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Chat: Doug Thorburn

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Welcome to Baseball Prospectus' Friday June 27, 2014 2:00 PM ET chat session with Doug Thorburn.

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Talk pitching with BP's mechanics specialist.

Doug Thorburn: The halfway mark of the season is upon us, when sample sizes stop being polite and performance starts getting real. What can we glean from a player's first-half performance? Let's dig into the questions and see if we can unearth some answers.

OrioleDog (MD): Thanks for the Astros piece. Fair to say the overall conclusion is both guy's success is real and the org can "set and forget" a couple rotation slots the next few years?

Doug Thorburn: I am more of a believer in McHugh's success than that of Keuchel. I prefer the delivery and the stuff, and McHugh has made legitimate strides in both departments over the past couple of seasons. Keuchel lives on the margins, and I think that his performance is going to hit a speed bump in the near future.

On the jukebox: Tool. "Eulogy"

asuit11 (South Jersey): I've been reading through your book with Tom House and was wondering if you had any other suggestions on books to supplement that.

Doug Thorburn: Thanks for taking an interest in "Arm Action," and I certainly recommend Tom's other books for a good read on pitching, such as "The Art & Science of Pitching" and "The Pitching Edge." He also co-wrote "The Diamond Appraised," with Craig R. Wright, published back in '84, and despite it's age the book provides good insight into the common misconceptions between sabermetrics and coaching/scouting that are still in place today. I also recommend Perry Husband's work on Effective Velocity and how it impact the approach for both hitters and pitchers - check it out here: http://www.hittingisaguess.com/

username49 (Ohio): Multi part question...It may be too early to tell, but the Indians seemed to have gotten burned by selecting Mitch Brown and Kieran Lovegrove with high picks in the 2012 draft. What did you think of these two at the time they were drafted, and do you like the combo of Hockin and Sheffield better? Do you think either of these recent 2014 draftees can become a higher end MOR starter?

Doug Thorburn: Brown has a solid delivery and had a deep repertoire when drafted, but his lack of a plus-plus offering limited his ceiling until he honed the secondaries, which just hasn't happened thus far (particularly in the command department). Lovegrove relies on a hip-whip strategy for torque that can be difficult to repeat, timing-wise, and his stat line is feeling the burn of an inconsistent delivery. Hockin has a solid frame and a very stable delivery that is a bit light on power. He is another example of a pitcher whose secondaries will determine his ultimate utility at the highest level.

On the jukebox: Led Zeppelin, "Night Flight"

Matt (Cambridge): Once again, Corey Kluber ia dominating.He is very unusual in that he throws an both an excellent Cutter and Slider. Could this be why Kluber is so effective? Since the pitches are so similar, I imagine the release point and spin appear very similar out of the pitchers hand to a hitter, therefore forcing the hitter to not only guess on the velocity, but also the amount of break on the ball. Not terrible dissimilar to a fastball/changeup. Especially with Kluber, where there is SUBSTANTIAL difference in the break. Is this correct? If so, is this also very difficult to do? In an interview of Zach Grienke with Eno Sarris of Fangraphs, Grienke suggested the movement and mechanics were too similar and the pitches were meshing together into one less effective pitch.Do most major league pitchers not have the ability to pinpoint the degree to supination needed to throw both a slider and cutter?

Doug Thorburn: I'm a big Kluber supporter, and his effectiveness stems from a mix of mechanics, stuff, and approach. Deception comes from his repeatable release point as well as the tendency for all of his pitches to leave the hand on a fastball plane, giving batters less time to identify incoming pitches. Manipulating precise supination is one of the great challenges for a pitcher, and those two pitches can certainly blend together if a pitcher does not have excellent command of their release point. Kluber has that command, and in fact I gave him an A- for his mechanics in the 2014 Starting Pitcher Guide, one of just 9 SP to receive an A- or higher.

Jeb (Iowa): How good can Tyler Glasnow be? He has been unreal the last couple of weeks.

Doug Thorburn: Glasnow has an exceptionally deep release point. His pitches will jump on opposing hitters, and he can be very deceptive when he repeats the other elements of the delivery. Like so many young pitchers, his ultimate ceiling will be determined by fastball command and the evolution of his secondaries, and right now the former is still a work in progress.

