Sunday Notes: Rangers Prospect Cole Uvila Endeavors to Channel Cody Allen

One of the “Best of 2020” articles that ran here at FanGraphs over the holidays featured an under-the-radar right-hander with a unique backstory and a knee-buckling bender. Titled Rangers Prospect Cole Uvila is a Driveline-Developed Spin Monster, the story chronicled, among things, a curveball that had spun upwards of 3,300 RPM in Arizona Fall League action. Honed with the help of technology, the pitch profiled as his ticket to Texas.

He’s no longer throwing it. Instead, Uvila is endeavoring to channel former Cleveland Indians closer Cody Allen.

“In my head, I was going to throw it until my career was over,” Uvila said of his old curveball. “Then the pandemic happened. There was a lot of time to look in the mirror, and you just don’t see big-league relievers throwing 76-mph curveballs. It’s not really a thing.”

Uvila started talking with people in the Rangers organization, as well as to the instructors he’s worked with at Driveline over the years. Their messages were essentially the same: With breaking balls — much like fastballs — velocity is king.

“Driveline R&D has this metric called Stuff Plus, which essentially takes every breaking ball over the last five years and gives it a number,” Uvila told me earlier this week. “It’s kind of like wRC+, where 100 is average. I think the highest one was a dude with the Cubs, named [Dillon] Maples, and his graded out at something like 240. So there’s this range of pitches, and looking at the list, I saw this theme of curveballs at 84-85 [mph]. I said, ‘Man, I need to throw this pitch harder.’”

Comparing the profiles of each of those pitchers with his own — Uvila’s fastball gets high vertical lift and is thrown from a high arm slot — he determined that the closest match was Cody Allen. He then set out to design that particular curveball.

Velocity has been the biggest challenge. Last year, Uvila’s breaker averaged 76.7 mph, while his fastball was in the 93-95 range. In order to attain the targeted 10-mph differential, his curveball velocity would have to increase by roughly six mph to more closely approximate Allen’s. In 2017 — a season where he posted a 2.94 ERA and had 30-plus saves for the third year running — the erstwhile Cleveland closer averaged 94.5 mph with his heater, and 84.4 with his breaker.

“Allen’s curveball was one of the best pitches in baseball that year, so we’re kind of shooting for the stars,” Uvila admitted. “But if we can get close, I think I’m in a better spot than I was with the slower, loopier pitch. We think this can be a wipeout, put-away pitch. It’s only one [throw], but this winter I’ve been as high as 82.3 working at Driveline.”

The retooling is pretty straightforward.

“When I was throwing the bigger curveball, I was holding my wrist supinated the whole time and then kind of unwinding at the last minute,” explained Uvila. “It’s like you’re throwing the back of your hand at the plate. When your arm unwinds, and pronates, you’re right on top of the ball. Now I’m thinking slider, slider, slider, and then at the last minute, getting on top. It’s more of a grip-and-rip than finesse.

“To land my old curveball, I had to kind of take my foot off the gas pedal,” continued Uvila. “The trajectory was almost like I was throwing a piece of paper into a garbage can. It’s the same grip as before, but a completely different thought process. It’s more of a violent pitch now, and because I’m throwing it harder, I’m getting more spin.

As noted in the earlier article, Uvila’s highest game-action reading was 3,378 RPM on a pitch to Jo Adell during the 2019 AFL All-Star Game. The newer, work-in-progress version of his curveball says “Hold my beer.” The depth of the pitch isn’t as profound, but the spin rate is an eye-opener.

“The low end has been 3,400, and the high end has been 3,670,” explained Uvila. “That’s kind of sweet. We joke that I’m coming for the StatCast leaderboard, although obviously a lot of things will have to go my way to even get up there.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Matt Batts went 1 for 6 against Lloyd Hittle.

Farmer Steelman went 1 for 7 against Iron Joe McGinnity.

Virgil Stallcup went 1 for 31 against Ralph Branca.

Bobby Thomson went 3 for 27 against Sal Maglie.

