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Opening Day Jitters

Following Monday’s game, one lboros suggested that Jason Motte was wild w/ highest hardest fastballs and, in order to throw strikes, he had to dial it back, thus making him eminently hittable. At his behest, I decided to take a look at Motte’s fastballs from Monday to see what info, if any, we could glean from them.

The table below shows the 21 fastballs Motte threw Monday night. All data is courtesy of MLB’s gameday.

batter MPH ball/strike result
Sanchez 96 strike double
McLouth 97 ball high
McLouth 97 strike foul
McLouth 97 strike called
McLouth 98 ball high
Doumit 97 ball high
Doumit 96 strike foul
Doumit 98 strike foul
LaRoche 97 strike swing
LaRoche 98 ball high
LaRoche 97 strike single
Hinske 96 strike double
Moss 97 ball high
Moss 96 ball HBP
Wilson 96 strike swing
Wilson 96 strike foul
Wilson 96 strike double
Vazquez 96 ball high/inside
Vazquez 95 strike called
Vazquez 95 strike swing
Vazquez 95 strike foul
Vazquez 95 strike fly out

The average velocity on his balls was 97 mph and the average velocity on his strikes was 96.13 mph – not a huge difference. That’s not what I saw on the FSN gun but I’m not sure why I should put a lot more faith in the FSN gun than the MLB gun. Still, 2 of the 3 that hit 98 were balls and 3 of the 7 that hit 97 were balls. All the balls also were high (except for the one that hit Brandon Moss) – an indicator to me that he was overthrowing at times. 15 of his 22 fastballs were in the strike zone. 2 of his first pitch fastballs were 96 mph and drilled for doubles by Sanchez and Hinske. Each of those fastballs was center-cut. They were "get me over" fastballs designed to establish a first pitch strike and Sanchez and Hinske were ready. The Pirates seemed to have a good game plan ready for Motte.

Following each double, Motte started the next hitter off w/ a ball that was high. Two were at 97 mph and one was at 96. When he got hit, he tried to throw just a little harder and it didn’t work. To me, the most problematic PAs were the ones to Adam LaRoche and, of course, Jack Wilson. Both hitters saw three pitches – all of them fastballs – and, after swinging and missing, and seeing a 2nd fastball, were able to time Motte’s 3rd fastball for a base hit. LaRoche’s was a single and Wilson’s was, of course, the game winning double. These PAs seem to encapsulate the concern w/ regard to Motte – namely, that he’s going to have to have an effective secondary pitch to throw to these hitters and keep them off balance. Should he have thrown either one of them the slider? It’s easy to say yes in hindsight but all 3 of them saw fastballs at basically the same speed and were able to get to the third and make it count.

I love the fact that Motte throws hard but these PAs show that big league hitters can hit 97 or 98 when it’s straight and they see it often enough. Interestingly, after LaRoche’s hit, Motte threw the first pitch fastball to Hinske that he hit for a double. The other thing that’s tangentially related to Motte’s 9th inning implosion Monday was the fact that he threw 29 pitches and had just 4 swing-and-misses. It’s not bad but it is slightly lower (13.7%) than the percentage of swinging strikes he recorded last year (15%). It’s hardly a material difference but the fact that they had so many good rips against him is a concern. Also, the Pirates were very aggressive against him. Last year, 15% of Motte’s pitches were called strikes. Monday night, there were only 2 called strikes out of his 29 pitches (6.8%). If hitters were this aggressive against Motte last year would he have had the same degree of success?

Don’t get me wrong – I still like Motte and think he’ll make a successful reliever and, I hope, a very good closer. I’m not, as others are, ready to fire Mo or send Motte to the minors (or flog either or both publicly) b/c he blew a save but, if the first game is any indication, he’s going to have to have a more effective secondary pitch in order to become a successful closer. If other (better) hitters take the same approach the Pirates’ hitters did, they’ll be aggressive and, ultimately, catch up to those 97+ mph fastballs. Additionally, he’s going to have to throw his best fastballs for strikes. If he can’t, and has to dial it back, even 1-2 mph, in order to get it in the zone, it’s going to make it increasingly difficult for him to get people out at this level.

Game thread going up around 1:30. If bad things happen, be nice! I’ll be working and, therefore, unable to follow along.