Jun 12, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; A major league baseball rest in the grass prior to the game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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The Atlanta Braves overhauled Touki Toussaint‘s mechanics in the 2016 season. Is he poised for a big 2017?
The Atlanta Braves targeted Toussaint in a deal to give salary relief to the Arizona Diamondbacks by bringing on the contract of Bronson Arroyo in 2015.
Dany Gilbert Kiti Toussaint (nicknamed Touki) was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks with the 16th overall selection in the 2014 draft out of Coral Springs Christian Academy in Florida. He was selected one pick behind his now-organization mate Sean Newcomb, who went to the Angels at pick #15.
The Diamondbacks sent Toussaint to their Arizona Rookie League team, and he only spent a month there before being pushed up to the advanced rookie league Pioneer League team in Missoula in spite of his AZL numbers not exactly being all that pretty.
Combined between the two levels, he made 12 appearances, throwing 28 1/3 innings, posting a 8.58 ERA, 1.98 WHIP, and a 18/32 BB/K ratio. His pedigree and ridiculous curve got prospect notice, however, ranking him #71 overall by Baseball America in their annual list and #98 by MLB.com.
He began 2015 with Kane County in the low-A Midwest League, and he had gotten off to a solid start in terms of ERA, but he was having similar issues with his control before he was traded.
On June 20th, the Braves traded reserve infielder Phil Gosselin to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Bronson Arroyo and Toussaint to give the Diamondbacks salary relief and bring Toussaint’s big arm into the organization.
The Braves assigned Toussaint to the same level within their organization with low-A Rome in the South Atlantic League. Combined between both organizations, he posted 17 starts, throwing 87 2/3 innings with a 4.83 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, and a 48/67 BB/K ratio.
The Braves and Toussaint set to remaking his mechanics and approach this offseason and spring to allow him to better utilize his devastating curve ball and go deeper into games by controlling the zone better. He spent the entire season with Rome to work on these things in 2016.
The mechanical adjustments were slow to take, to say the least. He opened the 2016 season really heavily working on the mechanical end. The results were a 6.28 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, and a 28/24 BB/K ratio in 43 innings pitched on June 1st.
The Braves let him work through the month of June with his new mechanics before really overhauling his approach. In June, he made 5 starts, throwing 29 innings, with a 2.17 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and an 11/32 BB/K ratio.
In July, he began working to really drill the bottom of the zone with his fastball and change early in the zone and use the curve as more of a put-away pitch. He took to the change in his approach quite quickly, though, as he really showed a whole different look in his last start of July against West Virginia, really pushing for weak contact rather than the strikeout and getting 6 innings deep.
In the time working on his new approach, he made 4 starts, throwing 20 innings, with a 4.50 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, and 13/28 BB/K ratio.
Starting with that start on July 26th, he went on a tear to end the season, pitching 40 1/3 innings over 7 starts and a relief appearance (the final game to close out the season). He posted a 2.23 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and a 19/44 BB/K ratio.
He made one postseason start, and his new approach was in full display, as he went 8 strong innings, allowing only a solo home run among 4 hits with no walks and 6 strikeouts.
Really, after the mechanical adjustments were worked out, Toussaint was very good, even when you add in the time working on his approach adjustments. From June 1 through the end of the regular season, he threw 89 1/3 innings with a 2.72 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 43/104 BB/K ratio.
Size – Toussaint is listed at 6’3″ and 185 pounds. He is long and lean in his build.
Delivery – Touki’s biggest adjustment that he made in his delivery comes early in his delivery.
He starts his delivery now with a step back toward first base to begin things. He brings his knee up roughly waist high and twists back toward his right hip.
Previously, Touki had a much higher leg lift that would often leave him off balance at the top of his delivery point before he ever delivered toward the plate.
Touki’s new delivery is also much more smooth and direct, moving quickly through the entire delivery, taking a long stride to his catcher and using his long arms to generate good plane from a 3/4 delivery.
The hip and shoulder tuck have allowed him to generate as much (and maybe even more!) velocity as he once did with the high leg kick and coming down hard toward the batter from that position.
Another thing to note is that Toussaint has a very solid pickoff move for a righty.
Control (50) –
Fastball (60) – Toussaint certainly can dial up the top-end velocity, and there was a report from one scout that his relief appearance at the end of the season showed a triple digit fastball.
