Category: Ode To A Pitcher

Ode to a Pitcher: Charlie Morton is much better than you realize

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Charlie Morton is one of the world’s best pitchers. Don’t believe me? Here’s a quick piece of proof. Among all starters since 2017 (with enough innings, yadda yadda yadda) Morton’s xFIP is 13th best. His fWAR is 14th, ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Noah Syndergaard.

Sorta weird that he signed for so little last offseason, right (2 years, $30 million)? The Rays are a contender and Morton is the best and healthiest arm they have. He’s been excellent for them.

But … uh … the  New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies couldn’t have used Morton?  (Imagining Morton on the Dodgers or back on the Houston Astros might break the space-time continuum. Just don’t.) I just don’t for the life of me get why teams weren’t willing to take this risk. Sure, he’s on the wrong side of 35, but the immediate track record is strong.

Hey, Brian Cashman. Defend re-signing JA Happ for an additional year versus Morton’s 2/30. Go ahead. I’ll be here.

Charlie Morton is good. Like, really good. Nothing has changed since signing with the Tampa Bay Rays, either; in fact, he’s probably only better. Morton has leaned even harder into that nasty curveball, throwing it more than anything else in his bag of tricks and finding elite results: .176 xwOBA (!!!!!!!), 37.9 percent whiff rate (!!!). The average exit velocity off that curve is 82 MPH, which is just ridiculous.

Seriously, that .176 xwOBA is absurd. Just bonkers. Remember, the expected weighted on-base average is driven by batted ball data and the expected performance therein. Hitters are doing nothing against Morton’s hammer. Given what we’ll see soon, that makes perfect sense. Morton doesn’t have a great fastball — the velocity is solid, the spin isn’t — but he knows how to work hitters into bad spots. And what’s a bad spot, you ask? Any count where he can unleash the curve.

Okay, I know the Detroit Tigers are bad. Wait, sorry, terrible. I know. But I wanted the chance to show you some of Morton’s best hammers, and so here we are. Last Friday, Morton squared off with Detroit’s finest. We’ll be working out of the first inning.

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Ode to a Pitcher: Aroldis Chapman battles Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Last Sunday, Aroldis Chapman faced Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for the first time.

The young phenom, the son of a Hall of Famer, beginning to prove himself after loads of hype.

The legendary closer, an incredible strikeout machine, still punching out hitters after years of dominance.

On Sunday afternoon in Toronto, the New York Yankees sent Masahiro Tanaka back out to the mound in the ninth inning. Tanaka, his best self that day, was looking to preserve a shutout and the Yanks were looking to claim another win.

But, as happens, the ninth didn’t open favorably, and after a single out came manager Aaron Boone to pull his nominal ace. Out goes Tanaka and in jogs closer Aroldis Chapman. And how did Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo respond?

By pinch-hitting with one of his young prodigies — read that sentence again; the Blue Jays are going to be such a pain in the ass someday — in a critical part of the game. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the dreadlocked mashing machine who arrived earlier this year with much hype. On this very site, I lambasted Toronto for not freeing Baby Vlad sooner (it’s worked out well for the Padres and Fernando Tatis Jr., eh?), but now he’s here.

The young slugger, still only 20 years old, hasn’t lit the American League on fire as a rookie — .345 xwOBA and a 112 OPS+ are fine, not revolutionary — but he’s shown the spark of a potential MVP. Since July 1, he’s looked more and more the part, especially considering his age, hitting .302/.374/.511.

Meanwhile, Chapman is Chapman, even as his velocity slowly drops. Slowly. His fastball velocity is still in the 99th percentile, as is the spin on that heater. Hmm. Maybe it’s more like the desert has just a bit less sand? Something like that. Even as he turns more to the slider — .224 xwOBA, 41.4 percent whiff rate — the results stay the same. Chapman is awesome.

The table was set. The firebreathing Yankees closer against the Blue Jays phenom. One run lead. Here we go.

