Month: April 2019

Ode to a Pitcher: Luis Castillo shines as Reds struggle to launch

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Luis Castillo starts are becoming appointment television in Cincinnati.

Amid a historically anemic start for the Cincinnati Reds offense, Reds fans have taken solace in Luis Castillo. The young flamethrower has been excellent to open the 2019 season (stats through his last start in San Diego): 30 IP, 13 H, 14 BB, 41 K, 308 ERA+.

We’ll quibble for a moment; the hits will start dropping in before long and that walk rate is rough, but Castillo is racking up the strikeouts and the stuff — always tantalizing — is definitely for real. I’m not convinced he’s suddenly a top-10 starter, but he might be top-20. That is quite a positive development.

A fancy stat to keep an eye on? Last year, the average exit velocity off his four-seam fastball was 90.6 (right around league average). This year? Down to 81.9. Is that drop for real? Permanent? I doubt it, but if it settles in the mid to upper 80s, that’ll mean the fastball is playing better. Despite the impressive velocity, Castillo’s fastball wasn’t even a good pitch in 2018. The xwOBA (read it like an on-base percentage) was .402; the pitch value by Fangraphs was -9.6. Not great. This year both numbers look quite a bit better.

I don’t think he’s suddenly solved all his fastball issues, but I do think he’s learning. Don’t misread me: Castillo’s been incredibly fortunate so far (.197 BABIP, 87.4 strand rate), but he’s also developing. Two things can be true at the same time. I wrote about the righty last winter, wondering if he’d be able to make a few tweaks to unlock the elite hurler within himself. As fraught with peril as a 30 inning sample can be, there’s reason to be confident.

Let’s enjoy Castillo’s first inning against the San Diego Padres.

***

I love this. How cool would it be to see Luis Castillo and Fernando Tatis Jr. square off in the NLCS? Young star vs younger star. The Reds hurler starts the Padres shortstop off with a fastball down and away for ball one.

Tatis Pitch 1 FB

Castillo misses with a second fastball, belt-high and away.

Tatis Pitch 2 FB

Tatis, already with a handful of homers on the season (all of them off fastballs), can’t be taken lightly in a 2-0 count. Castillo can’t just serve up a fastball here; he splits the difference by nipping the inside corner with 96 MPH. Love the run on this pitch — and note how Tatis turns as it crosses the plate.

Tatis Pitch 3 FB

Still behind in the count at 2-1, Castillo busts out his true weapon, his changeup. This one is a beauty, running arm side and down, grabbing the inside corner for a called strike two. Through this very start in San Diego, hitters have managed a meager .083 batting average off it. I can see why.

Tatis Pitch 4 CH

It’s 2-2. Tatis has now paid witness to three fastballs (two away for balls, one inside for a strike) and a nasty change down and in for a strike. From the pitcher’s perspective, the appealing option is to bury the changeup further down and force the young shortstop to chase.

Castillo does just that, and the results are spectacular. That’s an absolutely tremendous changeup, well sequenced and perfectly located. Credit to Castillo for battling out of a 2-0 hole against a hitter with pop and punctuating it with the punchout.

Tatis Pitch 5 CH

Who doesn’t love a slow-motion look at a K?

Tatis Pitch 5 CH SLOMO

Up next is Francisco Mejia. He’s greeted with a bicep-high fastball that runs out over the plate for ball one. Imagine how pleasant it must be to think, for just the hint of a second, that a Luis Castillo fastball is about to explode into your elbow. Pleasant indeed. It’s 1-0.

Mejia Pitch 1 FB

Mejia watches a changeup run off the plate away for ball two, and yet again the young Reds righty is behind in the count. He’s started exactly half of his exchanges with a first-pitch strike, hardly a dominant number (league average is 60.3%). As announcer Chris Welsh pointed out, Castillo has the stuff to mitigate the mistake, but great pitchers don’t do this. It’s something to work on.

Mejia Pitch 2 CH

Castillo runs a fastball right over the heart of the dish and Mejia sprays it foul. Not a great spot at all, but Castillo got away with it. You can see catcher Tucker Barnhart sat up low and away.

Mejia Pitch 3 FB

Castillo misses well out of the zone with another fastball, running the count to 3-1. As stated in the intro, walks are a blinking red light of a problem for Castillo, easily my biggest fear for him as he tries to emerge as an ace. Free passes are killers against Major League offenses, regardless of how good the hurler might be otherwise. I think he can work on it, though, but it remains a concern.

Mejia Pitch 4 FB

The fifth pitch of the at-bat is another fastball low and away. Mejia bounces it slowly to short and Jose Iglesias isn’t able to make a play. A rough sequence of pitches for Castillo results in a 1-out baserunner with a superstar coming to the plate.

Mejia Pitch 5 FB

Manny Machado’s Homer-like free agent odyssey brought him to lovely San Diego, where he can live out his well-paid days playing next to Tatis Jr. Fun stuff. Castillo greets him with a fastball down and away for yet another ball. (Thom Brennaman kinda acted like this was barely a ball but … uh … are we looking at the same thing here, Thom?)

Machado Pitch 1 FB

I love this. Castillo flat-out blasts the $300 million man with a fastball at the tippy-top of the zone. Machado uncorked a mighty hack and came up with air. Note how Castillo’s delivery ends with just a hair of flourish there. He enjoyed this.

Machado Pitch 2 FB

With the count even and a runner on, Castillo unleashes the finest pitch of the breakdown and an entrant into the Ode to a Pitcher Hall of Fame (we’re looking into a building right now, probably). Castillo drank Machado’s milkshake with this changeup, fooling him on speed, movement and location, drawing a wild miss of a swing and an amused grin from Machado after.

Machado Pitch 4 CH

Check out the slomo on that bad boy:

Machado Pitch 4 CH SLOMO

Machado’s been around. He knows when he’s been had.

Machado Pitch 4 CH GRIN

Machado is down 1-2 in the count. He got blasted with a hard fastball and spun into a parallel dimension with a darting changeup. What will Castillo follow it up with? He goes fastball away, drawing gentle contact right in front of the plate for a quick groundout. Mejia advances to second.

Machado Pitch 5 FB

Hunter Renfroe watches a wild fastball miss into the other batter’s box for ball one. These little episodes encapsulate the Luis Castillo experience. He might depants one of the game’s elite sluggers; he might throw a ball two feet off the plate. Control is a work in progress, obviously.

Renfroe Pitch 1 FB

Again down 1-0, Castillo returns with another nasty changeup that Renfroe swings right over. As Welsh said, he has the stuff to dig out of these holes he digs for himself.

Renfroe Pitch 2 CH

Castillo doubles up on the change, throwing another one and getting the same result. Kind of incredible, isn’t it? That changeup solves a lot of problems.

