Baseball is a game of constant adjustments. Players are continually refining their craft, seeking the perfect combination of precise mechanics and pitch execution to gain a previously elusive edge. In 2015, we witnessed such a confluence of adjustments. Tony Zych has been tweaking his arsenal for a few years now, and everything finally clicked for him last summer.
Zych began his professional career in the Chicago Cubs organization. He's always thrown hard, but with the Cubs, he struggled to generate strikeouts. After languishing in Double-A for two consecutive years, a conversation with Jake Arrieta helped Zych develop a nasty secondary pitch:
"In spring training one day I was talking to Jake Arrieta, who is obviously pretty good, and he kind of showed me some of his thoughts on his slider and how he works through it. I worked on it the next couple of days and ended up striking out two guys the first time I used it in the spring. I decided I would stick with that one and see if I could make it better."
Soon afterward, Zych was purchased by the Mariners and he quickly rose through the organization. His new and improved slider made a world of difference. We don’t have minor league PITCHf/x data to examine, but given that his strikeout rate jumped from 13.8% in Double-A in 2014 to 28.9% across three levels in 2015, it’s fair to say that his slider improved quite a bit. It has become a chase pitch, and because he has good command of it, batters are unable to square it up even when they do make contact. Borrowing liberally from last week's post about his slider:
"Zych threw just 133 sliders in 18 1/3 innings last year. Among all sliders that were thrown over 100 times, his whiff rate of 44.62% ranked 43rd, putting him squarely in the top 15% of the sample. That might be impressive on its own but when you also consider the contact that was generated off the pitch, things get very exciting. When batters put the ball in play off his slider, they put it on the ground twice as often as they put it in the air. And when they did put it in the air, they popped up 80% of the time! Granted, we’re working with a sample of just 21 balls in play, but that’s some impressive contact management."
Improving his slider has certainly accelerated his development but his fastball is the glue that holds everything together. There were 361 pitchers in the major leagues who threw a four-seam fastball at least 100 times in 2015; Zych’s 96.6 mph heater ranked 38th, just outside the top 10%. Batters swung and missed almost a quarter of the time when offering at his fastball, and more than half of balls in play against the pitch were put on the ground. When you compare the components of his fastball—velocity, horizontal movement, and vertical movement—it looks a lot like Mark Lowe’s.
There was one other big adjustment that helped him turn the corner in 2015, and it was Kevin Gregg, of all people, who helped him make it. The key? First-pitch strikes. Zych was second in all of baseball in F-Strike% and his Zone% was well above league average. His newfound ability to command both of his pitches in and out of the strike zone helped him improve his K/BB ratio from 1.90 in 2014 to 6.58 in 2015. He’s using both of his pitches to work ahead in the count before putting batters away with his breaking ball, a simple formula for success. Gregg was with Tacoma for less than a month, but his 13 years of experience definitely made an impact on Zych:
"[Gregg] was with us in the bullpen for about a month. I got to watch him and talk to him. I kind of jumped in his back pocket and learned as much as I could from him. He told me to not get caught up in the little stuff and to not make pitching harder than it is.
"I was putting too much pressure on myself. I needed to step back and not try as hard. I mean, you're always going to give 100 percent effort. Just don't put so much pressure on yourself. Keep it simple."
Together, all of these adjustments have propelled Zych’s career light-years ahead of where he was just a few years ago. If everything goes right this spring, Zych should earn a spot towards the back of the bullpen. That’s an impressive ascent for a guy throwing long relief in Double-A just 18 months ago. He has two solid weapons in his repertoire and the adjustments that he made last summer should carry over to this year. His development probably made it a little easier to let Carson Smith go and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him pitching in high leverage situations in 2016.