Newfound success

I don’t know about you, but I think my favorite story of the 2010 season was the re-emergence of Colby Lewis. Since being drafted out of Bakersfield College as the 38th overall pick in 1999, Lewis has endured quite an interesting career.

A rough go of it

Lewis put up solid numbers in the Rangers’ minor league system, posting a 3.88 ERA, striking out 9.2 per nine innings and walking or hitting just 3.7 per nine from 1999-2003. He got his first taste of major league action in 2002, pitching 34.1 innings for Texas, mostly out of the bullpen. His first real shot came in 2003, when he had 26 starts for the Rangers. Although he had 10 wins, his underlying performance was poor, as he posted a 7.30 ERA and 5.78 FIP (helped by an unrealistically high 17.8 percent home run per fly ball rate).

Elbow surgery limited Lewis to three games between 2004 and 2005, and he was claimed off waivers by the Tigers while rehabbing. Lewis returned to the mound in 2006, starting 24 games for Triple-A Toledo with good results (3.96 ERA, 6.3 K/9, 2.6 BBHBP/9); he got into two major league games out of the bullpen that year before being designated for assignment in September. He latched on with the Nationals in November, only to be released during spring training. He then signed with the Athletics and spent the 2007 season shuttling between Oakland and Triple-A Sacramento, putting up excellent numbers in the minors and poor numbers in the majors.

Lewis was once again placed on waivers, and the Royals were awarded a claim on him in November. A month later, he was released, and decided that the best move for him would be to pack up his bags and pursue a career in Japan.

Enjoying the Far East

Lewis signed a contract with the Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s Central League prior to the 2008 season. He pitched there in 2008 and 2009, dominating the league in both years. Consider some rate numbers (included are league ranks among starters with a minimum of 20 starts):

2008


























Performance League Rank
ERA 2.68 1
K/9 9.25 1
BBHBP/9 1.47 1
K-BB% .219 1

2009


























Performance League Rank
ERA 2.96 7
K/9 9.49 1
BBHBP/9 1.68 4
K-BB% .214 1

Lewis’s improvements are more than just a product of pitching in a weaker league. He adjusted his delivery, refined his mental approach to attacking the strike zone, and added a new pitch. According to Rangers GM Jon Daniels, Lewis has made his delivery more compact and his release point more consistent; Lewis himself has said that he has “straightened everything up” so that he can stay more compact. Regarding his control, which became elite after entering the Japanese leagues, Lewis said that it was more of a mental adjustment than anything else:

“I just went there with the mindset that on a 3-2 count, it was like, ‘Let’s see how far you can hit it, here it comes.’ I decided that I’m not going to put you on base. There are so many one-run games over there, you’ll have to earn your way on. Over here, I was so sporadic. I was trying to throw the ball by guys all the time. I decided that I’m not going to let you beat me by beating myself. If you’re timid, and you don’t want them to hit the ball, you start nibbling, you get behind in the count. And that’s when you get in trouble. My strikeout totals were higher than I thought they’d be over there, but when you get ahead, you can make them chase.”

I won’t spend too much time talking about his new pitch in this section—that’ll be for the PITCHf/x profile coming up. The short scoop is that he added a cutter while he was in Japan.

Back to the States

Lewis declined the Carp contract offer following his 2009 campaign, and began looking toward a return to the major leagues. In January, his services were pursued by at least six teams, intrigued by his apparent rejuvenation. That interest soon narrowed down to the team that drafted him, the Texas Rangers; they finalized a two-year, $5 million contract with Lewis on Jan. 19 Lewis received a spot in the Rangers’ rotation behind Scott Feldman, Rich Harden, and C.J. Wilson, and surely exceeded the expectations of most by posting a 3.72 ERA, 3.55 FIP, and 4.4 overall fWAR in 201 innings. And don’t forget about his clutch postseason pitching for the AL champions.

