Pitching, pitching, pitching – It is all the buzz in Baltimore. I think it has been like that for a decade now, maybe longer. The truth is, the Orioles have not been successful at developing pitching. Development has not just failed a few, but an entire decade worth of starters. Matt Riley, Adam Loewen, Radhames Liz, Daniel Cabrera, Josh Towers…I will stop there.
Developing pitchers is not easy. It never has been. However, the Orioles have been one of the worst clubs over the past 15 years at developing pitchers (talent in general). I think they are slowly improving now, but the damage has already been dealt and it may be too late to fix some of it. The main problem that scouts and people within the industry that I talked to have said – you cannot peg a square into a circle hole. Often times, it sure seems as if the Orioles have gone down this route with their pitchers. Tweaking a delivery, taking away something that was working because it was not in their vision, etc. There are countless examples that I have heard over the years. I cannot pinpoint one select example, because who am I to say where it was the right move or not? While I do not think anyone has surefire proof of this, the success rate over the past 15 years is probably enough to indicate that pitcher development has been a colossal failure. It is tough to pinpoint one singular person or group on the failure, but rather that it is an organization-wide dilemma. We will not know how the development of Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy, Mike Wright, Eduardo Rodriguez, Hunter Harvey and others will go for a few years. However, we already have a taste of what is happening/happened with the last group of “cavalry”.
That group would be Zach Britton, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman. It is a fascinating group if you think about it. All four of these pitchers are completely different in terms of body frame and pitching style. All four have traveled down wildly different paths in their quest for major league success. All but one has not panned out as a starter. I do not want to say they “failed”, because that is just cruel. This game is too damn hard to say someone failed because they pitched at the MLB level. I will not degrade someone because they were more talented than 99% of the world at baseball. But the honest truth is they have not been successful in a starting role in the MLB.
I thought it would be interesting to go back and look at some of the older scouting reports on the cavalry. Let us see what has gone wrong with these four:
Game revolves around his sinker — which sits in the low 90′s — and can get it into the 94-95 mph range at times, and has hit 96 mph. Throws the pitch 55%-70% of the time. Slider is an above-average pitch and a true weapon against lefties, and only improving. Changeup is a work in progress, and is slightly below-average. Does an excellent job of keeping his slider and sinker down in the zone, but struggles to command changeup at times. Smooth mechanics. Gets into the driveline early, which should allow him to rack up the innings. Complete package and perfect pitcher for Camden Yards. Very good mound presence. Projects as a #2-#3 starter.
I think Britton is an easy one to figure out. The changeup has not improved in the manner that was hoped. It simply does not create enough of a difference from the fastball. The other problem is that production from the change is primarily tied into your fastball. Britton has run into the difficulty that many pitchers have when they get their opportunity in the majors. Players at AA and AAA have always chased his sinker in the dirt. In the majors it has been a different story. He is often pounding that pitch into the dirt because that has been the only spot that players have not made contact on it – creating poor counts and lopsided pitch counts. Unfortunately, this also really differentiates away from the change. I think his shoulder injury has been a large factor is his troubles as well. Take a look at Britton in 2011 with Bowie and Britton in 2013:
Obviously, we can see that Britton is more upright in 2013. If you are having a hard time noticing what I mean, check out the yellow line and notice the difference in the angles. In the left picture, Britton is more balanced and not relying on any particular part of his body for force in his delivery. Without delving too far into pitching mechanics, balance is a huge issue with pitchers. Pedro Strop is a huge example. Amazing when he is keeping himself balanced, awful when he is opening up or striding too far.
The following was noted on Britton in 2011:
There are some slight concerns about a hard front leg plant, but his front left makes a good angle and allows him to use his back leg more and rotate towards his hips. As long as front leg doesn’t get too stiff, he should be just fine going forward with his current delivery.
That exact thing has happened. The front leg has seemingly become too stiff and further illustrates the off-balanced delivery. This takes pressure away from a lower half drive, which limits the sharpness of his arsenal.
Is it too late for Britton to become a productive MLB starter? No, I do not believe so. But there are major concerns. He has not been terribly deceptive in his last few starts at the MLB level. If the sinker and change are not fooling hitters, then it will be tough to consistently pitch as a starter. Britton was in the instructional league after the season ended, so clearly the O’s are working on ‘something’. Let us hope he can come back strong and help out the big league club in 2013. He has the talent.
Brian Matusz is a very well rounded pitcher. Lefty with plus stuff and command. Low 90s fastball generally has good late life though can be fairly straight at times. Changeup is a tremendous pitch which grades out as plus; throws it with the same arm slot as his fastball. Curveball is also above-average at times, though changeup is his primary out pitch. Has used slider much more frequently lately. Spots all of his pitches well. Advanced feel for pitching. Smart and knows how to mix his pitches well. Delivery isn’t particularly pretty but he repeats it well and its deceptiveness works for him as well.
