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We're now three weeks into the baseball season, such that the relative quality of opponents is beginning to wash out as pitchers continue to tour the league, while emerging trends start to become more reality and less fluke. Let's take a look at a trio of starters who had multiple starts last week, and whose performances left an impression.

Stephen Strasburg

Strasburg has been maddening over the past few years. Ever since his Tommy John surgery in 2010, Strasburg has seemingly battled his delivery, particularly with hitting the left (glove) side of the plate. His stride would be misdirected at times, other times he fell off the mound or spun off to the first-base side. I was going to grad school at SDSU when Strasburg was there dominating for the Aztecs, and his delivery looked better in college (and during his rookie season) then any point since he went under the knife.

That is, until now.

Game Stats

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

April 19

8.0

0

3

0

2

10

105

April 24

7.3

4

7

1

0

10

114

Stras stands at 3-0 overall, with an ERA of 2.17 and 31 strikeouts against seven walks in his 29.0 innings of work. The games on April 19 and 24 were his first two turns of the year that involved double-digit punchouts (likely the first two of many), and though his four runs allowed against the Twins in his last turn were the most of his young season, he also had his first game of zero walks. The worklooad has been steadily increasing, and though agent Scott Boras has previously had reason to protect his young charge from the postseason needs of the Nats, this season both sides have incentive to completely take off the reins and see what an unbridled Stras can do.

Strasburg's delivery has looked incredible this season. Everything is finally lined up, as he's hitting spots on both sides of the plate thanks to a consistent release point that allows him to move the baseball around the strike zone. He's basically the opposite of Chris Archer, who needs an open stride (rather than one directed straight at the plate) to line up the gears of his particular delivery; Stras was off-line for years, striding slightly open and fighting his release point, but in 2016 he is striding straight at the target with impeccable results, as the technique has allowed the right-hander to line up the gears of his own delivery by staying on a straight path of kinetic energy. Rather than spin or fall off to the first base side of the mound, Strasburg has been following the baseball after release point, with a follow-through that includes a step forward, toward the target, rather than an inefficient path that takes him further off-line from the target.

Don't take my word for it, as Strasburg's release point data on Brooks puts the impact in perspective, and does so without appreciating the frequency with which he is hitting catcher targets. Compare his data from April 19 of this year to his release plot of exactly one year prior, with better consistency in every direction.

Jose Fernandez
The thoughts of being treated to an entire season of Fern starts is enough to get me salivating like Pavlov's pooch, and though the Marlins will reportedly cap his workload at 175 innings or so, such an amount would represent nearly three times as many innings pitched as any campaign since his rookie year. The team's caution is prudent considering the potential upside of their prized young arm, but the performance (or lack thereof) has thrown a bit of a wrench into the plans to spare his right arm from extra work.

Game Stats

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

April 18

6.0

1

3

0

4

9

103

April 23

6.0

4

7

0

3

5

104

The inefficient pitch counts have been maddening. Fern might have the most electric stuff in the game, and even the best hitters in the world have little recourse against his high-90s heat and the darting movement of the Defector, his breaking ball. But that doesn't mean that he should be trying to strike out every batter that he sees, and the tendency toward high counts of pitches per plate appearance have limited Fern to no more than six innings in any of his four starts this season. He has walked 11 batters in 22 2/3 innings, has failed to get even a half-dozen Ks in half of his starts, and yet has cleared 100 pitches in three of those four turns.

What it so frustrating about his lack of pitch efficiency is that it runs completely contrary to the Marlins' stated goal of limiting his workload, but the team seems to be using the archaic method of raw pitch counts to dictate his usage. A high pitch-count inning can be exponentially more taxing than a quick frame, and his pursuit of the K has resulted in many of these high-intensity innings already in the young season. Workload limits that are imposed based on strict innings caps—and that ignore the physical exertion that a pitcher experiences on a per-inning basis—are doomed to fail due to the lack of appreciation of one simple truth: All innings are not created equal, and all pitchers are differently impacted by fatigue.

Fern throws very hard (average four-seam FB is 95.4 mph this year), which already puts him in a category of high exertion before we get into aspects such as mechanics or pitch selection. He has an excellent delivery, but it is also one that is oozing with power and requires a high level of mechanical efficiency in order to run smoothly. Given that he is still working his way back to pre-surgery levels, one might expect that the team would mandate that he go a bit easy on the breaking balls, yet Fernandez is throwing the Defector on 30.9 percent of his pitches this season. He throws his breaker the “safe” way, relying on supination rather than a twist of the wrist near release point (which is very dangerous), but the Defector requires a high degree of supination (a karate-chop angle of the forearm), which makes the pitch more taxing than a fastball because the arm has further to pronate after release point (all pitchers pronate after the baseball leaves the hand).

Combine a high frequency of pitches that require big supination with inefficient frames that increase his per-inning workload, plus the high-end velo that increases the joint loads of every pitch, and you get the recipe for overtaxing a pitcher's throwing arm. Rather than looking at his raw pitch counts, perhaps it would behoove the Marlins to set limits on Fern's number of pitches per inning in order to protect his arm (and their investment), because the current setup is actually compounding the risk rather than lightening it.

Drew Smyly

I have one question for Drew Smyly: when did he become a strikeout artist?

Game Stats

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

April 19

8.0

0

1

0

2

11

104

April 24

7.0

1

6

0

1

6

93

The game on April 19th was against the powerful Red Sox, and Smyly simply obliterated that lineup with 11 Ks and just three baserunners allowed through eight full innings. He had also struck out 11 Indians in his prior starts, and his tally for the season now includes 33 strikeouts against just five walks in 28 innings of work. We saw shades of this level of dominance last season, in which he struck out 77 batters in 66 innings, but the left-hander also had just two games of 10 or more Ks in his first 43 starts in the majors.

I often make fun of Smyly because he looks like a drunken flamingo at release point, leaning heavily to the glove side while finishing on one leg at release point as he reaches for the highest slot that he can find. But the stats speak for themselves, and in Smyly's case the stuff has evolved to help provide some explanation for the sudden uptick in whiffs. Check out his four-seam velocity of the past three years, during which he has been used exclusively as a starting pitcher:

  • 2016: 92.0 mph
  • 2015: 91.2 mph
  • 2014: 90.9 mph

As I've mentioned a few times in this early season, I am not typically too concerned with a pitcher's velo drop early in the year due to the standard trend to increase velo through the first half of the season, but when a pitcher kicks off April with a new height of radar gun readings, it grabs my attention. There's nothing dominant about a 92 mph fastball in a vacuum, but a pitcher has already experienced success while pitching 90-91 and then he suddenly adds a tick, it can have a ripple effect on the rest of his repertoire. Smyly has been getting strikeouts with his fastball as well as his secondaries, but his 15 Ks in 40 plate appearances that end in a fastball (37.5 percent) represents a nice uptick from the 29.5-percent rate of last season and especially the paltry 14.4-percent frequency of 2014.

Thank you for reading

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