The Hangover: Fastball Command, Where Art Thou?

Over his first two starts with the Padres, Dinelson Lamet did a lot of things well. One of them was getting ahead of hitters early, which put him in good situations and eventually allowed him to finish off at-bats with overpowering stuff.

No matter a pitcher’s velocity or stuff, it’s important to get ahead in the count. Hitters simply aren’t nearly as dangerous when the count isn’t in their favor, yet they can square up any velocity ahead 2-0. After a 1-0 count, for instance, major-league hitters are OPS-ing .838 this year. When it starts 0-1, on the other hand, they’ve got a paltry OPS of .620. That’s 200-plus OPS points just in getting strike one over. There’s an even bigger gap—some 332 OPS points—between 2-1 and 1-2, in part because hitters can only strike out when there are two strikes.

Anyway, it’s really important for a pitcher to get ahead, which isn’t exactly breaking news.

Here’s a comparison of the percentage of times Lamet was ahead in the count after the third pitch of an at-bat in each of his first three starts (I counted at-bats that ended on the third pitch if the count was a 0-2 or 2-0):

5/25 vs. Mets: 71 percent
5/30 vs. Cubs: 55 percent
6/6 vs. D’backs: 24 percent

That’s not gonna work. In the first inning last night, Lamet fell behind all seven hitters. Gregor Blanco‘s leadoff double came on a 2-1 fastball; Jake Lamb‘s double came on a 3-1 fastball; even Daniel Descalso, who eventually struck out, initially got ahead 2-1.

I went back and watched the first inning again, and it’s clear that the fastball was letting Lamet down, not necessarily in speed, or movement, or deception, or anything else. He simply couldn’t put it where he wanted. By my estimation, Lamet only hit Austin Hedges‘ target, or got it relatively close, on three of 16 fastballs, and many of them were way off. Hedges is a little slow to put down his target on this pitch to Lamb, but you can see he wants it low and away-ish:

Lamet doesn’t just miss, he misses in the opposite quadrant, up and in. In a 3-1 count to a righty masher, you can’t do that often and get away with it. Lamb lined a double to the right field corner and busted the inning wide open. I didn’t re-watch the entire second inning (I’ve got a life, ya know. Sheesh), but it felt like the fastball command was off all game. On the Chris Owings home run, Lamet was again way off target:

 

95 mile-per-hour fastballs up can be great when you’re ahead in the count and have things working. But, to this point, Lamet hadn’t shown that he could throw the slider for a strike, he’s down 1-0 in the count with runners on base, and Owings is probably sitting on a fastball he can drive. Here, a 95 mph fastball in this location qualifies as a meatball, and Owings promptly crushed it.

Things weren’t all bad last night, despite the ugly line. There were a couple of close calls that could have went Lamet’s way and also a couple of hits that could have been turned into outs. Doesn’t excuse the five walks, no, but with a few breaks maybe the first two innings don’t get away.

Further, Lamet’s changeup looked good again. I actually thought he threw a couple of the best changes he’s thrown yet. By the numbers, from Brooks Baseball, he threw a career-high 24 changeups (27 percent), got 14 strikes, eight swings, and three whiffs. Nothing special, but it looked good on occasion and isn’t getting tattooed, by any stretch. Lamet’s change does tend to get a little hard at times, and thus less effective, but he’s throwing plenty of good ones, too, and he’s clearly getting more comfortable with the pitch. In fairness, he also could have gone to the change more frequently last night because his other pitches weren’t working.

Hey, we’re still big Lametheads over here. Last night was rough, but that’s part of being a rookie. There will be growing pains. The big thing for Lamet might not really be the changeup, or getting lefties out, or this or that. It might simply be throwing fastballs in the general vicinity of where Hedges wants them. That’s no small thing, of course, as spotty command has been noted as a potential Achilles heel for Lamet in the past.

We’ll see if Lamet can harness his fastball next time out.

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  • ballybunion

    I’m no pitching expert, but Lamet’s throwing motion seemed to vary a bit, and his release point was inconsistent in that third start. I didn’t see his second start, but Lamet just looked less polished, compared to his first start. A repeatable delivery and consistent release point are Darren Balsley’s bailiwick, and it looks like he’ll need to set aside more time with Lamet while he here. When Cahill returns, Lamet will have to go, since Cosart has no options.

    • Good catch. I wasn’t really looking for it, so didn’t so much notice. But I read something after the game that indicated Lamet was struggling to repeat his mechanics, and I’ve also read a few things from when he was in the minors about the same issue. So that can definitely be an issue for him.