RotoWire Partners

Mound Musings: Spotlight on the Soft-Tossers

Brad Johnson

For more than 25 years, pitching guru Brad "Bogfella" Johnson has provided insightful evaluation and analysis of pitchers to a wide variety of fantasy baseball websites, webcasts and radio broadcasts. He joined RotoWire in 2011 with his popular Bogfella's Notebook.

I always say, I prefer interactive columns in which readers can ask questions and share their opinions. Last week, I was asked if I ever give much consideration to pitchers who don’t possess that ever-intriguing big arm. Quite correctly, it was pointed out that I tend to prefer (and recommend) pitchers with high-octane stuff over what many would call the “soft-tossers” or “finesse” pitchers who have mediocre, or less, velocity.

I will honestly say that I do evaluate pitchers with lower-grade stuff every day, and I do sometimes add them to my watch list as an arm worthy of consideration in fantasy circles. The trick is, I do hold these pitchers to a somewhat different standard, and they are often (unless they grade very high) only seriously considered for use as a short term fill-in, perhaps for an injured rotation pitcher. It may seem a bit cold, but read on and I think you’ll see the potential stumbling blocks for many soft-tossers.

The problem relates to the fact that many soft-tossers lack upside – they aren’t as likely as their flame-throwing counterparts to become more dominant – and they have lower ceilings. They simply don’t have the tools to become more than what you see. And, worse, quite a few will have come to the majors having succeeded in the minors with the help of a deceptive delivery. Major league hitters may require a little time to study their motion but, once they have it figured out, many of these finesse pitchers will struggle mightily, and their fantasy owners could suffer as well. But, that’s another column. Let’s take a look at the skills to observe in measuring a soft-tosser’s potential.

The Measuring Sticks: Greg Maddux and Mike Mussina

One of the challenges when evaluating a specific type of pitcher is developing some type of measuring stick. Just what do you need to see before determining that the pitcher in question could help your team’s staff? I find that quality of pitches comparable to a successful pitcher of the same type can help. Well, when you look up the term “finesse pitcher” in the dictionary, the picture next to the definition is Greg Maddux. I’m going to add another name because he also displayed a lot of the necessary skills needed for success if you don’t have that cannon. Let’s include Mike Mussina, too.

Interestingly, our two measuring sticks had several characteristics in common. Neither was considered a soft-tosser early in their major league careers. Maddux could reach about 93 mph and Mussina would occasionally touch close to 95 mph. At the time, that was considered a modest power pitcher. Velocities for both gradually dropped and they adjusted. The vast majority of successful finesse pitchers earn that designation over time. Both had a vast repertoire of pitches on which they could rely any time and in any count. You’re unlikely to see any two- or three-pitch finesse pitchers. They both truly had impeccable command of the strike zone. That means they threw strikes, to specific spots, pitch after pitch. And, they were wily adversaries. The prototypical “thinking” pitchers, nobody would ever accuse them of being just throwers. They always had a plan, usually laid out a few pitches in advance, and they executed.

Now that we know what to look for, it should be pretty easy to find the next Maddux or Mussina, right? Okay, maybe not. Pitchers like that pair don’t come along every day – or every year or even every generation. So, we have to be content hopefully finding a handful of serviceable soft-tossers who might be a complement to our rotations. Fair warning, it will be a challenge. Finding pitchers who can clearly master all of the traits necessary for long term finesse success can be like finding arms who can consistently hit triple digits, and you don’t have the benefit of a radar gun. Below is a recap of the traits to look for, in more detail, with examples, as you evaluate those pitchers.

Applying the key measurements to those soft-tossers:

  • New velocity standards: The term “soft-tosser” is not static. In 2005, the MLB average fastball was 90.1 mph, so someone who lived in the mid-upper 80s was, by definition, a true soft-tosser. In 2015, the average fastball was 92.1 mph. That’s a huge difference, and organizations are becoming more and more enchanted with power pitchers. Guys like Jered Weaver (about 83 mph) are still around, so the species is not extinct, but they are becoming pretty rare. Since hitters see faster fastballs every day, a low 90s fastball now requires more of the finesse skills to give the pitcher a chance. Since there are more throwers than pitchers at the back of most rotations, and many of them lack both command and a reliable arsenal of multiple quality pitches, navigating the waiver wire in even moderately deep leagues can be like wandering through a minefield. The takeaway here is question the “power” of a pitcher with a low 90s fastball.

  • Movement really matters: Pitchers will always tell you that they would rather throw 91 to 92 mph with good, crisp movement than 95 to 96 mph with their pitches coming in as straight as a string. This is even more critical for finesse pitchers who can’t sneak a location mistake past a hitter on velocity alone. Rick Porcello won a Cy Young with pitches that danced. Dallas Keuchel is another soft-tosser who relies on excellent movement. Just beware, many movement specialists are sinkerball pitchers and they can be vulnerable at times. Very few of that breed can count on sink for months at a time. They will invariably go through stretches when the ball just won’t cooperate, and a sinker that doesn’t sink is a mediocre fastball that could end up in low Earth orbit. If your soft-tosser can’t consistently keep hitters chasing pitches, at some point he is going to get hit.

