MLB: Seattle Mariners at Toronto Blue Jays

Heart and Eyes vs. Brain: The Joe Biagini Starter Warning

Joe Biagini burst onto the scene last year, straight out of the Richmond Flying Squirrels (Giants’ AA team) and into our hearts. As a Rule 5 pick, the odds are stacked against you because you have to be able to stay on a Major League roster for the entire season or be offered back to where you came from. But Biagini surpassed all expectations, making himself one of the better young relievers, not only in Canada, but in all of baseball.

A starter in the minors, Biagini added velocity when he moved to the pen and it certainly helped him. He struck out 21 percent of the batters he faced last year, more than he had in any minor league season since 2012 in Low A Augusta. With injuries ravaging the Toronto Blue Jays rotation, Biagini was called back to start a game against the Tampa Bay Rays. He certainly lived up to the task.

Biagini gave up only two hits and one run – unearned – striking out four and walking not a single batter. However, he only faced 15 batters in four innings, as expected on a spot start, so we didn’t know how this might translate to a full start, however one typically defines it. He followed that up with another good game against the Mariners, going five plus innings, striking out three, giving up four hits and walking no one.

Biagini has excellent stuff and he’s a lot of fun to watch pitch, but there is definitely cause for concern. Joe Biagini has two big questions that must be answered before the Jays fan base pencils him into the “Rotation of the Future.” The first has to do with his pitch mix. The second with how his velocity will be able to hold up.

Here on BP, tunneling has become a topic of substantial interest for good reason. Tunneling, essentially the idea that if two pitches look the same but aren’t that they’ll be tougher to hit, helps with deception. But at least in my humble opinion it isn’t the most important thing to look for with regards to pitch mix. That would be blending.

There’s some overlap between tunneling and blending, so this certainly isn’t meant to discount tunneling, only that it misses part of the story that blending captures better. With tunneling, you’re essentially measuring the gap between pitches over the course of their journey from release to the plate, seeing how similar they can be until the batter chooses to swing. With blending, you’re looking at the movement patterns. Basically, which pitches are similar enough to trick the batter, if used properly. The classic blending study would be a changeup that has the same horizontal movement to a pitcher’s fastball, but differs when it comes to vertical movement. A good example would be Alex Cobb and his 2014 season:

Four Seam Change Up Separation
Speed (mph) 92.69 87.91 4.78
HMov (in.) -7.3 -8.06 0.76
VMov (in.) 10.1 3.21 6.89

For some other information on blending, look here, here or at anyone who’s pitched for Andrew Friedman’s two teams in the last five years.

Now this isn’t the only way to have a good changeup. You can blend using vertical movement too, but it’s not good to have both be drastically different from the fastball. You would normally want one to be similar, if you were going to use a pitch regularly, without them all being too similar to the fastball.

The word regularly is important. Of course, if you have a pitch that’s wildly different from the fastball then it can be used, just not regularly. Either quite rarely, or like Rich Hill and Lance McCullers, as another main pitch. This idea, specifically with changeups and also not named as blending, can be explored here by Harry Pavlidis. This also comes with the caveat that if the velocity gap is extreme (difference >= 12 mph), then that pitch will play as well. For that, look to Marco Estrada.

So, looking at Biagini:

Four Seam Change Up Separation
Speed (mph) 94.91 88.06 6.85
HMov (in.) -6.33 -9.32 2.99
VMov (in.) 9.54 5.41 4.13

You wouldn’t really say Biagini’s blending anything. There’s drastically different movement in both dimensions and the velocity difference isn’t enough to get any help there either. It also seems to be moving in the wrong direction; the table above is from this year, here is Biagini’s 2016 season:

Four Seam Change Up Separation
Speed (mph) 94.97 86.52 8.45
HMov (in.) -5.92 -7.81 1.89
VMov (in.) 9.62 5.37 4.25

This is both encouraging and discouraging because it means that the good changeup is in him but that he’s losing it.

