To say that Jonny Venters is having a hard year is an understatement. His 4.45 ERA and 4.86 FIP look more like what we expected from Chad Durbin than what we expected from the man who has contributed +3.4 WAR over his last two seasons. I'm not proposing any definite answers in this post, but thought I'd bring up some points I found interesting. I hope it will lead to a positive discussion. Dave Cameron recently wrote a similar post on Tim Lincecum.
Our best metrics don't even know what to think of him. Consider: 4.45 ERA, 4.86 FIP vs. 3.03 xFIP, 2.76 SIERA. Based on SIERA alone, Venters has been one of the better relievers this year. The gap seems to be coming from the number of home runs Venters has allowed. Following his homer allowed today, Venters HR/FB% is up to an astounding 42.9%. We know that this is not sustainable; but before we follow xFIP and give Venters credit for a league average home run rate, I wanted to see if his homers were "bad luck" homers. When I say "bad luck" here I mean it in a more broadcaster-friendly sense. Did he throw a good pitch that just happened to get knocked out of the park?
Here are the pitch locations for the at bats leading to home runs in 2012. All images courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
I have a hard time classifying any of these as "bad luck" pitches. They're all up in the zone and near the middle of the plate. As with Cameron's article on Lincecum, what conclusion are we to draw from this? Can we rely on xFIP for his future performance -- is his home run rate going to drop back to league average?
This was actually my first thought. Yes, Venters is throwing some bad pitches and they're getting creamed. But he should turn it around, and the home run rate will drop accordingly. I went digging through Venters' location heat maps to compare 2012 with his great years in 2011 and 2010, expecting to find that his pitch location this year is the source of his problems. What I found surprised me.
(If anyone knows a way to combine heap maps, please let me know. For now I'm splitting them by pitch and by batter handedness.)
Venter's sinker vs RHB & LHB from 2010 - 2012, courtesy of FanGraphs.
And his slider from 2010 - 2012
It seems to me that Venters has always thrown a lot of pitches to the middle of the plate. Sometimes they sink below it, or just to the bottom of the strike zone, but his sinkers often stayed right in the heart of the plate. Though we're dealing with a smaller sample in 2012 than the other years, I don't see an extreme difference in pitch location.
Running with my tentative conclusion that his pitch location isn't the sole reason for his 2012 results, could his diminished velocity and movement be the primary culprit?
According to TexasLeaguers Pitch/FX, from 2010-2011 Venters' sinker averaged 95 mph, and his slider 85.5. The sinker had 2.70 "vertical" movement and 9.76 horizontal movement, the slider -2.74 and -1.58. For 2012, his sinker has averaged 94 and his slider has stayed at 85.5. The sinker has had 3.39 "vertical" movement -- meaning it's "rising" more, never a good thing for a sinker, and the slider is at -1.75 vertical and -2.73 horizontal, essentially flipping the numbers from past seasons.
So -- what to make of all this? Does a drop in velocity coupled with a change in pitch movement mean Venters can get away with pitches in the middle of the zone less frequently than in the past? With poorer movement and velocity, hitters may be picking up on the fat pitches and putting them in play, rather than swinging through them or fouling them off. I'd like to hear what everyone thinks.
All I know is that I want this guy back..