Touki Toussaint is different from what he used to be. Why? When you’re an out away from seven strong innings of filling the zone and racking up whiffs, coming suddenly on the heels of a couple years of struggling to stay on a major league mound, something has to be different. For Toussaint, it’s always been a matter of locating well enough to let his lively stuff play at the highest level. It’s only a couple starts, but he’s doing it right now. He’s different.
Let’s start with pitch selection and location.
One of the most noticeable changes – something I picked up on in a matter of minutes in his Mets start – was the approach of mixing his pitches differently and utilizing the fastball in a different way. Instead of establishing a sinking fastball down in the zone for weak contact, Toussaint is getting ahead by throwing the curveball, splitter and slider over the plate early in the count more often. He’s showing more command of these pitches to allow him to establish them early instead of going fastball-only early and trying to put hitters away on secondaries off the plate.
This opens up the arsenal to allow Toussaint to mix more effectively. It also sets up an increased usage of four-seamers, which he’s doing in a great way by going up in the zone to change eye levels and take advantage of his mid-90s heat. Toussaint has too much natural arm strength and the fastball pops too much to settle for weak contact on sinkers. Pumping 96 at the letters off a split down is a very effective way to maximize this two-pitch combination.
Toussaint is going to this four-seam/split combination more often against left-handed batters. He’s trading some whiffs on the splitter for increased whiffs on the four-seam, currently at 21 percent compared to just 9 percent last year. However, his putaway percentage on the splitter is a whopping 43 percent compared to 34 percent last year, showing that hitters are being fooled on the velo separation and late fading action for weak contact.
Against right-handed batters, Toussaint is leaning on his biggest strength – a consistently plus curveball that flashes double-plus. It’s his No. 1 pitch against righties, and increased command so far this season has allowed him to both establish it early in the zone and get whiffs off the plate with two strikes. His whiff percentage on the pitch has increased 9 percentage points to 55 percent so far this year. He plays off the curve with more four-seamers up in the zone, which he’s tunneling effectively, while flashing a harder breaker look with a mid-80s slider and mixing an occasional splitter for a right-on-right change of pace.
The zone plots tell the tale of Toussaint’s approach. In his 41.2 innings in 2019, he relied heavily on the sinker down and arm side while he struggled to spot the four-seamer and curve in a consistent spot off the middle of the plate. He worked the splitter off the plate too much for it to be a consistent pitch for strikes.
So far in 2020, Toussaint’s four-seam usage is primarily up in the zone and arm side. He’s in the zone with the splitter, often down and in to play off the four-seamer by fading below the fastball’s path. He’s keeping the curve down and away but has a hot spot at the knees and over the plate for strikes. When he mixes in the slider, he’s keeping down and on the corners.
What does all of that mean? It means increased command, because he’s locating his pitches where he wants. The four-seamer up and splitter down, both arm side, play off each other. The curveball down gets whiffs against righties and plays off the four-seam up. The slider is a harder look down to keep hitters guessing. Put it all together and you have an effective starter’s arsenal.
Stuff has never been Toussaint’s issue; it’s always been command. Being able to establish early strikes and locate his stuff effectively enough have been the difference between six solid innings and wondering when the right-hander would permanently settle in a bullpen. It’s only two starts and three total appearances spanning 13.1 innings, but Toussaint’s command in 2020 is notably improved so far.
There’s a difference on the mound. To begin with, Toussaint has moved from the far left side of the rubber to right-center, with his toes basically reaching the right edge. One, this creates angle by making it more difficult on right-handed batters who see the ball in their eyes but are forced to contend with a tunneled four-seamer, curveball and splitter from that closer angle. Two, it’s causing Toussaint to stand taller from the top of his leg kick through release.
The second point is where improved consistency comes into play. The first photo of Toussaint in white facing Pete Alonso is from June 18, 2019. As he strides down the mound, his body constricts, his upper half bends over and his back side dips out. You see this sometimes in ultra-athletic pitchers who use lots of moving parts for added torque. But it’s not a clean stride to the plate and forces Toussaint to correct his body at the last second to get into position to release. This causes inconsistent mechanics and release.
The second photo of Toussaint in grey facing Jose Martinez is his first 2020 appearance. You notice the dramatic shift on the rubber. You should also notice that Toussaint is standing taller. His front side is higher, his lead arm is stiff and his lead leg and foot are staying more in line and closed. All of this causes Toussaint to stay on line as he strides down the mound, maintaining a cleaner stride, cutting down on the moving parts, and allowing him to stay on the top of the ball and find his release point.
Finally, you’ll notice the difference in release points from 2019 to 2020. The more outward release is due to the change in foot placement on the rubber, but he’s also releasing taller because of the more upright stride. The release point is high and tight, and it’s allowing him to command his pitches and tunnel them effectively.
This is admittedly a lot to take from 13 innings, and it’s not even the first time Toussaint has had a successful start or two in the majors. But it’s clear that he’s commanding the ball better than he usually does, and it’s clear that he’s made adjustments to try to make this a permanent thing.
Toussaint is one of the most athletic pitchers you’ll ever see, and he has the aptitude to apply adjustments quickly. He’s made plenty of them over the years in an effort to be a long-term major league starter. Is this latest round of tweaks the difference-maker? Time will tell.
Data and images from Baseball Savant.