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May 9, 2014

Raising Aces

Making Setup Man Magic

by Doug Thorburn

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One of the more visible signs of change in today's game is the reshaping of the bullpen, which has led to an increased emphasis on stockpiling ace relievers. Baseball has become saturated with strikeouts, and the solution becomes more concentrated as a game gets to the late innings and the leading team trots out a conga line of pitchers who specialize in whiffs. Today's ’pen is mightier than it’s ever been before.

From a prospect standpoint, it’s easy for a pitcher to get lost in the shuffle once he has transitioned out of the rotation and into the bullpen because of a lack of command or arsenal depth. However, the increased specialization of the modern bullpen is throwing a couple of former top prospects back into the limelight.

Chris Withrow
Withrow is climbing his way to the top of the Dodgers’ bullpen hierarchy, and though the highest rung is currently occupied by shutdown reliever Kenley Jansen, Withrow has leapfrogged some of his more famous (and better compensated) ’pen pals and has graduated from the seventh to the eighth inning of close games. He has the stuff and the approach to serve as a viable caddy for Jansen and to stand out on a loaded pitching staff.

Year

G

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

H %

HR %

2013

26

34.7

2.60

32.1%

9.7%

14.9%

3.7%

2014

16

17.0

0.53

36.4%

21.2%

4.5%

0.0%

In more than 50 innings of big-league work, Withrow has a career strikeout rate of 11.7 batters per nine and an ERA that sits below 2.00. A former starter, the right-hander's whiff rate has exploded and his ERA evaporated with his transition to the bullpen, but his proclivity for the free pass has remained intact. He walked five batters per nine over 471 innings in the minors, and he has reached a new level of wildness in early 2014, with 14 walks allowed and a count of four wild pitches that ties him for third-most in the National League (the other pitchers at that level have each pitched 43 innings or more). The Marmolian approach is solidified by Withrow's invisible hit rate, with just three safeties allowed on the season.

The righty throws hard, with a fastball that averages 96 mph and spikes at 98-99, plus a cutter that runs at 90-93 mph with late movement and induces empty swings and weak contact (batters are 0-for-25 versus the cutter this season, with 13 K's). He relies on a steady diet of the hard stuff, with the heater and cutter accounting for more than 90 percent of the pitches he’s thrown in 2014, and the only respite is a slow curve that averages less than 80 mph at a frequency under eight percent. His grip-it-and-rip-it approach fuels a Rick Vaughn mentality on the mound, including an 80-grade grimace that challenges the Wild Thing's scowl.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

55

Momentum

50

Torque

65

Posture

60

Release Distance

55

Repetition

35

Overall

B-

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

The statistical profile suggests that Withrow has some mechanical issues that are tampering with his consistency, but his baseline grades are relatively strong. His balance suffers from a vertical drop after max leg lift, in addition to the tendency to drift to the first-base side during the stride phase, but he finishes with plus posture despite these common precursors to spine-tilt. The 25-year old utilizes big torque to generate his mid-to-high 90s gas, relying heavily on the lower half to power his hip-shoulder separation with a tornado of hip rotation, including a solid delay when the delivery is well-timed.

The weakest grades on Withrow's report card are intertwined. His momentum is inconsistent, starting with minimal forward progress as he goes through the lift phase before bursting into a drop-and-drive as he transitions from max lift into his stride. He struggles to repeat the timing and pace with his second gear, alternating between slow deliveries that result in over-rotation and fast deliveries that cause him to miss up and to the arm-side of his targets. The net result of his volatile momentum is a “50” grade, but he lines up the delivery best with 55-speed mechanics, and the disparate timing patterns have conspired to muck up his repetition. The good news is that Withrow just needs to iron out the late-blooming elements of his motion in order to clean up his walk rate, but the bad news is that those skills can take years to master and some pitchers never overcome their problems with mechanical timing.

