Winter League Update (and yet more odds and ends)
As you know, the M’s have seven prospects currently suiting up for the Peoria Javelinas in the Arizona Fall League. And as you’re no doubt well aware, they’ve got several more playing in Caribbean leagues in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. JY’s keeping track of all of them in his weekly winter league wraps at Mariners Minors, so you’ve probably already heard about Dustin Ackley’s solid line (capped by a game this week in which he drew 5 walks) and Josh Lueke’s 7 Ks and 0 BBs in 6 innings.
Two pitchers who don’t get quite as much attention are Tom Wilhemsen and Maikel Cleto.
1) The former’s generally seen as the feel-good story of the system, while the latter’s high on the list of the biggest disappointments. Wilhelmsen famously retired from baseball at 20 after two drug suspensions and has spent years bartending and travelling before getting a tryout with the M’s (he’d been drafted by Zduriencik’s Brewers in 2002) and enjoying success in Everett and Clinton this year. I was excited to see if the velocity he had as a teenager was still with him, or if it was a casualty of aging and hard living.
In his initial outing for Peoria, his fastball sat between 93-95 MPH and his curve was right around 80 MPH. Just weeks after throwing 74 innings in his first season since 2003, Wilhelmsen was able to generate plus velocity – velo on par with Lueke or Josh Fields. However, that velocity didn’t stick around. Wilhelmsen last pitched on Monday, and sat 90-92 with his FB and 75-77 with his curve. On its own, there’s nothing particularly worrisome about this. He’s been just as effective, and given the sample, the variance may not mean anything. Still, it’s something to watch given that we just don’t have many comparable pitchers to look at. What should we *expect* velocity to do in a postseason league for a pitcher in his first year back after five years slinging Mai Tais in Tucson?
2) Maikel Cleto had the highest ceiling of any player the M’s got from the New York Mets in the JJ Putz deal. OK, that may not be saying a whole lot given the other prospects coming over, but he sounded like a true diamond in the rough: a fastball that touched 100 MPH, a developing change-up and very little mileage on his arm. Visa problems and injury blighted his 2009, and recovery and the Cal League depressed his stats in 2010. Still, in Cleto we have a true enigma: scouts love his FB, but it’s never troubled low-minors hitters. Was his ‘high 90s velocity’ invented by excited prospect hounds? Did back injuries take their toll? Again, the Arizona Fall League gave us data to go with scouting reports.
The velocity was as-advertised. Cleto’s sat 95-97 with his fastball and touched 99. The Pitch FX data hints at a variety of offspeed pitches as well, though this is likely the result of inconsistent deliveries as opposed to 4 separate pitches. Indeed, Cleto’s the sort of pitcher who gives the pitch-type algorithm fits: sometimes his FB has huge horizontal break and no sink. Other times, it has more sink but average horizontal break. He’s got a pitch that he throws in the high 80s that sometimes looks like a slow fastball and other times seems to have more horizontal break – is this a developing two-seamer or a cutter? No, it’s a bad slider. But none of this answers the main question: how can a guy sit in the mid/upper 90s get hit so hard in the low minors? He’s missing more bats since coming over from the Mets, but he’s not missing enough. Sure, he’s played in some tough pitching environments, but he’s facing inexperienced hitters. How many pitchers can you think of that had mid-high 90s heat and struggled in A/A+? Jose Capellan and Merkin Valdez both had much more success in A/A+, though to be fair both were older. The only prospect that compares is probably Jeff Samardzija of the Cubs, who also had a swerving fastball that scouts loved, but who couldn’t crack the 10% K/PA barrier in the Florida State League in 2007 (he’s obviously improved since then, and while he hasn’t set MLB on fire, he had some success in the high minors). For a Mariners comp, he’s looking a lot more like Renee Cortez than Michael Pineda.
