Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Look at Jesus Tinoco

   Jesus Tinoco made his full-season debut with Lansing last month, and thanks to a good-quality broadcast from host West Michigan on Sunday, May 17th,  I had a chance to chart his start against the Tigers' Midwest League affiliate.

   As with my other "scouting" reports, I remind you that I am not an actual scout.  I spent many years as a catcher/centerfielder, so I think I've always had a fairly good perspective on pitchers, but the following should not replace reports from an actual real live scout.

   Tinoco was born and raised in Venezuela, and was nurtured by legendary trainer Cito Barrios.  His teammates at Barrios' academy included Franklin Barreto, Jesus Gonzalez, and Wuilmer Becerra, all of whom the Blue Jays signed for huge bonuses on the July 2 International signing kick-off day in 2011.  Thought to be in that company, Tinoco didn't sign with Toronto until September, for a $400 000 bonus.

   Tinoco didn't make his pro debut until 2012, and made his stateside debut a year later in the Gulf Coast League.  The West Michigan broadcasters made note of his 2-19 career Won-Loss record prior to the game, but W-L records can very misleading for pitchers in the low minors.  Pitch counts, especially in short season play, are strictly adhered to, and starters often come out in the middle of innings - it's not until later that they get a chance to pitch out of trouble (as Tinoco had to in this game). So, a pitcher's record, at least until they get to full season ball, can be a reflection of the pitchers who come in after them during a game.  I don't know for certain how often this was the case for Tinoco at Bluefield of the Appalachian League last year, but several accounts have him pitching better than his 1-9 record.  I spoke with Danny Jansen, who caught several of his starts at Bluefield last year,  Jansen said that Tinoco had dominant stuff, and was hard to hit when he got going.  The trouble is, of course, is that he didn't always have that sinker going last year - he pitched six complete innings four times for Bluefield last year,  His ERA for those starts was a tiny 0.67, compared to 7.59 for his other 8 starts.
   Nonetheless, Tinoco has drawn some notice.  Clint Longenecker of Baseball America compared him to a former Lugnut:
 He has youth (19), a great body, the fastball (velo and life) as a foundation for his prospect status. He can really sink the baseball. His combination of fastball velocity and heavy sink reminded some of former Blue Jay farmhand Henderson Alvarez, who has the 7th highest GB rate among MLB starters. His changeup is presently his best secondary offering and his curveball shows 12-6 tilt at its best, though it is inconsistent. Tinoco will need to improve his lower half in his delivery because he often collapses his front leg and falls off to the first base side, causing him to not get on top of his pitches. But he has the raw materials to emerge. Keep your eye on Tinoco.

   I asked Lansing broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, who has called games for both, about the validity of that comparison, and he disagrees:

  Alvarez was just a kid out there slinging it, and the natural movement was ridiculous. Tinoco is more of a pitcher. Tinoco also has a defined curve. Alvarez had a semblance of a slurve that he had no clue what to do with.

   To be fair to Longnecker, he may be thinking of a more current version of Alvarez, as I recall reports about him at that time spoke about his rawness, and the need to refine his command.

The Game

   Tinoco was making his third start for Lansing against a West Michigan lineup that included Tiger prospects Derek Hill and Joey Pankake.  He breezed through the first two innings, needing only 11 pitches in both to retire the side in order.  He threw first strikes to the first three batters he faced, and generated three groundball outs in that first inning.  In the second, he struck out Pankake swinging, and sauntered through a second three up-three down frame.
  Tinoco needed only 13 pitches to get through the 3rd, working down in the zone with almost every fastball that he threw, showing that heavy sinking action.  I had him throwing only 3 pitches up in the zone through those first three, and two of those were outside of the strike zone.  He allowed a bunt single that 3rd Baseman Justin Atkinson had no chance on, and was called for a balk on his first pitch to Hill as he failed to stop at the end of his stretch.  We began to see a bit more of his breaking ball in that 3rd inning.  He had six ground ball outs and a pair of swinging strikeouts through 3.
   The West Michigan hitters began waiting on Tinoco more in the 4th.  He did have great control of his slider, though, bending hitters' knees a bit at least twice.  He also gave up his first hard contact of the game, a hard line drive up the middle.  Tinoco needed 18 pitches to get through the inning.
   The 5th is where things fell apart for Tinoco.   With his pitch count up a bit, and with the West Michigan hitters getting their second look at him, they began teeing off on Tinoco's offerings.  He gave up a hard hit leadoff groundball on the first pitch that handcuffed 1st baseman Ryan McBroom and was generously scored a single, followed by a hard hit double down the 3rd base line on the next pitch.  McBroom made a nice play on a groundball after that, holding the runners at 2nd and 3rd, but the next batter cracked another double down the 3rd base line to score the runners.
   A flyball out to Left put Tinoco one out away from getting out of the inning, but he gave up more hard contact for another double (the fourth of the inning) to bring in the inning's' fourth run.  Tinoco got a swinging strikeout to end the inning.  He threw only 14 pitches in the frame - he lost the bottom part of the zone, which he had all but owned through the first four innings, and the West Michigan hitters hit his high-in-the-strike-zone pitches early in the count, and hard.
   Did Tinoco get rattled by McBroom's inability to cleanly field that first-pitch shot?  That's hard to say, but he did seem to lose his focus that inning.  He seemed to be trying to blow the ball by the West Michigan hitters, and he left the ball up as a result.  There have been reports that Tinoco sometimes collapses his front leg during his delivery, which causes him to fall off to the first base side, and leave his pitches up.  I couldn't tell if such was the case in the 5th - he was falling off toward 1st, but it was hard to tell from the angle we had if he was collapsing that leg or not.

