This Week's Scouting Tip: Adjust, Adjust, Then Adjust Again
Many people wonder how pitchers go from excellent performance levels, to mediocre, to poor, and back again. For developing young pitchers this can be relatively long stretches or fairly short stretches, while in mature pitchers it can even be an inning-to-inning thing. The bottom line is, pitchers adjust their approach, use it while it's working, then face the adjustments made by hitters before starting the adjustment process all over again. Long-term success depends on making these adjustments throughout the pitcher's career. Hitters at the major league level got there by being able to adjust to pitchers, and many are very good at it. Obviously, for a pitcher to make it at that level, he will have to adjust to the adjustments made by those hitters. How do they do it? Let's take a look ...
Adjustments come in all shaped and sizes ...
The first and perhaps most critical adjustment period frequently presents itself during a pitcher's major league debut. Most will enjoy a "halo" effect where they enjoy at least moderate success, as much as anything because the hitters they are facing don't know them very well, and spend the first few starts studying their delivery, their repertoire, and their tendencies. With exceptional stuff, this period could last a few weeks or even a few months. Conversely, a pitcher with just average stuff could see hitters adjusting within a handful of starts. If the pitcher can make countering adjustments, he can continue to be a productive pitcher, if not, he becomes the bane of fantasy baseball boards where those who picked him up curse his sudden turnaround. The minor leagues are calling.
With more time in the minors, many pitchers will continue to mature and eventually garner the skills to make the necessary adjustments. That typically marks their transition to a permanent position at the major league level. However, the adjustments don't end there. Hitters will continue to search for weaknesses and tendencies and at some point your guy is going to have to evolve again. Keep this in mind - the better the pitcher, the shorter the adjustment period. For example, Roy Halladay is what he is because he can make adjustments from batter-to-batter if necessary. That guy with a career 5.00 ERA who tosses a few good games and then struggles for several starts is often displaying an inability to make the necessary adjustments on the fly. Everyone has a rough outing now and then. It can be a night where they just don't have anything working or a stretch of really bad luck, but the best have extended gaps between experiencing those blowups.
From a fantasy scouting standpoint, you want to recognize the ability to adjust and avoid those flavor-of-the-month guys who do well until just after being plucked from the waiver wire. One significant factor, as mentioned earlier, is dominating stuff. A 97mph fastball with a sharp-biting slider and a where did it go change up can provide more time to learn adjustments. Sometimes a pitcher should be changing his pitch sequencing, but he survives on pure stuff. However, watch the pitcher's tendencies and sequencing. Does he change his sequence - perhaps going from first pitch fastballs early to starting hitters off with off-speed stuff? Does he quickly recognize and shift away from pitches that aren't working on a given night? It is common for every pitcher to be without his best pitch and he needs to be more careful when using that offering. These are just a few examples of things you can watch for when evaluating a pitcher's potential.
Here are some normal adjustments to watch for when considering a pitcher:
- Forcing something that is not working is always a bad sign. If hitters are teeing off on a pitcher's change up, he needs to throw it in different situations (can be changed within a game) or improve the quality of the pitch (probably won't happen tonight so he should probably scrap it and rely on what is working).
- Pitch selection is typically very helpful in evaluating a pitcher's long-term upside. Think about the pitcher who has 4-5 decent pitches and uses them all against almost every hitter. That guy is usually in trouble by the middle innings. The pitcher that holds something back and only uses certain pitches in critical situations early on has a much better chance of lasting deeper into the game.
- We mentioned sequencing earlier. If almost every hitter gets a fastball away on the first pitch of an at bat, it won't be long before they adjust and start looking for that pitch. Look for the pitcher who can be unpredictable. If you can consistently guess what pitch is coming next, it's a good bet the hitter can do the same.
- One of the biggest challenges a pitcher can face is a need to alter his pitch sequencing or selection, but lacking the confidence in enough other offerings to comfortably throw secondary pitches in critical situations. That's the reason two-pitch pitchers rarely last long as starting pitchers. If he changes to other pitches and starts to consistently fall behind in the count, note his stress level. You want him to be able to calmly work around the command issues.
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). All right ... let's get started with this week's featured arms:
Michael Pineda (SEA)@ WAS - Pineda provides a good example of a pitcher showing that he can adjust fairly quickly as he settles into his major league career. He certainly has the advantage of excellent stuff, but he is also tweaking his approach as hitters attempt to figure him out. That he has been pretty successful, now nearly halfway through his rookie season, bodes well for his future. Pineda has changed his pitch sequence as needed, and he routinely holds something back for the second and third time through a batting order. Despite a somewhat unorthodox delivery (which probably helps him be more deceptive) he typically displays good command of the strike zone with three solid to plus pitches. That amounts to a lot of positives.
