Tonight the Giants will face off against Colby Lewis and the Texas Rangers. Lewis is a fascinating story in the realm of baseball redemption. He’s a former 1st round draft pick (#38 overall in ’99) that struggled to put things together in the majors. Prior to this season, Lewis had thrown a sum of 217.1 innings in major league baseball from 2002-2006 with a 6.71 ERA to go with a lousy walk-rate (5.1 walks per 9). In 2008 Lewis signed a deal with the Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s Central League. In his first year in the Central League, Lewis dominated hitters with 183 strikeouts in 178 innings. More importantly, his walk-rate plummeted, as he walked only 27 batters. He backed up his impressive ’08 with his a near identical ’09 performance — 176.1 IP, 186 SO, 19 BB, 2.96 ERA — that indicated that Lewis may have figured something out while pitching in Japan. Even if you adjust for level of competition, Lewis’ enormous drop in walk-rate was very intriguing.
The Texas Rangers were intrigued and decided to bring back the former draft pick on a two year, $5M dollar deal. It’s turned out to be a steal for the Rangers and their scouting department. Lewis has looked like a totally different pitcher since he returned to the United States, showcasing the improved control that he displayed in Japan and a very strong strikeout rate. Lewis is a prime example of the power of a good scouting department and a pitcher figuring things out. At the end of the 2010 season, Lewis had provided the Rangers with 201 innings of 3.55 FIP baseball. That’s worth 4.4 wins above replacement, or in the neighborhood of $16-18M of value on the free agent market. Not bad for a $5M investment.
Let’s take a look at some of the numbers on Colby Lewis and how he pitches.
First, a data table of his pitch-types including: number thrown, percentage thrown, mph, whiff-rate (miss/swings), strike% (called strikes, swinging strikes, fouls/pitches), and ball% (balls/pitches)
Pitch #Thrown %Thrown Mph Whiff Strike% Ball% FF 2008 56.2% 90.0 15.7% 49.8% 35.7% SL 876 24.5% 83.4 33.3% 47.5% 28.4% CU 399 11.2% 77.5 25.8% 40.4% 43.9% CH 293 8.2% 84.7 19.3% 41.0% 37.2%
Colby Lewis primarily pitches off of his fastball/slider. He throws his fastball 56% of the time and his slider usage is at 24.5% of the time. The average velocity on the fastball is 90 mph — making it an average fastball in terms of velocity, or a tad below — and the average velocity on his slider is 83.4 mph. I’ll note here that the Strike% and Ball% data is pretty crude. I’m not splitting it out into fouls, or called strikes, which limits the usefulness some, but I think it’s good enough for a sketch of Lewis as a pitcher. For example, we can see that Lewis has pretty good control/command of his slider. The league average Ball% for sliders in MLB was about 37%. Lewis is at 28.4% with the slider — nearly 10% better than average.
He will also mix in a curveball (11.2% of all pitches) and a changeup (8.2% of all pitches) but nearly 75% of the time you’re going to see the fastball/slider. If you’re wondering about league average whiff rates, check out this Hardball Times article. In terms of swinging and missing, Lewis’ slider is about league average — 33.3% to 32.7% — but he has excellent control of the pitch, as we noted above. On the pitch-value page on FanGraphs, Lewis’ slider was worth +13.6 runs above average this season.
What does Lewis throw to hitters based on handedness? Let’s find out.
Right-handed batters are going to see a steady diet of fastballs and sliders. RHBs will see the changeup the most in 1-1, but otherwise it’s not a pitch that Lewis throws much to RHBs. He’ll use the curveball against RHBs earlier in the count, but once a batter gets 2 strikes on him, it’s back to the slider/fastball combo. The slider usage to RHBs isn’t shocking, it’s a pitch that Lewis has a very good feel for and it’s natural break — down and away from RHBs — makes it a good go-to pitch for him.
Now, for the left-handed batters.
When facing LHBs, Colby’s approach changes. This is where he’ll start to use his curveball and changeup. He’ll still use the slider, too. But LHBs aren’t going to get slider’d to death like the RHBs are. He’ll still go to slider even when facing LHBs in situations with 2 strikes. Notice the counts in which he’ll use the slider against LHB — 0-2, 1-2, and 2-2. All times when Lewis is looking to punch out a hitter. Something for the LHBs to think about.
To sum things up, the progress that Colby Lewis made in Japan is for real. He’s shown an ability this year to miss bats and throw strikes. Because of his slider, he’s been pretty tough on right-handed batters (.627 OPS split this season) and the Giants might want to consider getting as many left-handed bats into today’s lineup as possible. Aubrey Huff and Travis Ishikawa (if they play him at 1B and DH Huff) could be key players for the Giants if they can get good swings on Lewis.
Otherwise, the game plan for righties should be to look for the slider. He’s going to work them down and away in the zone. Lefties should try to key on his fastball, they are more likely to see it earlier in the counts (especially at 2-0), but if Lewis gets 2 strikes on you, the slider is a possibility. Lewis isn’t likely to give out free passes. The most he’s walked in any game this season is 4. In 22 games started this year, Lewis has walked 2 batters or less. I’m not excited at the idea of the Giants taking an aggressive approach against a guy like Lewis, but if they can get a ‘Good Pitch(tm)’ to swing at, they might want to take a shot.
Also, I would really love to see Good Sanchez today. That would be great.