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Ponce de Leon - Extreme Fastball Pitcher?

Ponce de Leon featured a dramatic change in his pitch type ratios in his first start. That appears to be a one-start blip, but the immediate results are intriguing.

St Louis Cardinals v Miami Marlins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

I can’t tell you how good it feels to have actual baseball games to cover again.

I’ve been writing at Viva El Birdos since November of 2019. I jumped into the mix right after the ’19 World Series and have written two articles per week since. That means I am up to 148 articles – about the same word count as two long novels – while the Cardinals have played just 65 games.

Needless to say, I have stretched my creativity about as far as it could go. Our other writers have been in the same boat. Thanks for giving us some slack.

That’s all passed now and man is it good to have fresh content, new data, and live game action to break down! So far, the Cardinals are providing a wealth of interesting and relevant information to write about, despite playing just 5 games.

Take Monday night’s matchup against the Marlins. I didn’t make it back home in time for the opening pitch, so I tuned into my (sorta legally) pirated broadcast and pulled up the Baseball Savant live game feed to catch up on what I missed. Right there at the bottom of the feed was my article for today.

Daniel Ponce de Leon, for one start at least, was a completely different pitcher than he’s been over the last three years. Let’s pick up the action 41 pitches in.

Surely that’s wrong, right? Ponce was 41 pitches into a very nice-looking start and he had thrown 40 four-seam fastballs and just one changeup? Where are the curves? The cutters? Statcast had to be missing something.

That caused me to re-check his pitch ratios from his debut in 2018 through 2020. Here’s the info I found straight from Baseball Savant:

So, Ponce has evolved as a pitcher as he’s progressed in the major leagues. In 2018, Ponce threw primarily his two fastballs – a 4-seamer (63%) and cutter (16%) – and coupled those with a changeup (16.5%).

In 2019 Ponce was used more exclusively as a starter and his pitch offerings changed slightly. His 4-seam fastball percentage rose to an extremely high level: 70.7%. He also started throwing his curveball more and got good results. His changeup had a wOBA/xwOBA of .346/.356. His curve was at .122/.161.

Mike Maddux, being the astute pitching coach that he is, wanted to see more of that. So, in 2020 Ponce was again called into action as a spot starter. This time, his curve had almost completely replaced his change as his primary non-fastball offering. Ponce’s changeup rate fell to 3.9% and generated pretty poor results. His curveball rate rose to 21.7%. He earned a .256/.326 wOBA/xwOBA from the pitch. With continued positive results from the curve, Ponce’s fastball rates dropped back to more normal levels. His 4-seam rate fell to 61.1% and his cutter remained around 13%.

Before we get too lost in the trees of pitch type data, we need to take a step back and consider the whole forest. Regardless of what rate he threw his pitches in 2020, the results were terrible. Yes, his K rate skyrocketed to over 12 K/9 but his BB rate climbed as well – over 5 per 9. His ERA/FIP was 4.96/5.64. He was exactly replacement level in 8 starts and 9 appearances.

What’s to blame for the poor stats? Did it have anything to do with the change in pitch types?

I don’t think so. A lot of it seems tied to sample size noise. Ponce threw 32 innings last year. That’s just enough to expose his batted ball and swing data to the dangers of random variance. In those measly 32 innings, batters swung at fewer of his pitches overall and chased fewer pitches out of the zone. At the same time, his whiff% climbed from 26.8% to 31.4%, an impressive but unsustainable rate that explains the huge increase in K’s. Ponce’s 4-seam fastball generated an amazing 34.4% whiff rate but was also somehow crushed for an eye-popping .538 slug% and a .363 wOBA.

That’s the baseball equivalent of Ron Weasley looking into the dregs of Harry Potter’s tea and declaring “you’re going to suffer but you’re going to be happy about it.”

Basically, in 2020, when he wasn’t throwing a curve, Ponce was throwing a 4-seam fastball and the league was either whiffing at them or decorating the vacated outfield bleachers. That’s explained by a ground ball rate that tanked and his ridiculous home run per flyball rate — nearly 20%.

All those numbers make my head spin, too, but surely we can cobble something out of them, can’t we? Here’s what I would have said to Ponce if I was the pitching coach and I was in charge of developing his pitching plan for the 2021 season:

1. Keep throwing the 4-seam fastball at a high rate.

Sure, in 2020 that pitch had inconsistent results, but it’s been his best offerings throughout the rest of his career. Trust the results to even out over a larger sample size. A 60% rate seems about right.

