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January 16, 2015

Raising Aces

Best and Worst Mechanics: AL East

by Doug Thorburn

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Four divisions down, two more to go as the mechanics wagon heads east. A quick reminder in this time of changing addresses: the players included are based on the team with which they finished the 2014 season. Now let's hand out some hardware.

Balance

Best: Brad Boxberger, 70 grade

Balance is just the tip of the iceberg of Boxberger's mechanical efficiency, with a slick symbiosis of power and stability in which each element allows the other to better survive in the wild of MLB. He maintains balance in all three planes, beginning his motion with a balanced setup that involves flex in both knees, allowing for a center of gravity that stays consistent with the slope of the mound right up to release point. The only thing keeping him from an 80 grade in this category is some lean to the first-base side once the rotational elements kick into gear, and though his powerful motion and extra dose of flexion might give the appearance of instability, the fact that he achieves such impressive balance in spite of the aggressive delivery makes the current grade all the more impressive. Boxberger had to work hard for his hardware, earning the top marks in a division that also included grades of 65-plus from Alex Cobb, Tommy Hunter, Jeremy Hellickson, Adam Warren, and Wei-Yin Chen, among others.

Worst: Casey Janssen, 35 grade

Janssen's balance suffers most in the lateral directions, with a tuck after max leg lift that brings his head to the third-base side of his center of mass, followed by a dramatic veer to the first-base side that begins prior to foot strike. The tilt gets progressively worse as Janssen approaches release point, culminating in terrible posture that grades out between 30 and 35 on the report card. The right-hander also suffers in the other two planes, including a pronounced drop-n-drive that lowers his center of balance in addition to a slight rock-n-roll pattern that leaves him out in front into release point and follow-through. Apparently, the little jig that Janssen performs at the start of his windup does little to keep him in the groove.

Momentum

Best: Jake McGee, 70 grade

The AL East is a hotbed for pitchers with big momentum, and yet the one club that seems to emphasize a slower pace to the plate is also home to the biggest burst in the division. His charge remains the same whether pitching from the windup or the stretch, including a normal leg-kick with runners on base, reaping the advantages created by his left-handedness as well as his fast pace to the plate. His powerful momentum is notable for the sheer speed as well as his efficient line to the target, and though he has a somewhat closed stride as part of his signature, McGee sets up on the third-base side of the rubber in order to be aligned at release point. The fastball-philic southpaw edged several of his foes for the title of the division's top momentum, beating out the plus marks of pitchers Clay Buchholz, Burke Badenhop, Hiroki Kuroda, and Brad Brach.

Worst: Chris Archer, 30 grade

Compared to McGee, Archer's momentum is more indicative of the Tampa Way, though Archer lies at the opposite extreme when looking at the whole population of AL East hurlers. The Rays generally adhere to a “stay back” philosophy, at least with their starters, and Archer is the slowest of the bunch. He has a gradual lift phase, taking his sweet time from first movement into the top of his delivery, at which point the “stay back” philosophy takes over and Archer actually slows down during the stride phase as he keeps his weight shifted over the backside. Pitchers are expected to speed up from the stretch, and though Cobb does reduce his leg lift in the effort to quicken his pace, the right-hander still has incredibly slow momentum when pitching with runners on base.

Torque

Best: Kevin Gausman, 70 grade

Pitchers who light up the radar gun typically owe a measure of their heat to mechanics, with excellent torque that drives their velocity, and Gausman is no exception. His massive torque is fueled by timing, with a pronounced delay between foot strike and the start of trunk rotation that allows his hips to generate separation from his upper half. He adds some twist with the upper body along with a slight scapular load to produce an easy 70 torque, helping to generate high-90s velocity when he lines up the gears. Once again, the division was loaded with stiff competition for the winner of this award, and the 65 barrier was met or exceeded by a laundry list of players that included (but was not limited to) Marcus Stroman, Dellin Betances, David Robertson, and Jake McGee.

Worst: R.A. Dickey, 20 grade

Though the AL East is a haven for big-torque pitchers, it also contains a couple of pitchers who hail from the other end of the spectrum, both of whom ply their trade north of the border. Dickey might have the lowest hip-shoulder separation in the game, with virtually no load with the upper half as well as very late hip rotation, such that hips and shoulders are essentially firing together after foot strike. Being a knuckleball pitcher takes much of the onus off of Dickey's bottom-feeding score (it's common for knucklers to have very low torque), but teammate Mark Buehrle has no such excuse, with a similar lack of separation that earns a 30-grade on his best days and helps to explain why his fastball averages a mere 84 MPH.

Posture

Best: Drew Hutchison, 70 grade

Hutchison came outta nowhere to burst onto the scene in 2014, and though his ERA was not very flashy (all of his runs allowed were earned), both his walk and K rates beat the league average in his first journey through MLB. His best mechanical trait is elite posture, finishing a well-balanced motion with little to no spine-tilt, such that he occasionally flashes a perfect 80-grade when his posture is at peak. A couple other pitchers boast excellent grades in this category, such as Badenhop and Hellickson, but none achieved the consistency and efficiency of Hutchison.

Worst: Grant Balfour, 30 grade

In case someone was wondering what spine-tilt looks like, here it is. Balfour carries a vicious glove-side lean as he nears release point, in an attempt to coax an artificially-high arm slot, and his weak left side is further accentuated by his soft glove position and the inconsistency of his spine-tilt into release. Even at peak, Balfour's posture receives a well below-average grade, and at his worst the right-hander will challenge Yovani Gallardo for the MLB pitcher most in need of a tall glass of V8.

Overall

Best: Marcus Stroman, B+

This was a very tough decision. The AL East is loaded with good arms and solid mechanics, but the top end is lacking in terms of the overall delivery. The top mark used to belong to David Price, but now he's a Tiger. Next up was Matt Moore, but he was injured during the first week of the season and failed to meet the innings threshold for inclusion. Enter Stroman, the young pitcher whose lack of height has fueled pessimism about his ability to stick in a rotation throughout his career, an element which may have required him to be more mechanically efficient in order to compete against the best players in the world. Stroman is above average at everything on the Mechanics Report Card, including high-end grades for torque, momentum, and repetition. The power grades help to explain his elite velocity, yet most power pitchers lack the stability to repeat their mechanics on a consistent basis, a factor which separates Stroman from the pack and allows him to stand tall with the best overall delivery in the AL East.

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:  Scouting; Mechanics

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