Spring Training Pitch FX Reconnaissance
It’s been said so often: spring training means nothing. Pitchers are working on arm strength, on new pitches. They’re facing high-A hitters They throw predictable sequences. You can fill in the litany.
It’s also pointed out, especially by people like me, “they’re playing in Surprise/Peoria, so we’ll get pitch fx data!” And, cowed as you are by the dogmatic assertions in the former point, you start to wonder if there’s any meaning in the latter one. I can’t really answer that for you; the customer is king and all of that crap. But I do want to take a look at what we’ve seen so far from the pitch fx systems both in the M’s home park of Peoria and in the Rangers/Royals complex in Surprise.
It’s important to remember that while we have some really cool data to look at, we don’t have the pitcher’s intention. How much that matters is sort of a personal preference thing – I can’t imagine why a pitcher would want to ‘practice’ a much worse version of his normal fastball, but as every actual pitcher would be the first to point out, *I’m a $%$ing blogger* not a pitcher. It’s an unassailable point, really. Beyond velocity, we don’t know if a pitch that someone debuts against a Padre minor leaguer indicates a new arrow in his quiver or just something he was messing around with for the lulz. Spring training’s long, and you can’t just discount the lulz factor. So herewith are some things that have caught my eye, and by my eye, I mean ‘pitch fx cameras.’ I’ve grouped them into categories that are essentially judgement-based; there’s no pitch fx algorithm for weirdness or divergence from previous pattern. We’re also not looking at the results. Once you’ve cut out most road appearances and then removed fouls/called pitches, you’re looking at something like ten pitches from which you try and deduce tendencies and the ever-elusive ‘stuff.’ No thanks. Ok, enough with the caveats: it’s mid-March, let’s look at something:
Brandon Maurer – Maurer came into the spring with a lot less hype than his 2012 Jackson Generals rotation mates, and this despite the fact that it was Maurer who was bestowed with the “Southern League Pitcher of the Year” award. It’s not really a slight on the Californian, as he shared the rotation with the M’s “Big Three” prospects for half the year, and saw the 5th spot bounce between Andrew Carraway who was brilliant in AA and Anthony Fernandez, who was very effective after Carraway moved up to Tacoma. Due to injury-plagued seasons in 2011 and 2010, Maurer was working on re-building arm strength, and he did that – garnering raves for his 91-94mph fastball and solid breaking balls and developing change.
What he’s done this spring: Maurer’s averaged nearly 95mph on his four-seam fastball, touching 97 briefly. We haven’t seen much of him, but what we’ve seen has been impressive. He’s throwing four pitches (five if you count a two-seam fastball), sustaining his velo for at least a couple of innings, and showing decent command. That’s better than his vaunted “Big Three” teammates, frankly, and it’s encouraging for M’s fans.
The Maybe-They’re-Just-Working-On-Stuff Underachievers:
James Paxton – When last we saw the Canuck, he was pitching in the Arizona Fall League, and throwing rather well. He *averaged* almost 95mph with his fastball in the AFL, touching 96 briefly in his first start and sitting 92-95 at the end of the month in Surprise. You can debate how much these starts mean – they came at the end of a full AA season, so it’s possible they represent a *conservative* estimate of his true-talent velo early or mid-way through a full season. On the other hand, he’d missed some time due to a knee injury, and knew he was throwing only 3 innings or so, so it’s possible these figures represent something more like what we’d see from a rested Paxton as a reliever. Either way, we’d learn more in spring training, right?
What he’s done this spring: Uh, yeah. Isolate 2013 data, and you’ve got a lefty averaging just under 91mph. That’s by no means disappointing in the abstract, but it was just a few months ago that he was throwing 95. Where’d that go? Again, it’s possible that he took a long break after the AFL (it would’ve been warranted) and he’s re-building arm-strength. We didn’t get pitch fx data on his last outing against Oakland…the, uh, one where he got pounded. Maybe the next time we see him he’ll be in the 93-95 region and we’ll all laugh about this, but for now, he qualifies for this list.
Joe Saunders – The veteran lefty has never been a velocity guy. Pretty much the dictionary definition of a pitch-to-contact lefty, Saunders has actually seen his velocity dip in recent years with no real impact on his stats. He threw one game in a pitch fx park in the spring of 2012, and averaged 89, touching 91 here and there.
What he’s done this spring: Oh my. The fastest pitch on the (brief) day was 85? Fastballs (here given the unintentional figleaf of ‘change-ups’) at 81-83? What’s this all about? We haven’t seen much of Saunders this spring, as he’s pitched in some road games, but then the M’s weren’t seriously evaluating him – he’s essentially penciled in as a starter. If he wants to practice his 83mph fastball, well, he’s earned that, right? I’d like to think so. I’m just trying to understand why a pitcher would throw at 80%. It’s possible he takes his off-seasons literally, and doesn’t throw much at all – maybe he uses the spring to get ready for the season. That seems odd to me, given that other pitchers don’t seem to demonstrate such a pattern, and Saunders himself was touching 91 like it was a regular MLB start back in mid-March of 2012. Maybe 2013 is totally different given the Mariners-ness of it, and maybe he was inspired watching Brian Moran, but it bears watching closely the rest of the spring.
We’ll get to see some new data on Saunders today, and we’ll hopefully hear about Paxton as well – he’s starting a “B” game against Cleveland today as well.
The Trying-Something-New Guys:
Taijuan Walker’s cutter: Walker’s always been a fastball/curveball guy, but he showed up this spring with the bones of a nice cutter – he threw one in the game against San Diego on 2/23, and then again against the Rockies in early March. Jason Parks of BP was on site for his start against Cleveland where he says he threw a pair of them. The pitch is a low-90s (92-93) fastball that’s got much less armside run than his normal fastball. Like any cutter, it’s essentially splitting the difference between a fastball and a slider, with velocity a bit like a fastball (but not quite as fast) and movement more akin to a slider (breaking away from a right-handed batter, but not as much as a slider/curve). I don’t know what Walker and the M’s plan for this pitch is in 2013, but I look forward to seeing it in Tacoma. Given the uncertainty surrounding his curveball – whether they’ll stick with the ‘new’ spike grip or let him throw it the way he did in 2012 – it might be nice to see what this new pitch does to his batted ball ratios and K rates. Or maybe he shelves it for the year and focuses on the curve and change-up. Like I said, I’m just a blogger.
Stephen Pryor’s slow curve: Stephen Pryor’s career was rather famously saved when he was moved up to AA despite stinking up the joint with High Desert. Once in the Southern League, pitching coach Lance Painter taught him a cutter/slider (I’d definitely call it a slider) and got his mechanics in order and he was on his way to Seattle in short order. His pitch fx data shows that he threw a few curves in 2012, but I certainly don’t remember any. At 80-81mph, I probably just assumed they were sliders. Today he threw two pitches that were clearly, unmistakably curves – they came in around 72mph and featured vertical break completely unlike his slider. If he had that pitch before, I haven’t seen it. If this is the same curveball he threw a few times in 2012, well, it’s quite a bit different now. I’m not sure if this is an attempt to improve his splits or just something he learned watching Tom Wilhelmsen throw, but it’s interesting. If he throws this during the season, he’d have a velocity differential of well over 20 MPH between his fastball and slow breaker. That’s not unheard of, but it’s pretty rare. Clayton Kershaw comes close to this, but there are a few relievers who have differentials over 20mph (Mitchell Boggs of the Cardinals is one) but they hardly ever throw the curve; they’ve got other, faster breaking balls, just as Pryor does.
Anything else that you’ve heard about or seen?