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June 1, 2012

Raising Aces

Four of a Kind: Slot Machines

by Doug Thorburn

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I maintain a list of pitchers to analyze, comprised of equal parts self-indulgence and reader suggestion. The list grows longer by the day, with names being added much more quickly than they can be crossed off, so I figure that I am overdue for a multi-player piece that puts a dent in the pitcher queue.

The idea behind “Four of a Kind” is to select a quartet of pitchers who share a common bond, to break down each player's in-game mechanics, and to grade each one on the six subjects of the Mechanics Report Card (patent pending). The report cards represent single-game snapshots, with the recognition that pitching mechanics are dynamic throughout the season.

Today's cuatro comes to us exclusively from reader suggestions that have arrived via email, article comments, the Twitterverse, or face-to-face interactions. The key link between the four hurlers is a high arm slot, reaching between 10:00 and 11:00 on the Slot Clock (also patent pending) from a right-handed starting pitcher. There are multiple ways to generate arm slot, ranging from the angle of shoulder abduction to the severity of spine-tilt at release point, and the players under today's microscope represent different levels on the spectrum.

***

James McDonald, Pirates, May 28 vs. Cincinnati
A product of the Dodgers’ system, James McDonald came to Pittsburgh in a 2010 deadline deal for Octavio Dotel. He seems to be breaking out in his age-27 season, posting a career-high K rate while slashing his walk rate by 36 percent from 2011. He has nearly a strikeout per inning to go with a 2.20 ERA and just two homers allowed over 65 frames. The spotlight is on McDonald for the first time in his career, and I had been itching to watch him take the mound, but I walked away unimpressed by his May 28 performance against the Reds. 

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

40

Momentum

40

Torque

50

Posture

35

Release Distance

30

Repetition

60

McDonald has average torque that produces fastball velocity in the low 90's. He directs his delivery straight toward the target, but his momentum is pedestrian at best, further limiting the kinetic energy that is transferred to the baseball and contributing to an extremely shallow distance at release point. He also has issues with dynamic balance, leaning back toward second base during leg lift and finishing the delivery with his weight out in front, such that the drag-foot lifts off the ground prior to pitch release. The imbalance provokes an aggressive spine-tilt at release point, generating an artificially high arm-slot despite an abduction angle that is very close to 90 degrees.

The change in posture occurs late in the delivery, making it appear as though the head is just getting out of the way as the throwing arm comes through in internal rotation. McDonald has featured a heavy spine-tilt in his delivery throughout his career, but what sets 2012 apart from other seasons is his ability to repeat the high arm slot with consistency. Timing is the only element of McDonald's delivery that receives an above-average grade, and his excellent repetition is made all the more shocking by the weak links that otherwise saturate his kinetic chain. His timing suffers when he pitches from the stretch, as McDonald mixes in an occasional slide step with other variations of leg lift that produce disparate timing patterns, an inconsistency that led to a four-pitch walk to opposing hurler Bronson Arroyo in the third inning of Sunday's contest. Shaky balance, poor momentum, and a shallow release are red flags for a pitcher whose stat-line screams regression, and fantasy managers would be wise to trade the right-hander before he turns back into a pumpkin. 

***

Clay Buchholz, Red Sox, May 27 vs. Tampa Bay
The Boston Red Sox have endured many sleepless nights this season, but at least one player is trying to wake up from the nightmare of 2012. Clay Buchholz has been roped by opposing hitters to the tune of a .328/.408/.520 slash-line and is currently sitting on the worst K and walk rates of his career. Owner of a career K:BB ratio of just 1.74, Buchholz is probably not as good as his 2010 season would suggest, having consistently posted league-average strikeout rates and displayed a penchant for the free pass. Constant battles with mechanical timing have soured Buchholz's pitch command while at the same time sapping his velocity by limiting maximum torque, with the right-hander having lost two full ticks off of his fastball velocity of two years ago.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

35

Momentum

60

Torque

55

Posture

45

Release Distance

55

Repetition

45

For one day, at least, Clay Buchholz was able to get the monkey off his back. Not only did he post his first quality start of the season (in 10 tries), but he was able to harness his timing within spitting distance of league-average. Few of his pitches were perfectly timed, yet Buchholz was able to line up the delivery within a hair of his ideal time signature on many offerings, with a tendency to miss targets within the confines of the strike zone. He was able to avoid the fat mistake pitches that had plagued him in 2012, particularly at home, where Buchholz had given up 10 home runs in just five starts (as opposed to a lone bomb surrendered in his four road games). Failure to get the fastball down is suicide in Fenway, and the easiest way to leave a pitch up in the zone is to mistime the delivery for a late release. Buchholz is a groundball-heavy pitcher on his good days, posting grounder rates above 50 percent for three straight seasons, but I have seen games where he simply cannot find a target in the lower half of the strike zone.

