It is epidemic during every Spring Training start. Fans and assorted baseball watchers eagerly await radar gun readings for every pitch thrown by a key starter. Should the readings fail to match up with expected numbers, panic ensues. We fret a few missing miles per hour here and there, often caring little for any and all context.

It is, in some ways, the worst of modern fandom: the inability to see the forest for the trees feeding kneejerk reactions and far too much spilled ink. Why obsess over an extra MPH here and there?

Because it matters, is why.

When many fans and bloggers aren’t obsessing with gun readings and portending doom for aging pitchers not bringing the same juice as usual, they are elevating AAAA scrubs to God-like status over their Spring Training numbers.

Spring numbers are a two-way street. Proven pitchers post ugly lines but these bad outings can often be explained away. Pitchers integrate new pitches or work on refining a particular pitch by throwing it in counts and situations they wouldn’t dare when their paychecks are on the line. Sometimes pitchers just aren’t ready. They aren’t sharp. They miss spots and struggle with location.

Hitters who make it to the highest levels of the game, even AAAA scrubs and roster fillers, did reach this level by accident. They are incredible athletes and among the best 1000 practitioners of their craft in the world. They punish mistakes.

A “mistake hitter” is often a player who cannot get over the hump in the Big Leagues – he doesn’t miss an errant fastball or hanging slider on his way to The Show but upon arrival at the highest level, those mistakes dry up. Instead of seeing one a week, he gets one cookie a month. Man cannot live on one cookie, especially when he is as big as Wily Mo Pena. He needs more to survive than scraps.

Not only to big league pitchers make fewer mistakes, they also tend to have the sort of stuff built to survive such mistakes. The kind of velocity and movement that makes it hard to put a good swing on even bad pitches.

Consider the below offering from Walking Human Interest Story Dustin McGowan. During a superlative performance against the Angels at the end of the 2011 season, McGowan simply blows a fastball past Vernon Wells. It is a pitch with enough nastiness that, had Wells managed to get a bat to it, he probably couldn’t do much with it anyway (he is Vernon Wells, after all.)

If this GIF lasted a few more frames, we could see the pitch registered 94 mph on the (not entirely accurate) TV radar gun. With ample downward and arm-side movement. Filth. Stuff like that earns you two year plus an option even when your medical records make for a longer read than your scouting report.

But, for a second, look back to the moment before McGowan releases the pitch. Look at Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia, setting up for the pitch. Look at the target he sets.

Arencibia’s glove is highlighted with a yellow spot here – he called for the pitch inside on Wells. A two-seam fastball under the hitter’s hands. If it hits the spot, not much Wells can do with it other than pop it up. Maybe he gives up on it and it “backs up” over the inside corner.

McGowan misses his spot by a foot, causing Arencibia to reach across his body to catch the pitch that ends up on the outside half. McGowan, to his eternal credit, has so much jam on the pitch that Wells can’t touch it. A “good miss”, to borrow a golf term.

Dustin McGowan and other pitchers known for their velocity and movement can get away with this – middling control guys cannot. If you miss with a fastball at 90 or 91 and a little flatter (instead of 94 with movement), it is doomed. Even the Ghost of Vernon Wells can handle a sinker out over the plate. (Well, maybe not.)

It is for this reason that big-armed goons like Matt Bush get chance after chance while “drop, drive, hope, and pray” pitchers like Brad Mills get traded for one of the worst position players in baseball. Even the best pitchers make mistakes; it is the ability to survive them that differentiates between scrub and star.

During Spring Training, these mistakes are more frequent, so lesser hitters can sometimes bunch a few freebies together and force their way, ever so briefly, onto a big league club. Control pitchers must be so fine with every pitch they make as all hitters at all levels lie in wait for just such an opportunity.

Those who light up the gun and make scouts drool with an impressive arsenal of plus pitches have nine baseball lives, to say the least. Every front office sees an opportunity in pitchers like this. A mechanical adjustment here, sport psychology appointment there and suddenly you have a bat-missing fiend on the cheap.

They get chances because they get away with things other pitchers simply cannot. It is the law of jungle, or the Golden Rule or an ancient Chinese proverb. I dunno, guys like this are sure fun to watch. Pitch to contact, my eye.

Comments (22)

  1. That pitch has some nice bite on it.

    Was that strike 3?

