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May 10, 2013
Extending the Process
Much of statistical analysis in baseball involves the study of outcomes. Hits, walks, strikeouts—these are the results of what an athlete accomplishes on the field. The focus of scouting and coaching, by contrast, is on process.
In my evaluations of pitching mechanics, the outcomes that get most of the attention are those that immediately result from the pitcher's delivery, such as velocity, movement, and command. By extension, a pitcher's rates of walks, strikeouts, and home runs allowed have been labeled the Three True Outcomes due to the lack of influence by fielders on those events. However, only 30 percent of plate appearances end with one of these true outcomes, and to ignore the other 70 percent of plays that do involve the defense is to paint an incomplete picture of a pitcher's performance.
If the lessons of pitching mechanics carry any weight, then over time we should be able to see their impact on box scores beyond the Three True Outcomes. With this in mind, I decided to challenge a major tenet of the philosophy that I have been advocating for the past nine years: namely, the advantage of a deep release point. The functional benefits of a deep release point have been established by the general principles of physics, including a higher perceived velocity from the hitter's point of view as well as later break on pitches with movement. The second point is key; the absolute timing of break may not change with respect to pitch release, but an extended distance will allow the baseball to creep closer to the hitter as the spin dynamics take effect during the ball's flight path, effectively shrinking the window of time in which a batter must identify the incoming pitch.
Pitchers with great extension at release point can be expected to induce weaker contact, on average, but to assess such a skill without the benefit of HITf/x requires that we dive into the murky waters of batted-ball data. The multitude of confounding variables creates a volatile cluster of data points, but perhaps we can learn something from the extreme outliers.
Batting Average on Balls in Play
(Stats thru 5/8/13, min 40 IP)
Pitchers who can consistently induce weak contact will make life easier on the fielders behind them, allowing for greater defensive efficiency and thus a lower batting average on balls in play. However, the use of BABIP obscures the related ability for a pitcher to generate more strikeouts with a deep release point.
Consider the classic example of Randy Johnson, whose long limbs combined with great momentum and near-perfect posture to produce possibly the greatest release distance of the modern era. Opposing lefties had virtually no chance to distinguish the Big Unit's slider from his fastball before they had to initiate a swing. The impact of his extension was not evident in Johnson's BABIP, with a career mark of .295 that perfectly matched the league average during his 22-year career, but his ability to sap power was reflected in a .353 opponent slugging percentage, 61 points lower than the league standard.
Opponent Slugging Percentage
Matt Harvey stands head and shoulders above the rest of the group, with a ridiculous sub-.200 slugging percentage that beats runner-up Jordan Zimmermann by 65 points. Harvey's continued improvement might be the best story of 2013 thus far. He and Zimmermann are near the top of the game in both categories, underscoring their effectiveness this season. The use of opponent slugging percentage also brings the elite strikeout artists into the fold, led by Yu Darvish and his video-game K rate of 40.5 percent.
If the mechanical theory holds true, then we would generally expect these outlier pitchers to have the key ingredients of a deep release point, including strong momentum and solid postural stability. Let’s take a look at the deliveries of the five pitchers who appear on these lists.
In addition to yielding the lowest BABIP and opponent slugging percentage in baseball, Harvey also leads the majors in ERA and WHIP. His 58 strikeouts are the second-most in the National League, and he has cut his walks nearly in half, with a rate of 6.7 percent. He is throwing harder than last season, averaging 95.8 mph on his four-seam fastball, and his improved pitch command is rooted in strong mechanics that continue to progress.
I gave Harvey a 55 momentum in the SP Guide, and this season he has picked up the pace to achieve a plus burst to the plate. He has improved both phases of his momentum, with a stronger move toward the plate from the set position followed by a smooth transition into high gear after maximum leg lift. Harvey's posture flashes plus and stays consistently above average, and if he continues on his current development path, he could be sitting on a 60 grade for posture by midseason. His velocity is supported by excellent torque, with a timing pattern that features a delay of trunk rotation after foot strike as he continues to track toward the plate. Throw in a big leg lift that contributes to an elongated stride, and it all adds up to a very deep release point. The late swings that he generates on even his lesser fastballs paint a picture of Harvey's deception.
Zimmermann had a great year in 2012, his second season on the mound since undergoing Tommy John surgery, but his batted-ball stats were just a tick better than average. The peripheral numbers may not have supported such a low ERA (his FIP was 3.55), yet I was particularly high on Zimm going into the season due to his having one of the best deliveries in the game. Zimmermann was one of just three starting pitchers who earned a straight-A on his Mechanics Report Card in the 2013 SP Guide, and his efficient motion has supported one of the league's stingiest stat-lines this season. He just missed appearing on both lists, with a .211 BABIP that ranked fifth-lowest in the league.
