Michael Roth has posted dominant numbers for two consecutive seasons, but he lacks the kind of arm strength that scouts covet. In fact, Roth did not garner a single vote from the 17 major league scouting directors who submitted preseason All-America ballots to Baseball America. So how does he dominate? Roth and South Carolina pitching coach Jerry Meyers broke down the lefthander’s stuff, mechanics, arm slots, pitching philosophy and approach to his bullpen sessions.
On Roth’s innate feel for pitching and overall philosophy:
Meyers: “He has some intangibles that, whenever you’re posed with that question (How does Roth do it?), that’s the word that comes up. It’s kind of hard to explain. He has really good instincts. He instinctively has a feel for making the ball move a little bit more when he needs to, keeping the ball down, getting the ball in on guys’ hands, and being able to locate, hopefully multiple pitches. He’s got slots and the ability to change speeds. Those instincts kind of take over a little bit during an at-bat, the second time through the order, that kind of thing. I think the hitters will tell you it feels like he’s throwing a little bit harder than he is, because the changeup is such a big equalizer. He may not throw his fastball as hard as some, but he’s got a way better changeup than most.”
Roth: “I believe you should pitch to your strengths. My strengths are location and my changeup. Anything I can do to make that changeup even better, I should do it. If there’s a guy that hits the changeup really well, maybe he does, but you can still get him out with it. Or there’s guys that are hitting (inside) well, but you can still get them out because if you throw it in at the knees, let them hit two balls foul.
“We get scouting reports, I read through them all before the game, and that’s about it. One of my first starts as a freshman—I had two starts as a freshman—I read through the scouting report, studied it, and I got shelled. I was like, ‘I’m never doing that again.’ I pick out major points—like runners, that’s really the important part for me. Who are the runners? Because that’s me fielding my position, me holding guys to make sure I don’t give second base up. If I’m going to get a guy on first, my goal is to get a double play. And maybe if somebody struggles with a pitch or something. But I don’t obsess over a scouting report. I like to read swings on the mound and see how hitters are reacting to what I’m doing. If I see a guy struggling with a pitch, I’ll just log it away. Every time I walk off the mound, coach Meyers will ask, why did you throw a pitch? And we’ll talk about it. It’s a continuous game; we’re just out there playing a chess match, really.
“I’ve said this before, and people probably think I’m stupid and maybe it’s disrespectful to the game, but when I think about the game, I think about, I’m a pitcher 60 feet away with a round ball pitching to a hitter with a round bat. There’s nine guys on the field. I know how tough hitting is. It should be easy to get hitters out. When you think about it logically, you shouldn’t give up runs. I’m not going out there trying to strike everybody out or anything, I’m just trying to get three outs and then we’ll worry about the next inning. To me pitching is more about a mentality than anything else. Mentally, if you’re not right out there on the mound then you won’t be successful. That’s why guys with amazing stuff can’t get guys out.”
On his changeup:
Meyers: “A lot of lefties have some good ones, but his has maybe a little deeper action than some, the late sink on it, plus it has the change of speed. Even with close to a traditional changeup grip, he just gets a little more action on it. He has a lot of conviction with it, and he knows it’s going to be a pretty good pitch for him. Even when he doesn’t have his best one, he knows he can change slots, throw some cutters in on righties’ hands, and do some things with his fastball that maybe some other guys who don’t locate as well can’t do.”
Roth: “I’m very comfortable with my changeup. The three years I’ve been here, I’ve thrown three different changeups. I came in as a circle changeup, but pinkie on top. Then I dropped my pinkie down so it looked more like a fastball, but it was still coming off that finger mostly (pointing to his pinkie). Now it’s coming off these two fingers (pointing to his middle and ring fingers). i almost can throw two different changeups. I can throw the one that’s going to float and then drop—a hitter can see it a little longer, pick it up, but it’s going to have more movement. That’s the changeup a hitter’s possibly going to poke his bat out and hit it to the two-hole or something. But I can also throw the changeup when I really follow through and snap hard, like when I’m throwing a fastball real hard. That will be the strikeout changeup. Sometimes I can’t even control it, to be honest with you, and I don’t even know why I can do that. But other times I can control it. People say a changeup’s my best pitch, but I can still get better with that pitch.
“That’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed about freshmen coming in is a lot of times they don’t throw a changeup coming in because it speeds up a hitter’s bat. But mixing in a changeup can do a lot of things, and it’s one of the best pitches in baseball, in my opinion.”
On his varying arm slots, deception and breaking balls:
Meyers: “Mechanically, when he goes to his lower arm slot—and he doesn’t just do it on lefties now. When he came out of the ‘pen his sophomore year in 2010, that’s what he did—he dropped down almost exclusively on lefties, and it was fastball-slider, from what I understand. Now he will stay up on some lefties if he wants to, and still go down the majority of the time with fastball-slider. But he’ll throw a changeup left-on-left now, and his changeup’s his best pitch. He can throw that from the low slot too, he can do both. He’ll throw some left-on-left changeups going through the order more.
