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40 in 40: Gerson Bautista

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We gon’ boogie oogie ooggi, jiggle, wiggle and dance... Fireball

MLB: JUN 07 Mariners at Angels Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“One of my philosophies of building companies is the importance of velocity.”

-- Andrew Ng, Machine Scientist

Gerson, meet Andrew. Andrew, meet Gerson. A match made in heaven.

Unfortunately, velocity isn’t everything anymore in baseball. The industry’s lust for live arms remains, but as Statcast has continued to develop into a more granular field, miles-per-hour aren’t the be-all, end-all anymore.

Just 24 years old, Bautista still has plenty of time to develop into the late-inning force many believe he can be -- it all depends on whether or not he can consistently find the strike zone. After throwing just a shade over 43 percent of his pitches for strikes at the MLB level last season, frankly, one would think things can only improve from here.

2019 was a trying year for the Dominican at both the AAA and MLB level. In 23.2 innings at Tacoma, Bautista pitched to an 8.75 ERA and a 7.43 FIP. It was even worse in Seattle. Most of the damage came by self-harm, walking an alarming amount of batters. The 18 free passes he issued led to a lot of carnage, especially considering he was hurling a juiced PCL/MLB ball each time out. If you walk almost a batter per inning and allow seven dingers along the way, the numbers aren’t going to be pretty.

Bautista is consistently 97-99 with his heater. The pitch has some late english on it too, spinning to the plate at roughly 2400 RPMs. The velocity clearly stands out, but the spin rate would also rank among the 20th percentile for all four seamers thrown in the bigs last season. The stuff is there for Bautista’s juice to be elite, but as has been made clear, spotting it is going to be his ticket to success. If Bautista can start consistently start finding the top of the zone, only then will fans discover his true ceiling.

Bautista is a two-pitch pitcher. The slider is an average offering that plays off fastball command. If he’s dotting the fastball, the breaking ball will play up. Bautista only found the strike zone with his slider 27% of the time in 2019, suggesting it’s not currently at a place where he can use it as a get-ahead pitch early in counts. It’s going to have to be a put-away pitch, so finding the fastball command will be key.

Bautista too often found himself with predictable outcomes. As one can see, if he falls behind the count, it’s almost always a fastball coming. If he got ahead in the count, there was a reasonable chance the slider was on the way. Unfortunately, Bautista struggled to throw the slider for strikes, and in a lot of cases as evident in the graphic above, start the slider on the plate at all.

That will have to change in 2020.

Bautista isn’t the bulkiest guy in the league, utilizing a shot put action to the plate that can certainly be effective. Seattle’s signing of Carl Edwards Jr. may end up paying dividends in more ways than one. Edwards Jr. lanky, athletic build employs some similarities in his move to the plate. There’s a lot of moving parts, but he repeats his delivery well -- something Bautista is continuing to develop.

After a move to the bullpen in 2015, Edwards Jr. began punching out batters at a pretty high clip for the Cubs, mostly working with a similar arsenal to Bautista. A fastball-curveball pitcher, Edwards Jr. works/worked with slightly more spin than his younger counterpart, but was also required to work at the top of the zone to be effective, all the while battling to throw strikes enough strikes to succeed.

It would behoove the Mariners coaching staff to have Bautista leech onto Edwards Jr. this spring for some serious shadow work. Modeling his game after a fellow slight-framed 6-foot-3 hard-throwing righty with a familiar career arc isn’t the worst idea in the world.

Having missed some of spring training last season with a strained pectoral muscle, Bautista lost valuable time in his development last season.

So what’s the plan this time around?

“Just unleash him,” Brian DeLunas, Mariners Bullpen Coach said.

DeLunas said the plan for Bautista would be pretty straight forward this season.

“As soon as he finds it, and he’s close, throw him out there and let it ride,” DeLunas said.

DeLunas served as the Director of Pitching Development Strategies last season and got a good look at Bautista along the way. The stuff was never in question, DeLunas believes the key to Bautista’s success in 2020 will be his mentality.

“Sometimes throwing 90% of what you got in you is more than enough to get guys out,” DeLunas said.

Bautista will get every opportunity to earn a bullpen spot out of spring training this season. He has one of the, if the the highest ceiling of any reliever in the system. At this stage, it’s just a matter of whether he can find enough command to be effective in pro ball.