Scott Downs: Mop No More
At least in this distinguished community, the fact that Scott Downs has been a downright unearthly reliever for the last three years has not been lost, because he topped the request list. One shudders to think where the Jays would be this year without him mercifully and effortlessly sliding into the closer’s role before B.J. Ryan could do any real damage.
And he was a gift! Out of nowhere, released by the Expos and probably the biggest bullpen freebie for the Jays since Tom Henke, certainly J.P. Ricciardi’s best find. After being rushed to the Majors several times and bouncing around, Downs finally started striking out guys when he got to the Jays, and then this happened some time around 2006 (when he was actually really good as a reliever, with a 2.77 ERA, but had 5 spot starts with an ERA of 9.39), as he went from fringy rotation guy to bullpen stalwart:
Note that Downs’ control didn’t get any better at all (although it has been off the hook this year). He did however get more strikeouts by going to a straight 1-2 punch of fastball/big breaking ball (that he throws now) than with his old fastball/changeup/breaking ball combination.
(All Downs ever really throws is a fastball and a curve. I thought he had a changeup too, but it’s erratic and he throws it infrequently, only six times total this season. The same goes for his slider/cutter. He seemed to be experimenting with it earlier this season and threw 3 in one at bat to Granderson and got him out. Later he threw Sweeney 3, he got a hit and it has never been seen again).
Downs also started giving up fewer hits and fewer home runs around that time, which your friendly neighbourhood stathead will tell you is either the result of luck, or fewer fly balls. As we can see from Fan Graphs, his GB% went from ~50->60%. There’s isn’t pitch f/x data from that period, but that just screams the birth of a sinker. (Perhaps after his brief time in the rotation alongside Mr. Halladay? Where’s a journalist around to probe the tired “mentor” angle when you really need one??)
And yes, it turns out that Downs’ fastball now has quite a lot of drop on it. All I can think is that watching on TV it is harder to pick up sink for lefties, because I never would have thought this, but it’s there. The amount varies quite a lot, averaging 6 inches, but quite often approaching the Brandon League type of 10-12 inch drop.
That explains how he can be so dominant without throwing more than 92 mph, as well as his extremely high GB% of 61% in 2007 and 67% last year. In a post from last winter, I noted that he topped the Jays bullpen (as if Cito would even consider groundball pitcher-baller matchups!) in grounders, and was even up there with Halladay.
Both of the last two seasons Downs has thrown his sinking fastball 65 percent of the time, and that is how he gets all his groundouts:
|Scott Downs BIP Outs|
|Pitch||GB %||LD %||FO %|
For another look at it, here’s a heat map of the movement on all the pitches Downs has thrown since 2007. A straight fastball from a lefty comes in at about (5, 10) on the graph below (think the opposite of the Marcum example on the right). That’s about as flat as Downs’ fastball ever is, and it ranges in movement anywhere within a foot and a half down from that:
You can also see his dalliance with throwing a slider in the middle, and his breaking ball to the lower left, very consistent and about at big as they get. Of course, that sweeping curve is going to be tougher on lefties, and Downs does throw it to them more often:
|Scott Downs Pitch Frequency|
But 30% is about league average for a breaking pitch to either side so that just means Downs really pours on his curve against lefties and just uses it as a normal offspeed offering against right-handed batters. Some pitchers really shy away from throwing something that breaks into the body of a batter, but Downs is proof that if you have a really nasty pitch, nobody wants to hit it and it can and it probably should be thrown to both sides. (There was a stat of the week a while back at Inside Edge showing the taboo against throwing changeups that tail back towards the body same-sided batters was misguded as well).
Downs at least has certainly found a way to get strikes and prevent hits against both sides using just his curve, which is probably what lead to his dramatic improvement after ditching his changeup:
|Scott Downs L/R Performance against Curve/Fastball|
|BAVG||Fastball BAVG||Fastball Strike||Curve BAVG||Curve Strike|
Even with a dominant fastball, most pitchers have higher averages against it (Burnett’s being consistently above .300 comes to mind), partly because of the counts it is used in, but also because offspeed pitches are just harder to hit as well as harder to control. Downs, however, has almost as much control against his curve as his fastball, and neither side of the plate can do anything with it.
That curve is also especially deadly when he throws it across the plate to the far (right side), so that it starts over the heart of the plate but ends up down and away to left handed batters and cuts down and in (often off the plate) to righties. Here’s all the swings and misses that Downs has gotten with his curveball.
However, Downs gets most of his called strikes with his fastball, particularly on the lower outside corner to right-handers:
There was some talk in the preseason about converting Downs to a starter, and apparently he declined. I think most pitchers would rather be a starter than a setup man, but maybe he knew that his greatest success has come from being a rather predictable repertoire – sinking fastball to one side of the plate, and big hook to the other.
From watching him I used to think of Downs as kind of a control guy, but now it seems he’s more of a “here’s my best stuff, hit it if you can” slightly-wild closer type – except his best stuff is a breaking ball instead of a 98 mph heater, and his sinking fastball awkward enough that it is hard to hit in the air when he needs a strike.