Fresco Thompson went 6 for 30 against Flint Rhem.

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When the Red Sox selected Garrett Whitlock fourth-overall in last month’s Rule 5 draft, they weren’t bringing on board a righty who thrives on high heat. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the 24-year-old former New York Yankees farmhand relies on a two-seamer/slider combination designed to keep his infielders busy. Given that profile, I asked Gus Quattlebaum — Boston’s VP of Professional Scouting — if he envisions baseball trending toward pitchers who keep balls out of the air.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily trending that way,” responded Quattlebaum. “But those that can execute, pitch ahead, put hitters on the defensive, and keep the ball on the ground — that’s something we’re always going to have interest in. He also has a four-seam so I don’t want to categorize him just as a two-seam guy who is going to nibble, nibble, nibble. [But] is it trending that way? I wouldn’t say that; not yet.”

I suggested to Quattlebaum that while an influx of sinker-ballers may not be imminent, the game does have a way of being cyclical.

“It is,” acknowledged Quattlebaum. “I think we’re always looking for people that pound the zone and can eat up innings. So it’s not necessarily trending this way, but he caught our attention with the ground balls, with the strikes, with the arm strength, and with the makeup.”

Whitlock, who had Tommy John surgery in July 2019, is seen as a strong candidate to stick with the Red Sox in the coming season.

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A quiz:

Pete Rose recorded more than 700 hits at five different positions. At which position did h record the most hits?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser is moving over to the Giants beat after spending the past two-plus decades covering the Oakland A’s. Slusser is replacing Henry Schulman, who announced his retirement last month.

Derek Aucoin, who pitched in two games for the Montreal Expos in 1996, died on December 26 at age 50. A native of Lachine, Quebec — a suburb of Montreal — Aucoin had been battling brain cancer.

The Red Sox are hiring Bianca Smith as a minor league coach. Currently an assistant coach/hitting coordinator at Carroll University, the 29-year-old former Cincinnati Reds and Texas Rangers intern will be the first Black woman to serve as a professional baseball coach. Smith has an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.

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The answer to the quiz is first baseman. Rose had 1,009 of his hits while playing that position. His second-highest hits total, 825, came as a left fielder.

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Ty France heads into 2021 looking to build on a second big-league season that saw him slash .305/.368/468 in 155 plate appearances that were split between San Diego and Seattle. The 26-year-old infielder was acquired by the Mariners at the end of August as part of a seven-player deal with the swap-aggressive Padres (A.J. Preller having since wrested the “Trader Jack” designation from Jerry Dipoto.)

According to Scott Servais, France can expect to get plenty of playing time in the campaign to come.

“He can really hit,” the Mariners manager told reporters recently. “Ty France is going to be in our lineup almost every day [in] different spots. He brings a lot to the table, and if you hit, you play. We need a little bit more offense — certainly consistent offense — and that’s what Ty brings.”

The numbers largely back that up. While France had a pedestrian .696 OPS in part-time duty with the Padres in 2019 — his first big-league action — that was paired with a Brobdingnagian .399/.477/.770 slash line over 348 PAs with Triple-A El Paso.

As for where he’ll slot into the lineup, Servais said that France see will time at second base, as well as filling in at both infield corners. He added that the 26-year-old former San Diego State Aztec will be receiving valuable tutelage from first base coach Perry Hill, who is considered to be one of the game’s best infield instructors.

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Fans of the Tampa Bay Rays might be interested in what Servais said about Joe Odom, whom the American League champions signed to a free agent contract in mid-December. A 28-year-old catcher, Odom appeared in 18 games for the Mariners last year, logging five hits in 39 at bats.

“He’s a fantastic game-caller,” said Servais, who caught for four teams over parts of 11 big-league seasons. “He does an awesome job of following a game plan and getting the most out of pitchers. There’s a lot of value in that. I thought he did a great job with our organization in helping some of our young pitchers along. I’m glad to hear he’s getting an opportunity in Tampa.”

