The Cubs agreed to terms with 29-year-old career swingman Carlos Villanueva on Wednesday. With Scott Baker’s early season availability in question as he rehabs from April Tommy John surgery, Villanueva should have a chance at making the club’s opening day rotation.
Villanueva showed promise in the rotation as myriad Blue Jays injuries opened a spot for him in Toronto. In his first 11 starts, spanning 65.1 innings, Villanueva held opponents to just a 3.03 ERA as he notched 65 strikeouts against 17 walks (3.8 K/BB). But questions about Villanueva as a starter lingered even in early September. Alex Anthopolous hardly gave his player a vote of confidence when asked about his starting chops on September 12th, according to John Lott of the National Post:
“I don’t want to use a term that’s derogatory to the player,” he said. “I don’t want to doubt him. But I have to also be objective and realistic too.”
The Orioles and Red Sox tagged Villanueva for nine runs and 14 hits (including three home runs) in his first two starts of the month (preceding Anthopolous’s quote). He would go on to give up 15 runs on 19 hits and seven home runs in 14 innings over his last three starts. It wasn’t the first Villanueva flameout Anthopolous oversaw: the righty carried a 3.67 ERA and a 3.32 FIP through his first nine starts in 2011 only to allow 20 runs on 33 hits and five home runs over his next four starts, earning a demotion back to the bullpen.
In Villanueva’s September swoon, the issues centered around his signature changeup. As I detailed at the end of August — conveniently, the exact end of Villanueva’s run of brilliance in the rotation — Villanueva’s ability to escape hitter’s counts with his changeup was a key to his success. He threw the pitch nearly twenty percentage points more often in hitters’ counts than pitchers’ counts against both righties and lefties. It’s by far his most reliable strike-garnering pitch, called a ball only 25.3 percent of the time career per Brooks Baseball — none of his other pitches check in under 34 percent.
But it’s a dangerous pitch to throw — at just 81 MPH on average, it can be crushed if left in the strike zone. Villanueva allowed 10 home runs on the pitch in 2012, with half coming in his September swoon. The pitch went from inducing three ground balls for every two fly balls to the inverse; a similar swing characterized his 2011 collapse as well.
As one would expect with a pitch flipping from grounder-heavy to fly-heavy, Villanueva’s changeup exhibited more and more rise as the 2012 season progressed, from 4.6 inches in June to 5.2 in July, 6.6 in August and finally 7.0 in September. Pitches once beat into the turf hit the sweet spot in the season’s final month. This same trend was expressed in all five of Villanueva’s pitches and not just over the somewhat arbitrary monthly endpoints:
This is especially problematic with the changeup — it’s so often thrown in the strike zone and in hitters’ counts. We see more home runs (and more fly balls in general) off it the less “drop” it exhibits. Similarly, the ground balls that allowed Villanueva to attack the zone with the changeup were there when the pitch was dropping in instead of floating in:
There wasn’t much difference in the actual pitch location over Villanueva’s time as a starter, but rather how the pitch reached its destination. To me, this is an intuitive result — plenty of pitchers have good enough control to consistently attack the knees, but only the sinkerballers with the heaviest movement post the elite ground ball rates in the high-50s or better.
The question with players like Villanueva — former Pirates starter Jeff Karstens also comes to mind here — is typically stamina. Former Brewers manager Ken Macha talked about Villanueva needing “to build up” before the 2009 season, a season in which Villanueva received just six starts and limped to a 5.34 ERA in 96 innings. Villanueva never did experience a full 30-start season as a starter at any professional level — the closest he came was with 25 starts between Double-A, Triple-A and MLB in 2006.
The Brewers decided to convert him to relief after struggles in 2007 rather than send him back to Triple-A Nashville to start — Villanueva made just 11 Triple-A starts in his career. He threw 181.1 innings in 2006, but 2012 marked the first time he’s gone over 125 innings since (and just the third time overall). The decision to use Villanueva in relief was an odd one — his changeup-heavy arsenal screams starter. “To me, mentally, he was a starter,” Macha added, defending his decision to retry Villanueva as a starter during spring training 2009.
Is a lack of stamina the culprit here? Villanueva exhibited a small velocity drop over his period as a starter in 2012, but it was under a mile per hour and not statistically significant on a start-by-start basis. However, consistently elevating pitches — as Villanueva did in September — is typically a sign of fatigue. The increase in vertical movement on Villanueva’s pitches were all at least 93 percent statistically significant (p < .07) with the elevation on the changeup in particularly showing nearly 99.9 percent significance (p = .0011). The stamina argument makes sense given Villanueva's history, but the other explanation isn't any kinder: Villanueva's early success was merely small sample noise, we shouldn't expect him to be able to keep his changeup grounded, and constant home runs are simply a reality with the pitch. Without a changeup he can use to fire strikes and get into pitchers' counts, his otherwise fringe stuff is unlikely to make him a serviceable starter -- his fastball tops out around 92 and his breaking stuff is unimpressive. Still, the Cubs paid him $10 million over two years, an indication they will at least try to use him as a full-time starter. With Scott Feldman, Edwin Jackson and Scott Baker on hand, there seems to be a logjam, but Matt Garza is already on the trade block and Scott Baker may not be healthy to start the season. The Cubs risk little by seeing if they can squeeze 30-33 healthy starts out of Villanueva. Perhaps their conditioning program can get him ready for a full starting season and allow him to maintain a sharp changeup through more than just a couple months.
But Villanueva can still earn his contract should he fail and return to his swingman role. He’s been worth 3.3 RA9-wins over the past two seasons and 1.8 FIP-wins — between $5 and $10 million per season — in his swingman role with Toronto. He gives the Cubs flexibility to go with some upside, even if realizing said upside is unlikely.
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