I’m going to try something a little different going forward. There are a lot of subjects worth exploring that might not fit as a full article for whatever reason. Those, and other thoughts, interviews, and experiments can find a home here, and I’ll try to do a column in the first week of each month for most of the year, using this space to sort through those topics and others that catch my eye.
Three years after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2015, Shane McClanahan still didn’t have a feel for the ball. He was in Low A facing the Great Lake Loons when finally, something clicked.
“I went out there and it was like an epiphany,” McClanahan said of that day in early May 2019. “I just found it one day. I stopped walking people, I was throwing strikes, the feel was just there. It only took me three-and-a-half years.”
He couldn’t quite finish another scoreless outing, but #Rays No. 11 prospect Shane McClanahan did wind up with a solid stat line.
5 1/3 IP
9 K (tied @MiLB career-high)
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) May 11, 2019
That day he found his gas, and that was the first step on his path to this moment, when he sits atop the league leaderboard for strikeouts and squarely in the conversation for the American League Cy Young Award. The second step had more to do with the shape of his pitches than their velocity.
This year, McClanahan is sporting a fastball with an inch-and-a-half more ride to it. His curveball has two-and-a-half inches more drop and two-plus inches more sweep. His changeup is dropping two inches more.
All this extra movement came in yet another strange offseason.
“It wasn’t pitch design — I couldn’t have any contact with (Rays pitching coach) Kyle Snyder or the team during the lockout — so I took it on my own to try and improve,” McClanahan said of the added movement. “I knew I needed to do things better than last year if I wanted to keep having success down the road.”
So what was the cue that led to all these movement changes? A simple one.
“I really just tried to stay behind the baseball better, to try to spin the baseball instead of muscle the baseball with my body,” McClanahan said earlier this season. “I wanted to spin it and get the most out of my spin.”
His spin rate isn’t up, nor is his spin efficiency. But this cue has led to better movement across the board. After an awesome debut, his stuff got better. Compared to the league, minimum 500 pitches, only a very few starters can hang with the Rays ace as measured by Stuff+, a number that compares pitches based only on their physical characteristics.
That added movement just makes it easier on the margins.
“You can get away with a few more mistakes,” agreed McClanahan, who is also throwing his high-ride fastball high in the zone more often this year. “Fastballs that appear a little more flat than rising, the mistakes are taken advantage of more. Living at the top of the zone and trying to spin the baseball makes everything else work.”
Since he found the feel for the ball again, he’s shown good command and improving stuff. Once he decided to focus on spinning the ball, he took it to another level.
Command, not stuff, has been more of the issue for another entrant on that leaderboard. Only five pitchers in all of baseball allowed more walks last season than Dylan Cease, and his lack of command also manifested itself in his home run rate. It may not be obvious because his walk rate is still high, but Cease is commanding the ball better this year, getting his pitches to nearly league-average locations in the zone for the first time in his career.
There’s a long-term, medium-term and short-term answer for the improved ability to put pitches where he wants them.
Most recently, Cease has added a new slider that’s tighter and harder. His old slider was plenty good:
But at 89 mph, this one is two to three ticks harder and might be easier to place.
Ironically, the new slider was a result of Cease attempting to gain more depth by moving his hand further down the ball in his grip. The resulting pitch is really working for Cease, as he’s thrown nearly 400 of them since he debuted the slider in May, and batters are hitting .102 with one extra-base hit against it.
“Right now I’m in a good spot with the slider,” Cease said before a recent game against the Giants. “The last two starts are the best I’ve ever commanded it in my life. Just based on swings, not looking at analytics, I can tell it’s better. I’m consistently releasing it.”
In the medium term, there’s another answer for Cease’s improvements: Hard work with pitching coach Ethan Katz.
“When we hired Ethan, the first thing we worked on was getting my ride back,” Cease said of his fastball movement profile. “We focused on my lower half. I was opening up my lower half and wasn’t driving well. We got on the Core Velo belt and now my body is getting more used to how it’s supposed to feel when I drive. It’s naturally happening now, I’m not consciously working on it.”
In this system, anything over nine inches of ride is considered good, and Cease is well clear of that mark this season.
Making sure his delivery channels his energy straight toward the plate has improved the movement on his four-seamer, which also makes it easier to command. Adding the slider has also given him a pitch he can command easier. And then there’s just the long-term settling in that can happen for a young pitcher as he stops thinking about specific things in his delivery and takes for granted that everything will generally move the same way from pitch to pitch.
“You have to get to a point where you trust your body enough that it’s not even a thought in your mind and you’re only focused on where the ball is going,” Cease said. “As a young guy, we all focus on mechanics, but I give it everything I’ve got now and my body is in control and I’m not out of synch anywhere.”
