Dustin McGowan – Dissection of a Masterpiece
Now that the time of year has come where all that’s left to do as Toronto Blue Jays fans is look back at the season wistfully and cheer for whichever team is facing the Yankees, the best play/moment/game lists are making the rounds. Sure Aaron Hill’s steal of home was a great moment of jubilation, but for me everything pales in comparison to Dustin McGowan’s one-hitter.
After years of disappointment and questions about his mental composure during a rough start to the year, Dustin finally put together a series of quality starts only to get demolished by the Dodgers, blown out in under than 2 innings after 8 hits and 3 walks. But he bounced back in stunning fashion his next start and officially announced his arrival as an elite pitcher by taking a no-hitter into the 8th against a powerful Rockies lineup. Let’s take a look at how he did it.
First, here’s a another really good McGowan start for comparison. It was his first win this season (and his first in over a year), where he shut down a struggling Yankees squad for 7 2/3 innings, the only blemish a 2-run home run by Hideki Matsui that ended his night. (0,0) on these graphs are how a pitch that was not affected at all by spin would move, from the hitter’s perspective.
His pitch movement looks a lot like A.J. Burnett, except his fastballs are tailing even more. The blue dots are his curveball, the green his slider and on the other side his change-up. (If you haven’t seen one of these charts before, the middle is where a pitch with “no spin”, only gravity, would go- fastballs are up and to the left because backspin keeps them up). I was watching this game and noticed a few pitches that started inside, froze a left-handed batter by starting right at him, and then broke over the plate like a reverse slider. It was no trick of TV- his best change-ups have about as much break sideways and down as his slider (compared to his straight fastball). I hope he teaches Burnett how to throw that thing. Otherwise, pretty typical results for a power pitcher. And now here’s his “no-hit stuff”.
WOW. Not exactly the fingerprint I was expecting. His two-seamer isn’t tailing as much. His Curveball is downright terrible. His slider is breaking about as much as Jesse Litsch’s cutter. His velocity wasn’t great (coming later). So what the heck was so great about this day?? Location, location, location.
What he had was absolute command over the inner half of the plate. He threw his two-seamer almost exclusively and it broke in on the hands of righties and away from lefties. All those pitches just slightly off the plate started as strikes and then broke about 6 inches to be almost unhittable. He also threw almost all of his sliders for strikes.
The only blemish? See that arrow on both graphs? That was the one hit. After the game, Gregg Zaun said:
“He put a good swing on a really good pitch and he was able to break up the no-hitter with a legitimate line drive,” Zaun said. “I’m still kind of fighting my emotions right now, because I really wanted it for [McGowan].
Good thing to say to a disappointed young man, but it was a terrible pitch. It didn’t tail at all, though it was thrown at the speed of a 2-seamer. Zaun had not called a 4-seam fastball since the 46th pitch in the 4th inning and McGowan had thrown 6 all game to that point, so there’s not much chance that’s what it really was. Dustin was trying to go back inside with the 2-seamer that had worked all game and for whatever reason (read: nerves), it flattened out and stayed over the plate. That’s why it was a solid line drive.
So what caused this great command and loss of breaking ball? Maybe it was his release point. In his first win (and most of his other starts since then are around there), he was dropping down and to the side a lot more (although some of that vertical difference could be due to variations in where f/x has been measuring it throughout the season).
That would make sense- sometimes pitchers try to get movement on their pitches by throwing a little more sidearm, and he certainly had it in spades against the Yankees. Also notice that his curve and fastball are coming from noticeably different Horizontal spots (though I’m not sure how much an inch of difference is going to make to a batter trying to pick up a pitch). However, during his one-hitter, he was coming more over the top and all his pitches were coming from the same location:
One last thing I wanted to look at was his disaster of a start (5 innings, 6 runs, 8 hits, 3 HR) against Boston after a 10-day layoff for the all-star break. His pitches weren’t really that bad, but his velocity was way down. Here are the fastballs he threw in the last two starts mentioned as compared to his shelling at the hands of Boston. And no, that spike way downwards is not a mistake. Those were fastballs at the end of an inning that prompted a visit form Brad Arnsberg. He got out of the inning by inducing contact and came back in the next frame throwing harder.