Renfroe Pitch 3 CH

Renfroe isn’t in a good place here. You don’t want to be down 1-2 to a pitcher with that kind of changeup in his arsenal, especially after proving you can’t touch it. Wisely, Castillo goes back to the well again but misses inside for ball two.

Renfroe Pitch 4 CH

So, 2-2. Mejia on second. Castillo has missed with a fastball, drawn two clean swinging strikes with changeups and missed with the third. Do you go offspeed again? Reach up in the zone with the heat?

Castillo goes changeup and finishes Renfroe with it. Three swings and misses off the same pitch in one at-bat. Incredible.

Renfroe Pitch 5 CH

***

Castillo is one to watch. Will he fix the control issues? That might be the last hurdle for him to clear in order to become a Cy Young candidate. The stuff is absurd and he pitches with confidence on both sides of the plate. Reds fans, you’ve got a fun one here.

The hits will start to fall in and he’ll give up some more runs. Don’t despair. If the walks improve, that’ll be enough. He’s close.

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Baseball deserves shame for its handling of Tim Anderson

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This picture will adorn countless walls in Chicago.

Picture this.

Picture yourself as the leader of an organization flush with exciting, young talent amid a culture that loves self-expression and fun. Your organization hardly has a history of inclusion and excitement, but alas, you’ve developed a loyal fan base. Maybe it’s time to stretch out the organization’s collective arms?

Picture yourself believing that — or at least, seeing the monetary potential therein — and launching a media campaign centered around one phrase, loaded with meaning: let the kids play. Picture yourself rounding up most of that incredible young talent — the Trouts and Judges and Bregmans — for a fun commercial shoot where the game’s leading ambassador and star, the unquestioned best in the business, looks right in the camera and says: just let the kids play.

And then, the first chance you get to act on this potentially exciting new initiative, imagine falling square on your face, undoing all that goodwill.

Here’s how it started, with Tim Anderson‘s epic blast and sweet bat flip:

Wonderful. I love a great bat flip. What followed, of course, was Brad Keller throwing at Anderson in response. Why? Oh, must you even ask? Anderson showed him up. It’s okay that Anderson drilled a long home run off Keller — sure, fine — but not okay that Anderson enjoyed doing it? This is stupid. Brad Keller, you were without a moment’s hesitation wrong to do this, and baseball should drop the hammer on you for it.

Now let me be clear about something. I am all for Tim Anderson flipping his bat. I am also all for Brad Keller striking Anderson out and emphatically pumping his fist after. Heck yes. I loved Jose Batista‘s epic bat flip. I love Aroldis Chapman‘s poses and Marcus Stroman‘s struts. Let baseball be fun. It turns out — I checked — that baseball is in fact allowed to be fun.

If a pitcher intentionally throws at a batter — as Keller did here — that crosses a line, and the punishment should be swift and leave a mark. The same would apply if a batter did something aggressive toward a pitcher, like for example tossing the bat toward the mound.

This is the baseball equivalent of targeting. It’s an old baseball adage to believe there’s some justice in a pitcher plunking a batter in the hip for some perceived slight, and I suppose everyone nodded in acceptance “because it’s only the hip.” But, and maybe this will be shocking to you, pitchers sometimes miss. Giancarlo Stanton‘s horrific accident wasn’t that long ago, and Mike Fiers was not trying to hit him. And yet, he did, right in the face.

Pitchers cannot be allowed to throw at batters intentionally. I don’t care if Anderson grabbed his nuts, did a dance, pointed at Keller and shimmied around the bases. We can handle that separately, but under no circumstances can a pitcher retaliate. The risks are too high.

And then, word came down that Anderson was suspended 1 game and Keller 5. We’ll get to Anderson in a second, but the idea behind Keller’s 5 game suspension is to make him miss a start, as starters work every fifth game. Well, that’s easily avoided by simply skipping Keller one day and using him the next.

Because I believe this retaliatory behavior is a tragedy waiting to happen, I think Keller should have been suspended for like 50 games. Baseball should have handled this a long time ago and didn’t. Shame on MLB.

So, about Anderson. Jeff Passon of ESPN.com had the scoop:

Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson was suspended for one game after calling Kansas City Royals pitcher Brad Keller a “weak-ass f—ing [N-word]” during a benches-clearing incident precipitated by Keller hitting Anderson with a pitch, league sources told ESPN on Friday.

Oh, boy. Look, this is a great place for a white suburbanite baseball writer to get into trouble. So, I’ll step aside and leave you with Michael Wilbon’s opinions on the matter.

“Rob Manfred and Joe Torre, neither of whom are of color, needs to stay the hell out of this. Bring in a black deputy if you need to, recuse yourself. Stay out of it,” Wilbon said. “They need to leave the n-word alone and any adjudication involving it.”

I completely agree. Manfred hasn’t been scoring points with me for awhile anyway, but to think that two old white dudes should be the arbiter of an issue like this is ridiculous. Have just a little bit of self-awareness. How hard would it have been to just call up, oh, I don’t know, CC Sabathia or Joe Morgan or Dave Stewart and get their insight? Maybe baseball did that, but I’d be shocked. This organization is rarely prudent.

Baseball’s history with race is abhorrent, a mark on the game that will never completely wipe away. This should have been an easy one, MLB. Ignore Anderson, suspend Keller, let the kids play.

You couldn’t even do that.

 

Ode to a Pitcher: Trevor Bauer has a new toy and likes to throw it

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Trevor Bauer‘s aptitude for the art of pitching has served him well.

We all need a hobby. Something to do in our free time.

Maybe you play PS4. Watch a movie. Troll around on Reddit.

Trevor Bauer has one, too; he likes to spend his comfortable offseason developing sweet new pitches.

Last season, he whipped up a slider with the magicians/mad scientists at Driveline Baseball. It was a huge success: it ranked as the 13th best slider in baseball (minimum 150 innings) last year according to Fangraphs, just ahead of Max Scherzer. He took a non-entity of a pitch and made it a weapon.

He pulled the same trick again this winter, this time working on a changeup. As we’ll see today, Bauer’s efforts are paying off. A great changeup needs to move, be noticeably softer than the fastball and look the same out of the hand. You’ll be shocked — especially those of you who’ve read about Kevin Kelleher’s work at Driveline — that Bauer’s done all of that and more.

Look, I don’t say this lightly, but Bauer’s arsenal belongs in the conversation with Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and the other elites. I might be forgetting some folks, but those three stand out.

Any pitch at any time. The right pitch for any situation.

Bauer’s 2018 was a tremendous success — 175.1 IP, 198 ERA+, 3.88 strikeout-to-walk ratio. A couple unfortunate injuries kept him from a serious run at the Cy Young, which of course ultimately went to last week’s Ode to a Pitcher breakdown, Blake Snell. I might end up regretting not going with the Indians righty for this year’s award, because so far he looks better than ever.