On the jukebox: Iron Maiden, "The Trooper"

Evan (Cincinnati): How dangerous is the upright finish that Taijuan Walker has? Is he capable of having a lengthy, productive career without adjustments? What is his ceiling with as-is mechanics and stuff?

Doug Thorburn: I don't think that it's dangerous at all. I prefer that pitchers have strong posture with minimal spine-tilt to the glove side. I gave him a 60 grade for posture prior to the season, and if anything he could use some additional flexion of the spine during the final phases into release point. The worries that I do have stem from his inconsistent timing as well as the distinct possibility that he manipulates his breaking ball with a twist of the wrist near release point, an issue which could telegraph the pitch to opposing batters. The ceiling is high for both mechanics and stuff, but he has some development before reaching that ceiling.

Darius (Des Moines): What are the top three farm systems? Both depth and talent wise.

Doug Thorburn: The BP Prospect Team would have the best read on how the farm systems compare right now, and I tend to favor the under-25 rankings that incorporate a team's big-league talent. The orgs were ranked for U-25 talent back in March, to give you a starting point: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=22944

On the jukebox: Modest Mouse, "Cowboy Dan"

Shawnykid23 (CT): What pitchers would you be targeting as buys/sells right now?

Doug Thorburn: The buys: Justin Verlander, Matt Cain, Doug Fister
The sells: Johnny Cueto, Scott Kazmir, Garrett Richards

Steve (Chicago): What are your thoughts on Roenis Elias? He has looked pretty good so far this season. Can he keep it up and potentially develop into a 2/3 starter?

Doug Thorburn: Elias has an excellent breaking ball, but his delivery can be very inconsistent. He lacks power in the delivery and his stability wavers, and he makes some alterations when pitching from the stretch that harm his ability to repeat. He certainly could develop into a No. 3, but that will depend on how well he can harness his repetition.

asuit11 (South Jersey): In your breakdowns of pitchers needing Tommy John surgery, have you noticed any mechanical issues that these players have in common?

Doug Thorburn: The injury equation is very muddled and loaded with variables, and the elements that can contribute to TJS include (but are not limited to): workloads, mechanics, conditioning, genetics, fatigue/stamina, and stuff/approach. The elements of mechanics are also intertwined, making it even more difficult to isolate the cause of injury.

That said, one element that we (at the NPA) identified as a precursor to elbow injury was elbow drag, in which the throwing arm lags behind the shoulder axis as the pitcher reaches max external rotation of the throwing arm. Elbow drag can be the result of a heavy scapular load, an "Inverted W," or an exaggerated delay of trunk rotation - a pitcher with all 3 of these risk factors will experience elbow drag more frequently, but there is still an element of variability in which some pitchers only show elbow drag on certain pitches (particularly when fatigued).

On the jukebox: Sublime, "Santeria"

eamuscatuli15 (nebraska): Hi Doug, recently got my mother a subscription to BP and told her the can't miss read is "Raising Aces". We're huge Cubs fans and have enjoyed the breakout of Jake Arrieta. I've read a lot about his upping the use of the slider/cutter. What have you seen from Arrieta and do you think he's turned the corner and set to be a lower top of rotation type/mid rotation type for the Cubs?

Doug Thorburn: Thanks for the hat-tip! Arrieta has serious velo, and I agree that his refinement of the slider is a big component of his success. He has also been working on having a more fluid timing pattern to his momentum, including less rock-n-roll and improved balance as he transitions through max leg lift. Harry Pavlidis has some great stuff coming out in the near future on Arrieta, so keep an eye out!

On the jukebox: Guns N' Roses, "Mr. Brownstone"

Cal Guy (Cal): Doug, What is your ETA for Giolito in the bigs, and what is your assessment of his risk for (re)injury based on mechanics, velocity, body type, etc? And where would you rank him on the pitching prospect list? Thanks!

Doug Thorburn: Giolito's elite raw stuff (two 80-grade pitches with respect to OFP) will put him at or near the top of most prospect lists, and his mechanical stability is impressive for such a power pitcher. My only concern is that he has a painfully slow delivery, and he does not use the lower half very efficiently in generating torque and arm speed. This puts a heavy demand on his throwing arm to generate kinetic energy, and the glacial pace also opens up the time window for his delivery to fall off track. The upside is stratospheric, but I would like to see some mechanical development to increase his odds of survival.

