Month: May 2019

Ode to a Pitcher: Hyun-Jin Ryu is the epitome of the crafty lefty

Image result for hyun jin ryu
Hyun-Jin Ryu‘s skillful approach has served him well in 2019.

The Los Angeles Dodgers again appear to be the class of the National League. Led offensively by right fielder Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers lead the NL in runs scored and are already eight games up in the NL West, as of Thursday morning. Things are going well.

The pitching has been excellent too, led in great part by Hyun-Jin Ryu’s tremendous start. Ryu, healthy now after seasons dimmed by injuries, has come out of the gate better than ever: 65 innings, 1.65 ERA (2.59 FIP), 25.6 strikeout rate, 1.7 walk rate, 0.83 HR/9. Let’s take stock of this. Ryu has been fortunate — he’s stranding tons of runners and his BABIP isn’t quite normal — but he’s also been legitimately great, mostly because he commits so few unforced errors.

I love a pitcher who doesn’t walk anybody, and Ryu has been diving in the dumpster for aluminum cans stingy. No one managed a walk rate below 3.6% last season — credit to Miles Mikolas — and Ryu isn’t likely to keep his so low either, but even at 5% he’s helping his cause tremendously. Smart pitchers don’t give anything away for free.

We know Ryu doesn’t hurt himself. This sets him up for success, but how does he attack hitters? Well, he doesn’t work like some of the hurlers we’ve studied recently in this series. Ryu doesn’t throw hard (Justin Verlander), can’t unfurl a science-fiction changeup (Luis Castillo) and doesn’t spin a high-spin hammer (Domingo German). His stuff isn’t otherworldly, but it’s good. OK. What sets the Dodgers lefty apart is how well he’s mastered sequencing and tunneling. He’s an absolute master at keeping hitters off-balance, which is the name of the game no matter how hard you throw or what the ball does after you have.

If the hitter is comfortable, you’re in trouble. If he’s not, you’ve got him. That’s the story whether you’re Max Scherzer or Luis Cessa.

Whether Ryu keeps up his Cy Young pace is a question for a different column; so far, he’s been superb and gifted us a great lesson in how to really pitch. Let’s take a look at his recent effort against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Ryu attacks every inch of the strike zone

Wanna be a great pitcher but lack Scherzer-level stuff? There’s a way, but it requires a lot of precision. You’ve got to limit the unforced errors — walks and bombs, kids, walks and bombs — and you’ve got to work the plate every which way. No patterns, no predictability. Lots of first-pitch strikes and keep the chess board tilted in your favor. You have to outthink the hitter and use everything in your disposal to keep him off-balance.

Ryu is quite good at this. He has a sort of hitch-y delivery and hides the ball behind his torso, which elevates the effectiveness of everything he throws. And because of that slight hitch — you’ll see it — Ryu can play timing games with the hitter. A slight strategic pause can be the difference between a double to the wall and a meek ground out during a long, grueling at-bat.

It’s not just the fastball or the curve, the slider or the change. It’s how you throw them, where you throw them and every single action in between.

Adam Frazier steps up to open the game for the Pirates and grounds out weakly after one pitch. This is exactly what I was talking about. Ryu drops a mid-80s change right over the absolute heart of the plate and the batter dribbles it to third base.

Frazier Pitch 1 FB

Bryan Reynolds steps up and gets a changeup for a called strike one. This changeup,  dropped neatly on the outside corner, obviously was better located than the former. Keep an eye on where Ryu puts it; the location is critical for what comes next.

Reynolds Pitch 1 CH

Sometimes it can be a little hard to properly visualize sequencing. It’s not like the cut on a fastball or the drop on a curve; it’s more of an idea than a tangible thing. (Tunneling, of course, can be viewed wonderfully via gifs like the Pitching Ninja produces.)

Alas, Ryu gives us the quintessential look with this hammer of a curve. Reynolds did not see this coming at all; that swing screams “I thought you were going outside again.” Out of the hand, I’m sure this looked like another pitch in the same spot as before. Not a bad notion! Pitchers love to double up.

Ah, but this is where the deception comes into play. Ryu, and pitchers like him, have to be a few steps ahead. Sure, could someone like Jacob deGrom just throw the same damn pitch again and punt the deception in favor of raw stuff? Yes. But Ryu isn’t that guy. He can’t just cowboy up and shove the ball past the hitter.

So he doesn’t. He sets Reynolds’ eyes high and spins a curve that starts up and finishes down. Easy swing and miss.

Reynolds Pitch 2 CRV

Think about this. Ryu started at the belt with a change, then spun a curve below the knees and now finishes the poor dude with a fastball way above the zone. This is utter and complete domination. While a hurler like Verlander might just pummel you with fastballs until you break, Ryu twists you into knots and renders you so uncomfortable as to be helpless.

Look at Reynolds after he misses. Pity the poor soul.

Reynolds Pitch 3 FB

That earned a slower look:

Reynolds Pitch 3 FB SLOMO

Starling Marte is up and swings right over a low sinker for strike one. Just a note for hitters; giving Ryu whiffs out of the zone is a great way to end up out. He’s not likely to lose the advantage in the count once you’ve given it to him, either. If Marte is to reach base, he’ll probably have to do it from a pitcher’s count.

Marte Pitch 1 FB

Another master class in sequencing. Never give the batter a pattern or anything to latch onto. Marte flails at a fastball below the zone to open the exchange, and rather than feed him another, Ryu stands him up with a heater right below the hands for a superb called strike two. Brilliant.

Young pitchers, take note of stuff like this. Marte is a good and dangerous hitter, but Ryu already has him uneasy.

Marte Pitch 2 FB

Um. What is there to say? Ryu puts a changeup way, way out of the zone and Marte absolutely flails at it. The ball was in the other batter’s box, for heaven’s sake, but because Ryu had the outfielder so messed up he couldn’t hold up.