   Now that he's in full season ball, there was no rescue from the bullpen for Tinoco in the 5th.  He was given the chance to pitch out of trouble, and was also allowed to come back out for the 6th, which, after giving up another first pitch, leadoff double to Pankake, he retired the next three hitters in order, needing only 7 pitches to finish the inning.

  There was a lot to like from this outing.  Take away that disastrous fifth, and you have a dominant performance.  Tinoco retired 6 of the first 8 hitters on groundballs, and had 8 groundouts (against 3 flyball outs) on the day.  He threw 74 pitches, 50 of them for strikes.  For the day, Tinoco went 6 innings, allowing 8 hits, 4 runs (all earned), no walks, and struck out 6.

   Is Tinoco a future big leaguer?  That's hard to say.  He has the long, lean (6'4", 190) frame that the Blue Jays covet in a pitcher.  He has struck out more than twice as many hitters as he has walked in his minor career, and he has almost 2.5 groundouts for every flyout.  The 26th-ranked Blue Jays prospect by Baseball America is only 20, but as a player in Low A, he's a long way away from the majors.  His fastball sits between 91-93, and has hit 95 - because he's around the plate so much, and since his velocity isn't necessarily premium, being down in the zone with that sinker is essential.  When he's not, 5th innings like today occur.  His hitter's heat map would seem to back that up:

    That the Blue Jays skipped Tinoco from Bluefield to Lansing (bypassing Vancouver) says a lot about the organization's belief in his abilities.  Just turned 20, Tinoco is still learning, and making the transition from thrower to pitcher.  It will be interesting to watch his development.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Clutchlings Notebook - Week#4: Moving Day

  In the best case scenario, MLB farm departments like to give players at least two months of play to start the season at a level before they make a decision as to whether some players need to move on to the next level, or stay where they're at.  Sometimes, injuries and/or inconsistency at the top of the organization (that is, the major league team) can have a huge influence on this plan.

   This past weekend, it was almost dizzying to see how many roster moves were made as the Blue Jays had to overcome the placing of Jose Reyes on the 15-day Disabled List.  Jonathan Diaz was called up from Buffalo to take his place, which immediately left Buffalo a middle infielder short, so Kevin Nolan got the call in New Hampshire to come up and take his place.  Moving up from Dunedin to New Hampshire were Christian Lopes and Emilio Guerrero to provide some middle infield help.  Lopes was off to a slow start - he had a monster second half of the season in Australia this winter, until a hamstring injury ended his season and sent him home in time to heal for spring training.
  Another promotion to New Hampshire of note was that of  Tiago da Silva, the much traveled Brazilian reliever.
   Those moves all came on Friday.  On Saturday, with Scott Copeland recalled from Buffalo to make his MLB debut, Casey Lawrence was promoted from New Hampshire to the Bisons to take his place.  If Ryan Schimpf was moved up as well.  IF Dickie Joe Thon and P Justin Shafer were promoted from Lansing to Dunedin to shore up their roster.


   Much has been made this weekend over the demotions of Daniel Norris, Dalton Pompey, and Miguel Castro.  They would not be the first rookies to ever struggle and need further time in the minors - that's part of the reason teams get three option years on players new to the 40-man roster.
I thought it would be worth a quick look to see exactly why all three had their difficulties this month.

