May 23, 2014
Downhill plane carries substantial weight in the pitcher evaluation game. Poor marks in that area carry repercussions ranging from diminished prospect status to bullpen assignments conceived in order to limit the exposure of a perceived weakness. The driver of downhill plane is the height of the baseball at the pitcher’s release point, an element influenced by various mechanical techniques and tendencies. On the surface, it seems obvious that a player's height would be a major determinant of his vertical release, and while there’s something to that relationship, multiple variables are at play, and physical height is merely a piece of the equation.
Downhill plane can be an effective tool, but the oft-associated costs (to release distance, repetition, etc.) bring the marginal utility of the technique into question. I have often referred to pitchers who employ spine-tilt in the attempt to create an artificially high release point, with glove-side lean that concurrently raises their arm slot, but is that the only way to generate a high release?
Thanks to the bounty of PITCHf/x data available at BrooksBaseball.net, we can analyze the numbers to identify the various methods major-league pitchers use to create high release points. The population of MLB pitchers shows a bell-shaped distribution for release height, and the graph of the vertical-release spectrum is full of intrigue on the extremes.
Between Opening Day 2013 and May 20th of this year, 691 pitchers threw at least 50 pitches in the big leagues. That group yielded out the following descriptive stats for release height:
Naturally, the players at the bottom of the spectrum are submarine pitchers such as Darren O'Day (3.40 feet) and Brad Ziegler (3.46 feet), but we can look past the pitchers who throw down under for the sake of today's analysis given the extreme nature of their biomechanical manipulation. The pitcher at the top of the list is Nick Hagadone (7.56 feet), whose mere 31 innings of work over the course of the evaluation window casts doubt as to the repeatability of his high release. The next pitcher on the list is Josh Collmenter (7.26 feet), who is one of just four pitchers in the sample whose vertical release cleared seven feet and whose innings total exceeded 35 frames. Let's start at the top and see how the following pitchers manage such lofty release points.
Collmenter is one of the most extreme examples of an over-the-top delivery, as he utilizes egregious spine tilt while he reaches for the top of the clock with his arm slot. His lack of balance is clearly indicated in the above still, with his head largely displaced from his center-of-mass and a back foot that lifts off the ground prior to release point. As the owner of a very high flyball rate, Collmenter is an example of an over-the-top pitcher whose depth of downhill plane has not translated to the wormburners that conventional wisdom might foretell.
The release-point snapshots of Latos and Collmenter are eerily similar, from the maternal-scolding posture to the back-foot that prematurely pops off the ground like the keel of a boat that’s about to capsize. Collmenter has a slightly higher angle of shoulder abduction, and Latos counters with some additional spine-tilt, but the net result is essentially the same. I suppose Collmenter gets extra points for overcoming his natural height disadvantage.
Bell proves that you don't have to imitate a “C” in order to produce an elevated angle of trajectory. He takes a completely different route to his ultra-high release point, with great stability in a delivery that finishes with plus posture. The right-hander stays upright during his simple motion, maintaining a high center-of-gravity from first movement through release. Bell adds some extra shoulder abduction to further elevate his pitches, and though he is not especially tall, his short stride and stiffness in the knees effectively turn his legs into stilts.
…and we're back to the Bernie Lean of exaggerated spine-tilt, this time from the south side of the mound. Smyly shows off his left-handed impersonation of the Collmenter delivery, lacking balance in both the x-plane (lateral) and the z-plane (path to plate). The arm slot is not directly over-the-top, coming through somewhere around 1:00 on the clock (hitter's POV), and he pairs it with a high flyball rate that would make his Coll-mentor proud. The release point is the culmination of a pitcher's mechanical efficiency, and it’s always unsettling to watch a pitcher who is throwing off of one leg while collapsing toward his glove side.
All of the aforementioned pitchers have release points that are more than two standard deviations above the mean, cruising at altitudes above seven feet. Ross falls just short of those thresholds, but he mixes all of the ingredients for a heightened release: he has natural height at 6’5”, he stays very upright in his delivery to maintain a tall center of gravity, and he invokes some spine-tilt to compensate for his low angle of shoulder abduction. Ross flashes plus posture when his delivery is at peak, dropping his functional arm-angle in the process, but in this sense his mechanical inconsistency adds to his top-five ranking on the list for release height.
The common thread that ties these five pitchers is a listed height of 6'3” or higher, providing a taller baseline from which to go vertical. There is further intrigue as we move down the list, where it becomes apparent that the general rule of “tall = downhill plane” breaks down in the fat part of the bell curve.
Ventura has a pretty high release point for a guy who’s battled height bias his entire career. Downhill plane shouldn't be too much of an issue for a pitcher who releases the baseball higher than two-thirds of his competitors on the mound, particularly one whose breaking ball boasts sharp movement in the vertical plane. The secret behind Ventura's vertical prowess is a combination of spine-tilt and a high angle of shoulder abduction, though his posture has improved from his showing in 2013 to this season. It's possible that a stiff lower half could raise his release point even farther, but the right-hander reaps greater benefits in terms of release distance thanks to the flex in his knees that allows him to track a bit closer to the plate.
Pineda's release point sits comfortably above average, but it might come as a surprise that the 6'7” right-hander has virtually the same vertical release height as the six-foot-none Ventura. Aside from some extra shoulder abduction, Pineda has none of the typical tall-release indicators. He has some flex in his lower half and maintains balance throughout the delivery, culminating in very solid posture at release point. He is a good example of a pitcher who utilizes his physical advantages to find a tall release without sacrificing mechanical efficiency.
On the flip-side of that coin is a pitcher like Justin Masterson, who has all of the biological ingredients to create a high release point, but whose technique throws downhill plane to the wolves.
Masterson stands 6’6”, and yet he has the lowest release point of any starting pitcher in baseball. Such a feat requires a multi-pronged approach, beginning with an arm slot that epitomizes the sidearm delivery. He has near-perfect posture to avoid any artificial rise, and his shoulder abduction is such that it nearly forms a right angle with his torso. However, what truly separates Masterson from the pack is his extremely low center of gravity, which is fueled by excessive bend in the knees that lowers his entire foundation. This emphasis on horizontal manipulation at the expense of vertical has perpetuated his heavy platoon splits throughout his seven-year career, giving left-handed batters an 197-point advantage in OPS over their right-handed peers. However, he still keeps the ball in the yard, amassing a career groundball rate of nearly 60 percent and adding to the pile of evidence against the conventional wisdom that downhill plane fuels grounders.
Special thanks to Dan Rozenson for research assistance.