Category: Ode To A Pitcher

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.

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

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

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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

Ode to a Pitcher: Blake Treinen and his deep diving sinker

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Blake Treinen’s sinker comes from a different dimension.

Studying a reliever in this series feels a little like smashing a handful of jelly beans. It’s a pure sugar high. Breaking down a starter is a different experience because relievers can come in and let loose in a way most starters can’t. Relievers need not worry about setting up hitters for later innings or conserving energy to go deep into a game. No, relievers can come in with both barrels blazing.

So, what the heck. Let’s embrace this sugar high for all its worth and enjoy some Blake Treinen.

Relievers are notoriously fickle. They come and they go. One day you’re dominant, lighting up the radar gun and punching out fools. The next, you get hurt and the switch has flipped. Baseball can be cruel to the short-inning guys. Who knows how long Treinen will be embarrassing guys, but for now he is. Let’s enjoy it.

Treinen had been a good reliever before 2018; 129 ERA+ spread across 261 innings since 2014. He struck out a healthy amount and limited the home runs, but walked more than would be comfortable. Then 2018 happened.

In 80.1 innings, he produced an absurd 531 ERA+ with 100 strikeouts to 21 walks and 2 (2!) homers. He went from good to Kryptonian and was in gifs all over Baseball Twitter, unleashing that crazy sinker. Filthy? Not a strong enough word. This might be the nastiest pitch we’d studied so far; I realize I am liable to say that every week. But, in my defense, have you see these guys?

Treinen’s sinker averaged 97.3 MPH last season. It ate hitters alive; .221 batting average against, .267 slugging percentage against, slightly north of 30 percent whiff rate. This is a sinker. If you want to study just how much this sucker moves, go here. Needless to say, the combination of movement and velocity make it nearly untouchable. Against a lot of these elite relievers — the Haders and Diazes of the world — sometimes the best you can do is hope they make a mistake. If someone like Dellin Betances is on his game, good luck.

Today’s victims are the Texas Rangers, and I’ll be honest with you … it’s not a fair fight. Treinen rips through these guys like Thor when he landed in Wakanda. Remember that these are Major League hitters, the best in the world. It’s a small group.

But at least in this specific inning, they were just overmatched.

***

Treinen threw the sinker 50.2% of the time last year, pounding the zone with it over and over. Even if he leaves one over the plate, driving a pitch with this heat and movement is no picnic. It’s an obvious choice.

Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos (97 OPS+) is up first and watches a sinker miss high and away. However — look how it moves!

Chirinos Pitch 1 SNK

Down 1-0 in the count, Treinen brings the next sinker back into the strike zone and Chirinos fouls it away.

Look, I’m going to say this about a thousand times in today’s breakdown, but … my God look how this thing moves! That baseball is flying so fast and dropping so hard that Chirinos making contact at all legitimately feels miraculous. It’s just absurd.

Chirinos Pitch 2 SNK

With the count even, Treinen moves up in the strike zone. If there is a pitch in this exchange to do something with, I guess it would be this one. Treinen would probably prefer this sinker run a few inches lower; that difference could mean something.

But not on this day.

Chirinos Pitch 3 SNK

What is it we always say? You don’t want to be 0-2 or 1-2 against these guys. Treinen has an excellent slider; it tunnels neatly within the sinker and is about 7-8 MPH slower with a deeper break. So yeah, it’s a real treat for the batter.

In football terms, the playbook is wide open and the baseball equivalent of throwing a deep route is burying a breaking ball off the plate. Treinen just went deep. Chirinos is helpless.

Chirinos Pitch 4 SLD

One down and up steps pinch hitter Ryan Rua (48 OPS+). It seems cruel to make someone struggling at the plate this way face Blake Treinen, but hey, I don’t make the rules. I just survey the damage.

Rua is greeted with a sinker. Note the horizontal movement back toward the zone.

Rua Pitch 1 SNK

Treinen goes offspeed with the count 0-1, missing just below the zone with a slider. Even with this kind of powerful stuff, the tactics of manipulating the batter’s eye level and changing speeds remain useful.

