The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

 

Clearing the Bases, But Not My Desk



The picture above is a rather typical shot of my home office these days, with books, magazines, papers, gadgets and discs strewn everywhere. I'm nearing the end of my second set of player comments for Baseball Prospectus 2007, and since I'm about to head out of town for a long Thanksgiving break, I thought I'd crawl out from under the rubble for a quick post during lunchtime.

• There's been plenty of discussion about the absurdly high posting fee the Red Sox bid for the rights to negotiate with Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka -- $51.1 million dollars, and that's before dollar one goes into his contract. The Yankee/Red Sox angle on this is interesting, sure, as is the list of Matsuzaka's statistical comparables, a group that includes "most of the true right-handed rotation aces in the game over the past four seasons," according to Baseball Prospectus' Clay Davenport; atop of the list is Roger Clemens.

But to me the more intriguing angle is Matsuzaka's stuff as a pitcher. Will Carroll has a fascinating breakdown of his repertoire, complete with YouTube videos. Most of the discussion centers around the mysterious gyroball:
So what does the gyroball do? According to Dr. Alan Nathan of the University of Illinois, the "pure gyroball" has a rifle spin that is perpendicular to the direction the ball is traveling. In essence, the ball spins clockwise (from the pitcher's perspective) while traveling from mound to home. This spin causes the pitch to drop more quickly than a normal fastball. Tilting the pitch to the side, so that the spin is somewhere to the right of perpendicular, causes the pitch to rise or at the very least not drop as quickly as a normal fastball. This video is the closest I have seen to a pure gyro. You'll notice that the ball drops rather than moving laterally.

...[T]he second variation of the pure gyroball is what I've assumed was the gyroball until recently. The work of ESPN's Patrick Hruby and Dr. Nathan have led me to discover that the "gyroball with side force" is the pitch that I have been teaching. By tilting the axis of rotation slightly up, the ball now moves laterally, away from a right-handed hitter. By tilting it down, the ball moves in on a right-handed hitter. In the time I've taught the pitch, one of the strangest actions was that occasionally the ball would break in rather than out, something that I simply couldn’t explain until now. This "side force" pitch should also break down, something that's not always seen. I think that the pitch is often thrown as something of a combo of the "side force" and "lift force" variations.

When thrown "properly," this variation on the pitch breaks hard away from a righthanded hitter. While I'll stand by my guesses that the pitch will break in feet rather than inches, Dr. Nathan's calculations that the pitch wouldn't break more than a normal slider interest me. I believe there may be some "optical illusion" to the pitch. Since it is normally thrown to initially travel towards the batter, the sharp break back to the plate may be throwing off our views. However, I have watched this pitch from every angle. I’ve stood in against it, and hate it every time. I have stood behind the catcher and behind the pitcher. I have even seen it thrown in games, and to me and others around me, the pitch appears to move more significantly than a slider.

...I've been teaching this pitch to a small group of pitchers for a couple of years, though I don’t evangelize the pitch. I find that most pitchers that throw it say that the pitch puts less stress on them than sliders do. I've worked with one minor-league pitcher who told me that it's as easy on his arm as a fastball. I am hoping that we can find out with high-speed video whether this is the case or not.

What's lost is that Dr. Himeno, the Japanese physicist that discovered the pitch, and his team have essentially created three, perhaps four pitches with their research and one grip. For pitchers with a great kinesthetic sense and the willingness to work on the pitch, the mechanics created by Himeno's supercomputer-based research have created a whole repertoire of pitches. I think it’s more likely that in the short term we’ll find that most pitchers will be as I believe Matsuzaka is now--working on the pitch, but not in complete control. When Matsuzaka told Jeff Passan of Yahoo that he hadn't perfected the pitch, I now believe that he meant that he could not control which variant he was actually throwing, rather than he did not throw the pitch at all. It holds that a pitch that cannot be controlled isn't thrown much, something born out by scouting data.
Carroll's article has already sparked some debate, including a pro scout who contacted another BP author to counter some of the article's observations. I'm sure that those comments will work their way into the discussion in due time, but the bottom line seems to be that this pitcher stands to inject something legitimately new into the American game. We'll have a better idea once he's actually stateside and his videos can be dissected by every scout and armchair pitching coach as to exactly what that is, but the chance to see such innovation with our own eyes has to rate among next season's most tantalizing prospects, regardless of your rooting interest.

Gary Sheffield to the Tigers: we always knew his alliance with the Yankees would end in tears, tears of rage. Still, it's just Gary Being Gary, always offering beat writers a much livelier take than, say, Derek Jeter's postulations on the proper application of pants (thanks to Nick Stone for that one).

