In his third start of the 2012 campaign, Vance Worley struck out 11 of the 27 Padres hitters he faced. Five of those 11 strikeouts were looking. Eleven strikeouts represented a career high for the young right-hander.
"I had pretty good stuff that night," he recalls with a grin and a shrug. He doesn't say it to brag, to him it's almost clinical; getting guys out is his job and that night was just a particularly good day at the office.
Heading into his second year as a full-time starting pitcher, Worley seemed a likely candidate to suffer the dreaded sophomore slump that so many young pitchers have.
In the off-season, opposing teams' scouts have time to collect, analyze, and study film of pitchers that baffled their teams' hitters the year before. Scouts look for patterns in pitch selections and tendencies that may be subconscious and unknown even to the pitcher himself. Holes are found and relayed to hitters. Suddenly, pitches that once baffled hitters become pitches the hitters wait to see. The second-year pitcher's ERA balloons and suddenly, he's not the phenom the fans thought he could turn out to be.
But when it comes to Worley, a surprising thing has happened: through his first four starts of the season, he actually looks better than he did through the same time last season. In his first four starts of 2011, Vance struck out 16 batters and allowed 24 hits and 12 runs in 20 innings of work. In four starts this year, he's struck out 27 batters and allowed 6 runs on 22 hits in 25 innings.
There's a caveat to this information: the sample size. We're only comparing the first four starts of the two seasons, and since a starting pitcher is usually going to make around 35 starts in a year, that doesn't mean a whole lot. Anything could happen in the rest of the season.
But in trying to figure out why Vance is striking out so many more hitters than he did so far last year, something striking jumped out: his pitch selection is dramatically different so far this year.
In 2011, Vance threw a four-seam fastball roughly 44% of the time. His slider accounted for 22% of his pitches, he went to his cut fastball 10% of the time, the same frequency as his changeup. He only used a curveball about 5% of the time.
Basically, a hitter knew that more than half of Worley's pitchers were going to be a fastball, a quarter were going to be breaking balls, and the last quarter would be a mix of off-speed stuff.
So far in 2012, those numbers are way different: Vance goes to his four-seamer far less frequently, down around just 34%. He's slightly increased his reliance on the slider, up to 25%. Most strikingly, however, is his increased use on his cutter. It jumps way up to representing 23% of all the pitches he's thrown.
Why the change? "We know that we need to mix it up a little bit more," Vance said, referring to him and the Phils' coaching staff. "Last year we only used two pitches."
By dramatically increasing the frequency that he uses his cutter, Vance has effectively added a fourth pitch to his arsenal and, so far, it's been confounding hitters who aren't looking for it.
Why add the cutter?
"Naturally my four-seam cuts a little bit," Vance admits, and since a cutter and a four-seam fastball have a very similar grip and delivery, hitters expect a little bit of a late break on a Worley fastball. Essentially, the cutter and four-seamer look identical from the windup until about 20 feet from the batter. But by going to the cutter, a hitter that is looking for the fastball will be surprised when it breaks sharply by the time he's already committed to his swing.
The result? Well, so far it's been a marked increase in strikeouts. Does that mean that Vance is trying to mold himself into a strikeout pitcher? "No. It just happens. I don't try to strike guys out," he said. "I give ‘em one pitch to try and strike them out with and if I don't I'll try and get them to put the ball in play." In 2012, the cutter has been his go-to pitch in a strikeout count and so far, it's been paying dividends.
But don't expect these high strikeout figures to continue: hitters will eventually adapt to the new-look Worley. But that doesn't bother Vance; he's used to pitching to contact:
"That's always been kind of what I've done. I think that's why my minor league numbers were so low on strikeouts. It was like ‘Why am I going to try and strike this guy out? I [was on a pitch count] in the minor leagues, and I wanted to go as deep [into games] as I could."
Are there any other plans to help keep hitters guessing as the season wears on? "I'm not going to give out any secrets," he said with a laugh, "But we're still using the cutter, more curve balls, more changeups..." he trailed off, conscious of my notepad and his "no secrets" disclaimer. But the message was clear: Yes. There's a plan.
Whatever that plan may be, one thing's for sure: Vance Worley wants to prove his freshman year was no fluke. He wants to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, and he knows how he's going to do it. And if his plan works, he won't just avoid a slump, but come out of 2012 looking like a whole new pitcher. So far, it seems to be working.