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July 20, 2012

Raising Aces

Back to the Futures Game, World Team

by Doug Thorburn

The international stars of the World Team lacked the draft-day pedigrees and household names of their U.S. counterparts, but the group was anything but lacking in terms of stuff, including multiple arms that reached for triple digits. The final result may have been a blowout, but the box score is hardly reflective of the collective talent on the World Team, and much of the damage was concentrated in the middle innings.

Yordano Ventura (Royals-A)
Ventura was the World Team's answer to U.S. starter Jake Odorizzi, as the hometown Royals watched their own farmhands go to battle in the first inning of the Futures Game. Ventura was the more impressive of the two right-handers from the standpoint of stuff as well as mechanics, with high-90s heat that touched triple digits and was supported by a well-tuned delivery. The 21-year-old attacked hitters with plus momentum and a long stride that was directed straight at the plate, contributing to legit release distance despite his sub-six-foot frame. The early momentum was a plus, and in what was a theme for the World Team pitchers, Ventura exhibited a smooth transition into second gear after maximum leg lift.

The lithe right-hander struggled with his balance, with a lean toward first base as he reached max lift followed by a trailing head as he approached foot strike, though he recovered to finish with impressive posture at the pitch release. Not surprisingly, Ventura utilized massive torque to fire his 100-mph bullets, with a strong combination of upper-body load and delayed trunk rotation after foot strike. Another common trait among World pitchers was a hip-turn toward second base as they reached the top of the delivery, and though none of the World hurlers had the extreme twist of Zack Greinke or Felix Hernandez, Ventura exhibited the more typical pattern of a reduced coil. The arm speed was noticeably slower on Ventura's changeup when compared to his fastball, which could act to telegraph the pitch to advanced hitters, though the high-80s velocity and arm-side fade were enough to baffle minor-league stars.

Jose Fernandez (Marlins-A)
Fernandez has been on fire in the low minors, dropping a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 116:22 across two levels and 94 innings, with a combined 8-1 record and 2.11 ERA. Fernandez has made substantial improvements in the year since the Marlins took over his development, and his adjustments reflect well on his long-term development as well as his coachability. What was once shaky balance and posture have evolved to plus elements of his mechanical profile, in addition to the same excellent momentum that he had on display as an amateur. Fernandez had a drop-and-drive to the delivery, though it proved to be just a minor obstacle to a player with remarkable consistency.

The radar gun was flashing 97-99 mph with regularity, and his ability to utilize his body to increase momentum and torque will inevitably lead to a “violent” tag in some circles, though the right-hander appeared to have the functional strength and mechanical baseline to reap the benefits with minimal risk. He avoided the slide step from the stretch but employed a truncated leg lift that combined with his quick-twitch style to reduce his stride length with runners on base. He also mixed in a more standard lift from the stretch on occasion, creating another obstacle to consistent pitch repetition, yet the delivery was well-coordinated overall.

Chris Reed (Dodgers-AA)
The World Team entered the bottom of the third inning with a four-run advantage, though the slate would be wiped clean before the frame was over. Just two of the runs would ding Reed's ERA in the box score, yet the unearned tallies scored as a result of his throwing arm when the left-hander bounced a 30-foot throw to first base with one out in the inning. Reed is yet another lefty with a closed stride that is directed toward the left-hand batter's box, similar to Danny Hultzen and Tyler Skaggs of the U.S. Team. Representing the United Kingdom, Reed had rough lateral balance into max leg lift, with an unusual pattern that looked as though he would start toward first base with his tall leg kick prior to re-directing his energy toward the plate with a severe drop-and-drive.

Reed finished with his head far out in front of the body, completing the cycle of imbalance with a head that drifted in every possible direction away from his center of mass. The posture was above average despite the imbalance of his motion, and both elements improved from the stretch, as a slide step with a quicker time into foot strike effectively limited the opportunity for his balance to fall off track. Reed relied on upper-body load to fuel his hip-shoulder separation, with late-firing hips that stood in the way of maximizing his torque. A barrage of pitches from the stretch featured a throwing arm that failed to catch up to the rest of the delivery, and the result was a series of pitches that were left high and dry of the intended location.

