BALTIMORE, MD: Vance Worley of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches during a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
It's been a disappointing season for the Philadelphia Phillies, but it's hardly been a disappointing season for starter Vance Worley. Worley's taking an unusual path to his success.
Since the start of the 2011 season, 105 different pitchers have thrown at least 200 innings. Vance Worley has allowed an 86-percent contact rate, ranking sixth-highest in the pool. He's sandwiched in between Mike Pelfrey and Wade Davis, which might be fine company for some things, but which is hardly impressive company when it comes to baseball statistics.
Over the same span of time, Worley has generated a 22-percent strikeout rate. He's sandwiched in between Matt Cain and Ian Kennedy, and that company is much better. One of those pitchers just threw a perfect game! Only amazing pitchers ever throw perfect games, without exception.
There is, understandably, a very strong correlation between contact rate and strikeout rate. When the latter doesn't match up to the former, we normally expect the latter to change. Vance Worley is one hell of an outlier, though, and as odd as he was a year ago, he's been just as odd in 2012. With every passing start, what Worley's doing looks less like a fluke.
It was in the very beginning of May that Dave Cameron took a look at Worley over at FanGraphs. Worley's got this unusual statistical profile where he throws a standard number of pitches in the strike zone, but hitters just don't like to swing. You'd think, based just on that, that hitters would start to adjust, but they haven't so far. As the core of this article, I would like to present to you a few numbers.
Ignoring foul-bunt strikeouts, which are rare, there are swinging strikeouts and called strikeouts. On average, roughly three-quarters of strikeouts are the result of whiffed swings or failed checked swings. Last season, 55 percent of Worley's strikeouts were called, which was the second-highest rate in baseball, miles ahead of third. This season, 58 percent of Worley's strikeouts have been called, which is easily the highest rate in baseball. Where Worley has fallen short generating swinging third strikes, he's been unbelievable when it's come to leaving hitters frozen.
Why do hitters get frozen? The classic example of a freezing pitch is a knee-buckling 12-6 curveball. Thrown properly, that pitch messes with a hitter's timing or just catches him completely off guard. Worley, though, doesn't really throw one of those. And neither does his company on the called-strikeout leaderboard.
In 2011, Worley's called/swinging strikeout ratio ranked just behind Bartolo Colon's. In 2012, the two have swapped places, with Worley in first and Colon in second. Colon has allowed one of the highest contact rates in baseball, and he doesn't throw a big, bending curveball. What Colon throws is a ton of fastballs, with more and less tail. By placing these fastballs on either side of the plate, Colon often leaves hitters helpless. When we looked at Colon's curious contact rate and strikeout rate last season, the consensus was that it was at least mostly sustainable on account of Colon's wicked two-seamer.
Worley is much the same way. This year, 87 percent of his pitches have been at least 84 miles per hour, and 67 percent of his pitches have been at least 86 miles per hour. He spends the bulk of his time working within a pretty limited velocity range, messing around with varieties of fastballs. Between his fastballs and his cutter, which is effectively a fastball, Worley ends up with a broad range of movement. In terms of horizontal movement, he's spanned about 18 inches from one end to the other. In terms of vertical movement, about 15 inches. To put this very simply: even if a hitter knows that Worley is throwing some kind of fastball, the hitter doesn't know which way the fastball is going to break.
Examples! These are called strikeouts, by Vance Worley, because everything is better with visuals:
The last one is my favorite and I don't think I need to explain why.
The visuals don't help to explain anything within the post, I don't think, because it's hard to tell how those pitches are moving, and how they look to the hitter. But Worley is good about hitting his spots with his fastballs, and his spots are typically toward the edges such that hitters are left having to make a difficult decision. Trying to tell Worley's fastballs isn't like trying to tell a fastball from a curveball. This is more complicated pitch recognition, and Worley has taken full advantage.
Whenever you have a guy performing at an extreme, you have to expect that regression will come in the future, and Worley's called-strikeout rate is most definitely an extreme one. More likely than not, he'll generate fewer called strikeouts in the future than he has in the recent past. But it doesn't seem like he's in line to regress too far, and he could compensate by generating more swinging strikeouts as hitters offer at more borderline fastballs and miss. Vance Worley has, to date, been a highly successful pitcher in a highly unusual way. He's probably going to be a little less unusual, but not to such a degree that he can't be appreciated as a freak.