On June 13 the Toronto Blue Jays made one of their strangest transactions in recent memory.
The club paid the Pittsburgh Pirates for the privilege of taking on Nick Kingham, a relatively soft-tossing 27-year-old reliever carrying a 9.87 ERA on the season, who’d spent almost three times as much time in Triple-A than the majors in recent years. The right-hander was out of options, to boot.
During a rebuilding year, a team can be expected to take more chances, but Kingham didn’t look like a chance anybody would go out of their way to take. A few years ago, they probably wouldn’t have, but attitudes around baseball have changed.
Instead of looking for a job or languishing in Triple-A after being DFA’d, Kingham found himself sitting down with the Blue Jays’ pitching and bullpen coaches — Pete Walker and Matt Buschmann — and their catchers, absorbing the club’s vision for him.
“It was kind of a ‘hey this is what we realized you do,” he says. “Not really change what you do, but let’s put the emphasis on what you do well and really figure that out and establish that, use that as your groundwork, and get better at what you’re already good at.’ That’s what they told me.”
Pitchers, especially guys in their mid-20s or older, used to be considered finished products. Now, even the most experienced arms come with developmental possibilities through pitch usage changes or different locational emphases.
“Thinking about those opportunities has always been something that’s been discussed,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins says. “I think in today’s game with tools like Rapsodo you can not only identify, but also help develop, these changes. There are teams like the Astros that have been very good at it.”
Houston opened eyes around the league with its ability to retool a Hall of Famer like Justin Verlander at the age of 34 and reset former first-overall pick Gerrit Cole at 27. Charlie Morton made his first All-Star Game at 34 with the Astros, and has his turnaround in Texas to thank for a lucrative $30 million deal he landed from the tight-fisted Tampa Bay Rays. He’s currently the American League’s ERA leader in his 12th MLB season.
None of the Astros’ current rotation is homegrown, and all of them have been significantly better in Houston:
Blue Jays starter Trent Thornton has first-hand experience from inside the pitcher-development machine the whole baseball world is trying to emulate.
“You hear how analytical the Astros are and a lot of other organizations can’t fathom it. They really are. Everything is statistical analysis,” he says. “They value Trackman and Rapsodo, so they’re looking at spin rates, break charts, heat maps, hot and cold zones, where to throw certain pitchers to certain hitters. Once you’re able to slow that down and process all that information it’s very beneficial.”
Thornton was never statistically inclined before Houston selected him, but now their philosophy is woven into everything he does. Some habits — like requesting a printout of every pitch from his previous start with velocity, horizontal movement, and vertical movement — are likely to stay with him wherever he goes. Being part of a such a detail-oriented organization isn’t necessarily a picnic for pitchers, though, and Thornton found himself pushing back at times.
“I had a little bit of a back-and-forth with some of the Astros pitching coordinators because they wanted me to get rid of my slider and pretty much just throw my cutter,” he says. “And I had a hard time accepting that because I started to not use my slider and I didn’t have as much success against righties as I wanted to — striking them out wise. I started throwing my slider again and started striking guys out. I think that’s an important pitch to have in my arsenal, especially against right-handed hitters.”
Coming to the Blue Jays, Thornton found himself wondering how his experience might differ. Luckily for the right-hander, he was basically told to continue to do what he was doing.
“I was curious about how they’d handle me, and what their pitching approach was,” he says. “And when I got here it was pretty much hands off.”
Switching teams has become a little bit more of a harrowing experience for pitchers in recent years. Mechanical tweaks and differing philosophies are nothing new, but pitchers know nowadays when they switch teams more significant changes could be on the horizon.
“I’m sure it pops into some guys minds. Like ‘why am I going there? Is there something they see?’” Buschmann says. “Every pitcher, even before this, wanted to know ‘why did you want me?’ That’s been the standard.”
Blue Jays reliever Daniel Hudson understands the upside in going to different organizations and seeing what they have to offer. In the last four years he’s been with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and now the Blue Jays — and he’s got the pitch mix alterations to match, particularly when it comes to slider usage:
“There’s so much information out there available to guys and you don’t want to be the guy who has his head stuck in the sand,” he says. “You go to different organizations and you want to take all the information from what each one gives you and try and figure out how to interpret it yourself.”