A 13th-round pick by the Atlanta Braves in 2013, Odom has a .672 OPS in seven minor-league seasons.

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Eric Thames has signed with NPB’s Yomiuri Giants. The 34-year-old slugger heads to Japan having hit 199 home runs over the past seven seasons, 75 in MLB and 124 in the KBO.

Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Luis Oviedo has made nine relief appearances for Cardenales de Lara in the Venezuelan Winter League and allowed just one run in 14-and-a-third innings. The 21-year-old right-hander was acquired by the Pirates from the New York Mets, who took him 10th-overall in last month’s Rule 5 draft.

Delmon Young is hitting .391 for the Melbourne Aces through seven games in what has thus far been a COVID-impacted Australian Baseball League season. Due in part to travel restrictions, the Adelaide Giants and Brisbane Bandits have yet to play, while the Perth Heat have played just one game.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At The West Australian, Chris Pike wrote about how Perth Heat outfielder Ulrich Bojarski — a 22-year-old Detroit Tigers prospect — is ready for whatever the ABL season throws at him.

At The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Derrick Goold wrote about how Ernie Nevers not only rushed for six touchdowns in a game with the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals, he also struck out Babe Ruth while pitching for the St. Louis Browns.

Ryan Fagan gave a detailed explanation of his Hall of Fame ballot at The Sporting News.

Some disgruntled Red Sox fans have taken to calling their favorite team “Tampa Bay North.” In the opinion of MassLive’s Chris Cotillo, that’s actually a compliment.

Why did some baseball fans stop watching in 2020, and how can MLB bring them back? Hannah Keyser explored that question at Yahoo! Sports.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Oakland A’s infielder Vimael Machín had 71 plate appearances and no RBIs in 2020.

Alex Rodriguez scored 2,021 runs. Ted Williams drew 2,021 walks.

In 2004, Barry Bonds had 45 home runs and 120 intentional walks.
In 1961, Roger Maris had 61 home runs and no intentional walks.

Ernie Banks had 1,214 hits as a first baseman and 1,195 hits as a shortstop.

The 1930 St. Louis Cardinals had 10 players with 250 or more plate appearances and a batting average over .300. The NL pennant winners hit .314 as a team.

Fred Heimach, a left-handed pitcher for four teams from 1920-1933, went 15 for 45 as a pinch hitter.

José Iglesias and Raisel Iglesias (no relation) are the only players in MLB history with that surname. Raisel was born on January 4, 1990. José was born on January 5, 1990.

Mel Stottlemyre Jr. and Todd Stottlemyre were selected in the secondary phase of MLB’s amateur draft on today’s date in 1985. Todd, the younger of the two siblings, went on to pitch 14 big-league seasons. Mel went on to pitch one big-league season.

Players born on this date include Chris Van Cuyk, who followed in his brother’s footsteps by pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1950-1952. Johnny Van Cuyk, had pitched for the Dodgers from 1947-1949. The Kimberly, Wisconsin natives were southpaws.

Grover Lowdermilk and Lou Lowdermilk both pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1911. Grover, the elder of the two brothers, was a right-hander. Lou was a left-hander.





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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ba5000
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ba5000

Looks like you’ve doubled your membership since April of last year. Maybe it’s time to remove the gigantic intrusive yellow beg for money banner that pops up on every freaking page?

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Lunch Angle

So you enjoy reading Laurila’s Sunday Notes column! If you don’t like seeing ads on the page while you do it, maybe you could consider getting one of those memberships too. You don’t think Fangraphs is some kind of cash cow do you?

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sadtrombone

Generally speaking, I am sympathetic to people who don’t sign up as members because who knows what is going on in their financial life. I had a pretty inconsistent income for a few years there, I know what it is like. But when you complain about the “beg for money banner” that’s where I draw the line.

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I never said “ads” plural. I can live with the constant assault in the sidebar. But with the massive yellow banner, enough is enough. Yes Fangraphs are patron saints. Now lose the banner.