Jake Peavy Is Living on the Edge

Generally, when you think of Jake Peavy, you often think “Cy Young winner.” But that was a long time ago. These days, Peavy lives on the edge between “effective enough” and “not fooling anybody.” He is living there because he has become more cautious about living in the heart of the plate, where he used to. His earned run average paints him as one of the better pitchers in the American League, but if you look beyond that there is definitely cause for concern.

It’s no surprise that a pitcher getting on in years would have diminished velocity, particularly one with Peavy’s injury history. And diminished his velocity is. In his last few starts, he has worked his way back up to an average fastball of 90 mph, but that is a far cry from the 92-93 mph heat he was flashing in 2007-2008. Actually, he has been in the 90 mph range for a number of years. According to our PITCHf/x numbers, his first season with an average four-seam fastball under 91 mph was 2011. As his velocity has dropped, he has worked hard to refine his control in order to stay effective. To wit:

Jake Peavy, K%-BB%
Seasons K% BB% K%-BB%
2002-2010 24.0% 7.8% 16.2%
2011-2013 21.1% 5.6% 15.5%
2014 21.6% 13.5% 8.1%

As you can see, Peavy was able to lower his walk rate nearly in stride with the drop in his strikeout rate when his average four-seam fastball velocity dropped under 91 mph. That is the sign of a pitcher who is aware of his limitations. He is likely still aware of them this season, but this season the underlying results have been a little different.

At this point in the season, there are 109 qualified pitchers. Of them, nobody has a higher walk rate than does Peavy. As we noted, his velocity is down, so there’s one thing. And if we look at his zone percentage, we can see that it is also way down. His PITCHf/x zone percentage has him nearly four percent below average this season, and he is in the bottom 15 among qualified starters in zone percentage overall. That’s not necessarily a death knell — Masahiro Tanaka is even lower than Peavy on the list, and he is doing just fine.

The difference, of course, is that Tanaka is getting hitters to swing at 49.9 percent of the pitches he throws, whereas Peavy is at just 45.3%. Another difference is that when hitters swing at Tanaka’s pitches, they make contact just 69.5% of the time, while Peavy’s contact rate is 80.6%. Neither Peavy’s swing percentages or contact percentages put him among the league laggards — both are essentially league average — but taken in context with his zone percentage, it’s not exactly encouraging.

I went over to Brooks Baseball to get a more granular look. What I found is a pitcher who knows he can’t challenge hitters like he used to. First, let’s take a look again at that 2011-2013 window:

Peavy 2011-2013

Not bad — this is a guy who is living at the bottom of the zone, including his favorite spot, burying the ball down and away to right-handed hitters and down and in to left-handed hitters. Now, let’s look at 2014:

Peavy 2014

This chart looks a little different. His favorite spot is still there, but overall this chart shows a pitcher who is keeping the ball on the outer edges — or off of them — as much as possible. Peavy has been much more reticent to throw the ball down the heart of the plate than he has the past few years. Chopping up the numbers, we find that while he threw to the three squares in the middle of the strike zone 13.7% from 2011-2013, this season he is down to 13.1%. The center square on its own is even more illuminating. From 2011-2013, Peavy pitched to the center square 5.5% of the time. This year, he is down to 4.2%. Obviously, it is still early, but Peavy is setting up a pattern of staying out of the middle. As such, the increased walk rate might not be a fluke.

That increased walk rate might play if Peavy is able to keep his batting average on balls in play in the neighborhood in which it currently resides. His BABIP is .239, and at the moment that gives him the 10th-lowest BABIP among the 109 qualified pitchers. Peavy has never had a BABIP even close to this low, but then he has never worked out of the zone as frequently either. According to Brooks, the only pitch that he is throwing inside the strike zone this year more frequently than he did from 2011-2013 is his curveball:

Jake Peavy, Ball Percentage
Pitch 2011-13 2014
Fourseam 30.89% 33.66%
Sinker 30.14% 34.63%
Change 41.01% 49.51%
Slider 35.12% 40.30%
Curve 38.22% 33.85%
Cutter 32.56% 47.22%
Slow Curve 20.00%

The low BABIP is also likely a factor in his very high left on base percentage. Currently, only five qualified pitchers have a higher LOB%, and Peavy’s 89.4% mark would easily be a career best. That’s not to say he can’t keep this up. From 2008-2013, there were 28 pitchers who maintained an 80% or better LOB%, though no one achieved a rate higher than 85.2%.

So, yeah, maybe he can live on this edge, where he gives up a high rate of walks and home runs (both his HR/9 and HR/FB are at their highest levels since 2003, and are far higher than they normally are) but generates either strikeouts or weak contact (his current 15.1% line drive rate would be a career best) the rest of the time. That’s an acceptable trade-off if he can pull it off, but that is certainly a tough balancing act. In the meantime, only four qualified pitchers have a worse E-F score (that’s ERA minus FIP) than Peavy’s -1.96.

On one hand, Peavy has thrown quality starts in six of his seven starts this season, is generating lots of weak contact and his ERA makes him a borderline All-Star candidate. On the other hand, he has walked at least four batters in five of his seven starts, is sporting one of the highest home run and walk rates of his career (and in the game this season) and he is not challenging hitters. In other words, Peavy has staked out a place firmly on the edge of both the strike zone and effectiveness in general, and it is going to be hard to put too much faith in him while he’s sitting there.

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Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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The biggest thing with Peavy right now is getting his Hr/9 rate down. That, combined with slight regression in his BB/9 will give you the pitcher he really is: slightly above a +4 FIP pitcher.