Credit to Rua for holding up here.

Rua Pitch 2 SLD

Treinen comes with another slider, this time letting it catch much more of the plate. Rua unleashes a hearty hack but fouls it away. This isn’t a great pitch, even despite the movement. Leaving a breaking ball in that part of the zone is rarely ideal. But, and this is true especially for most of the game’s great relievers, the threat of the fastball is omnipresent. It helps.

Rua Pitch 3 SLD

Rua is down 1-2. Treinen showed him a sinker then two sliders. It’s time to go back to the moneymaker.

This pitch is unreal. Just absolutely unreal.

Rua Pitch 4 SNK

Rua Pitch 4 SLOMO 1

Carlos Tocci (46 OPS+) is the last gasp for the Rangers. If you were the last hope against Treinen, you’d really want to open the count with a ball, right? Tilt the count your direction.

Yes. Treinen misses badly away.

Tocci Pitch 1 SNK

Alright, you’ve got that going for you. Maybe Treinen misses again? If he does, you’re probably getting a pitch in the zone! Hey, you can hit that! (Maybe.) Sure, it’ll drop a foot in a matter of milliseconds but still. (Yeah …)

Tocci Pitch 2 SNK

Good idea not swinging at this. What are you going to do other than foul it away or gently ground out? Take it and maybe you get a favorable call. Who knows. There’s just not much good that can come from flailing at this sinker. It’s absolutely filthy.

Alright, Carlos. You can do this. Just don’t chase anything out of the zone and you’ll be fine —

Tocci Pitch 3 SNK

Ugh. How can I fault you, though? I’m sure it looked tempting out of the hand, but alas, there’s a reason Treinen allowed less than ten earned runs all year.

Now Carlos is in real trouble. The count is 1-2.

Tocci Pitch 4 SNK

If it worked once, why not throw it twice?

Ballgame.

***

Treinen made his 2019 debut this week when the Athletics faced off with the Seattle Mariners in Tokyo, Japan. The stuff clearly hasn’t vanished:

Treinen and the other elite relievers in today’s game boggle the mind. I’d love to ask a big league hitter what the tactics are against, say, Josh Hader or Treinen. What do you do? I’m sure there’s something, but to my untrained eye, it seems simple.

Just hope for a mistake.

***

This was Ode to a Pitcher, a weekly feature from Adkins on Sports where we break down a brilliant pitching performance. These posts are meant to be informative and fun, just like baseball coverage should be.

Did you miss one? Click here to find every Ode to a Pitcher breakdown.

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Ode to a Pitcher: All hail Max Scherzer, modern king of strikeouts

Image result for max scherzer
Max Scherzer ain’t nothin’ to mess with.  ARTURO PARDAVILA III

I was saving this.

Oh, the fun we’ve had in this series. We’ve studied dynamic young aces and masterful hurlers of the past. We’ve seen sizzling fastballs, mind-blowing sliders and pocket-dimension changeups. (You can see them all here.) The best pitchers in the world are wizards from the line of Dumbledore, and yet … there was one pitcher I kept in my back pocket for a few weeks. I was saving him, hoarding him, waiting for the day. Today is that day.

Because … well, he’s a little less wizard and a little more buzzsaw. This isn’t trickery; it’s brute force.

It’s Max Scherzer day.

Scherzer is the best pitcher alive, having taken that “crown” from Clayton Kershaw as the Dodger lefty has declined amid injuries. A three-time Cy Young award winner (1 in the American League, 2 in the National League), Scherzer is a hard-throwing strikeout machine with an unorthodox delivery and an aggressive approach on the mound. He pitches like Liam Neeson in Taken. He’s basically my baseball fever dream come to life and a true gift to all who trade in baseball gifs.

