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What does PITCHf/x say about St. Louis Cardinals reliever Carlos Villanueva?

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While NRI minor-league signings usually aren't that big of a deal, Pat Neshek proved otherwise in 2014. Will Carlos Villanueva make the opening-day roster and positively impact the 2015 Cardinals?

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

With what happened in 2014 still fresh in his mind (see: Pat Neshek's All-Star season), St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak signed right-handed relief pitcher Carlos Villanueva to a minor league deal with a spring training invite. While Neshek was given a salary of $1 million upon making the opening-day roster last season, Cot's Contracts lists Villanueva at $2 million should he make the 25-man roster this season. Given the fact that Villanueva could have probably signed a major-league contract elsewhere, the Cardinals gave him the right to opt-out should he feel unsure about his chances of making the club as spring progresses.

In case you missed it, Aaron Finkel already introduced Villanueva to the VEB community on the day it was reported that he had agreed to a contract. Aaron touched on his past statistics and the possible roles he could fill with the Cardinals. Taking it one step further, Derrick Goold recently spoke with Villanueva and wrote about how he will wear "many hats" while competing for an open position in the bullpen. However, for this post, I will look at Villanueva's repertoire using PITCHf/x data available on BrooksBaseball so that we know what to expect once spring competitions heat up.

2013-2014 Overall Pitch Data

Pitch Frequency Velocity Dragless H. mov. (in.) Dragless V. mov. + gravity (in.) Vertical release point (ft.)
Fourseamer 33.66% 89.51 MPH -6.14 -14.89 6.63
Sinker 11.53% 88.51 MPH -10.57 -18.72 6.50
Changeup 21.51% 81.49 MPH -6.04 -26.75 6.50
Slider 18.98% 83.60 MPH 4.62 -32.56 6.59
Curveball 13.85% 75.92 MPH 7.93 -45.60 6.56

While most pitchers see an uptick in velocity out of the bullpen, Villanueva doesn't really, and his 88-89 MPH fastballs are understandably not known for blowing away big-league hitters. However, given his career K% of 20.4, it is evident that he finds a way to induce an above-average amount of swings and misses (career SwStr% of 10.4). Villanueva's confidence in each one of his pitches is especially intriguing as he has five pitches that he throws at least 10% of the time. As you will see below, his sinker, which he throws 11.53%, may be a pitch he can use less frequently in 2015, unless of course, he makes adjustments that he believes will lead to more success with the pitch.

When looking at pitch usage (one of my favorite parts of BrooksBaseball), a left-handed hitter has a two-thirds chance of seeing a fourseamer or changeup (thus, relatively "straight" pitches) on the first pitch of an at bat. Now, for righties, they can expect a fourseamer or slider two-thirds of the time. When batters find themselves ahead in the count, Villanueva's most-used pitch is his changeup, which can help explain the success they have had against it during his career (see below). These trends present an opportunity for improvement, so let's hope Yadier Molina and Derek Lilliquist bring them up to Villanueva during their time in Jupiter.

Regarding pitch movement, Villanueva's slider (his best pitch) averages a dragless horizontal movement of positive 4.62 inches—or a difference of ~15 inches (aka moving in the opposite direction) from his sinker. Compared to his fourseamer (-6.14 inches), his changeup (-6.04 inches) actually "cuts," which is unique, but also something that seems to have been working for him in the past. The uniformity of his vertical release points (particularly his sinker and changeup) is crucial to his success given the fact that he does not possess overpowering "stuff."

One of the main reasons behind Villanueva's above-average SwStr% is the amount of swings and misses he induces on his breaking balls and his changeup, as seen in the table below (with other notable pitch-specific results as well):

Pitch Whiffs/Swing GB/BIP LD/BIP AVG ISO
Fourseamer 14.38% 30.12% 24.70% .288 .212
Sinker 9.33% 41.01% 20.14% .372 .223
Changeup 26.43% 48.29% 19.37% .292 .206
Slider 38.95% 43.58% 22.32% .182 .096
Curveball 25.43% 38.16% 20.61% .250 .134

As I stated above, Villanueva's slider has been his most effective pitch in his career. Its whiffs/swing percentage, coupled with its extraordinarily high ground ball rate (compared to other MLB sliders), stifles opponents to an ISO less than .100. Beyond his slider, his fastball, changeup, and curveball have all been relatively useful pitches as well, but his sinker has not led to much success at this point, and I repeat, it is a pitch that will require some intensive modifications in 2015. At this point, the main use I can propose is its "setting up" of his changeup by utilizing an identical vertical release point. However, the slight "cutting" movement on his changeup tempers any possible deceptiveness resulting from throwing these two pitches back to back, especially against MLB hitters.

Bottom line

The versatility of Villanueva makes him a pretty attractive option for the 25-man roster out of spring training. His versatility is two-fold: 1) He has five pitches and can turn to any of them at basically any time, and 2) He is able to make spot starts (or fill a "mop-up" role) if called upon (he has had an average of ~12 starts per season over the last four seasons)—something that can be quite beneficial for an organization trying to conserve (or preserve, for that matter) the arms of its starting rotation.

Credit to BrooksBaseball and Fangraphs for the data used in this post.