What can Dallas Keuchel's rise (and re-rise) teach us about using pitch tunnels?
This article is a summary of the research done by Kate Morrison and Jeff Long for their Saber Seminar presentation. You can find the slides from their presentation online here.
When Baseball Prospectus released our pitch tunnels data back in January, we were honest about the realities around the data. At the time, we had some idea of how the data could be used to analyze pitchers, but we certainly didn’t have it all figured out. Of course, while it’s valuable to have new tools through which we can analyze and grow our understanding of the game, we hoped that our pitch tunnels data would prove to be more.
Recently, we added some batted ball outcomes to the data on the stats pages of BP, allowing you to not only see how a pitcher’s pitches look in flight, but to also see what that means in terms of batted ball outcomes. This is, we believe, a big step in being able to better determine the impact that something like pitch tunnels might have on the field. We were thrilled to see what might come out of groups using the data at the SABR analytics conference this spring, and some of the work was truly remarkable.
One of the participants, Scott Spencer from Columbia University, took things a step further and put together a terrific analysis of the impact of pitch tunnels on whiff rates. Spencer has helped us bridge the gap between analysis and on-field application, as his work suggests that pitch tunnels impact whiff rates greatly. His conclusion, seen below, would seem to agree with some of the initial work that Jonathan Judge assisted with when we rolled out pitch tunnels[i].
Three starts, three different sliders. What's an evaluator to do?
Back when I was someone who only read reports and didn’t have to write them, I had a misguided belief in the precision of the 20-80 scale. Baseball Prospectus has always preached that development isn’t necessarily linear, but it’s much easier to understand that in theory than to account for it in practice. In my mind, a guy’s stuff was his stuff and his tools were his tools, and those were the bedrock of his prospect profile. The feel for a pitch might progress or he might add more power as he bulks up, but the change was always built on what was there before.
In reality, the process isn’t that black and white, and players can look completely different from night to night. One of the challenges of evaluating prospects is trying to reconcile conflicting information about a player. Many take the “it’s in there” approach, with the idea being that if a guy flashes a tool or a pitch, that represents his ceiling for that tool or pitch, and the rest of the work is projecting the likelihood of him reaching it. How many times have you read about a prospect with “some feel for the change” that the evaluator projects to average?
First AB: Erik Swanson, RHP
Guerrero takes a first pitch fastball from Swanson at 95 for a called strike. I already notice that he isn’t nearly as aggressive a hitter as Bichette. He likes to get comfortable with his at-bats and see what a pitcher has to offer instead of swinging out of his shoes at the first pitch. The next pitch is a fastball that he fouls off. He seems comfortable now, but his swings are also quite violent. Swanson brings a third straight fastball, and Guerrero fouls it off again. It seems like Guerrero can use the whole field and was just working with what the pitcher was giving him, which was high heat. On 0-2 again, Swanson tries a slider at 86: no luck, and called a ball. On 1-2, Swanson fires a 96 mph fastball. Guerrero swings and misses. Our hero is 0-1 in High-A.
Second AB: Erik Swanson, RHP
Like he did in his first at-bat, Guerrero takes a first called strike. I’ve watched enough low-level baseball to learn that most of the time, you could just stand there and you will eventually find yourself at first base. Once you get to High-A, that strategy ceases to work and you have to start thinking like a pitcher. “How will they attack me? What are they most comfortable with? When do they fall into patterns? Where are they likely to throw certain pitches? Why are they throwing this pitch?” On 0-1, Guerrero sees another fastball up in the zone and he pops it up for a weak out to the second basemen. Our hero is 0-2.
Third AB: Andrew Schwaab, RHP
Schwaab is a different look for Guerrero. Unlike Swanson, who had a big fastball with a high slot, Schwaab is a side-armer who throws a lot of sliders and relies more on deception and location. Like he has done before, Guerrero takes the first pitch, this time a slider at 83 for a called strike. The next offering is another slider; swing and miss. This is probably the best pitch I have seen Schwaab throw all year—it flashed above-average with late depth, fooling Guerrero. On 0-2, Schwaab goes to another slider, and Guerrero takes it for strike three. I am sure Guerrero was expecting a slider, but that it would be one out of the zone for a chase pitch, not one that would paint the corner. Through three at-bats, I have not seen him put one ball in play.