Bauer faced the Seattle Mariners on Tax Day, and while overall it wasn’t his best start of the season (uh, he nearly threw a no-hitter a week-ish ago), he flashed that beautiful, tunnel-rific changeup enough that I couldn’t resist.

***

I don’t know if this is possible, but if a pitcher can have a perfectly efficient delivery, Bauer either already has it or will figure it out. He moves with such little wasted motion and from an arm angle that allows his vast repertoire to flourish with the kind of deception you’d expect from a pitcher like him. Bauer starts Mallex Smith off with a hard fastball with a lovely late arm-side run to it. Despite missing (did it?), that fastball is something else.

Smith Pitch 1 FB

Bauer brings the same pitch belt middle-in, letting the fastball run back to the inside corner. Familiar readers of this series know how I love a pitcher who works both sides of the plate, and I assure you Bauer happily does so. (Editor’s note: Sorry for the quick-cut gif here, the SportsTime Ohio broadcast was lingering elsewhere before snapping back.)

Smith Pitch 2 FB

Our first changeup! Bauer leaves it up in the zone but Smith grounds out harmlessly. You know, an epic strikeout is truly a moment to behold, but we shouldn’t look past the glory of a weak groundout. It’s an out, my dude, and every last one of them is precious. (This, of course, is why most bunts are foolish.)

Smith Pitch 3 CH

Mitch Haniger watches a fastball miss below the zone for ball one.

Haniger Pitch 1 FB

Bauer runs the next fastball over the outside corner for strike one. Look at the late movement on that sucker. Yowza.

Haniger Pitch 2 FB

With the count 1-1, Bauer misses with a changeup that runs right onto Haniger’s hands. That’s an 87 MPH changeup with incredible arm-side movement.

Haniger Pitch 3 FB

Take another look at that same pitch:

Haniger Pitch 3 FB SLOMO

Firmly in a pitcher’s count — 1-2 — Bauer has the whole playbook available to him. How about that excellent slider? Maybe his curve — readers know how I lust after a great curve. Another fastball?

Ultimately Bauer goes to the gas, missing high. Did he intend on climbing that far up? Probably not, but it keeps Haniger’s eyes up and makes a below-the-knees breaking ball even more difficult to handle.

Haniger Pitch 4 FB

You know, cutters are kind of the pitch de jour right now. Understandably so: a great cutter is a true pain in the ass for the batter. Before that, sliders and splitters were sort of en vogue, in great part because of how well they play off the fastball — think Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson for the slider, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling for the splitter. Pretty darn great.

There’s nothing revolutionary about a changeup. Pitchers have been hurling them for a long, long time, and for good reason: they work. The pitch Trevor Bauer spent all winter developing isn’t new, isn’t cutting edge, but my God is it ever sexy.

This is an unbelievably good pitch to Mitch Haniger. The speed difference is a healthy 7 or 8 MPH off the fastball, it’s sequenced wonderfully after the changeup near the eyes and the fastball high and way, and the ball starts off the plate and runs back below the swing. This is a pitcher with great stuff and an even better understanding of how to attack a hitter.

Haniger Pitch 5 CH

With two down, up steps Domingo Santana. What happens next is frankly terrifying.

Liners back to the pitcher happen all the time. We get kinda used to it as viewers, right? Weird, eh? I assume the same is true for pitchers, that it’s a risk you take whenever you throw a pitch. Blessedly, this liner nearly went right into Bauer’s glove, but if it had taken only a slightly different course …

Santana Pitch 1 CT

Here’s a slower version of it:

Santana Pitch 1 Liner

The Indians trainers came out right after and spoke with Bauer. He seemed eager to get back after it, facing Daniel Vogelbach with a runner on. The analytically-minded righty hops back into the fray with a fastball that runs just below the zone for ball one.

Vogelbach Pitch 1 FB

Another great sequencing example here. Vogelbach watches a fastball miss down and in for ball one, and Bauer follows it up with another fastball in the opposite corner. Look, it might seem obvious, but moving around the zone keeps the hitter from getting too comfortable.

Hitters are really good at what they do. They can read releases, analyze patterns and react on the fly. This series marvels at pitchers, but the same could be done for hitters. So what’s a pitcher to do? Well, the great Warren Spahn told us the path: Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.

How does working in different parts of the zone upset timing? Good question. Moving the ball around prevents the batter from keying in on one part of the plate, forcing them to potentially react later because the playing field is so wide. The equivalent in football is a quarterback who can throw to both sides of the field. Bauer owns the plate.

Vogelbach Pitch 2 FB

Sitting 1-1, Bauer breaks out the curve, dropping it right under Vogelbach’s hands for a called strike two. Even if it seems a little high in the zone for a breaking ball, the batter watches it go by. Now Bauer’s firmly in control.

Vogelbach Pitch 3 CB

Bauer doubles up on the curve, dropping this one down at the knees, forcing Vogelbach to knock it foul. As ugly as it might seem, I’m impressed with that defensive hack — remember, avoiding the out is everything, and the batter just gave himself another breath. For all we know, Bauer could groove a fastball and the Mariners tie the game on one swing. It’s baseball. We never know.

Vogelbach Pitch 4 CB

Sequencing. SEQUENCING. Bauer has worked every quadrant of the zone except down and away. He’s gone hard inside, soft away, soft inside and now hard inside again. This is brilliant stuff. Yes, I know the pitch missed — don’t miss the point. Bauer has again forced Vogelbach to consider the top of the zone, and very nearly punched him out. The batter now has a ton of input to consider before the next pitch.

Vogelbach Pitch 5 FB

Man oh man. An excellent pitch used masterfully, like a high-performance car with an Andretti behind the wheel. Bauer was in firm control from the first pitch, nearly finishing the at-bat before this but always working the situation toward the out. Make no mistake, Bauer has developed into an ace and as it stands now, he’s arguably the best pitcher in the American League.

Great stuff mixed with an excellent approach gives you moments like this.

Vogelbach Pitch 6 CH

***

This is hardly breaking news, but Bauer, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco are absolutely critical to Cleveland’s championship aspirations, flimsy as they might appear relative to previous seasons. With the Indians weathering Jose Ramirez’s slump, eagerly awaiting shortstop Francisco Lindor‘s return and navigating the loss of Mike Clevinger, Bauer’s emergence into the highest class of big league hurler last season sure has come in handy.

Opposing batters will be seeing a lot more of that changeup.

Read previous Ode to a Pitchers here.

Ode to a Pitcher: Blake Snell controls the conversation in Chicago

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Blake Snell blossomed into an undeniable ace last year for the Rays.

