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Student of the game: Well-read Archer has Cy Young hopes for Rays
ALBERT CHEN Fri Apr. 17, 2015
Thinking, Fast and Slow is a popular book on psychology and a past New York Times bestseller, but you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find it in the lockers of many major leaguers. One morning in the spring training clubhouse at Rays camp, though, the book was all Chris Archer wanted to talk about. “I’m about a quarter of the way through, and it’s already helping me better understand my own thoughts,” he said of the tome, which was penned by a Nobel prize winner in economic science and is an investigation of the dichotomy between two modes of thought: System 1 (the fast, intuitive, mostly unconscious mode) and System 2 (deliberate and analytical).
A voracious reader, Archer is drawn to books that challenge conventional thinking. The book has showed him that for a hitter, “your intuitive—your System 1—is affected by the previous pitch,” Archer explained. “You can’t control it, because things are happening so fast, especially now with the new rule [where] you can’t leave the box, you have to keep one foot in. They’re highly affected by that last pitch, so it’s more of a subconscious influence. Me? I think I’m more System 2 than most people.”
Archer is a thinking man’s pitcher, but some nights his stuff is so nasty it seems like he doesn’t need to use his brain at all on the mound. Thursday night in Toronto was one of those nights. Facing a Blue Jays lineup loaded with fire-breathing sluggers—Toronto had scored the third-most runs in the majors entering the game—Archer came through with one of the best games of his career, allowing just two hits and no runs while striking out 11 over seven innings. His command of his fastball, which topped out at 99 miles per hour, was excellent, though it was his slider that was the difference maker: Blue Jays hitters struck out nine times on that pitch.
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Archer is locked in. Since his wobbly Opening Day start against the Orioles, he has looked as dominant as any pitcher in the game, with back-to-back starts allowing two hits or fewer over seven innings. Now 2–1 with a 1.37 ERA and 21 strikeouts through 19 2/3 innings and three starts, Archer has now allowed three earned runs or fewer in 15 consecutive road starts going back to May 16, 2014, and has allowed more than two earned runs only once since then.
The 26-year-old emerging ace is one of the most interesting pitchers in the game right now. It’s not justbecause of his back story, and it’s not just because he’s thoughtful and well-read. No conversation with Archer is ever bland—he's the kind of guy you’d feel lucky to be stuck sitting next to at a dinner party.
It’s all that, and this: Archer is a legit Cy Young candidate in 2015. A year after Corey Kluber came practically out of nowhere to win the award, Archer could be the off-the-radar American League pitcher to take it this year. Of course, he isn’t exactly emerging unseen like Kluber did last season—the 6'3", 190-pound Archer had a notable '14, going 10–9 with a 3.33 ERA and 173 strikeouts over 194 innings. But like Kluber last year, Archer looks like he’s ready to take the next step to establish himself as one of the game’s elite pitchers.
And if he does, watch out for the Rays: After the first two weeks of the season, it looks like maybe we all underrated them. The preseason statistical projections all loved Tampa, and many evaluators did, too. When I asked one general manager for the team that everyone’s sleeping on, he didn’t hesitate. “The Rays—their pitching is going to be really, really good.”
But that was before the spring injuries to Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly. Despite all those setbacks, the Rays' pitching has still been really good. Earlier in the week, they did something that no team had done in 13 years, with three straight games—Archer last Saturday, followed by Nathan Karns and Jake Odorizzi on Monday—in which a starter went seven or more innings and two hits or fewer. (According to Elias, it’s just the second time in AL history, other than the 1992 Athletics, that a team had accomplished the feat.) It’s not just Archer who looks like a sleeper Cy Young candidate. In his most recent outing, Odorizzi, who allowed one run in his first two starts, became just the third AL pitcher in the last 100 years to start the year with two starts of six-plus innings with two or fewer hits and one run or less.
