The Hangover: Early Lamet Returns

One of the hardest things about writing about a baseball team every day is trying to avoid looking like a fool. The easiest way to make yourself look like a fool is to get too excited—or too down—on a player with limited playing time. It’s easy to do, though. You see a hyped (or maybe under-hyped) prospect roll on to the big-league team and dominate in a couple of appearances, and you’re looking for something to write about. Before you know it you’re comparing him to Lance McCullers or something.

After Dinelson Lamet‘s first two starts, where he combined for 16 strikeouts and three walks in 10 innings, maybe I got a little too excited. The only thing worse than making yourself look like a fool once, however, is making yourself look like a fool twice. The easiest way to do this is to get too excited—or too down—on a player with limited playing time and then, after a few bad (or good) outings, to reverse course entirely. All of the sudden, you’re backpedaling away from this player as fast as you can. It’s a bad look, especially if the player turns out to be good, as you had originally envisioned, or even just okay, as you had maybe never considered.

Even if I was too excited about Lamet’s early performance, at least I didn’t pull the ol’ double whammy. After the two rotten starts—nine strikeouts, six walks, and 16 runs in eight innings—that followed his first two good starts, I tweeted this:

So we get to this past Saturday, where Lamet had probably the best start of his young major-league career. Over six innings, he struck out 12 and walked noone against a good lefty-heavy Brewers lineup, on the road to boot. He did give up a three spot in the third, but Orlando Arcia‘s inside-the-park home run could have been caught, and Eric Thames two-run homer was preceded by an Eric Sogard seeing-eye single.

What we saw on Saturday is that the success of Lamet is very much dependent on his command. If he’s able to dot his fastball and slider in and out of the zone, he’s going to be tough to hit, regardless of what’s going on with his changeup. To continue something we looked at after Lamet’s third start against the Diamondbacks, here’s the percentage of times he was ahead on a hitter after the third pitch of an at-bat:

5/25 vs. Mets: 71 percent (good start)
5/30 vs. Cubs: 55 percent (good start)
6/6 vs. D’backs: 24 percent (bad start)
6/11 vs. Royals: 64 percent (bad start)
6/17 vs. Brewers: 90 percent (good start)

Alright, so there isn’t a perfect correlation, but look at that last start. Lamet was getting ahead of everyone. From the fourth inning on, he wasn’t behind a single batter after thee pitches in the at-bat. Not only was Lamet throwing a bunch of strikes, and getting ahead, he was generally putting the ball where he wanted. Here are two first inning fastballs to Domingo Santana:

Hedges puts the target in just about exactly the same spot on the first two pitches to Santana here. The first one’s not even a strike, but it’s really close. And there’s little Santana could do with it if he swung. Hedges goes back to the same spot, and this time Lamet walks the ball up and sets it in his glove:

Here are back-to-back sliders to Jett Bandy in the fourth inning:

Same thing here with that first pitch, except this time it’s a slider. It’s close to being a called strike, and maybe Lamet was trying to steal one. It took everything Bandy had to hold off. The second slider is more of the hard-breaking variety, and up 1-2 in the count, this time Bandy can’t help but take a flailing hack.

Here’s one more, Lamet’s final pitch of the fifth inning, a paint job heater to strike out Sogard:

If you want to get nitpicky—and that’s sort of what we do here—Lamet technically missed up right there. He still dotted the outside corner, though. That’s the thing with Lamet on Saturday. When he was missing, it generally wasn’t over the heart of the plate in advantageous counts. He was either putting his stuff right where he wanted it, or he was missing in an area where little damage could be done.

On the downside, as Travis from Padres Prospectus noted, Lamet only threw nine changeups all game, getting just one whiff. Of the ones I saw, a couple were left out over the plate and could have been crushed (Sogard ripped one foul). We’ve touted Lamet’s change as better than advertised before, but it’s clear there’s still some work to do there to get the kind of fade and speed differential you’re looking for.

On the other hand, Lamet showed he could succeed against a bunch of solid hitters using primarily the four-seam fastball and slider. In fact, he got a staggering 22 whiffs on those two pitches combined, including 14 on the slider alone. Among all starters this season with at least 100 sliders thrown, Lamet ranks 17th (out of 83) with a 43.4 whiffs/swing rate (he ranks 30 of 161 on the fastball).

The one mistake he made with the slider, one left up to Thames, was hammered, but God doesn’t miss a hanger. For the most part, Lamet was able to bury his slider low-and-in to lefties (and low-and-away to righties). While it’s not necessarily ideal to roll with two pitches, Lamet showed us how it’s done. Locate both a mid-90s fastball and a filthy slider, and you’ll be just fine, even against some good left-handed hitters.

Lamet will have more up and downs because, hey, that’s baseball. I liked him early on, though, and I’m sticking with him, through good and bad. And the way he’s going now, there’ll be more good than bad.

(And if not, well, at least I only looked like a fool once.)

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