I like pitchers who set the tone.

Why are you laughing? Is it because I actually love all pitchers? Well, you got me there. But hurlers who control the tempo and tenure of the game, who seize control and never let it go — those dudes have a special place in my American heart. Yeah, that kind of guy. John Wayne stuff.

Blake Snell carries himself with the intensity of a Bob Gibson, a Roger Clemens, a Scherzer or a Jacob deGrom, even if we don’t intuitively think of him that way. But dominant, intimidating pitchers don’t earn those titles simply by looking like a badass. No, they earn it by how they pitch. They earn it by working both sides of the plate and without a hint of fear, throwing what they what when they want, how they want, count and batter be damned.

I like that.

Hitters? Probably not quite as into it.

Snell’s 2018 — AL Cy Young winner, 217 ERA+, 31.6 K rate, 9.1 BB rate, 7.4 bWAR — was tremendous. Sure, there are some things he isn’t likely to repeat — uh, stranding 88 percent of his baserunners again would be quite a trick and that .241 batting average on balls in play will likely drift north, too — but even with regression, it’s clear Snell has blossomed into an ace. Two things can be true at once: Blake Snell probably won’t produce an ERA in the 1s again, but he’s still awesome.

Snell is a hard-throwing lefty with four above-average pitches. That’s a rare breed, kiddos, and his Cy Young victory was well earned. As always, I’m amazed by his curveball, with its sweeping break and how well he keeps hitters off-balance with it. Hitters whiffed a whopping 53.4 percent off the time. That’s bonkers, my dude.

The Chicago White Sox learned this week (sorry, repeat victims, although might we have an Ode to the Pitcher curse to worry about now?) how Snell’s repertoire allows him to control the tenor of any at-bat in any count. Such is the beauty of great stuff.

***

Wellington Castillo (2018: 95 OPS+) leads off and watches a fastball miss low and in. Snell has pretty smooth mechanics, and that nice finish seems to give the breaking stuff a bit more snap.

Castillo Pitch 1 FB

Castillo watches Snell miss again, and all of a sudden the Rays lefty is in the hole 2-0. That changeup is a freaking weapon, by the way. Snell can tunnel it perfectly with his fastball, and the speed difference creeps into that ideal 10+ MPH range. As we’ll see later on, Snell trusts the pitch enough to place it anywhere in the zone in any count.

Castillo Pitch 2 CH

However, a strike is a good idea too. Snell misses low with the same pitch in the same spot and has fallen behind 3-0 to a pretty unassuming hitter in Castillo.

If you’re the batter, do you sit fastball? A lot of hitters do in 3-0 counts. I assure you, Blake Snell has no desire to walk a guy like this. There’s no real reason to avoid challenging him.

Truth is, sometimes pitchers miss.

Castillo Pitch 3 CH

Man oh man. That was hardly a “get me over” fastball — a pitch meant to be nothing more than a strike. No, that’s an upper-90s fastball right under the hands. Hell of a pitch by Snell, and notice that he went soft away to hard in. Castillo knows — well, he probably did anyway — that the plate belongs to Snell.

Castillo Pitch 4 FB

This is the change sequence I was hinting at. Blake Snell threw a high changeup out over the plate in a 3-1 count and I’m not even sure he missed his spot. I think he wanted it there. That’s hardly a typical tactic, folks. That pitch is 86 MPH. Taken out of context, it’s a meatball — heck, maybe even in context it is, but Castillo watched it go by, only feinting a swing. On the outside corner, yes, but belt high.

Now the power in the at-bat is firmly back in control of the pitcher. Good news for Snell, terrible news for Castillo.

Castillo Pitch 5 CH

Oh my God. Can I somehow tattoo a gif onto my body? Because I’d consider it with this curveball. Either Welington Castillo is utterly unable to swing or he’s been fooled for the last three pitches. Both are possible.

Snell worked him with the fastball and changeup out of a 3-0 count — down, up, in, out — and finished the damn fight with a filthy curveball middle-in. Catcher Mike Zunino hardly moved his glove.

One down.

Castillo Pitch 6 CRV

Yoan Moncada (2018: 97 OPS+), no stranger to punchouts, steps up to try and chip away at the Rays 4-run lead. Snell starts him off with a curveball below the zone for ball one.

Moncada Pitch 1 CRV

Moncada gets a second curve middle-in for a called strike. Not quite a hanger, but certainly proof that Snell does as he pleases in the strike zone. The 2018 AL Cy Young winner pitches like a man who doesn’t worry himself with your hitting abilities. Moncada’s no pumpkin, either, having hit 28 home runs last season.

Moncada Pitch 2 CRV

Nasty. Really hard to tunnel the fastball and curve — curves usually have that tell-tale ‘hump’ out of the hand — so Moncada wasn’t necessarily fooled that way. No matter, this is a great fastball. If Moncada was sitting dead red perhaps he could have done something with it. I don’t know, man.

Regardless, Moncada is firmly in the danger zone now.

(Also: I love Snell’s pirouette.)

Moncada Pitch 3 FB

Oh my God. You know what, I’m not tattooing just one gif. I need two now. Maybe across the upper shoulders? That’d be cool, right? Is my wife reading this?

Moncada has absolutely no prayer of making contact. Snell’s curveball is perfectly located, perfectly sequenced, perfectly executed. Seriously, Moncada barely fouls off a fastball right up under the hands then Snell drops this hammer? Considering the young infielder led both leagues in strikeouts last season, this almost seems unfair.

Moncada Pitch 4 CRV Cleaner

Highly touted rookie masher Eloy Jimenez steps up. Jimenez has a bright future for the Pale Hose, a future spent mashing taters all over the South Side. The White Sox gave him a big extension before he played an inning of Major League Baseball, which I suppose is one way to avoid the silly service time manipulation game. Snell starts the young outfielder with a fastball.

Jimenez Pitch 1 FB

What makes Jimenez enticing is how complete of a hitter he profiles to be. He’s not a Joey Gallo all-or-nothing guy. He’ll hit for power, he’ll draw walks, and as we see in the next pitch, he has some plate discipline. Snell shows him a nice slider buried below the zone, hidden neatly within the fastball that preceded it, and the youngster lets it bounce by. Good take.

Jimenez Pitch 2 SL

Snell misses low and away with a change, putting himself behind the 8-ball against a young hitter who can do some damage. The league hasn’t seen much of Eloy Jimenez yet, but history is replete with examples of young dudes raking early on. Snell can’t play games here.

Jimenez Pitch 3 CH

Incredible pitch. Snell goes below the zone with his curve, believing that Jimenez will chase and either miss it or make weak contact. He was right. This is yet another filthy breaking ball and at this point, the impending tattoo is occupying a frightening amount of my body.

