A fine rookie: Randy Wells

In December 2007, the Toronto Blue Jays selected Randy Wells in the Rule 5 draft. Wells was transferred to the Blue Jays for a nominal fee ($50,000) with the stipulation he remain on the 25-man roster or be offered back to the Chicago Cubs, who originally held his rights.

Wells made the Blue Jays team out of spring training, but got to throw only a single inning. Toronto didn’t have room for the rookie reliever and had to offer him back to the Cubs. The Cubs sent back half the fee paid by Toronto and assigned Wells to Iowa in the Pacific Coast League.

Not a big deal, all of this. Rule 5 picks usually end up back from where they came (unless their name is Josh Hamilton). Wells joined the I-Cubs rotation and spent the 2008 season in Triple-A until a September call-up. Added to the 40-man roster and having made a decent impression during his second cup of coffee, Wells looked to be a good candidate for the 2009 Cubs bullpen.

He didn’t make the Cubs out of spring training. Sent back to Iowa, Wells remained in Triple-A and was stretched out by working in the I-Cubs rotation. On May 8, Wells got the call for his first action of 2009—his first major league start. It also may have been the start of a Rookie of the Year campaign.

If it weren’t for bad luck…

Wells got off to a fast start, pitching at least through the fifth inning without giving up more than three runs in each of his first six starts. I found his plight quite interesting. After those six starts, Wells was among an elite group of pitchers—Bill Laskey, Cal Eldred and Chuck Smith—who suffered from a severe lack of run and/or bullpen support upon joining a major league rotation for the first time.

Start number seven broke his five inning/three run streak, thanks to the Minnesota Twins, but Wells has lost only one decision since. As a matter of fact, that loss to the Twins started a run of 10 straight starts in which Wells figured into the decision. Despite an 0-3 start, Wells now finds himself at 8-4.

But enough of pitching wins. Let’s talk about the pitcher’s stuff., which has helped give Wells the best ERA of any rookie (including J.A. Happ).

PITCHf/x profile

Wells has been a subject of my inquiries a few times in the past, including a brief look before his first start and an update before a trip to the South Side of Chicago.

Wells throws four pitches: change-up, fastball, sinker and slider. (click image to enlarge)

image

While not a hard thrower, Wells has enough velocity. The four-seam fastball averages under 91 mph and the two-seam sinker just above 90. His change-up, as you can see above, has good tail and sink, and runs in under 84 mph. With a gap of just under seven mph, Wells’ change has good separation from his fastball. Wells’ best pitch has been his slider. Averaging around 85 mph, the pitch is more of a sweeper than a sinker, but consistently thrown for strikes.

Some observations:

{exp:list_maker}Wells throws three pitches that work well against both batter sides, but the sinker gets hit hard by lefties
His slider doesn’t miss many bats, but it is consistently in the zone against both sides. He has to watch the fly ball rate of the slider against lefties; it’s a place where his luck can turn against him
He may throw the change differently against lefties (6.5 degree difference, more than a half inch spin movement up and down compared to vs RHH, over 263 pitches)
He’ll get a lot of pop-ups against righties with the change, but none against lefties
Wells actually gets more grounders on the four-seam fastball than the sinker against lefties. He has the opposite/normal split against righties {/exp:list_maker}

Here are the numbers behind those thoughts:

Pitch vs. # MPH pfx_x pfx_z spin angle RPM
Change LHH 162 83.9 -6.9 5.7 230.8 1712.1
Change RHH 101 83.6 -6.3 6.4 224.3 1735.5
Sinker LHH 200 89.9 -6.5 7.7 220.3 2055.7
Sinker RHH 226 90.1 -6.5 7.7 220.4 2060.4
Fastball LHH 152 90.3 -3.3 10.0 198.0 2147.8
Fastball RHH 220 90.6 -3.0 10.1 196.4 2141.6
Slider LHH 112 84.5 3.2 2.6 129.4 838.2
Slider RHH 253 84.5 3.4 2.6 127.0 861.9

pfx_x and pfx_z represent the movement caused by the spin of the ball, in inches. The spin angle is the direction of the axis around which the ball was spinning (relative, approximately, to the pitcher’s arm angle).

