Month: March 2019

Ode to a Pitcher: All hail Max Scherzer, modern king of strikeouts

Image result for max scherzer
Max Scherzer ain’t nothin’ to mess with.  ARTURO PARDAVILA III

I was saving this.

Oh, the fun we’ve had in this series. We’ve studied dynamic young aces and masterful hurlers of the past. We’ve seen sizzling fastballs, mind-blowing sliders and pocket-dimension changeups. (You can see them all here.) The best pitchers in the world are wizards from the line of Dumbledore, and yet … there was one pitcher I kept in my back pocket for a few weeks. I was saving him, hoarding him, waiting for the day. Today is that day.

Because … well, he’s a little less wizard and a little more buzzsaw. This isn’t trickery; it’s brute force.

It’s Max Scherzer day.

Scherzer is the best pitcher alive, having taken that “crown” from Clayton Kershaw as the Dodger lefty has declined amid injuries. A three-time Cy Young award winner (1 in the American League, 2 in the National League), Scherzer is a hard-throwing strikeout machine with an unorthodox delivery and an aggressive approach on the mound. He pitches like Liam Neeson in Taken. He’s basically my baseball fever dream come to life and a true gift to all who trade in baseball gifs.

Scherzer has led the league in strikeouts the last three seasons, including a sizzling 300 in 220 innings in 2018 — this in his age-33 season. He’s sat down at least 240 every year since 2014. You’ll be shocked to learn his fastball is probably the best of its kind in the sport. Take a look:

  • The spin rate on Scherzer’s fastball ranks in the 94th percentile (!!!)
  • Hitters missed 30.4% of the swings they took against it — note that he threw it almost 1750 times
  • Hitters produced a terrible .198 batting average and a putrid .248 wOBA against it

Yeah, so it’s good. We’ll see this in clear detail in today’s Ode to a Pitcher. Scherzer’s heater tips the scales in each at-bat and allows him to work aggressively regardless of the count. For example, a pitcher throwing a fastball in a 3-0 count is considered at a disadvantage — the hitter knows what is coming because no pitcher likes allowing free baserunners — and Major League hitters armed with that intel fare quite well.

But when you take Scherzer’s fastball — with its mid-90s velocity and incredible spin — that advantage is reduced. Then we remember he has a brutal, late-breaking slider and a darting changeup (tucked so neatly within the release of his fastball that its an act of subterfuge). Yeah. You try hitting this dude.

The Chicago Cubs found themselves in Mad Max’s crosshairs on a Sunday night last season.

***

Scherzer starts right fielder Jason Heyward off with a fastball. Note the late movement on the pitch and the perfect placement, nestled right into the up-and-in edge of the strike zone.

Heyward Pitch 1 FB

Scherzer’s delivery is kinda violent — you’ll get a better look at this as the breakdown rolls on. He finishes toward the plate with a thrust, sending his head down as he hammers the ball to the plate. Not sure many pitching coaches would want their high schoolers to work this way, but alas.

Having watched the fastball near his chest, Heyward is far out in front of Scherzer’s curveball. (Despite the difference in the gifs, Scherzer always takes the ball behind his head during his windup.)

Heyward Pitch 2 Crv SS

See how Scherzer pulls himself glove-side right as he releases the ball? Lots of analysts assumed he’d get hurt at some point, but he’s been a pretty durable pitcher in his career. And dominant. Pitchers are crazy, man.

Look at that sharp, late break on this curveball. My goodness.

Heyward Pitch 2 Slomo

Defending the whole plate against Scherzer is a hell of a task. He can attack you anywhere; where do you focus? What do you sit on?

Having worked up and in and then down in the zone, he comes back near Heyward’s knees to finish the first at-bat.

Oh — and Heyward is down 0-2.

Fastball. Curve. Slider.

Strikeout.

Heyward Pitch 3 SL

Heyward Pitch 3 Slomo

Center fielder Albert Almora Jr steps up, batting from the right side. Scherzer drops a curveball right over the plate for strike one. It’s kind of a hanger — I doubt he was pleased with it.

Almora Pitch 1 CRV

Scherzer comes back with a hard fastball just off the plate away. Almora takes it for a ball. You can already see the way the Nationals ace likes to attack the plate. He has no fear of any zone.