Felipe Rivero (Rays-A)
Rivero followed the left-hander's guide to a closed stride, angling his momentum to the left of the plate before redirecting his energy back toward the dish, forming a wave pattern that was a less-exaggerated version of the “S”-shape of Skaggs' motion. Rivero was very quick into foot strike, with plus momentum in terms of velocity yet an inability to harness much consistency. His timing patterns were extremely volatile during the Futures Game, with mistimed offerings from both the windup and the stretch and a specific trend toward under-rotated pitches that missed high and wide to the arm side (I smell a country song).

Rivero walked the leadoff man on five pitches in the bottom of the fourth inning, and he would admit a trio of free passes before his outing was complete, with a deadly combination of inconsistencies with respect to timing, momentum, and positioning throughout the delivery. He was on the long list of World hurlers who struggled to repeat the timing of trunk rotation, a factor that destroyed his pitch command despite his having balance indicators that were consistently awesome across the board. Even the arm slot was inconsistent, veering between a near-sidearm slot and one that involved a more elevated angle of shoulder abduction. The southpaw showed off an extremely quick pick-off move, thanks to a lefty strategy that involves a quick-step behind the rubber and a snap-throw to the first-base bag.

Enny Romero (Rays-A)
Fans may be excused for any confusion when World Team manager Bernie Williams put Romero into the game, as he followed his Charlotte teammate and fellow left-hander Rivero, with a matching cap and a surname that differed by just two letters.  The third consecutive port-sider to take the mound for the World Team, Romero's mechanical profile was a bit different from the previous pair of southpaws. He had the closed stride, but Romero started from the third-base side of the rubber to finish close to the centerline. He lacked the postural stability of his predecessors, with a deceiving pattern of early spine-tilt that disrupted his efficiency but stabilized after release point. The finished posture was not as bad as one would expect given the early spine-tilt, and Romero actually finished within earshot of league average.

He featured an exceptionally high angle of shoulder abduction that was apparent early in the kinetic sequence, with the spine-tilt adding to an exceedingly tall release point. The angle of trajectory was so extreme that Romero appeared to require over-rotation of the shoulder axis just to get the ball down in the zone, an element that is more common than many people realize when dealing with high-slot hurlers. The lefty pelted nothing but heat for his first eight pitches, ranging from 94-97 mph with hip-shoulder separation that was highly dependent on upper-body load. Romero also had some upper-body twist as he reached max leg lift, though his pre-coil was about half the magnitude of the King Felix model. He displayed the rare trait of momentum that slowed down when he pitched from the stretch (with a normal leg lift), before mixing in a quick-lift that hampered the timing of his delivery.

Ariel Pena (Angels-AA)
The Futures Game performance of Ariel Pena was the epitome of pitcher collapse. Nothing went right for the right-hander as the U.S. club sent nine men to the plate, eight of whom would cross the dish before the book was closed on Pena's stat line. The release point was all over the place due to inconsistent timing of trunk rotation, and the Halo farmhand paid dearly for the gifts that he left over the plate for the U.S. batsmen. Pena continued to catch the fat part of the plate with pitches that missed their intended targets by several inches—at one point, he hung an 85-mph breaking ball on an 0-2 pitch that was supposed to be buried in the dirt, but Manny Machado punched a ticket to the warning track for a two-run double.

Pena's stride timing was haphazard as well, despite a normal leg lift from the stretch, with a direction that drifted between an open stride to one that was nearly straight to the plate. The right-hander displayed an early posture change that persisted through pitch release, which combined with the timing disparities as Pena battled to find his release point throughout the outing. Modest momentum produced a below-average stride, with virtually no adjustment when pitching from the stretch, and his release distance was further limited by the early spine-tilt.

