Tag: Ode To A Pitcher

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.

Chapman’s slider can be downright filthy

When you’re nicknamed the Cuban Missile and you’ve been known to touch 105 MPH, people just expect to see the fastball. It’s electric in the stadium with Chapman on the mound; partly because of his stuff, partly because he gets tons of strikeouts and, well, because he’s a little wild.

Chapman still throws his heater a lot — over 60 percent of the time — but he’s begun to use the slider to change eye level and add some timing wrinkles to his approach. No matter if you’re throwing pure gas like Chapman or junk balling like Jason Vargas, the name of the game never changes: pitching is disrupting timing. That’s it.

Chapman’s delivery is breathtaking, a powerful unfurling of bat-breaking heat. The way he is able to bend his shoulders back right after separating his hands never ceases to amaze me. Chapman’s velocity doesn’t just happen; he wrenches it out of his body with every pitch. It truly is a sight to see Chapman arch back and unfurl those long arms in person.

Up first for the NL is J.T. Realmuto. Chapman starts the Phillies catcher off with a fastball belt high and away for called strike one. 97 MPH.

Realmuto Pitch 1 FB

Chapman moves down in the zone but stays on the outside corner with another fastball, this one also a called strike.

Realmuto Pitch 2 FB

Being down 0-2 to Aroldis Chapman a few years ago meant you could pretty much expect a hard fastball up. Maybe it would be in the zone; maybe not. Good luck figuring it out in enough time.

The 2019 version of Chapman still has enough power to beat you with the heat, but now he can twist you around with the slider, too. Realmuto surely knows this, and while he probably wanted to resist the shoulder-high fastball, it’s damn near impossible.

Classic Chapman. 100 MPH. One down.

Realmuto Pitch 3 FB

Don’t be too hard on Dodgers infielder Max Muncy for this flinch. Do you know how scary it must be to think for even a second that an Aroldis Chapman fastball might be bulldozing its way to your head?

Yikes. Oh, and Chapman has a reputation for wildness. Great! Alas, no worries here: Chapman tilts a slider into the zone for ball one. All humor aside, this is exactly how tunneling works. Muncy has every reason to believe this is a high-and-tight fastball … until it isn’t.

Muncy Pitch 1 SL

Chapman wisely continues to use the whole strike zone by dropping a slider down and away. You can see the ball plummet from the top-left corner of the zone right into catcher James McCann‘s glove. Unbelievable.

Muncy basically had two options. One, hope it misses for a ball or two, foul it away. It’s not going to be easy at all to drive this.

Note too that Chapman’s showing confidence in his own stuff by going slider here. If he misses, Muncy has the count advantage at 2-0. Then again, when you’re Aroldis Chapman the count is really always in your favor, isn’t it?

Muncy Pitch 2 SL

Chapman fools Muncy again, throwing a third consecutive slider, this one in the zone for a called strike. The location isn’t great, but because of the tunneling, Muncy flinches again. This is easily the best pitch to hit in the at-bat, but because Muncy has to respect the fastball he isn’t ready to pounce.

Muncy Pitch 3 SL

Chapman has two strikes on Muncy and can expand the zone to his heart’s content. Maybe another fastball above the belt, like with Realmuto?

Nah. All sliders. Chapman spins another, moving around in the zone again, this one right at the knees for a beautiful swinging strike three. This was a pitching clinic; Muncy absolutely had to be ready for the fastball, and because of that he was never prepared to handle the slider, which Chapman moved around the zone with confidence.

Brilliant. Two down.

Muncy Pitch 4 SL

Look at the tilt on this thing. (Also: Chapman finishes his delivery so well. It’s picturesque.)

Muncy Pitch 4 SL slomo

The last hope for the National League is Brewers catcher Yasmani Grandal. Chapman greets him with a slider that Grandal bounces foul.

Grandal Pitch 1 FB

Still leaning on the breaking ball, Grandal swings and misses at a slider down and away to run the count 0-2. I hate to sound like a broken record, but when Chapman is locating his pitches around the zone and in sequence, he’s darn near impossible to beat. Tonight, he has his command and we see the results.

Grandal Pitch 2 SL

We’ve seen Chapman climb the ladder and work below the knees in 0-2 counts. What will he do with Grandal? The former, and Grandal just barely holds up his swing for ball one. Smart pitch and a great take.

Consider what the pitcher has done here. By going above the belt, you give Grandal the chance to swing and miss. That’s the optimal outcome. But if he doesn’t, you’ve still shown him a high fastball that he has to be worried about with the next pitch. This is why so many pitchers go hard inside and soft away.

Grandal Pitch 3 FB

Grandal has a lot of strike zone to cover as Chapman readies the fourth pitch of the exchange. However, he doesn’t have to do much more than keep the bat on his shoulder as Chapman air mails a fastball to bring the count to 2-2. Chapman’s first real miss of the evening.

Grandal Pitch 4 FB

Will Grandal get a pitch to drive? We haven’t seen anyone make anything resembling hard contact off the Yankees closer.

Aaaaaaaaand … we won’t. Chapman unleashes an incredible slider that Grandal can’t resist. Strike three. Inning over.

Grandal Pitch 5 FB

Chapman’s slider might help him age gracefully

Aroldis Chapman is signed for two more years with the Yankees. If his velocity continues to hold and the slider proves to be this lethal, the Bombers will have a tough question on their hands that winter. Aging closers are usually not good bets for long term deals, but if you’re going to push your chips in, might as well be for one of the true greats.

Chapman’s velocity will like always be an asset for him, but the emergence of his slider gives him new ways to attack hitters. Any pitcher can benefit from that.

Ode to a Pitcher: Tyler Skaggs, 1991-2019

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Rest in peace.

