The Cleveland Indians signed Brett Myers to be a middle-of-the-rotation innings eater in 2013, but until Sunday afternoon he had been one of the worst starters in baseball. Based on his performance through his first two appearances this season it was easy to dismiss him as a failed project but the question lingers: what was the root cause of his struggles? Are his problems simply mechanical, has he lost confidence, or is his inability to find his release point masking some sort of injury? And did his quality start against the White Sox Sunday restore hope in him or at the very least remove the questions about his health?
Fans and many in the media were not happy with allocating $7 million to a pitcher who was a reliever last season and was only a marginally good starter to begin with, so his performance in spring training was watched carefully. His spring training performance was not pretty as he struggled allowing 23 runs (21 earned) on 36 hits in only 21 innings of work. We are told that spring training is not a barometer of what a player will do in the regular season, but when a player picks up in the regular season where he left off in spring training the spring numbers suddenly have meaning.
His first two starts of the season were remarkably poor as he allowed 14 earned runs on 18 hits including seven home runs in only 10.1 innings of work. Despite allowing three homers there were signs of improvement in his relief appearance against the Yankees, as his groundball to flyball ratio (1.4) was much more in line with what would be expected and he showed an improved swing and miss percentage (nine percent). The signs were there but the question remained whether or not he could continue to improve.
His first start against the Toronto Blue Jays was ugly. He worked six innings and allowed seven runs (all earned) on seven hits while walking two and striking out none. According to FanGraphs he induced seven ground balls, 10 fly balls, four line drives, and one pop up. He threw 58 percent of his pitches for strikes (39 of 68 pitches). Unfortunately he also allowed four homers to a potent Jays lineup. His problem against the Blue Jays was an inability to get the ball down.
Location, Location, Location
In his second appearance he entered the game against the New York Yankees in the fifth inning with the Tribe already trailing 7-0 and worked 5.1 innings, allowing seven runs (all earned) on 11 hits while striking out four and walking none. He faced 27 batters and his batted ball profile was much more line with what we should expect from him: he induced 10 ground balls, seven fly balls, and six line drives. He threw 63 percent of his pitches for strikes (55 of 87 pitches). Once again the home run ball was his nemesis, and we can examine location as the culprit.
Location, Location, Location
Despite the three homers surrendered to the Yankees in his second outing there were some signs of improvement. He threw a higher percentage of strikes and generated a more Myers-like GB/FB ratio of 1.43. We are just going to have to wait and see if these improvements can continue into his next several starts but as Tom Petty said…The waiting is the hardest part – Every day you see one more card. You take it on faith, you take it to heart. The waiting is the hardest part.
While waiting for Myers start against the White Sox I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not Myers was masking some sort of injury, It seemed based on his inability to get the ball down in the strike zone that he may have been hiding an injury, possibly a back strain. For help answer this question I reached out to former Tribe pitcher Roy Smith (2001-2002) and asked what to look for in regards to mechanical issues or possible injury:
First thing is if there IS an injury or tightness somewhere like the back that doesn’t let him finish properly, it causes a high release point because he’s trying to mask the pain. It’s not that he’s not toughing it out, your body just won’t allow you to do it.
If he’s healthy and it’s just a mechanics issue, it’s a matter of getting on top of the ball and there are several things that can lead to that as well. He might be rushing his delivery and causing his arm to drag which leads to dropping his elbow (if he gets a strain in his elbow soon, you would figure out that’s the problem), his stride length could be too long OR short(it’s different for everyone). He used to throw very hard so if his arm isn’t what it used to be, he might be overthrowing.
It’s a physical thing yes, but it takes mental discipline to correct.
On Sunday afternoon Myers made the type of start that Terry Francona, Chris Antonetti, and all Tribe fans hope can be repeated throughout the summer. Against a lineup that likes to hit home runs Myers worked six innings allowing only two runs on six hits while striking out four and walking only one.
He retired five White Sox on groundouts and four on flyouts (1.25 GB/FB ratio), generated six swings and misses on his 89 pitches (seven percent) and pounded the strike zone with 53 strikes on 88 pitches (61 percent). The only mistake that he made was leaving a ball thigh high and over the outside part of the plate to Paul Konerko, who made him pay by depositing the ball in the left field stands to give the White Sox a 2-1 lead in the sixth inning.
Myers will always be hurt by the home run ball; therefore the key to his success will be to continue to stay on top of the ball and generate ground balls. If he isn’t injured and has fixed his mechanical issue that caused him to leave the ball up during his first two appearances then we should see more and more appearances like yesterday and less of the nightmares that were his first two.