Drew Pomeranz on His Knuckle Curve

On the day of baseball’s non-tender trade deadline, the San Diego Padres traded first baseman Yonder Alonso and lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski to Oakland in exchange for left-hander Drew Pomeranz and minor-leaguer Jose Torres. For those interested, Craig Edwards examined the trade in a general way earlier this morning. The point of this post is to look more closely at one part of the trade: Drew Pomeranz.

If Pomeranz is just a good reliever, then the deal amounts mostly to this: three years of control for a good reliever in exchange for two years of a first baseman who can be league average two-thirds of the time. Maybe, to make a trade like that even, you’d have to add a piece or two to get Alonso, but that’s when the deal makes the most sense for the Athletics.

The deal makes better sense for the Padres if Pomeranz is a starter. And it looks like the team is considering him a starting pitcher for the time being.

The question of whether or not Pomeranz can be a good starting pitcher for the Padres hinges on three things, most likely: his health, his changeup, and his curveball. Earlier this season, I talked to the pitcher about all three.

In an effort to improve his health and command outcomes, the lefty went to the stretch exclusively in 2014. “Now I can just pick my leg up, get the ball out, and throw it,” Pomeranz said in April before he spent this season pitching the second-most innings of his career.

Of course, the second-most innings of his career meant that he threw 86 innings, and got clavicle surgery in October. Everything is relative.

At least the stretch led to the best single-season walk rate of his career, bar none. “I can be much more accurate now that I’m repeating what I did last year, when I simplified things,” Pomeranz agreed.

That good work led to the second-straight above-average season by strikeouts minus walks. And that’s been enough for projection systems to line him up for a third straight season with those kinds of rates… in the bullpen. Can he repeat as a starter, without a changeup?

“They say ‘he’s got two pitches,’ but when you change the speed all the time, it’s not really just two pitches,” is the pitcher’s response. And that statement is important to all facets of his game.

So he says he has a changeup, it’s “just a change of speeds,” and not about movement. He tried to change his mechanics to get more movement on the changeup, and that didn’t work. “I took Scott Kazmir’s grip and stuck with it, I’ve been changing it all the time, it’s time to just throw it,” he said of the change this year. He agreed that he’s satisfied with throwing a super-slow sinker.

“I’ll throw the fastball anywhere from 86 to 94” is a thing he’ll also say about his changeup and how it fits in with his other pitches. It’s a third speed on the fastball, really. And if you plot changeup movement in with his four-seam and two-seam movement, you can see that is really the best way to describe his approach to his non-curveball pitches.

You could squint and see three fastballs there in the red, white, and green — a hard, 94 mph rising fastball (centered around +4 horizontal movement, +10 vertical movement), a low 90s sinker (+6, +8), and a high-80s super sinker (+10, +8). The changeup or super sinker doesn’t have enough movement to really separate itself as a completely different pitch, but it does look like a different cluster.

The story repeats itself when it comes to his breaking ball. “I can throw it harder, I can throw it slower, it can be a little tighter sometimes,” Pomeranz said of his knuckle curve. “Depends on the guy at the plate.” This time, though, it looks more like he’s got two breaking pitches hidden in one grip.

These breaking balls don’t group up easily. If you draw a line at -4 horizontal movement, where it looks to separate, you do get a pitch with more horizontal movement, but just about the same average speed as the other grouping. If you draw a line at 80 mph, the two groupings have about the same movement, even if the slower breaking balls have about a little over an inch more drop.

Let’s just take him at his word, that he has a more sideways, harder version of his curve, and a droppier, slower one. He’ll admit that he doesn’t have great command of the thing. “I don’t have great hand action on the ball anyway,” he said, “and sometimes I sling the ball up there.”

Pomeranz
The Pomeranz Knuckle Curve.

In any case, Pomeranz is glad to be free of Colorado, which kills curveballs. Don’t get him started on Colorado, really: “I didn’t have a curveball for two years. I had one pitch, and it was a fastball and it cut most of the time. They tried to get me to throw changeups and they would cut. My curveballs would bounce because if I threw them at all up, they would hang, so I would have to bounce it. I would throw the two-seam and it would cut, too. Bigger curveballs are no good. Plus, there was some weird things going on with the 75-pitch count.”

Getting out of the rarified air gave him back his breaking ball, which he’s refined into multiple options since he started throwing it at 11 years old. Cleaning up his mechanics gave him back his command, and though it stole some movement from his changeup, it gave him the ability to change speed on the fastballs.

You could call him a two-pitch pitcher, if you want. His overall platoon splits and injury history also say he could end up relieving.

But if you do so, you’re ignoring what he’s doing with the velocity on his pitches recently, and the fact that he has been much better against righties over the last two years. His 11.5-point strikeout-minus-walk figure against right-handers over that time period was just short of the American League starters’ average, and he’s headed to the easier league. If you believe he has two breaking balls and three fastballs, you can believe he’s a starting pitcher.

Well, the pitch on the left below went 78 with 11 inches of drop, and the pitch on the right went 82 with four inches less drop and two more inches of horizontal movement. Do you think they are different pitches?

PomBigPomSideways

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Chris O'Leary
Guest

Yes. Definitely. Very different trajectories. One is curve-ish and the other is slider-ish.