Some of my fondest childhood memories involve nothing more than a glove, a ball and a wall. I would conjure up fun scenarios — two on, no out, bottom of the ninth! — find my favorite patch of grass and get to work. Sweat pouring down my face on those hot summer afternoons, I’d start attacking imaginary hitters with my vast repertoire. I did this frequently; as it turns out, I would wear out patches of dirt all over the place.

As a youngster, like 7 or 8, I convinced myself that if I put three fingers — index, middle and ring — on the ball I’d be throwing a curveball. And it was a good one. (Don’t fact check that.) It doesn’t have to make sense when you are a kid, it just has to keep up the dream.

As I grew up, I tried to simulate actual pitching motions and again found myself plucking baseballs off walls. I never had much interest in actually going out for the team — that wasn’t my crowd, plus I had a job and cash was nice — but I had plenty of fun spinning wiffle balls in the backyard. I tried to throw sinkers and sliders; the results were mixed.

What joyous memories. My love of baseball was cemented.

I say all this because, in many ways, Tyler Skaggs was living the dream of 18-year-old me. He wasn’t just throwing wiffleball curves in his backyard; he was twisting big league hitters into knots with the real thing. He was able to do things I can’t imagine. Skaggs had the talent to succeed and the drive to put it all together. He was doing it. He was pitching in the Major Leagues. How freaking cool. I hope he was living his dream; it isn’t an easy life, but it sure must be a memorable one.

As you probably know, Skaggs died last week in Texas. He leaves behind a wife; they were married last offseason. Not a single word I type here can do anything for Skaggs’ family, but what I can do is celebrate a young man — younger than me — who loved the game I also love.

Maybe in a different life we could have shared a coffee and talked about baseball. I would have liked that. (I also would have almost certainly annoyed him with incessant questions. Alas.)

Today, we are going to look at Skaggs’ final start, which came on Saturday, June 29 against the Oakland Athletics.

Skaggs could spin a gorgeous curveball

The majesty of this sport is incomparable. Football, basketball and hockey have nothing like a well-spun curveball and let me tell you, Tyler Skaggs could spin one, man. It was a beauty. We’re gonna see it in full glory here, and we’re going to celebrate it.

Up first for the A’s is Chad Pinder. Skaggs starts him with a fastball on the inner half for a called strike. Notice how Skaggs comes up and over with his delivery; beautiful curveballs that way come.

Pinder Pitch 1 FB

My goodness. What a beauty of a pitch. Skaggs drops a hammer on the outside corner and Pinder swings right over it for strike two. That’s how you draw it up, man; this breaking ball is a whopping 17 MPH slower than the fastball before it. Dominant. Sequencing, kids!

Pinder Pitch 2 CRV

It’s 0-2. Skaggs has options. He’s already shown Pinder he can work both sides of the plate, and his curveball just ate the poor guy’s lunch. Oh, what to do, what to do.

Why not the hammer?

Skaggs returns to the curve and buries it inside, drawing another feeble swing. I’m not sure what Pinder could have done in this at-bat; Skaggs has it working, man. This was clinical.

Pinder Pitch 3 CRV

Look at that tilt! Damn thing just falls right out of the sky. Are we sure Dr. Strange didn’t drop this out of a different dimension or something?

Pinder Pitch 3 CRV slomo

Ramon Laureano is up next. Skaggs goes back to this magical hammer — when it’s working, why go away? — and spins it in for strike one. Just as an aside, Skaggs reminds me of Washington Nationals lefty Patrick Corbin. Similar motion — ball hidden below the back, high-arching release — and a gorgeous breaking ball.

Laureano Pitch 1 CRV

Skaggs moves to the outside corner with the changeup and earns a whiff. Both Pinder and Laureano have just been flat out fooled by the Angels lefty. They look like hitters who don’t have a clue what’s coming.

Laureano Pitch 2 CH

If Laureano had whiffed on a curveball in front of home plate, we might have had to just shut down Ode to a Pitcher. The rest of the piece would just be garbled nonsense as I went delirious with utter bliss.

Alas, the A’s outfielder takes it for ball one.

Laureano Pitch 3 CRV

Well sequenced here. Skaggs has worked every which way but up to Laureano, so he wisely goes with the high heat in the 1-2 count. The fastball ends up at shoulder level, but this was a good pitch. Look beyond the count and consider the tactics. With firm control of the count, Skaggs bounced a curveball and fired a fastball above the wrists; in other words, the hitter has a whole lot of strike zone to think about. That’s always good.

Laureano Pitch 4 FB

Skaggs decides to go off-speed but leaves the changeup over the plate for Laureano to bounce foul. This is a healthier swing than before; I’m sure Skaggs realizes this. Probably time to go for the punchout, and that means one thing.

Laureano Pitch 5 CH

The hammer of the gods
Will drive our ships to new lands
To fight the horde
Sing and cry
Valhalla, I am coming

Laureano Pitch 6 CRV

On we sweep with threshing oar
Our only goal will be the western shore

Ahh! Ahh!
We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow

(Sorry — just felt like I had to get the Led out after that curveball. Good heavens.)

Laureano Pitch 6 CRV slomo

Because Skaggs was evidently a merciful hurler, he walks the next batter — Stephen Piscotty — on four pitches. We’re skipping right past that to watch him attack Jurickson Profar.

The Angels lefty comes inside with a very well-located fastball for strike one. Working inside like this against righties is absolutely critical for any lefthander. Yankee fans will no doubt remember Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia bashing hitters with cutters on their hands. Well, they did so for good reason. If the hitter has to watch the inside of the plate and be conscious of not getting jammed, suddenly the pitcher has a bounty of options. Against talents like Skaggs, that’s no bueno. Remember, disrupting timing is the name of the game.

Profar Pitch 1 FB

Skaggs returns to the changeup and gets another whiff in the zone. The A’s hitters are having serious trouble picking up what he’s throwing, a testament to his delivery and the quality of his stuff. Good stuff and consistent deception make for a quality big league starter.

