It would be easy to look at Ryan Feltner’s surface level stats and dismiss his rookie season. The right-hander has put up a less-than-stellar 5.85 ERA across 72.1 innings (14 starts) and while his 4.85 FIP is a bit more shiny, it’s still not what you’d call great. He’s had issues with homers, giving up 13 of them, and his walk and strikeout rates haven’t been anything out of the ordinary. Behind that surface, though, there are some interesting things going on with his pitch mix that could lead him to future success. Let’s talk about Ryan Feltner’s fastballs.
The Curse of the Average
In baseball, throwing an average fastball in an average way is a death sentence. MLB hitters are too good at crushing heaters, and if a pitch moves in a predictable way, they’re going to destroy it. Ryan Feltner has experienced this up close in the majors: batters have hit a whopping .333/.432/.643 against his four-seam fastball. For reference, Albert Pujols hit .337/.435/.640 during his absolute peak between 2003-2009. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that your fastball being hit like the slash line of the greatest first baseman of the integration era is suboptimal. What’s wrong with it?
Well, it’s just a very average fastball, even if it might not look like it right away. It’s been 94.3 MPH on average, after all (and he’s gained velo this year). And Feltner is not a short strider like, for example, Germán Márquez, so his perceived velocity doesn’t suffer more than usual. So what’s the deal? Well, the velocity and extension are virtually average. MLB four-seamers are about 94 MPH on average, and Feltner’s extension of 6.4 feet is the exact MLB average. Couple that with unremarkable movement (some of that being courtesy of Coors Field) and a pretty conventional release point (Feltner throws slightly less over the top than average but it’s not a big difference, just over half a foot), and you have a recipe for a pitch that’s destined to get destroyed. Average velocity + average extension + relatively flat shape + average release point + Coors + a lack of sniper-like precision when commanding it = take a good look, you won’t see it for long.
So how does one overcome a middling four-seam fastball? In general, there are three solutions:
- Throw less fastballs. This solution has been employed by MLB pitchers as a whole over the last 20 years or so. Fastball usage has dropped significantly since the early 2000’s, as pitching strategy has gone from “establish your fastball” to “establish your best pitch and don’t throw your bad ones”. While Feltner does throw a relatively high amount of fastballs, that’s not a Feltner problem -it’s a Rockies problem. The Rox as a whole throw too many fastballs, but we’re tackling Ryan Feltner and not the Colorado Rockies as a whole, so let’s “dismiss” this solution.
- Throw an improved version of that fastball. This is a bit tricky. Since drastic changes in mechanics that could lead to a better fastball (lower release point, more extension) are tough to make at this stage and we’re going to keep things relatively simple, the only ways to make your fastball better are increasing velocity, increasing movement, improving location/sequencing or a mix of them all. Feltner’s velocity has already seen an uptick this season compared to previous seasons, but it’s not reasonable to assume he can safely average 96-98 instead of 94-96. Improving movement is also difficult. Ideally, you want your four-seamer to “rise” thanks to backspin (think Justin Verlander, Dwight Gooden, etc). Feltner has a solid amount of raw spin on his heater (2352 RPM this year, 75th percentile), but he doesn’t spin his fastball efficiently -his active spin is below 80%, which means that of all his raw spin, less than 80% of it is contributing to pitch movement. This could be altered with a change in grip and release, but since I don’t have access to that data, we’re going to go off the asumption that Feltner’s natural way to release a baseball doesn’t lend itself to perfect backspin. Some pitchers are naturally predisposed (or not) to certain pitch types, after all. For example, you may pronate your wrist very naturally during ball release. If you do that, chances are you’ll be able to throw a wicked changeup. Different variations of that idea apply to breaking balls and fastballs.
- Throw a different fastball. This is what I believe (with the data I have available) could be a good solution for Ryan, and it’s worked for other pitchers in recent years. Corbin Burnes became an ace overnight after ditching his middling four-seamer and switching to a cutter, for example. Pitchers who throw four-seamers with poor spin efficiency (below 90% is a good threshold) and/or heaters with low spin in general (sub 2200 RPMs, more or less) are always good candidates to switch to a sinker. It’s likely that Feltner and the Rockies were aware of this solution, because he started throwing one this season. And while its velocity is average, its shape is not, and that is what we’re going to take a look at.
We’ve spent a long time talking about the need to avoid average fastball shape, right? Well, here’s Feltner’s pitch movement from the catcher’s POV. Two things: the gear-shaped circles are the league average movement for the pitch type and the smoother circles are Feltner’s movement. Red is his four-seamer, orange is his sinker, green is the changeup, yellow the slider and blue the curveball:
As you can clearly see, his four-seamer is pretty flat, but look at that sinker (and that changeup, but that’s a topic for another time). It’s a bowling ball sinker -it runs a bit less than average, as you would expect from a Rockies pitcher given that Coors is the destroyer of horizontal movement, but it also sinks noticeably more. It’s not quite Marcus Stroman’s sinker in terms of movement, but it’s also thrown harder (93-95 MPH on average). Plus, there is something interesting going on with this pitch in terms of spin.
The concept of seam-shifted wake is a very interesting and important aspect of modern pitch design. The long explanation is in the link here, but the short explanation is the following: sometimes, due to how a pitcher releases a baseball, the direction of the ball’s spin can change as it approaches home plate because of the way the seams interact with the air around them. These deviations in spin direction can generate unexpected movement in a pitch, causing it to behave in a way the batter does not expect, and its effect is very noticeable on sinkers, sliders and changeups especially. Seam-shifted wake is the secret behind many of the best sinkers in baseball (Framber Valdez is a prime example).
