Jeremy Bonderman, who hasn’t pitch in any kind of baseball game since 2010, made his Mariner and Spring Training debut on Monday, pitching against the Angels. It didn’t go like he wanted it to, as he gave up a walk and a homer to give up 3 runs (though he did get 2 grounders and an infield fly-ball), but results aren’t very important in Spring Training, especially this early. What we are looking for is, to put it simply, talent and skill. What we have looked at in these Spring Training Pitch F/X posts is velocity and movement for the most part (along with other things like release points, etc.). That is, do these pitchers (the ones we have looked at before have been prospects, while Bonderman is trying to make the Mariners rotation as a veteran) have the “stuff” to be (good) MLB Pitchers? We are trying to gather information on them, and mostly by using comparisons of other MLB pitchers, trying to see if we can predict what kind of pitchers they are, not only in the anecdotal sense (i.e., these are the pitches he throws), but in a quality sense.
What might help us when talking about Bonderman is to start by talking about what kind of pitcher Bonderman is. I don’t mean statistically (we know that he was a well below average pitcher that was helpful to the Tigers by eating innings and being an above replacement starter), but from a Pitch F/X scouting report perspective. Bonderman had slightly better than average velocity at 91.49 MPH, which ranked him 203rd out of the 417 starting pitchers that have thrown at least 200 4-seamers since 2007. However, his more frequent pitch was the sinker, which he threw a little over 40 percent of the time.
Bonderman saw very little drop off in velocity from that pitch and was above average at getting to the plate. He had good horizontal movement on the pitch, and about average vertical movement. Even comparing to other sinkers, he didn’t get many whiffs on it, but did have an above average groundball rate. Bonderman also threw sliders nearly a third of the time, falling in that dreaded sinker/slider camp. While this is at least partly speculation, and he did have a relatively long career anyway, the heavy slider usage could be why Bonderman had the injury issues that eventually put his career on hold. You just don’t see a lot of starting pitchers throw their slider more than 30 % of the time.
There were just 5 qualified starters that threw their slider that often in 2012, and Madison Bumgarner’s is probably a cutter. Bonderman’s slider was roughly average in velocity, but he didn’t really have much movement vertically or horizontally. He also threw a changeup, but reduced it’s usage nearly every year until he was throwing it just 2 percent of the time in 2010. It was a very hard change, at 85.33 MPH, just .02 MPH slower than Justin Verlander’s. I didn’t really remember or think of Bonderman as a hard thrower, but when you combine all his pitches, his average pitch was 87.98 MPH in the Pitch F/X era (remember, this is past his prime and when he was really starting to break down).
Out of the 450 starters who have thrown at least 500 pitches since 2007, Bonderman’s average pitch ranks 37th, just ahead of Brandon Morrow. He was all pretty hard stuff all the time. He didn’t have really anything slow for him to go to, which is not always a good thing when starting (it is sort of one of the many baffling contradictions of pitching, as starting pitchers with nothing slow seem to struggle, yet there isn’t much of a correlation when it comes to speed differential, and slower breaking pitches are usually worse breaking pitches).
If you were just showing me the Pitch data from Bonderman and didn’t tell me anything else about him, I would probably think he was a solid sinker/slider middle reliever, not a starter. This is probably why he didn’t have a lot of success. He didn’t have the pitch repertoire or usage of a starter, despite solid stuff.
Enough with the old Bonderman, let’s talk about his outing on Monday. Using the MLB AM tags, his most frequent pitch was a “two seam fastball” that we can just call a sinker. Out of the 17 pitches he threw, he threw the sinker 10 times. It reached 90 MPH and averaged 89.05 MPH. His 3 4-seam fastballs averaged 88.49 (touching 88.9 MPH). So, with the obvious caveat that we are talking about a pitcher trying to make a comeback and that it is very early in spring training, Bonderman’s velocity is not where it once was. He isn’t the hard/above average thrower he was, at least not now. This is not Oliver Perez coming into camp and touching 94 (eventually getting up to 95 in Tacoma before being brought up). Even the slider was down for Bonderman, as he threw 4 of those (he threw no changeups) and averaged just under 80 MPH, touching 80.9 MPH. The encouraging thing was that he threw two for strikes.
The discouraging thing is that, along with the velocity loss, he seems to have a movement loss as well when it comes to his slider (Spring Training game is on the right, last big league start on the left):
As you can see, he is getting less vertical drop (that is he has less backspin on it) and he is getting less horizontal movement as well. It isn’t as hard, and perhaps it isn’t as hard, he is getting the spin and movement on it that he is used to getting. With that said, he appears to be getting better fastball movement, much more when you look at the 4-seamer. Obviously, each Pitch F/X system is a little bit different (as we have seen with the system in Seattle, that really makes pitch movement a lot lower compared to other parks), and there may be some kind of bias in the data. However, the difference is pretty significant and must be discussed at least a little bit (with the obvious caveat that I have been stressing all spring training, these are small sample sizes and may contain some errors). These comparison charts may help show this a little more
Unfortunately, the colors are different here, but the brown is the moving fastball on the left, and blue is the moving fastball on the right, the spring training outing. It appears that the ball is moving “back” more as it gets to the plate. The reason for this is probably a release point change, as the next two graphs show:
As this shows, he is, or at least was on Monday, releasing the ball closer to his body. Listed at 6-2, perhaps an inch or two short for a right-handed starter, he didn’t release the ball above 6 feet in 2010, and he didn’t in his spring training outing either. He had monstrous splits in 2010, with a FIP of nearly 6 and an xFIP over 5. While this probably has a lot to do with a lack of a quality breaking pitch, the release point being so far out may have something to do with the large platoon splits. Moving it more in may actually help him, and may be what is behind the better fastball movement. These are one of the things I wonder whether he notices. There are few times that I think interviewing players are helpful, but these would be one of the times I would like to talk to a player to see if the move more in and closer to the body is a conscious effort on his part, or something that is sort of accidental as he comes back from injury.
As expected, we see some differences in Bonderman’s data, not only in movement, but in movement and release point data as well. The latter is encouraging, and it seems there is some improvement there. However, his velocity is way down. If he is unable to regain this, this obviously negates anything he gains by changing his release point. As spring training continues, he is going to have to gain that velocity back. If not, then he doesn’t belong on the big league roster, even as a reliever. If he gains it back, then he can at least be in the big league bullpen.
The Tacoma starting staff is going to be hard to crack anyway, and if the team doesn’t think he belongs on the big league team, then he will probably be in the Tacoma bullpen. I have no idea what his intentions are, but I would imagine that he would ask for a release if this ends up being the case. Not only does he need to gain the velocity back to crack the backend of the Mariner rotation, we also need to see him throw his changeup again. He isn’t going to be an effective starter just relying on his sinker and slider. He really wasn’t before. Obviously we will get a better look when we pitches in a Pitch F/X park, but the reports on Jon Garland have been pretty good. I am guessing he is closer to winning the last starting rotation spot than Bonderman.