Decoding Purke

Photo courtesy Jeffrey Mankie / Prince William Today

Photo courtesy Jeffrey Mankie / Prince William Today

Matt Purke came into this season as the Nationals’ #11 rated prospect and through five starts in Harrisburg has failed to live up to the billing. His ERA is barely in single digits, his WHIP over two, and his opponents’ batting average of .345 would make them surefire first ballot Hall of Famers.

It’s easy to forget though that we’re barely out of April. There are still four months left to play and Purke has the ability and talents to turn his season around.

Thursday night, Purke debuted an altered windup that is little more than a modified stretch to address some of the mechanical issues pitching coach Chris Michalak has identified. “One step in the progress to get him in a good position to use his legs and front side a little bit and not rush so much. He has a tendency to get too quick.”

Michalak is also not neglecting the mental aspect, “You try to have him focus more on the process. The overall performance instead of the overall results. I know it’s tough for guys to do that but the misses weren’t by much (Thursday night) so that’s a step in the right direction. It’s just a matter of getting comfortable and confident in what we’re doing and staying aggressive and attacking the strike zone better.”

We delved into the numbers to try and understand Purke’s season through a breakdown of some key statistics:

1. At this point, the struggles of the Senators’ starting pitchers in the first inning are almost comical in nature. No one exemplifies this more than Purke. 64% of the runs the southpaw has allowed this season have been in the opponents’ first at-bats. Chew on these numbers for a while…

1st Inning: 27.00
2nd-5th Inning: 3.52

1st Inning: .444/.559/.963
2nd-5th Inning: .279/.353/.377

1st Inning: 7 (in 34 PA)
2nd-5th Inning: 7 (in 68 PA)

Home Runs
1st Inning: 3
2nd-5th Inning: 1

2. Listen to enough managers and pitching coaches over the years and you’ll quickly learn that one of the commandments they are constantly preaching is to work ahead in the count. If a pitcher can consistently do that, he will be able to better dictate the rest of the cat and mouse game that is an at-bat. Purke is a different pitcher when he has the upper hand…

Ahead: .238/.238/.333
Even or Behind: .358/.469/.627
* This reflects the actual, final count when an outcome (i.e. hit, walk, out, etc) occurred and not for all counts during an at-bat

The issue for Purke is he rarely gets and stays ahead of hitters. Out of 102 batters faced this season, Purke was only ahead of 21 of them when the outcome of the at-bat was determined. Worse yet, he was behind 44 batters and that’s clearly not a recipe for success.

3. The traditional thinking, with the statistical analysis to back it up, has been that the best pitch in baseball is strike one. For Purke, it’s not quite that simple though. First of all, he only throws a strike on the first pitch 52.9% of the time (which is bad, but not that far off from his overall strike rate of 56.9%). Secondly, even though opposing batters are actually hitting for a higher average in at-bats with a first-pitch strike, they are getting on-base and hitting for more power in at-bats that began with ball one.

Strike: .340/.389/.520
Ball: .316/.458/.605

Lastly, if Purke starts an at-bat with a pitch outside of the strike zone, he’s two and a half times more likely to eventually walk the batter. That makes sense when you note that Purke has also walked 14 out of 23 batters that have gotten to a three-ball count. Ball one is just the first step on the way to a free pass.

4. Like most pitchers, Purke is significantly worse when he’s pitching out of the stretch than from the windup.

Bases Empty: .273/.373/.409, 11 K
Runners On Base: .386/.471/.705, 3 K

But the frequency and significance of times he’s tasked with runners in scoring position is his real downfall. Purke is pitching nearly one-third of the time (32 plate appearances out of 102) while runners are not only on base, but in scoring position. And he’s not doing an effective job of it either, especially bearing down and notching a much needed strikeout.

RISP: .407/.500/.741, 1 K

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