty clear demarcation point where Williams started using his four-seamer more often:
It’s not like the pitch has been bad, per se. From games starting on May 3rd, Williams’ four seam fastball has an average exit velocity of 83.6, and an xwOBA of .305. numbers that nearly scream “effectiveness.”
A deeper look tells us that the increase in four seamers also comes along with an increase in his slider. Sounds great, right? Another Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher slowly starting to work in a slider more and more.
Except, hitters aren’t particularly frozen or fooled by WIlliams’ slider from May on:
Don’t get it twisted: there is enough good here to warrant further exploration of the pitch. However, when the slider falls off the plate, hitters are just flat out not fooled by it.
Williams’ slider carries just above average spin during this crop of games — 2299 rpm to be exact against a generally accepted league average of around 2090 or so. More spin means better break, but to date that hasn’t given hitters very much trouble.
Something a bit more unusual
If we look at his most recent work, we see more foibles. Here’s a snapshot look - notice anything peculiar?
Yes, Williams seems to struggle when going through the batting order a second time. The vaunted third time through the order penalty is a real thing, yet WIlliams sees struggle well before that.
Let’s take a sidebar here and talk about how many perceive Williams. While many feel that his established floor is that of a mid-rotation starting pitcher, it is very likely to find an equal number of observers who feel that is an “at best” scenario.
Invariably, the divide on Williams comes down to “stuff.” Specifically, whether or not he has it. Certainly, capable starting pitchers have gotten by on less -- Rich Hill, he of the curveball and four seam exclusive combo, comes to mind -- but unless that “less” is actually “more” in the way of a plus pitch (like Hill’s dazzling curveball), remaining effective becomes something more akin to a tightrope act rather than something that can be relied upon.
Did Williams’ tightrope — if indeed that is his ultimate fate — snap beginning with May? It’s hard to say. More time and a larger sample size is likely needed to determine if these last handful of starts are indicative of anything.
But what I can tell you is that Williams is still trying to figure out how his pitches play off of each other.
Here, we see Williams’ pitch selection the 1st time through and second time through, by count. I have circled three two strike counts in which his usage is very close to the same in both laps through a batting order.
And, imagine that...the four-seam fastball still plays with the most frequency.
If we look at the pitch breakdown by counts, this is what we are left with:
Is it any wonder why hitters can key in on his tendencies when seeing him a second time?
The encouraging thing is that this is a new problem for Williams. For the entirety of his 150.1 innings pitched last season, hitters mustered a miserable .214/.262/.311 slash against him when seeing his stuff a second time to go along with a 3.14 Strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Not so coincidentally, we see a much tighter range of pitches by count during the second time through from 2017:
While the fastball was still dominant, there was certainly enough of a mix there to keep hitters a bit more honest.
A better pitch mix is not the only answer for Williams, but his usage the second time through the order specifically can explain away how his pendulum of performance swung so profoundly once the calendar flipped to May.