Almora Pitch 2 FB

With the count sitting 1-1, Scherzer attacks Almora a foot lower in the strike zone and forces the young outfielder to hack the fastball foul. Without reading too much into one swing, Almora probably isn’t reading Scherzer well. Who would? That delivery is just something else.

Almora Pitch 3 FB

What do we lament each week? The poor souls facing these baseball-chucking cyborgs in 1-2 counts. In the modern game, aside from maybe deGrom, it doesn’t get more terrifying in said situations than seeing Scherzer’s gangly delivery barreling down at you.

Oh, Albert Almora. You did the best you could. You made your family proud.

Glibness aside, this is a master class. The slider looks exactly the same out of the hand as the fastball that Almora barely knocked foul one pitch before. What’s he supposed to do with this? The pitch dives from shin to ankle in a matter of milliseconds.

Almora Pitch 4 SL

Up next is left fielder Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs first choice for designated hitter should the rule come to the NL. (It should.) Schwarber watches a fastball up and in for ball one.

Schwarber Pitch 1 FB

A mistake: Scherzer throws another fastball but leaves it just enough over the plate to allow a hit. To his credit, Schwarber didn’t try to pull this ball over the wall; he shortened his swing and flicked the ball into center field. As you often hear on broadcasts, that’s a good piece of hitting. It is. If an ace like Scherzer gives you a mistake over the plate, don’t get cute. Take your base.

Schwarber Pitch 2 single

Catcher Willson Contreras steps up with Schwarber on first. He’s zero threat to steal. Scherzer is free and clear to attack without mercy.

Haha. Yeah, as if he needed permission.

That’s a nasty fastball, even if it was a ball.

Contreras Pitch 1 FB

Ever working the zone, Scherzer throws another fastball — but higher, right above the tip of the strike zone. This is the clearest example I can give you of spin rate and velocity. The batter has to be really on this pitch to drive it. Alas, Contreras unloads on it but knocks it foul behind home plate.

Contreras Pitch 2 FB

Man, did Contreras have a chance to plant one in the seats here. This is a flat-out mistake by Scherzer, a flat breaking ball left right in the kill zone for a righty. Contreras just misses and pulls it foul.

Sometimes hitters just miss, same as pitchers. That could be all this was (the Cubs catcher produced a 92 OPS+ last year, so Mike Trout he is not) but I wonder how much the rest of Scherzer’s repertoire plays a role. Are you expecting a fastball? Caught off guard by the difference in speed, even if the pitch was in the zone? It’s not like the breaking stuff isn’t loaded with spin too …

Contreras Pitch 3 crv

Oh, Willson. Now you sit in a two-strike count, facing down a Dark Lord of the Mound, armed in full glory and hungry for another strikeout. Oh, your fate. You saw what happened to Jason Heyward and Albert Almora in similar predicaments. You heard their wails. And now here you are, caught in the same chains.

Did the baseball gods conspire against you, Willson, to be here and now, facing this burden? Do they laugh at your mortal peril, at your impending doom? Will they offer no relief?

No.

They won’t.

They offer instead the crushing boot, a changeup that twists you into a knot and sends you a broken hitter back into your dugout.

Contreras pitch 4 ch

***

My favorite pitcher ever is Mariano Rivera. I don’t hide this. Max Scherzer is darn close though, and perhaps because part of my imagination wants to believe if I had any energy in my right arm I’d pitch like him. Who knows.

Scherzer, entering his mid-30s, hasn’t lost much if anything in his game. Jacob deGrom rightfully won the NL Cy Young, but Scherzer was easily second and figures to be in the running again. That bizarre, violent delivery might someday collect a toll on his right arm, but so far he continues to pile up strikeouts. Even with Stephen Strasburg and the newly signed Patrick Corbin in the Nationals rotation, Scherzer remains the best player on the team and the most consistent and dominant pitcher alive.

Long live Mad Max.

***

This was Ode to a Pitcher, a weekly feature from Adkins on Sports where we break down a brilliant pitching performance. These posts are meant to be informative and fun, just like baseball coverage should be.

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2019 MLB Preview: With Kershaw ailing, healthy Seager critical for Dodgers

Image result for corey seager
Corey Seager should be healthy for the 2019 season. ARTURO PARDAVILA III

The Dodgers have been Clayton Kershaw’s team for so long it’s hard to imagine a different player in such a role. (Matt Kemp? Manny Ramirez for a minute?) Kershaw’s claim is hard to argue; three Cy Young awards and a more than Hall of Fame worthy peak will do that for you. He’s probably the defining pitcher of the last 10 years. How many of us pitching nerds on the East Coast stayed up late to watch the lefty spin curveballs?

