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Hitters are winning early against Felipe Vazquez

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Hitters are attacking Pittsburgh Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez early

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez has looked awfully unsteady at times this season. In order for him to bring an end to it, he may have to go back to the beginning.

It’s not as if Felipe Vazquez is a complete liability for the PIttsburgh Pirates.

He has 13 saves — should you care about that sort of thing — while carrying a 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s striking out 25 percent of his batters and inducing a career-low hard contact rate of 21 percent.

So why have Pirates fans lost faith in him?

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There is the 11.7 percent walk rate for starters, up a full five percentage points from his 6.7 percent rate in 2017. It could be a 1.55 WHIP.

That 2.13 SO/W figure earlier is also down from his 4.40 mark last season, not so coincidentally accompanied by a reduced strikeout rate (his 2017 figure came in at 29.3 percent).

There is also the possibility that reality and perception are complete and total strangers when it comes to Vazquez’s 2018 campaign.

In reality, while Vazquez has only allowed earned runs in five of 29 appearances, those five outings have been rough. He has allowed four earned runs in two of the five, which are rounded out by an outing with three, an outing with two and a one run outing.

Those five games underscore the feeling among fans and observers that something is...off. There has been talk that Vazquez has been tipping pitches. The velocity has been down at times even if it’s not reflected in his season-long view (Vazquez’s four-seam fastballs is just 1.02 mph down on average for all of 2018). Some are absolutely convinced he is injured.

With so many potential explainers for Vazquez’s ‘meh’ season to date, I turned to someone who watches Vazquez...and nearly every other pitcher in MLB very closely.

Rob Friedman, aka @PitchingNinja is baseball twitter’s foremost pitching expert. He provides pitching junkies like myself with their daily fix by tweeting fantastic gifs of pitch tunneling, nasty stuff and so much more. If that wasn’t enough, he collects these gifs and maintains them all in a single dropbox, which you should not click on unless you have a considerable amount of time to waste.

I asked Rob if he was seeing anything, mechanical or otherwise, that would lead to this perception of ineffectiveness that seems to have just cropped up this season.

The thing about Vazquez is that I’m not sure how much of it’s mental too. Some of his comments seem to reflect that he listens to fans comments and has had confidence issues before. That just leads to slumps. Dellin Betances went through similar stuff, IMO.

There may be something to what Rob is saying here. We remember the kerfuffle from earlier this season when Vazquez did not feel able to enter a game, as well as the various comments here and there that suggest he is listening to fans and outside voices more than he perhaps should.

As for tipping pitches, Rob did notice something when comparing wrist/grips on Vazquez's breaking ball and fastball:

(LEFT: Slider; RIGHT: Four-Seam Fastball)

Notice the wrist grips. As Rob pointed out to me:

“..Flat wrist with fastball, preset grip with the breaking ball..so, theoretically, a batter could see that, if they were looking for it.”

The Pittsburgh Pirates have acknowledged that they too believe that Vazquez was tipping pitches, and have likely already seen this — and perhaps something else — and have corrected it.

Rob also noted that he did not see anything mechanically different from Vazquez year-over-year, but re-iterated the mental aspects that Vazquez may be struggling with:

Pitching is very much a mental thought. If you lose your invincibility or start thinking too much, it can really mess you up. You start listening to everyone regarding fixes and what might be wrong, changing things, and all of a sudden it’s a mess.

Baseball analysts will cringe at this statement (because they can’t fully quantify it) but it rings true. Without any major changes in mechanics or overall peripherals, why does Vazquez feel less invincible than last season?

Pitch pairs suggest bigger issues

Talking about pitch mix is only useful to an extent.

Certainly we have done a lot of it here at Bucs Dugout and elsewhere.

But to really get into quantifying what a pitcher throws and when, looking at pitch sequencing — and pairings of pitches — is a much more useful endeavor.

If we look at how Vazquez is pairing up his pitches, disturbing trends are afoot.

