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Monday, July 28, 2003

A Scouting Primer: Pitchers

Deric explains the ins and outs of the art of scouting pitchers.  Part 2 of 2.

Last week, we focused on position players and how they are scouted. This week, the focus is on pitchers and what scouts look for in a pitching prospect.

GRADING SCALE

Pitchers are graded on the same scale as position players; a 20-to-80 (or 2-8) scale, with 80 representing the highest achievable grade. The grade of 50 is considered Major League average. Pitchers are graded for fastball velocity, fastball movement, control, curveball, slider, change of pace, "other" pitch, mechanics, poise, baseball instinct, and aggressiveness. However, for OFP purposes, only the fastball and breaking pitches are graded. Some organizations will grade the change of pace and other pitches, as well as mechanics, but the feeling is that only the fastball and ability to spin the ball are actual tools. The rest are considered player development issues.

                                                                                               
GradeClass
*65-80Major League Star
*50-64Major League Regular
*50Major League Average
*40-49Major League Fringe
*38-39Organizational Player

BODY TYPES

Just like with position players, a scout will want to target athletes. Athletes and players who demonstrate good mechanics usually turn out to be better players and have a better chance to improve. Body projection, especially at the amateur level is weighed heavily when evaluating pitchers, and can signify improved velocity as they mature. As we learned in the position player article, mechanics below the waist are easier to correct than mechanics above the waist. Being athletic in and of itself does not make one a better ballplayer, but it gives a player a better chance to succeed.

The tall pitcher versus short pitcher debate has been a hot topic over the past few years, especially with the emergence of short pitchers like Byung-Hyun Kim (BOS), Billy Wagner (HOU), and Francisco Rodriguez (ANA). Pitchers above 6’0" have always been targeted more aggressively than their shorter counterparts. Taller pitchers tend to generate more body leverage and exhibit a more vertical, downward plane to their pitches, which makes them more difficult to hit. Most short pitchers have to expend a little more effort to their deliveries in order to throw the ball harder.

THROWING

A player, whether pitcher or position player, should demonstrate proper throwing mechanics. The throwing motion should be uninterrupted with proper extension in back, followed by a fluid move forward in which the arm is in an "L-shape" with the elbow parallel to the shoulder. The transmission of energy follows through the hand and arm, with full extension out front. The action of the wrist is very important, as it helps propel the baseball and creates velocity. The position of the wrist in back should have the thumb down and not possesses a flop (looseness), hook (hooking the ball behind the back before throwing, similar to Rick Sutcliffe or White Sox prospect Neal Cotts), wrap (twisting the wrist over before throwing) or jerk (sudden, unnatural movement).

A player will possess one of seven arm angles (extreme overhand, overhand, high-3/4, 3/4, low-3/4, sidearm, and submarine). Adjustments can be made to a player’s arm angle, which can alter both velocity and movement. As a rule of thumb, the lower the arm angle, the more movement a pitcher will get, but at the expense of velocity.

Arm strength can improve with physical maturation, proper positioning, and through mechanical adjustments. Long arms with fluid movements may be able to improve their arm strength, whereas muscular, short-armed athletes tend not to improve. When evaluating the throwing arm, a scout will determine if a mechanical adjustment can be made and to what degree the player will improve.

PITCHING

Pitching comes down to velocity, movement, deception, and command, but to evaluate pitching correctly, it must be broken down into its component parts. Arm action is the first thing a scout looks for. The better the arm action, the livelier the arm, and hence more velocity and movement a pitcher will have. Pitchers like Roy Oswalt (HOU), Mark Prior (CHC), and Joel Pi?eiro (SEA) have impressive arm action. The ball appears to explode out of their hands, though their arm action is very fluid and quiet. Pitchers that show effort to their deliveries can become problematic. While these pitchers can still throw hard, it is difficult for them to maintain their velocity at higher pitch counts and also leaves them more susceptible to injury.

In breaking down a pitcher’s delivery, a scout will note the type of windup (full, semi, or none), arm angle, balance, hand separation (between belly and chest bone), stride foot (straight-down with some knee flexion), and arm extension. A pitcher’s delivery must work together in perfect synchronization, showing good extension in front and back, along with balance, rhythm, and leg involvement.

Deception can come in the form of hiding the baseball, preventing the hitter from seeing the release too soon, and by repeating the delivery on all of the pitches, keeping hitters off-balance. Pitchers like Hideo Nomo (LA) and Dontrelle Willis (FLA) create deception with their exaggerated movements during their deliveries.