The rotation is only going to get better as the season progresses. Smyly, who allowed one hit and struck out four in three innings at Class A Charlotte on Tuesday, looks like he’ll return in late April. Cobb, who is recovering from forearm tendinitis and, according to the Tampa Tribune, threw the ball harder during a Tuesday session than he had since he resumed throwing, might be back in May.Matt Moore, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, should be an option for the rotation in June.
A fifth-round draft pick by theIndians in 2006 who received mixed reviews as a prospect—the absence of a good third pitch had many believing that he was destined to become a closer—Archer continues to evolve, on and off the field. During spring training, he talked about how as a student, he had a deep fear of reading out loud in class. “Reading in class was really hard for me, even in high school,” he said. “I just wasn’t confident. If you slip with one or two words, you’re really insecure. I don’t feel sorry for myself, it was my fault. I look at it as a case of not practicing enough on my own and not being prepared.”
Since then, Archer has pushed himself to read all kinds of books—he reads at minimum 10 pages a day “so I can read at least one book a month”—from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to The Biology of Belief. “From [Biology of Belief] I’ve learned that we tend to just blindly blame everything on genetics,” Archer said. “What the book says is that we’re highly influenced by our environment. I’ve learned that I have to completely reanalyze where my thoughts come from.”
“You just got to keep looking for ways to learn,” he said. “And to get better.”
“not every athlete, has the desire and the drive to always look for ways to improve. And even fewer are willing to put in the time, physical effort and emotional investment to keep improving and developing.”
The Value of Work Ethic
APR 8 2015
PHOTOGRAPHS BY USA TODAY SPORTS
BILLIE JEAN KING
With both the WTA and ATP tennis tours back in the U.S. for a short time this spring, I have been closely following the progress of many of the players and spent some time with several of them at the tour stops in Indian Wells and Miami. During a recent ESPN telecast, I heard legendary player/coach Darren Cahill commenting on the value of the work ethic of Maria Sharapova and Milos Raonic, whose commitment in this area goes beyond that of most other athletes, in and out of tennis.
Many athletes talk about their work ethic in almost sound bite moments. But are they really committed to it? Do they really walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to putting in the hard work and long hours it takes to separate the good from the great?
I’ve known Maria since she was 13, and from the first time I saw her I knew she was destined to become the No. 1 player in the world because she does have a real gift of talent packaged with a drive that is second to none. I’ve been following Milos more closely lately as he has made a quick ascent to his current ranking at the No. 6 player in the world on the men’s tour.
Maria was emphatic about being the best in the world when she was a teenager and she did become No. 1. Now she wants to return to the top of the rankings and she is totally committed to that goal. Milos has talked openly about the importance of being the best in the world. He is younger than Maria and he is on his journey and I am confident he has what it takes to reach the top. So what is it about these two athletes that elevates them and drives them?
Max Eisenbud, Maria’s longtime agent, tells me Maria’s work ethic is a big part of who she is. A 2012New York Times article described Max’s first meeting with Maria, “On his first day in Florida, he was handed a list of the players and their practice times. As Eisenbud roamed the courts, he was stopped in his tracks by a tall, lithe 12-year-old smacking ground strokes with a supernatural intensity.”
Hard work is the common denominator in many success stories on and off the court.
Maria had a solid work ethic at 12 years old and according to Max, she had it long before that as well.
“Maria’s work ethic has always been the same since she was four years old and she has continuously improved her game and added new elements to it,“ he told me. “She added variety, drop shots, got faster, became stronger. Clay has been a tough surface for Maria but she has been able to work on her weaknesses and turned them into strengths.”
Max feels clay went from her weakest surface to one of her strongest. I’ve seen this improvement firsthand. Specifically, Maria has focused on improvements to her footwork, committing to improving her outside leg on her backhand side. I think this change alone helped her win the French Open — a major championship on what used to be her most challenging surface.
For Milos, he tells me hard work is the common denominator in many success stories on and off the court. “Some people are more visible about their commitment to a strong work ethic, where other champions like to be more private about it,” he says. “But hard work is something you will find amongst everyone that is at the top of their field, their sport, their profession. It’s something you can’t take for granted and it is what gets you through those tough moments and really take you from being good, to being great, to being extraordinary.”