Pineda features a very active fastball in the 91-93 mph range that he will sink at times, a good slider in the mid-80s with sharp down angle and a variation of the pitch that he throws more like a slurve in the high 70s. His change up is less consistent, but he works it in at appropriate times and it does serve to keep opposing hitters off balance. Beyond that, he is especially adept at reaching back and adding a little hop on the fastball, typically preferring to climb the ladder while increasing the velocity to 94-96 mph. Because he throws all of his pitches with a nearly identical arm action, it can often be quite a guessing game between Pineda and the batter.
In our target game against Washington, Pineda cruised through most of the game throwing 70 of 97 pitches across seven innings for strikes. However, when he found himself in difficult situations - it rarely happened - he was able to make effective adjustments to escape with little or no damage. He tends to pitch to contact early in the count with the sinking fastball, then switch to either the sharp slider at about 85 mph or the harder fastball up, frequently out of the zone, at 95-96 mph to generate swinging strikes once he gets the count in his favor. It works. It also sounds pretty simple, but this ability to change approaches to individual hitters suggests maturity beyond his years.
Every season a large group of pitchers come along. Many will start off well enough, but relatively few will still be enjoying success a few months later. Pineda appears to be a member of that select group. His delivery carries him off the mound to the first base side, he could still hone his command a bit, especially with the change, and he might find it useful to pitch inside more often, but he is already comfortable changing speeds and location with his fastball while mixing in that nasty slider, and altering his sequencing and pitch selection to fit the situation. Overall, it's been a very encouraging rookie year.
Daniel Hudson (ARZ)@ KC - Dealt to the Diamondbacks from the White Sox for Edwin Jackson last season, the Sox would probably like to have Hudson back. While Jackson has continued his career long tendency to be frustratingly inconsistent, Hudson stepped into the Arizona rotation and immediately had a big impact. Now in his second season in the desert, he is working on the adjustments he'll need to make to continue his promising start. Like almost every young pitcher, his hot start cooled a bit as hitters began to figure him out. While he and Pineda are at similar stages in their careers, Pineda has actually adapted a little more quickly, but Hudson still looks like he could settle in and be a productive top-to-middle of the rotation starter. Hudson is known as an intense pitcher who has his own extremely high expectations. That's good, but it can also be a challenge to overcome if his perfectionist approach stalls his progress.
In our game against Kansas City, a pesky offense that can be frustrating to more intense pitchers like Hudson, he displayed his usual low-mid 90s fastball - his bread and butter to be sure - and also tossed in a high 80s slider and a low 80s change up. That fastball tends to tail away from lefties and bore in on right-handed hitters, making it a devastating offering when he spots it well. The slider and change up are also potentially effective pitches, but he has to be careful not to overthrow them. Both pitches tended to spike in velocity in pressure situations and that sometimes reduced both their effectiveness and movement. Keep in mind, that adrenaline associated with extreme intensity can be a bit of a problem if not kept in check and brought out when it's really needed. To his credit, the fastball was generally all the more impressive when he had to have a big pitch.
Hudson obviously has the tools. Earlier in his career he was prone to struggling early in games - a common problem for pitchers who step onto the mound in high gear. That has become less of a problem as he has gained experience and maturity. He still looked a bit rattled when a throwing error led to a potentially damaging inning, but he regained his composure in short order and carried on. The signs point to further development and a stable position near the top of the D'Backs rotation. With his motion, he occasionally has to adjust during a game to maintain his release point, but he is learning to do that. You have to love that fastball - well, not if you are an opposing hitter - and as he gets more comfortable with his secondary pitches, it will only get better. His home park will always make things a little interesting, but he should be a solid fantasy pitcher for years.
Cory Luebke (SD)vs. ATL - There is one other major adjustment a pitcher may be asked to make, and we still haven't mentioned it. There will be times when a pitcher will be asked to move from a bullpen role to a spot in the starting rotation (or the opposite). Luebke has recently been asked to make that transition and that will require a certain amount of adjustment. Naturally, he will be expected to throw more pitches per outing and his between starts activities will change as he takes a regular turn every five days as opposed to erratic usage with no particular schedule. Those are all a part of moving into the rotation, but he will also have to make some adjustments to his approach - perhaps most importantly, using a wider variety of pitches (as a reliever most pitchers use their one or two best pitches almost exclusively), and pacing yourself (when you know you are there for an inning or two at most, you can let it all out but you have to conserve some energy when you are going to be asked to go six or seven innings).
