February 23, 2011
Do Premier Pitchers Release Within the Zone?
At a recent promotional event for the Bloomberg Sports Front Office 2011 professional product, Rick Peterson analyzed the mechanics of John Axford and discussed how he helped Axford move toward the center of the rubber to improve his results in 2010. You can see a video of the Bloomberg event here, courtesy of Kerel Cooper.
Using the release point graphing technique discussed here, we can quantify the change that Axford made, and indeed, we can see that he made a major shift of nearly a foot toward first base on May 27, 2010, and he continued to adjust farther in that direction throughout the remainder of the season.
Peterson's explanations for Axford's adjustments are interesting, but one justification he gave does not stand up to scrutiny. Peterson claimed that premier pitchers release the ball starting as a strike and moving toward the edges of the zone. Do most of the best pitchers in baseball actually release the ball within the horizontal dimensions of the strike zone? No.
Josh Kalk covered this topic a couple years back, and his analysis is worth reading again. However, Josh didn't frame his results in exactly the terms that Peterson described. What about the best pitchers in the game? Where are their release points? The following chart shows the average release points of all pitchers with at least 300 innings from 2008-2010. The top 15 pitchers in ERA over that time period are indicated with red triangles.
Of the ERA leaders, only Johan Santana released within the strike zone width. Tim Lincecum came close over on the right-handed side at -0.9 feet. The other pitchers who released within the width of the plate are John Danks, Tim Wakefield, and Roy Oswalt, with Joe Blanton on the borderline. Among the outstanding pitchers, Roy Halladay is at -2.2 feet, Felix Hernandez at -2.1 feet, and Cliff Lee at 1.5 feet. Peterson's claim does not seem to hold water.
What about ERA versus horizontal release point?
There looks to be a slight trend toward better results nearer the center of the rubber, and Josh's analysis indicates that may be due to results against same-handed batters, but we certainly see that the best pitchers can and do release from a wide variety of positions on the pitching rubber.