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February 19, 2009

Attack of the Finesse Pitchers

Strategery and Arms Control

by Eric Seidman

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"Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing."-Warren Spahn

Prior to his July 10 meeting with the Phillies, Albert Pujols was sporting a gaudy .346/.467/.613 line with just 28 strikeouts in 334 plate appearances. The season's eventual MVP had been giving opposing pitchers fits, and it seemed unlikely that a pitcher with a 4.50 defense-neutral ERA and an average game score of 49 could do anything to change that. The Phillies, however, were counting on a starting pitcher with just those numbers in one Jamie Moyer, who was preparing to engage in another prototypical David vs. Goliath showdown with the game's best hitter, an imposing and muscle-bound 230-pounder standing no more than 60'6" away from a scrawny 46-year-old lefty with a fastball slower than Joe Sheehan's.

Yet somehow, someway, six pitches into that fourth inning, Pujols would sullenly trot back to the visitor's dugout as a strikeout victim. How did Moyer and his 80 mph heater do it? For that matter, how can any pitcher like this, without a put-away pitch, who relies on acumen as opposed to "stuff," compete consistently in an environment in which they all too often appear overmatched? Granted, Pujols had singled off of Moyer in the at-bat preceding the strikeout, but Moyer's ability to adjust and miss the bat of the best hitter in the league speaks volumes. By definition, finesse pitchers walk and strike out less than 24 percent of their batters faced, a cap that makes sense given their pitch-to-contact mentality and penchant for limiting free passes.

What differentiates these pitchers from the rest? Their method, which involves not only having less oomph on the fastball and placing more emphasis on movement, but also a lesser overall reliance on the fastball, must have some specific quantifications. To find out, I began by extracting the 2008 season lines of all major league pitchers from Retrosheet, calculating their walk and strikeout percentages, and summing the two. Next, each pitcher was coded as a finesse, neutral, or power pitcher based on the results. I repeated the same process for hitters, classifying each one as either a contact, average, or power hitter based on their slugging percentages. The results were then linked to my Pitch-f/x database, so that every single plate appearance last season carried with it the classifications of both the hitter and the pitcher. Before getting too granular, however, here is the overall fastball data for each of the three types of pitchers:


Pitcher   FB% Velocity   Movement
Finesse  56.4   89.92   6.60/7.96
Neutral  55.3   90.53   6.27/8.38
Power    61.3   92.36   5.87/9.21

Conventional wisdom holds true here, as the velocity and movement data trend in opposite directions. Next I wanted to find out how the different types of pitchers varied their offerings, and if their were specific off-speed pitches that each group favors:


Pitcher   FB%  CU%   SL%   CH%
Finesse  56.4  9.8  15.1  13.6
Neutral  55.3 11.9  14.1  12.1
Power    61.3  9.5  15.6   8.2

The table above can be slightly misleading since it shows the overall percentages. Lacking an electric fastball, finesse pitchers incorporate off-speed pitches more frequently, but the interesting aspect here is the actual distribution of those pitches. Power pitchers tend to throw two pitches while their finesse counterparts are more inclined to throw up to four pitches a high percentage of the time. This is largely lost in the overall percentages because it fails to differentiate between the fastball/slider and fastball/curveball power pitchers; it combines the two, which distorts the data.

The percentages of off-speed pitches, outside of the changeups which greatly favor the finesse group, appear quite similar because of this lack of differentiation. In fact, it looks as if the only difference between the two types of pitchers is in their use of fastballs and changeups. In actuality, there are many more finesse pitchers that average the overall percentages above than there are power pitchers who match these numbers. At this juncture it appears that success for finesse pitchers stems from using fastballs with more movement as well as a more varied approach in dealing with opposing hitters. Staying with the fastball, let's look at how the frequency, the velocity, and the movement data shift in each pitch classification when shown in conjunction with the different types of hitters:


Pitcher   Hitter   FB% Velocity   Movement  
Finesse  Contact  57.6   89.84   6.59/7.99
Finesse  Average  55.9   89.81   6.57/7.92
Finesse  Power    54.3   90.36   6.74/7.95

Neutral  Contact  57.5   90.49   6.32/8.39
Neutral  Average  55.3   90.52   6.27/8.43
Neutral  Power    53.8   90.96   6.19/8.35

