So I’ve been away for a while, but for a good reason. I was blessed with the opportunity to speak at SaberSeminar 2018, which was held on August 4-5 at Boston University. Two great men, Chuck Korb and Dan Brooks, founded this event and it has grown to become a family of people that combine to form what I call Baseball Academia (thanks to a conversation with Alex Speier at the Boston Globe). It is an event that is not well known to the mainstream public, but to those in the analytics community, it is a jewel. At this event, you can find yourself sitting next to the Director of R&D in Analytics for a MLB team, and then on your other side, a college assistant baseball coach seeking to find advantages for his D3 baseball team. It’s open to ANYONE. All the money goes to charity. Its purpose overpowers any topic and its a platform where the most analytical of baseball fans and professionals can find serenity and harmony spending time with one another.
When I was first chosen to present, I wondered to myself, “What would be a valuable topic to discuss with people that assess every topic there is in baseball?” I’m a digger and I wanted to investigate a topic that I believe needed attention.
High-velocity pitchers are an obsession of mine and there has been an epidemic where their velocity is being undervalued, in my opinion. This has presented itself in the form of more and more teams adopting lower fastball usage rate. The Yankees are one of the more prominent teams that have implemented this process successfully. It is based on a pitcher-by-pitcher approach yet many of their guys in their rotation, and even their ‘pen, have adopted this philosophy. Guys like Dellin Betances, David Robertson, and Luis Severino have made it a habit to hover around 50% or lower fastball usage. Other teams have been doing it with success so it holds much credibility as to be a viable option. The prevailing thought behind this is that batters are producing against the high-velocity fastball at a tremendous clip.
In my quest to dig in, I focused on the most common types of pitchers—six starters and relievers. There isn’t a large group of this pitcher type for starters. Then I looked at their batting average against for fastballs and other pitch types in the zone and out the zone.
Here’s what I found utilizing Brooks Baseball:
BAA IN Zone/ ON Corners - Various Pitch Types - Starters
|BAA IN Zone
|BAA On Corners
|BAA IN Zone
|BAA On Corners
BAA IN Zone/ON Corners - Various Pitch Types - Relievers
|BAA IN Zone
|BAA On Corners
|BAA IN Zone
|BAA On Corners
One thing that you can notice is that fastballs are being hit hard when they are in the zone while sliders are not. But when on the corners, fastballs and sliders are equals. This speaks to the misconception that the fastball is easy to hit—it’s only easy to hit when it’s poorly located or it runs into the heart of the zone.
I decided to go a little deeper and see if there were any correlation between pitch types that would be advantageous to high-velocity pitchers. To do this, I took all the starters and relievers over 96+ and conducted what is called a linear regression study on their existing pitching repertories. The variable utilized where GB%, K%, Contact% and Pace (which is my own little scouting obsession). To a lesser extent, I also looked at IFFB%, which is also an important because it is a form of automatic out. The premise behind choosing these categories was that out-getting is omnipotent. All of these variables have a direct relationship with out-getting to varying degrees.
After conducting the study, I found the following:
1. Changeups are great at limiting contact...when they are paired with sinkers.
2. Sliders limited contact the most (duh)
3. Sliders and four-seamers work best together (also duh)
It became clear to me that sinkers and changeup have a ton of potential for out-getting when paired. My thinking was that both tend to be low-spin rate pitches, so when used in tandem with varying velocity, they are difficult to drive with correct placement because of their downward drift. The variance in spin rates and velocity differential make for a tough-to-hit combination. There may be room for implementation by high-velocity pitchers in the future.
New data is cool, but the implementation and strategy of it is cooler, so I sought to align this information with some of my scouting acumen.
After thinking about these relationships, I decided to study high-fastball-usage pitchers in the past and their philosophies. I stumbled upon somebody named Greg Maddux. Now, everyone cannot be Maddux, but they can at least follow his habits.
I thought to myself, “What if we applied his habits to higher-velocity pitchers?” Being somewhat traditional, I was extremely excited to find out that Maddux and I were along the same wave length in our beliefs. More fastball is not just good—it’s mandatory. The New York Times article referenced some key habits and thoughts.
