The Reinvention Of Mat Latos Isn’t Off To A Good Start

You already know what I’m going to say — this early in the year, we don’t really care about results so much as we care about what goes into those results. Maybe that’s a new pitch, or a new batting stance, or our first look at a guy trying to come back from an injury. Sometimes, though, you can’t help but start with the results. In Mat Latos‘ Miami debut, there were certainly results:

latos_box_score

So that’s pretty bad, and generally you’d let it go by as just one of those things, in the same way that no one really thinks that Cole Hamels‘ lousy first start means anything more than a very good pitcher having a very bad day. But like with the interest in seeing what kind of pitcher Masahiro Tanaka would be, there’s interest in Latos. After several good seasons, his 2014 was ruined by left knee surgery and right elbow soreness, after which the Reds flipped him to to a Miami team that plans on contending for a decent enough pitching prospect in Anthony DeSclafani and minor league catcher Chad Wallach’s intriguing offensive profile.

The Marlins badly need Latos to succeed. Latos, headed into his walk year before entering one of the most stacked free agent pitching pools in recent memory, badly needs to succeed. That’s reason enough to pay attention to what he’s doing, but it’s also because we spent a good portion of the winter here raising red flags about the performance that had underlined Latos’ otherwise fine 3.25/3.65 ERA/FIP. In December, Jeff Sullivan did a deep dive into why Steamer projections disliked Latos, noting both that his K%-BB% had been slipping consistently for years and that the velocity drop he experienced had been one of the biggest in baseball. In January, Jeff Zimmerman looked at pitcher aging curves and considered it unlikely that Latos would find his missing heat.

As Jeff S. said at the time, there was reason to believe that the Marlins traded six years of DeSclafini (to say nothing of Wallach) for one year of a pitcher not actually projected to be any better than DeSclafini. What might make this swing in Miami’s favor would be if the velocity were to come back. We don’t have PITCHf/x readings on any of Latos’ spring starts, but we do have this quote from a scout in mid-March:

One scout in attendance said Latos’ fastball sat 89-90 and touched 92 once during the 39-pitch, 27-strike outing. He noted that Latos no longer features an above-average offering, but he’s employing what he has accordingly.

Which brings us back to the point of why we’re worrying about Latos’ one bad start: Because fastball velocity tends to stabilize pretty quickly, because velocity has a known impact on results, and because it’s the first chance we’re getting to see what’s coming out of his right arm.

So let’s look at the radar guns, down in the left corner of the television broadcast. This was a fastball:

latos_89mph

Here’s another, well on its way to turning into a Chris Johnson run-scoring double:

latos_90mph

That’s 89 and 90 mph, if you’re scoring at home. That’s an enormous problem. Of those 38 pitches, 20 were fastballs, and five made it to 92 mph. The rest were 89, 90, 91. Remember that in Latos’ first five years in the bigs, he was routinely sitting at 93, 94, 95. Last year, that was 90, 91. Last night, that was 90, 91. Alex Wood’s velocity seemed in line with his norms, so it’s hard to point to the gun being cold. The game was played both in Miami and indoors, so it’s hard to point to the weather being cold. What we saw last night was a pitcher coming into the season with big velocity issues who doesn’t appear to have shaken those issues in the least — and worse, left that mediocre fastball hanging right over the plate.

We know that without those missing two or three ticks, Latos is a much lesser pitcher than he’d once been. It’s not like he was facing the 2000 Colorado Rockies in pre-humidor Coors Field last night — the Braves are, very reasonably, regarded as one of the two worst-projected offenses in the game — and we saw exactly one swinging strike, on a slider to Andrelton Simmons. But even that doesn’t come without a caveat, because it’s not like Simmons swung through anything. If a swinging strike can come with an asterisk, this is how, because all this ended up being was a pretty questionable check swing:

simmons_latos_check

So you could argue that Latos really had zero swinging strikes, and this isn’t really a coincidence, after all. For years, Latos had steady velocity, with minor declines, and an extremely consistent and steady swinging strike rate. Last year, both dropped in concert with each other.

FB Vel. SwStr%
2009 94.1 10.0
2010 94.0 11.0
2011 93.0 10.6
2012 92.7 10.1
2013 92.5 10.3
2014 90.7 8.0

What we don’t know for sure is that the velocity can’t come back as Latos builds arm strength, though the odds are long off the board in Vegas on that one. What we also don’t know is whether Latos can figure out a way to reinvent himself as a successful pitcher if he doesn’t find that lost life on his fastball. It’s not that he was ever really blowing people away with it, but the fastball had previously served as an effective setup for his signature slider (or, last year, splitter).

If he can’t, then you start to understand why there was some blowback against the idea that the Marlins could be 2015’s surprise team, because with Jose Fernandez out until midseason and Nathan Eovaldi in the Bronx, there’s more than a little uncertainty in this rotation. Latos may still not be right after getting stem cells injected into his elbow this winter. Dan Haren is 34 and thoroughly mediocre. I coudn’t ever say anything bad about Henderson Alvarez. Jarred Cossart? Tom Koehler? Brad Hand? David Phelps? Sure. Those are guys. There’s depth, better than in other cities. The outfield is outstanding; the infield may be a disaster.

Due to the serious stars-and-scrubs nature of this roster, so much of the Miami hopes come back to a guy like Latos, who was recently good and is still somehow only 27. It’s too early to write him off. It’s a fair bit of wishcasting to expect that velocity to simply come back, however, and that’s based on a whole lot more than just one start. The old Mat Latos is probably gone. The new Mat Latos isn’t off to a great start.





Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Phillies113
7 years ago

Jarred Cossart would probably wager that you’re selling him short.