Drew Pomeranz Is Here to Stay

After shutting out the Chicago Cubs offense over six innings of 10-strikeout ball, Drew Pomeranz lowered his season ERA to 1.80 and FIP to 2.61. He currently ranks 3rd among qualified starters in K% and is tied for 11th in WAR. Furthermore, Pomeranz has faced four of the top five offenses in the National League, as well as having had a season opener at Coors Field, hence we cannot claim stat padding against mediocre competition. While a .250 BABIP and 82.1 LOB% may not exhibit the greatest signs of stability, Pomeranz is finally reaching the potential that garnered him a top-30 prospect ranking from Baseball America. So what has Pomeranz done to unlock this potential?

Pomeranz has discovered his newfound success by neutralizing right-handed bats. Earlier in his career, Pomeranz’ relative struggles against righties led many to wonder whether his ultimate fate rested in the bullpen. In fact, heading into 2016 many doubted whether he could even earn a spot in the Padres rotation; he couldn’t even earn a mention in Jeff Sullivan’s positional preview post. This sentiment was understandable given his career .340 wOBA against and 7.1 K-BB% when facing right-handed hitters up to this point. In 2016, however, he has lowered the wOBA against to a measly .240 while striking out 34% of righties. By dropping 100 points of wOBA, he’s essentially transformed his average opposite-handed plate appearance from Kyle Seager to Omar Infante. As with any dramatic improvement in performance, a confluence of factors has led to Pomeranz’ success.

Since debuting in 2011, Pomeranz has gradually raised his vertical release point up nearly half a foot. This more over-the-top delivery has undoubtedly provided him greater deception against righties. More noticeably, however, Pomeranz has brought his changeup back from the dead. Early in his career, Pomeranz threw his change roughly 9% of the time to righties. From 2013-2015, when 72% of his appearance came out of the bullpen, Pomeranz lowered that rate to 3%. This season, however, Pomeranz is utilizing his change-piece over 15% of the time against right-handers. Throwing it around 87 mph, Pomeranz’s change nearly perfectly mimics his sinker in both velocity and movement, but to differing results. Pomeranz generates an above-average 44% fly balls on balls in play with his change, while the sinker gets 67% groundballs. This deception, combined with Pomeranz’s pitcher-friendly home park, have led to a dearth of quality contact on the changeup, as illustrated by the .111 ISO against on the pitch.

Despite the resurgence of Pomeranz’s changeup, his improved curveball has been the true game-changer.  He trails only the enigmatic Rich Hill in percentage of pitches that are curveballs; likewise, he employs it over 43% of the time against righties, up from 23% over his career before joining San Diego. His 4.6 curveball pitch value trails only the Phillies duo of Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff, and their club’s experimental pitching philosophy, so far in 2016. After leaving the breaking-ball-murdering confines of Coors Field in 2014, Pomeranz witnessed a significant increase in both vertical movement and velocity. This, however, does not explain his recently-discovered success. Similarly, he has kept his Zone% on the curve right around his career average of 43%. The key lies in where out of the zone he locates the ball. This season, Pomeranz is hitting low-and-gloveside off the plate with almost 30% of his curves to both righties and lefties alike. Prior to this campaign, Pomeranz only hit that spot about 10% of the time, as he more evenly distributed his curveballs across the zone horizontally. Whether a change in approach or simply improved mechanics and command, Pomeranz is finding tremendous success with his hook. Using the curve against righties, Pomeranz has raised his Whiff% to a career-high 16.4% in addition to generating a career-high 39.6 Swing %. Furthermore, nearly three-quarters of his balls in play off the curve are grounders and he has yet to permit a single fly ball on the pitch vs. right-handed hitters.

As Eno Sarris noted in his discussion with him last December, Pomeranz’s success hinges on three things: “his health, his changeup, and his curveball.” Seven starts into the season, Pomeranz’s progress on these three fronts has led him to success against righties and helped him unlock his prior potential. He’s gone from a guy the Athletics traded for spare parts to a solidly above-average starter for the Padres. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this emergence: Pomeranz is still only 27 years old. With almost three more years of service time left, and an inevitable sell-off of Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, and James Shields on the horizon, Pomeranz could potentially parlay his improvement into an ace role on the Padres staff. Of course, Pomeranz could find himself on the market in the near future, and he would certainly fetch more than Yonder Alonso and Mark Rzepczynski this time around.

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