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October 4, 2013

Raising Aces

Playoff Pitchers, and Pitches, to Watch

by Doug Thorburn

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The National League contingent of the League Division Series kicked off yesterday, with the Cardinals and Dodgers jumping to early leads in the opening round, but today's jammed slate will bring playoff baseball into full swing. All eight of the qualifying teams will take the field; four ballgames on tap matches the total of the past three days combined. I'm ready to buckle up for a 12-hour day of playoff baseball, eagerly anticipating the level of intensity and intrigue that can be found only in October.

This article is for those about to watch an exciting postseason, regardless of any particular rooting interests. There are dozens of storylines taking place on the mound, and every playoff team has some pitching-related nuance to appreciate as we watch them go to war.

Los Angeles DodgersKenley Jansen's Cutter
Jansen recorded the final out by a Dodger pitcher in the 2013 regular season, and though the Dodgers’ closer appeared in an unfamiliar non-save situation, the breakdown of his approach to the Rockies' Michael Cuddyer was more of the same.

  • Cutter, 95 mph.
  • Cutter, 93 mph.
  • Cutter, 94 mph.
  • Cutter, 95 mph.

Strikeout.

Such is the way of the walk in Kenley Land. The only real surprise here was that the NL batting leader simply watched the fourth consecutive cutter slice over the middle of the plate for the called K. Cuddyer must have been looking for something else, but it is tough to ignore Jansen's 90 percent frequency with the cut fastball.

Jansen lives and dies by the pitch, and his combination of high velocity and late break have been breaking bats for the last three-and-a-half years. His has surrendered a microscopic five hits per nine innings across 222 career frames, showing a consistent ability to squelch safeties from year to year, while maintaining an immense strikeout rate of nearly 39 percent. Opposing batters have hit .178 versus the cutter this season with a .261 slugging percentage, while 101 of his 111 strikeouts have come via the cut. Perhaps even more impressive is a declining walk rate, which has shrunk over his four seasons in the bigs.

  • 2010: 13.8 percent
  • 2011: 11.9 percent
  • 2012: 8.7 percent
  • 2013: 6.2 percent

Atlanta Braves – The Wizardry of Julio Teheran
Teheran has been a revelation this season, living up to the vaulted ceiling of expectation that was placed upon him as a teenager. He has been a prospect for so long that it is easy to forget that Teheran is just 22 years old, but his rapid ascension of 2013 will help to fade the memory of his temporary stall in Triple-A.

Teheran has long been lauded for his excellent fastball-changeup combination, but his breaking stuff was brought into question in recent years. The right-hander silenced those critics this season, keeping hitters quiet with both the curve and slider—opposing batters are hitting just .176 in 221 combined at bats that end on one of his breaking pitches.

He now flashes an electric mix of pitches to keep batters off-balance, and the most impressive trait might just be that Teheran lacks any glaring tendencies with his repertoire. He will throw nearly any pitch in nearly any situation, and his pitch frequencies rarely budge whether he is ahead or behind in the count, whether there are are two strikes or the first pitch of an at bat, or whether he is facing a righty or a lefty. Sure, the changeup is more common with lefties at the plate, and he goes to the slider more often versus righties, but he brings no less than a three-pitch mix to every plate appearance, and his avoidance of standardized pitch-sequencing methods have kept opposing batters guessing for the vast majority of the season.

Honorable Mention: The Tazmanian delivery of Alex Wood.

Pittsburgh Pirates – The Many Angles of Francisco Liriano
Liriano has been covered extensively in the past, both on the digital pages of Raising Aces and in podcast form via TINSTAAPP, but the depth of his intrigue deserves a second and even third look as we enjoy the thrills of postseason baseball. Liriano has been a revelation this season, and his lefty-killing expertise allowed the Pirates to handily dispose of the Reds in their wild card matchup on Tuesday. Much of his success has stemmed from a rediscovered ability to keep his pitches down in the zone, particularly with respect to going below the shelf with his slider. This is reflected in a low homer rate of 0.5 bombs allowed per nine innings, a figure which is actually par for the course with Pittsburgh's starting rotation.

Liriano gains excellent downhill plane when he brings the pill to low locations, and he exaggerates the angle by tilting the spine for an over-the-top release point. Liriano increases the tilt when throwing his slider, particularly versus left-handed hitters, and the southpaw rarely suffers the consequences despite his providing such a tell to opposing batters. His posture is typically better on fastballs, but Liriano continues to complicate his mechanics by altering his starting position on the rubber based on the handedness of the opposing batter. He will start closer to the first-base side of the rubber against left-handed bats and drift to the third-base side with right-handers at the plate, thus manipulating the incoming trajectory of his offerings, a strategy that can have a functional benefit yet also brings the associated downside of inconsistency at release point. All told, Liriano is a test case in the pros and cons involved with the blatant manipulation of angles by a pitcher.

St. Louis Cardinals – The Wacha Change
The tremendous depth of the St. Louis Cardinals organization has been a prevailing story this season, and it seems that every player that they plug into the lineup or rotation is successful. Wacha has been lights out down the stretchsave for a Colorado speed bump of two weeks agowith four solid outings in five September starts. In his final start of the season, Wacha took a no-hitter into the ninth inning against the Nationals, finishing with 9 K's and 2 walks in 8.7 shutout innings. Wacha has relied on just two pitch types for more than 92 percent of his deliveries this season, leaning on a mid-90's fastball to go with a killer changeup.

