What is wrong with Jose Valverde?

Let’s use PITCHf/x data to examine a question on the mind of many Astros fans.

Jose Valverde compiled 47 saves with a 2.66 ERA in 64.1 innings last year for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Over the winter, the Houston Astros acquired Valverde for Chris Burke, Chad Qualls, and Juan Gutierrez, and installed him as their closer. So far in 2008, Valverde has appeared in seven games and allowed runs in five of them, including four home runs. He currently sports an unsightly 12.27 ERA in 7.1 innings. (Note: this article was written before Valverde’s appearance on Sunday, April 20.)

After his disastrous appearance on April 15, wherein he blew a 3-0 ninth inning lead, his manager, Cecil Cooper had this to say:

“He’s the man,” Cooper said. “That’s all you can tell him. He’s the guy. I have a lot of confidence in him. I just told him, as soon as an opportunity presents itself, you’ll get back out there. He’s got some things to make adjustments on.”

“There are some mechanical issues I don’t want to go into,” Cooper said. “He has to work on his splitter a little bit. He didn’t have the same type of movement we’re used to seeing. His fastball command has been good. I’m not really concerned about that.”

After his April 17 appearance, which featured a two-run home run in a 10-2 blowout loss to the Phillies, Cooper said the following:

“I saw some plusses,” Cooper said. “He had some chances to work on some things from [Wednesday]. His fastball had some more life on it and he threw some good pitches. Now all we’ve got to do is get him to hit his spots a little better. The confidence is still there. He’s still confident and we’re confident in him.”

Ignoring the dreaded “vote of confidence” which Valverde got from Cooper, is it his splitter or his fastball that’s the problem? Is is mechanical issues or location, movement or velocity, or maybe all of the above? Can we tell from the data?

Let’s look first at his pitch movement due to spin as compared to last year.

Valverde Spin Deflection 2007 Valverde Spin Deflection 2008

His fastball seems to be moving about the same, although with less consistency than last year. His splitter is dropping more and tailing less, by about three or four inches. I’m not sure if those differences spell trouble. It’s possible that the different spin on the splitter this year is something that helps the hitters identify it more easily. If so, with Valverde as a two-pitch pitcher, that would allow them to sit on his fastball. I’m somewhat skeptical that this is the source of his trouble, but I offer it as a difference I have observed.

What about velocity? Last year his fastball averaged 96 mph and his splitter 86 mph. So far this year his fastball has averaged 94 mph and his splitter 83 mph. That isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison since the 2007 data is from a full year and the 2008 data is only from the first few weeks of April. We don’t have any PITCHf/x data for him from April 2007, and I’m not aware of anyone who has studied how typical fastball velocity changes over the course of a season, but conventional wisdom is that pitchers take some time to build up to full strength in the spring.

What about location? First, let’s look at his pitch location and results in 2007 as a baseline.

Pitch Type  Pitches   Ball   CStrk    Foul   SwStrk  InPlay   Avg    BABIP    SLG    HR
Fastball      149     0.28    0.24    0.21    0.12    0.15   0.391   0.364  0.609  0.043
Splitter       71     0.30    0.14    0.18    0.21    0.17   0.167   0.091  0.500  0.083
Total         220     0.28    0.21    0.20    0.15    0.16   0.314   0.314  0.571  0.057

Pitch Type  Pitches   Ball   CStrk    Foul   SwStrk  InPlay   Avg    BABIP    SLG    HR
Fastball      212     0.32    0.16    0.26    0.17    0.08   0.222   0.222  0.222  0.000
Splitter       47     0.38    0.13    0.11    0.15    0.23   0.455   0.400  0.818  0.091
Total         259     0.33    0.15    0.24    0.17    0.11   0.310   0.310  0.448  0.034
Valverde 2007 Fastballs Location Chart

In 2007 the fastball was a great pitch for Valverde to right-handed batters. He got 17% swinging strikes, which is almost three times league average for the fastball, he threw the pitch for strikes, and batters were mostly able to only foul it off rather than putting it in play. In the 18 times they did put it in play, they only managed four singles. He liked to work up in the zone to right handers, but he got good results everywhere.

