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April 19, 2012
Downhill from Here
Here we are in the middle of the Information Age, with access to more data than the human mind can possibly process, and yet the dissemination of baseball information has been muted by a language barrier. Baseball fans are becoming increasingly savvy about the nuances of the game, with sophisticated analytical tools at their disposal, but access to the dynamics of play on the field is often clouded by a filter of scout-speak. If we were playing poker, then the dealer would need to remind the scouts in seats eight and nine of the “English only at the table” rule in order to prevent them from trading secrets that fly under the radar of other players.
There are dozens of entries in the pitching section of the scout-speak dictionary, from “command” and “control” to “arm action.” One of these buzzwords is “downhill plane,” a term that refers to pitch trajectory that has a steep slope on its approach toward the hitter. It seems to follow that pitchers who possess a high release point would induce a higher rate of ground balls. The logic behind the idea is simple enough, as anyone who has thrown a tennis ball against a wall can attest, but the statistical evidence paints a different picture.
Tall pitchers are often assumed to have exceptional downhill plane and thus produce high rates of grounders, yet the data reveals that pitcher height has no correlation with ground-ball rate among individual players. I ran the numbers for every pitcher who tossed 150 or more innings in 2011 (arbitrary cutoff alert), with a sample of 107 qualifying players and found a negligible r-value of 0.078 between pitcher height and ground-ball percentage. There are caveats with this type of analysis, given that player-height listings are about as reliable as Carlos Marmol's pitch command and that many players follow the unwritten rule of “round up and add an inch,” while the presence of just 11 data points on the Y axis creates a clustering effect, but one would expect at least a mild correlation to emerge if a strong relationship actually existed.
Caveats aside, there is no apparent statistical evidence to suggest that greater height is linked to more grounders, and though a pitcher's arm slot is a confounding variable in the equation for downhill plane, research conducted for “Arm Action” casts serious doubt as to the impact of release-point height on generating ground balls. *The relentless stats crew at BP advanced the research to another level, using PITCHf/x data for release-point height and running the numbers with ground-ball rates for the entire sample, finding a weak negative correlation of insignificant strength (r = -0.13, p = 0.18). The point is further solidified through anecdotal evidence, as there are countless examples of major-league pitchers whose skill sets have defied conventional wisdom, yet the adherence to old-school theories persists to this day.
The tallest pitcher in MLB history is the Mets' Jon Rauch, whose career ground-ball rate of 35.4 percent is nearly two deviations below the mean (for the statheads, it's a z-score of -1.83). The third-tallest hurler of all time is former Padre Chris Young, whose career ground-ball rate of 29.9 percent is lower than any pitcher in the 2011 sample of 150-inning guys. Arizona's Josh Collmenter stands 6'2”, but his extreme over-the-top delivery exemplifies a common coaching instruction in the quest for downhill plane—his ground-ball rate is nearly a dead match for Rauch at 35.5 percent. Jered Weaver's 11 o'clock arm-slot was on display in Pitchology 101, and the 6'7” right-hander had just a 33.9 percent grounder rate in 2011, good for the lowest mark of any hurler with at least 150 innings on the back of his baseball card.
Chad Bradford was probably the most extreme counterexample to the tall pitcher paradigm. The knuckle-dragging Bradford had possibly the lowest release point in the majors, but he was able to convert frisbees into so many worm burners that his comment in BP2003 quipped, “In the future, as part of the Commissioner’s strategy to speed up games, opposing right-handed batters will be permitted to simply throw a one-hopper down to Eric Chavez rather than actually execute their plate appearance against Bradford.”
I skipped number two on the all-time height list because the man deserves his own paragraph. Randy Johnson had a much lower release point than fellow beanpoles Rauch and Young, due to excellent posture and a low slot that approached sidearm, but the Cy Young southpaw managed a 43 percent ground-ball rate that was within spitting distance of league average. Johnson stood 6'10” and exploited his long levers to gain precious inches of extension at release point, effectively shortening the distance from hand to target and allowing his already-elite radar gun velocity to play up even further. Johnson's strong momentum and long stride combined with excellent posture and a solid glove to further maximize the depth of his pitch release. The technique also allowed the Unit's slider to break closer to the plate, which acted to shrink the narrow window for hitters to recognize the pitch.
The fundamental flaw in the “get-on-top” theory is an emphasis on the initial trajectory despite an outcome that is predicated on the angle of impact. A pitcher's stuff has much greater influence on ground-ball rates than his height, ranging from the steeper trajectory of breaking pitches to the ability to upset batter timing, coaxing a hitter into topping the ball. Above-average height is a fundamental advantage, but the model breaks down on a case-by-case basis due to elements of pitcher signature.
The angle of shoulder abduction alone can account for 20 or more inches of variation in a pitcher’s release point height, and given that each player’s biological arm slot is unique, it becomes extremely difficult to alter a pitcher’s release-point height without tampering with his balance and posture. Complicating matters is the functional tradeoff that exists between release-point distance and height, as pitchers who sacrifice posture in order to “get on top of the ball” will cost themselves approximately two inches of distance for every one inch of inappropriate head movement.
Release-point distance plays a critical role in the theoretical construct of pitch velocity, with no fewer than three distinct types of velocity having been identified. The most basic form of velocity is the reading on a radar gun, which is sometimes referred to as “real velocity.” The second type of velo relates to the advantage that is earned by deep-release pitchers such as The Big Unit, with “perceived velocity” increasing along with the distance from the rubber at pitch release. A pitcher who releases the baseball closer to the plate will effectively shrink the time a batter has to react to the pitch out of hand. These pitchers are often described as “sneaky fast” due to the deceptive feeling invoked by a modest fastball that jumps on the hitter.
The third and final category of pitch-speed is “effective velocity,” which is a term coined by Perry Husband to describe the relative amount of time that a batter has to react to a pitch due to location as well as speed. The concept is based on the fact that a batter must initiate his swing earlier in order to hit the ball squarely on a pitch that is up-and-in, and can wait a bit longer on offerings that are low-and-away. In this sense, a batter would need to invoke the timing of a 95-mph fastball in order to square up and pull a “real” 90-mph pitch that was located up-and-in. Husband found a significant effect with batter performance on pitches based on effective velocity (EV), such that hitters enjoy great success when two consecutive pitches fall within a narrow EV range, describing these situations as “at-risk pitches.” Crafty pitchers such as Greg Maddux have intuitively understood the EV phenomenon for years, utilizing the knowledge to engineer devastating pitch sequences that confound opposing batters, adding validity to the label of “smartest pitcher who ever lived.”
Many people have asked why today's pitchers appear to be so fragile when compared to the rubber arms of the past, and at least part of the answer lies in the popularization of pitching techniques that focus on batter weaknesses at the expense of pitch execution, creating a culture of pitchers who will sacrifice mechanics in the name of trajectory. I watch video of some of the old-school greats and marvel, as legends such as Bob Gibson and Walter Johnson* had more efficient deliveries than most of today's pitchers despite a century's worth of evolution. Perhaps if we changed the focus away from baserunners and batter angles in favor of pitch execution, then we would start to see the injury pendulum swing in the other direction.
*Yes, there is video of Walter Johnson—the right-handed Randy Johnson of his day.