“We’ve been working on a curveball with a little different break. He’s got a slider from up top and from down low that sweeps, but he’s trying to get on top to get a little better downward break from up top. When he’s in the lower slot, it has bigger break, call it a slider. When he’s up a little more it’s harder, the same kind of plane break but it turns a little more into a cutter and doesn’t break as much as when he drops down. He can move his fastball from both slots, but it moves more when he’s down low. He tucks and hides the ball when he goes down low—it doesn’t have as much velocity, but it has more movement and it’s deceptive. But he can throw all his pitches from both slots.”
Roth: “I always had a real loopy curveball. I’d snap it in at like 69, 0-0 pitch, if you want to swing at it, swing at it, that type of deal. Sophomore year I kind of abandoned it because I was throwing fastball-slider. Sidearm is basically fastball-slider. You can throw a changeup, but I don’t like to, it’s too hard to control. From up top, I always threw like a cutter/slider, it depends on the day what you want to call it. Last year we really worked on the breaking ball in bullpens. I threw one in a game, and (Florida’s) Austin Maddox hit it right back at me and almost killed me. It was actually a pretty good breaking ball, but it popped out so you could see it pop out of my hand. So that’s one thing all fall I’ve really been working on is having a breaking ball that doesn’t pop out. I joke around and tell the guys I’m getting a power curve. Coach Meyers and I have really been working hard on getting a legitimate breaking ball. It’s not there yet, but that’s one of those pitches (where) the feel has to be there. If the fastball’s going that way, the changeup’s going that way, it’s something that is going the other way.
“The slider from over the top, I always wanted it to be a late-breaking cutter. That’s something I’m really working on. It’s more of a cutter, really, than it is a slider. If I can put that cutter/slider in there on a righty, that makes the changeup even better.”
On velocity and location:
Meyers: “He can touch an 89 too—that’s not typical, but he’s probably a good 86-87 throughout most games, and some other games where he’s maybe 84-86 in some of his best games. It all depends on the lineup and his feel and command that day, and a lot of times too depending on the action on his changeup. If his fastball is 87, he’s usually about 10 slower on his changeup. The slider and curveball is about the right range. He’s trying to throw a curveball now, not positive he’s going to use it a lot, but a pitch hitters have to contend with. The slider is upper 70s, maybe 8 mph off his fastball.”
Roth: “I would say my best pitch is a strike. To me, what’s most comfortable is my fastball and changeup. Those two, I feel like in any count, I can put them where i want them. On a night where a guy’s slider is not sliding as much, for me it would be like, ‘I can’t throw that fastball in,’ or ‘I can’t spot that changeup down and away at the knees where I want it to be.’ So mine’s always location that frustrates me, rather than having the stuff. Stuff can strike hitters out, but location is going to get hitters out more than stuff is, in my opinion.”
On his bullpen sessions:
Meyers: “If he’s a little bit off (in a bullpen), he has a tendency to get wrapped up in it, which is great. He’s super-competitive all the time, but when he’s throwing his ‘pens, it’s no different. Once he gets locked in, if he’s not hitting his spots or his rhythm doesn’t feel right, he’s not just getting frustrated but he’s working hard to make a quick adjustment.
“Some days he’ll do more of one slot than the other (in the bullpen) based on how he feels. Some days we’ll put the hitter in there and he can work a little more against the lefty. After the first third of the season last year, it was, ‘What do you think you need today?’ He made 20 starts, the routine was consistent, but it also changed based on how he felt. I love that, when a guy’s telling me what he didn’t do well last week and needs to do better this week, rather than me telling him.”
Roth: “I really approach my bullpen like it’s an in-game situation. I still like to have fun with it, but it’s almost more serious in a game, because that’s when I need to do everything perfectly. At the end of the day, if I had a bad bullpen, what does it really mean? Nothing, we didn’t get a loss, we didn’t get a win, nothing happened. But there’s something to be said for going out there, making sure your mechanics are good, making sure your rhythm and tempo are on time and everything’s flowing. So I almost like to be a little more serious in a bullpen than in a game, because if I’m more focused then, I can be better and almost more relaxed in a game. Sometimes it’s probably not good how mad I get in a bullpen, but then in games I can be like, OK, well (shrugs).
“I alternate slots in a bullpen because then if I want to alternate slots in a game, I can. I know I can go sidearm-sidearm-sidearm, then top-top-top, then sidearm-sidearm. But say I’m facing a righty and I keep throwing over the top and he’s fouling balls off, I can say, ‘Let’s drop down and see what happens.’ Last year I messed around a little bit coming over the top against lefties, and mainly it was changeups. This year I want to try a little bit more so it’s not just changeups—maybe sneak some fastballs in there, and maybe if my breaking ball’s good enough, some curveballs too. So that’s something I want to try to do in my bullpen.”