In 2014, the Padres signed right-hander Dinelson Lamet out of the Dominican Republic. Although he was never a highly-rated prospect, Lamet posted solid numbers throughout his time in the minor leagues and is now showing an ability to hold his own against major league hitters.
Lamet was called up in late May of this year, and he was great in his first two starts, permitting three runs and fanning 16 batters in 10 innings split evenly between the Mets and Cubs. Then, the struggles came; Lamet gave up seven earned runs in consecutive starts.
In the first of those two starts, Lamet lasted only three innings, issuing five walks compared to just three strikeouts. He was more under control in the next start, walking one, but the home-run ball became an issue. In five innings, he gave up three homers, which is the same amount he gave up in his first three starts combined.
But in his four most recent starts, Lamet has posted a solid 3.91 ERA, and his fielding independent numbers suggest that he’s been even better. He has a 3.58 FIP and a 3.26 xFIP since his June 17th start, striking out 32.3% of the batters he has faced, the eighth-best rate among starters in that span. He has also limited his walks, walking only six in his last 23 innings, and four of those came in his one poor start during that stretch.
Lamet is a fly ball pitcher. In fact, only three starting pitchers with at least as many innings pitched as Lamet this season allow fly balls more often.
As the chart reveals, exactly half of the balls put in play against Lamet are fly balls, and with a style like that comes a tendency to give up home runs, which has been Lamet’s biggest problem; he’s allowed a homer in all but two starts and more than one in three of his eight starts.
However, his fly ball approach is actually one of the main reasons that he has had success at times this year as well as why he should find success in his future with the Padres. For one, Petco Park represses home runs. According to ESPN, it is the seventh-most difficult stadium to hit a home run in.
Secondly, producing a large amount of fly balls should limit the negative effect the current Padres defense can have on him. Overall, the Padres have one of baseball’s worst defenses (27th in Defensive Runs Saved and 29th in UZR), but San Diego’s infielders have done most of the damage, combining for -16 DRS. On the other hand, their outfielders are only slightly below average, compiling -3 DRS. In other words, giving Padres infielders as few opportunities to field the ball is a wise strategy, and Lamet is taking advantage of it.
And lastly, opposing batters have the most trouble hitting Lamet when he sticks to throwing pitches up in the strikezone, which are more likely to result in fly balls. On pitches in the top third of the zone, batters are hitting .261 while whiffing on a quarter of their swings, and they have yet to record a hit when chasing a pitch above the zone. But on pitches anywhere else in the strikezone, that batting average jumps to .351 and the swing-and-miss rate drops below 20%.
In terms of pitch selection, Lamet’s arsenal consists mainly of a fastball and slider. He also throws a changeup, but leaning on it too heavily has often led to trouble. At just about 90 mph, the Angels’ Alex Meyer is the only starting pitcher who throws a harder changeup, but hitters are crushing it to the tune of a .750 slugging percentage.
He relies on his fastball just over half of the time, and it averages nearly 95 mph. But just like his changeup, he is rarely fooling hitters with it; they are hitting .286 and slugging almost .700 against the pitch.
However, he does have one truly dominant pitch: his slider. Throwing it 35.3% of the time, Lamet’s slider usage ranks sixth-highest among starting pitchers. It sits at about 86 mph, and hitters haven’t stood a chance against it this year. Opposing batters are hitting a measly .122 and slugging a miniscule .216 against it.
Lamet also gets hitters to swing at his slider more often than any other pitch, and it generates whiffs 23.4% of the time he throws it, which is about 10% more often than any of his other pitches. Additionally, his slider has, unsurprisingly, been his go-to pitch with two strikes, throwing it in about 56% of two-strike counts. This has led to 35 of his 55 strikeouts this season coming on sliders, including these two from his twelve strikeout performance:
It’s no coincidence, then, that Lamet has found the most success when he prioritizes his slider over his fastball and changeup. In the two starts in which he surrendered seven runs, his slider usage was at its lowest point.
In the first one, against Arizona, he threw his changeup just over 27% of the time, spinning his slider barely more than 26% of the time. And in the second one, against Kansas City, he ditched his changeup for the most part, but he trusted his fastball too much, throwing it over 70% of the time.
But in each of his four mostly successful starts since, at least 39% of his pitches have been sliders. In seven shutout innings against the Braves on June 29th, his best start of the season, Lamet’s slider usage reached a season-high 45% while he only used his changeup 6% of the time.
Though he already throws his slider more than most, there’s a case to be made that he should be throwing it even more. After all, it is his most effective pitch, so he shouldn’t shy away from it.
Lamet’s ERA on the season currently sits near six, but that’s largely due to those two blowups in early June, and his results are on the upswing as he figures out how to properly deploy his arsenal of pitches.
An approach that is too slider-heavy wouldn’t be a good thing, as it would not only become predictable for batters, but it would also result in more balls hit on the ground, which, as stated earlier, would not play to either Lamet’s strengths or his team’s strengths.
Consistent success will come, however, when Lamet strikes the perfect balance between his fastball and slider while dropping his changeup in periodically to keep hitters honest and establish a potent three-pitch attack.