Profar Pitch 2 CH

With Profar 0-2, what are we hoping for? Well, I can’t speak for you, I guess, but I’d like a hammer, please.

Mr. Skaggs delivers, channeling the power of Thor and punching out Profar on a curveball well below the zone. Profar tries his damnedest to hold back but can’t. Punchout.

Profar Pitch 3 CRV

Rest in peace, Tyler.

Ode to a Pitcher: Walker Buehler strikes out sixteen Rockies

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Walker Buehler makes fools of anyone who dares miss his starts.

It’s a real treat to face the Los Angeles Dodgers lately, ain’t it? A real picnic. First, you have to hope your pitching isn’t lit up by Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson, Justin Turner and the rest of the boys in blue. In the somewhat unlikely event you don’t give up six homers, your offense has to face what’s becoming a rather frightening collection of starters.

First, you have the current favorite for the National League Cy Young, Hyun-Jin Ryu. (We profiled him a few weeks ago. Spoiler: He’s awesome.) Ryu will carve you up with every trick and technique in the book; he changes speeds, moves around the zone, messes with timing and generally gives batters fits. But hey, maybe you avoid Ryu. Great!

Clayton Kershaw is a future Hall of Famer and is coming off one of the greatest peaks a hurler has ever had. Uh oh! But, by the grace of the scheduling gods maybe you avoid him too. Phew!

Enter Walker Buehler. Your luck has probably just run out. Buehler, on the later side of 24, flashed elite potential in his nearly 130 innings last year, punching out more than a man per nine and pitching to a 3.04 FIP. Pretty darn good. The stuff is special; his fastball sits in the upper 90s and has elite spin. He throws it a lot and hitters are managing a meager .217 batting average against it. That heater elevates two pretty damn good breaking balls to elite status, especially the curve; hitters are missing 45 percent of the time against it.

Buehler took to the Dodger Stadium mound on Friday, June 21 and turned in an epic performance against the Colorado Rockies. Let’s study that ninth inning, where Buehler managed an epic climax to his evening.

Buehler’s velocity opens the plate, provides him nasty options

Up first for Colorado in this 2-2 game is Raimel Tapia. Buehler starts him with a fastball that misses for ball one.

Tapia Pitch 1 FB

Buehler’s next pitch is a fastball that clips the bottom of the strike zone for strike one.

Tapia Pitch 2 FB

Buehler hangs the 1-1 slider but manages to keep it just enough inside to stop Tapia from driving it. The count now swings firmly in the favor of Buehler, who has plenty of options for a strikeout. Like most of the pitchers we detail in this series, being down 1-2 to Buehler is not a fun predicament.

Tapia Pitch 3 SL

This is a heck of a pitch in sequence. Buehler worked up for ball one, down for strike one, middle-in for strike two and now goes back up and away to try for the strikeout. Credit to Tapia for slapping it away, but note that desperate swing. Analysts talk a lot about velocity and spin rate; here they are in action. Buehler, in a pitcher’s count, threw a pitch that Tapia could do nothing with. That’s smart.

Tapia Pitch 4 FB

Buehler hangs another slider, this one outside of the previous fastball to run the count 2-2. It’s possible he thought Tapia would chase, especially because fastballs and sliders tend to look similar out of the hand. Good take by the Rockies outfielder.

Tapia Pitch 5 SL

Wow. Buehler decides to go right back to the fastball and eats Tapia up with it for the punchout. Located belt high but snug on the outside corner, Tapia’s only hope is to squib it foul and step in again. But no dice; velocity and spin rate, my dude. Velocity and spin rate.

Oh, and this is Buehler’s 102nd pitch of the night and his 13th strikeout.

Tapia Pitch 6 FB

With one down, up steps Charlie Blackmon and his lovely beard. Blackmon drove a fastball in just about the same spot as the one Tapia whiffed on over the right field wall for a homer in the sixth. Perhaps knowing this, Buehler goes to the slider to open the at-bat but again leaves in a rough spot and allows a single. Blackmon reaches with one out.

Blackmon Pitch 1 SL

That baserunner changes the calculus. Buehler was working carefully with the score tied but could still try for strikeouts if the opportunity arose. Now, though, with the Rockies best hitters coming and Blackmon on base, he can’t get cute. The object is to win, not to strike out as many as you can. (Obviously, sometimes those two objectives intersect.)

Up steps David Dahl. He’s greeted with a cutter on the black for strike one. This is a really well-located pitch; the movement at least opens up the chance for Dahl to bounce into a double play.

Dahl Pitch 1 CT

Excellent sequencing. Buehler climbs the ladder with a nasty fastball that Dahl slaps foul. The Dodgers righty has now shown him heat in two different spots and has the count firmly in his favor. Because Buehler has worked the at-bat to his advantage, he can safely reach for a strikeout here, likely by going out of the zone (in any direction).

Dahl Pitch 2 FB

Searching for a strikeout, Buehler turns to that ridiculous curve and dismantles Dahl. Going below the zone like this was wise; it’s a change in eye level, for one, and for two by burying it so low, the risk of hanging it is mitigated — plus, Buehler knows he can trust Russell Martin to smother the ball if Dahl had taken it.

But alas, Dahl can’t resist, and who could blame him. Buehler drops a hammer here, a perfectly executed curve in an essentially perfectly executed at-bat.

Dahl Pitch 2 CRV

Nolan Arenado, the Rockies best player and perhaps the best third baseman in the world, is Colorado’s last chance in the ninth. Arenado took Buehler deep earlier in the game too, hammering a slider — left smack dab in the middle of the zone — past the left field wall. Arenado can make this game 4-2 in a heartbeat.

