Change is hard, but sometimes necessary. Dice-K made a huge change four years ago when he left Japan to come play Major League Baseball. However, over the last few years not much has changed, which in this case, is not a good thing.
I mentioned last week that the most frustrating thing to watch as a fan is when a pitcher simply refuses to throw strikes. There are some pitchers that just don’t have control. Then there are some that just don’t have command. Dice-K is one of the latter. He has all the pure “stuff” in the world, but no ability to hit his spots with any sort of consistency.
The only season in which Dice-K has posted a BB/9 under four was 2007, his first year with the Sox. Aside from a fluke season in 2008 (.267 BABIP against and 80 percent strand rate), everything has been going down hill. High walk rates and declining strikeout totals have Dice-K looking more and more like a pitcher that will never live up to expectations. After walking five in 6.1 innings against the Orioles last night, I couldn’t help but think that something drastic needs to happen. Somehow the Sox need to fix Dice-K.
If it ain’t fixed, break it
Old habits die hard and Dice-K’s habit of nibbling the corners needs to stop. Not because he shouldn’t try and spot the corners of the plate, but because he simply can’t hit his spots consistently. Instead of focusing solely on trying to go low and away or up and in to right-handed hitters, the focus should be down in the zone while changing speeds more often.
As you can see from the pitch f/x chart below (via TexasLeaguers.com), Dice-K’s biggest problem is missing up in the zone and to the right-handed side in particular. This happens often when he tries to overthrow his fastball.
Problems with lefties
Dice-K has been unable to work low and away with any consistency. This has caused a big problem in particular against left-handed hitters. His BB/9 against lefties this season is 5.92 while he has only walked right-handed hitters at a rate of 2.66 BB/9. He has also surrendered a 23.6 percent line drive rate to lefties and a 19.7 percent line drive rate to righties.
When Dice-K works to righties, he uses mostly fastballs, cut-fastballs, sliders and curves, all pitches that move away from a right-handed hitter. However, when he works to lefties he throws offspeed pitches much less frequently. When he does throw offspeed pitches to lefties, he tends to work them outside the strike-zone. In essence, to left-handed hitters, Dice-K is throwing the majority of his strikes with fastballs out over the plate and up in the zone. With a long track record of not being able or willing to throw offspeed stuff in the strike-zone to lefties, they simply lay off those pitches.
The one pitch Dice-K uses the least to lefties is his slider despite the fact that he has thrown it for a strike about 60 percent of the time and generated a swing in miss about 10 percent of the time. His slider generates the second highest swing-and-miss rate to lefties (changeup is number one), yet he uses it the least. Dice-K does throw his fastball low-and-in to lefties, which is a great way to set up a low-and-in slider as an out pitch. However, this season with an 0-2 count on left-handed hitters, Dice-K has thrown his four-seam fastball about 42 percent of the time while only using the slider 10.5 percent of the time. It isn’t until the count goes to 2-2 or 3-2 that he decides to go with the slider more often.
Less is more
While the problem lies mostly in Dice-K’s inability to work to left-handed hitters, he may not be maximizing his arsenal to righties either. Dice-K uses an array of fastballs, but one pitch in particular has yielded the best results, his cutter. This season, the cut-fastball has been used about 18 percent of the time and has been thrown for a strike about 75 percent of the time to righties. Compare that to his four-seamer, which is used the majority of the time, but thrown for a strike only about 63 percent of the time to righties. Not only does Dice-K throw his cutter for strikes more often, but he gets righties to chase it more frequently and swing and miss about seven percent more often than when he throws his four-seamer.
The one detraction is roughly a two MPH loss in velocity, but what is gained is some sinking action as well as more late movement away from right-handed batters.
The use of more cutters, while sacrificing velocity, should result in more weakly hit balls in play and perhaps even a few more strikeouts due to the late movement. This is, of course, based on the thought that Dice-K can continue to throw his cutter for strikes as frequently as he has this season.
Fixing Dice-K will not be a simple task. However, at this point it is very clear that drastic changes need to be made. Dice-K needs to develop the threat of offspeed pitches against left-handed hitters by throwing them over for strikes more frequently and using them as out pitches with two strikes rather than continuing to throw his fastball. Without the true threat of offspeed pitches as strikes, left-handed hitters will simply continue to lay off and wait for a fastball over the outer half.
The overall increased use of his cutter may help improve his numbers against right-handed hitters. He throws that pitch for strikes and it has been a very effective pitch over his major league career.
With such an array of pitches, it is surprising that Dice-K’s real problem stems from the good ole four-seam fastball. By becoming a pitcher that relies more on movement and less on velocity, Dice-K may still be able to salvage what’s left of his time with the Red Sox.