On Thursday, Blue Jays’ pitcher Carlos Villanueva out pitched Matt Moore with a 1.27 FIP and 2.73 xFIP. Matt Moore pitched pretty well other than a short lapse in control. However, Villanueva pitched better, at one point striking out 6 straight Rays. This year, Villanueva has gotten some attention thanks to a shiny ERA (3.10 after his start against the Rays), but has been off the radar for a lot of the season. After beginning the season in the bullpen, Villanueva has actually been more effective in the rotation (3.76 FIP versus 4.96 FIP). With the injuries the Blue Jays have suffered in the rotation this year, it was important for another pitcher to step up for the Jays.
Before Thursday, just 50 of his 295 career appearances have been starts. Those 50 starts actually haven’t gone that well, with a 4.73 FIP and just 6.34 K/9IP. So why has he been better this year? Is he eventually going to regress back to the mean, or has he changed in some way that allows him to have future success?
He has never been a guy that has thrown hard. This year, he is averaging just 89 MPH with his fastball, which is dreadful for a right-handed pitcher. However, he has always relied on movement, and not just on his fastball:
He tries to (he has always been this way, there really isn’t much difference in movement from year to year) make up for his fastball by sinking it, cutting it, and moving it. Here is how he compares to Jered Weaver, another right-hander who doesn’t have the fastball velocity to throw it straight :
As you can see, Weaver is better, and please do not interpret that I am saying that Villanueva is the next Jered Weaver or that he is a comparable pitcher to Weaver.
It may actually be helpful to compare him to two of the most average pitchers in baseball (according to FIP- and FIP), Joe Saunders and Trevor Cahill.
So as you can see, Villanueva has better vertical movement but probably inferior horizontal movement. These charts give you some hope that he can be a league average starter.
One thing I really noticed an backdoor it to lefty and they won’t swing at it. Rare moving fastball that doesn’t look nearly as good low (he was struggling to throw it for strikes when he threw it low).
The average right-handed pitcher gives up a .750 OPS against lefties, or .046 more than they give up when they have a platoon advantage. For his career, Villanueva’s difference is just .019 (although the platoon split has been much more pronounced this year, walking a lot more lefties and giving up a lot more homers). This and the change appear to be pitches that would help him neutralize lefties consistently. His changeup has quite a bit of movement on it, and he can throw it for quality strikes and bury it in the dirt. According to pitch values, it has been his 2nd best pitch in his career. This is the first year that it has a negative value, which I find hard to believe, as it didn’t look like a negative pitch on Thursday.
His slider has been the best pitch by pitch values and has been the pitch that he has gotten the most whiffs on (at least by percentage) in his career. This surprised me a little bit, as it didn’t look great on Thursday and he didn’t throw it that often (I have obviously seen Villanueva pitch before, this year even, but I would rather not rely on hazy memory from starts I didn’t write anything down).
The curveball is his 3rd best pitch (out of 4 or 6, depending on how you divide the fastballs) according to whiff rate in his career (this year he has actually gotten more whiffs, by percentage, with the sinker according to Brooks Baseball). Like most decent to good breaking curves, he can get chases with it when he throws it in the dirt. However, he can throw it for strikes and seems too proud of that fact. This causes it to hang from time to time. This is something he can’t do too often or (as the base hit by Ben Zobrist in the 6th showed) it gets hammered. However, he must be controlling it pretty well as hitters are hitting under the Mendoza line on it this year with a mediocre .121 ISO. When he is getting hit, it is almost always on his fastball (although his changeup has been hit hard according to BA/SLG in his career).
Something that I noticed was that in the middle innings he could throw any pitch he wanted to start the count and throw it for a strike. When he is ahead in the count, especially with 2 strikes, he likes to throw his slider. His changeup is what he goes to when he is behind usually. He would throw the changeup to righties as well as lefties, not limiting it to a pitch he would throw just to lefties (most pitchers like to use the changeup almost exclusively to hitters that they do not have the platoon advantage with).
Carlos Villanueva is a free agent at the end of the year. Not only do the Blue Jays have to make a decision on whether he is worth bringing back, they will have to compete with other teams who believe that he is worth bringing in. Whether this stretch is the real Villanueva or not, he will most likely be paid for it. He certainly has the array of pitches that leads me to believe he can be a decent starter in the Majors (he even mixes in a mid-60s eephus pitch every once in a while). However, the lack of velocity really hurts his stock. He has always given up a lot of homers, and with that velocity in the AL East, he will continue do so. He has never been that effective as a reliever (most likely because he is a pitcher that relies on different off-speed pitches with a not very good fastball), and has seen extreme fluctuation in strikeout rate. That really scares me. I wouldn’t count on him being a league average starter in the big leagues going forward, although he could be an adequate one that could eat innings in the back of your rotation.