Can Kyle Farnsworth repeat his outstanding 2011?

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When the Rays signed Kyle Farnsworth to a 1-year, 2.6 million dollar contract in the 2010 offseason, Rays fans didn’t expect much to come of it. Instead, Farnsworth was the reliable closer that the Rays needed, posting a 2.18 ERA and a 3.16 FIP with 25 saves on the season, although he was hindered by elbow information in September. Can Farnsworth be just as effective in 2012?

It really stands out how different 2011 was from every other season of Farnsworth’s career. He struck out a good ratio of 8.0 per 9 while posting a great 1.9 BB/9 and allowing a 0.8 HR/9.  That was a sharp contrast from his career numbers: a 9.0 K/9, a 3.8 BB/9, and an awful 1.2 HR/9. 50.6% of the batted balls he allowed were groundballs, a far cry from his career 38.7% GB% (according his his career splits from Baseball-ReferenceFangraph‘s batted ball data only goes back to 2002). He became essentially a completely different pitcher. Why did that happen?

If you saw Farnsworth as a member of say the Yankees and then him this past season for the Rays, you would have noticed a couple of big difference in Farnsworth’s pitch selection. Accordingly to Pitch F/X, 2011 was the coming-out party for Farnsworth’s sinker, and he also used his cutter more than ever before. He was able to use his mid-90’s four-seam fastball only to keep hitters guessing or when he absolutely had to throw a strike. He went from a two-pitch pitcher, throwing his fastball and slider over 90% of the time from 2008 to 2010 (as far as reliable Pitch F/X data goes back), to a four-pitch pitcher, throwing fastballs, sliders, cutters, and sinkers while also mixing in an occasional changeup. Let’s see how the big difference was using Pitch F/X from Texas Leaguers to compare Farnsworth’s pitches from 2007 to 2010 with his pitches from 2011. (In order to not waste your time, all pitches thrown less than 2% of the time has been omitted and pitches classified as “fastballs” have been combined with “four-seam fastballs” because their movement was extremely similar.)

For those of you who have never seen a Pitch F/X graph like this, let me explain. Both grids approximate the strike zone. The different colored lines are the different pitches Farnsworth has thrown. Which pitch is which along with how often each pitch was thrown and the pitch’s average velocity is available in the key. The actual lines are the movement on the various pitches. Each line starts dead-center in terms of the length and width of the strike zone and the other endpoint of each graph is the net movement of the pitch both horizontally and vertically. The way each line looks is an approximation of how the pitch moves in the air.

Looking at the two graphs, we see that Farnsworth added in an additional pitch, the sinker (which had a pretty extreme net positive movement in the vertical plane but is classified as a sinker because it finished going downward). We also see that he got more dynamic movement on his slider, cutter, and changeup. Basically what Farnsworth did is go from using just his four-seamer over 60% of the time to splitting that between his four-seamer and sinker while also using his cutter more often. He gave hitters a lot more to think about. Instead of looking fastball or slider, they had to be ready for a whole assortment of pitches. The slightly different movement on his changeup and sinker from his four-seamer induced weak contact, leading to the much higher groundball rate. He was able to mix his pitches effectively and not having to rear back to hit as high a velocity as possible on his fastball drastically improved his control. With his new arsenal, can Farnsworth maintain his 2011 success in 2012?

Farnsworth has to stay healthy. None of the progress he  has made will matter if he can’t stay healthy. But if he does stay healthy, he may not quite repeat being as good as he was in 2011, but he’ll still be able to post an ERA in the 2.00’s and probably save more games (he finished 51 games so you have to think more of those will be save situations in 2012). There will now be scouting reports available on all his pitches, but considering how hard he throws and now that he has 5 pitches, he’ll still be able to be an effective pitcher. The Rays were able to get Farnsworth right, and his two-year 5.9 million dollar contract including the 2012 team option that the Rays picked up will go down as one of the best deals in Rays history if Farnsworth can stay healthy in 2012. Farnsworth’s turnaround is real, and although he may not replicate his sensational 2011, he should be a dependable closer for the Rays in 2012.

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