Sunday Notes: Putnam’s Odd Mix, Spin Rates, Mariners, more

Zach Putnam has thrown 61.4% splitters and 24.7% cutters so far this season. If you think that’s unique, you’re right. No other MLB pitcher approximates that ratio.

The White Sox reliever is one of only five pitchers (minimum 30 innings) who utilize each of the two offerings at least 10% of the time. Alfredo Simon – 35% splitters and 14.6% cutters – comes closest to Putnam’s particular mix. Masahiro Tanaka throws 25.7% splitters and 10.7% cutters. Kendall Graveman is 25.7% cutters and 11.1% splitters. Jeff Samardzija is 24.8% cutters and 11.1% splitters. (numbers through Friday.)

Putnam’s 61.4% splitter usage is currently the highest in either league. Koji Uehara is next at 60.2% (and throws a cutter once in a blue moon).

The 28-year-old right-hander has thrown a splitter since his days at the University of Michigan. He turned to the cutter more recently.

“Going into spring training last year, I made it a point to develop either a cutter or a slider,” explained Putnam. “My primary heater is a sinker, and I had been relying too much on the outside of the plate, particularly against lefties. I needed something that would move the other way, so I had the option of working both sides.”

An ability to effectively work in-and-out catapulted Putnam to big-league success. Last season, the former Indians and Cubs farmhand logged a 1.98 ERA in 49 appearances. So far this year, he has a 3.16 ERA and a 12.9 K-rate in 37 relief outings.

Putnam still throws a sinker – “It’s kind of the foundation of my repertoire, because it’s my fastball” – and while he’ll mix in a four-seamer from time to time, he doesn’t climb the ladder very often. Unlike Uehara, he usually doesn’t work up-and-down.

“Koji gets a lot of non-splitter outs up in the zone, and I’m kind of the opposite of that,” said Putnam. “I stay down in the zone, sometimes almost to a fault. I can elevate if I need to, but that’s not in my game plan when I attack most hitters.”

Putnam’s primary attack pitch darts down at an average velocity of 84.5 mph. He considers it more of a “changeup-split” than a “true forkball that gets tumbling action.”
According to his primary catcher, that’s not entirely true. Regardless of the movement, the deception is bedeviling.

“His split almost turns forkballish at times,” said Flowers. “When he throws it, sometimes my eyes are tricked and I think he’s throwing the wrong pitch. I called for a split, but because it comes out of his hand just like his fastball, part of my brain reads fastball. That’s good though, because hitters are seeing the same thing I am.”

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Earlier this week, I Tweeted the following:

“The Royals are talented, and due to various shenanigans, probably the most-disliked small-market team in the game. That’s good for baseball.”

The feedback I received from Royals fans was largely defensive. That’s understandable, as no one wants their favorite team to be viewed as villains (OK, maybe the New England Patriots).

I stand by my statement.

Assigning of blame aside, there’s no denying there have been brouhahas. There have also been inflammatory responses, which are a sure-fire way of enhancing a bad-boy image. But again, this is good for baseball. Edginess can be compelling and players like Yordano “Deleted Tweet” Ventura are edgy. A lot of eyeballs are on the Royals right now, and that wouldn’t be happening without a storyline to accompany the winning.

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Al Avila is now the Tigers’ general manager, and his son, Alex, is an impending free agent. Will Detroit re-sign the 28-year-old catcher? The question is a conundrum, for obvious reasons. Not only is the specter of nepotism at play: the younger Avila has battled concussions and is hitting like someone concussed.

No one doubts the professionalism of either Avila, but a similar dynamic existed when dad was the assistant GM. Even so, it may be time for the son to move on. If he does, don’t be surprised to see him return several years down the road… in a non-playing capacity. Alex possesses the qualities to one day manage or work in a front office. I’m not the first to suggest this, and I surely won’t be the last.

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Speaking of the Tigers’ front office, Avila replacing the departing Dombrowski wasn’t the only notable move up top. Overshadowed, but arguably no less important, was the promotion of Sam Menzin from baseball operations analyst to director of baseball operations. A 2012 graduate of Swarthmore College, Menzin – an avowed stat geek – is a future GM.

