Sunday, April 13, 2014

Lazy Sunday Looking at Young Pitching

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Another week is in the books, and the Indians starting rotation continues to remind us of Jeckyll and Hyde. Sometimes we see the dichotomy not just from game to game or inning to inning, but from at-bat to at-bat. I’ll get into Danny Salazar’s historically odd start much more later on, but the offense is not blameless in the Tribe’s less than optimal start to the season. The Indians have grounded into 11 double plays as of Saturday, 3rd highest in the league. Santana (4) and Brantley (3) are responsible for over half of those between the two of them, and while I don’t think that’ll necessarily continue for the entire season, it’s been really frustrating to watch here in the early going. Regardless of how good or bad the team is playing right now though, take a deep breath and realize that we are now just 7% of the way through a very long baseball season. There is a lot of baseball to be played, and I think the Indians are going to be in contention and playing interesting baseball throughout the season. So let’s get at it on a busy Lazy Sunday with all the news that’s fit to link…

Former minor league pitching coach Doug Thorburn knows more about pitching mechanics and instruction than anyone reading this right now, unless Mickey Callaway is a secret Lazy Sunday fan. He writes for Baseball Prospectus, and I’ve featured his stuff a number of times in the past and will continue to do so because he is so much better at breaking down mechanics and predicting whether a change is legitimate and repeatable than anyone else out there right now.  As you’ll no doubt notice this week and throughout my time here at The DiaTribe, I lean pretty heavily on the Baseball Prospectus guys for insight and analysis. They don’t pay me for promoting their stuff, and I don’t get a free subscription or anything, I just find that they’ve assembled a fantastic staff of major and minor league writers who provide a service that no other baseball site can replicate. It’s $40 to subscribe to them for a full year, and if the price was $100 I’d probably still pay it (but don’t tell them that.) I’m not here to tell you how to spend your money, but if you’re on the fence about subscribing, you can do a 1-month subscription for just $5. Give them a try, and I think you’ll be pleased with what you read.

Back to Thorburn and his “Raising Aces” series though; Thorburn was nice enough to take a look at Trevor Bauer’s mechanics this week, specifically comparing them to prior analysis from a November 2012 start. Thorburn loves breaking down Bauer’s mechanics, and is a believer that the talented young righty can get it together and succeed at the major league level. Bauer of course started in game 2 of the doubleheader against the Padres this past Wednesday, going 6 innings and allowing 2 runs (1 ER) on 4 hits and 2 walks, striking out 8 and hitting a batter. It was an impressive result, but one had to question the legitimacy of the numbers. It was against the light-hitting Padres after all, and Bauer had teased us with glimpses of excellence in the past only to regress to a mechanical mess in his next start. Would the scouting reports agree with the stat line? Was Bauer really making strides towards becoming a legitimate major league option? Thanks to Pitchf/x and Thorburn, we have some pretty encouraging signs that yes, this was a legitimate step forward for Bauer and not just a one-start aberration. First, let’s look at Thorburn’s mechanical grades from Wednesday’s start in juxtaposition with his November 2012 report card. Again, this is Doug Thorburn’s report card, not mine:
Nov 2012
April 9, 2014
Release Distance

Bauer’s overall mechanics gained a full letter grade, and he made strides or held his ground in every category but momentum. Keep in mind that this is on the 20-80 scouting scale, where 80 would be Hall of Fame level, and 50 is considered average. Nowhere on Thorburn’s card did Bauer grade any lower than average. If you click on the link (which you should’ve done already), Thorburn provides GIFs illustrating the change in Bauer’s mechanics from the 2012 version to today’s. He breaks down the changes in very clear terms, illustrating how this could be the Trevor Bauer we’ve all been waiting for since he was acquired in the Choo trade with Arizona. Thorburn’s bottom line:

He is a student of the game who studies biomechanics and utilizes strategic methods to get an edge on the competition, but his adjustments have often overcomplicated his task and deterred Bauer from the critical component of locating pitches. He made some notable adjustments again this past offseason, and the early returns suggest that he may have found the mechanical key to unlock his ceiling.
Going a step further, the Pitchf/x data available on the also-excellent shows us how much better Bauer’s stuff was Wednesday than in 2013. Bauer threw 62 fastballs, averaging 94.8 MPH and topping out at 97 MPH. While he was in the majors last year, Bauer’s fastball around 93 MPH and rarely topped 95 MPH. That 2 MPH can make a difference, especially when contrasted with his mid-70’s curveball. Brooks Baseball also shows us an interesting change from last year to this year. First, take a look at this chart showing Bauer’s release points from a 2013 start:

