Zach McAllister isn’t exactly known as a power pitcher. He’s only averaged 7.3 K per 9 in his career and that number dipped to a career low 6.8 last season.
To put that into perspective, his K per 9 was slightly lower than other finesse pitchers such as Doug Fister, Chris Capuano and Joe Blanton.
But if you looked strictly at McAllister’s approach you would assume he was blessed with a power arm, capable of blowing the ball past hitters.
Like most power pitchers, McAllister relies heavily on his fastball (thrown 73 percent of the time in 2013) and mixes in a few off speed pitches (primarily the curveball and change up). But the most telling sign that McAllister views himself as a power pitcher is the location of these fastballs.
Take a look at a heat map of McAllister’s fastball location. He pounds the zone, and tends challenge hitters up, putting himself at risk against power hitters.
Compare McAllister’s heat map to a pitcher who has embraced his tools as a finesse pitcher: current Nationals starter and former Central Division rival, Doug Fister.
Knowing his limitations, Fister rarely brings the ball up in the zone and tends to focus on painting corners (inside vs righties, outside vs lefties).
But fastballs up in the zone aren’t just a weakness of younger pitcher trusting his stuff too much, they’re an essential part of McAllister’s strategy. In fact, among pitchers who threw at least 1,500 fastballs in 2013 no one brought the ball up in the zone more often.
The majority of the other pitchers on this list fall into one of two categories. They’re either true power pitchers (Harvey, Verlander, Santiago, etc) or they’re young pitchers who probably trust their arm a little too much (Miller, Gonzalez, Tillman, etc).
McAllister falls into sort of an odd middle ground and it’s difficult to figure out if this is an approach that he can continue to utilize.
On one hand, he appears to lack the tools to throw the ball past anyone. His average fastball velocity is a solid two or three miles per hour slower than guys like Verlander and Harvey.
On the other hand, despite his modest arm McAllister has been fairly successful when throwing the fastball up in the zone.
Take a look at McAllister’s stats when throwing fastballs in the upper third of the zone.
And compare those numbers to Verlander.
The only significant difference between them shows up in slugging percentage and OPS, likely the result of a few flat fastballs that McAllister grooved to hitters – a predictable difference between a young starter and one of the elite pitchers in the game.
But aside from the rookie mistakes, the baseline stats are shockingly similar.
Taking this comparison a step further, let’s analyze both Verlander and McAllister through the age of 25.
McAllister – 4.12 ERA, 1.395 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 2.39 K/BB
Verlander – 4.11 ERA, 1.328 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 2.18 K/BB
Now, to suggest that McAllister is on the verge of becoming the next Verlander is downright crazy. Verlander was an elite prospect (No. 8 overall in 2006) and dominated during his brief stint in the minor leagues (10.3 K per 9 in 20 minor league starts). McAllister, on the other hand, was given to the Tribe by the Yankees for a bag of balls (otherwise known as Austin Kearns) and only averaged 7.1 K per in 9 in 127 minor league starts.
But its not crazy to suggest that McAllister may be on the verge of elevating his status in the Tribe’s rotation.
Since 1980, 279 pitchers have made at least 50 starters under the age of 25 with a K per 9 of 7.5 or lower. Among those to blossom into more dominant power pitchers in their late 20s include Verlander, John Smoltz, Kevin Appier, Jason Schmidt and CC Sabathia.
Those are the types of pitchers who were blessed with raw talent, but plenty of others lacking the truly dominant arm developed their skills into the general profile of a power pitcher including Mike Mussina, Chris Carpenter, Andy Benes and Dan Haren.
While McAllister probably isn’t the next Verlander, it’s not too far fetched to think that, with refined technique, he could emerge as an Andy Benes or Dan Haren type pitcher over the course of the next five years.
So where does McAllister go from here?
From a general standpoint, there are two options. Either work to refine his approach as a power pitcher, or scrap the idea entirely and redefine himself as a finesse guy. Both options can work. The first option worked out just fine for Verlander. The second option worked wonders for Roy Halladay.
Based on recent news out of Spring Training, it sounds as though McAllister is taking option one.
In recent report on MLB.com, McAllister spoke about adding a slider this offseason to give himself a strikeout pitch.
McAllister said “I’m a fastball pitcher and I’m going to use my fastball anyways, but to know I have something else I can go to and hopefully get some swings and misses… I think that’ll be big for me.”
Hopefully the approach adds a new dimension to McAllister’s game and allows him to become an established No. 2 or 3 starter in the rotation.