September already? The season is flying by. This month does offer some special appeal for pitching (and hitting) scouts looking for some tips regarding players who could be ready to contribute next year. So many young pitchers find their way into major league dugouts in September; some well-known blue chip prospects, and others who are lesser known, having toiled in the minors for a few seasons. The real opportunity comes from getting to actually see some of these arms. A few will probably have impressive numbers, but over just a handful of innings, so this edition of the Notebook is going to focus on some things to watch for that can help sort out the good targets for next year, from the flash in the pan September teasers. Let's get started:
Here are a few things to watch for when evaluating a pitcher this month:
Funky Delivery - Until hitters have seen a pitcher, or at least seen an in-depth scouting notebook on the guy, a new pitcher typically has an advantage. The learning period is sometimes referred to as a halo period or effect as the pitcher is shrouded in mystery to some extent. This is particularly evident when the pitcher has a quirky or unusual delivery that makes it more difficult for hitters to pick up the ball as it leaves his hand. A couple of good halo beneficiary examples are Josh Collmenter last year, and to some extent Michael Fiers this season. Both enjoyed considerable success for awhile, but the league has already caught up to Collmenter, and Fiers is in danger of facing the same fate. I typically avoid pitchers who rely more on an unusual delivery, and less on stuff or command, to garner success. They are generally very popular while the halo lasts, but they can be disasters once it wears off. If you find yourself owning a guy from this category, enjoy the success while it lasts, but be ready to jump ship.
Repertoire Ratings - When you are considering a starting pitcher, it's very dangerous to jump on a pitcher's bandwagon when he only has one or two reliable pitches in his arsenal. Success at the highest level almost always requires three, and four is better in most cases. Fastball command is almost always mandatory. It's the pitch that makes things happen, and even though they all won't have 100 mph heaters, a good candidate will usually be in the low 90s or higher. A slider or cutter is also often included, but a starting pitcher needs something truly off speed that he can throw for quality strikes consistently. It could be a straight change, or something else, but the key is a minimum of 10 mph difference in velocity when compared to the fastball. If everything he throws is within a few mph, hitters will time it, and they will eventually hit. Demand three quality pitches (four is better), and be sure there is something in the mix to throw the hitter's timing into disarray. If it's not there, your starting pitcher is likely to be back in the minor leagues for more work, or in the bullpen at some point down the road. One last comment on repertoire: Some will argue against this personal preference, but I tend to avoid sinkerball pitchers. That pitch is a big reason for my grey hair. When a pitch can be less effective because the pitcher got amped up with an extra cup of coffee that morning (an extra mph or two on a sinker can straighten it out, and bring it up in the zone, making it extremely hittable), I will stay away when I can. Some have been incredibly successful, but others have been lights out and lit up from one inning to the next.
Command Concerns - What do you do with a pitcher who had a low walk rate in the minors, but now can't seem to throw strikes? It can be frustrating when a guy who never walked anyone in Double-A arrives in the show and walks four or five hitters in each of his first few outings. There are usually a couple of factors at play here. First of all, hitters at the major league level have better pitch recognition skills, and they are much more comfortable with the strike zone. In short, they are far more unwilling to swing at pitches out of the strike zone. That results in higher pitch counts, more walks, and when forced to pitch from behind in the count, more hard hit balls. Trevor Bauer comes to mind. He has excellent stuff, but hitters don't swing at pitches just off the plate like they did when he was in college or in the low minors. Some pitchers require some time to harness their confidence as well. They may temporarily forget what got them to the top rung, and they can be nibblers until they realize that fact. Nibbling often gets them behind in the count, and forces a center-cut fastball. As mentioned before, even if it comes in at 100 mph, when a major league hitter knows it's coming, he will likely get a good hack at it. Watch your guy - if he is throwing strikes, he will probably be alright. If, however, everything is outside the zone, especially if he has excellent velocity which means minor league hitters were even more likely to commit to a swing, command issues could haunt him for awhile. Don't assume a low walk rate in the minors will always translate to the same in the major leagues.
Composed Presence - Sometimes a pitcher can do extremely well under ideal conditions, but then struggle when faced with another, far less beneficial, set of circumstances. When on cruise control, everything seems to work, the motion and delivery are smooth and effective, but a couple of base runners then change the whole playing field. It's not always "yips" that change the scenario. Some pitchers struggle to find their arm slot when forced to pitch from the stretch, others become more hittable when they can't reliably use their full complement of pitches, and others lose focus when a runner or runners creates a distraction. Make certain the pitcher you are considering can be comfortable in a full spectrum of circumstances. He will likely see them all many, many times, and if you don't want to suffer the consequences when he isn't adequately prepared, you want to know that he has a plan when on the mound, and stressful situations will rarely have a negative impact on that plan.
Opportunity Knocks - Even if your pitcher gets check marks next to each of the points listed above, he has to have an opportunity to claim a rotation spot at the major league level. Some very competent arms have spent extra time in the minors, waiting for their chance. Which teams could have holes to fill? Are there free agents likely to move on this winter listed on the mound depth chart of your pitcher's team? Obviously trades and free agent signings can change the picture overnight, but if it looks like a rotation spot is a long shot for your guy, you might need to file the name away until things do change.
Here are a few quick observations about September closing situations around the major leagues: The Padres again lost Huston Street, but they hope to have him back in soon. Dale Thayer started off as his fill-in once again, but it looks like Luke Gregerson has moved past him. The Dodgers' Kenley Jansen had a recurrence of a heart problem that sidelined him for a month last year. They acquired Brandon League at the trade deadline, and he may get most of the chances if Jansen misses much time. The other consideration is Ronald Belisario. The Red Sox have handed the closer job to Andrew Bailey making Alfredo Aceves expendable in all but the deepest leagues. You hear the term "committee" pretty often when it comes to closers, but the Giants are actually doing it. Sergio Romo typically gets the ball if right-handed hitters are on the menu, and southpaw Javier Lopez gets the work against lefties, making it almost impossible to predict save chances on any given night. Finally, the Brewers end game could be the worst disaster in recent memory. Over the past month they have tried three different arms in the role, not counting a couple of emergency appearances by Kameron Loe, and none have panned out. John Axford is the guy again now, but he has been shaky to say the least, so Jim Henderson still looms as a possibility.
Is there a September pitcher you would like to see discussed in an upcoming Notebook? Throw the name out and I'll see what I can do. In fact, I would like to remind readers to check back often as each week's Notebook will feature updates in the comments section on evolving mound situations. And, as always, keep in mind this is an interactive forum, so your comments are always appreciated. I will respond to any comments or questions as soon as possible. Thanks!
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