May 2, 2014
Too Early to Worry?
Last week we studied a trio of pitchers who have enjoyed breakouts in performance over the first month of the season in order to distinguish legitimate improvement from potential mirage. This week, we examine the other side of the coin. There are a handful of pitchers who entered the season with high expectations yet have been knocked around the yard this April, and the most perplexing of these players are those whose peripheral stats are in line with last season but whose batted-ball profiles have taken a dive. It might be tempting to dismiss any vulnerability due to the vagaries of balls in play over small samples, but in some cases there are functional underpinnings to suggest that something has gone awry.
Homer Bailey, Reds
Bailey had been on a fantastic run over the past few seasons. His innings totals were rising while his ERAs were falling, with an escalating K rate in every season from 2011–13. His upturn was connected to improvements in stuff as well as mechanics, with velocity gains that placed him among the select group of Over the Radar pitchers and continued refinement of his mechanical efficiency.
The warts on Bailey's stat-line are tied to his results on contact, with a bloated hit rate and a frightening home run rate. (Bailey leads MLB with seven taters allowed already this year.) It might be easy to blame the defense or the gremlins of luck for his poor results, but the mystery deepens when you consider that Cincinnati currently leads all of baseball in defensive efficiency. Bailey has spun quality starts in just two of his six outings, including yesterday's eight-inning effort versus the Brewers that counted as his deepest outing of the year by two frames.
Bailey's fastball velocity is off about a half-tick from last season's average, but such a small back-step is typical in the opening weeks of the season. His slider is down more precipitously, coming in about 2.3 mph off-pace from 2013 with a. 86.9 mph average, but his slider has not been the issue—batters are teeing off on Bailey's heater this year. Part of the issue is tied to location, as Bailey has struggled to hit targets to his glove-side in 2014, experiencing bouts of under-rotation that have most of his fastballs drifting to the arm-side of their intended locations.
More striking has been Bailey's change of approach this season. In 2013, he did an exceptional job of maintaining his pitch frequencies regardless of the count; he did not defer to fastballs early and secondaries when ahead (as is the typical pattern), instead holding a steady pattern with his arsenal that put all of his weapons at play in any situation. But Bailey has fallen into some predictable patterns thus far in 2014, such as pocketing his slider until he gets ahead in the count against left-handed batters and using the curveball only as a show-me pitch on the first offering. He has used his split in much the same way against right-handers, essentially shelving the pitch until he gets two strikes on a hitter. That approach has made life easier on opposing hitters, and a return to last year's approach could be the key to restoring his glory.
Mechanics Report Card
Bailey's mechanics are sound. In fact, his upward trajectory of efficiency has continued into this season, with balance and posture grades that have each risen at least a half-grade since last season. He has quieted the drop in his delivery and maintains a stable spine angle into release point. The right-hander also carries a high angle of shoulder abduction, allowing him to generate downhill plane without sacrificing posture in the process.
The momentum is still a plus attribute, though it appears to be a tad behind his burst from last season. Bailey flashes the 65-grade momentum that he earned in the 2014 Starting Pitcher Guide, but his pace is inconsistent at times, leading to the arm-side misses on the fastball that have plagued him this season.
Bailey made adjustments to his motion last season to simplify the delivery such that there was less of a disparity between his windup and stretch, and he has maintained those alterations this season. He has an exceptional learning curve that allows for continuously improving mechanics, earning my trust that he can iron out some of the timing wrinkles in his delivery to find better consistency.
Verdict: Too Early
Danny Salazar, Indians
After a stunning debut performance in 2013, Salazar's 2014 sequel was highly anticipated. Instead, the air has been sucked out of the Salazar hype balloon. He has witnessed modest regression in his strikeout and walk rates, but the batted-ball profile is responsible for nearly doubling his ERA this season; not only has the homer rate shot up, but the right-hander has already allowed more doubles this season than he did last year in twice the frames. Further limiting his effectiveness is a tendency to run deep counts and long innings that have conspired to send him to the showers before the fifth frame was completed in three of his five starts.
Salazar and Bailey are connected by my pet pitch, the split-fingered fastball, but their stuff profiles have taken different routes. Whereas Bailey has largely maintained his velocity, Salazar has dropped nearly two mph off of his fastball from 2013, and the issue is magnified by his over-reliance on the pitch. The young right-hander threw four-seam fastballs or sinkers on 68.6 percent of pitches last year, most of which were four-seamers that averaged 96.8 mph, but in 2014 he has upped the frequency to 74.3 percent despite the loss of velo. His other pitches have experienced a similar downgrade; the splitter is down 2.0 mph and the slider has dropped 1.6 mph from last year.