Scherzer has led the league in strikeouts the last three seasons, including a sizzling 300 in 220 innings in 2018 — this in his age-33 season. He’s sat down at least 240 every year since 2014. You’ll be shocked to learn his fastball is probably the best of its kind in the sport. Take a look:

  • The spin rate on Scherzer’s fastball ranks in the 94th percentile (!!!)
  • Hitters missed 30.4% of the swings they took against it — note that he threw it almost 1750 times
  • Hitters produced a terrible .198 batting average and a putrid .248 wOBA against it

Yeah, so it’s good. We’ll see this in clear detail in today’s Ode to a Pitcher. Scherzer’s heater tips the scales in each at-bat and allows him to work aggressively regardless of the count. For example, a pitcher throwing a fastball in a 3-0 count is considered at a disadvantage — the hitter knows what is coming because no pitcher likes allowing free baserunners — and Major League hitters armed with that intel fare quite well.

But when you take Scherzer’s fastball — with its mid-90s velocity and incredible spin — that advantage is reduced. Then we remember he has a brutal, late-breaking slider and a darting changeup (tucked so neatly within the release of his fastball that its an act of subterfuge). Yeah. You try hitting this dude.

The Chicago Cubs found themselves in Mad Max’s crosshairs on a Sunday night last season.

***

Scherzer starts right fielder Jason Heyward off with a fastball. Note the late movement on the pitch and the perfect placement, nestled right into the up-and-in edge of the strike zone.

Heyward Pitch 1 FB

Scherzer’s delivery is kinda violent — you’ll get a better look at this as the breakdown rolls on. He finishes toward the plate with a thrust, sending his head down as he hammers the ball to the plate. Not sure many pitching coaches would want their high schoolers to work this way, but alas.

Having watched the fastball near his chest, Heyward is far out in front of Scherzer’s curveball. (Despite the difference in the gifs, Scherzer always takes the ball behind his head during his windup.)

Heyward Pitch 2 Crv SS

See how Scherzer pulls himself glove-side right as he releases the ball? Lots of analysts assumed he’d get hurt at some point, but he’s been a pretty durable pitcher in his career. And dominant. Pitchers are crazy, man.

Look at that sharp, late break on this curveball. My goodness.

Heyward Pitch 2 Slomo

Defending the whole plate against Scherzer is a hell of a task. He can attack you anywhere; where do you focus? What do you sit on?

Having worked up and in and then down in the zone, he comes back near Heyward’s knees to finish the first at-bat.

Oh — and Heyward is down 0-2.

Fastball. Curve. Slider.

Strikeout.

Heyward Pitch 3 SL

Heyward Pitch 3 Slomo

Center fielder Albert Almora Jr steps up, batting from the right side. Scherzer drops a curveball right over the plate for strike one. It’s kind of a hanger — I doubt he was pleased with it.

Almora Pitch 1 CRV

Scherzer comes back with a hard fastball just off the plate away. Almora takes it for a ball. You can already see the way the Nationals ace likes to attack the plate. He has no fear of any zone.

Almora Pitch 2 FB

With the count sitting 1-1, Scherzer attacks Almora a foot lower in the strike zone and forces the young outfielder to hack the fastball foul. Without reading too much into one swing, Almora probably isn’t reading Scherzer well. Who would? That delivery is just something else.

Almora Pitch 3 FB

What do we lament each week? The poor souls facing these baseball-chucking cyborgs in 1-2 counts. In the modern game, aside from maybe deGrom, it doesn’t get more terrifying in said situations than seeing Scherzer’s gangly delivery barreling down at you.

Oh, Albert Almora. You did the best you could. You made your family proud.

Glibness aside, this is a master class. The slider looks exactly the same out of the hand as the fastball that Almora barely knocked foul one pitch before. What’s he supposed to do with this? The pitch dives from shin to ankle in a matter of milliseconds.

Almora Pitch 4 SL

Up next is left fielder Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs first choice for designated hitter should the rule come to the NL. (It should.) Schwarber watches a fastball up and in for ball one.

Schwarber Pitch 1 FB

A mistake: Scherzer throws another fastball but leaves it just enough over the plate to allow a hit. To his credit, Schwarber didn’t try to pull this ball over the wall; he shortened his swing and flicked the ball into center field. As you often hear on broadcasts, that’s a good piece of hitting. It is. If an ace like Scherzer gives you a mistake over the plate, don’t get cute. Take your base.

