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Thad Ward didn’t make our Red Sox Top Prospect List prior to this season. Baseball America wasn’t bullish on the 22-year-old right-hander, either. Their rankings went 30-deep, and Ward didn’t make the cut.
Next year will be a different story. Ward was a revelation in his first full professional season, fanning 157 batters, and allowing just 89 hits, in 126-and-a-third innings. Those numbers came between low-A Greenville and high-A Salem, where his cumulative ERA was a sparkling 2.14.
His slider is his best pitch.
“It’s a Chris Sale slider,” is how Red Sox pitching guru Brian Bannister described it to me in late September. “It’s a sweeping slider, with a similar shape to Jhoulys Chacin’s or Corey Kluber’s. It has that extra horizontal component to it.”
That’s long been the case, although Ward’s understanding of the how-and-why is recent. When he reported to spring training this year, the 2018 fifth-round pick out of the University of Central Florida got a crash course in Pitching Analytics 101.
“I already knew that the slider was my pitch,” explained Ward, who copped Red Sox Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors this year. “Everybody has a pitch where they can just pick up a ball, throw it, and it comes natural. That’s a slider for me, but until this spring I didn’t know much about spin efficiency and spin rate. Working with the cameras, the TrackMan, and getting the feedback, I learned what those things have to do with the development of a pitch.”
One thing he learned is that while other pitches in his arsenal needed further development, his go-to offering was already pristine.
“With a slider, the desired spin efficiency is zero,” Ward told me. “You want your slider to be spinning as perfectly sideways as possible, and I learned that I already had zero spin efficiency. In essence, I was already throwing a ‘perfect slider.’”
The above quotation marks on ‘perfect slider’ are via the righty’s request. Wary that people might misinterpret his comment as arrogance, Ward wanted to clarify that he was referring solely to spin efficiency. Not that a little arrogance would be out of order. It’s clearly a plus pitch, as evidenced not only by data, but also by on-field results.
Which isn’t to say that he’s emerged as a top-shelf prospect because of his slider alone. His repertoire also includes two- and four-seam fastballs, a changeup, a curveball, and a cutter. According to Bannister, the last of those six is what allowed him to turn a corner.
“In spring training this year he came up with a cutter,” said Bannister. “If you look at the guys who have good sweeping breaking balls, like Kluber — Roy Halladay had one — they had cutter-heavy mixes. I would almost consider it their foundation pitch, the one their other pitches build off of. The nice thing about the cutter is that it tunnels with the two-seamer, so by adding the cutter, Ward can now protect his fastball.”
The student echoed the educator when I asked about his newest pitch.
“The two play off each other,” Ward said. “My primary fastball is a sinker, and I’m able to tunnel my cutter off of that. The slider plays off of it as well. Having all of these pitches coming out of the same tunnel is what allowed me to get a lot of the swings-and-misses.”
In terms of grips, the Fort Myers, Florida native isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel. The quality movement he gets comes more from mechanics, and from how he releases the baseball.
“I throw Rick Porcello’s grip when it comes to the cutter,” said Ward. “Basically, it’s a two-seam going across the laces, and I offset it. That’s basically all it is. My slider is grip is traditional. Frankly, if you open a book to look for a slider, you’re going to find my grip.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Angel Berroa went 4 for 40 against CC Sabathia.
Oscar Gamble went 4 for 40 against Dave Stieb.
Curt Flood went 4 for 40 against Ken Holtzman.
Mark Belanger went 4 for 40 against Stan Bahnsen.
Ernie Johnson went 4 for 40 against Walter Johnson.
Starting pitching has a big topic in this year’s World Series. (At least when the discussions revolve around what’s happening on the field.) Both the Astros and the Nationals boast rotations that are the envy of all but a few. During the regular season, Houston and Washington starters ranked in the top four in pitcher WAR, as well as innings pitched.
The Brewers ranked in the bottom half in both categories, and not just because they bullpen with the best of them. Given his druthers, David Stearns would prefer to have it another way.