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Rick Waits pays attention to TrackMan data. It’s not an end-all-be-all for the Seattle Mariners pitching coach, but he considers it a valuable tool. He uses it as a reference point to assess things that might be amiss.

“If I have a pitcher whose spin rate was higher last year than it is this year, let’s say with a curveball, I’ll look a little closer to see if there’s any particular reason,” said Waits. “It might be arm angle or it might be tightness or looseness of the grip. I’m definitely going to look at release point.

“I started looking at (TrackMan data) a couple of years ago, and I thought it was fascinating. It’s good to look at everything to see how it might apply to a certain pitcher. But no one thing makes for a good pitcher. When you start trying to clone – when you start thinking everybody has to throw a certain way, with a certain spin rate – you’re missing the boat.”

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New York Mets minor league pitching coordinator Ron Romanick recently told me something about spin rate I’d never thought about. The rotation of a baseball is impacted by more than just a pitcher’s fingers and arm swing.

“You throw from your feet up,” related Romanick. “Your rubber position, what you’re doing with your hips and obliques – those things affect the spin rate of the ball.

“Glenn Fleisig (from American Sports Medicine Institute) sent me a study saying the body – where you put your body and how it leaves the rubber – creates the force that makes the ball do its thing. It’s like a snowball. You have to put your hand on the ball properly, but you also have to put your body in a position that lets you create that action.”

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Pedro Martinez’s memoir, co-written by Michael Silverman, includes an intriguing anecdote about his propensity for pitching inside. Late in his rookie season with the Dodgers, in 1993, Martinez intentionally threw behind San Francisco’s Will Clark. According to the recently-inducted Hall of Famer, “None of the umpires liked Clark – he was a whiner and a yapper.” The at bat culminated in the final strikeout of Martinez’s Dodgers career. He was dealt to the Expos after the season.

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If you don’t follow the Mariners farm system, you’ve probably never heard of Zack Littell. The 19-year-old right-hander is unranked and pitching for the low-A Clinton Lumber Kings. Thanks to his arm and his attitude, anonymity may be fleeting.

Littell isn’t putting up big numbers – he has a 4.04 ERA in 15 starts – but he’s young for his level. He’s also attracting attention for his attack-dog approach.

“I’m a huge advocate of pitching inside,” explained Littell. “It’s kind of a statement thing. Guys that crowd the plate may not like it, but an inside fastball is one of my favorite pitches. I haven’t hit a whole lot of guys this year, but I’m not afraid to go in there. I’m kind of old school that way.”

Littell doesn’t light up radar guns – “I’m anywhere from 88 to 92, nothing special” – but he gets high marks for his pitchability. His mechanics have been cleaned up. Prior to his first instructional league, the righty was “kind of collapsing on my back side and they wanted me to stay tall.” As for his three-quarters delivery, he wasn’t sure what the organization had in mind.

“I came into spring training that next year with a higher arm slot,” said Littell. “They asked, ‘Why did you do that?’ I said, ‘I assumed y’all wanted it up when you stood me up.’ They said, ‘No, we want you to keep your arm down.’”

The Haw River, North Carolina product had a moment of ignominy earlier this season. It happened after his catcher extended his right arm.

“I tried to intentionally walk this kid with runners on second and third, and one out.” explained Littell. “It was scoreless in the eighth inning – we got no-hit that game – and I threw the ball high, off the catcher’s glove, and a run scored. I was kind of thrown off when I was told to walk him. I mean, that’s not one of those things you practice. It is now, but it wasn’t at the time.”

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Chase Utley has 1,609 hits in his 13-year career. All have come in a Phillies uniform, and 622 of them have gone for extra bases. The six-time All-Star has drawn 624 walks and been hit by pitches 173 times.

It’s painful for Phillies fans to ponder, but his days in the City of Brotherly Love appear numbered. Utley won’t amass enough plate appearances to trigger his vesting option for next season, and – nostalgia aside — he’s not a great fit going forward. His long-time team is (finally) in rebuild mode, and Utley is 36.

Assuming he’s willing to waive his no-trade clause, Utley could soon be a former Phillie. Regardless of where he finishes the season, and how much longer he plays, he’s had an outstanding career.

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In last week’s column, White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers said of Chris Sale‘s fastball, “He just throws the ball and it comes out different ways.” A few days ago, Mark Grudzielanek said essentially the same thing about Roy Halladay’s fastball.

