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April 19, 2013

Raising Aces

Trending: National Grade

by Doug Thorburn

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The ingredients of success for a Major League Baseball team are rooted in scouting and player development, where carefully-crafted strategies dictate the growth patterns of in-house talent. Converting draft picks into major-league production is the engine of a successful franchise in today's game, and the pressure to develop players through the organizational pipeline has intensified due to the league-wide trend for teams to lock down homegrown talent for the long term.

The new-age baseball market features a thin free agent pool, which places additional emphasis on player evaluation, as teams assess trade targets and identify the select free agents whose flaws are perceived to be correctable. Pitching mechanics can play a major role in a team's approach to the acquisition and development of players, whether through the draft, free agency, or trade. As we saw in last month's breakdown of the mechanical trends of the Rays and Brewers, the on-field habits of a big-league staff can provide a window through which to glimpse an organizational approach to pitching.

The Washington Nationals have demonstrated an exceptional ability to mold pitchers who perform at the major-league level. Washington’s staff led the National League in ERA last season, and its success was founded on strong mechanics. The Nats rotation features some of the best deliveries in the game; among the roughly 100 starting pitchers who earned grades in the 2013 SP Guide, just six earned an overall mechanics grade of an A- or higher. Three of those players pitch for the Nationals.

Stephen Strasburg

 

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

HR %

2012

159.3

3.16

30.2%

7.4%

2.3%

2013

18.3

2.95

19.0%

6.3%

1.3%

As the top pick in the 2009 draft, Strasburg arrived prepackaged with an elite delivery that produced triple-digit velocity with impeccable precision. He breezed through the minors, requiring minimal instruction or grooming, and he was prepared for the big stage the moment that he stepped on the field. However, the phenom succumbed to the operating table  during his first summer in D.C. The extreme levels of kinetic energy necessary to consistently throw in the upper 90s naturally place his joints at greater risk, and though his mechanics report card contains exceptional grades, Strasburg does carry a significant injury precursor that is magnified as he becomes fatigued.

Peak Mechanics Report Card

Balance

65

Momentum

55

Torque

80

Posture

65

Release Distance

60

Consistency

55

OVERALL

A -

The above report card is taken directly from the SP Guide, and I should note a couple of strategic differences from the mechanics report cards that have been found within Raising Aces articles over the past year. For starters, the above grades represent Strasburg's peak mechanics, rather than his typical delivery, to paint a better picture of a pitcher's upside. In the case of Stras, there is little difference between this report card and that which I generated back in May, as the only discrepancy among the baseline scores is a five-point gain in the balance category.

The second major difference is the use of “consistency” rather than “repetition.” The repetition grade is intended to reflect how well a pitcher repeats the timing elements of his delivery, and is typically restricted to a single game or a stretch of outings. In contrast, the consistency grade reflects how often a pitcher is able to harness his peak mechanics on a game-to-game basis over a full season. Strasburg has above-average consistency, though his challenge to raise the grade is reflected in this quote from the SP Guide:

For as great as Strasburg was in 2012, his mechanics were still not all the way back to pre-surgery form. They say that pitch command is the last thing to return post-Tommy John surgery, and at the root of pitch command is consistency of timing, which Stras struggled to maintain relative to his rookie season. He carries the injury-precursor trifecta of extreme scapular load, elevated shoulder abduction (“inverted W”), and heavily-delayed rotation, the elements which conspire to induce elbow-drag when he is unable to properly time the delivery. Strasburg is particularly vulnerable when he becomes tired, at which point his timing becomes volatile and he tends to sacrifice posture. Basically, his injury risks stockpile as he fatigues, and this lethal combination effectively supports the Nats' controversial decision to shut Stras down last September.

Gio Gonzalez

 

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

HR %

2012

199.3

2.89

25.2%

9.3%

1.1%

2013

16.0

4.50

22.7%

10.6%

3.0%

Gonzalez arrived via trade with the Oakland Athletics, another organization that appreciates mechanical efficiency. Though his delivery was an asset prior to joining the Nats, he has made adjustments during his time in Washington that have had a positive ripple effect on his performance. He was roughed up by Atlanta's juggernaut offense to the tune of seven earned runs in his last game, but the southpaw was lights out in his first two starts of the season, with the same level of mechanical efficiency he displayed in 2012.

Peak Mechanics Report Card

Balance

60

Momentum

60

Torque

65

Posture

70

Release Distance

65

Consistency

60

OVERALL

A -

It is particularly rare to find a player with plus grades in every category, and though balance and posture have long been elements of Gio's game, his newfound ability to maintain an ideal release point in conjunction with improved momentum and tremendous torque have elevated his game to the next level. Gonzalez received an average repetition grade of 50 due to occasional variations in timing, but his plus marks in consistency reflect the fact that he brings the same delivery to the table in the majority of his starts. The Nats deserve credit for identifying a player with sound mechanics who would transition well into their system, as well as having the coaching skills to further enhance his game.

Quote from the SP Guide:

Gonzalez used to struggle with finding his timing and release point, but he has steadily improved his mechanics over the past few years and he has made critical adjustments to his stride pattern. Gio once followed the common emphasis for lefties to create angle by using a closed stride, but more recently he has altered his delivery such that he now directs his energy straight at the plate. The change has allowed Gonzalez to hit more targets by taking advantage of his natural signature, a factor that also fixed his previous issues with repeating the delivery.

