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April 4, 2014

Raising Aces

The Aces of Opening Day

by Doug Thorburn

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All of the great holidays are marked by high levels of anticipation. But Opening Day stands out among the more traditional observances because it is merely the beginning of the celebration to follow: seven months of 6-4-3 double plays, exploding sliders, and that sweet sound when lumber meets horsehide. It’s easy to fall pretty to the trap of overweighting observations made at the start of the regular season, and the rational observer will maintain perspective while enjoying the day's festivities. But that doesn't mean that there’s nothing to be learned from the first round of games. Early in the season, many pitchers are making real adjustments to elements of their mechanics, approach, and repertoire, and these alterations can be put under the microscope in order to get an idea of the player's developmental patterns.

I took in a number of Monday's games, and the pitching performances went much deeper than any box score can reveal. These are my impressions of a few of the many aces in action.

Stephen Strasburg vs. New York Mets
I tuned in to see Strasburg’s first innings of the 2014 season, and his delivery immediately attracted most of my attention. The biggest concern from last season was a severe downgrade of his posture, as Strasburg fell into patterns of serious spine-tilt, compromising his stability as well as his ability to repeat the delivery. Most pitchers improve balance and posture over time, but Strasburg exhibited the opposite trend over the past couple of seasons, so his spine angle was a focal point on Opening Day.

Overall, Strasburg’s mechanics fell short of the peak delivery that was on display in 2010, or even his form from 2012, but such is to be expected from pitchers during the first month of the regular season. His posture started out decently enough while he was pitching from the windup, but the wheels fell off the wagon once he was forced into the stretch and the spine-tilt became more exaggerated. His timing was also compromised when pitching from the stretch, throwing a wrench into his command of the fastball.

Strasburg lost his rhythm with runners on base; holding baserunners was a focal point of his work in spring training, and the right-hander was experimenting with a new method in which he made a blatant turn to look toward the first-base bag. The move occurred before he reached the set position, so it didn’t precipitate or facilitate his pick-off move, and there was no functionality for the maneuver in terms of shortening a runner's lead. All it did was create a disturbance in his rhythm, and given the novelty of the action, it made opposing baserunners a bigger distraction without discouraging their leads.

The big news over the spring was Strasburg's addition of a slider to his fastball-curve-changeup repertoire, and he wasted little time in showing off his new toy to Mets hitters. The pitch was nasty, with tight break and a steep angle of trajectory, functioning as a harder version of his curve that provided another weapon for opposing hitters to try to time. His command of the pitch wavered, but the action on the slider was advanced for a pitcher who just picked up the pitch in the last few months.

Strasburg’s fastball command was shaky, and he was hitting a modest 92-94 mph on the radar gun throughout the game. His average velo of 93.6 mph was 2.5 ticks off of last year's average, and though most pitchers take some time to build up their pitch speed, it's worth noting that Strasburg averaged 96.8 mph in his first start of 2013. Though his trademark heat was less effective, all of Strasburg's secondaries were in good form on Opening Day, with wicked movement even when they were missing targets. He registered eight of his 10 strikeouts on his secondary pitches, including four on curves, two on sliders, and two on changeups.

Sonny Gray vs. Cleveland Indians
The A's entered this game having lost nine consecutive season openers (assisted by four consecutive Game Ones versus Felix Hernandez), and Sonny Gray was tasked with halting that skid despite the mere 77 innings of major league ball on his resume. Gray lived up to the challenge, pitching six innings of shutout baseball against the Tribe, but the A's bullpen would prove vulnerable en route to a record-breaking 10th consecutive loss on Opening Day.

Gray stands out among A’s pitchers due to his mechanical patterns. Oakland tends to churn out arms who are strong on the stability grades but light on power, but Gray flips those mechanical tendencies, with a drop-and-drive approach that incorporates heavy momentum in conjunction with a vertical drop in balance. He carries big torque that fuels his typical 92-96 mph velocity, and the delivery culminates in below-average posture at release point, with an exaggerated height to his arm slot that improves his curveball trajectory but carries deficits for release distance and pitch command.

These mechanical signatures were present on Opening Day, along with a few caveats that suggest that Gray is still honing his delivery. He started the game with momentum than was slower than usual, lacking his usual late burst into foot strike, and the ripple effects on his timing led to a four-pitch walk to Nyjer Morgan to lead off the game. Gray's timing was inconsistent throughout the first two innings, with a prevailing tendency to miss up and to the arm-side with his fastball, but the 24-year-old was able to lock down his trademark momentum (and the ensuing timing pattern) as the game progressed.

Timing is the most critical variable in the mechanics equation, with good days and bad days often determined by how well a pitcher can repeat his signature time-stamp throughout the ballgame. Gray was able to harness his timing pattern after the first couple of innings, but his baseline mechanics were a bit behind his top form of 2013. Nothing was all that glaring, but Gray's lateral balance had some lean back toward first base as he approached max leg lift, as well as some extra tuck (hunching over) during the stride phase. These balance issues were most pronounced in the first inning, and he improved his stability throughout the game.