Sitting at 106 pitches, Buehler goes with his best to open the at-bat, drilling the top of the zone with a 95 MPH fastball for strike one.

Arenado Pitch 1 FB

Buehler runs the 0-1 fastball way up and in for a ball. Unlikely he wanted to put the ball there, but maybe. It would seem to open up the lower half of the strike zone.

Arenado Pitch 2 FB

Whattaya know. Buehler places a cutter down and in for called strike two. Arenado glances back at the umpire, but come on. That’s a strike.

Arenado Pitch 3 CT

Buehler has worked the Rockies slugger inside with each pitch in the at-bat. With a fastball like his, who can blame him? Buehler comes high and tight with another fastball and Arenado pops it foul. It’s possible Buehler wanted this one a touch higher, but it’s still a good pitch.

Arenado Pitch 4 FB

This is a brilliant pitch. Buehler unleashes a hard 97 MPH fastball well above the zone and Arenado can’t resist, swinging right under it to end the inning and give the Dodger righty a whopping 16 strikeouts on the night. Arenado knows he swung at Buehler’s pitch and can’t be pleased with himself about it.

All credit to Walker Buehler, though. His approach to Arenado showed pitching insight to go with his impressive stuff. Russell Martin, a veteran behind the plate, surely helps with that, but ultimately Buehler delivers the pitches. Heck of a performance.

Arenado Pitch 5 FB

Ryu, Buehler and Kershaw form quite a rotation

I looked and looked for reasons to bet against the Dodgers coming into the season. I’m glad I didn’t, though, because they’re excellent again. This team is primed for another trip deep into October, led by an excellent rotation and perhaps the MVP, Cody Bellinger.

Make no mistake, the baseball playoffs are random, but throwing those arms and that slugger at an opponent has to breed at least a little confidence.


Ode to a Pitcher: Broken nose and a black eye can’t stop Max Scherzer

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Pity the poor batters facing this surly dude.

There’s nothing cool about bunting a ball off your own face. It doesn’t matter who does it. Robert Downey Jr couldn’t make that suave. Max Scherzer is about as smooth as sandpaper, so you can imagine how it looked.

This all occurs the day before Scherzer is due to make his next start. We learned Tuesday night that the Nationals ace broke his nose and developed a nice black eye. Lovely. You’ll be shocked — shocked — to know that Scherzer wasted no time telling his manager he’d be missing no time. A few reporters mentioned that he even pantomimed his pitching delivery in the skipper’s office to drive the point home.

There were some legitimate concerns about whether the swelling would spread or his breathing compromised, but come on. This is Max Scherzer. There’s no stopping him.

Just ask the Philadelphia Phillies. Scherzer dominated them earlier this week, throwing seven shutout innings and punching out ten. We’re going to examine that final at-bat in this week’s Ode to a Pitcher.

No safe place facing an angry Scherzer

A man steps onto his mound, near the end of a hard night’s labor, feeling it throughout his body. The arm is a little tired and the legs are sore, but the first wound we notice is right below his eye — odd for a pitcher, but alas. A black eye. Hmm. That guides our attention right to the scowl on his face, a picture of determination and anger.

As fans, we love a pitcher who doesn’t want to exit the game. We love those hard-nosed competitors who snort at umpires, gesture away coaches and stare down batters. History is replete with aces who acted this way: Bob Gibson, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, etc. Those narratives are so easy to latch onto. We find them irresistible.

Max Scherzer pitches with men on base like someone just spat on his wife. His intensity is palpable; he works angry. It’s hard not to be enthralled by it (or terrified, if your team is in the crosshairs.) The Nationals ace entered the seventh inning at just below 100 pitches, carrying a one-run lead. The Nats bullpen has looked better lately but still sits just above the ghastly Orioles in bullpen ERA. Yikes. Scherzer knows he needs to carry the ball as far as he can before risking this win to fate.

So, imagine his reaction after hanging a 1-2 slider to Phillies infielder Cesar Hernandez, who promptly lined it to the right-field wall for a double. Runner on. No out. Scherzer now over 100 pitches, bearing a damn black eye.

Doesn’t this feel like a movie? The camera zooms in on Scherzer’s growling face as the announcers ponder the situation. It’s perfect, really, because this is ace time.

Scherzer immediately does his part, grinding through tough at-bats to strike out Brad Miller and Andrew Knapp. It must be noted that Scherzer missed with three straight fastballs and still finished Miller and bludgeoned poor Knapp with fastballs up in the zone to finish him.

Now he’s one out away with the pitcher’s spot in the batting order up. Jake Arrieta was never facing Scherzer here, but rather than pinch-hit with a bench guy, the Phils send up J.T. Realmuto. Realmuto is no slim challenge; he’s been one of the best hitting catchers in baseball the last few years, and he has a chance to ruin a potentially epic night for one of the sport’s premier hurlers.

Scherzer, sitting at 113 pitches, starts the Phillies catcher with a slider up and in for a called strike one. This is a borderline strike at best.

Notice where Kurt Suzuki sets up; he hung it and had Scherzer left it over the plate, it was potentially a disastrous mistake. Note that is a particularly humid Washington D.C. night, and fatigue isn’t just a mental issue. You can’t always just power your way through it. Tired muscles do things you don’t want them to do, and even with unsafe-for-normal-humans amounts of adrenaline thundering through his veins, Scherzer bears the weight of a hard night’s work.

Realmuto Pitch 1 SL

Working with the advantage in the count, Scherzer attacks Realmuto with a 96 MPH fastball that misses high. Suzuki does a great job of bouncing up to snag this; otherwise, Hernandez trots to third. Tactically that isn’t a big deal with two outs, but it would further convey that the Nationals ace might be out of gas.

Realmuto Pitch 2 FB

The count now sits 1-1, yes, but he’s missed both times. A mistake over the plate ties the game. Scherzer has to make a good pitch here.

