Delabar Talks Velocity And His Pitch Repertoire
After approaching Steve Delabar at his locker before a recent Blue Jays game, one thing became clear: radar gun readings are of little concern to him.
"I'm not worried at all about velocity," he said.
With that being said, we haven't witnessed the same Delabar we saw a year ago. The one we have watched through two-plus months of the season hasn't thrown with the same velocity or consistency and he's punching out the opposition with much less frequency than he did during his 2013 All-Star campaign. His strikeout rate is down over 10 percent, his walk rate -- which has never been good -- is at a career-high mark, and fastballs north of 96 mph aren't flashing across the screen anymore.
Delabar's average four-seam fastball is slightly down from last season, but a one mph drop isn't what jumps out the most regarding his velocity. It's his max speed, which is down two mph from the height of where it was the last two seasons. We aren't seeing those 97s and 98s when Delabar rears back -- 96 mph and change is the fastest pitch he has thrown, per Brooks Baseball. But that's been the case dating back to last season slightly before and after he hit the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation.
Was there some sort of lasting effect? Delabar says no, insisting that he has made a conscious decision to not go full throttle every time out, and that he's still capable of chucking upper-90s fastballs. He burned out last season, something he's hoping to avoid again.
"It's there and I think it will be there," Delabar said, "but instead of tapering off as the season goes, this is where I am right now and then I'll build up.
"Over all the innings we build up over the year, you are going to have some breakdown a little bit. I would rather hit the slope on the way up as the season goes as opposed to going down as the season goes with a small, steady decline."
It's a smart strategy by Delabar if it actually comes to fruition. Delabar says his arm feels good and the Blue Jays haven't held back his usage, either, which is a good sign. With Dustin McGowan, who's able to go more than an inning at a time, throwing well out of the bullpen and fellow righty Sergio Santos inching closer to a return, manager John Gibbons has the luxury of pitching Delabar in some lower-leverage spots while he attempts to get back on track. But Delabar will remain a big part of the club's relief corps.
In addition to his velocity, there's some interesting data that emerges when diving into Delabar's numbers.
What's good news is that he's not getting hit, as Delabar is holding opponents to a measly .195 batting average this season, which is lower than any Toronto reliever outside of Aaron Loup. His .220 batting average on balls in play, a year after it was .328 and .245 in 2012, suggests there has been some luck involved but the fact remains that control has been more of Delabar's undoing than anything else. He's putting too many runners on and, as a result, a base hit is going to cash runs and shoot his ERA up. Working with such a small amount of innings, though, ERA is not the best indicator of performance.
The right-hander's home run to fly ball rate is up compared to last season -- slightly above league average-- but down from the sky-high mark it was in 2012. But with an extremely high walk rate (16%, the fourth highest among qualified American League relievers) and pedestrian strikeout rate, his defense-independent numbers -- like FIP (5.38) and xFIP (5.17) -- don't paint a rosier picture than his 5.09 ERA does. He simply hasn't pitched well.
A mechanical issue, as told in this piece by John Lott, is what Delabar believes has hindered his performance.
Opposing players are swinging at his fastball just as much as usual but have drastically cut back on the amount they offer at his slider. The swing rate on his splitter is down, too.
Delabar is generating more grounders on his slider than ever before, up nearly 25 percent from last season. But he's not getting batters to chase the pitch like he did in 2013. The swing percentage he has generated on sliders out of the zone has been cut in half, which is a big reason his swinging strike rate on the pitch has tumbled, as well.
With the decrease in velocity, whiffs, and batters showing more selectivity at the plate, are players tempting him to beat them with his heater more often? Delabar doesn't believe so.
"Early in my career in Seattle I was having similar things. If I wasn't getting ahead, I would have to come with the fastball and I was giving up quite a few home runs there," Delabar said. "When I did get ahead, I was able to throw the split. I didn't necessarily have the slider there.
"I have to put myself in favorable counts in order to throw those pitches out of the zone and get swings and misses and chases on them. Guys aren't going to typically chase early in the count unless there are guys in scoring position. [You need to] get ahead and be able to put yourself in a situation where a guy is going to swing and chase. It's about keeping the ball down and then once you get ahead, expand the zone."
