When it comes to baseball pitchers, most fans focus on pitch speed. This makes sense. The 100-mph-fastball is a pop culture/athletic touchstone, and who hasn’t been to a carnival in central Ontario and tried to throw three hard pitches at the same velocity while your ten-year-old brain realizes the km/h readings on the gun have little meaning to your life? But in general, if you throw the ball faster, it’s harder to hit, right?
One of the biggest baseball stories through the first half of the season is the noticeable (and noticed, obviously) drop in pitch velocity for flamethrower Justin Verlander. Coupled with middling success (when compared with recent, historic-level years), falling pitch speed is the ready response for writers attempting diagnoses of Verlander’s struggles. (C.C. Sabathia has fallen under similarly themed scrutiny.)
While the real reason for Verlander’s struggles likely exists within a more complex mix of factors, the popular focus on pitch speed provides a good entry point for introducing two other pitching components that probably are more important than velocity alone and that are easy for casual fans to understand and track. (That’s the whole point of this series of posts, after all.)
The first is speed differential. Instead of looking at the speed of one pitch in isolation, look at the difference in speed across multiple pitches. In 2012, Verlander could hit 100 mph, and he was very effective. Other pitchers were very effective in 2012 too, though, and few of them were hitting triple-digits on any kind of regular basis, or at all. Additionally, merely throwing fast is not a recipe for success. (See, e.g., 2013 Bruce Rondon, who throws very fast, but has not been effective enough to lock down a full-time spot in the majors.)
To be successful, one of the things pitchers must do is vary the speed of their pitches. This is because hitting is more an exercise in timing, and less in swinging quickly. For the pitcher, the trick is to confuse the batter’s sense of timing. If a batter has seen two pitches around 93 mph, for example, he’s likely to miss on an 85 mph pitch by swinging too early. Conventional wisdom holds that one of these slower pitches, referred to as change-ups or off-speed pitches, should be 8-10 mph slower than the main pitch (e.g., fastball) in order to be effective. The focus on relative speed, rather than absolute speed, explains why pitchers who will never have Verlander/Sabathia velocity nevertheless can be successful. Additionally, when a pitcher starts to become less effective, a convergence in pitch speed is the more likely culprit than a dip in peak velocity. For fans, pitch speed is as easy to track as ever, as most all television broadcasts flash it after every pitch (although ESPN’s feature has timing problems of its own), and it should be displayed somewhere in every major league ballpark.
The second component is the pitcher’s release point, the point in his motion at which he releases the ball. Across his pitches, a pitcher’s release points should be identical. If they aren’t, things like speed differential and ball movement will be of little effect, because the batter will know to expect them and adjust his behavior accordingly.
In the example in the speed differential discussion above, an 85 mph pitch that follows two 93 mph pitches will only work to fool the hitter if the third pitch looks just like the first two. If it doesn’t, the hitter will know a slower pitch is coming and adjust accordingly. The same applies to differences in movement. If a pitcher has a different release point for his curveball, batters will know it’s coming and be prepared to hit it.
The following two graphics (HT: Andy from MLP) are visually impressive, but, by overlaying multiple pitches by Yu Darvish and Verlander, respectively, they illustrate the confluence of release points these two aces use:
Compare them closely. Maybe it’s due to a difference in the way the graphics were made (or this writer’s bias), but Darvish’s release points seem to vary noticeably, while Verlander’s do not.
Tracking release points is more difficult for fans than speed differentials, but the concept is easy to understand without the need to learn any mathematical formulas or remember weird acronyms, and, like speed differential, it’s as important to pitching success as anything else. Just as a convergence in pitch speeds is a more likely culprit of pitching difficulties than an overall decrease in velocity, an increased variance in release points is a more likely cause of trouble than a decrease in movement on a curveball, for example.
Speaking of the curveball, here are a few quick notes on different types of pitches:
- First, for a bit of lingo, Tigers Radio Network announcer Dan Dickerson was kind enough to answer this question for me about a “swing-back fastball”:
- One of the most popularly referenced– if not commonly thrown– pitches outside of the mainstream alternatives is the knuckleball, a pitch thrown with no rotation on the ball, causing it to move erratically and unpredictably. R.A. Dickey currently is the league’s resident knuckleballer, and while the pitch sounds like a crazy idea, it’s interesting to note that things like release point still are relevant:
- Angels pitcher Robert Coello has been throwing a “mystery pitch,” which some believe is a forkball, “rescued from extinction,” while today’s hitters and catchers are calling it “the WTF.” Like a knuckleball, it doesn’t have any spin, but knuckleball experts insist that isn’t what it is either. The linked article isn’t too helpful in describing what Coello’s pitch is, but the L.A. Times suggests it’s a hybrid forkball-knuckleball and gives a shout-out to the importance of release points in the process.
- If you want more, check out this post (which nearly lives up to its title): “A tribute to MLB’s Freak Pitches.”
Finally, a closing comment on pitch speed and Verlander’s much-analyzed velocity drop comes from this article, which makes the point that most of the information we have about pitch velocity is relatively recent, meaning that we do not have a great degree of context to help in understanding the change we’re seeing in Verlander and Sabathia as compared to other similar pitchers of prior generations.
Oh, and if you’re still looking at those Darvish and Verlander graphics above and wondering how anybody ever hits a baseball, you may want to seek an audience with Miguel Cabrera, who’s got things more or less figured out:
Baseball Notes: Preview
To make the game gair they may have to extend Cabrera’s strike zone a few inches in each direction.
Or maybe a foot let’s be honest.
Give him a week with new hitting coach Vlad Guerrero, and I don’t think anyone would notice a difference.
An addendum: The notion of keeping pitch counts is a relatively recent phenomenon. Overattentiveness to that number can lead to arguably irrational decisions. (I’ve written about the Washington Nationals’ approach to Stephen Strasburg and discussed the subject with Brendan on our podcast.)
Some of the criticism of pitch-count-driven caution comes from “traditionalists,” who claim that pitchers never used to be on pitch counts and were no worse for the wear. While it may be true that tallies like pitch counts were not so actively tracked in the past, Keith Olbermann recently called into question the assertion that pitchers did not need to be closely monitored in such fashion: