Category: Baseball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Smith Pitch 1 FB

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

Smith Pitch 2 FB

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

Smith Pitch 3 CH

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

Haniger Pitch 1 FB

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

Haniger Pitch 2 FB

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

Haniger Pitch 3 FB

Take another look at that same pitch:

Haniger Pitch 3 FB SLOMO

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

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

Haniger Pitch 4 FB

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

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

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

Haniger Pitch 5 CH

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

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

Santana Pitch 1 CT

Here’s a slower version of it:

Santana Pitch 1 Liner

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

Vogelbach Pitch 1 FB

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

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

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

Vogelbach Pitch 2 FB

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

Vogelbach Pitch 3 CB

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

Vogelbach Pitch 4 CB

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

Vogelbach Pitch 5 FB

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

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

Vogelbach Pitch 6 CH

***

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

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

Read previous Ode to a Pitchers here.

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

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

I like pitchers who set the tone.

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

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

I like that.

Hitters? Probably not quite as into it.

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

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

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

***

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

Castillo Pitch 1 FB

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

Castillo Pitch 2 CH

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

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

Truth is, sometimes pitchers miss.

Castillo Pitch 3 CH

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

Castillo Pitch 4 FB

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

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

Castillo Pitch 5 CH

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

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

One down.

Castillo Pitch 6 CRV

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

Moncada Pitch 1 CRV

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

Moncada Pitch 2 CRV

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

Regardless, Moncada is firmly in the danger zone now.

(Also: I love Snell’s pirouette.)

Moncada Pitch 3 FB

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

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

Moncada Pitch 4 CRV Cleaner

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

Jimenez Pitch 1 FB

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

Jimenez Pitch 2 SL

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

Jimenez Pitch 3 CH

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

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

Jimenez Pitch 4 CRV

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

Unbelievable pitch. Absolutely unbelievable.

Jimenez Pitch 5 FB

***

From a USA Today article earlier this spring:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, maybe something is wrong.

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

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

Ode to a Pitcher: Embracing the Mike Clevinger experience

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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; Lindor, Ramirez, 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.

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

Moncada Pitch 1 FB

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

Moncada Pitch 2 FB

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

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

Moncada Pitch 3 CRV

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

Moncada Pitch 4 FB

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

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

Moncada Pitch 6 FB

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

Moncada Pitch 7 FB

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

Moncada Pitch 8 FB

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

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

Palka Pitch 1 CRV

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

Dude threw it past him. Great stuff.

Palka Pitch 2 FB

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

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

Palka Pitch 3 FB

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

Palka Pitch 4 FB

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

Palka Pitch 5 FB

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

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

Abreu Pitch 1 CRV

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

Abreu Pitch 2 CRV

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

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

Abreu Pitch 3 CRV

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

Abreu Pitch 4 FB

Adios, Jose.

***

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

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

***

Previous Ode to a Pitcher breakdowns:

James Paxton

Blake Treinen

Max Scherzer

Gerrit Cole

Chris Sale

Patrick Corbin

Jacob deGrom

Mike Mussina

Johan Santana

Pedro Martinez

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

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

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

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

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

Or were they?

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

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

‘I felt lost’

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

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

And then the wheels came off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I was born to throw round things’

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

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

But not all the way.

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

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

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

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

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

That’s when he called Driveline.

‘What am I getting myself into?’

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

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

Or was it time to walk away?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But a pitcher armed with information is dangerous.

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

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

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

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

How did it go?

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

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

He had the fastball, knew its value and power.

He had the slider, knew its depth and deception.

He had his fitness, healthier and more mobile.

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

Then he realized.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Ode to a Pitcher: James Paxton attacks the A’s with fastballs

Image result for james paxton
James Paxton is one of the hardest throwing lefties in baseball. TED S. WARREN AP

James Paxton threw a no-hitter last season. It was a big deal for reasons beyond the obvious, namely that the aptly named Big Maple did the deed in Toronto, Canada.

He also struck out 16 in a start last season. If it’s possible for a pitcher with those exploits to go somewhat under covered, Paxton might be that guy. Hidden away on a struggling Seattle Mariners team and only managing around 160 innings due to his usual assortment of injuries, Paxton didn’t make a ton of waves.

Well, that’ll change this year. Paxton was traded to the New York Yankees last November, and with the Bombers missing ace Luis Severino, the spotlight will find the tall lefty in short measure.

Is he ready for it? Probably — the issue is whether he’ll be healthy. We know what he can do when he’s on the mound — a lot of strikeouts, too many home runs. Overall, it makes him an above-average starter with the potential to be more.