The quiet Canadian is one of those athletes who will let his results and his achievements speak for him. His coach, Ivan Ljubicic (who reached a career high ranking of No. 3 in the world in his career), says this drive — this commitment to being to best in the world — presents some challenges to the coaching team in the Raonic camp.
“Milos is by far the most determined and workaholic person I have ever met,” Ivan added. “We literally have a problem getting him to rest and that is something we are always working on. His determination is so intense and the level of focus he puts in practice sessions is unmatched in tennis today, at least from what I see. So it is a challenge for us to manage this and allow him to use it to reach his goals.”
Not every tennis player, not every athlete, has the desire and the drive to always look for ways to improve. And even fewer are willing to put in the time, physical effort and emotional investment to keep improving and developing.
In sports and in life it is so much more beneficial to work smarter. There are those who only work hard to get to that all important level. Then, more often than not, they then let up and become comfortable — almost satisfied — with their current level of performance. These people are not working smartly and they are not the men and women who will become champions in sports or in life. They usually look back at their lives and realize they may have settled for less than they could have been.
Maria and Milos have figured it out. They have found the all-important balance and they are walking the walk and talking the talk, and their commitment is taking them from great to extraordinary.
TYLER CLIPPARD HAD TO PITCH THIS WAY
You are born with a few abilities, and it's how you hone and direct those abilities that might determine your success. Consider Tyler Clippard. He started with a good sense of his mechanics and a 90+ mph fastball. He figured out how to best take advantage of those assets and now he's Tyler Clippard, Athletics closer.
Maybe it's a chicken and egg thing, but let's consider his fastball. We know that nobody throws more high fastballs than Clippard, and that nobody in baseball since 2011 has gotten as many popups as Clippard. You might think that the pitcher chose to do these things on purpose.
But it might not be that way, not entirely. Clippard thought the high fastball was a necessity given his mechanics. "It's how I see the strike zone, and how I throw, and where my release point is," Clippard said about his four-seamer.
If you take release point and normalize it for pitcher height, you'll find that that his kind of over-the-top fastball release point is indeed correlated to rise. Not in an incredibly strong way -- release point predicts about 21 percent of the variability in fastball rise -- but in a significant way. The "p value" on a study of over 1000 pitchers was less than .0001.
Clippard's height-adjusted release point is in the top 15 percent of the league, and so he was maybe destined to throw a rising fastball. He realized that it could be a strength and took advantage. "I very rarely will ever bury a fastball -- if I miss with the fastball, it's up above the letters, top of the zone," he said. "That's just where I throw, I've stuck to that, and it's worked my whole career."
Would it have been different if he'd played more in a place like Colorado or Texas, where high mistakes might end up home runs more often? The pitcher doesn't think so. "The way that I pitch, my game plan, has never really wavered, has never really changed," Clippard said. "I know one way to do it and that's what I've done my whole career."
He's figured out how to get the most out of that fastball. "I'm trying to throw the ball as straight as I can," he said. In order to get more rise on the pitch, Clippard does focus on getting good extension on the pitch, though. "I don't throw 100, if I can get good extension and come out true, my 91 plays like it's 96." That benefit to the rising fastball has been documentedhere and elsewhere, and Clippard knows it's true. "It's tougher for hitters to get to that pitch up," he said. Last year, Clippard got 10.5% whiffs on his four-seamer, or almost double the average four-seam whiff rate.
The change followed the lead provided by the fastball. Clippard uses a four-seam grip on the changeup so that it comes out looking the same as his fastball. He even throws it high in the zone sometimes -- despite your average pitcher's aversion to "hanging" changeups -- with the idea that it's supposed to look just like his fastball. At least until the very end, when it shows up to the plate about a tenth of second later than the fastball. It works. Clippard's change had the 11th-best whiff rate on a changeup thrown at least 300 times last year.