Schwarber Pitch 2 single

Catcher Willson Contreras steps up with Schwarber on first. He’s zero threat to steal. Scherzer is free and clear to attack without mercy.

Haha. Yeah, as if he needed permission.

That’s a nasty fastball, even if it was a ball.

Contreras Pitch 1 FB

Ever working the zone, Scherzer throws another fastball — but higher, right above the tip of the strike zone. This is the clearest example I can give you of spin rate and velocity. The batter has to be really on this pitch to drive it. Alas, Contreras unloads on it but knocks it foul behind home plate.

Contreras Pitch 2 FB

Man, did Contreras have a chance to plant one in the seats here. This is a flat-out mistake by Scherzer, a flat breaking ball left right in the kill zone for a righty. Contreras just misses and pulls it foul.

Sometimes hitters just miss, same as pitchers. That could be all this was (the Cubs catcher produced a 92 OPS+ last year, so Mike Trout he is not) but I wonder how much the rest of Scherzer’s repertoire plays a role. Are you expecting a fastball? Caught off guard by the difference in speed, even if the pitch was in the zone? It’s not like the breaking stuff isn’t loaded with spin too …

Contreras Pitch 3 crv

Oh, Willson. Now you sit in a two-strike count, facing down a Dark Lord of the Mound, armed in full glory and hungry for another strikeout. Oh, your fate. You saw what happened to Jason Heyward and Albert Almora in similar predicaments. You heard their wails. And now here you are, caught in the same chains.

Did the baseball gods conspire against you, Willson, to be here and now, facing this burden? Do they laugh at your mortal peril, at your impending doom? Will they offer no relief?

No.

They won’t.

They offer instead the crushing boot, a changeup that twists you into a knot and sends you a broken hitter back into your dugout.

Contreras pitch 4 ch

***

My favorite pitcher ever is Mariano Rivera. I don’t hide this. Max Scherzer is darn close though, and perhaps because part of my imagination wants to believe if I had any energy in my right arm I’d pitch like him. Who knows.

Scherzer, entering his mid-30s, hasn’t lost much if anything in his game. Jacob deGrom rightfully won the NL Cy Young, but Scherzer was easily second and figures to be in the running again. That bizarre, violent delivery might someday collect a toll on his right arm, but so far he continues to pile up strikeouts. Even with Stephen Strasburg and the newly signed Patrick Corbin in the Nationals rotation, Scherzer remains the best player on the team and the most consistent and dominant pitcher alive.

Long live Mad Max.

***

This was Ode to a Pitcher, a weekly feature from Adkins on Sports where we break down a brilliant pitching performance. These posts are meant to be informative and fun, just like baseball coverage should be.

Content like this is available to all because of the support of my Patrons. Wish to join them? For as little as $3 a month, you will get early access to content like Ode to a Pitcher sent to your email in advance. Sign up today and support great baseball writing.

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Ode to a Pitcher: Gerrit Cole brings the heat against Boston

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Gerrit Cole’s first season in Houston was a huge success.

Quick: Gimme the 1-2-3 in strikeouts last season. Can you name them? The first two aren’t much of a shock based on recent history, but the third … well, he’d never been this good before …

Take a minute.

Ok. First and second are Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. Future Hall of Famers, Cy Young winners, flame-throwing strikeout-gobbling aces. No surprise. Third?

Gerrit Cole. Yes, Cole had two other seasons with great strikeout numbers, but he never approached third in all of baseball. He was a different guy in 2018, one of the best starters in the sport. How’d he get here, only a few months after being traded away from the team who drafted him with the first pick in the draft?

First, understand: overall, Cole was mostly good with the Pirates but underwhelming considering his early promise. Baseball loves a young, kickass pitcher and Cole fit the bill in 2015: 208 innings pitched, 149 ERA+, 4.6 bWAR at age 24. This set the bar for Cole in Pittsburgh. The sport had found its next Cy Young contender.

