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June 9, 2010

Manufactured Runs

What Strasburg Threw

by Colin Wyers

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Heading into Tuesday night’s game, it seemed impossible for Stephen Strasburg to match the hype. MLB.com was offering free streaming video of the first four innings—but only while Strasburg pitched. When the Nationals batted, MLB.com sat in silence with a graphic telling us to await Strasburg’s return to the mound. The official Twitter account for Major League Baseball announced that the lineup card was being sent to Cooperstown, to be preserved. (Other game memorabilia, on the other hand, would be available for auction, @MLB tweeted.)

So there was almost no way for the game to live up to the hype. Well, except for 14 strikeouts and no walks in seven innings. That would probably be a way. And that’s exactly what Strasburg did as he pitched the Nationals to a 5-2 victory over the Pirates.

At least in this start, Strasburg was at the intersection of having good stuff and getting good results out of it. I’m not a fortune teller—I can’t tell you what will happen. But let’s look at the stuff he was throwing that game and see what we can find, shall we?

Identifying Pitches

Strasburg—at least in this start—was a four-pitch pitcher. He has two fastballs (a two-seamer and a four-seamer,) a changeup and a curveball.

Actually, some notes on his two-seamer. If you look at how he grips the ball, his grip is slightly offset from a traditional two-seam grip. Mike Fast likes to call this the one-seam fastball. He still gets more “sink” from the ball than if he were throwing his four-seamer, but the orientation of the seams as the ball approaches the hitter will be different.

Some descriptors of the average characteristics of the pitches, after I grouped them together using a k-means algorithm (rather than using the stock classifications provided by Gameday):

Pitch Number Speed Hor. Move Vert. Move
Four-seam 44 98 -6.83 8.14
Two-seam 14 97 -8.25 5.03
Change 11 90 -8.31 0.22
Curve 25 82 7.38 -8.10

Speed is measured by the Pitch-f/x system at the so-called “release” point, or about 50 feet from the back of home plate. Horizontal and vertical movement are measured at 40 feet from the back of the home plate, in comparison to a hypothetical pitch affected only by gravity.]

His go-to pitch was usually the four-seam fastball, followed by the curveball. (We’ll look a bit more at his pitch selection in a moment, so we’ll just pass that for now.)

We can also look at similar data for each pitch, graphically:

Red represents the four-seam fastball, blue the two-seamer, green the changeup, and black the curveball.

Speed is the same as reported above—speed at 50 feet from the back of home plate. Spin represents the axis of the spinning baseball in flight, which controls the direction of the horizontal and vertical movement of the pitched ball.

He gets a lot of break on his curveball—it’s rather sickening, really. And he’s got a massive gap in speed between that fastball (it passed the 100-mph mark just once in the start, according to F/X) and that curveball, which lives in the low 80s.

Now let’s look at where Strasburg was releasing the ball. All location graphs are going to be from the perspective of the catcher, facing out from the backstop toward the pitcher:

You can tell he’s a right-handed pitcher with a three-quarters delivery, at least. Let’s zoom in a bit:

For the most part you see a pretty tight grouping of release points here. People are going to be tempted to look at that graph (or similar graphs around the Internet) and say he’s releasing his curveball a bit higher than his other pitches, but he isn’t—or at least if he is, you can’t tell just by looking at that graph. The Pitch-f/x system is unable to distinguish between the movement of the pitcher and the ball at the actual point of release, so it picks up the flight of the ball a bit later in the trajectory and extrapolates back to 50 feet, or a few feet after the pitcher has actually released the ball.

In order to throw a curveball—with its pronounced downward break—for a strike, you have to give it more of an upward launch angle at release. By the time the F/X system starts reporting the flight of the pitched ball, that increased “loft” under the curveball means it’s a bit higher up than the other pitches a pitcher throws. It doesn’t mean his release point for that pitch is any different, though.

Location, Location

Now let’s look at what pitches he was throwing and where he was throwing them, looking only at right-handed hitters:

The strike zone presented is based upon the average reported top and bottom of the strike zone for the hitters Strasburg faced—Pitch-f/x operators record the top of the zone around the belt, as it’s typically called, rather than the rulebook zone at the letters.

