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April 11, 2014

Raising Aces

Starting Pitcher Four-Pack

by Doug Thorburn

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This is my third year writing Raising Aces for Baseball Prospectus, and one of the perks is the dynamic nature of the series (aided by the leniency of our editors). I’m always searching for better ways to communicate ideas about pitching or to broaden the discussion, and transparency has been an integral part of the process.

Much of my waking life is consumed by watching ballgames, so the logical step for Raising Aces is to pass along some of the notes I’ve collected along the way. The breakdowns are peppered with mechanical grades in order to augment the subjective measurement system of the 20-80 scouting scale (statistical integrity be damned).

Today we have a four-pack for week two of the baseball season, with an eye toward some of the up-and-coming talent in MLB.

Erasmo Ramirez, April 6th vs. Oakland
The A's-M's match-up from last Sunday was on the slate for TINSTAAPP's Game of the Week, pitting Oakland starter Sonny Gray against Seattle's Eraser. With multiple Seattle starters on the shelf during the season's opening month, Ramirez has become an integral cog in the Mariners' rotation. His first start was a gem, but Ramirez was more vulnerable when he took the hill in week two.

The main culprit behind the bad day was timing, which went in waves throughout the game with crests of excellent consistency followed by troughs of poor repetition. He relied heavily on his 89-93 mph sinker, a pitch that features good movement but is exposed when Ramirez struggles to locate (as demonstrated by Brandon Moss).

Timing will be the last piece to come around for Ramirez, whose stable delivery should pay dividends by providing the foundation for consistency. His baseline mechanics are relatively sound, though a disruptive pattern of momentum impacts his ability to repeat his rhythm.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

65

Momentum

50

Torque

50

Posture

65

Release Distance

50

Repetition

45

Overall

B-

For an explanation of the grading system for pitching mechanics, please consult this pair of articles.

Ramirez put several different timing patterns on display in Sunday's game, and the 50 grade for momentum seen above is only the one associated with his most common delivery. He toys with his method of stride and pace to the plate when pitching from both the windup and the stretch, creating a convoluted mechanism that interferes with his repetition. Contrast the following pair of pitches, each thrown from the windup:

In the walk to Yoenis Cespedes, Ramirez invokes a hitch in his stride pattern that stalls his landing into foot strike. The strategy throws off his rotational gears, creating an early firing of the trunk that leads to over-rotation and results in a pitch that misses low and to the glove side of its intended location. Now contrast that to the approach to Jed Lowrie in the second clip, with a smoother pace to the plate that avoids the extra pause in his delivery. Ramirez allows a walk on both pitches, but this time he barely misses his target to the arm-side. I clocked both pitches from the moment that his lift-foot leaves the ground until it comes back into contact via foot strike: The pitch to Lowrie took 1.0 seconds, while the delivery to Cespedes took nearly 1.4 seconds for the same stride portion of the delivery. That difference of 0.4 seconds is massive considering an entire pitch cycle takes less than two full seconds to complete.

The stride inconsistencies extend to the stretch position. Ramirez generally has a better pace to the plate with runners on base, as the threat of the steal hurries his motion, but he also alters his strategy to keep baserunners guessing. Most of the time, Ramirez sticks to his regular leg lift while getting his energy going toward the plate earlier in the kinetic sequence, leading to many of his best deliveries. However, he sometimes invokes a slide step from the stretch, and the results are rarely positive. The home run that was served up to Brandon Moss came on a shrunken leg lift, and Ramirez later tried the slide step with Eric Sogard bouncing off of first base.

Sogard had elicited multiple step-offs from Ramirez prior to this pitch, motivating the right-hander to rush the delivery with a slide step. But Sogard got an excellent jump thanks to a good read on Ramirez's set-up strategy, in which he sets his footing twice and then lifts his gaze to the target in a rhythmic motion before executing the pitch. The read and the jump negated the potential payoff of the slide step, and the timing interference led to a pitch that missed low of its target to compound the issue. All told, Ramirez had at least four different timing patterns throughout the game; repeating his delivery is the final and most critical step in his development, and he will have an easier time mastering just one motion.

