In MLB, like any other sport, play styles go in and out of style like any old trends. In the NFL, teams now build their defenses around cornerstone pass rushers. In the NBA, teams now rely on guards to generate their offense from three-pointers or dribble drives. In soccer, teams now build up more from the back and require center backs to both defend and remain composed on the ball. In MLB, pitchers with extra velocity have stepped forward into the spotlight. Meanwhile, hitters have hit home runs at an alarming rate. In the era velocity and power, Seattle Mariners reliever Nick Vincent has contradicted it all.
Vincent has always pitched decently well. He has never posted an ERA above 4. With a career 24.9% K%, he does not strike out an unbelievable amount of hitters, but he has also only walked 6% of the batters he has faced in his career. He does not profile like a typical closer, but last year, he pitched well enough that probably would have.
Vincent posted a great 3.20 ERA and an even better 2.82 FIP. Based on his difference between ERA and FIP, Vincent could have had even better since FIP tries to find out what ERA would have been with league average defense and league average luck. According to Statcast, hitters had a wOBA of .279 against Vincent, ranking him 108th in the majors, better than normal pitchers Greg Holland, Alex Colome, and Addison Reed, and not-normally a-pitcher Miguel Montero. Hitters also had an expected wOBA (xwOBA) of .289, again good enough for eighth in the majors. Statcast’s xwOBA answers the question “Based on the exit velocity and launch angle of batted balls, what should this player’s wOBA be?”
Vincent’s difference in wOBA and xwOBA shows he got lucky when hitters put the ball in play. FIP concludes that Vincent was unlucky, while xwOBA shows he was lucky, even though both stats should make the same conclusion, according to Craig Edwards at FanGraphs. Although the differences of 0.38 of a run and .01 of an on-base average are relatively small, over the course of a season, those differences add up. The difference could be down to the imperfections of both statistics, but considering that rest of Vincent’s statistical profile is full of contradictions, the difference could be significant.
Preventing Home Runs
By all the metrics used so far, Vincent looks like an elite reliever. But his expected FIP (xFIP) tells a different story. Expected FIP operates like FIP, except it replaces the HR/FB players HR/FB ratio and sets it to the MLB average. Vincent recorded a 4.75 xFIP in 2017 due to 3.3% HR/FB ratio in 2017, second in the majors among qualified relievers below Joakim Soria. To make his output even more impressive, he had a HR/9 of .42, good enough for sixth in the majors among qualified relievers, despite having 47.9% FB% in 2017, the 13th highest in the majors among qualified relievers. Of the relievers who gave up fly balls on at least 45% of their contact, Vincent had the best HR/9 ratio. Only Yusmeiro Petit, Sean Doolittle, Chad Green, and Pat Neshek had a FB ratio above 45% and a HR/9 ratio below one, and only Neshek (.43) and Green (.52) had a HR/9 below .80. Vincent already impressed by not giving up home runs, but he set himself apart by not giving up home runs while giving up fly balls.
Vincent also became harder to hit home runs off of during the now very distinct live ball era. During the past two seasons, relievers had an average HR/FB ratio of 12.8% in 2017 and 12.0% in 2016. Between 2007 and 2015, the HR/FB ratio only ever rose above 10% in 2012 (10.3%) and 2015 (10.8%). Even Vincent, who had never had a HR/FB ratio higher than the league average before the live ball era began, fell victim to the 2016 power surge. He had a 14.4% HR/FB ratio and posted his worst season statistically. But his performance in 2017 completely contradicts his 2016 performance. From the hitters' perspective, he went from throwing meatballs to peas in one season.
To make his 2017 performance even more impressive, pitchers do not have a lot of control of the play once they release the ball. They cannot control the defense behind them, how the hitter swings, or how hard the hitter swings. Throwing hittable pitches does not help a pitcher, but even then, the hitter still must hit those pitches. What Nick Vincent did in 2017 is incredible; he made hitters hit fly balls, but he somehow made them not home runs, even though he does not have much control of the results, in an era when hitters hit more home runs.
Using his Fastball
Vincent primarily throws just two pitches: a cutter and a four-seam fastball. According to Statcast, he threw his cutter on 49.84% of his pitches and his four-seamer on 36.43% of his pitches. His cutter is unremarkable, but hitters only had a .283 wOBA and a .285 xwOBA against it in 2017, so it works well. His four-seamer, which hitters struggle against with a .217 wOBA and a .241 xwOBA, is exceptionally remarkable.
Take a look at his four seamer's average location. He usually locates his fastball high and in the middle of the zone. Good hitters frequently deposit pitches from that spot into the seats behind the outfield. Khris Davis, who has hit 85 home runs in the past two seasons, loves middle high fastballs. He did this and this to middle high fastballs. Vincent, however, does not give up home runs. Vincent's fastball instead did this to Khris Davis.
Vincent's four-seamer is not a burner. His four-seamer had an average velocity of 90.1 MPH and an average perceived velocity of 89.67 MPH. The pitch generated 51 whiffs from 189 swings last season for a 26.98% whiffs per swing rate, good enough for 46th in the entire league among pitchers who produced at least 100 swings on four-seam fastballs. Aroldis Chapman had a whiff-per-swing rate only .17 percentage points better than Vincent in 2017. Vincent also lowered his whiff-per-swing rate on his fastball from 34.62% in 2016, which placed him fourth among pitchers who generated at least 100 swings on fastballs.
Nick Vincent is a player filled with contradictions. He is one of the best in the league at not giving up home runs even though batters easily lift the ball against him. He also has one of the most elusive four-seam fastballs in the league, even though he puts it middle up in the zone and he hardly breaks 90 mph. In a league where pitch velocity and home runs keep rising, Nick Vincent has found success by going in the opposite direction.