Mat Latos and His Slow Start

Well before the Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips contracts this season, the Reds announced their intent to contend (or try to, at least) in the near term by trading a significant haul of prospect value and major league arm Edinson Volquez to the San Diego Padres for top starter Mat Latos back in mid-December.  While he benefitted from the favorable PETCO Park, Latos was hardly a product of the pitcher’s haven seeing minimal (if any in some cases) degradation in his numbers away from home.

He posted a 3.22 ERA in 190 innings at home while toting a 3.57 ERA in 249 road innings.  His WHIP was actually a tick better while his strikeout and walk rates were nearly identical regardless of venue.  Armed with a bat-missing arsenal and a groundball lean, I was definitely on the high end of the spectrum when it came to projecting Latos for 2012.  After three starts, things aren’t looking so good.  Time to readjust expectations or simply a slow start for an ultra-talented arm?  Let’s take a closer look.

Slow Starter

Latos is starting his third full year as a major leaguer in 2012 and in his two 31-start seasons the last two years, he has shown himself to be a perennial slow starter posting a 5.57 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 42 April innings.  Adding in his three starts from this year, the numbers balloon to a 6.28 ERA and 1.54 WHIP in 57 April innings.  Meanwhile, May is his best month from an ERA and WHIP standpoint.

Regardless of whether or not you include his 2012 numbers, April is far and away the worst month for Latos.  History alone suggests he should improve once the calendar turns or rather, as he accumulates more work to iron out the kinks.

Velocity

With Pitch F/X data more prevalent than ever, the first data point most people check when a pitcher is struggling is fastball velocity.  It can often be an explanation for a downgrade in performance as well as be an indication of potential injury in some instances.  In the case of Latos, velocity doesn’t appear to be tied to his struggles in any way whatsoever.

In 2010, his April velocity (93.8 MPH) was actually better than his velocity the rest of the way (93.6 MPH), though just marginally.  He got a late start to 2011 accumulating just 10 Spring Training innings and then not starting until the 9th game of the year due to a strained right shoulder.  Thus it wasn’t really a surprise that his April velocity (92.0 MPH) was a tick below his 92.8 MPH mark from May on.  Through his three starts this year, his fastball velocity is right in line with 2011’s at 92.7 MPH.  In fact, he was at 93.7 MPH on Wednesday night and 76 of 112 pitches were heaters.  Velocity isn’t the problem for Latos.

Pitch Performance

While the velocity isn’t askew, the quality of his fastball early on has been in question.  Batters are tattooing the pitch to the tune of a 1.197 OPS and it hasn’t been nearly the put away pitch it was last year when he generated a 13.6% strikeout rate with it compared to just 7.5% this year (just to clear up any potential confusion, this means plate appearances that end with a fastball are yielding a strikeout 7.5% of time).  Even with the lowered velocity, his fastball was more effective last April though it was still not to the level he would enjoy from May on.  It yielded an .815 OPS last April but dipped to .752 the rest of the way.

More important than the fastball, his slider (which is easily his best pitch) hasn’t been as effective as usual thus far in terms of inducing poor contact.  The pitch earned 13.2 and 10.5 pitch values at FanGraphs in 2010 and 2011, but it’s at -1.3 through his first two starts and will likely go down once they factor in the results from Wednesday night’s start in St. Louis.  In 2010 and 2011 combined, the slider yielded a paltry .409 OPS while amassing an insane 41.8% strikeout rate.  It’s his finisher and while he has an excellent 42.9% strikeout rate with it so far this year, it is also being hit around to a .714 OPS, astronomical for that pitch when you compare it to rest of Latos’ career.

Perhaps he needs to start incorporating more sliders into his pitch mix.  He has thrown it 15.8% of the time so far this season, down a bit from the 18.6% rate in 2010 and 2011 combined.  Last April his changeup was getting blasted to a 1.214 OPS.  He was using it 12.4% and cut that by 5% from May on giving all of the excess to his slider (going from 15.2% to 20%) and it clearly spurred his success as batters had a video game-esque .338 OPS against it from May on.

He is currently throwing his changeup at an equal rate to the slider (15.8%) and while it’s not being pummeled like last year, it isn’t faring too well at .819 OPS.

Conclusion

The information available seems to suggest that Latos simply takes a while to get going.  There is nothing that jumps out in his data that points toward a prolonged degradation in performance or worse, an injury.  Some pitchers just stumble out of the block before turning it on.  While I’m not comparing the two directly, Justin Verlander had notoriously awful Aprils heading into 2011.

He made a concerted effort to work harder in Spring Training and treat those like important games instead of just tune ups so he would be ready on Opening Day.  The results were immediate as he posted 3.64 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 9.2 K/9 in 42 April innings last year.  Even with the strong April last year and great start this year, his April line is still ugly compared to the rest of his numbers: 4.45 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 7.7 K/9.

If you have Latos on your team, you have to stay the course and give him time otherwise you are doing yourself a disservice and wasting your draft day investment.  The peripherals are weak and the surface stats are even worse, but weathering April before breaking through is Latos’ modus operandi.  As for those of you who don’t currently have him on the roster, he makes a nice trade target who may even come at a discounted price.

I don’t like the practice of looking at struggling stars in April and labeling every single one a “buy low” as I don’t think anyone with any knowledge of how to play this game is actually putting a severe discount on Tim Lincecum or Matt Holliday to name a couple.  The price was simply too high on draft day and cutting bait for pennies on the dollar after half a month is just stupid for the current manager and a pipedream if you’re the buying manager.

Latos isn’t exactly on the level of those two (24th and 36th picks, respectively), but he’s star-ish as a top 70 pick in average draft position and so you shouldn’t go in expecting someone to completely cut their losses and take Joe Saunders or Omar Infante for him.  Maybe they will take someone in the 90-105 ADP range which would be a nice little discount, but even at draft day cost (someone in the 65-75 ADP range), Latos is worth buying in on because it is plenty reasonable to expect him to improve soon and stay good for the remainder of the season.

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One Comment to “Mat Latos and His Slow Start”

  1. How about offering up Lance Lynn for Latos? His hot start (and RP eligibility in a H2H league) might make the Latos owner bite. You like or no?

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