Top pitchers make noticeable tweaks

How certain arms are getting used to early-season adjustments

Updated: April 15, 2014, 11:45 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

One week's worth of data is hardly enough to formulate sufficient judgments.

At the same time, in this every-game-counts whirlwind that is a fantasy baseball season, one week's worth of data must be enough to make some judgments. We fantasy owners live in the world of small sample sizes.

It's for that reason that I understand the urge to base rash decisions off one game's action. To be clear, patience is always the preferred course. But it's our job to extract the actionable performances from the fluky ones.

So here's one way to do it: If you can find a suitable explanation for why a certain result occurred, by all means go with it. (As an aside, "He didn't pitch very well" is not a suitable explanation.) Players are making adjustments all the time: Hitters are improving their stances and swings; pitchers are adding pitches, making mechanical adjustments to their deliveries or experiencing increases or losses in velocity.

If you can tie such an adjustment to the performance, you might have an actionable outcome. Think things through: Has something changed to the point that the player indeed is due a different result in 2014 than in the seasons that preceded it? Otherwise, we're still at that stage of the season when your preseason projections should drive your decision-making.

Today, let's take a look at some of those pitchers who had either surprisingly good or bad opening-week outings and who have made some sort of adjustment that will likely have a bearing on their 2014 futures.

Strasburg

Stephen Strasburg: In one of the more prominent spring examples of a pitcher adding a new pitch, Strasburg has introduced a slider to his arsenal. That's right, the pitcher with three excellent pitches in a 95 mph fastball (that his career average velocity), curveball and changeup has added a fourth pitch.

Strasburg threw his slider 13 percent of the time in his first two starts of 2014 -- 9 percent on March 31, 18 this past Saturday -- generated eight misses on 12 swings against it and recorded four of his 16 total strikeouts with it. That's hardly a sizable enough sample from which to draw conclusions, but it does hint that it's an effective offering and one in which he already has confidence. And that's good, because Strasburg's Rotisserie stats in those games were disappointing, while his average fastball velocity dipped to 93.7 mph, down from 95.3 mph in 2013.

With that knowledge, there's little reason to panic over Strasburg's "slow start." In fact, the argument could be made that he's adapting to the change to his arsenal, making this a prime time to trade for him.

Skaggs

Tyler Skaggs: Diminished velocity was the story of his 2013; many reports had him routinely ranging 88-90 mph with his fastball in the minors, and our pitch-tracking tool had his fastball averaging 89.1 mph in the majors with only 43 percent of his fastballs clocking 90 mph or faster. Even at the time of his trade from the Arizona Diamondbacks, general manager Kevin Towers noticed changes to Skaggs' delivery that could have contributed: Skaggs was pitching more upright with a shorter stride, preventing him from finishing his pitches, in 2013.

Los Angeles Angels general manager Jerry DiPoto and pitching coach Mike Butcher noticed the change, as well, and addressed it with Skaggs during spring training. Though the left-hander's Cactus League results don't show it -- he had a 4.94 ERA and 1.82 WHIP in his six starts -- reports on his velocity and effectiveness of his secondary pitches were good. Our pitch-tracking tool backs it up: Skaggs' average fastball clocked 91.6 during his 2014 regular-season debut, with 62 of his 64 fastballs 90-plus mph.

What's more, Skaggs' continued development of a two-seam fastball -- PitchF/X data listed him throwing it 41 percent of the time on Saturday -- helps explain not only his eight shutout innings in that game, but also his 61 percent ground ball rate. Normally, one positive outing for a pitcher making only his 14th career big league start wouldn't be enough data to draw any conclusions, but in Skaggs' case, the adjustments behind them indeed back him up as a worthy pickup.

After all, Skaggs ranked as high as 12th on Keith Law's annual top 100 prospects list entering 2013 -- the very year Skaggs began exhibiting those mechanical flaws.

