I was a little worried that Jake Peavy was going to be traded this week, thus making my post somewhat irrelevant. Thankfully, he wasn’t. I imagine he will be soon, so perhaps this will serve as our “In Memoriam,” so to speak. On to the piece…
In 2012, Peavy seemed to start exercising a degree of caution with his health. He started throwing more fastballs than he ever had in the PITCHF/x era. He began throwing fastballs 47.5% of the time, 8% more than he threw in any other season since 2007. He nearly eliminated the sinker from his repertoire, which can be difficult to control, and he reduced his reliance on the cut fastball and the slider, both of which, many contend, can be incredibly taxing on the elbow and shoulder. Furthering the notion that this new approach may have been designed to protect his health is this quote from an interview with David Laurila of Fangraphs in 2013:
Over time, your body and your mechanics change. You have to find out what works well with what you can physically do at each point of your career…
Up until this point in time, I’ve been a little bit higher — probably about 6-8 inches higher — arm-slot wise than I had been back then. That certainly affects the way the ball moves out of your hand. It’s been a great thing for my health, for me to come back and keep my arm intact.
The “point in time” Peavy was referring to was September 2013, when the Boston Red Sox were in the midst of a pennant race (more on this later).
Somewhat remarkably, Peavy not only pitched the entire 2012 season, but he also built on the success he established in 2011. He posted his best strikeout rate (22%), his best ERA (3.37), and his best batting average against (.232) since 2009. He also posted the third-best WHIP of his career (1.10). What’s so strange about 2012, however, is that he seemed to largely eschew the pitcher that he once was and still maintained a respectable, almost elite, level of success. As mentioned earlier, he threw his four-seam fastball nearly 50% of the time, while simultaneously reducing his reliance on his cutter and slider. His 2012 results would seem to indicate that he was keeping the ball down in the zone to induce groundballs and weak contact, but strangely, he was living up in the zone. In that same October 2013 Fangraphs interview with David Laurila, Peavy has this to say about pitching up in the zone:
My lower ground ball rate has to do with a change of styles. In general, the low ball isn’t what it used to be. We used to be taught to pitch down, down, down; miss down, miss down, miss down. If you throw the ball up, bad things happen. But I don’t think the low ball is what it used to be. The swing they’re teaching is down and really through the ball. It is to stay in the strike zone as long as you can possibly stay in the strike zone. I think that makes hitters susceptible to balls up… I’d rather pitch them high in the zone and get them to hit the ball in the air. I feel more comfortable getting outs that way. If you go back and look at the stats, I think they’ll show that. It’s kind of a change in philosophy and I think the game has just evolved to where, again, the low pitch isn’t the same. I throw as many balls with the intent to be up in the strike zone as I do to be down in the strike zone. That’s going to make my ground ball rate lower.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Peavy was third in the league in fly ball rate, and he gave up more fly balls in 2012 than in any other year throughout his career (44.6% of all batted balls). Consequently, he gave up a lot of home runs (27 in total; nearly 10% of fly balls given up by Peavy went over the fence). Fortunately, for Peavy, seventeen of those home runs were solo shots. If a few more of those had come with runners on base, his ERA would look much different. In fact, it was obvious from his xFIP that he was treading on dangerous ground. Now, I’m not trying to completely discount Peavy’s success as simply good fortune (he said himself he was pitching up in the zone for a reason). For example, he posted the second-lowest walk rate of his career. By walking fewer batters, he limited the number of baserunners and kept his pitch counts lower, which allowed him to work deeper into games (he was eighth in the league in innings pitched in 2012, with 219 innings pitched). He also threw his curveball more than any other season, and he continued to employ the use of his changeup with some regularity. Peavy did an excellent job of keeping both of those pitches low in the zone:
Both his curveball and change up were difficult to hit, as they generated swings and misses 13.35% of the time and 15.34% of the time, respectively. Peavy loved to finish off batters with the curveball, once he backed them into a corner. He threw his curveball 25% of the time, in a 0-2 count. His approach to pitch location and pitch sequencing in 2012 is another brilliant example of not only his willingness to adapt, but also his uncanny ability to succeed at doing so.