2. Continue throwing more curveballs at the expense of changeups.

The curveball seems to be settling in as Ponce’s most effective non-fastball. It’s also a growing trend league-wide. Pitchers are throwing more and more breaking pitches and hitters still aren’t adjusting. Ponce should lean into the trend and keep his curveball rate at 25% or higher. Dump the changeup.

3. Mix in the cutter at about the same rate.

Ponce’s cutter has been a good pitch for him. 15% seems to be about where it’s been. Keep it there. That gives batters something else to think about once per PA.

I am not the pitching coach. And maybe for good reason. Because Ponce, Maddux, and Yadi pulled something totally unexpected out of the Sorting Hat in Ponce’s first start.

In the final tally, Ponce threw 83 4-seam fastballs, 5 cutters, and 5 changeups for 93 pitches total. He generated 42 swings and only 9 whiffs for the game. The results were very good – just three hits and one walk to go along with 3 Ks. His exit velocity data wasn’t quite as strong as his actual results – his xwOBA was .340.

Ponce did not throw a curveball.

What should we make of this strategy?

Probably nothing. In his postgame presser, Ponce was asked about his extreme fastball rate. He replied that during pre-game warmups, Ponce and Yadi agreed that he didn’t have an acceptable breaking or offspeed pitch that day, so they Avada Kedavra’d everything but the fastball for the start of the game.

After locating some offspeed pitches for strikes, Ponce assumed Yadi would open up the pitcher’s repertoire for the second or third time through the order. Yadi didn’t, though. He kept putting down fastball and Ponce, thoroughly Imperius’ed by Yadi, wasn’t going to shake his Hall of Fame catcher off.

So, this seems to be a one-time blip based around some poor showings pre-game.

Still, there are the results to consider.

In Monday’s start, the Marlins chased Ponce’s limited offerings at a higher rate than he averaged in 2020. Ponce also generated a much higher chase contact percentage compared to last year — over 85%. Contact out of the zone is almost always weak contact. Improvement in that area would be huge for Ponce. While Ponce’s chase contact rate won’t stay as high as it was Monday, more fastballs around the zone may entice more swings but weaker overall contact. It’s sort of a “see fastball/hit fastball” approach to pitching.

Mike Shildt echoed this concept in his post-game comments. “That’s the definition of pitching,” Shildt said, “You’d love to go out there with absolutely all your weapons working and firing exactly how you’d want them to fire, but some days it doesn’t happen. He’s got a fastball that just gets on guys — kind of a disappearing fastball. He was able to command it today. Great job of going with what he had.”

What Shildt says ticks some boxes. Ponce’s fastball does have horizontal movement that is borderline elite and his vertical movement isn’t far off. I like how Shildt describes it — a 4-seam fastball that magically “disappears”. The problem is that it just as often disappears out of the zone or out of the ballpark and not into Molina’s well-placed mitt.

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that on a night when Ponce threw exclusively fastballs, he displayed better overall command, generated weak contact more frequently, and cut down on his walks. Even though his strikeouts were down, he was pretty effective.

It takes a special kind of magic to be missing two quality pitch offerings and still somehow produce better-than-expected results.

In a pitcher’s park (which Miami and Busch are) and pitching in front of an elite defense, Ponce might not only survive but could actually thrive throwing a more extreme rate of fastballs, especially on nights when he isn’t locating his breaking pitch perfectly.

Lance Lynn has made a career out of that spell.

In his final few seasons with the Cardinals, Lynn averaged between 79-85% fastballs thrown. His slider was his second-highest rate at around 10%. Considering velocity and movement, Lynn’s slider served about the same role as Ponce’s cutter. Lynn also threw an occasional curveball. He walked too many and didn’t generate a high level of Ks, but he was very effective as a mid-rotation starter for the Cardinals. Now that he’s reached “savvy veteran status” he’s found a way to cut his walks down and he’s had a couple ace-caliber seasons.

Ponce isn’t Lynn. Still, with a Deathly Hallows fastball (of invisibility), maybe Ponce and the Cardinals can learn something from Lynn and from this one effective start when Ponce was missing most of his repertoire — a happy accident, so to speak. In future starts, if returning to more balance between his fastball and breaking ball leads to more walks and loss of control, the Cardinals shouldn’t force something that isn’t there. They should just simplify. Throw fastball. Let fastball get hit. Trust the defense and ballpark to normalize batted ball events over time.

Sorry for all the Harry Potter references.