Dodgers’ Dustin May Is Dazzlingon August 6, 2020 at 1:00 pm

Dodgers’ Dustin May Is Dazzling

Dustin May is ready for prime time. The 22-year-old righty wasn’t even supposed to be part of the Dodgers’ rotation at the outset of the season, but he’s taken the ball three times thus far, including an emergency start on Opening Day. So far, he’s not only shown why he’s one of the game’s top pitching prospects but why he’s already worth making time to watch, and not just because the 6-foot-6 righty with the distinctive ginger mop top and the high leg kick is one of the most instantly recognizable players in the game.

On Tuesday night against the Padres in San Diego, May delivered the longest start of his young career, a six-inning effort; he fell one out short in each of his first three turns upon being called up last August. He allowed just three hits and two runs, the first in the third inning after hitting Francisco Mejia with a pitch and then surrendering a two-out double to Fernando Tatis Jr., and the second via a fourth-inning solo homer by Jake Cronenworth. At that point, he was in a 2-0 hole, but the Dodgers’ offense bailed him out, scoring three runs in the sixth and seventh innings en route to a 5-2 win.

May collected a career-high eight strikeouts against the Padres, the second of which — against Manny Machado in the first inning — set Twitter ablaze:

We’ll get back to that pitch, but first, a bit of background. A native of Justin, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth — yes, Dustin from Justin — May was a 2016 third-round pick who was scouted, signed, and later coached in part by FanGraphs alum Josh Herzenberg, now the director of research and development (and previously pitching coordinator and quality control coach) of the KBO’s Lotte Giants. He entered the 2019 season ranked 21st on our Top 100 Prospects list, with a 55 Future Value, and pitched well enough at Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A Oklahoma City to be called up to the majors in early August, bringing not one but two excellent nicknames with him: “Code Red” and “Gingergaard.” In four starts and 10 relief appearances totaling 34.2 innings, he delivered a 3.63 ERA and 2.90 FIP, good enough to make the Dodgers’ postseason roster and even to get a chance in a high-leverage situation during the Division Series against the Nationals. His stock rose; he placed 14th on this year’s Top Prospect 100 list, now as a 60 FV prospect.

As the opening of camp approached in February, May figured to be a midseason addition to a rotation that already included Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, the just-acquired David Price, and Julio Urias, the last of whom was slated to be a full-time starter for the first time. May was in the mix for the fifth spot, along with Alex Wood and Ross Stripling, with Tony Gonsolin and Jimmy Nelson on the periphery as well. After the coronavirus pandemic delayed the season, Price opted out, and Nelson eventually required back surgery, thinning the ranks.

When Kershaw was scratched from his Opening Day start against the Giants due to back stiffness, the Dodgers turned to May, the first rookie to take a season-opening turn for the Dodgers since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981. May-nia has not ensued just yet, but he pitched well under the circumstances, yielding just one run on seven hits (all singles) and striking out four in 4.1 innings; as he wasn’t fully stretched out, he threw just 60 pitches. He ran his pitch count to 76 against the Astros on July 29, but lasted just 3.1 innings, allowing three hits, two walks, and one run. In both games, he departed with one out and two men on, but the bullpen (Colin Ferguson against the Giants, Jake McGee against the Astros) extricated him.

Which brings us back to Tuesday night, and the sinker that went viral. Per’s Matt Kelly, the pitch clocked at 99.4 mph and broke 18 inches horizontally according to Statcast, which reports its movement measures with gravity, “which makes them larger and different than other pitch movement numbers you may have seen.” The pitch was by no means a fluke; on Opening Day, May uncorked a 99.1 mph sinker that broke 18.2 inches against the Giants’ Pablo Sandoval:

Said manager Dave Roberts after Tuesday’s start, echoing countless descriptions on Twitter, “I couldn’t imagine a better pitch as far on the filth meter. It started middle-in and I think it ended up six to eight inches in. That just speaks to the depth and the run, and now you’re talking about 99 mph. It made a really, really good hitter look pretty bad.”