Snell again has control of the at-bat (2-2 is a pitcher’s count, kiddos), with a wide array of tools to finish off the youngster.

Jimenez Pitch 4 CRV

Having worked low with the change and the curve, Snell wisely climbs the ladder and places a 97 MPH fastball in the tippy top inside corner of the zone. Jimenez is frozen for a called strike three.

Unbelievable pitch. Absolutely unbelievable.

Jimenez Pitch 5 FB

***

From a USA Today article earlier this spring:

“My mentality is really everything,” says Snell. “If I’m not pitching, I’m pretty laid-back, goofy. An hour until I pitch, until I’m done? It’s serious. It’s personal. I don’t like the way I felt when I got sent down (in 2017), the way I felt with my teammates. I just remember that and realize, ‘I’m not going to let that happen again.’

“So when I pitch, it’s violently personal. You’re just not going to beat me, is the way I have to look at it. Sometimes you lose, but it’s all about understanding how I’m going to get that guy out this time as well as next time.”

So when I pitch, it’s violently personal. Pitching offers athletes a wonderful opportunity and a terrifying risk. If you’re great, you’re the center of the world. You control everything and the game ebbs and flows at your whims. But if you struggle, suddenly every ounce of pressure falls right on your shoulders, and unlike most team sports, you are exposed. You are alone.

Snell realizes some games won’t go his way, but he’ll happily die on his sword in the process.

Reds, Red Sox and Cubs struggle out of the gate, but for different reasons

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Ohio against the world, I guess. Gene J. Puskar/AP

Happy baseball, kids. Lots of fun stories around Major League Baseball as most clubs clear the 10-game mark. Mike Trout is doing Mike Trout things — .367/.574/.933, 320 OPS+ — and Jacob deGrom continues to treat opposing hitters the same way Arya Stark treated the Freys. (If you don’t get that reference, google it at your own peril.)

But while some teams are riding high, like the streaking Seattle Mariners, the reloaded Philadelphia Phillies or last year’s NLCS matchup, the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers, others are seriously scuffling. We’ll focus on them individually.

Cincinnati Reds, 2-8, 35 RS, 34 RA

The Reds aren’t hitting. This won’t come as news to anyone who has suffered through the malaise of the first ten games of the Reds season. This won’t either: before Tuesday’s obligeration of the Marlins, the Reds were dead last in team wRC+, at a measly 38. If you don’t like the heftier stats, how about these? Team batting average: .170. Team on-base percentage: .233.

(After last night: 62 wRC+, .199 BA, .268 OBP. Early season stats are fun.)

Now, perhaps the hapless fish were just the magic elixir the Reds needed. We shall see. Before some of you ball your fingers into fists and start hammering your desk about small sample sizes, yes, I know. I’m familiar with the concept. The Reds have some obvious flaws, but offense generally isn’t one (might not be a strength, either). The runs will come.

Still, this early season swoon provides us a chance to really examine the expectations for the 2019 club. Namely, were the front office and fan base too optimistic going into the season? The Reds were not anywhere remotely near a good team in 2018. They almost lost 100 games. Outscored by 123 runs. Are we all aware of this? I ask that not to be snarky, but to instead reset just how impactful the Dodgers trade (in particular) would be.  And, even with Nick Senzel sorta close, it wasn’t as if the Reds had some mega-prospect ready in the wings either. I love Senzel, I think he should be given an extended look in center, but dude is rarely healthy. There was no Tatis Jr or Baby Vlad here.

So, what then? The Reds took a terrible team and added a good outfielder in Yasiel Puig, an okay-ish but often injured starter in Alex Wood, a starter coming off a horrific season in Sonny Gray, an okay innings eater in Tanner Roark and a bad DH in Matt Kemp. Guys, that ain’t moving the needle much. That isn’t to say the 2019 Reds don’t have some players I like. I adore Joey Votto. Eugenio Suarez has become a nifty player. Scooter Gennett is super easy to root for. I think the Reds should give Jesse Winker the left field job and leave him alone. Michael Lorenzen is cool. Luis Castillo is a pet fascination of mine, and I’d be delighted if he grew into the ace this team desperately needs.

Maybe — maybe — if everyone was healthy and the Reds got wise and ran an outfield of Winker-Senzel-Puig and the pitching magically became decent … maybe they fight for a Wild Card. But instead, the bats came out ice cold — as happens — and reality has fallen across Cincinnati.

The above fantasy could happen but look, it’s unlikely. It was always unlikely. The Reds aren’t contenders — to believe otherwise reduces the bar for contention so low it means nothing. If the Reds are contenders, then the entire league minus the freaking Orioles, Tigers, White Sox, and Marlins are, more or less.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth. Despite making moves to put a better team on the field at GABP, the current roster was so threadbare that Puig and co just weren’t ever going to be enough. The Reds needed to pull a Phillies and add stars. Oh, and, did you know, there were superstars on the free agent market! Like, anyone could sign them and everything! The Reds didn’t need complimentary pieces, they needed 5+ win players.

Don’t tell me they can’t afford it — big league clubs are a lot of things but hurtin’ for cash ain’t one of them. Yes, the Reds made moves. I commend them for adding salary and trying to break this half-decade of disappointment in the Queen City, but poor decisions prior to last winter have kept the cupboard too empty. It just wasn’t enough.

Short of maybe adding two of Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Patrick Corbin or inheriting a boatload of good fortune, the 2019 Reds weren’t competing. And now, after a terrible start, the odds have only gone down.

Chicago Cubs, 3-7, 72 RS, 71 RA

The Cubs aren’t at all in the same place as their stumbling divisional brethren. The Cubs do have superstars. Couple of ’em. Bryant. Rizzo. Baez. They’ve won recently and are expected to continue to win. Still, it doesn’t take much of an analytical eye to get a smidge uncomfortable at their pitching situation.

Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks and Yu Darvish are all probably going to be fine (read: league average or a hair above), but therein lies the rub. So far, they’ve been atrocious — all aside from Lester, who promptly got hurt.  Will they suck all year? Probably not, but the Cubs aren’t exactly overflowing with upside in their rotation either, and Darvish is particularly worrisome. I fear my original pitching gif love might be done as anything more than a back-of-the-rotation punching bag.

Unfortunately, even if decent free agent starters were still available, even into mid-April, just waiting for a team with cash to swoop in and make an offer, the Cubs are choosing not to spend broke. Shame. Poor Cubs.

As a team, the Cubs are producing a 71 ERA+. That’ll climb, obviously. But will it climb enough — and will Kris Bryant return to being Kris Bryant — soon enough to keep the Brewers in sight? Maybe. The Brewers seem poised — as much as possible after less than 15 games — to bludgeon the NL Central all season. Even if the Brewers do so, the Cubs are likely Wild Card bound.

