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Is Ryan Cook Under Utilizing His Best Pitch?

August 25, 2012

Ryan Cook’s struggles since the All-Star Game are well-known to Athletics fans. The teams lone All-Star representative, and once closer, has hit the skids. As I mentioned in my piece about the A’s bullpen some of this is most likely just him coming back to earth. However,  the more I looked into his number, though, I think his struggles are tied to the fact that his isn’t throwing his best pitch, the slider, as much. With Colon now out for the rest of the season, Cook has thrown the seventh most innings for the A’s. The only reliever he trails in innings is Balfour. For the purposes of this article, Blackley is a starter. So it is easy to see that Cook is an important part of the pitching staff. Even though he is not the “closer” anymore, he still is getting a significant number of innings. This is a pitcher you need to be effective if you want to make a run at the Wild Card.

Cook throws three pitches; fourseam fastball, sinker, slider. He “throws” a changeup but it is more of a “show” pitch as he’s only thrown it a whopping 2% of the time. He throws the fastball 47% of the time, and he has some right to, as it is a lively one. His average velocity of 94.9 MPH ranks just outside of the top-20 (currently 23rd) of all relievers in MLB. His slider, in frequency, is his second pitch. He has thrown it 31% of the time this year and it works really well off of the fastball. His sinker is a pitch I would like to see him develop more. At 21% frequency it has a ton of sink and arm-side run. I do not feel that I speak in hyperbole when I say he could just throw those two pitches, the sinker and slider, and be just as effective. So, let us do some digging into the numbers.

First let us look at the differences, so far, between to two halves of Cook’s season;

Pre-ASG:
38.1 IP , 6 R (6ER) , 21 BB , 39 K , 0.89 WHIP , .105/.243/.169/.413 OPS , 35 GO , 39 AO , .90 GO/AO , H/9 3.05

I don’t need fancy numbers or some obscure sabermetric theory to show you how good of a first half he had. Yes his BABIP was a cause for concern, but that is a solid first half. An All-Start worthy first half. How has the second half looked so far?

Post-ASG:
15.2 IP, 9 R (9ER), 3 BB, 19K, 1.40 WHIP, .302/.353/.508/.861 OPS, 13 GO, 12 AO, 1.08 GO/AO, H/9 10.91, 4 HR

Again, I don’t need sabermetrics to say that post-ASG has not been kind to Ryan Cook. Could some of this be coming back to earth? Sure. But I think it is explained with his pitch selection. Let’s take a look at a month-by-month breakdown.

March:
FB – 58%
SL – 26%
SI – 11%

April:
FB – 47%
SL – 28%
SI – 23%

May:
FB – 50%
SL – 34%
SI – 15%

June:
FB – 47%
SL – 35%
SI – 17%

July:
FB – 38%
SL – 30%
SI – 30%

August:
FB – 50%
SI – 26%
SL – 22%

For some reason, he has turned to the sinker more since the All-Star Game. Granted, it’s not a bad pitch, but why the change? In July Cook threw 48 sinkers and 47 sliders. 14.6% of those sinkers were called strikes.16.7% of those sinkers were fouled off, 14.8% where whiffed on, but 25% were put in play. On the other end 19.2% of sliders were thrown were called strikes, 19.2% were fouled off,  12.8% were fouled off, and only 8.5% were put in play. In June ~22% of his sliders were whiffed on. So far in August 21% of his sliders have been swung through with roughly 18% being put in play. For the year61.5% of his sliders have resulted in grounders whereas his sinker and fastball have resulted in ~19% and 15% line-drives per ball in play. Why the sudden change?

Probably the most damning evidence, for me, is looking at the splits for the three pitches;

Fastball:
.190/..324/.286 OPS .609

Sinker:
.250/.364/.571 OPS .935

Slider:
.118/.143/.132 OPS .275

I do not know why Cook has seemingly  gotten away from his best pitch. Would this solve all his problems? Who knows. But for a pitcher to completely change the way he pitches, what has brought him success is unusual. The only reason that came to mind was that he felt it was not as “sharp” that he did not have a feel for it. However, the opposite is true. It has actually gotten better as the season has progressed. Again by month, his vertical and horizontal movement on his slider;

March : h-mov 6.36 / v-mov -36.97
April : h-mov 7.56 / v-mov -35.53
May : h-mov 9.29 / v-mov – 36.03
June : h-mov 7.63 / v-mov -35.33
July : h-mov 8.93 / v-mov -34.33
August : h-mov 8.01 / v-mov -33.02

Those numbers come courtesy of Brooks Baseball. So outside of the slight setback in June, in which he actually induced more grounders with his slider, that pitch has improved every month. Now I am at a loss. The reason for this change is baffling to me. And no, I do not blame the catchers. And don’t you even dare think about cERA.

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