FanGraphs' Eno Sarris had a very thought-provoking interview with Miami Marlins starter Adam Conley in which he discusses the mechanical changes in pitching from 2015 to 2016. Sarris highlights that Conley changed his approach to get his foot down earlier and enforce more rotation at point of release in order to increase his real and perceived velocity. However, Dietrich is Boss (@ManicMike27), a longtime Fish Stripes reader, pointed out one interesting quote from that article on Twitter.
Everything wrong with the way the Marlins develop pitchers. pic.twitter.com/g6qLgFkjXP— Dietrich is Boss (@ManicMike27) May 3, 2016
The quote in the picture is one about the developmental system for Miami, long considered one of its best parts despite quietly failing develop a lot of prospects. This has been particularly notable on the pitching side, where Miami's only homegrown product to have pitched more than 200 innings since being drafted on or after the big 2005 draft are Jose Fernandez (success), Chris Volstad (failure), Brad Hand (more or less a failure), Tom Koehler (below-average contributor), and two relievers in Steve Cishek and A.J. Ramos.
The approach is something that we have detailed before about the Marlins. Here is an article from two years ago to this very day:
We already noted that the Marlins have been the among the most strike-pounding teams in baseball in the last few years, but this seems to be the first indication that the franchise has actually asked their pitchers to do this. It seems Miami is coaching for their pitchers to pitch to contact and get "efficient" outs by working the lower half of the strike zone.
This was in part due to a quote from then-bench coach Rob Leary about how the team wanted Nathan Eovaldi to pitch. And this is not something that is restricted to the coaching staff in Miami; not only are we now hearing about pitching to strikes and getting ahead more from the minors, but we have heard it a lot this season on commentary by color commentators like Preston Wilson with regards to some of Jose Fernandez's early struggles. This is by no means news, though its widespread discussion is interesting.
It is also interesting that the Marlins are trying to mold their pitchers in a certain style rather than teaching pitchers to be the best versions of themselves. In that respect, the Fish were teaching almost in a seemingly results-oriented fashion, focusing on perhaps how many first-pitch strikes a pitcher was getting or evaluating how many walks they were posting in the minors. That may be something that is easy for you and I, the laymen without access to the player and his skillsets, to evaluate, but it probably is not how you want to necessarily advise a player. Conley, in contrast, almost emphasizes a player-first, process-oriented approach. In other words, rather than pitch to a result like pitches in the strike zone, the Marlins should have focused on finding what Conley did best and teaching him how to emphasize those results.
Now, it is easy for me to point that out since I'm not being paid to do that. However, the folks working hard in the minor league organizations are, and they should be able to see past the results and assess who Conley is. He and Justin Nicolino are both left-handers who throw fastballs and change-ups with developing third pitches. However, Conley is clearly more capable of missing bats, and as a result working inside the strike zone may not be beneficial to best emphasize his swing-and-miss stuff. On the other hand, guys like Nicolino who have less ability to coax missed bats may need to supplement their strikes by working low in the strike zone, like the Marlins like in their pitchers. The point is that every pitcher is different, and guys cannot all fit a single organizational mold.
The difference is if pitchers are taught an entirely different skill. Indoctrination in use of a different pitch, like a consistent two-seamer or cutter offering, as part of a repertoire and program that is taught to most promising prospects is something that can help mold guys towards a certain mold. However, not every pitcher needs that treatment, and if a guy like Fernandez comes around who has obvious stuff and needs help with pitchability and utilization of his stuff, the coaching staff should tailor their training towards the pitcher's skills instead of enforcing a model.
At the same time, there is an obvious benefit to hanging around the strike zone, and for each pitcher, there is a sweet spot where their ideal combination of missed bats, walks, and contact type intertwine. You are seeing an example of how Jose Fernandez may be falling out of his ideal zone in 2016. In the 2013 season, Fernandez's strikeout rate was at his career lowest at 27.5 percent, but his zone rate was at its highest at 55 percent. This season, it is the opposite, with a huge strikeout rate of 33.1 percent paired with his lowest zone rate down at 49 percent. However, he has also labored with fewer innings per start and his highest walk rate. Part of that may be a command issue, but part of it may be an effort to work more around the fringes and less in the middle of the zone, and it may not be a healthy trade-off for Fernandez as of right now.
The Marlins have to tailor their approach with each pitcher differently without too much of a focus on working low in the zone for weaker contact. Guys like Conley may need different approaches to success in the big leagues. At the same time, there needs to be a balance of basics and a fundamental approach from high up, and the team's developmental crew should be working hard to find that balance of guys who need help and guys who need fine-tuning. Hopefully Jim Benedict and Marc DelPiano, great developmental guys from a Pittsburgh Pirates organization with an overall philosophy on pitching, can help find that middle ground.