Alas, one wonders if the first whiffs of decline are wafting on the North Side. I hope that isn’t the case, mind you. I want Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain to battle Bryant and Rizzo for years to come, pounding home runs and facing off in the chill of midwestern winters. I hope that happens. A Cubs-Brewers NLCS would be a freaking blast.

But I’m not sure. If the front office isn’t willing to make moves, maybe the PECOTA projection of a low-80s win total will come true after all.

Boston Red Sox, 3-9, 51 RS, 79 RA

The champs will be in the playoffs. For me, there’s no point really discussing it much further. Overall, the team is too talented. The concern for me isn’t whether the Red Sox are a contender, but instead what the team will look like once October dawns.

It comes down to Chris Sale. Look, maybe he’s going to be fine. It’s early. Sometimes pitchers don’t throw as hard early in the season. But Sale’s velocity is way down (nearly 5 MPH) and he’s leaning heavily on the slider and the changeup, the latter of which might not be that big of a deal otherwise, but remember the first point. Sale wasn’t leaning on offspeed stuff as much before. He had no need to do so. Dude throws gas. Hitters slugged .321 off his fastball last season and whiffed nearly 30 percent of the time against it.

Things were hardly more optimistic after Sale, again averaging 2-3 MPH less on his fastball than last season, struggled on Tuesday: 4 IP – 7 H – 5 ER – 0 BB – 3K. Consider what Sale had to say after the loss:

“If I knew what it was I’d fix it,” Sale said following Tuesday’s 7-5 loss. “That’s kind of where I’m at, spinning my tires. I’m looking at this, looking at that, see if I’m tipping pitches, see if (it’s) my mechanics, if it’s this, if it’s angles. You know, I’m still searching, but I’ll find it. I know who I am. I know what I can do. I’ve been there before and I’ll keep grinding.”

The critical issue is health. If Sale is healthy and has a mechanical issue, he’ll figure it out. Might take a bit, might be rough in the meantime, but that’s not a disaster scenario. Heck, even a more pessimistic take, that perhaps he is inching into a new phase of his career, isn’t the end of the world. He’ll adjust and continue to be really good. The man is a fire-breathing dragon, after all. Maybe not quite as many epic strikeouts, but probably still pretty darn good.

Or, maybe something is wrong.

I should note that I get nervous even inching toward some sort of conclusion in April, short of a major injury. Frankly, I fully expect Sale will be destroying fools like always once the season warms up. The team isn’t openly concerned, by the way, and maybe in September we look back at this and laugh, realizing Boston was merely easing their Ferrari out of the driveway.

Still, given how last year’s regular season ended and how utterly fragile pitchers are, I can’t help but worry. That isn’t condescension from a Yankee fan, mind you. Pitchers like Sale (and Luis Severino) make baseball more fun.

Ode to a Pitcher: Embracing the Mike Clevinger experience

Image result for mike clevinger
Mike Clevinger is an underrated cog in the Cleveland Indians rotation.

I’m not a Cleveland Indians fan. I don’t root for them. I am impressed by several of their great players; Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Corey Kluber, etc. Lots of great players. Plenty for Indians fans to root for.

But I’m not sure anyone on that roster can be as downright entertaining to cheer for than Mike Clevinger. Clevinger, 28, is a long-haired righty who pitter-patters on the mound while taking the sign and delivers the ball to the plate with a herky-jerky flourish. All that animation obscures the truth of how critical he’s become to the Indians.

Clevinger’s 2018 was pretty darn good: 200 IP, 145 ERA+, 207 K / 67 BB. He’s nominally their fourth starter, by the way. His development adds to the riches of the Indians staff and gives them some insurance against injuries to their 7 or 8 good players.

Let’s chat about the pitches. I love his curveball. I love it so much. The numbers support what the eyes already knew: it’s good. It generated a 42.4 percent whiff rate and hitters slugged only .195 facing it. That’ll do. Kudos to Clevinger for the development of his slider, documented in part by The Ringer’s Michael Baumann, which gave him another above-average breaking pitch to pair with the fastball and offset the curve. He relies heavily on a pretty good if somewhat flat fastball — mildly above-average spin — and hitters slugged a much more robust .454 off it. Overall, he’s got pretty good stuff.

Let’s watch Clevinger take the mound on a chilly Cleveland afternoon against the Chicago White Sox. Fair warning, the Sports Time Ohio director made it a little tough to great looks at what Clevinger was doing in the Yoan Moncada at-bat. Sorry.

***

Look at this delivery! Pitching is the best. What you aren’t seeing is Clevinger’s foot-tapping routine he does while taking the sign, ostensibly for timing. Seriously, I enjoy the heck out of the whole thing.

Yoán Moncada (97 OPS+ last season), very prone to striking out, fouls off a fastball to open the at-bat.
Moncada Pitch 1 FB

Moncada takes another one — 96 MPH — right on the black for a called strike two. Could we see that wonderful curveball?

Moncada Pitch 2 FB

Yay! Clevinger does go for the breaking ball but spikes in the dirt well in front of the plate, and Moncada takes it for a ball. We should note the cold. It’s in the thirties here, which can pose problems for the pitchers (it can be hard to grip the ball, a potential issue for breaking stuff) and the batters (getting jammed is remarkably unpleasant).

Note that today’s pitcher is sleeveless anyway. The man pitches in Cleveland, for God’s sake, a blue-collar town.

Moncada Pitch 3 CRV

Clevinger climbs the ladder on Moncada, who fends it off. Looks to me like the young infielder might have been looking to go the other way and ended up knocking it foul.

Moncada Pitch 4 FB

Note that because of the FSO chicanery, we are skipping the fifth pitch of the at-bat (another curveball in the dirt) and moving on to the sixth.

After bouncing another curve, Clevinger just misses below the zone with a fastball. Typically it’s not easy to completely hide a curveball within the fastball — a lot of curves have the tell-tale ‘hump’ out of the hand — which might have aided Moncada’s take.

Moncada Pitch 6 FB

I like this pitch a lot. Clevinger brings the fastball just up into the zone and forces Moncada to just knick it foul. Now the Indians righty has some options. Does he go further up in the zone with the gas? Try another curve? Maybe work in that slider or pull out the changeup? He just proved to Moncada he can place the fastball up and down in the zone.

Moncada Pitch 7 FB

Clevinger chooses the fastball and goes up, punching out Moncada to open the day. Good at-bat from the youngster too.

Moncada Pitch 8 FB

Daniel Palka (114 OPS+) steps up and is greeted by the lanky beast on the mound with that delicious curveball. This one had a nice, slow break that just missed below the zone inside.

