Scouting the Statcast line in spring camp

Bless You Boys

The Detroit Tigers are always a bit frustrating in spring training because there are precious few televised broadcasts. Even driving around the Detroit area, the early spring games may be am radio only if you’re using your trusty antenna. So the pent up anticipation of the season getting under way always seems to lead directly to the doldrums of the first week or two of games, when we’re hearing a lot but seeing little action.

This spring, things are a little different as we’re at least getting more Statcast data now. And as much as we’d like to see more games televised, it’s also true that watching early spring performances is often deceiving. Every year, players underperform or overperform wildly in the early going, providing false leads all over the place as fans try to get a read on the ballclub. Statcast can deceive as well, with the occasional odd pitch classification, let alone the fact that every spring a few pitchers stuff will pop and get everyone riled up with enthusiasm, only for them to come right back to their norms in season.

But at least Statcast gives you something to work with. We can at least get a sense of how hard pitchers are throwing and whether one of their pitches has changed its average shape. That doesn’t mean anything permanent either, but those are the kinds of things Statcast allows you to track effectively even in spring training. Obviously, figuring out more complicated puzzles, like how good a defensive shortstop Eddys Leonard is now after another offseason of work, or whether Justyn-Henry Malloy is going to be able to shore up some weakness against breaking balls, will take a lot longer this season. But Statcast still offers a lot more complex flavor to the game whether you’re following along on the MLB app or the Tigers’ site, listening to Dan Dickerson, or watching a televised broadcast.

Let’s just run through the first two games with Statcast and point out a few notable numbers.

If you’re not familiar, click here and you’re on the main game page for Monday’s contest between the Tigers and the Houston Astros. The first thing you’ll notice is the live scoreboard across the top where you can find any game you want going back nearly a decade now.

So there are a few things that stand out looking through the top performers columns. David Hensley’s 108.7 mph ground out was the hardest hit ball by far, so there wasn’t much in the way of really hard contact in the whole game. Tigers minor league outfielder Brady Allen’s three-run home run in the sixth inning was the second hardest hit ball and only carried 367 feet. It was well hit, but Allen isn’t gifted with even average raw power. There isn’t much to take away from the hitting side, but the pitching side has some notes of interest to us involving Beau Brieske, Brenan Hanifee, and Joey Wentz.

Scroll down the Statcast page a bit and you’ll get to the row of 10 blue-green boxes that give you a lot of different ways to analyze the game and individual performances. I’ve selected “player breakdowns” which gives you each pitchers’ pitch data for the game, starting with the Astros Spencer Arrighetti. Scrolling down you’ll see a similar box for each pitchers’ stuff, followed by the hitter performance against them in a second box.

Ok, but we’re not particularly interested in Mr. Arrighetti, no offense. I’m not going to screenshot you into oblivion either, since our daily readership is already familiar with Statcast. We’ll just walk through the Statcast data on some of the Tigers pitchers and note a minor trend up in velocity from a lot of them in their first outings of the spring.

Jack Flaherty

Let’s begin with Jack Flaherty, who made his first spring start in a Tigers’ uniform on Monday.

The big standout note for the new Tigers’ starter was a bump in fastball velocity. Now, note he threw just 10 pitches, only four of them fourseam fastballs, so context here is important. This means nothing at all in and of itself. It just gives us something to keep an eye on.

The Tigers clearly believe that Flaherty is a good bet to have a resurgent year, and last year he average 93.1 mph with the fourseamer. On Monday, he averaged 94.6 mph. In his prime years, Flaherty averaged about 94 mph, but has seen that velocity dip a little bit as he worked through shoulder injuries in 2021-2022. We’d all like to take four fastballs as a sign that he’s finally rounding back into prime form coming into the 2024 season, but that would be foolish. We’re just going to follow along.

Maybe even more notable for Flaherty was the fact that the velo on all his pitches, his changeup, slider, sinker, and knuckle curve was up significantly over his 2023 averages. The right-hander depends on his slider a lot as a key weapon, and while the break on the pitch was the same in terms of horizontal and vertical movement, Flaherty’s two sliders on Monday were 87 and 87.5 mph, respectively. He averaged 84.2 mph with his slider last season. With the same movement, a harder slider is usually a positive in the same way a few extra ticks on the fastball would be, so that will also be of interest.

But again, and yes this is just going to become a bit at this point, don’t get all excited. Keep cool, my friends. If he’s throwing harder and looking good over 60-70 pitch outings in late March? Yeah then we’re going to take some extra enthusiasm into the season where Jack Flaherty is concerned.

High voltage on the heaters

Velocity from the Tigers’ pitching staff has seemingly been up all over camp this spring. Tarik Skubal and top prospect Jackson Jobe scraping triple digits isn’t so surprising. but Reese Olson came out throwing max velocity on Saturday in the opener as well. Prospect Keider Montero had midseason velocity on Sunday, pumping plenty of 96-97 mph fastballs though again, these are all short outings. They do seem intent on airing it out though, and while this may be unnerving from an injury perspective, it’s music to my ears.

