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July 19, 2013

Raising Aces

Back to the Futures Game, 2013

by Doug Thorburn

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The Futures Game has been well-covered by my BP brethren, with a cadre of our brightest minds on hand to witness the event. We have been treated with previews of the rosters for the USA and World teams, eyewitness accounts of the game, a PITCHf/x-based review of the pitchers’ performance, and discussions of the impact that these players will have on rosters both real and fantasy. Unlike my geographically-advantaged colleagues, however, I was unable to attend the game, so I was left to watch virtually through an off-center camera lens from 3000 miles away.

Poor vantage points have never stopped me before, and I can't resist the temptation to evaluate elite prospects with a quick snapshot of their deliveries. Pitchers will often sacrifice mechanics in All-Star exhibitions, dropping the balance elements in order to pump up the power grades and light up radar guns, an element which needs to be considered in conjunction with the natural caveats of a one-inning sample size. That said, there is much to be learned about a pitcher's baseline delivery when his talent is on display in front of a national audience, and a number of Sunday's hurlers left an indelible impression of development.

Noah Syndergaard (NYM) – Acquired from Toronto in the off-season trade that brought R.A. Dickey north of the border, Syndergaard has shined with a 95:23 K-to-BB ratio in 88.7 innings spread across High-A and Double-A this season. The 20-year-old is an imposing figure on the mound, standing at 6'-6” and tipping the scales at 240 pounds, and his size is well utilized in his delivery.

The Mets farmhand was strategically selected to be the starting pitcher for the USA squad in the Futures Game. He maintained great balance throughout the delivery in his outing, and though he had a slight drop in center-of-gravity after max leg lift, Syndergaard maintained the lateral position of his head very well. He finished with solid-to-plus posture, and though he featured some extra spine-tilt on those pitches on which he pumped up the velocity, the overall grades for his balance and posture were above average.

The momentum was less impressive from a standpoint of sheer power, but Syndergaard efficiently directed his energy toward the target and stayed on-line to the plate even as he initiated the high-energy phases of rotation. He showed better momentum from the stretch, using a lower leg lift but avoiding the use of a slide step with runners on base.

Syndergaard used hip-heavy torque with a great delay of trunk rotation, allowing him to finish with a stable explosion of kinetic energy that produced 94-96 mph of “easy” velocity. He commanded the fastball well during his inning of work, and he showed off the ability to bury a steep curveball under the zone. The righty started on the first-base side of the rubber, defying conventional wisdom, but the adjusted setup made it easier for him to line up the delivery at release point. The skewed starting position allowed Syndergaard to finish on the centerline despite his closed stride-angle.

Rafael Montero (NYM) –Mets fans at Citi Field were treated to products from the local farm in both halves of the opening frame, with Montero leading the charge for the World Team. Montero could very well be the first to arrive, since he’s sporting a tidy strikeout-to-walk ratio of 101-to-20 over 99.7 innings and sits a rung higher than Syndergaard on the minor-league ladder.

Despite having comparable numbers, Montero's mechanics offered a stark contrast to that of his future teammate. Balance was not one of the Montero's strengths, as he suffered from instability that occurred at various stages in his delivery. He had some lean back toward first base as he reached max leg lift, after which the head trailed behind his center-of-mass with a lean back toward second base (especially from the stretch).

The leaning tendencies were not egregious, but Montero’s imbalance became a bigger issue after foot strike. He landed heavily on the front leg, with heavy flex in his front knee that lowered his center of gravity, and he finished with excessive spine-tilt into release point. It seems remarkable that he has compiled such impressive walk numbers despite these obstacles to repetition, and though the trend potentially speaks well of his timing, it is also cause for trepidation regarding his future consistency.

There were no clips available from his Futures Game performance, but Montero's mechanical baselines are apparent in the above clip from spring training. He has a relatively slow delivery, adding yet another obstacle to pitch repetition, and his stride pattern involves a lunge with the front leg in lieu of starting hip rotation prior to foot strike. Montero rotates the hips very late in the sequence, firing hips and shoulders nearly in unison, a strategy that greatly minimizes his hip-shoulder separation and lowers the efficiency of his torque.

