The Arizona Baby Back rotation
"It’s great, I love it," said a bright-eyed Chase Anderson about the overfull rotation in Diamondbacks camp this spring. Maybe he can be a little more enthusiastic about it — his arsenal is maybe more complete than the other nine young pitchers he’s competing with in camp. That doesn’t mean that he isn’t working hard to improve, alongside other fellow Baby Backs Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster and Archie Bradley.
Anderson has two changeups, a good curve, and already showed the ability to get strikeouts and limit walks at the major-league level, so he has to be in the driver’s seat. He said this spring is about work on his two-seamer in particular, as he’d like to get more groundballs.
De La Rosa has an electric mid-90s fastball and a changeup taught to him by a legend. "Pedro Martinez taught me this grip, he told me ‘practice it every day, and if you can have it come out at the right speed, it will be a strikeout pitch for you, I’m 100 percent sure it’ll be a great pitch for you,’ " De La Rosa said after a bullpen session in camp last week.
He might not get the same legendary drop that Pedro got from the same grip — De La Rosa laughed when asked about Pedro’s fingers and their flexibility, saying he couldn’t do anything like that himself — but the new D-back has a good change. It’s above-average by drop and fade, and got 16% whiffs last year (average was 13%).
It’s the breaking balls that have eluded the 26-year-old righty so far. He hasn’t thrown many curves in games, and the slider hasn’t managed an average whiff rate yet. The pitcher talked before and after a bullpen session about the keys for his slider. One key was just keeping his curve and slider from morphing into one slurve by focusing on his release point.
The other key for his slider was more complicated. "I’m trying to get that pitch perfect," he said. "I almost have it, but my arm speed is a bit fast, maybe. I’m trying to slow-motion my feet so that I can catch up to my arm." During his bullpen, you could see De La Rosa trying to slow down his body compared to what he’s been in the past. Take a look at the end of his bullpen session in camp last week:
That doesn’t look very comfortable, particularly in the lower half. Douglas Thornburn spends a lot of time digesting pitcher mechanics, and he passed along his thoughts: "The lower half is funky, but his center-of-mass actually makes decent forward progress while his legs do the pretzel thing, so the momentum is not as bad as the leg movement suggests." It’s still early, maybe the tweaks to his delivery will come more naturally over the next month.
Refining that breaking ball could be easier than the reverse, which is what Bradley is dealing with. His nice 12-6 power curve is a strength, but he admits that the change is "a work in progress." His newest idea is to spread his fingers out on the changeup grip in order to "relieve the tension that you put on the ball so that it comes out a little slower, with some more movement."
The changeup is a feel pitch — "it takes repetition, it takes practice, it takes work, every day" — but Bradley is optimistic that he can find movement and command on that third pitch. The 22-year-old righty feels that the different arm action on a change is not the problem, even if some pitchers talk of being naturally "inside" or "outside" of the ball. Bradley remembered being a quarterback in high school and having to pronate when he threw the football, with a very similar movement to throwing a changeup. He still laughs when you mention Dan Straily’s 17 failed changeup grips. "I’m probably on my ninth."
A slider or a cutter is a possibility for Bradley. He said he added a second breaking ball in the Arizona Fall League at least. But this spring, he’s focusing on sharpening the change and improving his fastball command.
At the next locker over, Webster nodded. Fastball command is the central obstacle between his starter-quality arsenal and major-league success. By whiffs and grounders, his changeup, slider and sinker are all above-average, with the change actually top-10 in swinging strikes (just ahead of Stephen Strasburg). But a bottom-15 walk rate has him scuffling.
Listen to Webster talk about improving that command, and you get equal parts determination and frustration. "I’m learning every time I go out, the more repetitions I get in, the more games I pitch in, the more I learn," he said last week in camp. "It’s a lot to learn, I’m getting it, it’s a slow process."
Part of the problem is that there isn’t much you can do to improve command other than to keep trying to repeat your mechanics, and you know, pitch. "You can do dry work, but it’s still not the same as getting a ball in your hand," Webster said.
The 25-year-old righty doesn’t make excuses for himself. At one point, he might have been behind other pitchers who have thrown longer, since Webster was a position player in high school ("I threw hard and couldn’t hit very well, so they gave me the ball and showed me the mound."). But that was a while ago. "Sure I haven’t been throwing as long as some people, but since 2008, I’ve done nothing but pitch. I’ve had a quite a bit of repetition," he said.
Sometimes command can take a step forward when a pitcher ditches a pitch he can’t corral. Webster’s four-seamer is not very useful in terms of whiffs (1.9%) or grounders (38.7%) — has he ever thought of moving exclusively to the two-seamer like some breakout pitchers have done before? "I have, but it helps me stay in the strike zone if I throw four seams and two-seams because I stay behind by four-seam and have to drive it straight, which helps me do the same for my two-seamer. Straighter pitch, too, easier to control," Webster says of his four-seamer.
Three young pitchers, all vying for a spot in a rotation, all trying to work on their flaws this spring. They aren’t backing down — "We’re all fighting for it," Webster said without any trace of tension with his the pitcher at the next locker over. These Baby Backs have a month to try and put it all together, at least until the next young Arizona arm comes along to press them.