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April 26, 2013
Throwdown: Mat Latos vs. Jeff Samardzija
Midwest baseball fans were treated to an NL Central showdown on Wednesday, as the Cubs and the Reds squared off at Great American Ballpark with their aces on the mound. Mat Latos has been a reliable top-of-the-rotation arm for the Reds ever since his arrival via trade with the Padres in the offseason of 2011-12, and he has assumed the top spot in the Cincy rotation with Johnny Cueto currently on the shelf. The Cubbies countered with Jeff Samardzija, whose 2012 breakout has carried over to this season and who entered Wednesday's contest with the third-highest strikeout percentage in the National League (among starting pitchers).
The pitching prodigies did not disappoint. After a 90-minute rain delay, the two right-handers traded scoreless frames until the Reds broke through with a solo homer by Todd Frazier in the bottom of the sixth. When the dust cleared on the duel, that lone run would stand as the difference in a 1-0 Reds victory. Both players performed exceedingly well, yet a very different approach was at the foundation of each pitcher's success.
Latos was perfect the first time through the batting order, utilizing a healthy combination of 91-94 mph fastballs mixed with sliders in the 84-87 mph range. His patterns were more predictable on his second run through the lineup, and though he tossed a rare first-pitch curveball to David DeJesus to lead off the fourth, Latos then went on to throw first-pitch fastballs to the next nine consecutive hitters. The Reds jumped on the strategy, taking hacks and making contact early in the count, as four of the nine batters put the ball in play on the first pitch of the at bat.
One of those hitters was Julio Borbon, whose fourth-inning double off the right-field wall would end up being the hardest-hit ball of the day off Latos. Borbon was the first of just three baserunners who reached as far as second base for the Cubs on the afternoon.
Latos took a different tack on the third turn through the order, nearly abandoning the fastball against the top of the lineup in favor of a mix of mid-80s sliders and a steep curve which sat between 75 and 79 mph. The approach was most glaring in the seventh inning at-bat of Starlin Castro, in which Latos threw six consecutive sliders before Castro took one up the middle for a single.
The only hint of trouble came in the eighth, when Latos put the first two batters aboard via a base hit and a walk. It was the first and only walk of the day for Latos, but after 103 pitches the Reds felt it was time to pull the plug, summoning Jonathan Broxton from the bullpen to extinguish the threat. Broxton successfully set the Cubs down in order, and the Red Dragon shut the door in the ninth to seal the victory and pick up his fourth save of the season. Latos was credited with the win, moving his record to a clean 1-0.
One interesting subplot of the ballgame was how Latos approached his nemesis when the opposing pitcher stepped to the plate. The Reds right-hander lacks Samardzija's impressive velocity, but he looked like he was trying to prove otherwise, saving his hardest-thrown pitches for when Samardzija was at the dish. Latos delivered his hardest pitch during Samardzija's first at-bat, hitting 94.7 mph on the gun, and he followed that up with three straight sliders to register the K. Latos was able to reach back for extra heat when Samardzija came to the plate again in the sixth, throwing harder than he had for the previous two innings.
Mechanics Report Card
For a pitcher with such sparkling results, Latos earns very modest grades when it comes to his mechanics. His delivery is merely average in several categories, and he falls victim to the culprit of heavy spine-tilt in the effort to generate an over-the-top arm slot. Latos begins to sacrifice his posture early, prior to foot strike, which underscores the intent behind his strategy. He reaps the benefits with a steep downhill plane, but he also carries the burden of reduced distance at release point.
Latos does a surprisingly good job of repeating the timing of his delivery to consistently find a high arm slot, which allows him to minimize walks due to pitch trajectories that are more likely to miss high or low as opposed to wide of the strike zone. He struggled in April of last season, largely due to a timing pattern that was complicated by a drastic speed-change as he transitioned from maximum leg lift. He addressed the issue during the season and was able to find a more fluid pace with his delivery, and the improved momentum has carried over into 2013.
Latos still changes gears at the top of his motion, and though his second gear borders on plus, the lack of early momentum acts to limit his overall grade on the report card. The gear-shift is minimized when he pitches from the stretch, with an abbreviated leg lift and an earlier burst toward the plate, but the quicker foot-plant acts to reduce his stride and inhibit his distance at release point.
Samardzija was brilliant on Wednesday, and though he took the tough loss, he was the more intimidating of the two pitchers. He had a tough run the first time through the lineup, giving up a total of five singles against the first nine batters he faced, but a double play and a caught stealing helped him keep the scoreboard clean. He also nicked his hand on an early comebacker and had to deal with the discomfort for the rest of the game. Samardzija ran into trouble in the bottom of the third inning, as back-to-back singles to lead off the frame put runners on first and second with no outs and the top of the order due up. The last of those singles was hit by Latos, who took a fastball to the opposite field for a base knock.
Unlike his opponent, Samardzija went into cruise control when the pitcher's spot came up in the batting order. The 93-mph pitch that Latos hit the other way was the sixth consecutive fastball of the at-bat, with each pitch registering 93-94 mph. This came after Samardzija had established a heater that sat 94-96 and scraped 98 mph. He stepped up his game with the pressure cooking, and Samardzija squelched the threat with three consecutive strikeouts to end the inning. The K of Joey Votto was particularly devastating, as Samardzija was able to add subtle arm-side run to a sinker without sacrificing velocity, and Votto could only watch as the umpire made the call for strike three.
Samardzija leaned on fastballs and sliders early in the count, going to the heat on the first pitch of six consecutive at-bats to start the game, followed by a string of first-pitch sliders to six of the next seven hitters (Latos was the exception). Deeper in the count, he relied on a vicious split-finger fastball with heavy downward movement that batters were unable to detect until late in the flight path. The splitter was his weapon of choice with two strikes, accounting for five of his eight strikeouts on the day.
Samardzija's pitch command was better than the three walks would suggest, but he lost his timing for a couple of plate appearances in the fourth inning, with eight missed targets out of nine pitches resulting in back-to-back free passes. He mixed in secondary offerings with increasing frequency as the game wore on, relying less on pure velocity. Only three pitches cracked 95 mph after the third inning, and not one of his final 14 pitches was classified as a fastball by PITCHf/x.
Mechanics Report Card
Samardzija maintains excellent balance by keeping his head stable above the center of mass, though he is still learning to translate that balance into plus posture at release point. Strong posture often develops later in a pitcher's career, and the right-hander has the fundamental components to suggest that he can continue to improve his spine angle over time. He repeats the delivery very well, allowing him to command his secondary stuff to induce ugly swings and astonished looks from opposing batters.
The key to his Samardzija's delivery is near-elite torque, which is driven by equal contributions of upper-body load and delayed shoulder rotation, as he combines arm strength with mechanical efficiency to consistently pump gas in the mid-to-upper 90s. He has excellent timing for his signature that helps him to find ideal release-point extension, but he might still have some room before his performance hits its ceiling, as below-average momentum is inhibiting the overall distance at pitch release. Samardzija possesses an above-average stride, but he has elite potential if he kicks up the momentum to another level.
Samardzija avoids the lure of the slide step when pitching from the stretch, but he does get an early burst toward the plate with men on base, so he combines the best of both worlds by maintaining his mechanical integrity while actively thwarting the running game.