Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Frustrated by the Slow(ey) Stuff

I’m going to admit it that I’m more than just a little frustrated with Kevin Slowey right now. And by “little frustrated,” I mean turning myself into a parody of Chris Farley’s Matt Foley character every time Slowey fails to make it past the middle innings. I'm one more long middle inning from breaking our coffee table.

It happened again last night. For the fifth consecutive start, and the seventh of his eight starts, he failed to make it through the sixth inning. His ERA has climbed to 4.70, a trend that has also been going on for almost a month. And as I listened to this, I wondered two things:

1) What’s going on with Slowey and
2) How much longer before Slowey finds himself living in a VAN, DOWN BY THE RIVER?!?

Is it possible Slowey just isn’t going to be that good? After all, he’s now 26 years old. This is his fourth year in the majors. His high water mark for endurance is 27 starts and 160.1 innings. He’s given up 50 more hits than innings pitched, and his home run rate is pretty consistently about 50% higher than you would hope. And his career ERA heading into last night’s game is 4.42.

To find the promise, you need to go back to his minor league career. He was drafted in the second round in 2005. In his first full year he posted a 1.88 ERA between High-A and Double-A. In his second full year he dominated AAA-Rochester, with a 1.89 ERA. While Matt Garza was getting all the hype, Slowey was right behind him, moving up a level just after Garza, and often posting at least as nasty numbers.

But in his four years in the majors, we’ve really only seen that promise once, in 2008. That year he stayed relatively healthy, only missing time at the beginning and ending of the year. He still gave up the home runs, but showed the impeccable control that was supposed to make him such a reliable rotation staple. But even then his ERA was only as low as 3.99. As Mr. Foley said, “Well, lad-dee-FRICKIN-da.”

Outside of that year, he’s posted a 4.73 ERA, a 4.86 ERA and now a 4.70 ERA. He received a fair amount of hype last before the All-Star break for having won 12 games, but that was mostly due to being in the right place at the right time; only nine of his 16 starts were quality starts.

Mostly, he’s just plain been hittable. Last year hitters had a batting average of .309 against him and this year it is .304. If you’ve got a lineup full of .300 hitters, your team is a powerhouse. Slowey does that to a team.

But given the injuries he’s faced with his wrist (which really go back to September of 2008) it’s way too early to say he’s never going to amount to JACK SQUAT. 2008 was a very good sign of what Twins fans could expect. And it’s silly to overlook those years in 2007 and 2006 in the minors. Our expectations are not out of line. He could be very good.

So what’s gong on? Because right now, he is easily the weakest of the Twins starters, and it’s not particularly close.

Taking a look at the Pitcher Report Card for him MyInsideEdge.com, the easy answer seems to be that he’s having trouble with his namesake – the slow stuff. He is just plain having trouble throwing his offspeed pitches for strikes. In 2008 he was throwing 63% of his offspeed pitches for strikes, which Inside Edge graded out as a B+. (MLB Average is 61%). This year he’s throwing just 50% for a strike, which grades out as an F.

And it looks like Major League batters have gotten the memo, because they’re not chasing those pitches. Again in 2008, he got hitters to chase 33% of those off-speed pitches (MLB average was 31%). This year, they’re chasing just 12%, which grades out as another F.

Is that how things played out last night?

It’s hard to say. The first two runs happened in the second inning, when he found himself in two full-count battles with Alex Gonzalez and Jose Bautista. In both cases he was throwing primarily offspeed pitches, sometimes for strikes, sometimes not. Both hits he gave up were pitches that drifted into the inside edge of the plate about thigh-high. In Gonzalez case it was an off-speed pitch that he singled. In Bautista’s it was a sinking fastball that he hit for a homerun.

It was a little different in the fourth inning. Freddie Lewis got on base after seeing almost exclusively sinking fastballs. Vernon Wells drove him in hitting a changeup on the outside of the plate. In neither case was the batter really ahead in the count, or in a full count.

So I don’t know if the problem is that offspeed pitch control, or that batters just aren’t being fooled. Either way, it could certainly indicate why Slowey is suddenly having trouble keeping his pitch count low enough to get deep into games, and why batters are adjusting to him in middle innings. Let’s hope he makes an adjustment for my own coronary health.


Ryan said...

Ready to give up on a pitcher with 360 innings under his belt? Many pitchers don't even break out until after 450-600. I'm thinking Webb, Lackey, Haren, Sheets.

He's not pitching great, and he's walking a lot more guys than he's shown he can do, but his BABIP is .354.

Somehow he gets the win all the time, so he keeps the broadcasters happy.

thrylos98 said...

.341 BABIP, that's what's going with Kevin Slowey. Garza has a .258 BABIP this season. Things will normalize.

thrylos98 said...

Also, Garza (and Lohse and a few others) might be poster boys for the theory that Rick Anderson is not that great of a pitching coach...

TT said...

Morneau won't hit .374 and Slowey won't keep giving up hits at this rate. But I think it was always overly enthusiastic to see Slowey as a top of the rotation pitcher. I did expect him to go deeper into games but you can't face that many batters without throwing a lot of pitches.

snolls said...

I've always wondered why Slowey is such a top prospect, and why he manages to pitch well when he does. Neither his velocity nor movement impress me. His pitches just look straight and hittable - which is a problem in the major leagues.

His strength has always been his control, his ability to hit the very edges. When he does that, he can be effective, and maybe even considerably above average. Still, it would surprise me if he can really reach that level. Pro hitters are good, and the good, patient ones will hit his fastballs and changeups, even on the corners.

We'll see - I'm hoping he's as good as everyone has hoped, but frankly, I understand why Blackburn succeeds more than I understand Slowey. Blackburn isn't dominant, but his pitches have movement.

cmathewson said...

I have never thought Slowey would be that good. He's a great person, the kind of guy I'd love to have as a BFFL, but I wouldn't want him on the mound in a playoff game, ever. He'll always be a decent fifth starter. He'll give you 10 quality starts a year and another 10 where he keeps you in the game through 5 innings. Beyond that, he just doesn't have enough life on his pitches. People have often cited his legendary control as the difference maker. I think it is just that--legend. He's been compared to Greg Maddux or Brad Radke when the better comparison is somewhere between Kevin Tapani and Mike Trombley. He has his games where he's hitting his spots and getting a little extra snap on the fastball. But he's not consistent with it. I've seen him for 360 innings and he's pretty much the same guy he was when he was a rookie. I don't see much more upside than this, but the league knows him better, so it's tougher to succeed.