April 4, 2013
Raising Aces: Da Pitching Code
Doug Thorburn flips through the pitching section of the scout-speak dictionary
Before he wrote for Baseball Prospectus, Doug Thorburn climbed through BP's minor league system with Baseball Daily Digest, where he started the Raising Aces column dedicated to the mound. A few of those articles for BDD have withstood the test of time, continuing to resurface in various corners of the internet. Due to recent interest, we have chosen to revive one of these archived pieces.
“Raising Aces: Da Pitching Code” was originally published at BDD on June 8, 2011.
Scout speak is a fascinating language. Definitions are loosely defined and are sensitive to the vagaries of subjective interpretation, and many terms are lumped into artificial categories of “good” or “bad.” Scout speak serves as a comprehension barrier for those who were not raised in an environment of 20-80 scales, bullpen sessions, and performance showcases that slightly resemble a dog n' pony show for ballplayers; but there is an increasing number of baseball outsiders that are clamoring to learn more about the culture of scouting, and the dissemination of information is spreading too quickly for the old guard to maintain their secrets for much longer.
My first real introduction to the language of baseball insiders was working with the Sacramento River Cats of the Pacific Coast League, where I was the assistant to the Assistant General Manager (Dwight Schrute, eat your heart out). I had absorbed a dictionary full of terms during my lifelong obsession with the sport, but the River Cats job expanded my baseball vocabulary, and I quickly learned the limitations of my own language.
A defining moment came after an early-season night game, in which Sacramento starting pitcher Ron Flores had struggled to find the strike zone. I was sitting in AGM Mike Gazda's office, when Gaz asked me what I thought was wrong with Flores that night. I knew zilch about pitching mechanics at the time, but I also didn't want to appear ignorant in front of my boss, so I reached for a scout-speak cliché to answer the question: “It looked like Flores was overthrowing tonight.”
I was summarily laughed out of the room.
I learned two things from that particular encounter: 1) I had a lot to learn about pitching, and 2) novices carry a heavy accent when impersonating scout-speak.
Fast forward to the present, and I have not only become fluent in scout speak, but have also learned enough about pitching to fill a book. That said, speaking to other talent evaluators can still be a challenge, as there are many dialects of the language; two scouts can agree that a player has a “violent” delivery, yet disagree on the characteristics that make it violent. Case in point, what follows are a dozen of the more common terms in the pitching section of the scout dictionary.
“Control” - n. Typically refers to the ability for a pitcher to avoid walks, or to “control the strike zone.” Many will use the term interchangeably with command, while some have very specific definitions for each, and control more often describes the short-term ability to locate a pitch. A pitcher might have “command” of his changeup on a regular basis, but still have occasional days where he loses “control” of el cambio.
“Command” - n. Similar to control, but more often applied to a specific pitch type. A pitcher might have exceptional command of a fastball, but is unable to harness a breaking pitch. Pitch command can be specifically applied to hitting the catcher's target and “commanding” the different quadrants of the strike zone, and will more often describe a pitcher's long-term ability to repeat pitches.
“Deceptive” - adj. This term is paired with several interpretations. A) A pitcher can “hide the ball” from the batter's view, by obscuring the throwing hand behind moving arms, legs, and torso; B) Pitchers that have deep release points are often said to have deception, as the fastball is “sneaky fast” due to the increase in perceived velocity; C) A talented pitcher with an unorthodox delivery is often tagged as deceptive, which arises more from a lack of any conventional explanation for his success. Example: see Weaver, Jered.
“Downhill Plane” - n. Conventional wisdom states that tall pitchers have an advantage on the mound, and stats from the late 1960's help to substantiate the theory that release point height is a significant advantage, which has created a scouting obsession with “downhill” or “downward plane.” The idea ignores the benefits of release point extension for tall pitchers, and focuses primarily on creating a steep trajectory to increase the probability of a groundball. It is generally accepted that increased downhill plane is an advantage, but some doubt is cast by the mechanical sacrifices that pitchers often make in the name of finding a taller release (more on this later), and the reality that pitch break has a much more significant impact on groundball rates than release point height.
“Violent” - adj. A violent delivery is the opposite of one that is clean, smooth, or effortless. The “violence” stems from a combination of factors, including but not limited to extreme momentum, funky arm action, flailing limbs, sharp hip turns, immense torque, and extreme rotational velocities in particular. Many of the pitchers that earn this tag appear to be unstable, with little ability to harness the delivery, but this is not always the case. Some scouts have taken to putting the “violent” label on any pitcher whose delivery appears to require considerable effort, which puts it in the same category as “overthrowing.”
“Throwing Across The Body” - v. A scout-speak favorite that is widely misdiagnosed as a symptom of poor “arm action,” the confusion surrounding this term is greater than any other on this list. The arm will literally cross in front of the body just after release point on every pitch, but this is not a concern for the scout. Rather, “throwing across the body” often refers to a player that does not appear to complete the rotational phases of the delivery, resulting in an early release point. The functional description is a pitcher that does not get his shoulders square to the target in time for release point; in reality, though, most pitchers who earn the “across the body” label are those that have a closed stride, with a front foot that lands to the arm-side of the centerline. Many of these pitchers will indeed struggle to get their shoulders squared up with the target, while others will have no problem completing rotation despite having a closed stride, so the term has become a blanket statement that is often misapplied.