Fourth AB: Jose Pena, RHP
Like Schwaab, Pena is here to fill a role. Mainly his role is to eat innings and provide depth to the bullpen. Also like Schwaab, he is a side-armer. Pena is fairly generic; he is 88-89 with sink, and a true sweeping slider at 75-78. He has had success this year, and has even made a brief cameo in Double-A, which is a far cry from rookie ball, which was where he had spent the majority of the past 6 seasons.
An at-bat by at-bat look of Bo Bichette during a three-game look.
A little background: I saw Bo Bichette a decent amount as an amateur in 2016. He was a very divisive player because of the on-field ability, as well as the background involving his family and brother, Dante Bichette Jr.
On the field, few players had the kind of tools Bichette had. His raw power graded out quite highly, as he did it with ease, with many—including myself—putting a future 70 on his raw power. His arm also graded out highly. While I graded it as plus, one could make a case for a 70 arm. An above-average runner in high school, he has slowed down to average, but he still forces infielders to make quick decisions. He has such quick wrists and incredible bat speed to help make up for what is a long, noisy swing with a big leg kick. This is what an impact player was supposed to look like. There were concerns, though. Scouts and executives who saw his brother, Dante, and his results in pro ball soured on Bo because they were similar in terms of their bodies, swings, and attitudes. Neither Bichette did any of the big showcases in the state of Florida. Some were concerned with Bo’s attitude, referring to him as a brat, or a prima donna, among other things.
I still have memories of Bichette burned into my head, memories that are difficult to ignore when viewing him in the present. I know he has all of the tools and ability in the world, I have seen him make all the plays, and that might be distracting me from some of his faults and errors. Of course, I need to judge him fairly. What follows below is an at-bat by at-bat breakdown of a three-game viewing of Bichette. I will follow with a similar breakdown of Vladito later this week.
Game 1 - 7/12 v. Tampa
First AB: Erik Swanson, RHP
This is a good arm going up against Bichette. Swanson has some velocity, 93-95 (t96), he flashes an above-average slider, but doesn’t have much command so he is more than likely a reliever. Bichette attacks a first-pitch slider, 86, down in the zone, soft groundout to the pitcher.
Second AB: Erik Swanson, RHP
Bichette fouls the first pitch fastball, 94. Next pitch, 94 inside, called strike; good pitch, chalk one up to the pitcher there. Swanson then goes fastball 95, down, Bichette is late but has such quick wrists to put the ball in play, Bichette hustles down the line, 4.25, makes it a closer play than you would think.
We review some of the moments from Sunday that made the biggest impression on us.
Nathan Graham Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.: My favorite moment on Sunday came from Vladimir Guerrero, who tweeted a picture from his playing days of him and his son both in Montreal Expos jerseys: Sr. and Jr. Hours later, Vlad Jr. delivered my favorite moment in the Futures Game by sending a first pitch, out of the zone fastball from Jon Duplantier straight up the middle for a single in the seventh inning. That one swing reminded me of the aggressive nature and plus hit tool that made Dad a nine-time All Star during his 16-year career. It’s probable that none of the Futures Game participants will ever match the 449 home runs and career 59.3 WAR that Vlad compiled but Vladito is showing that he has developed power and hand-eye coordination that might one day rival his dad’s.
Wilson Karaman Eloy Jimenez: It was a small moment on a whiff of all things, but Jimenez faced Brent Honeywell in his first plate appearance and took a seat on a nasty in-zone 1-2 slider. What caught my eye wasn't the result, but the attempt at an in-swing adjustment. He was beaten by the pitch—it looked like he was expecting away—but he showed a smooth, quick transition into a shorter, dragging stroke in an attempt to fight the pitch off, foul it back, and live on to see another pitch. It's an encouraging sign for a hitter so precocious, and especially one so powerful and leveraged in his "normal" swing, to show signs of on-the-fly mechanical malleability. The effort jives with his wholly reasonable strikeout numbers as a 20-year-old in Double A, and it inspires my confidence in his hit tool developing into something good.
