By all surface measures, Felipe Vazquez looks to be having an even better season than his first two full seasons as a Pirate. And that sure is saying something, considering how he put up 2.2 WAR in 2017 and 2.1 WAR in 2018. By my rule of thumb that you triple a reliever’s WAR to equate to a starter’s WAR, Vazquez was essentially a 6 WAR ace-level reliever.
His K% has increased from 29.3% in 2017 to 30.1% in 2018 to a huge leap of 39.1% so far in 2019. His ERA/FIP mix is 0.00/0.53, so it’s pretty hard to improve on that. And he’s painting masterpieces in the strike zone like this work from April 19th against the Giants:
? Alex Stumpf (@AlexJStumpf) April 20, 2019
It’s been a thrill to watch him absolutely lock down games for the Pirates in the 9th. He’s even dropped into the 8th inning three times this season when Clint Hurdle has decided he wanted his best reliever to throttle a lineup.
But there have been some subtle changes beneath the surface, if you look deep enough at his pitching profile. Here’s a cutout from Statcast on his pitch usage from 2017 to 2019:
There’s a lot to unpack here. First, take note of his spin rates by each pitch and how they’ve near uniformly increased across the board these past three seasons. In essence, each pitch is up about 100 rpm since 2017. That’s really good.
But check out his slider usage for 2019. After throwing 97 and 91 sliders the past two years, Vazquez has already thrown 29. An extrapolated total of around 180 would be nearly double his previous totals. And while it used to be deployed mostly about left-handed batters, Vazquez is using it more against right-handers to start the season. Take a look at the hitting stats for just the slider pitch in 2017 and 2018.
- 2017 — 1 for 29 (.034 AVG/.034 SLG)
- 2018 — 1 for 32 (.031 AVG/.031 SLG)
If Rob Manfred truly wanted to speed up the game time in baseball, he could have proclaimed that all lefties in 2017-18 had to forfeit their at-bats against Vazquez. But in 2019, batters are already 2 for 9 against his slider for a ‘gaudy’ .222 AVG/.222 SLG. Note that in none of these sample bins has a batter had an extra-base hit against Vazquez’s slider.
Now allow me to show you the same stats, but for left-handed batters only:
Both of the hits against his slider have come from left-handed batters. Taking into account the two hits off his fastball by lefties, that’s four hits this year given up to same siders. After giving up 7 and 11 hits in 2017 and 2018, respectively, Vazquez has had a rough first month by his standards against a group of hitters that previously just flailed away at his offerings.
So who hit the pitches and did they work for it ? First let’s look at ‘who’ the lefties were that hit him:
- March 31 — Joey Votto, 95 mph FB, 2B
- April 10 — Jason Heyward, 85 mph SL, 1B
- April 12 — Juan Soto, 98 mph FB, 2B
- April 14 — Adam Eaton, 88 mph SL, 1B
Those are some very good Major League hitters plus Jason Heyward. Now let’s see ‘where’ the pitches were thrown. First up is Vazquez v. Votto on March 31:
That’s a 95 mph FB midzone, albeit inside, so it’s not unexpected that a hitter of Joey Votto’s caliber can turn on that and drive it. Next up is Vazquez v. Heyward on April 10:
Look, Jason Heyward or not, that’s a really good pitch. It’s a little slower at 85 mph than a typical Vazquez slider, but low and away to a left-hander should have been plenty good. Heyward got a single out of it.
Next up is April 12, the case of Vazquez v. Soto:
Juan Soto, sniper. One pitch, one kill. That’s a 98 mph FB low and in and he drove it for a double. A tip of the cap, young man, to you.
And finally, here’s Vazquez v. Eaton:
Ruthless efficiency again by Eaton of the Nationals. This time, it was an 88 mph slider that didn’t slide, so this was a meatball ready to be consumed. Luckily, it only resulted in a single.
Yes, it’s still early, but it’s not early enough that we can’t glean some information already. The Pirates slider-heavy approach has percolated down to the Nightmare, as well. What was once an unstoppable crusher of morale may be suffering a touch from overexposure here in April. Perhaps by reverting back to some more judicious usage, it can go back to stealing the souls of left-handers again. It’s not like his fastball and changeup weren’t already causing left-handed batters to question their career choices.