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We need to talk about Alex Colome

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CSI: Colome

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Even for those prone to underreaction, the performance of Rays closer Alex Colome has been troubling in recent weeks. He has allowed at least one run in each of his last five outings, giving up ten runs total over that stretch.

Although only one of those outings was a blown save, and only one of those five outings resulted in a loss for the Rays, any time a pitcher allows runs in five straight outings it’s worth taking a look at what is going on.

Now, first things first, we have to get the “it has been only five innings” caveat out of the way. That’s less than one outing for most starting pitchers, and it will end up being less than 10 percent of Colome’s season as a whole. If Colome can right the ship and the Rays come out of this stretch having lost only one game while their closer struggled, it will be entirely forgotten by season’s end.

That being said, Colome didn’t allow runs in even two straight outings in his excellent 2016 season, let alone five straight. In fact, in his entire relief pitching career, he had allowed runs in two straight appearances only once before this recent stretch, and that was literally the first two relief appearances he made in 2015 when he was transitioning from the rotation to the bullpen.

So while it’s fair to want to pump the brakes due to a five-inning sample size, it is a five-inning sample that is entirely unique to Colome’s career.

Relief pitchers can be volatile, and they’re due for some rough outings every now and then just by the nature of their role, but, if it is simply written off as noise each and every time, there would never be any definitive conclusions made. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few of the telltale signs of struggle and see what can be found on Colome and his recent struggles.

Velocity

Whenever a pitcher is going through a rough patch, the first place to look is at his velocity, with the first thought being injury.

With the frequency with which pitchers are injured in modern baseball, a pitcher struggling can very often be the result of an yet-to-be-discovered injury. The best way for baseball minds without intimate knowledge of the club’s inner workings to find out if a pitcher is injured is going to the velocity tables.

So how has Colome’s velocity looked over the past few weeks?

Pretty much the same, and actually a bit faster if anything. In his most recent outing, Colome’s four-seamer had its second-fastest reading of any game in 2017, and his cutter read faster than any previous 2017 game. It’s fair to say velocity isn’t an issue, but injury can’t be ruled out just yet.

Release point

The other potential sign of an injury can be an inconsistent release point from the pitcher. If a pitcher is hiding some discomfort, it’s hard to get into the same rhythm pitch after pitch, thus making the release point vary. Thanks to Brooks Baseball we can see how consistent a pitcher’s release point has been on a game-to-game basis.

Once again, there’s not much there. The few data points that stray the most from the cluster have no reliability when it comes to date, and only one of the outliers (to the extent that they even vary from the cluster) even came in the past two weeks.

There could certainly be something bothering Colome, but from what we are able to ascertain without inside information, it’s fair to write it off as a cause at this point.

Pitch usage

Sometimes a pitcher can lose faith in one of his offerings, or, alternately, have entirely too much faith in one pitch, leading to a much less diverse offering of pitches, making it easier for batters to guess what’s coming.

The game-by-game pitch usage graph from Brooks Baseball is a little messy because of the limited nature of each of Colome’s outings, so instead two specific date ranges will be used. The date ranges will be: “Start of season to May 29” and “May 31 to July 4” since the end of May is right around the time the struggles began.

Colome has allowed a hit in each and every outing since May 31, so that’s a fair cut-off point to get a bit more of a sample size than just the past five outings.

Colome Pitch Breakdown 2017

Dates Fourseam Cutter Changeup
Dates Fourseam Cutter Changeup
4/2 - 5/29 31.87% 60.23% 7.89%
5/31 - 7/4 43.57% 49.38% 7.05%

Well, that could be something.

Colome has been using the four-seamer far more often in the past month, while relying far less often on the cutter. So was the cutter starting to get hit more, is that what caused this change?

Here are the slugging percentages of each of his pitches in a game-by-game chart:

It doesn’t appear as though the pitch was causing too much stress for Colome outside of that one outing against Cleveland on June 17, and one outing is not going to be enough to convince a pitcher to abandon his top pitch.

How about pitch count? Has Colome been falling behind hitters more in recent outings, leading him to use the four-seamer more often?

Colome has indeed used the four-seamer more than 70 percent of the time in three-ball counts in 2017, meaning he trusts the four-seamer much more than the cutter when he needs to throw a strike.

According to FanGraphs, Colome’s first-pitch strike percentage was 65.3 percent from the start of the season through May 29. Since then? Just 52.3 percent. Over the most recent five-game stretch? Even lower, at 51.5 percent.

Given that hitters have a .325 batting average and .525 slugging percentage against Colome’s four-seamer in 2017, compared to just a .220 batting average and .319 slugging percentage against his cutter this season, having to use the four-seamer more often could certainly explain why hitters have been to tee off on Colome of late.

Conclusion

Colome’s recent struggles are certainly troubling for Rays fans, and the fact that he has struggled to get ahead of hitters of late isn’t a great sign. However, it also means he can hopefully turn the corner and get back to the pitcher he was for the first two months (1.78 ERA pre-May 31) rather easily.

Colome needs to start getting ahead of hitters more so that he can use his cutter more than his four-seamer, but more than anything, he needs to weather this storm mentally. He needs to realize that he actually hasn’t cost his team that much and not let a five-game mini-slide turn into something much more.

As much as the numbers can tell us, the mental side of things, especially when it comes to closers, is far more important.