Mat Latos had another rough outing yesterday, as he gave up six runs in the Miami Marlins' series finale against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The D'Backs scored those six runs on seven hits, but Latos also put up a fair amount of good during the outing. He gave up just two walks and struck out seven batters along the way in just 5 1/3 innings. While he was not able to last long once again, he did put up the best strikeout rate of the season in a single outing.
This continues an unfortunate trend for the righty thus far. Latos made no friends with his first outing of the year, but he has since improved significantly. However, the ERA has not fallen to acceptable levels just yet despite decent strikeout and walk numbers. Prior to yesterday, he was posting a reasonable 3.93 ERA in starts beyond that first ugly one, with an 18.6 percent strikeout rate versus a 7.7 percent walk rate. Those numbers do not necessarily scream effectiveness at you, but in a season in which Miami is currently down its top two starters, it will do.
However, Latos still has an overall ugly ERA, and yesterday's start did not help. It is now standing at 6.16 versus an increasingly lower FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). If you judge Latos by just his strikeouts, walks, and home runs, the outcomes over which pitchers have the most control, he is actually having an above-average season, with a FIP of 3.48!
When you watch Latos, however, some things do stand out, and in the evaluation of his early season, we need to keep an eye on the type of contact he has allowed thus far.
While it may not quite be at the level it was at just a few years ago, Latos is at least getting some strikeouts this season. His whiff rates on the majority of his pitches are higher now than they were last season. This is especially relevant on his fastball. Prior to yesterday's start, Latos was getting whiffs on 14.5 percent of the swings on his fastball, which is up from nine percent last season. The slider is performing better than last year, while the unpredictable "splitter" has been getting fewer whiffs this year. He has also incorporated a few curveballs into his resume
It is good to see Latos getting strikeouts, as hitters are offering more often at his pitches overall. The fastball and slider have both gotten more swings this season so far than they did last year. The splitter, however, has been laid off on more significantly; hitters swung at it 70 percent of the time last year, but that is down to 49 percent this season.
The problem between last year, which was not good, and this year, which has been disastrous ERA-wise? Latos is posting a sky-high .358 BABIP, which we know should not last. For most of his career, Latos has allowed fewer hits on balls in play on average, with a career BABIP of .281. On the surface, there should be no reason for Latos to not regress back to normal levels.
However, Latos has allowed harder-than-average contact thus far this season. Among starting pitchers with at least 30 innings thrown this season, Latos owns the third-highest rate of hard-hit balls this year, behind only Mike Fiers and Travis Wood. If Latos were like Fiers, who has an astronomical strikeout rate and the same stuff he has had all career long, this would be less concerning. We would not be surprised to see that a pitcher with a high BABIP was allowing harder-than-average contact, but it does not mean that that hard contact will continue.
But Latos is not some otherwise unsuspecting starting pitcher. Last year, his velocity dipped two mph, and it has remained at this level this season. Last year, he allowed the highest percentage of hard-hit balls in his career, but he also allowed one of his highest rates of soft-hit balls, so the trend may not be significant.
It may be a matter of command early on, as it does appear as though Latos is working more in the middle of the zone than he did last year.
You can see the concentration focused more dead middle vertically and a little less on the edges, particularly higher in the strike zone. Perhaps Latos has lost some confidence in the fastball in terms of working high in the zone and has gone to a lower approach. For what it is worth, he has not attacked the zone less, as his 50 percent zone rate is right around his career average.
There are some continued mixed signals in the numbers for Latos. On the one hand, the steady strikeout rate and improved whiff rates mean that he has some semblance of his stuff. However, the decline from the fastball is real, and there is some early evidence of harder contact. Because Latos has a reason to be allowing harder contact, we do need to be more careful with him. However, it is still too early to pull the plug given that some of his markers are pointing positively. He likely is a worse pitcher than he was two years ago, but he should not yet be out of a Major League job.