Tyler Skaggs and the value of a fastball

Jeff Gross

After scuffling with the Diamondbacks, Tyler Skaggs has made significant improvements to his mechanics, allowing him to utilize a more effective fastball en route to becoming a better pitcher

So let's just clear the air to start things off: I like Tyler Skaggs. As the prize of the Dan Haren trade for the Diamondbacks back 2010, Skaggs was considered a top prospect for Arizona from 2011 through 2013. While I routinely write about the Diamondbacks somewhere else, I try to stay away from writing about the team here. But watching Tyler Skaggs mature for the Angels, now that he's back with the team that originally drafted him, is starting to feel like salt in the wound.

Skaggs was originally drafted with the 40th pick of the first round by the Angels back in 2009. He didn't stay in the organization long, however, as the Angels sent Patrick Corbin, Rafael Rodriguez, Joe Saunders and a PTBNL to Arizona for the aforementioned Dan Haren. Skaggs was the player to be named later in the deal and was sent to the Diamondbacks roughly two weeks after the trade was announced. He immediately jumped near the top spot in Arizona's prospect rankings.

Tyler Skaggs Prospect Rankings
MLB Rank Organization Rank Level
2010 - Angels n/a #9 A
2011 - Diamondbacks 83 #2 AA
2012 - Diamondbacks 21 #2 AAA
2013 - Diamondbacks 17 #1 MLB

*Rankings via Baseball Prospectus

In his time as a Diamondback, he pitched effectively at four different minor league levels without ever truly dominating. Still, scouts liked his ability to throw strikes and utilize his best weapon, an excellent curveball. His bugaboo was thought to be his hittable fastball, a pitch that had to be established for him to utilize the curve. His changeup was a developing third pitch but one that was thought to have average or better potential. The total package was more "solid" than "great," but Skaggs continued to hold promise for the Diamondbacks, which was of even higher importance once former top pick Trevor Bauer was traded to Cleveland for Didi Gregorius (in a three-team deal with Cincinnati).

Skaggs had a very forgettable debut late in 2012. It was seen as a trial for the young hurler and surely gave him plenty to work on over the winter and subsequent spring. Tyler found himself back in the majors by May of 2013. He dazzled in his first start but was shelled in his next two before being sent down. He found his was back in July and mixed one great outing with three that were essentially dismal. At this point, talk started surface of his mechanical tweaks that had been made on behalf of the Diamondbacks. His stride had shortened and his velocity was down despite some improvements to his posture and balance.

The perception of Skaggs seemed to change midway through 2013 despite the fact that he was a 21-year old top prospect. He was flipped back to the Angels over the winter (along with center fielder Adam Eaton who went to the White Sox) in a deal for Mark Trumbo that surely didn't help Kevin Towers' cause as the trade was seen as universally questionable by Diamondbacks writers and the analytics crowd as a whole. Back with his original team, they worked with him over the winter to revert his mechanics and made significant improvements to his momentum and release distance, according to Doug Thorburn or Baseball Prospectus. The results? A 3+ mile-per-hour improvement to his fastball velocity that allows him to establish his table-setting pitch once again.

The fastball improvements have been critical for Skaggs. He throws heaters as the first pitch to over 75% of the batters he faces. Against same-handed hitters, it's typically the fourseamer and against righties, it's a nearly even mixture of four seam and two seam fastballs. When he gets ahead with the heat, it allows him to showcase his other pitches. For example, check out what he did Desmond Jennings the other night.

Pitch 1: two seam fastball on the outer half with some sink

Skaggspitch1fixed_medium

The second pitch was a four seam fastball up and in to Jennings, likely to keep him from leaning out over the plate (not shown).

Pitch 3: changeup down with the bottom falling out

Skaggspitch3_medium

With Jennings down 1-2, anyone who's watched Tyler Skaggs pitch knew what was coming. Jennings might have, but couldn't save himself.

Pitch 4: curveball with serious break in the dirt

Skaggspitch4_medium

By getting ahead with the heat, Skaggs was able to utilize the rest of his offerings. Jennings looked pretty awful against the secondary pitches and it should be noted that he's struggled against breaking stuff in the past. Still, this was a glimpse of what Tyler Skaggs possesses. Like most pitchers, his results are significantly better when ahead in the count, and for a guy who throws a fastball as the first pitch to the vast majority of hitters, locating that fastball is key.

Trying to establish control of at-bats by getting ahead, there's been an interesting change in his pitch usage. When he debuted back in 2012, he threw a fourseamer 64% of the time. In 2013, he began using a two seam fastball much more, but his mechanics were a wreck and let's just say that neither heater faired well. In 2014, with order to his delivery restored, Skaggs continues to mix in his two fastball types.

Fastball Usage
Four Seam Two Seam
2012 - Diamondbacks 64% 7%
2013 - Diamondbacks 28% 32%
2014 - Angels 40% 29%

As you can imagine, the improved mechanics have made his fastballs more valuable. By weighted pitch values, we can see a big improvement in both heaters to go along with a more effective changeup. Of course, a lot of the improvement on the change is surely linked to the improvement with the heat. For a guy who needs the fastball to succeed, this is definitely a welcomed sign.

When it all adds up, Skaggs has still been merely okay. His 4.53 ERA is partly a result of a poor strand rate and his 3.87 FIP is much more palatable. The K's are down but his ground ball rate is up. He's walking fewer batters than ever before and they're hitting just .239 against him. Growth is the key, however, and he appears well on his way to fulfilling his projection as solid mid-rotation arm. For Diamondbacks fans, it's a bitter pill to swallow as he'd be the best starter on a staff that's struggled mightily. For Angels fans, he remains a work in progress, but he's on the right track.

*Stats courtesy of Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant and Baseball Prospectus

**Shout out to our editor extraordinaire Neil Weinberg for the sexy .gifs

. . .

Jeff Wiser is an editor and featured writer at Beyond the Box Score and co-author of Inside the 'Zona, an analytical look at the Arizona Diamondbacks. You can follow him on Twitter @OutfieldGrass24.

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