A serial look at the starting pitching. Part III: Mat Latos
The Reds needed Mat Latos. It was almost pathetic. They showed up at his house with a jambox hoisted over their heads blaring Peter Gabriel.
Stealing a glance at the Padres, who got their Opening Day pitcher and first baseman as just half the haul for Latos, you might feel a little remorse. That's only natural when four are traded for one. The quantity (and, OK, quality) of the Padres' return obscures what an exciting pitcher the Reds received in Latos.
Latos is 24 and one-third years old and under contract for four years. We've heard about the elite company his strikeout and walk rates put him in. He has a true starters' arsenal of pitches, with comfortable intervals on the gun between his fastball (mid-90s), slider (low-mid 80s) and curve (mid-70s).
There are also a whole host of other indicators that suggest his past performance, taken with his upside, makes him a potential ace in any park. His away splits, BABIP, FIP, xFIP and SIERA - all stats that try to strip away luck and park effects to varying degrees - sign off on Latos as a pitcher who has succeeded on the merit of his stuff, not his circumstance.
Looking back at the trade, it's tempting weigh the Votto extension post-hoc because we always like to reconcile separate moves as part of a Plan (or a conspiracy). On one hand, getting a lifetime supply of Votto makes trading Yonder Alonso before he was out of options more comprehensible. On the other, it means Alonso didn't need to be traded and the Reds could have waited both to win now and to deal one of their best chips.
After rehashing the Red's biggest move throughout the off-season, it's time to look forward. Latos has an over-the-top delivery that sneaks up on hitters, like a very accurate catapult. His career in Cincinnati could follow a similar arc.
As with any Pads' pitcher, the mere fact that they called San Diego home has no inherent meaning - other than they might be totally chilled-out and think everyone else's zoo sucks. But there is definitely a Petco stigma.
Latos gave up the same number of HRs on the road as he did at home, a rate he's kept up over his career. He gave up a few road home runs that would not have been HRs in nearly any other stadium. Meanwhile, with the exception of two home runs, Latos' PetCo HRs last season would have been out of the ballpark in major league stadium, though only one was labeled a "no doubter" by Home Run Tracker. It's hard to tell whether he's lucky at home or unlucky on the road - or both. While some of those PetCo flyball outs are likely to turn int to Great American Ballpark HRs, he might have some wiggle room.
His HR/FB rate last season, at 7.3%, was low and slightly suspcious, while his 8.0% rate lifetime may be deflated by PetCo. It would be worth mentioning that the Padres also play in the same division as the Giants (and AT&T Park), if they didn't also play the Rockies as often. Latos gave up 2 HRs in SF last season - and only one at GABP and Coors Field combined - so nothing here screams that his HR-rate benefits from favorable road luck.
The samples here are small. Latos may end up struggling with lefty power hitters at Great American Ballpark. But the anecdotal evidence supports his skills being portable.
What he throws
Latos changes speeds very effectively and throws from a tight sphere of arm slots, giving him good powers of deception:
His sinker is especially over-the-top, in a similar slot to a pitcher like Anibal Sanchez.
His repertoire broke down like this in 2011:
The slider fools hitters itching to swing the most - great for pitcher's counts. The splits aren't shown above, but the sinker is the groundball pitch against lefties, the curve and four-seamer for righties.
Latos throws his fastball a little over half the time against righties. Four out of five pitches, you'll see his fastball or a slider if you're hitting from the right side. Not surprisingly for a pitcher like Latos, the breaking/off-speed stuff features more prominently against lefties. He can really cross-up lefties on his slider, whiffing them every four pitchers in 2011.
The sinker is a high-risk pitch intended to coax groundballs. Latos' sinkers went most often for home runs last season - by righties and lefties. He might choose to trust the excellent infield defense behind him and throw more curveballs this season.
Latos' three PECOTA comparables are A-list: Daniel Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Felix Hernandez. This likely reflects how Latos' defense-independent sets him apart (detailed in the FanGraphs article linked above).
Considering pitch types and velocities, the algorithm at Brooks Baseball spits out the following names:
This is a pretty good crew to run with too. Burnett's stuff worked very well for him in his mid-20s. Carrasco is closest to Latos in age and has a ton of upside in his own right. Blake Beavan is something of a wild-card. He was 22 last season and is not considered a strikeout pitcher, but he's a 2007 1st round pick and managed to keep a sub-5.00 ERA in the PCL last season.
It's hard to find much fault with Mat Latos on paper, though I haven't tried very hard. He's had some make-up issues in the past, but they haven't stood in the way of him putting together front-of-rotation numbers in the majors before the age of 24. A change of scenery can do funny things to men, but I'm at a loss as to why he can't be the best #2 starter in the majors, maybe more.