Julio Rodriguez (Phillies-AA)
Rodriguez inherited Pena's pair of baserunners and promptly allowed them to score when an elevated 90-mph fastball was steamrolled by the freight train of Nick Castellanos' bat, buffering the resume of the eventual Futures Game MVP.  The Phillies right-hander had a nearly true-sidearm delivery, with plus posture combined with a low angle of shoulder abduction for a 9:15 arm slot. The right-hander's stride direction was inconsistent, wavering back and forth across the centerline between a closed stride and one that was directed at an open angle. The variation was possibly due to a pre-set hip-angle that determined the eventual path of Rodriguez's stride, with a ripple effect that disrupted his hip-shoulder separation when the stride landed to the right of the centerline, limiting his velocity as well as consistency.  The early thrust was a positive, though Rodriguez failed to take advantage due to a relatively slow second gear into foot strike. There was some funk to his stride pattern, with a saloon-door of a lead-leg that drew comparisons to Ubaldo Jimenez. In the end, Rodriguez was blasted by poor pitch location that stemmed from his mechanical difficulties.

Kyle Lotzkar (Reds-AA)
Lotzkar came into the game with one out and a runner on second, giving us a look at his stretch mechanics right out of the gate. The delivery was simple yet efficient from the stretch, with a gut-high leg lift and strong thrust that was navigated along a beeline to the target. His balance was nearly ideal, setting up stable posture with minimal spine-tilt, even with Lotzkar's aggressive transition from hyperextension of the spine into flexion. His momentum featured a steady increase from first movement to foot strike, as opposed to the gear change that commonly occurs after max lift, though he had room for improvement in terms of sheer body velocity. The right-hander did a great job of reaching full extension at release point when the gears were clicking, though he displayed some inconsistent timing and sequencing of the rotational elements in his one inning of work.

Lotzkar's torque was heavy on hip rotation and thus dependent on the timing of trunk rotation, though a scapular load contributed to some additional hip-shoulder separation with the side effect of elbows that raised above the shoulder line, a combination of factors that put Lotzkar at risk of elbow drag. The inconsistent timing of trunk rotation resulted in a number of late triggers and elevated offerings that further compounded the risk of the elbow-drag pre-cursor to injury. Lotzkar was somewhat helped by a generous strike zone from umpires who were trying to pick up the pace of the blowout, helping to mask the inconsistency of his pitch execution.

Bruce Rondon (Tigers-AA)
The first thing about Bruce Rondon that catches the eye is that he’s a large human, with a listed weight of 270 pounds that casts an intimidating presence on the mound. Then the right-hander starts hurling rawhide spheres at 102 mph, and suddenly a batter's worst fears come true. The Futures Game performance was a tease, with only four pitches to gawk at Rondon's lasers, each of which was clocked in excess of 100 mph. He pitched from the stretch even with the bases empty, and the heir apparent to Jose Valverde set up the delivery with a Valverde-like tuck of the glove-side shoulder as he established the set-up position. Rondon had some balance issues prior to foot strike, with a bend at the waist as he exited max leg lift, though he was able to re-stabilize himself in time for release point on the few pitches that were on display.

The right-hander had a mid-range coil into max leg lift and some drop-and-drive as he uncoiled the spring, a method that also had an impact on his balance from first movement to foot strike. He invoked the saloon-door strategy with his lift leg after the drop-and-drive to find an open stride, and he triggered a huge upper-body load by keeping the shoulder-axis closed as the hips rotated, generating massive torque that underpinned the triple-digit heat. Rondon brought solid momentum to the table in addition to terrific posture, which maximized his release distance and produced unbelievable perceived velocities on his devastating fastball. 

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

Related Content:  Pitching,  Scouting,  Mechanics,  Futures Game,  World Team,  Delivery

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