Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Brad Penny's command slowly vanishing

Brad Penny has always been a first-half pitcher. All of his career numbers -- win-loss record, ERA, WHIP, etc. -- trend the wrong way after the All-Star break.

Even in 2007, his best season, he had a 2.39 ERA in the first half and a 3.84 ERA the rest of the way. He had an ERA of 1.95 in April and 2.15 in May but saw his ERA jump to 4.91 in July and 4.00 in August.

It should come as no surprise, then, that his numbers have started to go the wrong way this season. He had a 4.71 ERA at the All-Star break -- including a 3.18 ERA in five starts in June -- but hasn't kept it up since. He has a 6.62 ERA in his last six starts. He allowed four earned runs in 5 2/3 innings on Saturday in Texas, surrendering eight hits and four walks in a game the Red Sox never really had a chance to win.

(He and catcher Jason Varitek also allowed the Rangers to steal six bases, but that's a discussion for another time and place.)

Contrary to perception, Penny appears to be putting in the work to get him through the season. Anectodatally, no other Red Sox player so regularly runs the aisles of the Fenway Park grandstand. Penny sprints up the stairs and walks back down the stairs at least three times a week during homestands -- often right in the heat of the mid-afternoon.

(What's interesting to watch is the way Fenway Park tour groups respond: Penny is so anonymous in Boston that he occasionally runs right by a group intently listening to the history of the Green Monster without anyone noticing.)

The work appears to be paying off: His fastball velocity has held steady in the dog days of summer -- despite what you might think from looking at the raw numbers. The Fenway Park radar gun appeared to be juiced in late July, and Penny wasn't the only pitcher to see an extra boost in his miles-per-hour totals.

Consider the average velocity on his fastball in his three most recent starts at Fenway Park:
* July 24: 96.27
* July 29: 96.1
* Aug. 10: 93.45

Compare that to three Daniel Bard appearances around the same time:
* July 25: 99.55
* July 30: 99.69
* Aug. 11: 97.08
(Data compiled at BrooksBaseball.net)

Bard has seen his velocity drop at the same rate as Penny, and that means you probably can attribute the drop in Penny's velocity to a misleading radar gun more than to any sort of weakness in his shoulder.

His stuff is still potent.

You can't say the same for his command.

Going back to the incredible wealth of data at BrooksBaseball.net, let's take a look at some pitch charts from his best start of the season -- the six shutout innings he threw against the Yankees on June 11 -- and his last start in Texas.

(This chart graphs horizontal movement against speed. It's not a view of the strike zone in any way.)

June 11

Aug. 15

The key to these charts is to examine the way pitches are grouped together. The tighter the grouping of data points -- each data point, of course, represents a pitch -- the more consistency and the more command shown in the outing.

Against the Yankees in mid-June, Penny's fastball was tight and consistent and thrown with authority. Almost every fastball came in at the same speed and with the same type of movement, making it an easy thing for Varitek to set a target and for Penny to hit it.

Against the Rangers on Saturday, his fastball was all over the place. Having to deal with base-stealers doesn't help, but when there's a variance of 10 or 12 inches in the movement of a fastball, well, that means a pitcher isn't commanding the way he should.

Two more charts -- this time a look at the strike zone from the catcher's point of view:

June 11

Aug. 15

Ignore the green dots. We've already covered Penny's lack of command on his fastball. The focus here is on the pink dots -- as well as, in the second chart, the orange dots. Those are Penny's breaking balls. He didn't throw a slider at all against the Yankees but has started to work the pitch into his repetoire more and more since mid-July.

(Come to think of it, that might be part of the issue. Against the Rangers, he threw 20 sliders and just three curveballs -- a baffling development considering how often he was throwing his curveball while he was having so much success in June.)

Either way, it's not about velocity with breaking pitches as much as it is about location. Penny missed with a few curveballs against the Yankees in mid-June but mostly kept them either in the lower half of the strike zone or in the dirt. Against Texas, though, Penny left both sliders and curveballs in the top half of the zone -- exactly the wrong place to leave them against a quality lineup.

(The pitch Ian Kinsler hit out in the second inning? A slider up.)

Penny isn't commanding his fastball, and he isn't commanding his breaking pitches, either. With so little margin for error, he and John Farrell are going to have to find an answer pretty fast.

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