Sunday Notes: Funky Lefties Holiday Edition

Bruce Chen retired on Monday, which makes this a good time to talk about Michael Roth. Chen closed out his career with the Indians, and Roth, a fellow southpaw, signed with Cleveland this past off-season. That’s not their only connection.

A few days before Chen made his announcement, I suggested to the 25-year-old former Angel that he’s similar to the crafty 37-year-old. It turns out I wasn’t the first to do so.

“Bruce told me that after I finished throwing my second bullpen of the year,” explained Roth, who is 5-1 with a 2.39 ERA in eight starts for Triple-A Columbus. “He looked at me and said, ‘Wow, we’re exactly the same; we throw exactly the same way.’

“There are things in his repertoire I like to use. He drops down with his fastball, and throws a drop-down slider. He’ll flip his curveball in, 0-0, and I’m throwing my curveball more this year – a slow curveball. I mix and match angles and throw four different pitches, so I really enjoy talking to Bruce about how he approaches hitters.”

Charles Nagy, who took over as the Columbus pitching coach when Carl Willis left for Boston, agreed there are similarities. He also sees differences, one of which is in Roth’s favor.

“I think Mike has a few more moving parts than Bruce,” said Nagy. “Bruce is older and had ironed things out a little more. He’s smoother, while Mike has, for lack of a better term, some funkiness to him. All of a sudden, Boom!, here’s the ball.

“Hitters don’t see the ball early against him. By the time they pick it up, it’s on them a little bit. It’s unorthodox the way his arms and hands work – and his legs. It’s kind of like Kershaw, the way he has that little stutter. It throws the hitter’s timing off. Some guys are deceptive. They used to say Sid Fernandez’ ball came out of his uniform. He could make 85 look like 95.”

Roth gets excellent extension and is notable for his effective velocity. He’s aware of both, although he’s not sure he has an adequate explanation.

“To me, effective velocity is just pitching broken down into a way science can understand it,” said Roth. “One of the guys who travels with us gets TrackMan data, and my extension is pretty good, something like seven feet. If you’re releasing the ball further, it’s probably jumping on hitters a little faster and they might not realize it. Maybe that’s what they mean when they say a guy has a heavy ball. I don’t really know.”

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This past Wednesday, I saw Alex Claudio pitch for the first time. He was every bit as entertaining as I expected. The young Texas Rangers lefthander threw 15 pitches, and only four were clocked at 80 mph or higher. He topped out at 85, while one of his offerings reached the plate at a lazy 69. Mixing and matching sinkers, sliders, changeups and cutters, he gave up a single to Shane Victorino, on the 10th pitch of the at bat, then struck out Brock Holt with the bases loaded.

Claudio was a Cistulli “Fringe Five” favorite last year, and his Bugs Bunny changeup is among the reasons why. Another is his delivery – Holt and Victorino called it “funky” — which can be seen here.

Claudio, with Rangers massage therapist Raul Cardenas acting as translator for the 23-year-old Puerto Rican, told me he adopted his delivery in 2011, a year after he was drafted in the 27th round. Needing to hide the ball better was the impetus, as “Batters were squaring up my pitches when I threw from over the top.” His movement improved when he dropped down, while his velocity remained essentially the same.

Extreme speed differential plays a big role his effectiveness. Victorino said Claudio is “very deceptive with velocity, because going from 85 to 65 is a big decrease.” Holt found the same in reverse, as he fanned on an 85-mph sinker after seeing a steady diet of low-70s sliders he described as “slow and sweepy.”

His changeup is his bread and butter. He learned it from pitching coach John Burgos and, as Victorino suggested, he actually will throw it as slow as 65 mph. His breakthrough with the pitch came at the same time he changed his pitching motion. The grip – “Three fingers on the ball; everything but (the pinky)” – didn’t change, but his wrist action did: “The difference is my hand movement. The angle when I throw the ball.”

Claudio’s changeup has screwball fade to it, and while he was unfailingly humble when we spoke, he did allow that when he first starts working with a new catcher, it’s initially “difficult for them to pick up my changeup, because it has more movement than what they’re used to seeing.”