Mike Soroka: I was as impressed by Soroka as any arm in the game, in part because I never have cause to get to see Braves' pitching prospects, and in other part because he's a really impressive young pitcher. The arm action's a little wonky, but I'm a sucker for guys who generate outsized movement with slingier action and can flash command out of a lower slot, so he's right up my alley. He really got me with his adversity response after yielding a ringing RBI double to Kyle Tucker, though. His sequencing to the next hitter, Brian Anderson, looked like this:
1: 94 glove-side on the black
2: Right-on-right change-up with above-average tumble, located perfectly below the zone off same line and plane as the previous fastball away (ball 1)
3. Moving two-seam with nasty life and finish on the inside corner for called strike 2 at 94
4. Hard slider off outside corner with late movement at 89 that was fouled off the end of the bat
5. Another two-seam with plus run and sink running down and in off the inside corner to draw out a swinging strike three
Five pitches, excellent sequencing, perfect execution. There just aren't many 19-year-olds running around in Double A right now, and there definitely aren't many of 'em succeeding with both an advanced feel for craft and the maturity to respond with that level of controlled, precise execution to a tough spot on a big stage.
Creating a tool that considers the speed and movement of every pitch, the similarity measure allows the direct comparison of pitchers across various contexts.
The PITCHf/x optical video and TrackMan Doppler radar sensors estimate parameters of pitches, including the speed, horizontal movement and vertical movement. The data recorded by these systems can be used to develop pitcher similarity measures. These measures are valuable not only for comparing major-league pitchers to each other, but also for allowing the direct comparison of pitchers in other leagues (minor, amateur and foreign) to their MLB counterparts.
A pitcher similarity measure can be employed for multiple purposes by analysts. The identification of groups of similar pitchers can be used to generate optimized projection models , or to generate larger samples for predicting the outcome of batter/pitcher matchups , . In addition, a similarity measure allows for individual pitchers to be monitored over time in order to detect possible changes in pitch characteristics, health and throwing mechanics.
Previous methods for quantifying pitcher similarity have been limited to the comparison of pitches of the same type, which makes these methods highly dependent on the outcome of pitch-classification algorithms. Kalk ,  developed a similarity measure that compared pitches of the same type using variables that included pitch frequency, speed and movement. Loftus , ,  improved on Kalk's approach by separating pitchers by handedness while using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov distance to compare distributions. Like Kalk's method, however, this approach only considers comparisons between pitches of the same type.
A difficulty for these methods is that different pitch types for a single pitcher or across multiple pitchers can have similar properties. This causes the pitch-frequency statistics used by similarity algorithms to depend heavily on the classification process; it also prevents the comparison of similar pitches that are classified as different pitch types.
In 2016, for example, Ubaldo Jimenez's sinker averaged 91.12 mph, -7.35 inches of horizontal movement and 8.53 inches of vertical movement, while Jeremy Hellickson's four-seam fastball had nearly identical averages of 90.81 mph, -7.63 inches of horizontal movement and 8.44 inches of vertical movement. Due to this issue, Loftus  conceded that his own method is best suited for comparing individual pitches as opposed to comparing pitchers based on their entire arsenal. Gennaro  has proposed a more qualitative approach to measuring pitcher similarity by using a hand-selected set of features and weightings. The features used by this method include a pitcher's two most-common pitch types and his most-common two-pitch sequence.
In this work, we develop a pitcher similarity measure that considers the speed and movement of every pitch. We note that other factors that are less indicative of a pitcher's raw stuff such as pitch location , sequencing , and deception  also play a role in determining performance.
As the draft rolls on, more and more of the selections will be someone that scouts just had a gut feeling on.
While scouts can’t always explain the reasoning behind their “gut-feel” guys, something stood out about them. Athleticism, size, power, makeup, rawness. Some will admit that they don’t even get long looks at some of these players. The signing scout behindTrevor Rosenthal only saw him throw one inning.
“The Cardinals gave each scout three “gut feel” stickers to use, and those would help guide late-round decisions. Aaron Looper pressed one of his onto Rosenthal’s magnet and spoke passionately about what he saw in that one inning. Rosenthal featured a fastball that sizzled in the 90s, and he also displayed indicators the Cardinals valued: athletic ability, agility from his past as a shortstop, obvious arm strength and a low-mileage arm.”
With that said, here are my gut-feel guys for the 2017 draft.
Evan Marquardt, RHP, R-So., Ball State University (Muncie, IN)
Marquardt, who I profiled here in March, has a lot going for him, but he has a lot going against him as well. Let’s start with the positives. His fastball could be a plus offering, he shows quality feel for a breaking ball with hard action and depth, and he has good size (6-foot-6, 260 pounds) with good athleticism for his size. There are a fair amount of negatives though. He doesn’t have a collegiate track record (threw 59 IP this year, 13 IP the year prior), doesn’t throw a lot of strikes, and, while he started strong in my viewing, he wore down as the season progressed and finished with 40 walks. But hitters didn’t hit him that hard, allowing only 11 XBH in an offensive league (and home park). There are warts, but there are good building blocks to work with.