What I most want to call you attention to is his curveball—look at it! In the zone! What’s great about Strasburg’s curve isn’t just how much it breaks, but how he can throw it for strikes. It’s disgustingly good. Also notice that against right-handed hitters he seems to really favor the four-seamer over the two-seamer; and while he’ll pepper the four-seamer all over the place, he keeps the two-seamer in to the hitter.

Now, for left-handed hitters:

You see a lot more two-seamers this time around, and this time out away from the batter. (Although it’s the batter that’s moving—he’s throwing the two-seamer at the same place.) And again, can I just say—look at that curve being thrown for strikes? It simply isn’t fair, is what that is.

There’s also that one errant two-seamer—well, I’m calling it a two-seamer. I’m guessing it’s a pitch that just got away from Strasburg and went high. Unless someone actually asks him and he can tell us what grip he was using there, we’re probably never going to know what he was actually trying to throw with that pitch.

Need for Speed

So, how did Strasburg’s speed change over the course of the game? Looking only at four-seam fastballs:

I know some people said it looked like he picked a little extra “oomph” at the end, and he did a bit, compared to where he was at right before, but you still see a slight downward trend overall. To the extent you want to attribute it to anything, I’d say that Strasburg knew he was facing his last batter and decided to put a little extra on it, not that he was getting stronger as the game went on.

Notes and Asides

For those wondering, all the graphs (except for the speed over time line graphs, which was done in Excel) and pitch classifications were done using GNU R.

To classify the pitches, I used a k-means clustering solution with four centers (that is to say, I knew he had four pitches) using speed, vertical movement and horizontal movement as the input variables. I then assigned the clusters labels based upon the characteristics of each group and what pitches I knew he was throwing.

 Also, many thanks to the invaluable Mike Fast of the Hardball Times who chatted with me about the data while I was making the graphs for this article.  

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

Related Content:  Pitch F/x,  Pitch Speed

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

BP Comment Quick Links

Lindemann
(852)

As a Nats fan, I am lapping this up. Great to see a detailed breakdown of what I saw last night.

Jun 09, 2010 05:15 AM
rating: 0
 
SaberTJ

Maybe I need my coffee this morning, but when I look at these location graphs I see the two seamer as being away from the right hander and in to the left handers. Am I looking at them wrong?

Jun 09, 2010 05:39 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Clay Davenport
BP staff
(7)

Catcher's perspective, SaberTJ, not center-field camera perspective. The right-handed hitter is standing on the left side of the charts. I did the same thing on first read.

Jun 09, 2010 06:15 AM
 
SaberTJ

Thanks Clay

Jun 09, 2010 06:21 AM
rating: 0
 
Rick Baumhauer

I think the pitch location graphs are, like the release point graph, from the perspective of the catcher/batter. It's all from Pitch F/X, so that would make sense.

Jun 09, 2010 06:16 AM
rating: 0
 
SaberTJ

Thanks

Jun 09, 2010 06:21 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

I know this is semantics, but Strasburg's breaking ball isn't a pure curve. It's not a slider, which is how everyone had described it either. It's more of a slurve. Not sure what PFX says about that.

As for the "one seamer" - a description I REALLY don't like - I want to know why this is any different than a sinker. It doesn't appear he has a whole lot more pronation than normal, so he's not throwing it Brandon Webb style. Maybe it's more a "reverse cutter".

Jun 09, 2010 06:48 AM
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

Well, it's interesting to note that Strasburg calls it his one-seamer as well. It actually raises some interesting questions - pitchers tend to like to describe their pitches by how they grip them, while when we classify them based on F/X data we tend to do it based upon how they look to the hitter. (I don't know that one approach is right or wrong, necessarily - it depends on what you're doing with the analysis.)