Then, here’s the same chart for Wednesday’s start:

Why are the 2013 release points so much more varied? Bauer used to change the side of the rubber he was pitching from based on the hitter. He’d slide from the extreme right side of the rubber to the extreme left. That’s a change he’s eliminated in 2014, something that might be responsible for the greater consistency in his delivery. Bauer has always been a tinkerer, changing his approach from start to start and even inning to inning. The fact that he “only” threw four different pitches last start (no reverse sliders) and is cutting back on the purposeful variance in his delivery are signs that he’s simplifying his approach to pitching and letting his tremendous stuff do the work.

During Bauer’s start, he was victimized by MLB’s silly tinkering with the rulebook in conjunction with replay this year. I won’t belabor this because it happened a few days ago and I’m sure everyone has seen the play by now, but if you haven’t seen it you can check out Jason Collette’s site where he put up a couple of interesting videos, including the Elliot Johnson “non-catch” from Wednesday. Collette is also confused over the new rule, although by the letter of the law (that was clarified on Tuesday, the day before the controversial play) it does appear that the umpires and video replay crew in NY interpreted it correctly. A “catch” used to be pretty simple, and I’ll quote here directly from the MLB rule book:

A CATCH is the act of a fielder in getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a ball in flight and firmly holding it; providing he does not use his cap, protector, pocket or any other part of his uniform in getting possession. It is not a catch, however, if simultaneously or immediately following his contact with the ball, he collides with a player, or with a wall, or if he falls down, and as a result of such collision or falling, drops the ball. It is not a catch if a fielder touches a fly ball which then hits a member of the offensive team or an umpire and then is caught by another defensive player. If the fielder has made the catch and drops the ball while in the act of making a throw following the catch, the ball shall be adjudged to have been caught. In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional.
In my mind, Johnson established secure possession and dropped the ball while in the act of making the throw. He held the ball long enough with complete control, taking several steps after catching the ball and running into the wall. But again, just the day before the play, MLB put out new guidance surrounding what is/isn’t a catch. Jordan Bastian digs into it for us here:

…umpires and/or replay officials must consider whether the fielder had secured possession of the ball but dropped it during the act of the catch. An example of a catch that would not count is if a fielder loses possession of the ball during the transfer before the ball was secured by his throwing hand.
Johnson clearly lost control of the ball before securing it in his throwing hand. So by the letter of the law, that’s not a catch. The issue here isn’t with the umpires on the field or the replay officials, but with the insane caveat that a player needs to secure the ball in his throwing hand before the umpire can deem it “caught.” By the letter of the law, an OF could secure the ball in his glove for ostensibly the 3rd out of the inning, jog into the dugout before transferring it into his throwing hand and have taken the ball out of play, awarding all baserunners two free bases. That’s probably never going to be called, but I’m mystified as to why MLB feels the need to constantly shake things up seemingly for the sake of confusion. New replay rules and new catcher collision regulations (which I still hate) weren’t enough; let’s change a rule that has existed since players started wearing gloves in the late 1800’s. I’m going to move on now because I’m getting angry even as I sit here and relive the play, which of course proved to be extremely significant in the Indians 2-1 loss. Suffice to say that while I think replay in general is a good thing for baseball (getting the call right is always the end goal), this tinkering and resulting confusion on the field is an unfortunate and unnecessary byproduct.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Danny Salazar started his second game of the season on Thursday night, and he produced one of the most unique stat lines I’ve ever seen from a pitcher, and it gets weirder and weirder the deeper you look at it. On the surface, it’s strange enough; L, 3 2/3 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 10 K. Recording 10 strikeouts in fewer than 4 IP is something that’s been done exactly one time since 1900, so that’s remarkable in and of itself. But Salazar didn’t record a single traditional out; every batter either struck out, walked or got a hit. The only out recorded other than a strikeout was when Adam Eaton was struck out trying to stretch a single into a double. So Salazar’s BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) allowed was a “perfect” 1.000. He was somehow both extremely hittable and utterly unhittable at the same time. He gave up two HR and a double on the only three balls that the White Sox put in the air against him, for a 66.7% HR/FB rate. He’s ERA for the game was 9.82, but his xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching, see here for full explanation as to how it is calculated) was 0.48. These stats come from far too small of a sample size to be significant, I’m just bringing them up because it helps illustrate just how strange the outing really was.

