Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

So How’s This Joe-Biagini-to-the-Rotation Thing Going?

“Blue Jays must end the Joe Biagini experiment” bellows a current headline over at  Jays Journal. And while I get that constantly churning out content means that sometimes you’re going to end up saying something utterly ridiculous just for the sake of saying something — hello, Bo Bichette mirroring Mike Trout’s MiLB career! — I… uh… seriously???

I mean, I’m not saying that it’s going swimmingly, but “must end? MustMust end. Must end the experiment that is in a second phase that is now precisely one start old. Must, because of one poor outing, no longer give starts to the guy you just sent to Buffalo for a month so that you could bring him up and see what he’s got as a member of the rotation. “You tried it, it didn’t work now let’s move on.”

Must end?

Uh… let’s maybe think about these things for a damned minute, huh?

Biagini has done nothing in his 12 starts this season to indicate that he has anything to offer in a starting role.

Biagini’s first foray into the rotation was rushed. Matt Latos was as bad as advertised and was designated for assignment back on May 5th, and even though at that point Joe had pitched only 7.2 innings over his previous six appearances, he was given the assignment. The early returns for him were pretty good, too: he gave the Jays four strong innings in his May 7th rotation debut, and put up a 3.38 ERA through seven starts, 31 Ks in 37.1 innings, nine walks, just two home runs allowed, and produced an excellent ground ball rate of 58.0%.

I don’t think that’s nothing. Afterwards things went sideways for him, yes. He got hit pretty hard, the ground ball rate suffered, and his BABIP ballooned from .252 over his first seven starts to .368 over the next five. His ERA over that span was 8.51. But through those first starts he showed something.

What I’d say about all that is this: Looking at those BABIPs, I’d figure it’s fair to say that he wasn’t as good as he looked over the first six starts, nor was he quite as bad as he looked over the next five. I’d also say that, while I’m not sure it’s actually true, it makes a pretty tidy narrative to say that the league adjusted to him, and he really wasn’t afforded enough of an opportunity to adjust back. Biagini was whisked out of the rotation after allowing seven runs to the Red Sox on the day after Canada Day. His chance to try to figure out how to survive going multiple times through a batting order, and while using some of the lesser-used parts of his repertoire, has now begun again.

The fact of the matter is Biagini has proven that he cannot be relied upon to fill one of the five spots next season.

“Proof” in baseball is a funny thing. One year something seems entirely proven, the next, maybe it’s not. Go back to the spring of 2015 and you’ll see a bunch of Jays fans arguing about what to do about extending “proven” slugger José Bautista for something along the lines of six years and $150 million. Go back to 2010 and you’ll find many of those same fans arguing about what to do about the “unproven” Bautista, who was a year away from free agency and suddenly had transformed into an elite hitter. Go back six months and ask what Justin Smoak had proven himself to be through nearly 3,000 big league plate appearances.

Sometimes what’s “proven” changes in even shorter spells. Like, you’re telling me that if Biagini has a nice start his next time out, and then has another decent one, and finishes the year pretty strong, then comes out and pitches well all spring, it won’t matter because he had already “proven,” as of August 28th, that he isn’t rotation material?

I’m not saying that’s what will happen, nor am I saying that players ought to be given infinite rope. At some point a determination does need to be made. But right now? To give more starts to Tom Koehler — who you know will be a rotation/long man candidate next year anyway — or Chris Rowley or anybody else who’d end up behind Biagini on the depth chart if Joe can hack it as a starter? I don’t get it.

I especially don’t get it because the reasons why moving Biagini to the rotation in the first place are still there. He did it all the way through the minors, he’s managed to maintain a decent velocity while pitching in the rotation, and he seems to have a deep enough repertoire to go through lineups multiple times.

Seems to.

There is a rather significant difference between Biagini this year versus last year. Last winter at BP Toronto, Matt Gwin wrote a piece about Biagini’s worthiness as a rotation candidate, and in it noted that one huge reason he might be successful in the role was his slider, which had generated whiffs at a 23% rate in 2016. On Biagini’s Brooks Baseball page that pitch is actually classified as a cutter, and Joe sure did come out firing them this season: after throwing the pitch 16% of the time in 2016, he threw it 26% of the time in April. This month, though, he’s thrown the pitch just 3% of the time. And the rate he’s gone to it has steadily dropped throughout the season. The reason for that doesn’t take too long to figure out: in 2017 the whiff rate on the pitch has dropped from 23% to just 4%.