Dellin Betances
Betances and Manny Banuelos have seemingly been joined at the hip in any discussion of Yankees pitching prospects over the past several seasons, which makes for an awkward picture given the height discrepancy between the former, who stands 6’8”, and the latter, who’s only 5’10”. A five-inning tease last September, the tall one has been given his first extended look in the show this season, and the early returns suggest that he was well worth the wait.

Year

G

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

H %

HR %

2013

6

5.0

10.80

38.5%

7.7%

34.6%

3.9%

2014

12

17.3

2.08

41.7%

12.5%

15.3%

0.0%

Betances has been a strikeout machine, and his 30 punchouts are tops among American League relief pitchers thus far on the season. He is statistically similar to Withrow, though not as extreme, with an unsustainably low hit rate and zero homers allowed. The two young hurlers also carry a common vulnerability to walks, both in the minors and thus far in their big-league careers, and it remains to be seen whether the former starters can find more consistency over an extended time in the bullpen.

The young Yankees right-hander cooks with serious gas, averaging 96.7 mph on his fastball and teasing triple digits when he eats his spinach. In addition to turning the dials to “11” with the raw heat, at times Betances will also create generous arm-side run with his fastball, a combination that can be deadly to right-handed batters. He has a two-pitch approach that utilizes a 60/40 split between his fastball and the curve, the latter of which typically comes in at 13-mph slower and features tight vertical break, though he occasionally exaggerates his glove-side tilt to manipulate his arm slot, the result of which is a curve with arm-side movement.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

50

Momentum

40

Torque

65

Posture

40

Release Distance

50

Repetition

40

Overall

C-

It is generally more difficult for taller pitchers to maintain balance, given the additional strength needed to stabilize longer limbs and the fact that head movement has a wider range of motion; Betances falls in line with expectation in this case. His balance receives an average grade thanks to decent stability into foot strike, but his head goes off the reservation once the rotational elements kick into gear. The right-hander initiates a severe glove-side lean throughout trunk rotation, culminating in poor posture that can be wildly inconsistent and flashing 35-grade spine-tilt on several pitches per game. The one positive that Betances can take from the scoliosis spine-angle is that it likely contributes to the filthy arm-side run he can produce on his pitches, enlisting a sort of forced pronation from the manipulated arm angle. This creates an entertaining dichotomy in which his energy will swerve left at release point while his pitches veer in the opposite direction.

The spine-tilt is precipitated by a very open stride, with Betances landing far to the glove-side of the centerline at foot strike. The motion kick-starts a domino effect that takes his kinetic energy off-line, effectively pulling to the glove-side in a maelstrom of spine-tilt and trunk rotation. He often triggers the upper half too early, opening up the front shoulder in premature trunk rotation for an inefficient transfer of energy. Much like Withrow, Betances has high-grade torque that is driven primarily by the lower half, though their strategies differ with respect to execution. Betances leans on the sheer magnitude of hip-shoulder separation that is driven by his saloon-door stride pattern, rather than the power of his hip rotation in a well-timed delivery.

His momentum leaves much to be desired, with an initial move that lacks forward progress and a failure to accelerate his pace during the secondary phase of his stride. The right-hander has struggled to find consistency with the slow pace, creating volatility with both the timing and the positioning elements of his motion, a combination that suggests that his walk rate could take a sharp turn for the worse. The technique also contributes to a modest stride, and the combination of slow momentum and excessive spine-tilt greatly limits his ability to achieve extension at release point.

The end result might be an average release distance, but Betances is failing to make use of his biological advantages. A pitcher of his height has the potential for a long stride and an extended reach to add elements of deception and perceived velocity to his delivery, but Betances’ mechanics are underwhelming. At his worst, the young pitcher will remind observers of Ubaldo Jimenez, another owner of a saloon-door stride whose own spine-tilt and inconsistent mechanics have opened the floodgates of unpredictability.

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

Related Content:  Pitching,  Dellin Betances,  Mechanics,  Chris Withrow

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