This is around the time of year where I start doing more reading than I might normally in a week. Prospect lists are out, and being the whore for minor league baseball that I am you’d best believe I’ve read every report I can find on Braves players. Going through, I find myself frequently nodding in agreement with a lot of guys who are smarter than I am about this, and occasionally shaking my head and wondering what they could possibly be seeing. Two particular lines caught my eye though, one mentioned in a Mike Soroka report that his arm slot may be too low. The next was regarding Max Fried, whose arm motion was seen as perhaps too compact to remain in rotation long term. This bothered me for a few weeks actually, and a short conversation with my fellow writers Gaurav and Eric following our most recent Road To Atlanta podcast brought to my attention that I may not be alone in this thinking.
Every person sees baseball differently, and every person has their opinions on what a player should and shouldn’t do. If there were a catch-all scientifically perfect way to throw a baseball my job would be a hell of a lot easier. The problem is, everybody has a different body and everybody throws just a little bit different. To me, the idea that a player could be wrong for throwing the ball in a way that doesn't directly lead to increased injury or inefficiency is actually pretty ludicrous.
It’s not like Mike Soroka is up there lobbing baseballs underhanded like this is slow-pitch softball. A low ¾ arm slot is not particularly abnormal, and even though a general principle may be that it allows hitters to get a better look at the ball out of your hand in practice I challenge you to find any statistically significant data that would indicate as such. As a Braves fan, I was exposed to 8 wonderful years of watching Tim Hudson and his low ¾ arm slot slinging sinkers at every player who dared cross him. Huddy was in no way a superstar, but if you need a consistent #2 well he was just the guy for you. The reason the arm slot works for Soroka and worked for Hudson is the primary use of a sinker. As the season wore on for Soroka, he started toying with a sinker that by my looks and the reports of others was devastating and could be his most effective pitch going forward. His motion is taylormade for the usage of a sinker/2 seamer that rides away from left handers and jumps under their bat of a hitter just as he thinks he has it squared up to drive. That arm slot also adds a 2-plane effectiveness to his curveball, and allows it to play up with late movement away from right handed pitchers. In a motion made for movement, Soroka is well on his way to mastering that and more.
Let’s take an extreme example the other way, and talk about extreme over-the-top pitchers. Ever heard of Cliff Lee. I’d say that guy had quite a nice career. Sidearmers? Well you’ve got a pretty good leading example in Randy Johnson, and then of course Chris Sale and whatever the hell that is he tries to call a throwing motion. The simple fact is, as long as a player knows his game, he can be successful with any arm slot. A sidearmer who tries the throw a 12/6 curve is going to have a hellacious time trying to be successful, but arm him with a slider, a 2 seamer, and a changeup and he can lead your rotation. There is no reason that a player’s arm slot should matter-as long as he’s able to consistently repeat his mechanics within that motion. Even players who have the classic high ¾ arm motion struggle, simply because of the amount of moving parts associated with throwing a baseball.
The Braves are quite familiar with another player whose main negative was a funky delivery. As Alex Wood came up through the system and continued to pitch for Atlanta, all any scout could talk about was how his funky wind up would relegate him to a bullpen role. He’s now 4 seasons and 77 starts into a major league career that has seen him post 3 WAR/200 IP-a solid #3 starter any team would love to have. The Braves could have tried to change him and that windup while he was still in the minor leagues. The Giants did that with a young pitcher about 9 years ago, changing his entire windup to try and fix perceived mechanical flaws. That player gave up 11 runs in 10 innings following that switch, and they allowed him to return to his old motion. That player was Madison Bumgarner. Following the failed “fix” Bumgarner exploded through the Giants system, debuting as a 19 year old just the next season. The rest is history as he has settle in as one of the top workhorse pitchers in the major leagues despite having an unorthodox delivery.
The aforementioned Sale is one of the best examples you can find, as despite his difficult delivery and arm slot he continues to repeat it well. Repeat, repeat, repeat-it’s the name of the game in baseball especially for a player who may throw an upwards of 3000 pitches in a season. Then there is always 2-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum. If you want a funky, extreme over-the-top delivery he’s your guy, and in the draft many teams were shy to take him due to his odd mechanics. Argue all you want about his decline, Lincecum was the king of unorthodox for a while and posted 23.3 wins above replacement over a 4 year stretch before he lost his ability to repeat his delivery.
When a guy comes in, with both a plan and an arsenal to match his chosen mechanics (as Soroka does) it will do far more harm to try to overhaul a pitcher completely than fixing an notable mechanical flaws that lead to inconsistency or even open the door for injury. You can teach a player a pitch to help his stuff and his body play up, but at the age that most players are you can’t teach him to pitch. What a player does and how he succeeds in entirely dependent on his approach, pitches, the work he puts into his craft, and his ability to command his pitches. Consistency within an arm slot is a major point, but the discussion of a player’s arm slot should be taken no farther than that, just a simple note of his motion and perhaps the ways it impacts his pitch selection and the effectiveness of those pitches.
As for Max Fried, to me that just feels like a secondary knock to nitpick a very talented baseball player. I don’t even know what could possible be described as an arm action that is too short. If anything, a guy who throws 97 whose fastball you can’t see because he gets the ball out of his hand extremely quickly would seem to be a positive point. Fried uses it that way as well, using his deception to help all of his pitches play up half a grade. You know what they always say-you can’t hit what you can’t see.