Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ode to Ayala

It's taken me a while to get to it, but I wanted to take at least a brief post to tip my cap to Luis Ayala, one of my very favorite Nationals over the last few years.

This year, we all know, he's fallen on some hard, hard times. But I take exception to statements like this, from the otherwise nonpareil Baseball America:
His numbers are poor any way you slice them—in the first half and second; against righties and lefties; and at home and on the road.
It ain't so. On May 1, after pitching in 18 of the team's first 29 games over 32 days, he had a 2.76 ERA.

It went downhill badly from there, but he started pretty strong.
Did the team ride him too hard? Hard to say. His command has been the biggest culprit, and he was walking too many over that first month or so too. There's no real solid data out there to tell us what a relief pitcher's body can take. And Luis and the team have insisted that he's not... oh, forget it. We don't believe what they say anymore. But it's hard for me to believe that the usage didn't play some role.

But the reality is that even healthy, very good relievers sometimes go through rough patches. Here's a fun blogger game--mystery player stats lines:
  • Player A: 46 IP, 6.07 ERA, 27 BB, 4 HBP, .773 OPS against, pitches: 56% fastballs, 43% sliders
  • Player B: 41.1 IP, 6.97 ERA, 15 BB, 4 HBP, .821 OPS against, pitches: 60% fastballs, 27% sliders, 12% change-ups
Pitcher B is Luis Ayala from May 3 till his trade to NY on August 16. Pitcher A is Brad Lidge from April 24 to August 19 in 2006.

Now, Ayala is no Lidge. Lidge throws his fastball at 95, while Ayala throws 91. Lidge has a slider that comes in with as much movement than any in the game. Lidge in his worst season struck out 12.5 per 9, while at Ayala's best he only K-ed half as many.

But they do have some similarities. Both are basically fastball-slider relievers. Ayala mixes in a change, which he needs since he doesn't have that velocity. But for both of them the name of the game is to spot the fastball and then put guys away with a biting slider that leaves the pitcher's hand looking like a fastball but disappears. A good slider is often a ball, but it can't always be a ball. If a guy like this loses some command and the hitter can just lay off the slider and sit dead red, he can go very quickly from very good to quite terrible. And both of them had command issues during these periods of terribleness. Lidge went from 2.93 K/9 in 2005 to 4.32 in 2006. Ayala went from 2.05 career (including this year) to 3.39 this year.

(Interestingly, Lidge's BB/9 is no better this year than it was in 2006. Watching him, it feels like he's better able to spot his pitches and "control" his wildness now than he did then, but my stathead-ism tells me that things can't be as they seem. On the other hand his HR/FB rate has fallen from 16.1% to 5.3%--which suggests he's not as good as he's been this year nor as bad as he was in 2006.)

The point is that command struggles + small sample sizes = wildly fluctuating RP performance.

For me, Luis will always be the Luis of 2005. (Cue "Glory Days" music in the background.) He was part of a magical bullpen that arguably more than any other part of the team gave us our greatest glories, that wonderful month of June, '05.

That year Ayala pitched 71 innings with a 2.66 ERA. He K-ed 40 batters against just 14 unintentional walks. Almost all his innings were of the high-pressure, high leverage variety, appearing in one-run game after one-run game.

From June 2-12, the Nationals won... 7! 8! 9! 10!!! TEN IN A ROW!!! Ayala pitched in seven of those games, allowing just one earned run.

There's really no argument against trading him now, considering that he's a free agent after the year, and certainly these final few weeks mean little to the Nationals. If bad teams can get anything at all for a guy like this, you do it 100 times out of 100.

But I prefer to remember guys like Luis at their best, not their worst. And I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see him rebound with a solid 2009 and 2010. To me, Luis will always be the best set-up man in the short history of the Washington Nationals. And I tip my cap to him.


Kristen said...

Thanks for this! I couldn't agree more.

Jon Rauch and Saul Rivera said...

To me, Luis will always be the best set-up man in the short history of the Washington Nationals.

We beg to differ.

Steve Shoup said...

I do agree with you here Ayala was a very nice pitcher for the Nats. When this season started I thought the Nats HAD to resign him to keep their bullpen stable. I was really sorry to see him struggle so much, hopefully he can regain his form. And I do agree with the speculation that the Nats overused him.

dale said...

Hmmmm, I would not say that his demise came from overuse. As I recall he blew out out his arm pitching for his home country in the international series tournament. This required major surgery on his arm. He has not been close to his form that he showed in 05 since that incident.