Daniel Norris had a solid spring training, and while the injury to Marcus Stroman threw a monkey wrench into the team's pitching staff plans, Norris may have made the team as the 5th starter despite Stroman tearing up his knee.
Norris complained of going through a dead arm stretch in the middle of the month, but overall his velocity held firm between 91 and 93: graph

    His last start against the Indians, when he was lifted after throwing 78 pitches in 3 innings, shows that he really didn't trust his changeup or sinker, and almost half of the pitches he threw were fastballs, which hitters mashed at a .407 clip.  Accompanying the increase in fourseam usage was quite a bump in the use of his slider, which he has had more success with.  Norris recorded only 3 swinging strikes in the Cleveland game, none with his fastball or sinker.  
   Is something physically wrong with Norris?  An MRI performed on April 21 revealed no structural damage to his elbow.  It is worth noting that Norris had bone chips removed from his left elbow after last season, and he was shut down for a month in 2013 as a precaution.  He also admits to having gone through a dead arm phase last season (he did get dinged in a couple of early July starts at AA), and the stress of spring training may have worn him out a bit:

“My workload in spring training was — I was working really hard, trying to make this team and maybe that’s catching up to me a little bit right now, but I think I’m on the tail end of it. I’m feeling better,” 
  Whatever the case is, Norris is not the dominant pitcher who raced through four levels last year. Time in Buffalo may be necessary for him to re-discover himself in a less pressure-filled environment.  He makes his first start for the Bisons on Wednesday.

   The GTA product struggled on both sides of the ball this month.  His difficulties at the plate weren't all that surprising, but his troubles in the field were.  He misjudged some fly balls, and took curious routes on others.  The former Minor League gold glove winner was supposed to be more dependable than that.  That, coupled with his .193/.264/.337 line caused the Blue Jays to send him to Buffalo for some time to re-group.
  Quite simply, Pompey is way better than what he has shown.  He may have been pressing too much, especially during the 10 game home stand, when he likely was inundated with interview and ticket requests, and didn't have enough time to prepare and focus on baseball.
  Again, injuries may have forced the issue here.  Michael Saunders knee surgery meant a temporary halt to what likely would have been a platoon between Pompey and Kevin Pillar.  Instead, Pompey was thrown into the deep end, and when he lost his centerfield spot to Pillar, he no doubt took his fielding woes to the plate, and vice-versa.
  Pompey will be back.  

   His inclusion on the Jays roster was perhaps the biggest surprise of all coming out of spring training.  Castro simply made it impossible for the Blue Jays to send him down, and given that hey showed a distaste for crop of available free agent relievers, that may have been their hope all along.
His performance over his last ten outings has been spotty:

DATE     OPP                            W            L              ERA        SV           IP            H             ER           BB           SO
04/12/2015         @BAL    0              0              0.00        1              1.0          1              0              1              0
04/14/2015         TB           0              1              0.00        0              1.1          2              0              1              2
04/17/2015         ATL         0              0              0.00        0              1.0          0              0              1              0
04/18/2015         ATL         0              0              1.23        0              1.0          2              1              0              1
04/22/2015         BAL        0              0              1.04        1              1.1          1              0              1              1
04/23/2015         BAL        0              0              1.93        1              0.2          1              1              0              1
04/25/2015         @TB       0              0              2.79        0              0.1          2              1              0              0
04/27/2015         @BOS   0               1               3.60        0              0.1          3              1              0              1
05/01/2015         @CLE     0              0              3.27        0              1.0          1              0              0              2
05/03/2015         @CLE     0              0              4.38        0              1.1          2              2              2              2
TOTALS                                  0              2              5.79        3              9.1          15           6              6              10

 I  had originally thought that Castro's troubles might have resulted from wearing down as a result of overuse in high leverage situations, but his velocity has been fairly consistent:

                                             Game                           Fourseam     Sinker   Change Slider
TOR@NYA (4/6/15)         97.50     97.94     86.31     82.20
TOR@NYA (4/8/15)         97.08     0.00        89.32     0.00
TOR@NYA (4/9/15)         97.18     0.00        91.21     83.79
TOR@BAL (4/12/15)        97.19     0.00        88.87     82.37
TBA@TOR (4/14/15)       98.08     0.00        0.00        83.66
ATL@TOR (4/17/15)        98.73     0.00        89.92     82.58
ATL@TOR (4/18/15)        97.11     97.45     87.56     83.84
BAL@TOR (4/22/15)        97.40     0.00        86.16     84.81
BAL@TOR (4/23/15)        96.01     0.00        0.00        81.97
TOR@TBA (4/25/15)       95.63     0.00        84.96     81.02
TOR@BOS (4/27/15)       96.89     96.84     88.16     82.12
TOR@CLE (5/1/15)           96.95     96.50     89.37     81.75
TOR@CLE (5/3/15)           96.45     97.00     89.10     83.28

   His fastball velo is down a bit from that peak against Atlanta, Quite simply, he's caught too much of the plate at times:

And when he's done so, it's most often been with his fastball or sinker.  Hitters have been laying off of his change and slider, forcing him to come with the heat - and hitters have been ready.

