My thinking was Villarreal had just made Hamilton whiff on a slider, and he was set up to chase a high fastball, which we all know with Villarreal tends to have a little hair on it. The homer really didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things in last night’s game. After all, the Tigers were beating up the Rangers to the tune of 8-0 on the scoreboard and cruised to victory. What it did do however, is end a nice little stretch of hitless baseball for the Tigers fire-balling pitcher, whose dominance in 2012 has been a big help in the bullpen’s turnaround.
Prior to last night’s game, Villarreal had gone five straight appearances without allowing a hit to opposing batters. That might not sound like a major accomplishment for a reliever, but Villarreal isn’t coming in for just one hitter at a time. He isn’t a situational right-hander, so he rarely just faces a batter or two. Over those five appearances, Villarreal recorded 7 innings, dominating hitters with a 10 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio, and lowering his ERA to 1.16. After the homer to Hamilton last night, Villarreal’s ERA is still superb at a paltry 1.44 for the 2012 season. That’s a far cry for a youngster who posted a 6.75 ERA in 2011 for the Tigers.
So why the improvement?
Well, no doubt some of that could be chalked up to maturity, and a little bit of better luck. Villarreal has always had a good arm, so gaining some experience can’t be discounted. What also can’t be discounted is the volatility of relievers on a year to year basis, so who knows if Villarreal can continue his performance into the second half of the season, let alone for years to come? He might just be going through a good 20+ inning stretch, and hitters may catch up with him as they see him more.
Checking out his pitch Fx information on Fangraphs gives a little more insight into what is going on with Villarreal to this point however.
Villarreal is attacking hitters far more this season than he did last year. Last year, Villarreal threw a variation of a fastball 62% of the time according to Fangraphs. This season, that number is up to around 83%. So contrary to what Mario Impemba and Rod Allen would have you believe, the success that Villarreal is having isn’t necessarily a result of his slider. Yes, his slider is getting more horizontal movement than it did last year, but it isn’t getting as much downward break. His success might have more to do with working off of a more dominant fastball.
Interestingly enough, Villarreal and his fastball have shown less movement this season than last year, however, the velocity difference is significant. Last year, he averaged 94 mph with his four seam fastball. This season, Villarreal’s average velocity for his four-seamer is up to 97 mph. That 3 mph difference is significant for any pitcher, and rarely do you see increases in velocity like that in one year’s time. Clearly, at least to this point, American League batters are having trouble dealing with it.
The added velocity has led to an increase in swings and misses for Villarreal. In 2011, batters only swung and miss 7.6% of the time against Villarreal. This season that number is up to 14.2%. There are other numbers that show why Villarreal is having success at near David Robertson circa 2011 rates. He is getting batters to chase outside the strike zone more. He has increased his first strike percentage and is getting ahead of hitters. His home run to fly ball rate has been cut down by more than half, which is good considering he isn’t getting near as many ground balls.
Is there some luck involved in Villarreal’s 2012 early success? Sure. Opponents have just a .212 BABIP against Villarreal. That number is likely to go up some, but it goes to show that Villarreal is inducing weak contact when they do hit the ball off of him. His line drive percentage is down, while his infield fly ball percentage is significantly up.
Weak contact+swings and misses=a good reliever.
I would imagine that Brayan Villarreal is a pitcher whose actual performance levels are somewhere in-between what he did last year, and what he is doing this year. His FIP this season is at 2.42, and I have to believe as the season goes along, we might see a few more guys catch up to his fastball, but I think he is a guy going forward that is for real.
Even with the strong spring training this season, nobody could’ve predicted the type of season the Tigers have been getting from Villarreal to this point. In fact, he has been so good, there was a little bit of shock that came to me when Hamilton hit his home run last night. And there shouldn’t be any shock when Josh Hamilton homers ever. Villarreal’s 13k/9 and his opponents batting average against of just .151 have almost made us forget that he is human.
That is…until a really good hitter reminds us all of that fact last night. Thankfully, he was human in a game that was pretty much out of reach.