“Get on top” - v. The emphasis on “downward plane” has encouraged many scouts to look for pitchers that “get on top of the ball” with a high arm slot, and though downward plane is generally considered a positive, there is a very real trade-off that exists between height and distance at release point. In order to achieve a taller release point, a pitcher will sacrifice posture by tilting his head and spine to the glove side, and every one inch of inappropriate head movement will cost the hurler two inches of release point distance. This creates a functional give-and-take between downhill plane and perceived velocity, and while many coaches and scouts advocate “get on top” with a religious fervor, I am personally against any adjustment that has a negative impact on a pitcher's posture, which I consider to be one of the most critical variables in the pitching mechanics equation.
“Changing arm angles” - v. This one falls under the “deception” label, though it is often a misnomer, as a changing arm slot is not something that a pitcher typically strives to accomplish; rather, it is usually the result of poor balance and/or inconsistent posture at release point. Many pitchers will attempt to get “on top of the ball” when throwing breaking pitches, but not when throwing a fastball, and they will effectively tip their pitches based on the variance in arm slot. A pitcher with exceptionally poor timing might produce “changing arm angles,” despite his intentions to repeat every aspect of the delivery. It's similar to pitchers that “change speeds,” in that some might have the ability to add or subtract velocity at will, while others just plain struggle to find any sort of consistency.
Trot Times for April 3
The tater trots for April 3: Manny goes deep across the world, Gio can't keep from smiling, Upton busts out the speed.
Well that didn't take long. On the first day of the season in which all 30 teams played, there are 36 home runs hit around the league. There's nothing extreme about that number, but it is rather early in the season to see so many hit in a single day. At least it was full of interesting homers.
Yu Darvish Reminds Us: Technology is Great
The technology to consume and enjoy baseball games today makes this one of the best times ever to be a baseball fan.
The recent spate of no-hitters and perfect games has really helped to show us how far the technology for enjoying baseball has come in the last two decades. Comparing how we learn about and consume these historic games today with even ten years ago is a lesson in how rapidly technology can evolve in the Internet Age. For fans of baseball, this is a great thing.
In 1990-91, there were fourteen no-hitters thrown around the major leagues, including two from Nolan Ryan and a perfect game from Dennis Martinez. At that time, in our cable-less house, I would have been lucky to hear about the no-hitter by the next day, when my older brothers or I happened to see it in the newspaper. If it was a name I recognized, like Ryan, and it happened to fall on the right day of the week, I may even have been lucky enough to hear about it that night. If the event happened to fall through those cracks, however—a pretty easy feat to accomplish—I might not have heard about it at all until I ran across a Topps or Upper Deck card commemorating the feat the next summer. How else would a kid from central California have been expected to hear about the Kent Mercker-Mark Wohlers-Alejandro Pena combined no-hitter?
Maholm Throws Utley a Curve (Literally)
Paul Maholm assumes the mantle of the sub-60-mph strike.
Last season, there were 21 called strikes thrown slower than 60 miles per hour. Nineteen of them were eephus pitches by Vicente Padilla, and the other two were slow curves by Randy Wolf. Padilla is now pitching for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, and Wolf will spend the whole season recovering from October Tommy John surgery. So we wondered—those of us who wonder about these things—who would take up the mantle of the under-60-mph strike thrower in 2013.
Effectively Wild Episode 174: More Week One Reactions
Ben and Sam share their thoughts on Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Yu Darvish, Fernando Rodney, the Royals, Tom Milone, Shaun Marcum, and more.
April 3, 2013
Chris Davis is Strong, Too
The O's first baseman goes oppo on a pitch off the plate.
In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Ben Lindbergh showed us the strength of Matt Holliday. Some 17 hours later Chris Davis hit a home run that begged for an examination of his strength. Take a look at this baby. At first glance it might appear as nothing more than your standard opposite-field blast. Look a closer at the location of the pitch at the point of contact:
It's tough to see but that pitch is off the plate, yet Davis gets enough of it to drive it out. The takeaway: Davis is a very strong human being.
Trot Times for April 2
The tater trots for April 2: Yu Darvish's near-perfect night, Pete Kozma might cause a divorce.
Only the second full day of the season and we've already had a near-perfect game. Against the Astros no less. If this kind of thing keeps up, 2013 could be a very exciting year.
An Interesting Fact Yu Darvish Reminded Me About Last Night
Perfect games in Japan are down.
This winter, I wrote a long piece about Philip Humber and perfect games for ESPN the Magazine. A lot of the piece was about the increase in perfect games in Major League Baseball. But is this trend specific to Major League Baseball or does it apply to baseball in general? As it turns out, perfect games have gone in the opposite direction in Japan.