Month: April 2019

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

Image result for yasiel puig
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

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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