But his time as the most important Dodger is nearing an end. Time is undefeated, and it appears to be doing its unholy work on Kershaw’s left arm. That sucks not only for the Dodgers and their fans but for baseball overall. For all we know, Kershaw will be back in the regular season, back to his old tricks. But … there are reasons to be worried. Real worried. He’ll be getting an Ode to a Pitcher eventually, I promise.

However, a new face has emerged over the last few seasons, even if last year was unfortunate.

Corey Seager truly broke into the Major Leagues in 2016 and established himself as a star right away at the young age of 22, hitting to the tune of a 134 OPS+ and handling shortstop. There has been some concern whether Seager is too big for the position, and while he might eventually have to move, he’s been fine thus far in his young career.

Seager’s emergence came as no surprise, mind you — for example, he was MLB.com’s second-best prospect going into the 2015 season. That Dodger team went on to lose the curse-lifting Chicago Cubs.

Seager’s 2017 was roughly as good; 126 OPS+ and better defense if DRS is to be trusted. That Dodger team — led by Seager, Justin Turner and more — pushed all the way to the World Series but lost to the Houston Astros.

Going into 2018, Seager had established himself as one of the game’s premier shortstops, along with Francisco Lindor, Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts and a maybe a couple others, and had I written a Bill Simmons-esque “Trade Value” column a year ago, Seager could have cracked the top-10. Young shortstops with his kind of offensive capability are worth a lot. (Ask Manny Machado.)

He still would — even after a 2018 season marred by injuries, most notably Tommy John surgery and arthroscopic surgery on his left hip. Neither should inhibit him going forward, but the Dodgers are wisely being careful with him. He hasn’t appeared in a Spring Training game yet, in part due to an illness that has kept him away from camp.

The Dodgers are optimistic their young middle infielder will be ready for Opening Day. I’m not as concerned about that — if it’s a week later, whatever — but I am concerned about how good Seager can be in 2019. The Dodgers can absorb injuries to just about anyone — their flexibility, powered in part by Kiké Hernandez, is world-class. But a healthy Seager playing back at form reunites a strong left-side of the Dodger infield (with third baseman Turner) and gives them a strong offense, especially if Max Muncy mashes again. Plus, AJ Pollack and Cody Bellinger will provide power.

They’ll need to. If my fears come true and Kershaw misses extended time, the Dodger offense will need to carry the day. I like the Dodger pitching beyond their erstwhile ace — Walker Buehler could blossom into a top starter, Hyun-jin Ryu is underrated if fragile and Kenta Maeda could shine if placed in the rotation and left alone. But no one shrugs the off the loss of a future Hall of Famer near his peak. The Dodger offense will need to be good.

Fortunately, they certainly can be that — the 2018 offense was tied for the best in the sport along with the New York Yankees, boasting a 111 wRC+. They can score runs. They might need to score even more in 2019.

Dan Szymborski’s wonderful ZiPS projections for the Dodgers is optimistic about Seager: 4.6 wins above replacement, 116 OPS+. No, that offensive output wouldn’t be quite as good as what he did before, but there aren’t a lot of 4+-win shortstops in the league either. My concern is whether the hip injury will sap him of some power in the upcoming season. The elbow doesn’t worry me — but the lower-body injury does, and while power hasn’t been critical to Seager’s value, it all counts.

The Dodgers should be back in October, even if Kershaw and Seager both have rough seasons. The NL West is bad, and while the San Diego Padres might be frisky eventually, I doubt that starts this summer. But for the Dodgers, merely winning the NL West isn’t enough. Heck, reaching the World Series isn’t enough. For the Kershaw-era Dodger teams, the sand in the hourglass is running out.

 

Ode to a Pitcher: Gerrit Cole brings the heat against Boston

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Gerrit Cole’s first season in Houston was a huge success.

Quick: Gimme the 1-2-3 in strikeouts last season. Can you name them? The first two aren’t much of a shock based on recent history, but the third … well, he’d never been this good before …

Take a minute.

Ok. First and second are Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. Future Hall of Famers, Cy Young winners, flame-throwing strikeout-gobbling aces. No surprise. Third?