And oh, does he ever.

Given the circumstances, Scherzer’s 1-1 fastball to Realmuto is one of the nastiest of the year. The location is perfect, right under the hands, nestled there with some smooth run at the end. It’s hard, too, 97 MPH; pretty darn impressive for your 116th pitch on a muggy evening.

Realmuto loosed a healthy hack and came up with air, and note how he looks back at the zone with almost befuddlement. That’s what a great pitch will do to you. Unless Realmuto was sitting dead-red on a fastball in that spot, doing anything with it would seem almost miraculous. It happens, of course. MLB hitters are awesome. But driving a well-located Max Scherzer fastball isn’t the start of a great plan.

Realmuto Pitch 3 FB

Ah, what to do now? The count firmly belongs to the pitcher, and Scherzer has tons of options. He could run the same fastball another few inches inside and try to tie Realmuto up, or he could venture back up above the zone. Unless the pitcher sees something I don’t, it’s unlikely Realmuto can catch up. Ah, but what about the breaking ball, perhaps out of the zone? Seems like a good idea, but remember — I assure you, Scherzer hasn’t forgotten — that a flat 1-2 slider put Hernandez at second base. That doesn’t predict the future, but it informs the present. It’s part of the decision.

Realmuto, meanwhile, now must cover the entire plate while also being ready to knock another up-and-in heater foul. At this point, against someone like Scherzer, unless Realmuto went up to the dish looking for something specific, you have to just keep the fight alive and hope for a mistake. That means a short swing, hoping for a mistake, ready to bounce balls foul. And hey, Scherzer already missed twice in this at-bat. It can happen.

But then again … you’re facing a three-time Cy Young winner; he’s pissed; he has you in a 1-2 count with a chance to emphatically close out seven shutout innings … and he’s pissed. There is no great option here. We’re hanging on for dear life.

Scherzer chooses the slider and drops it right under the lip of the strike zone. It looks just like a fastball until it isn’t, and Realmuto’s off-balance hack misses. The crowd erupts, Suzuki pops up to show the umpire he caught it and Scherzer slaps his glove and lets out a roar.

Scherzer’s fastball-slider combination to close the inning was classic. There’s nothing fancy about it, nothing revolutionary, but my God does it ever work. Change the eye level, change the speed, voila. Scherzer dominated Realmuto with a fastball on his hands and then spun him in a circle with a slider in the exact opposite quadrant of the strike zone.


Realmuto Pitch 4 SL

Ode to a Pitcher: Justin Verlander cuts a path through the Brewers

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Even after all those miles and strikeouts, Justin Verlander remains incredible.

This irks me.

Baseball can do a lot of things to better promote itself. This column isn’t interested in debating each idea, but here’s one: if you have no-doubt ace facing a team with a superstar hitter, maybe we promote this? How about we discuss it? Could it be on First Take? Hmm? Other sports are great at this — how many times did we hear about Brady vs Manning?

Just this week, Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander, one of the best pitchers in modern history and still an elite hurler by any measure, welcomed the Milwaukee Brewers, led by the reigning MVP, Christian Yelich.

This should be headline news! Verlander vs Yelich! The aging gunslinger who can still slap the youngsters around against arguably the game’s best hitter (non-Mike Trout division). They faced off, one on one, and we’re going to focus on one of those at-bats today.

We’ll be looking at the sixth inning of Wednesday night’s clash in Houston.

Verlander stares down Cain, Yelich and Braun

Lorenzo Cain might be the most underrated player in the sport. I so rarely hear him come up in the best outfielder discussion, which irks me. That could be the cost of playing next to Christian Yelich, who overshadows just about everyone, or it could be something else. Either way, Cain is awesome, and could very well be the sport’s second-best center fielder, behind only Trout.

Tough living next door to a dude reminding everyone of Mickey Mantle.

Verlander greets the superstar with a slider for ball one.

Cain Pitch 1 SL

Verlander comes right back with a hard fastball over the plate for strike two. The location is a bit worrisome, even with the change in quadrant from the slider. I suspect he didn’t think Cain would be hunting fastball here. Why? I don’t know. It’s kind of jarring when you stop to study it.

Cain Pitch 2 FB

This slider to Cain is ridiculous, a crystal-clear look at the power of tunneling and sequencing. Verlander started the centerfielder low and away, then came back with a belt-high heater, and now feeds Cain a slider in just about the same place as the fastball. Look at the result. Cain is completely fooled.

This is a testament to Verlander’s stuff, his knowledge and the repeatability of his mechanics. Because he throws so hard, it’s easy to forget that Verlander is brilliant. This is a testament to that; the at-bat is completely in his control now.

Cain Pitch 3 SL

Take a seat, Lorenzo. Young pitchers, study this exchange. Yes, even that somewhat iffy second-pitch fastball. Verlander just worked over an elite hitter in four pitches — Cain flails at the end. My goodness. Pitchers are just unfair.

Cain Pitch 4 SL

One down. For as great as Cain is, this is the main event. Christian Yelich, arguably the game’s deadliest hitter (again: non-Trout division), is up. Yelich is an unreal slugger and has been flat-out pounding the ball, amassing an absurd 195 wRC+ (um, 100 is average) thus far in 2019. He’s just unstoppable.

This is a heavyweight title fight. It could headline an arena. Verlander, still without question one of the best in the world, staring down a devastating young slugger who could be embarking upon a Hall of Fame career.

Let’s do this.

Verlander starts Yelich with a fastball right on the hands for a called strike one. Well located and hard — 97 MPH. It fits the narrative for Verlander to test the young slugger with heat near the hands; power pitchers tend to want the inside of the plate.

