This is Pt. 2 of a six-part mini-series about the Rockies bullpen integrated within the ‘Crafting a Gameplan’ series. I will discuss the Rockies bullpen as entity, and I will be covering each pitcher in the ‘pen (as of the time of writing) individually at one point or another, but will group athletes who share similarities in pieces so each one has a particular theme. I will eventually dedicate a full piece of the series to take a look at possible free agent options, and the final article will be a recap. The intended structure of this mini-series is as follows:
- Part 1: Overview & Quick Fixes (Bard, Lamet, Kinley)
- Part 2: The Righties I (Lawrence, Bird)
- Part 3: The Righties II (Hollowell, Smith)
- Part 4: The Lefties (Gilbreath, Suter)
- Part 5: Free Agent & Trade Targets
- Part 6: Recap
Each new entry will feature links to the previous parts, displayed up above. You can find the previous entries of the ‘Crafting a Gameplan’ series here:
- Crafting a Gameplan for Antonio Senzatela
- Crafting a Gameplan for Germán Márquez
- Crafting a Gameplan for Austin Gomber
- Crafting a Gameplan for Ryan Feltner
Thank you very much for reading.
In our previous entry, we did a general overview of the current Rockies bullpen and quickly went over three pitchers who are already primed for success in my eyes (Daniel Bard, Dinelson Lamet and Tyler Kinley). Now, it’s time to truly dive into the bullpen and do individual breakdowns for each remaining pitcher. I’ve decided to group righties and lefties together to keep some sort of thematic core to each entry, and in today’s edition we’re going to take a look at two of our four right-handers, all with great tools to succeed at the MLB level.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll skip over the “throw less fastballs” advice. That should go without saying, and I will be touching that point in the eventual recap.
Without further ado, let’s begin!
It would be easy to dismiss Lawrence if all you did was take a look at his results. After all, he’s 28 years old and has a 6.52 ERA in just shy of 60 major league innings, including over six walks per nine innings. However, a more in-depth look at him as a hurler is likely to make even the biggest sceptics think twice about dismissing him; Lawrence is really, really good.
WHAT JUSTIN LAWRENCE DOES WELL
Let’s go over his strengths & weaknesses first, and then we’ll make a gameplan for him.
Unconventional release point
As you know, here in the Gameplan series we’re always looking at for outlier qualities, and as a sidearmer, Lawrence’s release point is a big one. On average, he released his pitches at just 4.53 feet from the ground last season, 16th-lowest among the 667 pitchers to toss at least 100 pitches in 2022. This creates unique angles and looks of his pitches, and gives us options when it comes to designing an arsenal.
Lawrence isn’t just a sidearmer; he’s a sidearmer with exceptional velocity. He’s been clocked as high as 101.2 MPH, sits anywhere between 94-98 and averaged 95.1 MPH in 2022. This is good velocity in general, but when taking his low release point into account, his velo stands out even more. Of the 20 pitchers with lowest fastball release points last year, only three reached even 93 MPH. The only pitcher in the top 30 of lowest release points who truly blows past Lawrence velo-wise is Edwin Díaz (99.1 MPH, 4.83 feet of Rel. Height), who recently got a record-breaking reliever deal in the nine figures.
Plus sweeping slider & sinker combination
Justin Lawrence can really spin a low-80’s slider, averaging close to 2800 RPMs and 15 inches of sweep, both excellent numbers. That slider has a terrific .207 expected wOBA (xwOBA) against in his big league career so far, is responsible for 54 of his 65 MLB strikeouts, and hitters truly struggle to square it up. It’s an excellent pitch, and its usage (41.8% in the majors so far, closer to 50% in 2022) reflects that. His sinker, his only other pitch, has good velo and fantastic run and depth, often exceeding 30 inches of drop and 17 inches of run. In a vacuum, this is a pairing of plus pitches.
WHAT JUSTIN LAWRENCE DOESN’T DO WELL
Lack of a true plus weapon vs LHH
Lawrence’s slider is excellent, but because it’s of the sweeper type, we should expect lesser results when he faces left-handed batters. This wouldn’t be too hard to work around if Lawrence had a fastball he could consistently go at LHH with, but he just so happens to throw a sinker (and we know that sinkers thrown against the opposite hand are not as likely to be successful as hand-on-hand). Now, Lawrence’s sinker is quite good, so this is not the end of the world, but it does leave him more vulnerable against lefties than we would like. Obviously, he can’t throw back-door sweepers to LHH, and his sinker is better off down and to his armside. We might be able to solve this later.