Yordano Ventura, April 8th vs. Tampa Bay
Ventura's 2014 debut generated plenty of buzz thanks to the triple-digit heat and off-the-table curve that have blazed his trail through the minor leagues. What caught my eye was his impressive development in areas that were previous weak points, including a late-fading changeup that Ventura mixed in with regularity and a sudden improvement to his release-point mechanics.

I’ve been critical of Ventura in the past, given the combination of immense power and poor stability that he put on display in previous seasons. Predictions of a bullpen future hinged more heavily on his mechanical flaws than on his size, but Ventura's improvements in key areas have produced one of the most intriguing mechanical stories of the spring. His example serves as another reminder that prospect evaluations are merely a snapshot in the progression of development, and young players have the ability to make large swings in their adaptation to the highest level.

Mechanics Report Card

2014 SPG

April 8, 2014

Balance

40

50

Momentum

55

55

Torque

65

65

Posture

40

50

Release Distance

45

45

Repetition

N/A

45

Overall

C

C+

The right-hander was a victim of excessive spine-tilt last season, which was precipitated by poor balance early in the delivery that had him leaning glove-side before reaching foot strike. Interestingly, Ventura still has the leftward lean during his stride phase, but this season he has maintained a much better spine angle into release point. He still loses it from time to time, and the tendency to tilt glove-side got worse as the game went on, but the adjustment is still a work in progress.

Ventura's balance is fringe-average, with the lefty lean as well as a stay-back approach that keeps his head trailing behind his center-of-mass during his stride phase, but his stability has made a noticeable improvement in just six months. That rapid progress provides optimism that Ventura can continue to gain balance while raising his mechanical stamina in the future, stabilizing his delivery and increasing his functional athleticism on the mound. The likelihood of his finding a repeatable timing pattern goes up accordingly, but Ventura would have an easier time mastering his delivery if the windup and stretch had a more similar timing pattern.

Ventura lowers his leg lift from the stretch—not to the point of a true slide step, but the rapid tempo has Ventura hitting foot strike before he can maximize his stride. The best solution is likely in the middle of his two timing patterns, with a consistently high leg lift paired with a powerful burst to the plate that would make him more mechanically efficient, and repetition improved by his ability to focus on a single timing pattern.

Ventura has an incredibly quick arm that is fueled by massive torque, though his follow-through leaves a bit to be desired, as the stay-back tendencies make his momentum hit a wall near release point. He could use a more efficient flow of momentum that continues toward the target after release, an element that would calm some of the spin-off storms that ensue when his balance and posture soften late in the game. At Ventura’s peak, we could be looking at a whiff-inducing machine with three plus pitches whose secondaries will make quick work of hitters who squat on the fastball in order to have a chance to unload a swing.

Chris Archer, April 8th vs. Kansas City
Archer faced off with Ventura in a battle of young guns, with each pitcher trading zeroes through six-plus frames of work. Archer pitched seven full, and though his peripheral numbers were less impressive than those of his counterpart, he was able to escape a couple of jams and put his club in position to win the game. The radar-gun readings were impressive, as well, as Archer averaged more than 95 mph on his fastball variations with late bite that confused the KC batters. Archer also had a much more consistent release point than his opponent. Ventura is certainly improving in this area, but he has a ways to go before reaching the threshold that Archer has already crossed.

Balance and posture are already strengths on Archer's report card, though his power grades pale in comparison.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

60

Momentum

35

Torque

60

Posture

60

Release Distance

55

Repetition

55

Overall

B-

The most glaring score is the one for momentum; both of the starter's from Tuesday's game have a pronounced “stay back” approach to their strides, but the strategy is much more prominent in Archer's case. The result is a pedestrian pace to the plate, and though Archer keeps his leg off the ground with a late glide of momentum to extend his stride, his stride length and his timing are somewhat compromised.

The delivery is somewhat similar to that of Jeremy Hellickson, another Rays pitcher with a slow delivery and a stay-back methodology to his balance. Hellickson embodies the potential for discrepancies between deliveries from the windup and stretch, and Archer may want to make some adjustments in order to avoid a precarious trip down the same path.