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Ode to a Pitcher: Luis Castillo’s changeup takes no prisoners

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The Cincinnati Reds have found an ace in Luis Castillo.

My wife and I trekked down to Great American Ballpark on Monday. Why?


Mike Trout was in town. That was reason enough: to say we saw the greatest alive and perhaps the greatest ever at the peak of his powers. Despite an uncharacteristic error, Trout was Trout; he got on-base, easily swiped a bag and drilled a homer. He’s unreal, and every baseball fan should see him work.

But, in a sense, I was even more excited to see Trout against Luis Castillo. Castillo, the unquestioned best pitcher in a quite good Reds rotation, didn’t fare well against the presumptive MVP. He joins a long list in that category. Don’t hold it against him.

Castillo is an ace and better than I expected. His changeup is the best of its kind; thrown in the high 80s with harsh late movement, tunneled perfectly with his 97 MPH fastball. His approach is often quite simple; work with the fastball and slider into a two-strike count, then it’s changeup time. Hitters are whiffing an astounding 51.2 percent of the time against the change. He throws it more than any pitch in his repertoire, and batters still can’t touch it (.185 xwOBA).

Before the season I wondered if Castillo’s rather hittable fastball might hold him back. Well, it’s roughly as hittable this year as last, but he found a solution.

Throw more changeups. Amen, brother.

Let’s watch Castillo take on the Los Angeles Angels in a recent start. Spoiler: there will be changeups.

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Ode to a Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw can still twist you into knots

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Clayton Kershaw just passed the great Sandy Koufax in career strikeouts. Rarefied air.

I’ve been doing this series since January (Pedro Martinez at the ’99 All-Star Game was the first). Every week. Lots of fun breakdowns and all manner of pitching nerdery, and yet somehow I have never covered Clayton Kershaw. You know, three-time Cy Young winner. MVP. Definite Hall of Famer.

Never covered. Sigh. It’s a stain on my career.

That ends today.

I can remember a young Kersh tantalizing prospect watchers way back when, and boy oh boy did he ever deliver on that promise. Kershaw’s peak is basically otherworldly. You’d feel weird having this kind of run in MLB: The Show. (Are my sliders out of whack? Am I accidentally playing on Easy?).

Check this. From 2011-14, Kershaw threw 895 innings to a 2.11 ERA. He struck out 948 and walked just 200. That’s … wow. That’s unreal. Tons of punchouts, barely any walks, incredible ERA over nearly 900 innings thrown. That’s an all-time peak. Promise delivered.

And the thing with Kershaw is, he’s a painter. Kershaw had ridiculous stuff, but he wasn’t a Roger Clemens or Max Scherzer type, beating you into submission with high velocities. Kershaw could dial up the heat, no doubt, but he dominated more with pinpoint control and breathtaking movement. Kershaw at his peak was a marvel. His curveball, in particular, was a work of art.

Age never loses, and Kershaw isn’t the pitcher he once was, but dude, that’s a long slope down to the bottom. He’s still great; 117 innings, 146 ERA+ in 2019. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Let’s take a look at his recent work in the third inning against the Washington Nationals.

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Ode to a Pitcher: Young pitchers, study Zack Greinke and learn something

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Zack Greinke is a legitimate pitching savant.

I’ve probably listed seven or eight different big league pitchers as my favorite. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, maybe even Jacob deGrom. Those guys are great. Really. But my heart has settled on Zack Greinke. (For now.)

Oh, Zack.

There’s something about Greinke, my dudes. He manipulates batters with every trick in the book. He messes with timing — how about I just hold this leg lift here for a few extra beats? — and spins 70 MPH curveballs. He pitches to every inch of the strike zone and can work any batter in any count.

He’s a pitcher’s pitcher, even at an age where his raw stuff isn’t what it once was. Greinke in his prime was extraordinary; he’s still quite good, but in a different way. His pitching intelligence might be unmatched across the sport, even among coaches. Greinke is a savant. He can read batters and make adjustments that seem unattainable to mere mortals like myself.

