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June 27, 2010

One-Hoppers

Motte by Nature

by Ben Lindbergh

Dallas Braden, Roy Halladay, and Armando Galarraga have all made headlines for their brushes with perfection this season, but another feat of flawless pitching has largely escaped notice. From May 15th through June 6th, Cardinals reliever Jason Motte retired 32 consecutive batters, stringing together 10 2/3 innings of baserunner-free baseball. Of course, pitching a pseudo-perfecto out of the pen over the course of 3 weeks isn’t nearly as impressive as accumulating nine irreproachable innings on the same day, so Motte’s streak doesn’t deserve to be as celebrated. That said, we can still give the pitcher his due for an impressive body of work thus far in 2010.

Motte burst onto the big-league scene in September of 2008, allowing 2 runs (1 earned) in 11 innings, and racking up 16 strikeouts against only 3 walks in the process. He appeared poised to inherit the closer role in 2009, but may have blown that chance (literally) when he failed to protect a lead on Opening Day, taking the loss after allowing 4 runs in an inning of work. Tony La Russa’s confidence was shaken, and Motte barely sniffed another important outing, finishing the year with a 1.01 LEV. SIERA was somewhat sanguine about Motte’s work, awarding him a skill-interactive mark almost a run lower than his actual 4.76 ERA, but unlike Admiral Motti’s (not to be confused with the reliever of the hour), La Russa’s lack of faith wasn’t all that disturbing: after striking out nearly 12 batters per 9 innings over the course of 3 minor-league seasons, including almost 15 per 9 in close to 70 innings at Triple-A in 2008, Motte punched out only 8.6 per 9 for St. Louis last season, and allowed a home run roughly every 5 2/3 innings, on average.

Motte turned 28 this month; as a result of whiling away three minor-league seasons in offensive ignominy as a catcher, he didn’t make the majors until well after he’d turned 26. Because he picked up the art of pitching so late, Motte’s repertoire has never been extensive. Most of his success has been attributable to a 4-seamer that touches 99, but entering this season, Motte resolved to refine his second offering, a slider. The pitch has gained roughly half a mile per hour in velocity and approximately an inch in horizontal movement, becoming a more effective complement to the heater, but we probably can’t credit that alone for his turnaround.

Motte’s results have improved dramatically in 2010. He’s benefited from a .258 BABIP that’s likely to balloon, but his other gains are real; Motte has upped his strikeout rate to 10.6 per 9 while reducing his walk and home-run rates, culminating in a 2.68 SIERA to accompany his shiny 2.12 ERA. Motte’s improvement hasn’t gone unrecognized by his manager, as his 1.42 LEV trails only closer Ryan Franklin’s in the Cardinals bullpen.

Prior to this season, Motte had never shown extreme platoon splits (in fact, he exhibited a reverse split in the minors), but the righty’s increased success has mostly come against same-handed batters in 2010 (splits image from FanGraphs):

To what can we attribute such a dramatic improvement against righties, without a corresponding performance boost against southpaws? Although he’s got a lot of guts coming here after what he pulled by bowing out of the BP Idol tournament before it even began (okay, so maybe he was just forced to withdraw due to a conflicting commitment) my doppelganger candidate Jeremy Greenhouse was kind enough to use his R-tistic talents to send me the following graph of Motte’s vertical fastball locations vs. right-handed hitters in 2009 and 2010:

The fastball's phenotypical characteristics don't mark it as a vastly more effective offering in 2010, but Motte has thrown it approximately 5 inches higher to righties in 2010, while delivering it to lefties (not pictured) at roughly the same level that he did last season. Pitch height correlates strongly with whiffs and flies, so we would expect to see Motte inducing more of each against same-handed batters this season. Sure enough, here are Motte’s results by pitch type against righties for 2009, courtesy of the Texas Leaguers pitch F/X database:

And for 2010:

Motte’s fastball has garnered twice as many whiffs against righties this season, resulting in an increased strikeout rate, and (as we also theorized would be the case) an elevated fly-ball rate. Once again by way of Texas Leaguers, here are Motte’s at-bat results against righties for 2009:

And 2010:

Motte has also thrown his fastball more often in 2-strike counts this season, which could be partially responsible for the pitch’s increased strikeout rate. Here are his 2-strike fastball percentages in 2009 and 2010, courtesy of FanGraphs:

Another explanation for Motte’s rebound remains to be explored. Check out the righty's release points prior to August 18th of 2009:

Now peep his release points from last August 18th through the present day:

Mike Fast recently warned all potential Pitch f/x analysts to be wary of drawing unsupported conclusions from release point data, but Motte’s apparent geographical change has been sustained over enough time (and at enough ballparks) to conclude that we’re seeing a real effect: a shift from the third-base to the first-base side of the rubber, as of August 18th of last season. 19.2% of pre-relocation at-bats against Motte in 2009 ended in strikeouts, but that figure leaped to 33.3% following his mound migration. Read into this what you will, but from August 18th through the end of the season, Motte limited batters to a .226/.268/.340 line, recording 18 strikeouts against only 3 walks. The rest is (recent) history.

*Yes, I’m aware that it’s pronounced “Mott" and that I'm reaching for the titular '90s hip-hop reference, but I figure that if Christina can get away with dubbing Sergio Mitre “The Bishop,” I’m treading on fairly firm ground here. If you’re a pronunciation purist, substitute a Mott the Hoople (or apple sauce) reference of your choice.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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