Fantasy managers took a sigh of relief last year when Tyler Mahle finally made it out of Great American Ballpark and was traded to the Minnesota Twins. Mahle, who was traded for a decently large haul, went from the second most hitter-friendly ballpark in baseball to the twenty-first. While optimism was high, getting out of Cincinnati didn’t mean he was free from all of his issues. Injuries derailed his arrival in the Twin Cities, as shoulder issues limited Mahle to just four starts; he made two IL appearances essentially back-to-back before being shut down for the season in early September.
While his time in Minnesota was limited, Mahle’s 2022 season was underwhelming across the board. In 120 innings, Mahle’s 4.40 ERA and 1.22 WHIP were disappointing, especially given the rookie seasons delivered by other Reds starters in Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo. Mahle did produce a respectable 25% K-rate but that was his lowest strikeout rate since 2019.
Mahle had a unique path to success in Cincinnati, as he is one of the few flyball pitchers to see legitimate success in Great American Ballpark. His 3.75 ERA across 180 IP in 2021 is the 18th-best season for a Reds pitcher since they began playing in GABP, and his 14.1% HR/FB% that year is the second-highest rate of those ranked ahead of him. Only Luis Castillo‘s 2019 saw a better ERA and worse HR/FB%.
Now that he’s in a more pitcher-friendly ballpark, there is a bit more scrutiny about his abilities. An asterisk cannot be placed next to every start he makes at home, and while he has previously shown the ability to pitch away from home, there are now bigger injury questions to be dealt with than ever before at the big league level. Despite that, Mahle’s arsenal is unique and gives him room for development, especially when many may have written him off.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of loving a pitcher with a bad fastball. Guys like Michael Wacha or Josiah Gray show eye-popping offspeed and breaking pitches that catch everyone’s attention when they are coming up as a prospect, but a poor fastball shape or location can ruin the entire arsenal by the time they need to face big league hitters for a full season. Mahle is the exact opposite in every way imaginable. His fastball is an elite pitch but does not pass the eye test as an elite pitch, and he leaves a lot to be desired with his off-speed pitches.
What Makes His Fastball So Good?
Mahle’s fastball does not jump off the paper as an elite pitch, as many of the physical characteristics are good, but not great. He throws it around 93.5 mph, which is about league average, and it can touch 96-97mph occasionally. The fastball also has an above-average spin rate, ranking around the 70th percentile each of the last three seasons. However, Mahle is able to leverage a strong vertical approach angle with low amounts of vertical movement to get rise on the pitch, even if it doesn’t seem that overpowering on the surface level.
Mahle has a +0.50 VAA on his fastball, which grades out to a 60 value on the 20-80 scale. This means that he throws his fastball from a flatter angle, making it more elusive for hitters up in the zone. This is paired with a movement profile that gets two more inches of “rise” than the average fastball at a similar velocity. That looks something like this:
Mahle starts off tall before sharply bending his knee to get to a lower height to release the pitch. This camera angle even gives the effect that the ball is rising from his hand to the catcher’s glove. With a pitch as flat as his, it is essential that it is up in the zone. From 2020-2022, the fastball has an average HiLoc% of 58%, which is about 7% higher than the league average.
Both Stuff+ and PLV believe in the pitch from a process perspective, which is significant when taking park factors out of the equation.
Always Room for Improvement
Mahle currently throws two offspeed pitches: a splitter (24%) and a slider (11%). The splitter is a pitch for both-handedness hitters and is a painstakingly average pitch. It has a slightly-above average PLV against both left- and right-handed hitters. He throws it away to both types of hitters as well, to varying amounts of success. Just a 22% CSW is a pretty low figure and clearly shows that it is not an out pitch, and Mahle is aware of that. He primarily throws it early in the count and will occasionally go to it on two strikes, but that is reserved for his fastball most of the time.
Meanwhile, the slider is the atrocity that will be the key to success in the future. In 2022, the slider struggled in all facets of use.
Mahle struggled to miss bats, throw the pitch in the zone, or prevent hard contact. For a pitch type that should be a viable option for most starters, the slider is a non-starter for Mahle.
To start, the pitch has a poor movement profile. It is thrown at 83.8mph, which is below league average, and it gets below-average movement in both directions. The slider has -2.7 inches of horizontal movement below average and -0.7 inches of vertical movement below average.
As for the location, he often spikes it down and away and doesn’t put it in enticing locations when he misses:
Why 2023 can be Mahle’s Year
Mahle is an offspeed pitch away from being a consistent high-quality starting pitcher. He has already proven he can succeed without much of any offspeed or breaking balls, and a revamped pitch can immediately be elevated by his strong fastball. Pitchers who are usually the “fastball-only” type are often fireballers with no command, but Mahle does not fit that mold.
He is healthy going into 2023, which is important as he was plagued with shoulder injuries during his 2022 campaign. Entering Spring Training, Mahle “feels fantastic” and will not have any restrictions on him going into the 2023 season. Additionally, Mahle went to Driveline over the winter to improve his slider. While this can almost be considered the new “best shape of his life” before Spring Training, Mahle went to work on one pitch type and he already has a solid fastball foundation; his visit isn’t an attempt to create something out of nothing. Driveline work also shows that Mahle was able to throw in a healthy manner in the winter, rather than rehabbing from injury.
From a draft perspective, Mahle’s stock took a harsh drop from last year. His current ADP (drafts from February 1-28) sits at 255th overall and the 93rd pitcher, just behind Merrill Kelly and Jameson Taillon. Mahle has a high upside that we’ve seen before and can be a valuable pick for late pitching if needed. He has not fully had an opportunity to throw in Minnesota and has an opportunity to thrive, even if many have written off a 2023 bounceback campaign.
Photo by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Chris Corr (@Chris_Studios on Twitter)