Along the way, Clippard has added some wrinkles. A new splitter gave hitters something to think about in 2014. "Those hitters in the NL East knew me very well and I just wanted to put something else in their mind, especially late in the count," Clippard said. He'd been working on the pitch on the side for three years, and at the prodding of his catchers and coaches, finally brought it into the game.
With a 17% whiff rate last year, the splitter is merely average -- not otherworldly like his fastball and change -- but not only has it given batters another pitch to think about, it's uncovered a new part of the zone for the high-and-tight pitcher. "My split is more a grip and rip, and if it's a strike, great, if it falls out of the zone, even better," Clippard said.
Look at the Brooks Baseball heat maps below showing where the fastball (first), change (second), and splitter (third) end up crossing the plate against right-handers. Now batters can't isolate one part of the zone, or even two.
This new splitter has 10 inches more drop than his regular changeup, and between the two, Clippard is probably all set from an arsenal standpoint. The "straight" changeup has a reverse platoon split, meaning he can use it against lefties effectively.
The splitter is a little bit more complicated, but could be used to complete an arsenal led by a straight changeup, just because it's different. Harry Pavlidis of Brooks Baseball ran the numbers for the pitch, which you can see in the table below. It looks like the splitter has a reverse platoon split when it comes to whiffs, but a traditional platoon split when it comes to grounders and suppressing power.
Splitter Batter-Pitcher Combo
Take a look at how different the pitches are, with the change on the top and the splitter on the bottom. The change GIF shows what Clippard was talking about when he said that he's gotten plenty of strikes on high changeups.
"I command my change way better than my splitter," says Clippard, so he's not going to change his three-to-one mix between the change and the splitter. He can throw the change in any count, while he needs to be ahead to throw the splitter. "It's a pitch that I can throw in the zone and attack guys in the zone with," he said of the change, and according to the numbers at FanGraphs, he throws the change in the zone more than his fastball, which is remarkable for an offspeed pitch.
Clippard has meddled with a cutter, which he dropped in 2013. Now his curve is his only breaking pitch, and it's decent. But it's not what makes him Tyler Clippard.
No, that's the changeup(s) and the rising fastball. His mechanics gave him that high fastball, and then he added a couple of great tweaks to make it all work. "Just throw it straight, so it's not getting any side spin on it that the hitter will recognize," he said of his remarkable straight changeup. "Then, just pull the string."
Tuesday, April 7, 2015
Two Prospects, Two Different Paths of Development #4
I've written three previous articles since the spring of 2013 looking at the progress of a pair of pitching prospects selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2011 draft, righthander Tyler Beede, and lefthander Daniel Norris.
Beede, a product of Auburn, Massachusetts, was selected with the 21st overall pick by the Blue Jays. He had written major league teams that spring to let them know his intention was to attend Vanderbilt University, and likely would have gone higher in the draft had he not done so. Whether or not that was a bargaining ploy or a legitimate desire to play college ball remains unknown, but what is known is that Beede and the Blue Jays were reportedly a million dollars apart in their negotations, the Blue Jays reportedly offering $2.4 million. Contract talks went right down to the wire on the then-August 15th deadline, but Beede spurned Toronto's final offer, and prepared to head off to start his collegiate career.
Norris, from Johnson City, Tennessee, was, like Beede, one of the top ranked prep pitchers in the draft. He fell to the second round because many teams were wary of his commitment to Clemson. The Blue Jays chose Norris with the 74th pick, and his negotiations went down to the wire as well, but he ultimately signed fifteen minutes from the deadline (likely with some savings realized by Beede's refusal), and signed for a $2 million bonus.
Because he signed so late in the season, Norris' pro debut was put off until 2012. Beede, meanwhile, headed off to Vandy, and made his college debut in February. There was little comparing of the two after their respective first seasons. Beede pitched in 16 games for the Commodores, starting 11. He was rocked in his start and spent some time in the bullpen, but righted himself as the season progressed, Beede pitched well in post season competition, and was named to the All-Tournament team at the Regional level.