Throughout most of 2013, Peavy continued with the approach he had established in the prior season, albeit with some small changes. He threw his four-seamer a little less and threw a few more cutters instead. He also featured the sinker more prominently and barely ever threw his slider. He continued to attack the strike zone, with fearless relentlessness. This led to an even better strikeout rate and an even lower walk rate than he posted in 2012. Unfortunately, his propensity for inhabiting the strike zone with near reckless abandon also led to a career high fly ball rate (47.1%) and his highest home run-to-fly ball ratio since 2003 (13.1%). All those bombs and hard hit balls made his ERA look pretty ugly, but take away one bad outing in June where he gave up three extra-base hits and six runs (before going on the disabled list for a rib cage fracture), and his pre-trade deadline ERA goes from 4.28 to 3.60. Taken altogether, Peavy seemed to have carved out a manageable, if perhaps precarious, niche for himself. But Peavy didn’t seem content with this version of himself, and before his start on September 12 against the Tampa Bay Rays (less than two months after being traded to the Red Sox from the White Sox) he went with the “unconventional decision to lower his arm angle with three starts to go until the completion of the regular season.”
After Peavy’s dreadful 2013 ALCS Game 4 performance (he gave up seven runs in three innings), Rob Bradford of WEEI interviewed Peavy on what brought about the change in his arm slot:
“To beat [the Tigers], to beat good teams, you have to have good stuff,” Peavy said. “When you know you are going to do something that will make your stuff better, of course you’re going to do that. We’re playing baseball at the highest level, and if you can’t make adjustments and get the most out of your body then you shouldn’t be here.”
The righty reverted back to the arm slot he had last used in 2009 for a combination of reasons. There was the consultation with the medical staff that suggested such an approach would take pressure off his shoulder and lat. It’s hypothesis that seems to be on the money, with Peavy pointing out he has had to get less and less treatment throughout the past month.
Then there was the notion that he needed to upgrade his stuff. Peavy felt his arsenal was becoming pedestrian as an over-the-top pitcher, and far from the kind of pitcher he won a Cy Young as in ’07.
Peavy went on to say, “My arm slot is a little bit down from where it was, but consequently my stuff is quite better.” Unfortunately, the stats don’t quite bear that out. While his swing and miss rate went up on nearly all of his pitches (in an extremely small sample size; this fact is almost negligible), his strikeout rate dipped a bit, and his walk rate shot up (again, small sample size caveat applies).
So far in 2014, Peavy has continued on his quest to become the pitcher he once was with the Padres. Much to the team’s, fans’, and Peavy’s dismay, he’s had little success recapturing that magic. He is having, by far, the worst year of his career. He has put up the lowest strikeout rate of his career, the second worst walk rate of his career, the second worst FIP of his career, the second worst ERA of his career, and the worst home run per nine-innings rate of his career. He’s only throwing 37% of his pitches in the strike zone, which is his worst mark since 2008. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, Peavy’s career path looks a bit like a bell curve, in the abstract. From his statistics you can track his evolution from a pitcher who relied more on velocity and deception, to a pitcher who came to rely more on control and pitch sequencing, and back to a pitcher who is trying to rely on deception. Peavy is an intelligent pitcher, and it might not be a reach to call his approach to the game cerebral. He recognizes that he’s lost velocity and that isn’t how he is going to beat hitters. He is keenly aware of the importance of sequencing pitches and approaching each batter differently based on their tendencies. However, it seems as if Peavy isn’t ready to come to terms with the fact that his wide arsenal of pitches might not be that effective because few of his pitches are very effective on their own. Not only has his ability to deceive hitters eroded, as evidenced by their reticence to swing (batters haven’t been swinging at Peavy’s pitches this infrequently since 2010, when he was injured), but when hitters have decided to swing this season, they’ve made contact on 82.5% of pitches.
It’s impossible to speak to as to why Peavy continues to employ this approach when the results clearly haven’t been there. Perhaps it’s because he’s just no longer confident in his 2011 to early 2013 approach. Maybe he really feels the game has passed him by, and he’s just trying to keep up the best way he knows how. I can’t imagine he’s blind to the results; is it possible that it is obstinacy that is keeping Peavy from abandoning this obviously ineffective game plan? I doubt it. He’s demonstrated that he is an astute and steadfast student of the game, and although he may be in the twilight of his career, I think he has just enough in the tank for one final metamorphosis.
All stats courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball.