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May 10, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

U Got the Look: Pitchers, Part II

by Jason Parks

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In part one, I blathered on about fastball evaluation and the three main components of the overall pitcher grade: command, velocity, and movement. About 2,000 words later (200 to set the mood, 200 to make the point, and 1,600 to expose my weaknesses as a writer), I hope that the reader formed a closer bond with my process, though it sometimes seemed like I cared more about the beef industry than scouting. I’m not going to apologize for that. I care about beef. I’m from Texas. I also ride a horse to work and wear a duster. Moving on.

It’s time to shift our attention to what I look for when evaluating a pitcher’s secondary arsenal [read: complementary pitches, e.g., slider, curveball, changeup, etc.], mound presence/poise, and pitchability. While a good fastball can carry the majority of the load and is therefore set up to receive most of the accolades, the secondary and tertiary components of the arsenal will ultimately define the attainable range of success. Outliers always exist, so you might run across arsenals that aren’t built with the bones of a fastball, or arsenals that consist of one super-wizard pitch (Mariano Rivera’s cutter), but for this evaluation, let’s just assume we are scouting a human, and not a knuckleballer or a Panamanian relief wizard.

Like the fastball, secondary pitches come in different shapes and sizes; some are classified as balls that break, while others are identified as a “change of pace.” Let’s start with the breaking stuff. People seem to like breaking balls for the same reason they like fastball velocity: You can clearly identify the degree of nastiness involved. The average set of eyes might not be able to distinguish a slider from a curve, but they know when a hitter is made to look foolish. People like watching other people look foolish.

It’s said that a pitcher either has a curve or he doesn’t. That speaks specifically to the wrist, which can either snap a breaking ball, creating a tight forward rotation and subsequent break, or can’t snap a ball, which in turn won’t have a tight forward rotation and subsequent break.  Scouting the minutiae of the pitch can be difficult, but making the initial observation of break or no break is very easy. Depending on the arm slot and relationship the fingers form with the ball, the curveball will offer different shapes [read: the horizontal/vertical break as it relates to the face of a clock]. Pitchers that have high arm slots (straight overhand, overhand, high three-quarters) are more likely to throw curves that feature the traditional 12-6 shape, which, as you can probably interpret, means the pitch has sharp vertical movement, starting on one plane (12) and dropping straight down (6).

As the arm slot lowers, the shape of the break will usually change (11-5, 2-8) and show two-plane movement, meaning the pitch will show both a horizontal and vertical break. When watching a curve, it’s important to note the shape it shows, but also when the disguise comes off the pitch. Good secondary offerings are thrown off the fastball, which means the pitcher establishes the heater and then throws his complementary pitches from the same arm slot with the same arm speed, thus creating deception. Curves that break late will bring a hitter into the zone on fastball timing, only to see the pitch arrive on a different plane. The longer a pitch takes to show its true intentions, the better. After observing the presence of the pitch, the shape, and when the great reveal occurs, it’s important to make note of the command component. Secondary command is paramount to effectiveness; it’s being comfortable enough to drop the pitch in any count, to any hitter, at any point in the game while also showing the ability to throw the pitch for strikes and to drop it in the dirt as a chase pitch.

Sliders share a bloodline with the curve, but it’s a pitch that was raised by a different parent in a different environment, resulting in a different outcome. The slider is normally thrown with more velocity than a traditional curve, ranging from the upper 70s to the upper 80s, depending on the arm in question. Sliders feature more two-plane movement, with the increased velocity limiting the depth of a vertical break but allowing for more horizontal movement. Good sliders will enter the zone at an angle, which is often labeled as “tilt,” which in turn makes me think about “Tilt-a-Whirls” which makes me think about how much I hated amusement parks as a child, which makes me question everything about my upbringing. I’m okay.

When scouting a breaking ball, whether it is labeled a slider or a curve or a slurve (the slightly inbred stepsibling of the curve/slider that you don’t really want to see in public or to depend on. Slurves are usually the result of suspect arm speed, creating a sweepy pitch that doesn’t have sharp movement and usually takes a long journey through the hitting zone. It should be noted that some arms just create slurves, and some slurves can be very, very good. It depends on the arm, but the majority of breaking balls labeled “slurves” seem to be sprinkled with a little pejorative flavor), it’s important to pay attention to the pitch itself, in isolation from the overall effectiveness of the pitch. This is vital because the talent levels in the lower tiers of the game (amateur/lower minors) are rarely on the same page, meaning what appears to be an effective pitch against a below-average hitter might not be considered an effective pitch against a more advanced hitter.

Projection is the name of the game, so you have to look at the pitch in its present state, form a conceptual roadmap of its developmental path, and put a grade on its eventual peak. On-the-field production can offer telltale signs of development, but it can also cloud the process, especially if you spend too much time focusing on the “what” instead of trying to diagnose the “how.” Scouts are the psychiatrists of baseball, studying the idiosyncratic traits of the patient/prospect, peeling away the layers of fluff in order to properly identify the core. (It would be funny if scouting reports assigned blame to the parents of the prospect in question, stating that Player A has a good hit tool, but because his mother smothered him, the hitter will never reach his ceiling.)

