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Why I Like Rafael Chaves

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From today's P-I:

Throwing in the first inning of a Mariners intrasquad game, Meche went away from his regular four-seam fastball and instead showed off a new fastball -- the two-seam.
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Meche said talking to new pitching coach Rafael Chaves has convinced him of the need to overhaul his fastball. Chaves doesn't want to see the four-seamer put away, but he wants to see more hitters put the ball in play on the ground.

It was the staple of my repertoire back in my playing days, so perhaps I'm biased, but I love the two-seam fastball, and happen to think it's the most underrated pitch in the game. Thrown properly, it comes in at good (albeit slightly reduced) velocity with a lot of late downward break in the direction of the pitching hand (which is to say, it moves down and in for a righty and down and away for a lefty). Although difficult to hit well, it's not so much a strikeout pitch as it is a handy tool to induce groundballs to the middle infield. It's great to have tucked away in your arsenal, and it allows for a guy with a good sinker to succeed with less ability than a guy without one.

Chaves loves the two-seam fastball, so Gil isn't his first test project, but this might be the most appropriate application of his coaching to date. Consider the following brief list of Gil's pitches per inning:

  1. 18.1 (highest in the league)
  2. 18.0 (second highest in the league)
  3. 17.4 (t-third highest in the league)
Gil Meche has been a spectacularly inefficient pitcher for most of his career. By throwing so many pitches, he gets himself into a lot of deep counts (favoring the hitter), he has to come out of the game earlier, and he finds himself pitching in stressful situations more often than his more efficient counterparts. Each of these is, in a word, bad. Not only does the pattern negatively affect his performance, but it also increases his (re-)injury risk.  

So you can see why adding a two-seam fastball has the potential to work wonders, here. Given decent command, Gil can use it to start guys out, leading to either a groundball or an 0-1 count. It's the same thing we've seen happen with the re-invented Clint Nageotte. Where he used to be a slider-first guy who always went for the strikeout, Nageotte is now more comfortable setting hitters up with a sinker, which has led to his terrific GB/FB ratios these last two years. He still has some major control issues, but when you don't have to worry about so many deep counts or fly balls, it's not as big of an obstacle as it would be for someone else.

It's not going to be easy. Joel tried throwing more two-seamers in 2004 and had (what was then) the worst season of his career. The pitch takes some getting used to, because the only way to get the desired movement is to have an uneven pressure distribution favoring your index finger upon release, which isn't common for a four-seamer. When both your index and middle fingers are applying equivalent pressure on the ball, the result is that you pretty much have a straight fastball that goes slower than a four-seamer. That's bad. It's also a difficult pitch to control, because a slight change in pressure can have an enormous effect on movement, so a pitcher has to become really familiar with the pressure effect before he's able to spot the pitch wherever he wants. Most guys who're new to the two-seamer won't know quite where to aim, leading to the ball going all over the place. That, in turn, leads to higher walk totals (at least initially), and while the movement makes the pitch tough to hit, leaving it over the middle of the plate is still a bad idea at the best of times. Also, the downward motion will induce more groundballs, but a good GB/FB ratio doesn't guarantee instant success.

Given that it'll be a difficult adjustment, I still love this idea. Tinkering with Gil's mechanics clearly wasn't working, but as far as I know, he and Price never had serious discussions about changing his repertoire. It was always "Gil has electric stuff, he just needs to harness it." It felt like the last guy didn't really consider the possibility that maybe - just maybe - Gil's arsenal wasn't good enough. In that respect, Chaves is a breath of fresh air. He's coming in with a different approach, and one that I wholeheartedly support. Look at what he says about the infield defense - that's totally spot-on. More two-seamers! For everyone! It's a great tool, and with Betancourt/Beltre manning the left side of the infield, it could be a great way to turn frustrating pitchers into confident, effective groundball machines. If it doesn't work, oh well, at least you tried. That doesn't mean the idea wasn't good.

If Gil Meche has a breakout season in his walk year, it won't be because of the shoe inserts; it'll be the two-seam fastball. Taught and used properly, it can be a great way to completely change a pitcher's identity, and in Gil's case, that might be exactly what he needs to take off.