We last looked at Jeff Suppan after he experienced some control problems in his first two starts, which prompted me to ask if he was even capable of recovering. I concluded that his stuff has deteriorated to the point that he must rely on plus control to have any success, and he has found some of that control over the past three starts, stringing together three quality outings in a row. Is his stuff better, or is he just locating now and getting back to normal?
One of the best ways to measure how "nasty" a pitcher's stuff is working is by looking at their swinging strikes induced. He has gotten more, but it does not appear that something major changed after the second start.
Swinging Strike Trends
2 swinging strikes, 63 pitches
5 swinging strikes, 78 pitches
2 swinging strikes, 99 pitches
8 swinging strikes, 101 pitches
5 swinging strikes, 101 pitches
Next progression is the four seamers, two seamers, and a few of the hard cutters grouped together by velocity. You might think that the dropoff in velocity the last game was the result of throwing more cutters, but I do not see a cutter in the data, and he had thrown some in the early games.
Suppan might have attempted to scale back his velocity after the first two starts in order to establish some better command, but I have no idea of his resurgence of control in the past three starts has anything to do with that.
Strike: Ball Ratio Trends
38 strikes, 25 balls
38 strikes, 40 balls
60 strikes, 39 balls
60 strikes, 41 balls
66 strikes, 35 balls
More strikes, and less balls. That’s good! Last time I looked at Suppan, I said this:
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.
Well, he has remembered, so the crisis has been averted for now. I do not think that Suppan’s stuff has gotten better, however. His repertoire has not changed, and it is still not good. If he can keep up the good command, he should settle back into his usual routine of slightly above replacement level pitching and the occasional hot stretch of effective pitching. If the command goes bad again, the stuff just is not there to even keep the team in games, as we saw in his first two starts of the season.
Working back to the pitch f/x data, I noticed something new while looking at the data tonight. Suppan throws a lot of change-ups, and the velocity gap between the change and the fastball is just not large enough to fool hitters. The fastball sits at about 86 these days and the change is around 81-82. The optimal difference is around 8-10 miles per hour. If Suppan is going to continue to throw 20-30 changeups per game, he needs to scale back the velocity to generate some swings and misses.
In the past three or four years, Suppan's fastball velocity has gone down steadily and the changeup velocity has gone up, at least 1.5 mph and maybe as much as 2. The 4 mph gap between fastball and changeup is not fooling anyone anymore. Right now the averages are at about 86.5 mph and 82.5 mph. Go back to 2002 with the Royals, and Suppan threw his fastball about 89 mph and his change about 80 mph. That is the difference between a swing and a miss when the batter is fooled or the batter being just a bit out in front of the pitch and connecting with an 82 mph pitch with little break.
Suppan is close to his form of the middle of 2008, as long as his control stays as good as it has been in the last three starts, he should continue to limp along at a pace slightly above replacement level. But I do not think we should hold out any hope that he can be a league-average starter anymore. A pitcher with his fastball and change and the occasional curve and slider just does not have the stuff to be better than that without Mark DiFelice-like control.
Edit: Per a request in the comments, Suppan has induced only one swing and a miss on a fastball this year in five starts.