Looking at Max Meyer’s Big League Debut

Max Meyer
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Unless you count Stephen Strasburg’s much-hyped debut, a top pitching prospect’s first start usually doesn’t have much to write home about. While talented, the player in question is understandably an unfinished product who’s facing big league hitters for the first time, in addition to fighting off nerves and perhaps pressure to perform. If you’re looking for some razzle-dazzle, it’s best to wait out a season of adjustments, maybe two. I mean, just look at how Shane McClanahan is taking off this season!

At a glance, Max Meyer’s debut is emblematic of the rookie pitcher’s all-too-common plight. Sure, he did strike out five and hold his own through five innings, but things quickly unraveled afterward. In the top of the sixth, the Phillies got to see Meyer for a third time, which resulted in a home run, walk, and a double. Richard Bleier then took over, but the lefty allowed both runners to score, ballooning Meyer’s earned run total to five. You never got the sense that Meyer was in control of the Phillies, and you couldn’t be blamed for thinking he was ill-prepared.

But c’mon, FanGraphs doesn’t just stop at the box score. From a different angle, Meyer’s debut is one of the more striking ones in recent memory.

If I may generalize a bit, rookie pitchers tend to be reliant on their fastballs, especially during the first few starts of their career. The fastball is a weapon they can trust, whereas secondary pitches might still need refinement. Confronted with a new environment, it’s human instinct to stick with what’s comforting.

Already, Meyer breaks the mold. The 79 pitches thrown in his debut consisted of 39 sliders, 28 four-seam fastballs, and 12 changeups. That’s nearly 50% sliders, which is bonkers for a starter. He threw it for strikes, and he threw it for chases. Here’s a GIF of that slider Meyer showed no reservations in whipping out:

Upper-80s velocity? Check. Perfect location? Check. The slider is a big part of why the Marlins drafted Meyer third overall in the 2020 draft; even by major league standards, it’s one of the better breaking balls around, and Meyer’s ticket to ace-dom. But arguably most impressive is his commitment to using it so often, when even seasoned big leaguers take the conventional wisdom of establishing one’s fastball way too seriously. The results speak for themselves: Meyer’s slider earned a 41% CSW (called strikes plus whiffs) rate on the night. This isn’t a one-off, but rather a beginning. With the fastball count all but dead, Meyer’s arrival signals what’s to come in MLB.

As it stands, though, he’s still an outlier. And there’s yet another aspect in which Meyer stands out. Last week, I wrote about the importance of fastball shape, and how movement and release point matter in tandem with velocity. Meyer’s heater isn’t the speediest, topping out at 96 on Saturday and sitting between 93–95 mph. It also doesn’t have elite vertical movement, nor is it released from a funky release point or even particularly close to home plate. Instead, what differentiates Meyer’s fastball from the rest is an absence of movement. You can’t really tell from a GIF, but here’s the fastball in action:

Looks fairly normal, right? But the numbers suggest otherwise. In his debut, Meyer’s fastball averaged a mere 10.8 inches of vertical movement. For reference, the mighty Spencer Strider is at 17.6 on the season, and even Hunter Greene checks in at 16. A sample of 28 pitches produces some massive error bars, but even so, we have enough to conclude that what Meyer uses is no ordinary fastball.

Let’s break it down further. You might think this is a case of a sinker being misclassified as a four-seamer, but the lack of horizontal movement as well — a microscopic 2.3 inches — is a dead giveaway. Meyer doesn’t just throw a gyro slider; he also throws a gyro heater. Gyro is short for gyro spin, which is the type of spin that doesn’t contribute to a pitch’s movement. Letting gravity do all the work might not sound too sexy, but in theory, all a fastball needs is to be unique. Give hitters an angle they haven’t seen before, then reap the benefits.

The problem, however, is that there really isn’t a suitable comp for Meyer’s fastball in major league baseball (besides maybe Chi Chi González), which means no clear blueprint exists on how to optimize it. Should he treat it like a regular four-seamer and aim for the letters? Or is it better to let it sink towards the bottom of the zone, in hopes of inducing weak contact? Against the Phillies, Meyer opted for neither, but not of his own volition: He painted the corners at times, but several fastballs ended up down the middle, resulting in hard-hit balls. It’ll be interesting to check back in with Meyer on a day in which he has better feel for his heater.

In college, Meyer was primarily known for his fastball-slider combo. Since being drafted, he’s continued to hone a changeup, which every young Marlins pitcher seems to have in his arsenal. It isn’t quite there — it was the worst-commanded pitch of Meyer’s debut, with many bouncing in the dirt — but hey, one changeup did get a whiff out of Darick Hall:

Unlike the fastball, the changeup is hardly a unicorn; this is your run-of-the-mill offspeed offering from a righty. It also seems negatively impacted by Meyer’s feel for gyro spin. Compared to his Marlins peers, he doesn’t produce enough sidespin to kill the lift on his changeup and let it fade, but with only 12 thrown so far, maybe we should take the movement data with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, it’s a solid pitch in its current state, and what matters above all for a changeup is command, not stuff. And if everything comes together, we might be looking at a complete arsenal with no extra fluff, so to speak.

In his first big league start, Meyer ran into a few bumps in the road, coughed up five runs, and looked entirely mortal. It’s underwhelming when described that way, but consider the finer details. In the process, he threw his breaking ball nearly half the time, the high usage justified by elite velocity and exquisite command. He backed it up with an odd four-seamer that isn’t seen often in an age where ride is king. Whether it’ll hold up is a question for later; for now, we can appreciate the singularity. His changeup didn’t get to shine, but Meyer’s athleticism and the Marlins’ track record are two great reasons to bet on its development.

I admittedly didn’t think too much of Meyer when he was first drafted, and as a prospect, I thought he could benefit from a more vertically oriented fastball. The Marlins did apparently raise his arm slot, but that didn’t turn his heater into a conventional bat-misser. Instead, what we have here is a quirky yet promising profile. It’s impossible to see into the future with a single start, but it instantly put Meyer back on my radar. The Marlins already have an electric rotation chock-full of homegrown talent, and it’s exciting to think he can become a true part of it.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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4 months ago

Love this take, not only because I agree and confirmation bias is a real thing. Meyer showed that he knows how to pitch rather than just throw (ahem, Hunter Greene). I don’t see the reliever risk here that has been reported; I see a guy with the floor of being a solid “3” today (not even the dreaded “3/4” which often means “4/5”) and the possibility for more. The slider is an out-pitch today and, as you noted, he can throw it in any count. His mound placement on the fast 1B side of the rubber seems (to me) to make the pitch even more effective against lefty batters; I have to imagine that’s a tough look.

About the only thing he didn’t show me in his debut is the ability to dial that fastball up when he needs to. My expectation from the reports was that he would sit 93-95 but then dial it up to the high-90’s when needed. I’d like to see him do that.

But man… the Marlins rolling out Alcantara, Meyer and Lopez is a very viable top-3, and if Trevor Rogers can return to anywhere close to last year’s form then this is a heck of a rotation regardless of who fills out the #5 spot. Even if Sixto Sanchez and Edward Cabrera never move past the constant injuries, this is a formidable rotation.