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Roles and pitch tunneling involving Trevor Rosenthal

In which I discuss Rosenthal’s role in 2017 as well as how he utilizes pitch tunneling in order to be an effective MLB pitcher.

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Like him or not (for some reason, he is more polarizing than he probably should be), Trevor Rosenthal is a fascinating pitcher. While he may be known for his upper-90’s — sometimes touching triple digits — fourseam fastball, he, too, as a former starting pitcher, possesses capable, undeniably underrated offspeed pitches. With Michael Wacha sewing up the final spot in the starting rotation and Seung Hwan Oh returning as closer, Rosenthal — who has thrown at least two innings in three of his four spring training outings — appears destined for an Andrew Miller-type role to open the 2017 season.

Yesterday morning, I was a guest on 590 the Fan’s Game Time AM (if interested, my segment begins at the ~27:50 mark), and we talked for a few minutes about the origin of this role and how it could involve Rosenthal in 2017. They asked me if Miller’s postseason success with the Cleveland Indians would lead to this type of bullpen role popping up across baseball. I agreed that it would as long as the given team rosters a relief pitcher capable of filling such role, as the St. Louis Cardinals fortunately do with Rosenthal, who trained all offseason in preparation for a heavier workload.

In the segment, I talked about how there exists more than one “save” situation in nearly every game. What I meant was that even though a high-leverage situation in the sixth, seventh, or eighth may not be considered a “save” on a traditional stat sheet, it still retains a significant impact on determining the outcome of the game — as quantified by leverage index. While Matt Bowman and Miguel Socolovich are solid pitchers, wouldn’t it be nice to deploy a pitcher of Rosenthal’s quality for this “first save” situation (a role commonly filled by Seth Maness while he was with the Cardinals)?

Of course, I am well aware of the “hold” statistic, but as Mike Matheny stated in this August 2015 piece by Derrick Goold, “contracts can’t be ignored in setting bullpen roles.” And even with tangible advancements in baseball statistics, shutting down the heart of the order with runner(s) on base in the eighth looks less valuable in a traditional box score than a bottom-of-the-order, zero-runners-on save in the ninth.

Thus, when agents enter into contract discussions, no matter how statistically inclined the teams may be, they can command more money for their players if, in the previous season, they tallied 35 “saves” than if they tallied 35 “holds.” Semantics, I know, but the introduction of something like “first save” and “final save” could really go a long way for the game of baseball, in not only contract discussions but also better managing (since, as Matheny stated in Goold’s piece above, contracts matter when setting roles).

Admittedly, I know no such statistic will be implemented because it really is nothing more than semantics, and better performance evaluators (i.e. leverage index) already exist. Unfortunately, these better performance evaluators haven’t really caught on league-wide as the majority of MLB broadcasts still stress the almighty importance of “saves” and secondarily, “holds.” When I began writing this post, my intention was to highlight Rosenthal’s use of pitch tunneling, and now that I have finished my rant about bullpen usage (I actually had to change this post’s title due to the rant’s length), let’s finally enjoy some extreme instances of pitch tunneling utilized by Rosenthal.

Junior Lake Strikeout (BrooksBaseball At Bat)

First and foremost, Junior Lake is not a very good MLB player. I understand that. Over the course of 223 MLB games, Lake’s fWAR stands below replacement level at -0.2, and his hitting rates 19% below average at 81 wRC+. That being said, Lake’s deficiencies shouldn’t detract from Rosenthal’s perfect use of pitch tunneling in recording this strikeout back in 2015.

Strike number two (blue trail) is a 91.9 MPH slider just off the outside corner, and strike number three (red trail) is a rising 99 MPH fourseamer. Both pitches looked like strikes for the majority of their flights toward home, but as you can see in BrooksBaseball’s plot embedded above, neither actually ended up in the strike zone. Harnessing the sequence of down-and-away slider followed by up-and-in fourseamer is already impressive, but when you take into account nearly identical release points, the sequence becomes borderline unhittable. Despite starting on the same path toward home (as visualized by @cardinalsgifs’ amazing trails), the two pitches vary in end location by a shade under two feet (the first time I’ve used the Pythagorean theorem since high school). At 99+ MPH, opposing hitters have no chance against this sequence.

Chase Utley Strikeout (BrooksBaseball At Bat)

Unlike the first GIF, these two pitches were not actually thrown back-to-back. Strike number one (red trail) was a 96 MPH fourseamer, and strike number three (blue trail) was an 88.2 MPH changeup. Pitches two and three were also thrown for strikes, but from a tunneling standpoint, they didn’t match up as well as the two pitches I ultimately chose. Thus, for the sake of visualizing tunneling, let’s act like these two pitches were thrown back-to-back because after all, the two create a sequence Rosenthal frequents.

Unfortunately, ESPN’s camera angle makes it a bit harder to appreciate, but as you can see, the pitches start on same path, diverge slightly, only to cross once again upon entering the zone. At the changeup’s peak (blue trail), Utley, who unlike Lake is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, believed the pitch was a rising fourseamer — similar to what we saw in the Lake strikeout. Instead, Rosenthal dropped a changeup off the outside corner leading to an above-average hitter looking downright foolish.

As usual, credit to @cardinalsgifs for the GIFs used in this post. Pardon the pun, he is completing trailblazing work when it comes to pitch analysis. I strongly recommend giving him a follow on Twitter.