To left-handed batters, his approach and results were similar but not as good. More balls were put in play and more landed for hits, and the overall results were that his fastball to left handers was an average pitch at best in 2007.

Valverde 2007 Splitters Location Chart

The split-finger fastball worked the opposite way. It was a great pitch against left-handed batters and not so great against right-handed batters. That, of course, is a big reason he threw the splitter twice as often to left handers. To left-handed hitters he kept the splitter away and got a lot of swinging strikes.

To right-handed hitters, Valverde did pretty well in 2007 when he kept the splitter low and away, getting them to chase the pitch out of the zone, but when he got the ball in the zone, they hit it well.

Now, how does that compare to where he has located his pitches and the results he has gotten this year?

Pitch Type  Pitches   Ball   CStrk    Foul   SwStrk  InPlay   Avg    BABIP    SLG    HR
Fastball       45     0.24    0.13    0.24    0.20    0.18   0.375   0.286  0.750  0.125
Splitter       21     0.29    0.43    0.10    0.10    0.10   0.500   0.500  1.000  0.000
Total          66     0.26    0.23    0.20    0.17    0.15   0.400   0.400  0.800  0.100

Pitch Type  Pitches   Ball   CStrk    Foul   SwStrk  InPlay   Avg    BABIP    SLG    HR
Fastball       52     0.29    0.15    0.15    0.13    0.27   0.571   0.455  1.357  0.214
Splitter       18     0.44    0.11    0.06    0.17    0.22   0.750   0.750  1.000  0.000
Total          70     0.33    0.14    0.13    0.14    0.26   0.611   0.611  1.278  0.167

The first thing to notice is that right handers are putting the ball in play over twice as often this year as they did in 2007, and they are killing the ball when they do.

Valverde 2008 Fastballs Location Chart
Valverde struggled a little bit with the fastball last year against left handers, and that continues this year, but there are not remarkable differences. However, against right-handed hitters, it could hardly be more a case of night and day between 2008 and 2007. Right handers put 8% of fastballs from Valverde into play in 2007 and didn’t manage one extra base hit; this year they have put into play 27% of the fastballs they’ve seen and already have two doubles and three home runs in 14 balls in play.

He’s locating the fastball down in the zone much more often to right handers, and those pitches are getting hammered. Last year he put 14% of his fastballs over the plate below the waist (2.8 feet) to right-handed batters, and he had good success both on pitches above and below the waist. This year, he has put 50% of his fastballs over the plate below the waist. He’s still doing fairly well with fastballs outside that area, but over the plate below the waist he’s allowed three singles, two doubles, and three home runs in only 26 pitches. That’s terrible.

Here are the seven fastballs he threw to Chris Coste on April 17 when Coste took him deep.

April 17 vs. Chris Coste Location Chart

That’s a lot of pitches in the same area at the same speed to one hitter.

Valverde 2008 Splitters Location Chart

He’s gotten a lot of called strikes away to left-handed batters with the splitter in 2008, so that’s a plus, but overall the sample sizes on the splitter so far are pretty small to draw any meaningful conclusions.

I would single out Valverde’s location on the fastball to right-handed hitters as his big problem area so far in 2008.

Before publication, I downloaded the data for Valverde’s April 20 appearance and took a quick look at it. His results with the fastball were much better. He boosted his average speed up to 96 mph, and his location was maybe a little better. The Rockies mostly just fouled off the fastballs instead of hitting them hard. The two balls that were put in play off the fastball were fly balls to center field that were tracked down by Michael Bourn. Here’s his strike zone location chart for fastballs to right-handed hitters on Sunday:

Valverde April 20, 2008 Fastballs Location Chart

Maybe that’s the start of a return to his 2007 form, or maybe not. I couldn’t say based on one appearance. Instead, I’ll close with a post-game quote from Cecil Cooper after Valverde converted the save on Sunday.

“It was like he was his old self again — kind of aggressive and going after them,” Cooper said. “I’ve got confidence in him. I think he’s going to be the guy that we thought we were getting back in the winter time. This guy’s got a good arm, he’s just had a little problem with his split. We made one little mechanical change with the way he was setting up to deliver the ball.”

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