Baseball is finally here, and I couldn't be happier. A winter of hibernation can now give way to a summer of over-analysis, and the Opening Week of the 2015 baseball season has laid the groundwork with a great deal of intrigue on the mound. Let's take a look at some of the pitching highlights of the season's first turn through the rotation.

Monday, April 6

Masahiro Tanaka

I covered Tanaka in the Opening Salvo edition of Fantasy Rounders, as the combination of low radar-gun readings and a doomsday evaluation of Pedro Martinez conspired to cloud Tanaka's situation with doubt. He was fine statistically for the first couple of innings, but he looked off to me as I watched him miss spots with greater frequency than last season. Then the other shoe dropped, and the stacked Blue Jays lineup was able to push five runs across the plate in the third frame, two of which came courtesy of this pitch that caught too much plate and Edwin Encarnacion made Tanaka pay.

Tanaka was overloading secondaries into his repertoire, with just 29 pitches (including two cutters, out of 82 pitches thrown) qualifying in the fastball bucket (35.4 percent). In comparison, he threw 25 splitters and 26 sliders on the day, and given that 24 of his 29 hard pitches qualified as two-seamers or cutters, basically everything that he threw had some sort of wrinkle in it.

Mechanically, Tanaka had inconsistent timing (which is notable for a repetitive machine like him), and his arm was frequently late to the party, whether throwing fastballs or secondaries. This typically results in pitches that miss targets high and to the arm side, but Tanaka was able to effectively bury his barrage of secondary pitches.

The inconsistent timing was one mechanical concern but the frequency of misfire also created the possibility of elbow drag, which when combined with the slider frequency could be extra taxing on his already-damaged arm. He appears to be compensating his physical efficiency and repertoire in order to stay on the mound, but all indications point to a pitcher who is delaying the inevitable. I hope I'm wrong and that he rebounds next start (pitchers are often off a bit in spring), but his first test failed to inspire optimism.

Wednesday, April 8

Carlos Carrasco

Carrasco's domination in the second half of the 2014 season has skyrocketed his value, both to the Indians and in terms of his fantasy stock. His improvement was rooted in mechanics, as Carrasco (who already had elite stuff) eliminated the windup from his mechanical slate, choosing to pitch from the stretch at all times. The strategy allowed him to harness just a single timing pattern, which worked wonders for his shaky pitch command, allowing his elite fastball and potentially devastating secondaries to put batters at his mercy.

Spring was a bit chaotic for Carrasco, fighting off an illness, witnessing the birth of his child, and signing a big extension with the Indians. His final start was less than inspiring, but he entered his first start of the year with the promise of high K counts against a hacking Houston club. Carrasco did not disappoint, fanning 10 Astros across 6 1/3 frames of shutout baseball, allowing just one walk en route to the big W. I have previously noted that timing can be extraordinarily fickle, especially after an entire offseason away from the mound, but Carrasco picked up right where he left off in 2014. The mechanics, the stuff, and the stat line all reflect a pitcher who was worth the long-term commitment, but there were a couple of areas underneath the surface where Carrasco can continue to improve.

Carrasco had a somewhat inconsistent release point, and his pitch locations followed a rather predictable trend, going from high arm side to low glove side. This is not especially unique, as many pitchers follow a similar pattern, but such tendencies can be exposed at the highest level. His arm was late on a couple of 96-97 mph FBs that registered strikeouts, missing badly up arm side, but coaxing the swing from batters who had to keep Carrasco's split-change in the back of their mind. His velocity dropped during the game, which is not a huge concern at this time of the year (also very common), but it is something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Thursday, April 9

Matt Harvey

Harvey's back and you're gonna be in trouble. The fear-inducing Harvey who shut down hitters in 2013 was in full effect yesterday. His fastball was consistently sitting in the high 90s, averaging 96 mph on the 58 heaters that he threw, while the curveball was buckling knees and generating confused looks. In a premier matchup of elite pitchers who had survived the TJS scar, Harvey outplayed and outshined his mound opponent, Stephen Strasburg. Harvey threw a handful of off-speed pitches, but he dominated the Nats on the back of what was essentially a two-pitch repertoire.

Harvey is notable for his excellent extension at release point, shrinking the distance that the baseball has to travel and reducing the amount of time that opposing batters have to identify the pitch before they must make a decision of when and where to swing. This has a devastating effect for a pitcher who throws as hard as Harvey does and whose breaking pitches follow a fastball trajectory out of hand, and it was part of Harvey's overall mechanical improvement prior to going under the knife.