USA!!!USA!!! (Brazil): 12 team roto dynasty league, would you Shields for Marte? Need the SB's. See Marte turning it on at all throughout the rest of the year?

Doug Thorburn: It really depends on your ballclub and whether your pitching staff can afford to part with Shields. Marte is a bit of a free-swinger and his penchant for getting plunked ups the injury risk, but he will be an asset on the basepaths as long as his legs are healthy. This time of year is all about addressing needs, so if SB's are in your crosshairs and your staff can afford the loss, then I think that is a decent swap.

On the jukebox: System of a Down, "Deer Dance"

Kevin (Chicago): Do you think Jake Arrieta can sustain anything close to this level of production? Control was always his issue: do you see anything in his mechanics this season that makes you believe he may be getting past that?

Doug Thorburn: See previous question about Arrieta. I think that he is making legit gains, and his focus is well-honed with respect to ironing out his mechanics.

pietrusikm (buffalo): why is austin jackson so bad...............can t believe it any thoughts

Doug Thorburn: His batting line is just missing a handful of singles and a couple of homers from being on-pace with last season's production. I think that he'll be fine overall.

Kyle (Under a bridge): What is going on with James Shields?

Doug Thorburn: Lots of questions on Shields in the queue. His balance was greatly improved last season, particularly during the lift-and-stride portion of the pitch sequence, and he has maintained those gains in 2014. He is also throwing harder than last season by almost a full tick, so his relative struggles gain some intrigue. His transition from spine hyperextension to flexion looks more intense this season, with a "violent" head-butting movement near release point (like Max Scherzer), and that could be interfering with his ability to repeat the release point. The biggest functional issue that I have seen is that he is not burying pitches as well as he did last year, with a tendency to elevate, and he is dealing with the power spike that often accompanies elevated offerings. He could improve quickly, or the issue could linger, so it will be interesting to see how the cerebral Shields addresses the problem.

On the jukebox: Bob Marley, "Lively Up Yourself"

Shawn (Cubicle): Why is a cutter such a polarizing pitch? Why does it lead to a reduced velocity on other pitches (mainly 4-seamer)? On one hand, you have the Orioles who restrict their young pitchers from throwing it, and on the other hand, there's some orgs who encourage it.

Doug Thorburn: I don't think that the cutter should harm velo, in a vacuum, but pitchers in the minors can become overly reliant on the pitch against non-advanced batters. The most important developmental task as a pitcher climbs the ladder is fastball command, and some organizations look down on the cutter because it interferes with those goals. There is a theory that pitchers who rely to heavily on the cutter will lose the ability/feel of getting the hand fully behind the baseball on their 4-seamer, which would theoretically reduce velocity, but that appears to be more of a case-by-case phenomenon than an absolute. My thoughts are that FB command should take precedence at the low levels of the minors, and wrinkles of complication such as cutters should be a greater focus when they get close to the Show.

Jake (CT): Thoughts on Ventura? Everyone signed up for the high heat and the Ks but they've decreased drastically. Was offered pedroia for him in a 10-keeper, already have Walker at 2b. Thanks!

Doug Thorburn: His raw velocity looks fine, averaging 97.9 mph for the month of June, and his heat maps indicate that he is still elevating the pitch well. I am impressed with his improved stability this season, and though he can still be inconsistent, his gains in this department are great indicators for his future.

I still prefer Pedroia, though whether to make that trade depends on the keeper parameters (contracts? inflation?) and your team outlook. I think that Pedroia will rebound, but the 30-year old might only have a few years left of being an impact 2B. Ventura has the youth on his side, but a high-velo pitcher with a high-powered delivery (with questionable stability) is a risky commodity. If you have a 3-year window then I would still prefer Pedroia, but if your team needs an infusion of youth and exuberance then that deal makes some sense.

On the jukebox: Dredg, "Within These Walls"

Alex (Anaheim): Is there much of a future for the knuckleball?

