In his two starts this year, Jeff Suppan has thrown 67 fastballs. Before reading ahead, do you care to take a guess as to how many times hitters have swung and missed those fastballs? Keep in mind that the league average whiff rate on a fastball is only about 6%, with a very good pitcher inducing swings and misses on about 10-12% of fastballs.
The answer to the question? It is zero. Every time a batter has decided to swing at a Jeff Suppan fastball, they have made contact with it. Even batters who played for the Giants. Batters have swung and missed 8 Jeff Suppan pitches this year-- a curveball, 3 sliders, and 4 changeups.
In his opening day start, Suppan averaged 86.93 miles per hour with his fastball. In Sunday's game, he averaged 87.21 miles per hour. Unsurprisingly, that is right in line with his last two years, his average was below 87 last season, and has been steadily decreasing since this speed data became available in 2002 (he averaged 89.6 mph with the Royals that year).
The break on the fastballs is nothing special anymore, either, and it is quite inconsistent. In these two games, we saw an average horizontal break of 8 inches toward a right-handed hiter and an average vertical break of 8 inches. I wish I had access to data from previous seasons, because it would be interesting to know what Suppan's break was like during the days of his prime-- even if they were propped up by great defenses, he still had some skills.
The general trend for Suppan in his first two years with the Brewers appeared to be of consistent, expected decline. He struck out fewer batters in each of the past two years and began walking more. As sad as the premise seems, we hoped to avoid total catastrophe and Suppan becoming totally unusable. I am not ready to declare that as of now, but his stuff is deteriorating to the point that he is going to have to rely exclusively on good control to stay above replacement level. And as we have seen so far this season, things are not looking good on the walk prevention front.
In total, Suppan's 8 swings and misses out of 140 total pitches is a 5.7% swinging strike rate. That is not good. Suppan no longer has the stuff to get by as a starter that is above replacement level while walking batters at a rate worse than the league average.
At this point, Suppan needs to get back to a 5:3 strikeout to walk ratio-caliber pitcher. If he is unable to do so, there are several options that are better than him. One of his advantages is his durability, and in the past, his control and stuff were better than replacement pitchers like DiFelice, Green, or Wright by a large enough margin that it made sense to continue to use him even when he was working through struggles. But now, we have a pitcher with stuff that does not induce swings and misses, and his control has been dreadful.
Now we introduce the alternative. Mark DiFelice's average fastball in 2008 was thrown harder than Jeff Suppan's in 2008 or 2009. Mark DiFelice is also capable of striking people out, not walking 3 batters with the bases loaded, and has yet to, in his career, give up 7 runs in 1 inning.
I am all for giving Suppan some time to work out his issues and see if he can regain his usual control. But at what point do you realize that Suppan carries no advantages over DiFelice or McClung? DiFelice, in the starting rotation, would predictably strike out more batters, walk fewer, and his stuff is not noticeably worse than Suppan's at this point (and it might well be better)-- which in general implies that he is not more "hittable" than Suppan. Is the advantage durability and stamina? What good do those do when Suppan has to be taken out after an average of 70 pitches due to pitching poorly? It has been pointed out that a starter who can pitch 170 innings with a 5 ERA talent has some value, and that is true, but if there are three other pitchers available who are capable of a sub-5 ERA talent, that value is almost entirely diminished by the abundance of the other type of pitcher-- if one gets hurt or becomes ineffective, the team can plug in another. That value comes in when the replacement pitchers are the freely available kind that put up 5.50 ERAs. The Brewers are not in this situation, having stockpiled DiFelice, Green, and McClung (Capuano and Wright could also enter into this group of pitchers).
DiFelice's cutter/slider has been dissected by Josh and other analysts before, so I will not get into it too much. It is around 81-82 miles per hour, and it averaged 81.8 in his appearance in last night's game. His hardest pitch of the night was 82.4 miles per hour. The only other pitch he threw last night was a changeup, and those two pitches were split almost 50/50. Mark is also capable of throwing a high-80s fastball, even if he does not feel the need to use it very often. He has used a curveball in the past, as well, though I do not see one in his data from last night. I would expect him to break out the full repitoire if he were to be used as a starter.
The point of the look at DiFelice is to illustrate that Suppan no longer has an advantage, as a pitcher, over DiFelice or other pitchers in stuff, as in break, movement, and velocity. If both showed up to try out for a baseball team today, a coach would start DiFelice-- the guy with the 87 mph fastball and the good cutter and change over Suppan, the guy with about 86, a decent curve and slider and not a whole lot of control. Think about it this way-- if Suppan suddenly learned to walk less than 2 per 9 and strike out more than 6 per nine, we would have a similar pitcher to Mark DiFelice. The only real difference right now in their repitoires is that Suppan throws his curveball and fastball more often than DiFelice does. DiFelice's stellar cutter/slider probably makes up for the difference.
I sometimes think there is this invisible tiering of starting pitchers-- the guys that throw really hard, the guys that throw hard, and the guys that throw normally. I usually put pitchers like Sabathia and Sheets in the top tier, Gallardo and Parra in the second tier, and then bunch pitchers like Bush, Looper, and Suppan in the last tier. That is no longer the case, Suppan has now fallen to a level well below even Bush and Looper, and those 2-3 miles per hour actually can have a very big impact on hittability, especially when Suppan has little control.
Suppan needs to get his control under control, and if he does not, the Brewers need to seriously consider inserting DiFelice into the rotation while Suppan attempts to remember how to throw strikes. I have not mentioned McClung much in this post, but he is capable as well. Suppan does have some value if he is able to regain his ability to throw strikes and basically reinvents himself as a pitcher, but he is going to have to become a pinpoint control man who walks almost nobody to stay in the rotation for the next two years of his contract. I am hesitant to draw too many conclusions from 2 games, but the trends are disturbing enough to continue looking at this issue and beginning to make plans for what will happen if he is unable to begin throwing strikes again.
If Suppan gets back his normal control and drops his BB/9 below 3 throughout the rest of the season, it would be a fine solution to keep him in the rotation, he would not be hurting the team. But if these control issues continue, the team needs to go into crisis management mode, and attempt to keep Suppan from hurting the team by throwing innings in which replacement pitchers would be a much better option. If Doug Melvin is on the same page as me here, I would think he will consider sending DiFelice down to AAA to stretch out while Suppan gets about 2 more starts to prove he has his control back. If he continues to walk batters, a temporary move to the bullpen or the disabled list might be the best course of action.