Joe Maddon stated the obvious after a Cubs victory in Denver in early May.
“Starting pitching drives the engine,” he told reporters after the game. “Don’t ever be deceived.”
This mantra may as well be printed in every draft room heading into the 2017 draft in June. No matter which ballparks scouts visit across the country, and no matter how much they are on the lookout for bats, they all remember that starting pitching drives the engine of every organization, even in a changing game.
And in an information and technology age, it seems like we should know more about what makes a starting pitcher. The baseball industry certainly knows how to develop velocity for pitchers; the game’s scouting and player development machinery is built around velocity. Pitchers know how hard they throw at any high school showcase they attend. Little League dads can find out via smaller and cheaper radar guns. Fans at many college, most minor league and all big league ballparks get a readout of every pitch’s velocity on the scoreboard or on their smartphone.
I don’t always sit in the scout section of games; I’m more often in the press box. If I’m calling a game on TV or a web stream, I know I wind up relying on the gun more than I should to help me identify pitches. But most scouts use the radar gun for an inning or two to get a general read on the pitcher, but not for much longer. They know they need to watch the pitcher instead of the gun to see how his delivery works, from head to toe, and they need to watch how the hitters react to what the pitcher is throwing.
Fastballs are about more than velocity. There’s the pitch’s life and how the pitcher locates it. But too often, we at Baseball America are guilty of focusing on the velocity, because good luck getting drafted in the first 10 rounds if you haven’t hit 90 mph. My colleague J.J. Cooper and I argue about the importance of velocity a lot, especially in the draft, and how hard amateurs, and even pitchers in the low minors, should throw.
Low Class A Rome pitching coach Dan Meyer has two of the top prep arms from last year’s draft, No. 3 overall pick Ian Anderson and No. 40 pick Joey Wentz, on his staff this season. Anderson’s athletic ability and a fastball up to 97 mph made him the first pitcher drafted in 2016, but Meyer says velocity is not what will get him to the big leagues.
“You can stress (command over velocity) as much as you want,” Meyer said. “If (prospects) listen, great. If they don’t, they’ll learn their lesson at some point.
“You get to a certain level and if you’re throwing 98-99 (mph) and it’s one pitch, at some point you’ll get to level where you’ll get hit. Either they learn early, or they’re going to learn by experience, so either way you try to head that off . . . You just hope they pick up on that early. And if you can teach command then you can get them faster to where they want to be.”
Technology has helped increase pitching velocity, first with the promulgation of the radar gun, second in the improvement of training techniques for pitchers. It has not seemed to help pitchers throw more strikes.
“Command is more important than velocity at times,” Meyer said, “especially the higher you go up. You can throw 97, but if you’re down the middle and you have one pitch, you’re going to get beat.”
Technology (the Internet) has spread information about velocity training, and players have far more information now than they used to have.
Teams haven’t always reacted well to the rush of information. Many teams’ throwing programs in the minors still employ a one-size-fits-all formula, from how much time pitchers have to warm up to how far they can throw to what they should do in the offseason.
This is how stories spring up about pitchers with information and some sophistication—such as Hunter Greene in 2017 or Dylan Bundy and Trevor Bauer in 2011 or Mike Montgomery in 2008—can run into headwinds come draft time.
Greene has worked with Alan Jaeger’s throwing programs since he was 7 years old. He’s also throwing 100 mph, or close to it, regularly when he pitches. It would make sense to have him keep doing what he has been doing to get to that point, but for some clubs, Greene’s long-toss program and frequency of throwing could be no-nos.
Teams don’t always want a player who thinks for himself; smart players have run into this for years (ask Doug Glanville). That’s especially true of pitchers, because pro teams want amateurs to follow their programs, not something they developed as amateurs.
For players who have a lot of information about pitching, it’s important for them to have a lot of information about the teams scouting them. They can’t control who drafts them per se, but they can control how much they know about their new employers, their coaches and their throwing programs. It’s just as important for teams to have information on the player.
Immediately altering the routine, throwing program or delivery of a player you just spent a seven-figure signing bonus on doesn’t seem to make sense, but it happens all the time. Teams have conviction in their player-development programs, but now they run into players who have just as much belief in their programs, their routines, their approach to pitching.
Every team wants to find starting pitching. They’re just not always clear on who’s driving the engine.