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A Look at Brian Fuentes

April 24, 2012

 Brian Fuentes is an interesting pitcher. While there are other players who have caused more “controversy” among A’s fans for whether not what we see is “real”, or is the guy actually any good – immediately coming to mind are players like Trevor Cahill, Jack Cust and more recently Tommy Milone, Fuentes has largely had and unfairly at times, near unanimity in being disliked and distrusted by A’s fans. Unfortunately, like the stories spawned year in-year out by the Orioles’ fast starts explaining why this year it is isn’t an illusion, early impressions can last.

In the case of Fuentes, his April of 2011 probably sealed his fate as a scapegoat for many A’s fans. In that month, he had five shutdowns, but three meltdowns (some of them being particularly noteworthy for their sloppiness) as the A’s fill-in closer for Andrew Bailey. As is often the case with Fuentes, and relievers in general, the bad stands out and while everyone remembers the wildness that led to 4.2 BB/9 that month, the very easy to remember 29.4% strand rate (if not the number, the frequent run scoring served as ample reminder) and the pretty abysmal 33.3% GB% that made every inning he pitched go that much longer. What people forget is a solid 7.6 K/9, and a respectable 3.72 FIP. Still, his April wasn’t pretty and that impression has clearly stuck.

In reality though, Fuentes’ 2011 season wasn’t nearly as bad as we all remember it to be. Sure there we low lights, his 12 meltdowns wouldn’t win any reliever friends and followers. His 4.16 FIP was pretty forgettable as were his 0.1 WAR. His strand rate was quite pathetic at 68.1% and his 6.5 K/9 represented a career low, though shockingly so did his 3.1 BB/9. When people made contact against him they didn’t fare particularly well with a .258 BABIP and he proved durable logging 58 1/3 innings and always being available. Now, I have long said, I feel Fuentes is best used as a LOOGY, a Lefty-One-out-Only-GuY but in reality his numbers there are interesting too. With that weird unique sidearm delivery of his, where the ball to a left-handed hitter can look like it is coming out of his sleeve, one would think he would be well-primed to be a left-handed specialist. When I asked him about it this past March, he said,

“I’m not ever looking to be a lefty-specialist guy. I’ve always been adamant about being able to get both right-handers and left-handers out and I don’t consider myself a lefty-specialist and I’m not sure I ever have been in my career.”

 I looked at the numbers and they were interesting. In 2011, here’s what Fuentes did with platoon splits,

  Slash Line OPS+ BABIP K/BB FIP
vs. LHB .218/.303/.315   85 .308 3.57 2.82
vs. RHB .226/.320/.374 107 .230 2.19 4.12

To me it was luck that seemed to indicate he was better against lefties than righties in 2011 as the BABIP to me explained the difference in slash lines, which wasn’t all that significant for the better batting average or better on base percentage. The FIP supported by belief that really Fuentes struggled versus the right-handed hitters while being very good against lefties as was to be expected. But over his career the numbers are remarkably similar.

  Slash Line OPS+ BABIP K/BB FIP
vs. LHB .221/.305/.325   88 .304 3.56 2.88
vs. RHB .225/.319/.372 105 .276 2.22 4.09

With the BABIP more normal, the differences in batting average are a bit more limited but the FIP remains quite different depending upon whom he is facing. As does the telling strikeout to walk ratio. Based upon these statistics I feel pretty safe saying that Fuentes should be used in a more LOOGYish role for lack of a better word.

There hasn’t been much to this April but, Fuentes has been interesting regardless. His fastball is averaging 90.3 mph this year the highest its averaged since 2008 when it averaged 91.6 mph. Also interesting is his pronounced usage of it. Since Pitch f/x became available in 2007, he has never used his fastball as much as he has this year. Last year he used it 76% of the time, a previous high between 2007-2011, this year he is at 84%. The results thus far with this dramatically different mix on the surface have been bad, he has a 5.40 ERA, hitters have a BABIP of .350 against him and he has allowed 1.4 HR/9. Yet, despite showing much less diversity in his pitches, his K/9 rate is at 10.8 the first time it has been in double digits since 2008. His walk rate at 1.4 BB/9 is less than half his best season, last year’s 3.1 BB/9.

Could the added velocity on the fastball be what is accounting for the improved K/9 rate? There seems to be some correlation as the r2 value is .4366.

FA Spd K/9
2003 89.6   9.8
2004 89.2   9.7
2005 91.5 11.0
2006 90.4 10.1
2007 90.4   8.2
2008 91.6 11.8
2009 90.0   7.5
2010 89.5   8.8
2011 89.3   6.5
2012 90.3 10.8

Earlier in his career his change up was slower providing even more variation on speed that could account for the higher K/9 rates (this year is 74.6 mph well faster than his 72.9 mph career mark). The increased velocity of his fastball therefore, despite being coupled with an increase in his change up speed, seems to be a good thing. Perhaps that is why Kurt Suzuki and Anthony Recker are calling for so many of them. Look how different his splits on pitch selection look this year, compared to years past and note how the pitch selection doesn’t seem to influence the FIP:

  FA % SL % CH % FIP
2007 67% 10% 23% 4.15
2008 72% 17% 11% 2.24
2009 70% 22%   8% 4.42
2010 71% 11% 18% 3.85
2011 76%   6% 18% 4.16
2012 84%   7%   9% 2.93

It’ll be interesting to keep watching Fuentes this year and see if these trends we have seen exhibited in the early go persist. I think he can be a very valuable pitcher if used correctly, which is as a LOOGY. While he doesn’t want to be used that way, and thus far we have seen little indication from Bob Melvin that he will be used that way, he could be a very effective pitcher for the A’s. His career 3.56 K/BB against lefties would have been the best mark on the 2011 A’s aside from Brandon McCarthy. That number is something he is also very capable of doing as he did it in 2011 when he had 3.57 K/BB.

Though many A’s fans become nervous when Fuentes enters a game, and I’d be a liar if I said I weren’t one of them, it is fair nervousness if you see a slew of right-handed bats due up. Fuentes is simply an OK pitcher against the righties while he excels against the lefties. If used properly, A’s fans should be pleased with the results and perhaps even more pleased with the take he could fetch in a deadline deal. It is up to management to use him properly and fully maximize the results possible with Fuentes on the mound.

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