Yelich Pitch 1 FB

This is incredible. You won’t see too many weak hacks from Yelich, but Verlander draws one here with the curve below the zone. Typically it’s hard to make a curve look like a fastball, but this swing clearly looks like a batter fooled … and Verlander isn’t typical. Yelich has to be ready for anything after that first-pitch heater, too. Great pitchers force you to defend every inch of the zone.

Yelich Pitch 2 CRV

With the count 0-2, Verlander knows he can expand the zone and see if Yelich will chase. Even if it isn’t likely that he will — Yelich is a patient, skilled hitter — it makes sense to do so from a sequencing perspective. So Verlander does, burying a slider below the zone inside. Yelich doesn’t go for it, but now he has to be aware of three quadrants: on the hands, down and away, down and in.

Yelich Pitch 3 CRV

The count resides in Verlander’s favor as he weighs the options. He’s attacked each quadrant of the zone except one. Ah, there’s an idea. Why not drop a curve high and away? Who thinks to drop a curveball there? Justin Verlander does, and judging by his reaction, he really wanted that called strike.

It’s a ball. Few inches lower … probably strike three. But Yelich held, and the umpire went his direction. Still, I love Verlander’s hopeful bounce off the mound.

Yelich Pitch 4 CRV

This is a masterpiece in pitch-making. The entire sequence reveals such skill in both stuff and approach, and I think far too often we forget about the latter. This series tries to celebrate both incredible stuff and intelligent approach because the greats boast both. Yo

Verlander dismantled Christian Yelich here with a slider that looked exactly the same as his fastball out of the hand. How do you tell them apart? Remember, Verlander opened the at-bat by standing the slugger up with a 97 MPH fastball up and in. Having worked each quadrant of the strike zone, Verlander appears looks to be working up and in again, so Yelich swings, expecting fastball.

But it isn’t. It’s Verlander’s incredible slider — the best in the sport according to Fangraphs’ pVal — and Yelich swings right through it. Youngsters, study this.

Yelich Pitch 5 SL

You get past Cain and Yelich and the reward is … another former MVP, Ryan Braun. Braun isn’t on the level of his teammates now, but he’s a smart, still dangerous hitter. Screw around with him and he’ll rip a double.

Verlander takes to the outside corner with a slider. Braun bounces it foul to start the count 0-1.

Braun Pitch 1 SL

Verlander stays low in the zone with a second slider, this one a bit more in the middle of the plate. Braun bounces this one foul, too. The count is now firmly in Verlander’s favor, 0-2, which must be what it feels like to have the Hulk gripping you with both hands. Whatever happens next won’t be pretty.

Braun Pitch 2 SL

Did Justin Verlander just strike out Ryan Braun on the same pitch three times? Yes. Yes, he did. I love to break down brilliant sequencing or tunneling, but … well … hard to credit that here. Still, I’d be surprised if Verlander worked Braun this way on a whim. He’s too great and has been for too long, to work without a plan.

Plus, you know, that slider is wicked. Sometimes great stuff does the job on its own.

Braun Pitch 3 SL

Verlander remains unbelievable

The big righty struck out fifteen but allowed three solo bombs in what ended up being a 14-inning game. That pitching line sorta sums up 2019 baseball. Lots of Ks, and sometimes the only way to scratch out a run against these pitching monsters is via solo blasts.

I want to take a second here to go after the Astros announcers. If you have MLB.TV, flip to this game and watch the sixth inning. They spend almost no time discussing the thrill of seeing Verlander face off with these batters again. Sure, it’s the sixth inning, he’s faced them already, but it’s Justin freaking Verlander against Christian by-God Yelich.

This should be a big deal! A really big deal! And it wasn’t. Baseball announcing frustrates me in general, but this was an especially bad look.

Ode to a Pitcher: Max Scherzer leaves the game when he’s darn well ready

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Max Scherzer is the freaking man.

The opening third of the season could have gone better for the Washington Nationals.

The roster has plenty of talent. Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Trea Turner and of course, Max Scherzer, form quite a core. And yet, the Nats have scuffled all year, plagued in part by a car-crash of a bullpen, spinning a ghastly mid-6 ERA. They sit 5 games below .500 as of Thursday afternoon and have been outscored by 14 runs.

Rewind to last Sunday. After splitting the first two games of the road series with the Cincinnati Reds, the Nats sent their ace to the mound. The three-time Cy Young winner is a treat to watch and analyze not just because of his effectiveness, but also his demeanor. We’ve covered Scherzer in this series — spoiler: he was nasty — and as you might imagine, the images are just insane.

He pitches violently, almost as if the batter stole something from him, and now, finally, revenge is in sight. He pitches to conquer and refuses to tap. He’s a treat, a healthy dose of intensity to a sport that can at times feel mundane.

Let’s focus on his eighth-inning performance against the Reds.

If you make Max Scherzer mad, he only gets better

It’s the bottom of the eighth and the Nationals hold a 4-1 run lead. They decide to keep their ace on the mound. He’s already past 100 pitches; normally this would mean a call to the bullpen. But the Nationals bullpen is a disaster and Max Scherzer is Max Scherzer. The choice is obvious.

Up first is Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart. Mad Max leaves a fastball over the plate and Barnhart rips it to right field for a first-pitch double. Smart hitting here, and I don’t mean that sarcastically or to sound obvious. Scherzer is deep in the game and has a reputation for attacking; wise to sit fastball and be ready to pounce. Barnhart was ready.

Barnhart Pitch 1 FB

Jose Peraza pinch hits for Michael Lorenzen with a chance to shorten the lead. There’s no indication that Nationals manager Dave Martinez wants to yank Scherzer yet. The ace gives Peraza a fastball away for ball one.

Peraza Pitch 1 FB

It seems foolhardy to wonder what Scherzer wants here; he always wants the strikeout, and he’s already racked up 13. Against Peraza with Barnhart on second, the goal is obviously a punchout or any other out that doesn’t advance Barnhart. That has to inform everything Scherzer does.

