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A deeper look at Daniel Poncedeleon

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Seven no-hit innings. Three strikeouts. Three walks. A lot of hope.

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at Boston Red Sox Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

No-hitters don’t matter as much as they used to. This makes the common narrative around Daniel Poncedeleon’s seven-no-hit-inning debut particularly difficult to avoid.

The percent of at-bats with a ball in play has fallen stupendously since the early 1900s. Pitchers are better, there are more whiffs and more home runs. You get the idea. I’ll cite ESPN guru Buster Olney to provide some credibility to the matter.

Maybe no-hitters matter the same amount as they used to, but increasing the frequency takes away the impact of each individual instance.

So let’s put the no-no aside. Cardinals fans aren’t concerned with what happened. They’re wondering what could happen with Poncedeleon. This makes the righty’s one-start performance rather interesting.

The most important part of anything connected to Poncedeleon is his story. He spent a week in intensive care after being struck in the head by a line drive in May of 2017 (USA Today). He was struggling for his life and his recent success given these circumstances trumps anything below that might be critical of his future on-field performance. His perseverance should be envied by all, and I hope one day to ask him myself about his road back from these unfortunate events.

In prospect circles prior to this start, there wasn’t much hype around the California native. Fangraphs couldn’t squeeze him in their top 23 list for the Cardinals farm system. They praised his “big-league stuff,” but ultimately considered him a bullpen piece. Here at VEB, we couldn’t even get him into our top 30.

The difference between 2017 and 2018 has been a kick up in strikeouts by just over 5 percent. Poncedeleon has almost always been an out-performer of his FIP, but this season with Memphis has provided a substantial amount of hope that his results might be more sustainable.

If Poncedeleon wasn’t in consideration for a top 20 spot on Cardinals prospect lists, his Triple-A performance puts him squarely into the conversation.

His start last night may have helped the argument even more, if you like fastball-dominant outings in the age of 40-percent curveball usage.

Poncedeleon’s pitch usage 2018
Baseball Savant

Breaking this down by batter handedness, Poncedeleon used fastballs 88 percent of the time to right-handed hitters, mixed with 10 percent slider usage (Baseball Savant). Versus left-handed hitters, he mixed things up a little bit more, displayed in the small orange and green “pie slices” above representing his changeup and curveball. This result is in the picture you see above.

Versus righties, he elevated his fastball on the inner-third, mixing in his slider away for good measure. A similar strategy ensued versus left-handed hitters, with a slightly diminished ability to command his pitches arm side.

To toss some confusion into the mix, Fangraphs was picking up a cutter while MLB.com was tracking a two-seam fastball on occasion. Fangraphs is likely classifying Poncedeleon’s cutter as a slider, and neither Baseball Savant or Fangraphs were reading a two-seam fastball. Using the eye test, I do think Poncedeleon has two-seam and four-seam variations, but his four-seam fastball might have enough run to blur any differences between the two pitches.

The takeaway is that Poncedeleon threw a lot of hard pitches, with around 90 percent of his repertoire sitting between 88 and 93 mph (give or take a few mph) last night. He survives on a good amount of natural movement. Baseball Prospectus backs this up by ranking his horizontal and vertical movement on his fastball right around the 75th percentile of the league among all pitchers. The qualifier, however, is that they might not be separating out his four-seamer and two-seamer either, leading to a slightly false reading on his four-seam fastball run.

If you were watching his mechanics last night, the thought of natural movement may have popped into your head because of his low, three-quarter arm slot and the tail on a lot of his pitches in to right-handed hitters.

MLB

This delivery helps Poncedeleon possess a good changeup. Mutliple times the Reds broadcast zoomed in on his changeup grip and gave us some perspective on the circle-change, four-seam grip he uses.

MLB

What we know about this changeup is largely positive. His changeup’s drop and fade sits favorably in relation to other right-handers. On both variables, Poncedeleon sits inside the top half of the league, with the pitch’s fade top 20 in all of baseball, relievers included (Baseball Prospectus).

The speed differential between his fastball and this changeup is substantial at 11 mph. This suggests the pitch will induce more whiffs than grounders, which isn’t really backed up in the data, but again, we’re working with a very small sample. Even if this is not a featured pitch versus right-handed hitters, his ability to fight against left-handed bats has always been present and should sustain.

There has been mention of a curveball in Poncedeleon’s repertoire as well. The Reds broadcast mentioned the offering and the pitch was praised in Fangraphs offseason update, but we didn’t see it on Monday. Instead we saw a hard slider mixed well with cutting and fading fastball variations.

If we’re searching for a fault in the newest Cardinal, his control seems to be a consistent issue across levels. Maybe this is a product of movement hurting command and lack of advanced feel for his pitches, or maybe it comes a simple repeatability issue with his delivery. As it currently stands, this issue limits where Poncedeleon’s ceiling is. A path exists where his 4 BB/9 is buoyed by a 8.5-9 K/9 to create tolerable peripherals, but it’s possible there is more natural struggle in the early stages of his career.

I understand the bullpen risk embedded in an arm like this, but I want to see Poncedeleon succeed or fail as a starter for an extended period of time. His ability to manipulate harder offerings in tandem with an appealing changeup and mysteriously absent curveball doesn’t scream reliever. A bullpen piece might be the result in a few years, but as long as a starting pitcher is needed at the major league level, Poncedeleon is another viable number five starter for the Cardinals. Yet again, player development has successfully nurtured an arm form minor leagues to Busch Stadium.