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May 23, 2014

Raising Aces

Going Vertical

by Doug Thorburn

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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:

Vertical Release (in feet)

Mean

6.02

Standard Deviation

0.48

Maximum

7.56

Minimum

3.40

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.

Josh Collmenter
Listed height: 6'4”
Vertical Release: 7.26 feet
Z score: 2.58

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.

Mat Latos
Listed height: 6'6”
Vertical Release: 7.22 feet
Z score: 2.50

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.

Heath Bell
Listed height: 6'3”
Vertical Release: 7.05 feet
Z score: 2.15

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.

Drew Smyly
Listed height: 6'3”
Vertical Release: 7.05 feet
Z score: 2.15

…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.

Tyson Ross
Listed height: 6'5”
Vertical Release: 6.97 feet
Z score: 1.98

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.

Yordano Ventura
Listed height: 6'0”
Vertical Release: 6.25 feet
Z score: 0.48

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.

Michael Pineda
Listed height: 6'7”
Vertical Release: 6.28 feet
Z score: 0.54

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.

Justin Masterson
Listed height: 6'6”
Vertical Release: 5.12 feet
Z score: -1.88

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.

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:  Release Points

6 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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SlackerGeorge

Good job, Doug. Great use of screen shots to augment the written words. It would be interesting to understand if there are organizational training re Milwaukee's school of thought on spine tilt.

May 23, 2014 05:19 AM
rating: 3
 
Biesterfield

It would be safe to say that higher release points correlate with lower than average platoon splits, and vice-versa, correct?

May 23, 2014 12:21 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Dan Rozenson
BP staff

In theory, yes. It would be interesting to test.

It is probably not a coincidence that relief specialists tend to drop down to the side.

May 23, 2014 17:25 PM
 
oldbopper

In total agreement with your assessment of relief specialists. The percentage of LOOGY's who deliver from a low arm angle is extremely high while many right handed relievers who go low seem to go all the way to the ground. Chad Bradford and Dan Quisenberry were also submariners who come to mind immediately in addition to the pair mentioned in the article.

May 23, 2014 19:13 PM
rating: 0
 
jwbbslo

Downhill plane is a function of pitching down in the strike zone. My guess is there are a lot of pitchers with lower release heights that have more angle to the plate than Collmenter who is basically a high fastball pitcher.IMO the greater the angle, the harder it is to create a swing path to match the pitch path & the harder it is to predict where the pitch is going to go through the hitting zone.

May 23, 2014 13:32 PM
rating: 0
 
quinngos

I wonder what does the data tell you about Blue Jay Marcus Stroman?
Many feel because of his short stature, this top prospect will never succeed as a starter. Your thoughts?

As well I'd point out length of arm ( wingspan ), is a much measured and sought out in the NBA draft. Many shorter players have very long arms and reach ( Derek Rose is 6' 1.5 " barefoot, but has the reach of a 6' 8" guy). Do baseball teams do these measurements?

May 25, 2014 12:33 PM
rating: 1
 
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