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December 28, 2012

Raising Aces

The Ghost of Articles Past

by Doug Thorburn

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The end of the year is a time for reflection, and a flip of the calendar sparks reminders of past resolutions while we take stock of our goals for the new year.

The year 2012 was my first as a contributor to Baseball Prospectus, following two years in the BP system at Baseball Daily Digest, a subsidiary of the BP brand that was founded by Joe Hamrahi and has since graduated dozens of writers to the big stage. I have learned much during my rookie season with the ballclub, and though my recent two-part series on Making the Grade was a reasonable summary of the campaign, I have found myself thinking back to those days at BDD, remembering the lessons that shaped my work into something that was palatable to the BP audience.

I joined BDD with a solid baseball background but lacking the writing skills to properly convey my ideas to the online audience. There was a learning curve as I introduced the concepts of “Raising Aces” to the internet, from the development of grades to the theoretical principles that support them, and it might surprise some of the readers to learn that I even wrote about topics that were outside the realm of pitching.

There are some fresh ideas in store for Raising Aces in 2013, and my goal is to steadily improve the final product to produce the best possible content for our readers. The following history lesson tracks the development of the Raising Aces series, underscoring the evolution of the process in the hope that it will lead to future inspiration or revelation, and I encourage the readers to offer their constructive criticism in the comments section. The suggestion box is open, and I am listening.

Mechanics
My debut article for BDD was a breakdown of Game 1 of the 2009 NLDS, with Cliff Lee leading the Phillies against Ubaldo Jimenez and the Rockies. The matchup was an easy opportunity to discuss the mechanical underpinnings of pitch command, with the contrast of the erratic Jimenez and the pinpoint Lee, while offering a sidebar about their opposing methods of striding toward the plate. I had not yet developed the pitching grades on a 20-80 scale, and the piece was written as more of a running commentary than a targeted analysis. I was a WordPress rookie at the time, and my first article was lacking GIFs, pictures, or properly-formatted tables.

Money quote from the article: Ubaldo Jimenez learned the hard way that pure stuff is marginalized without consistent mechanics and timing, as Cliff Lee gave a live demonstration.

The first “Raising Aces” article for Baseball Prospectus was an overview of my approach to pitching mechanics, setting the stage for a series that would be focused primarily on the pitcher's delivery, but it took 20 articles before I wrote a mechanics primer for BDD, as I had chosen to diversify my off-season content beyond the mound. I penned three articles in the effort to establish the framework for Raising Aces, with Stephen Strasburg playing the leading role in the original “Stras Wars,” with an in-depth analysis of his major-league debut. Part three of the series marked the first time that I publicly issued grades for a pitcher's mechanics, and Strasburg earned ridiculously high marks in each subject. This early iteration of the mechanics report card included a grade for glove position as well as an overall GPA, though both scores have since been abandoned in recognition of the differential value assigned to the individual grades.

Money quote: “Strasburg’s hip-shoulder separation is just freakish. He gets an 80 in the category, a number that is comparable to Tim Lincecum's 80 grade for stride length. It takes a lot of conditioning and athleticism to generate that kind of torque, and Stras will need to maintain functional strength and flexibility in order to preserve velocity deep into his career. ”

The first article under the “Raising Aces” heading at BDD was an analysis of Jameson Taillon, just weeks after he had been selected by the Pirates with the number-two pick of the 2010 draft. The title made sense to an amateur poker player who was hell-bent on pitcher development. As in the Strasburg article, I offered grades for Taillon based on what I had seen, but rather than studying a full outing to make my evaluation, I was limited to just the draft footage on T.V. and the scouting videos available at mlb.com.

Providing mechanical grades for Taillon was a mistake in hindsight, as though a pitcher's baseline mechanics can be determined relatively quickly, they also show considerable fluctuation throughout the season or even a single game, and to put grades on such an incomplete sample was potentially misleading. I stand by the scores, and in fact I still use the assessment as a baseline for comparison when evaluating Taillon's considerable mechanical development, but I realized that grades needed a more substantial time-frame of evaluation in order to meet the threshold for publication, balanced against the most critical grade of them all: repetition of mechanical timing.

Money quote: “An accurate assessment of timing consistency requires more than a 5-pitch sample from a single outing, but the early indications are that Taillon has room for improvement in repeating his delivery. This is something that should come naturally during the course of development, yet many pitchers that reach the majors continue to struggle with mechanical repetition.”

Later that summer, I re-directed the “Raising Aces” series to emphasize the mechanical analysis of major-league players, and one of the first subjects was the curious case of Tim Lincecum. It was August 2010, and Seabiscuit was going through the roughest stretch of his career, as he struggled to repeat the delivery or to generate his trademark momentum and stride. I postulated at the time that his issues stemmed from diminished functional strength, supported by the words of Roy Oswalt, who publicly questioned Timmy's physical condition at the time. The fact that it was Oswalt caught my attention, as he was perhaps the most similar player to Lincecum in the league, as a sub-six-foot right-hander who relied on tremendous momentum and lower-body strength to coordinate his delivery and maximize his efficiency. Manager Bruce Bochy publicly confirmed Oswalt's diagnosis days later, and by late September Lincecum had regained the powerful lower-body strength that underscored his signature delivery.

