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Leyland on Zumaya: 'That stuff is nasty.' But is it?

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During the next few weeks I'll be taking a closer look at each of the nine themes to watch as spring training progresses. I'll start with the pitching questions.

Earlier this month, Tigers right-handed reliever Joel Zumaya told MLB.com's Jason Beck he's probably on his "last string."

If he is -- and he's a bit melodramatic on these things, so I don't agree with him -- it's not because of his pitching. At least, if manager Jim Leyland is to be believed. Quoted by Tom Gage of the News, Leyland said:

"The ball is flying out of his hand. I watched him throw and asked one of my coaches, 'How does a human being hit that?' It's exploding up there. I'm holding my breath it holds up because that stuff is nasty. There is no shortage of velocity. That I can promise you."

Of course, velocity has never been the issue for Zumaya, and it wasn't in 2009 either.

Fangraphs.com's Dave Cameron wrote last year:

For Zumaya, there appear to be diminishing returns associated with his velocity. 99 with location is an awful lot better than 101 with no idea where it’s going. For his sake, and really for baseball’s sake, let’s hope the Tigers can help him ease back off the fastball a little bit.

The results? Not pretty. A review of the traditional stuff: 4.94 ERA, worst of his career, in another injury shortened season in 2009. FIP was even worse at 5.48, although it's never been better than the 3.34 of his rookie season. His walks rate was an awful 6.39 and home runs per fly balls came in at 10.4 percent. Of course, Zumaya has not pitched more than 33 2/3 innings in the majors since 2006 either.

A few other notes of interest: in 2009 using stats from Fangraphs: Zumaya's fastball clocked in at its highest speed yet, averaging 99.3 mph. He threw it 80 percent of the time. The big difference in results could be because the fast ball has failed Zumaya and was worth -4 runs beneath average. At the start of his career, it was a far above-average pitch.

In 2009, batters swung a bit more often at balls outside the zone, while swinging at balls inside the zone at about the same rate. But they made contact more often when he threw strikes, connecting 79.1 percent of the time vs. the 77.2 in 2006.

Of course, with such limited innings, it's hard to read too far into any of those stats.

So maybe Leyland doesn't know how batters hit it, but they do. It will be important for Zumaya to get a little more action on the ball, even if he has to back off the velocity. Of course, last season we heard the claim he would back off the radar readings too, only to see them go up.

Zumaya told Gage:

Mainly it's all about how I feel. I was pitching hurt last year. It hasn't been too fun. My arm slot is higher now, though, and my ball is coming down at a different angle.

If that results in better movement, we could see good things from Zumaya this year.

But it's still too early to know just what we'll get out of Zumaya..