The good news is that he’s still young – he’ll be 21 on Opening Day next year. He’s got time, and the M’s have several solid pitching coaches. But to me, this isn’t a guy who needs a good secondary pitch to go with a good fastball, this is a guy who throws hard but has no solid/plus pitches. JY’s hoping he’s still injured, and that hitters have been sitting on his FB because they know he can’t locate anything else. But I’d look at his delivery to see if he’s showing the ball too early; there’s simply no way he should be getting hit so hard when he throws this fast.
3) This has nothing to do with the Mariners, but Tim Lincecum’s postseason has me baffled. His 14K performance against the Braves bettered Roy Halladay’s no-hitter according to Bill James’ Game Score metric, and his 31 swinging strikes match up favorable with some of Randy Johnson’s best games. He’s obviously not come close to matching that performance in his subsequent starts. Does anything stand out in the Pitch FX location charts?
Here’s his four-seam fastball (his most-used pitch) location chart from the Braves game, courtesy of Texas Leaguers:
and here are his change-ups (his most-used off-speed pitch)
Sure, there’s a consistent approach here, but it looks like it was executed ineptly. There are as many FBs off the plot area as there are low in the zone. Working high in the zone can be risky, but working high in the zone and throwing a ton of balls seems like a very odd recipe for success. Clearly, batters looking for Lincecum’s change swung under or behind his fastball, but it’s not clear why they had so much trouble differentiating the two pitches – the change-ups were clustered in the dirt in front of the plate and the fastballs look about eye level. It brought to mind this groundbreaking study by Josh Kalk about pitch sequencing. Did Lincecum find the point at which his FB and CH look most alike from the batter’s point of view? If so, you’d think he’d do it again, but he clearly hasn’t. Here’s a start in the NLCS (though his start tonight looks virtually the same) – fastballs, then change-ups.
So what’s the point? We talk about ‘lucky’ pitching performances all the time – when a pitcher can’t strike anyone out, but his defense makes play after play behind him. A game like Lincecum’s 10/7 start seems like the antithesis of that, and in some ways it is… but how much luck (or factors beyond Lincecum’s control) was involved? There are a couple of possible explanations: one, he took advantage of an advance scout’s report about the Braves’ tendencies; two, he was struggling with his location, but lucked into success by throwing FBs SO high that they appeared to be change-ups to hitters; three, he hit every spot he intended, and the free-swinging Braves were hopeless to stop him. If this was the product of advance scouting, it’s basically the scouting equivalent of Kerry Wood’s 20K game. I’d love to see the scout try to convince the Giants that the key to the game would be locating fastballs around the top of the umpire’s mask. The second is lucky as well, and the fact that Lincecum hasn’t been nearly as ‘effectively wild’ in the NCLS or World Series would seem to support the view that it was an accidental approach as opposed to an intentional – if odd – strategy. And finally, while it’s possible that Lincecum adjusted his approach after getting a few Braves hitters to go fishing, it seems odd that he’d employ this strategy against the Braves, who were 6th best in MLB at laying off pitches out of the strike zone, and not against the Rangers (#27). This isn’t to take anything away from the guy; any performance this exceptional is some part luck, but the performance was exceptional just the same. It’s just got me thinking about factors that influence the ‘true’ outcomes for pitchers – why DID Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay overcome demotions and ineffectiveness? Why didn’t Edwin Nunez?
4) OK, OK, a few words about Dustin Ackley. Kevin Goldstein of BP says that he “could compete for OBP titles in the big leagues.” Bryan Smith at Fangraphs mentions that “he’s noticeably stronger since college.” The latter statement is intriguing to me, since my one issue after seeing him in Tacoma was that he seemed rather slight, and that his bat control/speed covered for mediocre raw power. 2010 told us that Ackley is a patient hitter who can get his bat on virtually any pitch. I’ll be interested to see how much his ISO improves in 2011, and to what degree he’s able to turn ‘contact’ into ‘line drives.’ Ackley’s probably interested in having some time to focus on hitting, instead of learning a new position on the fly. Remember, Ackley was in the AFL last year…as a center fielder.