Luis Atilano got his break and made his major league debut last week. Atilano’s call-up was just over the horizon when William Ladson tweeted about mechanical issues that had been apparently troubling Jason Marquis.
Joined at the elbow
Marquis was declared ready to game test the corrected mechanics, but it didn’t work out. The veteran from Staten Island ended up on the DL. Whether the cause or effect of bad mechanics, the presence of loose bodies in Marquis’ right elbow opened the door for a young man with big scar on his own elbow.
Atilano’s trip to the majors was far from direct, and began with the Mets’ signing of free agent Tom Glavine. Glavine’s departure after the 2002 season, a shock and disappointment to many in Atlanta and New York, netted a compensation pick for the Braves. With that sandwich pick, Atilano was selected as the 35th player in the first round of the 2003 draft.
The teenager from Puerto Rico signed and went to Rookie ball, and for the next few years things were moving along fairly well. That’s until a game in July of 2006 that Atilano left early with an injury.
While the initial MRI showed no tear, Atilano had Tommy John surgery a month later. Suprisingly, he was traded soon after for Daryle Ward. Ward was in the last month of his contract, so, risk and all, Atilano cost Washington very little. Glavine leaves, and three years later the Braves get some pinch-hitting help for their sub-.500 third-place finish.
Scouting reports then and now
It took more than three years, but the Nationals’ cheap investment has started to pay off. What they’ve acquired is a ground ball pitcher who won’t give away many free passes. He won’t strike out many batters, so the Washington defense will be his best friend—or worst enemy.
He’s now known for a sinker, but Atilano’s cutting fastball was noted after the draft by Baseball America:
Atilano has two solid pitches and an ideal frame that could make him a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. Atilano, 18, has an easy arm that produces a cutting fastball with excellent movement. Though skinny at 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, he should get stronger as his body matures, which should make his fastball more effective and possibly sit in the 93-94 mph range.
Atilano also throws an above-average change-up with good depth and fade. The Braves like his mound presence and competitiveness, traits that led the Major League Scouting Bureau to grade him higher than any other player this year in Puerto Rico.
More recent news paints an updated picture of the still developing Atilano:
Pitching coordinator Spin Williams and Harrisburg pitching coach Randy Tomlin changed his breaking ball, turning it from a big, looping pitch into a more biting one.
Atilano has always been a fastball-change-up pitcher, his fastball darting with a natural sink. “Strike thrower,” Williams said. “Attacks the hitter. He works fast, keeps the ball down, keeps a good game pace.”
He still has the change-up, but the sinking (tailing, not cutting) fastball sits closer to 89-90. PITCHf/x data from Atilano’s debut show at least three pitches, depending on how you slice up the breaking balls.
The following two-pane image shows a pair of looks at Atilano’s PITCHf/x data (click to enlarge). On the left is spin deflection. Measured in inches and shown from the catcher’s perspective, it illustrates each pitch’s deviation from the path of a ball only under the influence of gravity. The right side shows speed in mph on the vertical axis and estimated spin axis (tilt of the ball relative to the arm path) in degrees along the horizontal.
Although the sink and tail on the fastball and change-up are noteworthy, the big take-away is the spread of sliders You can see a 10 mph spread and a good foot of difference in spin deflection. You can almost see three breaking balls. Cutter, slider, curve? Slider, slurve, curve? Cuslidurve? Work in progress?
This is what they looked like in flight, assuming you watched the game at the Timothy Leary Institute for Higher Baseball
That’s one big image, click to enlarge. Below (split into two images, sorry/you’re welcome) are examples of each of his three pitches—fastball, change-up and “slider”. These aren’t from the same at-bat, but they illustrate the action on his pitches.
Atilano will face the Cubs on Wednesday, providing another look at his stuff. For now, I’ll call him a sinker/slider guy. The Nationals call him a good value.