Saturday, August 25, 2012

O's pitching philosophy is different, which may not be a bad thing

Last week, Dan Duquette, the Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations (or, you know, their general manager), was interviewed by MASN's Steve Melewski about the organization's pitching philosophy now that he and director of pitching development Rick Peterson have been around for nearly a full season. Much of the talk centered around top prospect Dylan Bundy and the fact that the O's won't let Bundy throw  his cut fastball, arguably the youngster's best pitch, this year (and possibly beyond).

You should read the entire interview, in which, oddly enough, Duquette seems defensive of the strategy and isn't really a fan of anyone questioning what he's doing. Here are some of his comments to Melewski:
"The philosophy of the organization is to encourage pitchers to develop a good delivery, command of their fastball, an off-speed pitch and a good breaking ball," Duquette said. "The first breaking ball that we work with our young pitchers on is a curveball. So that is basically the level of progression of our instruction and our organization philosophy.

"First of all, the cut fastball, we don't like it as a pitch, OK? And we don't like it for young pitchers because it takes away from the development of their curveball, which is a better pitch long-term and also, the velocity of their fastball. So we encourage development of an overhand breaking ball that has depth along with command of their fastball and, of course, velocity and movement will get the hitter out."
If Duquette had stopped right there, he may have been better off. It's at least somewhat defensible that a pitcher, especially at a young age, should be working on maintaining a strong delivery and developing fastball-changeup and curveball/slider command. But he kept going, questioning whether Mariano Rivera's cutter is actually a cutter or just "his fastball." Duquette also challenged whether the cutter was actually an efficient pitch, which seems peculiar considering several of the game's best pitchers throw cutters. Still, I was more surprised by Duquette's seemingly hostile tone, but he could be tired of people asking why Bundy hasn't been able to throw his cutter. Honestly, though, it's more than a fair question.

On Thursday, Melewski interviewed Peterson, who should probably do the talking about this subject for the O's from now on instead of the occasionally aloof Duquette. Again, read the entire interview. Here were, to me, the two most interesting responses from Peterson:
Why don't you like use of the cut fastball?
"What happens is you start to get off to the side of the baseball (with your grip) and then you're no longer consistently behind the baseball. Typically what we see is the more you throw that cutter, you can become dependent on it and you start to overuse it and typically what happens to guys that overuse the cutter is their fastball velocity drops. That has been consistent over the years."

So with younger pitchers, you discourage use of the cutter?
"Yeah, we'd like them to develop the curveball or the slider as the primary breaking ball, something that has depth to it, not something that is flat. And the cutter is a pitch that typically is thrown later on in your career, often after you've been in the big leagues several years. Be it Roy Halladay, be it Cliff Lee, those are pitches they developed later in their career, not when they were young starting pitchers coming through the minor leagues.

"I'm not saying the cutter is not a good pitch, don't misunderstand me. A cutter used effectively is a nice addition to your arsenal. But a cutter thrown 40 percent of the time for a young power pitcher can become a crutch, then your velocity drops and you fail to develop your changeup and a breaking ball that has depth to it. The cutter overused is normally not displacing changeups and curveballs, it's displacing fastballs."
So there's at least a lot of thought behind what the O's are doing. They don't want Bundy to simply get in a mode in the minors where he throws cutter after cutter to get batters out. They want him to develop his other pitches first, and then there's the possibility that they'll let him have the pitch back at some point in the majors. But by the time he's ready, Peterson doesn't seem to think he'll need the cutter anymore, or at least not until later in his career. They also don't want Bundy's fastball velocity to drop, which Peterson says is a possible result from constantly throwing cut fastballs.

ESPN's Keith Law has been one of the most outspoken critics of how the O's have been handling Bundy, and that was before this cutter discussion started. Law believes the O's started Bundy way too low -- he thinks Bundy should have started his minor league career at least at Single-A Frederick or Double-A Bowie -- and he was not a fan of limiting Bundy to three innings at a time when he first started pitching this season. Predictably, Law is not of fan of the O's cutter philosophy either. When asked in an ESPN chat last week on what he thought of it, Law said, "I think it's nonsense, and in Bundy's case, the worst possible outcome for the kid's future." He also added this on Twitter:
So, yeah. It seems pretty bold (but harsh) for the O's to disallow Bundy from throwing the pitch entirely, but it'll be even more ridiculous if they never let him throw the pitch again (which almost seems unreasonable). I'm pretty sure Chris Tillman, who's 24, throws a cutter, and he's been more effective this season than in years past.

Here's one thing I do know: Over the past 10-15 years, the O's have done a horrible job of both drafting and developing organizational talent, and that includes starting pitching. Let's take a look at their draft picks (pitchers only) in the first five rounds of the last 10 MLB drafts (not including this year).

2002: Adam Loewen (1st round), Hayden Penn (5th)
2003: Brian Finch (2nd), Chris Ray (3rd), Bob McCrory (4th)
2004: Wade Townsend (1st, didn't sign), Brad Bergesen (4th)
2005: Garrett Olson (1st (supplemental)), Brandon Erbe (3rd), Reid Hamblet (5th)
2006: Pedro Beato (1st (supplemental)), Zach Britton (3rd)
2007: Timothy Bascom (4th), Jake Arrieta (5th)
2008: Brian Matusz (1st)
2009: Matt Hobgood (1st), Randy Henry (4th), Ashur Tolliver (5th)
2010: Daniel Klein (3rd)
2011: Dylan Bundy (1st), Mike Wright (3rd), Kyle Simon (4th), Matt Taylor (5th)

Again, that's a lot of bad draft picks. But whatever the O's were doing then to develop those pitchers' abilities wasn't working -- at all. Some of those draft picks were/are OK relievers -- Ray, Bergesen, Beato -- but none of them is still with the O's. Britton, Arrieta, and Matusz are all still starters and have at least a shot of being effective, but you can't say the same for anyone else on that list. And all three of those guys have struggled at the major league level and have been disappointing. Hobgood and Klein haven't been able to stay healthy and are long shots to ever make it to Baltimore. And Henry (to Texas for Taylor Teagarden) and Simon (to Philadelphia for Jim Thome) are no longer in the organization. Oh, and Wright is also a reliever.

I'm not sure if what the O's are doing will work. It seems a little radical and might be an overreaction to the results of one type of pitch. But I do know that it's refreshing to see that Duquette and particularly Peterson have some sort of well-thought-out plan, and I'm sure it's much more complex than simply not allowing their younger minor leaguers to throw cutters.

It would be nice if the organization was better at drafting talent, period, but when they actually have good players, it's important that they grow and are eventually useful to the major league club. That hasn't happened for a while, but maybe it will now.