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There is a thick crop of free agent pitchers this offseason, including a trio of arms at the top of the class who will likely command nine-figure deals with commitments of at least five years apiece. Pitching mechanics take on greater importance in these cases, given the long-term timeframe and the heavy cost expenditure; the physical elements of the delivery play a role in a pitcher's ability to consistently execute his pitches, the reliability of his performance, his injury risk, and his long-term adaptability as stuff naturally wanes and these pitchers get further from their physical peak.

Let's take a look at how these pitchers stack up on the mechanical side of things, as well as the performance trajectory as each player heads into free agency. Mechanics are a moving target, and some of these pitchers looked a bit differently in 2014 than they had in previous years, but the baselines tend to remain relatively stable and the grades are a reflection of where they stood this season.

Max Scherzer

Born June 27, 1984

FB Velocity

GS

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

H %

HR %

2012

95.0 mph

32

187.7

3.74

29.4%

7.6%

22.7%

2.9%

2013

94.3 mph

32

214.3

2.90

28.7%

6.7%

18.2%

2.2%

2014

93.9 mph

33

220.3

3.15

27.9%

7.0%

21.7%

2.0%

Scherzer has dropped a chunk of velocity over the past couple of seasons, so at first glance it appears that he is losing heat with age. However, the 2012-13 seasons represented a peak for pitch speed, and his 2014 velocity was right in line with 2010-11. He's a strikeout machine who measures well in all Three True Outcomes, with a legit four-pitch mix that gives him three or more options regardless of batter handedness. The right-hander is the prize of this winter's crop of free agent pitchers.

Report Card

Balance

60

Momentum

50

Torque

60

Posture

70

Repetition

60

Overall

B

Scherzer has plus balance overall, and he is particularly strong in maintaining Y-plane stability with minimal drop to his center-of-gravity. He has a bit of a lean toward first base as he approaches max leg lift, followed by a slight hunch in the opposite direction during the stride phase; he also rocks back toward second base during his stride as part of a stay-back approach. Scherzer finishes with double-plus posture that stays nearly perfect in the X plane (side-to-side) direction, but the most glaring aspect of his entire delivery is in the Z-plane near release point.


https://gfycat.com/gifs/detail/WideeyedSilkyGlowworm

Scherzer head-butts like a Scottish soccer hooligan. He has the most extreme spine flexion in the major leagues, with such a forceful move that it causes him to finish out in front during his follow-through. The move appears to be full of effort while interfering with his stability at release point, but Scherzer has the method well timed and it should not be a major concern for his long-term viability. The momentum is league average, but he has a smooth transition through his lift and stride that aids his timing and repetition. His torque is drive from the lower half, with minimal upper-body twist but a heavy delay to his trigger that allows the hips to create separation.


https://gfycat.com/gifs/detail/WideeyedSilkyGlowworm

Scherzer avoids the slide step when pitching from the stretch, retaining virtually the same leg-lift as his windup which helps the consistency of his timing pattern. His time from first movement to release point runs 1.3-1.4 seconds from the stretch, and opposing base runners have tried to take advantage of the non-adjusted lift with little success, including a meager 59 percent success rate on stolen bases in his career.

Jon Lester

Born January 7, 1984

FB Velocity

GS

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

H %

HR %

2012

93.4 mph

33

205.3

4.82

19.0%

7.8%

24.7%

2.9%

2013

93.7 mph

33

213.3

3.75

19.6%

7.4%

23.1%

2.1%

2014

92.8 mph

32

219.7

2.46

24.9%

5.4%

21.9%

1.8%

Lester is on an ideal statistical trajectory, ripening at just the right time to hit free agency. His rebound from the disaster of 2012 came full circle, reigniting the spark of the player who used to pose 26 percent K rates, and his fourth-place finish for the Cy Young Award this season matched his ranking for the 2010 hardware. Lester stands out among the top arms because of his left-handedness, while his eight-season run of 190 or more innings pitched simultaneously speaks well to his durability and creates a bit of worry associated with long-term workload. His resistance to throwing over to first base with runners on was recently under the spotlight, thanks to the Royals running wild against him in the AL Wild Card game, and it will be interesting to see if he makes any adjustments on that front with his new club.

Report Card

Balance

65

Momentum

40

Torque

55

Posture

60

Repetition

65

Overall

B-

Lester upped the momentum in 2013 after exhibiting a painfully slow pace the year prior, and I applauded the ramped-up pace as well as his ability to maintain stability with the extra burst of energy. The southpaw reverted to his slow ways of the past in 2014, with even better results on the back of his baseball card. When pitching from the windup, his speed to the plate slows down after max lift with a parachute effect as the front foot touches down, and his stretch is not much better despite a shrunken lift and slightly quicker timing pattern.

His balance is impeccable in all three planes, with some side-to-side variation during the stride phase being all that stands in his way of a 70-grade for balance. He has minimal drop in his delivery and typically stays back well, such that he doesn't finish out in front, giving him near-perfect stability in the Y and Z planes. This represents a marked difference from 2012, when he would collapse the back-side and let the head lag behind the center of mass, often finishing out in front at release point due to over-compensation. His stability bodes well for his multi-year outlook, but the track record of losing his mechanics—and the corresponding ripple effect on his performance—is something that his new team will have to monitor.

1

James Shields

Born December 20, 1981

FB Velocity

GS

IP

ERA

K %

BB %

H %

HR %

2012

92.9 mph

33

227.7

3.52

23.6%

6.1%

22.0%

2.7%

2013

92.9 mph

34

228.7

3.15

20.7%

7.2%

22.7%

2.1%

2014

93.4 mph

34

227.0

3.21

19.2%

4.7%

23.9%

2.5%

Shields’ meltdown in the World Series made his “Big Game James” moniker an easy target on Twitter, but this remains a pitcher who has eight consecutive seasons of 200-plus innings under his belt, a factor which carries the aforementioned caveats with Lester. The numbers reflect a downward K trend, but keep in mind that 2012 was a career-best rate for Shields (who has been between 18 and 24 percent for his entire career), and the walk rate was his lowest since 2008. Of the top-tier pitchers, Shields has the most candles on his birthday cake, and his relative lack of hardware and advanced age will likely have an impact at the negotiating table.

Report Card

Balance

55

Momentum

50

Torque

60

Posture

50

Repetition

65

Overall

B-

The three pitchers under the microscope today share certain mechanical traits, and it’s not a coincidence that each player has a solid delivery overall. His plus torque utilizes a balance of delayed trunk rotation and upper-body load, and Shields does a great job of timing his trigger and lining up the gears when pitching from either the windup or the stretch. The balance suffers from some first-base lean during the lift phase, though his head stays relatively stable into foot strike, but then he invokes late spine-tilt just before release point. Shields also employs a rather extreme amount of spine flexion in his delivery, and while it lacks the ferocity of the Scherzer head-butt, the technique will sometimes leave Shields imbalanced during his follow-through.

The former Royal incorporates a reverse-twist into max leg lift, a strategy made famous by Felix Hernandez, and he does a good job of getting some energy going toward the plate while he coils during the lift phase. He kills the coil when pitching from the stretch, with a lower lift and a slightly quicker pace to help thwart the running game.

His overall momentum has decreased since 2013, going from plus marks in the category to a merely average speed to the plate. He finishes with a very late burst of energy into foot strike, but his delivery is largely dependent on the rotational elements to generate velocity, which often cause him to spin off to the first-base side after release point. He is appropriately ranked as the number-three starting pitcher on this winter's market, and the mechanical profile backs up that description, with a delivery that has been inconsistent and which lacks upside.

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