But we’re not so worried about all that today. No, we just want to study a pitcher being awesome. In Paxton’s 16-K decimation of the Oakland Athletics, he was just that — living off a hard fastball all over the zone, mixing in a nasty knuckle-curve and generally pummeling a pretty darn good team.

Let’s do it.

***

Marcus Semien (94 OPS+) is greeted with a Paxton fastball to open the at-bat. Paxton’s fastball is hard but actually lacks truly elite spin (54th percentile). It helps that he’s left-handed with such a fluid delivery, but alas, the numbers are the numbers. Herein lies the reason why Paxton allows so many home runs, by the way.

However: an upper-90s fastball is no picnic.

Semien fouls it off right against the hands.

Semien Pitch 1 FB

In today’s exchanges, Paxton does a good job moving the ball around, proving he can locate that fastball anywhere. Semien, with his rather compact swing, knocks another fastball foul to fall behind 0-2.

Semien Pitch 2 FB

So, Semien is down 0-2 against a dude about to strike out 16. You probably know what’s coming — but unlike so many previous pitchers we’ve profiled, Paxton doesn’t have a ridiculous breaking pitch to go with here. His curveball is pretty good, but not radioactive.

However, because of sequencing, Paxton has the full plate to work with. Sometimes it’s as simple as that, and when he shows Semien the cutter down, the A’s leadoff hitter can’t resist.

Three pitches, three strikes.

Semien Pitch 3 CT

Chad Pinder (113 OPS+) gets a look at the Paxton fastball, fouling it away. Paxton shows little fear of coming in on the righty bat, although neither Pinder or Semien are power threats. (One is coming, though.)

Pinder Pitch 1 FB

Pay attention to catcher Mike Zunino’s glove. It barely moves. Breaking: well-located fastballs are hard to hit, guys, all the more so at this velocity. Pinder takes one inside for a called strike and Paxton has another hitter 0-2.

Pinder Pitch 2 FB

Notice how Paxton’s hand is hidden from the batter for so long? Deception goes a long way toward keeping hitters off balance and allows his other offerings to work. Hitting isn’t easy; Paxton’s delivery makes it harder.

An upper-90s fastball up in the zone makes it pretty close to impossible. Down goes Pinder.

Pinder Pitch 3 FB

Without spoiling it, I’d love to ask Paxton and Zunino about this Jed Lowrie (119 OPS+) at-bat. I have so many questions about their approach and pitch usage, in great part because I want to learn, but also because it was a bit puzzling.

Lowrie, despite quite the healthy hack, gets absolutely overpowered by Paxton’s fastball to open the at-bat.

Lowrie Pitch 1 FB

You can tell the big Mariner was feeling it. He’s struck out two hitters with fastballs and he just hammered one past the newest man in the box. What a feeling.

It’s not hard to imagine what Paxton goes with next.

Lowrie Pitch 2 FB

Paxton, sitting pretty in an 0-2 count, goes right back to the hard stuff again, but left it right over the zone and Lowrie makes solid contact … off of Zunino’s mask. Yikes.

He was fine, but this isn’t a good pitch, even despite the velocity.

Lowrie Pitch 3 FB

At this point, I begin to wonder why Paxton didn’t go offspeed. You’ve thrown Lowrie, a pretty solid hitter, three fastballs in a row. The last one he was almost on.

I certainly understand setting a batter’s eyes up in the zone so you can attack low. Hmm. Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a pitcher — breaking news — but going back to the fastball here feels a smidge risky.

Lowrie Pitch 4 FB

Now Paxton changes things up, going with the cutter. However, it was right over the plate — look where Zunino sets up — and Lowrie was able to knock it foul. Not a great pitch.

Lowrie Pitch 5 FB CT

Our first taste of the curve, Paxton changes the terrain but Lowrie takes it. Heck of a take. The breaking ball looks pretty good to my untrained eye.

Lowrie Pitch 6 KC

So now what? Paxton missed with the cutter and Lowrie took the curve for a ball. He’s fouled off each fastball he’s seen since the first one. Paxton is six pitches deep into the battle and the batter has seen the whole repertoire.

Ultimately, the big lefty goes back to the fastball but misses again and Lowrie deposits it into the outfield for a single.

I know this series is called Ode to a Pitcher, but let’s take a moment and appreciate what Jed Lowrie does here. He fends off fastball after fastball, all over the zone, after missing the first one. He adjusts to a cutter up and away and takes a nice curveball below the zone. Then, finally, when he gets a fastball right over the plate he flicks it into the outfield. That was his pitch and he handled it well.

Great piece of hitting.

