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July 13, 2012

Raising Aces

Back to The Futures Game, US Team

by Doug Thorburn

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The pitching staff for the U.S. team was stacked for last Sunday's Futures Game, setting up a showcase of former first-round draft picks to satiate the All-Star appetite. The pitching rotations were pre-set on both sides, with starters Jake Odorizzi and Yordano Ventura representing the hometown Royals in a first-frame showdown. Three of the top four picks of the pitcher-heavy 2011 draft were on the U.S. roster, with Trevor Bauer's recent big-league promotion the only thing preventing a clean sweep of the historical top four, and the crew was joined by the top arm of the 2010 draft, Jameson Taillon. The aces-in-training put on a spectacular show, and I was extremely impressed by the mechanical profiles that Team America had on display.

Jake Odorizzi (Royals-AAA)
Odorizzi had a somewhat boring delivery, which is higher praise than it sounds, as the absence of a weak link offset any lack of an elite mechanical tool. Slow early momentum set up a late burst as he shifted gears near foot strike, and the right-hander showcased strong balance as he entered the rotational phases of the delivery. His posture was inconsistent on Sunday, with late spine-tilt that was more pronounced on curveballs than heaters, though the difference was subtle and his posture was respectable overall. Despite the postural inconsistencies, Odorizzi was able to repeat the timing elements of his delivery with a calm approach into foot strike that set up a storm of rotational velocity. The only mechanical issue was a lack of hip-shoulder separation, with late-firing hips that stuttered before rotating toward the plate, triggering the rotation of hips and shoulders in near-unison.

Gerrit Cole (Pirates-AA)
In addition to his elite stuff, Cole had some of the best mechanics in the 2011 Amateur Player Draft with average-to-plus marks across the board, almost all of which were on display Sunday afternoon. His balance and posture were impeccable, though he did show a slight hitch with a head that trailed from max lift into foot strike. His torque contains equals parts upper-body load and lower-body rotation, producing excellent separation and explosive arm speeds that light up radar guns to the tune of triple digits.

Cole takes a direct line to the plate, though his momentum has slowed a bit when compared to his UCLA days, with a stride length that is spared by an extremely late gear-change. I would register the modest momentum as a negative in isolation, but in Cole's case it appears to be linked to a new time signature that he has learned to repeat with greater consistency and advanced sequencing. Surprisingly, the right-hander actually moved more slowly to the plate on some of his pitches from the stretch, maintaining his standard leg lift without increasing his thrust to the target, and his stretch timing was inconsistent overall. Cole has graduated from the Roger Clemens school of hip-heavy torque, creating excellent hip-shoulder separation with minimal upper-body load. It is rare for me to focus on a pitcher's follow-through, but I am concerned by the violent recoil of Cole's throwing arm that takes place after release point. 

Danny Hultzen (Mariners-AAA)
The man selected right behind Cole with the number-two overall pick in the '11 draft, Hultzen did the southpaw thing with a closed stride that looked as though he were aiming toward the back of the left-hand batter's box, creating a trajectory angle that could be hell on same-handed hitters. Many lefties struggle to harness the closed-stride technique, but Hultzen displayed tremendous consistency of his release point, an aspect that was aided by near-perfect posture.

Hultzen did have an odd hitch as he stepped into his windup, but his balance was otherwise solid once he was moving toward the target. He directed his momentum toward the plate early in the sequence, with a very smooth transition from first to second gear. Hip-heavy torque produced fastballs that sat at 94 mph, with a 10-mph difference between the heat and el cambio. Hultzen also threw a breaking ball with slider tilt and curveball velocity, a combination that could eventually earn the slurve moniker. The Mariner farmhand showcased outstanding command of all three pitches in his lone inning of work—the control numbers say that 18 of his 19 pitches went for strikes, though a number of those strikes were of the foul-ball variety.  

Dylan Bundy (Orioles-A)
Bundy has earned heaps of praise for his mechanics, and though his delivery has some obvious strengths, there are also a few kinks in its armor. The perks include an early burst of momentum toward the target followed by a smooth transition into a powerful second gear, though his dynamic balance was disrupted during this phase with a lean back toward second base, in addition to a big drop-and-drive that lowered his center of gravity. Bundy recaptured his balance momentarily after foot strike, before the spine-tilt kicked in to disrupt his posture at release point, though a stable head masked the imbalance. He’s another hip-heavy torque guy, with minimal upper-body load that is sequenced perfectly with the timing of trunk rotation, allowing the hips to maximize before firing the shoulders. The kid is teeming with upside, due to a rare combination of present-day skills plus the functional strength and mechanical baseline for future dominance.

Tyler Skaggs (Diamondbacks-AAA)
The first four players to take the mound for the U.S. team put on a clinic for sound pitching mechanics, demonstrating various levels of efficiency and consistency. Then Tyler Skaggs toed the rubber. The left-hander threw the pill from a high arm slot thanks to some heavy glove-side spine-tilt, which acted to create a wicked incoming angle on batters while muting his release distance and pitch repetition. Skaggs used generous upper-body load to create torque, though his hip-shoulder separation was limited by a premature initiation of trunk rotation. The southpaw failed to exhibit command of his delivery, with shaky balance and a sloppy glove that were symptomatic of his overall inconsistencies of motion. I did like his momentum, though Skaggs directs his delivery along an S-shaped pattern that screams inefficiency, beginning with a closed stride that is aimed toward the left-hand batter's box before redirecting his energy to the right of the plate, and finishing with a fall-off to the glove side after release point.