In my inaugural chat at Baseball Prospectus last Friday, I concurred with a reader who had suggested that Buchholz could benefit from improved posture in his delivery. The right-hander registers spine-tilt on a regular basis, though not as extreme as that of McDonald or Ubaldo Jimenez, and the postural issue is amplified on breaking pitches or when Buchholz becomes fatigued. His high arm slot is a function of spine-tilt in addition to a naturally-elevated angle of shoulder abduction at release point. Buchholz’s balance is a bit of a mess, with a “drop-n'-drive” delivery that lowers his center of gravity after maximum leg lift. The imbalance is worse after foot strike, with a tendency for Buchholz to lead with the head out in front and to finish with a lean to the glove-side. He generates impressive momentum, bursting from max leg lift to lengthen his stride and increase release distance, though the combination of poor balance and heavy momentum creates a ticking time-bomb that is strapped to his mechanical timing.

***

Johnny Cueto, Reds, May 25 vs. Colorado
Johnny Cueto's ever-shrinking ERA was perceived as one of the statistical anomalies of the 2011 season, given the right-hander's shady peripheral stats and his previously established levels of batted-ball normalcy. Cueto is continuing to baffle the pundits this season, essentially repeating his outlier run-prevention of last season despite a hit rate and BABIP that have regressed back to his career marks. The key has been a heightened resistance to walks combined with an ability to induce grounders at an impressive rate, allowing him to overcome a career-low strikeout rate to keep runs off the board.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

45

Momentum

40

Torque

50

Posture

50

Release Distance

45

Repetition

55

Cueto's report card is boring, with the grades of a “C” student who is basically average across the board. The most exciting aspect of his delivery is an extreme clockwise twist as he reaches maximum leg lift, at which point he literally turns his back on the opposing hitter (left). One might expect such an exaggerated coil to precipitate a giant burst of momentum, but Cueto reaps no such advantage, with just a leisurely stride when pitching out of the windup. The big twist might help Johnny C to find his timing signature while paying homage to Fernando Valenzuela and his parietal eye, but the benefits are likely more psychological than they are mechanically functional. Advocates of the strategy could point to Cueto's surprising consistency of timing from the windup, which I graded as high as a “65” when I was watching the May 25 game, but the spin-move is also responsible for the “45” grade that I tagged to his repetition from the stretch, the net result of which is the “55” score that you see on the board. The downside to such an eccentric strategy is that the pitcher must learn an entirely different delivery with runners on base as opposed to when the bags are empty. 

 

Cueto has greatly improved his postural stability during his first five years in the majors, achieving average posture that plays up due to a high intrinsic arm slot (right). The 5'10” right-hander is an enigma in the discussion of downhill plane, with a groundball rate that has bounced around the last few years, from a 44 percent mark in 2010 to last season's jump to 55 percent. So far, Cueto has split the difference, with 49 percent of his balls in play classified as grounders in 2012. He ended up having a rough day on May 25th, coughing up 11 hits and five earned runs en route to a fifth-inning knockout. The damage could have been much worse, but a blown call in the third inning kept the floodgates from opening early. 

***

Joe Wieland, Padres, May 6 vs. Miami
Currently on the shelf with an elbow strain, Joe Wieland was the subject of a reader email back in April, and my notes from his May 6 outing have been collecting dust for the past three weeks. The “Four of a Kind” series finally presented the opportunity to go public with my evaluation of his mechanics, thanks to a high arm slot that requires minimal posture adjustment. Wieland was just acclimating to the big stage when his right wing started barking, having posted a league-average walk rate and nearly eight strikeouts per nine innings, though his ERA is marred by a three-homer day in his lone start away from the friendly confines of Petco Park.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

60

Momentum

45

Torque

40

Posture

60

Release Distance

50

Repetition

50

Wieland has excellent dynamic balance and very stable posture that is made all the more impressive by its coming from a 22-year-old, bordering on plus-plus marks for both subjects on his mechanics report card. Solid posture and a high leg kick add to his release distance, allowing Wieland to compensate for subpar momentum to achieve league-average depth at pitch release. The delivery is solid yet underwhelming beyond the stability grades, and minimal torque (left) contributes to radar-gun readings that rarely cracked the 90-mph barrier, including a four-seam fastball that has generated a whiff-rate under six percent this season. 

 

The rookie relies on a heavy sinker to keep the ball in the ballpark, though his groundball rates have hung right around 45 percent throughout his career in the minors and majors. One might expect more dirty baseballs from a sinker-phylic pitcher with such an elevated natural arm slot (right), though the legend of downhill plane has taken severe hits of criticism from modern research. Wieland is an excellent example of a pitcher who generates a high release point with minimal spine tilt, relying almost entirely on his angle of shoulder abduction to release the ball from a 10:30 arm slot. However, the most striking takeaway from the above images might be that Wieland is wearing long sleeves for a day game in May … in San Diego.

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

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