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April 12, 2012

Heartburn Hardball

The Dangers of First Impressions

by Jonathan Bernhardt

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A pitcher's first start of the year often seems like a momentous event. It's not the first time most fans will have seen him in the past month, but it is the first time his performance will count for anything more than tea leaves. For young pitchers, especially, the first start sets the bar for the expectations game fans and media types like to play with young and unproven players.

With the plodding morass of spring training behind us, our interest in Real Baseball reaches rabid heights for the first week or two of the season, before we settle into the jogger's pace that takes us to the All-Star break. However, the increased importance we assign to early-season starts doesn't make them reliable barometers. They're certainly no more worthy of consideration than any other individual start over the course of the season just because they're the only data point available at the end of the first week. So before we write too many more breathless words about Jake Arrieta, Jeff Samardzija, and others, let's revisit the good first impressions some young starters made last season and look at how things ended up for them.

Esmil Rogers
Due to the departure of Jeff Francis over the 2010-2011 offseason, the Rockies found themselves with a hole in their rotation. That hole was filled by 25-year-old right hander Esmil Rogers, who had made some spot starts the year before but was now getting his first real look as a major-league starting pitcher.

In his first appearance on April 7th, he was brilliant, going seven innings and allowing just one run on four hits and a walk while striking out seven batters. His fastball sat around 94mph while his change dropped down to 83, and he was able to command both pitches—two-thirds of his fastballs were strikes, and all but two of his 13 changeups found the zone. He mixed in a slider and a curve as well, and as might be expected, they far less frequently caught the plate. Telling, however, was that while he threw 95 pitches in that start, he only induced six swinging strikes—three off his fastball, two off his slider, and one off his curve. Elite, or even particularly above-average, power pitching usually leads to more than one of every 16 pitches missing a bat. Given that lack of whiffs and the identity of Rogers’ opponent, the light-hitting Pittsburgh Pirates, his performance looked less like the first entry in a Cy Young resume and more like a good-but-lucky start that Rogers could potentially build on.

Instead of improving, Rogers’ season went downhill from there. By the All-Star Break, he had an ERA over 11 in only 24 innings, having gone to the DL and then to the minors to rehab a latissimus dorsi strain. He'd return to make another eight starts in the second half and would manage to keep his ERA around 5, but he never had another start anywhere near as good as his first of the year. For some reason, after that first start in which Rogers threw 13 changeups and 17 sliders, he stopped using the change (and the curve, for that matter) in favor of the slider almost exclusively: by the time the season was through, 61 percent of his pitches were four-seamers (six percent of that number were "sinkers" that look suspiciously like four-seamers that just broke down a bit more than usual and which showed up during the end of the year, possibly indicating a grip or mechanics change of some kind), 25 percent sliders, and 14 percent changeup or curveball.

Generally, when a pitcher stops using a pitch, it's because it's either ineffective or because it's causing him mechanical or injury problems; for Rogers, it was the former. Outside of that first start, hitters demolished his changeup, in no small part because they probably reviewed the footage of that April 7th start and saw that he was leaving the changeup in the zone. Eleven of 13 were called strikes with no whiffs, after all, and a changeup nobody's missing is a changeup somebody's clobbering.

Rogers ended the year as a fastball-slider pitcher but is still a Rockie this year and has already pitched his first two innings of the 2012 season—in relief. He allowed no runs but also struck out none and walked two.

Chris Tillman
Chris Tillman, acquired by the Baltimore Orioles from the Seattle Mariners in the Erik Bedard trade all those many (four) years ago, probably the had the weakest case for a "strong" Opening Day start of the three men profiled here. In comparison to his past results at the big-league level, though, his first start of last season was pretty impressive.

Tillman, who was slotted in as one of Baltimore's arms of the future with Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta, made the starting rotation out of spring training and got his first start against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Orioles won the game 3-1, and even though Tillman didn't get a decision, he did go six innings, allowing no runs on no hits and three walks, with five strikeouts. No matter how it's done, allowing only three baserunners in six innings puts a pitcher's team in a great position to win, but doing it by throwing two-thirds of an Edwin Jackson-style no-hitter is not the most sustainable way to accomplish that goal.