The Tigers have made major investments in developing a biomechanics department over the past few years, starting with hiring Dr. Georgia Ghiblin in 2020 to found it, and more recently bolstered by the addition of assistant pitching coach, Robin Lund’s background as a professor of biomechanics. For years, the Tigers were behind in developing their pitchers both physically and in terms of throwing mechanics, while better orgs seemed to churn out a steady stream of high-90’s relievers. Velocity isn’t everything, but it is an important weapon with a higher barrier to entry these days. 95 mph is average.

So we’ll see if there is a sustainable trend here or not, but just about all the Tigers’ pitchers have been above their 2023 averages in these short outings. Will Vest, Tyler Holton, Brant Hurter, Brenan Hanifee, just about everyone. A key theme this year is getting off to a good enough start that the club’s pitching depth and young talent get their seasoning and can contribute in the second half. The team seems to have taken it as a bit of a mandate to come to camp fully in shape and ready to go.

Joey Wentz and Beau Brieske

Two interesting pitchers who have struggled to find a steady role and face getting passed over this season by the next wave of pitching prospects are RHP Beau Brieske and LHP Joey Wentz. Brieske has had some success already in transitioning to relief, but he faces tough competition for one of the final spots on the Opening Day roster. Right now, Alex Lange, Jason Foley, Will Vest, Andrew Chafin, Shelby Miller, and Tyler Holton have six spots in the pen lined up. It’s also possible that they take six starting pitchers in April, leaving only one free spot for another reliever. Injuries will change the equation, but right now that’s a difficult bullpen to crack.

Brieske still has an option remaining. Wentz does not. Joey Wentz has teased a bit as a starter in the past, but those hopes were extinguished by an extremely home run prone 2023 season, and now the 26-year-old left-hander is fighting for one of the final spots in the bullpen with Tyler Holton and Andrew Chafin already holding down the lefty contingent pretty well.

Brieske already has a pretty good riding fastball with solid induced vertical break at 96+ mph out of the pen. He has a good changeup that is his best whiff generator, but he’ll occasionally throw a lollypop to a left-handed hitter and see it leave the park. His 2022 season ended with a forearm issue, and then he underwent a nerve hydrodissection procedure tp relieve ulnar nerve entrapment in the spring of 2023. So it was really good to see him pitch well out of the pen from July through September.

The breaking ball has always been Brieske’s weakness. His slider has improved somewhat since he broke on the scene as a prospect in 2021, but it’s still been far behind his fastball-changeup combination. He wants more depth on it, knowing he needs to get more whiffs and not overuse the changeup against right-handed hitters.

Yesterday, in his first appearance, Chris Brown quickly spotted that Brieske’s slider was dropping more and had a different spin profile than in 2023. He didn’t have command of it yet, but there were certainly some changes that will be worth tracking with him as well. If Brieske can improve that pitch, a reasonably deep Tigers bullpen will be even better.

Finally, we have Wentz, who is reportedly trying to work his way back to the higher arm slot he had in his years in the upper minors. The Tigers lowered it trying to get some run on the fastball and help him get better action on his cutter, but it’s never really panned out for the big left-hander. Command remains the key problem, and pitch design isn’t going to cure that, so perhaps some mechanical adjustments were in order.

Presumably Wentz is bullpen bound for good at this point, and if he can just lean into his fastball and sit 96-97 with his cutter and changeup, he might yet make a pretty good reliever. But he’s going to have to make a pretty good case this spring that he deserves a shot in the Opening Day bullpen. The fact that right-hander Alex Faedo, a little older but in a similar place in his career, got an option added back to his service time last year might give Wentz one more opportunity if he can seize it this spring.

Like the others Wentz had pretty good velocity on his fourseam fastball on Monday, averaging 94.4 mph compared to 93.4 mph in 2023. His cutter was two mph harder than last year, and both the changeup and curveball were up slightly too. Can Wentz put it together enough for the Tigers to stick with him this season? We still have no idea.

Casey Mize and Matt Manning set to debut

The Tigers have split squad games on Tuesday at 1:05 p.m. ET. Matt Manning will go on the road to take on the Orioles talented young right-hander, Grayson Rodriguez. That should be a fun, albeit brief, matchup this time of year. Meanwhile, Casey Mize will take the mound in a real game for the first time since early 2022 as he and the Tigers home squad welcome in Alek Manoah and the Toronto Blue Jays.

There’s really no pitcher in camp under more scrutiny as Mize as he returns from UCL reconstruction and back surgery. The former number one overall pick hasn’t been able to live up to the billing thus far, but with a rough stretch behind him, hopefully he can make a strong comeback in 2024. With Matt Manning, I’m just always waiting for more whiffs with the breaking ball, so we’ll see what his slider and curveball look like as he gets underway this spring.

The Tigers should have a lot of their prospects on the field Tuesday as the split-squad day brings a lot of their younger players over from minor league camp. Josue Briceno and Peyton Graham will headline that group.

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