Ryu, as the saying goes, was living rent-free in Marte’s head.

Marte Pitch 3 SL

Ryu’s work shouldn’t go unnoticed

Certainly, this series is fond of pitchers with barn-burning stuff. Who doesn’t love a Luis Castillo changeup or a Blake Treinen sinker? As much fun as that is, studying someone like Ryu is more rewarding. Why? Because we can learn in clear detail how to keep hitters off balance and out of sync. We can learn how to steal easy outs — like the first at-bat above — and how to work all throughout the zone.

Most young pitchers won’t grow up to throw 98 MPH, but they can learn to work like this. They can learn to change speeds and eye levels, to work inside and out, to mess with timing and attack the hitter on every front. Pitchers don’t get hitters out on stuff alone.

Ode to a Pitcher: Justin Verlander fears no man or age

Image result for justin verlander
Fastball, incoming.

In my mind’s eye, in the great baseball Hall of Fame in the sky, I imagine Justin Verlander saddling up to Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan at the bar, knocking back a couple cold ones. I can so clearly picture them scoffing at the boldness of whatever silly batter decided to crowd the plate against him and grumbling at some umpire who stole away a potential strikeout.

Verlander, the erstwhile ace of the Houston Astros and a future resident in Cooperstown, reminds me of those classic power pitchers. He throws hard and without an ounce of trepidation; he knows what he can do, and he does it. He’s a prototypical pitcher.

Much has been made of the lanky righthander’s reinvention upon arriving in Houston during the 2017 season. It’s a testament to the eternal struggle of maintaining mechanics that even an all-timer can get tangled up. (Also, that we as fans and analysts sometimes have to be patient as guys try to figure this stuff out. It’s not easy.)

Verlander’s return to dominance had already begun in Detroit but was cemented during the Astros run to their first championship. He was the man again, standing tall on the mound, pummeling unfortunate hitters with fastballs and twisting them into knots with his knee-buckling curveball.

Other than perhaps Mariano Rivera or Pedro Martinez, no pitcher has ever amazed me quite like Verlander. It all seems so simple, right? He just pummels the zone with fastballs and then drops in a curve to finish the deal. Easy. Well, no. Verlander does have the heat and the hammer, but age has taught him a few lessons and thus far, hasn’t eroded the tools yet.

Let’s take a look at a recent performance of his against the Chicago White Sox.

Verlander hasn’t lost much

Ready for a cliche? Father Time catches up to us all.

So far, that old bearded grump has slightly dimmed Verlander’s once blazing fastball. It’s no longer straight from the heart of the sun, averaging just under 95 MPH. But, um, that certainly doesn’t mean it’s soft. Jered Weaver he ain’t.

Up first to try his luck for the Pale Hose is Charlie Tilson. Verlander pumps a fastball belt high and away for called strike one. Take notice of his mechanics: clean, simple and efficient. Very little wasted movement. One can’t definitively say that mechanics like this are essential to a pitcher aging gracefully — paging Max Scherzer — but my goodness it has to help.

Tilson Pitch 1 FB

Tilson takes a slider neck high for ball one.

Tilson Pitch 2 SL

Verlander brings the slider down from the clouds and slips it right under Tilson’s hands for a slick second strike. This might be a good time to note that Verlander’s slider generates a healthy 40 percent whiff rate. Just tuck that thought away.

Tilson Pitch 3 SL

Many, many poor souls have been down 1-2 in the count against Verlander. I don’t recommend it. In Tilson’s case, he’s seen a fastball away and two sliders in. The velocity on the four-seamer wasn’t nuclear, but the Astros ace can always dial it up if he needs.

The cool thing about experienced pitchers is how they can read swings. Catcher Robinson Chirinos helps with this too, but I doubt the Verlanders and Scherzers need a ton of assistance. He knows. Tilson fended off the slider fairly well, but …

Not this one. The old adage is you throw the fastball high and the breaking ball low. That doesn’t necessarily apply if you have Justin Verlander’s stuff. One down.

Tilson Pitch 4 SL

Yolmer Sanchez gets a fastball for strike one. This is a really nice pitch. Sanchez was definitely sitting heater, and even without cranking it up, Verlander got a swing and miss. How? Watch Chirinos’ glove. It barely moves.

The other thing about experienced, butt-kicking pitchers is they learn how to make something good happen without exerting maximum effort. This is an easy, breezy fastball for a guy like Verlander, but because he puts it in the keyhole, so to speak, he gets a whiff. These moments happen all game long with the greats; yet, we should stop and appreciate it. Brilliant stuff.

Sanchez Pitch 1 FB

Man. This ain’t fun for the batter.

Sure is for us, though! Young pitchers, pay attention. Professor Verlander is about to deliver a lesson in sequencing.

The tall righty set Sanchez’s eyes down and away after the opening whiff. So, what to do now? Here’s an idea. Why not deliver the next fastball a hair above the zone and see if the young infielder can handle it? That’s what Gibson or Ryan would do.

Sanchez takes a healthy cut but never had a chance. Here’s where we must mention Verlander’s lethal spin rate, among the best in the world. Remember, for a four-seam fastball, high spin leads to more swinging strikes because the ball appears to be rising. It isn’t, of course; it’s merely dropping slower than other pitches.

That’s no relief to the dude facing down the seams, though.

Sanchez Pitch 2 FB

Another one down 0-2. Heavens. Who has cursed you White Sox hitters? I mean, other than mismanagement and bad injury luck?

Sanchez is in trouble. He’s been blown away by fastballs high and away. We know that Verlander can spin a slider or a curveball in. From a sequencing perspective, the board is open here. The pitcher can waste one in the dirt; he can go above the zone again. He can change speeds or keep up the velocity. It’s a hell of a place to be.

Ultimately, Verlander dials up another fastball that misses just wide of the plate away. It’s a good pitch even if a ball; maybe Sanchez reaches out and whiffs again?

