Can Campillo Keep It Up?

Jorge Campillo made his Atlanta Braves debut in 2008- a mere 12 seasons after the team originally signed him out of Mexico.

The Tijuana native has weathered one of the more circuitous routes of any pitcher in professional baseball. The Braves signed Campillo all the way back in February of 1996 and loaned him to the Mexican League later that year. Unimpressed with Campillo’s finesse style, Atlanta released the 6-1, 225 pounder that following January.

Campillo would spend all of the 1997-2004 seasons in the Mexican League, hoping to latch on with another major league club. The Seattle Mariners finally came calling prior to the 2005 season, inking Campillo to a minor league deal. He held his own at AAA Tacoma and got a cup of coffee with the M’s toward the end of the season. However, it wouldn’t be long before Campillo’s perseverance was tested yet again, as he had to go under the knife for Tommy John Surgery shortly thereafter, missing the majority of the 2006 season.

Control is considered to be the last aspect of a pitcher’s game to resurface following Tommy John, but Campillo continued to paint the corners upon returning to Tacoma in 2007. In 149.1 innings pitched, the embattled right-hander posted a 3.72 Fielding Independent ERA, issuing a tidy 2.35 BB/9 and striking out a mild 5.97 batters per nine innings. Despite his solid work and the dearth of quality starting options in Seattle (this was, after all, a team that gave a combined 47 starts to Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez), Campillo tossed just 13.1 frames for the M’s.

Campillo’s adventurous career came full-circle before the 2008 season, as he latched on with the Braves once again. The 29 year-old was certainly not in the team’s immediate plans to start the year, but a rash of injuries in the starting rotation afforded Campillo the opportunity to get his first extended trial in the majors. In 158.2 innings (including 25 starts), Campillo compiled a 3.91 ERA, with 6.07 K/9 and a sharp 2.16 BB/9.

Befitting of a pitcher who has managed to keep his head above water in professional baseball for 12 seasons, Campillo throws a cornucopia of different offerings. He utilized his fastball just 37.1% of the time, not surprising considering that its velocity (85.6 MPH) would only make Jamie Moyer and Greg Maddux envious. Campillo also dished out an 81.1 MPH slider (25%), a slow 70.3 MPH curve (11.1%) and a seldom-used 81.6 MPH cutter (1.6%). His bread-and-butter pitch, however, was a 74.4 MPH changeup with screwball-like action (used 25.1% of the time). Campillo’s change looks like something that Bugs Bunny would whip out against the Gas House Gorillas, with nearly nine and a half inches of horizontal movement away from lefthanders. With that pitch in his back pocket, the very experienced rookie showed a reverse platoon split. Campillo gave up plenty of extra base hits to right-handers (.274/.300/.480), but he subdued southpaws to the tune of .249/.310/.368.

Throwing just about everything but a knuckleball, Campillo was surprisingly adept at generating swings on pitches outside of the strike zone. His 31 O-Swing% ranked ninth among pitchers tossing at least 150 innings, sandwiched between Dan Haren and Cole Hamels. Campillo also got ahead of hitters as often as anyone, with a 64.3 First Pitch Strike % (F-Strike%) that ranked ninth among hurlers throwing 150+ innings. With so many batters falling behind 0-and-1 or putting the ball in play on the first pitch, Campillo threw just 3.8 pitches per plate appearance.

While he enjoyed a solid rookie season and is currently slated to open the year as Atlanta’s second starter behind Jair Jurrjens, there are some reasons to view Campillo in a skeptical light. A flyball-oriented pitcher (38.1 GB%), Campillo surrendered slightly over one home run per nine innings this past season despite a low 9.4 HR/FB%. HR/FB% tends to stick around 11-12% for starters, so Campillo will likely see a few more of his pitches end up as souvenirs in 2009. Using Expected Fielding Independent ERA (XFIP) from the Hardball Times, which predicts a pitcher’s ERA based on strikeouts, walks and a normalized HR/FB rate, we find that Campillo’s 3.91 ERA was kind of lucky: his XFIP was 4.40. That’s still useful, but the half-run increase takes some of the shine off of Campillo’s season, as his XFIP is just ever slightly above the 4.43 NL average for starters.

While there are statistical reasons as to why Campillo is unlikely to sustain his 2008 level of performance, there are also more speculative, scouting-type assertions that could be made. Prior to 2008, Campillo had scarcely seen the majors, and it seems reasonable to suggest that teams didn’t have the most comprehensive scouting reports on what he threw and when he threw it. Add in Campillo’s sharp command and bushel of pitches, and that puts opposing batters in quite a bind. In his last 11 starts spanning from August to early October, however, Campillo surrendered 39 runs in 57.2 innings, with a 37/17 K/BB ratio. Did teams “figure him out” as his repertoire and tendencies became more apparent? It’s hard to say, but that is a possibility.

Jorge Campillo, with as deep a pitching arsenal as any starter, is extremely fun to watch. However, his finesse, flyball-centric style is enough to give fantasy owners second thoughts. Those tendencies, coupled with his late-season drubbing, cast some doubt upon the repeatability of his performance. Campillo could remain a mildly useful, 4.50 ERA-type pitcher, but expecting another sub-four ERA season would be a mistake.





A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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Isaac
13 years ago

Nice piece. As I have never watched Campillo pitched, it’s interesting to finally see in writing what it was that made him successful(from a scouting perspective.)