This Week's Scouting Tip: Sometimes It's the Little Things
Really now, how much difference can an almost imperceptible adjustment in a pitcher's delivery possibly make? Sometimes it's very difficult for us to grasp the impact of even a small change in performance. We probably don't really understand the so-called "game of inches" when in reality, our favorite game can often be measured in fractions of inches. Let me illustrate with an example from another sport. I was involved in pro hockey for several years. Have you ever been to a hockey game and watched the popular between periods game of trying to shoot a puck through a puck-sized hole in front of the net? Your average fan might hit the board occasionally, and many will miss it altogether. I have tried it, and having played a little hockey, I can hit the board fairly consistently. But, I have also watched a professional player hit that tiny slot in the board with virtually every shot from above the face-off circles. That equates to throwing strikes (over the plate) and pitching to spots - often within a couple of inches (or less) of the target - and a minor adjustment can make all the difference. Let's take a look ...
Exploring it further: How minor adjustments can sometimes make a big difference ...
There are two basic types of adjustments a pitcher can make. The first involves changes in pitch selection and is often seen when a pitcher adds a pitch to his repertoire or when his skill set or circumstances dictate the need to throw a certain type of pitch more often. It could be because of injury concerns, or even more likely, because, as he ages, the fastball may not have the same zip as it had when he was younger.
That said we'll focus for a moment on the second type, mechanics or the overall motion and components that make up a pitcher's delivery to the plate. We'll discuss this from a non-technical perspective, as the discreet differences in good and bad mechanics can be very difficult to see without detailed slow motion or stop action imagery, even if you know exactly what you are looking for. The important things to note are the results of the flawed mechanics rather than the underlying causes. Just keep in mind, mechanics for pitchers vary widely, but they all seek to achieve the same end result - a repeatable motion that maximizes consistency, command, velocity, and movement. Different adjustments affect different aspects of that group of objectives, however pitchers and pitching coaches are constantly attempting to fix flaws or improve strengths, adjustments designed to improve overall performance.
In this week's pitcher evaluations, we will discuss modifications that have made a difference in the performance of some pitchers who appear to be making necessary adjustments in their mechanics or pitch selection. In one case, tweaking the timing of the delivery to square the pitcher's shoulders to the plate has improved his command as he leaves fewer pitches outside the strike zone while shortening his stride slightly and changing his arm angle has allowed him to stay on top of the ball better, and that has resulted in much better movement. In another example, one of our guys, a right-hander, has dramatically increased the percentage of change-ups thrown to enhance his effectiveness against lefties while also allowing him to vary speeds more efficiently as his fastball declines slightly with his advancing age. In both scenarios, these minor adjustments made a difference in their performance, and in their fantasy value.
Here are some things to consider regarding adjustments made by a pitcher:
- Stride is a double-edged sword - a longer stride can result in better velocity, but it can also cause a decrease in movement as the pitcher can have more difficulty staying on top of the ball. When a pitcher is struggling with command and his pitches are too straight, a shortening of stride of even 2-3 inches is often implemented to ease that problem. Look for pitchers who have a longer stride, but also consistently stay on top of the ball (i.e. Tim Lincecum).
- "Repeatable" is everything to a pitcher. Motions are as different as fingerprints, and almost any can be effective if the pitcher can repeat that motion pitch after pitch. In younger pitchers, look for a smooth, fluid delivery. That is most repeatable and therefore gives that guy a better chance of being able to know where each pitch will go and what type of movement to expect.
- Because so many adjustments are small and difficult to see, look for comments regarding changes in your pitcher's delivery if he has been struggling. The most common modifications relate to improved timing - often slowing down a pitcher who is rushing his delivery. For example, when this happens, the foot strike and release point may not be synchronized, and a minor change in the positioning of the hands - lowering or raising - at the pause can add or subtract a fraction of a second to the release point and get things back in synch.
- Adding a pitch, or altering the mix of pitches, can also be a major factor in a pitcher's evolution. Josh Beckett doesn't have his blazing fastball any longer, but his pitch selection and location has allowed him to excel this season. Bronson Arroyo is using his change-up more often to help against lefty swingers, and Jordan Zimmermann is a more reliable change-up away from taking the next step in his high ceiling development. Watch for changes like these, and cash in.
