What’s Wrong with the Big Bad Wolf?

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Coming off terrible outings against both Cincinnati and Chicago, Randy Wolf gets his opportunity to right ship tonight against the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

Wolf alternated hot and cold against the Pirates last year.  After allowing only two earned runs in two starts last April, Wolf got shelled in May and July to the tune of 22 earned runs in only 18 innings (three starts).  In a July 21 start, Wolf allowed an incredible 12 earned runs over 5.2 innings. 

Wolf improved significantly after that outing, allowing only 26 earned runs over 87 2/3 innings the rest of the season.  Why?  Rick Peterson, the Brewers’ former pitching coach, credited a “subtle adjustment” Wolf made to speed up the tempo of his delivery. 

Whenever a pitcher struggles, someone inevitably mentions the vague concept of “mechanics.”  The “mechanics” explanation has, unfortunately, become code for “just not a very good pitcher” among baseball fans.  I wish pitching coaches and analysts would find a better word, because people simply don’t buy it anymore.

But the truth is, there are an infinite number of things that can alter a pitcher’s location.  Maybe he’s releasing the ball a little too early or too late.  Maybe he’s opening up his body too soon.  Maybe he’s not putting his foot down correctly.  A pitcher is expected to locate a pitch within three to six inches of where he wants it, and there are a lot of mechanics that go into that.  For Wolf in 2010, slowing the tempo of his delivery altered his release point, throwing off his location.  He was much more effective once he corrected that problem.

As Jim Breen has noted, in his last start against the Cubs, Wolf left everything up in the zone, and was accordingly hammered.  A pitcher with a 95 mph fastball might be able to live up in the zone, but for Wolf, who tops out at about 89, pitching up is bound to end in disaster. 

I went back and looked at the strikezone plot from that infamous 12-run game against the Pirates last July, figuring I’d find a pattern similar to what happened in the Cubs game this year.  Wolf left plenty of pitches up then, too, but was also slapped around when he caught too much of the plate at the bottom of the zone. 

numlocation.php-pitchSel=150116&game=gid_2010_07_21_milmlb_pitmlb_1&batterX=&innings=yyyyyyyyy&sp_type=1&s_type=.gifThe strikezone plot from his 6-run outing against the Pirates on May 19 of last year also shows that his problem was not leaving the ball up in the zone, but catching too much of the plate with balls down:

Wolf Pitch Location vs. Pirates 5.19.2010.gifWhat conclusions can we draw from this analysis of admittedly small samples?  Well, if the above plots are consistent for this year and last, it suggests Wolf’s mechanical problems this year may be unrelated to his problems with his delivery last year.  Hopefully, Wolf and Brewers’ pitching coach Rick Kranitz have discussed adjustments, and Wolf is able to incorporate those tonight.

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