This is Chris Young, World Series champion and one of the tallest players in the history of baseball:
That’s Salvador Perez, listed at 6’3 and looking like a stocky fireplug by comparison. At 6’10, Young is a unique, highly entertaining baseball player, but it’s not like you hold Chris Young watching parties with your friends. When he appears in a game, you might remark, “That dude is still tall, alright,” and continue watching the game. He isn’t a freak of baseball nature, anymore. He’s one of the several hundred players who wears a hat — just a little taller.
With that in mind, I’m going to explain why you should watch 7’1 Dutch pitcher Loek Van Mil with a sense of wonder and curiosity during the World Baseball Classic — even though he’s not much taller than Chris Young standing on a pizza box.
We’ve already established that Young is fun to watch, but he isn’t that exciting, so an extra smidgen of human skeleton shouldn’t make much of a difference. The 32-year-old Van Mil is something more, though. He reveals the secrets of pitching by not exhibiting the secrets of pitching, and you should watch just how he does it.
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But, first, let’s start with what makes the major leaguer the major leaguer — his fastball. Young throws his fastball between 85 and 89 mph, which is one of the slowest fastballs in the game, and his velocity needed a boost just to get there. For nearly a decade, he was averaging 85 mph. Even with one of the slowest heaters in the game, about three out of every four of his pitches over his career have been fastballs. It’s been a very successful career, too, with a winning record, an adjusted ERA better than the league average, and an All-Star appearance mixed in. The biggest problem for Young has been his health, not his fastball. His fastball has been an asset his entire career.
The reason Young can be successful throwing in the mid-80s, even though that kind of velocity might keep Tim Lincecum out of the majors this year, is because of what’s known as “perceived velocity.” It was Young’s success in the mid-80s that turned it into its own scientific discipline. Back in 2007, Eric Seidman of Baseball Prospectus took a look at how Young got batters out.
According to these results, the theory on Young seems to ring true -- on average he threw these five fastballs with a perceived velocity of 6.7 mph greater than what the PITCHf/x measured at 50 feet, a figure that correlates strongly to radar gun reports.
Hitters get less time to see a Chris Young pitch because it’s released closer to the plate, and he’s carved hitters up since arriving to the majors. It’s not a complicated concept. Height isn't the sole contributor to perceived velocity — unorthodox deliveries can help, too — but it’s the easiest way for a pitcher to get it. One of the most important rules of pitching: be taller.
Which brings us back to Van Mil. Again, he’s taller than Young. Three inches taller. Taller than any pitcher who has ever appeared in a Major League Baseball game. When he releases his pitch, it’s closer to the plate than just about any pitch that hitters will ever see. He has the same gift that Young has, just a little more of it.
Also, Van Mil throws 95 miles per hour.
It’s a blazing fastball, the kind that can blow hitters away even if it’s coming from a pitcher a foot-and-a-half shorter. There are at least a couple of active closers who wish they had that kind of velocity. You’ll see it in the WBC, and you’ll see hitters flail at it.
Van Mil has three inches and 10 mph on Young, but Young has made $22.4 million in a 12-year major league career. Van Mil hasn’t made the majors.
If perceived velocity can get Chris Young and his 85-mph fastball into the All-Star Game, how is it possible that Van Mil can’t hold a job in organized baseball, much less make the majors? It almost seems like a paradox.
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I asked Christopher Crawford, minor-league guru for Rotoworld.com and bad tweeter, to explain why Van Mil hasn’t had the same success as Young. He replied:
When you're that tall, keeping your delivery intact is really, really hard, and he never did it in the United States. Even when he got better at hitting the strike zone, he never had anything resembling quality command. He also doesn't have a competent breaking ball, so that doesn't help.
The question is how a 7’1 pitcher can’t be as successful as a 6’10 pitcher, even though he throws 10 mph faster.
The answer is that Van Mil can’t locate as well as Young.
The question is how a 7’1 pitcher can’t be as successful as a young Randy Johnson, who was 6’10, threw just as hard as Van Mil, and would have had troubles hitting a bus with his fastball from 60 feet away when he was younger.
The answer is that Van Mil doesn’t have a breaking ball that’s remotely comparable to Johnson’s slider.
If it sounds simplistic, it is. But it’s always worth remembering, and Van Mil provides the perfect opportunity. When analysts wanted to know why Young was successful throwing 85 mph a decade ago, they found half of the answer, and the other half was implied. The perceived velocity made Young’s fastball play up, and he had the command to put baseballs where hitters weren’t expecting baseballs. It seems like the command might be the less important reason for his success, except it most certainly is not.
David Roth once described Van Mil’s delivery like this:
There is no letting it rip at 7'1”. If anything goes wrong, at that size, everything goes wrong. What begins as a pitching motion ends up as an avant-garde rhythmic gymnastics routine performed by a drunken Dhalsim
That’s about right, and it means that Van Mil can throw hard, and he can let go of the ball closer to home plate than most pitchers, but he can’t guarantee that it will go where he wants. That’s almost as important as making a hitter look for another deadly pitch, which Van Mil doesn’t quite have.
Your job during the WBC isn’t to notice just how tall Van Mil is, but how he isn’t successful. He is a living example of how hard pitching is a proxy for how baseball works and how it doesn’t.
Your other job is to see if he’s getting closer to making the majors, too.
Don’t look at how tall Van Mil is. Watch his catcher’s mitt. See how much it moves with each pitch, especially the fastball.
Don’t look at how tall he is. Watch the breaking ball. See if hitters are flinching, or if they can lay off without any problems.
Van Mil has been successful in the Netherlands, a part of the juggernaut Dutch team Curaçao Neptunus, with whom he struck out 29 batters in 21 innings and issued just four walks. He will embarrass hitters in the WBC, throwing a 95-mph fastball downhill from about 50 feet away, which almost seems like cheating.
He wants to come back to the United States and prove himself at the highest level of competition. From Scott Miller at Bleacher Report:
Among the reasons some players elect to participate in the WBC is that the tournament partly functions as a showcase for those seeking another chance. Maybe, if everything comes together for Van Mil, a major league team will be waiting with another invitation.
If the early returns are any indication — his velocity, his success in the Dutch Major League, his success in the WBC — there’s absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t get that shot. Pitchers can discover their command after they turn 30. It’s why Randy Johnson is in the Hall of Fame instead of the Hall of Remember That Really Tall Pitcher?
Pitchers can learn to refine their pitches, even as they get older and older. It’s why Bartolo Colon can still make millions with his bag of moving fastballs in his 40s, which isn’t what made him successful in his 20s.
If we have any luck, Van Mil will find one of the two and finally become a major leaguer. If baseball has some beauty left over, he’ll find both of them and become a dominant major leaguer.
It would be fun to watch because, well, the dude’s tall. But it would also be fun to watch because it would be a prominent example of a player overcoming the inherent difficulties of professional baseball and succeeding with refined talent when raw talent just wasn’t enough. That’s the story of baseball, more or less.
Loek Van Mil is the story of baseball, more or less.
It’s the story of baseball wrapped in a 7’1” shell, at least, and it’s worth watching — even if you think you’ve watched tall pitchers before. You have, but not like this. There still might be chapters left to write, and the WBC came at the perfect time for us to gawk with a sense of wonder and curiosity.