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 this forum is dedicated to finding pitchers who might help, and more importantly, might be obtainable (as well as pitchers to avoid). Alright ... let's get started with this week's featured arms:
James Shields (TB)@ CLE - He was a huge disappointment in 2010 - for both the Rays and his fantasy owners. He still showed flashes of the stuff that made him an attractive option, but he was far too hittable far too often, and he frequently left a pitch out over the middle of the plate in the worst possible situations. Too many base runners and too many home runs not surprisingly led to an inflated ERA, and a lot of fantasy owners scratching him off of their 2011 draft sheets. However, so far in 2011, Shields might be tempted to quote Mark Twain who said, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Indeed, with some minor changes to his delivery, he makes a great example for this week's scouting tip regarding the impact some small modifications can have on a pitcher's overall performance.
The most notable tweaks to Shields' delivery would probably be efforts to square him up to the plate (improving overall command), a slight drop in arm angle, and work to keep him on top of the ball to insure good movement on his pitches. While one must look closely to see these changes, the results have been extraordinary. He is spotting his fastball consistently, moving it in and out while keeping it out of the middle of the plate. Those pitches, which tended to flatten out last season, now produce excellent movement and are generating plenty of missed bats. As a result, Shields has pitched deep into games - averaging almost eight innings per start - and he has a 4-1 record to go with a sparkling 0.96 WHIP and a 2.08 ERA. Best yet, there has been nothing to suggest he can't continue to be a highly effective starting pitcher going forward.
In our game against Cleveland, Shields mixed up an assortment of a well-placed fastball in the 90-92 mph range, with an occasional curveball in the upper 70s, all setting up his most effective offering, a moving change-up delivered in the low 80s. He actually often used the curveball to get ahead in the count before pitching to the corners with his fastball, and breaking out the change as an out pitch. With that combination of pitches, he displayed the ability to handle hitters on both sides of the plate. It resulted in his sixth consecutive start of seven or more innings and his seventh quality start in eight outings. To add to his skill set, Shields picked off two runners (Michael Brantley at first base and Orlando Cabrera at second base) giving him five pickoffs already in 2011. Shields has exceptionally quick feet, and his ability to hold runners, especially as a right-handed thrower, greatly minimizes the running game.
Overall, if he continues to spot his fastball, there is every reason to believe his change-up will continue to be a highly effective offering. He might start mixing in a few more curveballs to accentuate speed differential, and that could slightly increase his strikeout rate, but it's most critical that he maintain the 2011 command and movement since he doesn't have the overwhelming stuff to blow hitters away. In his case, some minor adjustments have made a very big difference.
Jordan Zimmermann (WAS)@ ATL - It generally takes quite a bit to get me really excited about a pitcher, and Zimmermann is delivering. He was heavily hyped when he arrived in 2009, and he put up some respectable numbers, including about a strikeout per inning. His only noticeable weakness was a tendency to give up the long ball, especially to left-handed hitters. Unfortunately, his 2009 display of skills was brief as he developed elbow problems and underwent Tommy John surgery. He returned quickly in late 2010 and pitched fairly well considering the layoff, but the stats lines were mediocre, including allowing eight more long balls in just 31 innings.
Moving the clock ahead to 2011, Zimmermann was generally considered an intriguing late-rounder, but much of the hype had dissipated as fantasy owners were more focused on the latest crop of young talent. Well, those who kept him in their sites might be in line for some exceptional dividends based on the progress he is beginning to show. His velocity is back with fastballs (two and four seam) that range from 90-95, and he is mixing in some very impressive breaking pitches including a slider at 83-86 and a power curveball at 77-79, both with sharp two-plane movement. The really outstanding pitch is his two-seam fastball that bores in on right-handers (and moves away from lefties). Combined with the breaking pitches and the four-seam fastball he often throws up in the zone to change eye levels, produced 11 strikeouts in our target game against Atlanta giving him 17 whiffs in his last 12 innings of work.
While the home runs allowed rate has been considerably better in 2011, that could still be a bit of an Achilles heal for Zimmermann. He doesn't throw true a change-up very often so he has to be very careful against left-handed swingers. Missing his spots could be damaging without a pitch to effectively keep them honest. However, he has the stuff (the movement on the two-seamer helps) to overcome mistakes, and the tenacity to bear down when things get rough. In the first inning against Atlanta, the Braves loaded the bases with a bloop single, a broken bat soft liner, and a walk, but Zimmermann struck out the side, including a looking strikeout of Eric Hinske on a perfectly placed 3-2 back door curve. That's exciting. He could still suffer some growing pains after the one year delay in his development, but the best is definitely yet to come if he stays healthy.
Bronson Arroyo (CIN)vs. STL - Quick - name the five major league pitchers who have won 15 or more games in each of the last three seasons. All right, that was a bit too easy since one of them is named in the lead to this evaluation. For the record, the five are, Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, Jon Lester and Bronson Arroyo. Arroyo doesn't always get the recognition, but he is just about as consistent as a starting pitcher can be. Because he is such a workhorse, routinely running up 200+ innings a season, he often hangs around long enough for the offense to produce the run support needed to qualify Arroyo for a win.