Still, not a bad return from the Tigers in those three minor league pitchers. Here's what prospect buff Kevin Goldstein said yesterday in a chat at BP:
I LIKE [Humberto] Sanchez, but I'm not crazy about him. Good stuff, but consistent conditioning problems and at the same time, he's played four full seasons, and he's yet to get through even ONE without missing significant time.

[Kevin] Whelan might be a little underrated, however. I like anyone who throws four different fastballs, and he has true set-up man potential.

[Anthony] Claggett, despite some eye-popping numbers, is pretty marginal on a stuff level. He's your classic plus slider/average fastball minor league reliever -- a combination that rarely works as guys move up.
Jaret Wright to the Orioles: absent the medical reports, I trumpeted his acquisition by the Yankees three winters ago, and I was oh so wrong. I will gladly pay $20 never to see him pitch again, though given that he's still in the AL East, I'll have to settle for never having to root for him again.

Chris Britton, the reliever they acquired in trade, is a big and beefy beast with low 90s heat coming off a promising rookie year (53.2 IP, 3.53 Fair Run Average, 44/14 K/BB, 0.496 WXRL). He'll fit in nicely at the front end of the bullpen, saving Scott Proctor some wear and tear.

• If disappearing Jaret Wright from my view is worth $20, I'll kick in $50 to be rid of Carl Pavano. Supposedly the Rockies are interested; I couldn't wish for a better place to exile him, and I would call the trade a win for the Yanks even if all they receive is Dante Bichette's 1995-vintage laundry.

J.D. Drew to Outta My Face: From the standpoint of the Dodgers, he was always a risky horse to bet on five times in a row, and public commentary be damned, Ned "Stupid Flanders" Colletti should be clicking his heels together over the chance to reallocate that money to a less fragile hitter. If he's not, then somebody ought to gently bash him over the head with a fungo bat.

As for Drew's move, yes, he publicly stated he was likely to return, but there's a reason Scott Boras timed that out clause as he did, knowing it would coincide with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Hate him or hate him (there really isn't any option), you have to respect the fact that Boras wasn't born yesterday. He's the absolute best at looking out for his clients' interests, damn the PR torpedoes, and Drew has always followed his lead towards the biggest pile of money.

As for my feelings as a Dodger fan, well, I have warmer fuzzies for Jeff Kent than I do for Drew, which is saying something. I can't blame him for making a sound business decision given the stupid money that will apparently be thrown around this winter. But I sincerely wish him nothing but the worst as far as his playing career is concerned, and I hope he starts shedding body parts like a leper. Particularly so if he signs with the Red Sox, who are rumored to be pursuing him for a four-year deal; that consolidates my schadenfreude into one low monthly payment. Drew's bloodless style will stand in stark contrast to the man he replaces, Trot Nixon; both are injury-prone, but fans always understood that Nixon's absence was related to his gritty, all-out style of play. Drew? Not so much.

• Jon Weisman has some clear thinking about Drew. And in this busy winter, I can certainly relate to his sentiments on finding the time to blog, and I don't even have kids yet. Congrats to one of the nicest guys around on his new(ish) gig at Variety and on his tantalizing TV and movie blog Screen Jam.

• A nice article from last summer on a pair of artists, Greg Maddux and Vin Scully. I think I may just cue up that September 18 game, which will sit on my TiVo all winter the way the 2003 ALCS Game Seven did, keeping me warm on those barren, baseball-free nights.

• Sad post-playing career articles are a dime a dozen; the Sammy Stewart crackhead one, catching up with an Orioles pitcher of the late '70s, was typically bleak, but that's only the latest in a string of drug-related tales.

I felt a great deal more for this article on former Padres pitching prospect Jay Franklin. I'm too young to remember his brief career -- 0-1, 6.35 ERA in 5.2 innings best remembered for surrendering Hank Aaron's 638th home run in 1971 -- but I caught up with it years ago in the service of a feature about ballplayers named Jay. I didn't know much of him beyond that, however. Apparently Franklin, who blew out his arm and faded away before he could make it big, suffers from debilitating depression and paranoid delusions. "Right now, I'm just existing," he says. "The deck's stacked against me. That's how I feel. There's a song that came out years ago that says, 'I'm dying inside, but nobody knows it but me.' That's me in a nutshell." Sad and harrowing.

Here's hoping the attention helps his plight a little.

• I couldn't possibly have stayed sane the past two years without Keith Olbermann's work on MSNBC's Countdown. Once upon a time Olbermann was the merely the former SportsCenter kingpin who'd gone on to "serious" if puzzling work as a pundit. Now I think he's one of the most important voices in mainstream media, his sports background a mere footnote. Glad to see he's getting his due. You've come a long way, dude.

• The undead rising from the grave to ink minor-league deals: a sure sign of the apocalypse. Or the Hot Stove League; I get them confused these days...

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