Norris, on the other hand, reported for spring training, and was kept behind with all of the other first year players after camp broke in April. There had always been concerns about Norris' long and sweeping delivery and his curve ball, and the Blue Jays worked on both over the course of the spring. Sent to short-season Bluefield to begin his pro career that June, Norris understandably struggled, and was hit hard there and after a promotion to Vancouver. Developmentally, Beede was ahead of Norris at the time, but it was easy to understand why. The Blue Jays had a significant investment in Norris, and it was in their best interests to make whatever corrections to his approach that they needed. That's not to say that Vandy didn't make similar adjustments with Beede; they likely weren't as significant.
Fast forward to the spring of 2013, and the developmental gap between the two was widening. Beede was on his way to Second Team All America status as a sophomore by several publications, while in the midst of a rough April with full season Lansing, Baseball America made this observation about Norris:
The 19-year-old still has plenty of time to turn things around, but it’s hard to explain how a lefty who can touch 96 mph and pairs it with a breaking ball that shows flashes of being a plus pitch can get squared up outing after outing. Norris saw his career ERA jump to 8.87 after giving up 13 baserunners in only four innings over the past week. Even more inexplicably, lefties have posted a 2.300 OPS against Norris in five at-bats.
As the summer approached, Norris was refining his command. For Beede, who was named to Team USA, it was the opposite, as he fought his control. Norris rode a fine second half of the season to remain near the top of most Blue Jays top prospect lists, while Beede, despite his command issues, was shaping up to be a possible top 5 draft pick after his junior year ended the following June.
From there, many people know the story. The pair seemed to be heading in opposite directions last year, Norris rising through three levels to get finish the year in the Majors, while Beede's stock slipped, and he was taken 14th overall - ahead of where the Blue Jays selected him, but below where the early predictions had him going. Selected by the Giants, Beede signed for $2.6 million - more than what the Blue Jays had offered, but about $1.2 million below what the 5th overall pick, Florida HS shortstop Nick Gordon, signed for. Beede's struggles continued in playoff play, and he didn't get the ball to start Vandy's successful College World Series run.
While Norris was rocketing through the minors, Beede reported to the Giants minor league complex in Arizona to start his pro career. The Giants immediately began to change Beede from a control-challenged power to a more efficient, groundball-inducing type of pitcher. In order to make that transition, they swapped his four seamer early in the count for a sinking two seamer, and a cutter. The change appeared to work as Beede dominated hitters in the Complex and Northwest Leagues.
And that brings us to the present day, where Norris and his van rode a lights out spring to the 5th starters' job in the Blue Jay rotation, and a start this week against the Yankees. Beede, meanwhile, has shipped out to full season team in the California League. Clearly, Norris is ahead of Beede on the curve at the moment. No one could have predicted Norris' meteoric rise last year, of course, which may have reflected a change in organizational philosophy as much as it did his performance. And while Beede may be behind Norris at the moment, his first pro year went much more smoothly than Norris' did. Both faced an overhaul of their pitching approaches, but Beede at 21 was obviously more mature and able to handle the change than the at-the-time recent high school grad Norris was.
Norris is clearly ahead financially, even though he ultimately signed for a lesser bonus. By graduating to the bigs last September, his service time clock has started. As well has he has pitched so far over his small sample size of a pro career, it's hard to expect Beede to duplicate those results and be in the Giants rotation a year from now.
Beede has been relatively injury-free during his college career - despite Vandy's success, his innings were carefully monitored. Norris was on a strict pitch count after turning pro, but was still shut down for a month in 2013 with elbow soreness, and had bone chips removed after last season. If there's one red flag that gnaws away at the back of my mind about Norris, that's it.
How did this draft effect the Blue Jays? There were rumours that they were concerned about medical reports about Beede, and wouldn't budge much from their initial offer, but we'll never likely know the full story. When Beede turned them down, Toronto turned their attention to Norris, and it's hard to argue with that strategy. And as compensation, they were able to draft Marcus Stroman the following year, so again, things worked out for them.