Doug Thorburn: The knuckler is a very unique pitch, in that it essentially has to survive on its own. A pitcher relies on the unpredictability of the pitch to disrupt hitters, but that can also be a player's undoing given the difficulties in commanding the knuckler. The ability for knuckleball pitchers to endure heavy workloads has value, but it is very hard to find a pitcher who is reliable enough with the pitch to trust every 5th day. It would be interesting to see a team lean towards a knuckler in the 'pen in a long relief role, especially with the loaded bullpens that are so commonplace today.

joe (north carolina): Who has more upside ? Giolito, harvey or dylan for orioles and nats? Have you ever watched luke jackson of frisco ? Any thoughts? Tia

Doug Thorburn: Giolito has the upside, hands down. There might be mechanical caveats, but stuff wins out over mechanics every day of the week and twice on Sunday. It is easier to teach mechanics than it is to teach raw stuff, and his delivery just adds risk factors while his stuff will likely determine his success on the mound. I should also note that Giolito has excellent stability.

I haven't watched Luke Jackson yet, so we'll have to ping the BP prospect team for that one.

On the jukebox: Black Sabbath, "Electric Funeral"

Jay (PHX): Can you define "projectable" as it refers to young pitchers' frames and offerings?

Doug Thorburn: "Projectable" infers that one can predict positive developmental gains in the future, but reality does not always match projection. In general, pitchers who have good height but appear to be lanky or lacking strength will be tabbed with a projectable frame, as they can be expected to gain muscle and strength as the physically mature. Pitchers with projectable frames are also projected to gain velo as they get stronger, so it is tied to the fastball grade in that sense. The projection of other pitches is often tied to command and repetition - for example, maintaining FB arm speed on a CH, or flashing a breaking ball with good depth that is often elevated or buried.

I also look at projection in terms of mechanics, since pitchers tend to improve balance as they gain functional strength and mature physically, so power pitchers who are low on stability tend to have a higher mechanical projection than those who are high-stability/low-power, but the high-power pitchers are also further away from achieving consistency.

On the jukebox: Jimi Hendrix, "Pali Gap"

RatedRookie (Atlanta): Will you do a raising aces article on Taijuan Walker after he gets a few starts for Seattle? I'd love hear your take on his mechanics and how they compare to his mechanics from his 2013 cup of coffee.

Doug Thorburn: Walker is a hot topic today. I haven't put eyes on him since Spring Training, so I will definitely put him near the top of the list for evaluation once he is back pitching in the bigs.

RatedRookie (Atlanta): Thanks for answering the question on Taijuan Walker! There has been some static--I read it in Keith Law articles--about Walker's "upright finish."

Doug Thorburn: One last bit on Walker - there are differing opinions on the "upright finish," but as one who dislikes spine-tilt in the name of over-the-top arm slots, I prefer "upright" to the common alternative. Keith may have been addressing the flexion component with Walker, rather than posture specifically, which is a different element of the "upright" paradigm. If that's the case, then I agree that Walker could use some more athleticism and flex in the spine near release point.

On the jukebox: Incubus, "Echo"

Duke of Dutches (River): Should the Cubs consider keeping the pitchers they have and hope things align in 2015 or 2016? Shark (assuming you can/want to sign him), Hammel and Arrieta have been great, Wood has been solid and is a good #4 and Jackson is a serviceable (but expensive) #5. You kind of know what you have unless Hammel and Arrieta turn into pumpkins, and if they bring in new prospects instead we won't know how much longer the suffering continues. Or should they grab as much as they can while the top three are at their peak values?

Doug Thorburn: Given the organization's placement in the success cycle, I think that it would be prudent to convert their current pitchers to future currency, especially considering what pitchers like Hammel and Arrieta were worth on the market just 3 months ago compared to what they're worth now. Shark is legit, and the Cubs should utilize him in leverage with other clubs to move Hammel/Arrieta/Wood. If some team is not willing to pay the prospect price demanded for Samardzija, then they can focus on one of the other 3 as a fallback.

canada (Canada): What do you make of Aaron Sanchez? Will he ever have the consistent ability to throw strikes to enable him to be a #2 that his stuff clearly gives him the potential for? As an aside, I have this out of left field theory (from MILB tv) that plainly, some portion of his high walk rate relates to the inability of his minor league catchers to frame his pitches given the run he has on his fastball. I'd love to see the + or - runs his catchers get him when he's pitching

Doug Thorburn: I think that Sanchez has mechanical underpinnings that will make it very difficult for him to find consistency without a major change of approach. He has a very slow delivery from the windup, giving him a lot of time for the gears of rotation to fall off-track, and the strategy also creates a huge timing disparity between windup and stretch. He also has a very short stride, which mitigates his biological advantages and gives hitters a longer look at the baseball due to a shallower release point. Interestingly, these are conscious adjustments that were made in the effort to make him more consistent, slowing him down to keep him balanced, but this strategy opens up Pandora's Box of mechanical miscues.

