The rotation was supposed to be the major strength of the Angels in 2010.  So far, that hasn’t quite been the case.  Outside of Jered Weaver, each starting pitcher has had their ups and downs, contributing to the Halos’ uneven start.  The good news is that they almost all seem to be getting their act together, keyword being “almost.”  Ervin Santana, Joel Pineiro and Scott Kazmir have all been making steady progress, but Joe Saunders seems to actually be getting worse which begs the question: what is wrong with Joe Saunders?

Orange County News - April 22, 2010

You’re not the only one confused about Saunders’ struggles in 2010.

When it comes to a struggling pitcher, there are two primary reasons that end up explaining their issues, injury or mechanics, so there isn’t a whole lot of ground to cover with Saunders.

The injury aspect is the first avenue most would investigate with him after his double-secret shoulder problems emerged last season and many have hypothesized, myself included, that his injury is back and causing him trouble again.  Only Joe knows how his arm is feeling but he says he it is just fine, a line we have all heard before in not so truthful a manner.  However, I think we should believe him this time.  Scanning through his Pitch F/X data, his velocity seems to be just fine and that is about as good an indicator as one can get when it comes to a pitcher’s arm health.

That leaves mechanics as the culprit in his season long campaign of sucktacularity.  Since the Angels have yet to return my calls about taking over for Mike Butcher as the new pitching coach, I am not going to attempt to breakdown Saunders’ delivery via my Tivo to try and find any flaws.  What I can do though is scan his statistics for irregularities.

His ground ball rate seems normal.  His BABIP is almost identical to his career average.  His walks are up a bit and his strikeouts are down marginally, but neither alarmingly so.  Even his contact rates appear to be typical for him.  There has to be something wrong here though, right?

Hold on.

Wait for it.

I think I found it.

I am not that well versed in Pitch F/X data, but after doing some digging in that area I think I have uncovered something that looks highly abnormal.  Joe Saunders has thrown 82 curveballs this year… batter’s have swung and missed at it just four times.  That can’t possibly be a good thing.

Saunders has never been a big whiff guy, but I don’t see how a pitch can be even close to effective if batters are making contact with it almost every time they swing.  To me that suggests that his curve just isn’t fooling anyone this season or that he isn’t placing it well, and I think the following graph very much proves the latter.

Joe Saunders curveball graph

Just look at where those pitches ended up.  A majority are well out of the zone and most of the curves that ended up in the strike zone are perilously close to the heart of it.  With his curve not being a knee-buckler to begin with, he can’t afford to be leaving so many over the heart of the plate or buried in the dirt.  With that kind of a result he might as well just scrap the pitch.

Even with him still throwing the curve, Saunders has now effectively been reduced to a two-pitch guy and he just doesn’t throw hard enough or have a good enough change-up to get away with that which would certainly explain his rough start to the season.

Maybe I am barking up the wrong tree here, but I think at the least it is something worth monitoring going forward and it sure is a lot better than the alternative explanation that his shoulder is bothering him again.  He can fix a broken curveball, but a busted shoulder could be a much longer recovery.

ADDENDUM: Turns out writing at midnight leads to mistakes.  Saundo’s K/9 is lower than I thought because I apparently can’t read.  It is actually strikingly low, even for Joe.  If anything, that supports my assertion that his curveball is broken.