Wacha's cambio is just wicked. It's a heavy pitch with a late dive that is as steep as it is sharp. Thrown with 85-88 mph velocity, the change has explosive movement, with a rare combination of arm-side run and downward depth to invoke awkward swings from some of the best hitters in the world. It has been devastating in the bigs this season, with opponents hitting .193 and just a single extra-base hit (a double) in the 83 at bats that have ended with a change—his opponents' isolated power is .012. He generates a lot of torque, and though I am not a fan of the late posture-change from a mechanical standpoint, it is also possible that the filthy trajectory of his changeup is at least partially due to his manipulated arm slot.

Detroit Tigers – The Evolution of Max Scherzer
Much has been made of the fact that Max Scherzer began to integrate a curveball into his regular repertoire this season, particularly as a weapon to use against opposing left-handers. The stats back up the claimsthe lefty-phobic Scherzer of 2012 surrendered an opponents' batting line of .292/.366/.465 when he had the platoon disadvantage, but this season those same slashes have shrunk to .222/.278/.367, for a difference of 186 points of OPS.

Scherzer essentially saves the hammer for lefties, but his curveball frequency is a modest 12 percent against left-handed bats. The pitch has certainly been successfulbatters are hitting .205 against the curve this year with a .333 slugging percentage—but his evolution on the mound goes deeper than the addition of a single pitch. The right-hander goes to the changeup much more often with a lefty at the plate (30 percent frequency versus 8 percent against right-handed bats), and his numbers have greatly improved over last season when the cambio comes to the plate (more K's, weaker contact). Scherzer's fastball has also been tougher to hit than in years past, and the whole package points to a pitcher who has refined his delivery and honed his pitch command to become a more effective pitcher overall.

Oakland Athletics – The Fastballs of Bartolo Colon
It has been said that old men are set in their ways, and for evidence one need look no further than the 40-year old Colon. He pumps fastballs 85 percent of the time, despite the fact that his velocity has dropped a few ticks from his heyday, and the results have been uncanny. Colon carries a 2.65 ERA in 190 innings, and what he lacks in strikeouts is more than compensated with his ability to paint targets and keep the bases clear of walkers.

The big right-hander throws a couple of different heaters, including both the four- and two-seam versions, and his ability to inflict subtle movement on those pitches has been a key to his success. He ranks third in the league in the frequency of backwards K's, with 36 percent of his strikeouts resulting from a call by the home-plate umpire. Perhaps the most intriguing detail of Colon's 2013 story is a fact that was revealed by catcher Derek Norris in a recent post-game interview, when Athletics' broadcaster (and former catcher) Ray Fosse asked about the different signs that Norris puts down for Colon's various fastballs. Norris responded that there was no difference in the signs, but that he “just puts a 'one' down there,” and Bartolo does the rest. If Colon's own catcher doesn't know which fastball variation is incoming, then opposing hitters are essentially clueless. One also gains a new level of respect for Norris's receiving skills.

Honorable Mention: The changeup of Jarrod Parker, which leads the majors with a whiff/swing rate of 48 percent.

Boston Red SoxKoji Uehara's Sick Split
The split-finger fastball might be my favorite pitch in the game. It is an easy pitch to teach, as Dave Duncan proved time and time again, due to the use of a fastball forearm angle that requires no pronation or supination to execute. The pitch also carries the same spin-axis as a fastball, making it very difficult for batters to identify out of the pitcher's hand, and a player who can mask his pitches with a repeatable delivery will keep batters at the mercy of a guessing game of “name that pitch.”

Koji Uehara's splitter is one of the nastiest in the game, and the pitch forms the basis for his dominant season. He is basically a two-pitch hurler who is armed with a modest 88-92 mph fastball, and Uehara goes to the split on half of his offerings, but his impeccable pitch command elevates his arsenal to incredible heights. The right-hander can place the fastball in on the hitter's hands or away from the batter's strengths, meanwhile burying the splitter under the zone with consistency. The numbers tell a colorful story, with opposing batters hitting a paltry .091 with a .168 slug in at-bats that end with the split, including 61 strikeouts against just four walks.

Tampa Bay Rays – The Adventures of Fernando Rodney
Say this about Fernando Rodney: his outings never lack intrigue. His pitches often have an allergic reaction to the strike zone, frequently granting opposing batters with a free passage to first base. He usually keeps the ball in the park, but Rodney is prone to base-clearing doubles that can turn the game around in a hurry, an issue that has helped to fuel his eight blown saves and an 82 percent conversion rate that was the worst in the American League among full-time closers.

Rodney's delivery is full of mechanical red flags, from the ridiculous stutter step that disrupts his timing and shortens his stride to the egregious spine tilt that sends his head toward the first-base dugout as he nears release point. He also falls into the Liriano category of pitchers that alter their starting position on the rubber based on the handedness of the opposing hitter in order to exploit angles, leaving one to wonder why those pitchers who seem to struggle most with pitch repetition are the ones who choose to add further complications to the delivery (paging Trevor Bauer).

Rodney has legit radar-gun readings that have pigeon-holed him as a late-inning solution, but his maddening inconsistency means that no lead is safe for the Rays as they head into the final frame. On the bright side, Rays fans are treated to Rodney's tribute to Katniss Everdeen whenever he is able to close the door on a victory for Tampa Bay.

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

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