Five things to watch as you watch this April
(1) Nick Blackburn’s adjustments and repertoire.
Much has been made this spring about Blackburn’s shift on the rubber from the first base side to the middle. While this may help him hit a few spots with his sinking fastball that he was not afforded from a few inches to the left, what you should really watch for is his new “over-the-top” arm action that he has transitioned towards. In addition to his health, this might be the biggest attribute for a rebound season in 2012.
Why would this have anything influence? A more “over-the-top” arm action would translate into a higher release point and, much like I described with Kyle Waldrop, the higher release point combined with good sink gives hitters less of the ball to hit through the hitting zone and should lead to more ground balls and missed bats.
Blackburn’s spring numbers has been impressive, for whatever emphasis you want to put on them. In 17 innings, he’s racked up a decent 12/4 K/BB ratio while allowing just four runs. Perhaps more importantly than those numbers was the pitching work behind them. In addition to getting gobs of grounders according to Phil Mackey’s statistics Blackburn held opponents to a 73% contact rate in Grapefruit League play, a rate that is significantly better than his regular season performance (he has a 88.4% contact rate).
The question is, has his healthy arm allowed him to throw his slider again - a pitch he hasn’t thrown with regularly or effectiveness since 2009 - thereby incited more swing and misses this spring? Or has the new arm angle resulted in added movement? Is there some other factor in play?
Blackburn’s new release point was on display during this spring’s Yankees broadcast. Unfortunately, MLB.tv did not archive the game in order to properly dissect and compare it to his previous motion. On the other hand, Blackburn is scheduled to pitch on April 9th at the home opener so there will be ample opportunity to begin examining the changes in both his arm action through the video as well as the movement results through pitch f/x system.
(2) Alexi Casilla’s left-side leg kick.
A week ago I wrote that Twins fans may be surprised at what Casilla may be capable of offensively. This was based on the highly volatile offseason league performance that provides little confidence in basing any conclusion off of:
He finished the spring with a .300 average in a little under 50 plate appearances and, surprise!, an ailing hamstring that kept him out of play for the final games of the warm-up circuit. Despite the injury, he’s scheduled to be ready by opening weekend.
While never being one to rely on offseason league and spring training stats for any indication of future performance, Casilla has been impressive in both nevertheless. In his Dominican League stint, he produced a .336 batting average – which was the second-highest in the league – in addition to a .419 on-base percentage. Yes, the counterargument to this is that the island league is littered with wash-out major leaguers and clinging-to-life minor leaguers but it is reassuring that Casilla has managed to carry the adjustments he made in 2011 into the off-season. Likewise, Casilla’s current .438 spring average in the Grapefruit League in 17 plate appearances is a continuation of his winter league performance. And, yes, much like the winter league stats, the numbers posted in Florida mean little – but it is leaps and bounds better than his two prior spring performances in which in hit .200 (10-for-50) in 2011 and .135 (7-for-53) in 2010.
One of the reasons I cling to some hope for Casilla was his emergence last year. After spending most of 2010 and 2011 performing like the slap-hitting second baseman we’ve come to expect, he made some adjustments to his left-handed swing which had the ball jumping off his bat. From May 1 onward, Casilla hit an impressive .281/.344/.408 in just shy of 300 plate appearances.
Needless to say, the post-May 1 Casilla would be a great addition to the Twins lineup. The question is will he show up?
Watch Casilla from the left-side of the plate. If he is stepping toward the pitcher prior to the pitch being thrown, he’s using a high-contact but low-impact type of swing that does not engage the lower half. If he is striding after the pitch is thrown, as he did post-May 1 last season, that’s a much more able to produce power (doubles power, let’s not get carried away here) from his legs and hips.
(3) Scott Baker’s fastball velocity.
After being one of the bright spots in the Twins rotation for half the season last year, because of his barking elbow, Baker will start the 2012 season on the disabled list. Spring has not been kind to him. His fastball’s velocity, the best pitch in his repertoire, had abandoned him, residing at 85-88 miles an hour in camp.
That’s a range that has been well-below Baker’s standard average velocity in-season. Dating back to 2007, there were just a handful of outings in which the right-hander fell below the 90 mile per hour mark, most, I suspect, were injury related.
Meanwhile, in 2010, we witnessed what happens when he was unable to control his fastball and he was splattered across the diamond. Perhaps because of both location and the velocity, Baker was pummeled in his limited amount of work this spring – allowing seven hits, two for home runs, while striking out just one.
This is disheartening for multiple reasons but biggest is that the promise he flashed in 2011 would be a welcomed addition to this rotation. Baker will make a start on Thursday with the Ft Myers Miracle and, if all goes well, he will be set to rejoin the team. If he makes it back to Minnesota this month, be sure to watch both the radar gun readings as well as where the catcher’s target is and where his fastball ends up.
(4) Ryan Doumit’s plate discipline.
Earlier this week I documented Doumit’s plate discipline improvements last year in Pittsburgh in conjunction with the increase in walks this spring. Obviously, this may be nothing more than a small sample size occurrence however, keep an eye on his at bats in April.
Like Doumit, former Twin Jason Kubel had a similar experience last spring and while it did not translate into more walks during the regular season, Kubel came out and had a torrid first month. In his first 102 plate appearances, Kubel hit .351/.392/.511 with nine doubles and two home runs. Clearly, Kubel was dialed in and recognized what was “his pitch.”
Even if his spring walks do not manifest into regular season walks, the meaningless free passes may be a sign that Doumit is seeing the ball well and laying off of breaking balls, off-the-plate fastballs and other trickery from the pitchers. The telling point will be if he is driving the ones that he chooses to swing at.
(5) Matt Capps’ new pitch
While watching him warm up a week ago Tuesday at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, a stadium which allows fans to saddle up next to the bullpen and view the pitcher’s getting loose from an amazing vantage point, I noticed Capps was tossing a few split-finger fastballs - an offering that was not among his regular arsenal. He’d let a few go and then confer with the bullpen coach about release or movement or whatever. Monitoring from above the pitcher’s mound, you could see that these pitches were moving fairly well down and in to right-handed hitters, a stark difference in comparison to his fastball and slider.
For the most part, Capps has been a pitcher who has labored up in the zone. With mostly a fastball-slider combination and a forearm injury to boot, he struggled to (1) get hitters to miss (his swinging strike rate dropped from above 9% to 6% in 2011) and (2) getting ground balls (his ground ball rate plummeted from 50% to 40%). When he was on the mound, the bats were loud. The hope is that the splitty will provide a bit of speed deception as well as enough movement to entice a few more swing and misses.
Unfortunately, new pitches are not always a magic elixir for what ails you. A year ago, Jose Mijares and the coaching staff raved about his new two-seamed fastball that was supposedly going to help him battled right-handed hitters better. That did not pan out so well for the newly minted Kansas City Royal. Most spring on-lookers have agreed that opponents have continued to make noise off of Capps, including nailing four home runs off of him. This may be a byproduct of him “trying new things” out there - including incorporating his splitty – but, if this continues into April, the more ominous question is if his arm is 100%.
Watch for more two-strike splitters from Capps this April. The only impediment is if hitters continue to obliterate the ball before he gets to two strikes.