Last night the losing pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays was Peter Fairbanks, and while the use of wins and losses is often misapplied, here you can use it well.
Fairbanks did not have his best stuff, in that he was not locating his pitches well enough to prevent the Los Angeles Dodgers from scoring three runs against him (two others were charged to him as well). Of the 28 pitches Fairbanks threw, 15 were for strikes, and only 4 were fastballs.
If you know anything about Fairbanks it’s that his fastball flirts with triple digits, but instead of relying on the heat, the rookie was feeding sliders in the low 90’s all night.
If you know anything about Fairbanks’s slider, it’s easy to see why he’d rely on it against such a great offense. He’s able to locate it for a strike nearly twice as often as his fastball, and has a stellar 27% whiff rate on the breaking pitch, with a healthy groundball rate as well.
For context, here’s what that looks like in terms of z-scores, comparing Fairbanks to his peers over his body of work thus far:
Those are legitimately impressive results from a very impressive, unusually hard slider. But locating those pitches matter, and as the year has dragged on, Fairbanks’s ability to locate either of his pitches has slipped away:
Why is this happening?
It could be fatigue, an idea we’ll get to in a moment, or perhaps it’s the pitcher’s approach itself. The frequency of sliders may simply make the pitch too predictable. It could also be something more, like tipping.
Fairbanks was acquired by the Rays after he revitalized his stuff through the Driveline method during his rehabilitation from a second Tommy John surgery, and the resulthave been harder stuff, but have also possibly left his grip visually exposed.
Here’s the throwing motion in action, and the subsequent double that ended the tie game:
The Dodgers connected on four of 25 sliders thrown by Fairbanks last night, and one of only four fastballs. It was as if the Dodgers knew which pitches were coming . . . perhaps you would be able to tell what was coming too if you could see the pitch out of the hand easily.
I’m no expert, but it would seem you’d be able to see this pitch grip the whole way through its delivery, even from the left side of the plate.
We can’t say definitively that’s the case, but when something is off with Fairbanks’s approach, can we rule out the possibility that Corey Seager can literally see the pitch grip about to come his way?
If it’s not the case that Fairbanks is tipping his pitches, and he’s really this hittable, then we have to consider the possibility that he shouldn’t get important innings for a contending major league team.
The Rays acquired Fairbanks as a Triple-A prospect in an (expensive) trade earlier this year and kept him in Triple-A much of the summer, despite a need for relievers earlier in the season, with Jose Alvarado hurt and the bullpen running on fumes. Fairbanks had fringe-top-100 prospect value to the franchise and 100-mph stuff, but he didn’t beat down the door before rosters expanded, as the Rays chose to fill Alvarado’s shoes with other one-inning options while looking for length with their Triple-A call-ups.
Now that he’s here in the majors, though, he’s pitched in those big moments, and the result has been nearly a full loss worth of WPA.
Leaning on rookies in place of established high-leverage pitchers is a tough ask for manager Kevin Cash, and especially so late in the year. Cash acknowledged as much ahead of tonight’s rematch with the Dodgers, saying the following:
“We’re dealing with a lot of challenges right now,’’ Cash said. “We’ve got guys that we’re counting on in leverage situations that have never played six months of baseball. They’ve played five months and they’ve gone home. So a lot of that we’re trying to balance — (pitching coach Kyle Snyder and bullpen coach Stan Boroski) do a good job with the workload. Even Nick Anderson, as dominating as he’s been, he’s never played (in) a sixth month. We’re trying to value all those thoughts into these decisions that we’re making.’’
There are ten games left in the season, and the Rays pitching has performed marvelously on the whole, but losses are still creeping up on the team due to moments like last night, where the Rays have had to rely on rookies in late September only to watch them falter.
For rookie pitchers who have never pitched in a sixth month before (like Fairbanks, Colin Poche, Nick Anderson, or tonight’s starter Brendan McKay), it’s fair to wonder how much they have left for the Rays to take to the bank.