Each fall, Driveline director of pitching Bill Hezel tries to give the players he works with a week between the end of their season and when he first texts them about training plans for the coming months. The past couple of years, Dillon Tate has beaten him to it.
“Both times, it was just like, ‘I’ll be in Washington tomorrow. I’ll be in the gym tomorrow,’” Hezel said of texts from the Orioles reliever. “We pretty much start right away.”
With Tate, 27, allowing only three hits and one run in 7 1/3 innings thus far in 2022, that promptness seems to be paying off. It’s a shift from the right-hander’s first offseason at Driveline, a renowned pitching and hitting lab in the Pacific Northwest. After his first taste of the majors with Baltimore in 2019, Tate got in contact with Hezel, saying he wanted to start training around the New Year. Given Driveline’s onboarding processes, Hezel recommended the sooner Tate came out to the Seattle area, the better. It wasn’t long before Tate was at Driveline’s facility, working to recapture the velocity that made him the first pitcher selected in the 2015 draft, with biomechanical insights leading to improvements.
This past offseason, though, was devoted to command and upgrading his repertoire. Tate — the only pitcher remaining of the three the Orioles acquired from the New York Yankees for closer Zack Britton in a July 2018 deal — often worked out of the back end of Baltimore’s bullpen in 2021, but his sinkerballer profile was not that of a typical late-inning reliever. Among pitchers who threw at least 60 innings in relief last year, Tate’s strikeout rate was the sixth lowest, with a higher walk rate and ERA than each of the five below him.
“He was just in a lot of situations where he needed punchouts,” Hezel said. “The way the game is played and the way the role of the reliever is, he can come into a game and not give up a hit, but if he gives up a ball in play, it costs his team a run, so a large part of our focus was kind of trying to shift his arsenal to be a little bit more swing-and-miss.”
To do that, Tate and Hezel worked to turn one pitch into two, improving his other offerings along the way.
“I think on paper,” Hezel said, “the arsenal is more dangerous than it was last year.”
Cut, slide, sweep
Hezel tweeted out videos of Tate’s work with Driveline during the offseason, referencing a cutter he added to his mix.
In truth, it wasn’t an addition. It was a rebranding.
“That’s my slider from the previous year,” Tate said. “It didn’t really slide much, but that’s what I had.”
In 2021, Tate’s slider moved fewer than 3 inches horizontally on average, according to Statcast, below half the break of a typical slider thrown near the almost 86 mph average Tate threw his. The pitch got results, as batters hit .197 off it, but for a slider, it produced a below-average whiff rate — the percentage of misses among swings.
Given the pitch’s effectiveness and what Hezel called its “‘slutter’ profile,” he suggested that Tate simply treat the pitch as a cutter, trying to throw it as hard as he could and continue to use it to induce weak contact.
“What we saw with the old slider was he was getting those swing commits, but the pitch just wasn’t moving enough really to get a ton of whiffs,” Hezel said. “It was getting weak contact and generally positive outcomes, but we wanted something that was a little bit bigger that he could still throw hard that just would induce no contact because at the end of the day, especially the way the game is played, being in those high-leverage spots, you just need it.”
That meant adding a slider with more sweep, one that moved farther away from right-handed hitters as Tate’s sinker and changeup buried in on them. Although Hezel and Tate experimented with several grips for the slider, those efforts were largely focused on which allowed Tate to throw the new pitch the hardest. Creating the new movement profile was instead based on feel, with wrist orientation, thought process and various other cues producing the desired results.
“Dillon’s a dude that just really needs to feel the ball out of his hand,” Hezel said. “He just spent countless hours and countless throws trying to develop something that sweeps 10-plus inches. And then the next step from there was, ‘Can we put in it the zone?’ And then the next step from there was, ‘Can we throw it hard enough?’
“It was a really, really iterative process.”
The pitch added the desired effect to Tate’s arsenal as he continued his training with Driveline doing live at-bats in Arizona, where the facility’s hitters provided feedback about how the juxtaposing movement of the new slider and the sinker-changeup combination required them to do a lot more thinking in the box.
