ESPN’s Keith Law, who tends to be very pessimistic about the Brewers lately, nonetheless designated Wily Peralta as one of his breakout candidates for 2014. Law says:
“I think he’s still going to walk a few more guys than you would like, but I think this is the year he misses more bats with his fastball, a pitch on which he gives up too much contact given its mid-90s velocity.”
Peralta’s sinking fastball is without question his best attribute. At an average speed of 95 miles per hour, it is a potential monster of a pitch. 95 mph is essentially the Promised Land for a pitcher. As one study concluded, “if a pitcher is gifted enough to have a 95+ mph fastball, it probably doesn’t matter too much where they throw it.”
Of course, the problem is that Peralta’s results last year suggests that it does matter at least somewhat where Peralta throws it. Peralta was downright terrible for the first few months, walking too many batters, striking out too few, and giving up a fair number of home runs. And while much has been made of his supposed second half improvement, that wasn’t true across the board. Peralta’s strikeouts did go up noticeably (from 5.56 K/9 in the first half to 7.59 K/9 over the second), but his walk rate was unchanged, and Peralta’s home run rate actually went up.
Nonetheless, if this is Wily Peralta’s year, what would his breakout look like?
The first and most obvious area for improvement is better control. An improvement to even “average” control, which for starters last year was 2.83 walks per nine innings, would serve Peralta well, and force batters to start swinging at more of his pitches. Peralta was nowhere near that last year, walking 3.58 batters per nine innings. An improved walk rate isn’t absolutely necessary; some guy named Yu Darvish did ok last year while walking 3.43 batters per nine innings, and C.J. Wilson was worth over three wins while walking even more batters than Peralta did (3.6 BB/9). But, limiting walks is positively correlated with pitcher success, and batters won’t swing more at Peralta’s pitches unless they are convinced they will likely be strikes anyway. With more swings should come more strikeouts, fewer home runs, and more effectiveness in the rotation.
Is Peralta on pace to accomplish better control in 2014? Well, in an extremely small sample, Peralta showed progress in spring training, walking only 2.84 batters per nine innings. If that tendency carries over, Peralta may finally be on to something.
The second important area for improvement is pitch variety. Peralta last year was essentially a two-pitch pony, throwing either a fastball of some sort or a slider. A power fastball / slider combo is more than sufficient for a one-to-two inning reliever, but will rarely get the job done for a starter required to go multiple times through the opponent’s batting order. Mitchell Lichtman recently proved something that we have long suspected: that pitchers with limited pitch selection may fool a batter once, but they will have a harder time fooling them a second or third time. Specifically, Lichtman found that pitchers who throw fastballs most of the time will lose 47 points of wOBA by the time they face a batter a third time. Similarly, pitchers who throw at least three different pitches 15% of the time hold up the best their third time through the order.
Peralta’s pitch selection is not as extreme as some of the pitchers in Lichtman’s study, but the importance of having multiple pitches is clear. So, Peralta has been trying to improve his changeup to give himself that third pitch option. In the one outing chronicled by Brooksbaseball.net this spring, 12% of Peralta’s pitches were changeups. We’ll have to see in the regular season whether Peralta has the courage to throw his changeup when it counts.
There is reason to believe that, if he could make these improvements, Peralta can be incredibly effective. As I discussed in a recent article, the average starter progressively declines in his effectiveness over the course of a game. Over the course of his brief career, Peralta has actually displayed a different pattern:
|1st time through batting order||92|
|2nd time through batting order||116|
|3rd time through batting order||86|
What I have titled “Pitcher Effectiveness” is what Baseball Reference calls “tOPS+.” “100” is an average performance from Peralta, and numbers above that are better for the batter and numbers below it are better for Peralta.
As you can see, Peralta tends to start slightly above average for him, get bogged down the second time through the order, and then pitch his best the third time through the order. That’s right: Peralta is usually pitching his best when he gets pulled. Peralta’s problem isn’t physical decline; it’s that he’s wasted too many pitches his first and second times through the opposing batting order, usually thanks to poor control and a below-average ability to induce swings. You can see the same trend if we sort Peralta’s effectiveness by where he is on his own pitch count:
The point is that if Peralta can improve his pitch mix and conserve his pitches, he has the stamina to pitch deep into games. But, to take advantage of that, Peralta needs to be pitching to the opponent’s lineup for the third time during the seventh inning, not the fifth inning. Of 183 innings pitched last year, only 12 of them occurred during the 7th inning or later in a game. The ultimate sign of any breakout by Peralta will be his ability to change that trend.
Wily Peralta has the velocity, physical build, and stamina to be a top starter, if his control and pitch selection can finally come around. The Brewers will be in much better shape if 2014 is the year Peralta finally starts to put it all together.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter @bachlaw.
All data from Fangraphs except for the pitch splits, which are courtesy of Baseball Reference.