In the case of Strasburg's second fastball - whatever we want to call it - it's a pitch very, very similar to his four-seam fastball in how it moves. (The automated pitch classifier in Gameday couldn't tell them apart - this may change when they do a rerun of the pitch classifier eitehr this morning or down the road. It also called two of his changeups fastballs in the early going, as for most pitchers that would be a fastball.) It does have a bit more sink than his four-seamer and is just a little bit slower.

As for the curve - yeah. The real trouble is that we don't have as many names for different pitches as there are different pitches. So I can call it his curve, but it's not necessarily the same pitch as somebody else's curve. Harry Pavlidis was comparing it to Verlander's curve on Twitter last night, for instance.

Jun 09, 2010 07:00 AM
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

I just don't see many "sliders" with that much vertical action. The differences between sliders and curves are velocity and break angle, and I think if you showed the primary breaking ball he threw last night to 50 people, 45 would call it a curve because of the primarily downward break. The only slider I can remember looking like that is the one Brad Lidge has at his peak (which I thought was a splitter for a while).

I don't think it's semantics. I think the difference between a slider and a curve is meaningful, even if we're kind of talking about a range more than distinct pitches. It also goes to what Strasburg will be; RHPs who throw big deuces tend to have more effectiveness against LHBs than pitchers who throw sliders.

Good piece, Colin.

Jun 09, 2010 11:16 AM
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

Thanks.

I don't think the difference is semantic, either, but I do think the answer sort of depends on what it is you want to do with the information.

If you're interesting in coaching Strasburg, or looking at how he's going to age, or considering his injury risk, you may not actually care about the way the pitch breaks. You're probably more concerned with how he's gripping the pitch, what his arm motion and his release is, etc.

If we want to look at how effective the pitch is, then what we primarily care about is how it presents itself to the batter, not the mechanics behind throwing it. (To the extent that mechanics matter, it's in how well they signal the pitch to the batter.)

So I agree that the difference between a curve and a slider is important. It's just possible that each is an accurate descriptor, depending on which perspective you're looking at it from.

Jun 09, 2010 11:31 AM
 
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

One other question, specifically about the curve being in the zone. Since PFX gives a two dimensional result, where is that set up -- front of plate? I'm curious where -- early, late, etc -- Strasburg's pitch is crossing the plate and how much downward plane there is as it's over the plate/in the hitting zone.

Jun 09, 2010 06:52 AM
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

All plate locations are reported from the back edge of the plate (in Pitch F/X parlance, y=0). Given the F/X parameters we can derive the full flight of the ball - I'll see if I can pull some of that for you later today.

Jun 09, 2010 07:03 AM
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

Okay, to correct myself here. The locations are being reported from the front edge of home plate, or y=1.417 ft. Sorry for the mistake.

Jun 09, 2010 10:56 AM
 
swrights

Can you talk about how Strasburg's changeup seems to get a ridiculous amount of drop?

Of am I reading the data incorrectly? Aren't most changeups around +5, with the really good ones at +3, while Strasburg was at 0?

Jun 09, 2010 07:45 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

It's worth examining. Mike Fast has floated the theory that the camera calibration at Nationals Park last night was "off" at release point, thus exaggerating the drop on Strasburg's pitches. What we can try and do is look at the other pitchers from last night's game and compare them to their typical release points.

Jun 09, 2010 10:18 AM
 
swrights

Interesting about the camera angles. Karstens obviously had the biggest sample size, so let's look at him:

Last night's v-break numbers for Karstens: 4F 8.7 vs. 8.5 career, 2F 5.8 vs. 4.7, CU -5.3 vs. -5.2, SL 0.9 vs. 1.6, CH 4.4 vs. 4.2.

So at least for Karstens, the camera looks fairly accurate. Even if is was a couple of inches off, it appears that Strasburg will have like a 2-3 CH, at least a couple extra inches of vertical break off average, and up there with the really premium dropping changeups in the game.

Jun 09, 2010 11:05 AM
rating: 1
 
lonechicken

This is awesome analysis.