Money quote: “A different pitcher showed up for the middle innings, and Lincecum looked fatigued after about 60 pitches. His balance was off along with his stride, and the timing issues flared back up. The right-hander topped 92 mph just once after the 3rd, and he was visibly annoyed with his delivery as he continued to miss Posey’s targets. … What started as great posture got steadily worse throughout the game. This has been a career-long trend for Lincecum; the spine tilt becomes more exaggerated as he gets tired during the outing.”

Disaster struck that same month when Strasburg busted his UCL, temporarily halting the career of the greatest pitching prospect of all-time. The occurrence of such a devastating injury for a player who had received such glowing mechanical reports was not only a disappointment, but the gravity of the situation also called for cooler heads to prevail when determining the cause of injury. The multitude of variables that make up the injury equation opened up the gamut of possible suspects, and though fans who had earmarked the young stud for 200 innings per season for the next six years demanded a solitary cause to focus the blame, my personal stance was one that emphasized the unique circumstances surrounding his high-energy delivery and the associated kinetic toll.

Money quote: “Many people have been burned by this injury, and it’s human nature to point fingers and attempt to scapegoat a single cause. In this case, Strasburg’s mechanics have received most of the blame, with the “inverted W” playing the role of Lee Harvey Oswald in the conspiracy.”

For the 2011 season, I began to prioritize individual player breakdowns at the major-league level, with Raising Aces covering key pitching duels as well as in-depth profiles of high-interest pitchers. I began to incorporate grades for stuff as well as mechanics, dropping 20-80 scores for the velocity, movement, and command of each arrow in a pitcher's quiver. The stuff grades gave way to an overall GPA on the scouting scale for each pitch, though this final grade fell short of describing the relative quality of the pitches due to the reality that the ingredients were not equally weighted for each pitch type (i.e. velocity carries more weight for the fastball than it does the curve).

I profiled Rays then-rookie Matt Moore for his playoff start against the Rangers on September 30 of 2011, including the grades for his mechanics and his stuff, and Moore's overall fastball grade was a shining example of the flaws in the process. I had given his fastball velocity a 65 grade that would have been even higher if Moore had been able to sustain the velo deeper into the game, but the 96-98 mph gun reading of the first couple innings gave way to 92-94 mph by the middle frames. His grades for command and movement brought down the game-day marks for his heater to a GPA of 55, a score that failed to capture the overall quality of the offering. I plan to re-incorporate the report-card methodology for grading stuff in 2013, utilizing the awesome resources from Brooks Baseball, though I will drop the overall GPA given the unequal weighting of ingredients across pitch types.

Money quote: "Imagine that the strike zone is a 3×3 matrix, with numbers running one through nine like those on a telephone keypad. Matt Moore lives in sector #1, continuously pelting fastballs up and away from right-handed batters. Everything plays off of the heat, which Moore threw more than 70% of the time in Game One, including the first ten pitches of the ballgame."

***

Mechanics Theory
From the beginning of the Raising Aces series, I have tried to weave lessons in biomechanics theory into the player breakdowns, highlighting specific examples as they arise. Occasionally, I will delve directly into a topic that is controversial or misunderstood in the mainstream, and in one case I sought to define some of the vocabulary terms that make up the scouting lexicon for pitchers. I also addressed some of the outdated clich14és of pitching mechanics, the most frustrating of which is the persistent claim that pitching is an “unnatural act,” as part of the ongoing effort to lay the groundwork for a cohesive approach to pitching mechanics.

Money quote: “The only problem is that overhand throwing is natural, in the same sense that swimming is natural, if not the intended function of the human shoulder. Cavemen were throwing rocks at rabbits just to get a meal, and humans have since evolved a variety of uses for overhand throwing. The real issue is that the human body was not necessarily designed to throw 5-oz. spheres at rates of 90+ mph, with spin variations that require advanced coordination of 100+ pitches per game.”

One of the more polarizing topics during my time at BDD was the “Inverted W.” The aforementioned Strasburg situation put the term in the spotlight, with some proponents of the inverted-W theory going so far as to claim that pitchers who raised their elbows above the shoulder-line were doomed to go under the knife. Being that there is rarely a solitary cause of injury, and knowing the selection bias involved with post hoc analysis in the mainstream, I was understandably skeptical. Yet it seemed that every time that I presented a counterexample to the phenomenon, that pitcher would soon fall prey to the operating table.

First was Johan Santana, whom I cited in defense of Strasburg as an example of a pitcher who had survived for years while carrying the scarlet W; three months later Santana was undergoing surgery for a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder. When Stras went down, I chose to compare the healthy Adam Wainwright with fragile rotation-mate Chris Carpenter, using a little selection bias of my own to put a tally mark on the “safe” side for the I-W. Within six months, Wainwright would undergo Tommy John surgery. He was the straw that broke my back, and in March of 2011 I published an article that re-opened my mind with respect to the possible implications of the inverted-W theory. While I was far from a believer in the supposed death-knell that was attached to the strategy, I was forced to weight the coaching implications of the risks that were potentially associated with a pitcher's signature arm action.