I’ve never been shy about my love for the changeup; it’s my favorite pitch and I tend to overvalue it in relation to other secondary offerings. Just being honest. It comes in different forms as a result of different grips and different means of delivery, but the purpose of the pitch remains the same: keep hitters off the fastball. Changeups are feel pitches, so they are usually slow to develop and take time to refine. Deception is the key is to secondary efficiency, and this is especially true for changeups, which play directly off the fastball. A good changeup will look identical to a fastball from a hitter’s perspective except it will be thrown 8-12 mph slower and hopefully feature some movement as a result. When scouting a changeup, the first thing you notice is the arm-speed and slot consistency of the pitch. As I mentioned, deception is vital for secondary effectiveness, so pitchers that can disguise the changeup as a fastball can add a dimension to their overall arsenal. Developing a quality change of pace pitch is often what separates a starter from a reliever, as a starter’s success is more directly linked to arsenal diversity and the need to re-package (sequence) multiple times through a batting order.

Changeups aren’t just built on deception alone; above-average changeups are the result of the happy marriage between deception and movement. The action of a changeup can be the difference between a good “show-me” pitch used to keep a hitter honest and a knockout pitch used to not only keep hitters off the fastball but to send them back to the dugout shaking their heads. In my opinion, changeups are the best “make a hitter look foolish so I can feel better about my own short-comings” pitch.

Movement will vary based on grips and releases, so it’s important to pay attention to how the ball is moving, whether it’s heavily pronated and drops like a curveball or fades and sinks like a slower two-seam fastball. It’s important to be patient when evaluating an immature changeup, as the pitch requires a great deal of feel to properly execute, and feel isn’t something that can be forced. I pay close attention to the arm and the delivery, but also to the touch displayed in the other offerings. Pitching is about comfort, and if a pitcher shows signs of repeatability and offers up signs of touch in his craft, it’s much easier to project a quality changeup, even in the face of a poor present pitch.

The curve, slider, and changeup are the most common secondary offerings, although a pitch like the cut fastball (slider-like pitch thrown a few ticks off the fastball that offers late glove-side movement) is currently in vogue and a good pitch for inducing weak contact. Just like any other secondary offering, I look at the arm, the way the pitch plays off the fastball, the movement involved, and grade the pitch accordingly. Obviously, I look for different things with each pitch, but the central tenets of evaluation will remain the same for all secondary pitches.

Now that we’ve looked at the delivery, the fastball, and the secondary pitches, what’s left to diagnose? The term pitchability gets thrown around a lot and is a vague term often used to describe a pitcher’s overall feel for pitching. While I agree with the broad stroke definition, I tend to view pitchability as a more complicated and thought provoking pursuit; an often intangible and somewhat spiritual connection between a pitcher and the act of pitching, if you will. Not to wade too deep into philosophical waters, but pitchability is something that makes perfect sense when you see it, but becomes opaque when you attempt to establish the parameters of its existence. 

To focus on the reductive definition, feel is as important to pitching as the raw stuff coming out of the hand. The ability to change speeds, set up hitters, establish command, and to create a pace that is under the complete control of the pitcher, (just to throw out a few) are all examples of what “feel” looks like when it manifests on the mound. Call it a certain “ownership” of the trade. Pitchability can allow a rudimentary arsenal to play-up in game action because of the mastery of the craft. Pitchers that can combine the plus raw stuff with the feel for the mound can exceed the ceilings suggested by their tool-based grades. Pitchability doesn’t show up on a stat sheet, and as I mentioned, becomes harder to define when you attempt to define it, but “feel” is what separates quality pitchers from pitching machines. Next time you watch a pitcher on the mound, see if anything in this realm stands out for you. How do you define it? What place does it have in your evaluations?

 Finally, when scouting a pitcher, I look for poise and presence on the mound. I’ll get into a more expansive breakdown of makeup later on in this series, but the ability to control your on-field emotions, to show composure in the face of confusion, is a small yet significant variable in the equation. Pitchers are tasked with putting the game in motion; they absorb all of the attention derived from that specific role. With all eyes reading the emotions involved, the ability to stay focused and composed when the game situation suggests the opposite is one of the defining characteristics of a great pitcher. You don’t always need the proverbial ice water in the veins to find success, but you need maturity and to understand that standing on the mound might feel like a form of abject isolation, when in reality a pitcher represents something much larger than himself. When toes are on the rubber, a pitcher becomes the face of his team, and with that spotlight comes responsibility. How a pitcher embraces this responsibility can dictate the overall temperature of the team that plays behind him. When the talent is equal, the small things expand in size and stature.  

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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