Here are some of the key takeaways from Maddux:
- He honed the fastball “extensively,” insisting that “it enhanced the rest of his repertoire”
- He counseled teammates to spend more time controlling their fastballs and less on curveballs or sliders
- ’’It’s unbelievable the amount of time [Maddux] puts on perfecting the command of his fastball,’’ former pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. ‘’It’s his No. 1 priority. In his mind, if you can command your fastball and change speeds, there isn’t a heck of a lot more you have to do. He notices when a hitter adjusts one inch in the box after lunging at a changeup and processes that information faster than Google.”
- ’’I think what separates him is he’s so much better at recognizing what the last pitch dictated and gathering information from that than most guys are,’’ former teammate Tom Glavine said. ‘’Most guys say: ‘I threw a fastball in. Now I’m going to throw this.’ Why? They don’t know. It might not have anything at all to do with the last pitch. I think that’s what he’s good at. Seeing the hitter’s reaction and using that information on the next pitch.’’
- Maddux believes in being aggressive to keep opponents uncomfortable and told Mazzone a decade ago that he would surrender a lot of hits with 0-2 counts because it is the most vulnerable count and he wants to bury hitters.
After this, I sought to investigate what pitchers might be able to do to improve command. It’s a lot more complex than just metrics, reliant on fundamentals that transcend the world of sports.
Consider the three-step process commonly implemented by humans across other professional fields:
Step 1: Practice a new skill in a controlled environment.
Step 2: Work on the new skill in a variable environment.
Step 3: Perfect the new skill in a random environment.
This reinforces that the only way to ultimately master fastball command is to utilize the pitch in game. No amount of side work is enough.
Even then, I decided, after finding out that side work is up to the pitcher to a larger extent, that two side sessions at a minimum of 60% fastball usage was absolutely mandatory. In game fastball usage would need to be closely related with this percentage. This would speak to the side work being dominated by the fastball, which enhances the secondary pitches, too. In-game usage is dually important because it helps with the acquisition of mental conditioning reps. A huge part of the development process is the mentality to locate and pitch well and align that with muscle memory to create optimal performance.
After doing more research on to the strengthening and training element of pitching, I concluded that extensive rotator cuff maintenance and strengthening during the preseason would be the most imperative training focuses for high-velocity pitchers. I won’t elaborate too much on that here, but basically, the shoulder goes through tons of damage due to the amount of force generated in every pitch. When fatigue is developed through the course of the season, mechanics become compromised and defy muscle memory to some degree. This turns into shoulder issues and concludes with elbow pains that can result in a variety of negative outcomes, the worse being a partial or complete UCL tear.
Another component that is imperative for the young high-velocity pitcher is pitch sequencing. Without much professional experience this is hard to master, so it is not out of the realm of possibility to define pitch sequencing related to a pitcher’s repertoire and the zone profile data of the corresponding hitters. This allows young pitchers to develop the experience base to become better at this and experience less failure in the process. Confidence is such a huge part of consistent success, the more we can create positive outcomes related to confidence the more the young pitcher can focus on relocating it.
After all of this info, here were my final recommendations for high-velocity pitchers to maximize their potential…
- Consistent, simplistic practice of pitch sequencing tends to lead to more confident mindset
- Only three-pitch mix (one fastball type), changeup, and slider/curve (preferably slider)
- Starters: 54%+ fastball usage and maintaining 7% or less walk rate
- Relievers: 62%+ fastball usage and 10% or less walk rate
- More changeup before more slider vs. advanced hitters
How This Relates to Marlins
One thing the Fish have been hard at work doing is building their pool of arms and they have a nice balance of velocity and command guys. This could be something for the organization to consider implementing for its high-velocity arms. Spin rate is even more paramount for us to consider as it presents the ultimate tool to be considered for both pitcher types.
If you are thinking about research, just know that it is tedious yet rewarding to find answers to problems that teams are facing, or even philosophical/organizational approaches that could be implemented. It’s for the greater good of the game. Honestly, the game is all that matters, and the personal benefit is cool, but identifying the best brand of baseball benefits everyone. That is always the goal.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or just comment.