The Conundrum of Ryan Webb

Being an A’s fan, I know quite a bit about the three pitchers San Diego acquired from the Oakland organization in exchange for Scott Hairston last summer: Sean Gallagher, Craig Italiano, and Ryan Webb.

Webb rose through the minors gradually as a starting pitcher before moving to a relief role in 2009 in Triple-A. Following the trade, he was quickly moved to the major league bullpen for the Padres, where he was adequate for 25 2/3 innings (4.24 tERA).

As a starter in the minors, Webb was known as a sinker-slider pitcher who worked off his 88-93 mph two-seamer and low-80’s breaker. His huge frame (6’6” 215) excited scouts as well; he had the classic “projectable body.”

Moved to relief, however, Webb’s velocity jumped. His fastball averaged a whopping 95.4 mph with the Padres last year, one of the highest averages in the majors. His slider also showed impressive velocity, at 86.7 mph.

Webb also has a changeup (82.9 mph) that he rarely uses, but it does show impressive velocity differential from the heater.

The fastball still retains the good run and sink Webb showed in the minors, moving about three inches down and in to righties. This led to a sparkling 57.1% groundball rate during Webb’s brief stay in San Diego. The slider shows good snap as well.

With all that going for him, Webb would appear poised to be a shutdown reliever in the majors, and perhaps even a solid starting pitcher. At 24, he still has time to improve as well.

All that said, for whatever reason, Webb has a long way to go.

One would think that a 95.4 mph fastball with plus run and sink would be an effective major league pitch.

Webb’s isn’t.

The pitch was a horrific 2.45 runs below average per 100 pitches according to Fangraphs’ Pitch Type Linear Weights.

There are two possible explanations for its struggles. The first is to write it off as a small-sample issue, which is tempting given that we’re talking about 25 2/3 innings. The second is to say that something is really wrong with the pitch.

As convenient as the former explanation seems, I’m going to go with the latter, mainly because Webb recognizes the issue as well.

Webb threw the heater just 50.6% of the time last year, well below the average rate for pitchers and suggesting that he lacks confidence in the pitch despite its theoretical excellence.

The problem is just with the fastball, as Webb’s slider (46.7% usage, 2.44 runs above average/100 pitches) and changeup (3.4% usage, 1.23 runs above average/100 pitches) both excelled.

The question I have is whether Webb lacks confidence in his fastball because it’s a hittable pitch, or if, in fact, it’s the other way around: his fastball gets hit around because Webb nibbles too much, forcing him to ultimately throw one right down the heart of the plate.

26 innings is way too small of a sample to answer this definitively, but if Webb makes the San Diego bullpen, it’ll definitely be something to watch. If Webb’s fastball can turn into even an average MLB pitch, he could be a shutdown reliever.

Time will tell if the superficially impressive pitch ever produces the results we’d expect.

Tags: Padres Pitching Ryan Webb

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