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May 24, 2011

Clubhouse Confidential

Bend It Like Halladay

by Marc Carig

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NEW YORK—Mets manager Terry Collins caught a glimpse of the evolution in relief pitcher Bobby Parnell.

It happened sometime last year when both were at Triple-A Buffalo, Collins as the team's minor league field coordinator, and Parnell as the ninth-round draft pick with a fastball that routinely tickles the triple digits. Collins had seen the flame-throwing type before, although during his time in the game, they have become much more common.

But what stood out to Collins about Parnell wasn't that he could throw so hard, or that he once hit 102.5 mph on a radar gun, or that his fastball could dominate the best hitters in the world if he could infuse it with a little more command.

“He was trying to work on his cutter, his sinker,” Collins said, astonished that Parnell would fret so much over such things. “I said, 'get the command of this [fastball] first!’”

To hear Collins and other baseball people tell it, everybody's obsessed with Bending It Like Halladay.

“You don't see a straight fastball anymore” has become a familiar refrain in clubhouses and dugouts, a message repeated by veteran hitters, pitchers and coaches alike. Ask 17-year veteran Jorge Posada the last time he could bank on getting a straight fastball, he shakes his head. Run the question by 17-year veteran Derek Jeter, and the reaction is the same. Ask Collins, and he remembers the grumbling from his hitters upon returning to the dugout, fresh victims of the cutters and sinkers thrown by the Phillies' Roy Halladay.

It's no wonder then, they say, that offensive numbers have tailed off steadily. Year of the Pitcher? Perhaps that was only the beginning. Considering the cyclical nature of the game, some are convinced that the tide has finally turned in favor of pitchers, after a generation of nirvana for hitters. The chorus has grown loud enough to prompt rumblings of lowering the pitcher's mound.

“I think pitching has gotten better, I do,” said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who regards the notion of thinned-out pitching as increasingly obsolete.

Yet, measuring what players and coaches believe to be a profound change proves problematic, even with Pitchf/x technology. The data goes back no further than 2007, and those within the game believe the trend toward more movement took root years before. Meanwhile, according to Pitchf/x Guru Mike Fast, more recent data shows that pitch-types haven't changed much either, casting some doubt on the popular theory that pitchers are throwing more cut fastballs.

Even determining exactly what exactly constitutes a “straight fastball” is a challenge, according to Fast, because pitch-types are defined by their movement. Are straight fastballs pitches that are perceived as so because their movement is merely average by big league standards? Or are straight fastballs simply ones that simply lack the late movement long coveted by pitchers?

“In either case, when trying to determine if this is changing over time, proper classification of pitch types is an obstacle and is extremely difficult to disentangle from measuring movement since we use movement to classify pitches,” Fast wrote, when we ran the question past him last week. “So I'm not sure an answer to that question is even possible.”

Even if data existed that could conclusively show the massive shift towards more movement, and it was established that this pitcher's evolution was responsible for taking some of the air out of the game, plenty of  difficulty would remain in parsing out the precise extent of its impact. Clearly, there are other factors at play, lest we forget the big syringe in the room.

Answering the question of whether this change is real or imagined, at least when trying to do it with objective evidence, only leads toward murkier questions. Clearly, it's a topic that warrants more study, especially if offensive levels continue to slide.

But anecdotally, to those within the game, the case is closed.

Longtime pitching coach Larry Rothschild believes the trend toward more movement was brought as pitchers found themselves needing more weapons to combat lineups stacked with power hitters who feasted on fastballs they saw as straight. Even though they had to sacrifice velocity, by adding two-seam fastballs and cutters, pitchers could now throw to both sides of the plate with more confidence.

Rothschild also believes the need for more movement arose as pitching motions became standard, a notion he derides as “cookie cutter.” Before the era of highly organized youth leagues, personal pitching coaches, and the other trappings of modern player development, Rothschild said it was more common to see unique pitching motions. That variety itself, he said, offered pitchers more protection in the form of deception.

Without that deception, pitchers have compensated by depending on more movement, whether it be on their four-seam fastballs or by adding two-seamers (sinkers) and cutters.

“You invent ways to get guys out,” said Rothschild, who is in his first season with the Yankees after a long tenure with the Cubs.

One longtime scout and former club executive said it has always been common for pitchers to have natural movement, though it was uncommon to see pitchers succeed by commanding that movement. He said organizations have since encouraged pitchers to use that natural movement, triggering what he called a boom of pitchers capable of commanding their stuff with more consistency.

Collins has seen the supposed evolution from different vantage points. He took his first managerial job with the Astros in 1993 then went on to skipper the Angels until his departure in 1999. The end of Collins' tenure in Anaheim began a journey that has taken him from the majors, to independent baseball and even oversees, to China and Japan. He worked in a variety of capacities, including player development, before making it back to a big-league dugout with the Mets this season for the first time 11 years.

“The first thing you do in an organization now is try to take your four-seam fastball away from you and give you something that moves, either a two-seamer or a cutter,” Collins said of how he's seen young pitchers handled. “The cutter is the split-finger of today. Everybody's got to have one... Everybody's got a cutter, everybody's got a two-seamer.”

When he returned to the majors, Collins said the results of that emphasis was apparent with every at-bat, with nearly every pitch.

“Nothing's ever straight,” Collins said. “Pitching is different today. Plus, guys are throwing so much harder today than they did a few years ago. Every bullpen has a guy coming out of there throwing 96, 98. Lefties, righties, they're everywhere. It used to be years ago that you'd have once guy and say, 'this guy has a great arm.' [Shoot], they're everywhere now. Now that they're getting to cut it and do all the other things, I can imagine why (hitters are) saying it's getting harder.”

Perhaps now more than ever, velocity is not enough, a fact recognized by the pitchers themselves. At least, that seemed to be the case with Parnell, the hard-throwing reliever Collins remembered tinkering with a two-seam fastball back in Buffalo. Parnell entered the season as Collins' set-up man with the Mets, though he struggled and landed on the disabled list, leaving the Mets without his 96 mph fastball and the two-seamer he eventually added.

“Oh yeah, offensively, yes,” Collins said, when asked if the game is different than the one he managed a decade ago. “Power pitchers today have taken it to another level. For sure.”

Marc Carig is in his third season as the New York Yankees' beat writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He previously covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Post. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Carig once believed Dennis Eckersley to be the greatest closer of all time, though seeing Mariano Rivera every day has forced him to reconsider.

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

Related Content:  Fastballs,  Bobby Parnell,  Terry Collins

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