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Seattle’s struggling young fireballers

Both Edwin Diaz and Dan Altavilla have run into tough times this season, but all is far from lost for the young relievers

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Seattle Mariners
if this doesn’t break your heart you don’t have one
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Bad news can come quietly—a slender envelope, a murmured comment overheard, the doctor nervously adjusting her glasses—or it can announce itself loudly: glass shattering across a rain-slicked road, a phone ringing in the dead of night, the licking tongue of flame. When you are an MLB pitcher bad news will almost always announce itself in the second way, and most of the time that will be the resounding, declarative sound of bat meeting ball, the two coming together to make an exclamation point that sails into the furthest seats. This year, two of Seattle’s young relief pitchers, Edwin Díaz and Dan Altavilla, have been getting this kind of bad, loud news. Both of them carry FIPs in the mid-5s, higher than in their previous two years, combined. Both are giving up an unconscionable amount of home runs (Diaz, at 2.32/9 and Altavilla, at 2.51/9—each more than twice their career numbers). Both are struggling in ways they never have in their careers.

The two share other similarities, though, which might help explain their struggles. Both Díaz and Altavilla are young—23 and 24, respectively. Newly debuted pitching prospect Andrew Moore is fussed over for being young (23), but Moore had a significantly different background than Diaz and Altavilla, pitching in high-stakes contests both as a college student at OSU on a national stage at the College World Series and as a member of Team USA, where he was privileged to learn from some of college’s best coaches, in addition to a strong faculty at OSU. In contrast, Altavilla, not a hotly recruited talent despite a strong high school track record, came out of a small D-II school, Mercyhurst College. Edwin Díaz may have had the most buzz of the three, drafted out of Puerto Rico as a teenager, but he spent his high-level development in a Mariners system not known for a particular aptitude in developing pitchers (or anyone). Neither of them, throughout their developing careers, had any opportunity to play under the kind of microscope the CWS affords. Even in the minors, both Diaz and Altavilla were shackled to teams with mostly losing records, and when they did play on a worldbeater team at Double-A Jackson, both were called up before having an opportunity to play in the Southern League Championship.

Secondly, while Díaz, Altavilla, and Moore all entered Seattle’s system as starting pitchers, only one remains a starter. Altavilla switched to the bullpen full-time at the beginning of 2016; Díaz made his last appearance as a starter on May 6, 2016, after spending his entire offseason working on his changeup to make it a viable third pitch. Both Díaz and Altavilla are still learning the difference between a starter’s mindset—working to get deep into games, planning an approach for hitters multiple times through the order, managing pitch counts as opposed to chasing strikeouts—and that of a late innings, short-relief specialist who can go max effort on every pitch, where every out is a high-leverage out. Nonetheless, both young fireballers impressed when called up near the end of the 2016 season. While Altavilla’s K/9 of 7.30 wasn’t eye-popping, he issued a lone walk over his 12.1 innings of work, and allowed just one earned run. Díaz, on the other hand, became an instant star with his 15.33 K/9, setting a Mariners record for most consecutive outs recorded via the strikeout. After an incendiary July where he struck out 26 batters in just 11.2 innings, Díaz wobbled some in August as the flamethrower started to run out of gas. He walked eight batters in August, more than he had in June and July combined. Nowhere were Díaz’s fading control problems more evident than in this late-inning meltdown against Milwaukee on August 19 where he struggled to throw both his pitches for strikes:

Here, as pointed out by LL’s pitching mechanics expert John Trupin, Díaz doesn’t shift his weight forward enough to finish the pitch, and so leaves it up. His front foot comes down flat instead of driving into the mound, indicating that the weight has transferred all the way through his motion, and he completes the pitch standing straight up with much of his momentum (and force) still left behind him. His hip rotation is also funky, out of sync with his hands and the rest of his body. In fact, this delivery looks like a less-fluid version of his delivery as a starter in Jackson:

In a high-pressure situation, Díaz fell back on the simpler, slower mechanics that have helped him attain success—an understandable, human instinct, one borne of years of training. But the result is he becomes caught in a no-man’s land between Starter Edwin and Reliever Edwin, and while an AA batter might swing at that pitch, an MLB batter will not.

Díaz would rebound to finish the season strong, but his mechanical issues trailed him into the 2017 season. Mechanics became an issue for both pitchers, as both Díaz and Altavilla struggled near the beginning of their 2017 campaigns, receiving demotions—Díaz was demoted from the closer role on May 16, while Altavilla was physically demoted to Tacoma on April 21. Here’s how they’ve performed since returning:

There’s good news and bad news here. First, both Díaz and Altavilla have worked to corral their staggering walk rates, while maintaining strong K rates. However, as both have worked to get in the zone more, both are still being victimized by exceptionally high HR rates. Hard-throwing relievers like Díaz and Altavilla can be more prone to the home run because when their pitches get barreled up, good ole Sir Isaac Newton tells us that there’s a good chance those balls are going over the fence. The tradeoff, of course, is that it’s really hard to barrel up something that’s nicking an outside corner at 98 miles an hour.

Unfortunately, as Díaz and Altavilla have worked to throw more competitive pitches, they’re getting more and more of the plate and making mistakes that are getting punished. Both young pitchers find themselves at a similar crossroad: pure stuff won’t get them past MLB hitters anymore. They have to locate. They cannot make the kinds of over-the-plate mistakes they’ve been making. It’s a tough adjustment for two pitchers who have already had to adjust to a lot at a young age, and it will take time, but nothing in Díaz’s or Altavilla’s track records in the minors suggest they won’t eventually be able to make this final adjustment. Already we see an improvement in that both are mostly missing by inches now instead of feet, as they were at the beginning of the season. If the Mariners continue to fade from contention, one bright side may be that it will allow both Seattle’s talented young flamethrowers to continue to develop into the pitchers they will be, without the added stress of a postseason run.