This morning, Mark of Dudley On The Astros asked me my thoughts on a subject near and dear to my heart:

Any ideas on what’s eating at Oswalt?

We all know by now that Roy Oswalt is a puzzle at times.  This is a guy who overcame a serious shoulder injury by working on his truck and getting zapped by the spark plug wires.  A guy who, when asked what his goal was, answered by saying he wanted a bulldozer, was awarded a bulldozer for clinching a pennant.  A guy who’s said he might want to retire after his current contract because he’s not motivated by the Hall of Fame which may well be within his grasp.  A guy who orders a ribeye and fries every day for lunch, and usually gets a soda when he buys gas.  A guy who’s building a restaurant in his hometown of Weir, Mississippi, that will only be open on weekends.

He’s an eccentric.  If he played in a bigger market, or wasn’t quite so quiet (or at least not well-publicized,) he’d be known as a character

Because he’s an eccentric, it’s sometimes hard to determine whether his struggles are real or imagined.  But it doesn’t take a long look at his statistics to see that the concern is real this time.  It’s a small sample size, but comparing his early starts in 2009 to the rest of his career, we can see some problems emerging:

K/9: The lowest in his career. Despite a bump from 2007-2008, Roy’s K/9 has been decreasing ever since his rookie year, and thus far 2009 is no exception – it’s at an all-time low of 5.76.

BB/9: The second-highest of his career.  In 2001, Roy walked just 1.52 batters per nine innings.  So far in 2009, he’s at 2.29, which is only topped by the 2.55 he threw in 2007. 

K/BB: The worst of his career. In 2007, he struck out 2.57 batters for every one he walked. That had been the worst by a mile (the previous low had been 3.32 in 2004), and so far in 2009, he’s at 2.29. 

HR/9: It’s not even close. Before this year, the worst he’d ever done in this area is 1.06 in 2003.  Now, he’s at 2.16.  He’s allowed six home runs in his first four starts – in a slow start in 2008, he’d allowed just five through the same point, and gave up #6 and #7 in his fifth start.  He got torched in May 2008; he didn’t pitch a single game in that month where he didn’t give up at least one home run.

BAA: Highest of his career at .291; the previous high was .270 in 2007.

WHIP: Highest of his career at 1.44; the previous high was 1.33 in 2007.

And he’s doing all of this with a .297 BABIP, which is actually pretty good.

It should be noted, however, that this is a four-start period being compared to full seasons.  Throughout his career, Oswalt has consistently started slowly and gotten better.  Don’t believe me?  Here are his career splits:

Apr: 3.54 ERA / 2.72 K-BB / .310 OBPA / 6.7 K9 / 1.248 WHIP
May: 3.44 ERA / 2.93 K-BB / .315 OBPA / 6.9 K9 / 1.274 WHIP
Jun: 3.18 ERA / 4.28 K-BB / .308 OBPA / 7.8 K9 / 1.236 WHIP
Jul: 3.67 ERA / 4.49 K-BB / .306 OBPA / 7.9 K9 / 1.242 WHIP
Aug: 2.59 ERA / 3.53 K-BB / .281 OBPA / 7.4 K9 / 1.072 WHIP
Sep: 2.54 ERA / 4.23 K-BB / .294 OBPA / 7.8 K9 / 1.139 WHIP

Almost across the board, he gets stronger and stronger as he gets farther along into the year.  Here are his career lines after four starts:

Oswalt Starts.JPGAs you can see, with the exception of HR and HR/9 (and let’s face it, he’s never faced Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez in his first four starts before), no one statistic is the worst of his career.  One the whole, it’s safe to say that the post-2006 Roy Oswalt isn’t as good as the pre-2007 Roy Oswalt, but this year isn’t so very terrible, now, is it?

The question is: Why isn’t he better?  If it’s a given that he’s going to eventually be just fine, why is that adjustment coming later, rather than sooner?  Is it the 2009 WBC, in which he struggled?  Is it something else entirely?  Maybe.  And I’ll discuss that in a moment.

