Even among relatively passionate fans, waiver claims tend to fly under the radar — easy to dismiss as a team picking up players other teams didn’t want. After all, if another team didn’t seek to keep a player, can he really be all that good? The answer is yes, of course. Misevaluations of major league-caliber talent happen all the time, and sometimes a worthy player might find end up out of a 40-man spot for reasons beyond his control, often being picked up rather quickly by teams that think there is potential beneath the surface-level numbers.
The Rockies did just that with Nick Mears, who was DFA’d by the Pirates on December 18, claimed by Texas five days later and DFA’d again on December 27 to make room for newly-signed Nathan Eovaldi. Colorado picked him up on January 6, and I believe there’s a lot to be excited about here. This piece will highlight Nick Mears the pitcher, and the potential he can bring to the Rockies.
Who is Nick Mears?
Mears is a 26-year-old righty with only 30 1⁄3 innings of big league experience and a very unique trajectory to get there in the first place. Having had Tommy John surgery prior to reaching pro ball, he went under the radar in the MLB Draft and was signed as an undrafted free agent by Pittsburgh back in 2018. He reached Double-A the very next season after striking out 70 batters across three levels in 45 2⁄3 A-ball innings, and debuted in the shortened 2020 season after having pitched all of five innings above A-ball. His run prevention results have been mixed since, but this is still someone with little over 100 innings of pro ball experience despite being 26 years old. And while he missed almost all of 2022 after needing elbow surgery in March, his stuff was better than ever when he returned.
Mears represents a drastic contrast to the sinkerball-heavy pitching staff the Rockies have assembled. His fastball is a four-seamer in the 95-97 MPH range with tremendous carry up in the zone and he also throws a hammer of a curveball in the 79-80 MPH range. You can see the movement here:
Nasty, nasty stuff. I really need to stress that this kind of fastball profile has simply not been a thing for the Rockies as of late. Here are Mears’ four-seamer data points over the past two seasons:
Nick Mears 4SF Specs (‘21-’22)
The velo is straightforward, of course. Mears throws hard, and when coupled with his excellent extension towards home plate, his 95.6 looks more like 97ish on average. IVB stands for Induced Vertical Break. Basically, it’s how many inches of movement Mears’ heater has without accounting for gravity, and 19 is reaching elite territory. Among the 546 pitchers to throw at least 200 four-seam fastballs since 2021, Mears’ 19 inches of IVB ranks 36th best, in the vicinity of Justin Verlander, Dylan Cease and others.
The VAA (Vertical Approach Angle, the angle at which a pitch crosses home plate) on it is also quite good, similar to Ryan Feltner’s at -4.4º. When I wrote about Feltner, I mentioned how his relatively flat four-seam could have utility thanks to approach angle, and the same applies here. In this case, we also have plus velo and good shape, so this profiles as a dominant pitch.
What about his breaking stuff?
ADD VELOCITY TO THE CURVEBALL
Because of Mears’ extremely vertical fastball profile, a 12-6 curveball like the one he throws makes perfect sense to pair with it. The high fastball/big curveball combo is a classic 1-2 punch, after all (Koufax, Gooden, Glasnow, etc). The north/south nature of this pitch mix leads to swings and misses and lots of flyball contact, which plays a part in preventing hits as well. Mears has the fastball to do this, but his current curveball is a bit of an issue because it’s not hard enough.
Mears’ curveball hasn’t been hit all that hard when batters take a swing against it, but they barely swing at it in the first place. Only 35% of the curveballs the righty has thrown in the majors so far have been swung at and only 21.7% of the curveballs he’s thrown out of the zone have been chased. It hasn’t worked as a chase pitch, and I think it’s because there is such a huge difference in movement and velo compared to his fastball that hitters are able to isolate those pitches effectively. Mears’ four-seam and curveball are routinely separated by about 16 MPH and 45+ inches of depth, a gigantic gap. Therefore, what I would suggest to draw more swings is to add velocity to the curveball and attempt to get it to the 83-84 MPH range even if it costs us movement.
Cleveland’s James Karinchak is a really great potential comparison for Mears as a purely north/south reliever with a carry four-seamer and a hard overhand curveball. They’re not identical (Karinchak’s release point is higher and Mears throws a bit harder), but he provides a blueprint for the road ahead. Karinchak’s curveball sits in the 83-84 MPH range, and he succeeds despite scattershot command because that tandem of pitches is just so hard to not whiff against.
James Karinchak, 83mph Curveball and Elevated 96mph Fastball, Overlay pic.twitter.com/Jz5luPqvcG— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 15, 2022
FIGURE OUT WHAT THE SLIDER’S ROLE IS
Let me say this: if Mears’ curveball started averaging 83+ MPH, he could be an extremely dominant reliever with just that and his fastball. However, that’s not all he can throw. In his return from injury, Mears threw a few sliders that averaged 85.2 MPH and featured well above movement. The first conclusion: keep it on the shelf (mostly) against lefties. A power curveball combo is better suited for beating hitters with the platoon advantage. However, against righties we can and probably should throw this pitch with relative frequency. Big two-plane break in the mid-80’s profiles as pretty dominant against the same hand, both for strikes and chases. There are still potential changes we can make with this pitch, of course. Do we focus entirely on horizontal movement since we’re going to use it mostly against RHH? Do we try to throw it harder with shorter break (which I favor)? And so on.
★ ★ ★
Nick Mears is a good example of how tempting talented pitchers are; not a finished product, but the tools and the way forward are both obvious. 40-man crunches can sometimes lead to a team getting a chance to help an athlete develop and reach his potential in their uniform. Don’t judge inexperienced pitchers off their basic numbers, and look at the tools instead. We might all be surprised by what we see in just a few months!
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