February 21, 2014
Organizational Trends: Looking for Mechanical Hallmarks
I spent most of the winter in hibernation, buried within the cozy confines of my baseball-analysis den and wading through a sea of pitchers. I'm happy to say that the seeds of thought that were planted in the final weeks of 2013 are now bearing fruit, as the 2014 Starting Pitcher Guide that Paul Sporer and I produced was released last week and covers close to 400 pitchers throughout the professional ranks. This was my second year contributing mechanical reports to the Guide, and I thoroughly enjoyed the arduous-yet-rewarding process as well as the pitching discussions that were generated as a result (and which can be heard on the latest episode of TINSTAAPP).
I dove quite a bit deeper into the pitcher pool this year, with mechanical report cards for more than 200 players. The total was enough to cover just about every pitcher with a shot at starting for his club come Opening Day, nearly all of the pitching prospects who placed in the upper half of BP's Top 101 prospect list, plus a batch of 30 relievers to ice the cake. Stacking these players side-by-side for each ball club revealed some stark organizational trends, and though some of these team-wide tendencies were apparent in the past, there were a few new patterns that emerged this time around.
Let's get the recurring topics from “Trending 101” out of the way first.
To start, the Rays are particularly adept at training their pitchers to have excellent balance and outstanding posture, and this element becomes more apparent as Tampa Bay continues to churn out quality arms from their system. Consider the grades of the five starting pitchers who were covered in the Guide, in which each member of their starting rotation earned a plus grade of “60” or better in the departments of both balance and posture (note that these were finalized prior to the Jeremy Hellickson injury). The grades for the big five averaged out to a 63 for both subjects. On the downside, Rays pitchers tend to combine the awesome balance with a deliberate pace to the plate, with an average momentum grade of just 46 for the five starters. The only pitchers with above-average scores for momentum were David Price and Matt Moore, each of whom scored a modest 55 in the category.
David Price***************************Alex Cobb***************************Chris Archer
As a staff, the Nationals continue to set the tone for the rest of the league. The six pitchers who were put under the microscope—including Ross Detwiler, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, Stephen Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmermann—had a collective GPA of 3.06 when looking at their overall letter grades, a mark that was easily the best in the game. Their team GPA soars to 3.28 when closer Soriano and his “C” grade are removed. It might be a stretch to include Fister, given that he has yet to throw a pitch in a Nationals uniform, but it speaks to the Nats’ organizational philosophy that they targeted a player with Fister's mechanical profile. Furthermore, Fister employs a notoriously closed-stride angle that takes him off-center with his target at release point, and the Nats already have an impressive track record for mechanical improvements of acquired players with similar ailments, which bodes well for the likelihood of a smooth transition.
I have spoken at great length of the Brewers’ preference toward over-the-top pitchers who sacrifice posture in the name of a high arm slot, and that dictum grows louder even as the faces change within their rotation. The three homegrown mainstays from the 2013 rotation each received a poor grade for posture, including Yovani Gallardo (20), Marco Estrada (30), and Wily Peralta (30). The one bright spot was Kyle Lohse, whose 50-grade posture was the best on the staff last season; significantly, he is not a product of the Brewers’ system. The same can be said for newcomer Matt Garza, but the fact that Garza incorporates heavy spine-tilt to the tune of 35-grade posture (at peak) may very well have been the lure that reeled him to “the good land.” Tyler Thornburg is a product of the Milwaukee farm, and his own propensity for glove-side tilt carries a common bond (i.e. 30-grade) with his future rotation-mates. All told, the six starting pitchers who were given report cards in the 2014 SP Guide received an average posture grade of just 32.5, the lowest such GPA of any club in any single subject.
Marco Estrada************************Matt Garza************************Tyler Thornburg
With those updates on old news out of the way, we can now move on to some of the new treasures discovered during the excavation of each team's starting rotation. In many of these cases, I had noticed individual players who exhibited certain tendencies, but the possibility of an organizational emphasis arose as I drew on more direct comparisons from a larger swath of arms.
