Ross Detwiler walked away from the mound yesterday after completely dismantling a wild card caliber team in the midst of playoff race. The 25-year-old left hander took his seat on the dugout likely knowing that his finest season to date had come to a close, and that in doing so he was able to keep Michael Bourn, Martin Prado, Chipper Jones, and Dan Uggla hitless in the their most important game of the year.
It was an exclamation point to end a great partial season for the woeful young starter who has had his fair share of road bumps. Detwiler has battled mechanical problems, confidence issues, velocity drops, and a hip surgery since signing his first pro contract with the Nationals in 2007, but today it seemed he ended the 2011 season on his first string of good luck in a long, long while.
Lord knows Detwiler needed it. Once considered a potential ace talent when he was taken in the first round of the MLB Draft, recently there were questions of whether he would be relegated to the bullpen on a full time basis, or even if the organization should give up on him all together moving forward. Detwiler had posted just a 4.56 ERA in 16 starts in Triple-A Syracuse this season before being called up in an emergency situation in the middle of the summer. Few would have guessed he would end his season on such a positive note.
Of course, his strong finish, which culminated with 13.1 scoreless innings, is a small picture in what has been a “failure to launch” career. The left-hander still has a lot to prove over the length of an entire season, and there are still clear areas where he absolutely must improve to be an effective member of the rotation in 2012.
One of those areas is his endurance. In each of his starts this season Detwiler would find himself getting in to trouble after he passed the 90 pitch benchmark, meaning at times he could only provide four to five strong innings. The Nats simply need him to be able to last another inning or two on average in order to be the most effective he can be. Even if he pitches extremely well through the first three and a half, or four innings of each start, he will never be able to be more than a long reliever if he puts that kind of burden on his bullpen once every five days. In terms of the cost of bandwidth in the bullpen, the Nationals just can’t afford it.
A positive this season was that Detwiler’s velocity returned after a hip surgery that sidelined him for much of the start of 2010. Last year his average fastball velocity was just 89.7 mph according to FanGraphs, but this season that number improved to 92.2 miles per hour. As a result, his fastball immediately returned to be his best pitch. Detwiler will need to improve his secondary pitches however. A lefty can get by on a well placed fastball for so long, but his strikeout rate will remain dangerously low if he doesn’t learn to mix in an above average curveball.
The question remains whether Detwiler will be the pitcher he was over the past month in 2012, or if he will go back to his old ways. We have no way of knowing for sure, but for what its worth, it seemed that there was an air of confidence in his game over the last several starts that I had never seen in the lefty. He took the mound not hoping to get outs, but knowing the pitches he had to throw to make it happen. It’s the same look we saw in Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan this season, the look that John McCatty works so hard to get his players to achieve. Hopefully it carries over to next season, and if it does, the Nats will have arguably one of the best starting rotations in the NL.
I was never concerned about Detwiler's Triple-A numbers this year. He had a strong Spring and a strong start to Triple-A, but we're talking about a guy who had to change his mechanics (specifically his leg and foot-work) in order to put less stress on a hip that was twice injured and required surgery. Making those changes demands full focus and concentration on the entire body process since he's changing the motion of his core. That takes a huge effort. To me, his Triple-A numbers were probably a slip in concentration that eventually caused a confidence issue. The promotion back to the big leagues boosted his confidence enough for him to regain focus.
He definitely has to work on that conditioning though.