Odorizzi

Jake Odorizzi: In a spring storyline that might have only flown beneath the radar because more attention was focused upon his quest for a rotation spot, Odorizzi spent most of spring training mastering a new pitch, called "The Thing." Tampa Bay Rays fans might be familiar with that name; Odorizzi learned the pitch, a splitter/changeup hybrid, from his teammate who also throws one, Alex Cobb.

Like Skaggs, Odorizzi's spring statistics masked any change to his repertoire -- he had a 4.24 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in his six appearances (three of them starts) -- but the addition of the pitch greatly deepened his, particularly in that it increases his chances of narrowing his wide righty/lefty platoon split (.263 wOBA allowed to righties from 2012-13, .373 to lefties) and gives him a true swing-and-miss pitch with a ground ball leaning. Yes, the lessons of small sample sizes need be remembered, but the comparison of Odorizzi's changeup from 2013-14 warrants a mention:

2013: 16 percent usage, 21 percent swing-and-miss, .368 wOBA allowed, 15 percent GB
2014: 33 percent usage, 41 percent swing-and-miss, .229 wOBA allowed, 57 percent GB

Odorizzi stymied the Texas Rangers for six shutout innings of three-hit baseball this past Friday, an outing that warrants more attention than a typical opening-week gem.

Sabathia

CC Sabathia: Velocity worries with Sabathia are nothing new; everyone was quick to panic a year ago at this time, and at the time, I analyzed historical April velocities to illustrate that most pitchers tended to exhibit decreased velocity in their first few outings of a new season. In Sabathia's example, however, there were rationales behind the decline that aren't present today: He was coming off October 2012 elbow surgery and he had endured a lighter 2013 spring training schedule.

This season, Sabathia doesn't face those questions, and he reported to camp at a lighter weight, diminishing his number of excuses. Through two regular-season starts in 2014, he has averaged 89.0 mph with his fastball and hit 90 or faster on only 25 percent of his fastballs; he averaged 91.0 mph with 87 percent 90 mph or faster in 2013, and those numbers showed a marked decline, from 92.2 mph in 2012 and 93.7 mph on average in 2011. Only 12 pitchers have afforded a higher isolated power on fastballs since the beginning of last season than Sabathia (.188).

Here's what's so bothersome about that: Coming off a promising spring training (1.29 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, in five starts) in which Sabathia was reportedly developing a cutter to counter his declining velocity, the left-hander threw just two cutters in his first two regular-season starts, both of them during the Sunday game in Toronto. Suddenly, he's looking a lot further from "learning to pitch with less velocity" than I initially hoped, and more matchups-type in standard 10-team leagues.

Moore

Matt Moore: His is yet another example of decreasing velocity; he averaged 91.7 mph with his fastball during his 2014 regular-season debut, down from 92.3 mph on average in 2013 and 94.3 mph in 2012. What's more, control has been an issue for Moore throughout his big-league career, as he had 15 walks in 17 1/3 Grapefruit League innings after walking 11.8 percent of the hitters he faced in 2013.

That's never a plus for a pitcher, especially not when he leaves a game early with elbow pain, as was the case for Moore on Monday night. He's scheduled for an MRI, though the Tampa Bay Rays believe the injury isn't serious; we'll see whether a lengthy disabled list is in his immediate future.

Still, Moore at least had made one change to his game entering 2014, which gives him a fighting chance once he heals: He added a cutter, which he threw 16 percent of the time during his April 2 start, resulting in three of his 17 outs, though only four percent of the time in his Monday outing. It's a pitch that typically results in weaker contact -- the league's well-hit average (the percentage of at-bats that resulted in hard contact) with cutters last season was .150, but off fastballs was .188 -- while helping a left-hander narrow his righty/lefty split. Moore has yet to exhibit results that hint fantasy owners should seek to acquire him in trade, especially not with him potentially set to miss time, but at least he's working on making adjustments. Don't be quick to dismiss him once he returns to the mound; he's well worth putting on a watch list to see how he fares with his new pitch.

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