Money quote“The goal is to embrace the scientific method by looking at the available information and asking new questions. With that in mind, it seems appropriate to look in the mirror on occasion. After all, any scientist worth his salt is willing, and at times eager, to test his own understanding.”

The re-assessment required a step back from previously-accepted theories, and I did some observational research that uncovered a new understanding of the risk factors for injury. I realized that independent sources had identified a trio of mechanical precursors to injury, all three of which occurred within connecting links on the kinetic chain. The elements of extreme shoulder hyperabduction (the I-W), heavy scapular load, and late elbow-drag had each been recognized in various camps, but when studying video I realized that the majority of these injured players shared all three traits, and that the risk factors were highly dependent on the timing of trunk rotation, the key link in the chain that connected all three of the precursors to injury. My perception today is much as it was before, weighting the inverted-W as merely a piece in the puzzle that makes up each pitcher's unique profile, but my revitalized understanding of the interaction of these various risk factors was driven by discovery that resulted from the Socratic method and a willingness to question everything.

***

Statistical Theory
Baseball stats were the lure that got me hooked on the game as a kid, and my allegiance to Baseball Prospectus is fueled from the impression they made on a math-oriented college kid in search of original ideas about the game. One of my focal points of statistical analysis is the design of various systems and their components, in order to understand the utility of the various metrics, which are limited by the strength of their input variables.

I posted a couple of articles on statistical theory at BDD, the first of which addressed the components of OPS, under the premise that there was a lack of appreciation for batting average. The old-school statistic had taken a beating at the hands of OBP within the stat-savvy community, yet many of the same people that were brandishing the switch were also advocates of OPS. This contrast struck me as a leap of logic when one considers that batting average is essentially double-counted in the calculation of OPS, and that OPS is a bastardized stat which combines two rate metrics on different scales. My preference was to put all of the components on a fair scale, in order to appreciate hits, walks, and extra bases on an even playing field, a straightforward concept that was almost too simple to ignore. In the article, I ran the numbers to correlate league-wide rates for walks, hits, and extra bases per plate appearance, with some surprising results.

Money quote: "Call me a statistical heretic, but I am still a fan of batting average. There is beauty in its simplicity. The statistic is transparent; all you need to know about hit rate is right there in front of you. Stats like OBP combine multiple skills into a single value, and the numbers describe less about a player’s specific abilities. There are a lot of ways to get a .360 OBP, ranging from the Kirby Puckett model to that of a Carlos Beltran."

My most aggressive statistical endeavor was a three-part series, dubbed "True Value," the final part of which marked my last article for Baseball Daily Digest. I anchored on pitching stats in the series, particularly how some of the conventional wisdom was rooted in underlying assumptions that failed to explain the real-world nuances of pitching. Among the topics covered were the use of certain stats for post-hoc analysis versus projection, the assumption that pitchers have little-to-no control over balls in play, and the role of "luck" in statistical analysis.

Money quote: “Luck essentially removes the explanatory responsibility for any glitches in the sabr-matrix, which is irresponsible science on the part of those whose goal is to study the inner workings of the sport. There are some tasks for which box-score statistics are ill-suited, and it would be more appropriate to say that our measurement tools fall short of perfect reliability, particularly with respect to the interaction of pitching, hitting, and fielding.”

The final piece in the True Value series was an attempt to adjust our lenses and to allow what our eyes see on the field to mesh with the numbers on the stat sheet. The series provided a great opportunity to show how the theory that “downhill plane leads to groundballs” is ill-supported by the statistical and visual evidence, where the pitchers with the tallest release points were actually those most prone to flyballs. Part three was an extension of the ideas from the previous two articles in the series, demonstrating that it is easier to explain Kershaw's perpetually low BABIPs when one watches his unhittable stuff consistently generate weak contact, or that Brandon Morrow struggled with his timing from the stretch to tarnish his stats with runners on base. Stats can point us in the right direction, and they can fuel arguments of the subjective interpretation of value, but their power is enhanced with the data that can be compiled with our eyes.

Money quote: “Statistics have immense value in baseball analysis, but we are failing ourselves by ignoring the elements that we have not yet learned to measure. Imagine if the public had access to stats for pitching mechanics, and we had the ability to quantify a pitcher’s stride length, arm speed, timing consistency, postural stabilization, as well as the height and distance at release point; the appreciation for pitching mechanics would skyrocket, much in the way that recent revelations have completely changed the way that we view the careers of some players. In order for the sabrmetrician to evolve, he or she should be willing to look beyond what happened on the field by pursuing how it happened, and by asking questions that could serve as a catapult to another plane of baseball awareness.”

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

Related Content:  Pitching,  Scouting,  Mechanics

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