This Week's Scouting Tip: Power vs. Finesse
Pitchers are typically designated either power pitchers or finesse pitchers. The basic distinction is almost always based on pure velocity - if he can get it up there in the mid 90s, he is a power pitcher, while the "junk" throwers who rarely break 90 are, whether they really are or not, considered "finesse" pitchers. So what should you be looking for when scouting possible additions to your fantasy rotation? What hints suggest a power pitcher will do more than throw hard, and what are some of the traits to look for in a finesse pitcher who could provide consistently good results? Both types can help your fantasy mound staff, you just need to find the right ones. Let's take a look ...
The benefits of power pitching ...
It's a fact, every pitcher, even the elite, will make mistakes. It's virtually impossible to throw a baseball 60 feet 6 inches 100+ times a game without at least a few of those pitches ending up in the wrong place. Some will be too high, some will be in the dirt, and some will be center cut in the middle of the plate. Most major league hitters feed on those mistakes. The truly great hitters almost never miss one, and that's where the power pitcher has a significant advantage. Simply because the ball gets there sooner and the hitter has less time to react, the power pitcher will typically get by with a higher percentage of mistakes while the finesse pitcher is more likely to pay a big price. Given this reality, power pitchers are almost always the target of major league scouts, and as you might expect, fantasy baseball team owners.
It sounds easy ... look for power pitchers? Not so fast. Power pitchers who throw a very high percentage of mistakes can be far more volatile than a finesse pitcher who only rarely tosses a beach ball up there. True, the ideal is a power pitcher with great velocity, good movement and excellent command. Unfortunately, you can count those on your fingers. For most, command is the key (there are a few who throw a very straight fastball and therefore lack movement, but they are in the minority), so when looking for value, your first targets on draft day should probably be power pitchers who appear to be refining their command. They are the most likely to outperform their draft position/price.
However, you might also want to look at a few finesse pitchers who are becoming more and more consistent. They typically develop a bit more slowly - it takes longer to be that precise - and they may gradually improve their WHIP and strikeout rate as they evolve from being the equivalent of meat market butchers to highly skilled surgeons. Because they can be overlooked by less astute owners, it's sometimes possible to catch a peaking finesse pitcher at a very good price. That said, you want to keep an open mind when evaluating the available arms. Certainly check out the flamethrowers, but also look for signs that a finesse pitcher is coming into his own.
Some things to watch for when evaluating power or finesse pitchers:
- Interestingly, one of the most important factors here is the pitcher being able to recognize his limitations. A pitcher who pictures himself a power pitcher without the power repertoire is a fantasy disaster. This is particularly evident with aging pitchers who have not (or can not) transition to a finesse pitcher when their physical capabilities wane. When you can't throw 95 any more, you have to be able to fool the hitters, and as a fantasy owner, you want to see that realization.
- Always look for command progress when evaluating a young power pitcher. Consider the advancement of Brandon Morrow who has cut his walk rate, increased his strikeout rate, and reduced the number of hard hit balls - all signs of improving command that will make his dynamic stuff all that much more effective. These are the most prominent signs of an impending breakout.
- For finesse pitchers you want to see improvements in changing speeds and pinpoint accuracy with an assortment of pitches. Their success will depend heavily on deception and spotting pitches away from the middle of the plate. When throwing pitches outside the strike zone, the pitch should demonstrate an intended response - changing the eye level, protecting another location, etc.
- For both types of young pitchers, improving strikeout rates typically show forward progress. Power pitches have to establish secondary pitches to make their power fastball more difficult to anticipate, and finesse pitchers will get more strikeouts when they become more difficult to pick up or when they learn to use their less than dominating fastball to set up their breaking pitches or change-up.
Now, let's check this week's Scouting Notebook ...
