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PITCHf/x: 2014 Jason Motte versus 2012 Jason Motte

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Jason Motte has struggled significantly in 2014 and PITCHf/x data shows why.

Gotta love the socks at least...
Gotta love the socks at least...
Jeff Curry

Back on May 30th, I wrote a post on Tommy John surgery in baseball. The reasoning behind writing the post was two-fold: 1) Marlins phenom Jose Fernandez had just received the surgery (his recovery appears to be going well) and 2) Jason Motte was returning to live action with the Cardinals after missing all of 2013 due to the surgery and subsequent rehabilitation. Well, after seeing yet another unsuccessful outing from Motte—including one plate appearance in which he threw four straight cutters (all balls) in the 88-89 MPH range—I figured it was a good time to look at the PITCHf/x data for Motte in 2014 and compare it to that of 2012. Before we get into that, though, let's look at the raw statistics from each season:

Year G IP LOB% K% BB% ERA FIP xFIP fWAR
2012 67 72.0 81.2% 30.8% 6.1% 2.75 3.12 2.88 1.0
2014 25 22.1 87.3% 16.0% 9.0% 4.84 6.98 4.70 -0.7

Given the circumstances, the drastic difference between the two seasons is not all that surprising. As I noted in my post on Tommy John surgery (already linked to in the opening paragraph), returning to the pre-surgery level of performance should not be considered a guarantee, and from a statistical standpoint, we can see that Motte has been nowhere near the pitcher he was prior to the surgery. The biggest thing to note, from a reliever standpoint at least, is the fact that his strikeout rate is nearly 50% less than it was in 2012. Given Motte's repertoire and approach, this is less than ideal. When looking at pitching statistics, especially those of relievers, one must take into account the year-to-year fluctuations that most relievers experience.

Thus, the more prudent way to compare 2012 Motte to 2014 Motte is by taking a look at the PITCHf/x data from BrooksBaseball:

Pitch Year Frequency Velocity H. mov.
Fastball 2012 59.02% 97.91 MPH -5.28 in.
2014 50.67% 95.16 MPH -4.84 in.
Cutter 2012 26.16% 92.44 MPH 0.63 in.
2014 37.47% 89.73 MPH 0.07 in.

As you can see, his 2014 average fastball velocity is 2.75 MPH slower than it was in 2012, and a 2.75 MPH drop off is significant when you are looking at a pitcher who throws primarily fastballs. Somewhat surprisingly, the horizontal movement on Motte's fastball is slightly less as well (-4.84 inches versus -5.28 inches). With less velocity, I honestly would have expected slightly more horizontal movement, but this is apparently not the case with Motte. With less velocity and less movement, Motte's above-average fastball becomes a below-average fastball, and hitter outcomes are quite telling. Despite having a terrific fastball in 2012, hitters still managed a more-than-respectable .210 ISO against the pitch. Well, so far in 2014, hitters have recorded a lethal .341 ISO against his fastball (highlighted by five home runs allowed in just 48 at bats ending with a fastball).

Cognizant of this drop off in fastball velocity, Motte has turned to his cutter much more in 2014 (an 11.31% increase from 2012). Yet, when comparing the data on his 2014 cutter to that of his 2012 cutter, the differences are pretty much the same to the differences we saw when comparing the two years of his fastball. There is a 2.71 MPH velocity drop off, and unfortunately, the cutter is no longer "cutting" (just 0.07 inches of horizontal movement). For perspective, Adam Wainwright's cutter has averaged 3.24 inches of horizontal movement this season. To be blunt, Motte's "spinning-but-not-really-moving" cutter looks like a beach ball to opposing hitters, who have managed a .389 average and .222 ISO against the pitch this season (as opposed to a .215 average and .054 ISO in 2012).

I fully realize this is Motte's first year back from surgery, and if he is able to build his velocity back up (which is what makes him a successful pitcher), it will take more than just one season. However, with Matheny deploying him in a one-run game last night despite having an expanded bullpen (#Mathenaging), I felt that it was worth highlighting the significant drop off in Motte's performance from a PITCHf/x perspective especially.

There are 22 games left in the regular season, and the Cardinals maintain a four game lead over the Brewers in the Central. This should allow for enough low-leverage situations in which Matheny can use Motte. For the sake of the Cardinals, let's hope Matheny decides against using Motte in one-run games going forward. I would love for Motte to prove me wrong and become a successful pitcher again, but unless he's been holding back on velocity (99% unlikely), I just don't see it happening in 2014. Though his contract expires at the end of this season, I wish Motte the best going forward—whether it be with the Cardinals after a pay-cut or somewhere else. He has played a huge role in high-leverage situations over the years, but unfortunately for him, the team is much better off looking elsewhere in these situations the rest of the way.

Final note: I purposely did not look at control or command in the strike zone in this post because this is definitely something that will require more than just one season to get back. Plus, with the way Motte's fastball and cutter used to be, he was able to get away with some poorly-located pitches more often than not.