It’s Starting to Click for Drew Pomeranz

Let’s take a little stroll through the big-league leaders in strikeout rate. Jose Fernandez. All right. Clayton Kershaw! Of course. Drew Pomeranz. Naturally. Danny Salazar. Predictable. Max Scherzer. Duh. Stephe-wait, rewind. Well I’ll be damned, there he is. Pomeranz, indeed.

Most recently, Pomeranz went into Chicago and struck out 10 Cubs, and eight of them weren’t even John Lackey. And if you think this might just be a case of strikeout fetishizing, Pomeranz owns a 1.80 ERA, and he’s given up just two unearned runs. The peripherals are good, even if the walks are a little bit up. Seven starts in, and Pomeranz looks fantastic. Not bad for a guy who came to camp as a probable reliever. While relatively little has gone right for the Padres, Pomeranz looks like he could be gathering and assembling all of his pieces. It’s either taken a while, or it’s taken no time at all. That’s up to your own perspective.

Pomeranz arrived in the trade that sent Yonder Alonso to the A’s. No disrespect to Alonso, who’s been riding a little hot streak lately, but that should tell you roughly how Pomeranz was valued. There were more than just those two players, but it was mostly about Pomeranz and Alonso, and Alonso stood a decent chance of just getting non-tendered anyway. So this turn is fairly surprising, even if the Padres liked Pomeranz’s arm more than the A’s did. Pomeranz has started in the majors before, but he’s never put seven starts together with anything close to this strikeout ability.

Something I have to say, because it makes me laugh, and also because it does matter — Pomeranz is the league leader in strikeouts of opposing pitchers. He’s struck ’em out 11 times out of 13 trips, and of course that inflates his numbers. You can’t ignore it, but even if you take pitchers out of the sample, his strikeout rate remains within the top 10 percent. He’s been hard to hit. Harder to hit than ever.

So you ask why, and this is a good place to start. It’s also an obvious one. Pomeranz hasn’t increased his velocity or anything, but he’s very much leaning heavily on his curveball. He’s always had a good curveball, and now he’s throwing it damn near half the time.

pomeranz-rates

Look at that. Look at that! More than 40% curveballs. Pomeranz loves that pitch, and he’ll throw it in all situations. It’s a big curve, too, and on multiple occasions, Eno has said that Pomeranz is basically just another Rich Hill. In so many ways, it’s the perfect comparison. The similarities are numerous, and the differences are more subtle. To be clear, though, there are differences. Pomeranz has the harder breaking ball. And the two pitchers use their pitches differently.

It’s time to really dig in. We’ve recently increased the functionality of the FanGraphs heat maps, so I’m going to embed four pairs. In each, on the left, you’ll see Pomeranz through last season. And on the right, you’ll see Pomeranz this season. We can start with overall pitches. Here are Pomeranz’s general heat maps.

pomeranz-all

The one on the left is kind of uninteresting. Big blob in the middle of the strike zone. On the right, you start to see some separation. There’s a lot of activity up, and there’s also activity down and glove-side. It’s a lot more helpful to split the pitches up. So with that in mind, here’s the same plot, for just Pomeranz’s four-seam fastballs:

pomeranz-four-seam

That’s not particularly subtle. Pomeranz, before, targeted the upper part of the zone more than the lower part, but this year he’s been more extreme, aiming the fastball glove-side around or above the belt. We’ve talked about rise and spin and keeping four-seamers elevated, and almost no one has elevated the four-seamer more than 2016 Drew Pomeranz. No, he doesn’t have exceptional velocity, but even a high Chris Young fastball is hard to catch up to. According to Baseball Savant, only Johnny Cueto has thrown a higher rate of elevated four-seamers. This is a huge part of the Pomeranz equation.

The fastball:

Great. What good is a fastball without something else? Having something else helps. Let’s look at the same plots, for curves:

pomeranz-curve

A couple shifts here, or just one, in two dimensions. As Pomeranz has located more fastballs up and toward the glove side, he’s located more curves down and toward the glove side. As far as differentials go, Pomeranz’s curve is about 11 ticks slower than his fastball. That’s a relatively small gap — Rich Hill is at 16 ticks. And there’s something else, which you can find on Brooks Baseball. By PITCHf/x, there’s a 19-inch difference in vertical movement between the fastball and the curve. And, very interestingly, this year there’s a 20-inch difference in average pitch height, between the fastball and the curve. Last year that average was under 14 inches — the gap this year has increased half a foot. It’s about eye levels, and the fastball and curve end up in completely different places. Out of the hand, they can look similar, and then if you guess wrong, you’re lost.

The curveball:

Pomeranz in the past has been mostly a two-pitch guy, and he knew he was a two-pitch guy. This is another little intriguing twist. Pomeranz spent the spring trying to polish a cutter and a changeup, and while the cutter hasn’t shown up very much during real games, there’s something there with the change. It’s not a great deal slower than the fastball, but Pomeranz has used it with faith, and it’s occupied a different part of the hitting zone entirely. Here are changeups, which have occasionally been classified as two-seamers:

pomeranz-change

There’s not too much of a difference here, and the difficulty of classifying the pitch doesn’t help, but what’s worth knowing is just that Pomeranz is using this pitch more now, and it gives him something relatively hard on the arm-side part of the plate. The bulk of his improvement has come against right-handed hitters, and if you’re a righty, when you go up there you don’t know if you’re getting a high-and-tight fastball, a low-and-tight curve, or a hard changeup away. Pomeranz has stayed away from being predictable, and his results reflect that quality.

The changeup:

The elements are there. The fastball isn’t overpowering on its own, but Pomeranz uses it in an overpowering way, and it pairs well with the big 12-to-6 breaker. To offer something in between, Pomeranz has gotten a bit more comfortable with a changeup, that righties almost exclusively see over the outer half. There’s no one spot to watch, and there are no counts where Pomeranz is easy to read. You can try to guess fastball or curveball, and you can guess right, but that still doesn’t guarantee a hittable location. He’s gotten better at avoiding those hittable locations.

So as is not uncommon, it feels like this is going to come down to sustaining command. Pomeranz isn’t all that precise, but to this point he’s been precise enough. If he stays this precise, I don’t see why he’d come apart. If he starts hanging curves, that’s a problem. If the fastball leaks more out over the plate, that’s a problem. If the changeup betrays him, that’s a problem. But all these pitches can work excellently together. They already have. And if Pomeranz’s improvement in locating his repertoire is for real, that’s going to make this whole Padres season a hell of a lot easier to stomach.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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OrangeJoos
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OrangeJoos

I didn’t like the trade at all, I was a fan of Pomeranz and what I saw from him when he was relegated to Pen duties was a guy on the verge of breaking out a bit. His fastball gained life, his knuckle curve was always a bad pitch, I am assuming he doesn’t throw that anymore and now throws a standard grip curveball to compliment the Fastball and Change which have good life to them.

Yonder Alonso and Scrabble being released end of the season doesn’t upset me at all