The scouting and development of pitchers is a multimillion-dollar industry. The amount of computers, cameras, and sensors employed by MLB franchises, college teams, youth clubs, private tutors, and coaches to track and assist pitchers would’ve been sufficient to run an aerospace company a generation ago. Other sports—and other positions within baseball—utilize high-speed cameras and tracking data in scouting and coaching. But no position is scrutinized to the millimeter-precise level that pitchers are.
On a very basic level, though, it’s not worth anywhere near that type of fuss.
Look at where most of our Cy Young contenders come from. Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, and Justin Verlander were spectacular college pitchers with stupefying stuff. Yu Darvish, Kenta Maeda, and Hyun-Jin Ryu came to MLB after dominating de facto major league competition overseas. Clayton Kershaw, Lucas Giolito, and Zack Greinke practically cried out with big league potential while they were still taking driver’s ed.
Future aces get into the American professional baseball pyramid primarily through one of two avenues: the first round of the draft, or seven- or eight-figure international free agent deals. Most of them don’t pan out; the developmental path for a front-end MLB starter is so arduous that we ought to send Viggo Mortensen to the draft in a mustache and sunglasses to quote poetry at the prospects. The survivors of that system don’t generally surprise anyone.
But while scouting and evaluation are a multimillion-dollar industry, Major League Baseball is a multibillion-dollar industry. That means edge cases and outliers can make or break a team’s fortunes for years. For example: Jacob deGrom, a college shortstop who’s added a mile an hour to his fastball pretty much every year for a decade. He’s won two Cy Young awards already in his seven-season career and led the Mets to their only pennant since 2000. Then there’s Shane Bieber, a mid-major pitcher whose biggest skill used to be command of a fastball that sat around 90 miles per hour, but who is now a Cy Young winner with a strikeout rate north of 40 percent. He’s a dominant enough starter that Cleveland was willing to do without Bauer, Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, or Carlos Carrasco and instead try to build a winning rotation around him.
New York and Cleveland have pulled some of the best pitchers in baseball from obscurity, turning little-known college strike throwers into near-unhittable superstars. We know where to look for the next Cole or Kershaw, but the far more challenging question is this: Where will the next Bieber come from?
The unifying characteristics of top pitching prospects is solid stuff: fastball velocity, a knee-buckling curveball, and a bat-freezing changeup—ideally at least two of them, plus the capacity to throw them for strikes. For most of the history of the sport, these abilities were viewed primarily as innate physical gifts; a baseball scout might treat fastball velocity much like a football scout would treat a 40-yard dash time.
Over time, though, we’ve discovered that these things can be learned. Gerrit Cole learned his curveball from Pirates teammate A.J. Burnett. Roy Halladay picked up a cutter in 2008 after chatting with Mariano Rivera at the All-Star Game. But in the past decade, pitch design has become far less folksy and far more scientific, to the point where “pitch design” as such is a term of art. There’s some innate skill required to spin an effective breaking ball, but pitchers can otherwise maximize their stuff through scientific experimentation.
“A big step up in being able to understand a pitcher’s repertoire [was] measuring devices like TrackMan, like Rapsodo,” says Jimmy Buffi, CEO of Reboot Motion and a former biomechanics consultant at Driveline Baseball and senior analyst with the Los Angeles Dodgers. “The first big thing coming out of that was spin rate. But the next thing after that is the result of the spin rate, which is the break. So something that people talk about now or measure is what’s called ‘induced vertical break,’ which is essentially the amount of vertical movement the pitcher imparts on the ball with the grip.”
Now, pitchers can enhance their repertoires not just by refining what they throw and when, but by making adjustments to individual pitches that optimize spin and movement. One can build a better curveball—like a better airplane or race car—through aerodynamic analysis.
Velocity, it turns out, is also something that can now be taught. Buffi has guided coaches and pitchers through the process, using a complex series of mechanical analyses that show pitchers how to maximize efficiency and velocity.
“What our motion analysis technology does is use physics to identify inefficiencies in movement,” he says. “One of the coolest things about diving into the biomechanical analysis space is really understanding how much of traditional coaching is actually spot on when it comes to physics. But at the same time, part of the value we bring is we really help identify specific movement inefficiencies. Then the key is to help coaches target those.”
