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Chat: Doug Thorburn

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Welcome to Baseball Prospectus' Friday September 06, 2013 2:00 PM ET chat session with Doug Thorburn.


BP's pitching guru takes your questions.

Doug Thorburn: We are embarking on the best part of the year, with football season kicking off while baseball drives toward the postseason. There's a lot going on, but let's focus on the mound and talk some pitching.

Paul (DC): How would you rate R.A. Dickey, everyone's favorite knuckler, this year in his transition to the AL?

Doug Thorburn: I would probably give him a C, based on performance as well as expectation. 2012 was obviously an outlier, but all of the pre-season hype about the potential dome effect on knucklers helped to fuel optimism. Relying so heavily on such an unpredictable pitch opens up the gamut of possible outcomes.

On the jukebox: Tool, "Sober"

Hoot John Carter (Torontonian New Yorker-Detroiter): Would you rather have Porcello or Kazmir next year? next four years?

Doug Thorburn: Give me the guy who has not been under the knife, both next year and for the next four. A pitcher who generates tons of grounders while keeping freebies off the bases is immensely valuable, and Porcello is still just 24 years old. Put him in front of a stronger defense, and Porcello would be a league-average pitcher at worst. Kazmir is too much of a wild card, but it has been a fun ride in 2013.

On the jukebox: The Clash, "London Calling"

Cal Guy (Cal): Who has the higher ceiling between Gausman and A. Bradley and who has the better chance to reach that ceiling?

Doug Thorburn: I think that Gausman has the higher ceiling, but Bradley is probably more likely to reach that ceiling. Each pitcher is a work-in-progress, with some elements to iron out before they are ready for Major League action. Gausman earns the ceiling edge based on pure stuff - he sits high 90's, the change-up is just unfair when it's on, and he has a better pitch-mix overall. The problem is that Gausman has been through some drastic mechanical changes from high school to college to the pros, and though he earns points for an ability to adapt, he has a ways to go in terms of consistency.

On the jukebox: Drist, "The Scalpel"

Bartctg (Buffalo): Are there stats for a pitching from the wind up and from the stretch?

Doug Thorburn: Not directly, but you can sort through the situational stats to get an idea. Most pitchers are only in the wind-up with the bases empty or with the bases loaded. The tougher question is assessing how well they do with a slide step versus a normal lift - for that you have to really know the pitcher's tendencies. Some guys only go with the slide step with 2nd base open, some use it more consistently from the stretch, and still others vary it up on every pitch.

On the jukebox: Thrice, "The Beltsville Crucible"

Alex (Anaheim): Are there any sources of pitching hope in the Yankee system?

Doug Thorburn: Most of the Yankee rays of hope are buried deep in the farm system. If Manny Banuelos returns safely from Tommy John surgery then he probably has the best chance to make an impact in the near future. But I expect the Yankees to continue to use their prospects in trade in order to buffer the major-league roster.

edwardarthur (Illinois): Is Keyvius Sampson the guy who dominated AA, or the guy who got killed in AAA (approx. 1/1 K/BB) both before and after his stint in AA?

Doug Thorburn: Keyvius has one of the coolest names in the minors, so he has that going for him. He is both the guy who dominated AA and the one who struggled in AAA - Sampson has a powerful delivery that he struggles to repeat, and though he was able to ride his stuff in AA, it appears that AAA hitters waited him out. Looking at the game logs, he never walked more than 3 batters across 18 starts in AA, but he walked 4 or more in 4 of his 9 starts in AAA.

Sampson is an example of why pitchers with great momentum get a bad rap. It is more difficult to harness the higher levels of kinetic energy, but the key is finding each pitcher's ideal timing pattern. Right now he is too fast into foot strike, and his signature asks for a slightly slower delivery. Most pitchers are too slow, however, and though they can stabilize balance a bit easier, they also open up a larger window of time for the delivery to fall off-track. His solution lies somewhere in the middle.

On the jukebox: Megadeth, "Train of Consequences"

MKPJ (Chicago): Can you speak about Tanaka please? Is he going to be worth the dough?