    If McG can throw fastballs like that down in the zone all year, he’s going to earn that paycheque quickly

    • It was strike three.

      It was, as I said, a good miss. He can survive missing his spot down in the zone but even at 94 if is wild and over the plate, he’s done.

      • I have good movement on my fastball… and I’m a lefty…. Sadly my fastball also moves at about 70mph max.

      • The Ghost of Wells facing off against the Shell of McGowan.

        That was a sick pitch. Agreed, velocity matters. But with McGowan’s sinking 2-seamer, it also has nasty movement.

        So, so, so, if movement is also important, does that mean that Cecil has a chance?

    • Well, the count was 2-2.

  2. My favourite line “Man cannot live on one cookie”

  3. Velocity matters a lot because even if the pitcher isn’t quite good enough to make the rotation, he seemingly will make the ‘pen based on his stuff.

    A question posed to all and generally speaking, how many power pitchers do you want in a rotation? There must be some cause for variety even though I dislike finesse pitchers on the regular.

    I wonder how finesse pitchers do in terms of success for each division in baseball. That would be pretty cool to see even though it would be impossible. #justsaying

    • How would you define a power pitcher?

      My first inclination would be that I would want a well-diverse pitching staff so that batters during a series have to see all kinds of stuff and velocities but to be totally honest, now that I think about it, I’m not sure it makes a difference.

      • I think your first instinct was correct.

        Ideally, pitchers with different stuff should be in your rotation for the reasons you just said. Over the course of the series, you would like the other team to have keep adjusting and potentially changing their line up if you’re also going right-left-right on them. The last thing you want is 5 guys with the same stuff, even if it’s all hard stuff. Just look at most pitcher’s stats the third time through a line up and you’ll see all you need to know about that.

        Having said, I think that type of detail is FAR down the list of team objectives. Most teams are struggling to find 5 solid major league starters period on any given year. They’re just going with the best they’ve got.

  4. 3 pitches later, Peter Bourjos took a belt high fastball to LF for a homerun.

  5. Good post, Drew.

    Is there a metric (or anybody doing it like Brooks Baseball or PitchFX) to how often a pitcher (like our sad story McGowan) has missed their spots by 1/2-ft or more? Or how often do they hit their spots, etc…

  6. There are multiple typos in this article.

    Maybe he would hit his spot more if he didn’t jam it.

  7. Velocity is one of the first things scouts look at for a reason. Didn’t FanGraphs do an article on pitching success by velocity? I know there was an interesting graph in there somewhere.

    • It’s the part of things that is deemed genetic. The theory is that you can take a guy with velocity and teach him command or mechanics. But you’ll never take a guy with command and teach him more velocity.

      I’m starting to wonder if that’s even true. I think the good pitchers just naturally have good velocity and good command.

  8. It’s pretty simple really: If you look at the ten or fifteen best pitchers in each league in any given year, most of them are going to have plus velocity, plenty of movement on their pitches or (most often) both. If you put together a reasonable list of the twenty best pitchers of all time, most of them are power pitchers. There are exceptions (see: Maddux, Greg), but I can’t think of any that didn’t have an incredible combination of command and movement to compensate for average or worse velocity.

  9. Its about time someone blogged about the intricasies/mechanics of the game. This is the shit, the nitty gritty of the game that I like. The rest can go jerk off to WAR, BABIP, and FIP and go give a good reach-around to Bill James.

    But this shows true baseball knowledge. Nice work.

  10. You ever play the game Fairservice?

  11. It’s simple, McGowan goes 120 innings, not much of a stretch since he threw 80 plus last year with the rehabs and sims added in. They will shut him down as if he was Morrow 2 years ago.
    They have alreasy said, in an aside I admit, that the plan for the 21 year old arm of Hutchison is to throw 3 innings at a clip, prolly AA, until McGowan hits his wall. So they get 5 or 6 from the Ghost of Hentgen when they call him up. Carry them both, it’ll be close enough to the September callups anyway. They don’t absolutely need Davis and Francisco, waive the latter when Hutch arrives. Gomes position flexability and half decent righty bench bat makes all this more feasible. Never mind getting to waive bye bye to the Cancer Bat that answers to Mathis.
    The bonus if the Jays beat the long odds and get a shot at a playoff run…they now have a stretched out Hutch and a rested Dusty. Playoff bullpen or starts, 8 man pen, it’s been done before. Works for me.

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