The Backbone of the Phillies Rotation
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
In 2013 the Phillies have suffered 2 injuries to their original 5 starting pitchers. Most recently, ace righty Roy Halladay finally succumbed to his ailing shoulder, and is currently recovering from surgery to repair his labrum, other parts of this rotator cuff, and remove bone chips.
The first Phillies starter to hit the disabled list was lefty John Lannan. Ruben Amaro Jr. signed Lannan to a contract this offseason to serve as the Phillies fifth starter following a solid season from Kyle Kendrick in 2012, allowing him to “move up” in the rotation. Lannan has been out since the middle of April, and is not expected to return anytime soon.
Still, from every tragedy comes a great opportunity. Said another way, it’s important to “make lemonade out of lemons.” Lannan’s injury gave the Phillies a chance to promote a pitcher from Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Instead of Tyler Cloyd, who the Phillies brought up for a few starts in 2012, the team went with Jonathan Pettibone. Pettibone has never been seen as a top talent, but he has worked his way from draft to the majors in just over 4 seasons, a solid accomplishment.
So far in 2013, Pettibone has filled in nicely for the ailing Lannan. In 6 starts this season, he has yet to surrender more than 3 earned runs in any game, and he has thrown at least 5 innings in each of those 6 starts. Still, looking at his value thus far, he comes out as about a replacement level pitcher. He’s posted a -0.1 fWAR, -0.1 WARP, and 0.9 rWAR. Don’t let the negative sign fool you, these aren’t bad numbers, especially for a fifth starter. When using wins above replacement, think about the title of the metric. A Negative number is by no means very good, but Pettibone’s numbers have hovered right around 0, making him about a replacement level player, and since he is currently “replacing” an injured pitcher, John has been doing his job.
Pettibone’s mild success made me wonder not about his results, like his earned run average, WHIP, or strikeout percentage, but more so about the process. So, I took a look at one of his more recent starts and dissected some of the video.
Mechanics and Delivery:
At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Pettibone stands tall on the mound. More importantly, he doesn’t hunch or bend forward, but keeps his back straight and relaxed before beginning his motion. He begins his motion like most right-handed pitchers, moving his left foot back to begin the windup. Like some pitchers, he brings his hands over his head while turning his right foot and lifting his left leg off the ground. Once his leg reaches the apex, Pettibone is through step one.
At this point, he’s at the balance point, the moment when he must completely balance on one leg and he has turned his body
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
so his shoulder and hip point towards home plate. At this point in the windup, Pettibone’s hands are still together, and at about neck level. One thing to note is that nothing in Pettibone’s windup is exaggerated, nor does he include anything out of the ordinary. His motion is simple, compact, and easy to follow.
It’s vital that Pettibone keeps his arms and legs in unison during his motion. In the game I looked at, he had a tendency to leave some pitches up in the zone when his arms would fall behind his legs causing his front foot to hit the ground too early for where his arms were. This led to him having to compensate, losing velocity and command when throwing the pitch to the plate. More importantly, this lack of continuity can, if done consistently, lead to shoulder issues. Still, more often than not, Pettibone was able to keep his limbs in sync, allowing his to live down in the strike zone.
Pettibone did a better than average job of keeping his front shoulder closed after separating his hands and beginning his stride towards the plate. For a tall pitcher, Pettibone does not have a long stride, instead keeping everything very compact. This isn’t ideal, as a longer stride leads to a release point closer to the plate, which in turn gives fastballs more velocity and makes it more difficult for hitters to pick up breaking balls.
Pettibone’s push to the plate, where most pitchers derive their power and velocity, leaves something to be desired. For a big guy, he doesn’t use his mass very well. Momentum is mass times velocity, and while Pettibone doesn’t lack the mass, he doesn’t input enough velocity to maximize his frame. This deficiency becomes obvious when looking at his 90 mph average on his fastball. He can hit 93, and when he does reach that threshold his delivery reflects it, but it’s rare at best.
Pettibone does have a solid release angle (in between over-the-top and three quarters) and very little spine tilt. Pitchers with increased spine tilts motions with completely OTT motions can sustain arm injuries with more frequency than those without. Pettibone doesn’t add a lot in torque by using a turn mid-motion, but most pitchers don’t. Still given his lack of push towards the plate, it isn’t unwarranted.
Towards the end of his motion, Pettibone doesn’t drive his front side downwards with great force, but keeping it simple allows him to repeat his delivery more consistently. Repeatability is important, and other than his tendency to let his arms fall behind his legs, Pettibone repeats his delivery well. He also doesn’t change anything when throwing different pitches, keeping batters guessing.
Finally, when throwing from the stretch, Pettibone eliminates most arm movement and focuses on striding with purpose and power. He repeats his stretch delivery even better than his windup, and thus keeps his pitches focused toward the bottom of the strike zone. From what I saw, when he gets in trouble, it might serve Pettibone well to just begin to pitch out of the stretch. This shows up in his numbers with a .424 wOBA against with the bases empty but a much improved .295 wOBA against with runners on base.
Pettibone throws 3 pitches, and showing an ability to throw his fastball and slider more so in the strike zone than his changeup. Pettibone isn’t a strikeout pitcher, but instead pitches to contact. This will keep him as a back of the rotation pitcher for his career unless he significantly improves his ability to command his secondary pitches. A few adjustments to his motion, and possibly pitching consistently from the stretch could improve his overall fastball velocity. Overall, there’s a better chance he is close to his peak, and will remain a 5th, possibly 4th starter for the duration of his career.
Pettibone is serviceable and seems reliable thus far, making him the perfect back end of the rotation option. He needs more experience in the big leagues, but if the Phillies are unable to give him consistent starts at the MLB level, looking into converting him into a bullpen pitcher shouldn’t go overlooked. Until Lannan returns, Pettibone will remain in the rotation, and while we shouldn’t expect consistent greatness, Pettibone should do just fine.