Doug Thorburn: I doubt that he will be worth the posting fee plus the cost to sign. That is true of nearly any high-end NPB pitcher, because the posting system sets up a situation where the player virtually has to continue performing at an elite level, to which the odds are stacked heavily against.

Regarding Tanaka specifically, I do not like his delivery, and I see a lot of red flags. He not only invokes the NPB pause during the momentum phase of his delivery, but Tanaka basically does a double-clutch at max leg lift. This will likely hamper his consistency, but the bigger concern is that his head bails out after foot strike. The heavy spine tilt is bad for repetition, release distance, and injury risk - I would not want to be the one paying for his decline phase.

On the jukebox: Stone Temple Pilots, "Crackerman"

Cal Guy (Cal): David Price will be a top ___ pitcher if he stays in the AL and a top ___ pitcher if he moves to the NL

Doug Thorburn: Great question. I like him in the top 3-6 range among AL SP, with the ability to be the best pitcher in the league any given year. I would would up the range to the top 5-10 starters in the NL - the senior circuit is really loaded with arms, and the line for top arm starts behind Kershaw. Plus, Jose Fernandez might have the #2 spot on lockdown - the kid is that good.

On the jukebox: Dredg, "I Don't Know"

The Dude (Office): What are your thoughts on Martin Perez? He seems to have above average stuff, including mid-90s heat from the left side, but the results (mainly the Ks) seem to lag behind.

Doug Thorburn: Perez has really improved his delivery over the past year, and he certainly has the raw stuff to miss more bats. Given his age and profile, I am optimistic that he can take another step forward, but his improvements in functional strength/balance/etc were necessary for him to make that leap.

Thomas (Palm beach): Arm speed as opposed to location is more important for a great change up.is that correct?

Doug Thorburn: Both elements are very important, and location is the single-most critical element that a pitcher can possess. That said, change-up command essentially boils down to a pitcher's ability to fade the pitch under the lower shelf of the strike zone, and in that sense the requirements for change-up command are looser than with other pitches. The arm speed thing is the critical point from a development perspective, as many pitchers physically slow the arm down in order to reduce velocity, and MLB hitters can pick up on the difference in arm action. So yeah, that's my long way of saying that you are correct, from a developmental stance.

Robert (California): CJ Wilson has been having himself quiet rebound season. Anything mechanically different you have noticed?

Doug Thorburn: I haven't been overly impressed with Wilson this year, personally, but he has made some improvement to his posture at release point. But he still has issues with timing consistency, resulting in below-average pitch command, and he has been very hittable this season. The ERA is artificially low, as 12 of the 78 runs that he has surrendered (15%) have been unearned, and he is giving up more baserunners on a per-inning basis than he has in any year since 2008. He has been on a run for the past couple of months, though.

On the jukebox: Alice in Chains, "No Excuses"

jkase28 (Phoenix): What is keeping Trevor Cahill from being Brandon Webb ?

Doug Thorburn: In a good sense or a bad sense? If you mean the Webb from 2007-08, the difference is mostly stuff, as Webb's sinker was one of the best that I have seen over the last 6 years. There was so much late movement that Webb could throw the Sink more than 70% of the time, with batters knowing it was on its way, and they still couldn't square up the pitch (I know, you can't "square up" round objects). Cahill's sinker is a bit more hittable, and he does not get the same extreme downhill plane that Webb did, as B-Webb had a naturally-elevated angle of shoulder abduction. That elevated angle is also a precursor to shoulder injury, though, so Cahill could very well be thankful in the long run.

On the jukebox: Soundgarden, "Rusty Cage"

MKPJ (Chicago): How come I never see Electric Wizard or Kyuss or The Fall for that matter on the jukebox?

Doug Thorburn: Allow me to rectify that.

On the jukebox: Kyuss, "Green Machine"

Shawnykid23 (CT): Have you noticed anything different in Jordan Zimmermann's delivery lately? He hasn't been quite as good as at the beginning of the year.

