Analyzing Shane Baz's First Start Since His Return From Injury
Tampa Bay Rays starter Shane Baz made his anticipated return from elbow surgery on Saturday afternoon against the Twins, and it did not go how he or the Rays would have hoped.
Baz got knocked around in his season debut to the tune of 5 earned runs on 3 hits, walking 3 batters, giving up a grand slam, and striking out 2 in just 2.1 innings. The Twins had an especially bulletproof game plan against his high-velocity fastball, which reached 99 mph, but it was put in play 5 times on just 10 swings. The Rays were able to make it a one-run game, but they ultimately fell 6-5 at the hands of Minnesota, and Baz was saddled with the losing decision.
He worked predominantly up in the zone with his fastball, especially up and in toward right-handed batters. He worked his slider down and in to left-handed batters for the most part, but he also threw a few hanging sliders over the middle of the plate. This wasn't the main reason for his struggles as one might expect, although the double by rookie Jose Miranda that knocked Baz out of the game came off of one of those sliders that he hung right down the middle of the strike zone. Curiously, Baz only threw his curveball twice during the entire outing, despite it being a pitch that he went to on a tertiary basis in 2021 (19% of his pitches in 2021 at the big-league level were curveballs, to be exact).
Most of Baz's troubles on Saturday can be attributed to his fastball. It was simply not as potent as he had shown in the past. Opponents hit .143 against it and struck out 9 times in 21 at-bats in 2021, but against the Twins, it generated just a single swing-and-miss all afternoon. There was no discernable difference in its spin rate, but considering its velocity, Baz would typically generate plenty of whiffs on fastballs slightly above the strike zone, and he could not command it to that same ability this time around. Any elevated fastballs he threw caught too much of the zone, and any high heaters out of the zone ran way inside toward the right-handed batters' side of the plate, making it easy for the Twins to lay it off and get ahead in the count.
The aforementioned RBI double by Miranda that ended Baz's afternoon at just 48 pitches was not the biggest dagger to his stat-line. Luis Arraez hit a grand slam to propel the Twins from down 3-0 to up 4-3 in the 3rd inning, and that was a case of Baz being too predictable. In the 1st inning, Arraez hit a fastball that was way inside for a soft line drive right back to the mound (Baz made an impressive catch). Most hitters would easily miss a pitch that far inside, but Arraez not only made contact, he managed to get some air under it.
It is questionable, then, as to why Baz decided go back inside with a fastball when he was behind in the count to Arraez for a second time in a row if he was going to throw it for a strike. He had already seen that pitch on the inner half earlier in the afternoon, and in 2022, he has an absurd .571 batting average on up-and-in fastballs. When Luis Arraez gets a fastball on the inner half of the plate, he rarely swings and misses. When he gets one for a strike, he almost always capitalizes. Yesterday, he made Baz pay for that mistake.
The Twins may have scored all their runs off Baz in the same inning, but the signs that they had the right approach were visible earlier than that. In the first two innings, Baz didn't give up a hit, but he did surrender two batted balls with an exit velocity of over 100 mph. One was a very loud lineout by Max Kepler, and another was a 106-mph, 394-foot laser by Trevor Larnach that ended in a flyout solely because he happened to hit it to the deepest part of the ballpark in center field. The dam broke in the 3rd, and Baz had no answer for Minnesota's offense for the rest of the afternoon.
Even so, the fact that his spin rates and velocity are virtually the same as they were in 2021 provides some encouragement. After elbow surgery, it would not have been shocking if Baz's fastball was averaging 3-4 mph slower than normal, but it still sat at 96 mph compared to an average of 97 a season ago, and his fastest pitch clocked in at 99. One bad start does not change the forecasted trajectory of Baz's career - he is obviously still very young with a great deal of potential, and in his next start, command and location, especially with his fastball, will be key.
All statistics via BaseballSavant