Pitch vs. # Swing Whiff B:CS In Wide Zone Chase Watch SLGCON
Change LHH 162 0.500 0.259 4.8 0.346 0.406 0.321 0.351
Change RHH 101 0.446 0.333 4.1 0.406 0.267 0.293 0.294
Sinker LHH 200 0.420 0.095 1.4 0.475 0.257 0.400 0.641
Sinker RHH 226 0.496 0.036 1.8 0.553 0.287 0.336 0.375
Fastball LHH 152 0.382 0.121 2.7 0.480 0.114 0.301 0.357
Fastball RHH 220 0.373 0.207 1.7 0.573 0.234 0.500 0.448
Slider LHH 112 0.536 0.217 1.7 0.536 0.404 0.350 0.381
Slider RHH 253 0.514 0.254 2.1 0.534 0.381 0.363 0.295

Swing rate is swings per pitch, whiffs are per swing, the wide zone is two feet wide, Chase is swing rate outside that zone, Watch is take rate within (opposite of swings). SLGCON (AKA nkSLG) is total bases per fair ball in play, including home runs.

Pitch vs. # GB% FB% PU% LD% rv100
Change LHH 162 51% 35% 0% 14% -1.8
Change RHH 101 47% 18% 18% 18% -1.7
Sinker LHH 200 38% 26% 3% 33% 1.0
Sinker RHH 226 56% 27% 8% 9% -1.2
Fastball LHH 152 43% 32% 7% 18% -0.6
Fastball RHH 220 24% 41% 7% 28% -0.9
Slider LHH 112 29% 43% 5% 24% -2.8
Slider RHH 253 61% 21% 7% 11% -2.8

Grounders, flies, pops and liners are defined by the MLB stringers. rv100 is similar to the stat you see at Fangraphs, and is the “value” of a pitch, per 100 times thrown, relative to the league average. A number below zero indicates a better outcome for the pitcher. Please note, Fangraphs does not follow this convention for pitchers and uses a different methodology. Your mileage may vary, as may our numbers.

What to expect

In short, I don’t know.

Wells is having success beyond even the most optimistic expectations. His ERA is more than a run better than his FIP, so regression is coming. Run values as presented above, and every other stat in here for that matter, are more descriptive than predictive. Still, I get the feeling his slider will become vulnerable against lefties. Eventually, the GB/FB inversion against lefties (sinker vs. fastball) could reverse itself, since it is hard to imagine hitters consistently finding the top half of a “rising” fastball.

All things considered, the Cubs have not only found a pitcher who has been steady and reliable, but they may have found a Rookie of the Year candidate to follow ’08 winner Geovany Soto. Among rookie starters, only Happ has had similar success in 2009. I imagine a strong finish by the Cubs will help promote the rookie nationwide. So, come on Cubs, do it for Randy.

References & Resources
PITCHf/x data from MLBAM, pitch classifications by the author.

Wikipedia has more on Rule 5

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Comments

  1. theraysparty said...

    I think the change is better than the slider just by basing it on the data in my opinion. He isn’t afraid to throw it against RH and produces a good amount of grounders since it drops a couple inches off the fastball. The run value isn’t as good as the slider but it is not that far off.

  2. Harry Pavlidis said...

    I think the change and slider serve different purposes. One is normally thrown for a strike, the other is meant to get the hitter to chase out of the zone (generally speaking, mind reading etc).

  3. dat cubfan daver said...

    Well, I’ll take an “I don’t know” over a “this is virtually impossible” any day of the week. It won’t come as big surprise to me if Randy does regress – even sharply. But considering he wasn’t really projected to be much more than a middle of the rotation starter to begin with, he’s still a pleasant surprise.

    Thanks for your explanation of the rv100 stat – I’d never really noticed that before and it’s really interesting.

    Last, a note to Mike B above: You left out a key word in your second-to-last sentence.

  4. Mike B said...

    I’m a Cubs fan (alas) and I’ve been waiting for the regression to come.  But as long as I wait, it never does.

    The kid doesn’t have the most impressive stuff, and isn’t poised in the way a Hanson or Bucholz is poised, but damn if he doesn’t get it done.

    I have no explanation, but I’m glad to see that a smarter analysis than I can muster from my couch comes to similarly astounding results.

    He’s going to get hard, eventually.  But he has provided ridiculously valuable innings to a club that was in desperate need of them.

  5. Harry Pavlidis said...

    Oh, BTW, Wells has thrown 18 pitches that I’ve classified as cutters. Those were excluded from the analysis until I can verify the ID.

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