The righty delivers a down-away fastball, this one catching enough of the plate for the Reds infielder to knock it foul.

Peraza Pitch 2 FB

Love this pitch. Scherzer has set Peraza’s eyes away; he might naturally assume something offspeed is coming in the same spot. Ah, but Scherzer changes course and drives a fastball right under his hands. Peraza can only fly out weakly to the lip of the infield. One down.

Peraza Pitch 3 FB

Young center fielder Nick Senzel is up next, and what a nice test it would prove to be for the rookie. Senzel flashes a good bat. Here he’ll be battling an angry flamethrower with the game on the line. You don’t get these kinds of reps anywhere but the bigs.

Scherzer greets the future star with a fastball belt high and away for a called strike. Note the late run on that heater. Yikes.

Senzel Pitch 1 FB

Same principles as above are in play here. You want an out that keeps Barnhart put. Scherzer is pitching for the throat, I assure you, but another easy fly out would do the job too. (Barnhart isn’t a big threat to try and advance.)

Working with an 0-1 count, Scherzer drops a slider below the zone; Senzel shows some restraint in not chasing.

Senzel Pitch 2 SL

Senzel holds off on another slider, this one a tad further outside, to run the count 2-1. Well done.

Senzel Pitch 3 SL

Scherzer tries to sneak a fastball past Senzel in the same path as the slider; you’ll be shocked to learn that the future Hall of Famer is able to tunnel his pitches. Senzel has a nice swing, but you can tell he scrambled to knock this foul. In its own way, that’s impressive. The count is back in the hands of the pitcher, though.

Senzel Pitch 4 FB

It’s obvious Scherzer is intent on working Senzel away. After a couple sliders and a fastball, Mad Max drops a damn good looking changeup on the young center fielder. It’s called a ball … and I guess it’s low, but man. I think #31 wanted that one.

Senzel Pitch 5 CH

Full count. Good hitters work the at-bats in their favor, taking balls and spoiling strikes they don’t want until the pitcher submits, giving them something to drive. Senzel, for all I know, could have been hanging on for dear life the whole time here. It’s Max Scherzer, and he’s pissed. Surviving this long is no small feat.

Either way, through skill or desperation, Senzel is a pitch away from a free base in a three-run game. Great job.

Scherzer drives a fastball right over the plate — this is a real mano e mano deal — and Senzel knocks it foul. The fastball is a little much for him so far, but he stays alive. Scherzer has thrown a lot of pitches on a sunny afternoon in late May; making him work like this can reap rewards.

Senzel Pitch 6 FB

Scherzer wisely turns back to his epic changeup after the fastball, but it catches too much plate and the rookie bounces it foul. He appears to hit the catcher’s glove, but regardless. Senzel lives for another pitch.

Senzel Pitch 7 CH

The eighth pitch is the best fastball of the at-bat. Scherzer runs it under Senzel’s hands, but the kid shows some serious moxie by spoiling it foul. It might seem like nothing to keep fouling these off, but remember that Senzel is a rookie and Max Scherzer is Max Scherzer in his pissed off final form. It’s a big moment and Senzel is hanging in there.

Senzel Pitch 8 FB

The ninth pitch of the at-bat almost seems like a mistake; did he really want to leave a changeup belt high like this? Maybe he did. Scherzer is an amazing pitcher and absolutely can read swings and intent from the batter.

Senzel swings right through the changeup — no doubt it looked just like a fastball off the mound — to bring Scherzer one out from stranding Barnhart.

Senzel Pitch 9 CH

What happens next is pure magic, as tremendous a scene as you’ll ever see. Scherzer knows he’s at a high pitch count — 117, to be exact. The Senzel at-bat was a lot of work, and he correctly assumes his manager will want to pull him to get the final out of the eighth with the bullpen.

But one does not simply pull Max Scherzer from a game he does not wish to leave.

Nationals TV color commentator F.P. Santangelo noted that Martinez had absolutely no chance to remove Scherzer here, and perhaps all he really wanted to do was give his ace a breather before he faced the final batter of the inning, Joey Votto. I suspect that’s the case, but make no mistake, the ace gets a big say in the matter.

After Martinez strolls back to the dugout, the broadcast shows Scherzer huffing and puffing on the mound. His intensity cannot be overstated as he a spins a curveball over the inside corner for a called strike one. Votto’s reaction suggests he didn’t read this well.

Votto Pitch 1 CRV

Wasting little time, Scherzer goes upstairs with a fastball well out of the zone … but he gets the call. This obviously upsets Votto, rightfully so. It’s a huge gift for the pitcher and tilts the at-bat heavily in Scherzer’s favor.

Votto Pitch 2 FB

Max Scherzer’s 120th pitch of the day is a brilliantly located fastball that dots the outside corner. Paint it, black. Indeed. This is a badass pitch, a 97 MPH heater that locks up one of the more patient and disciplined hitters in modern baseball history. He never had a chance.

Note Scherzer’s brief glare as he exits the mound. I love that dude.

Votto Pitch 3 FB

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

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Hyun-Jin Ryu‘s skillful approach has served him well in 2019.

The Los Angeles Dodgers again appear to be the class of the National League. Led offensively by right fielder Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers lead the NL in runs scored and are already eight games up in the NL West, as of Thursday morning. Things are going well.

The pitching has been excellent too, led in great part by Hyun-Jin Ryu’s tremendous start. Ryu, healthy now after seasons dimmed by injuries, has come out of the gate better than ever: 65 innings, 1.65 ERA (2.59 FIP), 25.6 strikeout rate, 1.7 walk rate, 0.83 HR/9. Let’s take stock of this. Ryu has been fortunate — he’s stranding tons of runners and his BABIP isn’t quite normal — but he’s also been legitimately great, mostly because he commits so few unforced errors.

