Can Terry Ryan And Old School Scouting Still Build A Bullpen?
On the Twins network radio program, general manager Terry Ryan said he was quite content with the assortment of arms he and his staff had already started collecting. In response to missing out (or perhaps sitting out) on Bastardo, Ryan mentioned that he had confidence in finding someone who could provide that kind of production -- specifically naming the recently signed Fernando Abad.
As LaVelle Neal from the Star Tribune reported last week, the Minnesota Twins scouts say they feel that Abad had been tipping his pitches in 2015 resulting in the obliteration of many that had he spun toward home plate. When you consider that his home run rate skyrocketed to over two per nine innings pitched, as well as his well-hit average jumping from a career rate under 25% to above 35% in 2015, the theory seems plausible that hitters were tipped off by something in Abad’s methods.
Beyond those two high-level metrics, more granular data may also corroborate the Twins’ theory. For instance, when you examine Abad’s chase rate on his two most frequented pitches -- his fastball and curve ball -- over the past four seasons, the numbers show a stark drop in hitters chasing pitches out of the zone. According to ESPN/TruMedia’s data, Abad was able to get hitters to chase after a fastball out of the strike zone 28.5% of the time from 2012 through 2014. This past year, however, hitters held up much more frequently, chasing after 20% of his out-of-zone fastballs. Likewise, opponents followed his breaking ball out of the strike zone 31% of the time from 2012-2014 but chased just 24% of time in 2015. It stands to reason that if hitters were able to pick up on what was coming ahead of time, they would have a better chance at zoning the pitch. Less chance of being fooled would lead to fewer silly swings.
Tipping pitches is not exclusive to struggling relievers -- just ask David Price. In the ALCS, Price was cruising along for the Toronto Blue Jays and was shutting down the Kansas City Royals lineup in Game 2. In the seventh inning, however, the Royals began to make loud impact and put four runs on the big lefthander. Later, a member of the Royals staff confirmed to Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci that they had picked up on Price’s tell. When Price threw his change-up, he would take an extra deep breath and hold the ball a fraction longer than when he threw his fastball.
In the 2001 World Series, the Diamondbacks jumped all over the Yankees to a 15-2, Arizona chased Andy Pettitte out of the game early based on a tell that gave hitters a head’s up. According to broadcaster Rick Sutcliffe, Pettitte would double-tap the ball in his glove in the set position when he was coming with a fastball. Former Diamondback Jay Bell later confirmed this, saying his team had a “clear picture” of what the Yankee southpaw was going to throw.
While Price and Pettitte’s stories are the norm when it comes to tipping pitches, there are other more absurd missteps. In his book “Throwback” former catcher Jason Kendall shared the story of Ted Lilly who would actually silently mouth the word “fastball” or “curve” to his catcher if he thought the hitter was taking a warm- up swing or looking down at the third base coach. Often, Lilly would zone out and simply mouth the pitch he wanted no matter who was looking.
So what are the Twins’ scouts and hitters possibly seeing from Abad? Going over several of his outings from MLB.tv, there is one possibility of a pattern that starts to emerge in 2015. Take a look at the images below. The images are captured at the moment Abad brings his hands together before dropping his hands to his belt and delivering the pitch. In the top two images, Abad is about to throw a fastball. In the bottom, a breaking ball.
As you can see, Abad’s hands are much higher when he collects prior to spinning a breaking ball to the Angels’ Kole Calhoun than in the other two pitches above. This seemed to happen several times over this season: His threw a fastball from the lower starting point and spun a pitch when he gathered high. It probably would not take long for a major league hitter, coach or scout to pick up on that pattern.
Could Abad’s struggles in 2015 really be sourced to an abundantly obvious tell?
Abad’s gopher ball struggles might not be completely related to the pitch tipping (although that likely didn’t help). He also lost a noticeable amount of velocity off of his fastball -- dropping nearly two miles per hour on the heat over the previous season. He also added a very meh cutter to his repertoire. Furthermore, tipping his pitches or not, Abad fell behind hitters far too often this past season. He was getting strike one at a 52% clip which was well below the league average of 60%. Once he was behind, hitters could tee off. And tee off they did. Opponents slugged .963 off of Abad in hitter’s counts -- only five other relievers with 30 or more appearances fared worse (including Minnesota’s Trevor May). A combination of a diminished fastball and an expected fastball count will equal KABLOOIE.
The Twins seem confident that they can fix Abad. In addition to eliminating his pitch tipping potential, Abad has one of the game’s best left-handed change-ups that can be harnessed. Opponents languished against the offspeed pitch, hitting just .125 while showing little ability to make much contact. It is no secret that Twins’ pitching coach Neil Allen has introduced methods for using the change-up more effectively and Abad seems like someone who could benefit greatly from that knowledge.
As someone who is a year removed from chucking 97 mile per hour darts and holding lefties to a .191 batting average, Abad is a worthy gamble. If the collective scouting brain trust feel like they have some adjustments answers that will help him get back to his 2014 success, Abad stands to be a decent addition. Then again, Abad’s entire body of work over his career isn’t all that impressive. The downside is that the Twins have not secured a suitable left-handed alternative if he doesn’t bounce back.
- ThejacKmp, hybridbear and Devereaux like this