Similar to Strasburg, Gray dealt with reduced velocity in the first game of the season, coming in at 91.3 mph on his average four-seam fastball, a mark that was 2.6 ticks slower than it was at the MLB level last season. Gray was essentially a two-pitch pitcher in 2013, mixing fastballs and curves with 90 percent of the pitches that he threw. But he leaned heavily on a third pitch on Monday, one that came in at 84-86 mph with good depth. The pitch was the same speed as his changeup, but it had glove-side movement rather than arm-side run, and the fact that Gray threw a total of 25 pitches within this velocity range reveals the extent to which he was showcasing a new weapon (his changeup frequency last season was 6.2 percent). The pitch had the subtle movement of a cutter, and though he struggled to command it in the first go-around, the new toy could be a major addition to his arsenal this season, complementing his preexisting repertoire.

Cliff Lee vs. Texas Rangers
Lee's calling card is fastball command, and his complete ownership over the baseball's flight path has fueled the National League's lowest walk rate over the past three seasons. I’m amazed that he can repeat his delivery so well despite the significant mechanical hurdle of poor stability, and he earned the bewildering combination of 40 balance and 80 consistency on his report card in the 2014 Starting Pitcher Guide. Lee has overcome the mechanical obstacles to master his delivery, but even the best can waver when executing a task that depends on precision down to the fraction of a second, and that was the case with Lee on Monday.

Lee’s stuff was there; his fastball velocity was a tick off of last season's standard but within the expected range, and he showed his typical usage pattern, which is heavy on cutters and changeups and light on breaking pitches. What wrecked Lee's day (to the tune of an eight-spot across five frames) was loose command of the fastball. He wasn't wild in the traditional sense, maintaining his typical eight-to-one K-to-walk ratio, but he repeatedly missed targets with pitches that caught way too much of the plate. It was as if there was a tractor beam pulling his pitches toward the middle of the strike zone, where batters unleashed the thunder on elevated strikes that kept catcher Carlos Ruiz's glove busy moving for misplaced balls.

The two biggest blows of the game actually came on pitches that were well executed (baseball can be crazy like that). After loading the bases in the second inning thanks to base hits on elevated fastballs, Lee was defeated on a steep curveball that Josh Wilson golfed down the line for a bases-clearing double. The next inning, Alex Rios reacted quickly to a cutter on the inner edge of the strike zone and pulled the pitch out of the yard for a three-run bomb, forcing Lee to pay for ill-executed pitches from earlier in the frame.

The three-run blast by Rios put the Rangers ahead temporarily in the third inning, giving them a 7-6 lead that would last about 10 minutes before the Phillies plated another run. It was a rough day, but Lee left the game with a 9-8 advantage after five innings, and the hard-luck lefty who has traditionally posted disappointing numbers in the win column came away with the big W despite surrendering more runs in a game than he had since August 21, 2010, when he was a member of the Rangers.

Jose Fernandez vs Colorado Rockies
Big Fern never ceases to amaze, and on Opening Day he picked up right where he left off last season. His fastball was parked in the high 90s, topping out at 100.0 mph on the nose with his sixth pitch of the game and maintaining the 96-98 mph heat for six innings of work. His curveball (nicknamed “The Defector”) was in full effect, eluding bats and buckling knees to the tune of six of his nine strikeouts on the day.

After giving up consecutive singles in the first inning, Fernandez set the tone for the rest of the game with a devastating sequence against Troy Tulowitzki. The at-bat started with a 99-mph fastball that badly missed its target and sailed up and in, but Tulo took a mighty hack and came up empty. Fernandez followed with a curve in the upper half of the zone that earned a called strike, and the 0-2 follow-up was a 100-mph missile on the outer half, which Tulowitzki fouled off to stay alive. Fernandez continued to alternate pitch types with a breaker on the outer edge that caught Tulo off-guard, with the Rockie shortening his swing to get a piece of the pitch, after which Fernandez finished his adversary with another breaking ball that caught plenty of plate but featured too much movement for Tulowitzki to handle.

The lateral movement on Fernandez’s breaking ball was X-rated, with PITCHf/x grading the pitch in the same class as Yu Darvish's slider as far as horizontal break. Fernandez generated a truckload of late swings with his electric fastball, and batters were hacking at breakers that darted out of the zone, resulting in strikes with 28 of his first 31 pitches (and 42 of his first 48). He mixed in a handful of changeups, but Fernandez needed just the one-two combo of his 8-grade pitches to shut down the Rockies.

If there was any reason for pause, it was the high frequency of curves, with Fernandez spinning 37 breakers on the day out of 94 pitches. Interestingly, the pitch pattern was dictated almost entirely by new Marlin catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia; Fernandez, the young ace who was known to constantly shake off his catcher's signs last season, was essentially following orders in his first start of the 2014 campaign. Fernandez finished with six clean innings and a K-to-walk ratio of 9-to-0, and the only blemish on an otherwise exceptional debut was a solo homer by Carlos Gonzalez. The blow provided yet another opportunity to enjoy Big Fern's moxie, as he just grinned at his 6-1 lead while CarGo rounded the bags.

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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