I love a pitcher who doesn’t walk anybody, and Ryu has been diving in the dumpster for aluminum cans stingy. No one managed a walk rate below 3.6% last season — credit to Miles Mikolas — and Ryu isn’t likely to keep his so low either, but even at 5% he’s helping his cause tremendously. Smart pitchers don’t give anything away for free.

We know Ryu doesn’t hurt himself. This sets him up for success, but how does he attack hitters? Well, he doesn’t work like some of the hurlers we’ve studied recently in this series. Ryu doesn’t throw hard (Justin Verlander), can’t unfurl a science-fiction changeup (Luis Castillo) and doesn’t spin a high-spin hammer (Domingo German). His stuff isn’t otherworldly, but it’s good. OK. What sets the Dodgers lefty apart is how well he’s mastered sequencing and tunneling. He’s an absolute master at keeping hitters off-balance, which is the name of the game no matter how hard you throw or what the ball does after you have.

If the hitter is comfortable, you’re in trouble. If he’s not, you’ve got him. That’s the story whether you’re Max Scherzer or Luis Cessa.

Whether Ryu keeps up his Cy Young pace is a question for a different column; so far, he’s been superb and gifted us a great lesson in how to really pitch. Let’s take a look at his recent effort against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Ryu attacks every inch of the strike zone

Wanna be a great pitcher but lack Scherzer-level stuff? There’s a way, but it requires a lot of precision. You’ve got to limit the unforced errors — walks and bombs, kids, walks and bombs — and you’ve got to work the plate every which way. No patterns, no predictability. Lots of first-pitch strikes and keep the chess board tilted in your favor. You have to outthink the hitter and use everything in your disposal to keep him off-balance.

Ryu is quite good at this. He has a sort of hitch-y delivery and hides the ball behind his torso, which elevates the effectiveness of everything he throws. And because of that slight hitch — you’ll see it — Ryu can play timing games with the hitter. A slight strategic pause can be the difference between a double to the wall and a meek ground out during a long, grueling at-bat.

It’s not just the fastball or the curve, the slider or the change. It’s how you throw them, where you throw them and every single action in between.

Adam Frazier steps up to open the game for the Pirates and grounds out weakly after one pitch. This is exactly what I was talking about. Ryu drops a mid-80s change right over the absolute heart of the plate and the batter dribbles it to third base.

Frazier Pitch 1 FB

Bryan Reynolds steps up and gets a changeup for a called strike one. This changeup,  dropped neatly on the outside corner, obviously was better located than the former. Keep an eye on where Ryu puts it; the location is critical for what comes next.

Reynolds Pitch 1 CH

Sometimes it can be a little hard to properly visualize sequencing. It’s not like the cut on a fastball or the drop on a curve; it’s more of an idea than a tangible thing. (Tunneling, of course, can be viewed wonderfully via gifs like the Pitching Ninja produces.)

Alas, Ryu gives us the quintessential look with this hammer of a curve. Reynolds did not see this coming at all; that swing screams “I thought you were going outside again.” Out of the hand, I’m sure this looked like another pitch in the same spot as before. Not a bad notion! Pitchers love to double up.

Ah, but this is where the deception comes into play. Ryu, and pitchers like him, have to be a few steps ahead. Sure, could someone like Jacob deGrom just throw the same damn pitch again and punt the deception in favor of raw stuff? Yes. But Ryu isn’t that guy. He can’t just cowboy up and shove the ball past the hitter.

So he doesn’t. He sets Reynolds’ eyes high and spins a curve that starts up and finishes down. Easy swing and miss.

Reynolds Pitch 2 CRV

Think about this. Ryu started at the belt with a change, then spun a curve below the knees and now finishes the poor dude with a fastball way above the zone. This is utter and complete domination. While a hurler like Verlander might just pummel you with fastballs until you break, Ryu twists you into knots and renders you so uncomfortable as to be helpless.

Look at Reynolds after he misses. Pity the poor soul.

Reynolds Pitch 3 FB

That earned a slower look:

Reynolds Pitch 3 FB SLOMO

Starling Marte is up and swings right over a low sinker for strike one. Just a note for hitters; giving Ryu whiffs out of the zone is a great way to end up out. He’s not likely to lose the advantage in the count once you’ve given it to him, either. If Marte is to reach base, he’ll probably have to do it from a pitcher’s count.

Marte Pitch 1 FB

Another master class in sequencing. Never give the batter a pattern or anything to latch onto. Marte flails at a fastball below the zone to open the exchange, and rather than feed him another, Ryu stands him up with a heater right below the hands for a superb called strike two. Brilliant.

Young pitchers, take note of stuff like this. Marte is a good and dangerous hitter, but Ryu already has him uneasy.

Marte Pitch 2 FB

Um. What is there to say? Ryu puts a changeup way, way out of the zone and Marte absolutely flails at it. The ball was in the other batter’s box, for heaven’s sake, but because Ryu had the outfielder so messed up he couldn’t hold up.

Ryu, as the saying goes, was living rent-free in Marte’s head.

Marte Pitch 3 SL

Ryu’s work shouldn’t go unnoticed

Certainly, this series is fond of pitchers with barn-burning stuff. Who doesn’t love a Luis Castillo changeup or a Blake Treinen sinker? As much fun as that is, studying someone like Ryu is more rewarding. Why? Because we can learn in clear detail how to keep hitters off balance and out of sync. We can learn how to steal easy outs — like the first at-bat above — and how to work all throughout the zone.

Most young pitchers won’t grow up to throw 98 MPH, but they can learn to work like this. They can learn to change speeds and eye levels, to work inside and out, to mess with timing and attack the hitter on every front. Pitchers don’t get hitters out on stuff alone.