April 25, 2014
Too Soon to Swoon?
Evaluations of player performance during the first month of the season come with small-sample caveats, but we can try to separate the flukes from the real improvements by identifying meaningful changes in mechanics, approach, or repertoire. Some of the gains are legit, while others are merely a numerical mirage, so we must look beyond the stats in order to tell which players will continue to impress over the coming months of the season. Let's take a look at some of the more surprising April performances by pitchers and attempt to determine whether it's too soon to swoon over their skills.
Andrew Cashner, Padres
Cashner was a popular pick to break out this season, and my TINSTAAPP compadre Paul Sporer was leading the charge. Coming off of his best season as a pro, Cashner seemed like a safe bet to add more swing-and-miss to his game, since he’s armed with a mid-to-high 90s fastball and pitches his home games in one of baseball's friendliest environments for pitchers. The early statistical returns have been encouraging, but the urge to swoon is largely driven by a single pitch: his devastating sinker.
The above pitch was clocked at 96 mph with ridiculous arm-side run and appears to ricochet off of an invisible wall in front of the left-handed batter's box. It came in his best start of the season, a one-hit shutout of Detroit that featured 11 punchouts, five of which involved called third strikes with fastballs on the outside edge to right-handed batters (two of those strikeouts came courtesy of opposing pitcher Rick Porcello). In the third inning, Cashner struck out all three batters that he faced with backwards K's, with each one frozen and finished by a backdoor sinker.
Cashner has leaned heavily on the fastball in the early going, throwing variations of the heat on 73 percent of his offerings and averaging nearly 95 mph on those pitches. Opposing batters are hitting just .174 off of his heater, with an .087 Isolated Power, and fastballs are responsible for icing 23 of his 31 K's on the year. Cashner’s late-fading changeup and sharp slider are not to be ignored, but his success has been powered by the velocity, movement, and command of his fastball.
Mechanics Report Card
The flashy radar-gun readings are driven by Cashner's massive torque, which is made possible by a delay of trunk rotation after foot strike that allows his lower half to create tremendous hip-shoulder separation. The power of his fastball is often overwhelming, and he can get away with pitches that miss their targets because the batter's window in which to classify the incoming offering is made even briefer by his plus depth at release point. Consider the following fastball, which was clocked at 98 mph. Despite missing to the arm side of his intended target, it induced a late swing and another K.
Cashner’s momentum starts strong, but he slows things down during the stride phase of his motion. Although that pattern leaves the door open to inject more power to his delivery, the right-hander's impressive repetition this season suggests that he has found a timing signature to his liking. Improved consistency was a key to Cashner’s development last season, and that trend has continued in 2014.
The icing on the cake is Cashner's stability throughout the motion, with plus balance in all directions culminating in strong posture at release point. His spine angle flashes 60 grades at peak yet more often settles into the 55 range, and his strong posture allows him to make the most of his aggressive flexion of the spine during the final stages of the kinetic chain.
Jesse Chavez, Athletics
The 30-year-old Chavez has made the transition from bullpen to rotation with aplomb this season, helping the A's to cover for the injuries to starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin. Chavez’s slight build (listed at 6’2”, 160) has raised doubts about his ability to stick in the rotation, but the right-hander has done his best to quiet the naysayers through the first few weeks of the season. He has surrendered exactly one earned run in each of his first four starts, pitching at least six full frames in each outing, with a killer K-to-walk ratio of 28-to-5.
Chavez’s transition to a starting role has been as smooth as it gets, as his velocity has dropped less than a half-tick from his time in the bullpen and his repertoire has required very little adjustment. He always had a bag full of tricks, with multiple fastball variations (including a cutter) in addition to a changeup and curve that he mixed in with regularity, but the key difference this season is an uptick in changeup rate in response to a higher percentage of opposite-handed hitters. He rarely uses the cutter to start an at-bat, but he leans on the pitch when behind in the count, adding some movement to combat those hitters who are sitting on the straight heat that they saw earlier in the plate appearance. Opposing hitters have also had trouble identifying the curveball, which has the capacity to catch even the best player in the game off-guard.
Mechanics Report Card
Chavez has strong balance in the vertical plane, but his lateral stability leaves something to be desired. He begins to lean slightly to the glove side at max leg lift and perpetuates that tilt during the stride phase, finishing with posture that is a tick below average. The torque is decent but nothing to write home about, with a 50-50 combination of hips and shoulders that doesn't stand out in either direction.
The momentum begins with a strong first move that leads with the front hip, and though Chavez has a smooth transition into the second gear of his delivery, he does not add much acceleration during the stride phase. He pairs a high leg lift with a slightly open stride, and it appears that he has more in the tank with respect to stride length if he can take better advantage of the early burst to add momentum to his motion. Most impressive is Chavez's repetition of timing thus far this season, as he continually repeats his pace to the plate as well as his trigger of trunk rotation, factors which suggest that his current method of stride and momentum could be optimal for his particular signature.
Verdict: Too Soon
Martin Perez, Rangers
Perez has the mound on lockdown this season, and his last three starts have been unmerciful to the tune of 26 innings of shutout baseball. Sure, he got to face the Astros during that stretch, but his pair of nine-inning gems were spun against the division-rival Athletics and the league-leading offense of the White Sox. The peripheral stats look very similar to those of last season, aside from a more favorable batted-ball profile, but the workload–related progress is notable for a 23-year old pitcher who had only completed the eighth inning in one career start prior to this season.
Perez brings solid velocity from the left side, sitting 91-93 mph and touching 95, though his average speed is down more than a tick-and-a-half this season. Pitchers tend to heat up with the weather, so his decreased speed is not yet a concern, but it's all the more impressive that Perez has strung together the best stretch of his career without his top-end velo. His fastball was hit hard last season, particularly his sinker, but the southpaw has added an extra inch of depth on the sink this season with outstanding results. He is leaning on the sinker more often in 2014, flipping his favoritism over the four-seam variety, and his approach appears to be triggered to induce weak contact.
Mechanics Report Card
Perez made significant strides with his mechanical efficiency last season, and he has held onto those improvements in 2014. His balance has come a long way to earn an above-average grade, and the drop in his delivery has quieted since last season, though he still carries a back-side lean during the stride phase. Perez does well in the power categories, generating plus momentum involving a strong pace to the plate throughout his lift and stride, elements that add to the depth of his release point.
Perez maximizes torque when he lines up the delivery, combining a delay of trunk rotation after foot strike with a big upper-body twist and scapular load. He achieves great extension when he finds an ideal release point, and he’s clean on the other elements that add depth, such as tracking toward the target after foot strike and maintaining a solid glove position into release point. His repetition still a bit of an issue, with posture that waxes and wanes to below-average levels and timing patterns that can be inconsistent, but the upside is there if Perez can continue to hone his timing.
Verdict: Swoon until June