A Motte Proposal

Troy Glaus takes a swing in anger. (photo courtesy momup)

I missed most of yesterday's game, for a variety of reasons, and when I left the Cardinals had their narrow lead. So I was happy to learn, when I finally checked the box score, that it wasn't the bullpen that messed things up (and happier still to learn that it wasn't altogether Smoltz's fault, either.) 

Lugo's infield mishaps reminded me we hadn't, to this point, seen much of his infamous defensive inadequacy. It's yet another signal that I do not have a future as a baseball scout; given his range numbers in Boston, which were earth-shatteringly, biblically terrible—he was slow to his left (-10 outs), he was slow to his right (-8), but he was somehow also bad straight on (-1)—I would not have been at all surprised to see him play shortstop from the dugout, or just stand in place with his glove out. But since he's been here I just haven't seen it; he's seemed, at worst, average, of the bad-instincts/good-speed variety. (In my defense UZR and +/- both see him as basically average in his limited time at second base; I don't know how it's happened, but that's what's happened. Presumably it is the inherent superiority of AL ground balls at work.) 

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Given the continued struggles of McClellan, and Hawksworth's reluctance to excite too much, It's been nice to see Jason Motte string together a few good outings. Here's an arbitrary endpoint for you: on August 14 he pitched his second lowest-leveraged game of the year, the ninth inning of a 9-2 win against San Diego. How low leverage was it?

It was so low leveraged that Khalil Greene, Brendan Ryan, Julio Lugo, Mark DeRosa, and Joe Thurston were all playing at the same time! He didn't do very well; Chase Headley hit a long double, Kevin Kouzmanoff hit a long home run, and Motte walked off the field with an ERA of 6.05. The summer could basically be written off—from June 5, when his ERA hit its season low, to that night opponents had hit .354/.433/.756, and swung and missed just eight percent of the time. It was like everyone he pitched to became... Albert Pujols

Since then he's allowed just one run in those seven innings. Only one of those outings was in a well-leveraged situation, but a few more solid outings will win him confidence almost by default; right now there's just nobody else out there doing any better than he is. It would be interesting to see Jason Motte end up the final winner in the setup man sweepstakes, since he's lost so much, but it wouldn't be out of the question, either—this time last year, you'll remember, he was striking out nearly twice this many batters in Memphis. The PCL is a minor league, but it's not that minor. 

While we're on the subject—I have to say that I've found no reason yet to lay Motte's struggles at the feet of Dave Duncan, any more than I would have given Dunc credit for his success; he's simply not a normal pitcher. And certainly there's no visible traces of Duncan's usual meddling on his pitching style. On that bad day in August Motte averaged 96 on his fastball, peaked at 98, and was all over the plate.

It was the prototypical 2009 Motte night, right up to the one swinging strike he managed in his nineteen fastballs; after getting swings and misses on an extreme 25% of his strikes in his 2008 call-up he's pegged the league average (15%) in his second go-around. In fireballer terms, that's the difference between Joel Zumaya 2006 (22%) and 2007 (13%); Rob Dibble 1992 (33%) and 1995 (18%). This is all to say that if your game plan is to go out there and throw it by people, it helps to be able to throw it by people; as of now the intent may be different, but the result is closer to Ryan Franklin (12%) than it is Nolan Ryan. 

As for his much-maligned off-speed pitches, which seem to change as much and as often as Yadier Molina's old batting stance, they're apparently of his own invention

The righthander has been working on expanding his repertoire. He said recently that he's trying to refine his changeup and mix in a slider and cut fastball to go with his fastball, which has been known to top out at 97 mph consistently. Motte said by adopting a two-seam fastball he's willing to give a little on his velocity to gain some on the movement.

The two-seamer is being caught by PitchF/X—it's easy to make the distinction when the four seamer is arrow-straight and a hundred miles an hour—but in his most recent outing he threw exactly one, to 23 four seamers (again averaging 96 mph.)  The cutter's harder to pick out, given the inconsistency of his slider, and something else—a curveball or a splitter or a changeup—has started bouncing over the plate at irregular intervals in the last month. 

The picture pieced together from all these indiscriminate breaking balls and the weird interviews he's given about them is an odd one for me, as a longtime Cardinals watcher, to consider: here, it seems, we have a pitcher who is not being given enough direction.

Whether Motte's fastball is going to prove this hittable long term is important for the Cardinals down the road, and I'm still optimistic about it; it might be that 2008 was simply his peak, but if nothing else his home run rate will come down from here. But right now the throwers-keep-throwing mentality is causing all the contact of Dave Duncan's best laid plans with none of the supposed benefits. I don't know if Duncan (or Marty Mason) is in charge of Motte's relentless experimentation, but he ought to be. 

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