A little over a week ago I wondered out loud if there was an appreciation-cult or meme following for off-season afterthought turned serviceable rotation patch Carlos Villanueva. The complete lack of response means I took it upon myself to do some(1) digging to help us all learn a little more about him.
The first question people usually ask me when I'm suddenly standing in front of them is "Who are you and where did you come from?" and the answer you would get here is Carlos Villanueva and he came from Milwaukee for a player who shares the same name as my son, to be named later. Where is Carlos Villanueva now? After a wave of youth washed away he's found himself right in the middle of the Jays rotation as his MLB service clock is going to be hitting the 5 year mark at the end of this season, making him eligible for arbitration after making $1.45M this season.
You might know Villanueva from his playing a very similar 'tweener' role with the Brewers while rocking a consistent chinstrap, the type of facial hair that I have to assume was some sort of locker room requirement for that team. A flipthrough his photostream says that he showed up to camp with designs on a similar look but succumbed to the power of the mustache-dominated goatee and rode it to a starting gig. A recent regression to the mean shave-down means we're due for a full beard or bust in the coming weeks. This is a big decision for Villanueva in my eyes. The full beard can either end up as Bautista BeardmodeBeastmode or Jesse Litsch Disasterface. He's not going to be able to pull off Ricky Romero smooth, and you'd want to distance yourself from a chinstrap as long as Edwin Encarnacion has one, so may I humbly suggest an ode to Travis Snider(2) with the solo mustache that Carlos is clearly so capable of pulling off. Mustaches are huge for launching memes.
Now that we know who he is, let's move to what Carlos Villanueva is. He's already having the best fWAR (0.8) season of his career and he's got 3 wins(3) in 6 starts(4), thanks to a 1.18WHIP, 3.33 K/BB, and keeping opposing hitters to an 89 OPS+. He's a flyball pitcher (40.1 career FB%) that has been doing an extremely... um... out of character job of keeping the ball in the ballpark. His career HR/FB is 12.9% and thus far for the Jays it sits at 6.1%. The rest of the numbers are fairly in line with his career averages except for infield pop-ups, which has jumped from 9.2% to 18.4% as a starter in 2011.
How's he doing it? First of all he's missing a lot of bats. A 14.7 swing-miss% as a starter is up from his career average of 10.8. He seems to be a totally different pitcher depending on the handedness of the batter as actually gets groundballs the majority of the time against lefties. Since we've deduced that home runs and swinging strikes are the key factors here, let's take a look at them on a pitch f/x strike zone!
(Click for Larger View)
His slider has been his most effective pitch in terms of swings and misses. It was swung at and missed from both sides of the plate at more than 25% rate, but both it and his fastball (25.9 & 33.3 LD%) have accounted almost all of the line drives he's given up. He uses the curve heavily against lefties and that turns into a lot of ground balls. The change-up has also been good, anything really to keep him from having to throw a fastball when the hitter knows a fastball is coming. Unfortunately I don't have the individual pitch outcome info available throughout anything beyond 2011 for Villanueva available to me but I have to assume from the Pitch Values of -6.1, -4.7, -9.9, and -7.2 from the last 4 years that his fastball is the one that will be leaving the park if his HR/FB% creeps back to the double digits.
If you're following along with your handy journalism school 5 W's, you'll know the final question is "Why Carlos Villanueva?" and the answer to that is because Kyle Drabek literally cannot throw a strike to save his professional life right now; Because Jo Jo Freaking Reyes can't be the #3 guy; Because Zach Stewart and Brad Mills and Brett Cecil and any of the other names haven't paid as many big league dues as Villanueva; Because as long as he's keeping the ball in the park he's been a pretty steady arm; Because he could grow a mustache and might if we all ask him to by using every social media power at our disposal; and (maybe most importantly) because he's not Jesse Litsch(5).
I'm not asking for effusive praise or outlandish Chuck Norris like facts, just a grouping of people recognizing Carlos Villanueva for the contributions he has been making. The Villanueva Recognition Coalition(6). Look at the mountains we moved with Bautista Appreciation Society. This could be the beginning of something special.
1- The least amount possible for me, which is like 3 hours. Oh, and don't mind these I'm just auditioning for Grantland.
2- Free Travis Snider. Just kidding I'm not actually doing footnotes now. Or auditioning for Grantland. (one of those two things is a lie)
3- I only wrote this so Drew would have to read about pitching wins on his own site and get mad for a second.
4- Sample Size! I know! Also, every 'career' number used in this paragraph is through the scope of his starts, not his relief appearances.
5- I swear to God, Drew does not force me to take shots at Jesse Litsch whenever I can.
6- Still taking suggestions on a better name. #VRC