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Harvey was experiencing an incredible incline of efficiency prior to getting injured, and in this sense, he exposed the double-edged sword of mechanical efficiency—his superior grades were tied to his improvements in velocity and command, yet the higher pitch-speed and the increased workload that came tied to his success acted to increase the kinetic toll. I suspected that he could take some time to rediscover past levels of mechanical efficiency, with the understanding that he may never quite reach the same heights as his 2013 peak, but the early returns from yesterday were beyond encouraging.

Harvey whiffed Bryce Harper three times, each coming via the fastball, plus a late swing from the young National. Harper made a point to compliment Harvey after the game, clearly in awe of the exploding stuff of the Mets right-hander. Harvey is not quite all the way back to pre-injury form, but the fact that he has already progressed beyond the level of efficiency that he had back in 2012 is a harbinger of doom for the rest of the National League.

Trevor Bauer

Bauer has been an enigma thus far at the highest level, exhibiting the mechanical complexities of a pitching wunderkind, yet lacking some of the basic elements of repetition and timing. He simplified things last season, trading some power for stability to find a more consistent delivery, though his adjustments waned throughout the season.

I expected Bauer to have made some adjustments since last year, and the right-hander didn't disappoint. The balance-drop and back-side collapse that have marked his delivery since draft day were still present, but his positional consistency was much better than the past while he was able to rediscover some of his past power. He begins the forward momentum from first movement much earlier than max leg lift, so he doesn't have a textbook drop-n-drive. Bauer's most impressive trait was his lateral stability, as he maintained X-plane balance throughout the motion and finished with a lower level of spine-tilt than in the past.

The inconsistency that presented itself was in terms of stuff more so than mechanics. His elaborate repertoire makes pinpointing his pitch types a bit more challenging, but he had a pitch with incredible arm-side run that he threw in the high 80s and which froze batters on both sides of the plate (perhaps this was the “reverse slider”). His command of the pitch was excellent, and Bauer would use it to get out of jams when the other offerings were missing targets. And therein laid the problem, as Bauer had a habit of under-rotating fastballs and burying curves, but the movement and locations of his pitches were such that batters failed to make solid contact. He also maintained velocity throughout the outing despite a mounting pitch count.

The final line included zero hits, 11 K's, and five free passes over six full frames; it may not be efficient, but the end result was certainly productive, and Bauer put his considerable upside on display in his first start of the year.

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One hundred Likes
Early in season it is expected that pitchers that rely on timing, rythm, and repeatable mechanics to be off somewhat. It may take a few starts for Tanaka to find his rythm. He's had a lot of time off, so surely that has an effect. I do feel you are correct in the assumption that he may "compensating" but I'd rather call it hesitancy. As someone who has comeback from two surgeries as a pitcher, there is a tentativeness to let it loose for fear of re-injury. So, I chalk it up to not trusting his arm (mental) affecting the physical (arm drag, bad timing). Once he clears the "tentative" hurdle I believe Tanaka will be as he was prior to surgery. The trust in his arm/body will come back after logging innings and starts, it's just a matter of time.
Agreed on the early season expectations, finding a rhythm, etc.

However, I take note when a pitcher with previously impeccable repetition shows up with a different timing signature that he struggles to repeat, especially when there's a known injury factor. It could certainly be tentativeness, but I don't know how to phrase that in a mechanical context, given that tentativeness manifests in different ways for each pitcher. I can't say what's going on in his head, so I just relate what I see with his delivery.

I'm sure it was a 'Drewsian slip with "I believe Tanaka will be as he was prior to surgery," because he hasn't had surgery... yet.

What are your thoughts on the pitch distribution?
Yes, good catch there Doug. Should've meant prior to rehab/PT, I probably inserted my experience under the knife subconsciously.

I would've preferred he stay with his two seam longer and keep trying to attack the zone low with it coming off an injury. But, as you mention, he was able to keep his secondary pitches down as well. I'm assuming they didn't quite have enough bite on them though without having the "conviction" behind them relating to the inherent tentativeness. It was my feeling he lacked a confidence or trust in his fastball and went to secondary pitches too much, as a lot of pitchers would in this situation. If the elbow proves to hold up, he should be able to regain form, and hopefully that will be the case.
And the "if it holds up," is a huge if. In most cases like this TJ surgery is inevitable.
Great work, as always.

Any chance we can see an analysis of Shane Greene's mechanics. His performance yesterday has all Tigers fans ecstatic. Is it something we can expect more of? The Twins are a dumpster fire.
I thought Harvey's command was off the first few innings, but then he found it. Of course, the Harper ABs were just amazing - Bryce was helpless against him. If I were Matt Williams, I would be very tempted to bench Harper against Harvey, as he obviously has trouble seeing his release.