A closer look at Joaquin Benoit's recent struggles

What's wrong with Joaquin Benoit? I don't know if anyone can say. MLB.com's Jason Beck asked the same question today and the responses he had from Benoit and the Tigers were not exactly encouraging.

"If I would know that, I would give you an answer," Benoit said. "I’m trying to figure it out."

One thing both Benoit and the Tigers claim is that it isn't a health issue. Benoit feels like his velocity -- down a bit since last year -- is fine.

Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp added:

"Is it mechanics? I don’t think it’s mechanics.  think it’s just confidence. Throw the ball down isn’t really something you can think about. You have to leverage it that way. You have to know that you’re going to throw the ball down and not have to think about it. When you have to think about it, then you have a better chance to make a mistake."

So to summarize: It's not health. It's not mechanics. It might be confidence. It might be nothing. But one thing seems for sure to me: The hard hits last night were not exactly flukes. The Blue Jays took advantage of mistakes and made the best. It wasn't just a luck issue.

Naturally I dug into the PitchFX files at TexasLeaguers to look around a bit further.

As Beck made it clear in his story, expecting Benoit to repeat last year would be naive. He had extremely good results that are almost impossible to duplicate. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was an insanely low .192. Talk about batting average and WHIP all you like, you have to begin by knowing that repeating such a low BABIP just wasn't going to happen. Now should it have risen all the way to the .385 it is today? Of course not. Not even with a 19% line drive rate. So is that to say this is luck alone? Of course not. Anyone who watches Benoit can tell things just aren't quite right, and opposing batters are squaring up pretty good at times.

So you have to begin with last year's data to get an idea of what was going right before looking at this season to see what is going wrong.

2010 Pitch info

(Data via texas leaguers)

Type Count Freq. Velo Strike% Swing% Whiff% Foul% InPlay%
Four-seam (FF)
612 64.6% 94 83.4 51.1% 11.6% 25.3% 14.2%
Changeup (CH)
208 22.0% 83.4 64.9% 57.2% 25.0% 16.8% 15.4%
Slider (SL)
123 13.0% 85.8 53.7% 42.3% 18.7% 7.3% 16.3%
Curve (CU)
4 0.4% 84.1 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

 

To notice here is Benoit throws his four-seamer about 65% of the time and its average velocity was 94 miles per hour. His best pitch for a whiff was his changeup, which got batters to miss one out of four times. The slider, too, got them to miss nearly one out of five times but elicited the lowest percentage of swings. Both pitches were thrown in the low to mid 80s.

And for some visual views, here's what his pitches looked like if you were standing to the side to watch the vertical break, or looking down from above to see the horizontal movement.

2010sidebenoit_medium

2010topbenoit_medium

What I want you to notice is that both the changeup and slider begin breaking sharply about halfway to the plate. The slider crosses at about the 8 to 12 inch level. The changeup almost seems to go into the dirt. The second thing to notice is that the slider typically miss the plate wide to Benoit's left side, or the left-handed batters box if you want to think of it like that.

Benoit in the past 3 weeks

(data via texas leaguers)

Why did I choose three weeks? That's about how long things have been going bad for him, beginning with an April 29 appearance against the Indians.

Type Count Freq% Velo Strike% Swing% Whiff% Foul% InPlay%
Four-seam 66 56.4% 93.3 62.1% 37.9% 7.6% 12.1% 18.2%
Changeup 40 34.2% 82.8 62.5% 55.0% 22.5% 20.0% 12.5%
Slider 9 7.7% 89.1 88.9% 88.9% 11.1% 33.3% 44.4%
Two-seam 2 1.7% 93.3 50.0% 50.0% 0.0% 0.0% 50.0%

 

So to take away in comparison to 2010, his velocity on the four-seamer is down less than a mile per hour. The slider is almost 4 miles per hour faster. He's relying less on his four-seamer than last year and more on his changeup. He's relying on the slider half as much, and opposing batters have been getting great results. (We'll see why soon). And none of the pitches are getting the batters to whiff at as high a rate.

I'd ignore that two-seam data by the way. Something just seems strange on it, probably misidentification.

Here's our side and top views again:

April 28-May 16 Side Views

May2011sidebenoit_medium

April 28-May 16 Top Views

May2011topbenoit_medium

Again, ignore the two-seamer (FT). Recall the slider and changeup did not go through the strikezone before. The slider was missing off the plate to the left side (from Benoit's point of view). Both pitches were crossing the plate around the batters' shins to feet. Now look at the past three weeks. His pitches are all going over the plate. The slider isn't dropping much at all. It appears to be 6 or so inches higher than before.

So a pitch that got 33% of batters to strike out the previous season is allowing them to get singles 36% of the time and striking them out just 13.3%.

Conclusions

So I have to say, I am not quite as convinced it's not something mechanical or injury-related. (By the way: Last night's Pitch F/X data has Benoit changing his arm slot by about a foot to the right (catcher's perspective). I looked at some video and the mechanics don't look all that different to me. I'm not sure if he just moved a bit to the side on the pitcher's rubber. I wish there was better video online to get a better idea.)

As long as it's not injury related, and again they say it's not, Benoit should be able to work through it. Don't give up on him yet. Remember Brandon Lyon had an ERA of nearly 7 in the month of May himself in 2009 before becoming the darling of Detroit by going a few months without allowing a run to score.

Again, looking at the changes in the slider and changeup I think there's a root cause besides "missing his spots." Do I know what it is? No. Maybe it really is a case of trying a bit too hard and overthrowing. That might explain leaving some pitches up and having a slider go straighter and faster. Back to Knapp, who told Jason Beck:

"I know it isn’t because he’s not trying. He’s digging in. He’s looking at tape. He’s trying to feel it, trying to make sure. There’s a fine line between trying to do too much and maybe his stuff dropping off. I don’t think it’s a stuff issue. I think his stuff is fine. I think now we have to get him zeroed in on hitting the glove, staying on the spot, executing the pitch he’s trying to make."

In the meantime, a suggestion? How about letting Benoit try to pitch through this in lower leverage situations, maybe a little earlier in the game. I know the Tigers' bullpen is already stretched thin, so none of the other eighth inning selections are going to make you feel wonderful. But Detroit simply has to get Benoit back on track so the Tigers can lock down the late innings like they expected to.

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