So far in 2016, if you just look at Givens's ERA in limited work (6.2 innings after last night's loss to the Blue Jays), you would think he's stumbling somewhat out of the gate. He now has a 4.05 ERA and has allowed a home run (which is noteworthy only because he gave up just one last season). But Givens has been relatively unlucky on balls in play. Opposing batters have hit the ball harder and been pulling the ball more often than last season, but his batting average on balls in play is still high at .571. Before last night, it was .727.
So yes, that's the kind of thing that can happen in small samples. Despite that unfortunate number, though, Givens has a strikeout rate over 17, thanks to him recording 13 of his 20 outs via the strikeout. In fact, all 13 of Givens's strikeouts have been on swinging strikes (or foul tips into the catcher's mitt).
So is Givens doing anything different so far? Pitch usage wise, not really. Per Brooks Baseball, he's still mostly throwing four-seamers and sliders, and he has only thrown two changeups. His pitch velocity has also held steady. He's still throwing his four-seamer about 95 mph, with his slider in the mid-80s. He is getting slightly more horizontal movement with his fastball, but his vertical movement has more or less stayed the same.
Givens is getting more whiffs on both his fastball and slider, though, and one reason might be vertical location. Givens is throwing his slider higher in the zone, but he'd prefer to bury that pitch low and away to get swings and misses. He was very good at doing so last season, and his whiff percentage was slightly higher with his slider. But the more notable change has been with his fastball. After throwing fastballs a bit below the zone last year, Givens is throwing them a touch above it now.
Let's shift to some data from Baseball Savant. Nine of Givens's strikeouts have been on pitches up in the strikezone. Eight of those came on fastballs, and one was a slider. The other four strikeouts all came on sliders down in the zone. Last season, of Givens's 38 strikeouts, only 11 were on pitches up in the zone (all fastballs). Meanwhile, 22 of his strikeouts were on pitches down in the zone and five were on pitches in the middle. So maybe there's something to this.
Or perhaps this is all nothing. You can't believe everything a player or coach says, but Givens also talked about this very topic with Steve Melewski of MASN only a month ago:
“I talked to Darren O’Day and he’s good about doing that,” he said. “I tried it out last year and it worked pretty well. I’ve wanted to get better at doing that and commanding that.If this is indeed the influence of submarine riseballer Darren O'Day on the sidearm-throwing Givens, then the results are encouraging. Givens still seems like a work in progress, and it's not guaranteed that he was actually as good as his 2015 numbers indicate. But he seems open to trying new things, and that's important for someone with a platoon split issue against left-handed hitters who could use any extra weapon or strategy to retire opposing hitters.
“It can disrupt timing and you get batters to chase pitches out of the zone with two strikes. You’re just trying to change eye levels and not let the batter get too comfortable looking down and down in the zone. Just trying to change eye level and to get consistent doing that.”
Many times, pitchers work on things in the spring and simply scrap them later. Maybe this is what Givens will do. But for now, it's something to keep an eye on.
Stats from Brooks Baseball and Baseball Savant as of April 19.