(Side note: Zack Greinke is probably a worthy Hall of Famer. More on this later. Some of you just slammed your coffee down. I don’t care. He is. Peak matters and Greinke’s best years are stellar.)

Let’s watch Zack cook the Milwaukee Brewers in a recent start. I talk a lot in these Ode to a Pitcher breakdowns about sequencing, tunneling and messing with timing. Well, Greinke is the master. This will be fun.

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Ode to a Pitcher: As free agency looms, Gerrit Cole strikes out the world

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Chances are it’s a heater and you probably won’t touch it.

You like strikeouts? We got strikeouts.

Well, Gerrit Cole does, anyway. He gets it done with raw power, right in your face. The Houston Astros righty leads Major League Baseball in strikeouts per nine innings; he throws the second hardest average fastball among starters. He throws that 97 MPH fastball almost 55 percent of the time, challenging hitters over and over with it.

This stat kind of blew me away. Hitters whiff against Cole’s fastball almost 38 percent of the time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that’s the value of velocity and spin rate coming together. Cole’s fastball is dominant.

I’ve profiled some awesome, creative pitchers in this Ode to a Pitcher series. Take Dodgers lefty and possible NL Cy Young favorite, Hyun-Jin Ryu, for example. Ryu gets outs with deception. He moves the ball around the zone, cuts it and runs it, changes speeds. He uses everything at his disposal to get outs.

Cole doesn’t work quite that way. Maybe once his fastball loses its edge, but not now. Cole does work throughout the zone, but almost everything he throws is harder than 90 MPH. Cole forces the batter to contend with hard velocity on every pitch, be it a fastball, slider or changeup. You won’t get an eephus from Gerrit Cole.

It works. Cole has been an ace for the Astros since they acquired him before the 2018 season, and he’s lining himself up for a big payday this winter. Cole is fourth in Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement, behind only Max Scherzer, Lance Lynn (!!!) and Charlie Morton. Good company.

It’s remarkable how effortless it looks with Cole. He doesn’t have the long whip delivery of an Aroldis Chapman, for example, or even the classic style of Justin Verlander. Cole just … throws. Visually he doesn’t seem to strain or exert, and yet, he’s pumping gas past big-league hitters.

Let’s take a look at how Cole fared in the bottom of the seventh inning in a recent start against the Los Angeles Angels.

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Ode to a Pitcher: With the velocity still strong, Aroldis Chapman finds his slider

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Aroldis Chapman throws the baseball very hard. At his hardest, maybe no ever has thrown one harder. Now, as mileage and innings take their toll, he doesn’t throw quite as hard, but make no mistake, he’s still a flamethrower.

It’s become a bit of a topic de jour for the YES Network to mention Chapman’s declining velocity. It’s true. He doesn’t throw as hard as a 31-year-old as he did as a youngster, especially in Cincinnati. I don’t mean to pick on the broadcast team — hey, you gotta fill time — but Chapman’s velocity is hardly a cause for major concern. Among qualified relievers, his average fastball velocity is fourth-best.

Ah, heavy is the head that wears the crown.

The thing is, Chapman does seem aware that he’s lost just a bit of velocity, and that’s where this story picks up steam. Because he perhaps doesn’t feel as safe just blitzing every opposing batter with heat, he’s turned to his slider more and more the last two seasons. It was always at least a tantalizing pitch, but as we’ll see in the breakdown, when he is commanding the zone with the slider, he remains as lethal as ever.

Consider Fangraphs’ pVal metric. It tells us that for the last two seasons, Chapman’s most valuable pitch has been the breaking ball, not the well-known heater. The fastball remains quite a handful — and when Chapman is on his sequencing game, probably lifts the slider. The combination of the two, mixed around the zone with confidence and command, have kept Chapman among the game’s elite relievers even as age tries to draw its fee.

Chapman closed out the 2019 All-Star Game with epic flair. Let’s take a look.

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