Jameson Taillon (Pirates-A)
Taillon's Futures Game performance indicated that he has made some adjustments since being drafted with the second overall choice in the 2010 draft. He was able to maintain balance while ramping up the overall momentum of his delivery, with energy directed on a straight line toward the target. His posture was very stable throughout the pitching motion, and his efficiency was underscored by minimal wasted energy in the delivery. Taillon has exhibited an inverted W with a pronounced scapular load since his Texas high school days, though his trunk-rotation timing was very efficient on Sunday, which is a crucial element to his avoiding the elbow-drag that so often accompanies the risky elements of his mechanics.

It will be especially critical for the Pirates to emphasize functional strength and flexibility in Taillon's conditioning regimen in order to support the high-stress factors. There was not much early momentum, but a vigorous second gear was responsible for an above-average charge from leg lift into foot strike. His massive torque involved a combination of upper-body twist, a pronounced scapular load, and ideal timing and sequencing of the rotational elements of his delivery.

Taijuan Walker (Mariners-AA)
A supplemental first rounder from the 2010 draft, Walker was selected just three picks behind Skaggs at #43 overall. The game was a blowout by the time Walker took the mound, cradling a 10-run lead thanks to a nine-spot that the U.S. batsmen pasted on the scoreboard in the bottom of the sixth. The 19-year-old attacked hitters with the honed mechanics of a veteran, throwing an easy 96-mph fastball with a delivery that featured everything that I like to see in a developing pitcher. He got the momentum going early, but rather than employ an obvious shift into second gear after max leg lift, he used a natural progression of increasing velocity, giving the motion a fluid appearance that was visually appealing.

Walker was balanced throughout the delivery, culminating in excellent posture with consistency of timing that was almost unheard-of for a teenager. The motion appeared to be surprisingly tame, considering the powerful momentum and whirlwind rotational velocities, and his ridiculously deep release point just added to the deception of his arsenal. Walker works very quickly on the mound, dictating the pace of the game and firing a string of bullets that kept hitters from getting comfortable at the plate. His ability to repeat the delivery is incredibly advanced for a pitcher his age, and Walker maintained that consistency from the stretch, with stable timing across multiple pitches, despite an abbreviated leg lift with runners on base. 

Alex Meyer (Nationals-A)
Standing six-foot-nine, Meyer might draw comparisons to fellow giants like Jon Rauch or Josh Johnson, but his delivery more closely resembles that of Ubaldo Jimenez. Though Ubaldo's delivery might be more extreme, Meyer shares in the use of an open stride with excessive upper-body twist, plus a scapular load to stretch his hip-shoulder separation like a spring, and the 2011 draftee also pumps high-90s gas like a young Jimenez. Meyer's hips open up very early in the pitch sequence, but there is a pause in hip rotation as the momentum kicks into gear, before the hips fire again near foot strike.

The Ubaldo comp continued to ring true as Meyer struggled with his mechanical consistency on Sunday, though a six-pitch sample is hardly enough to make any sort of long-term judgment on his ability to repeat the delivery. His momentum follows a dramatic gear-shift after maximum leg lift, with minimal forward thrust in the initial phase that gave way to a solid charge after he reached the top of his delivery. His balance was a bit soft from first movement through foot strike, but Meyer exhibited stable posture into release point.

Zack Wheeler (Mets-AA)
Giants fans may have averted their eyes when Wheeler came into the game in the eighth inning, choosing not to bear witness to the sacrifice made at the altar of Carlos Beltran last season, especially given the right-hander's newfound stinginess for the free pass. The impressive combination of solid balance, plus posture, and sharp timing laid the groundwork for understanding Wheeler's adjustments since the trade. He generated generous arm speeds that would be considered “violent” if not for the advanced stability of his rotational energy. He utilized an equal share of hips and shoulders to create top-notch torque and high-90s fastballs, including a pause to allow the lower body to get into position before triggering his trunk rotation. Perhaps the most impressive piece of Wheeler's motion was the sequencing near trunk rotation, as his ability to maximize efficiency with timing consistency was as much eye-candy as it was a functional gift.  

Matt Barnes (Red Sox-A)
I'll pass grains of salt around the table, because Barnes was savvy enough to generate the final two outs of the game on just two pitches, limiting the analytical efficacy of this exercise. He stayed tall in the delivery, with a high leg lift and strong posture, though his balance veered toward first base as he reached maximum lift. Like most of the U.S. pitchers, Barnes had a good first move toward the plate and a blatant gear-change after maximum leg lift, with room to improve the magnitude of his initial momentum. His posture was above average, though one might be deceived by his aggressive head movement after release point. The BoSox farmhand exemplified many of the mechanical trends of the U.S. squad, including hip-heavy torque that was more dependent on timing than upper-body load. Barnes also displayed a slight inverted W, with elbows that broke the shoulder line by a narrow margin, plus a modest scapular load that raised a warning flag for injury prevention.

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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