Lowrie Pitch 7 FB

Now Paxton faces a major home run threat in Khris Davis (136 OPS+). I couldn’t fault you for thinking of, say, Aaron Judge or Mike Trout as the game’s premier power hitter, but Davis is at least in the picture and in fact, led the bigs in bombs last season.

If Paxton messes around this game will be 2-0 in a hurry.

With a runner on first, Paxton comes right at the Athletics slugger with a fastball that misses just above the zone.

Davis Pitch 1 FB

Big Maple, looking to balance the count, throws another fastball up and in. It misses and the count runs to 2-0, not great. But there is some value in the sequencing here. You don’t want a slugger like Davis feeling comfortable stretching out over the plate.

Davis Pitch 2 FB

Consider this as a Mariner fan. You watched Paxton blast away two hitters to open the inning. Man, Big Maple’s looking good today!

Then, he engages in this long battle with Jed Lowrie, pounding fastball after fastball only to lose. Okay. Not great, but no big deal. Just a single. Now, though, he’s working behind in the count against a true slugger. If Paxton has suddenly lost the zone — as pitchers do, even great ones — this inning turns from a lot of fun to a lot of yuck real quick.

This is a critical pitch. You can guess what the lefthander turns to.

(And, for the record, no I’m not sure why the previous fastball was a ball but this next one is a strike. Props to Zunino for yanking this fastball back over the corner, by the way.)

Davis Pitch 3 FB

Paxton’s worked fastballs inside the last two pitches. Probably don’t want to go back to that, so with the count 2-1 let’s consider the options:

  • Go outside with the heat
  • Move down in the zone with the curveball
  • Move up in the zone with the fastball or the cutter

Paxton chooses the first, delivering a hard fastball neatly on the outside corner that Davis can’t catch up to. Excellent pitch in sequence and a great look at the power of working both sides of the plate.

Davis Pitch 4 cleaner

Like a lot of sluggers, Davis pops plenty of homers but he also strikes out a lot (sixth most in the AL last year). While you might expect Paxton to break out that curveball here with the count 2-2, after so many fastballs, he doesn’t. The hard-thrower instead moves the fastball back inside and gets a called strike three to end the threat.

Davis Pitch 5 FB

This inning served for me as a great exercise in the power of a good fastball. Paxton barely turns to his offspeed pitches to attack the Athletics; instead, he works them with fastballs all over the zone, flashing velocity and command all the way. Unlike, say, a Max Scherzer who might pummel you with fastballs to set up the changeup, in today’s breakdown we see a pitcher able to set up and finish batters with just one pitch.

Pretty imposing stuff.

***

Paxton is a critical part of the Yankees rotation this year, especially with their ace on the injured list. How will he fare? He has the stuff to make a run at a Cy Young but given the change in ballparks (Yankee Stadium is far more hitter-friendly, thus exasperating his home run issues) and Paxton’s tendency to suffer through lots of minor injuries, might this acquisition end up faring more like Javier Vasquez (both times) or Sonny Gray? Every Yankee fan reading this just shuddered.

Probably not. Hard fastballs tend to travel and Big Maple has one — but he’ll certainly be facing bigger moments in pinstripes than he did out west.

Previous Ode to a Pitcher breakdowns:

Blake Treinen

Max Scherzer

Gerrit Cole

Chris Sale

Patrick Corbin

Jacob deGrom

Mike Mussina

Johan Santana

Pedro Martinez

2019 MLB Preview: Final predictions for Opening Day

Image result for opening day
Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh man.

Guys …

Guys …

GUYS!

IT’S BASEBALL TIME! Our great winter of discontent has ended and it’s time to pop the mitts. Let’s commence the celebration with some final predictions and observations, starting with the playoffs.

Playoffs

American League

Wild Card: Boston Red Sox over Minnesota Twins
ALDS: Houston Astros (1) over Boston Red Sox (WC) in 4
ALDS: New York Yankees (2) over Cleveland Indians (3) in 5
ALCS: Houston Astros over New York Yankees in 5

The modern American League is just a damn bloodbath. The Astros, Red Sox and Yankees would all be commanding favorites in the NL. Alas, they are cursed to pummel each other. That Astros-Sox ALDS would be incredible. Please, baseball Gods, please give us a healthy Verlander-Sale matchup to open it. Please.

The Yankees were my original World Series pick before Luis Severino tweaked his shoulder. Look, maybe he’ll be fine and the early, early returns are okay, but yikes. Yikes.  Severino missing extended time changes the entire tenor of the Yankee season; the Bombers can’t replace their young ace. Yes, the offense should be potent — I expect an incredible year from Aaron Judge — and sure, the bullpen is straight out of Asgard, but I can’t do it. Severino is too important for them.