First, let’s look at his three most popular pitch pairings in 2018 against both right-handed h itters and left-handed hitters.

Vazquez Pitch Pairs - 2018

Batter Handedness Most Popular 2nd Most Popular 3rd Most Popular
Batter Handedness Most Popular 2nd Most Popular 3rd Most Popular
RHH FA-FA - (116) FA-CH - (55) CH-FA - (52)
LHH FA-FA - (16) SL-FA - (8) FA-SL - (7)

Next, we’ll repeat that same exercise for 2017:

Vazquez Pitch Pairs - 2017

Batter Handedness Most Popular 2nd Most Popular 3rd Most Popular
Batter Handedness Most Popular 2nd Most Popular 3rd Most Popular
RHH FA-FA - (190) FA-CH - (103) CH-FA - (97)
LHH FA-FA - (104) FA-SL - (39) SL-FA - (31)

Everything that is old is new again it seems. Save for a flip-flop on when the slider is seen most against left-handed hitters, things are pretty much status quo year over year.

Relievers can get by with two pitches. Relievers who throw consistent heat and follow it up with an unfair changeup that can hit 90 mph can definitely get by, but relievers who throw two pitches almost exclusively at the same times can and will lose that effectiveness as hitters get more familiar.

Because Vazquez’s right-left sample size is split so dramatically, I dug deeper into these pairings against right handed hitters. I found that 65.4 percent of the FA-FA and 82.5 percent of the FA-CH pairs come within the first three pitches of any at-bat.

Let’s look at how the fastball against RHH within the first three pitches of an at bat looks for both 2017 and 2018:

Sweet-spot, anyone? Rivero’s fastball offerings within the first three pitches of an at-bat are more or less offered up on a silver platter for any competent right handed major league hitter to tee off on.

Now, this does not necessarily mean that Rivero should be getting tagged much more than he is. Rivero’s four-seam is full of life, with career best marks of 5.69 and 8.19 inches of horizontal and vertical movement, respectively. And, obviously, he is still hitting the zone.

Need more convincing that this isn’t a huge problem? Ok, take a look at some plate discipline peripherals year over year:

Vazquez - Selected Plate Discipline Peripherals

Year Swinging Strike % F-Strike % Zone %
Year Swinging Strike % F-Strike % Zone %
2017 15.80% 58.00% 50.70%
2018 14.20% 62.50% 49.70%

These are pretty similar numbers across the board, and Vazquez actually has improved in starting an at-bat off with strike one...a fact which does not necessarily jive with the title of this post.

However, it is fair to wonder if hitters are “calibrating” themselves to Vazquez’s offerings by swinging earlier in counts.

Vazquez - swung at first pitch peripherals

Year PA AVG OBP SLG SO/W
Year PA AVG OBP SLG SO/W
2017 97 .202 .216 .298 10.50
2018 52 .306 .346 .388 5.33

This table shows the final result of at-bats in which a hitter swung at the first pitch in the at-bat. It does not indicate the results of that swing (though that is included), but the cumulative stats of a scenario in which a batter offers at the first pitch.

Looking at this data, combined with the regularity in locations on the fastball seen earlier, it is my belief that hitters are “calibrating” themselves against Vazquez’s stuff by swinging earlier in an at-bat.

This too, is not so quantifiable other than a five percent jump in zone swing rate against Vazquez (a robust 74.2 percent, up from 69.9 last season).

To get a bit more perspective, I spoke with a pro scout who verified that my guess carries some weight.

“Believe it or not, you’re on to something. This is what people mean when they say that hitters should be more aggressive at times. If someone is shoving fastball-fastball-fastball down your throat, throwing a swing at it early helps you on the next swing, and so on. It does NOT mean everything, but it is something that is taught against certain types of throwers.”

It would seem that for Felipe Vazquez to regain that aura of invincibility, he might need to re-center his approach mentally, as well as alter his approach in the early stages of the battle between hitter and pitcher.