Dustin May’s spring showcase reveals impressive potential

Photo: Stacie Wheeler

Spring Training storylines are largely insufferable, and for the most part they will be hard to miss. They mostly feel like filler until we get to the real baseball, which is finally upon us. However, the Dodgers Spring Training camp did have more interesting stories than usual. The healthy and inspiring performance of Julio Urias was one of the major headlines, which could have major implications in 2019 and beyond. The emergence of Dustin May was the other.

During 2019’s spring camp, May pitched 12-⅓ innings in five games while posting a 1.43 ERA, the best among the seven Dodgers who reached the 10-inning threshold. That sample by itself is meaningless, especially since several of those appearances were late enough in games that he was not facing MLB-quality competition. The thing that truly left an impression was how May looked while getting there.

This all culminated with an outing at Dodger Stadium, likely May’s future home, in the spring closer against the Angels. This was many fans’ best chance to watch May so far, pitching in front of a good camera with good broadcast quality. For nerds, too, this was great, as it gave us a chance to look at some Statcast data on the Dodgers’ top pitching prospect.

The standout pitch from last night’s outing was May’s absurd fastball. I mean, just look at it:

That pitch looks special. Since May threw a bunch of that two-seamer in front of Statcast equipment, we can now contextualize it with the rest of MLB. Below are the 198 pitchers who threw at least 200 two-seam fastballs last year, with May’s numbers from Tuesday added alongside them (all data via PitchInfo). The results are impressive:

That chart confirms what the eyes suspect: a pitch like this simply does not exist in MLB right now. Since 2017, we’ve heard whispers from inside the Dodger organization that May is some sort of TrackMan god, possessing spin and movement that would rank him among MLB’s elite once he got there. I caught wind of some numbers in early 2018 and my first reaction was wondering if the calibration of Rancho’s system was off, because the reported run on the two-seam was so absurd. However, now we have public-facing proof, and we can view his pitches on a comparable scale to other major leaguers. The fastball is indeed special.

The closest an MLB two-seam comes to May’s in raw characteristics is the one thrown by Luis Castillo of the Reds. Castillo was a decent-enough number-three starter last year, but this also shows the pitfalls in dreaming on the raw movement and velocity of just one pitch. Unless you’re Kenley Jansen, it’s the full package that matters.

Thankfully, Tuesday’s outing gave us a data-driven look at May’s full repertoire:

There are a few things to talk about here. The industry perception on May is still pretty split, and a lot of that difference of opinion centers around the change. He threw three at Dodger Stadium last night, and that small sample definitely showed some room to grow. While the locations were mostly good, May’s change had a similar shape to the fastball. If anything, it possessed more rise than the two-seamer, exactly the opposite of what’s intended. A rising change with mediocre velocity separation is reminiscent of the issues that have kept Clayton Kershaw from developing the pitch. Obviously, May has a lot more time to figure it out.

The pitch data also shows two other offerings: a cutter (or hard slider, depending on the velocity on that given day) and a curve. Early last season, these two pitches were one pitch, a slurvey breaking ball. They’ve now split into two different offerings. That cutter has been drawing rave reviews from scouts this spring:

And it’s easy to see why:

The emergence of a second pitch that isn’t a two-seamer does raise the question: does May really need a change? After all, he already has something that breaks way off the barrel against left-handed batters, and other options to change a hitter’s look. Perhaps the change is more redundant than some think.

If anything, it seems like May might be missing a four-seamer. His repertoire is very well-suited for working down in the zone and off the corners, but all of his pitches have so much sink that they can get hit hard when left up. A four-seam would give him a way to change the hitter’s eye level less dangerously, which would help the two-seam and curve play up further.

Obviously, inventing a pitch he doesn’t throw is wishful thinking to some extent, but it reveals a hole in May’s approach. We also know how much the Dodgers love throwing high fastballs, something that May can’t do all that well right now. Adding a four-seam is not a creative suggestion — a two-seam, four-seam, cutter, curve, and bad change combo is basically what Walker Buehler had when he came up last season — but it’s hard to say it wouldn’t help. Otherwise, May will need to live below the batter’s belt, and we might end up talking more about his grounders than his strikeouts.

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In a few short weeks, May gave us a glimpse into an extremely bright future. This season’s trip through Tulsa and Oklahoma City will reveal a lot about May’s ability to adjust. He obviously has the tools to pitch in short stints, but are three pitches enough to turn over a lineup? Can he become more consistent in locating his curve or the change? Will he have better command than he did on Tuesday (when it wavered), and can he hold it through six or seven innings? His development is far from complete, which is perfectly fine for a pitcher this young and promising.

Barring some sort of injury, it’s hard to envision this being the last time we see May this season. Even his two-seam/cutter combination seems more than good enough to work in short stints, which the Dodgers may require in September. And, most importantly after this spring, it’s becoming easier and easier to buy into the high side of the split consensus rather than the low one.

About Daniel Brim

Daniel Brim
Daniel Brim grew up in the Los Angeles area but doesn't live there anymore. He still watches the Dodgers and writes about them sometimes.