Way back in February, this space featured an article that indicated that Jair Jurrjens was a big key to the 2011 success of the Atlanta Braves. And while the Braves have sputtered offensively and had a difficult time winning consistently, Jurrjens is certainly making that article stand up. Where would the Braves be without him? After an eight inning gem against the Reds on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Jurrjens is now 7-1 with an ERA of 1.51. Those are Greg Maddux-like numbers and in some ways, Jurrjens is a successor to the light-tossing success of Maddux and Glavine all those years ago. The telecast alluded to that fact when it was mentioned that Jurrjens had a lot of conversations with Maddux before the season.
In a lot of ways, Jair Jurrjens is flying in the face of his own numbers. His .262 BABIP and 87.8 percent strand rate of base runners seem to be unsustainable. And true to that fact, his FIP stands at 2.90 or +1.39 and his xFIP at 3.45 or +1.96. Those numbers seem weighty when combined with the fact that he's lost two miles per hour on his four-seam fastball and a mile per hour on his two-seamer. On the face of things, regression seems likely.
But consider that during the best years of Greg Maddux, that Hall of Fame pitcher's BABIP hovered in the .250s and .260s and Jurrjens is modeling his Maddux-like season with a combination of pinpoint control and extremely low walk and home run rates. Only Roy Halladay has a lower walks per nine inning rate in the majors than Jair Jurrjens this season.
So what is Jair Jurrjens doing that is leading to this kind of success? The Fan has already mentioned the walk rate, which sits at 1.51 and his homer rate of 0.41 per nine innings. Before his season, there was a lot of concern about his ground ball rate in 2010. That concern was noted in this Fangraph's piece by Dave Golebiewski back in March. But Jurrjens' ground ball rate has rebounded nicely from last year's 39.9 percent to this year's 47.0 percent. That gives him his second best ground ball to fly ball rate of his career.
Pitch/FX data also shows that he is pitching differently this year than last. While it again has to be noted that Pitch/FX was tweaked this year and some of the results may vary from previous years, if there is any accuracy to the data, Jurrjens has changed his style of pitching. When Jurrjens first started pitching in the big leagues, he relied heavily on his four-seam fastball. He threw that pitch anywhere from 58 to 61 percent of the time his first three seasons. This year, that pitch is much less relied upon and he's only throwing it 27 percent of the time. In contrast, his two-seam fastball (the one that put Maddux in the Hall of Fame) was non-existent early in his career is now being thrown 28.4 percent of the time. That's double the rate he used that pitch last year.
Both his two-seam fastball and change up have much more vertical movement than in previous years. Movement is the key because his change up only differs in speed from his fastball by about six miles per hour. The movement also means that it allows him to fool more batters who are swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone against Jurrjens this year than ever before.
The numbers for Jair Jurrjens seem to indicate that he's taken a page out of the Greg Maddux book of pitching. If this analysis isn't all wet, that's a great formula for success. His emergence from a lost 2010 season has really saved the Braves' season and if he can continue to pitch this way all season, the Braves have a great chance to stay competitive. They are only three and a half games back of the Phillies and right in the thick of things for the wild card. As the Fan's article suggested way back in February, Jurrjen's fortunes are heavily tied to that of the Braves for the rest of the season.