Mechanics, Not League Change, the Problem for Javier Vazquez
So, what's behind his struggles? Asserting that it's been the change of leagues is lazy. It's been mechanics more than anything else that have been plaguing the Yankee right-hander and those problems with his delivery have robbed him of both his command and his raw velocity. Those problems reared their ugly head once again on Saturday as Vazquez took a drubbing at the hands of the White Sox.
There's a reason that Vazquez has had trouble stringing together multiple good seasons in a row in his career. Yes, he's been durable but the results have been erratic year to year. His mechanics are always going to be an issue, assuming he doesn't revamp his current delivery completely. There are pauses, a lot of drifting and a drop on his back leg that simply make his delivery hard to repeat.
His delivery in particular hinges a lot on rhythm. He doesn't deliver the ball with a brute force, and doesn't stay tall and drive the ball downhill. So, he has to have a lot of moving parts working in sync together to be successful. Like any good groove, when he gets it going it usually keeps going much the way it did with the Braves last season. That obviously hasn't been the case so far here in 2010.
For the most part, pitchers need to stay on top of the baseball to be successful and it's especially crucial for a guy like Vazquez who relies heavily on fastball movement, not raw velocity, and the action on his big curveball. Not being able to get on top of his pitches is the simplified version of why the beginning of this season has been such a nightmare for him.
The Yankees' coaching staff couldn't be more aware of the issue, and manager Joe Girardi has stated repeatedly that Vazquez' problems are mechanical. He couldn't be more right. But that doesn't make them any less serious. Right now, Vazquez' command east-to-west on the plate is almost nonexistent, and that's why the long ball has been such a problem. He cannot get the ball to to his arm side side of the plate.
It's a common problem for pitchers, and it's often referred to as having your pitches leak back toward the middle of the plate. For Vazquez, however, it's been much more than a leak. He's missing with his fastball by entire lengths of the plate. The second home run he allowed to Andruw Jones on Saturday is a prime example of that. Blaming a league change for getting burned on pitches over the heart of the plate isn't much of a rationale. The pitches he's making right now would be getting him into trouble at the Triple-A level, let alone the National League.
Where he's going wrong in his delivery surely isn't a mystery to Vazquez, but fixing it isn't as simple as identifying it. Vazquez' delivery requires him to have his arm and lower half in sync perfectly. Right now, that's not happening. Everyone is ready to jump on the fact that he is collapsing on his back side and that's why he's struggling. Well, not so fast. At this stage with a 33-year-old, you are probably not going to revamp his mechanics when he has been working from this delivery his entire career. The manner in which he collapses on his back side and drifts toward the plate do make him susceptible to funks like the one he is in now, but at the same time when his mechanics are clicking he's quite effective. So let's stop short of revamping a big league veteran's entire delivery.
However, it can't be said enough that timing in Vazquez' delivery comes into play perhaps more than any pitcher on the Yankee pitching staff. If he's early with his lower half and stride toward the plate, like he is right now, he's going to have a lot of trouble. So far, his lower half has been far ahead of his arm and he's getting too far out in front to generate any decent leg drive. He's going to have to stay back longer over the rubber and allow his arm to catch up.
The way he's delivering the ball, he's throwing against his front leg, rather than driving over the top of it and getting on top of the baseball. Again, Vazquez always has and more than likely always will collapse on his back leg and drift toward the plate. But, recently it's just gotten away from him. Because he's unable to drive over that front leg and get on top, he's forced to rotate around his torso and shoulders, creating more of a side-to-side effect than a downhill effect.
What that turn of his shoulders does to the pitch after it leaves his hand is what's directly leading to all those mistake fastballs and rolling curveballs over the fat part of the plate. As his front side drifts toward the plate, his lead shoulder is going with it and opening up much too early. The impact of that is a nearly squared up upper body facing home plate, making it almost impossible for Vazquez to get the extension he needs to get the ball to the outside corner against righties, and the inside corner on lefties.
With that front shoulder wide open, he's getting around his pitches rather than on top, causing the ball to repeatedly leak way back toward the middle of the plate. Not to mention, he's giving the hitters a very good look at the ball and his pitches are coming in on a flat plane. Pitchers need that good downward angle to stay out of the middle of the plate, and get the bite on the breaking ball and sinking fastball.
By doing this, he's also robbing himself of a couple ticks on his fastball, for those out there wondering why his fastball has been more like 87-91 mph rather than 90-92 mph this season. As early as he is right now with his lower half, he's robbing himself of a great deal of leg drive, and when you are getting around the ball rather than on top, you are losing that raw velocity and downward action in favor of excessive arm-side run, which of course leads to mistakes over the plate. All of his pitches, particularly the curveball, are suffering from this mechanical issue.
Vazquez has gone through full seasons where the home run ball has plagued him and he's pitched to inflated ERAs. The reason for those seasons were similar to the reason he is pitching poorly right now. It's a nagging mechanical issue, and despite being not so hard to identify it's very difficult to correct and keep in check on a consistent basis.
As hard as Vazquez and Yankee pitching coach Dave Eiland may work on this, there is no magic solution and it's difficult to correct on the fly. If history tells us anything, this may be something that follows the Yankee right-hander throughout the 2010 season. But, make no mistake, the change in leagues, while it is still a tough transition for pitchers, is not the big problem here.
Frankie Piliere spent the last three seasons working as a scout, most recently in the professional scouting department for the Texas Rangers in 2009. He now serves as the National Baseball Analyst here at FanHouse.