Power    Contact  63.5   92.31   5.87/9.22
Power    Average  60.4   92.29   5.89/9.20
Power    Power    58.8   92.54   5.85/9.19

Let's focus primarily on the results against power hitters. Against hitters with clout, finesse pitchers throw their fastballs not only with some extra tail, but they also add a half-mile per hour of velocity. Without sacrificing movement they begin to throw as hard as their neutral peers. Neutral pitchers see an increase in velocity against power hitters as well, albeit with a drop-off in movement; harder but slightly straighter. Power pitchers, whose vertical movement is more telling than their horizontal, see similar results: higher velocity with less movement. All three groups show a decline in the frequency with which they use their fastball as the hitters grow more powerful. No matter the pitching classification though, power hitters see a more varied pitch distribution and harder fastballs.

What about location, an aspect of pitching that is stressed from the little leagues on up to The Show? Finesse pitchers are occasionally referred to as "junkballers" due to their propensity for throwing off-speed pitches on the corners or out of the zone, attempting to coax the hitters into making mistakes. Their reputation as strategists portends precision control and a higher ability to live on the black, hitting the corners of the strike zone. Do they really throw as high a percentage of pitches on the corners as their reputations would indicate?

Instead of boring you with the technicalities of how the zone corner ranges were determined, here is a diagram that shows the usual strike zone as well as the corners. Anything outside of the corners horizontally constituted an out-of-zone pitch, as did anything vertically above or below.

graph

Plugging in the actual measurements, here are the breakdowns of pitches on the corners and pitches completely out of the zone for each of the pitcher/hitter sub-groups:


Pitcher   Hitter    C%   OOZ% 
Finesse  Contact   19.1  20.8
Finesse  Average   20.1  22.3
Finesse  Power     19.9  23.4

Neutral  Contact   18.2  21.3
Neutral  Average   19.1  23.2
Neutral  Power     19.6  23.8

Power    Contact   18.1  21.9
Power    Average   18.3  23.3
Power    Power     18.4  24.7

Again, conventional wisdom holds true; finesse pitchers throw more pitches on the corners than power pitchers. The difference between the two, however, is not nearly as much as their reputations might suggest. Keep in mind that while a one or two percent difference might seem small, it's quite significant when dealing with sample sizes exceeding 80-90,000 pitches. The 1.5 percent drop-off in pitches on the corner to power hitters between the two groups equates to approximately 1,200 pitches. Power pitchers throw a higher percentage of pitches out of the zone, which might seem counterintuitive at first, but ultimately makes sense. Think of Brad Lidge, who throws a nasty slider that plummets well out of the strike zone. A pitch of that caliber provides such little time for the hitter to respond that it works extremely well by falling out of the zone. Finesse pitchers may be able to extend the strike zone due to their knack for hitting the corners, giving out-of-zone pitches the potential to result in strikes, but they cannot induce the same feeble swings on these out-of-zone offerings as power pitchers.

For as long as the game has been deconstructed, the qualities that make pitchers effective have been at the forefront of analysis. Why does one pitcher succeed while the other fails if both possess similar abilities? And how do pitchers who look as if they belong in a softball league manage to stick around for so long while remaining effective? As the data in this study shows, finesse pitchers have a different approach to dealing with the various types of hitters than power pitchers do. The junk-ballers and strategists can't afford to make the same kinds of mistakes that a power pitcher is able to get away with. Despite their differences, both sets of hurlers are quite comparable in several areas, detracting from their reputations as being polar opposites. The areas in which they differ are very important, however, and should not be written off based on slight percentage discrepancies given the massive sample sizes involved. Finesse pitchers are able to succeed with seemingly mediocre talent and "stuff" because they distribute their pitches in more varied sequences, hit the corners more often, deliver their offerings with more movement, and have the ability to make adjustments depending on the tendencies of the opposing hitters.

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

Related Content:  Pitchers,  A's,  The Who,  Power,  Pitches,  Pitchers Hitting

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

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cleverme

Hey Eric - nice article. Quick question - does anyone weight the credibility of a pitcher's contribution to the sample based on their results? That is, you explicitly discuss Moyer - successful junkballer - but not Ian Kennedy - a significantly less successful finesse guy. You don't really want to treat these guys the same in an analysis, *if* you're interested in what good pitchers of a particular type do. Just a thought.

