Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Latos

His current struggles could make Mat Latos better in the long run, especially if the 23-year-old regains the consistently hot fastball that brought him a $1.25-million signing bonus and rushed him to the big leagues after only 31 starts in the minors.

What doesn't kill us is supposed to make us stronger, right? Or so the cliche goes. Latos is winless in his last 11 games dating to 2010, a pretty stiff development given that the Tattoed One was 14-5 with a 2.21 ERA when this detour began last September.


This year, six starts into it, Latos is giving up more home runs and warning-track outs than he did a sophomore big leaguer or likely ever as an amateur. He's in the midst of learning a few things.

As Chipper Jones told me last month, Latos used to be able to "dot" both sides of the plate with an explosive fastball, especially if the caliber of hitter -- e.g., Chipper -- warranted it.

Latos hasn't had that luxury in this still young season, for the most part.

Oh, Bud Black was telling the truth Monday when he told the press that Latos' stuff is still "fine." A fastball that has averaged 92.3 mph (FanGraphs) qualifies as fine, or better than fine, for most big leaguers, if we're talking only about mph.

The righty's strikeout rate is still very good -- 9.2 per nine -- and identical to last season.

In fact, Latos has shown excellent fastballs, sliders, curveballs and changeups. He still has four "plus" pitches, making him a potential ace.

He's just not showing them consistently.

The explosive, confidence-enriching fastball that Latos could lean on last year averaged 94 mph (FanGraphs) and gave him a larger margin for error that he's generally had this year.

Take Monday's game in Milwaukee against a talented but streaky Brewers offense that had scored only 17 runs in its previous 10 games.

Yes, Latos couldn't trust his curveball. Two batters into it, he threw a lollypop curve that Carlos Gomez raked off the left-field wall for extra bases (ought to have been a double, was played into a triple by NL Central veteran Ryan Ludwick). Latos was fortunate that one didn't end up in the seats. He also spiked two curves for wild pitches, part of the tedious, one-run first inning.

But the reduced margin for error on his fastball was, and has been, pretty glaring, relative to the pitch's dominance last year.

Latos anticipated that Brewers pitcher Zach Greinke would try to bunt or slug bunt, so he threw the appropriate pitch -- a high fastball -- but because it didn't have great zip, Greinke was able to get on top of the 92 mph pitch and chop it for a single to shortstop. Which led to a run.

Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum had said before the game that Latos will not come inside to right-handed hitters with his fastball and will consistently work away. Nothing concerning there.  The question was, could the Brewers make him pay?

They did it twice for RBI hits. Rickie Weeks drove a nothing fastball -- 90 mph -- to right-center for a home run in the fifth. Yes, in the Petco cocoon, Latos would've suffered only a double or a triple for that blast. But against a great fastball hitter like Weeks, a 2-1 fastball out over the plate had better have some mustard on it. (At that point, Latos may have been fatigued. He had thrown 29 pitches in the first inning, all but ensuring his material would be thin come the middle innings.)

With two outs in the sixth, when Latos was emptying the tank, Jonathan Lecroy rapped a 92-mph fastball for an opposite-field double, one at-bat after Corey Hart had swatted a mistake slider for a double. That run would stand as the winner.

I guess the big question here is, will Latos regain the consistently hot fastball?

Answer: There's reason for some optimism. First, arm health doesn't appear to be a concern. Although Latos opened the  season on the DL, Jed Hoyer told me on the day of the righty's season debut that Latos didn't have an MRI exam. Think about that one. Latos is a franchise pitcher, and the Padres, one of the most conservative clubs when it comes to handling pitchers, decided an MRI wasn't needed. I saw that as an encouraging sign, one that confirmed the suggestion of scouts that the Padres used the DL to help stabilize Latos after a bumpy ride in the Cactus League.

Latos still may be building arm strength. Chris Young, a former teammate and a pitcher somewhat similar to him in size and approach, used to say that he wasn't fully built up until May or sometimes early June. "Latos is still in spring training," a scout told me two weeks ago, noting the righty's DL time.

Latos also could be searching for a tiny tweak in his delivery. If so, he has the benefit of three veteran pitching coaches who know him well.

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