  • Exceptional command: You’ve probably heard this before, but when assessing finesse pitchers, underline it, print it in bold and use red ink. Control is being able to consistently throw strikes. Command is being able to throw those strikes to specific spots again and again. The Twins’ Phil Hughes has exceptional control. But he misses his spots too often and is therefore too hittable. Probably the closest thing we have to a Maddux-like finesse pitcher today is the Cubs’ righty Kyle Hendricks. He normally displays sharp command of the strike zone and he has an adequate repertoire of reliable offerings. Diamondback’s Zack Greinke was similar in his prime, but his command has been more erratic in recent years.

  • Depth of repertoire: This is one area where most of today’s pitchers can’t really compare with guys like Maddux and Mussina. Pitchers are often rushed to the majors with only a couple of reliable pitches – frequently being a mid-high 90s fastball. Dropped into the rotation without the necessary toolbox, like a less than adequate change-up, let alone an array like the old-timers featured, hitters learn their weaknesses, and the fireworks begin. Those without the blazing heat are sometimes successful for a while, either because they have a delivery that’s difficult to pick up, or because the hitters have yet to build a full scouting report. If success is purely a result of deception, it’s dangerous to trust it for long. Notably, a common exception to this is pitchers arriving from the Pacific Rim where a multitude of pitches often compensates for lower velocity. The Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu (who incidentally once sat in the mid 90s) is a pretty good example. Sorry folks, the master of the kitchen sink repertoire, Yu Darvish, doesn’t quite qualify as a finesse pitcher with his 94 to 96 mph fastball. If he had the command of a Maddux with his stuff (it could happen) he would be unfair.

  • Age and experience: I’ll mention this again just briefly. Young soft-tossers aren’t typically born to MLB, they evolve over time. Most had at least average, or slightly above velocity, and honed their command and expanded their new repertoire gradually as their velocity withered away. Wily veterans displaying improving command are usually better bets than a kid coming straight out of the minors with a mediocre skill set. Mound presence is also a good indicator. A couple of good examples of pitchers who became more successful as they became more finesses-oriented are Marco Estrada and Jason Vargas.

Some Notable Rotation Ramblings:

  • Joining the growing list of elite pitchers on the DL, the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard left his last start in the second inning with a lat strain. He was already concerned about his reported biceps tendinitis and this could have been a case of an injury occurring when a pitcher tries to compensate. He could miss two or three months. Ouch!

  • A couple of years ago Kansas City’s Ian Kennedy could have been included on a list of finesse pitchers. However, changes in his mechanics have added a couple of ticks to his average fastball velocity. The question needed to be asked is whether it helps. The increase has come with reduced command.

  • Last season, I suffered through a long season of struggles and inconsistency from Arizona’s Patrick Corbin. However, on draft day 2017, I couldn’t block out the memories of all the positives before injuries delayed his development. I took him back in all the leagues I play in and, so far, I couldn’t be happier about it.

  • I was anxious to see Oakland’s Sonny Gray make his 2017 debut earlier this week. There obviously was a little rust, and he overthrew a few pitches, leaving a couple of balls up and over the plate. However, his fastball was sitting at 93 to 95 mph and his curve showed a lot of bite. Despite the line, it was encouraging.

  • Someday I think Matt Moore will establish himself by locking in a release point and consistently throwing quality strikes. I know, I can be an eternal optimist, but he has some of the best stuff around when he’s in synch. I’m not sure how to provide a definitive plan – he has too much upside but very hard to trust.

  • Cole Hamels and Corey Kluber have now also joined the staggering list of top tier pitchers on the DL. Pitchers like these are not readily replaced, other than in the shallowest of leagues, so minimizing the negative impact of their likely fill-ins will be critical. Quality relief pitchers may offer more value than usual.

Endgame Odyssey:

Despite a couple of hiccups in the first month, the Giants’ new closer, Mark Melancon has looked sharp. His owners should expect a nice return on their investment if the team can provide him with enough save chances. Fernando Rodney has always possessed that huge plus in serving as an MLB closer – a short memory. He likely needs it after last weekend. If Arizona does opt to look elsewhere for saves, their best option is the best arm in the pen, Archie Bradley, but they also need a starter to replace Shelby Miller (Tommy John surgery) and they really like his multiple-inning versatility in the pen. Plan B would probably be J.J. Hoover, but his past closing experience was a disaster. Things still need to improve for Francisco Rodriguez in Detroit. He has been far too hittable up to this point as his dwindling stuff continues to haunt him. Joe Jimenez clearly is not ready yet, so Justin Wilson remains the best alternative. Roberto Osuna has had his share of troubles since returning from the DL, but Toronto’s closer is really just working his way through his spring training. I think he’ll be fine. In an epic meltdown, the Phillies’ Hector Neris entered a game in the ninth with a 5-2 lead, allowed back-to-back-to-back homeruns and then another run. Joaquin Benoit has to be warming up. Trevor Rosenthal has picked up the occasional save in St. Louis. There’s nothing to suggest Seung Hwan Oh is losing his job, but they may share closing duties for now. A notable success story is developing in San Diego where Brandon Maurer is becoming the anchor of a promising young bullpen. I also like Ryan Buchter who is a capable component in his current setup role.