The Indians had a breakthrough season in 2013, and their pitching staff was largely responsible for reestablishing Cleveland on the map of baseball relevancy. The team’s starting pitchers excelled in generating torque, particularly with the strategy of utilizing upper-body load to create hip-shoulder separation. Five pitchers started more than 20 games for the Indians in 2013, all but one of whom achieved a grade of 60 or better for torque (Zach McAllister was the odd man out with a 50-grade). Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir are now gone, but some of their now-vacant innings will be assigned to Danny Salazar and his 65-grade separation, while Trevor Bauer's 60-grade toque could put another dent into the innings count. The emphasis on twisting the upper-half prior to foot strike might be most evident with Justin Masterson, though Corey Kluber's combination of upper-body load and delayed trunk rotation produced the highest-grade torque on the club.
Justin Masterson************************Corey Kluber
The Cardinals are good at just about everything, and they are in the same category as the Indians as far as high marks for hip-shoulder separation, though the Cards' pitchers achieve their torque with a different method. Every one of St. Louis' current pitchers utilizes a strong delay of trunk rotation, allowing the hips to open after foot strike prior to firing their bullets. Some of these pitchers also combine some upper-body twist, but the linking feature is the timing-specific portion of generating torque. The only weak link in the rotation was Jake Westbrook, who actually leaned on the opposing method with hips and shoulders that fired almost in unison. Of course, Westbrook was a veteran acquisition who did not experience the Cardinal influence during development, and his recent retirement creates a staff of young hurlers who are loaded with torque. No fewer than six pitchers achieved plus grades, and only Lance Lynn's 55 score prevented a clean sweep.
The Marlins are another team that emphasizes efficient hip-shoulder separation, which results in plus grades for torque, though the methods used by their pitchers do not necessarily follow a specific focus on the upper or lower half. Even more impressive is the trend for their young pitchers to combine plus balance and excellent posture with the high-octane power grade. Many players have to choose between power or stability, and it is very rare for young players to harness the functional strength and foundational solidity necessary for such a rare combination, yet the Marlins have a trio of young arms who have already displayed these skills.
Jose Fernandez leads the pack with supernatural mechanics that achieve plus grades in every category of the report card; Nathan Eovaldi possesses strong marks for balance along with 70-grade posture, such that the power grades are the counter-intuitive weak link for a pitcher who consistently throws in the mid-to-high 90s; Andrew Heaney could soon make his presence felt in Miami, and the former first-rounder is following in the mechanical footsteps of his Marlin predecessors with possibly the best balance of the bunch. Say what you will about the organization's business operations, but the Marlins know a few things about player development.
Jose Fernandez***********************Nathan Eovaldi***********************Andrew Heaney
To wrap up, there were a handful of other organizational trends that emerged in my study of the game's pitchers, and though more research is necessary in order to better understand the pervasiveness of these tendencies, the following clubs have at least gotten my attention.
*The Yankees have a heavy lean toward well-balanced pitchers, a factor that adds to the intrigue of their acquisition of Masahiro Tanaka. Balance is a weak link in Tanaka's kinetic chain, and his ability to make adjustments will be a subplot to his 2014 season.
*As a staff, the Astros struggled mightily last season to find consistent timing and repetition, both within games and throughout the season. This factor is undoubtedly tied to the extreme youth movement that is taking place in Houston, and it will be interesting to see if some of their young cogs can take a step forward this year.
*The Padres are relatively strong in both balance and posture, and though the team lacks a single example of a standout pitcher in those categories, the players on staff are almost universally on the positive side of the bell curve.
*The Angels have strong trends toward great momentum but poor balance, exemplifying a very typical pattern in which pitchers struggle to harness their stability under high levels of kinetic energy. The Halo hurlers often follow suit with the predictable result of poor consistency at release point.
*The Mariners are a veritable factory for strong posture, and though the team's average grade of 59.3 is influenced by import Hisashi Iwakuma, it is also driven by the 70 grade of Erasmo Ramirez. Seven Mariners received grades for the 2014 Starting Pitcher Guide, each of whom met or exceeded the league average of 50 for posture. Team ace Felix Hernandez actually had one of the two 50 grades (James Paxton was the other), but the King's spine-tilt is buffered by his year-to-year improvement in the category as well as his plus grades in every other subject of the mechanics report card.