Doug Thorburn: It's all in the timing. Paul Sporer assigned Zimmermann to me as homework for a recent episode of TINSTAAPP, and the biggest thing that I noticed was that his repetition of timing - which is typically excellent - has been off, and Zimm is missing targets both in and out of the strike zone. I can't emphasize this enough: Timing is by the far the most critical element to successful pitching in the big leagues.

The Zimm talk is at the 2:18 mark of Episode 13 of TINSTAAPP (that's hours:minutes): http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=21646

Shertz (Miami): Can long tossing a softball twice a week increase strength and velocity?

Doug Thorburn: In theory, yes, but I would not necessarily recommend it. A softball weighs more than a baseball (6 oz compared to 5 oz), and work with weighted balls has been shown to have a positive effect, but there is an added complication with the differences in how you grip the ball, and that is before getting into the issue with combining the variables of increased weight with increased distance. The combo could very create issues at maximum external rotation of the throwing arm, and I would recommend a simpler regimen that uses the different drills in isolation, and ditching the softball for weighted baseballs from a regular distance.

On the jukebox: Rage Against the Machine, "Settle for Nothing"

Jake (State Farm): How many warmup pitches do pitchers throw before a game and in between innings? Are they throwing those pitches at 100%? So how many pitches are pitchers actually throwing per 9? What are you wearing? I'm wearing khakis.

Doug Thorburn: The number of warm-up pitches differs for each player before the game, but they are limited to a set amount in-between innings (I think it is around 8-10 pitches). They are definitely not throwing 100%, and though pitchers vary as far as their warm-up intensity, I would peg the average around 80% of full effort. There are many pitchers who display solid balance and posture in warm-ups, but who fail to stabilize those aspect at full speed.

R.A. Wagman (Thornhhill): Ricky Romero - clearly broken, but is he fixable?

Doug Thorburn: Everyone is fixable, in theory, but Romero has a steep hill to climb. His delivery has fallen backwards along with his stats, and his baselines were never strong to begin with, so I would temper expectations.

Lucas Punkari (Airdrie, Alberta): As the season winds down, is their anything in particular that you look at for starting pitchers as their teams gear up for the playoff runs?

Doug Thorburn: Awesome question, Lucas. For me, the biggest element is fatigue at the end of the season, especially for young players who may be entering unprecedented realms in terms of season-long workload. There are many potential indicators for fatigue, from timing issues to poor posture, lower angles of shoulder abduction, or minimized torque. The radar gun can give us some indicators, and so can a pitcher's command profile down the stretch.

On the jukebox: Pink Floyd, "Pigs (Three Different Ones)"

Shawnykid23 (CT): Is Mariano's cutter the best pitch ever? I mean every one knows it's coming and it's gonna be between 90-92 MPH, but he still gets the job done.

Doug Thorburn: I don't know about the best pitch ever, since I have only been watching baseball for the last 25 years or so, but it might be the most effective pitch of my generation. Other votes go to Nolan Ryan's fastball and Randy Johnson's slider, to name a few. Right now, I think that Jose Fernandez's "Defector" may be the nastiest pitch in baseball.

Shawn (CT): Do you see Danny Duffy developing into a relaible mid of the rotation arm?

Doug Thorburn: He has the raw velocity and the pitch mix for the rotation, but his secondary stuff has not been crisp enough to hold down a mid-rotation spot yet. His command has been very spotty, and he has some mechanical obstacle to overcome before he can iron out those issues - he has an overly-closed stride that does not appear to work well with his signature, and he struggles with balance from foot strike through release point. So it all depends on his development path, but if he can't make the necessary adjustments then he may be destined for a role in the bullpen.

Randy (Syracuse): What types of non-throwing exercise is best for pitchers to develop functional strength? I'm thinking back a few years to Curt Schilling trying out pilates and wondered if that or yoga make for good off-season training.

Doug Thorburn: I like a multi-faceted approach that emphasizes balance of functional strength and functional flexibility. Isometric exercises like pilates or yoga are great for pitchers for this reason. Another great exercise is surfing - the paddling is great for building back-side shoulder muscles, which function as the brakes once the ball leaves the hand.

