Hey, thanks, Reds. The Cubs’ 1.5 game lead on the Cardinals lasts another day with the Reds winning last night. I am totally scoreboard watching like crazy these days, because (1) I don’t know how long this is going to last for the Cubs, and (2) I am keenly aware of how thin the margin is between the Cubs as a buyer and a big-time seller.
• Ryan Tepera was the NL Reliever of the Month in May, quite an honor within even his own bullpen full of guys who were fantastic in May. What is interesting about Tepera’s trajectory this year is that, for his first few weeks or so, there simply didn’t seem to be anything special about his performance after last year’s MVP-vote-getting effort. The signature cutter* was not particularly sharp and the velocity was down, the command was off, and the fastball was really meh. And then in late April, it was like a switch flipped and the cutter was back. I remarked on it at the time, assuming that he’d just worked out some early-season mechanical rust. And that is kinda what happened, but it was actually even simpler than that: dude just had a breathe better. And it wasn’t the pitching infrastructure that was the initial help, it was the trainer. Tepera was feeling soreness in an odd spot, which highlighted an issue with his breathing and rib cage when he was pitching – fix that, and boom, everything mechanical got right back into alignment. Great read here from Sahadev Sharma at The Athletic.
• *Bonus note: the reason Tepera’s cutter was so signature is because, in addition to being hugely effective, it moved more like a hard slider than a traditional cutter. But for that reason, he’s actually ditched referring to it as a cutter. It’s his slider now. So update yourself mentally.
• With word that MLB has armed itself with evidence and data from the first two months of the season to know how to proceed on the issue of illegal grip enhancers used to increase pitch spin and movement, we’re on alert for whatever is coming – it could be immediate suspensions for a huge swath of players, or it could be (more likely, and probably a better idea) some kind of official report/memo on the scope of the issue and what’s coming next for players who continue to break the rules.
• Against that backdrop, Travis Sawchik had sought to find out for himself just what could be done with extreme substances in a great read here at The Score. First of all, the description and visuals of “Spider Tack” were kind of absurd – are pitchers really putting that kind of stuff on their fingers? How the hell do you ever get it off?! Second of all, and far more importantly, Sawchik and some amateur pitchers walk through the changes in their movement and spin rate – with data – as they use different substances. Among the funny things you learn: the famous combination of Bullfrog sunscreen and rosin didn’t perform differently from rosin alone (but, interestingly, Bullfrog, alone, actually dramatically *reduced* spin rate, which could help pitches have extra/unnatural movement in other ways). Pine tar is actually not THAT dramatically different from rosin or the rosin/sunscreen combo or even the baseline for some guys. But those specific “tack” substances – the kinds you’d have to buy specifically for this purpose and be real hush-hush about – have absolutely unbelievable jumps in spin rate. So if a guy bumps his same-velocity fastball spin rate by 300+ RPMs? He started cheating with that special stuff. That’s just the science. Fantastic read here from Sawchik.
• All the data and science suggest that you can improve breaking pitch spin rates some with grip changes, but you cannot produce significant jumps in fastball spin rate without doing one of two things: increasing velocity, or using grip substances. You *can* improve your spin efficiency (how much of your spin contributes to pitch movement) through your grip and mechanics, but the raw spin rate? It sure seems like you just flat cannot increase it from your natural baseline without a huge bump in velo or using a substance. The problem for us as outsiders is we don’t always have the annual data – reliably recorded – to check when there was a huge spin rate bump on fastballs.
• Much more on the state of things – it’s just comically bad at this point (one team in particular appears to be especially bad by the data, and your clue is that a certain obvious cheater just signed there this offseason):
One ball was so sticky players could pick it up with their palm. Another had visible fingerprints. One pitcher’s fingers were flagged at airport security.
“This should be the biggest scandal in sports.”
— Stephanie Apstein (@stephapstein) June 4, 2021
• The Cubs, by the way, did not show up in SI’s list of the 10 teams with the top increases in spin rate from 2020 to 2021. That doesn’t necessarily mean a ton given the changes in personnel, but just for what it’s worth.
• (Increasingly, I’m kinda like, if you’re using rosin and sunscreen, you’re fine in my book; if you’re using pine tar, that’s not cool, but it’s also right there for everyone to grab some, and I at least understand; but if you’re purchasing that specific tack substance (or using an Angels clubhouse attendant to do it for you), then you probably deserve some suspension time and a bit of a scarlet letter). And if a team is providing that stuff? Oof. That’s really not good.)
• Former Diamondbacks manager and current Diamondbacks broadcaster (and former Cubs broadcaster) Bob Brenly stepped in it this week by doing some casual racism, making a joke(?) about Marcus Stroman wearing a durag under his hat. Brenly did the obligatory bare minimum thing and issued a statement about getting sensitivity training: “During last night’s game, I made a poor attempt at humor that was insensitive and wrong. I apologize to Marcus Stroman and have reached out directly to share those thoughts. I have had several conversations with the D-backs and we agree that seeking sensitivity training is an important step so I can continue to learn from my mistakes in order to be better in the future.”
• For others who were familiar with Brenly’s work over the years, the comment was evocative of subtle issues Brenly seemed to have with, and share about, other non-white players. And that includes former Cubs great Aramis Ramirez:
Former Cub Aramis Ramírez heard what Bob Brenly said about Marcus Stroman, and Ramírez says he felt targeted by Brenly in Chicago because he is Latino.
Brenly, already set to take sensitivity training, will now step away from broadcast duties for week.https://t.co/QYGM8NEcIm
— Zach Buchanan (@ZHBuchanan) June 3, 2021
A sample of what Ramírez had to say.
— Zach Buchanan (@ZHBuchanan) June 3, 2021
• Another day, another hitless outing for a Cubs pitching prospect – this time it was DJ Herz, who continues to dominate at Low-A, despite being a 2019 high school draft pick who has had virtually no in-game pro experience before this year. He struck out NINE over four hitless innings:
• As you can see, Herz has a bit of a long-arm, cross-fire delivery that undoubtedly makes it harder for batters to pick him up, but will also require incredible strength and conditioning for him to keep his mechanics over longer starts (and longer seasons). He also has killer stuff already, and so what you wonder when you see that combination at Low-A is if he’s dominating simply because he’s hard to pick up and has great stuff – put that anywhere near the strike zone, and inexperienced hitters will struggle. But what happens when the hitters become more discerning? Is the command going to be good enough for long enough to take advantage of the great stuff? None of this is a commentary on Herz, specifically – we’re still learning more about him – but instead is about younger pitchers with complex deliveries and great pure stuff. It’s the same reason there are questions about Brailyn Marquez, who will hopefully join a team soon so that we can see him facing more advanced/experienced batters. Guys who look like Herz and Marquez: if the mechanics hold up consistently and stuff doesn’t erode, they can turn into studs. Enormous upside. But, like I said, you just have a little more risk. Either way, I’m freaking loving what Herz is showing this year as a former 8th round pick. He’s quickly and easily become a top 15-20 prospect in the system, and I know Bryan agrees.
• Well that’s certainly an anniversary:
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