The Frieri Paradox

Few players in the San Diego organization have had better 2010 seasons than that of Ernesto Frieri. The righthander opened the year as Portland’s closer and put up a 1.43 ERA, striking out 49 and walking 18 in 37 2/3 innings. Remarkably, he allowed just 14 hits in that span.

Moved up to the majors, Frieri has been even better, striking out a whopping 15 batters in just 8 1/3 innings. He’s walked just two and allowed only three hits, and no runs have come across to score off him. Pretty stellar stuff.

What is it, precisely, that the righthander is doing that’s allowed him to give up just 17 hits in 45 innings this year?

Sure, a low BABIP probably plays a role, but it’s not like Frieri’s 64 strikeouts hurt.

So, what exactly is it that’s allowed Frieri to whiff so many batters?

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Ernesto Frieri throws two pitches.

The first, and the one he uses about 80% of the time, is a fastball.

Now, from the numbers I laid out above, you’d probably expect that fastball to reach the upper 90′s.

In fact, though, the fastest pitch the Colombian righthander has thrown (in the majors) this year is 95 mph.

His fastball goes 90-95, with an average of 92.8 mph. That’s certainly not poor velocity, but for a relief pitcher, it’s hardly out of the ordinary. Ed Mujica averages just .7 mph less, and Mike Adams throws harder than Frieri.

The other pitch Frieri throws is a curveball in the 74-78 mph range. He’s also thrown a changeup three times with the Padres, so he has the pitch but almost never deploys it. Part of the reason he was moved to relief in the first place is because the changeup wasn’t good.

So he’s got an above-average-but-not-earth-shattering fastball and a curveball. That doesn’t seem like it would lead to these sort of statistical results. What gives?

The first, and easiest, guess is that Frieri’s pitches move a lot. Maybe his fastball has vicious late life, or the curve is a huge breaker.

That doesn’t really hold true either, though. Frieri’s fastball has very average movement ratings. It runs slightly more than most righties’ heaters, and sinks slightly less, but it’s essentially the same pitch as Ed Mujica’s heater, which, as we know, gets hit into the bleachers quite often.

With the fastball giving no answers, we have to look to the curve, but that’s no help either. It has about six inches less drop than the average curve, and has dead-average horizontal movement. The pitch isn’t particularly fast, in the mid-70′s, it doesn’t really have any plus attributes at all.

At this point, it’s probably important to examine which of the two pitches has really worked for Frieri. Pitch Type Linear Weights says the curve has been terrible and the fastball great, but it’s way too small of a sample to trust that.

Before last night’s game, Frieri had thrown 17 curves. Nine were called balls, one was called a strike, and the other seven drew swings. Two of those swings missed, four resulted in fouls, and one was put in play. Frieri’s tended to miss down and away with the pitch, and it doesn’t have the break or deception to fool batters, it seems. The only three curves he’s actually put in the strike zone have been right down the middle, with the other 14 missing the zone (although five of those drew swings, for what it’s worth).

So, he’s certainly not getting fantastic results from that pitch. How about the fastball?

Frieri’s tossed 92 heaters, and a whopping 66 have wound up strikes. That’s a nice ratio.

Forty-three of Frieri’s fastballs have been swung at.

Twenty of those have missed.

The fastball is the easiest pitch to make contact with. If 6-8% of a pitcher’s heaters are swung and missed at, it’s probably a good fastball. Mat Latos has 8.2%, for example. Frieri has a ridiculous 21.7% whiff rate with the pitch.

Just eight of Frieri’s 92 fastballs have been put into play out of the 43 swung at. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The odd thing, of course, about the staggering success of Frieri’s fastball is that it’s fairly straight and merely above-average velocity-wise. And yet, you’d think he was Nolan Ryan out there looking at the results of the pitch.

There are two possible explanations for the fastball’s success. The first is that it’s a small sample and that hitters could figure Frieri out once he’s been around the league a bit.

The second is that something in his delivery is deceiving hitters to the point where the fastball seems like it’s coming in faster than the 90-95 mph it actually is. Sure, that’s something of a cliche, but there has to be some explanation for this.

Frieri’s got a slight hesitation in his delivery, but he certainly isn’t doing some weird Bronson Arroyo/Hideo Nomo/Gustavo Chacin stuff out there, so for now, we’ll just have to see if this keeps up. Whether this dominance is for real is going to be one of the more interesting storylines of the Padres’ stretch run (aside from that whole “chasing the playoffs” thing, you know…).

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