On the jukebox: Metallica, "Motorbreath"

William (Pensacola, FL): How would you establish a innings limit for players right out of HS if you were a teams Minor League director?

Doug Thorburn: I would adhere to a dynamic approach that is tailored to each player's specific profile. Pitchers with deficits in conditioning, functional strength, or mechanics would receive lower limits while those other elements were developed. Pitchers with stronger physical baselines would be accelerated at a more rapid pace. I feel that many of the current strategies for young pitcher development are too soft and too stringent, such that players are not being adequately prepared to eventually throw 200 innings in the majors.

R.A. Wagman (Thornhhill): Doug - To both the good and the bad, which pitcher's results this year most flew in the face of his mechanics? Thanks

Doug Thorburn: The good - Probably Greg Holland, who I discussed last week in Raising Aces. His mechanics absolutely do not support such a low walk rate, and he is surviving on pure fastball velocity and sheer movement on the slider.

The bad - Jeremy Hellickson. I really like his delivery overall, and prior to this season he had shown exceptional repetition of mechanical timing, such that Jose Molina could set up outside the borders of the strike zone and expect Helix to hit the location. Most frustrating is that Hellickson has changed his approach with runners on, invoking a slide step on every pitch from the stretch. He used to mix in the occasional slide step from the stretch, but most of his pitches with runners on base were actually better than the windup because he increased his momentum while maintaining a big leg kick, giving him a deeper release point. But his release is very shallow when uses the slide step, and the massive timing difference from windup to stretch has tarnished his repetition this season. The Rays are smart organization, so here's hoping that they can get him to revert back to what worked for the past few seasons.

On the jukebox: Ozzy Osbourne, "Mr. Crowley"

Shawnykid23 (CT): There seem to be a lot of very good "smaller" minor league pitchers close to or already in the MLB (Carlos Martinez, Yordano Ventura, Marcus Stroman, etc.) Why does everyone assume bullpen for these type of guys. I understand they aren't "built" like a prototype pitcher, but even if they can't log 200 innings, say they can log 170 (which is about 29, 6 inning starts), isn't that more valuable than being in the bullpen?

Doug Thorburn: Great question, ShawnyKid.

There is a modicum of truth to the bias against short pitchers, but for the most part it is completely overblown. The assumption that these guys can't hold up is based on very weak anecdotal evidence, and as you astutely mention, even if the theory was true then there should be a way to get more innings out of shorter pitchers.

Teams have become way too adherent to the system of 6-inning guys and 1-inning guys, in my opinion, as well as having set roles throughout the season. Similar to the earlier question about conditioning, I very much prefer a dynamic approach to workloads, because reality is not so convenient as to divvy these pitchers up into so few categories. There are 20-pitch guys, 50-pitch guys, 70-pitch guys, 110-pitch guys, and so on. It is all about knowing your staff and working within each player's own limitations.

On the jukebox: Sublime, "Santeria"

gerrybraun (San Diego): Thanks for the chat, Doug. Could you take a stab at predicting the Diamondbacks rotation for next year?

Doug Thorburn: Pending trades of course - Corbin, Miley, and Delgado are locks. They are paying Cahill too much money to not let him start, and they will give McCarthy every opportunity to earn his $10 million next year. Skaggs has some mechanical issues to overcome before he can be consistently effective in the majors, but he could break through if the other starters falter or get hurt. Bradley is the wild card, with a likely ETA of mid-to-late 2014, and he may very well force the Diamondbacks to make room for him in the rotation. Arizona may also want to keep him out of the PCL, especially Reno, where the bandboxes can create bad habits.

On the jukebox: The Yardbirds, "Smokestack Lightening"

Kendall (Seattle): I just read your Taijuan Walker piece (excellent of course). During the game, I watching his arm as he throws and it looks like his curveball (which looks filthy to me) arm action looks very different than his fastball arm action. It may be because of what the pitch looks like after it leaves his hand, but was wondering if you noticed that at all? Or if it really matters for opposing batters?

