Pitching Nerd Hayden Wesneski offers simple explanations to take advantage of advanced concepts

Hayden Wesneski is a nerd. He is also a very good pitcher. You could say he is a very good pitcher because he’s a nerd, though we shouldn’t completely dismiss his talent as part of the equation. The 24-year-old made his fourth MLB start Monday night in Cincinnati and struggled with the loss despite just one earned run in six innings.

He struck out six and scored one in another quality start, his third of the season. The only start that didn’t reach the threshold saw him give up a single run in five innings, but he managed to pick up the win as the Cubs outlasted the Phillies. Key to Wesneski’s success has been his mean slider, a land he throws more than any other in his arsenal.

The sliding coin may have worked better than ever on Monday night as it generated 13 swings and missed on 28 total pitches. Even factoring in a range of Reds that’s a little less than scary, an odor rate of 46.7% is incredible. And he does this by working in the zone for the most part, as evidenced by the low walk totals.

It’s all by design, as Wesneski shared with Marquee’s Lance Brozdowski on Sunday in Chicago. Brozdowski, whose baseball nerd rivals that of The Athletic’s Eno Sarris, spoke with the rookie about the off-kilter wake and how it affects those slider results.

Nerded with #Cubs starter Hayden Wesneski today. Pitchers who are comfortable discussing sewing effects and intent-based command formation are the best. @WatchMarquee

Will thread some of his comments below. First on sewing effects and how they help her slider… https://t.co/9EB8gto25f

“When I run my slider, there’s a seam at the bottom that when the wind hits it, it doesn’t necessarily go up, it just doesn’t go down,” Wesneski explained. “So that’s where the quirky wake of the seam comes in, not necessarily that it lifts up, but it looks funny because the seam itself lifts it up and keeps it from going down and up. necessarily have depth.”

It’s all about tricking the batter’s brain into throwing a pitch that doesn’t do what they think it will do based on their previous experience. Rather than being more gooey and having more drop, Wesneski creates a sweeping motion with about 18 inches of horizontal movement that prevents hitters from pulling the slider. If they can get the bat at all, that is.

What we see now on the big stage is the product of the tinkering of the pitch over time, starting with college. Wesneski showed off his grip, which differs from the two-seam style favored by many pitchers, describing how a change to the arm slot helped him refine his breaking ball into something far more effective than the gyroscopic slider that he had launched.

A potential downside to moving away from a two-seam grip is that it can be harder to command, which Wesneski very simply contradicts.

“It’s a lot of how my brain works when it comes to throwing pitches and where to throw them,” Wesneski said. “I would say I’m different from the majority of guys who throw because no matter where the glove is, I try to hit the right spot. I know that sounds very simple, like you might think, ‘Oh, no duh.’

“But most guys – especially with sliders – want to throw it in a certain place and say, ‘Hey look, the ball is going to move where it moves,’ right? But I’m just there. ‘one of those guys who just kinda like, ‘I’m going to try and hit that glove right there in that spot.’

When that doesn’t work, he’ll go the extra mile to make things right, making sure he doesn’t keep making the same mistakes.

“If I keep missing the arm side, I’m going to say, ‘I’m not missing the arm side. Like, that doesn’t happen on this pitch. I’d rather bounce it into the other box than throw it next to the arm this time.

Jonathan India can probably attest to that after being hit twice with sliders in Monday’s game, although neither came after previous failures away from home. I was really hoping I found a pattern in Wesneski’s throws that indicated he was diving the Reds shortstop as a way to go straight, but none of his previous sliders in the 3rd or 5th innings were out of kilter .

Additionally, India was hit on the first pitch in one plate appearance and the second pitch – after a fastball – in the next. Also, Wesneski didn’t really mean that he’d rather throw a wild pitch or hit a batter in a game to help reset his location. That’s more reserved for his catching game, which he told Brozdowski was key to commanding the slider and other throws.

“I would say at the end of the day in catch play you have to focus,” Wesneski said. “And that’s where I think a big part of command is, is concentration and where I have to throw the ball. I mean, that sounds really stupid, but you can’t quantify concentration. And so I think that’s where they struggle, it’s like the majority of guys are like, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna throw this in here’, and it doesn’t necessarily work.

“So I think a bit of focus helps, and then all the confidence, like, ‘Hey, I’m going to put the ball over there.’ And if not, who cares, throw it, next pitch, let’s roll. We’ll try to hit the spot again and it’ll get there. I think a little focus and of confidence are why command is better in some guys than in others.

It doesn’t sound silly at all, unless we mean it looks so easy that it would be silly not to take this approach. However, having the right combination of focus and intention is not necessarily as simple as it seems when coming from an elite practitioner. While I won’t argue that working with young athletes is nearly the same as dealing with professionals, I deal with this stuff all the time when trying to teach breaking balls and off-speed throws.

The two biggest problems I see in young pitchers come from either remembering their intent or trying to get the ball to move the way they think it’s supposed to. They lack confidence in their grip to get the job done, so they aim for the terrain and/or slow down their mechanics. When you really get down to it, these issues don’t completely go away, even as the pitchers get older.

The real separation takes place in focus, or perhaps we can put an even finer point by calling it awareness. A lack of awareness means not understanding what went wrong with a given tone and therefore not knowing how to fix it in the future. And we’re talking about a very large moving scale of focus which, as Wesneski noted, cannot be quantified.

It also wouldn’t be static even if we could apply a number to it, as a myriad of outside forces will affect the focus at all times. Pitchers best able to mitigate these forces will also maintain their focus and awareness at a higher level, making it easier for them to repeat their success from game to game and in high-pressure environments.

Does Wesneski possess the ability to do that when the Cubs play in games that matter rather than playing the string in a pre-construction season? Hopefully we will find out next year.

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