Matusz is a little more difficult to dissect, and it goes beyond the obvious “cannot get right-handed hitters out”. Obviously, we all know he has struggled with that, considering he was essentially relegated to LOOGY duties in
2013. His delivery has not changed dramatically to me. I do not love it, but it is probably not the reason he has struggled. I think the main issue has been that the fastball is not deceptive enough against right-handed hitters; which makes the changeup lose effectiveness. I think the change is still a good pitch, and it is really evident against left-handed hitters. There have been reports that he is working on tightening up the change grip, which would also indicate that the pitch had improvement left.
There are a ton of theories on Matusz. The one that has constantly stuck out to me is that he could have used more time in the minors to work on getting right-handed hitters out. Sure, we could probably say that about every single pitcher for the Orioles in the past decade.
The point of emphasis on Matusz is that none of his pitches were more than average as a starter. He has five average to above average pitches (two-seam, four-seam, slider, change, curve), but as a whole it was not enough to get by. The curve was primarily used when he was in the rotation. In the bullpen, he has mostly stuck with the slider against left-handed hitters. In fact, Matusz essentially removed the curveball from his arsenal in 2013, only throwing it 4.9% of the time. This is a complete shift in philosophy, and I think it mainly points out that the curveball was simply becoming ineffective. I will leave the numbers to the talented sabermetrics crowd, but I think they will come to the same conclusion on that front.
Matusz is a good pitcher and will continue to have success at the MLB level in some notion. However, it may not be as a starter; especially if he stays with the Orioles.
Righty with a 91-95 mph fastball with some slight, late life. Works with two breaking balls — a curve and a slider — both of which are above-average. The slider is thrown in the 84-87 mph range, while the curveball is thrown in the 76-79 mph range and has some very sharp 11-5 break before it reaches the strike zone. Changeup has some late fade away from lefties and works well when thrown to the outside of the plate. Has the stuff to work up in the zone, but doesn’t command his pitches well enough to do it consistently. Clean, with a repeatable delivery. Has done a better job with foot placement and stride length and his arm slots have always been good, but not great. Mechanics do not point to any future issues.
Arrieta is the one player that I would say makes ‘sense’. I do not see anything out of the regular from him in terms of development. Sometimes, a pitcher just does not work out in their first opportunity in the MLB. Arrieta actually has a fairly strong delivery, and has improved on that foot placement and stride. Is it perfect? No, and not many pitchers have a perfect delivery. The main problem with Arrieta has simply been inconsistency with command. He has some terrific stuff, but often has a hard time within the zone and is often punished for it. No matter how good your stuff is, when a spot is missed the pitch will be hit. I do not believe in the silly narratives that Arrieta has “mental” issues on the mound. It is most likely because pitching at the MLB level is really difficult. Becoming rattled and having mental issues are two entirely different subjects. I believe there are many pitchers that become rattled. It does not mean they have mental issues. Arrieta just loses it at times on the mound. His release points will differ or his landing will shift. This is tough stuff to replicate, but it can make a huge difference in performance. Maybe he does not have the greatest pitchability on the mound, but that is also something that some players do not learn overnight, or over the course of a career.
The TCU alum is the classic case of a pitcher that could eventually “click” at an older age and put together a really strong season. I do not believe anyone would be surprised if that happened, as the stuff is just so electric. Unfortunately, it will not be with the Orioles. I think it is safe to say that Arrieta was the most maddening Orioles pitcher of the past few years. I wish him the best of luck in Chicago and I hope he proves his worth.
Fastball sits in the 91-95 mph and he touches 96 at times. Fastball is straight and he must work down in the strike zone in order to limit home runs. Curveball is an above-average offering, with 12-6 break and good depth. He added a cutterprior to the 2010 season but hasn’t used it as much recently. His changeup has come a long way and is now slightly above-average. Control and command have both greatly improved with new delivery, which is also the reason his velocity has returned. Struggles to stay away from the middle of the plate at times. Smooth delivery and athletic frame.
Ah, the one that has turned into a productive starter. Tillman took a different path to the majors than the other three. He failed first, went back to the minors, and then refined what was necessary before returning. It was not an easy process and often I thought that he would never surface as a productive MLB starter. Boy, was I wrong. Tillman has not only become a starter in the MLB, but he was rather exceptional in 2013. The main things that Tilly (sorry I couldn’t resist) worked on in the minors was a new delivery.
This new delivery kept himself more balanced, more in-line with the path to the plate, and it improved his command, control and fastball velocity. It took him some time to piece it all together, but he refined almost every aspect of his game in his second tour at Norfolk. I do have to give credit to Rick Peterson for that, as he was the one whose voice seemed to reach Tillman (at least this is the report that was spread around).
The extra velocity allowed him to sneak his fairly straight fastballs by MLB hitters, while it is obvious that better command and control brings better success. Tillman already was working on a terrific plane for a pitcher, so even marginal improvements would have been noted. I think the Orioles have to be excited about Tillman down the road. Maybe, just maybe, he gives Orioles fans hope that they can develop a starting pitcher. (although we should probably note that they did not draft him, but they did develop him through the minors for the most part)