This continues our weekly feature scouting pitchers of interest. We won't normally cover the elite guys in this column, rather it's is dedicated to finding pitchers who might help, and more importantly, might be obtainable (as well as pitchers to avoid). All right ... let's get started with this week's featured arms:
Jair Jurrjens (ATL) @ SD - Heading into Monday, Jurrjens has now made three starts after beginning the 2011 season on the DL. There are those (including yours truly) who expected a bounce back from the Braves right-hander after an injury-marred and disappointing 2010 season, but he has been better than expected, sooner than expected. In 2010, Jurrjens struggled through a couple of minor injuries and never really settled into the form that made him a very productive fantasy pitcher in 2009. While he might not produce a WHIP (1.21) and ERA (2.60) that made him a hot commodity during that 2009 season, he is likely to be closer to those numbers than his 2010 numbers this year.
You would normally expect a pitcher to have a bit of rust to shake off when making his first few starts after coming off the DL and while Jurrjens has been effective, he hasn't displayed midseason command. However, in his last outing, he pitched his first career complete game against the Padres scattering nine hits, and very few of the balls hit were hit with authority. He changed speeds fairly well and pitched to both sides effectively (both a must for him) Overall, he threw 81 of 114 itches for strikes - excellent control certainly, yet he wasn't always spotting those strikes.
Jurrjens is actually somewhere between a power pitcher and a finesse pitcher - finesse always and power when needed. His fastball sits in the 90-92 range, his breaking pitches were reasonably effective in the low 80s, and his change-up showed good downward movement away from left-handed hitters with excellent differential (high 70s). All in all, the repertoire he displayed was what you would expect to see when he is in mid-season form even if every pitch wasn't where he intended it to be. Minor injuries resulted in inconsistent command in 2010, but we expect his command to sharpen with innings.
He doesn't miss enough bats to slot into the top spot in a fantasy rotation, but even though he is just 25, he is mature enough and confident enough to pitch to contact and just look for strikeouts when he really needs one. That is what made him so impressive a couple of years ago - mound presence and maturity far beyond his age and experience level. You won't get numbers like those in his first few outings for every start, but if he stays healthy he could be an extremely reliable middle of the rotation starter for you.
Scott Baker (MIN) vs. TB - For the vast majority of pitchers you will always hear the color analyst say, "He has to keep the ball down" to be effective." Baker is the anomaly. He prefers to pitch up in the zone. Further, his success is dependent on his being able to pitch up and down in the strike zone. It makes him something of a flyball pitcher and can lead to a few extra home runs, but his new home ballpark in Minnesota and his pinpoint control can often minimize the damage.
In our target game against the Rays. Baker again threw strikes (72 of his 107 pitches were over the plate), moving the ball around, and avoiding the middle of the dish. The result was another quality outing. His flyball tendencies make pinpoint command a critical component to his game. Always remember, missing up can be far more catastrophic than missing down, because balls up, if out over the plate, can land several rows deep in the bleachers. So, throwing quality strikes is imperative. And, he can't afford extra base runners via walks that would make the sure to come home runs (again, no pitcher is going to make the perfect pitch every time) even more problematic.
Compared to Jurrjens, Baker doesn't change speeds as much and therefore must rely on spotting his pitches. He too gets his fastball into the low 90s; however his off-speed pitches tend to reside in the low 80s. Therefore, he is less likely to disrupt the hitter's timing and gets his outs by locating all around the zone. Ideally, he will set the batter up with fastballs up and in or up and away, then drop the eye level to the knees. His ability to do that consistently can result in a fairly respectable strikeout rate.
Baker should be a solid, albeit slightly riskier, middle of the rotation starter for a fantasy team. He is particularly helpful in the WHIP category because he walks very few hitters and avoids solid contact often enough to limit overall base runners. His strikeout rate should be good but not great, and he makes an excellent match-up starter if you can avoid starts in HR friendly ballparks and/or against power-laden lineups.
James McDonald (PIT) vs. SF - Once a top prospect in the Dodgers system, his shining star dimmed a bit, and he was traded to Pittsburgh last season. He almost immediately got it back, and by the end of the season, he was back in the conversation when quality young pitchers were being discussed. Getting off to an ugly start to 2011 made this a good time to have a look and see what has gone wrong. However, what went wrong in his first four outings did not carry over into his start against the Giants. Still, it's probably not time to move him into the "safe play" category just yet.
