Month: May 2019

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

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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

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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

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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.