Gerrit Cole. Yes, Cole had two other seasons with great strikeout numbers, but he never approached third in all of baseball. He was a different guy in 2018, one of the best starters in the sport. How’d he get here, only a few months after being traded away from the team who drafted him with the first pick in the draft?

First, understand: overall, Cole was mostly good with the Pirates but underwhelming considering his early promise. Baseball loves a young, kickass pitcher and Cole fit the bill in 2015: 208 innings pitched, 149 ERA+, 4.6 bWAR at age 24. This set the bar for Cole in Pittsburgh. The sport had found its next Cy Young contender.

Except, well, it hadn’t. Cole got hurt in 2016 and worked his way through two average-ish seasons, throwing 319 combined innings to the tune of a 102 ERA+ in 2016-17. As the Pirates floundered and as Scott Boras, Cole’s agent, saw visions of cash dancing in his eyes, the Bucs shopped their young pitcher. Can’t say I blame them exactly … if the team wasn’t able to straighten him out, they certainly weren’t interested in giving him a big extension.

Finally, Cole ended up in Houston. There’s been some commotion about how exactly this happened — paging Trevor Bauer — but Cole’s spin rate metrics increased basically across the board in 2018, and along with it his effectiveness (under the years, I am giving you spin rate – whiff%):

Pitch 2017 2018
Fastball 2164 – 19.8% 2379 – 29.7%
Slider 2417 – 34.3% 2571 – 36.2%
Curve 2667 – 25.5% 2842 – 33.9%

The fastball — with its combination of high velocity, improved spin rate and vertical movement — became a deadly weapon for Cole in 2018 (as we’re going to see). Because a great fastball is a rising tide that lifts all boats, the improvement of that pitch (despite throwing it slightly less) carried Cole to his best season. The curve got better too, plus Cole deserved credit for cutting his sinker usage about in half, relying instead on his breaking pitches more.

This week’s Ode to a Pitcher will break tradition with the others. Instead of watching an ace bear his teeth and tear through an opposing lineup, we’ll see Cole get into some trouble here in this September start. Facing the eventual World Champion Boston Red Sox, the Astros righthander will work himself into a bit of a jam with some heavy hitters up at the plate.

But don’t worry — we’ll get a glimpse of that excellent fastball — and a dash of spice at the end.

***

We jump to the bottom of the third. The festivities begin with a fastball to Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon. I’m not picking on him here, but did you know Leon finished the 2018 season with a 38 OPS+? 38. I’m sort of at a loss here.

Leon Pitch 1 FB 0-1

Cole follows it up with a nasty curve for a called strike two. Notice the placement.

Leon Pitch 2 KC 0-2

It might not be as perilous as facing Chris Sale when down 0-2, but Cole’s no picnic. Leon spoils a hard fastball to keep the count alive, though.

Leon Pitch 3 FB 0-2 foul

Talk about an emergency hack — but that’s what professional hitters do. Keep the at-bat alive.

Cole comes right back and straightens up the Red Sox backstop.

Leon Pitch 4 1-2 FB inside

Cole comes back with another curve that catches more of the plate than he’d surely like. Leon bounces it foul and the count stays 1-2.

Leon Pitch 5 1-2 KC foul

I love this. Having left Leon just a bit too much ball to work with, Cole moves the curve down and away and punches him out.

Leon Pitch 6 1-3 KC outside K

Beautiful. The break on this is incredible. Note too that Leon has to be ready for the fastball; Cole has worked both sides of the plate with it already. Can’t be sitting on either.

Leon Pitch 6 K slomo

Up next is Jackie Bradley Jr., the light-hitting (92 OPS+) but sweet-gloving centerfielder. Cole greets him with a breaking pitch that misses wide.

JBJ Pitch 1 KB 1-0

Cole comes back with a fastball — notice how catcher Martin Maldonado just wants it up. Bradley looks like he was sitting on it but misses anyway. Velocity + spin rate, kids.

JBJ Pitch 2 FB 0-1

Bradley takes a nasty fastball for a ball. The Astros announcers are incredulous about this call. It’s probably a strike, but alas — the count runs 2-1.

JBJ Pitch 3 FB 2-1

Cole misses down and in with a breaking pitch to run the count 3-1.

JBJ Pitch 4 FB 3-1

Many a rough inning begin with a walk to a batter low in the batting order. Bradley takes the fastball low-and-in and trots down to first, bringing up the eventual AL MVP with a man on.