Sanchez Pitch 3 FB

This next one is an Ode to a Pitcher Hall of Fame possibility.

I cannot tell you how giddy seeing this made me. Verlander has Sanchez set up perfectly for basically anything the ace wants to throw. The count is 1-2; Sanchez has whiffed twice at the fastball. If you asked me what to go with next I’d have said a breaking ball.

But, hey, I’m an idiot at a keyboard. What do I know? Justin Verlander is a gunslinger with a baseball, and he, um, politely declines my advice and instead unleashes a blistering fastball well north of the zone that Sanchez harmlessly waves at. Never had a chance.

Sanchez Pitch 4 FB

We must savor this strikeout with a slower look (boy, that is not a clean hack):

Sanchez Pitch 4 FB SLOMO 2

Leury Garcia comes to the plate hoping to break the streak of punchouts for the White Sox. Verlander delivers a high-and-away heater that Garcia flicks foul for strike one.

Garcia Pitch 1 FB

Garcia gets a slider right under his hands and he bounces it foul. Verlander probably misses his spot here, if the catcher’s glove is any indication, but the difference in speed and location mitigate the risk.

This isn’t as sterling an example of sequencing as before, but it works well regardless. Verlander has shown Garcia a mid-90s fastball away and a high-80s slider in. He’s in full control.

Garcia Pitch 2 SL

This is a masterpiece of a pitch, another candidate for the Ode to a Pitcher Hall of Fame. Now we get to see Verlander bury the slider down and in on a lefty and wow, is it ever a success. Garcia swings right over it.

It’s tempting to look at this slider and think the break and the speed is what leads to the strikeout. Obviously, that’s critical, but the previous two pitches have Garcia totally off balance, and that makes him easy prey. Great hitters with control over the strike zone — think prime Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera or especially Barry Bonds — are less likely to swing and miss, yes, but also can strategically foul off pitches to keep themselves going. They control the plate.

Hitting is hard. It’s even harder when you face someone like Verlander, an expert at the craft still armed with dynamite stuff.

Garcia Pitch 3 SL

Enjoy your aces, kids

Pitchers get hurt.

This is true of the greats and of the scrubs, of the old and the young. No pitch is guaranteed. As fans and analysts, we shouldn’t take Verlander for granted. He’s been sitting down hapless fools for so long that his continued success feels preordained, but it isn’t. You never know.

So the next time you get the chance, sit down and enjoy the man’s work. For pitching dorks like us, it’s an incomparable treat.

 

Ode to a Pitcher: Domingo German steps into his opportunity

Image result for domingo german
Domingo German has stepped into the Yankees injury-plagued rotation and shined.

The New York Yankees are without many, many stars right now. Their injured list is, tragically, the hottest ticket in town. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Andujar, Dellin Betances, James Paxton, and Luis Severino are all injured. The team had the depth to temporarily stomach the position player losses, thanks to the randomly-awesome-now Gio Urshela, among others: but the pitching is different.

It’s hard to fake your way into 150+ quality innings. It happens — who else remembers the Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small year? — but there’s a reason why great pitching is considered so rare and volatile. What is true is obviously true. Pitchers get hurt.

A great young pitcher is a rare jewel, surpassed only by the diamond that is a great young quarterback in football. You stumble upon one and you best covet it. It really is quite a thrill — ask San Diego Padres fans about watching Chris Paddack or Cincinnati Reds fans about Luis Castillo. You get excited every day they take the mound, overwhelmed by the possibilities but perhaps always a little worried when it could end.

That isn’t meant to be dark. Just honest. Pitchers get hurt. Severino’s injury — first to his shoulder, then revealed to involve his lat as well, keeping him out until July-ish — meant the Yankees now had to endure again what every other organization has had to endure before. The jewel found a crack.

Enter Domingo German. The young righty is no stranger to Yankee fans. He made a few tantalizing appearances in the Bronx last season, but ultimately turned into a home run pincushion and got hurt: 85.2 IP, 1.5 HR/9, 78 ERA+.

German earned a spot in the Yankee rotation after a solid spring in which both CC Sabathia and Severino were known to start the season on the IL. To say he’s taken advantage of it would be an understatement. He’s thrown 50 innings, struck out 52, walked 15, allowed only four home runs (he’s cut last year’s ghastly home run rate roughly in half) and has an ERA of 2.50 (ERA+: 178).

Much better.

So how has this happened? For me, whenever someone unexpectedly shines this way, I look at two things: has he magically stopped allowing hits and homers? German’s cut down on the bombs, yes, but not to a ridiculous degree; the hits are definitely going to start falling in, as evidenced by his low .225 batting average on balls in play. Typically, we would expect that number to creep up — for example, the 2019 league average is .289. The homer rate is lower than last year, but not shockingly so, and if he’s improved as a pitcher — and it seems he has — that rate might be sustainable.

All that said, there are absolutely reasons to be excited. For one, German has awesome stuff — we’ll see that in detail later on — and the gifs match the results. His fastball isn’t a burner like Severino’s, but he has excellent spin and hitters struggle to do much with it: .226 batting average, .396 slugging percentage. No, that slugging percentage isn’t sterling, but for a right-handed fastball averaging just under 94? Not bad.

The curveball is the story, though. Hitters whiff 44 percent of the time against it; they’re hitting a paltry .139 and slugging .208 against German’s hammer. Is that good? That seems good.

Let’s take a look at German’s recent start against the Orioles. We’ll get to see that high-spin heater and, of course, that beautiful curve.

German works fast, wastes little time

Up first for the Orioles is Chris Davis, famous for his long slump to open the year. His yearly rate stats are still bleak, but he’s hit a little better since the slump ended and shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you give Davis a fastball to hit, he can still deposit it over the wall.