PITCHf/x

In 2010, Lewis showed five different pitches: a four-seam fastball, a rare two-seam fastball, a slider, a curveball, and a change-up. A table showing each pitch’s effectiveness in various measures is below. The definitions I’m using are as follows:

{exp:list_maker}Swing rate: swings / total pitches
Whiff rate: swinging strikes / swings
Zone rate: pitches in the strike zone / total pitches
Chase rate: pitches swung at out of the strike zone / pitches out of the strike zone
Watch rate: pitches not swung at in the strike zone / pitches in the strike zone
Called rate: called strikes / pitches not swung at (*league average is a bit under 33%)
RV/100: Linear weights runs above average per 100 pitches; lower numbers are better for pitchers (take a look here for a refresher on how these work).
xRV/100: Expected (or defense independent) linear weights runs above average per 100 pitches. It’s the same as RV/100, except league averages for batted ball types are substituted for actual outcomes. It strips out random balls-in-play fluctuation, so in small sample sizes it’s more informative than RV/100.
GB Rate, FB Rate, LD Rate, PU Rate are respectively are ground balls / balls in play, fly balls / balls in play, line drives / balls in play, and pop-ups / balls in play, with batted ball types distinguished by Gameday stringers.
HR/FB is fly ball home runs / outfield fly balls.
wOBAcon is weighted on base average for contacted (non-foul) pitches.
{/exp:list_maker}
(I’ve posted some generic league averages for these metrics here. For stuff on individual pitch types, Harry Pavlidis’ article is an excellent resource.)




























































































# % Swing Rate Whiff Rate Zone Rate Chase Rate Called Rate Watch Rate RV/100 xRV/100
FF 1697 .516 .408 .163 .473 .242 .398 .406 -0.41 -0.95
FT 169 .051 .391 .061 .420 .276 .284 .451 -1.09 -0.06
SL 922 .280 .603 .340 .480 .455 .284 .237 -1.45 -1.53
CU 288 .088 .316 .209 .434 .178 .330 .504 1.21 0.07
CH 195 .059 .405 .165 .415 .193 .259 .296 -0.33 -0.72
3290 .454 .230 .465 .294 .334 .363 -0.63 -0.90







































































In Play GB Rate FB Rate LD Rate PU Rate HR/FB wOBAcon
FF 242 .201 .402 .167 .230 .094 .365
FT 29 .556 .296 .148 .000 .125 .296
SL 221 .493 .265 .161 .081 .125 .323
CU 41 .591 .273 .114 .023 .083 .399
CH 39 .514 .297 .162 .027 .091 .278
575 .381 .326 .160 .132 .104 .342

It’s all about the four-seamer and the slider with Lewis. Those are used most frequently and appear to be his best pitches. Lewis said he could dial it up to 96 mph in Japan but usually held back a bit to ensure that he hit his spots; the hardest fastball recorded from last year was 95.3 at U.S. Cellular Field, which averaged about 0.7 mph fast last year. Looking at road games only, to compensate for the slow gun at Rangers Ballpark last year, Lewis’ four-seamer averaged just under 91 mph last year and the slider just under 84 mph. The chart below shows how each pitch looked in terms of spin deflection, in inches, from the catcher’s perspective.

image

The slider and its transformation
As you’ve probably noticed, I haven’t made any reference to the cutter that Lewis says he added in Japan. Cutters usually have less than 5 mph difference between a fastball and at least four inches of vertical “rise,” and Lewis’ pitch, looking at aggregations, does not have those characteristics—it looks much more like a typical slider. However, the movement and velocity on Lewis’ slider did not stay consistent throughout the year.

There are two graphs below: one shows the difference between his four-seam fastball vertical spin deflection and his slider spin deflection, and the other shows the difference between his four-seam fastball velocity and his slider velocity. I’ve chosen to show differences as a very basic way to account for the game-to-game variation in park calibrations. Keep in mind that Lewis’ fastball velocity and movement remained fairly constant throughout the season.

image
image

At the beginning of the season, the pitch acted like a pretty typical slider, averaging 81-82 mph with less than one inch of “rise.” It began to look a bit more cutter-like on July 1, and continued to have similar action for the next seven starts. Then, on August 19, it tightened up even more to 85-86 mph and four to five inches of rise. By the end of the year, it was definitely on the cutter/slider borderline. So, while I call it a slider here, you could more accurately consider it a slutter or, as I know some of you prefer, a cullider. The PITCHf/x data on Lewis so far this spring is very limited; we’ll get a more conclusive look at what kind of movement his breaking ball is getting this year once the regular season rolls around.

In conclusion

The bottom line on Lewis is that while he is not overpowering, he has a good slider and his good control has translated to the majors. With Cliff Lee moving on to Philadelphia, the Rangers will need their starters to step up and fill the void. If Lewis can build on his new-found success, it would go a long way for the Rangers.

References & Resources
PITCHf/x data are from MLBAM and are courtesy of Joe Lefkowitz’s tool. Pitch classifications are by the author. Other stats are from Fangraphs and Baseball Reference. Unlinked quotes are from Tim Kurkjian’s February 2010 article on ESPN.com.

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