His minor-league catchers might not be helping the walk rate, but Sanchez is not doing himself any favors.

On the jukebox: Bob Dylan, "Hurricane"

RatedRookie (Atlanta): Have you had the chance to watch and analyze Robert Stephenson? Do you see anything in his mechanics that might explain his up and down season so far? What refinements do you think he needs to make?

Doug Thorburn: I haven't watched Stephenson yet this season, but I did review him over the winter based on his 2013 performance: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=22290

I'll add him to the list of guys to review. Thanks for the homework assignment!

Frank (Denver): Your take on Marco Gonzales? He looked great for three innings, including making Tulo look silly flailing at three straight off speed pitches. Then he gave up a number of hard hit shots. What do you foresee for him?

Doug Thorburn: Great stability, repeats his delivery well, and that CH flashed nasty depth. He is not a big velo guy, and his breaking ball was solid-average but not a difference-maker, so commanding the zone will be a critical element to success by enabling his cambio to play off the fastball. He looks like a potential mid-rotation guy whose command and repetition will determine whether he can be a reliable out-generator.

Aaron (Athens, GA): Marco Gonzales getting torched the second time through the order in his debut:v something to be concerned about going forward or rookie being a rookie?

Doug Thorburn: Mostly just a rookie being a rookie, but his aforementioned repertoire might leave him vulnerable to big innings in the future when his command is not pristine.

Matt (White): I think people got a little high on Travis Wood last yr but I think he's better than he's pitched this yr. What says you?

Doug Thorburn: I says that he was over his head last year, both literally and figuratively. I don't think that his 2013 stat-line is a reliable indicator of his skill set, and his over-the-top delivery (with heavy spine-tilt) can not only be a major barrier to repetition, but will also limit the overall release distance on his pitches. So I'm pessimistic.

On the jukebox: Ozzy Osbourne, "Mr. Crowley"

Marcus Stroman (Canada, Eh): What are the chances that I get moved in a trade this year?

Doug Thorburn: I'm not in the Toronto FO, so I can't say for sure, but I think that's going in the wrong direction given that you are already contributing at the big-league level. The Jays need big-league pitching, so it doesn't make much sense to deal away one of the more effective pitchers on staff (right now), esp one who could be a future anchor. I think that Sanchez is the one to move in a potential deal, both because of his status in the minors and because I see a long path of development ahead.

Shawnykid23 (CT): Just wanted to say thanks for all your hardwork. It's very informative, and unlike anything else I've seen on any other baseball sites and "Raising Aces" itself is worth the subscription price. All that said...more TINSTAAPP please!!

Doug Thorburn: Thanks for the digital high-five, Shawny!

TINSTAAPP went through a recent hiatus, but I assure you that will be corrected soon. If I can't yammer with Paul for a couple of hours each week, then I start to get the jitters. I need my TINSTAAPP fix, too.

Phred (MN): Highest ceiling.....Pederson, Franco or Dahl?

Doug Thorburn: Give me Pederson, looking at the whole tool package.

Matt (Chicago): Per the Arrieta question, he just seems to have so little "noise" in his delivery. Great balance as his hands set and great fluidity from there....

Doug Thorburn: Agreed, and good eyes, Matt. His balance looks much better over the past month, particularly in the Z-plane (2B to home). He has a very closed stride, but it seems to be a natural part of his biological signature, and I like how he lines up the gears of rotation.

On the jukebox: Pink Floyd, "Pigs (Three Different Ones)"

Goldeye99 (Wpg): Whatever happened to Baby Jane? err....I mean Desmond Jennings! Unfulfilled potential or still coming?

