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November 2, 2012 6:03 am

Raising Aces: The Good Old Days: Randy Johnson


Doug Thorburn

Randy Johnson was one of the most dominant pitchers of his or any era, but his peak wouldn't have been possible without continual mechanical tinkering.

I remember reading an article as a college student that described how Randy Johnson had made a mechanical adjustment that allowed the large lefty to extend his release point by more than a foot. The sheer thought of the Big Unit getting 12 inches closer to the plate was equal parts terrifying and fascinating, as physics class had taught me about the advantages inherent in decreasing the distance that the ball travels, ranging from increased perceived velocity to a reduced drag effect on the baseball (I would later learn to appreciate the ripple effect on the timing of pitch-break). The story also marked the first time that I heard the name Tom House, as Johnson had mastered his new techniques through Nolan Ryan and his pitching coach with the Texas Rangers, learning from the man who would be my future mentor in my first exposure to real baseball science.

Johnson’s distinguishing characteristic was his exceptional height: at 6’10”, he was one of the tallest pitchers ever to play in the majors. His height gave him an intrinsic advantage on the mound that is often misunderstood in the mainstream. The plot thickens when one watches his delivery, as Johnson's strategy of slinging the ball from an ultra-low arm slot flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which emphasizes downhill plane. His sidewinder approach was decidedly old-school, harkening back to 12-time strikeout king Walter Johnson, who was known as the hardest thrower of his day and a tireless workhorse who personified the true “ace” label. At 6’1”, Walter was a large human for the early 20th century, and his nickname, “The Big Train,” is essentially a century-old analogue of Randy's “Big Unit” epithet.

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BP's new expert on pitcher mechanics debuts with a primer on the most important components of the pitching motion.

My name is Doug, and I am a baseball junkie.

It all started with an eight-year old kid and an innocent pack of Topps baseball cards. There must have been something laced into that stale piece of gum, because my formative years are nothing but a haze of cardboard stats, makeshift whiffleball fields, Mark McGwire moon shots, and heated Saberhagen-Valenzuela duels in RBI Baseball. By college I was on to the hard stuff, with fantasy baseball teams stretching as far as the eye could see, buoyed by the mass consumption of designer statistics like VORP, PAP, and EQA.

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Jeremy finds out whether the consistency of release points matters on a pitch-by-pitch basis and pinpoints the pitchers who give batters the same look most and least often.

Back in November, Mike Fast covered most everything you need to know about pitchers’ release points. The difficulty lies in determining the value of release point consistency. Mike found that pitchers with lower variation in their release points from game to game tended to produce lower walk rates, but looking at the distance between successive release points can also provide useful information at a more granular level.

With that in mind, I looked for all consecutive pitches from one pitcher to one batter and came up with the initial position of each pitch 50 feet from home plate, according to PITCHf/x, and each pitch’s run values using the process detailed here. The sample has some biases: all plate appearances must go at least two pitches, and curveballs will appear to be released higher than preceding fastballs, even if that’s not the case. This method does remove a significant bias that often exists when doing PITCHf/x analysis—miscalibration.

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PITCHf/x data can shed light on pitchers' throwing mechanics.

Pitcher Release Points

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