The technique greatly complicates the timing sequence within the narrow time-window between foot strike and release point, and though pitchers such as Clayton Kershaw have been able to find success with this strategy, such cases are few and far between in the major leagues. Montero also uses upper-body load to get some measure of hip-shoulder separation, but his posture sells out as soon as the rotational elements kick into gear.

Taijuan Walker (SEA) – I have written about Walker a couple of times in this space, including a review of his performance in last year's Futures Game and a deeper evaluation of the skills that he demonstrated in the minors last season. He brings a rare combination to the mound, with an ideal frame and an efficient delivery that support a robust repertoire of plus pitches. However, his mechanics and stuff had been volatile prior to this season. Walker has taken a tremendous leap forward in 2013, posting a K-to-walk ratio of 112:35 and an ERA of 2.16 in an even 100 innings, and his newfound consistency has the right-hander knocking on the door to the Seattle stage.

This is the part where I am supposed to say that Walker has made improvements to his delivery that help to explain the breakout performance. But while the 20-year old has certainly made adjustments, some of the functional implications to his motion would actually worsen the grades on his mechanics report card. Walker has added a “pause” to his windup, in which he halts his momentum during leg lift before resuming his path to the plate. He also initiated a bit of a reverse-twist into max lift, rotating the hips away from the plate. The move is nearly a blend of the momentum patterns of Seattle pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Felix Hernandez, though the pause is not long as that of Iwakuma and the twist is not as extreme as Hernandez's corkscrew.

In most cases, I would expect such techniques to hinder a young pitcher's ability to repeat the delivery, but to the contrary, Walker has experienced a renaissance of timing while Iwakuma and Hernandez continue to enjoy great success in the majors. Repetition is the most critical variable on the report card, so even though I might question the methodology, it’s tough to argue with the results.

I watched Walker's July 1st start for Tacoma versus Colorado Springs (see above clip), which gave an extended look at the right-hander's new delivery. I wanted to see a few more pitches from the windup as well as the stretch, since a common issue with pauses and corkscrews is that pitchers have to make large adjustments when pitching with runners on base. Sure enough, Walker lowered his leg lift with men on base, essentially eliminated both the pause and the corkscrew, and flashed inconsistent stride patterns, though his dominant stuff helped to cover for many of the flaws. Walker also carries the advantage of great downhill plane without sacrificing his mechanical efficiency to do so, as his naturally elevated arm slot comes paired with strong posture. His ability to paint the lower shelf of the strike zone is the greatest asset to his pitch trajectory.

Michael Ynoa (OAK) – The Oakland A's made Ynoa a $4 million man at the age of 16, watched him endure growing pains that included Tommy John surgery, and were put in a position that necessitated a move to the 40-man roster for a pitcher who had totaled less than 40 professional innings entering this season. A's fans had to be thrilled to see Ynoa resurface in the Futures Game, and the 6'-7” right-hander displayed mid-90s heat to fuel optimism that he can recoup some of his value to the team. But the now-21-year-old also reminded us that there is a steep hill to climb from High-A Stockton to the majors.

Ynoa finished his delivery with an upright spine, and though the lack of tilt is a plus, his lack of forward flexion with the spine kept him from taking full advantage of flexibility. His balance was solid from the windup, but Ynoa introduced a heavy drop and drive when forced to pitch from the stretch. He collapsed the back leg upon first movement with runners on base, causing the head to trail as the bottom fell out of his center-of-mass, though he did appear to add some extra flexion of the spine from the stretch position into release point.

On a more positive note, Ynoa did not employ the slide step when pitching from the stretch, as the A's avoid the technique throughout the organization (golf clap). However, his momentum with runners on base was deceptive. He led with the hip and displayed quickness from the stretch, but his weak balance at setup kept Ynoa from generating much power as the back leg collapsed. His velocity was derived from a combination of delayed trunk rotation and extra scapular loading to increase torque, and he finished with his energy directed at the target, though his overall momentum had room for improvement. The ceiling is there for a power delivery with stability as well as consistency, and though his motion can flash brilliance, it appears that Ynoa is still developing the physical tools necessary to succeed at the highest level.

