February 7, 2014
Painting the Black
On Thursday, Robert Arthur provided a statistical look at how pitchers without velocity succeed. Arthur concluded that arsenal depth—although less predictive of success than velocity—was the key. It's an intuitive takeaway, yet an important one. The league has seen an influx in velocity in recent seasons (with more firepower on the way). Consider this nugget: the starting pitcher with the 50th-fastest average heater in 2009 checked in at 91.5 mph; in 2013, that spot belonged to a pitcher whose fastball averaged 92.2 mph. Pitchers as a population appear to be gaining velocity.
When everyone in a room is wearing white, those wearing red attract curiosity. Same with pitching. When everyone is touching 95 mph, those who max out around 90 mph are worth examining. We know what the numbers say about their success, so let's look at which other attributes allow these pitchers to succeed.
But, while location is as necessary for success as oxygen, there is a perverted view as to what constitutes quality geography. Few pitchers possess the cartoon-like ability to send the ball on a line to a stationary mitt. Instead, most pitchers miss countless targets. That occurs for a variety of reasons, including the most obvious: it's hard. Counterintuitive as it may seem, sometimes missing the plate is a sign of good location, particularly if the alternative is putting one in the hitter's nitro zone.
Let's take a sequence from Kris Medlen against Giancarlo Stanton early in the season as an example of well-located pitches. Medlen throws four pitches and misses his targets by a considerable amount on twice. He tops out at 90 mph against a hitter more than capable of turning and burning on any mistake, yet he survives due to good location. Look at where each pitch is located relative to the plate:
According to the catcher's positioning, the first two pitchers were intended for the outside corner. Medlen technically missed his spot on both, but he missed good—meaning he didn't leave them in hittable spots. He followed those pitches with two offerings closer to the targets that might have been called balls had Stanton failed to make contact. Each of the pitches is at the knees or around the belt, and either on the outside corner or off it inside. Stanton aided Medlen by expanding his zone late, and as a result hit a harmless fly ball to center field.
Some other right-handed starters who show similar talents are Kyle Lohse and, when right, Ryan Vogelsong. No reference to pitchers with subpar velocity and good location is complete without obligatory Tom Glavine and Livan Hernandez mentions. Both loved to expand the zone horizontally by bit in order to make their fastballs more effective than they played on a radar gun. Meanwhile, Ian Kennedy forces batters to expand the zone vertically when he throws his fastball up on two-strike counts. He lacks overpowering stuff, yet he's able to blow the pitch by quality hitters.
Royals fans are soon to learn about Jason Vargas and his big-time confidence in his changeup. He'll throw it whenever to right-handed batters. It's important because he doesn't have enough velocity to work inside versus them, which should limit the effectiveness of his outside change. So what's he do? He lives outside and makes sure the hitter can't get a proper reading on his speed.
There was a sequence late last season in which Vargas faced Wil Myers, who represented the tying run. Vargas would walk Myers on eight pitches, but it was how he got there, not what he did in the end, that was noteworthy. Myers is a mature hitter at the plate with a willingness to use the whole field. Yet Vargas tested his discipline by throwing him four consecutive changeups to start the at-bat, including back-to-back changeups on 2-0 and 2-1. It worked, as Myers swung through both and allowed Vargas an even count. Vargas followed the four changeups before going back with two more changeups. At this point, Myers adjusted his stance, bending his knees more in preparation for another change. Vargas chose instead to throw a fastball inside, but missed and issued the free pass.
Vargas has found work already, but Bronson Arroyo hasn't. When he does, he'll take his big curveball and savvy sequencing with him. No starting pitcher relies more on his bender or throws strikes at a higher rate than Arroyo does with his. It helps that Arroyo seems to know some basic rules about hitters; namely, they don't like to swing at curves. So if he misses outside the zone with one to start an at-bat, he can throw another. Maybe the hitter swings, but if it's not a hanger then Arroyo will likely take the result. How willing was Arroyo to double-up on curves? More than half the curves he threw last season were followed with another—and that's on all counts, not just to begin at-bats.
Pitching backward is a well-known art, yet one that can frustrate the game's best hitters. Take Ted Williams's reaction to Eddie Lopat's sequencing, as passed on by David Halberstam: "The trouble with that [fricking] Lopat, is that he selects his pitches ass-backwards."
Jered Weaver is perhaps the perfect storm of deception. Everyone knows Weaver's delivery involves a closed landing, but the degree might surprise those used to watching him from the Angels' home television angle. In the image below, you can see that Weaver's plant foot strides far enough toward third base that he's releasing the ball in front of the right-handed batter's box:
That kind of extreme crossfire action would make it tough on same-handed batters, but there's a unique feature to his home park that makes his delivery work against lefties, too. As Sam Miller has covered before, the Angels ballpark has those rocks out in left-center, and they just so happen to be positioned in a way that make Weaver's pitches tougher to pick up given his release point. Add in the arm angle and it's no wonder why hitters can take ugly hacks like this:
Another way pitchers deceive is by changing arm slots. It can be a self-destructive act, as it's hard enough to master one release point, let alone two. Orlando Hernandez is perhaps the most famous recent arm-slot shifter though others, including the aforementioned Arroyo, have taken to it as well:
Locating, sequencing, and deceiving; none are as sexy as a turbo-charged fastball, but when applied in the right proportions they can beat batters just fine.