Buffi said he didn’t want to make too bold a statement, but he and Reboot cofounder Evan Demchick believe most pitchers are leaving at least a couple miles an hour on the table through inefficiencies in their windup.
“There’s a risk/reward here,” Buffi says, “because we’re talking about a human being, and there are interdependencies within the motion. So when you change something, it [can have] these downstream effects that you don’t anticipate and could actually be detrimental.”
So while a pitcher who already has great stuff might be hesitant to lose deception or risk injury by trying a new breaking ball or tweaking his motion, a pitching prospect with more to gain might be more receptive … for instance, a former mid-round pick who threw a lot of strikes in college but was viewed as little more than a back-end starter coming into the pros.
Andrew Checketts doesn’t have the luxury of judging pitchers on stuff alone. The head baseball coach at the University of California–Santa Barbara knows that high school pitchers with first-round velocity and breaking stuff are probably going to get drafted and sign with a professional club before they even make it to campus. And those few who do make it to campus tend to end up at major-conference programs with a reputation for developing top-end pro prospects: Florida, Vanderbilt, and the like. The Gauchos, meanwhile, play in the Big West, a mid-major conference that’s nevertheless home to powerhouse programs like Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State, providing an awkward combination of stiff combination and lack of resources and exposure.
Checketts is a former pitching coach who’s been able to build his program around pitching—and he’s had some success. In 2015, Gauchos right-hander Dillon Tate, now of the Baltimore Orioles, was the first pitcher off the board in the MLB draft. A year later, UCSB made its first trip to the College World Series, thanks to a certain 6-foot-3 junior from Laguna Hills.
“[Bieber] was not highly recruited, but he was a successful high school pitcher,” Checketts says. “A bit of a late bloomer, from the moment he set foot on campus he threw strikes. I felt like you could blindfold him and spin him around three times and he’d still throw strikes.”
Bieber obviously wasn’t the same pitcher then as he is now. His college fastball was three-to-five miles an hour slower. His breaking ball was a little limp, a far cry from the hellacious core-of-a-spinning-gas-giant curve he’s throwing nowadays.
But what he did have is something Checketts described as “advanced feel,” which manifests in command of the fastball and at least one secondary pitch. Checketts says he prioritizes command over flashier skills that bigger baseball programs might look for, but in this respect, even Bieber was an outlier. In three years at UCSB, Bieber walked just 38 batters in an even 300 innings. And in his three minor league seasons, he issued just 17 unintentional walks in 277 innings, for a BB/9 ratio of 0.6.
“Some of that’s out of necessity,” Checketts says of pitchers like Bieber. “They’re not hard throwers when they’re younger, so they figure out how to throw it down the middle of the plate. And then they’re successful in high school because they have the ability to throw the fastball where they want it.”
Can this quality be taught at the college level?
“By the time they get to us, it’s really tough,” Checketts says. “I think it’s something that they pick up when they’re younger. We see guys improve, we see guys throw more strikes, but most of the time we see guys’ strike percentage increase because their stuff gets better and they get chased out of the zone a little bit more, or they can challenge people in the zone. But it’s tough for us to get them enough reps and enough experience to develop that at a super-high level in college.”
Raw pitchers with good stuff can learn how to pitch in the low minors, where they get regular innings in situations where the results matter less than the process. But pitchers who already learned the craft and can hit their spots consistently enter pro ball with far less to learn, regardless of what the radar gun says.
Cleveland picked Bieber in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, 122nd overall. Eleven picks earlier, the Brewers had spent their fourth-round pick on another right-hander from a California mid-major: Corbin Burnes of St. Mary’s College. And five picks before Burnes, the St. Louis Cardinals had taken another right-hander with good command but uninspiring stuff: North Carolina’s Zac Gallen.
Gallen, it bears mentioning, doesn’t like being described that way.
“There were always times when I’d read those things, like ‘He’s a no. 4 starter,’ or whatever it is,” Gallen says. “I always go back to this: The day you pitch, you’re the ace, you’re the no. 1. I always thought I was better than I got credit for, and it’s just going to propel me to prove to whoever wrote the [article] or the scouting report that I’m better than that.”