Grudzielanek had 2,040 hits in his 15-year big-league career (admit it, you’re surprised he had that many). None of them came against Halladay, against whom he failed to reach base against in 15 plate appearances.

“The movement on his two-seamer was unbelievable,” explained Grudzielanek. “It was one of those pitches that did something different every time he threw it. You never knew how much it was going to come on you. I could be waiting for it and it would still jump right around my swing path. I was always hoping he’d throw me a slider, because I had a better idea of where it was going to go. I just couldn’t square up his sinker.”

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Sifting through my unused-quotes folder, I unearthed a nugget from underrated outfielder A.J. Pollock. I spoke to the Diamondbacks All-Star in spring training – yes, it’s possible to be an underrated All-Star – and one of the things we talked about was the development process.

“It’s gradual,” Pollock told me. “It’s a building block, and I’m still trying to build on what I have. A lot of it is getting smart about what you need to fix. Maybe it’s nothing. Sometimes you need to be stubborn with what you’re doing. Other times you need the mental strength to tell yourself, ‘I need to make an adjustment.’ If you want to keep getting better, you have to recognize which one is which.”

Pollock is hitting .304/.357/.459, with 11 home runs and 24 stolen bases. He has 11 Defensive Runs Saved, the most among National League center fielders.

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When I made my preseason predictions, I went out on a limb with my pick for American League Rookie of the Year. After originally writing down Devon Travis’s name, I sat back and pondered something I’d been saying to friends: Steven Wright is going to be Boston’s best starter this year.

The knuckleballer had pitched well all spring, and manager John Farrell had been singing his praises on a regular basis. Given the flotsam and jetsam Wright was competing with, I expected him to claim a spot in the Red Sox rotation. Imagining a butterfly breakthrough akin to Tim Wakefield’s 1995 season (16-8, 2.95 and a third-place finish in Cy Young balloting), I rolled the dice and made a last-minute switch.

It turns out I was wrong about Wright. But what if the the Red Sox had given him a chance to prove me right? What if they hadn’t bounced him between Boston and Pawtucket, and alternated him between starting and long-relief? We’ll never know, although we do know what he’s done.

In 15 appearances overall, Wright has a record of 5-4 and a 4.12 ERA. As a starter, he’s allowed three-or-fewer earned runs in seven of his eight starts. He’s not a Rookie of the Year candidate, but he’s out-pitched flotsam and jetsam, and he could have done much more.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

From April 18-June 1, Toronto’s R.A. Dickey allowed four-or-more earned runs in seven of his eight starts. Since that time, the knuckleballer has allowed three-or-fewer earned runs in 12 of 13 starts.

Baltimore’s Chris Davis has am .844 OPS versus left-handed pitchers and an .844 OPS versus right-handed pitchers.

Minnesota’s Brian Dozier is hitting .248 with a .319 OBP, but ranks second in the American League with 54 extra-base hits.

The first official night game in Wrigley Field history was played on this date in 1988. The previous 5,687 games were played during the day.

Virgil Trucks threw two no-hitters for the Tigers in 1952, including one against the eventual World Series champions, the New York Yankees. Trucks finished the season with a record of 5-19.

Loren “Bee Bee” Babe played for the Yankees in 1952-1953. He homered twice in his big-league career.

The Midwest League’s Dayton Dragons are averaging 8,234 fans per home game. The Midwest League’s Beloit Snappers are averaging 875 fans per home game.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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defected to Canada
7 years ago

John Gibbons after the brushback incident (paraphrasing): Well, these things happen. I don’t think anyone was throwing at anyone. (standard answer, avoiding all drama)

Ned Yost: Well, we didn’t do anything wrong, but they definitely threw at us. (Shamelessly accusing opponent while denying that the Royals threw 3 brushback pitches chest high and got away with all of them)

I actually liked the Royals up until that point. But now I’m on my way to Kauffman Stadium with a box full of rotten fruit.

Unrelated: Any way you could ask Teixeira why he bats righty against right-handed knuckleballers?

Jim S.
7 years ago

I’m not sure about Dickey, but I think the pitch from some knuckleballers (maybe Wakefield) has a tendency to break in toward a RH batter, away from a lefty.