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« Top Bat-Missing Fastballs of 2011 | Main | Sanchez Fools Batters and Computers »

Javy Vazquez Finds His Fastball

This past spring, Javier Vazquez looked cooked. The well-traveled 35-year-old, coming off a mediocre second stint with the Yankees, was battered for a .500-plus slugging percentage in April while walking more batters (19) than he struck out (14). With Vazquez's fastball struggling to hit the upper-80s, some called for the Marlins to simply eat their rest of their $7 million free agent investment by booting him off the roster.

Fast forward to September, and Vazquez looks every bit the innings-munching starter with quality control that we've come to know since his debut with the Expos in the late '90s. Take a look at Vazquez's performance by month:

April: 25.1 IP, 0.74 K/BB, 6.42 Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)*

May: 27 IP, 2.0 K/BB,  4.70 xFIP

June: 31 IP, 4.83 K/BB, 3.70 xFIP

July: 31.1 IP, 3.86 K/BB, 3.44 xFIP

August: 40 IP, 5.71 K/BB, 3.18 xFIP

September: 13 IP, 7.0 K/BB, 2.48 xFIP

*xFIP is an ERA estimator that gauges a pitcher's performance based upon strikeouts, walks and a normalized home run per fly ball rate; learn more about it here.

Vazquez's resurgence has coincided with a major uptick in his fastball velocity. He sat at 88 mph in April. Since then, his heater has gained zip each month: 88.8 in May, 90.4 in June, 90.8 in July, 91.3 in August and 91.4 in September.

Perhaps realizing that he now has a fighting chance against hitters with his fastball, Vazquez has dramatically increased his usage of the pitch. After throwing a fastball less than 50 percent of the time in April and May, he reared back and fired 56 percent of the time in June, 61 percent in July, 64 percent in August and has thrown fastballs 71 percent so far in September.

Vazquez's fastball sat low in the zone in April and May, and he had an especially hard time keeping pitches from running too far off the plate to the armside:

Vazquez's fastball location, April-May 2011

 And hitters just about never whiffed on Javy's Triple-A caliber fastball:

Hitters' contact rate by location vs. Vazquez's fastball, April-May 2011

Since June, however, Vazquez has climbed the ladder and peppered the zone with his fastball:

Vazquez's fastball location, June-September 2011

That approach has led to far less contact:

Hitters' contact rate by location vs. Vazquez's fastball, June-September 2011Vazquez's fastball had a miss rate under eight percent and got strikes 60 percent of the time that he threw it in April and May. Since June? A miss rate over 18 percent, and a strikeout rate slightly over 71 percent (the MLB averages for right-handed pitchers are 15 percent for miss rate and 65 percent for strike rate).

The current version of Javier Vazquez is entirely different than the punching bag that took the mound in April and May. He's throwing 3-4 mph faster, and while Vazquez has typically relied upon his fastball less than just about any starter in the game, he's challenging hitters to turn on his letter-high heat. So far, they haven't been able to.

Vazquez is reportedly considering retiring after the 2011 season, and he has said in the past that he prefers to pitch on the East Coast to be closer to his native Puerto Rico. If he's up for another year, though, he'll have plenty of suitors.

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