Repeating a delivery not only creates deception, but is very integral to a pitcher’s command. Pitchers will not only want to repeat their arm action, but will want to show the same arm slot for every pitch. Athletes are better equipped to repeat their deliveries and make mechanical adjustments, than non-athletic pitchers. Pedro Martinez (BOS) and Greg Maddux (ATL) are masters at repeating their delivery, and is one of the major reasons for their success.

Velocity is related to the pitcher’s arm strength, ability to generate leverage through proper mechanics, and hand speed. The ability of a pitcher to hold velocity throughout the game is important for starting pitchers. Scouts are usually equipped with a radar gun to measure velocity, but in lieu of not having a radar gun velocity and movement can be noted by how often pitches miss hitters’ bats, the number of broken bats, how often a hitter is fooled, and/or the number of groundballs.

The pitch common to all pitchers is the fastball. Pitchers possess one or both types of fastballs, a four-seamer, which will rise through the strike zone, and a two-seamer, which has sinking action. Four-seam fastballs are generally thrown harder and are common to most power pitchers. Fastballs that possess horizontal movement, will behave in one of three different ways; boring (into the batter hard), tailing (into the batter slightly), and cutting (away from the batter). Some pitchers will purposely throw a cut-fastball, which is accomplished by the pitcher cutting off his extension out front.

                                                                                                                               
GradeVelocity
*8096+
*7094-95
*6092-93
*5089-91
*4087-88
*3085-86
*2084-

While the velocity of a fastball is its primary component, movement also plays an important role in its overall quality. A pitcher, like Derek Lowe (BOS), might have the velocity to give him just an average-grade fastball, but with the tremendous movement that he gets on his sinker, the final fastball grade would be well above average. The velocity component is weighed more heavily at the amateur level.

The curveball and slider are the two most common types of breaking pitches. Curveballs should have a tight rotation, breaking late in a vertical direction, and are more effective from high arm angles. The curveball will appear to spin on a single point as it arrives to the plate. The slider is held with two fingers on the narrow part of the seams. It should have tight rotation as well and make a sharp, horizontal break. On its way to the plate, a slider will appear to be spinning with a small round circle in the middle. A slurve is a less-effective breaking pitch, having a slower rotation and appearing to be more flat. A lack of arm speed is usually the culprit.

Successful starting pitchers will also need to offer a quality off-speed pitch. Change-ups can take the form of a circle-change, straight-change, or palmball, and to be effective they need to be 8-10 MPH slower than the fastball and be thrown with the same arm speed. Trick pitches like a split-fingered fastball (forkball), knuckleball, knuckle-curve, and screwball can serve as breaking or off-speed pitches, and though they often show good movement, they are much harder to control.

A pitcher must also deliver the baseball in a reasonable amount of time (Major League average is 1.3 seconds) to aid in halting the running game. The bend of the back leg (in contact with the pitching rubber) from the stretch position is the trigger and time is stopped when the baseball hits the catchers’ mitt. This is one of the items that a base-coach is timing with his stopwatch. Teams will add the result to a catcher’s pop time and compare it to the speed of their runner for base-stealing purposes. Scouts rarely pay attention to delivery times while scouting amateurs, but will note delivery times when advance scouting the Majors.

POSITIONING

A pitcher should be viewed from different angles to get the proper read on them. The view directly behind home plate allows you to see pitch movement, the pitcher’s motion from a straight-on perspective, and the entire field. A pitcher’s mechanics can be best seen from the same side he pitches from. Heading to the bullpen ten minutes before the game starts will allow you to get an early glimpse of the starting pitcher. Although the pitcher won’t be in a game mode, you can note the types of pitches that he throws and dissect his delivery.

GRADES FOR PRESENT PROSPECTS (*OFP components)

Rich Harden (RHP, OAK)?..6’1”/180#?..OFP: 66

Velocity

Fastball*

65/70

89-96

Fastball Movement

65/70

 

Slider*

55/60

82-85

Splitter*

55/55

80-84

Control

55/55

 

Cut-fastball

55/60

83-85

Poise

55/55

 

Baseball Instinct

45/50

 

Aggressiveness

60/60

 

Arm action-excellent?Delivery-good
Physical description?Small frame, evenly proportioned, athletic
Mechanical distinctives?high 3/4, semi-windup
Abilities: Fluid arm action.  Ball explodes from hand.  Throws two-seam (89-92 MPH) and four-	seam (91-96 MPH) fastball equally well.  Uses slider and cutter effectively.  Deceptive delivery 	with slight pause.  Competitive. 
Weaknesses: Slightness of frame.  Command of splitter.  Setting up hitters.  Throwing strikes.