I have not seen any reports of even 99 in a start from Touki this season, but there were plenty who saw him dial up a 98, but the big difference throughout the season was that he went from sitting in the 93-95 range to sitting just a hair below that with more in the 92-93 range in the fastball.
He also worked very well low in the zone with the fastball as he re-worked his approach, using the high fastball as an eye adjustment pitch rather than part of his normal repertoire.
Toussaint’s fastball low in the zone gets excellent plane with his long arms, and it plays well with excellent arm-side tail low in the zone.
He does have a habit of over-throwing the fastball and flattening it out, which is what kept it from being another half grade higher for me, but there is a lot of growth seen in this pitch this season.
Change Up (50) – The change in his delivery mechanics has led to consistency in his arm slot for Toussaint, and that has really helped his change play better as I’d probably have had a sub-50 grade previously.
He works the change well from about mid-thigh to the knees of the hitter, though the pitch does not have a ton of movement. When he lets the pitch drift belt high, it can get tagged pretty well.
Curve Ball (60) – Touki’s curveball is something of poetry. Typically it is advised to watch replays of his curve with children out of the room and a towel available to wipe the drool from your mouth.
His break on his curve is incredibly impressive, and one of my favorite moments this season was watching a game on MiLB.tv live and hearing a hitter holler out an obscenity after a curve completely buckled his knees and left him flabbergasted.
The 12-6 break that Touki gets on the pitch is tremendous, but he does sometimes get a bit of hang if he spots the ball up in the zone and/or overthrows the pitch.
When Touki is willing to be easy with the pitch and let it do its natural thing, he can get a ton of break with the pitch, seeing it break two planes, generating both weak contact and swing and miss.
MLB Player Comp
So, the straight truth is that there simply are not any major league starting pitchers with Toussaint’s walk rate, even in his best stretch of 2016, that sustain it more than a year and continue as starters. There are guys who post a walk rate like he has shown for one rough season and then “bounce back” to better ratios. However, this was a best ratio for Toussaint, so there is obviously still work for him to do for a future rotation role.
The guy who really has the closest comparison to Toussaint may strike a bit of fear in Braves fans, but it does show the volatility of his profile and yet the success that can be had when at his best, Ubaldo Jimenez.
The physical resemblance is striking with Ubaldo standing 6’4″ and 200 pounds with a near-mirror image of Touki’s build, but their results on the mound and general approach have been similar to this point.
Obviously, the hope is that Touki could take another step forward with his command and control and work to be in a different style of pitcher than Ubaldo, but in even the way he finished the season for underlying stats, Ubaldo is the guy who most closely resembles his stats in the last 5 years.
That all said, we’ve all seen what even that profile can do at its best. In 2009-2010, Jimenez posted 439 2/3 combined innings with a combined 3.17 ERA (pitching his home games in Coors!) with a 1.19 WHIP and a 177/412 BB/K ratio. His walk rate was still high (9.79%), but he was able to suppress hits such that he was near-dominant on the mound.
Then in Cleveland, they saw the good and bad of Jimenez, as he posted back to back seasons in 2012-2013 going from a 5.40 ERA and 1.61 WHIP to 3.30 ERA and 1.33 WHIP. In both seasons, he walked over 10% of hitters he faced.
The last few years in Baltimore has also seen the same volatility with two poor seasons mixed with a solid 2015, where he posted a 4.11 ERA and 1.36 WHIP over 184 innings and even had one of his best walk rates of his career, though it was still one of the higher ones in the league at 8.6%.
While that comparison may not inspire a ton of confidence, it doesn’t have to be the final story for Touki either. He made tremendous strides in 2016, and he’ll be with noted pitching coach Dennis Lewalyn at Florida in 2017, so further strides are certainly feasible.
Toussaint is one guy who I have mentioned that would benefit from working a split-finger fastball into his repertoire, perhaps not to replace his change, but for another look that is similar to his fastball but has a different movement and keeps guys off the fastball.
One of the notable things in interviews with Touki about the season is talking about “being himself”. It was notable to me that when he pressed and got over-stressed on the mound, he often would overthrow and hurt the effectiveness of his pitches. Truly being himself on the mound would involve some ice water in the veins to see those pitches be what they can be at all times, and that’s something only Touki (and his catcher possibly) can attend to during a game. That’s his big challenge in 2017, in my eyes.
He would have a very high floor as a dominant reliever if all went south as a starter, however.