Adam Kolarek made the Rays opening day roster this season as the last man into the bullpen. As I’ve written before, I don’t know if Kolarek is good, but I do think he’s interesting.
To sum up the more detailed preview, Kolarek has a strange assortment of pitches that he’s used to dominate the minor leagues, but it’s not certain that they’ll translate to success in the majors.
He throws from a low arm slot. His best pitches are a sinker and a changeup, both of which have large amounts of armside run. He throws a slider, as most left-handed relievers with a low arm slot do, but it’s not actually that much of a wipeout pitch, lacking extreme gloveside run. He also throws an over-the-top fourseam fastball that he can amp up into the mid 90s.
In that preview, I wondered aloud if maybe he should change sides of the rubber:
He pitches from the first-base side of the rubber. I wonder if this makes the run on his changeup less effective, and I wonder if he should move to the third-base side to accentuate what I think is his best pitch.
But I was definitely not sure:
I wonder if that’s wrong, actually, and if pitching from the first base side is necessary for him to play up the deception in his low arm angle.
Well, the Rays seem to have a similar idea. Here’s Kolarek pitching last year:
Note his position on the first base side of the rubber.
And here he is, this year, positioned on the third base side of the rubber.
I actually thought I saw him a bit further on the extreme end against some righties, but I couldn’t find a picture to back it up.
What does this mean?
Well, we Rays fans remember 2012, when the Rays took a 35 year old Fernando Rodney, shifted his position on the rubber, had him throw his excellent changeup more often, and then watched him put up one of the better reliever seasons ever (0.60 ERA, 2.13 FIP, 2.67 xFIP over 74.2 innings).
That move, for Rodney, was about accentuating the effect of the movement on his changeup. For the righty Rodney, putting him on the first base side of the rubber allowed him to throw the pitch to the outer edge of the plate against a lefty, with the spin deflection working nearer to perpendicular to the front of the plate as it takes the pitch off the outside. The movement is about the same, no matter where the pitch comes from and where it’s going. But changing the angle changed the relationship of that movement to the batter.
For Kolarek, this is a similar move to the one Rodney made. The goal is to get a greater portion of the armside run from his sinker and changeup to be meaningful in the frame of reference of the batter’s strike zone judgement. I expect it to help him jam lefties with the sinker, and drop the changeup off the outer edge to righties.
Conveniently, Kolarek just gave us a perfect example this past Sunday of what his new position on the mound helps him to do. After being part of a Waxahachie swap, Kolarek returned to the mound to face Brandon Belt, one of the Giants’ best hitters, and a lefty.
Rather than sweep the ball off the outside corner with a slider, the way LOOGYs most commonly do, Kolarek pounded Belt in with his sinker, using the big movement and the now-more-neutral release point to run it in on Belt’s hands.
The first two pitches were on the inner edge of the plate, and Belt fouled them. The third was the same pitch, but brought further inside.
Kolarek’s sinker, in off the plate to lefties, is a strikeout pitch.
I don’t really expect Kolarek to become the best reliever in all of baseball, a la Fernando Rodney. But I do expect this change to improve the results on Kolarek’s sinker and his changeip, and I expect him to lean on those pitches more, especially with the sinker on the inside to lefties, and the changeup off the outside to righties.
These aren’t Kolarek’s only tricks, but they are his best ones. It remains to be seen whether Kolarek can consistently dominate lefties with this non-standard approach, but establishing the inside of the zone and forcing them to focus on the space under their hands seems like a good start.