The Tale of Two Starters
by, 04-20-2012 at 12:07 AM (1053 Views)
After the split series in New York - one in which the bullpen absorbed 70% of the innings in four games - the Minnesota Twins relievers head to Tampa feeling more taxed than the Dutch population.
(Yeah, that’s right: tax humor.)
On Thursday, Anthony Swarzak, a rotation fill-in who is lobbying for a more permanent position, coaxed Ron Gardenhire out of the dugout once again prematurely, ending his night without getting out of the third inning.
Swarzak, in his previous start, had kept the mighty Rangers lineup at bay for seven innings, allowing just four runs to a team that has averaged 5.75 runs per game. However, his game plan was exposed during the Rangers’ second trip through the order as they sat on what had become a predictable first-pitch fastball. In fact, of the first 14 Texas hitters Swarzak threw 12 fastball and just two non-fastballs. When the word got out in the visitor’s dugout, one of the most potent lineups was swinging out of their shoes at the first offering. To his credit Swarzak made some adjustments and to the final 16 hitters he faced on the night, he threw 14 non-fastballs and just two fastballs to start them off.
A one-time Baseball America Top 100 prospect (okay, he was number 100 in 2006, but still…), Swarzak showed decent command of his secondary pitches, hammering a curveball down on right-handers and fading a change-up to lefties. This combination seemingly kept the Rangers as balanced as a two-legged table.
So, heading into his third start of the year and facing a lineup just as frightening in the Yankees (5.17 runs per game), Swarzak had to ensure that he did not fall into the same pratfalls as he did the Rangers lineup – particularly because of the unforgiving corner outfield fences – and apply his off-speed offerings liberally throughout the night.
Unfortunately, while the Yankees did not hone in on his first-pitch fastballs (which he threw to 12 of 17 hitters) they did find themselves in favorable counts when he was unable to either throw his secondary stuff for strikes or entice hitters to expand the zone:
- In the first, he was unable to get Curtis Granderson to swing at any of the two-strike changeups and was forced to throw two consecutive 3-2 fastballs – one of which Granderson popped up over the slow-pitch softball fence.
- Several batters later, Swarzak started Mark Teixiera off with a change for a ball and fed the big first baseman a fastball out over the plate on a predictable fastball count, only to watch it disappear in center.
- In the second, Swarzak started Granderson out with two fastballs, missed with a changeup and then, after falling behind 3-0, came back with two more fastballs (the second of which became a souvenir).
Against Texas he managed to locate his secondary stuff for strikes 68% of the time while in New York, that rate dropped to 58% as he struggled with his changeup to lefties. Had Swarzak demonstrated better command over his changeup last night, he may have been able to avoid the punishment dished out by Granderson and Teixeira.
As you can see from his Pitch F/X game chart, Swarzak was not unable to keep his curveball (pink squares) down in the zone consistently nor was he able to keep his changeup (yellow squares) down and away from left-handed bats:
Without being able to keep hitters off of his fastball, Swarzak stands to be subjected to heavy damage.
Meanwhile, tonight’s starter is Swarzak’s direct competition for the last spot in the rotation, Liam Hendriks.
Like Swarzak, Hendriks kept the Rangers lineup subdued in his last start, working six innings while allowing just one run – a home run to Mike Napoli. And, also like Swarzak, Hendriks does not have overpowering stuff but rather leans on changing speeds and hitting spots in order to succeed. Where the two differ is that Hendriks had a much higher tendency of “pitching backwards”, that is throwing off-speed stuff in fastball counts. That and his secondary pitches are significantly better.
Hendriks, who tops out around 91-mph, can supplement his fastball with a near 20-mile-an-hour difference on his curveball which he throws at 73-mph on average. This certainly kept Rangers hitters from focusing too much on the fastball while having to respect the deuce. Additionally, while having to monitor the zone for that slow break, his fastball undoubtedly appears much quicker because of the differential. Lastly, because he throws across his body (his landing foot is towards the third base line rather than home plate) he has a unique release point that comes at an irregular angle and provides added deception for the Australian hurler.
Although Swarzak has pitched well in two of three starts and is a serviceable emergency starter, of the two, Hendriks has the higher upside and should remain in the rotation if or when the decision needs to be made.