German starts the Orioles slugger off with a 91 MPH fastball right over the heart of the plate. Davis knocks it foul. It didn’t strike me as a particularly bad pitch in the moment, but … probably don’t want to repeat that one, Domingo.

(Side note: this pitch does showcase how far Davis has fallen. The Chris Davis of a few years ago might launch this into the third deck. Now? Doesn’t even pull it foul.)

Davis Pitch 1 FB

Note how quickly the young righty works. I keep the gifs as trimmed as possible for page-loading reasons, but rest assured he hardly delays between pitches. He’s right back on the mound each time. Announcers and reporters are surely delighted, as are the infielders. (Especially after covering and playing behind the laborious Masahiro Tanaka.)

Having shown Davis the fastball about belt-high, German nicks the bottom of the strike zone with a nice 80 MPH curveball for a called strike two.

Davis Pitch 2 CRV

Davis is no stranger to 0-2 counts. He’s been in them a lot. He’s struck out in them a lot.

German is really good at getting hitters to chase his curveball out of the zone; unfortunately, Davis is particularly prone at doing just that. Sometimes, as we’ve seen in previous editions of this series, the pitcher has to work a little harder to set up the punchout. Maybe you go up and out of the zone with a fastball here to keep the batter off balance, for example.

Not here. German spins the 0-2 curveball below the zone and Davis whiffs.

Davis Pitch 3 CRV

Stevie Wilkerson is up next. The Orioles second baseman is greeted by a fastball well outside that home plate umpire Chad Whitson mistakenly called a strike. Look, I know it happens, but this sucks for Wilkerson. You’re facing a dude with serious stuff and now he’s gifted a strike he didn’t earn, which puts you a pitch closer to dealing with that hook.

Wilkerson Pitch 1 FB

We didn’t talk much about German’s changeup — mostly, it’s an OK offering but not special, and likely the most mashable pitch German might regularly throw. It’s fine. It’s not fine if German leaves it over the plate, which he promptly does to Wilkerson. This is easily the worst pitch of the breakdown, and the Orioles infielder pulls it too far foul. This is how doubles happen, kiddos. German got away with one here.

Wilkerson Pitch 2 CH

It’s 0-2. Wilkerson’s seen a fastball off the plate and ripped a hanging changeup foul. He has to be defensive here; German loves to put a curveball below the knees, but you can’t forget about a high fastball either. The pitcher holds all the cards here.

He chooses the hammer and it’s an absolute beauty. It breaks well below the shins and Wilkerson can only hope to brush it foul. But it’s too good of a pitch and he joins Davis in strikeout alley.

Wilkerson Pitch 3 CRV

Look at how tight German’s release points are for the fastball, changeup and curveball in the Wilkerson at-bat. Yes, some pitchers are even tighter, but it illustrates the point. It’s not just the break that makes the curve to Wilkerson so tough to handle; it’s the sequencing and tunneling, too.

German vs Wilkerson

With two of his teammates having just exited the stage after flailing at low curveballs, Rio Ruiz comes to the plate. German drops a hammer on him to open his at-bat.

Note that German works outside with it. Hitters notice those sorts of things, even if we don’t intrinsically think about it during a game. If it becomes clear that, say, German can really only throw his curve glove-side and low, well, that becomes valuable intel. It might seem like something small, but the information is priceless.

Ruiz Pitch 1 CRV

Credit to Ruiz here. Unlike Davis and Wilkerson, who both were unable to get solid contact on the mistakes German made to them, Ruiz cracks a flat fastball out to left field (101 MPH exit velocity ain’t shabby). Left fielder Mike Tauchman scrambles back to the wall for the catch, ending the inning.

Ruiz Pitch 2 FB

German has helped Yanks stay afloat

Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman surely believes the stars will return at some point. But, until then, he and Manager Aaron Boone are reliant on a hodgepodge of established players, like infielder Gleyber Torres, center fielder Aaron Hicks, and the star-studded bullpen, and non-marquee stars like Luke Voit.

(I would argue Hicks and Gary Sanchez are stars purely on performance, if not name value.)

Then there is German, who is for the moment the best starter the Yankees have. Paxton and Severino will probably be back — I’m far less confident about Sevy, personally — and the Yanks still have Tanaka to anchor things. But with Little Sunday emerging as a dependable, quality starter, the Yankees might be a bit less vulnerable than you’d assume.

Improving Jorge Polanco leads the charge for surprising Twins

Image result for jorge polanco
Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco has burst out of the gates in 2019.

Quick. By wRC+, who has been the best hitting shortstop in baseball this year? I’ll give you a minute.

And stop. Let’s hear it.

Carlos Correa? 4th – 154.

Javier Baez? Closer … 3rd – 155.

The answer is Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco — who was 2019’s first batter to hit for the cycle — with a robust 165 wRC+ to start the year, first among shortstops and 8th in all of baseball. Pretty slick. Polanco’s never produced a wRC+ above 110 in a full season (he’s hit that number twice, in 2015 and 2018) and further, never hit more than 13 bombs. Through 38 games, he’s already at 8.

Something fun is cooking with Polanco and the Twins overall, who sit in first place in the AL Central and third in run differential in the AL, buoyed in part by an exceptional offensive start.

A couple things stick out for the young shortstop:

  • He’s striking out a lot less than last year: 18.6% in 2018, 14.0% in 2019
  • He’s walking more than last year: 7.5% in 2018, 9.9% in 2019
  • He’s hitting the ball a lot harder: 83.9 MPH exit velocity in 2018, 88.4 MPH exit velocity in 2019
  • He’s hitting the ball in the air: 15.5% launch angle in 2018, 21.7% launch angle in 2019
  • He’s putting the barrel on the ball far, far more: 3.7% in 2018, 9.4% in 2019

You tell me, guys. Is it better to strike out less, walk more and hit the ball harder and with a higher launch angle? Yes. Yes it is. Check out his 2019 heat map (note that the numbers are his slugging percentage per pitch):

Polanco heatmap

Throw the ball over the heart of the plate at your own peril against 2019 Jorge Polanco. He’s especially mashing fastballs, slugging an incredible .700 off heaters. That, kiddos, is good.