Doug Thorburn: I never really had (prime) Carl Crawford expectations for him, and I think that easy comp may have been jading to the collective view. Jennings is a productive MLB outfielder who is under cost control, which is a valuable asset, but I think there's a decent chance that his career line of .249/.328/.403 is indicative of his future. At 27, Jennings could still take a big step forward, but he is no longer at an age where such things are expected.

Charles (MA): What are a couple guys that have take large steps forward for you compared to last season? Anyone take a step backwards?

Doug Thorburn: Steps forward: Ventura, Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs. Kluber was this good (mechanically) last year.
Steps backwards: Danny Salazar

The high fre

tbwhite (San Diego): Why are you selling on Garrett Richards ?

Doug Thorburn: (in last question: the high frequency of Indians is purely coincidental)

I can't stand his delivery, tons of mechanical obstacles to repetition. His lateral balance/posture is atrocious, and the rotational elements have a lot of flail as he spins off of release point. The stuff is legit, but I think that he could go through some very rough patches.

HeftyLefty (CA): Is it scientifically proven that a pitcher with a longer stride will have a curve that breaks later? Although I agree that a longer stride will make a pitchers stuff more effective I suspect the pitcher will adjust his curve to the shorter distance to the plate. So initially having a new long stride will create curves that break too late and end up being up in strike zone. Eventually pitcher adjusts the curve lower.

Doug Thorburn: We studied the issue at the National Pitching Association using high-speed motion capture, and a longer stride is directly correlated to a deeper release point. Check out "Arm Action," the book that I wrote with Tom House, to see some of the scientific evidence: http://www.amazon.com/Action-Path-Perfect-Pitch-Million-Dollar/dp/1606790420


Ideally, that release point should be consistent for all pitch types. The shape of the break will be determined by degree of supination and grip, requiring minimal adjustment to account flight distance of the baseball (which will typically be less than one foot). Of course, this is a much more difficult adjustment for pitchers who use the "twister" curve, with a twist of the wrist near release point.

bmmolter (Mass): Lot of Arrieta love. Would you trade for him if it meant giving up Nelson Cruz? I'm about done this year and would be looking to acquire a sneaky good long-term rotation anchor

Doug Thorburn: I would need a lot more if parting with Nellie. It depends a bit on your league's keeper conditions, of course, but I think that Cruz is a big trade chit for this season. The guy has always slugged, and now he's in a tremendous ballpark for right-handed power. I'd be cool with Arrieta being part of the package, but he would not be the reason to make a deal.

On the jukebox: Alice In Chains, "Rooster"

HeftyLefty (California): How does a pitcher purposely have effective late rotation of shoulders? Are muscles holding the shoulders back? Example: Lead foot strikes and pitcher consciously prevents shoulders from rotating for a split second?? Or is it more about a quick hit rotation that creates hip/shoulder separation?

Doug Thorburn: Great question, HeftyLefty.

It is typically easier for a pitcher to control the timing of when the trunk/shoulder-axis fires than to control hip rotation, as the hips are connected to the pitcher's stride and timing into foot strike (hips tend to open naturally into foot strike). It's not that they're "holding back" so much as they are actively initiating the trigger for trunk rotation. One can get a feel for this when playing catch, and it can also be isolated by throwing from a 2-knee stance that is fit to the pitchers signature (in terms of hip angle).

Some pitchers rely more on the hips, firing hips and shoulders together within close proximity of foot strike, but I'm not a proponent of this method because A) there are timing issues created when the hips are the trigger of rotation, and B) it fails to utilize core strength and hip-shoulder separation.

brian (Wis): What are your grades on Alex Wood? Optimistic he can last in the rotation?

Doug Thorburn: The grades on Wood are not good, given his Tazmanian Devil approach to pitching mechanics. One of the most shocking aspects in baseball today is Wood's ability to consistently hit targets despite his having some of the worst balance in baseball. I can't really be optimistic that such an unusual quality can continue, but Wood has proven me wrong for two seasons now. I hope that he does continue to be effective, despite my mechanical reservations - if variety is the spice of life, then Alex Wood is the chili pepper of pitching mechanics.

Doug Thorburn: Thanks for all of the great questions, gang. I'll be back to chat soon, and in the meantime you can hit me up on Twitter @doug_thorburn . The TINSTAAPP is coming, wings spread on the horizon.


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