Johan Oviedo was pressed into service too early. The promising starter needed more seasoning in the minors before arriving in St. Louis, but that does not take away from his promise as a prospect. Though Oviedo struggled last season, he showed flashes of being a good starting pitcher. The main issue with Oviedo is a lack of command, but he needs to do more than just throw strikes to become a good pitcher. That is a key first step, though. Oviedo has solid stuff. His fastball has above average spin and velocity, his slider had a 43.5% whiff rate at the major league level, and his curveball was his most effective pitch. If Oviedo could consistently put these pitches in the zone and avoid the heart of the plate, then he would have a lot of success.
Oviedo’s problem was leaving pitches over the heart of the plate. Practically every home run that he allowed this season was on a pitch thrown over the heart of the plate. Curiously, of the eight home runs that he allowed, just one came against his four-seamer. Four came against his slider, all on hanging breakers. Three came on changeups, on all changeups left up in the zone.
For someone who generates so many whiffs with his slider, Oviedo needs to be able to locate it better. He has the advantage when he keeps his slider down and doesn’t put it over the plate. He gives the hitter the advantage when he throws it up and over the plate. IF he could consistently locate both his slider and his changeup in the ideal location, then he would not have struggled to the same extent this year.
Oviedo’s fastball could also use an adjustment. It is curious that a fastball with 76th percentile velocity and and 53rd percentile spin rate gets so little rise. In fact, Oviedo’s fastball had 33% more drop than the average MLB fastball. This could be due to the fact that the pitch has such a low active spin (73%). By increasing his active spin percentage on his fastball, Oviedo may be able to create more rise, allowing him to pitch more effectively up in the zone. This would allow his fastball to become much more difficult to hit, and it would almost certainly increase his below average whiff rate of just 13.6% against the pitch.
Better command would also help Oviedo’s fastball reach the next level. He struggled to consistently put the pitch on the edges of the zone.
Additionally, when he did put the pitch closer to the edge, he focused on keeping it down in the zone. That is not where his success with the pitch came from.
The following image shows the pitch location where Oviedo gave up base hits against his fastball. Notice that the majority of them are in the middle or bottom of the zone.
The next image shows the pitch location of whiffs against his fastball. Notice how almost all of them are in the top of the zone.
Despite getting below average rise with the pitch, Oviedo was still able to pitch effectively at the top of the zone. Increasing his active spin would likely help the pitch be even more effective in the region, but an increased ability to consistently put the ball in the top of the strike zone would also help Oviedo maximize the effectiveness of the pitch.
Better command would also help Oviedo get more whiffs. The right-hander was able to get swings-and-misses at a high rate on pitches outside the zone.
This is further demonstrated by the fact that opposing hitters made contact on just 47.9% of pitches that they chase outside the zone. This is well below the league average of 58.5%. If Thus, if Oviedo could get hitters to chase more pitches, he would be much more effective. The problem is that his chase rate of 24.6% put him in just the 15th percentile in the majors. If he could improve his command and throw more strikes, then he could get more hitters to chase outside of the zone. Hitters are more likely to expand the zone when they are behind in the count, but hitters were rarely behind in the count against Oviedo. Hitters are also more likely to expand when a pitcher has been pounding the zone and can consistently hit the edges of the zone. Once a hitter realizes he needs to swing when pitches are at the edge, pitchers can more easily lead them a couple inches off the plate. Once Oviedo learns how to get hitters to expand the zone, his strong arsenal can fully take advantage of the opposition and increase the amount of whiffs that he generates.
Working from ahead also allows Oveido to be more aggressive with throwing his slider off the plate. This would not only create more whiffs, but also lead to fewer hard hit balls on hanging sliders.
For Oviedo, everything hinges on command. Better location allows him to tap into the best parts of his game. This all starts with a better fastball and a better fastball strategy. The 23-year-old threw his primary pitch over 53% of the time, and he began 57% of plate appearances with his heater. Of the 164 first pitch fastballs that he threw, just 76 went for strikes. This is not an ideal way to start at-bats. Oviedo is not going to get hitters to expand the zone when they are ahead. Thus, he needs to throw more strikes, and more first pitch strikes specifically. This begins with an improved fastball.
Once he can locate his fastball in the zone, he can begin working the upper regions of the zone. This will allow him to generate more whiffs with his fastball while also setting up his secondary pitches at the bottom of the zone. By working from ahead and changing the hitter’s eye level, Oviedo’s secondary pitches should also improve.
Oviedo has the makings of a good starting pitcher. WIth more strikes, and specifically a better fastball and a better fastball strategy, Oviedo can unlock his potential. He is not there yet, though, and he should remain in Triple-A until he becomes a true pitcher. A small amount of improvement in locating pitches could make a world of difference for Oviedo, but this is more likely to happen in the minors, so it is important that the St. Louis Cardinals give themselves enough pitching to cover for injuries without having to rush Oviedo to the majors.