He lacks a bridge pitch
When I wrote about Daniel Bard and how he manipulated his slider in 2022, I explained how his ability to throw harder, cutter-ish sliders was likely acting as a bridge between his sinker and his bigger, slower sliders. The smaller the separation between two pitches, the more likely a batter is to struggle to identify them, but if the separation is too small you give batters a chance to adjust late. There’s a sweet spot between too much difference and too little difference, and I think Lawrence’s sinker/slider mix is outside of that range — those two pitches are separated by almost 13 MPH and over 30 inches of horizontal break on average. My theory is that, just like with Bard in 2021, hitters can sometimes pick up his pitches early enough during ball flight, and that’s a big part of why his sinker’s gotten hit very hard so far (.402 wOBA against) despite being a plus pitch in isolation, and why his slider doesn’t generate chases out of the zone like the average slider does.
What do we have in Lawrence, then? We have a sidearmer with fantastic velocity, true feel for spin, and a plus sinker/slider combination. In my eyes, however, he lacks a real weapon versus LHH and, most importantly, has two plus pitches in a vacuum that are likely too far apart to keep hitters guessing at the plate. How do we go about fixing this?
I believe we can take care of both problems with one swift move. We can give Lawrence a weapon versus lefties while also making his pitch mix more cohesive and improve the quality of his tunneling. How could we do that?
Help Justin develop a cutter
Cutters are gaining popularity in the game, and for good reason. As big sweeping breaking balls are starting to become popular, the cutter gives a pitcher a very logical and intuitive pitch to use as a bridge between the fastball and breaking ball. The cutter sits in the middle of heater and breaker in terms of velocity and movement, and it can help disguise both offerings on top of being a solid pitch all by itself. Ideally, we would be aiming for a cutter in the 88-92 MPH range, and we want to reach the zero line as far as horizontal movement goes. This hypothetical cutter not only acts as a middle ground between his sinker and slider, it also gives him a good weapon against lefties. Over the past three seasons across MLB, right-on-left cutters thrown up in the zone (at least 2.75 feet of height; the upper third of the zone or higher) have a .291 xwOBA (.309 actual wOBA) against, about 30-40 points lower than R-on-L cutters thrown below that. And because of Lawrence’s low release point, he is well positioned to get very flat vertical approach angles (VAA) if he throws those cutters up to LHH. Up and in with R-on-L cutters is an especially good spot to fish for weak contact.
That sounds simplistic, but it’s really all I believe Justin needs to change in order to be successful. I could suggest a four-seamer too, but the cutter will work better as far as tunneling goes (something tells me he’d run his four-seam a lot) and it leans a lot more into playing the east-west game Lawrence’s existing sinker-slider mix favors. He has two great pitches already, his control improved noticeably last season and he throws hard from a unique slot. Just that one small adjustment and I believe he’ll be off to the races.
Justin Lawrence, Wicked 86mph Slider. pic.twitter.com/3NshVaiPg5— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 14, 2022
Bird is one of my favorite pitchers on the roster right now. He performed solidly in a wide variety of roles as a rookie, but like Lawrence, there’s a lot more to him than a league-average ERA. Bird has nasty stuff, and his versatility (he’s used to multi-inning outings) gives him another plus. Let’s take a look at the right-hander. Here is a link so you can see his mechanics.
WHAT JAKE BIRD DOES WELL
Bird’s sinker is an absolute bowling ball with more depth than some changeups, and he throws it in the mid-90’s. It’s a heavy, seam-shifted sinker with very low spin (averages sub 2000 RPM’s) and the combination of low spin and seam shift is what gives it that extreme vertical profile. In my estimation, this is a plus fastball. The good depth Bird generates theoretically gives it a good shot at performing against both righties and lefties. This is a good fastball he can throw in the zone with conviction, a plus in my book.
Pairing with his sinker, his curveball is a hammer with stunning similarity to Charlie Morton’s famous breaking ball. They have almost identical velocity (81-82 MPH) and shape, and Bird’s release point is also quite similar to Morton’s. It’s a hard curveball with quite a bit of sweeping action to it, and it was responsible for most of Bird’s strikeouts in his rookie season. He can really spin it, averaging over 2800 RPM’s, and batters had a tough time making contact when they took a cut against it in 2022, whiffing over half the time. The performance of this pitch was tainted by a couple of home runs, but its xwOBA of .216 was still very good. Not only is his curveball itself a great pitch in a vacuum, but Bird’s ability to spin a hard breaking ball is a fantastic indicator of high-level arm talent.
Unconventional release point
It’s not as extreme as Lawrence’s, but Bird is also a low-slot righty with very good velocity, and as we’ve explained already, something different from the norm can almost always lead to success in baseball, in one way or another.
A cutter as a bridge pitch
I know, right? Just what I talked about with Lawrence, except that Bird already has that weapon in his arsenal. His cutter is thrown harder than average (91-92) and overall looks like a perfectly fine pitch that serves to pull his sinker and curveball closer together. I do believe there’s something potentially off with that dynamic, as we’ll go over in just a second, but having a proper bridge between a bigger breaking ball and fastballs is always a good thing. Bird’s arsenal is cohesive.