Doug Thorburn: Thanks for the kind words, Kendall.

I have not noticed any extreme differences between fastball and curveball arm action in terms of arm speed, but you are right that the ball comes out of his hand much differently, and that could be an indicator of some issues with curveball arm action. His curve has a bit of a hump in it, which worries me, because that is often a sign of pitchers who throw twister curves (as opposed to supinated curveballs). The twist is dangerous, and batters can pick up the difference in trajectory out of hand, though Walker's curve is so steep that he can probably survive even when hitters can see it coming.

Great observation, and if he is twisting the curve, then it could certainly pose an issue for his development.

On the jukebox: Primus, "Jerry Was a Racecar Driver"

dianagram (VORGville): Sox young pitchers ... who ya got out of De La Rosa, Webster, Ranuado?

Doug Thorburn: Take this with big grains of salt, because I have not yet seen the 6'7" Ranaudo pitch, but I would take Webster based on the combo of stuff and mechanics.

On the jukebox: Sepultura, "Ratamahatta"

Dave (Tampa): What's going on with the SHARK? The Cubs should be able to extend him rather cheaply right?

Doug Thorburn: I definitely think that the Cubs should take this opportunity to extend Samardzija, assuming that they can leverage his recent struggles into a discount. His delivery is very strong, and most of his issues boil down to (*surprise*) timing. The velocity is still there and has been sustained for several seasons, he is well out of the injury nexus, and he has the upside of a #2 starter. I would buy on the Shark heading into 2014.

On the jukebox: Lagwagon, "Coffee and Cigarettes"

Brian (Worcester): Would be interested to hear what you have to say about a pop-up prospect this year, Danny Salazar that seems to be getting a decent amount of hype. What do you see his ceiling as, and what are his pitches like beyond the great fastball?

Doug Thorburn: I really like Salazar's delivery, with a great mix of power and stability that is rarely seen in a young pitcher. I love the fastball-splitter combo, off-setting elite velocity with a trap-door split where the bottom drops out at the last moment. He has a strong 10-mph difference between fastball and off-speed, and his heat is such that batters have no choice but to sit on the fastball. His slider is still a work in progress, though, with more vertical break than horizontal. The slider trajectory, paired with the fact that his slider velocity matches that of the splitter, limits his ability to laterally adjust batter eye levels while giving him just two options in terms of utilizing effective velocity.

On the jukebox: Misfits, "Some Kinda Hate"

Matt (Chicago): Is Josh Johnson a value opportunity this offseason or a looming repeat TJ guy? His peripherals weren't too bad and the velocity seemed ok.

Doug Thorburn: I don't like to forecast injury for anyone, regardless of the indicators. There is just too much that we don't know in terms structural integrity, genetics, conditioning, etc. Most of his issues this season have stemmed from the stretch, and even veteran pitchers can make large alterations from season to season. I would not pay for the expectation that he will come back 100%, but I do think that he is a great buy-low candidate. I'm sure that the Pirates will be calling.

Lucas Punkari (Airdrie, Alberta): Is there any pitchers in the minors right now that you can't wait to see preform in the majors for whatever reason?

Doug Thorburn: My favorite is Jose Berrios. I absolutely loved his delivery when he was drafted, with incredible momentum and the functional strength to handle so much kinetic energy. The burning question is whether the Twins will let him keep the momentum or if they will try to slow him down due to the perception that such power belongs in the bullpen. This is especially critical given his height (listed 6'0") and the aforementioned bias against "shorter" pitchers in a starting role.

The momentum gives Berrios an extended release point that more than makes up for any height deficiencies, and to take away the momentum would be to sap his most effective mechanical weapon - this is actually a common scenario, and in this sense the "short power pitchers belong in the 'pen" paradigm can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But my eyes saw a strong kid who could definitely develop the foundation necessary to make the most of his physical gifts.

I can't wait to see what he carries with him to the majors, and what (f anything) changes.

On the jukebox: Van Halen, "Panama"

Doug Thorburn: Thanks for all of the excellent questions! 'Til next time, enjoy the thrill of sports in September.

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