I am chronically a year early on players. As the 2012 seasons unfolds, we get a chance to see who I was early on last year. One such case has been Washington Nationals starter Ross Detwiler: see here and here. I’m not exactly sure why I’m so often early, but Detwiler is hardly the first example (I was all over Matt Kemp for 2010 to name another, and thankfully I stayed the course for 2011). OK, enough semi-humblebragging. Better to be early than late, right?
The 26-year old southpaw was 6th overall pick in the 2007 out of Missouri State University. He actually made his major league debut that September throwing a clean inning against the Atlanta Braves. He spent all of 2008 in the minors, but then spent the next two years split between the minors and majors, though his 2010 season was cut short due to a busted hip. He struggled to bring his minor league success (2.78 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 8.2 K/9 and 2.8 K/BB in 120 IP) to majors putting together a modest 105 innings with a 4.78 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, 5.1 K/9 and 1.3 K/BB primarily as a starter with some bullpen work sprinkled in, too.
Part of the issue was that his 2.78 ERA in the minors during those two years likely skewed expectations toward the high side since his FIP outputs were significantly higher at each stop. Even the peripherals likely raised expectations for Detwiler since the composite was pretty strong, but his work in AAA was a good bit below the total with a 7.3 K/9 and 2.1 K/BB. Lefties as a whole can often take a bit longer to develop than their right-handed counterparts, though, so I kept faith in Detwiler heading into last year. He showed some signs in 2011 finally cutting into his hit rate at 8.6 H/9, a career-best for any season whether in the minors or majors.
He has accumulated another 105 innings since the start of 2011 posting a 2.91 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 5.9 K/9 and 2.3 K/BB with this year’s strikeout and walk rates improving again to 6.4 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 (2.8 K/BB). What has spurred the emergence of the promising 26-year old and more importantly, can he sustain it?
Detwiler is a four-pitch pitcher relying predominantly on his sinker and four-seamer and balancing them out with a curveball and changeup. For his career, he has used the sinker 42% of the time, the four-seamer 29%, the curveball 15% and the changeup 14%.
That general split has held relatively firm every year save 2010 when he was throwing the four-seamer at 38% and the sinker just 26% while both secondary pitches were up at 18%. This year he has shifted a bit taking 5% from the changeup and dispensing it to the four-seamer (now 32%) and curveball (17%), which is his best secondary pitch. This shift has played a role in his success and based on what we have seen, even more curveball usage going forward would likely be a good thing for Detwiler.
From 2009-2010, Detwiler was an 89-92 MPH guy with his fastballs with the ability to touch 93-94 MPH every now and then. His sinker was 88-91 MPH while the four-seamer was 91-92 MPH. In 2010 when he was using the four-seamer more than ever, it was actually at its slowest, registering a 90.7 MPH average. His changeup sat 83-84 MPH for those two seasons while his curveball was a slow curve sitting 76-77 MPH.
Since 2011 he has seen a rise in velocity with all of his pitches. The four-seamer now operates 93-95 MPH with 96+ in his back pocket when he needs it. The sinker is up to 91-93 MPH now, too. Meanwhile the slow curve has become more of a power curve elevating from 76-77 MPH in 2009-2010 to 79-81 MPH the last two years.
His changeup sat 83-84 MPH previously, but now resides 84-86 MPH. He has always had about an 8.5 MPH split between the fastball and changeup except for 2010 when his four-seamer velocity dipped. That year showed just a 7.7 MPH split.
The uptick in velocity since 2011 has no doubt been a contributing factor to his improved performance across the board including this year’s career-high 6.4 K/9 through 39 innings. No one is going to confuse someone with a 6.4 K/9 for Nolan Ryan, but it’s nearly a strikeout higher than last year’s 5.6 K/9 and it is his first season over 6.0 after spending most of his minor league career at 8.0 K/9 or better.
He had a 6.8 K/9 in 142 innings at AAA so this newfound level might be his peak or close to it, but he would hardly be the first pitcher to add strikeouts as a major leaguer. Minor league numbers can help give you an idea of how someone will perform, but they aren’t locked in stone indicators. Madison Bumgarner spent two years on the wrong side of 6.5 K/9 before reaching the majors where he has a 7.6 K/9 career mark including an 8.4 K/9 in 205 innings last year.
The curveball has long been his strikeout pitch and the faster version of 2011-2012 is generating even more strikeouts. In 2009-2010, he got a strikeout on 27% of the plate appearances that ended with a curve, but the last two years he is up at 40%. When looking at why he has enjoyed a rise in Ks this year specifically, it is actually his fastball and changeup that are accounting for the jump. The pair of pitches yielded a strikeout on just 10% of plate appearances that ended on one of them last year, but this year that mark is up to 13% spurred mostly by the changeup going up 5% to 14% in 2012.