Cease steps to the mound to “Feeling Myself” by Nicki Minaj. And at this point, he is clearly feeling himself. He’s likely to finish in the top three in the AL Cy Young Award race due to the short-, medium- and long-term all coming together at the right time.
Every day, Julio Rodríguez gets more comfortable in the big leagues. Every day he shows us a little more of what he can do because of it.
“I just need to get more comfortable, learn the guys, see the guys I haven’t seen before, and take my A swing,” he told me.
As a result of this comfort, he’s improved his batted ball quality in June and July more than any other hitter in baseball save one. Some part of that is just the regular process of getting used to how the big leagues work. Some part of that is unavoidable because of the difference in the competitive level from the minors to the majors.
“Pitchers are more consistent up here,” Rodríguez said, “and have an idea, they’re not just trying to throw hard and show what they have.”
But the Mariners also deserve some credit for bringing Rodríguez along at just the right pace, and preparing him for the process of getting ready for a game at the major league level. Instead of adding more layers to his game-day prep with the big league team, Rodríguez is now streamlining and finding exactly what information he needs to succeed in Seattle.
In the meantime, he’s got a fluency with data that many young players coming from organizations with good player development display. I drew some rolling graphs to illustrate that Rodríguez has been striking out less, hitting more fly balls, chasing balls less often, and seeing fewer pitches in the zone as the season has gone on.
He didn’t flinch. It made perfect sense to him. As are most things right now.
“At the beginning, I was like wow I’m in the big leagues now, but now I’m doing what I want to do,” he said with a smile.
After a scorching hot April that saw Taylor Ward hit .392 with five homers, and then a strong May that featured a .314 average and another five homers, the Angels outfielder took a step back in June, hitting .256 with one homer. A conversation we had earlier in the year basically scripted the process of the league adjusting to his approach.
“My main approach is, get it in a certain location,” he said in early May. “Usually the approach is get it up, so if you see it below the zone it doesn’t look enticing.”
In April, pitchers left him some goodies up as they mostly tried to pitch him with a north/south up and down approach.
By June, those pitches were gone and the league had zeroed in on one tactic: low and away.
“These guys do miss, a foot on average,” said Ward, perhaps referencing a study that found pitchers miss the glove target by 13 inches on average. “If they can keep hitting the corners, I’ll tip my cap and go back to the dugout.”
That’s a smart approach, given how much better the outcomes are if you swing in the zone versus swinging outside the zone. Only two hitters in baseball this year swing at fewer balls outside the zone than Ward. At the same time, if there’s a hole in your coverage, even inside the zone, the league will pick at it until you can do something about it.
The good news is that Ward must have done enough to convince pitchers to hunt elsewhere, as his smaller-sample July heatmap shows.
“If they get me out, fine. If I get myself out I’m pissed,” he said back in May, and at the very least Ward has refused to chase more as the season has progressed. At best, he survived the league’s first big attack in the zone and has another hot month coming soon.
• Trying to adjust to what seems like an ever-changing offensive environment around the league is exhausting, and it’s hard to know exactly what to do. Ramon Laureano is striking out less and hitting more grounders, and it’s partially in reaction to how the ball is flying. “I’ve lost like five homers this year,” he said. Still, as the season hits up, he’d like to hit for more power, so he’s working on simplifying his pre-pitch movement to get to the ball quicker and unlock some more power.
• The hardest thing for a tracking system to figure out might be the difference between a four-seam fastball and a two-seam fastball, since they are generally both hard pitches with similar movement, and sometimes they’ll bleed into each other. Statcast has Tyler Wells down for 14 sinkers this year, but he doesn’t think he’s thrown one. “Sometimes I’ll throw a four-seam with 20 inches of carry, and because it has some tail, they’ll classify it as a sinker,” he said. “I don’t know why the systems have me throwing sinkers,” said Marco Gonzales this spring, “I throw almost all four-seamers.” It’s not easy making distinct circles out of the blobs of pitch movement the machines see, but this distinction seems harder than most.
• Don’t look now, but the leader in the last month in Barrel Rate is Luke Voit, who had been struggling mightily with a .167 slugging percentage in April. If the .500+ slugging percentage he’s been sporting since the beginning of June is really supported by the batted ball quality, the Padres might be able to make another push for the division as Manny Machado recovers from his ankle injury and Fernando Tatis Jr. returns soon. The (former?) shortstop has been fielding balls in center and is about to be cleared to take swings.
• You might be right to point out that Spencer Strider hasn’t been starting all season, so maybe his spot atop the Stuff+ leaderboards isn’t fully correct — pitchers do show better stuff in shorter stints — but the Braves’ young righty has been superlative even in the rotation. If you look only at his starts, he’s had a 130.4 Stuff+, which would slide him all the way into … first place among starters. What a win for the Braves’ player development.
(Top photo of McClanahan: Jonathan Dyer / USA Today)