A closer look at Jeff Francis’ start against the Phillies

Jeff Francis held Phillies batters at bay yesterday afternoon going six innings giving up only four hits and two runs. Both runs were on back to back home runs by Aaron Rowand and Pat Burrell. Francis also struck out eight and only walked two. While Francis has become an excellent starter this year for the Rockies he had struggled against the Phillies this year. In two starts he had given up 14 runs on 20 hits in just eight and a third innings so this start was a bit of a surprise. Armed with some PITCHf/x data for the 94 pitches Francis threw let’s see how he did it.

Let’s start by looking at what Francis throws from regular season data. Francis has a fastball that checks in at around 89 mph that has good movement in towards a left-handed batter. Scouts say his best pitch is his change-up that he throws around 81 mph with similar movement to his fastball, which helps disguise the pitch. He also throws a curveball that breaks more horizontally in to a right-handed batter than it drops. It really is more like a slurve than an over the top curveball. For a complete run down, you can check here. During the regular season Francis threw about 58% fastballs, 28% change-ups, and 14% curveballs.

TBS analyst Joe Simpson commented several times that he thought Francis was throwing more off-speed pitches than he usual does. I was a little bit skeptical of this. I had seen Francis pitch several times during the regular season and came away thinking that he really relied on his off speed pitches, especially his change-up. To see if Joe was right we can plot the 94 pitches Francis threw according to the break of the ball. For more information about this check John Walsh‘s great article on identifying pitches.

Francis’ pitches are pretty easy to identify here. The things that jumps out right away is the number of curveballs appears to be way up from his norm. Indeed, of the 94 pitches he threw, only 45 were fastballs, with 28 change-ups and 21 curveballs. Joe was right, less than half of the pitches Francis threw were fastballs. While the number of change-ups remained nearly the same, Francis thew a lot more curveballs. Now we know what Francis was throwing, let’s look at where the pitches ended up.

I have superimposed a regulation strike zone using an average of the Phillies players for the top and the bottom. You can see that despite what the TBS announcers said, Francis mostly did get that outside corner, especially to left-handed batters. This should come as no surprise, as it is exactly what John Walsh found when he examined the strike zone. In general, Francis was able to keep the ball down and he got Phillies batters to swing at a good number of pitches out of the strike zone. The home run given up to Rowand to break up the shutout was on a pitch that was well off the plate. As a pitcher, there really isn’t much you can do about that but tip you cap and try to get the next guy. That didn’t go so well for Francis, who promptly left a fastball middle in to Pat Burrell, who made it back to back homers. Besides those two pitches, nothing was really hit all that hard against Francis and he did a good job at locating his pitches. Let’s move to a few key at bats during the game and see how Francis worked them.

The very first at bat of the game Francis went 3-0 to Jimmy Rollins on three fastballs. While the second looks close to the strike zone, remember that those high strikes are rarely called. Francis regrouped and threw two more fastballs on 3-0 and 3-1. While these pitches were near the heart of the plate they were at least down. After taking the 3-0 offering, Rollins fouled off the 3-1 pitch, setting up a full count. Then, Francis threw his first his first change-up, and it was a beauty down and away from the Rollins, earning him his first strikeout.

The most important at bat of the game for Francis came in the fifth inning: With two men on and two outs, Shane Victorino came to the plate. Francis had already given back two runs in a three-run game coming into the frame, and he appeared rattled, having just walked Rollins to put two men on. When you are put in these situations many pitchers go to their best pitch, and that is exactly what Francis did, throwing two change-ups to start. Victorino didn’t chase the first pitch, which just dropped low, and then let a 1-0 change-up go past. Getting Victorino thinking off-speed, Francis threw a fastball on the outside corner which Victorino tried to pull, weakly grounding out to second.

Adding it all up, Francis pitched a great game against the Phillies. He got Phillies batters off balance by throwing more curveballs than he normally throws and throwing some change-ups in fastball counts. Francis did a very good job of keeping the ball down and got a good amount of swings and misses at balls out of the zone. After seeing Francis’ adjustments, it will be interesting to see what adjustments the Phillies make if they get another crack at Francis later in the series.

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