Bird threw only a handful of them in 2022, but the action on the pitch is impressive, and its spin characteristics fit altitude. It’s a bowling ball change, much like his sinker, and should be a good pitch for him moving forward against LHH as he throws it more and more.
Again, some terrific strengths here. Unusual release point, a good main fastball, ability to really spin a power breaking ball, a bridge pitch, and even a changeup with good traits. There’s so much to build with here.
WHAT JAKE BIRD DOESN’T DO WELL
Bird walked quite a few batters in 2022, but it wasn’t because he had trouble finding the zone. His zone rate of 52.3% was higher than average, after all. His main issue was that batters simply didn’t chase pitches out of the zone; only 16.9% of his pitches out of the zone were chased last season, which is roughly the same rate as Juan Soto himself. This problem happened with all three of his main pitches (his changeup was used so little that it would be dishonest to include it here):
|Pitch Type||Jake Bird||MLB Avg|
|Pitch Type||Jake Bird||MLB Avg|
When a pitcher doesn’t generate as many chases, there are a few factors one can consider:
- Tipping pitches. While Bird does throw his curveball from a slightly higher release point than his sinker and cutter, I’m not sure I can confidently say (as I claimed in the past) that this is the reason behind batters not swinging at it. It’s a small enough difference, and I’d have to get feedback from hitters in person to affirm that. I’m not being overly simplistic and making that careless mistake again.
- Tunneling issues. This is what you would typically look for. While tunneling isn’t an exact science, as deception is also involved here and that’s famously difficult to quantify, there are certain benchmarks we more or less want to be around if we want to induce poor swing decisions — 20 inches of difference in vertical break is a sweet spot, for example. We know from a series of studies and watching the games that if two pitches diverge too much in terms of movement and velocity, batters can more easily pick them up early during ball flight (as we went over in the Justin Lawrence breakdown), and we also know that there are certain pitch combinations that fit very well together. For example, sinker/slider or four-seam/curveball, two mixes that allow you to play the horizontal and vertical game respectively.
Could it be that Bird has problems with that? Major league sample size aside, I believe it’s possible. His curveball and sinker are well apart in terms of velo (13-14 MPH) and movement (25 inches horizontally), and his curveball was not chased a lot despite its velocity. In 2022, MLB curves of 81+ MPH were chased 32.1%, way higher than Bird’s 25.8% rate. His curveball and cutter, meanwhile, are separated by roughly 10 MPH, 25 inches of drop and 14 inches of sweep, which is probably just outside the range where they tunnel well.
I have a few suggestions to make, and because Bird has so many great tools, I can be aggressive. Here’s what I would plan:
Add velo to the curveball
Even if it comes at the cost of some movement, I believe adding a couple of ticks to this pitch will make it better. We’re targeting the range of 83-85 MPH and 40-45ish inches of total drop, and the more sweep we can keep, the better. Because Jake is so good at spinning a breaking ball at high velocity already, I believe he’s fully capable of making this change. The newer curveball would give us a main three-pitch mix somewhat similar to that of Corey Kluber, albeit with a different sinker profile.
Throw the cutter up and in against LHH
We went over this with Lawrence already, but I’d reinforce it with Bird. His cutter worked okay against righties, but lefties demolished it to the tune of a whopping .689 wOBA and precisely zero swings and misses across 44 offerings. Part of that is, in my eyes, because he threw it down and in, where it simply does not have enough depth to get beneath the barrel. However, Bird’s low release point gives us the opportunity to create flatter approach angles against LHH. If he can locate up and in consistently, he can create a ton of weak airborne contact.
With Bird, it’s mostly about little adjustments. I barely mentioned his changeup, which is a good looking pitch, because there’s nothing to change there from a pitch design standpoint aside from letting him grow more comfortable with it. Bird has excellent tools: a four-pitch mix, weapons against righties and lefties, a hell of a sinker and an ability to really spin the baseball. I could also suggest he try throwing a four-seamer, but I don’t believe it’s truly needed for him. Don’t be surprised if he dominates very soon.
One of the two pitchers we took a look at here today had poor MLB results in 2022, and the one who performed better (Bird) was still unremarkable as far as runs go. However, both have a number of excellent traits that point to future success, and all have their own unique style. Lawrence as a sidearmer with outlier velocity and an extreme east-west approach, Bird with his incredible sinker and ability to really spin a hard breaking ball. Pitching development 101 means you should figure out what a pitcher is good at and build upon it, and it’s easy to do when an athlete has great strengths, which applies to both pitchers. They have the tools to be great pitchers in the very near future.
This is a study made through my own research and conclusions. In order for it to be truly complete, it would require things such a biomechanical breakdown and some feedback from the pitcher himself, among others, which is data I don’t have access to. Please take what I present more as a suggestion than a stone-cold fact.
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