You can tell Clevinger wasn’t thrilled — look at that unenthusiastic follow through. I enjoy that. The Clevinger experience isn’t boring, I tell you that much.

Palka Pitch 1 CRV

This is a hell of a fastball. Clevinger basically gives the White Sox outfielder a 4-seamer right over the heart of the plate and flat out beats him with it. It helps, yes, that Palka just saw a curveball. Sure.

Dude threw it past him. Great stuff.

Palka Pitch 2 FB

This is even better than that one. Far better location, same result. Palka is down in the count, 1-2, and clearly isn’t ready for the gas.

Watch Clevinger’s arm action here. It’s quite a quick stroke, and the velocity proves it.

Palka Pitch 3 FB

Again, there are options here for Clevinger. You know I love the curve. He decides to try to paint the outside corner with the fastball and runs it a bit too far outside. Palka refuses to chase and remains down in the count, 2-2.

Palka Pitch 4 FB

This one doesn’t miss. What a well-located series of fastballs in this at-bat, moving all over the zone and forcing the hitter to commit. Excellent work by Mike Clevinger.

Palka Pitch 5 FB

Jose Abreu (118 OPS+) is nominally the toughest challenge in the Pale Hose lineup, aside from perhaps young Eloy Jimenez. Abreu’s hit 30 or more bombs a few times in his career but struggled some last year with a variety of injuries, including testicular torsion. Yep.

Abreu watches a well-placed curve go by for a called strike one. What a beauty that sucker is, painted right on the far corner.

Abreu Pitch 1 CRV

Clevinger tries to get the White Sox DH to chase outside the zone and nearly does, but Abreu holds up to draw the count even at 1-1. I like the call here. The pitcher can dip his toe into these chasing waters because he’s already got a first-pitch strike one and proved he can drop that curve in for a strike.

Abreu Pitch 2 CRV

Sticking with the breaking ball, Clevinger misses middle-away and is fortunate Abreu wasn’t able to get good wood on this ball. Look where catcher Roberto Perez sets up. Certainly a hanger, but Clevinger manages to keep it square on the outside edge of the zone, which helps push the contact foul.

A victory for Clevinger regardless, as the count sits 1-2.

Abreu Pitch 3 CRV

What a beautifully orchestrated at-bat. Show the batter three consecutive curves in different parts of the zone and then challenge him high and away with an upper-90s fastball. Damn, that’s some good work from Mike Clevinger.

Abreu Pitch 4 FB

Adios, Jose.

***

Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Clevinger are absolutely critical to the 2019 Indians. With superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor out for a while longer and basically only one above-average position player in the lineup right now (Jose Ramirez), the starting rotation simply has to be excellent for this to work. It can be, but the margin of error has grown perilously thin.

Bauer looks like a serious threat to win his first Cy Young and if Clevinger develops even more, maybe just maybe they can do it. Either way, summer evenings up Cleveland way are likely to be filled with good pitching.

***

Previous Ode to a Pitcher breakdowns:

James Paxton

Blake Treinen

Max Scherzer

Gerrit Cole

Chris Sale

Patrick Corbin

Jacob deGrom

Mike Mussina

Johan Santana

Pedro Martinez

For Kevin Kelleher, the truth is simple: ‘I was born to throw round things’

Kevin Kelleher working off the mound at Driveline Baseball.
Kevin Kelleher working off the mound at Driveline Baseball.

“Baseball is about persistence,” Kevin Kelleher told me.

He would know. His journey back into a Major League Baseball organization came only at the end of a road marked with heartache, confusion and disappointment. Baseball isn’t for the faint of heart. Pitching especially.

Kelleher, perhaps unlike some of his peers, didn’t grow up dreaming of standing on the mound. Just the opposite; he wanted to be a slugger — in the mold of, say, Alex Rodriguez — mashing home runs. That wasn’t to be, though, and as many a young man learns, the big leagues weren’t in the cards.

Or were they?

Kelleher eventually realized that while he might not be a big league hitter, he did have something to share: the dude could throw hard. Harder than most, in fact, and once he got his first taste of the intricacies of the act — the mechanics, the pitches, the timing — he fell head over heels in love with it.

“It made me love baseball all over again,” he said.

‘I felt lost’

Kelleher’s velocity translated to a lot of strikeouts while pitching for the University of New Orleans. In his last season before being drafted, he struck out 71 hitters in 54 innings, allowing 23 walks and 57 hits. A lot of baserunners, yes — but only one home run — for a 3.98 ERA. Those strikeouts and that velocity (up to 99 MPH) got him the look. To this point in his pitching life, he’d never been better.

The culmination of all that work came June 2015 when the Boston Red Sox selected him in the 12th round. He was throwing hard –upper-to-mid 90s– and felt strong. Felt like the future was bright.

And then the wheels came off.

He signed his deal with the Boston Red Sox on June 20, 2015. His run at New Orleans and in pre-draft workouts had bred plenty of confidence.

“I was throwing the ball hard and feeling really, really good,” he said. “I felt strong and my arm felt good. Then I got drafted and you always go through these medical reports — do your MRIs and scans — and they said I had some inflammation in my shoulder.”

The team decided to sit Kelleher for a month, keeping him off the mound and the ball out of his hand. Suddenly, that confidence begins to wane just a bit.

And then it was gone. When he was cleared to throw again, things had changed.

“For some reason, I just developed the yips,” Kelleher said.

Here’s where only the baseball lifers understand. A 2013 story on MLB.com describes the condition perfectly:

For reasons unknown, players can encounter a mental hurdle that flat-out won’t permit them to complete one of the game’s mundane on-field tasks. Infielders suddenly can’t find the first baseman’s glove on routine throws. Catchers can’t execute the simple task of returning the ball to the pitcher.

It’s not a physical condition, as the various doctors quoted in Zach Meisel’s story will attest. That makes it even harder to handle.  Was it a concern about re-injury? Pressure of the moment? The Red Sox initially thought Kelleher’s issues were mechanical, but like so many other athletes with similar struggles, he knew different.

Even as a young pitcher, Kelleher had an instinctive understanding of how his mechanics should work. Standing 6’3″ and built to fill the frame, he knew that size had to be channeled properly, like a train rolling downhill.

“I’m a big guy. I need to move fast and efficiently or it doesn’t work,” Kelleher said. “I’ve always had a pretty good idea of how I wanted to move.”

The team sent him to work with sports psychologists. It didn’t help. Kelleher credits the team for their effort, but ultimately it wasn’t effective; he simply could not throw strikes.

“I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn,” Kelleher said.

Just over a year after being signed, he was released. He called it a relief.

‘I was born to throw round things’

Kelleher returned to familiar places to find himself after being released, in particular, the Florida Baseball Ranch. He found something interesting happened; he could play catch without any issue. The yips faded into memory just as quickly as they had appeared.