Ultimately, no one packs the punch of the Astros. This team is so talented and so smartly developed that picking against them, while not sexy, seems the smartest path. Even if Severino was healthy, my pick is the Astros.

National League

Wild Card: Colorado Rockies over Chicago Cubs
NLDS: Philadelphia Phillies (1) over Colorado Rockies (WC) in 5
NLDS: Milwaukee Brewers (2) over Los Angeles Dodgers (3) in 5
NLCS: Milwaukee Brewers over Philadelphia Phillies in 5

The Cubs are in store for a fun offseason next winter. Heck, this winter wasn’t fun either — did you know the Cubs are out of money? It even became fashionable to pick them to miss the postseason, and while I don’t see that exactly, the pitching rotation does feel like a shack ready to blow over. Another injury-plagued season from Kris Bryant and suddenly things aren’t quite as comfortable long-term either.

A part of me wants to say eff it and take the Dodgers to get back to the World Series again, but I just can’t. The fatigue of all these games the last few years and the concerns of Clayton Kershaw’s health was too much for me.

In the end, I’m riding with the Brewers because the combination of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain and that bullpen are strong enough to ease my concerns over the rotation. This team can really play. Also, the playoffs are random and I like the idea of the Brewers getting another taste of the Fall Classic.

Too bad they’ll be facing a potential dynasty.

World Series: Houston Astros over Milwaukee Brewers in 5

Awards

AL MVP: Mike Trout

Let’s not get cute, okay? Aaron Judge will be great, Mookie Betts will be great. The AL has lots of great players. Pick the greatest.

Frankly, it bothers me that Trout only has two. I think this stuff kinda matters for the historical record. I hope he ends up with like four or five.

AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander

I want this. Look, I know this changes almost daily, but Verlander is my favorite pitcher. He’s just a modern marvel and I love him. An aging gunslinger who has barely lost a step is my kind of story.

Also: it kind of sucks that Verlander only has one Cy Young award, right? Feels wrong. Yes, I know, he has an MVP too.

AL Rookie of the Year: Baby Vlad, should the Baseball Gods bless us with his health and ample opportunity.

NL MVP: Corey Seager

He’s great and will be the principal reason why the Dodgers win yet another division crown. This is Seager’s team now and I can’t imagine a much better face for them.

NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer

Not getting cute here, either. Give me all the strikeouts. Also, a fourth Cy Young win for Mad Max puts him in some seriously rarefied air. Here’s the list of pitchers with four or more:

  • Roger Clemens (7)
  • Randy Johnson (5)
  • Steve Carlton (4)
  • Greg Maddux (4)

Padro Martinez, Sandy Koufax, Jim Palmer, Clayton Kershaw and Tom Seaver all have three.

Wow.

NL Rookie of the Year: Fernando Tatis Jr. This might require the voters caring a lot about defense, but they should so there.

Random Observations

Presented in no particular order:

I think Yasiel Puig will be a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season for Reds fans. The team can’t compete, but Puig certainly can entertain. Keep an eye on whether Luis Castillo develops, too.

It’s possible the Indians will regret not cashing in Corey Kluber. I’m worried. Age and a lot of metrics aren’t on his side anymore. With Trevor Bauer around, they still have an absolute ace, but …

The Tampa Bay Rays will be really good. If they were in the other East, they might win it.

Pay attention to how the Red Sox use Chris Sale now that he’s locked into a longer deal. He’s fragile but ever so dominant. No need to push him until like August, really. The Red Sox are playing for championships, not division crowns.

If James Paxton throws more than 160 innings, he’s a serious Cy Young candidate on narrative, anyway. He’ll have a lot of runs at his back and a bullpen to lock in a bunch of wins.

I didn’t end up picking them to make the playoffs, but the Atlanta Braves should be an absolute blast to watch. Ronald Acuña, Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman are a heck of a trio.

There’s lots of Jameson Taillon for Cy Young chatter around the Baseball Internet. Wouldn’t it be wild if Chris Archer tapped into that sort of unrealized potential of his and nearly won it himself?

Part of my heart belongs to the San Diego Padres for not messing around — a la the Toronto Blue Jays, Cincinnati Reds and so many others — with their top prospect. Francisco Tatis Jr will be on the Opening Day roster. The Pads will be a heck of a watch.

What to watch today

We’ve got a couple stellar pitching matchups for Opening Day.

1:05 PM: Mets (Jacob deGrom) at Nationals (Max Scherzer)

4:05 PM: Astros (Justin Verlander) at Rays (Blake Snell)

4:10 PM: Indians (Corey Kluber) at Twins (Jose Berrios)