Ryan Feltner’s sinker has that deviation. Think of a clock. His sinker leaves his hand at an angle of roughly 1:00 and ends at an angle of 2:15. It’s tied for the 12th largest difference in that direction among MLB pitchers with at least 50 sinkers thrown this year. Some of the guys in his ballpark? Marcus Stroman, Kyle Hendricks, Camilo Doval, Michael King, Pablo López, Adam Ottavino... and so on. You get the idea. There’s a lot of great sinkers on that list, and pitches that behave in a manner different to what the batter expects have a strong chance to be successful.
The Final Mix
This is a fastball you can theoretically build an arsenal around. It has outlier movement, solid velocity, and Feltner’s feel for it is pretty good given how relatively new it is to him. I’m not saying Feltner should ditch the four-seamer and only throw sinkers, by the way. There is value in having a different fastball you can use to change a batter’s eye level, so he doesn’t sit on something low. But I would say he should probably throw significantly more sinkers than four-seamers, and it seems like Feltner and the Rockies have been doing this already. Check out his pitch usage through the months in 2022:
He’s throwing that sinker more and his four-seamer less, which is great. His secondaries have been pretty stable in usage throughout the year, and their improvement is the next step on the road to becoming a good starter. Feltner’s slider is another relatively average pitch, which isn’t as bad in this case, but a harder and more vertical slider could probably work even better off of his sinker. His curveball is more of a show-me pitch at this point, as it’s more of a loopy breaking ball than a sharp breaker you can draw bad swings with. With that type of curveball, throwing it for strikes is pretty important, and he doesn’t do that quite as much as he could right now (39.7% of his curveballs are in the zone, which is just average). Then there’s his changeup, which I’m sure you noticed as well on the pitch movement chart for its extreme vertical profile and lack of run. The relationship between his sinker and changeup is worthy of a piece all by itself, but just know that it’s entirely possible for a changeup that runs a lot less than a sinker to be effective (see: Webb, Logan).
Feltner is still putting the pieces together, as he’s openly said, but there’s a lot of good elements to work with here -and a clear path to being a permanent fixture in the Rockies rotation moving forward if it all starts to take shape. The lack of rotation depth has been one of the Achilles heels of this Rockies team, but Ryan Feltner is quietly taking a step forward to be part of the solution. He has untapped potential, and he might be getting to it.
★ ★ ★
For those unaware, D-Backs ace Zac Gallen is on an incredible run of 41 1⁄3 innings of scoreless ball. And his next start, if he goes on regular rest, will be against the Rockies.
Carlos Estévez has been quite good for the Rockies this season, and fixing his fastball’s movement profile has been key. He’s one of the few Rockies hurlers to consistently attacks hitters with high heat at the letters, and it’s paying off.
On The Farm
The Isotopes (56-71) got trounced, to put it mildly, allowing 17 hits (four of them home runs) and four walks against El Paso. Starter Riley Smith was hit hard in five innings of work (5.0 IP, 9 H, 8 R, 4 BB, 1 K, 1 HR) and the bullpen didn’t fare much better as a whole the rest of the way. There were some bright spots, with Coco Montes going 3-for-5 with a double, Wynton Bernard reaching base three times and Nick Kennedy striking out a pair in a scoreless inning of relief, but there were not enough to win. Albuquerque will send Brandon Gold (6-5, 6.50 ERA) to the hill in today’s ballgame, looking to even up the series with El Paso.
Double-A: Somerset Patriots (NYY) at Hartford Yard Goats (COL)
The ballgame was suspended due to poor weather. Hartford will play a doubleheader against Somerset today to make it up.
Spokane’s bats getting dominated and managing just five hits (none for extra bases) and two walks was the story in this one as the Indians dropped below .500 (62-63), a rarity over the past two seasons. The clear bright spot in this ballgame was the performance of the bullpen, as Robinson Hernández, Shelby Lackey and Will Tribucher combined for 4 1⁄3 hitless, shutdown innings, keeping the game reasonably close. Unfortunately, the lineup couldn’t muster up a comeback, going 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position on top of the lack of thump, and it all leaves Spokane scrambling to get back over .500 for the first time in a while. Their starter for today’s ballgame is TBD at the time of writing this piece.
The offensive troubles of other Rockies affiliates clearly did not extend to the Grizzlies (80-47), who continued to dominate and reached win number 80 on the season, clinching the 2nd-half division crown to pair with the 1st-half crown they already had. They hit four home runs in this one, with catcher Braxton Fulford sending two over the fence as part of a three-hit, four RBI performance. Benny Montgomery went 2-for-5 with a home run and five RBI, and the homer was a laser shot to right center:
Collect career-high 5 RBIs ✔️— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 7, 2022
Clinch 2nd-half division crown ✔️@Rockies No. 6 prospect Benny Montgomery went deep during a huge night for the @FresnoGrizzlies: https://t.co/vTF9Ljvrze pic.twitter.com/owUwGdJyVw
The torrent of runs hid what was a relatively subpar pitching performance. 18-year-old top prospect Jordy Vargas started and had his worst outing in Low-A, struggling with his command and striking out only one batter (4.0 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 3 BB, 1 K, 1 HR). The bullpen kept things a bit more tidy, but Fresno still walked nine opposing batters on the day against just five total strikeouts. It’s still a comfortable win for the Grizzlies, however, as their terrifying lineup keeps eating up rival pitchers. Top prospect Jaden Hill (0-0, 1.50 ERA) will take the mound today after being scratched from his last start due to a regular illness.
★ ★ ★
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