Breaking down the start further, it's even easier to see why Tillman got into trouble in his very next start against the heavier-hitting Detroit Tigers: at no point in the 2011 season, not even at the very beginning against the Rays, did Chris Tillman throw an MLB-quality fastball.

Tillman threw 101 pitches in that April 7th start, the same day Rogers took the mound against Pittsburgh for his best performance of the year, and 63 of those pitches were four-seam fastballs. Of those, only 37 were strikes—less than 60 percent—and of those strikes, only two came on swings and misses by the batter. No fastball can survive being thrown that often if hitters are going to miss it only about three percent of the time. That improved to about six percent on the season, but that's still extremely low. Tillman, who has three pitches, needs his four-seamer to be getting whiffs—it's not a sinker that guys are going to slam into the dirt. And since he had only three pitches, over the course of the season, he found himself leaning more and more on that fastball.

Without much movement or deception, or any exceptional command of the pitch he was throwing 60 percent of the time—and which was going to be easy to recognize coming out of his hand, considering his next most common offering was his curveball, not his changeup—Tillman fell prey to lineups replete with fastball hitters. His worst start of the year, for instance, was not against the Yankees (though he did have a bad one against New York), but against the Kansas City Royals, when he lasted 3 2/3 innings and surrendered 8 earned runs. The two players who dinged him worst in that game were Melky Cabrera and Billy Butler, and both of those guys annihilated fastballs in 2011.

Despite all of this, Tillman was a candidate to make the rotation this year, more out of necessity than actual ability. With the continuing tire fire that is Brian Matusz' rotation spot still burning bright, it's likely that Tillman will be back with the team sooner or later. I was convinced this offseason that with the Orioles’ influx of arms, Tillman's time as a starter in the majors was over, but with Dana Eveland and Alfredo Simon being DFA'd and Tsuyoshi Wada hurt, the only pitcher with a more credible claim to Matusz's spot in the rotation than Tillman is Brad Bergesen, who might have even less upside.

Kyle Drabek
That brings us to Kyle Drabek of the Blue Jays, by far the most highly regarded pitcher of these three arms. He features a four-seam fastball like the two pitchers above but adds a two-seam fastball with late movement and complements both with a nasty curveball as his showcase off-speed pitch.

Drabek had a very good debut in 2011, going seven innings and striking out seven while allowing only one run on one hit and three walks. But that was against the Minnesota Twins, who had an offense legendary in its inepitude last year, and the three walks betrayed signs of the problem that would get him sent down to start 2012 after suffering through 14 starts of 6.06 ERA baseball by the end of the 2011 campaign: an inability to throw strikes.

Last year, Drabek threw three fastball variants: the four-seamer (37 percent of all pitches), a sinking fastball with a distinct pitch profile (26 percent), and the two-seamer/cutter (18 percent). Of the 1495 pitches he threw in 2011, 1195 fell into one of these three categories. Over 45 percent of these pitches were balls. That, by itself, is a lack of command that cannot translate to sustained major-league success—the two-seamer was especially inaccurate, being called a ball 47.5 percent of the time and a strike less than 13 percent. Drabek's changeup, long noted as a pitch he had trouble commanding, was a ball more than half the times it was thrown.

The good news was that his curveball, the pitch that made Drabek the prospect that he is instead of just another hard-throwing righty, remained intact throughout the ordeal. It was a ball about 46 percent of the time, but that's fine—one doesn't challenge a hitter with his curve. Unlike Drabek's various fastballs, hitters were swinging at the curve a good deal more often, fouling it off less than half as often and whiffing on it four to five times more often. Assuming Drabek can get his fastball problems fixed without breaking the curve, he'll be an effective major-league pitcher. Of course, it's entirely possible that that won’t happen, in which case Drabek will become another might-have-been. His first start of 2012 on Tuesday was a success, but we (and the Blue Jays) have been burned before.  

So how should last season’s false starts make us feel about the Jake Arrietas, the Jeff Samardzijas, and the Jonathon Nieses of this young season? It certainly doesn't mean that they didn't, in fact, have good starts—nor does it in any way imply that because they've performed well, they're now going to crash and burn. (They're going to crash and burn because they're members of the Orioles, Cubs, and Mets, respectively, and that's how these things work.) Should they continue to pitch with the same command and movement they showed in their first starts, they'll all be successful throughout the course of the season. But let's give it a few months before we believe.

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