The Potential Rejuvenation of Matt Bush

Here’s a list of the last 11 players selected first overall in the draft, in order of most recent to least:

A couple of the guys are too young to fairly judge, but for the most part this is a list of star players. And Luke Hochevar. He’s on there, too. When a team picks first overall, their chances of getting, not just a major leaguer, but a star, are the highest among any spot in the draft. Which makes sense. But even in the most advantageous position with which to draft a star, teams make mistakes, and take the wrong guy. The Royals took Hochevar over Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer. The Rays took Beckham over Posey. The Astros took Appel over Kris Bryant. So it doesn’t always work out.

And then there’s the draft that I left out. The year before the Diamondbacks picked Justin Upton, the San Diego Padres had the first pick. There was a right-hander out of Old Dominion University in Virginia who was well regarded, but the Padres didn’t take Justin Verlander. Instead they took a local high-school shortstop named Matt Bush. Bush wasn’t the consensus best player available, but he was highly thought of, still a legit first-round pick if not a first-overall selection.

So the Padres picked him. He stood on the stage, smiled the smile of an 18-year-old who has no idea what’s in store for him, and modeled a Padres jersey. Things went downhill from there. Since that day, the greatest in his young life but the first of what was supposed to be many great days, Bush has spent more time in jail than on a major-league roster. He’s been arrested multiple times for offenses as serious as assault and battery, drunk driving, and hit-and-run while drunk driving. His life has been, to put it gently, a damn mess. He’s a man with personal demons and he’s let those demons define his life, destroy his career, and injure those unlucky enough to be situated nearby.

But Bush could always throw, and even at 30, his arm is apparently still present. He signed with the Rangers two months after being released from prison and he’s opened some eyes during spring training with his plus-plus velocity from the mound.

I’m not sure why but spring-training telecasts don’t seem to ever use radar guns, so I can’t throw a GIF at you with a fancy radar number popping up at the end. I can tell you that, according the Rangers broadcast, which I presume was using the radar number posted on the stadium scoreboard, Bush hit 100 mph multiple times during his relief appearance on March 27 against Arizona. According to Baseball Savant, 21 pitchers reached 100 mph at least once during the 2015 season. Six did it once, five did it twice, and two did it three times. So if you’re talking about a pitcher whose fastball can not only reach 100 mph but it can stay in that vicinity, you’re talking about a pitcher with a rare talent.

It should be noted — and as you’re reading this sentence it is being noted — that, as this list of 21 pitchers reveals, merely reaching 100 mph isn’t a panacea. Hitters don’t sense triple digits and run from the batter’s box for cover. That said, hitting a 100 mph pitch is more difficult in the abstract than hitting a 90 mph pitch. As the Joe Ward and Amanda Cox of the New York Times observed last fall, for every mile an hour faster a pitch is thrown, the ball will travel six inches further. Which is a spacial way to observe that a pitch thrown 100 mph is ridiculously impossible to hit.

Last season, Aroldis Chapman reached 100 mph 336 times according to Baseball Savant. Of those pitches, 12 turned into some sort of base hit, whereas 182 were either swung at and missed, fouled, or taken for strikes. Of the seven pitchers who reached 100 mph on 10 or more pitches last season, Bruce Rodon allowed the most hits on those pitches as a percentage of pitches thrown. And that was four. Four hits allowed.

So throwing 100 mph is a good thing. For a pitcher. For a hitter it’s a bad thing. And that brings us back to Matt Bush. Bush’s ability to throw that hard is a promising thing for his career and for the Rangers. Bush has thrown three innings…

Oh gosh, Matt, are you kidding? You’ve written over 700 words on an ex-shortstop who has thrown all of three innings in spring training?

I have, yes. But that’s why I’ve focused so much on the 100 mph thing! Over his three innings, Bush has three strikeouts and two walks, one hit (a double that landed on the warning track) and has flashed an inconsistent curveball. His most recent appearance at the time of this writing came against the Diamondbacks on Sunday, as noted above. He faced five hitters, conceding a hit and a walk (on a close full-count pitch) while also recording a strikeout.

Here’s that fastball, the first that hit 100 mph according to the Rangers announcers who may or may not have been paying attention to the radar gun the the whole time.

Bush isn’t Chapman, though. He operates a half a stratosphere below, and as such, he’s going to need an offspeed pitch to succeed at the major-league level. (Not that Chapman doesn’t have an offspeed pitch, because he does, but if any pitcher can get away with an all-fastball approach, it’s Chapman.) His offspeed pitch of choice is a curveball. And in fact, this is a good example of what 100 mph can let you get away with.

That pitch immediately followed the previous GIF, and as you can see, it wasn’t a very good pitch. For a curveball it was pretty flat, it stayed up in the zone, ending up around the batter’s belt. That’s a pitch that often gets smoked. Two reasons it didn’t. First, the man in the batters box is Rickie Weeks. Second, the pitch Bush threw just before it was a 100 mph fastball. The change from 100 mph to a mid-80s curveball, even a lousy one such as that, was too much for Weeks. It might well be too much for a major league-quality hitter as well, which at this point in his career, Weeks is not. For the answer we shall have to wait and see.

The one strikeout Bush got came on a bad curveball, but Bush did throw a particularly good curve as well. It came two at-bats later, against Diamondbacks left fielder Peter O’Brien.

O’Brien eventually walked. He also managed to take a similar curve for a ball. This underscores the fact that Bush is not yet a finished product as a relief pitcher.

Bush may break camp with the Rangers but despite the 100 mph heat it’s hard to look at him as a shutdown reliever at this point. His command appears scattershot, and the quality of his offspeed pitches is hit and miss. But 100 mph! 100 mph is a serious card to be able to play, and especially so multiple times over the course of an appearance. The Rangers may have something in Matt Bush because of that velocity and, because of that velocity, Matt Bush may yet have a say over whether he remains the most recent first-overall draft pick (excluding the three most recent) not to make the major leagues.





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Beer
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Looks like Matthew drew the short straw on today’s article assignments.