More filth? Here’s Greg Garcia striking out looking at a 98.5 mph sinker in the third inning, and Tatis going down swinging at a 98.4 mph sinker in the fifth:

Now, it’s fair to note — as MLB resident buzzkill Mike Petriello did (just kidding, we love you, Mike) — that Petco Park’s off-center camera exaggerates the visual effect of that horizontal movement for the viewers, but even so, the numbers tell us that May’s sinker is something special. Sticking with Statcast data, said sinker is averaging 97.8 mph, which is tops in the majors among pitchers with at least 50 sinkers thrown:

Note that about half of those pitchers are relievers; the second-ranked starter, Woodruff, averages 1.1 mph less with his sinker, and each of the next two starters, Montas and Matz, are an additional click below, with a whole lot of them bunched in the 93-94 mph range. Here it’s worth noting that the top starter in terms of average sinker velocity last year, Noah Syndergaard (97.5 mph), is out for the season due to Tommy John surgery, while the overall leader, Jordan Hicks (101.1 mph) has opted out due to health concerns and a setback in his own recovery from Tommy John. The highest average sinker velocity of any starter from last year who’s still on hand this year is 96.5 mph, shared by Luis Castillo and Zack Wheeler; they’re at 97.6 mph and 96.7 mph, respectively, but with just 37 thrown for the former and 27 for the latter.

Velocity is one thing, movement another, but again, May is at the head of the pack:

Again, these movement measures include gravity. The “vs Avg” column is a comparison relative to “other MLB pitch types within +/- 2 MPH and from within +/- 0.5 feet of extension and release.” Thus May’s teammate Treinen gets slightly more movement from a relative standpoint.

Anyway, it’s an impressive pitch, and May has added both velocity and movement to it relative to last year’s cup of coffee, when he averaged 96.0 mph and 16.8 inches of horizontal break (1.9 inches vs. average). Batters have managed just an 85.6 mph average exit velocity when making contact, producing a .259 xwOBA and .230 wOBA; Tatis’ double is the lone extra-base hit anyone has collected against his sinker this year.

The sinker isn’t May’s only weapon, either. His cutter, which has also gained velocity relative to last year (from 90.8 mph to a major league-high 93.3) actually gets significantly less break than average (0.6 inches, -0.8 vs. average), but that’s less of an issue when you can do this:

Mercy. So far, batters are doing even less with the cutter than they are with the sinker, with an average exit velo of 77.0 mph, a .266 wOBA, and a .253 xwOBA. May’s overall average exit velo of 83.2 mph places him in the 91st percentile with his 26.3% hard hit rate in the 88th percentile, and his .277 xwOBA in the 68th percentile.

Per Baseball America’s Kyle Glaser, added velocity has been a consistent theme throughout May’s career, thanks to the weight room:

His fastball sat 88-92 mph when the Dodgers drafted him in the third round in 2016 out of his Texas high school. Two years later, he was sitting 93-96 mph and rapidly integrating his newly developed cutter. Fast forward another two years to the present day, and he’s holding 96-100 mph deep into outings as a starter.

“I worked out a lot in the weight room and put probably about 20 pounds on,” May said. “That was probably my biggest thing this offseason, just putting weight on and getting a little stronger.

“I feel the same as I did last year, it’s just like there’s more strength behind the pitch. It’s just coming out a little better.”

May also has a curveball that grades out as a plus, but he’s thrown it just 9.6% of the time this year, and yet it accounts for the only homer (Cronenworth) and the only other double he’s surrendered thus far. The fact that he’s averaged just 19 batters faced per outing, including Tuesday’s high of 22, may have limited the extent to which he’s incorporated a third pitch, though his difficulties against lefties — who have hit .333/.387/.481 in 31 PA against him this year, compared to .160/.192/.200 in 26 PA by righties — serve as a reminder that he needs a better weapon against them. For his brief career, lefty batters have a .432 xwOBA against his sinker, and .411 against his curve, but just a .207 mark against his cutter; by comparison, the numbers for righties are .293 (sinker), .327 (curve), and .240 (cutter).

With Kershaw having returned from the Injured List and Wood once again landed there due to shoulder inflammation, the Dodgers are a ways off from any tough decision about who should start, but given Wood’s history and recent performance (38.2 innings with a 6.05 ERA and 6.48 FIP since the start of last season), it’s difficult to imagine May being the odd man out. By no means is he a finished product, but through 48.1 major league innings, he owns a 3.35 ERA, 2.82 FIP, and 1.3 WAR, thanks in part to microscopic walk and homer rates (4.0% and 0.56 per nine, respectively). On our most recent Top 100 Prospects list, Eric Longenhagen wrote that May “has the tools to be a 3-4 WAR starter.” He won’t get enough innings to reach 3-4 WAR this year, but right now he looks more than ready to fulfill that destiny.

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