Here’s how his usage has changed by month since the start of 2016:

And here’s how the pitch has generated swing and miss over that spell:

As has been pointed out to me on Twitter, these sorts of things do fluctuate. That’s a good thing, if it means that Biagini might naturally get an important out pitch back. But the significance of the drop, and the subsequent drop in usage, feels a bit ominous.

This is the sort of thing that Biagini will need to get sorted if he’s ever going to look like a realistic option for the rotation again. And giving him a bunch of longer outings, in which he may be able to get back to using the cutter, get back the feel, and to get back the extra bit of drop that may have made the difference between last year’s version and this one, is probably a pretty good idea.

It doesn’t seem to be what the Jays are doing, though, as he threw just three of them in his start against the Twins. He seems to be using the curveball, rather than the cutter/slider this year — if you look at the data at Brooks, as his cutter usage has dropped, his curve usage has gone up at almost the same rate — but it isn’t generating the same kind of swing and miss as it did last year, and certainly not the kind of swing and miss he got off the cutter last year — especially not to right-handers.

The curve is a good pitch for Biagini, don’t get me wrong. And if the cutter had become a third or fourth option (after the changeup) and was getting hit, I guess I see why he might be inclined to ditch it. It’s just… last year it was his second most used pitch against right-handers (after the fastball), and clearly his best pitch to get them to swing and miss (24.4% whiff rate, compared to 9.6% for the curve, and 5.6% for the fourseamer — he only threw five changeups to right-handers all year, so though it generated whiffs at a 40% rate, it doesn’t really count). Maybe see if you can’t get that working again, Joe!

Maybe he can especially get it working again because… uh… if we’re talking about splits, we’re going to find something even more interesting — and more significant — against left-handed hitters.

Thing is, clever as all my digging above may seem, Biagini has actually been pretty alright against right-handers this season regardless of the ditching of the cutter. And he’s been good against them both as a reliever and as a starter. Getting that cutter working will still help him in the split, but in an area where he’s already been pretty alright.

There’s an area where he’s been complete dogshit though. Let’s see if we can’t spot it!

vs RHB as RP 77 .227 .338 .348 .308
vs RHB as SP 146 .250 .301 .407 .303
vs LHB as RP 49 .217 .265 .326 .258
vs LHB as SP 119 .321 .378 .514 .379

Yowza. HOLY SHIT italics mine. Because… woof.

Relief Biagini has been legitimately great against left-handed batters. Rotation Biagini has been horrendous!

Another thing about giving him more time to work as a starter is giving him a chance to figure out how to change this around — and how to translate some of his success in the split as a reliever into success as a starter.

Or some of last year’s success.

Biagini’s cutter usage against left-handers has dropped from 14% last year to just 7% this year, for presumably the same reason as he’s ditched throwing it to righties. Last year it was his best swing-and-miss pitch in the split, generating whiffs at 20%. This year he’s thrown 46 of them to lefties, and not a single one has caused a whiff.

I repeat: get that cutter working again, Joe! Except… then again, a slider/cutter isn’t really going to be a right-hander’s go-to out pitch against LHBs. With two strikes in 2016, Biagini threw the cutter to left-handers just 12.5% of the time, as compared to 7.5% of the time this season. As you’d expect, he goes to the curve and the change more often with two strikes on lefties. And, indeed, Biagini is doing just fine in the split as a reliever while hardly having any success with the cutter.

So… what gives?

The answer might be as simple as command.

Here is where Biagini’s curves, changeups, cutters, and sliders to left-handed batters were located during his stint in the bullpen at the start of the 2017 season (per FanGraphs):

It’s quite similar to where those same pitches were located to left-handers in 2016:

Once he became a starter, though, it sure looks like he started catching a whole lot more of the plate with those pitches:

Is it possibly fatigue? Not necessarily.

The lefties he’s faced while going through an opponent’s order for the third time have fared worse than those the second time through — though that’s perhaps because the only games he lasted that long were ones in which he “had his stuff”. Against right-handed batters, we see more of what we’d expect: quite good the first and second times through the order, but it goes off the rails on the third go. When facing lefties a second time through the order, he’s been especially horrendous: he’s faced 45 batters as a starter in that situation, and they’ve slashed .372/.400/.651 against him.

What does it mean?