Through six outings, Tate has yet to throw the cutter and has used the new slider only nine times, but he entered Wednesday’s outing with its average lateral break up to 9.7 inches, with the offering now about 5 mph slower than 2021′s version. He’s thrown it for a strike seven times, getting three fouls, two called strikes, one swing-and-miss and one weakly hit ground ball.
“I just want the hitter to go up and say, ‘OK, I respect this pitch, and I have to worry about it,’” Tate said. “As long as I throw it for a strike, I’ll get that.”
Hezel’s hope is that adding a swing-and-miss pitch to Tate’s repertoire will also benefit his command. The difference between Tate’s strikeout and walk rates was the fourth lowest among relievers who threw as many innings as he did last season.
“If you just don’t have the ability to strike someone out, you’ve got to nibble a little bit more,” Hezel said. “You’re trying to induce weak contact, so part of improving his command would be improving his ability to get swings and misses.”
Tate’s time at Driveline this offseason also included focused command training. Each throw he made in catch play, long toss or bullpens was to a target. When Tate was throwing weighted balls against a wall, he and Hezel took turns picking out specific spots for him to aim at to “gamify” drills that had admittedly become stale after offseasons of repetition, Hezel said. During bullpens, they used intended zones to measure how many inches a pitch finished away from its desired location.
“The way we just constructed his training for the entirety of the offseason — and it helps that Dillon is one of the more disciplined and intentful guys I’ve ever worked with — is every single throw he made for the entire offseason, for the most part … just had a purpose and an intended target,” Hezel said.
“Dillon’s one of the few guys that literally every single throw he makes in training is extremely important to him.”
The overarching goal was for Tate’s pitches to consistently be more competitive. Thus far, more than two-thirds of his pitches have been strikes, a career high. He has yet to issue a walk; only six pitchers who have thrown as many innings as him can say the same.
“Just trying to be more competitive with the majority of my pitches,” Tate said. “Just make more of my pitches closer to the strike zone and appear hittable. [Make hitters] say, ‘OK, I want to I want to take a swing at that pitch,’ as opposed to throwing something out of the hand sometimes where it’s, ‘Oh, I don’t have to worry about that one.’”
‘I just see confidence’
Better command alone would have been enough to improve Tate’s sinker and changeup, but both are also moving more than they did in 2021. The latter in particular has helped as he’s faced as many left-handed hitters as right-handed hitters, retiring three of them — Anthony Rizzo, Joey Gallo and Aaron Hicks — in order Sunday against the Yankees.
“The changeup is honestly the pitch that is the most interesting to me,” Hezel said. “On paper, that pitch doesn’t grade out particularly well. The thing that jumps off the page with most changeups is vertical separation from the fastball. Obviously, Dillon’s a sinker guy. There’s basically no separation between those two pitches. They almost move in a very similar way.
“I’ve actually encouraged him to probably use it more just because regardless of what our arsenal grades or anyone else’s say, at the end of the day, the outcomes are incredible. Until hitters tell you otherwise, that pitch is pretty good.”
Four of Tate’s five strikeouts have come on his changeup, and the pitch has a 58.3% whiff rate, which entered Wednesday as the third highest of any changeup that has induced at least a dozen swings in 2022. He’s not afraid to throw the pitch right-on-right, either, doing so against Oakland’s Cristian Pache in a crisp seventh inning Wednesday as he contributed to a shutout for the third time in nine games.
The most important outs he’s gotten this season came off his sinker, getting Hicks to hit into an inning-ending double play Friday after inheriting a bases-loaded situation in a game Baltimore went on to win in extra innings. In Wednesday’s seventh inning, his sinker got up to 95 mph, with all three of the outs he recorded coming via that pitch to lower the average against it to .188.
“Love the way he’s using his changeup, so he’s got a sinker, changeup, he’s got more confidence in his slider,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “But I just see confidence with him, and he’s gained a lot of valuable experience over his first couple years in the big leagues, and now he’s kind of come into his own.”
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