McDonald throws from a high arm slot and he can be difficult for batters to pick up. He features a lively fastball that sits in the low 90s, a solid change-up, and one of the most devastating curveballs in the game today. The true 12-to-6 curve is fairly rare these days, and McDonald can mesmerize hitters with it when he is throwing it for strikes. That's the key - throwing it for strikes. Early in the season, and early in this game, he was unable to get the curve over. That allows hitters to ignore the breaking ball and sit on his fastball. It's a good one, with a lot of late movement when he's on his game, but it still allows the hitter to condense the pitch menu and that is always dangerous.
Against San Francisco, McDonald was still erratic with his command of the fastball, but with the curve back in his bag of tricks, the Giants were not getting especially good swings against him. This game was a significant step forward as he was staying on the edges, changing the hitter's eye level, and doing a better job of changing speeds. That said, he isn't out of the woods quite yet - he could always suffer a relapse until he gets it locked in. Overall, he is clearly the top talent in the Pirates rotation today. He's not likely to ever be an ace, he projects as a #2 on the high side or a #3 MLB starter, but as he matures and becomes more consistent, he could be a useful fantasy pitcher.
Some short takes:
Yovani Gallardo (MIL) - I have liked him for a long time and keep expecting him to break through. His slider and overhand curve have looked decent this year but his fastball velocity is down and he isn't hitting his spots with it. He's a guy who lacks the pinpoint command to be a finesse pitcher, but his power offerings aren't quite there now.
Francisco Liriano (MIN) - Liriano is officially a mess. He is not displaying any real command of the strike zone, his trademark slider is almost a slurve at times, and his release point can vary on virtually every offering. They claim he is not injured, but there is something amiss. You would probably be wise to stash him on reserve for now if you can.
Alex White (CLE) - A solid prospect for a team needing help on the mound, White just made his first major league start and pitched reasonably well. He has some upside, but his secondary pitches still need work so more seasoning would be the ideal for him. It's likely he will be back in Triple-A once the Indians' staff gets healthy.
Kyle Drabek (TOR) - He got roughed up by the Yankees in his last start, but that has happened to many young pitchers. Don't be overly concerned. Drabek will have his off days, but the long-term picture is still bright. He seems to be capable of adjusting quickly so it will be interesting to see how he fares in his next few outings.
Jake Peavy (CWS) - He has had encouraging results and setbacks in his rehab, but the overall trend is positive. As a max effort arm, he will always be an injury risk, however the potential rewards continue to make him worth the risk. He's a good guy to have stashed on your roster right now.
Michael Pineda (SEA) - Many young pitchers experience a halo effect when they first arrive in the majors. Because they are new, the "book" has not circulated on them and they can fool hitters - for a while. Pineda appears to be the exception here. His stuff is good enough to anticipate extended success and that makes him very valuable.
Drew Storen (WAS) - As expected, Storen is now the primary closer in Washington, and with Sean Burnett's struggles of late, there is every reason to believe he will be the first choice regardless of match-ups. He's the real deal, and while he may have a few bumps in the road with his limited experience, he has a very bright future.
Brandon Lyon (HOU) - He picked up a win Saturday, but only because he blew another save. The clock has to be ticking here and we still think Mark Melancon will eventually get a crack at the closing gig. Be prepared to move quickly if Lyon falters again - which he almost certainly will.
Huston Street (COL) - He may not be the "best" closer, but he might be one of the most secure, and with end gamers that can be the key to fantasy success. The biggest concern would probably be over-use given his history of being a bit fragile. He has already pitched quite a few innings at this stage of the season.
Mitchell Boggs (STL) - Many managers claim they will use a committee to close when their primary closer implodes. Tony LaRussa is one of the few who actually has. Boggs was expected to be the primary replacement for Ryan Franklin, but four different relievers have notched saves in St. Louis over the past week. The Cardinals bullpen is extremely unpredictable right now.
Kids' Corner ...
Manny Banuelos (NYY) - He displayed amazing poise (and stuff) this spring considering his age and experience level. Banuelos has the repertoire and mound presence to have an immediate impact. He was recently on the minor league DL but the problem was a blister so the Yankees still hope to see him in New York at some point later this season. NY is no easy assignment for a young player, but there are reasons to believe he can handle it. Keeper league owners should be watching him closely.
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