For starters, Archer should avoid the slide step that plagued Hellickson in 2013, given the vast timing discrepancy and the muted stride that stem from that strategy. Archer's current motion shows a slight lead of the hip into max lift, but his forward energy halts while the lift leg comes back to earth, before he finally steps toward the target while keeping his weight back. He may want to opt for a stronger pace to the plate on all pitches, keying in on the momentum that allows him to maintain balance and find a consistent release point. Archer's current balance is excellent, with virtually no drop in his center of gravity and excellent lateral stability, and he should be able to add some juice without denting his strengths.

Trevor Bauer, April 9th vs. San Diego
Bauer's prospect star has faded, as he’s battled mechanical adjustments and inconsistent performance since being drafted third overall in 2011. He is a student of the game who studies biomechanics and utilizes strategic methods to get an edge on the competition, but his adjustments have often overcomplicated his task and deterred Bauer from the critical component of locating pitches. He made some notable adjustments again this past offseason, and the early returns suggest that he may have found the mechanical key to unlock his ceiling.

Mechanics Report Card

Nov 2012

April 9, 2014

Balance

30

55

Momentum

70

60

Torque

60

65

Posture

30

50

Release Distance

65

65

Repetition

30

50

Overall

C

B

The first set of grades is from my assessment of Bauer from the fall of 2012, and the second set is based on what he was bringing on Wednesday night. He has always had exceptional momentum, but he previously utilized a pronounced drop-n-drive approach during the stride phase. Bauer has greatly quieted that drop for 2014, allowing him to stay more balanced in the delivery, yet he retains a powerful burst to the plate that takes advantage of an efficient path of momentum. Compare the following clips, with his delivery from September 2012 (top) followed by his motion from Wednesday.

The pronounced lean-back was part of his delivery back in '12, and the technique was more glaring when combined with the back-side collapse generated by the drop-n-drive. Bauer still tilts his head back with some Koufaxian flare, but his vertical balance was much stronger this week, and his lateral stability was greatly improved compared to the past two seasons. I noticed the balance gains in spring training, and though spring adjustments are laden with caveats, it’s notable when a pitcher is showing elevated levels of efficiency early in camp, particularly when dealing with areas of previous weakness.

Bauer’s timing was not yet honed at that point, which is to be expected of all pitchers in the early phases of training, and the fact that he was ironing out a new timing pattern added some layers of intrigue. It would be understandable if he took a while to master the timing adjustments, but his excellent repetition on Wednesday supports the notions that A) Bauer is a quick study, and B) it’s easier to repeat the motion with a solid foundation of balance.

Bauer’s momentum has taken a hit since his UCLA days, and he needed to make some in-game adjustments when his pace fell off track, but he was able to find a groove with plus momentum that was far more controlled. The pace also aided his pitch velocity, as Bauer had an easier time finding the proper time after foot strike during which to fire trunk rotation, maximizing his hip-shoulder separation in the process. He averaged 94.8 mph on his fastball on this week, peaking at 97, upping the ante on his velocity from last summer despite the youth of the season.

Bauer has also added a small wrinkle to his setup with runners on base, performing a triple-deke before he comes to a fully set position. It’s more quirky than anything, with the only possible repercussions stemming from a baserunner's attempt to get a lead, and the tactic is worthwhile if it allows Bauer to get into a rhythm.

The former phenom was on fire in his start against the Padres, recording eight strikeouts over six frames, including a run of five consecutive punchouts from the first through third innings. Carlos Santana took his first turn behind the dish this season, catching Bauer while regular receiver Yan Gomes took a break behind the dish, serving as the designated hitter in game two of the doubleheader. The battery leaned heavily on the fastball, especially early in the count, and Bauer displayed the best command of the pitch that I have seen from him in the last couple of years. The right-hander is well-known for having a cornucopia of secondary offerings, and he reached into his bag of tricks as he got deep into counts.

Bauer’s tremendous upside still exists, and Wednesday was a reminder of the excitement he stirred when he was drafted. I can't wait to see what's next.

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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Premium Article Pebble Hunting: Your F... (04/11)
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