It’s easy to see where Salazar got into trouble against the White Sox. Looking at this strikezone plot from innings two through four on Thursday, all of the hits allowed by Salazar except one were pitches left in the middle of the plate and from the mid-thigh to the beltline of the hitter. The lone hit from outside of the strikezone came on a single that Adrian Nieto reached out and slapped through the right side for a seeing-eye single. The double and home runs (indicated by the orange and pink squares on the plot below) were all right down the heart of the plate:

That’s a recipe for disaster, even with stuff as electric as Salazar’s. He threw a couple of quality sliders and splitters, but also left a couple of spinners and hangers up in the zone that got hammered. Those mistake pitches aren’t always going to leave the yard, and sometimes there’s going to be a laser hit right at someone. That didn’t happen on Thursday, so Salazar ended up getting chased after 3 2/3’s. The good news is that Salazar has excellent stuff and can strike out 10+ on any given night. The bad news is that if he continues to locate his pitches in this manner, he’s going to continue to give up way too many HR to be an effective starting pitcher. Salazar is always going to be a guy with a higher than normal pitch count. It takes a lot of pitches to strike guys out, and adding questionable command and several walks to that equation is only going to hurt that much more. It’s way too early to panic about a guy with Salazar’s talent, as evidenced by the 10 K on Thursday. It’s also way too early to pencil him into the #2 spot of the rotation moving forward, as evidenced by the walks and 5 ER on Thursday. Salazar starts are required viewing for me (they were anyway), and it’ll be interesting to see how he responds the next time on the mound. There are adjustments to be made, and I have a feeling that Salazar and Mickey Callaway will be spending plenty of time together prior to his next start in Detroit on Wednesday.

Baseball Prospectus does a “prospect 10-pack” at the beginning of each week. During the season, the 10-pack generally features players who are performing at a high level, but will occasionally look at a highly regarded guy who is struggling. Sometimes the 10-pack has a specific theme, and this is one of those weeks. The BP prospect staff took a look at the players they are most excited to scout this season, and Nick Faleris chose to focus on none other than the Indians 2013 1st round draft pick, Clint Frazier:

Frazier is on the short list of my favorite amateur players ever scouted, with perhaps the most beautifully violent swing this side of Javier Baez. Over the years he’s shown me a little bit of everything. I’ve seen him run a sub-6.5 sixty and 4.2 home-to-first from the right side. I’ve seen plus-plus arm strength from the outfield (albeit prior to some elbow issues that stuck with him through his senior year at Loganville and first professional summer). I’ve seen him consistently square up the best of his contemporaries through the high school showcase circuit, and I saw him hit 22-plus home runs during a BP session prior to a high school game. Later that evening I saw him hit a ball so far that the second baseman congratulated him as he rounded the bases. Then he homered again. He’s set to ship to the Midwest League early this summer -- how could I not be excited to see what he has in store for me next?
So…yeah. Frazier was one of the only players I didn’t get to see in action this spring, as he was dealing with a minor hamstring issue in Goodyear and the Indians were playing it safe with their million dollar bonus baby. He was walking around the fields, coaching 1B during intersquad games, receiving instruction from coaches on situational stuff and doing some light running on the training fields. I went down there to see him hit though, so needless to say I was a little disappointed in his non-participating status. But he’ll be in Lake County before too long (likely after it warms up a little), and it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the pitcher-friendly Midwest League. He’s got a violent swing and an ultra-aggressive approach, so there’s a chance that professional pitching could exploit that early on and he’ll have to make some adjustments. He’s immensely talented and could move quickly, but he needs to learn how to be a professional baseball player, not just a really good baseball player.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Lindor watch takes a special focus this week, as national prospect guru Jason Parks polled baseball insiders and his own Baseball Prospectus prospect team to see which top prospect shortstop they would choose to build their team around. Chicago Cubs prospect Javier Baez has been lighting the minor leagues on fire, hitting 20 HR in just 54 AA games last season. The Astros took prep SS Carlos Correa with the first overall pick in the 2012 MLB draft, and he’s been drawing rave reviews since his debut that year. Oakland prospect Addison Russell is a consensus top-15 prospect in the game and considered a potential force on both sides of the ball. I expected Baez to be the runaway winner of this survey, with Correa coming in second because of his offensive potential and Lindor and Russell to come in 3rd and 4th in some order. Boy was I wrong.