“We still believe that the most valuable pitchers in baseball are your elite starters who can pitch at a very high level for 200 innings a year,” Milwaukee’s president of baseball operations told me before the start of the season. “But as an industry we’ve discovered that there are very few people on the planet who can do that. They’re really valuable — they help you win a lot of games — and our goal from a player development perspective, for pitchers, is to get those guys to the major leagues as starters. We may have one or two of those young, major-league, potentially premium-type starters, in our organization right now.”
Who might they be? According to our own Eric Longenhagen, 21-year-old Aaron Ashby and 24-year-old Zack Brown would be the most likely candidates. Ethan Small, a 22-year-old southpaw out of Mississippi State University, was Milwaukee’s first-round pick this past June.
Sticking with the Brewers, but jumping to the other side of the ball, a number of months ago I asked Craig Counsell about hitting analytics. More specifically, how do they compare to pitching analytics, which by all accounts are more advanced?
“The big difference is that the pitcher starts with the ball,” said Milwaukee manager told me back in March. “He initiates all the action — he’s not responding on anything — and that changes a lot of the analytics. First and foremost, it changes the ability to adjust. It’s easier on the pitcher’s end. I’m not necessarily saying that pitching changes are easy to make, but at the same time, it’s not as easy as, ‘This is what a good slider looks like, now throw it.’
“That said, it is similar to hitting: You can say, ’This is what the ideal swing looks like, now reproduce it.’ In theory, you can improve the angle of your swing into the zone, and increase length through the zone. We have things to measure that with now. But they’re not producing answers, like the fastball answer — the easy answers, like the fastball-up-in-the-zone answers. Not yet. But again, hitters do have diagnostics now to help give them swings that should lead to more success. But making that transition… it’s a body issue — biomechanics, the physiology of swings — and while we’re making a lot of progress, it’s not easy to do.”
Quiz time: Willie Mays holds the record for most extra-inning home runs, with 22. Which pitcher holds the record for most extra-inning home runs allowed? The answer can be found below News Notes.
The Phillies have hired Brian Barber as their new director of amateur scouting. The former Cardinals and Royals right-hander has spent the last 18 seasons in a scouting capacity with the Yankees, most recently as a national cross-checker.
The Cincinnati Reds have hired Alan Zinter as their new hitting coach, and promoted Donnie Ecker to assistant hitting coach/director of hitting.
Nikki Huffman is stepping down as head athletic trainer for the Toronto Blue Jays. When she was hired in 2017, Huffman became the second woman to serve in that role for an MLB team. Sue Falsone was the head athletic trainer for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012 and 2013.
Cincinnati Reds third baseman Eugenio Suárez has been named the winner of the 2019 Luis Aparicio Award, given annually to the top Venezuelan player in MLB.
The Pulaski Yankees are the recipients of this year’s John H. Johnson President’s Award, which is presented annually by Minor League Baseball to honor “the complete baseball franchise.” Per MiLB’s press release, the criteria for the award are based on financial stability, contributions to league stability, contributions to baseball in the community, and promotion of the baseball industry. The Pulaski Yankees are the first Appalachian League to win the award, and the sixth short-season team to be so honored.
Scott Mathieson announced his retirement earlier this week. The 35-year-old right-hander out of Vancouver appeared in 15 games for the Phillies over the parts of the 2006, 2010, and 2011 seasons. He’s spent the last eight seasons with NPB’s Yomiuri Giants.
If you missed it earlier this week, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks won the Japan Series for the third straight year. In doing so they became the the first NPB team to three-peat since the Seibu Lions turned the trick from 1990-1992.
The Doosan Bears won the KBO championship on Saturday, completing a four-game sweep over the Kiwoom Heroes with an 11-9, 10-inning win. The Seoul-based squad had finished with the league’s best regular season record, at 88-55.
The answer to the quiz is Roy Face. The longtime reliever surrendered 21 extra-inning home runs, none of which were hit by Mays.
Aroldis Chapman was named the American League Reliever of the Year yesterday, while Josh Hader earned the honor in the National League. I’m using the term “earned” loosely — and that applies to both recipients. Are they quality relievers? Of course they are. But were they the best in their respective leagues in 2019? The numbers say they weren’t.