Trent Autry, RHP, R-Fr. Florence-Darlington Tech (Florence, SC) (JUCO)
I first saw Autry, not surprisingly, while going to see someone else. I drove to Palatka, FL to see Pearson McMahan (profiled here) and noticed they were playing Florence-Darlington Tech. I knew one of their coaches from a prior event and called him, as well as their head coach to discuss their squad. The first player he mentioned to me was Autry, a player who transferred over from another JUCO, who would take the bump in their first game. Suffice to say, Autry has been put on notice. He finished the year with 115 strikeouts in 75 innings (10th in the nation) and led Florence to the JUCO World Series. While not an ideal size (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) his fastball could be an above-average offering which features cut life, and a hard SL in the 84-85 range. It was a trip well worth taking, and while he could go back for another season at JUCO, he could be a flier on Day 3.
Raudy Martinez, OF, So., Polk State College (Lakeland, FL) (JUCO)
While somewhat of a reach, the main thing I am banking on is size, athleticism, and raw power. The concern with Martinez is that there is a lot of swing and miss, in what is a poor pitching league. But I am reminded of a player the Reds have in their organization, Narciso Crook. A 21st rounder in 2013 out of JUCO, he had the tools, but lacked feel for the game and had a lot of swing and miss. While it hasn’t panned out for Crook yet (he is still only 21, and shows all those tools), Raudy is a similar play. He has plus raw power, athleticism, size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), and is an above-average runner. While he might not be able to play CF on a daily basis in pro ball, he can handle either OF corner. I have him as a pure lottery ticket, one that, if he hits, he looks like an everyday regular.
Some potential senior signs that could go on Day 2 of the draft.
Every draft is full of them, last year, the significance of quality seniors was higher than ever as draft bonuses soared, giving teams more money to work with for higher upside players. While this left the seniors with little leverage, their importance has dominated the later stages of Day 2 in the draft.
“(They) said they’d be able to give me a $100,000 bonus,” Ratledge said, “but I’d have to tell teams not to draft me the rest of the day.” So Ratledge called to ask the club offering $20,000—let’s call it Team B—not to select him.
Team B wasn’t happy; it had to find a new senior to save money, but the area scout had a plan in place and found one. Ratledge, though, had to wait a nervous night until the next day. The 11th round came and went, and the third team didn’t draft him. The same thing happened in the 12th; still no pick, and no $100,000 bonus. Ratledge says his nerves were shot. He was ready to just get it over with.
“I 100 percent believed they were going to take me, but they kept passing and passing,” he said. “I was expecting it wouldn’t be easy, and I know it’s a business, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so cutthroat.”
Five years later and this draft class still looks about the same. Big-time talent at the top. Big-time drop off at the bottom.
With just hours before the 2017 draft class starts getting their names called on the MLB Network, we wanted to take a look back to see how things have changed with the draft class with which it’s been most compared. A lot can happen in five years. In fact, a lot can happen in three years as well (the first time we redrafted the 2012 crop was back in 2014). So we assigned 35 picks to BP authors and re-drafted from scratch, selecting only from the pool of players who were both selected and signed in 2012. Here's how the new draft shook out:
1:1 Houston Astros Actual Selection:Carlos Correa, SS Re-Draft Selection:Carlos Correa, SS (2012 no. 1 pick) Draft Position Change: 0 Explanation: Well, then. As it was in June of 2012, compelling arguments can be made for other players. The differences between Carlos Correa and Corey Seager are nearly impossible to express quantitatively. But Correa, already a star, nonetheless stands out as a singular player who most frequently causes involuntary raising of the eyebrows. The suspicion, the conviction, that there is another explosive level of stardom here keeps Correa in the No. 1 slot. —Zach Crizer
1:2 Minnesota Twins Actual Selection: Byron Buxton, CF Re-Draft Selection: Corey Seager, SS (2012 no. 18 pick) Draft Position Change: +16 Explanation: Like Correa, Seager is a large physically imposing shortstop that faced a lot of questions about whether he could stick at the position. Well, Seager has proven he can handle short, and the bat might be even better than we thought. He was supposed to be his brother, Kyle, with more power, but has become his brother, with a better average. Either way, his offensive profile plays in heart of the Dodgers lineup for years to come. —J.H. Schroeder
DRA, examined through the lens of MLB's surprising ERA leader.
