A Way Too Early Look at Alfredo Simon

This winter, one of the more puzzling moves was trading serviceable players/prospects like Eugenio Suarez and Jonathan Crawford to the Reds for Alfredo Simon. Simon essentially had one good half as a starter in his entire career and the Tigers bet big on him doing something close to that in 2015. Three starts don’t mean much, but it’s gone awfully well for the Tigers so far. Can this continue?

While Simon’s strikeout rate is in line with his career norms at this point, he’s managed to walk just two batters in 20 2/3 innings while surrendering just a single home run. The Indians, Pirates, and Yankees aren’t exactly the league’s best offenses, but if you’re interested in assessing Simon’s first month in Detroit, he’s performed well.

Obviously 76 batters faced isn’t a meaningful sample when it comes to doing actual analysis, but I do think it’s a useful exercise to put Simon’s successful run this month next to our expectations about him to give us a sense of the aspects of his game we should be tracking as the season wears on. For example, if you see a scrappy middle infielder hits nine homers in the first two weeks, that’s something to watch even if no one suddenly thinks he’s a superstar.

So let’s recap what Alfredo Simon is doing better. He’s walking fewer batters and allowing fewer dingers. He’s also stranding more runners and he’s running a lower BABIP than his already very low 2014 mark. As a result, it’s no surprise that his ERA and FIP are quite good. Can we find any reasons to be bullish about Simon or is it all just small sample size goodness?

One point in favor of randomness is that Simon is allowing the same general batted ball mix this year. He’s not generating a ton of ground balls which limit damage or fly balls which limit hits, so there’s not much reason to think he’s suddenly offering a new BABIP skill.

If you turn to his plate discipline numbers, Simon is actually allowing more contact this year (up about 5%). That explains the walk rate to some extent, but it’s pretty unusual to see more contact tied to less production. Lots of people will tell you pitching to contact can generate weak swings and quick innings, but realistically, when batters increase the frequency of contact, bad things usually happen.

Right off the bat, there isn’t much reason to think Simon is doing anything terribly different and what we’re observing is just normal three-game fluctuations in performance. I fully acknowledge that I don’t think Simon’s 2014 ERA was a reflection of his talent, but even if you buy it, there’s not much to support any sort of improvement heading into 2015.

The key takeaway from this exploratory trip through Simon’s first couple of games is that there aren’t any obvious signs that he’s a different pitcher from the one we saw last year in Cincinnati.

But there is one thing jumping off the stat sheet that was pretty evident, especially in his start against the Yankees: more splitters. There can be issues with pitch classifications, especially early in the year, but every available source seems to put the splitter increase in the 7-8% range compared to 2014. And Simon basically only throws the pitch to left-handed hitters.

If you’re thinking that such an augmentation might portend changes in results, you’d be wrong. Simon’s wOBA in 2014 against lefties was .313 and it’s .303 this year. His major success so far has been due to his .080 wOBA against righties, who typically hit him to the tune of around .310-.320 wOBA. Righties are getting more cutters instead of four-seamers, but it’s a sample of 20, so there’s not a whole lot to glean.

There’s no question Simon has looked good visually compared to some of our expectations, but my immediate first impression was that hitters looked generally unprepared to face him. It wasn’t so much that his stuff or command was better, it was simply that hitters hadn’t done their homework and were protecting against a more robust arsenal than he actually features.

To his credit, however, his delivery does lend itself to some deception, leading me to believe that while he doesn’t generate a lot of whiffs, it’s reasonably to think he might be difficult to barrel when he’s hitting his spots, especially when the splitter is working well.

The Tigers have already benefited from two very solid Simon starts and even if he’s terrible the rest of the way, he gets credit for those two outings. The key takeaway from this exploratory trip through Simon’s first couple of games is that there aren’t any obvious signs that he’s a different pitcher from the one we saw last year in Cincinnati. There’s still plenty of debate about just exactly how good he was last year, but if you’re looking at the first three starts as an indication that the Tigers made a savvy deal, it’s probably wise to wait another few months before finalizing that opinion.

Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44

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