The slider is a pitch that has evolved for Delabar. His usage rate with the pitch is at a career-high mark. As he said, he barley threw it in Seattle and didn't really start featuring the offering until last season. One thing he has also done is increase the amount of first-pitch sliders he throws to right-handers -- up 13% from last season -- especially with runners in scoring position (53% compared to 16% in 2013) in an attempt to generate early and weak contact on the ground. Delabar didn't want to become too predictable on the mound so he has tried to make an effort to throw more sliders in fastballs counts.
The 30-year-old is still fastball-slider and occasional splitter to righties, and fastball-splitter to lefties, but the key is to be able to throw any pitch at any time, he said.
"I have added the slider a little bit more this year than in the past. It's more of a quality pitch for me this year," said Delabar, who has surrendered one hit off his slider this season, per Brooks Baseball, on a 3-2 pitch that the Angels' C.J. Cron drove over the fence on May 12.
"The slider that I had last year, I might not throw it when I'm down in the count because I wouldn't want to risk going further down. Now if I'm down 1-0 -- slider. It's a trust thing. You have to have feel of all your pitches."
Not a lot of pitchers throw a splitter, and a big reason for that is because it's not the most natural pitch to grip. Having big hands, something the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder possesses, is the key.
Below is a Q&A with Delabar about how he landed on his three-pitch mix.
A pitcher needs to generate large separation between their index and middle fingers when throwing a splitter, and the space that's needed can be very uncomfortable for some, preventing them from throwing the pitch. But the ones who do throw the split can get big swing-and-miss rates on it. Why's that?
"[Because] it's not a strike pitch; it's a strike to ball, so it's in the zone and then out of the zone," Delabar explains. "It's an effective pitch but you have to be able to split. But for me it's an easy pitch to grip."
Why do you throw a splitter instead of, say, a circle changeup?
"When I used to throw to a changeup I used to tell people it's like Shaq shooting a free throw," Delabar said, while demonstrating how his hands are too big to grip it comfortably. "I have no feel because the ball is so far back in my hand, I feel like I have no feel on the tip of my fingers. Now, the split, I'm able to split it pretty easy and there is no strain for me and I don't have to really dig it in there. Just split my fingers and throw the ball.
"It's a comfort thing. I've been throwing the splitter since high school. I know what it's supposed to do and I know the result I want to get from it. With the split, you are going to get a faster speed and quicker break. The circle change or forkball, you are going to get a slower break and slower speed. Curveball, slider similar. It's all about arm motion and grip."
Is there typically a general way each pitch should be held?
"It's about finding what works for you and what's most comfortable and trust it. Some guys can take their breaking ball and throw a slider and curveball with the same grip. [Hall of Famer] Bert Blyleven threw his fastball and curveball with the same grip. He had one of the nastiest curveballs in the game ever."
How did you arrive on the grips you have?
"I've been playing baseball for so long and you run into what feels good throughout the minor leagues, and now the grips I use in the major leagues are the grips I used in high school," Delabar said. "After all the change in this and trying this, doing that, it's back to what I had then. I'm getting the results that I want.
"The slider grip that I'm throwing is the old curveball grip that I used to throw but I get a different break based on the way that I throw it."
What happened to the curveball? You haven't thrown it as a big leaguer, when did you decide to ditch it?
"I didn't ditch it. I was with the Padres in the minor leagues and they were like 'You can't throw a curveball anymore,'" Delabar said.
The Kentucky native, selected in the 29th round of the 2003 draft, began his professional career as a starting pitcher in the Padres organization. And because he was starting, he was told his repertoire needed an overhaul.
"They went to the slider. The curveball had, I don't want to say straight 12-to-6 action, but it did have a hard break down and they wanted more of a strike pitch," he said. "So a contact pitch. Throw the slider in the zone and it breaks down and away, curveball was in and out of the zone. They needed me to throw something that was more strikes that could get weak contact.
"The split was the same thing. I came out of college with a curveball and a split, and they said we need changeup and slider, not split and curveball because as a starter you need to create contact. If I would have known early on that I'm a reliever, and this is the way it's going to be, I might have had different success right now."
Considering he sustained a near career-ending elbow injury that temporarily knocked him out of professional baseball before making his major league debut in 2011 -- eight years after he was drafted by the Padres -- it's safe to say Delabar has already achieved plenty of success.