With this knowledge in hand, I'm now ready to go face Strasburg. :p

Jun 09, 2010 09:43 AM
rating: 3
 
MHaywood1025

If I remember correctly, the HR was hit off a "changeup" from Strasburg. Does it really benefit him to be throwing a pitch that is only a few MPH slower than his fastball, and at a speed that hitters in the Majors are used to seeing?

Jun 09, 2010 10:44 AM
rating: 0
 
MHaywood1025

Especially when he has such a wipe-out offering as his slurve. It seems to me his changeup would only better prepare a hitter for the ~20 MPH difference between fastball and slurve.

Jun 09, 2010 10:47 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

If you look at the changeup, it not only comes in at a slower speed than the fastball, but it has a lot more drop.

So the idea is that the changeup, as it's coming out of Strasburg's hand, presents itself as a fastball. As it comes in though, it "falls off the table."

Look at the graph for plate locations to right handed hitters. You're seeing him throw it below the zone. If the batter is thinking fastball on that pitch, it looks like it's coming in for a strike, and he's going to end up swinging right over the top of it.

I don't think the fact that one batter got a HR off of it should make him decide to abandon a pretty good pitch. He's good - very good - but there isn't a hitter in the majors that can't do some damage against Strasburg on occasion. Home runs will happen.

Jun 09, 2010 11:02 AM
 
mikebuetow

Apologies in advance for not recalling who the hitter was, but Strasburg struck out one left batter on what the announcers called a slider that hit 89 mph and rode the outside corner and broke straight down (off the table).

I remember thinking the announcers got the pitch wrong because he gripped it like a circle change. Based on the Pitch-f/x data, I'm guessing I was right. Anyone else remember this?

Jun 10, 2010 11:51 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

The "Need for Speed" graph suggests his velocity was a bit more erratic with his earlier fastball pitches. Am I reading that right?

Also, since we have the average characteristics of his pitches, can we get some comparisons? Whose slider/curveball most resembles his... how much movement is on his fastball compared to, say, Kyle Farnsworth etc.

Great article :)

Jun 09, 2010 12:35 PM
rating: -1
 
ahemmer

RE: Need for Speed graph. It appears there is a lot of varianace early on, but a look at the y axis shows the speed of his fastball varied between 96 and 100 mph the whole night. Really not that much variance.

Jun 09, 2010 14:11 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Perhaps it is the spacing of the x-axis with the wider gap for the first 10 pitches that is throwing me off.

Jun 09, 2010 16:25 PM
rating: -1
 
BurrRutledge

Sweet! This is an awesome 'book end' to the article from Will yesterday. Thank you!

Jun 09, 2010 13:27 PM
rating: 0
 
Brian24

I'm not sure I understand the "break" numbers. They're recorded after only 10 feet of flight? So a pitch that is said to break 6 inches down has already broken 6 inches within 10 feet? Or are the break figures extrapolated, meaning they measure after 10 feet of flight and then calculate how much the pitch would break by the time it hits the plate?

Jun 09, 2010 21:37 PM
rating: 0
 
Alan Nathan

Sorry to be so late jumping into this thread---busy week. Regarding release point, Colin remarks that the Pitchf/x convention is to give the release point at 50 ft. It is easily possible to use the full 9P fit to the trajectory to project back to 55 ft, which is closer to the actual release point. One can then compare FB with CB to see if the height at release is more consistent. Responding to Brian24: I think you misunderstand what Colin is saying regarding the break. The break is defined to be the deviation from a straight-line trajectory between 40 ft and the front edge of home plate (with gravity removed). So, it is not the movement in the first 10 ft but rather the movement in the last ~40 ft. Finally, regarding the differences between the CB and slider. A CB has topspin plus sidespin resulting in a glove-side break. A slider has only the sidespin (and perhaps a little backspin), but the spin axis is oriented forward, along the direction of flight. The component of spin in that direction does not contribute to the break. If the spin were fully aligned with the direction of motion, there would be no break at all (a gyroball). As a result, a slider has less total movement than other pitches, even though it is probably spinning just as fast.

Jun 11, 2010 12:34 PM
rating: 0
 
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