The debut of a pitching prospect is always an exciting time for a team and for the fans. Unlike with a position player, this young man is going to be on camera for almost half the game, having intense direct influence over the success and failure of his new club.
If he’s good, he could herald a whole new era for the franchise. The Colorado Rockies, due to the savage nature of their Bizzaro Land stadium, get to experience this seemingly dozens of times a season. This year one name on that list is Antonio Senzatela, a hard-throwing Venezuelan who made the leap from double-A Hartford (where he never played a home game) to Colorado to open the season. Making that leap is a feat in itself, but through two starts Senzatela has looked quite good for a hopeful Rockies organization.
Admittedly, two of the teams Senzatela has faced are the Milwaukee Brewers and San Diego Padres, which barring a miracle or some wild breakout season from a few players are expected to be found at the bottom of the standings sooner rather than later. Both those teams do employ talented hitters though, the Padres with Wil Myers, Yangervis Solerte and possibly Manuel Margot (who took Senzatela deep on the 11th) and the Brewers with Jonathan Villar and Eric Thames(...maybe he’s good now??), and Ryan Braun, among others. Braun also had an off day when Senzatela pitched. But on Sunday he got to face a contender in the San Francisco Giants, and held his own quite well. The strikeout numbers weren’t quite what you’d hope for with 95+ heat, and he got to see San Francisco on a Buster Posey off day, but he danced out of danger several times and gave the bullpen a lead.
So he’s avoided the lion’s share of the possible danger he could have faced, dodging a pair of former MVP’s in Ryan Braun and Buster Posey, but the 2.37 ERA, the strong strikeout numbers (though a 3 K day against the Giants has dragged that down to only 6.63 per nine, but it was in the high eights prior) and only 1.89 BB/9 along with the 2.93 FIP tell a story of an already mature pitcher. He’s still very much a thrower rather than a pitcher, relying on that mid-90s heat to get most of his strikeouts. But the slider has shown itself to be a valuable tool as a change of pace. Here’s him getting a hideous whiff on Sunday:
When it works and when he gets two planes of action on the pitch, and it drops while snapping away from righties, he can use it to complement the fastball and get strikeouts. He’s already good at locating the fastball down in the zone, which is vital for future success. When Madison Bumgarner was a rookie he was pretty good, and one of the many things he did better than other rookies tend to was keeping the ball down:
That’s stuck with me as a harbinger of future success. It doesn’t look like his later years, but there aren’t many fastballs up in the zone, where hitters can turn on it. He grooved some, sure. That’s what rookies do. But this is what Senzatela’s looks like so far this year.
It’s a pleasingly comparable. He could work further up, since unlike Bumgarner he’s got elite velocity, but being able to dot fastballs at the bottom of the strike zone (with some favorable framing) is immensely helpful:
You could argue whether that should have been called a ball, but the fact remains that if you keep the ball down in the zone, it will lead to success.
On Sunday Senzatela threw the most sliders in a game in his young career. He also gave up the most runs in a game in his early career. The problem with the slider is, if it’s not down, well, this happens:
That was from his start a week prior against the Padres, and he kept the ball in the park in San Francisco. In fact, he did locate the slider quite well in several key spots. He allowed all his runs early, not throwing a slider until the final pitch of the first inning. By then the Giants had pushed three runs across, but that would be it. Nearly all the hits the Giants got were on fastballs, which makes sense because he threw 62 of them, but also because the book was already to sit on the fastball since it was all he threw. By mixing in that change of pace slide piece, Senzatela turned what appeared to be his first 'Welcome to the Show' moment into a positive learning experience.
He is also able to use the fastball in conjunction with that slider in what is called tunneling. Basically, it’s throwing two pitches in arm slot and the same area of the zone, or tunnel, so the batter is even less sure of what he's seeing. He only has a bit of time to react, and this makes it even harder. It looks a bit like this:
That was the fastball.
Then a slider. Villar fouled two off, then got rung up on another fastball in just the same place., eliminating probably the most accomplished hitter in the lineup. Rather than just heaving it and hoping, Senzatela is locating precisely and knocking down All Star caliber players.
I am intrigued by Antonio Senzatela. He still only has about one and a half to two pitches and needs to figure out that changeup, but with his ability to keep the ball down and locate the slider on the corners with consistency, maybe he won’t be just another Rockies pitcher thrown into the meat grinder. He needs to get his ground ball rate up more, right now it's in the low 40’s. In Colorado, with that infield defense, that spacious outfield and the thin air, getting balls hammered into the ground is of paramount importance. That means in the low 50s if possible. There’s too much unknown here since he’s a rookie with less than 20 innings under his belt, but I for one will be watching his career with great interest.
Merritt Rohlfing writes for Beyond the Box Score and Let's Go Tribe, and podcasts on sites across the internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @MerrittRohlfing