We have these arms every year. The pitchers surprising us in the first week of the season who we maybe heard once or twice among the sea of information during the preseason but never really considered as a possible candidate for our opening day rosters. Who is this guy? Is he worth the add? Can he do this again? What do I do?!
Tyler Mahle is just that for plenty of owners after dazzling with a 6.0 IP, 0 ER, 1 Hit, 2 BBs, 7 Ks outing on Monday afternoon, even becoming an add in some 12-team leagues. It’s not easy to dominate a Cubs lineup, even if they set a record for team strikeouts over the opening weekend, and with Mahle becoming an intriguing enigma, I wanted to take a closer look.
Here’s what I saw from Tyler Mahle in his 2018 debut:
I’m not going to hide anything from you. Mahle’s fastball is everything. Everything. He uses a four-seam and two-seam combination, with at-bats centering around heat as he tries to locate it on each edge of the plate, regardless of the handedness of the batter. There are plenty of numbers I can throw at you to illustrate this – All seven strikeouts came off heat, more than half his swings-and-misses came from a fastball, 12 of his 16 called strikes came via his four-seamer, and 55% of his balls in play came from, yeah, a fastball.
He uses two-seamers to sneak inside strikes on left-handers:
Located on both sides of the plate to right-handers:
And earned strikeouts freezing batters inside and out:
All of these pitches are fantastic. I don’t want you to think that Mahle was able to spot his fastball effortlessly through the day, but I he was far from wild and excelled when he executed. We saw above-average fastball command and it was the catalyst for his success against the Cubs. Remember, it was everything. He lives and dies with the pitch, which means an investment in Mahle is an investment in this command always being there…and a little luck going his way. I’ll get to that a little later, but for now understand that Mahle’s fastball has solid upside despite its lack of overpowering velocity.
I’m not sure how I feel about Mahle’s slider. It isn’t a pitch that deceived very often – batters whiffed on just 2 of the 24 thrown – though Mahle did a decent job of moving it around the edges of the plate. Take for example this early backdoor slider to Kyle Schwarber that he followed with another slider for strike two inducing a chase below the zone:
That’s fantastic execution to get Mahle ahead quickly, which eventually set up a strikeout on a high heater. It wasn’t uncommon for Mahle to pitch backward, featuring his slider early in counts to amplify the effects of his fastball.
On the other hand, there were plenty of breakers that weren’t competitive:
Or were hung over the plate:
You can tell that movement is fine. Not exceptional, just fine. This wasn’t a putaway offering nor should it be, with its overall mediocre movement. But, like his fastball, if he commands it well, he can squeeze out value from the offering and that’s enough for Mahle to get by. Just don’t expect many strikeouts at hands of this pitch.
Here are two GIFs that sum up Mahle’s changeup:
Those two pitches to Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber were far away the best he threw during the game, though most of his slow balls were flat out bad. He saved it nearly exclusively for left-handers, though he did show it to Kris Bryant late in the game that induced a foul ball, but regardless of who he throws it to, it’s not a pitch that speaks confidence. It just isn’t a solid third option yet, with the majority wildly missing the plate. There’s decent horizontal ride and room to grow but I’m just not seeing a pitch that will become a staple in Mahle’s repertoire anytime soon.
With these tools at his disposal, Mahle had some at-bats I want to highlight where he let his craftiness show. After all, without overpowering stuff, he has to use his pitches wisely in order to earn his success. Here are a few great examples from the game.
The first is a slider + fastball combination against Addison Russell. He gets two strikes dotting a fastball and slider along the outside edge before sneaking a heater along the same black of the plate to earn the strikeout:
This is pretty. Not only are these pitches exceptionally located, but Russell freezes as he expects the heater to turn into a slider and dip under the zone before reaching the plate. Russell can’t anticipate which pitch is coming, gives up on it, and can only watch as it curls back for the third strike. Matching the pitches on top of each other adds deception and can create strikeouts without a single whiff and Mahle pulled it off well.
Here’s another that I want to show off. I feel weird labeling this under “sequencing” as it’s really just a pair of well-executed fastballs that deserve love. Watch Mahle’s 0-1 fastball come in right at the knees, follwed up with 0-2 paint on the inside corner:
Not sequencing really, but more exposure of Mahle getting the most out of a slightly above average fastball. It’s the heart of Mahle and needed more screentime.
There was one element of this game that you won’t see in the box score: the quality of outs Mahle got in the field. You all know there’s a vast difference between a tapper back to the mound and a hard flyout to right, but more importantly is the pitch thrown that induced the out. There were a number of pitches from Mahle that he got away with despite looking successful on paper.
Here are two flyouts from Kris Bryant on poor fastballs in the heart of the plate:
A slider that floated into the zone and was lined to right for an out:
A strikeout against Willson Contreras located middle-middle:
A slider that was crushed by Addison Russell that turned into a double play:
A hung slider that Heyward sent a long way to center:
I initially planned to just showcase two of these, but I couldn’t decide which to axe as they’re all pretty bad. This start was not Mahle being a craft specialist and making the Cubs frustrated as he debilitated them in the box. It was a combination of some well-executed at-bats with his mistakes finding gloves. That happens more than you’d think and Mahle was the fortunate one on Monday.
Back to the original spray of questions: Can he do this again? I’m going to lean…no. Maybe. We just don’t have a proper answer, but there was a decent amount of fortune in this game and that’s a problem. While Mahle was able to avoid punishment for his mistakes in this outing, I don’t believe his raw stuff dictates this being a regular occurrence, making us have to bank on him being on point moving forward. We only have one solid outing to influence us at the moment, a performance that derived its success on above-average command with his pitches. That skill is the toughest to determine as repeatable and with just this sample we don’t know what to fully expect. And keep in mind, even with this level of command, Mahle still needed things to go his way.
It’s worth a flier, who knows, maybe he is more of the Keuchel/Hendricks type than your standard arm. Given the lack of overpowering stuff and seemingly good fortune needed for Mahle’s success in this outing, I don’t like wagering that he can perform near this level in future starts.