Speed Thrills, But Is That All There Is?
Watching Mike Mayers of the Cardinals make his major league debut got me scrambling.
Did I rank him in last year’s Prospect Handbook? I didn’t, did I?
I went looking and found that no, I had not ranked Mayers, a former member of Mississippi’s rotation in college and a 2013 third-round pick. But I glanced at the numbers and called up my notes and found, OK, I had good reasons not to rank him.
I watched the Dodgers torch Mayers for six runs in his first big league inning, as Adrian Gonzalez crushed a grand slam before Mayers even got an out. I saw him miss the strike zone with his secondary stuff, such as his intriguing, 85 mph slider, and exhibit shotgun command with his fastball, perhaps a case of nerves.
Part of me, to be honest, was relieved. I don’t like missing with my rankings, and the Cardinals already had an all-star shortstop, Aledmys Diaz, whom I’d dropped out of the Top 10 last fall, after they had designated him for assignment.
I wasn’t rooting for Mayers to fail, though, and the real reason I was worried was that he was starting and hitting 95 mph on the TV radar gun regularly. So the real question was, does Mayers have a plus fastball? That’s plus fastball velocity, but the lack of command was keeping the pitch from playing at that level.
But he clearly has the arm strength to be a big leaguer. So if I get the chance to rank Mayers again, he probably will make BA’s Cardinals’ Top 30 this fall.
Is that all it takes? Throwing 95 mph? For someone with Mayers’ experience level and success at Double-A and Triple-A in 2016, that’s not all, but it’s not far off. Today’s game is a velocity game.
Kopech Pushes Things
How about 105 mph? Is that enough velocity for you? When our J.J. Cooper saw Peter Gammons tweet about Red Sox farmhand Michael Kopech supposedly hitting 105 mph with a pitch in a high Class A game, he sprang into action. J.J. made a few calls and got Salem manager Joe Oliver on the phone.
Oliver, you may remember, caught Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton and Randy Myers—the famed "Nasty Boys” of the 1990 Reds—so he knows velocity. And he said the team’s pitch chart reported that Kopech indeed hit 100 mph.
The story was the perfect storm for BaseballAmerica.com, with a large fan base (the Red Sox), a Midseason Top 100 prospect (Kopech) and a sexy radar gun reading made for one of our most-read stories ever. Only Aroldis Chapman had reached 105 mph in the major leagues, after hitting 103 on J.J.’s radar gun back when he was in the minor leagues. At the time, some threw shade at J.J. for his 103 mph reading on Chapman; now we just take it for granted that the Cuban lefthander throws that hard.
Kopech was throwing harder than Chapman did in the minors, though, harder than Giants farmhand Ray Black (another J.J. favorite), who reportedly has thrown 103. Kopech, it should be noted, doesn’t consistently throw that hard, and that 105 reading may have been a false positive, as it were. Scouts who were at that start and at his next start five days later say Kopech generally sits 94-100 mph with his fastball, and none of them got 105 on their radar guns; just the pitchers charting the game did.
I love seeing pitchers throw hard. I remember seeing Jason Neighborgall back in high school here in Durham back in 2002, when he was throwing in the upper 90s but his catcher at Riverside High just couldn’t handle him. Neighborgall wound up going in the seventh round of the draft, didn’t sign and went to Georgia Tech, where he became, in a way, the Steve Dalkowski of this century. He wasn’t the absolute hardest thrower, but man, he threw hard. With 128 walks in 42 pro innings with the Diamondbacks, though, he just didn’t throw enough strikes.
He was a kind of harbinger of the velocity to come, and this era we’re in when it seems every big league pitcher throws in the low-to-mid-90s. Velocity gets pitchers drafted and it certainly gets them to big league bullpens, but the pitchers who succeed otherwise are fewer and farther in between. There’s a sameness and at times a facelessness to the parade of hard-throwing middle relievers who pitch more and more innings it seems every year, and who are disposable and interchangeable as managers carry seven, eight or even nine relievers on big league rosters.
It has turned Cubs righty Kyle Hendricks and Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright into two of my favorite pitchers, Wright for his knuckler and Hendricks for throwing a ton of fastballs—nearly 70 percent of his pitches—despite their lack of velocity. Hendricks’ fastball averages 87.5 mph, but thanks to his ability to locate it and his 70-grade changeup, he’s become one of the best starters on one of baseball’s best teams.
I don’t want all pitchers to be like Hendricks or Wright. I do like a little variety in the game, though, so I’m rooting for them to succeed.
In The Age Of Velocity, Should MLB Teams Be Placing More Emphasis On Command?
What if the most difficult skill to improve—and the rarest and most crucial building block—is command and not velocity?
And along the way, here’s hoping Mayers proves me wrong, and that he figures out a way to succeed too. Maybe he should try taking something off the ball; it would certainly make him different.