Like Bieber, both Gallen and Burnes were undrafted and not particularly heralded out of high school. Gallen ended up at North Carolina, a school that’s done good business recruiting in the Northeast, most notably landing a teenaged Matt Harvey in 2007. And even late in high school, Burnes was still a growth spurt away from the stocky, 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame he wears now, and four or five miles an hour short of his current fastball velocity.
“I was able to maybe touch 90 [mph] in high school,” Burnes says. “For me, it was more that I was able to throw strikes and compete. [St. Mary’s was] taking a flier on me hoping that I’d grow into a bigger body, and eventually it came.”
It’s not like Gallen or Burnes were total unknowns coming out of college; Burnes had a big summer in the Cape Cod League after his sophomore season, then led St. Mary’s to the NCAA tournament and finished 15th in Division I in strikeouts as a junior. Gallen spent three years in the weekend rotation for one of the biggest programs in the ACC. But neither had knockout stuff.
Or so we thought at the time.
Twenty-two months into his MLB career, Gallen’s four-seamer still comes in at around 93 mph—which is downright pedestrian for a right-handed starter in this day and age. But that pitch is surrounded by a killer secondary repertoire that he’s been able to build up over time.
The 25-year-old New Jerseyan has had a good changeup dating back to college, but over his professional career, he’s evolved into a true four-pitch pitcher, refining both a curveball and something he calls a cutter (though at 87 mph with hard-diving action, it behaves like a power slider).
“The more pitches you have, the more weapons you have to fall back on,” Gallen says. “Something I’ve taken pride in is being unpredictable in any count, throwing the book out the window and just throwing different pitches in different scenarios.”
Over the course of our conversation, Gallen described specific periods over the past two years in which he made a concerted effort to improve each of his three secondary pitches. In 2019, he heard that Max Scherzer would try to spin certain pitches while playing catch from 30 to 40 feet in order to get accustomed to how they feel coming out of his hand, so Gallen used that technique to get more comfortable with his curveball. The following offseason he experimented with his cutter, learning how to manipulate it from pitch to pitch. Then this past winter, he went back to work on his changeup because he felt he hadn’t commanded it consistently in 2020.
“That’s my thing. I try to never get complacent with where I’m at,” Gallen says. “I’m always trying to evolve, always looking at different ways to be successful. Even today I was talking about a pitch I don’t have in my repertoire. It’s just something in the back of my mind, because at some point I might need that pitch.”
Even without full command of his changeup, Gallen was spectacular in 2020, posting a 2.75 ERA in 12 starts and earning Cy Young votes for the first time. He came into 2021 vowing to improve on that ninth-place finish, though a hairline forearm fracture in spring training forced him to miss his first two starts. When Gallen did return to action on Tuesday, he was as good as ever, striking out eight and allowing just one run in four innings of work.
According to Baseball Savant, Gallen’s best pitch in 2020 was his curveball, which was also his least-used offering. But given the fact that his four pitches fall in three different velocity bands and all break in different ways, Gallen can show hitters more looks than they can reasonably be expected to cover. That’s something he learned as an amateur pitcher who couldn’t get by on pure stuff.
“If you can outsmart, outsequence hitters, there’s something to be said for that,” Gallen says. “And then, if your stuff jumps, it all clicks, and now you’re ready to do some damage.”
Burnes landed on a few top-100 prospect lists during his minor league career before bursting onto the scene in 2018, when he slotted in as part of Milwaukee’s superweapon of a bullpen. Over 36 regular-season and playoff appearances, Burnes posted an 8-0 record and looked like a prime candidate to transition into Milwaukee’s rotation.
But then in 2019, Burnes allowed 17 home runs and 52 runs total in just 49 innings, as the four-seamer-slider combination he’d used throughout his career abandoned him. Burnes says he’d started to throw the slider more, at the Brewers’ urging, but he ended up showing it to hitters too much. Meanwhile, he was losing his handle on his fastball. In college, his four-seamer had some arm-side run that made it pair well with the slider. But things changed after he got drafted.
“Once I got into minor league ball,” Burnes says, “I changed things mechanically, a little bit different arm slot. My four-seamer started to get straighter and have a slight cut action, which took away the effectiveness of my four-seamer. I came up in ’18 and was able to get away with it, but in ’19 it got exposed.”