What About His Mechanics?

It’s the first thing we wonder, naturally.  But a quick look at the numbers shows that his fastball velocity is actually up this year, is at the fastest (93.2) it’s been since 2004.  His slider velocity, however, is the lowest it’s ever been, and he’s throwing it more than he’s ever thrown it.  In fact, it’s interesting to note that only since the “bad” years, 2007 and beyond, has he thrown the slider into the double-digit percentages, no doubt at least in part to compensate for the cutter he no longer throws.

In fact, for the first time in his career, his changeup (84.4) is actually a little faster than his slider (83.1).  What does that mean?  Nothing in and of itself, but it does mean that if a hitter guesses fastball and misses, he has a little more time to regroup and still get the bat around.

Add to that the fact that his curveball, which he’s just started to really use, is coming out a little hot.  In fact, the average speed is a full 1.5mph higher than we’ve seen it in the past.  Historically, as he’s been able to rely on that curve, he’s been able to pitch more confidently and to get more strikeouts.

We’re not seeing marked differences in his GB% and FB%, but his LD% is, ahem, astronomical.  The balls he’s throwing are getting tattooed.  But why?  I suspect it’s largely because the slider, which as we’ve noted is coming out slower, is also coming out flatter – 2.2 on PitchFx, opposed to 2.5 last year.  It doesn’t take a particular genius to see that if your breaking stuff doesn’t break, it’s not going to be terribly effective.

Vertical Movement.JPG

(thanks to FanGraphs for this)

So what does all of this mean?  I don’t think it’s anything to panic about just yet.  The vertical movement actually looks favorable to 2007; the two-seamer is very tight, the slider and curve have bounced around a little, and he could probably stand to vary his four-seamer a bit.  But overall, nothing to be too terribly concerned about.


Now, I like to shy away from any arguments regarding the psychology of a player.  To come up with a reason why Roy might not be pitching isn’t far from saying he’s intentionally tanking his performance, which a competitor like Oswalt isn’t likely to do.

That said, he’s made no secre
t of his frustration with management for not putting together a more-competitive team, particularly in the area of starting pitching.  In the offseason, he offered to re-structure his contract so that the Astros could sign a #2 pitcher.  Worse than being laughed at, he was pretty much entirely dismissed by management without so much as a conversation.

I do believe that he’s frustrated; that he feels like he has to carry the team on his slight shoulders, and if he’s not resentful, he’s at least a little bitter.  A free agent signing, like Pedro Martinez or Paul Byrd, might make all the difference in the world.  Roy has repeatedly said it’s not about individual accolades; he wants to compete, and he wants to win.

Watching management squander away the opportunity to do that, I think, he takes as a personal affront.  Not that I think he’s deliberately tanking his performance, but on some level, he has to wonder what the point is in playing the best he can when he’s not on a squad that is likely to make the playoffs.

Completely Unrelated

When I was a kid in Southwestern Ohio, the Cincinnati Reds made an audiocassette (remember those?) of an anti-drug rap called “Reds Hot.”  For years, the hook has gone through my head…

Say no to drugs
Say no to crack
Just hit the books
And the ball with the bat

But no one else ever seemed to remember it.  I was beginning to wonder if I’d made the whole thing up.  Today, however, I was vindicated – and it is every bit as bad as I remember.

Barry Larking as “B-Lark.”  Chris Sabo (one of my favorite players as a kid) as “Spuds McKenzie.”  Randy Myers, Rob Dibble, and Norm Charlton as “The Nasty Boys.”  Mariano Duncan rapping, “Like Hammer would say… You can’t touch this.”  Billy Hatcher as “Hatch.”

Incredible.  And you know what?  They really did win the World Series that year.

Yo, take us to the seventh inning stretch.


  1. greg1969

    The Super Bowl Shuffle was cool, I thought! As a Patriots fan, I’m glad I never heard the “response song”! Credit the Bears. They could back up the song with their play.

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