The slider has been hammered this season, coughing up a 1.182 slugging against and three of the five homers that he has allowed. Salazar’s slider usage pattern has completely shifted; last season, he used the slider as a first-pitch distraction to right-handed batters who were sitting on the gas, leaning on the breaker to get ahead in the count to start an at-bat, but in 2014 the slider has become a two-strike pitch that he uses to coax empty swings.
This has been a massive change due to the shifting requirements for a slider in these different situations—on the first pitch of an at-bat he was trying to break the pitch off over the plate to get a called strike, but in two-strike situations the impetus is to bury the pitch in the dirt in order to coax an empty swing. Sure enough, all three of the homers allowed on sliders came as the result of pitches that failed to sweep under the zone. Instead, the pitches ended up in spots where batters could get a good swing (as in the Abreu blast above).
Mechanics Report Card
I was impressed by Salazar's delivery last season, thanks to a thick blend of power and stability that is rarely seen in a young arm. But he has fallen off-track this season, with every single grade on his report card having suffered a decline.
The lack of stability is concerning for a pitcher who achieved a plus grade for balance last season, with an exaggerated drop-and-drive as well as the tendency to lean glove-side from foot strike through release point. His posture has occasionally scraped a 55 peak, specifically in his most recent outing against the Giants, but the spine-tilt has been very inconsistent and fallen below average levels in his other games this season. His posture was volatile last season as well, but not to the degree that we have seen in 2014.
Salazar’s momentum has also taken a big hit since last year, sapping kinetic energy from his delivery and messing with his timing patterns. His pace to the plate was a bit better in his first couple of starts, but he really slowed down in his last game, perhaps as part of the effort to re-stabilize his delivery and find a better balance point. Even Salazar's torque has taken a hit, as timing inconsistencies have him firing the hips and shoulders in close proximity rather than taking advantage of delayed trunk rotation to create hip-shoulder separation. The combination of factors suggests that Salazar is not in the same physical shape that he was in last season, and that he can't maintain the same combination of stability and power that he put on display in the past.
The functional results of his diminished mechanics include lessened velocity, a shallower release point, and a lack of repetition that has tarnished his pitch command. These elements can be fixed, but Salazar's mechanical to-do list is lengthy.
Based solely on the stats, it can be argued that Masterson doesn't warrant inclusion on this list. The ERA is not nearly as bloated as that of his young rotation-mate, while Masterson's K and walk rates are right in line with last season. On the surface, it seems that a few extra hits are all that stand between him and his performance pattern of 2013. However, there are some other warning signs that the right-hander may be in for some continued struggles over the next few weeks.
The sinker is Masterson's weapon of choice, and he has leaned more on the pitch thus far in 2014. The sink has lost 1.2 mph since last season, but the four-seamer has seen a steeper decline of 2.9 mph, and the lack of zip might help explain why he has been more selective with the pitch this year. His slider is also down, having lost 1.6 mph from its 2013 average, and he is using the pitch much less often versus left-handed bats; a big change last season was his willingness to bring the slider against batters with the platoon advantage, but Masterson appears to lack that same level of confidence in the pitch this season.
Mechanics Report Card
Masterson has an interesting quirk with respect to his release height. The guy is very tall, standing 6'6” on top of a 10-inch high pitching mound, and yet he has one of the lowest release points in the game. For the past two seasons, he has released the baseball at a height of 5.2 feet on his average pitch, yet that height has sunk to five feet flat in 2014 (stats courtesy of www.BrooksBaseball.net).
The low release point is due to a combination of his near-sidearm slot, excellent posture, and a very low center-of-gravity that is tied to his considerable flex in the knees from foot strike through release. Sidewinders with a lack of downhill plane are especially prone to large platoon splits, an issue that Masterson has dealt with throughout his career (against him, opposing left-handed batters have an OPS 188 points higher than right-handers). The lower release point will potentially exacerbate this issue, and it also speaks to the possibility that Masterson currently lacks the foundational strength to maintain the balance point that he had the past two seasons.
His mechanics have otherwise held firm since last season, potentially alleviating some of the doubt surrounding his prospects for the 2014 season.