Biagini’s Stuff has been a well documented subject by writers on this site. By me here, Matt Gwin here and Mike Sonne here. And that’s where the title comes in. I like Biagini as a character on the field. Having “One” as his entrance music, hugging teammates, chumming with Jimmy Fallon…he’s a likable, quirky guy, so I want him to succeed. I would want our Rule 5 pick to be great because it feels good to hold that over other teams. And his stuff is clearly elite, which is where my eyes come in. But my brain is fighting that prediction back.

Furthermore, Biagini’s curveball doesn’t have any blending ability with his fastball, for examples of that look at Clayton Kershaw or Drew Smyly. His curveball is a very good pitch, but it will probably struggle as he goes through the order.

Four Seam Curve Separation
Speed (mph) 94.91 80.38 14.53
HMov (in.) -6.33 4.33 10.00
VMov (in.) 9.54 -9.85 19.39

His cutter is also just a slightly muted version of his fastball:

Four Seam Cutter Separation
Speed (mph) 95.17 91.51 3.66
HMov (in.) -6.45 -0.58 -5.87
VMov (in.) 9.66 5.8 3.86

Stuff alone can make a reliever, which it clearly has in Biagini. Stuff and command can make a pretty competent starter, so let’s hope it does. But the blending is certainly something that could hold him back.

A possible fix to this would be throwing dramatically more curveballs to gain some of the Hill effect and make batters uncomfortable, but this might negatively impact his ability to limit walks.

A much bigger concern, though, is that his velocity will fall back down to the levels he showed in AA, about 91-93 as a starter. We haven’t seen him in a long enough start to really see how he adjusts to possibly throwing 90+ pitches, but in his first start, he was within the margin of error for velocity, compared to his time relieving. Velocity can turn bad pitchers good and good pitchers great, so that will be the first indicator if things are going to go backwards. There isn’t much to really say about this, given that if you’re reading BP then you know about how important velocity is and how relievers are able to max out in shorter spurts.

But the fact that his velocity didn’t deviate in his first start, a 52 pitch performance that has been covered here by Joshua Howsam, before falling in his second certainly shows that it is indeed a concern.

In his second start, Biagini’s fastball fell below 94 mph, while all other pitches lost around a mile per hour. This does not bode well for his potential future as a starter. Possibly the best visual for this:
Brooksbaseball-Chart

The chart above shows that other than a big of a spike in the third, Biagini’s velocity fell every inning that he pitched, which explains why he couldn’t get any strikeouts after the third.

I want Biagini to succeed as a starter for the Jays’ sake, for his sake, and for the sake of fun. His stuff looks good and he throws hard, all of which would point towards success. But he might run into problems with his pitch mix, and he probably will run into problems with maintaining his velocity.

Lead Photo © Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

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3 comments on “Heart and Eyes vs. Brain: The Joe Biagini Starter Warning”

Mark

Wouldn’t you expect a guy who isn’t stretched out to see his velocity drop as the game goes on? That’s why he isn’t going deep into games yet or having high pitch counts. If he’s still doing that once he’s stretched out, then that would be more meaningful.

It would be interesting to see this if he’s in the rotation for a longer period of time.

Cole Nefsky

The reason that pitchers get stretched out is more about preventing injury or learning how to keep gas in the tank as the game goes on. So you might expect that the fall of Biagini’s velo over the course of a game might not behave like that, but you would expect it to be lower than his current first inning velocity.

Chuck

Cole,
This is a great read, really enjoyed how you broke down the issues. His usage of his secondary pitches seems to fluctuate from start to start too.

One question I would have is how encompassing blending is as an attribute of successful off speed stuff, even if the pitch is a rarity or a mainstay. Is it possible that a part of it is that Biagini is sequencing his pitches effectively?
A movement chart for comparison:
2015-mid2016 Jake Arrieta: https://goo.gl/U394Ye
2017 Joe Biagini: https://goo.gl/y7qZgP

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