  The concern all along for Castro has been his lack of secondary pitches.  However, Aaron Sanchez came in and was lights out throwing primarily the fourseam/sinker combination last year.  Castro needs to work on his command in Buffalo.  Just as I was about to hit the 'publish' button, GM Alex Anthopoulos said that Castro will pitch out of the Bisons' starting rotation.  Which makes me wonder if we will see him again this season.  

  And you have to feel happy for Steve Delabar, who joins Chad Jenkins as they pass Castro and Copeland headed the opposite way on the QEW.  Delabar was very upset that he didn't make the club coming out of spring training.  Delabar seemed to have most of his old velo back, but I suspect a rough outing late in March against the Orioles, and the fact that he had options (and Liam Hendriks and Todd Redmond didn't) remaining sealed his fate.
  Bisons Manager Gary Allenson used Delabar very sparingly in the early going, giving him several days off between outings, and not using him in high leverage situations.  As April turned into May, Allenson began going to Delabar more often, and later in games.  He's appeared in 6 games since April 22nd, and five of those have been scoreless outings.  
   There's no real secret to Delabar's struggles in 2014, after an All Star year in 2013.  By his own admission, Delabar relies on velocity, and not movement, to get hitters out.  His fastball lost a tick last year, as did his ability to command it, and hitters were waiting for him.  If he's back to a more reasonable facsimile of his 2013 self, as opposed to last year's version, he should be a stabilizing force in the Blue Jays pen.  Of course, with options remaining, he could be in Toronto only until Castro turns himself around. 
   Jenkins should probably get ready to ride that QEW shuffle some more.  Until the rotation straightens itself out, the Blue Jays appear to be relying on whichever starter is up next for Buffalo to help in long relief.

 I can't let an opportunity pass without a final word about LHP Ricky Romero, released by the club last week.  Romero was the darling of Toronto in 2011, anointed the staff ace, and given a huge multi-year contract.  With the Blue Jays on the hook for 2016 for a $7.5 million salary, they exercised a $600 000 buyout to get out from under that deal.  They also did it early enough in the season to give him a chance to catch on with another team.
  Romero's troubles started in 2012, when hitters started to lay off of his change up, a pitch with so much movement that it often fell right out of the strike zone.  Injuries caused a drop in velocity, meaning that Romero often had to come in with a sub-par fastball in hitters' counts.  
  He struggled through a pair of seasons after that in which he simply wasn't healthy.  Surgically repaired and ready to go this spring, I had no reports about him, but that the club kept him behind in extended after training camp broke tells you much of what you need to know.  He wasn't ready to return to competition, and the Blue Jays obviously felt his MLB days were behind him.
  Several people on Twitter complained that the Blue Jays wrecked Romero, but that's far from accurate.  Their handling of him in 2013, when they kept him behind in Florida for all of one FSL start after spring training before rushing him up for a start that he clearly wasn't prepared for was puzzling, but the organization has been patient with him.  Hitters adjusted to Romero, and either because of health or an inability to make corresponding adjustments himself, Romero was no longer an effective starting pitcher by the end of 2012.   


In summary, many eyebrows were raised when the Blue Jays broke camp with 6 rookies.  Some of that number was by design, some by accident, but the bottom line is that the Blue Jays felt that half dozen was a better option than the alternative.  And while Castro, Norris, and Pompey needed to be farmed out, the contributions from Devon Travis, Roberto Osuna, and even Aaron Sanchez, in that order, have been significant.  To me, this is just an extension of the roll the dice strategy the team has used in drafting players:  the upside of this group is such that given the injuries to Stroman and Saunders, the club felt that it was a worthwhile risk.  Did they expect that all six of them would instantly adjust?  Probably not.  If such was the case, the demoted trio would likely still be with the team.  The season is still young enough that it's not lost, and if these three can get themselves back together, they could still make a contribution to the team before the season is over.