When it comes to pitching, masters of the mound come in all shapes and sizes
JUN 18, 2014 1:57p ET
In the wake of the annual June draft, I found myself dreaming about the perfect pitcher.
In my slumber, I could only visualize the catcher, the batter and the umpire. I continually made attempts to pan out to the pitcher, but my head and neck were frozen, and I couldn’t focus my peripheral view.
What I could see and hear was captivating. Every pitch was on a corner at the top or bottom of the strike zone. The catcher set up and didn’t need to move his glove a centimeter. Pop, pop, pop, one exquisite strike after the next. Balls darted vertically and horizontally, changing speeds. The hitters are licked from the jump, flailing and taking pitches helplessly. I was experiencing the ideal pitcher, and yet, I couldn’t see him.
I would wake up stimulated by this brilliant pitcher’s mastery and frustrated by my lack of a visual snapshot of him. I was sweating.
On special assignments for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013, I wrote reports on amateur players and witnessed the deep dives taken in an effort to identify the quintessential moppet for our draft position.
The process is a full-fledged team effort. Everyone with the ability to evaluate talent is involved, from the GM to the local area scout. The futures of franchises are at stake. This dream is what scouting directors and GMs go through every year. They know the outcome they want, but who will be the pitcher that achieves it?
Let’s role play.
We step into the sweltering summer heat in Huntsville, Ala. We’re perspiring through our golf polo and khakis; the tan line of the Oakleys we left at the Fairfield Inn stands as a comical reminder to others that we once wore them. We are unmistakably a baseball scout, and we’re bearing down on two pitchers facing off in an amateur game.
Each young man parades by us en route to their respective bullpens.
The first has a slender frame. He stands at 6-foot-4 and dons his glove on his right hand. He has long legs . His upper body looks like a slightly more mature rendition of a teenager in an American Eagle ad. Not much chest, he’s lean and wiry. With 25 more pounds, evenly dispersed, you can almost see the body of Clayton Kershaw. We’re not comparing careers here, just visualizing body types.
The opposing pitcher is listed at 6-foot-2, but he’s probably closer to 6-foot. His body is more filled out. He’s thicker and has developed more muscle mass than the lefty. There is less definition in his facial features. His legs are shorter. There isn’t significant room to add bulk to his frame. He’s a grown man.
Notebook ready, we sit back and anxiously await the national anthem, played on the boom box supplied by the home school’s team mom.
Being summer in the South, it’s hot. When heat and baseball mix, thunderstorms inevitably arrive, often unannounced. This field couldn’t hold a sprinkle, let alone a torrential downpour.
The mound is wrecked and so is our plan to watch these budding punks.
On our way back to the Fairfield Inn, the phone rings and our scouting director’s name appears on the caller ID.
“I know the game was banged, but you saw them both, right? Who do like better based on the physical stature?”
We answer without a moment’s hesitation.
“No question, it’s Aiken. Holmes is a man among boys, too. But side by side, it’s Brady all day.”
Pitcher No. 1 is southpaw Brady Aiken, the first overall pick in this year’s draft by the Houston Astros. The second pitcher is Grant Holmes, a righty drafted 22nd overall by the Dodgers.
These men were not selected simply after a scout saw them stroll by. The draft is a sizable undertaking for Major League Baseball organizations and measurable stature is but a piece of the puzzle. Clubs are inundated with data. They know everything there is to know about these kids on and off the field. They consider performance, arm speed, athleticism, makeup and countless other contributing factors.
Before all this intel comes in though, teams rely on laying eyes on the player. They consider what they see now and their memories of previous players. Who does this guy remind me of? Does Holmes look like a young Ben Sheets?
Scouting is as inexact a science as exists, but that doesn’t mean we can’t apply some data points like height and weight, mass and body fat. Handedness is absolutely in play. No factor goes undiscussed. Everyone has the perfect goldilocks zone for their pitcher -– not too much, not too little, but just right.
Scouts drool over a good pitching body like Aiken’s. They tend to pass by shorter or stockier pitchers because they lack that future projection, the heart of every scout’s evaluation.
“Scouting is as inexact a science as exists, but that doesn’t mean we can’t apply some data points like height and weight, mass and body fat.”
It’s simple physics. Short pitchers often have compact, repeatable mechanics that can lead to good control and command. They are also susceptible to an increased amount of solid contact and fly balls because of the lack of plane. They are more likely to struggle to get on top of the baseball forcing them to be on the perimeter. This can result in the ball spinning sideways towards the white part of the plate. Tall pitchers create leverage and angle, often inducing more groundballs and sometimes swings and misses.
“Obviously height is great with the ability to create leverage and downhill plane with a long reach,” one AL talent evaluator told me.
However, draft a pitcher with too much height and you risk him having levers so long that they’re unable to successfully repeat their delivery, a major key to becoming a consistent pitcher.
Young and wiry pitchers allow for the opportunity to add muscle, which often leads to improved velocity. Heavy pitchers can have bulky muscle that leads to decreased flexibility or carry extra fat that puts increased stress on the ligaments and tendons. Rail-thin pitchers, like C.J Edwards of the Cubs, can cause concern about whether or not they can withstand the physical stress of pitching for an entire season.
Every scout has their mental picture.
"Give me 6-foot-2, 200-210 pounds. Lower body like Clemens,” R.C. Lichtenstein, Double-A pitching coach for the Tampa Bay Rays says. Clemens, of course, wasn’t quite as bulky and muscular when he was drafted. He got there as he developed and aged.
CJ Nitkowski was the ninth overall pick in the first round for the Cincinnati Reds in 1994. He was listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. He shared that oft raved about lankiness as a young man with Aiken. So what does the perfect pitcher look like to CJ Nitkowski, who himself may have had that ideal frame?
“Six-foot-four with Kyle Farnsworth's back, David Price's wing span and Craig Kimbrel's legs.”
The described being would certainly make me want to see him pitch, but it can be a smoke screen. These mental pictures don’t always translate into big league success stories.
Take a look at the top 5 active pitchers (according to WAR).
1) Tim Hudson is listed at 6-foot-1, 175. His body shows up on exactly nobody’s list of the perfect pitcher.
2) Mark Buehrle’s bubblegum card reads 6-foot-2, 240. That should translate to power, right? Oops.
3) CC Sabathia. So much for that too long levers thing.
4) Johan Santana. He’s 6-foot in your program, a rather generous number if you see him in real life.
5) Bartolo Colon needs no explanation.
Despite the efforts of scouts everywhere, there is no such thing as the perfect pitcher’s body. We search for elements to depend on and admirably use a process of elimination, but they can only tell so much of the story.
"That’s what it looks like,” John Hart, former general manager of the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers often says on TV. He’s describing a man on a mound delivering a pitch, not a man posing for a photo.
He’s also describing the athleticism with which a man moves.
“If you were at the park,” an AL front office executive told me, “saw the guys do something non-baseball related, or just watched the way they played catch or the way their bodies moved, that sense of athleticism would creep into the picture as a pretty important part of your initial take.”
That’s the common thread with the pitchers on the above WAR list. Despite being randomly sized and shaped, they are exceptional at moving their bodies fluidly, repeating their deliveries and achieving this with three or four pitches at their disposal.
Whenever we think we have this figured out, we are handed Chris Sale, Marcus Stroman and David Wells. We don’t toss out the data or throw up our hands. Instead, we accord more weight to the stuff, the competitiveness and the pitchability. Thank goodness, because I’m really enjoying watching Johnny Cueto pitch this year.