Except, well, it hadn’t. Cole got hurt in 2016 and worked his way through two average-ish seasons, throwing 319 combined innings to the tune of a 102 ERA+ in 2016-17. As the Pirates floundered and as Scott Boras, Cole’s agent, saw visions of cash dancing in his eyes, the Bucs shopped their young pitcher. Can’t say I blame them exactly … if the team wasn’t able to straighten him out, they certainly weren’t interested in giving him a big extension.

Finally, Cole ended up in Houston. There’s been some commotion about how exactly this happened — paging Trevor Bauer — but Cole’s spin rate metrics increased basically across the board in 2018, and along with it his effectiveness (under the years, I am giving you spin rate – whiff%):

Pitch 2017 2018
Fastball 2164 – 19.8% 2379 – 29.7%
Slider 2417 – 34.3% 2571 – 36.2%
Curve 2667 – 25.5% 2842 – 33.9%

The fastball — with its combination of high velocity, improved spin rate and vertical movement — became a deadly weapon for Cole in 2018 (as we’re going to see). Because a great fastball is a rising tide that lifts all boats, the improvement of that pitch (despite throwing it slightly less) carried Cole to his best season. The curve got better too, plus Cole deserved credit for cutting his sinker usage about in half, relying instead on his breaking pitches more.

This week’s Ode to a Pitcher will break tradition with the others. Instead of watching an ace bear his teeth and tear through an opposing lineup, we’ll see Cole get into some trouble here in this September start. Facing the eventual World Champion Boston Red Sox, the Astros righthander will work himself into a bit of a jam with some heavy hitters up at the plate.

But don’t worry — we’ll get a glimpse of that excellent fastball — and a dash of spice at the end.

***

We jump to the bottom of the third. The festivities begin with a fastball to Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon. I’m not picking on him here, but did you know Leon finished the 2018 season with a 38 OPS+? 38. I’m sort of at a loss here.

Leon Pitch 1 FB 0-1

Cole follows it up with a nasty curve for a called strike two. Notice the placement.

Leon Pitch 2 KC 0-2

It might not be as perilous as facing Chris Sale when down 0-2, but Cole’s no picnic. Leon spoils a hard fastball to keep the count alive, though.

Leon Pitch 3 FB 0-2 foul

Talk about an emergency hack — but that’s what professional hitters do. Keep the at-bat alive.

Cole comes right back and straightens up the Red Sox backstop.

Leon Pitch 4 1-2 FB inside

Cole comes back with another curve that catches more of the plate than he’d surely like. Leon bounces it foul and the count stays 1-2.

Leon Pitch 5 1-2 KC foul

I love this. Having left Leon just a bit too much ball to work with, Cole moves the curve down and away and punches him out.

Leon Pitch 6 1-3 KC outside K

Beautiful. The break on this is incredible. Note too that Leon has to be ready for the fastball; Cole has worked both sides of the plate with it already. Can’t be sitting on either.

Leon Pitch 6 K slomo

Up next is Jackie Bradley Jr., the light-hitting (92 OPS+) but sweet-gloving centerfielder. Cole greets him with a breaking pitch that misses wide.

JBJ Pitch 1 KB 1-0

Cole comes back with a fastball — notice how catcher Martin Maldonado just wants it up. Bradley looks like he was sitting on it but misses anyway. Velocity + spin rate, kids.

JBJ Pitch 2 FB 0-1

Bradley takes a nasty fastball for a ball. The Astros announcers are incredulous about this call. It’s probably a strike, but alas — the count runs 2-1.

JBJ Pitch 3 FB 2-1

Cole misses down and in with a breaking pitch to run the count 3-1.

JBJ Pitch 4 FB 3-1

Many a rough inning begin with a walk to a batter low in the batting order. Bradley takes the fastball low-and-in and trots down to first, bringing up the eventual AL MVP with a man on.

JBJ Pitch 5 FB 4-1

Shall we take a moment to appreciate Mookie Betts? We shall. The Red Sox rightfielder had such a great season that he poked his head into the rarefied air above the clouds currently reserved for only Mike Trout: 10.9 bWAR, 186 OPS+. Yowza.