We’re talking about samples so small here now that it’s almost pointless, but I think we’re on to something here. And — importantly — I think we’re on to something that Biagini can possibly figure out. The repertoire should be good enough to get lefties out — he’s shown it as a reliever. The rest of it isn’t really all that bad, and could be improved if he can get that cutter working again.

It’s a big ask to simply say, “go out there and be better the second and third time through.” That they can go multiple times through the order is what makes starters so valuable. But Biagini’s stuff doesn’t really seem to back up too much when he pitches in the rotation. His velocities stayed fairly close to the same as they were in the bullpen when he entered the rotation, and while he maybe takes a step back in terms of strikeout and whiff rates, all the things that made him an intriguing rotation candidate in the first place are still there, I think.

I don’t think the Jays should let him get his head bashed in by left-handers in perpetuity (or even for more than a few more awful starts) — and though Byron Buxton got the headlines on Sunday, Biagini struggled up and down with a lineup stacked with six lefties and switch hitters — but I certainly don’t think he’s “proven” he can’t do it. At least no more than he’s proven that he shouldn’t face left-handers when back in relief, which is something I don’t think anyone would argue.

There is nothing to lose in doing this, and everything to gain. Pulling the plug now is simply not doing right by it. Makes a splashy headline, though.

  • AD

    The article is right… biagini doesnt belong in the rotation. Hi stuff plays much better in the bullpen. He shouldnt be counted on for the rotation next year, much more effective in the pen. They could use him there as well.

    • The Humungus

      “We’re talking about samples so small here now that it’s almost pointless”

      119 batters faced is not a real sample size. That’s like saying a guy isn’t a major league starter if he has a shitty month.

  • Teddy Ballgame

    Give him rope for the rest of this benighted season. We’ve got nothing to lose. If he faceplants, you know for next year that another starter is on the offseason shopping list. If he figures it out, bonus – it’s not like the Jays gave up anything to get him.

  • Just Jeff

    It will be intriguing to see how Biagini is used next season. As of right now, the Jays have 2 spots open in the rotation for 2018, but if Marco re-signs, that drops to 1 spot, which would go to one of Biagini, Koehler, Rowley or a potential FA acquisition. If Biagini doesn’t make the rotation out of spring training, I wonder if he doesn’t just go to Buffalo to continue starting. The Jays already have Osuna, Tepera, Barnes and Leone as right-handed one-inning relievers. They probably want at least 2 lefties…that brings the bullpen to 6. If you run a 7 man bullpen, that leaves one spot for a long-reliever. Could Biagini be that long-reliever? Sure, but I’m not sure that management wouldn’t prefer to keep him on regular rest and stretched out at AAA.

  • Cincinnatus C.

    Opponents’ wOBA against Biagini this year with bases empty: .262. With runners on: .403. With RISP: .447. Last year, when I assume he was pitching exclusively from the stretch, those numbers went in the other direction for him: .325, .269, .232. Seems like that marrying-the-windup-and-the-stretch thing may be a thing … although weirdly it seems like the stretch has only become a problem for him this year after going to the windup. (Personally I’d be pretty OK with making everyone pitch from the stretch all the time. Call it the Stroman Rule.)

    • The Humungus

      He just went to the wind-up now. He was throwing out of the stretch in all of his MLB starts except the last one. That’s one of the reasons they sent him to Buffalo to get some length in, so he could get used to throwing from the wind-up again without dealing with MLB hitters.

        • The Humungus

          Here’s the excuse:

          He’s a guy who’s pitching as a starter above AA for the first time who needs to figure out how to sequence his pitches when he’s going to face MLB hitters more than once in a game. Also, his worst starts came after he’s made a fielding error, so, maybe he needs to let go of those a little easier.

          Fall back on the fact that he’s gotten major league hitters out from the bullpen, and that ‘s big and strong enough with enough pitches that he should be able to start. Either that, or he’s Joe Nathan.

  • dolsh

    I’m ok with him proving me wrong, but I agree that he hasn’t passed the starter test yet. He’s a rule 5 guy for a reason. His minor league numbers are unimpressive. He’s been bad the second and third time through the order. The stuff is there though! If he’s not a major league starter, I really do think he has the stuff to be a high leverage reliever – maybe a guy that induces ground balls at will. There’s not a lot to lose, so let him try to figure it out. But I think he needs to be thinking bullpen dominance.