Friday, January 9, 2015

Wandering "The Middle Path" with Mat Latos

After several years of wandering The Middle Path (never going all in to "WIN NOW!" and never tearing things down to reset for the future), the Reds seem poised to continue that journey this offseason. Word leaked out at the winter meetings that the Reds had to slash payroll ($15-17M), giving hope to the fans that the Reds might be forced to actually pick a path. Despite the need to shed payroll, the Reds are still trying to navigate the middle path, winning now and in the future.

Whether the Reds can now undergo a rebuild while continuing to compete, a trick more commonly undertaken in more forgiving sports (like the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL) or sports where one franchise player can have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of games (like Tom Brady and New England Patriots in the NFL), remains to be seen. It's a much, much tougher trick to pull in MLB. Whether the Reds can do it depends on the execution of these trades. They must outright win these trades in an era when it's increasingly difficult to do so, because much of the inefficiency has been hammered out of the baseball marketplace.


Reds receive:

Anthony DeSclafani -- RHP
Chad Wallach -- catcher

Marlins receive:

Mat Latos -- RHP


The underlying theory of this trade is sound, so it comes down to the execution.

The Reds give up one expensive year of control of a 3-4 win righthanded starting pitcher and a possible compensatory draft pick in exchange for 12+ years of potential combined control over a righthanded pitching prospect and a catching prospect with MLB bloodlines and an above average approach at the plate.

There has been a surprising amount of talk about the decline in velocity on Latos' fastball in 2014, but all of Mat's injury problems last year makes it difficult for me to draw the types of conclusions that are being drawn. Is it unreasonable to think that a return to health will see a return of his velocity?

The answer to that question may well determine whether the Reds sold high or low on Latos in this trade.

In the end, Mat Latos' Cincinnati career has come full circle. A controversial trade brought him into the organization, a controversial trade takes him out of the organization. And, in both scenarios, the underlying theory is sound, it just comes down to execution.

So, how DID the Reds do this time? I'm afraid not quite as well as they did the first time.


The key piece to the deal was Anthony DeSclafani. Right out of the chute, DeSclafani takes the title for worst name on the 40-man roster. A brutal blend of consonants and dissonance. Others in his life must have struggled with it, because someone bestowed upon him the nickname of "Disco."

When the trade went down, I went back and watched all five of Disco's starts for the Marlins in 2014. I watched those starts cold, without any prior research, because I wanted a clean first impression.

Disco's first start was both his MLB debut and his best effort. He faced the Dodgers on May 14 and tossed 6.0 innings of 2 run ball, allowing 7 hits and posting a 7/1 K/BB ratio. His debut was noteworthy for two reasons: (1) it included his best velocity as a starting pitcher, and (2) with the exception of a single changeup, he relied on only two pitches (fastball/slider).

I don't know if his veins were coursing with adrenaline as a result of making his Major League debut, but his fastball was popping the mitt, averaging 94.4 mph. That level of velocity, when coupled with an above-average slider, was enough to confound the Dodgers. The one changeup that he threw was not a good one, getting hammered by Yasiel Puig for a double. Not only was the outcome bad, but the arm action he used on the changeup looked materially different than the one he used on his fastball and slider. So, the deception was poor, which isn't a good sign going forward.

After his debut start, the results were decidedly poor and the fastball velocity a notch slower, sitting more 91/92/93 than 93/94/95. He gave up, respectively, 5, 4, 7, and finally 2 runs in an abbreviated 3.0 inning start that he had to depart after getting plunked by a comebacker. After those five starts, he returned later in the year to work out of the bullpen. So, what can we glean from those starts?

Well, first and foremost, his fastball is vastly more interesting and effective when it sits 93/94/95 than when it sits 91/92/93. Unfortunately, the latter is more common than the former.

As for pitching mechanics, Disco's are good without any obvious red flags. His balance and tempo remain strong throughout. His leg kick comes up well past parallel at the apex and he stays over the rubber to effectively gather himself before driving to the plate.

The defining characteristic of his mechanics is his stride. After he unpacks his leg from the apex and strides forward, he actually straightens out his front leg, leaving him in an unusual position.

Courtesy: Lynn Sladky/AP Photo

Courtesy: J Pat Carter/AP Photo

Courtesy: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports

While the stiff stride leg looks unusual, it serves to effectively lengthen his stride, which can increase the force generated by the kinetic chain and allow for easier and more complete clearing of the hips to transfer that force to the baseball. For Disco, straightening the front leg seems to serve the same purpose, maximizing the stride length, as Tim Lincecum's "step over the banana peel" move at the very end of his stride.

