May Has Come Early

It's gonna be May. Dustin May looks to make 2021 his year.

Expectations for any big prospect can be a grind to overcome. Expectations in places like Los Angeles can be even more intimidating. Former top prospect Dustin May has dealt with that pressure early in his career as well as the pressure of the postseason on the Dodgers run to the World Series title in 2020. Now, in 2021, he is ready to evolve and go from a promising prospect to a front line starter on a staff that has a wealth of starting pitching. After writing about his teammate, Tony Gonsolin, where I argued that Gonsolin should be getting regular starts over him, May made changes to make me believe it was the right decision to start him in the rotation. Dustin May is ready to dominate the 2021 season. 


The Fastball/Sinker Situation


The young Dodger pitcher is known for two things: having some of the best hair in the business and throwing very hard. In 2020, May averaged 99 mph on his fastball. That wasn’t his max velocity, that was his average velocity. His sinker was a touch below that at 98 mph on average. He threw a lot more sinkers than he did fastballs in 2020. He only threw his fastball about 5.5% of the time in 2020. This caused an issue that I will divulge later, but before we get there let’s talk about the sinker and compare it to the fastball. 

In 2020, May threw his sinker over 51% of the time. Sinkers are an enigma in my mind. Some guys really on them heavily for their success, as May did, but those pitches can’t generate the movement or velocity on the pitch that May can get. May ranked in the 99th percentile in sinker velocity and around 95th percentile in sinker movement. Sinkers aren’t pitches that generate a lot of swings and misses and are used primarily to generate ground balls. Zack Britton has used it as his primary pitch over the years and generated loads of ground balls. May had 91 batted ball events in 2020 and got ground balls on 51 of them. That 56% ground ball rate was slightly above the average ground ball rate on sinkers in 2020. However, May only got 23 swings and misses on the pitch that he threw almost 455 times. A part of that is that sinkers aren’t pitches that aren’t meant to get swings and misses but another part of that is where he locates his sinker. 


May’s fastball has elite potential. As already stated, it’s thrown at an average of 99 mph. He can keep it at the velocity throughout an appearance as well. The pitch had the second-highest whiff rate on pitches he threw last year at 26.7%. As mentioned, he doesn’t throw the pitch much. May’s fastball had a 92% active spin rate which is a little below the rate that he’s capable of. He uses his fastball up in the zone almost exclusively as one can see from the heat map above. This is where a high active spin fastball should be thrown. It doesn’t stay up in the zone the way one would think but that’s because of the natural run he’s able to get on the ball. Part of that is throwing the sinker so much that his natural arm motion and wrist motion can create some run. Let’s take a look at the pitches back-to-back. 

The pitches look similar out of the hand and with the way his sinker moves and the velocity on both pitches, there’s a potential for some strikeout stuff if he optimizes his pitch sequence. So why did he not generate whiffs?


Lack of Whiffs


There is a multitude of reasons why Dustin May didn’t get swings and misses over the year. First, it was a small sample size season so keep that in mind, things can be adjusted quickly and see better results. Now, having said that May was 7th percentile in whiffs last year. Sinker dominant pitchers are never going to be lighting up the leaderboard in whiffs. May’s teammate, Brusdar Graterol, had the lowest whiff rate in the league last year. When you throw a sinker as much he does, your off-speed pitches better can generate a lot of swings and misses. 

I’ve written about Dustin May’s curveball before, and the pitch moves like a slurve. To quickly recap that article, May’s spin direction and movement profile are that of a slurve. Slurve’s don’t generate a lot of whiffs in comparison to more traditional curveballs. While he had a 38.3% whiff rate, he only threw the pitch about 14% of the time. A pitch that has a 16.4% Swing strike rate should be thrown more. His second pitch by usage was his cutter. He saw a lot of success with the cutter as it was his most valuable pitch by his savant’s run value. He throws it inside to lefties a lot and can jam hitters inside and get weak contact, but it doesn’t generate a lot of whiffs. 

May has a changeup that he never throws to right-handed hitters, literally didn’t throw it once to righties, and the pitch didn’t get a lot of weak contact and swings and misses on the pitch. It seems like a changeup would be a good pitch to fool hitters when you throw a sinker. His changeup moves at an above rate in both horizontal and vertical movement. With his curveball not dropping at an elite rate, May might think to incorporate the changeup more to get something that moves more vertically. 

All of those things go back to the way May pitches. His style with the heavy sinker approach is not an approach that can generate a lot of swings and misses. This isn’t to say that sinkers can’t get swings and misses because if the pitch is well located on the edge of the plate and works in towards right-handed hitters, it can jam them or cause them to have a bad swing like we saw in that pitch to Manny Machado

The way to get whiffs is to throw a sinker less, the fastball more, and get more vertical break on the curveball. May didn’t do those things in 2020 which caused concerns about how his long-term sustainability of sub 3 ERA. All of those concerns for May were present coming into spring and competing for the fifth spot in the rotation, and he started to squash all of them. 


Evolving Quickly


I want to be clear about this, development is not linear and just because the prospect gets more playing time doesn’t mean they will get better because of that. They have to show a noticeable change in approach, pitch mix, or pitch movement to make one believe they could make a noticeable step. Dustin May seems to be taking the steps that he needed to make a jump. 

The biggest issue for May was the lack of whiffs that I went into. He comes into spring training and he starts throwing his sinker less and his fastball more. The sinker percentage was steadily around 40% and fastball around 30%. The velocity is still there, and he was locating the fastball way up in the zone. Already catching my eye that he might be making some more adjustments. 

The curveball started to register more vertical breaks and while maintaining a similar horizontal break level. He’s moving away from the slurve-like shape of the pitch and more towards a traditional curveball shape. He threw it at a similar rate in spring training that he did in 2020 but I still think he should be throwing the pitch more. He is sticking with the cutter as a primary pitch over the curveball and will roll with three main pitches as the sinker, four-seam fastball, and a cutter. 

In Spring Training, May struck out 21 hitters in 19 innings. A promising start but it’s just spring training. We shouldn’t put too much stock into those numbers and see how he fairs against the competition in the regular season. In May’s first start against the Oakland A’s, he showed a great deal of promise. He went 6 shutout innings with two hits, two walks, and eight strikeouts. He got 16 swings and misses, including nine on his cutter. May had an 18.8 SwStr% and a 34.1% CSW in that start. It was arguably the best start of May’s career and he showed a lot of promise. He didn’t get any swings and misses on the curveball which is something to keep an eye on as he makes more appearances. 

The final thing that stuck out to me about his start is while he did give up a fair amount of hard contact, including a batted ball against his curveball that could have been a home run depending on the park, he got a lot of ground balls. He had a near 65% ground ball rate in the start. While he’s not going to keep that up going forward, it is going to be interesting to see if his sinker generates more ground balls as it’s thrown less because hitters are seeing the fastball more. He did get four swings and misses on the pitch too. All of those things are encouraging signs, and I can’t wait to watch the next start to see if he sticks with the same game plan. 

Photo by Erik Drost Wikimedia Commons | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Max Greenfield

Former Intern for the Washington Nationals, now a Going Deep Writer analyzing the next possible breakout pitcher.

One response to “May Has Come Early”

  1. Jon Murray says:

    Cranberries XXL!

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