While the Reds are still theoretically playing for this year, there are important issues looming on the horizon. The Reds have to decide if they are going to try to resign Mat Latos, Mike Leake, and/or Johnny Cueto. While Walt Jocketty has publicly stated that the Reds want to resign all three, he has also said (perhaps for bargaining leverage) that the Reds payroll may not be able to take on three major pitching contracts next off season.
While Mike Leake and Johnny Cueto both have had unambiguously great years, Mat Latos’ year is a bit more foggy than the rest. On the surface, Latos seems to be having a very-Latos-like year: His ERA (3.46) is in line with his career ERA (3.36). His ERA since being traded to the Reds has been shockingly stable: 3.48/3.16/3.46.
His xFIP (3.97) and FIP (3.61) don’t scream looming disaster, although they are both above his career rate. This is the point in the column where everyone braces themselves for the unsustainably-low BABIP. And yes, Mat has put up a very low BABIP this year (.266). But here is the strange thing about Latos: despite his stable ERA with the Reds, over those same three years his BABIP has fluctuated widely:
So while the back-of-the-baseball card stats seem to indicate Latos has returned to form, the deeper you dig, the more compacted the picture becomes. Latos has been striking out batters less frequently than he has in the past. Furthermore, his batted ball profile shows that Latos is giving up more fly balls and line drives than he did over the previous few years:
One number that we dont normally discuss is a pitcher’s infield fly ball rate. This (very self explanatory stat, yet abbreviated like a rare infectious disease, IFFB%) number is usually stable across a pitcher’s career, deviating with a random error of one or two percentage points. Since some pitchers have high IFFB%s (see: Matt Cain), it led baseball
geeks writers to ask if a high infield fly ball percentage could explain pitchers who consistently out pitch their xFIP (which uses a stable home runs per fly ball rate). Turns out, it can’t.
Which brings me to Mat Latos in 2014. His IFFB% is 17.3%, which is the highest in all of baseball. This is an outlier from his career rate (11.2%), last year (11.8), and is almost double the year before (9.0%). This is not definitive evidence that Latos is going to regress in the coming year, but if these balls are redistributed according to his current GB/FB/LD percentages, then his current ERA will begin to move in the direction of his Skill Interactive Earned Run Average (4.09).
There is one other major area that concerns me about Mat Latos: hitters are attacking his pitches more effectively than in the past. By that, I mean when hitters swing at pitches, they are making contact more often, and swing through pitches less than before.
[Z-contact standards for percentage of swings making contact in the strike zone, O-Contact% is the number of swings making contact outside the zone, while SwStr% is the percentage of strikes due to swing-and-miss]
Now, to be fair to Mat, he is pitching differently this year than he has in previous years. He has dramatically cut back on using his slider (down ten percent from last year) while tripling the use of his change up (up from 4% to 12% of his pitches). Perhaps this change has allowed Latos to succeed despite hitters making better contact than they have in the past.
But perhaps not. While Latos’ traditional stats may indicate that this year is just more of what we’ve always seen, his pitches are hit more than they used to, he is striking out fewer batters, and giving up more line drives than in the past. Decades of baseball research tell us that pitchers have the most control over strikeouts, walks, and home runs.
Hoping a pitcher can induce weaker contact by changing their pitching repertoire is usually a bet that does not payoff well in the long run. Perhaps Latos has changed his pitch composition because he has improved his change up. Perhaps Latos is still not 100% and will return to his previous form next year. But thats the problem: we don’t know. Yet decision time is coming up for the Reds in just a few months. If this is the real Mat Latos, the Reds offseason has just become much more complicated.