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At a recent promotional event for the Bloomberg Sports Front Office 2011 professional product, Rick Peterson analyzed the mechanics of John Axford and discussed how he helped Axford move toward the center of the rubber to improve his results in 2010. You can see a video of the Bloomberg event here, courtesy of Kerel Cooper.

Using the release point graphing technique discussed here, we can quantify the change that Axford made, and indeed, we can see that he made a major shift of nearly a foot toward first base on May 27, 2010, and he continued to adjust farther in that direction throughout the remainder of the season.

John Axford release point

Peterson's explanations for Axford's adjustments are interesting, but one justification he gave does not stand up to scrutiny. Peterson claimed that premier pitchers release the ball starting as a strike and moving toward the edges of the zone. Do most of the best pitchers in baseball actually release the ball within the horizontal dimensions of the strike zone? No.

Josh Kalk covered this topic a couple years back, and his analysis is worth reading again. However, Josh didn't frame his results in exactly the terms that Peterson described. What about the best pitchers in the game? Where are their release points? The following chart shows the average release points of all pitchers with at least 300 innings from 2008-2010. The top 15 pitchers in ERA over that time period are indicated with red triangles.

Average release point for starting pitchers

Of the ERA leaders, only Johan Santana released within the strike zone width. Tim Lincecum came close over on the right-handed side at -0.9 feet. The other pitchers who released within the width of the plate are John Danks, Tim Wakefield, and Roy Oswalt, with Joe Blanton on the borderline. Among the outstanding pitchers, Roy Halladay is at -2.2 feet, Felix Hernandez at -2.1 feet, and Cliff Lee at 1.5 feet. Peterson's claim does not seem to hold water.

What about ERA versus horizontal release point?

Earned Run Average vs release point

There looks to be a slight trend toward better results nearer the center of the rubber, and Josh's analysis indicates that may be due to results against same-handed batters, but we certainly see that the best pitchers can and do release from a wide variety of positions on the pitching rubber.

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SkyKing162
2/23
Could you interpret his comments as meaning the pitch starts on a trajectory towards the zone, then moves away from the plate to either side?
mikefast
2/23
I don't think so, because if you interpret it that way, then it's not a reason for Axford to shift like he did.

I do think there's something to release point and how batters see the pitch moving at them or away from them early in the trajectory and then which way the pitch is moving as it crosses the plate, but you don't have to make the shift that Axford made to accomplish that, and that isn't what I saw Peterson claiming.

Peterson did offer some additional reasons, such as Axford having trouble locating to certain parts of the zone from his release point at -2 feet. Those may hold up; I haven't examined them in detail. The release point claim, though, caught my ear, because I thought I remembered that Josh's work had shown otherwise.
rawagman
2/23
I am reminded of something Satchel Paige once said (documented by Larry Tye in his recent biography of Paige) about how a good pitcher will adjust where he stands on the mound in-game to compensate for any difficulties he may be having with his location. If you are missing right, move to the left and vice-versa. I would love to see a study of that in effect.
mikefast
2/23
I just finished reading that book last week!

It's an interesting question. I'll have to think about the best way to study that.
ncimon
2/24
Thanks for turning hearsay into a verifiable hypothesis. Lots of conjectures, out there. I'm sure Axford has the best of intentions. But we all have to be careful about drinking that cool-aid we just mixed.
tombores99
2/24
At the NPA in San Diego, it was common practice for us to adjust a pitcher's starting position on the rubber, as it directly impacted his release point position. Pitchers have very different stride directions, so the starting position was unique to the player, but the goal for every pitcher was to finish with their spine lined up with the centerline. This is a key idea behind Peterson's words.

Interestingly, the horizontal release-point position could be very different for two pitchers that had the exact same starting position, stride angle, and finishing position.... the reason is arm slot, as a low-3/4 guy will have a release point that is closer to the throwing-arm side when compared to an over-the-top guy. I think this could be a confounding variable in the results, given that Peterson might be looking at a pitcher's spine to determine whether he is square to home plate at release point, and that could be what he means by "starting as a strike."

I could be reading into it too far, but the above idea is consistent with Peterson's approach to pitching mechanics, and the strategy is used by many major league pitchers.

mikefast
2/24
Doug, I definitely agree that Peterson talked about getting Axford's stride direction and spine lined up so that he was finishing lined up with the centerline.

But then he went on to show a release point graph and very clearly stated about moving Axford so that the pitch started out within the zone, and he showed on the graph what he meant by that. If you guys have watched the video and interpreted it differently, I'm willing to be corrected, but I thought he was crystal clear on the video about what he was talking about. He said it more than once and demonstrated on the chart what he meant.
SkyKing162
2/24
Related question -- IS there something to the idea that better pitchers have their pitches moving away from the center of the zone more than worse pitchers? This would be a combination of movement and initial trajectory.

I ask because the natural horizontal shape of a fastball fades back to the side of the pitcher's hand. If he releases off to the side, the pitches will naturally approach the plate more on the line between rubber and catcher, allowing the hitter to square up easier. My basic understanding is that this is one reason a cutter is effective -- it might not break much, but that means it's moving at a horizontal angle relative to the hitter's squared-up bat. Perhaps more difficult to make square contact or perhaps just harder to judge in the field of vision.
mikefast
2/24
Sky, I would consider that a very open area of research.

However, one of the pieces is something that Matt Lentzner and I presented on at the 2010 PITCHf/x summit. We found that the final velocity components of the pitch as it crossed the plate, both left/right and up/down, influenced the BABIP and whiff rate of the pitch.

I believe that another important piece of the puzzle is deception. There is deception in making the spin on the pitch hard to read, and from what I know about cutters, their spin is hard/impossible to differentiate from a four-seam fastball. Then there is deception in making the trajectories of various pitch types look as much alike as possible early in the pitch's flight. Josh Kalk did a fair amount of work on this topic. However, there's one piece he didn't really look at, which is that pitches look very different from the LH batter's box than they do from the RH batter's box. It's much easier to disguise pitch trajectories to a same-handed hitter.

So, I believe there is more research to be done both in the final velocity components and in the deception to help us understand what makes pitches effective.
tombores99
2/25
Thanks for the response, Mike. That's my fault for not watching the video (duh), and then trying to interpret his words. Somehow I glossed over the video link when reading the article, but now I see that you are right on with his description. Thanks again for the correction, and I apologize for a faulty "post reply" function!
mikefast
2/25
No problem, Doug. I appreciate your comments.