What Happened to Jeurys Familia’s Splitter?

The Mets have been scuffling for quite a while now. After posting an impressive 15-7 record in April, they have gone 38-41 since May 1st and currently sit in third place behind the Nationals and Marlins. They’re still very much alive in the playoff race — our playoff odds give them a 32.8% chance of making it at least as far as the wild-card game — but, to state the obvious, they’re beginning to run out of time to get themselves back into playoff position. Suddenly, every loss is placed under a microscope and, over the past two days, that’s been an unfortunate development for closer Jeurys Familia.

On Wednesday night, Familia blew his first (regular season) save in almost exactly a year and then, roughly 18 hours later, he blew another. The outings themselves aren’t particularly important. There was a mix of command problems, hard-hit balls, and horrendous batted-ball luck over a span of 13 batters faced. What is important, though, is taking stock of Familia’s season as a whole and what has or hasn’t changed for the pitcher who suddenly emerged as an elite back-of-the-bullpen arm during the Mets’ stretch run a year ago.

If you remember one thing about the profile of 2015 Jeurys Familia, it’s probably that he developed and began utilizing a pitch unlike anything anyone else threw in baseball. As outlined by Jeff Sullivan last October, Familia added a splitter averaging 94 mph to his arsenal in mid-August. No one throws a splitter in the mid-90s — that’s not a thing people do. And yet there was Familia suddenly incorporating this devastating pitch just in time for the most significant stretch of Mets baseball in a decade and a half.

What made Familia particularly dominant was that he paired this new absurd splitter with an already unfair sinker. His upper-90s fastball with stellar movement was (and is) a devastating pitch in its own right. In fact, during yesterday afternoon’s rough outing, the pitch was on display in all its glory:

Ninety-eight mph with extreme run? Yeah, that’ll play. He generates 28.7% whiffs per swing on the pitch, which is second only to Zach Britton’s otherworldly 40.8% rate. When batters do make contact on Familia’s sinker, it’s typically in the form of a grounder. In fact, his sinker is generating grounders this season at the highest rate of his career per BrooksBaseball.

The sinker is an undeniably great pitch, so it wasn’t surprising for Familia to unleash a devastating one against Tony Wolters yesterday. What would be surprising if you were a person who watched the Mets last fall and then turned on the Mets for the first time yesterday, however, is the fact that the other devastating part of Familia’s arsenal didn’t make an appearance. That splitter which sent the baseball world into a frenzy less than a year ago has all but disappeared from Familia’s repertoire.

Pitch Usage

Per the Pitch Info data on which that chart is built, Familia has thrown 20 splitters across his 49 innings of work this season. Twenty. He threw 24 splitters last year in the postseason alone. The pitch hasn’t disappeared entirely — here’s one from an April game against the Phillies:

But it’s nothing more than an afterthought in his repertoire right now. We could dig in on PITCHf/x data to look at how the profile of the pitch itself has or hasn’t changed this season, but with a sample size of just 20 pitches thrown, there’s too much noise to satisfyingly isolate the attributes of the pitch. Let’s leave it at this: he still possesses the capability to throw a splitter in the mid-90s. So why did he (largely) stop doing so?

After a solid 1-2-3 outing against the Brewers on June 10th, Familia offered a relatively simple explanation to Newsday’s Marc Carig:

Emboldened by the sharpness of his sinker, Familia said he felt comfortable attacking the zone. Regaining the consistency on his primary weapon has been a priority during his work with pitching coach Dan Warthen and bullpen coach Ricky Bones.

It’s part of the reason that Familia said he has shied away from his splitter, a weapon that he refined last season.

“I’ve been working more on my sinker because this is the best pitch that I have, my sinker,” Familia said. “So that’s why I’m using my sinker more in the game, trying to get it the way it’s supposed to be.”

Well, sure. If you have a sinker like Familia’s, why wouldn’t you want to throw it as much as possible? At the risk of a bit of irresponsible speculating, I can’t help but wonder if the splitter’s reputation as harmful to arm health has factored into Familia’s decision making at all. It’s not something he would have any reason to admit to, but given that he’s able to find success with a pitch that doesn’t have a reputation of being bad for the arm, why press his luck? If there’s even a hint of discomfort when he throws that pitch, it would make sense that he’d avoid it more than might otherwise be expected. But, again, that’s just pure speculation.

Has Familia been much worse without the splitter? I took a look at his stats since he first introduced the pitch on August 14th a year ago and broke it up into three chunks:

Familia’s Stats Since Adding The Splitter
IP K% BB% GB% ERA FIP Splitter%
8/14/15 – 10/4/15 22.1 32.6% 6.7% 60.4% 1.61 1.93 22.8%
2015 postseason 14.2 17.7% 3.9% 70.0% 0.61 3.20 15.7%
2016 regular season 48.2 23.9% 10.7% 62.8% 3.14 2.54 2.7%
Splitter usage data from Brooks Baseball.

Familia is still a good relief pitcher. He may even be a great relief pitcher. But he’s not the pitcher who he showed himself to be ever so briefly a year ago. At the time, it looked like he would ride two elite pitches to inclusion among the names of the best relievers of the game. Unfortunately, that hasn’t come to pass.

He still has a wonderful fastball and a good slider that was overshadowed last fall by his other two pitches. Familia should be among the least of the Mets’ concerns as they desperately attempt to climb back into playoff position, but he’s also not the shutdown ace reliever they may have hoped to see. If that splitter does make a surprise resurgence, however, watch out.

Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and MLB.com's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

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7 years ago

been wondering this myself, especially when he faces lefties and needs another look. I hope someone on the mets beat asks Dan Warthen