In the photos above, his back leg is flexed, while his stride leg is straight. As he continues to drive to the plate, it reverses, as his back leg straightens, while the front leg flexes. In the photos below, you can see this happen, giving him a longer stride and the appearance of almost jumping off the mound toward the plate.

Courtesy: Rob Foldy, Getty Images

Courtesy: Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports

Courtesy: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

I'm a big proponent of a lengthy stride, as it has real kinetic chain benefits. However, one of the things I like most about the longer stride is that it allows for a greater differential in hip rotation and shoulder rotation. A delayed shoulder rotation allows the pitcher to more effectively throw with his entire body, reducing stress on the pitching arm. Disco has a solid differential (photo below), even if it isn't quite all it could be. As a result, his kinetic chain is effective, but isn't quite as efficient as it might be, potentially reducing the generation of force and/or increasing the effort required to generate that force.

Overall, Disco's mechanics are strong, but for a pitcher whose stuff is straddling the line between starter and reliever, any added or lost force might make a substantial difference in career path.

As for his arm action, he throws from a high three-quarter arm slot, maintains good position relative to his shoulder, uses good pronation, and has a solid deceleration phase. All of which should work to minimize his injury risk.

Here's a look at him in action, courtesy of MLBProspectPortal on YouTube:

I like Disco from a pitching mechanics point of view. His fastball, at least when it averages 94.1 mph, is a legitimate weapon and his slider can be a plus-pitch, but his changeup remains a real work in progress.

Given his inconsistent velocity and weak changeup, it's difficult to see how Disco can find consistent success in the starting rotation. And, it's difficult to see how the Reds can win this trade if he's relegated to the bullpen.

The real problem is that while Disco's fastball and slider combo might be enough for him to consistently handle righthanded hitters, it's much harder to see how he can effectively neutralize lefties. His slider is a good pitch, but he doesn't throw it with enough power to utilize it as a back-foot slider to lefties. The slider averages 81.7 mph, which makes it difficult to generate enough depth and movement to break it down-and-in under the swings of lefties. During his starts, I saw him back-foot only one slider, an 83-mph pitch that struck Anthony Rizzo out swinging. But, by and large, it's a pitch that's likely to be more effective against righties, leaving him without an out-pitch to lefties.

The numbers bear this out, as Disco posted the following splits in 2014 (obviously, small sample size caveats apply):

vs R: .273/.301/.409/.710
vs L: .333/.362/.530/.893

The performance against righties certainly isn't great, but the performance against lefties is truly ugly. In light of his limited repertoire and struggles against lefties, a move to the bullpen might be inevitable unless he can either significantly improve his changeup or increase his fastball velocity, neither of which is all that likely.

I like Disco's mechanics, but unless he has more and better stuff in his arsenal, it's difficult to see him emerging as an impact pitcher.


The best thing about Wallach is that the Reds seem to have prioritized acquiring more disciplined hitters. The organization has been short on on-base percentage and hitters who control the strike zone for far too long. At least they seem to have identified the problem.

Wallach isn't a highly regarded prospect, but he fits the Ryan Hanigan/Tucker Barnhart offensive profile. He's not on their level defensively, but he controls the zone well enough and has a solid enough hit tool to have some offensive upside. Of course, as with Hanigan and Barnhart, the margin for error is slim and his ceiling isn't very high, but he's an interesting bat.

Here's a look at Wallach's swing, courtesy of Big League Futures on Youtube:

And, here's a brief look at his defense, courtesy of Tucker Blair on YouTube:

Wallach isn't a bad second piece in the deal and if things break right he could generate some positive value. Still, his ceiling isn't very high and he has a fairly long development road to travel to get there.


Overall, the trade is right in principle, but questionable in execution. On one level, it's impressive that Walt was able to deal Latos after his injury plagued season and offseason, but on another level the return for his services feels light.

Ultimately, the deal hinges on DeSclafani and his ability to effectively hold down a rotation spot in Cincinnati. However, his velocity as a starting pitcher seems inconsistent at best and insufficient at worst, while his changeup really needs to develop to help him neutralize lefties. Given the cost to obtain him, DeSclafani will undoubtedly get ample opportunity to prove he can be an effective starting pitcher.

In the end, it's surprising that the return for Lato wasn't higher and the trade to bring Latos into the organization seems better than the one that took him out of it.

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