The sharpest improvement for Detwiler in the early part of 2012 is the amount of groundballs he is inducing. His sinker is the most effective it has ever been, inducing groundballs left and right en route to a career-best 54% rate (career 43% mark coming into 2012).
He has always been a groundball guy with a better than 1.0 groundball-to-flyball ratio, but this year’s contact against him has been overwhelmingly weak as the rise in groundball rate has come right out of his line drive rate which is down to 10%. From 2009-2011, he carried an astronomically high line drive rate between 20% and 25%.
His line drive rate is going to see an uptick as the season progresses as 10% just isn’t sustainable. The lowest line drive rate for an ERA qualifier going back to when that kind of data is available (2002) is 13.3% for Derek Lowe in 2002. There have only been 12 seasons (spread among 11 pitchers as fake Fausto Carmona has two of them) under 15%.
The fact that it will rise and likely cut into his BABIP and subsequently his ERA isn’t a problem, though. I don’t think anyone expects him to finish the year with a 2.75 ERA and 1.09 WHIP anyway so some regression doesn’t make him a fraud. How much regression is obviously the real question.
Even if he adds 5-6% to the line drive rate (most of which will go for hits as I believe the league BABIP on LDs is something like .700), his BABIP should remain on the right side of .300 as BABIP has never really been an issue with him as you saw from the chart above. The problem is that not enough men who get on are left there. Last year he enjoyed a 79% LOB rate, easily his highest rate ever and the first time in his career that he topped 67%.
Though off to his best start ever, he is still allowing 35% of his base runners to reach home. League average is around 72% left on base. He can cancel out most, if not all of his line drive rate regression by leaving more runners on base. He doesn’t even need to push as high as league average to do so, either. Of course, just because league average is 72% doesn’t mean pitchers are magically entitled to the mark.
Sometimes it is a matter of focus with runners on that ends up as the missing link for pitchers, while others have markedly different wind ups and stretch positions. For Detwiler, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between his wind up with the bases empty and his stretch with runners on so perhaps it is mental for him.
This GIF isn’t great, but my computer was being wonky as hell and this was like my 12th attempt so we’re going with it. (I definitely need a new computer now that I’m a full-fledged GIFer… or is it GIFist… jeez, could anyone possibly care less about this last sentence?).
Detwiler has allowed a career .693 OPS with the bases empty as opposed to a .751 OPS with runners on. Last year his split was .691 to .721, but this year he’s at an impressive .480 with the bases cleared compared to .730 with men on. He showed last year that he can leave men on at an above average clip. If he can even get to average this year, he will mitigate the pending regression in that line drive rate.
Though we are just 39 innings into the season, there are reasons to be excited about what Detwiler has shown especially if you extend it back to last year which is really when he started to show signs of being worth the 6th overall pick.
Any pitcher who can miss some bats and keep the ball down is likely to be successful on some level. He doesn’t miss a ton of bats, but he misses enough at this current rate and I think there is the potential for a few more (perhaps pushing as high as 7.0 per game) if he continues to rely more on that curveball as a finisher. Meanwhile his groundball rate is elite at 54% and allows him to carry a mid-6.0s strikeout rate yet remain very successful.
There haven’t been any wholesale changes to his approach this year (velocity, pitch mix, stance on mound, new pitch, etc…) that you would point to and say “this is why he is excelling”. Rather it has been a maturation process that started back in 2011 when he began displaying more control as well as improved command. The command has taken another step forward this year as continues to pound the zone, but leaves far fewer pitches “fat” where hitters can destroy them which is evidenced by the lowered line drive and elevated groundball rates.
He is becoming a better pitcher with more room to improve, too. He just crossed the 200-inning threshold as a major leaguer this year, though, so temper expectations as he is still learning on the job. From a fantasy perspective, trading Detwiler isn’t a bad idea if you get a nice offer, but don’t think that just because his numbers are excellent you can “sell high”.
Or at least sell high in the traditional sense. A lot of fantasy managers probably didn’t even know who he was coming into the season so I doubt they are going to be ready to trade off a mint to acquire him after 39 big innings. That doesn’t mean you can’t move him and get value in return. Just don’t expect something commensurate with a 2.75 ERA and 1.09 WHIP if it were coming from someone like Zack Greinke or Cliff Lee.
Keep in mind that Detwiler was a last round pick or waiver pickup which play into his valuation. That means if you can get some 16th-18th round guy, that is a pretty hefty return. You might just want to hang on to your gem who is actually paying off, though, as so few ever do. Even if he ends the season with a 3.75 ERA in 175 innings, it’s not like he will be getting slaughtered from here on out to get to that level. He would post a 4.05 in 135 innings the rest of the way.