Obviously, it’s fun to marvel at the heatmaps and the Statcast metrics, but I’m more impressed with the improvement to his walk and strikeout numbers. A young player who learns to walk more is a young player I like, and Polanco’s still only 25. These sorts of developments can and do happen. Polanco always profiled as a high-contact player — more on this in a moment — so him adding patience and power are quite encouraging signs.

It should be noted that he’s carrying a somewhat-high .345 BABIP, but as long as it stays somewhere above .300, he’ll be fine. Given his pedigree, he might be able to maintain that — through the 77 games he played last season, his BABIP was that same .345.

This slow-motion video of Polanco’s swing shows us just compact and quick to the ball he is. No wasted effort.

I’m not saying he’s going to maintain his 2019 pace, but I do think he’s an above-average hitter now.  Even if he ends up around 120-130 wRC+, for a shortstop that’s a heck of a number. For example: last year, Francisco Lindor hit a 130 wRC+, Javier Baez 131 wRC+ and Xander Bogaerts 133 wRC+. That would be some great company to maintain.

It’s still early enough that Polanco could regress. Maybe pitchers probe around enough and find an opening; maybe that leads to more strikeouts, which subsequently drags down the overall production. It’s early and this is baseball, where nothing can be fully believed as Gospel. Things happen.

But this feels real. We’re seeing things that tell us this isn’t a fluke — much like Luke Voit bashing the cover off the ball indicated his early success wasn’t temporary. We can see tangible things from Polanco that suggest he’s taken a serious step forward.

Given that the Indians rolled the dice on health and came up snake eyes — Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger are hurt, Jose Ramirez seemingly can’t hit anymore — Polanco’s emergence comes at a great time. The AL Central is wide open.

Why not the Twins? Byron Buxton is healthy and running his way into a slugging percentage north of .400; Eddie Rosario is tied for second in the AL in homers; Jose Berrios‘ curveball is so gorgeous I want to buy it dinner and try my luck; Mitch Garver probably hasn’t become Ted Williams, but hey, it’s something. (I really, really want Buxton to maintain his current production with the bat; baseball needs players like him.)

Look, some of what has lifted the Twins to their strong start will fade. I doubt Rosario hits more than 40 homers and I seriously doubt Garver maintains his surge in isolated power (especially after last night, yikes). But with the Indians reeling, the Twins have a great opening.

Ode to a Pitcher: Noah Syndergaard blasts a home run, shuts out Reds

Image result for noah syndergaard
Noah Syndergaard possesses truly incredible potential.

What a couple weeks for Thor!

No Avengers: Endgame spoilers here, but rest assured Chris Hemsworth wasn’t the only golden-haired Asgardian with a hell of a story to tell.

Noah Syndergaard is a tantalizing pitcher. He broke into the big leagues at 22 and was pretty good; one year later, he was awesome and pitched deep into the postseason with the Mets. Ultimately, of course, the Kansas City Royals won the 2015 World Series. Syndergaard would dominate the San Francisco Giants in the next year’s Wild Card game but still manage a loss, and that has been that for Thor in the playoffs.

A torn lat muscle short-circuited his 2017, but he rebounded for a pretty good 2018. You might have heard, his teammate Jacob deGrom was pretty good too.

Syndergaard was a trendy Cy Young pick heading into the season. He might be a trendy Cy Young pick for a long time. The stuff is bonkers; he throws really hard and has an absolute hammer of a curveball. Oddly, his strikeout numbers aren’t always off the charts (155 Ks in 154 IP last season), but the run prevention is there (121 ERA+).

He’s really good. Odds seem positive that he becomes really great. Against the Cincinnati Reds last week, he was that guy; economical, grabbing easy outs, flashing that stuff when necessary and even a little something extra.

***

Look, this Mets season has been weird. Pete Alonso has been fun! deGrom has been hurt and not quite great, which is frustrating. Edwin Diaz was amazing last year and has scuffled. It’s all very Mets. The NL East is a bloodbath and who knows how well the team will fare.

But today, oh today, we’ve got something fun for the Mets fans. It’s the bottom of the third, scored tied 0-0. Here’s what happened with the very first pitch Noah Syndergaard saw.

Pitchers wallop home runs from time to time. It’s not common, but it happens. But man this is cool. Syndergaard reached out and smacked this to left-center. Bang.

Syndergaard Pitch 1 HR

So it’s 1-0. Let’s leap to the top of the 9th inning, and Syndergaard has been cruising; 92 pitches, 3 hits, 1 walk, 8 Ks. 1-0 lead. Pretty darn economical for a dude with his penchant for strikeouts, but then again, the Reds aren’t reminding anyone of the Big Red Machine right now either.

Up first is a personal pet favorite of mine, Jesse Winker. I think Winker should be glued into left field and kept there all season; let him evolve at the plate (he should produce solid OBPs out of the gate) and figure it out in the field. He could be valuable when the Reds are ready to win.

Oh, and he also annoys the heck out of opposing fans and teams. I find that fun. Syndergaard greets him with a low curveball that Winker bounces foul.

Winker Pitch 1 CRV

Syndergaard comes back with a running fastball for strike two. It looks bad initially; if you listen to the SNY broadcast, even they have a fit with this call. Because catcher Wilson Ramos‘ glove moves so much, this appears to be a glaring miss from home plate umpire Marty Foster. Winker goes ballistic — he enjoys putting on a show, and I can imagine from his angle that this seemed an egregious missed call — before his manager, David Bell, can rescue him. Winker gets tossed.

