September 21, 2012
Four of a Kind: High-K Closers
The evolution of pitching in the 21st century has trended toward increased specialization, to the point of eight-man bullpens and strict pitch counts for starters. The complete game has all but vanished from the baseball lexicon, and most pitching staffs are now structured with the goal of getting through six innings with a lead before handing the ball to the bullpen. Frequent pitching changes have been unkind to the hardcore fan base, slowing the pace of the game when the drama is at its peak, but the stats reflect the advantages that are gained through the tireless recycling of arms.
Major League Baseball has witnessed a historic trend toward increasing strikeouts, with 2012's league-wide K rate of 19.7 percent (through Wednesday) representing the highest figure of all time. The 1.1-point jump in strikeout percentage from 2011 is the largest season-to-season gain in 25 years. Interestingly, we are not in the middle of some historic home run binge, and the 300-K starter has gone the way of the dodo in the span of about 10 years. Mere memories remain of the exploits of Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, while 2011 strikeout kings Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw hit the ceiling at 250 strikeouts, a level that no pitcher is likely to crack this season. The 300-K starter has been replaced by the 100-K reliever.
There is precedent for such utter dominance in the form of Eric Gagne, whose 2003 Cy Young season is a near-match for Kimbrel's current campaign, including Gagne's 1.20 ERA, 45-percent K rate, 6.5-percent walk rate, and less than a hit allowed for every two innings pitched. Like most closers, Kimbrel relies on just a pair of pitches to attack hitters. His weapon of choice is a four-seam fastball that has averaged 97.6 mph in 2012, up from 96.9 mph a year ago, and which features ridiculous arm-side run. His secondary pitch is a breaking ball with slider velocity and hammer break, diving for the dirt with extremely late movement. The right-hander has taken something off the breaking pitch this season, which, combined with the uptick in fastball velocity, has given him a devastating velo spread.
Mechanics Report Card
Kimbrel's uncanny stuff is supported by elite mechanics, with above-average scores across the board and a couple of individual grades that threaten the top of the scale. He is incredibly efficient, from his monster torque and deep release to the stable posture and excellent pitch-repetition that form the foundation of his pitch command. Kimbrel avoids many of the mechanical pitfalls that typically afflict hard-throwing relievers, thanks to his ability to harness the high levels of kinetic energy produced during his delivery. If there is one nit to pick, I would look for a bit more momentum, but his current capacity to repeat the timing and sequencing of his delivery would make me reticent to change a thing about his motion.
The buzz back in spring was that Chapman had lost some of the heat off of his fastball and traded the smoke for improved command, but his average April velocity of 97.9 mph was nothing to scoff at, and he’s added more speed throughout the season, peaking at 99.7 mph in the month of July. With the season coming to a close and the 24-year-old nursing a fatigued shoulder, his velocity stats for this year are likely to finish as a near-match for 2011’s. Chapman brings the heat more than 85 percent of the time, so the wipe-out slider makes an appearance only about twice per outing, yet the mere presence of the pitch gives batters something else to think about as they gear up for the fastball.
Mechanics Report Card
There is nothing average about Aroldis, including mechanical traits that drift away from the mean. His torque is probably the most pronounced in the game, featuring a huge upper-body twist that loads the spring while his aggressive hip-rotation initiates the sequence for bullets to fire. High-speed momentum adds to the intimidation factor, and though he features some inconsistent spine-tilt near release point, he is able to keep his linear momentum on-line to the target such that he steps toward the plate after release point.
The key ingredients to Chapman's delivery are largely unchanged since last season, but one element that continues to plague him is mechanical timing. Last year, his repetition was atrocious, and his complete inability to command his wayward stuff was dangerous to anyone within range. Chapman continues to battle his timing this season, though he has reined in the delivery to effectively narrow the range of time signatures that he employs. He will frequently miss targets within the strike zone, and though such a strategy is a recipe for disaster for most other pitchers, Aroldis has such wicked stuff that he can afford to miss over the plate and still end up with a K.
Frieri has all but abandoned his secondary stuff with the Angels. He threw fastballs on 77 percent of pitches last season and he tossed heaters 71 percent of the time in April with the Pads, but the fastball frequency in Anaheim has leapt to the 90-percent level. His fastball velocity has also benefited greatly from the move; Frieri's average velo on his heater was 92.7 mph in 2011, a figure that he matched in April of this season, but he has continually gained velocity since the trade and is averaging greater than 95 mph on his fastballs in the OC. The evidence suggests that the Angels knew something about how to maximize Frieri’s effectiveness before they dealt for his services, considering the rapid adjustments with respect to both raw velocity and pitch selection. Perhaps the Angels were watching when both of the homers that Frieri surrendered in April were blasted off of the breaking ball, but the more remarkable change is the sudden uptick in fastball velocity.
Mechanics Report Card
For Angels fans, the cyclone leg-kick that Frieri exhibits after release point might invoke memories of a young Francisco Rodriguez, and like K-Rod, Frieri's delivery gives the appearance of violent rotation due to flailing limbs. Despite the comps to a pitcher with a wild reputation, Frieri has a solid grade-point average on his mechanics report card, with the only weak points coming via inconsistent balance and his issues with consistency of timing. His posture and torque are both well above average, and the secret to his finding the ideal timing pattern could very well be rooted in improved momentum. There is a potential mechanical explanation behind Frieri's increase in velocity, and though the difference is very subtle, one might detect the timing discrepancy when comparing the previous GIF of the Ethier strikeout with the following GIF of Adrian Gonzalez.
This above fastball was the final pitch that Gonzalez saw as a member of the Boston Red Sox, as he was traded the next day in the quarter-billion dollar deal heard ’round the world. Frieri invoked a slight delay of trunk rotation on the fastball, using a minor pause as he reached foot strike prior to initiating trunk rotation. The difference is slight when compared to his mechanics in San Diego, but Frieri's hips and shoulders appeared to be firing nearly in unison and right at foot strike while with the Padres, whereas his Halo motion involves the timing hitch that allows hips and shoulders to separate and create additional torque.
Jansen differs from the other three relief artists on this list in that some of his performance indicators are heading in the wrong direction, including stats as well as stuff. He has slashed his use of the slider and has thus been reduced to a pitcher with just a single weapon: a 92-mph cut-fastball that he has thrown 94 percent of the time in 2012. Jansen's transition to the Mariano Rivera mentality of closer stuff has paid dividends in the run-prevention category, but a steady decrease in velocity has seen Jansen drop 3.5 mph off the cutter since 2009, a trend that might be viewed as a cautionary flag if not for the trade-off of increased lateral movement on the pitch.
Mechanics Report Card
Mechanically, Jansen is a mess of inefficiency. He lacks balance throughout the delivery, including massive spine-tilt and a head that starts drifting glove-side before he reaches foot strike. That combination of poor posture and slow momentum severely reduce his depth at release point. His release distance is further limited by a closed stride that acts as a barrier to his finding extension at release point, as Jansen takes a page out of the LOOGY book despite his profile as a right-hander. It is remarkable that Jansen has been able to reduce his walk rate this season, considering all of the holes in his delivery, and his mechanics would surely be his undoing if he were exposed as a starting pitcher. However, such inefficiency is relatively common among the league's firemen.