Kelleher is quick to place absolutely no blame on the Red Sox, who spent time and cash trying to straighten out the young reliever. Either way, right or wrong, Kelleher slowly began to feel like himself again.

But not all the way.

Eventually, he popped up in Independent ball, pitching for the Sussex County Miners of the CanAm league and the California City Whiptails of the Pecos league in 2017. Neither experience was anywhere near as frustrating as the summer before, and even despite velocity approaching normal and strikeout totals more reminiscent of his last season in college (20 strikeouts in about 13 innings), he still wasn’t himself.

Kelleher returned to both the CanAm league (for the Salina Stockade) and the Pecos league (for the High Desert Yardbirds) in 2018 and again had no problem striking people out. But the results weren’t great and the opportunities were limited.

In August, for the first time, he considered retirement.

“I was really questioning my career,” Kelleher said.

Something had to give. Kelleher had little interest in another summer fidgeting through indy ball. He had lucrative options for a career outside baseball waiting for him the moment he sat his glove aside. But he decided to hang on and keep working, driven in part by this intuitive idea that he was supposed to be here, doing this. There was something about the ball, the mitt and the mound.

That’s when he called Driveline.

‘What am I getting myself into?’

Driveline Baseball has built quite a reputation in baseball circles. They sell themselves as a data-driven baseball development program. They work with athletes of all levels, but their most famous client might be Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, who has worked with Driveline multiple times on pitch design.

Kevin Kelleher had never been to Seattle. As he stepped off the plane and got the first glimpse of his new home for a few weeks, the reality of the gamble set in. This was it. This was the last chance. Could he improve enough to get another chance with a Major League organization?

Or was it time to walk away?

“I was thinking, man, ‘what have I gotten myself into’?” Kelleher said. “It was a leap of faith.”

Kelleher went through the initial program that any trainee does at Driveline, where the team assesses how the athlete moves and how best to tweak that. Pitching is a dynamic and kinetic process, constantly being refined and tweaked.

“Kevin was a guy who already threw hard, but had a few inefficiencies in his movements,” said Rob Hill, a throwing trainer at Driveline, via email. His aggressiveness was causing him trouble, however, in that he tended to “fly open” — in other words, his front shoulder was moving too fast, causing command issues and doing his arm no favors.

“By helping him work out where he needed to apply intent in his delivery we were able to get to a place where these inefficiencies were happening significantly less often,” Hill said.

Beyond refining the command, the Driveline team sought to address two other main challenges, namely adding depth to his slider and fixing his diet. Hill focused on the latter, mainly to help thin out the tall reliever to keep his mechanics fluid. Within a few weeks, the young pitcher had lost twenty pounds.

Eric Jagers — newly hired by the Philadelphia Phillies — took on the slider, the only offspeed pitch that Kelleher, prone to attacking relentlessly with the fastball, had to offer.

Eric Jagers, recently hired by the Philadelphia Phillies, worked on the slider. The pitch flashed potential but lacked the movement Kelleher needed to help off-set the fastball, his bread and butter.

“He presented an innate ability to spin the ball (regularly exceeding 3,000 RPMs) but produced little to no glove side movement and the pitch lacked true depth,” Jagers said in an email. In essence, the pitch fared more like a cutter; not necessarily a bad thing, but given Kelleher’s repertoire it wasn’t as a good fit.

So how does this happen? How does a young pitcher take something with potential — like his cutter/slider, with all that wonderful spin — and mold it into the pitch he needs? Well, it’s not easy. You need data — often provided by machines like Trackman and Rapsodo, which provide metrics like spin rate, plus vertical and horizontal depth information. You need lots of reps all thrown in front of a high-speed camera, giving you plenty of video to painstakingly study, frame-by-frame, to find and remove as many inefficiencies as you can.

And then comes the grip. Not every pitcher is comfortable holding a breaking ball the same way — you can adjust the thumb under the ball, apply pressure in different ways with the index and middle fingers, etc. Sometimes happy accidents lead young pitchers to something new — consider the famous story of Mariano Rivera discovering his cutter while playing long toss.

Eventually, Jagers and Kelleher found what worked for the right hander, which led to the next big test; can you locate it? It does a pitcher no good to throw a nasty, sharp slider without any command.

“Previously, he was unaware [of his spin rates] so it was great to make him fully aware of his strengths and weaknesses and how we could better leverage those to attack hitters,” Jagers said.

“I need to attack guys up in the strike zone,” Kelleher said. The velocity and spin on his fastball allows him to work above the belt, which then opens up plenty of real estate around the knees for the breaking pitch. It’s Pitching 101, but it works.

Once Kelleher passed enough tests — he could mix in the pitch effectively, locate it throughout the zone and maintain his delivery throwing it — it was time to face a real batter. The ultimate test. Even in a baseball world so infused with data, the game still comes down to a man with a ball against a man with a bat.

But a pitcher armed with information is dangerous.

He proved to be in his first experience against live batters. The slider could be sequenced with the fastball — ever the focus — and hitters struggled not only to identify it but even make contact at all. That was a major victory, a sizable hurdle cleared, but there was more to do.

The goal, after all, wasn’t simply to get better. The goal was to get back into a big league organization. That opportunity came in the form of a Pro Day at Driveline, where scouts from various teams could see the talent and decide who to pursue.

As it arrived, Kelleher said he wasn’t nervous.

“It was basically like this for me; it’s time to go get what you want out of life,” he said. “It’s either gonna happen or it’s not.”

How did it go?

“I struck out basically everyone I faced,” Kelleher said.

“I made a $15,000 bet on myself and I won”

He had the fastball, knew its value and power.

He had the slider, knew its depth and deception.

He had his fitness, healthier and more mobile.

What he didn’t have was an offer. After such a dominant showing in perhaps the most pressure-packed opportunity of his career, it was perplexing.

Then he realized.

“So, I got a new cell phone number right around the time of the Pro Day,” Kelleher said. “And I just forgot to have the coaches distribute it to the teams.”

It didn’t take long for that new phone to ring. It was the Los Angeles Angels, offering a 3-year deal and the chance for Kelleher to keep training just as he had for three months in the Pacific Northwest.

He reported to Spring Training on Feb. 24, a completely different pitcher and athlete than he was back in 2015. Smarter. Leaner.

The famed poet Robert Frost once said “Poets are like baseball pitchers. Both have their moments. The intervals are the tough things.”

For Kevin Kelleher, his hope is that one interval has come to an end.

***

Adkins on Sports will be following Kevin Kelleher throughout the 2019 season, reporting on how he’s faring in the Los Angeles Angels organization. Currently, he’s nursing a mild back injury and expects to begin throwing again shortly.