Hudson has been through multiple conversations about how best to deploy his stuff from a number of sources, but it’s his experience with the Dodgers, whose analytic prowess he calls “beyond everybody else, except for maybe the Astros,” that stands out.
“I definitely had to be explained certain things,” he recalls. “I remember the first meeting I had with [manager] Dave Roberts and [pitching coach] Rick Honeycutt, [bullpen coach] Mark Prior and [president] Andrew Friedman. Basically they sat me down and asked me what I thought played best to certain hitters. Then they said ‘This is what the numbers show. So we want you to take these numbers, and we still want you to be you, but just remember that your fastball plays best here for certain hitters and your slider plays best here.’”
While the Dodgers made a strong impression on him, the 32-year-old appreciated a more easily digestible approach from the Blue Jays.
“That’s what we’ve done a good job with here, simplifying everything,” he says. “It’s just ‘go get ‘em, you know what you gotta do’ but we still have all the information available on hand.”
Simplicity is essential as far as Buschmann is concerned, because for each pitcher like Thornton hungry for every piece of information available, there are plenty who aren’t drawn to it the same way, and are comfortable with what’s gotten them to the highest level.
“It’s just presenting them with information and hopefully you don’t have to really say anything they just look at it and go ‘Oh’. That’s the challenge, especially at this level because you’re dealing with guys who’ve been successful,” he says. “If you think there’s something there, it should probably pop off the page.”
Getting the statistics to sing is a difficult task, because chances are they run against what the pitcher is used to, or baseball’s conventional wisdom.
“It’s counterintuitive until the numbers prove otherwise,” Buschmann says. “That’s where you’re hoping those numbers are powerful enough to say ‘you may have thought this way and it’s understandable, look at the actual objective data and see what’s happening.’”
In Kingham’s case, the right-hander found data about pitch selection by count particularly compelling.
“Let’s say I’ve got 2-0. Typically that’s a fastball count where I’d try to get back in it. Sometimes you don’t need to do that,” he says. “I’m not going to throw offspeed every 2-0 count but if I take a little bit off and throw a changeup in there and get a swing I might throw it again and maybe my fastball plays up a little bit.”
It’s clear the former Pirate has changed his approach since joining the Blue Jays. His fastball usage is well down, and he’s throwing far more curveballs than before, with a few more cutters:
Considering Kingham’s curveball has above-average break both vertically and horizontally, and his fastball doesn’t stand out by either movement or velocity, these changes make sense. Whether they’ll result in a whole new Kingham remains to be seen. In 13.1 innings with the Blue Jays he’s posted a more palatable 4.73 ERA, but none of his peripherals scream breakout just yet.
However things work out for Kingham, Toronto is committed to seizing chances to remake pitchers where it can find them.
“There aren’t always those opportunities,” Atkins said. “But when there are, we want to apply them whether it’s an acquisition or an existing player.”
Not only is the franchise trying use its ability to interpret statistics to improve its pitchers, Atkins sees having a data-based development plan as a possible selling point to help bring free agents into the fold.
“It might be something where it’s a discussion if we’re in competition for a player,” he says. “It could be a part of a presentation.”
For that to happen, they’ll need a little more proof of concept indicating they’re better than anyone else at this. That doesn’t exist yet. The Blue Jays are neither the Astros nor the Dodgers, but clearly that’s the direction they want to go. Maximizing players’ talents has always been at the core of Atkins’ DNA as an executive.
“People think about development more frequently now,” he says. “I came up in a development system where I’ve always focused on that, so I’ve always thought about the game that way.”
The jury is still out on how well that mindset has served the Blue Jays to date, but if they want to be among the league’s top tinkerers it would behoove them to consider some wisdom from a guy who spent his formative years with baseball’s top big-data development specialists.
From Thornton’s own experiences, and those of others he’s seen, he knows there are two sides to every attempt to mold a player. If the Blue Jays want to be the next Astros they’re going to have be as collaborative with their players as Atkins likes to say they are within their front office.
“You give and you take, there’s a little bit of a compromise that you have to meet in the middle for the most part,” Thornton says. “To a certain degree some guys need to be stubborn and other guys need to listen, it completely depends. Ultimately it’s your career and the ball is in your hands.”
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