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

Related Content:  Pitching,  Prospects,  Minor Leagues,  Mechanics,  Futures Game

4 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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BarryR

As a Met fan, your Montero evaluation raises concerns (although I have a feeling that he may end up spending his career in a different uniform). There are two potential problems for pitchers with questionable mechanics - increased injury risk and difficulty with command and control. As for the former, all pitchers have a pretty high injury risk and your description didn't seem to imply undue stress in his delivery which would increase it. If I am wrong, please correct me.
As for the second part, his command and control in the minors has been exemplary - you can't put together that K/W ration in the upper minors without it. It's not like he's a soft-tosser who is outwitting kids and will automatically fail as he goes up.
Let's go back to the origins of BP and get a little analytic. How many pitchers have the kind of success (sub 3 ERA, 5:1 K:W ratio) Montero has and then fail in the majors? What is the success to failure rate of all such pitchers? Then let's look at the deliveries of said pitchers and see if there is a link to inefficient deliveries lessening the likelihood of success. It seems to me that the flaws in a pitcher's delivery should start to cause him problems in AA. But if a pitcher's command and control produce high-end results in the upper minors, then I would contend, absent heightened injury risk, that they aren't really a problem in fact, but only in theory.
I find the end of the description most interesting. You compare his release to Clayton Kershaw's, pointing out how rare it is to have success with that. Now I'm not saying he is Kershaw (almost no one is), but is it possible that if a pitcher can maintain velocity and command out of a release which should limit both, then that release is, to borrow an old computer phrase, less of a bug and more of a feature? It seems to me that an oddly timed release combined with velocity would greatly disadvantage a hitter.
Thanks for the article and hanging in through my long response.

Jul 19, 2013 12:25 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Great points, Barry, and I appreciate the detailed response.

It is rare to see such solid walk numbers from a pitcher with so many obstacles to repetition. It does speak well to his timing, though this is something that can't really be evaluated in a one-inning sample, so I would need to see more before giving him the stamp of approval.

The Kershaw comparison was specific to his "hip-whip" style of torque, with delayed hip rotation and the firing of hips and shoulders almost in unison - but the release points of Kersh and Montero are quite different. There are others that use the hip-whip technique, but very few top-end pitchers (esp starters) - I cited Kershaw as the one example of a starting pitcher who makes it work, though it should be noted that Kersh has also had some issues with his hip in recent years. Kershaw is an outlier in many ways, though, including his odd momentum pattern that features three different speeds en route to the plate, so I would not exactly use him as a template.

Jul 19, 2013 13:09 PM
 
Scott Gilroy

Would it be fair to say that some pitchers with bad mechanics would likely be less effective with proper mechanics. I'm thinking more of a major change then a tweak. Would changing the muscle memory and windup of some guys take away their edge? Just a thought.

Jul 21, 2013 14:26 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

In the short-term, yes. But in the long-term, almost every athlete would be better-suited with proper mechanical fundamentals such as solid balance and efficient transfer of energy.

This is a great question, as muscle memory and structural integrity are certainly factors, but they manifest much differently depending on the "bad" part of a pitcher's mechanics.

For example, guys with spine-tilt are invoking more muscle groups, and are doing so in an inefficient fashion, which places undue pressure on certain muscles and ligaments. Also, pitchers who lack mechanical repetition are using a wider array of muscle groups in an inconsistent fashion, which opens up the gamut of potential injury or ineffectiveness.

In most cases, the improvements in mechanics that I suggest involve a more efficient use of muscles and joints, to allow the body to be utilized the way it is designed. But harnessing a new technique takes time. The duration of the learning curve is player-specific, and is also sensitive to the elements that are under construction.

Jul 21, 2013 19:28 PM
 
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