JBJ Pitch 5 FB 4-1

Shall we take a moment to appreciate Mookie Betts? We shall. The Red Sox rightfielder had such a great season that he poked his head into the rarefied air above the clouds currently reserved for only Mike Trout: 10.9 bWAR, 186 OPS+. Yowza.

Bradley is a threat to steal, mind you, as Betts looks at a curve to start the at-bat.

Betts Pitch 1 KC 0-1

Cole comes up and in with a straighten-you-up fastball that Betts takes for a ball.

Betts Pitch 2 FB 1-1

Cole offers up another fastball, but leaves it enough over the plate for Betts to knock foul.

Betts Pitch 3 FB 1-2 foul

Cole goes back to the curve and Betts rips it down to third baseman Alex Bregman, who handles it OK but was playing too deep to throw the eventual MVP out. If that breaking ball is a hair or two lower, maybe Bregman can throw him out, but who knows. Betts is really fast.

Two on, one out and the Red Sox have some serious hitters coming up.

Betts Pitch 4 KC 1-2 single

Up steps young leftfielder Andrew Benintendi. This isn’t really a double-play situation for Cole; Betts is way too fast unless you manage to do it on the corners. That’s not really a strategy.

Cole starts the lefty with a curve that misses high and away.

Beni Pitch 1 KC 1-0

Cole leaves a curve (maybe a changeup?) over the plate and Benintendi lofts it out to left field for the second out. Cole left the pitch over the plate and Benintendi just didn’t quite get ahold of it. Is that Cole getting lucky? I’m not sure. Probably a little, but hitters have to respect that fastball. If the young outfielder expected one here, that might explain the flyout.

Beni Pitch 2 Flyout

Even despite the second out, trouble is knocking at the door in the form of Red Sox DH J.D. Martinez and his 173 OPS+.

Two on. Two great teams. A great slugger against a great flamethrower. There aren’t many cooler scenes in the game than this.

Cole doesn’t disappoint: fastball, strike one. Martinez just misses.

JDM Pitch 1 0-1 K

Cole comes right back to the heater, this time throwing it higher and powering it past Martinez for a swinging strike. What a pitch.

You know the guts it takes to throw this pitch to J.D. freaking Martinez? You miss with it and he deposits it onto someone’s windshield.

JDM Pitch 2 0-2 K FB

Sitting 0-2, Cole has a full set of options. He returns to the fastball but moves it up against Martinez’s hands, who fouls it off. I love that Cole isn’t nibbling here against a hitter who absolutely can hammer even your best stuff, much less your mistake. But alas, Cole brings the best he has. Mano e mano. Fastballs up in the zone.

JDM Pitch 3 0-2 foul FB

Cole wisely changes the eye-level here, surrendering a ball to give the Red Sox DH something to think about. This isn’t nibbling; it’s sequencing. You keep pounding fastballs in the same spot and eventually, you’ll miss and Martinez won’t. This is smart pitching.

JDM Pitch 4 1-2

Also: I didn’t show you this, but Cole stepped off the mound twice before this pitch. Was it just to mess with timing or to keep Betts and Bradley in line? Both. Pitchers attack hitters with more than just the ball.

Cole comes right back with another slider in about the same spot that misses low.

JDM Pitch 5 2-2

Now we’re talking. Before the next pitch is delivered, Martinez asks for time — a little tit-for-tat with what Cole was doing before. It’s all part of the battle.

But now here we are, a 2-2 count. Cole, boasting an excellent fastball, finds himself in a tough at-bat against one of the most dangerous hitters alive with two runners on. A single probably scores both.

What do you do? Martinez hasn’t seen the curve. He’s definitely seen the fastball, and its impact might be boosted by the two sliders that missed down and away.

Cole chooses his best pitch. He brings the heat.

JDM Pitch 6 3-2 K

Inning over.

***

Verlander and Cole form one of the most entertaining pairs in any rotation in the sport for pitching nerds like myself. Both are flame-throwing but also cerebral, using timing, sequencing and of course, tunneling, to present as stiff a challenge as possible.

It’ll be fascinating to see how good Cole can be in 2019. If he maintains or even improves on some of the pitch development he showed last season, he’s a Cy Young candidate and in line for a big payday next winter. If he tails off a little, he’s still an elite pitcher and a great companion for Verlander in the Houston rotation.