Feb 19, 2009 14:44 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

I agree there is a difference between the Moyers and Maddux's and the Kennedy's. What actually interests me more is the pitchers with reverse-numbers. As in, the guys who throw below 89 mph classified as power pitchers and above 92 classified as finesse.

I think that if I were to specifically discuss finesse pitchers I would separate them into a couple groups and determine what makes a specific finesse pitcher successful. This study was more about quantifying the differences between power and finesse.

Feb 19, 2009 15:05 PM
 
Al Skorupa

The difference is Kennedy was never the finesse/control pitcher he was made out to be. His walk rates throughout the minors were never great - just good. The only thing he has in common with control artists like Slowey, Moyer, etc... isnt control - its marginal stuff.

Take a look at his walk rates. He walked WAY more guys than Slowey in the minors. Kennedy has been typecasted as something he's not.

Feb 19, 2009 15:24 PM
rating: 0
 
G. Guest

Nice work Eric.

Feb 19, 2009 14:57 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Thanks, gw. Glad you enjoyed it.

Feb 19, 2009 15:06 PM
 
eighteen

"To find out, I began by extracting the 2008 season lines of all major league pitchers from Retrosheet, calculating their walk and strikeout percentages, and summing the two. Next, each pitcher was coded as a finesse, neutral, or power pitcher based on the results. I repeated the same process for hitters, classifying each one as either a contact, average, or power hitter based on their slugging percentages. The results were then linked to my Pitch-f/x database, so that every single plate appearance last season carried with it the classifications of both the hitter and the pitcher."

Wow. OK, I'm easily impressed by technology, but the fact all that data is compiled and stored somewhere so anyone can pull it up and use it just boggles me.

Feb 19, 2009 16:26 PM
rating: 0
 
Matt Lentzner

Eric,

I'm a little confused by the movement values. Why do you have it split into two values? Is that horizontal and vertical movement?

If so, then you're missing a big point with the fastballs which is that finesse pitchers are two-seam pitchers and power pitchers are four-seam pitchers. The vertical values are trending up with power pitching. Also, the 2-3 mph drop throwing a two-seam fastball would almost completely explain the difference in velocities.

If I'm wrong, please explain the values.

Thanks,

Matt

Feb 19, 2009 17:38 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Matt, there are definitely finesse pitchers with 4-seamers and power pitchers with 2-seamers, but for the most part you're correct. Though this point wasn't really missed as I stated that vertical movement is much more telling for power pitchers than horizontal. And yes, it's horizontal/vertical. Since the classifications between 2-seamers and 4-seamers are still somewhat hazy in the data it is more accurate to discuss the actual movement as opposed to what the pitches are called.

And there are a number of power pitchers who throw under 90 mph and finesse pitchers throwing above 92 mph, so it isn't as if every single pitcher in the respective group carried the same attributes.

I also think you misread something as I never said the movement data was trending in negative directions for power pitchers. I said that the movement data trended in OPPOSITE directions. As the pitcher groups threw harder, their horizontal movement decreased and vertical movement increased.

Feb 19, 2009 17:57 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

For some reason, I think this was almost gone about backwards. Someone with low walks and low strikeouts could just be someone with a very flat and straight fastball. Would the results be different if you started with a pitch FX profile, then looked at the walk/strikeout ratio?

Also, as I remember, the pitch classification system of pitch fx can be a bit unreliable, so it might be better to focus on velocity, movement etc than "fastball", "curve"

Feb 20, 2009 08:06 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

I correct anything that seems fishy with regards to the algorithm for that very reason.

Feb 20, 2009 09:11 AM
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Your idea is interesting though I think it depends on what you consider finesse/power pitchers to be. The < 24% BB+K% makes sense, in my eyes, because finesse pitchers throw to contact. They aren't going to walk or fan many. Power pitchers pitch less to contact. Because of this definition, we get guys throwing > 94 mph as finesse (Bobby Jenks, for one), and some guys throwing < 90 as power pitchers, like Chris Young. What would your profile look like? With such variance in the individual components, what would a finesse Pitch F/X profile look like?

Feb 20, 2009 09:14 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Let's use that definition of finesse pitchers throwing to contact, on the idea that finesse pitchers try to paint the corners, adjust eye levels, etc. As you said:

Finesse pitchers are occasionally referred to as "junkballers" due to their propensity for throwing off-speed pitches on the corners or out of the zone, attempting to coax the hitters into making mistakes. Their reputation as strategists portends precision control and a higher ability to live on the black, hitting the corners of the strike zone.