Arroyo isn't the prototypical high profile guy; he isn't young (he's 34), he certainly isn't a hot prospect, he doesn't generally pile up double-digit strikeouts in a game, and he is rarely associated with other highly effective pitchers. All he does is go out to the hill every five days, and give his fantasy owners quality innings with a chance to pick up a win in almost every outing. That's not a fantasy ace, but a lot of league champions have pitchers like Arroyo in the middle of their rotations. His value lies in consistently solid, if not spectacular, numbers. With his less glamorous persona, it's always possible that you could add him as a very useful stabilizer to your fantasy rotation.
While he is known for his vast assortment of breaking pitches, recent improvements in his change-up have been instrumental in his improved WHIP and a reduction in home runs allowed. Last season, Arroyo nearly doubled the percentage of change-ups thrown, and that led to less damage being done by left-handed hitters. As we mentioned, a change in mechanics, or a change in pitch selection, can make a difference. He is making the adjustments necessary to remain competitive, and that is always good news as a pitcher advances in years. It gives us confidence that he can still be successful by relying on pitching savvy.
Some short takes:
Chris Carpenter (STL)- Is his owner in your league the impatient type? If so, have a run at Carpenter. His velocity is there and so is the movement. Carpenter still mixes up an assortment of pitches that vary in velocity by as much as 20 mph. His command is off right now so his stats are sufficiently ugly; however pitchers of his caliber will adjust.
Josh Collmenter (ARZ)- Not many pitchers have a true over-the-top delivery these days, with a high three quarters release point generally the highest a hitter sees. Collmenter is the exception, and since he throws strikes, with that unusual delivery he has the potential to be effective in keeping opponents off balance.
Ryan Vogelsong (SF)- Perhaps an unlikely candidate to have a fantasy impact, he is showing some very positive signs. He has matured during his days pitching in Japan and might be a viable addition to a fantasy rotation. He is both throwing quality strikes and generating strikeouts, so he might be worthy of a flier.
Tyson Ross (OAK)- Early on he wasn't throwing strikes and he wasn't being effective despite having very good stuff. He seems to be learning the lesson and posted another outstanding performance in his last start. With his stuff and that home ballpark, he is probably someone you could take a chance on for the back of your rotation.
Brian Matusz (BAL)- Beginning a rehab assignment this week and could be back in Baltimore's rotation in the next week or two. He has the highest ceiling of any Orioles starter and is likely to offer positive contribution to your fantasy team soon. He is well worth pursuing if he is available in your league.
Johan Santana (NYM)- He took another step forward last week, throwing a few pitches off a mound. The Mets are understandably taking it very slow, but he could come back around the All-Star break and contribute in the second half. You can't ignore someone with his ability so he should be monitored closely.
Andy Sonnanstine (TB)- He is clearly not the answer in the rotation (he never has been) as a fill-in while Jeff Niemann is on the DL. Look for the Rays to dip into the minors when this spot comes around again. While it would certainly be intriguing to see Matt Moore, Alex Torres or Alex Cobb would be the more likely options.
Kenley Jansen (LAD) -He is generally considered too wild to trust with the closer's role, however he is an option if Padilla can't handle the job. You still have to consider him a long shot, however it wouldn't be too surprising to see him grab the job and run with it if given the chance.
Brandon League (SEA)- David Aardsma is going to be out for quite a while now, but League has been brutal in his last few outings and the Mariners might start looking at alternatives. They don't have a lot to choose from. Jamey Wright and Aaron Laffey are probably the favorites, but dark horse Dan Cortes has the best "closer" makeup.
Fernando Salas (STL)- Hey, why not give him a turn, almost everyone else has had one. Ryan Franklin is buried, Mitchell Boggs faltered, Eduardo Sanchez faltered, so we will anoint Salas as the Cardinals "Closer of the Week." Stay tuned for next week's option. But, don't be too surprised if Jason Motte eventually ends up with the gig.
Kid's Corner ...
Jarrod Parker (ARZ)- He is working his way back from Tommy John surgery and the Diamondbacks won't want to rush him. The velocity has already returned, and he is getting a feel for the command he will need once he reaches the major leagues. He might see Arizona later this season, and he could make an immediate impact.
For some of the most in-depth coverage of all things pitching in fantasy baseball for 2011, visit www.bogfella.com and be sure to follow @RotoWire and @bogfella on Twitter.