Month: May 2019

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

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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.

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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.

Nothing lasts forever: Chris Sale stares down his future

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Chris Sale’s struggles loom large for his team going forward.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs says a wife of good character is worth far more than rubies. That’s true, of course. In baseball, though, an ace is worth far more than rubies.

Few things are more empowering to a baseball fan than the ace. Knowing your team has one of those rare beasts breeds confidence unlike anything short of having a great quarterback in football. If the first card you play in a playoff series is Roy Halladay or Randy Johnson or Sandy Koufax, suddenly you’re in control. You set the tone. You start with an advantage. Maybe your opponent can match you, but often not.

I wrote a little about this feeling on BronxPinstripes this week. CC Sabathia‘s arrival certainly gave New York Yankees fans that confidence upon his arrival in 2009. When the Philadelphia Phillies started Cliff Lee in the World Series, the Bombers could match with Sabathia. It means something. It’s hard to quantify and drop in a nifty chart, but it’s part of the experience of rooting for a team. If the other team has a Hulk, we want a Hulk too.

The Boston Red Sox knew they had acquired that guy back in 2016. Chris Sale was flat-out awesome with the Chicago White Sox and has continued to basically be that or better in Boston, culminating in his dominant performance to close out the Fall Classic last October. Sure, the tail end of the 2018 regular season wasn’t great — velocity down, etc — but he’s Chris Sale. He’ll be fine. The offseason rest was coming at a great time.

And for all the excitement a hurler in full-bloom can generate, when a couple cracks emerge in the facade, the feeling flips in the blink of an eye. The problem with pitchers is they break. We try and we try to learn why they break and work and work to prevent it, but nothing has made a serious dent. It’s really hard on the arm — all of it, from shoulder to wrist — to do what pitchers do. These guys are modern marvels, throwing harder than ever with dazzling breaking balls. How could it last?

Sale might be the most dazzling of them all. When he’s on, Sale is borderline unbelievable. He throws hard and spins ridiculous sliders from a crazy release point. He’s untouchable. His career K/9 and strikeout-to-walk ratios are the best ever. Ever.

Sale hasn’t been anywhere close to that dude so far in 2019. He’s not throwing as hard (2018: 95.2 MPH, 2019: 92.3 MPH) and not generating the same spin on his fastball (2018: 2357 RPM, 2019: 2279 RPM). Across the board, he’s not missing as many bats …

Sale swing and miss

.. while giving up a lot more hard contact:

Sale hard hit

That red line is his four-seamer. Yikes. The xwOBA (read it like an on-base percentage) off his four-seamer last season was a mild .264. This year? .444. That paints a pretty obvious picture. So, what’s the deal? Is Sale hurt? He’s said no, and we have to take him at his word, but players aren’t always forthcoming. Tommy Kahnle wasn’t honest with the Yankees last year, for example. It happens. It’d be a normal human thing in the wake of a huge contract extension to white-knuckle your way through an injury in an effort to validate the cash. I get it.

So, is it mechanical? If you play around with the horizontal and vertical release point charts over at BrooksBaseball, you’ll see a difference. I don’t know enough to tell you that’s the problem, or even that the difference is enough to mean something. But the calendar has turned to May and Sale’s struggles continue. Any lead is worth pursuing.

Sale is in his age-31 season. This is right about the time we’d expect most pitchers to begin a decline, but Sale isn’t most pitchers. He’s tremendous. Tremendous pitchers don’t always follow that path; Max Scherzer is even older and hasn’t dipped. But, given Sale’s unconventional mechanics and how he tailed off toward the end of last season, maybe he has started to enter a new phase of his career. That happens, and if the lower velocity is his new normal, he’ll figure it out. He doesn’t just suck all of a sudden.

I’ll hedge and say Sale is somewhere in the middle of who he once was and who he will be. He very well could be past the days where he’s arguably the best per-inning starter in the world. Therein lies the rub, though; a declining Sale should still be quite valuable. That’s hardly a comfort to Red Sox fans who just want their fire-breathing dragon back to defend the crown.

In the era of analytics, we are obsessed with learning and locking onto the most valuable players and tactics. And hey, I’m on board with that. But even I’ll admit that the tangible part of the fan experience is critical too, and having someone like Chris Sale toe the rubber for your squad is a damn thrill. Even as a fan of his team’s greatest rival, I hope it’s not over. I don’t think it is. I remain optimistic that at some point this season — perhaps soon — he’ll put together a run.