Around The Web: Phillips & Vargas profiles, Buehler nostalgia, pitch tunneling, others

A nice bouquet of memories, analysis, and profiles.

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The Legendary Moment stuff is just an excuse for me to take a nostalgic trip back in time, honestly. Walker Buehler and Game 163 will forever be associated.

Feel like shit, just want him back.

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FanGraphs: Shocked by Cody Bellinger‘s rapid decline? Well, you should be, as it’s arguably the biggest ever.

Bellinger’s drop-off was the largest of the group, and he was the only player among the 130 who dipped below a wRC+ of 100 over the next three seasons. By and large, these players continued to be stars; the average career WAR for that group is 61.1, and that’s with more than a dozen other players still active.

It’s understandable that the Dodgers, a team that has repaired all sorts of seemingly broken players, have been stymied so far by the collapse of Bellinger’s offense. After all, there’s a reasonable case to make that, among young superstar hitters, the magnitude of his fall has been unprecedented.

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The Athletic: A profile of Evan Phillips‘ journey from being designated for assignment to being one of the best relievers in baseball.

He got the call. The Dodgers had claimed him off waivers, a Rays official told him.
“I could hear the disappointment in his voice,” Phillips said.
Minutes later Brandon Gomes, who was then Los Angeles’ assistant general manager (and now their GM), called to coordinate what over the last year has become a career rejuvenation.

Almost immediately, the Dodgers put together an outlay of how they felt Phillips could excel. They loved his slider, and felt they could refine it to add even more sweep. Assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness tweaked the grip and, this season, only three pitchers had sliders with more average horizontal movement than Phillips.
“Connor is an absolute spin and grip wizard,” Phillips said.

They re-established a cutter he’d fiddled with in the past, giving him another option to throw against left-handed hitters. As right-handed hitters began lurching to try to cover the width of his slider, they mixed in a two-seam fastball Phillips hadn’t thrown since he was in the minors to keep them honest.

Mixing in a two-seamer, huh? Sounds familiar. A great idea.

The Athletic: One of the top prospects in the system, Miguel Vargas, is ready for his closeup.

Their scouts had been familiar with Lázaro for years. They’d seen the ability his son had shown at such a young age. Vargas, Cruz said, “checked all the boxes.” They saw the same traits his father exhibited while hitting .322 over his 16 years playing in Cuba: patience and a strong eye, his willingness and inquisitive nature, and meticulous plans as he took his at-bats. Even at a young age, he spoke about hitting being the art of breaking a pitcher down rather than reacting. Early on, he became an expert on identifying the zones in which he excelled. He’d remark from the dugout often whenever he’d find out a pitcher was tipping his pitches, and he was often right. “He’s just unique,” Cruz said.

During one game this season, Vargas stood in the box as the runner from first broke for second on a 0-1 count. Vargas didn’t flinch on the steal attempt, even as the pitch clipped the zone to bring the count to 0-2. Vargas wound up working a walk, and when Barbary approached him afterward to tell him he didn’t have to take there if he didn’t want to, Vargas didn’t hesitate.
“I knew the guy didn’t have anything to get me out with,” Vargas told him, “so I was gonna take.”
“He knew he was going to win the at-bat,” Barbary said.

Oh yeah, that’s the stuff.

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FanGraphs: Underrated prospect Ben Harris is punching out batters at a comical rate and could move up quickly.

“He has a unique ability to hide, and ride, the ball,” he said. “It’s a really efficient throw. I think he probably benefited from being an outfielder in college — there are elements that have transferred from an outfield throw — and it’s a quick arm. The way he sequences his body down the mound puts him in a really good position to let the ball jump on hitters.”
“It’s more spin than approach angle,” he added. “Some of it is the speed of the arm, but he does take advantage of the approach a little bit. He’s kind of got a whole package with the fastball [and] with outlier characteristics. Part of what makes him unique is that he didn’t design the throw to do what it does. It’s all natural to him.”

For me, the surprising thing is that he doesn’t have a delivery with a ton of funk in it like I expected. It just works, I suppose.

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Prospects Live: A must-read on pitch tunneling. Helps you understand what’s going on in the game now and where it’s going to be in the future, plus a lot of it revolves around the Dodgers.

Even mediocre stuff can become exceptional when it checks all three boxes for a perfect tunnel. Look no further than Tony Gonsolin. Gonsolin might win Cy Young if it wasn’t for another tunneling wizard in Sandy Alcántara. Gonsolin has zero pitches that grade out above a 50 on stuff according to the Pitching Bot. Yet, the slider is one of the most dominant pitches in baseball. The stuff isn’t there, but the tunnel is immaculate. Gonsolin has 12.7” IVB separation, 11.7” HB separation, and only throws the slider 5.7 MPH slower than the fastball. Because of his perfect tunnels, he has a 37.6% chase rate on a pitch that grades out as below-average based on raw stuff. That is how game changing a good slider tunnel can be.

Evan Phillips is a testament to how much better the Dodgers are at tunneling than the rest of baseball. He was terrible in Baltimore and continued to struggle when he first joined the Dodgers. This year, Phillips has been one of the best relievers in MLB. The slider has 21” of horizontal movement separation from his fastball, and got no chases prior to 2022. He added a cutter, putting his slider and fastball within the ideal ranges to perform. The fastball and slider don’t have to look the same, they just have to look like the cutter, which looks like both of them.

There is still a lot of work to be done in understanding pitch tunneling. This is not the end of the journey, but one of the earliest stops in understanding a phenomenon that has ruled the game we love for decades. Hopefully, this newfound understanding of pitch tunnels will help someone build a model to effectively predict chase rates for each pitch. If we can build that model, then projecting which minor league arms will translate might be a hundred times easier. Pitch tunneling has changed baseball, and if the Dodgers consider it the key to building an all-time great pitching staff, perhaps the rest of the league should start considering them as well.

Always nice when it’s other teams who seem to be trying to catch up.

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About Chad Moriyama

"A highly rational Internet troll." - Los Angeles Times