So ahead of the 2020 season, Burnes all but junked the four-seamer and replaced it with a cutter and a sinker. That combination works well because the two fastballs come in at a similar speed but break late in opposite directions. Ryu and Lance Lynn are two of the elite practitioners of this approach, and individually, they’ve shown it can work: On the first weekend of this season, Lynn struck out Mike Trout twice throwing nothing but a variety of fastballs.
Only those guys don’t throw nearly as hard as Burnes does; Burnes’s sinker and cutter both come in at 97.3 and 95.8 miles per hour, respectively. That puts Burnes at 12th and second in average velocity for those pitch types. He also has the fastest-spinning repertoire of any starter in baseball. Out of 209 pitchers with enough playing time to qualify for the Baseball Savant leaderboard last year, Burnes had the third-fastest-spinning slider and cutter, the second-fastest-spinning four-seam fastball, the second-fastest-spinning sinker, and the eighth-fastest-spinning curveball.
All told, Burnes enjoyed a tremendous 2020 regular season, with a 2.11 ERA and 36.7 percent strikeout rate in 59 2/3 innings. He received a few down-ballot votes for Cy Young and might have broken into the top three had an oblique injury not ended his season early.
And he’s been even better in 2021. More specifically, he’s been the best pitcher in the league by far. In three starts, Burnes has pitched 18 1/3 innings, struck out 30, and allowed just one run and six baserunners in total. No other pitcher in the past 120 years has had a streak of three straight games with at least six innings pitched and two baserunners or fewer.
Bieber’s Cy Young campaign didn’t come out of nowhere; he was an All-Star in 2019, after all. And now Gallen and Burnes are looking to make similar progress on their own breakout campaigns from last year—with Burnes already being considered the front-runner for the NL Cy Young at this early moment.
Burnes and Gallen don’t have much in common with each other—or Bieber, for that matter—except their throwing hands and draft year. And the answer they gave when I asked how much they relied on technology to help them refine their pitching repertoires.
“I’ll look at it in the offseason to see how things are progressing, but once I get into the season, primarily it’s ‘Hey, let’s see how things are feeling,’” Burnes says. “For me, everything is about feel. … What I’ve gotten really good at over the last year is knowing how my body feels, knowing how the baseball is coming out and the feeling I have, and how I can make slight manipulations.”
For Gallen, “It’s mostly just feel. I’m a huge feel pitcher. It’s a double-edged sword—you can start searching for feel that might not be repeatable. But for a lot of these pitches, I have an idea of how they should feel coming off my fingers, and how my body should feel. So for me it’s just about getting that feel and trying to repeat it.”
That’s the “advanced feel” Checketts saw in Bieber as a high schooler, and the unifying trait that allowed all three to have success up to and through college before their stuff ticked up to front-end MLB starter quality. It’s also the area in which the standard citius, altius, fortius conception of athleticism fails to encapsulate what makes pitching so difficult.
Developing feel takes time and effort—Checketts says it “goes unmentioned, that work ethic and drive of those guys we’re talking about. That’s the consistent factor, they just have this innate desire to be great, and work at it.”
Gallen says his teammates tease him for how deliberate he is while playing catch. “I’m just trying to understand every time I’m out there what happened on that pitch,” he says. “Did it come off correctly, or did it come off incorrectly, and why? I’m just really going to pay attention, because I feel like over the last couple years that attention to detail with those things has made me successful.”
But feel is, if not innate, then at least very difficult to teach someone who doesn’t have it. Perhaps, in this age of pitch design and advanced biomechanical analysis, it’s more difficult to teach than fastball velocity.
“Teaching command and control is one of the bigger challenges for pitchers, because so much of it is mental,” Buffi says. “And it’s these fine motor movements. So I think at the end of the draft, it’s probably a better bet drafting a strike thrower and trying to develop the velocity, rather than drafting velocity and trying to develop the strike throwing.”
When I first wrote about Bieber two years ago, I likened his developmental path to that of a basketball player who developed a guard’s skills and grew into a power forward’s body. That comparison turns out to be useful—and literally true in Burnes’s case—but flawed. In basketball, there’s no substitute for size. But in baseball, there’s no substitute for feel.