Big league hitters haven’t seen much of Claudio yet. In parts of two seasons, he’s made 27 appearances and pitched just 19-and-two-thirds innings. He remains a mystery to many, and kind of likes it that way. When I closed our conversation by asking if there’s anything else he’d like to share, his response came with a sly grin.

“Nothing really,” said Claudio. “The less they know about me, the better off I am.”

——

Last month, I asked Bryce Harper which stats he uses to judge players from years gone by. Two weeks ago, Chase Headley and David Ortiz weighed in the same subject. Today we hear from Reed Johnson.

Johnson, a 13-year veteran currently with the Washington Nationals, appreciates the numbers that come via sustained success. In his view, counting stats are hard-earned.

“When I look at guys who have 3,000 hits, I think about how hard it is to get 200 in a season,” Johnson told me. “Getting 200 hits for 15 years in a row gets you to 3,000. Or 300 wins; that’s 20 wins a year for 15 years. As a player, you really respect how hard that is to do. Craig Biggio wasn’t a first ballot Hall of Famer, and I thought for sure he should have been.

“There’s also flat dominance. Ichiro might not reach 3,000 hits, but the ones he got came in a shorter period of time than anybody. There are going to be exceptions for guys who dominated the league for a 10- or 12-year period. They deserve to be there as well.”

——

Carl Willis was a journeyman during his playing career. The Red Sox pitching coach played parts of nine big league seasons, with four teams, and had a 4.25 ERA in 390 innings. His moment of glory, which is a largely forgotten footnote, came in the 1991 World Series as a member of the Minnesota Twins.

“It was the highlight of my career,” Willis told me earlier this week. “We were down three games to two (to Atlanta), and had a 3-2 lead in the seventh inning. I’d really struggled in Game Five, so when I got the call, I was a little surprised. The bases were loaded and Ron Gant was the hitter.

“I got a ground ball to shortstop and we just missed turning two. That tied the game and put runners on the corners. David Justice came to the plate and struck out. I kind of think about it in those terms: I didn’t strike him out, he struck out.

“Fortunately, I was able to get through two more innings after that. Rick Aguilera came in for the 10th and Kirby Puckett hit the infamous ‘We’ll See You Tomorrow Night’ homer. Then Jack Morris went out and pitched the greatest World Series game this side of Don Larsen’s perfect game.”

——

Here’s a leftover tidbit from a conversation I had with Manny Acta earlier this year. We were talking about his time as third base coach under Frank Robinson, in Montreal, and Acta recalled the following:

“One day we were playing the Mets and had a left-handed reliever facing Mo Vaughn with guys on base. He threw three balls in a row, and Frank walked to the mound and took him out. He brought in a right-handed pitcher, Dan Smith, with a 3-0 count. He blew three fastballs by Vaughn.”

As far as I can tell, this happened in the 10th inning of a game played on September 21, 2002, and the left-handed pitcher was Joey Eischen. I can’t find a recap showing Smith entering with a 3-0 count on Vaughn, but perhaps someone reading this remembers the game in question?

——

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Ryan Howard is hitting .338 with six home runs in May. He’s hitting .379/.419/.759 in Phillies wins this season. He’s hitting .174/.228/.360 in Phillies losses.

On this date in 1972, Don Rose of the California Angels homered on the first pitch he saw in his first big league at bat. It was the only home run of his career. He was also the winning pitcher that day. It was the only win of Rose’s career.

Davey Crockett played for the Detroit Tigers in 1901. “Buffalo Bill” Hogg played for the New York Highlanders from 1905-1908. Piggy Ward, who played for four teams from 1883-1894, reached base 17 consecutive times in 1893.

Hot Stove Cool Music Chicago will be held July 9, at Metro in Wrigleyville. Theo Epstein, Peter Gammons and Len Kasper will be there, as will Daxx Nielson of Cheap Trick.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Funky Lefties Holiday Edition by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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My great grandad used to put me on his knee and tell me stories about Piggy Ward, the journeyman ballplayer with the porcine name.