Spring training is one of the rare points on the baseball calendar when everyone, both on the field and off, can agree that process matters over results. So what you get are players — and particularly pitchers — speaking more freely about some of the changes they're been implementing.
Some of it's just talk, be it bluster or sheer curiosity, but some of it has teeth to it. The things Noah Syndergaard and Kenley Jansen are saying seem more like the latter. Both have experienced some skill decline over the past couple years, raising the question of whether their upside is what it once was. But what if I told you they've taken steps to reclaim those lost skills?
Or maybe I should just let them tell you:
"I did like the slider," Syndergaard said after striking out two over two scoreless innings in his spring debut Wednesday. "It was back to close to the velocity that I wanted."
"Pretty good for spring," Jansen said after striking out the side in a flawless inning Wednesday. "Going to Seattle with scientists, seeing where I am now compared to where I was, that's great information to have. Get to a better direction of what I used to be."
Syndergaard was referring to the 89 mph he averaged on his slider last year, a drop of about 3 mph from the year before, and with it came a drop in whiff rate of about 7 percent. It might explain why he was barely a strikeout-per-inning guy last year after being far better earlier in his career. Sure enough, his slider was back in the low 90s in his spring debut.
Jansen, meanwhile, was referring to the time he spent at Driveline Baseball, a research and development institute that's become most known for improving pitchers' velocity. He was hitting 94 mph with his cutter Wednesday after averaging 92 the past two years.
Does it mean he'll reverse the decline and get back to being a top-flight closer? Does it mean Syndergaard will get back to being a surefire ace? It's impossible to say at this point, but those are precisely the sort of changes that would make it possible.
Some other tidbits from around spring training:
- Freddie Freeman says he's "not concerned at all" about the soreness in his surgically repaired elbow that has him grounded for now, with his main takeaway being that he could probably stand to cut down on his prep work before games. "It's just a little hiccup. It kind of swelled up on me on Monday, but the swelling went down drastically that day. I feel good." He plans to return to the lineup next week, so draft him with confidence.
- We have a clearer sense of Chris Sale's timetable, too. He will begin the season on the IL, his prep work having been delayed two weeks by a bout with pneumonia, but two turns are all the Red Sox expect him to miss. Especially given how slow Sale and other Red Sox pitchers were out of the gate last season when then-manager Alex Cora took it easy on them in spring training, interim manager Ron Roenicke has insisted every pitcher needs six starts to be ready for the season. Sale won't quite get there. "Nothing at all with the arm," said Roenicke. "This is strictly for missing two weeks and then only being able to give him four starts in spring training."
- An illness limited 2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell to only three innings last spring, and like Sale, he suffered through an inconsistent and injury-plagued year. He already has one inning in the bag this spring and says he's "way ahead" of where he was a year ago. "I feel more advanced. I can throw the ball in the zone, out of the zone. I feel a lot better this year than I did last year, for sure."
- Like Syndergaard and Jansen, Shane Bieber has some changes he'd like to implement, but his are more proactive than reactive. He's experimenting with both a cutter and changeup to round out his arsenal, which already features a couple of whiff-tastic breaking balls. "If anything, it helps my slider a little bit and creates a little bit more feel for something going that direction," Bieber said of the cutter after his spring debut Tuesday. "And then, obviously, just trying to improve the changeup — and threw a lot of those today and got some positive feedback from it."
- Yup, I got another one for you. Chris Paddack has put in some work on his curveball this offseason and will feature it more this spring. For all that went right during his rookie season — and far more did than went wrong — he was vulnerable to the long ball, with his xFIP 4.05 suggesting he may have had some good luck along the way. Leaning so heavily on two pitches probably didn't help in that regard. More than anything, his Fantasy value is tied to how many innings he throws in his second season, but developing a legitimate third pitch would also be a step in the right direction.
- Dylan Bundy may already have all the pitches he needs to succeed, seeing as he has routinely ranked among the swinging-strike leaders when healthy. His success may be mostly a matter of finding the right mix, then, and it would fit with the league-wide trend of pitchers generally leaning more on their best pitches. Only half of Bundy's pitches were fastballs when he struck out four over two scoreless innings Tuesday, a rarity for a spring debut.
- Another potential breakout pitcher, the Giants' Tyler Beede, has already gotten some attention in Fantasy Baseball circles for his impressive secondary arsenal, and those with skin in the game have apparently noticed the same thing. The Giants have directed Beede to throw his fastball less this year. "Curveball and changeup are my most effective pitches just based on the numbers," Beede said. "When I threw them last year, they were very successful pitches for me, so it's just a matter of upping the usage and trusting them in counts that I wasn't throwing those pitches in last year to get the hitters off-balance." Beede struck out two over two scoreless innings Thursday, his fastball reaching 98 mph.
- Former top prospect Clint Frazier, who remains an injury away from playing a major role for the Yankees, has developed a new timing mechanism that involves twisting his lead foot as far as he can. It has him feeling more powerful at the plate, and he showed off with a monster blast Wednesday. "A lot of times, people have talked about my bat speed, but I never really felt like it was always there," he said. "I felt like I was trying to shoot a gun with it on safety. There were things stopping it along the way and I didn't feel like I wanted it to. I feel like this move is giving me my best chance."
- Wondering about those reports of Steven Matz battling for the fifth spot with Michael Wacha? Like, why would the Mets do that to a guy who came through with a 3.52 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 8.5 K/9 over his final 14 starts last year? Apparently, they're considering a new approach to the fifth starter role wherein they'd play the matchups between Matz and Wacha, according to the New York Post. They'd both be more like swingmen than true starting pitchers, in other words, which wouldn't be so great for Matz's Fantasy appeal.
- Jonathan Loaisiga and Clarke Schmidt are among the longer shots to make the Yankees starting rotation, but they both have the sort of upside that can get Fantasy players excited. Loaisiga, a former prospect who has struggled to hold up over a starter's workload, struck out four over two perfect innings Thursday. Meanwhile, Schmidt, a current prospect with only 19-innings above A-ball, struck out three over his two innings of work, dropping a couple of GIF-worthy curveballs. "He's clearly advanced for that lack of experience," said manager Aaron Boone. "I think he threw some really good breaking balls [today] and got three strikeouts on curveballs that were … bucklers."
- Ryan Mountcastle, named MVP of the International League last season with a .312 batting average, 25 homers and .871 OPS, probably won't make the opening day roster for service time reasons, but he's doing what he can to make sure the wait is a short one. He doubled twice and homered in three at-bats Thursday. "He's got huge power," manager Brandon Hyde said. "I am just getting a look at him right now. You watch him in BP and he really drives the ball in the middle of the field. He generates a ton of bat speed and he's strong. He's trying to get the ball in the air and when he catches it on the barrel, it goes a long way. There is a lot to like about his swing and now it's about getting at-bats."
- Granted, this the same guy who homered five times in his first seven games last spring and then was never heard from again, but at 25, Lewis Brinson is still too young for us to dismiss his former top prospect standing. Without going into details, he has said his focus this season is to barrel up the ball more, and his 3.9 percent barrel rate last year would suggest it's much-needed. Well, he homered for the second time in as many games Thursday and has yet to strike out in seven at-bats. We'll see where it goes.
So which sleepers should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued first baseman can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Kenta Maeda's huge breakout last season, and find out.