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Mychal Givens' elevated fastball shows mixed results

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Mychal Givens tweaked his approach this year. So far the results are good, but they could be much better.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Mychal Givens was promoted to the big leagues last year and impressed everyone. Throwing a 95 MPH fastball from the sidearm slot, he struck out 32.5% of the batters he faced while walking just 5.1%. Among relievers with a similar arm slot since 2008, his K-BB% ranked second only to Craig Kimbrel in 2013.

This year Givens is having similar success on the field. But his peripherals are worse. While his strikeout rate remains excellent, his walk rate has more than doubled from 5.1% to 10.5%. The results have been okay but not great: a 3.65 xFIP this year vs. a 2.38 xFIP last year.

Part of the problem stems from Givens’ platoon splits. Last year he over-performed against lefties, holding them to a .249 wOBA on the strength of a .267 BABIP. That BABIP jumped to .609 this year, leading to a .522 wOBA. The jump isn’t surprising; as a right-handed side-armer, lefties see the ball well out of his hand. Thankfully the magnitude of the jump is bound to come down as Givens faces more batters this year.

To combat this extreme split, Givens is throwing a change-up more often to lefties than in the past. This pitch breaks away from lefties, making it harder to hit than the slider that breaks in to them. So far hitters haven’t done much with it.

But righties are giving him more trouble as well. Even though he’s held them to a .222 wOBA this year, he’s walked 8.9% of them vs. just 4.1% last year.

All of the walks have come on fastballs. Hitters seem to expect it now. They’re laying off heaters out of the zone and swinging more at ones in the zone:

givens-fasbtall

These struggles may stem from fastball command up in the zone. As Matt Kremnitzer wrote earlier this year at Camden Depot, Givens is trying to get hitters to chase elevated fastballs. Brooks Baseball shows this approach:

givens-fastball-vertical


From Baseball Savant, here are the high fastballs Givens has thrown and their results:

givens-high-fastball

The breakdown:
  • 41% - Ball
  • 24% - Foul or foul tip
  • 7% - Called strike
  • 16% - Swinging strike
  • 12% - In play
Although a 16% swinging strike rate is very good, hitters take the pitch nearly half the time, and 90% of the time that is the correct decision. If I'm a hitter facing Givens and I see a fastball coming up at me, I'm laying off. Based on the O-Swing% data, that's what hitters are doing.

My only theory is that when Givens throws a fastball to the top of the zone, his arm has to swing up. While he releases the pitch from the same vertical location, perhaps hitters can see the arm motion prior to release and know what's coming. Given his sidearm angle and effective slider, Givens may be more effective working in and out instead of up and down.

I don’t know why he changed what was working last year. Baseball is a game of adjustments, but righties couldn’t touch Givens last year. They’re not hammering him this year, but he’s made their job easier. Even if opposing hitters are looking down, so what: Givens has a great fastball that plays well off his slider, and the Orioles have a great infield defense.

Look, this is all nitpicking. The more important adjustment Givens made is to develop a change-up versus lefties, which keeps him from being a ROOGY. But in this game, every advantage counts. Givens baffled right-handers last year but still felt the need to adjust his approach. That's his prerogative. It's working okay, but if he can't get hitters to chase his fastball more, he should end the experiment.