Jordan Zimmermann

 

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

HR %

2012

195.7

2.94

19.0%

5.3%

2.2%

2013

22.0

2.45

12.6%

3.5%

1.2%

Selected in the second round of the 2007 draft, Zimmermann quickly climbed the minor league ladder and made his MLB debut in April of '09. His timetable was not quite as accelerated as that of Strasburg, but the two young pitchers met the same fate in August of their first seasons in the bigs, and Zimmermann lost a year of fieldwork as he rehabbed from Tommy John surgery. The two right-handers have high-energy motions, with the heavy kinetic toll that comes with delivering 96-mph fastballs, and their methods for generating the necessary torque can create the potential for vulnerability.

Peak Mechanics Report Card

Balance

70

Momentum

70

Torque

65

Posture

55

Release Distance

65

Consistency

70

OVERALL

A

Zimmermann has uncanny efficiency, and his greatest weakness—posture—is an element that tends to improve over the course of a pitcher's career as he gains functional strength. He still has upside left in the tank. No other pitcher in the game received three grades of 70 or higher, and his elite combination of stable balance and plus-plus momentum is virtually unmatched when performing at peak levels.

The elephant in the room is an item not reflected in the above grades: Zimmermann occasionally exhibits the injury precursor of elbow drag when he misfires the delivery. He carries two of the three mechanical traits that are tied to elbow drag, and though he lacks the “inverted W” that receives so much attention with Strasburg, Zimmermann does exhibit a heavy scapular load in addition to an extreme delay of trunk rotation. These elements combine to open the window for elbow drag on every pitch, so the Nats will need to monitor his levels of fatigue in order to reduce the risk.

Zimmermann's delivery was nearly as efficient prior to his surgery, though he would battle with balance and timing of his motion at times. He breaks his hands very deep into the timing sequence of the kinetic chain, and the late break is the culprit behind his delayed trigger of rotation, though he also reaps the benefits with 65 torque. As the following clip from 2009 demonstrates, his breaking ball has retained the ability to induce goofy swings followed by exasperated sprints down the first base line.

Quote from the SP Guide:

Zimmermann has quietly developed into one of the most efficient pitchers in the game. His delivery is quick and to the point, with no wasted energy. Balanced throughout, he repeats his motion exceptionally well, and he consistently lines up the delivery even though his momentum will occasionally drift between 60 and 70 on the scale. Zimmermann uses an open stride that works well with his personal signature, and the additional hip rotation combines with some additional load of the shoulder axis to produce top-level torque.

Ross Detwiler

 

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

HR %

2012

164.3

3.40

15.3%

7.6%

2.2%

2013

20.0

0.90

13.6%

3.7%

1.2%

Detwiler was chosen ahead of Zimmermann in the '07 draft, selected by the Nats at no. 6 overall. The Nats gave Detwiler an inning to wave to the crowd in September that year, and two years later he joined Zimmermann in the Washington rotation. Detwiler has taken time to establish himself, missing the first half of the 2010 season due to hip surgery and spending chunks of the '10 and '11 seasons in the minors, but he staked his claim to a full-time gig last season. He did not receive a report card in the SP Guide, and the following scores are based primarily on his start versus the Marlins on Wednesday (note the use of “repetition” rather than “consistency”). 

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

55

Momentum

55

Torque

60

Posture

55

Release Distance

55

Repetition

60

OVERALL

B

Detwiler's report card is essentially a tamer version of the trends seen with the big three, with a delivery that is above average in every category. Although nothing stands out as elite, his solid marks across the board exemplify the utility of the 55 grade. Detwiler’s timing and sequencing of the rotational elements of the delivery are the key to his torque (and thus pitch velocity), and he takes advantage of strong early momentum to make the most of his closed stride. The lefty maintains stable balance despite a slight drop-and-drive element to his delivery, and he finishes with above-average posture that flashes plus.

The net result is a release point with solid depth that Detwiler has been able to repeat in the early stages of the season, and though he faced a meek challenge against the Stanton-less offense of the Marlins, his previous two starts featured 13 combined innings of two-run ball against the hard-hitting Braves and Reds.

Dan Haren

 

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

HR %

2012

176.7

4.33

19.0%

5.1%

3.8%

2013

13.3

8.10

17.1%

1.4%

7.1%

Dan Haren is the new member of the DC pitching staff. Signed as a free agent in December, Haren was coming off the toughest year of his career, in which back problems conspired to raise his ERA to its highest level of his eight full seasons in the majors. On the surface, a transition to one of the top organizations for pitching development would appear to be the perfect remedy for Haren's troubles, but the right-hander's profile suggests that he may have a tough time making the adjustments necessary to fit in with his new team.

Peak Mechanics Report Card

Balance

50

Momentum

30

Torque

50

Posture

50

Release Distance

40

Consistency

60

OVERALL

C

Haren was an odd choice from a mechanics perspective, as he fails to live up to the standards of his rotation-mates despite his advanced pedigree. As a veteran with a long track record of success, Haren may be resistant to any major mechanical change, and even if he is willing to make adjustments, the risk looms of disrupting a decade's worth of hard-wired muscle memory.

Haren 2012

Quote from the SP Guide:

One of the great mysteries of pitching mechanics is how Haren can repeat such a ridiculous timing pattern. He completely halts his motion mid-stride, “stopping at the top” before re-initiating his momentum down the slope. The strategy limits his release distance in addition to creating an obstacle to pitch repetition, yet Haren is able to consistently sequence the delivery. His posture is typically below average, though he can minimize the spine-tilt when his peak mechanics are on display.

The above clip shows Haren striking out Adam Lind in May of last year, and the early returns from this season indicate that the cagey vet is up to his old tricks.

Haren 2013

Haren represents a potential conundrum given his departure from the organizational trends of the Nats, but given his declining velocity and diminishing mechanical efficiency, the team may have to intervene in order to gain the most value from its investment.

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,  Pitching Mechanics

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