For my money, Liam Hendriks and Kirby Yates deserved the honors. You can peruse our reliever leaderboard if you care to parse in detail, but in short, Hendriks was statistically superior to Chapman in WAR, ERA, FIP, and strikeouts. Yates bested Hader in WAR, ERA, FIP, and saves.
Saves represent the head-scratcher. While one might assume the voting panel opted for Chapman (37 saves) over Hendriks (25) primarily for that reason, Yates (41) had more than Hader (37). So if saves weren’t viewed as the be-all-end-all, why would the pitchers with the lesser numbers in most other meaningful categories garner the most support? As for skeletons in the closet, that wouldn’t exactly be in their favor either.
Per MLB’s press release, the voting was done by a seven-person panel comprising Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, John Franco, Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera, Lee Smith, and Billy Wagner.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
There will be no Sawamura Award [the NPB equivalent to the Cy Young award) given out this year, as the selection committee didn’t deem anyone worthy — primarily due to a lack of complete games — and Jason Coskrey has the story at The Japan Times.
Korean baseball legend Sun Dong-yeol attracted the attention of multiple MLB teams in the 1980s, but political pressure —“ a phone call from the spy agency… was quite threatening” — prevented him from coming over. Kang Hyun-kyung has the story at The Korea Times.
Sports Illustrated’s Emma Baccellieri wonders if, in the wake of countless controversies, there is reason to trust MLB.
Baseball fans of a certain age will remember Morganna, “The Kissing Bandit.” Fifty years after she first ran onto the field to smooch a player, Josh Peter caught up to the busty blonde for USA Today.
Cuban-born Dolf Luque is the oldest pitcher to ever win a World Series game, and Bill Chuck wrote about it at Billy-Ball.com.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Per StatCast, there were 1,093 opposite field home runs this past season. That represented a 62 percent increase from 2018, and a 160 percent increase from 2014.
The Washington Homestead Grays won the last ever Negro League World Series, in 1948. The Grays beat the Birmingham Black Barons, whose roster included 17-year-old Willie Mays.
Over his first eight-plus big-league seasons, Willie Mays had 5,301 plate appearances, 279 home runs, and 204 stolen bases. Over his first eight-plus seasons, Mike Trout has 5,273 plate appearances, 285 home runs, and 200 stolen bases.
Orioles pitchers Jim Palmer, Wally Bunker, and Dave McNally combined to throw one shutout (McNally) during the 1966 regular season. The trio threw back-to-back-to-back shutouts against the Dodgers in that year”s World Series.
Gary Waslewski was a 26-year-old rookie who’d thrown 42 big-league innings and hadn’t started a game since July when he started Game 6 of the 1967 World Series. Waslewski got a no-decision as the Red Sox beat the Cardinals to stave off elimination.
Virgil Trucks pitched all nine innings as the Detroit Tigers beat the Chicago Cubs 4-1 in Game 2 of the 1945 World Series. It was his second time on a mound in 24 months. Trucks spent all of 1944 in the Navy, and didn’t return to the Tigers until the final days of the 1945 season. He threw five-and-a-third innings on September 30, then went the distance against the Cubs on October 4.
Billy Johnson hit three triples for the New York Yankees in the 1947 World Series. Along with Tommy Leach and Tris Speaker, Johnson holds the record for most World Series triples in total, with four.
Per B-Ref, Friday night’s 4-1 win by the Astros was the first time a World Series game lasted four-plus hours, didn’t go to extra innings, and had five or fewer total runs scored.
Last year’s World Series Game 3 between the Dodgers and Red Sox, in Los Angeles, went 18 innings and ended at 12:30 a.m. local time. Fans on the east coast —the few who were still awake — saw LA prevail 3-2, at precisely 3:30 A.M.
In his seven seasons as a Washington Senator, Frank Howard logged a 151 wRC+ and averaged 34 home runs per year. “Hondo” led the American League twice each in homers, total bases, and intentional walks over that stretch (1965-1971).