Making his first start of the season, Luebke was asked to throw about 75-80 pitches, which carried him through five innings, and through the Braves lineup twice. He struck out the side on 10 pitches in the first inning, using an explosive fastball in the 91-94 mph range almost exclusively. Impressive, but you had to wonder if he was still in the one or two innings of relief mode. His second inning was similar, almost all fastballs, but he then began to vary his pitch selection. He started to cut the fastball occasionally, which decreased the velocity and increased the movement, and he started mixing in a few sliders, which were actually something between and curve and a slider. Then, by the fourth and fifth innings, he was complicating matters even more with a softer curve and an occasional change up. He doesn't have the same command with his secondary pitches, particularly the change, so his pitch count rose, but it was clearly working.
Luebke will be expected to throw a few more pitches in his next outing and will soon build up the stamina to throw 100+ per start. That won't be a problem for him. What will be more of a challenge, he will need to see hitters three or four times per game, and he will need to command the zone better with his change up to remain effective. Without it, because his fastball can be a bit straight at times, he tends to be a bit of a flyball pitcher. That probably won't be a huge factor in his home starts at Petco Field (he's a great spot starter for fantasy teams), but it could hurt his performance in more hitter friendly parks.
Some short takes:
Chris Carpenter (STL)- He follows our topic of adjusting so he's worth a comment here. With his cutter less effective this year, he has altered his pitch selection a bit and has started throwing his overhand curve more often. The results have been pretty impressive so far, giving us hope that he could be turning his season around.
Jonathan Sanchez (SF)- Sanchez has loads of upside but he has been unable to lock in his release point this year. In the past, he would struggle with his command, then get it together and his fantasy owners could enjoy a nice run. Now on the DL, he will work on his mechanics, and it's likely he will be back for one of those nice runs before too long.
Brandon Morrow (TOR) - One more heads up before it's too late. Morrow has quietly been making those critical adjustments that could set him up for a dominating run. He has been ringing up the strikeouts, but his ERA is still a bit high based on his earlier struggles. Your chance to get him at a discount may be quickly evaporating.
Edinson Volquez (CIN)- See Jonathan Sanchez above. He's probably less likely to lose his rotation spot since the Reds don't have a Barry Zito waiting in the wings, but patience with his inability to throw strikes has to be wearing thin. If you happen to own both Sanchez and Volquez, I commend your fortitude.
Jeff Niemann (TB)- He's now back off the disabled list but his performance this past weekend wasn't anything to get excited about. Niemann just doesn't appear to be the type of pitcher who can make the necessary adjustments or stay healthy. He's not as bad as he has looked but he could be just a placeholder for someone like Matt Moore.
Jason Vargas (SEA)- Every now and then when evaluating arms you come across a pitcher who defies analysis. That guy for me is Jason Vargas. Every time I see him, he looks like a solid pitcher with a reliable assortment of pitches and the ability to use them. Then he tosses in an ugly inning or two. It's there, hidden somewhere.
Jonathon Niese (NYM)- Niese left his last start early with a rapid heartbeat. He then indicated after the game that there was no real concern, however you have to think the Mets will want him checked out thoroughly before sending him back out on the bump. Hopefully it's not anything serious, but monitor his status.
Alexi Ogando (TEX)- It could be a stamina issue, it could be the bats are heating up, or more likely it's the league catching up to his two-pitch repertoire. He has very good stuff but it's nearly impossible to maintain long-term effectiveness without a reliable third pitch, and that has always been a concern with Ogando.
Frank Francisco (TOR) -He hasn't "officially" been named the closer in Toronto, but his usage suggests that is now the case. He's the guy they want finishing games and he has been successful in his recent outings. As long as he avoids any stretches of ineffectiveness, he should get the lion's share of save opportunities.
Jonathan Broxton (LAD)- This was originally going to note his imminent return before some elbow stiffness put his rehab in a holding pattern. When (if) he's ready, he will no doubt get another chance to close, but I still think Kenley Jansen is the eventual answer. Broxton is risky at best, but he'll probably keep getting chances.
Heath Bell (SD)- Bell has been his usual reliable self but his owners should be aware that the Padres are likely to be sellers as the trade deadline approaches. With his track record, he would be a popular target for contenders and depending on where he lands, his save chances could be in jeopardy.
Kid's Corner ...
Matt Moore (TB)- When I first started watching him, he was relatively unknown, now he is one the most anxiously anticipated young arms in the game. I maintain a hot list of pitching prospects and he has been in the top three for over two years. An amazing strikeout rate that should translate to something similar in the big leagues is the best of it. He is just a little more maturity and a little more command from making a big splash.
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