For everything that Monday night's series opener was in terms of being virtually flawless, last night's game could not have been more of a polar opposite. Baseball has a funny way of assuring that even your greatest all-around team effort and most convincing win of the season will be countervailed at some point by the purely unwatchable blowout loss, and we all know that "at some point" can mean at any time ... but 24 hours later, and that unwatchable with that many gaffes and disturbing signs? I don't have an answer, which is good because I'm already tired of trying to beat around the bush of the most disturbing of those signs: Colby Lewis.
Prior to the season commencing, I picked up on a strange sort of hyperconfidence among some frequenters of the Rangers blogosphere that neither Lewis nor C.J. Wilson would take a meaningful step backwards in 2011, that they pretty much were in 2010 what we could expect them to be going forward, and that there really wasn't any good reason to pencil them down for anything less than four wins above replacement in 2011. There's a lot in that sentiment that is correct, but I never could -- and still can't -- shake the feeling that their performance was a tick or two over their true talent level and that they might be due for a little regression, nor could I forget that pitchers are an inherently volatile species with a number of different things (both little and big) that can go awry.
Unfortunately, Lewis is inching towards problem-in-the-rotation status, and worse, nobody seems to have a very good handle on what's really going on. As far as I can tell, the underlying problem isn't tied to his secondary pitches (or command of such), though I dare say they aren't producing the sort of results that he is looking for. No, the real issue is the fastball -- his deficient feel for the pitch, his seeming inability to locate it consistently, and the sharp drop in its speed to the plate. His average fastball velocity didn't top 88 mph on Tuesday, and his peak velocity of 89.5 mph was his single worst single-game peak velocity since rejoining Texas last season. The second-worst? Try the start before last. The third-worst? Try one start before that, or game No. 2 vs. Boston. If that sounds to you like he's trending in the wrong direction, that's because that's exactly what he's doing.
[For those concerned about the potential of this being merely a function of Pitch f/x calibration issues, a cursory comparison seemed to indicate that there is not systemic under-measurement of velocity where the Ballpark's Pitch f/x setup is concerned. I'll need to look at it a bit more closely, however.]
What is most problematic about Lewis lacking that feel for his fastball is that when he misses over the plate, it's the spiritual equivalent of a batting practice pitch -- fat like an early-90s John Candy and eminently crushable. Granted, the Colby Lewis of 2010 averaged only around 90 mph and still proved massively successful (though again, that version of Lewis had great command of the fastball and was able to get far more mileage out of the total arsenal), but I would surmise that a two mile per hour drop from 90 mph is much more significant on a run-prevention basis than, say, a two mile per hour drop from 98 mph would be for a relief pitcher, or -- to illustrate the other end of the spectrum -- a two mile per hour dip on Tim Wakefield's fastball. I mention this to illustrate a point -- if you're going to lose measurable fastball velocity, it's not good if the starting baseline is 89-91 mph.
The probable cause of all of this is some variation of "dead arm," the mysterious pitching malady that tends to be invoked whenever a pitcher inexplicably loses velocity and nobody can come up with a decent answer; velocity loss can also be symptomatic of impending shoulder problems and/or a worn-down labrum, but Lewis did say something to the effect of "my arm feels great" after his start, so a shoulder injury doesn't seem likely. Bad conditioning? Perhaps, although that's somewhat tied to dead arm, as is the notion that he's simply burnt out after pitching 225-plus innings last season. Mechanics? Look, I don't want to sit here and unproductively speculate about what may or may not be wrong with Lewis; the only thing I do know is that I don't like what I'm seeing, and none of the other knowledgeable baseball minds that I've talked to like what they're seeing.
Regardless of how lousy and out of sorts he may look right now, it's pretty obvious that he's built up enough political capital with Ron Washington and Mike Maddux to get at least two more starts before any action might possibly be taken; that's good in one respect, but not so much in another, as neither Brandon Webb nor Scott Feldman seem anywhere close to being ready to return, and Tommy Hunter's still a good 3-4 weeks away. Lewis, meanwhile, is staring down the barrel of temporary shutdown if he can't correct his velocity/command ills ... which may very well prove beneficial to his long-term health, if you take the appropriate big-picture view of things. In the present, however, all we seem to know is that one of the two pillars of the Rangers' starting rotation isn't right, and that's a feeling we could all very easily do without.