Summation: Changed OFP 4 points: plus arm action, variety of quality pitches, and aggressiveness.  Mixes pitches well.  Can get strikeout with four pitches.  Experience should alleviate problems with setting up hitters and improvement of splitter.  No problem with stamina 	at present.  Solid, number two starter.

Shane Loux (RHP, DET)?..6’2”/230#?..OFP: 48

Velocity

Fastball*

50/55

87-92

Fastball Movement

55/60

 

Curveball*

40/45

75-79

Control

50/55

 

Change

45/50

79-82

Poise

50/50

 

Baseball Instinct

40/45

 

Aggressiveness

50/55

 

Arm action-good?Delivery-good
Physical description?Medium frame, stocky, muscular
Mechanical distinctives?3/4, semi-windup
Abilities: Compact delivery.  Late sink and fade to fastball.  Deceptive with change.  Keeps ball down. works quickly.  Fields position.
Weaknesses: Curveball breaks too early and not thrown for strikes.  Tips curveball.  No MLB out pitch.  Command within strike zone.  Pitch sequence.  No strikeout ability.

Summation: Changed OFP 3 points: sinking movement to fastball and quality change.  Relies on groundball outs and changing speeds.  Need to develop curveball, work corners, and setup hitters better.  Fifth starter/middle reliever.

Deric McKamey Posted: July 28, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 5 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Dudefella Posted: July 28, 2003 at 02:30 AM (#612347)
Quick question - you referred to the 4-seamer "rising" through the strike zone. I've heard this before, but is it even physically possible for a pitched ball to break upwards (knuckleballs notwithstanding)?
   2. Chris Reed Posted: July 28, 2003 at 02:30 AM (#612362)
"impossible for a thrown ball to travel upward? My kid throws a ball up into the air all the time - it's not "defying gravity". Gravity eventually wins out and it eventually comes back down, of course, but for half of its flight it was "travelling upward"."

I have no ida if you are beingt serious, but if you are, that'a a great example of a ball being THROWN UPWARDS, not of a ball RISING.

Under any normal circumstances, it is impossible for a ball to rise.
   3. Brian Posted: July 28, 2003 at 02:30 AM (#612370)
"A baseball released 55 feet from home plate at 90 mph is in the air for approximately .42 seconds. Gravity will cause this ball to fall approximately 1.73 meters during its flight (it will actually fall even more since the pitcher,throwing from a mound, must impart a slight downward trajectory to keep the ball from sailing over the hitter's head). Circumstances would have to be very extreme even for a machine to generate enough spin on a baseball to counteract this effect entirely. A pitcher who throws a "rising fastball" simply counteracts it more than batters expect, which is no mean feat."

You think that a 90 MPH baseball sink 5 1/2 feet in 55 feet of travel ? Never operated a pitching machine ? I have and you're dead wrong. THe machine releases the ball at a flat angle and it doesn't sink at all.
Also, it's impossible to discuss rising fastballs without discussing angle of release. Classic drop-and-drive guys like Seaver, Clemens, Schilling release the ball lower and at a more upward angle than a CHuck Finley type. Also, check out the angle of release on Randy sometime. He may be tall but often his hand drops down and he releases the ball on the way up.
   4. J. Cross Posted: July 30, 2003 at 02:31 AM (#612399)
C'mon folks. A rising fastball (or any fastball for that matter, including a "sinker") ends up higher than a ball with no spin would due to gravity. The talk of whehter it rises relative to the ground is kind of silly.

My question is who really thinks that they can SEE fastball movement so as to rate it? Fastball movement is like bat speed you can't see it with the bare eye but you can recognize it in the results.
   5. Joey Numbaz (Scruff) Posted: July 30, 2003 at 02:31 AM (#612401)
Deric, I'm a bit tardy, but I posted a comment on your first article earlier today, don't want to hijack this one, but I figured people have stopped looking at the first one, so I'd point it out, just a comment on one of your comments really.

I've learned a lot too, thanks for a couple of great articles.

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