I reviewed Zimmermann within my Nats profile a few weeks ago, and his vocal intent toward pitch efficiency in lieu of chasing strikeouts put him right in the cross hairs of the batted-ball debate. The right-hander has all of the elements of a deep release point, and though his posture is merely above average, he has excellent momentum that helps to extend his stride as well as his release point, providing optimism that he can continue to outperform his FIP going forward. Zimmermann lacks the high leg kick of Harvey, and he hits foot strike on a quick clock, so there is potentially more stride left in the tank. Despite his best attempts to limit his pitch count, Zimmermann's preference to pitch to contact will occasionally lead to elongated battles as hitters continue to foul off pitches with two strikes. Case in point: the following GIF was the ninth pitch of an-at bat to Evan Gattis that included six foul balls.
Iwakuma is a surprising entry to everyone other than Paul Sporer. My co-host of the TINSTAAPP podcast was touting Iwakuma throughout the offseason, citing his superior performance in the starting rotation as compared to his pitching out of the bullpen. Iwakuma was within spitting distance of league-average marks for BABIP and opponent slugging in 2012, but he has ridden his nasty splitter to post one of the cleanest stat sheets in the majors this season. His pitch efficiency has been elite, allowing him to go six or more innings in six of his seven starts while exceeding 93 pitches in just one of those games.
Iwakuma has a frustrating pause at the top of his delivery when pitching from the windup, creating a roadblock to his momentum as well as his repetition of mechanical timing, but the right-hander with the low arm slot is undeterred. His momentum is solid once he gets going into the secondary phase of his delivery or when pitching from the stretch, though his rapid leg movements give the false impression of an elite pace. The 55 grade above reflects his overall momentum, but Iwakuma brings a plus pace to the plate at full speed. Near-perfect posture helps him to effectively repeat and extend his release point, which is especially critical for pitchers who rely on an off-speed pitch as their main secondary offering. Iwakuma's lengthy release plays a big role in his deception.
The dominant force that emerged over the last several weeks of 2012 has carried over into this season, as Darvish has anchored on the mechanics that formed the foundation of his delivery down the stretch. After tinkering with his mechanics throughout last season, Darvish has been very consistent in 2013, and his ability to repeat the delivery has allowed his bouquet of pitches to ascend to a higher plane. Even assuming a measure of regression, I expect Darvish to far exceed the numbers that he posted in his first year state-side, riding the game's filthiest arsenal to full-blown ace status with a shot at some end-of-season hardware.
Though he pitches from the stretch whether the bases are empty or occupied, Darvish does exhibit a different pace to the plate when runners are present. He quickens the delivery with 65-grade momentum with baserunners in position to steal a bag, but he slows things down to a 55 grad and finds a larger leg-lift when the bases are clear. The net result is 60 momentum, and Darvish's perfect posture paves the way for him to occasionally post a 70-grade distance at release point when he finds the ideal combination of leg kick and momentum to extend his stride.
Moore is experiencing the breakout in 2013 that many predicted for him last year. His batted-ball numbers were nothing to write home about in 2012, and a combination of an ultra-low BABIP, Tampa's stellar defense, and the southpaw's 13.2 percent walk rate have kept us cautious this season. The nature of outliers is such that heavy regression is likely for every pitcher on this list, but Moore's peripheral stats are a bit more ominous than those of the four pitchers who preceded him.
Moore's mechanical grades in these three categories are the same as in the SP Guide, and though I appreciate the step-back pattern to his windup, the timing disparity from the stretch inhibits Moore's repetition. His relative youth and exuberance are points in his favor, and the Rays’ superior coaching staff provide the foundation for optimism, but there may very well be some twists and turns in his path for 2013. The triple-crown numbers paint the picture of a Cy Young candidate, but any slip in performance could divert attention to his nearly two-mph drop in velocity this season.
Though I expected to see a trend when I first imagined this little research project, in no way did I expect the trend to be so glaring, especially considering the variation inherent in such small sample size for 2013. All five of the pitchers reviewed received plus marks for release distance, including above-average scores for both posture and momentum. There is redemption farther down the list in the form of Travis Wood of the Cubs, whose above-average momentum is offset by shaky posture and a closed stride that act to mute his release distance. His .202 BABIP tied with Moore for third place in the majors, and Wood's opponent slugging percentage of .290 is lower than all but 10 starting pitchers.
Finding three distance grades of 65 among the group was shocking, given the paucity of such grades throughout the league. Reality is not nearly so transparent as this list of players would suggest, despite the advantages attributed to deep release points, and it will be interesting to take another look at both the updated standings and the progress of these pitchers after a couple more months' worth of games.