Taking a deeper look at Mat Latos’ hot start
When the Sox signed Mat Latos in early February, it was viewed as a low risk/high reward move. The Sox only invested $3 million into the 28-year-old right-hander, with the hopes that he would be able to find the form he had before dealing with a rash of injuries throughout the last two seasons.
While it is certainly a small sample size, so far Latos has been better than anyone had hoped. Through three starts Latos is 3-0 with a 0.49 ERA, having allowed one run in 18.1 innings of work. He has an incredible 0.600 WHIP, having allowed just six hits in those three starts. So the question is, can Mat Latos keep this up?
Obviously he isn’t going to maintain his current ridiculous numbers, but let’s look at some of the numbers and advanced metrics to see how this compares with some of his past performances.
For this we are going to throw out the last two years and go back and look at the period when Latos had success in the past. From 2010-2013 Latos was one of the more consistent pitchers in baseball. Let’s start with the basic stats, Latos was 51-35 with a 3.27 ERA and averaged 200 innings per year over that four year span. His FIP (fielder independent pitching) was right in line with his ERA at 3.29. He had a WHIP of 1.161 and a K/BB ratio of 3.19 while striking out 8.4 batters per nine innings. Very solid numbers across the board.
Now to this year, and again, very small sample size for these numbers. I mentioned the WHIP earlier, at 0.600 it is basically half that of the 2010-2013 number, so that is unlikely to hold up. The reason it is so much lower is the hits. Latos is currently walking 2.5 batters per nine, right on pace with his previous rate of 2.6. The hits are an insane 2.9 per nine innings, down from 7.8 before. Obviously he’s going to start giving up more hits.
Latos hasn’t allowed a home run yet, which will certainly change, but keeping the ball in the park has always been a strength of his. His career home run allowed rate is 0.8 per nine, the same as it was from 2010-2013, which is impressive given half that time was spent in the launching pad of Cincinnati.
One number that is a concern in this group is the strikeout rate. Latos was striking out 8.4 batters per nine from 2010-2013, and has a career K/9 rate of eight. So far this year he is at 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings, which would be the lowest of his career by more than a full strikeout.
That number becomes even more concerning when you look at the advanced metrics. Currently, 5.6% of the strikes Latos is getting are swings-and-misses. That is almost half as much as he averaged from 2010-2013 when he averaged over 10% swing-and-miss strikes. Batters are currently making contact on 88% of their swings against Latos, up 11% from his 2010-2013 average. Both those numbers are worse than even his injury plagued seasons as well.
Latos has gotten away with the lower swing-and-miss rate due to an incredibly low batting average on balls in play (BABIP). His current BABIP this year is .118, well below the current league average of .290. From 2010-2013 his BABIP were .273, .284, .266, .299, with those first three being below league average of .290 and the last one being a little above.
The low BABIP can be attributed to a lack of line drives off opponent’s bats. Latos is currently giving up a line drive rate of 11.8%, which would be the best of his career and is almost 7% below his career average and about 6% lower than his 2010-13 average. His ground ball rate remains solid at 41.2%, although it’s down about 3% from his 2010-13 rate. The Sox improved infield defense has no doubt helped turn most of these groundballs into outs.
However, Latos’s fly ball rate is at 47.1%, which would be the highest of his career and is about 10% higher than his 2010-13 rate. This is another scary number, especially when the weather warms up and the ball starts carrying better at US Cellular. In his two healthy seasons at Cincy his fly ball percentages were 36.1 and 33.6, and you have to figure that had a lot to do with keeping the home run rate low.
One more area to look at and that is velocity. Currently Latos is averaging 90.3 mph on all fastballs according to Pitchf/x data on fangraphs.com. From 2010-2013 he averaged between 94 and 92.5 on his fastballs. His current two-seam velocity is 89.1 mph, he averaged right around 92 mph from 2010-13. His fastball velocities would all be the lowest of his career if they continued this way.
It should be noted though, that Latos didn’t pitch a ton in spring training and is probably still gaining strength and getting back to form. The numbers seem to show that as well as his overall fastball and cutter velocities have increased in each of his first three starts.
So what are we to make from all these numbers? Well, certainly there will be some regression from Latos, as nobody can keep up the hits per nine rate, low BABIP, and sub 1.00 ERA for very long. The question is how much of a regression are we looking at?
As I said the low swing-and-miss rate and the higher fly ball ratio are the most concerning to me. The more balls that are put in play, the more likely they are to start finding holes and that regression to the mean on BABIP could take a nasty turn. Likewise the runs could come in bunches if those fly balls start landing on the wrong side of the fence. But there are some real good signs there like the low line drive percentage and the solid ground ball rate, as well as the solid walk rate. If the velocity keeps increasing and Latos is working closer to what he did in the past, I think he will start getting more swings-and-misses.
Latos won’t win the Cy Young or make people forget about Chris Sale, but there is enough there to suggest that, if he stays healthy, he will do exactly what the Sox wanted him to do. He will go out and give you a solid performance, eat some innings, and give the team a chance to win. For $3 million, I’m not sure you can ask for much more than that.