Colby Lewis getting K’s

Back in January, the Texas Rangers signed Colby Lewis to a two-year, $5 million deal, with a $3.25 million club option for the 2012 season. Originally taken by the Rangers in the supplemental first round of the 1999 draft, Lewis disappointed and drifted in the years to follow, compiling -0.9 Wins Above Replacement in the big leagues from 2002 to 2007.

The 6-4, 230 pound righty suffered a rotator cuff injury in 2004. He bounced from Texas to Detroit, from Washington to Oakland, and was briefly Kansas City property before being granted his release after the 2007 season so that he could play ball in Japan. In MLB stints with the Rangers, Tigers and Athletics, Lewis didn’t miss many bats (6.42 K/9), often lost the strike zone (5.14 BB/9) and posted an expected FIP (xFIP) of about five in 217.1 frames.

2010, however, has been a different story. Back in the majors after a two-year stint with the Hiroshima Carp, Lewis has already racked up a win above replacement. He has some performance incentives based on innings totals reached, but Lewis’ pitching has provided more than double the value of his base salary ($1.75 million) just one month into the season.

In Japan, Lewis struck out 9.4 batters per nine innings and walked just 1.2 per nine. In the Tim Kurkjian article linked to above, Lewis credited a more aggressive pitching philosophy:

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.

He also mentioned the addition of a cutter:

It’s the same grip as my slider, but instead of putting my hand over top of the ball, it’s more on the side, which gives it right-to-left action,” he said. “I just don’t rip it as much

Entering 2010, Oliver and CHONE projected that the Rangers were getting a sweetheart of a deal by inking Lewis. ZiPS was more reserved, though still projecting Lewis for a line that would provide a great return on investment:

Oliver: 166 IP, 8.4 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9, 3.16 ERA
CHONE: 167 IP, 8.1 K/9, 2.05 BB/9, 1.08 HR/9, 3.99 ERA
ZiPS: 176.1 IP, 6.53 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 1.22 HR/9, 4.39 ERA

MLB: Athletics v Rangers September 9, 2007

So far, so good. In 32.2 innings, Lewis has posted rates of 10.47 K/9, 3.58 BB/9, 0.55 HR/9 and a 2.76 ERA. That ERA will regress, as his home run per fly ball rate (5.7 percent) and BABIP (.280) figure to rise and his 79.6 percent rate of stranding runners on base will likely fall closer to the low seventies in the months to come. Even so, Lewis’ xFIP sits at an excellent 3.60.

The 30 year-old is getting ahead in the count often: his first pitch strike percentage sits at 63.2 (57.3 percent MLB average in 2010). He’s not pounding the strike zone, as just 43.4 percent of Lewis’ pitches have been thrown within the zone (48.2 percent MLB average). Rather, batters are chasing his stuff off the plate with great frequency. Lewis’ outside swing percentage is 32.2, well north of the 26.9 percent MLB average so far this year. Hitters are often coming up empty, too, as his contact rate is 72.8 percent (80.8 MLB average) and his swinging strike rate is 11.9 percent (8.3 MLB average).

According to Trip Somers’ Pitch F/X tool, Lewis is luring opponents with four main pitches: a 90-91 MPH four-seam fastball, an 82 MPH slider (maybe this is the cutter), a 79 MPH curveball and an 84 MPH changeup. He has tossed the fastball about 55 percent of the time, while mixing in the slider 24 percent, the curve 11 percent and the changeup about 10 percent. The heater and breaking pitches are inducing whiffs at an impressive rate. Lewis’ four-seamer has been swung and missed at eight percent (six percent MLB average), while the slider has an 18.1 percent whiff rate (13.6 MLB average) and the curveball has a 15.5 percent whiff rate (11.6 MLB average). The change has been a little below average (12 percent, 12.6 percent average).

It’s just one month of pitching. But Lewis’ ability to fool batters has been impressive, and we’re getting to a sample size where strikeout rate becomes reliable for pitchers. It looks like the Rangers picked up a quality starter for the price of a middle reliever.

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