Sabermetrics & Psychoanalysis: Surviving the Sophomore Slump

According to Verducci, this is who we should have been worrying about at this time last season:

As you can see, several young pitchers suffered significant regressions between 2010 and 2011, but several were roughly as good or got even better. I’m going to confine my analysis to the pitchers who most resemble Pineda in that they a.) were entering their second full season, b.) were premium prospects, c.) possessed a power pitcher’s arsenal, and d.) were promoted in their early twenties. The only pitchers who really fit the bill are Madison Bumgarner, Brett Cecil, and Mat Latos. Very little insight can be gained from Bumgarner, who was a more refined product than Pineda when he reached the majors and has thusfar had little or no problem adjusting. How the other two fared, however, will seem familiar and, perhaps, foreboding to Yankees fans.

After leading the Blue Jays in wins in 2010, Cecil came to camp in 2011 noticeably overweight and with a fastball velocity at least 5 MPH under his ’10 norm. The Jays kept him in the rotation to start the season, but he didn’t last long. After four starts in which he yielded 16 earned runs in 21 innings, Cecil was demoted. During his horrendous April, Cecil’s fastball was topping out at barely 90 MPH. When he returned to the Toronto rotation in July, his velocity was improved, though still not what it had been. He had a nice little stretch during the summer, posting a 2.95 ERA over nine starts. However, he seemed to fatigue again down the stretch, returning to the same bad habits with the same bad results (6.12 ERA in his last six starts).

Cecil and the Jays framed the narrative of his sophomore season around his poor offseason conditioning and, thus, have been promoting the fact that he lost thirty pounds coming into 2012. However, while I can’t deny that his weight may have been a factor, it seems the loss of confidence was as much of a problem as anything. Cecil, probably as a response to concerns about his velocity, varied from the approach which had made him successful in 2010. During his first full season, Cecil threw “hard stuff” – fastballs, sinkers, and sliders – 70.5% of the time. He got away from this habit in 2011, increasingly relying on his changeup, at the expense of his fastball and slider. This loss of faith, I believe, had material consequences:

FB=Fastball, CH=Changeup, SI=Sinker, SL=Slider, CU=Curve

The table above shows how Cecil’s pitch distributions changed from 2010 to 2011, but also, perhaps more importantly, how they differed in his five best and five worst starts (according to Game Scores). As you can see, while Cecil’s velocity is lower in his worst outings, he seems to be overcompensating by altogether abandoning the fastball. It is thus impossible to tell whether it is the lack of velocity which creates his problems or merely the change of strategy. Opposing hitters undoubtedly sit on his offspeed pitches when he overexposes them. I suspect that were Cecil to stick with his fastball, regardless of its velocity, he would’ve been more effective. Take, for instance, a middling start against the Angels in August. Cecil’s velocity that day was well below even his 2011 average. He never topped 90.3 MPH with any pitch, yet he continued to throw them all, going with the fastball and sinker 47% of the time. Despite not having his best stuff, he was able to stick around for seven full frames, allowing a respectable four earned runs in a game the Jays would go on to win. Alternatively, in his next start against the Angels, on a day he had similar velocity problems, he threw the fastball and sinker only 20% of the time and got badgered from the game after just three innings.

The lesson here, as I see it, is that the Yankees coaching staff, despite their worries about Pineda’s waning velocity and his need to establish his changeup, need to make sure he doesn’t get too far away from doing what he does best, which is attack hitters with the cheese (he threw fastballs over 60% of the time in 2010). It needs to be kept in perspective that Pineda was one of the five hardest-throwing starters in the majors last season. Many power pitchers get by with a lot less. In all likelihood, he could lose a couple MPH and suffer very little, so long as he doesn’t let it bother him. Moreover, it seems probable that his velocity will improve, assuming he’s not injured, as he continues to work up his arm strength by pounding the fastball.

Which brings me to the case of Mat Latos. Like Cecil, Latos had a much-publicized problem with velocity during Spring Training following the 2010 season. And, like Cecil, he limped out of the gate, dropping his first five decisions and failing to get through the sixth inning in four of his first seven starts. During this stretch his average fastball velocity was down 3 MPH from the previous season. At a low point in April, like Cecil, he seems to have lost confidence in his fastball. He relied heavily on his slider during a loss to the Phillies and issued five walks in four innings.

But, unlike Cecil, Latos and the Padres stayed the course. He didn’t get pulled from the rotation. He didn’t give up on his bread and butter. And he didn’t make the same mistake again for the rest of the season. He stuck with the approach that had been so successful the previous year and, slowly, his velocity crept back. In his first 8 starts he posted a 4.60 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, and 2.39 K/BB. His average fastball velocity was only about 92 MPH, and rarely peaked above 95. In his final 23 starts, he posted a 3.13 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and 3.23 K/BB. He finished the season with an absolutely dominant September, during which he went 3-1 with a 1.96 ERA and 8.40 K/BB. His best start of the year, according to Game Score, was his last one, during which his average fastball was 94 and, at times, touched 97.

I fear that if Pineda has a few early failures, the ensuing media storm and the availability of replacements like Andy Pettitte and Freddy Garcia, will compel the Yankees to a demotion or, worse yet, a change of approach, which could be detrimental both to Pineda’s long-term development and the overall performance of the team in 2012. Pineda may take a few lumps in April and May, but, if he can learn a lesson from Latos and trust his fastball even in its imperfections, he will be ready to do his best pitching when it matters most.

Matt teaches at The University of Alabama. Roll Tide. He specializes in American Literature and Rhetorical Economics. Fate chose for him the peculiar perdition of rooting for the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Clippers.

2 thoughts on “Sabermetrics & Psychoanalysis: Surviving the Sophomore Slump

  1. BrienJackson

    [insert reminder that there is NO actual evidence to support the theory of the Verducci effect]

  2. Guest

    Latos got the chance to work through his difficulties because he plays for the Padres. Can or will the Yankees be that patient?

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