Bradley is a threat to steal, mind you, as Betts looks at a curve to start the at-bat.

Betts Pitch 1 KC 0-1

Cole comes up and in with a straighten-you-up fastball that Betts takes for a ball.

Betts Pitch 2 FB 1-1

Cole offers up another fastball, but leaves it enough over the plate for Betts to knock foul.

Betts Pitch 3 FB 1-2 foul

Cole goes back to the curve and Betts rips it down to third baseman Alex Bregman, who handles it OK but was playing too deep to throw the eventual MVP out. If that breaking ball is a hair or two lower, maybe Bregman can throw him out, but who knows. Betts is really fast.

Two on, one out and the Red Sox have some serious hitters coming up.

Betts Pitch 4 KC 1-2 single

Up steps young leftfielder Andrew Benintendi. This isn’t really a double-play situation for Cole; Betts is way too fast unless you manage to do it on the corners. That’s not really a strategy.

Cole starts the lefty with a curve that misses high and away.

Beni Pitch 1 KC 1-0

Cole leaves a curve (maybe a changeup?) over the plate and Benintendi lofts it out to left field for the second out. Cole left the pitch over the plate and Benintendi just didn’t quite get ahold of it. Is that Cole getting lucky? I’m not sure. Probably a little, but hitters have to respect that fastball. If the young outfielder expected one here, that might explain the flyout.

Beni Pitch 2 Flyout

Even despite the second out, trouble is knocking at the door in the form of Red Sox DH J.D. Martinez and his 173 OPS+.

Two on. Two great teams. A great slugger against a great flamethrower. There aren’t many cooler scenes in the game than this.

Cole doesn’t disappoint: fastball, strike one. Martinez just misses.

JDM Pitch 1 0-1 K

Cole comes right back to the heater, this time throwing it higher and powering it past Martinez for a swinging strike. What a pitch.

You know the guts it takes to throw this pitch to J.D. freaking Martinez? You miss with it and he deposits it onto someone’s windshield.

JDM Pitch 2 0-2 K FB

Sitting 0-2, Cole has a full set of options. He returns to the fastball but moves it up against Martinez’s hands, who fouls it off. I love that Cole isn’t nibbling here against a hitter who absolutely can hammer even your best stuff, much less your mistake. But alas, Cole brings the best he has. Mano e mano. Fastballs up in the zone.

JDM Pitch 3 0-2 foul FB

Cole wisely changes the eye-level here, surrendering a ball to give the Red Sox DH something to think about. This isn’t nibbling; it’s sequencing. You keep pounding fastballs in the same spot and eventually, you’ll miss and Martinez won’t. This is smart pitching.

JDM Pitch 4 1-2

Also: I didn’t show you this, but Cole stepped off the mound twice before this pitch. Was it just to mess with timing or to keep Betts and Bradley in line? Both. Pitchers attack hitters with more than just the ball.

Cole comes right back with another slider in about the same spot that misses low.

JDM Pitch 5 2-2

Now we’re talking. Before the next pitch is delivered, Martinez asks for time — a little tit-for-tat with what Cole was doing before. It’s all part of the battle.

But now here we are, a 2-2 count. Cole, boasting an excellent fastball, finds himself in a tough at-bat against one of the most dangerous hitters alive with two runners on. A single probably scores both.

What do you do? Martinez hasn’t seen the curve. He’s definitely seen the fastball, and its impact might be boosted by the two sliders that missed down and away.

Cole chooses his best pitch. He brings the heat.

JDM Pitch 6 3-2 K

Inning over.

***

Verlander and Cole form one of the most entertaining pairs in any rotation in the sport for pitching nerds like myself. Both are flame-throwing but also cerebral, using timing, sequencing and of course, tunneling, to present as stiff a challenge as possible.

It’ll be fascinating to see how good Cole can be in 2019. If he maintains or even improves on some of the pitch development he showed last season, he’s a Cy Young candidate and in line for a big payday next winter. If he tails off a little, he’s still an elite pitcher and a great companion for Verlander in the Houston rotation.