'Devastating': Senza's quest to evolve put on pause -- again

August 19th, 2022

ST. LOUIS -- A few days ago, Rockies right-handed pitcher Antonio Senzatela detailed how hard work and number-crunching were finally giving him a handle on pushing his career to the next step. Only injury after injury this season slowed his progress.

But Thursday afternoon ended -- in the second inning of an already sideways start against the Cardinals -- with Senzatela crumpled on the grass behind first base, both hands grasping his left knee. A 13-0 ignominy followed to complete the National League Central pacers’ three-game sweep. It was the largest margin of victory in a shutout at Busch Stadium.

A day later, Senzatela -- in the first season of a five-year, $50.5 million contract -- was placed on the 15-day injured list with a left ACL tear.

Outfielder Charlie Blackmon, who finished his first-inning infield single gingerly, left before the second inning with right hamstring soreness. Manager Bud Black said Blackmon’s injury will keep him from starting Friday against the Giants, but it’s “not an IL situation” and it isn’t nearly as serious as Senzatela’s.

“Devastating, right?” Black said.

Brendan Donovan chopped a ball toward first base. Senzatela took a route to field the ball, only to find rookie first baseman Elehuris Montero had the same intent. Senzatela’s leg buckled when he tried to veer to first base. Donovan ended up with an RBI infield single, the last of six hits in 1 2/3 innings against Senzatela, who was charged with five runs. 

Black felt the Cardinals, with hitters whose professionalism should be the envy of most teams, “didn’t really blister Antonio.” They reserved that for the bullpen, especially lefty Austin Gomber, who gave up Albert Pujols’ 690th career home run and 16th grand slam -- but his first slam as a pinch-hitter.

About the best that can be said about Senzatela’s injury Thursday was it broke the chain that had been established earlier in 2022. The other ailments were on his right side -- hamstring in Spring Training, lower back to cost him two weeks in May, and right shoulder inflammation to keep him out three weeks in June. Thursday’s injury to the left knee looked the most extensive of them all.

And it hit right when Senzatela, 27, felt bright about the future.

He had turned in four straight quality starts. His ERA crept down, from 4.98 to 4.67. A fastball-slider guy for much of his career, Senzatela was gaining a feel for his changeup and a curveball -- one that enabled him to induce much-needed swings and misses.

“I feel I have confidence in other pitches,” Senzatela said. “Then you throw them and get good results. It’s helped me a little bit more.”

Against the D-backs his last time out, Senzatela used all four pitches and gave up three runs on five hits in six innings and ended up with a no-decision in the Rockies’ 5-3 victory. Since incorporating the curve more often, he built a swing-and-miss rate above 32 percent, and the changeup the Rockies have harped on him to use was whiffed right at 20 percent. If he could keep going in that vein, he didn’t have to depend on opponents hitting balls where his fielders are (although the Cardinals blew up the plan, even with soft contact).

“If I use my whole stuff, it’s going to be a big deal for me,” he said.

Black said, “That was the impetus moving forward with Antonio … these next seven starts or so, more use of the curveball, bring the changeup into play, be a true four-pitch pitcher -- a lot like [Cardinals starter Adam] Wainwright [who held the Rockies to three hits and fanned seven in seven innings].”

Senzatela, who was on crutches in the Rockies’ clubhouse after the game, built his career on the fastball-slider combo but off the mound searched for other ideas. 

“He wants to know the best usage for his pitches, wants to know the spins on them – he’s really good with that,” pitching coach Darryl Scott said. “There’s a maturity level and a competitiveness.”

When the Rockies’ analytics department was reduced by departures and a post-pandemic hiring freeze, Senzatela commissioned Codify Baseball (whose website lists 44 Major League clients, including Rockies closer Daniel Bard) to crunch numbers for ideas. With the Rockies R&D in the process of being rebuilt, Senzatela said manager of baseball research Brittany Haby and advance scout Joe Little have helped him apply data and see early results.

“There’s a reason why we signed him,” Haby said. “He’s always been a really good, coachable guy and tried to get better. That was natural.”

Senzatela continues to study and apply.

“It’s the big leagues -- you have to learn every year, every day,” Senzatela said. “The more I learn, the more it’s going to help my pitching.”

But injuries have kept him off the mound, which is the best classroom.