Last year when Felipe Vazquez n e Rivero entered a game, it was a happening, especially once he mercifully took over closer duties from Tony Watson. You knew you were going to see one grown man embarrass another grown man with a frightening amount of velocity.
When MLB had that weekend where the players got to give themselves nicknames on their jerseys, there was no nickname more fitting than Rivero’s ‘Nightmare’. 2017 Rivero put up a historic season in Pirates’ history and I considered him either the 2nd or 3rd best closer in MLB.
Apparently, so did Neal Huntington, which led to the somewhat surprising series of moves on both sides to lock then-Rivero up with a 4 year/$22M deal. The deal was so great that Rivero celebrated by changing his name to Felipe Vazquez, which was…kinda weird and a little creepy.
But in 2018, something has not been as dominant for Felipe Vazquez. He’s appeared mortal more often than not. Like the rest of his bullpen compatriots, his appearances are nail biting and not automatic like they were last year.
His velocities across the board are all down at least 1 mph from 2017, with his most fearsome pitch — the 4-seamer — down 1.5 mph. That’s a big year-over-year drop for a guy in his prime.
Occam’s Razor says that he’s hurt. After his 3rd consecutive blown save in a game against the Cardinals, Vazquez complained of forearm tightness. That’s typically a precursor to Tommy John surgery, so…swell. Then the next game that he appeared against the Cubs, he blew a wide variety of cheddar over the plate at 100 mph.
Vazquez was a terror on the edges of the strike zone last year, but in 2018 his command has not been as sharp. This is evident in two stats from Baseball Savant — Edge% and the wonderfully-named Meatball%. Let’s look at just his 2017 and 2018 rates for these two:
As you can see, he’s missing the edges of the strike zone by a 4% difference over last year. This correspondingly is leading to a rise in his Meatball% from 8.5 to 9.5%. If you didn’t click the link above on the seminal work defining Meatballs, it’s pitches in the middle-middle from belt to thigh. Also, take a gander at the first pitch swing percentage, up nearly an astounding 10% to 41.4%. Batters have basically decided en masse, ‘we better swing at the first pitch because that’s our best chance.’
What can be the cause of this velocity drop and his decreased ability to paint the corners ? My first thought was that something is off with his mechanics. This graph from Brooks Baseball seems to confirm that working theory:
The drop in his vertical release point from 2017 to 2018 is indicating a change in his mechanics. By not being as on top of the ball as in 2017, that could be a reason for his velocity loss across the board. All three of his main pitches are very tightly clustered this year, as well, which got me thinking of this second-tier theory:
Is Felipe Vazquez, either on his own or under the guidance of the Pirates, experimenting with pitch tunneling ? Up until Trevor Bauer, Gerrit Cole’s best friend from UCLA, came on the scene, pitch tunneling was a fringe theory. Essentially it says that if you release all of your pitches from the same point, the batter can’t as easily discern what’s a fastball and what’s an offspeed pitch.
In the year 2018, though, pitch tunneling is en vogue from many pitchers other than Bauer. It’s no longer relegated to the weirdo bin of pitching science. If Vazquez has been doing this, it hasn’t been working. Perhaps his 100 mph display this week was his signal that he’s returning back to what worked for him in 2017.
As I’m writing this, Vazquez is spraying his gasoline can all of the diamond at Busch Stadium, en route to coughing up a 3-run lead and giving the Pirates a come-from-ahead loss. He gave up 5 runs without getting an out in the 10-8 loss. Take a look at this spicy 96-mph meatball he served up on the first pitch to rookie Yairo Munoz on the game-winning homer:
For the Pirates to make any modicum of noise in the NL Central against the stiff competition of the Brewers, Cardinals, and Cubs, Felipe Vazquez needs to be the nightmare-inducing presence he was in 2017. Hopefully his sister tells him it’s OK to start being dominant again and not alter his mechanics anymore.