So, finesse pitchers would be pitchers whose pitch fx data shows a higher percentage of pitches thrown on the corners. What mph and movement characteristics do those kinds of pitchers have?

Power pitchers would be the opposite.. tend to throw to the center of the strike zone and generate swings and misses. What mph and movement characteristics do those kinds of pitchers have?

Neutral pitchers would be somewhere in between... no real propensity for being in the zone or on the corners, and generate an average amount of swings and misses. Hence, low walks and low strikeouts since most everything hit ends up in play. What mph and movement characterstics do those kinds of pitchers have?

This could even be taken to another level. What characteristics of a pitch (mph, horizontal movement, etc) are harder to hit. Which characteristics of a pitch are easier to hit, but hardest to hit for home runs? I imagine finesse pitchers/groundball pitchers or those who induce double plays should have some similar pitches that generate that kind of action. Common sense would suggest something low and away that has sinking or tailing motion would generate ground ball double plays, for example.

Feb 20, 2009 17:17 PM
rating: 0
 
jdseal

One thing beyond the scope of this article is career progression. I think the interesting thing is that almost nobody comes up as a "finesse" pitcher and then has a long successful career (anyone have an example to suggest). Some of the great finesse pitchers started out as power pitchers and then lost their power, due to injury, or just plain age. They were forced to "learn to pitch" to stay in the game. Frank Tanana is the prototypical example in my mind. I guess Moyer would be another, even Tommy John himself. But it seems to me a mystery and a shame that players have to "lose" something before they really learn to play the game at its highest level mentally. Does that say something about the arrogance of youth, the 22-year-old throwing 95 who doesn't think he needs to know anything else (Homer Bailey, I'm talking to you)? Or does it say something about the coaching in the minor leagues? Can you just imagine if a power pitcher used finesse too, from a young age, what you would have (maybe that's Clemens, or Maddux, or Seaver, one of the true all-time greats)?

Feb 20, 2009 08:52 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Interesting. For the record, I do have everyone's classification for every year of their career from 1950-2008. Here is Moyer's:

86: Fin
87: Neu
88-89: Fin
91: Neu
93-08: Fin

So he might not be the best example because he was always a finesse pitcher. Here is Frank Tanana:

73: Neu
74: Fin
75-76: Pow
77: Neu
78-93: Fin

So he was all over the place to start his career but then settled in as a finesse pitcher.

Feb 20, 2009 09:18 AM
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

And actually, Tommy John was classified as Finesse from 1963-1974 and 1976-1989, so he may have done a few things differently pre and post-surgery, but his classification remained the same. Since I find this stuff fascinating, let's look at some others:

Greg Maddux: finesse pitcher entire career except for 1992, 1995, and 1998.

Roger Clemens is pretty interesting, as he was Neutral in 1984-85, Power 1986-89, Neutral 1990-92, Power 1993-2006, and then Finesse in 2007.

Feb 20, 2009 09:24 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

As an aside, it might be interesting to categorize pitchers by various injuries they have received (elbow tendinits, rotator cuff, frayed labrum), etc. or surgeries performed on them (arthoscopic, TJ surgery) and see how their velocities and movements changed before and after surgery.

Feb 20, 2009 17:19 PM
rating: 0
 
Jason Wojciechowski

You wrote, "Against hitters with clout, finesse pitchers throw their fastballs not only with some extra tail, but they also add a half-mile per hour of velocity."

That's certainly one way to look at it, but isn't it likely that it's a selection effect? That is, the finesse pitchers with the better fastballs will throw them more often because they have a level of confidence in that pitch that lesser-fastball pitchers do not.

Feb 23, 2009 07:36 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

It could be, but given the enormous sample size I tend to think that things even out, and a selection effect like you described would only exist in a smaller sample, like the study I did last year about those who threw a ton of pitches in one inning. In that study, it definitely was a selection bias in the sense that those whose fastballs required more effort to throw (harder, faster velocity) saw a sharp decrease in average velo in their grouping because it included a 3 mph range, and those on the low end of the range ended up using it more.

Feb 23, 2009 09:14 AM
 
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