With the Pirates 9-3 over the Mets last night, it gave Kevin Correia his major league leading 8th win of the year. While I don't put much into the win-loss statistics for multiple reasons, it's still fun to see a Pirates pitcher leading the league in a pitching category other than losses and batting average against (cheers Zach Duke!). He's now 8-4 on the season with a 3.40 ERA, some pretty good numbers for a guy that I was worried about being a liability coming into the season. The purpose of this post isn't to determine if Correia is one of the best pitchers in the league so far (he isn't), but rather determine how much of this is a fluke and how much he can carry on through the rest of the season.
I looked at Correia's PitchFX charts, courtesy of Fangraphs, from this year with the Pirates and last year with the Padres to see if I could determine anything different between them. I have a couple theories after going through the charts and statistics and I found two game I'll use as a case study at similar times of the year with similar stat lines. The first is a Rockies-Padres game from 5/3/2010, while the second is a Padres-Pirates game from 5/4/2011. These games are taken in isolation, but each season as a whole indicated these same trends. Here are Correia's lines from each game for context.
With these lines similar, I thought they'd be perfect to compare to each other by having fewer variables, allowing me to to rely more on the Pitch FX charts. All of his game charts show essentially the same arm slot and release point, so there's no indication of him changing his delivery, but the one thing that did jump out was the horizontal break on all of his pitches.
Both these graphs are from the catcher's perspective, depicting horizontal movement on the X axis in relation to pitch velocity on the Y axis. A couple things jump out here. First, look at how grouped together each pitch is in 2011 versus 2010. Generally, that can mean Correia is doing a better job at controlling his pitches around the strike zone. Specifically, check out his two seam fastball first (FT=blue) In 2010, the two seam had a little more break into the hands of a right handed hitter, but the velocity was dropping close to 85 MPH for some pitches. For the game, his fastball was sitting 91, with the two seam sitting 87, a noticable difference for a major league hitter. In the 2011 graph, note how he is throwing the two seam almost as hard as his fastball. For the game, the fastball was sitting 90.7, but the two seam was at 89.1, making it harder for hitters to distinguish between the two pitches.
Also, take close notice at the curveball (CU=purple dots). He's doing a much better job of controlling his break and having it tail away from right handed hitters 5-10 inches in 2011. In the 2010 graph, the horizontal break is all over the place. What also jumped out at me with the curveball, is how many times he was throwing it. The 2010 game had him throwing 9 curveballs out of his 106 pitches, while in 2011 it was up to 15 curveballs of only 94 pitches, a much larger percentage. I found this interesting, so I checked his pitch selection for the year to determine if it's the curveball that's directing his success so far.
In fact, pitch selection seems to be the case. His use of the slider is down from 16% to 11.4% while his curveball is up from 10.5% to 15.2%. This is a sizeable jump. The sample size is still a little too small to use any of the quantitative statistics for each pitch, but his curveball is saving him an impressive 1.4 more runs this year than last, for what that's worth.
To me, it seems like his better use of the curveball is setting up his other pitches to keep batters a little more off-balance than year's past. Batters are swinging at 31.3% of his pitches outside the strike zone, up from his career average of 24%. He's kept this curveball trend up the entire season, which may help him maintain his success throughout the season. He does need to strike out more hitters, though. His K/9 is an awful 3.99 right now, with his career average being 6.38, a low number as it is. Getting a few more Ks will certainly go a long way in allowing his recent success be sustainable for the remainder of the season.
His BABIP is at .265 and his xFIP is around 4.12, so his statistics may regress backwards gradually, but that doesn't mean he cannot maintain his current level of pitching. As long as he maintains the control of his breaking pitches like he has for the first two months of the season, he'll be be one of the Pirates' better pitchers going forward. I'd expect his ERA to settle around 4 by the end of the season, but that doesn't mean it's a foregone conclusion. With the Pirates improved infield defense and Kevin Correia's improved control, he may not end the season as the league leader in wins, but that doesn't mean he won't be one of the best free agent signings for any team this season.