Pitch Perfect

It can be tough to find new angles to talk about for any team in the off season, with the proposition getting harder when you root for one whose bigger moves include acquiring Jeff Keppinger and selling Russ Canzler. Luckily, the good folks at Brooks Baseball have added a treasure trove of new information revolving around the PitchFX tool used to track individual pitches. The tool allows us to review not only the movement, velocity and location of every pitch thrown, but also the outcome of each of those pitches. Using that data we can better understand our pitchers, predict future success or decline, or in this case, try and decide who has the best single pitch on the Rays rotation.

I was struggling with how to quantify what exactly constitutes a great pitch, and then the great Carson Cistulli posted this over at Fangraphs, which essentially aims to do a similar exercise for the best fastballs in the league. I’m going down a similar road of looking at a pitch’s outcome, it’s value per FanGraphs and how important it is within a pitcher’s repertoire to try and gain an overall ‘value’. In no particular order, the below pitches stood out for one reason or another:

James Shields’ changeup

”You think it’s a fastball, and then it’s gone”, Bobby Abreu on James Shields’ changeup.

This was the main reason I started looking at the information: to understand just how good Shields’ changeup is. I had the pleasure of watching Shields in person a couple of times last season (in Miami and Toronto) and each time he twirled an absolute gem, giving him a combined line of 18IP, 10H, ER, 25K, 2BB. Against Toronto it was Shields’ curveball that caused Bautista to put a hole in his own dugout wall, but over the course of those two contests it was the changeup which did the most damage.

Despite going to his changeup early and often (27% of all pitches thrown), Shields was able to generate swinging strikes an impressive 37% of the time. His use of the changeup has trended upwards over the past few seasons but he’s been able to maintain, and even improve, its effectiveness thanks to solid mechanics which have kept the vertical movement and velocity at steady rates since 2008.

By tracking the change in run expectancy before and after a single pitch, FanGraphs are able to generate a value for each pitch, which shows how many runs a player saved with a specific pitch type. Shields’ changeup scores highly by this metric (highest of all pitches in this post) with 17.7 runs saved, not quite up alongside Kershaw’s slider (22.9) or Verlander’s fastball (25.5) but very close to Halladay’s famed cutter (19.5). Indeed, only Hamels (29.3) and Hernandez (21.4) saved more runs with their changeup in 2011. Shields has developed his curveball over the past couple of seasons to the point where it’s almost as effective as his changeup, but you can be sure he’ll be leaning on his trusty change piece again this season as he aims to prove his 2011 line is more indicative of his true talent than 2010.

David Price’s fastball

Few players have leant on their fastball more than Price over the past three seasons, who threw it in one form or another 73% of the time. Indeed, if there is one criticism of Price is that he sometimes become over reliant on his heater, but he can move it around the zone well, which can sometimes be all he needs on a given night.

There’s a distinct joy to watching a pitcher simply blow opponents away and with a two seamer and a four seamer pushing 98mph, Price is as good as they come when he has his stuff working. Price threw 64% of his fastballs for strikes in 2011, generating 22% swinging strikes. Price’s two seamer ranked 11th by FanGraphs’ pitch value /100 measure, behind a list of solid pitchers who would all love to have Price’s secondary stuff.

Much like Shields, it’s the development of the rest of Price’s repertoire which will likely propel him to the next level, but it’s good to know that on any given night his staple pitch can often be all he needs.

Jeremy Hellickson’s changeup

By FanGraphs’ count, no qualifying pitcher threw their changeup more than Hellickson in 2011, accounting for 32% of all his pitches. Still, major league hitters didn’t show many signs of catching up with Hellickson’s off speed stuff as the season went on, with swing and misses holding steady (33%) while fewer and fewer balls were hit well (the line drive rate declined all year, while the GB/FB rate continued to rise).

Albert Lyu highlighted Hellickson’s changeup as one of the best three in 2011, alongside Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez, and ahead of the aforementioned Shields and the likes of Justin Verlander and Tim Lincecum. In terms of pure value delivered (wCH), the data backs up this claim with the changeup saving 17 runs, good for fourth place in the majors.

There’s been plenty of talk during the off season about whether Hellickson’s rookie success is replicable, largely revolving around whether he can continue to induce such a high rate of weak contact, or if he is getting ‘lucky’ with the outcome of balls hit in play last season. That’s another story for another day, suffice to say that Hellickson’s changeup could be one of the contributory factors as to why he may be able to sustainably induce weak contact, and may not face the kind of regression many are forecasting.

Joel Peralta’s fastball

Peralta probably isn’t the first name you’d expect to see on this list but his fastball success last season was undeniable. FanGraphs suggest Peralta saved around 14 runs with his fastball, fourth among relievers behind Jose Valverde, Jason Motte and David Robertson. On a per-pitch basis, he trailed only the great Mariano Rivera, who rarely uses his fastball these days.

Peralta is able to generate good movement on his heater (-4.68 horizontal and -11.07 vertical), while pounding the zone (68% strikes), which compensates for the lack of raw power in the pitch (average 91mph). Presumably the pitch becomes more effective if his opponent still has his bat on his shoulder, though the opinion of the umpires seem to disagree on the legality of the quick-pitch.

Matt Moore’s curveball and changeup

“David [Price] has good other stuff, but that one pitch Matt has is one of the better ones I’ve seen in the major leagues already, that left-handed change-up”, Joe Maddon on Moore’s changeup

As he progressed through the minors it was Moore’s slurve (he calls it a curveball but others categorise it was a slider) that won the most plaudits. Steve Carter at ‘Scouting the Sally’ described it as “’disgusting’ in the most endearing of ways” while Ben Badler, reporting on last season’s future’s game, defined the pitch as “knee buckling” and “already one of the best breaking balls at any level of baseball”. In his brief 2011 major league cameo, Moore threw 54 curveballs, inducing 41% swings, 55% of which whiffed.

Maddon’s recent comment about Moore’s change piece is particularly encouraging given that this wasn’t seen as a particular strength just a couple of seasons ago. During his brief cameo last season, Moore’s changeup featured substantial movement and induced swinging strikes an absurd 63% of the time. Indeed, he generated twice as many swinging misses as Wade Davis did with his changeup, despite Davis throwing four times as many.

It goes without saying that everything we take from Moore’s 2011 campaign needs to be tempered with a small sample size warning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t at least dream on 2012. If his changeup continues to develop to give him another weapon in his arsenal against righties, he could well enjoy the top couple of entries on this list next year.

Are there any other pitches we’ve missed here? Anything that you specifically look for on a nightly basis?


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