Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mijares developing a new pitch

According to Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse, Twins left-handed reliever Jose Mijares is honing a new pitch for the 2011 season: the two-seam fastball.

Recently in camp, pitching Coach Rick Anderson was holding court with the local reporters when Mijares wander past. Anderson turned his attention to the relief arm and inquired what Mijares thought of his new weapon. According to Reusse:
“Mijares smiled widely and made a gesture with a hand that indicated the downward movement of an imaginary baseball.”
In general, the two-seam fastball, the four-seamer’s cousin, is thrown at a lower velocity but runs down and towards the pitching arm side of the strike zone. This differs from the four-seamer as that pitch has a tendency to “rise” (not actually rise, per se, it just maintains its same plane rather than dipping like the two-seamer). It can give a pitcher the ability to give opponents a different look – hitting a different part of the zone or showing another type of movement. Some two-seamers can have aggressive downward movement – like Brandon Webb’s sinker – or it can be more subtle, closer resembling Kyle Gibson’s two-seamer.

Why would Mijares need this new pitch, especially if he’s got two above-average offerings and typically sees hitters only once?
Mijares, while gifted with a hard four-seam fastball and a sharp slider, often struggles with getting the ball down in the zone. This is fairly evident when you consider that his 52% fly ball rate over the past two seasons is the ninth highest among relievers. While this trait is well-and-good within the home run resistant confines of Target Field but on the road he’s flirting with fire. Overall, research has shown that the two-seamer is much more prone to inciting a groundball and adding this pitch could assist in a reduction of Mijares’s aerial shots and the risk of home runs with it.
Similarly, the two-seamer is often incorporated into a pitcher’s repertoire to provide them with another weapon to implement against opposite-handed hitters. Without question, Mijares has been lethal against southpawed swingers. In his career he’s struck out nearly a quarter of his opponents (24.2%) while holding them to a .188 batting average against. Righties, on the other hand, have not fared exceptional well but have seen more success against him. In the previous two seasons, Mijares has held a .272 average against for the right-handers.  Undoubtedly, there will be occasions in which manager Ron Gardenhire tasks Mijares to retire a powerful lefty only to leave him out there to work to the subsequent right-hander in a pivotal situation to save the other arms in the bullpen.

Mijares is not the only left-handed reliever attempting to add a pitch to battle righties. In Atlanta, free agent George Sherrill, who has decimated same-sided opponents for the majority of his career, was clobbered by right-handers last year. In just 95 plate appearances, Sherrill allowed 32 hits (.400 average) and walked 14 while striking out just six. This season, he’s re-adding a two-seamer to his stash that he ditched back in 2006.

Plenty of other left-handed pitchers have had made improvements after embraces the two-seamer.

Over the 2008 off-season, Jon Lester learned a two-seamer from the Braves’ Tim Hudson. According to Lester’s rotation mate, Josh Beckett, the left-hander discovered that the movement provided by the two-seam fastball was able to help him induce a grounder when needed. This past season, Lester’s groundball rates jumped from 47% in ’09 to a career-high of 53.6% last year. Perhaps it was because of MLB Advanced Media’s updated algorithm that identified more of his pitches being thrown as two-seamers rather than the catchall “fastball”, but the pitch f/x system categorized Lester as throwing more two-seamer/sinkers this past season – a possible explanation for the jump in grounders.

Rays’ phenom David Price is another two-seam fastball infusion success story. After a very good first year in the majors in 2009, the left-handed Price was still exposed somewhat to right-handed opponents. Those hitters hit .240 off of him while posting a m’eh 1.84 K/BB ratio. The introduction of the two-seamer in 2010 saw Price shave his right-handed opponents’ average down to .222 while improving his K/BB ratio to 2.25.

Obviously, both Lester and Price are two of the game’s premier left-handers but you can see the effects that their inclusion of a two-seamer did to their opponents. But it goes beyond just the results on the one particular pitch. Having the two-seamer in their arsenal allowed them to set-up other pitches inside or up as right-handers were forced to monitor the space low in the zone.
The suggestion here is not that Mijares could become a pitcher of Lester or Price’s caliber by simply adding a pitch. The real question is how much incrementally better could he be based on where he is today. If he can harass the pitch appropriately, the two-seamer would help reduce the total amount of fly balls allowed thereby shaving down some of the home runs allowed while giving him another weapon to use against right-handed opponents – making him a more complete relief pitcher rather than one that needs to be limited to lefties.

Another residual effect that adding another variation of the fastball is that if he’s able to control it Mijares might be able to reduce the number of pitches thrown in each at-bat. Last season Mijares threw 4.3 pitches per plate appearance. That was significantly higher than the league average of 3.84. By throwing a two-seamer more often hoping to induce contact but of the less devastating variety, Mijares might be able to work through hitters quicker and low his overall pitch count in a given outing. Because of his questionable conditioning, it would better serve him if he were able to lighten his workload in order to maintain throughout the long season.

Because Mijares is already equipped with a good four-seamer in addition to a deadly slider that has completely baffled same-sided opponents at times, the newfound two-seamer could help that success spill over into his platoon splits against right-handed hitters, transitioning into that "complete pitcher". If he can maintain good health – certainly a concern for him given his recent past – he’s clearly on the path to being the dominant late innings lefty which the Twins envisioned for him as he was developing though the system.