As you know, different pitching estimators tend to agree on which pitchers are good and which ones are not. The interesting cases are when they disagree—strongly. In those situations, the proper response is not to decide which one is “correct” (to the extent there is such a thing), but rather to look at why they disagree.
On a related note, people have recently asked for us to do more explaining of how Deserved Run Average (DRA) works. Often, it’s easiest to do that with an example.
Today, our example is Twins right-hander Ervin Santana. Santana has a 1.80 ERA, a 1.80 RA9, a 4.00 FIP, and a cFIP of 102, but a DRA of 2.74. He is striking out 6.4 batters per nine innings, walking 3.5 batters per nine innings, and giving up just under one single home run per nine innings.
ERA and RA9 suggest an extraordinary pitcher; FIP and cFIP see an average pitcher, and DRA sees him somewhere in between, as a very good, but not-as-good-as-his-RA9 pitcher. Why the difference in opinion?
FIP and cFIP, as you know, look only at home runs, strikeouts, hit batsmen, and walks. Santana gives up a below-average number of home runs, generates fewer strikeouts than average, and gives up a tad more walks than average. Home runs count for more than the other aspects, so he comes out as an average-ish pitcher overall.
DRA sees a more interesting profile. Santana has a left-on-base percentage of 91 percent and a batting average on balls in play of .136. If you look at Santana’s player card, you’ll see that he has played in hitter-friendly stadiums (pitcher park factor, or PPF, of 107), faced roughly average opponents (oppTAv of .258), and most importantly of all, has held batters to a True Average of .173. Since the league TAv is .260, this is an incredible amount of damage control on contact.
Hicks struggled over four seasons with the Twins and Yankees, but he's one of the best hitters in the majors so far in 2017.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Aaron Hicks leaned forward at his locker and asked teammate Didi Gregorius about his tweeting. He wanted to know about the 140-characters-or-less game summaries Gregorius has been posting on Twitter after Yankees victories. Instead of using Hicks’ name, Gregorius has been using a certain emoji.
“Hey, Didi,” Hicks said. “Who am I supposed to be?”
Gregorius, sitting nearby at a card table, laughed and put a look of pretend surprise on his face.
“Who are you supposed to be?” Gregorius asked, still pretending. “I mean, you’re Aaron Hicks!”
Hicks wasn’t letting him off the hook: “What’s my emoji?”
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport's annual report card shows that MLB continues to struggle with racial and gender diversity.
This week, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) released their 2017 report card for Major League Baseball’s hiring and employment practices regarding racial and gender diversity. When grading MLB, TIDES looks at a variety of positions at the league level, the team level, and the organization itself, including the makeup of on-field or field-related staff as well as executives.
Their findings were not surprising to anyone who has been following the recent news cycles around hiring within Major League Baseball. While the league itself (specifically, the commissioner’s office, MLB Advanced Mecia, and MLB Network) scored the highest in both racial and gender diversity, the gender diversity number specifically dropped from 2016. On a team level, the gender diversity situation was even worse, with senior team administration receiving a D+ and professional administration a C-.
If we break these numbers down further, and look at how many of the women filling 27 percent of the “team senior administration” and 28.1 percent of the “team professional administration” roles are in positions that are—while incredibly important to the health of the team as a business—not related to the product on the field, the world is even bleaker. TIDES provides a breakdown of every woman and person of color in these senior roles, and the list of women only has six out of 82 women in roles that could be considered to have an impact on-field (athletic trainers, coaches, or scouts), and two of these are general “vice president” positions, with two others being “general partner” roles.
When we look at the 28 percent of women employed in “professional administration roles,” we have to take into account that TIDES includes specialists, technicians, analysts, engineers, and programmers alongside “assistant managers, coordinators, supervisors, and administrators in business operations such as marketing, promotions, publications, and various other departments.” When restricted to, again, roles that directly impact the product on the field, that 28 percent is almost certainly much lower.
While MLB overall scored a B for racially diverse hiring practices in 2017, this again represented a falling off from their score in 2016—somehow, in a single year, the league lost 8.5 points off their TIDES-given score. People of color fill 44.3 percent of coaching roles, but as we know, only three current MLB managers are men of color. The league office employs the next-highest level of people of color in all positions, at 28.1 percent, with the teams falling off steeply from that—only 11.7 percent of vice president or equivalent positions.