Who has the higher ceiling? That's still hard to say, but the consensus would probably be Norris right now. Just as we the comparison between Norris and Beede wasn't valid during Norris' first pro season and a bit, it's probably still not fair now. Beede's performance this year will go a long way toward determining that.
Four lessons every team should learn from LaTroy Hawkins' career
With LaTroy Hawkins nearing the end of the line in Colorado, here is what teams should learn from the former closer's career.
This, friends, is a damn shame.
I'm not saying he deserves to keep his job, mind you. His velocity seems down a little, though we don't exactly have a lot of evidence of that at the moment. And the Rockies are right to worry that a 42 year old who gives up five runs over his last two appearances might not be up to the job. While Hawkins works to sort himself out, it sounds like Rafael Betancourt and Adam Ottavino will get the opportunity to pick up saves, at least untilJohn Axford returns from emergency family medical leave (and, in all sincerity, my hopes and prayers are with the Axfords).
For me, however, LaTroy Hawkins is the embodiment of a lot of competing ideas. They are, as follows:
1. There is no such thing as a pitching prospect.
That's not strictly true, of course, and is very reductive. There are obviously pitching prospects. It's how we get Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey and Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez. But, by their very nature, pitching prospects are incredibly volatile.
When Hawkins was called up to Minnesota, he was 22 and the Twins were awful. Kirby Puckett was in his final year. Kevin Tapani, Scott Erickson, and Rick Aguilera were all traded mid-season. The team lost 88 games in a 144 game season. Before the year began, Hawkins was the 30th ranked prospect in the minors according to Baseball America.
He broke camp with the Twins and allowed 16 runs (15 earned) in his first three starts, which lasted a total of 10 innings. He disappeared into the minors, then returned in September to allow 13 runs (11 earned) in 17 more innings. He dropped his ERA to 8.67. He never fulfilled that promise as the Twins sank ever deeper. It's the first time I remember being truly that a prospect didn't pan out. It would, of course, not be the last.
2. A bad starting pitcher can still be a pretty damn good reliever.
From 1995-1999, Hawkins started 98 games for the Minnesota Twins and posted a 6.16 ERA. Even in the high octane late-90s, that was bad. A 79 ERA+. In 2000, he became a full-time reliever and would post a 3.32 ERA (132 ERA+) in 904 appearances over the next 15 years.
3. A good reliever can still be a bad closer.
It's 2001 and I'm spending the summer at a cabin in northern Wisconsin, listening to Twins games on the radio deep into the gloaming, when the solar-powered radio tower that carried the broadcasts out of Duluth would eventually conk out. LaTroy is closing for the Twins through early September. Starting at the end of July, I'm dreading every single appearance. Over 13 appearances, spanning 8.2 innings, Hawkins allows 34 baserunners and 19 runs (all earned). He blows four saves and loses another game.
He is lost and you can feel his confidence evaporate over the airwaves. Eddie Guardadofinishes the year as the Twins' closer and saves eight of the last 20 games. Guardado effectively closes for the Twins for the next two seasons, with Hawkins serving as a dominant setup man in front of him. As much as I want to believe that every good reliever can be a closer, I think back to LaTroy Hawkins and I think that that's only mostly true.
4. Just because a pitcher failed before, doesn't mean he'll fail forever.
At the age of 40, LaTroy Hawkins saved 13 of 16 chances for the Mets in 2013. In 2014, he converted 23 of 26 chances for Colorado. With age comes wisdom and maturity. With time comes experience. With acceptance that the end is near comes calm. LaTroy Hawkins was finally able to throw as if no one was watching him and as if every pitch wasn't going to be the end of the world. LaTroy Hawkins was finally successful as a closer. Redemption can be earned and there is a way back from the abyss. Some days, I need to be reminded of that. Don't we all?
That's what, in 21 years, LaTroy Hawkins has taught me. He is struggling now, but I hope he can finish his career with the dignity and excellence he demonstrated for most of it. Especially as he is universally acclaimed as one of baseball's truly good guys, I want a better end to his story, if he can manage it.