Winker Pitch 2 FB

But actually … it’s a strike. Look at that movement! As soon as the ball enters the frame until Ramos squeezes it, that pitch is running to the outside corner. Incredible.

Foster got the call right.

Winker Pitch 2 FB SLOMO

Unfortunately, Reds ace and recent Ode to a Pitcher selection Luis Castillo got caught in the crossfire.

Winker bounces helmet off Castillo

Once Winker’s shenanigans ended, Kyle Farmer stepped up to the plate inheriting his teammate’s 0-2 count. What a gift! It’s probably a lot of fun to try and be productive with an 0-2 count against Noah Syndergaard. Like, a lot of fun.

At least it was brief. Thor dials up the gas on the outside corner and he’s two outs away from a shutout.

Farmer Pitch 1 FB

Eugenio Suarez is a pretty good hitter. You should know this if you don’t. He produced a 116 wRC+ in 2017 and a very healthy 135 wRC+ last season. He has pretty nice pop and has turned into the team’s best hitter, assuming Nick Senzel doesn’t go bonkers out of the gate (he might) and Joey Votto doesn’t rebound (I hope he does).

I just wanted to share that because his plate appearance in the ninth inning only lasted one pitch. Syndergaard kind of got away with one here; the Reds third baseman is slugging a healthy .613 on the season off fastballs as of this writing. But not today.

One out to go.

Suarez Pitch 1 SNK

Derek Dietrich, future beekeeper, steps up with no runway left. Thor misses a little low with a sinker to start the count 1-0.

Dietrich Pitch 1 SNK

Dietrich watches a nifty curve drop in for strike two. Thor has generated whiffs on nearly 60 percent of the swings against that hammer this season. That seems good.

Dietrich Pitch 2 CRV

With the count 1-1, Syndergaard runs a fastball belt-high over the plate and Dietrich bounces it into right field for a single. An impressive piece of hitting; it would be easy to foul this off given the action on the ball and velocity. Credit to Dietrich here.

Dietrich Pitch 3 FB

Michael Lorenzen pinch runs for Dietrich and up comes Yasiel Puig with a chance to tie it. Before this plate appearance, Puig had produced outs on the first pitch three straight times against Syndergaard. His generous donation helped Thor run up such a mild pitch count through 24 outs. The Reds outfielder takes strike one outside.

The fun with guys like Syndergaard is he throws this beauty of a sinker, smashes the outside corner and we breeze by it like nothing special happened. This is a crazy good pitch.

Puig Pitch 1 FB

Lorenzen takes off for second — an odd risk with two outs and a pitcher running who never stole a base before — while Syndergaard removes Puig from his cleats with this curveball. He actually hangs it, but Puig was so geared up for the gas he couldn’t navigate the speed difference.

Puig Pitch 2 CRV

0-2. Lorenzen on second. Syndergaard threw a nuclear sinker for strike one and a solid curveball for a swinging second strike. Now what?

Gas. The 104th pitch of the day is a 99.6 MPH sinker on the outside corner for a smooth strike three. Love the little pose there at the end too. Don’t question the power of Thor.

Puig Pitch 3 FB

***

From CBSSports.com:

Since 1908, this was just the seventh time in MLB that a pitcher threw a shutout and homered in a 1-0 win, per Baseball Reference. It hasn’t happened since 1983, when Dodgers hurler Bob Welch pulled it off. 

Impressive. Syndergaard didn’t have a great May — that ERA was hovering around 5 — but the potential remains immense. There are lots of excellent pitchers in baseball and he has everything he needs to become one of them. What a treat it would be to see Thor light up MLB over the summer, especially if deGrom straightens himself out, too. The Mets might have a reason to believe.

A Mets team led by deGrom, Syndergaard, Alonso and Cano could wreak havoc over the summer.

Let’s check in on Harper, Machado and the other big catches of the winter

Image result for bryce harper
Bryce Harper got booed in Philly. Yawn.

We won’t rehash the offseason, but it wasn’t much fun. Lots of sitting around and theorizing about why Manny Machado and Bryce Harper hadn’t signed, what it meant for Nolan Arenado and Francisco Lindor‘s future, etc. Ah. Fun times.

Eventually, the dust settled (except for Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel, who continue to have plenty of free time, thank you very much). Machado headed to San Diego and Harper to the friendly streets of Philadelphia. But those weren’t the only big moves of the winter, so let’s check in on how some of the big acquisitions are doing with a few random observations.

Bryce Harper

ESPN and MLB Network and the rest clutched their collective pearls about Phillies fans booing Harper. A quick list of other thoroughly mundane events that would surely upset ESPN and MLB Network:

  • Snow falling in December
  • Rain falling in April
  • Milk going bad in the fridge

You get the picture. Look, Philadelphia fans booing something just isn’t interesting to talk about anymore. Frankly, almost all of the attention paid Harper bores me. He’s a really good and exciting player, capable of thrilling moments. He also can be frustrating, as any power hitter can be. He strikes out. It looks bad sometimes. This is baseball.

Harper’s hitting .231 with plenty of walks and solid power. It adds up to a 122 wRC+, which is hardly world-beating, but hey, it’s a far cry from bad. He’s streaky and would probably benefit from a slight change in approach; that’s true of virtually every hitter alive except for Mike Trout (and Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger for the moment).

So, yes, Harper will at times frustrate, but he’s at all times capable of a ferocious month of production. It would make for quite a fun baseball summer to have the Phils, led by Harper on a tear, battling, say, the Atlanta Braves led by Ronald Acuna. Who wouldn’t love that?

As of now, the Phillies are in first place in the NL East. Second? Atlanta.

Manny Machado

The Machado – Fernando Tatis Jr. pairing is thrilling to me. I love it. If I were a Padres fan, I’d probably think about it every single day. You’re on your way to a championship core with those two on the left side of your infield.