Lindor collected six of the ten industry votes to easily carry that poll. He also scored seven of the fourteen BP votes, to finish with 13 of the 24 possible votes. No other SS tallied more than 5 (Baez). I was both a little surprised and extremely excited after reading the article, as all of those that preferred Lindor talked about his superior defense and makeup, and his underrated potential with the bat as well. All agreed that he has the highest floor of any SS prospect in the minors, and has the defensive chops to succeed at the position at the highest level of the game. As Parks himself says about his choice of Lindor:

While I can’t speak for those who cast votes for Lindor over Baez, I can echo the preference and explain my own choice, even if it comes off a bit skewed. I think Javier Baez is the superior prospect, a player who has dazzled me with his bat speed since he signed, and pushed me to the point of Baezmania this spring with his offensive firestorm. But to the specific question being asked, as much as I love Baez and his pornographic offensive potential, the player I would look to build a franchise around is Francisco Lindor, mostly for the reasons that were so aptly articulated by Nick Faleris and Chris Mellen. Give me the guy I can pencil in at shortstop for the next decade who brings near-elite defensive skills to the position, in addition to a switch-hitting profile at the plate with on-base potential and gap power.
As for the industry vote--even though it’s just a small sample of front office opinion—it does speak to the value baseball attaches to premium defenders at premium spots, as well as the intangibles qualities that are sought in a franchise face. While not always documented in specific detail, several of the debates and discussions with industry personnel and prospect team staff centered around the safety and security of Lindor’s profile as compared to the volatility and uncertainty of Baez’s—both in terms of baseball skill and makeup—even though it was universally acknowledged that Baez held the highest ceiling and most impact potential should he maximize his physical tools. Baez has the most “come back to bite you on the ass potential” of anybody in the minors, but when it comes down to it, the majority of people were willing to accept that possibility in favor of a more stable player, despite the lower ceiling.
With the possible exception of catcher, shortstop is the most important defensive position on the field. A spectacular defensive shortstop can offset a lot of offensive deficiencies, something Indians fans should know better than most after having watched Omar Vizquel at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario for so long. Lindor is projected to offer more value with the glove than with the bat, but the bat isn’t going to be lifeless. He’s a switch hitter with a solid approach and a good command of the strike zone, and is filling out to the point where he could have slightly below average power. That’s an incredible prospect, one that I can’t wait to see in an Indians uniform. Oh, and he hit a walk-off HR in the 13th inning of Friday night’s game, giving him as many HR in 2014 (2) as he hit in all of 2013. I’m going to get to see Lindor in a few days when the RubberDucks travel to Bowie to take on the Baysox, and although I’ve watched him play over a dozen times already, I can’t wait to see what he has in store for me this time out.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Speaking of minor league performances, I was in Frederick, MD this week to see the Carolina Mudcats, and was able to see Dylan Baker make the first A+ start of his career. All Baker did was set down all 18 hitters he faced, hurling 6 perfect innings to earn the victory. Baker’s fastball sat in the 94-96 MPH range with some nice arm-side run, and he flashed a plus curveball and slider as well. He did a really nice job commanding his fastball in the strike zone, getting ahead of hitters all night and inducing weak contact with his offspeed stuff. The first curveball he broke off locked up Frederick’s #3 hitter for a strikeout, and showed tight spin with excellent 11-5 movement. Baker only threw a few changeups during his start, but was clearly working on getting a feel for the pitch as he threw 2-3 in between every inning during his warm-up tosses. Baker was my #25 prospect in this offseason’s countdown, but I hadn’t seen him pitch like he did on Tuesday before. If he keeps throwing 3 potential above-average pitches, he could end up in the top-10 of next year’s list.

Last season’s extremes are already starting to show signs that they’re regressing to the mean, as the Indians 17-2 record against the White Sox last year isn’t going to be repeated in 2014. The White Sox are better in 2014 than they were last year, but there’s also a pretty significant luck factor involved when you win 17 of 19 against one opponent, and that luck is something that varies significantly from season to season. The good news is that the Indians aren’t likely to go 4-15 against the Tigers again this year, with the same caveats applying in that matchup. We’ll get to see pretty soon, as after an off-day tomorrow the Indians travel to the Motor City to renew their rivalry with the Central Division powerhouse Tigers. Will the rivalry be as one-sided as it was in 2013? I don’t think so, and here’s an early chance for the Indians to show the Tigers that it won’t be a cakewalk to the Central Division crown. It’s just a three-game series in a 162 game season, but I think it’s important for the Indians to go into Detroit and come out with a series victory. After what happened last year, the club needs to show both the Tigers and the fans that we won’t see another 4-15 record against the AL Central favorite. 

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