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What’s up with Dan Altavilla?

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The righty has struggled with command and control lately

MLB: Houston Astros at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Something is wrong with Dan Altavilla. It pains me to write this, as my Altavilla appreciation has been well-documented, but the facts are the facts and he has struggled of late. Last night Altavilla allowed what might have been the difference in the game in the form of a three-run homer to Trevor Plouffe, who despite being the namesake of my fantasy team Plouffe! There It Is, was—like my fantasy team—extremely mediocre to bad last year. Here’s the thing, though. Trevor Plouffe already, with one-tenth of the season gone, has hit one-fourth of the home runs he hit last year. This is a case of a struggling pitcher running into a relatively hot hitter. The home run came on the first pitch of the at-bat, and it wasn’t a bad pitch:

96 mph fastball, low and in, and Plouffe just golfs it over the wall. The problems with this at-bat go back to the beginning of the inning, and really, to Altavilla’s last few appearances.

Plouffe walked into the at-bat looking fastball because he’d seen in the previous two at-bats Altavilla struggle to command his slider. After leaning on his fastball to put away Jed Lowrie—which he still needed seven pitches to do—Altavilla started Khris Davis out with a swinging strike at a middle-low slider. He then uses his fastball to change the hitters’ eye level, missing once low in the zone and nailing the second for a called strike two. This is where, previously, Altavilla would either work the edges of the plate for a called strike three or try to dot the corner for a K looking or a whiff.

Instead, Altavilla misses very low with his slider, so he returns to the same area with his fastball, which winds up in the dirt. In a 3-2 count, he returns to the upper half of the plate, trying to repeat the first pitch, again leaning on the slider—and misses outside. The next at-bat, to Ryon Healy, followed the same pattern, only more extreme; Alt wasn’t able to control his slider at all, and while trying to stay away from the dangerous Healy and the middle of the plate, wound up walking him as well.

Let’s compare this to a game against the A’s from October of last year, in which Altavilla was able to dispose of Bruce Maxwell, Brett Eibner, and something called a Matt Olson in ten pitches. Maxwell was the only one who really put up a fight—Eibner went down on three straight strikes, and Olson weakly popped out on the third pitch. Here’s the at-bat against Maxwell:

These are all fastballs, with the seventh pitch a nasty slider for a swinging strike three. We’ve seen Altavilla do that before: this year, even! So what’s changed for the flamethrower?

As Jake pointed out, Altavilla has a new slider grip which has taken away some of the slider’s movement but also added about 200 rpm of spin to it. This new grip seems to have changed the location of the pitch, however. Here’s where Altavilla was throwing his slider last year:

Fangraphs

And here’s where it is this year:

Fangraphs

Altavilla still uses that lower-left corner, but you can see how far the slider has sunk down out of the zone. A lower, faster slider seems like it should be an even more dangerous pitch, and indeed, he’s already rung up 8 batters on it, compared to just 2 last year. (Last year, his fastball was his strikeout pitch, collecting 7 Ks.) However, this new, dangerous slider comes with a new, dangerous walk rate—16.7% already, whereas he walked no one off the slider last year. Altavilla’s 15.4% overall walk rate is his highest ever, at any level, even as his K/9 is higher than it’s ever been. Add that to an unlucky .455 BABIP, and you have the makings of an extremely rough start to the season.

Right now, Alt is in a tough place. When he’s in the zone, he’s suffering some poor BABIP luck. However, when he’s out of the zone is where his struggles truly compound. Getting behind in counts with runners on is trouble for any pitcher, but as Marc from USS Mariner pointed out to me on Twitter, in the majors, Altavilla has a particularly rough split for bases empty vs. men on: a .286 vs. .493 wOBA, to be exact (this wasn’t a problem for him in the minors, though, where he often worked out of jams at AA Jackson). Over the next few weeks, I hope to see Altavilla returning to what he does best: pounding the zone with excellent stuff, primarily using his fastball before wrong-footing batters with his putaway slider—new grip or no new grip.