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Something as simple as a shift on the rubber could mean Allen Webster has unlocked his lofty potential
No one would dispute that Allen Webster has flat-out filthy stuff. He has a two-seamer with excellent velocity and sink, and supplements that with a variety of swing-and-miss secondary offerings including a change-up and two different breaking balls. That's precisely why it's easy to believe Webster can be a starting pitcher in the majors someday, maybe as soon as later in 2013. The problem with Webster, however, the thing that keeps the gap between his ceiling and floor as large as it is, has been control and command of those wicked pitches.
Webster has walked nearly four batters per nine in the minors, in just under 500 innings. His lowest walk rate since moving into full-season ball is 3.5 per nine, and his 2012 campaign, split between two different Double-A levels thanks to the Dodgers/Red Sox deal that brought him to Boston in the first place, resulted in 4.2 free passes per nine. Having ridiculous stuff and a deep repertoire is great, but an inability to command or control those pitches can result in failed potential as a starter, or force a career in relief.
Now, were Webster to become an impact, back-end reliever, it wouldn't be the end of the world for him or the Red Sox. However, the fact he has such good stuff, and with as many pitches as he does, means that what you truly want out of him is for the front line starter potential to be realized, giving Boston a presence to match up with, at the least, Clay Buchholz atop the Red Sox' rotation within the next couple of years. Without improved control, though, that isn't going to happen.
That's why the Red Sox have stepped in and tweaked Webster's mechanics, though, and the results have been seen this spring. Webster has punched out 14 batters in 11 innings, and against one walk. Yes, it's the spring, and it's hard to take these numbers seriously because of that. What's key here, though, is that this could be the start of a trend that should be watched throughout 2013, precisely because Boston adjusted Webster's mechanics.
Moving on the rubber might seem simple, but it can have profound effects on a pitcher's effectiveness. That's why it bears repeating the Juan Nieves quote that Alex Speier included in his excellent look at Webster on Wednesday:
"A lot of two-seamer guys, they're either in the middle of the rubber, or on the first base side of the rubber. Webby was way on the right side, so you see him chasing right-handers a lot because he's so far away. So when you move him over it gives him an easier plane to throw his sinker," said Nieves. "Instead of sitting on the third-base side trying to throw a sinker, you place him in the middle and the sinker plays a little more on top of the plate and you can run balls into righties. He can sink it away from a lefty. He can actually front-door a lefty or back-door a righty at a different angle."
The movement of a two-seamer, change-up, and slider tends to play up better within the strike zone -- and more accurately -- from a right-hander if they move left on the rubber. While Webster hasn't moved all the way over, he has moved to the middle, and it's likely responsible for a lot of what you're seeing in his spring numbers to this point. Is it definitely the reason? That's something we'll have to watch for this season, but the takeaway here is that it's certainly worth watching.
Webster is very, very different from Red Sox reliever Clayton Mortensen, but lessons learned from Mortensen can be applied to Webster. Mortensen is also a sinker, slider, change-up right-hander, and struggled with both command and control before coming to the Red Sox. While his stuff is nowhere near as good as Webster's, moving to the first base side of the rubber drastically changed the location and effectiveness of his middling repertoire, and helped him to a surprisingly productive 2012.
Mortensen isn't the only pitcher in recent memory to see this kind of dramatic shift. Fernando Rodney, the closer for the Rays, struggled with control and command for nearly the entirety of his nine-year career before the Rays inked him before the 2012 season. R.J. Anderson detailed the shift for Baseball Prospectus last year, in a piece that included this information from a talent evalutor on the sinker/slider/change-up type of pitchers and shifts on the rubber:
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.
This matches up with Nieves' take on Webster and a shift on the rubber, as well as with what happened with both Rodney and Mortensen throughout the course of the season -- Mortensen had his best year as a professional, while Rodney set the single-season record for reliever ERA thanks to over five times as many punch outs as free passes. While we don't know yet if Webster has been pointed in the right direction, the one that could turn him into the front line starter many scouts believe he has the stuff to be, we should know soon enough if the walks just don't come at the rates they used to.
He has other issues to work on -- Nieves also spoke of extraneous head movement that Webster is learning to correct -- but if shifting on the rubber can take care of his accuracy, then some of those problems will vanish on their own. Efficiency has long been a question mark for Webster, but if he can throw in the strike zone, and within it with accuracy, then that won't be an issue for much longer. Neither will the question of his future role or impact in the majors.
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