It's fine to think that Clayton Mortensen was an underwhelming return in the Marco Scutaro trade of this past off-season. The Red Sox also had Scutaro's salary taken off of their hands, clearing luxury tax room and payments owed from the record in the process, and that seemed to be the focal point of this trade. After all, Mortensen was a pitcher who had mostly struggled in both the high minors and in the majors, as he didn't miss many bats, and relied almost entirely on groundballs to get by.
He did have an option, however, meaning he was depth for the Red Sox, and yet another piece to toy with and find a home for if it came to it. While it was fair to think of Mortensen as just some pitcher in the minors, it was also fair to think of him as the 2012 Matt Albers, a pitcher with some stuff and little in the way of results to that point, who the Red Sox were going to see if they could squeeze production out of where others failed. Most importantly, an inexpensive pitcher under team control who the Red Sox could try this with -- a lottery ticket, if you will, like many non-elite bullpen arms are to begin with.
That's the thing with lottery tickets. You're likely to miss on almost all of them. It's why most draftees who come through the system don't make it to the majors, despite tools or an athletic build that suggest they should. But when you do hit on one of these tickets, it's generally worth it.
The Red Sox hope they have figured out what Mortensen needed to bring him closer to becoming the pitcher the Cardinals were envisioning when they drafted him as a first-round sandwich pick in the 2007 draft. We asked R.J. Anderson to give us a hand pinpointing what was different, and thanks to him, we can see the little change they've already made, one that might make a much larger difference:
On the left, you see Mortensen on the third base side of the rubber. On the right, in Wedneday night's relief appearance against the Athletics, he's on the first base side. What's significant about this little shift? Potentially a lot, given Mortensen's repertoire. He's a sinker, slider, change-up pitcher, one who relies on his secondary stuff and angles in order to succeed, especially since he tops out in the 87-88 mph range. In his first major-league appearance of the season, he essentially pitched backwards, relying on his change-up more than one-third of the time, and often using it to set up his sinker, in order to make it appear faster than the radar gun suggested it was. Perceived velocity is, in many ways, more important than actual velocity.
According to Anderson, who has been paying attention to these shifts on the rubber in 2012:
One talent evaluator I spoke to fingered sinkerballers, citing the angles the move creates against same-handed hitters. Going back to Peterson's Hudson move, a slide towards the first-base side gave Hudson free rein to throw his fastball and let the run take it to the inside corner against righties. The evaluator also pointed out that a better angle on secondary stuff away from the batter is an added benefit.
Mortensen is all secondary stuff and sinkers, and he fits what this talent evaluator believes to be the profile of a potential rubber shifter perfectly. The Red Sox agree, if last night was any indication, when Mortensen tested out that new starting point in the majors for the first time. The results? Three innings of shutout relief, with six strikeouts, no walks, and a hit allowed to his first base that was then followed by nine-straight retired A's, as well as a release point that more closely resembled his pre-Colorado days.
That's the follow-up to the 10 innings (and 10 strikeouts) of 0.90 ERA ball he's already thrown as a reliever in Pawtucket. It's early, and we're talking about just 13 innings, so getting too excited about what he's done isn't advised. But there's been a change in where he stands -- the kind that can bring success for a certain type of pitcher, in a mold he fits -- followed by better pitching than he's basically ever had as a professional. If it's hard to believe such a small thing could make this kind of difference, know that the Rays' Fernando Rodney made a similar move, and he's been lights out in 2012, even more so than when he was considered a productive reliever. Sometimes, all it takes is something little to get a pitcher back on course.
Three innings isn't going to tell us if the Red Sox hit it big on this 6-foot-4, right-handed lottery ticket. But given there's potential cause-and-effect here, the situation merits watching. Especially for a bullpen still trying to find itself after a month of baseball that counts.