For now, though, Machado has slid back to shortstop while his younger teammate nurses an injured hamstring. His team has looked perhaps a bit better than expected, sitting 3rd in the NL West and a few games north of .500. With Chris Paddack causing a fervor each time he’s on the mound — he’s like a Baseball Twitter aphrodisiac — the Padres have an exciting future.

It could easily just be a blip — it’s May, my dudes — but Machado’s strikeout rate has climbed quite a bit as a Padre. Again, blip? Probably. I’m not drawing any major conclusions.

Here’s to more Machado and Tatis moments. I remain very optimistic about that pairing and the Pads overall.

Patrick Corbin

The Nationals are eight games below .500. Their injury list isn’t quite to the level of the Yankees, but it’s a damned impressive group all its own: Juan Soto (back, could return around May 11); Trea Turner (fractured finger, probably in a few weeks); Ryan Zimmerman (plantar fasciitis, TBD). Anthony Rendon just returned from an injured stint.

It hasn’t been great. But Corbin, mostly, has delivered. The slider, still his most utilized offering, continues to generate tons of swings and misses and very little else (.246 xwOBA). Everything else he throws is far more hittable (at least 100 points of xwOBA higher) and that, in my mind’s eye, makes his 3.71 ERA feel right. That’s probably about who he is, and hey, that’s a valuable guy.

I think he’s a treat to watch. Everyone knows he relies on that breaking ball and yet, the results are the results. Lord only knows if the Nationals will even make the playoffs, and maybe I’m being old-fashioned in thinking this way, but throwing out Max ScherzerStephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in a playoff series is, um, ideal.

Paul Goldschmidt

Should we freak out? Last year we all freaked about Goldy’s slow start. Remember? It was fun. Then, he eventually torched the league for a few months and ended up with a hell of a season. This is baseball.

Goldschmidt in such a passionate baseball city makes me smile. It feels right. This is no disrespect at all to Arizona, but the Diamondbacks don’t have the historical cache of the Cardinals. (What, maybe three teams do?) He has a stage now that he didn’t before, and I hope he can capitalize on it.

The BABIP is low (for him). The walk rate is down, but it’s May. Things balance out. Paul Goldschmidt is awesome and he’ll be awesome. The Cards are five games over .500 and remain close to both the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers: the hitting has been good and the run prevention okay. That’s about right.

James Paxton

As was decided long ago by blood ritual, James Paxton, now a Yankee, must do his penance on the injured list, much like all of his talented and established teammates short of Gleyber Torres, Luke Voit, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman.

You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.

Paxton was really frustrating at launch, particularly in a start against the Houston Astros (that feels like 5 years ago … ). Then, he rattled off consecutive 12-strikeout starts, drumming up plenty of excitement in New York (especially with Luis Severino serving his aforementioned time in purgatory). However, as we know, nothing good lasts forever, and Paxton is nursing a left knee issue. It’s not expected to keep him down too long.

He’s basically been James Paxton so far. Lots of strikeouts, solid-to-good ERA, injuries.

Sonny Gray

Oh, Sonny. He’s truly one of my favorite pitchers to watch, in an almost masochistic way. When Sonny Gray is on, he’s marvelous; when he’s nibbling and missing, he’s maddening.

He’s been pretty decent in Cincinnati. The normal stats tell us he’s been okay (ERA sits in the low 4s); the fancier stats suggest he’s been better (his FIP is in the low 3s). His fastball, despite nice spin and okay-ish velocity, continues to be a sore spot (but not an outright atrocity like last season). The Reds are having a frustrating season, but the pitching has been a triumph, led of course by Luis Castillo. Gray has been a positive.

Yasiel Puig

Yasiel Puig isn’t hitting. His wRC+ is 56. That’s bad. Puig will eventually hit. That’s a familiar theme in today’s piece and for good reason, because baseball moves in cycles and deep sample sizes. He’s a good hitter with a weird platoon split. He’s solid in the field. He’s at times maddening to manage and root for, but also, and this has to be mentioned too, he’s thrilling. The Puig experience is nothing if not memorable.

For the Reds, I think the optimal outfield alignment is somewhat obvious. Jesse Winker in left, Nick Senzel in center and Puig over in right. Let them play, especially the first two, and even more especially, Senzel. That could be a heck of a trio if things break the right way. The Reds might as well find out.

Ode to a Pitcher: Tyler Glasnow’s fastball demands your attention

Image result for tyler glasnow
Tyler Glasnow works fast and hard.

If you’ve heard of Tampa Bay Rays righthander Tyler Glasnow, it’s probably because he has a glorious hook. His curveball is a classic 12-6 hammer. It’s even more impressive coming from his 6-foot-8 frame. Hitters can’t do much with it (.285 xwOBA last year, .164 this year) and for good reason. Examined as part of Glasnow’s full repertoire, batters are stuck; do you sit on the fastball or the curve?

Good luck either way.

When he toed the rubber last Sunday in Fenway Park, most eyes were on Red Sox lefty Chris Sale. Sale hasn’t been himself this year (is a 6.30 ERA good?), but because he’s Chris Sale, we expect those fortunes will change. And, because he’s Chris Sale, when he figures it out he’s liable to punchout 15. It’s worth following.

Alas, not this day. Sale struggled and Glasnow dominated. With Blake Snell injured, Glasnow has provided high-quality innings amid a torrid start for the Rays. I’m not saying Glasnow has emerged as an ace — his numbers are good but not exactly explosive, unlike Luis Castillo for example — but I am saying he’s someone to keep an eye on.

Today we’ll study how he works his fastball. Dude throws hard, and even though the spin isn’t great, he keeps batters uncomfortable by working it throughout the zone and keeping that curve in the forefront of the batter’s mind.

***

Jackie Bradley Jr. steps up to open the bottom of the third against Glasnow. Note the extension in the lanky hurler’s delivery and how well he finishes through the ball. He’s maximizing his height to add life to the fastball. I really like his mechanics, and I’m also intrigued his working from the stretch regardless of baserunners. It keeps things simple.

JBJ Pitch 1 FB

JBJ gets another fastball and knocks it foul to even the count 1-1. Bradley’s not much known as a hitter, but he did slug almost .500 against fastballs last season. Rarely is a belt-high fastball ideal, but no one is perfect.

JBJ Pitch 2 FB

Awesome pitch. I love the confidence to put a fastball right under the hands like this, flat-out challenging Bradley to do something with it. Make no mistake, a lot of hitters can — David Ortiz seemed to smash high fastballs like this — but it’s not easy. It’s especially not easy against a fastball like Tyler Glasnow’s.

JBJ Pitch 3 FB

JBJ is down 1-2 and Glasnow unleashes the hammer, but leaves it just high enough in the zone that the Red Sox centerfielder bounces it foul. You can still get a look at the movement, though — Bradley flails at it. Glasnow makes sure to finish through the ball, too, to help hide any tells about the breaking pitch.

JBJ Pitch 4 CRV

Another good pitch. Glasnow brings Bradley’s eyes back up with a fastball after working down with the curve. Follow the pattern: fastball up against the hands, curve down by the knees, fastball above the hands. That’s sequencing, kiddos, and it works. A pitcher who can work all throughout the zone is a pitcher who keeps batters uncomfortable, and uncomfortable batters are less likely to mash taters.

JBJ Pitch 5 FB

Bradley’s still 1-2 but Glasnow is working him. Remember in the intro when I asked if a hitter can afford to sit on the fastball or the curve? Well, at a certain point, you just gotta guess. It sucks, it’s a miserable feeling, but you just gotta sit on something. Bradley chooses the fastball but gets the hook for a called strike three. He knows it too.

JBJ Pitch 6 CRV

Let’s enjoy the break on that badboy:

JBJ Pitch 6 CRV SLOMO

Catcher Christian Vazquez steps in and is blown away by a Glasnow fastball for strike one. Hitting a good Major League fastball is just a tough beat, man. It’s not easy. Vazquez isn’t much of a hitter anyway, but he shouldn’t feel much shame here.

Vazquez Pitch 1 FB

Glasnow nearly slings one into the fifteenth row for the second pitch in the at-bat. Hey, at least he kept Vazquez’s eye level high, right? Heh.

Vazquez Pitch 2 FB

Absolutely beautiful pitch. Vazquez knows he can’t do anything with it and lets it go, hoping for ball two. Nope. Glasnow has firm control of the at-bat, having eaten the Red Sox catcher’s lunch with the first heater and painted up and in with the third. This is a bad place to be, man.

Vazquez Pitch 3 FB

Just, wow. Sometimes you don’t have to change speeds or work the corners. Sometimes you don’t need to nibble or get complicated. Glasnow knew from the first pitch he had Vazquez and saw no reason to take his foot off the pedal. If you got ’em, you got ’em.

Vazquez Pitch 4 FB

Andrew Benintendi presents a far more stout threat than Vazquez or Bradley Jr. The latter two are known primarily for their defense; Benintendi can hit (123 OPS+ last season). The young leftfielder watches a fastball for ball one.

Benintendi Pitch 1 FB

Benintendi gets another high fastball and wisely takes it for ball two.

Benintendi Pitch 2 FB

No pitcher wants to be down 2-0 in the count. The hitter knows you’ll probably be working in the zone to avoid an even worse situation. Glasnow does work in the zone, but throws a changeup (yes, a changeup, at 93 MPH) and Benintendi misses for strike one.

Let’s talk about this for a second. Tyler Glasnow just threw a 93 MPH changeup. It’s not quite as uncommon as you might think, given that Norse gods like Noah Syndergaard exist. Regardless, Glasnow rarely throws the change so we can’t exactly say it’s a good or bad pitch, but it worked here.

Benintendi Pitch 3 CH

I don’t know guys. I think Glasnow likes working up and in. He blasted Bradley Jr with a fastball up and in, buzzed the tower on Vazquez and dropped a 91 MPH changeup on Benintendi in the same spot as Bradley’s. If you look at Rays catcher Mike Zunino‘s glove, Glasnow either missed or threw to a different spot. I can’t tell ya, but given Benintendi’s reaction, it worked.

Benintendi Pitch 4 CH

Glasnow leveraged two changeups to drag the count back into his favor. Now Benintendi has to be ready for the fastball, the curve and presumably even a third changeup. The lanky hurler has proven he can throw the fastball and the change anywhere he wants in the zone. As a batter, you have some plate to cover here.

Glasnow comes up but away with a 97 MPH fastball and just misses off the plate to run the count full. Good take by Benintendi.

Benintendi Pitch 5 FB

Pretend you’re Glasnow. What are you going with? You drew a swinging strike on a low change and a called strike on a high change. You’ve missed with three fastballs. Is it time for the curve? It’d be tempting, for sure. If you can tunnel it a little behind the fastball and bury it low, you’ll be forcing Benintendi to adjust to the break, the speed and the spot.

Hmm.

Or, you know, you could put an upper-90s heater right by his hands. Sure. Let’s try that.

That’s exactly what Glasnow does, and man what a sight it is. Catching up to that kind of heat in that spot is just a damned hard thing to do. If Glasnow leaves the fastball a bit more arm side — that is, a bit further out over the plate — maybe Benintendi gets a little wood on it. That leads to another pitch, and you never know what can happen with just one more pitch.

But Glasnow affords no such opportunity. Hell of a pitch.

Benintendi Pitch 6 FB

***

Glasnow throws a lot of fastballs. So far this year, 66.1% of his pitches have been heaters. Last year, it was 70.5%. Even though the curve is fun, he lives and breathes off that gas. And as we saw today, because he can put it wherever he wants, it becomes all the more valuable a pitch.