Pitch tracking has been around for over a decade and given baseball fans tremendous insight on their favorite hurlers around the league. For the first time ever, we could see how much Tim Lincecum’s splitter fell off the table or why Roy Halladay’s cutter was arguably the most dominant pitch in the game.
But there’s always been a flaw with pitch movement metrics. They put every player’s pitches in a vacuum; that is, they don’t account for release point, velocity, and gravity. Those are two crucial components in how much a pitch moves. A 90-mph slider will not have as much vertical movement as an 83-mph slider because gravity will have less time to act on it. Does that make the faster slider a worse pitch? Of course not.
The latest leaderboard released by Statcast aims to remedy that problem. A couple of weeks ago, the folks at Statcast released a pitch movement leaderboard that incorporates those important factors. All pitches are compared to the average movement of similar pitches across the league. By similar, we mean within 2 mph and 6 inches of the extension and release points.
For example, Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly averages 52.4 inches of vertical movement, which ranks 160th. However, when compared to others with a similar release point and velocity, his curveball gets 6.3 more inches of drop than the average pitcher, which ranks 15th.
That brings us to the obvious question: How do Reds pitchers rank in this new metric, and how much has movement fueled the staff’s success on individual and team levels? Let’s break it down pitch by pitch.
Four-seamers, unsurprisingly, have less vertical movement than any other pitch due to their velocity and backspin. They don’t drop suddenly like a changeup or slider, and most of their vertical movement comes from gravity. Pitchers can often give the illusion of their fastball “rising” with a high spin efficiency.
Reds pitchers demonstrate why raw spin rate isn’t everything when it comes to movement. Tanner Roark has the third-lowest spin rate on the team, yet the highest differential in vertical movement compared to the average. Sonny Gray has the highest spin rate on the team and ranks in the 87th percentile in MLB, but he gets little rise on his fastball due to poor spin efficiency. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it means Gray gets more drop on his fastball and, thus, more groundballs than average. In fact, the bottom four pitchers in vertical movement get more grounders than the league average (34.7%) with their four-seamers.
- Sonny Gray: 41.8%
- Tyler Mahle: 40.4%
- Luis Castillo: 43.9%
- Amir Garrett: 40.0%
Horizontal movement is less significant for a four-seamer. Since the pitch doesn’t usually have a late break, the ride is more predictable for hitters. Location is most important for pitchers with a lot of horizontal ride. Consider the top five pitchers in horizontal ride and their “shadow rate” (e.g., rate of pitches around the edge of the strike zone) and compare that to their xwOBA:
- David Hernandez: 50.8% shadow, .300 xwOBA
- Tyler Mahle: 48.6% shadow, .344 xwOBA
- Robert Stephenson: 42.1% shadow, .427 xwOBA
- Amir Garrett: 41.0% shadow, .358 xwOBA
- Luis Castillo: 39.0% shadow, .396 xwOBA
The pitchers who pair above-average horizontal movement with painting the corners fare far better than those who do not.
Two-seamers/sinkers have more movement than four-seamers, and vertical movement is generally more important because it creates groundballs. Lower spin is better because it creates more drop.
When it comes to the sinker, there’s Jared Hughes and everyone else. His sinker gets nearly a foot more drop than the average pitcher, by far the highest margin in baseball. Its low spin rate is conducive to this ridiculous movement, as only one pitcher in baseball averages fewer RPM than Hughes. The pitch has a 61.3% ground-ball rate, 15th among all pitchers with at least 25 sinkers put into play.
On the other end of the spectrum, Roark’s sinker/two-seamer drops 18% less than average and gets a measly 38.5% grounder rate. Anthony DeSclafani also has below-average drop and is fourth from last in GB% (36.7%) on the pitch.
A changeup’s movement isn’t as important as it is for other pitches. How it plays off the fastball is key. Does the pitcher tunnel it effectively while using the same release point and arm speed? It’s probably a pretty good pitch. For example, Noah Syndergaard ranks below average in vertical and horizontal movement with his changeup. The pitch still has allowed a .190 xwOBA, putting him right behind Castillo (.183).
That said, Castillo and Raisel Iglesias do have above-average horizontal and vertical movement, which plays even better with their mid-90s fastballs. Among all pitchers who’ve thrown at least 50 changeups, Iglesias ranks first in swinging-strike rate (33.3%) and Castillo is fifth (29.7%). Wandy Peralta ranks 21st, which he can credit to his changeup getting 23% more ride than average. However, Peralta’s fastball-changeup combo is less effective, in part because the release points on the two pitches are more distinct instead of appearing the same to hitters. Here are the release points of the three pitchers (click to enlarge the image):
The changeups of Castillo and Iglesias blend in with the release points of the fastball; Peralta’s is more obviously lower than his fastball release point.
Movement of all variety is vital for breaking pitches as it results in swings and misses or weak contact, usually on the ground. Gray is the poster child among Reds pitchers in curveball movement, ranking above average in ride and drop. His curveball spin rate ranks in the 95th percentile among all MLB pitchers. Paired with a lot of movement, we can assume Gray’s spin efficiency is high as well. Of 242 qualified pitchers, only seven get more drop with their curveballs compared to the average. While his curve doesn’t get a high rate of swinging strikes (11.5%), it does get a ton of grounders (60.9%).
Roark also gets above-average spin on his curveball (79th percentile). He, however, gets very few swings on his curveball because he has struggled to keep it in the zone, and its low velocity makes it easier to read and lay off. Roark’s curveball has stayed in the strike zone only 24.6% of the time in 2019, dead last among all pitchers who’ve thrown 100 or more curves. He ranks 91st of 106 in chase rate (min. 50 pitches out of the strike zone).
Interestingly, the three pitchers with above-average movement have seen the worst results on their curveballs this year in terms of xwOBA. Again, it comes down to location as explained with Roark. Zach Duke also struggles to throw strikes with the pitch, with an abysmal 29.0% zone rate, while Gray has left his curveball in the heart of the plate a team-high 27.0% of the time. David Hernandez, meanwhile, has a .168 xwOBA on his curveball despite below average movement as he’s maintaining the highest zone rate (53.6%) on the team and a well below average Heart% (19.6%).
Gray is again the king of spin and movement with his slider. The breaking ball is his best pitch — despite his complaints about the Yankees making him throw it more — boasting an 18.4 SwStr%, 33.0 Chase%, and .156 xwOBA. Only two pitchers, Chaz Roe and Adam Ottavino, get more horizontal movement on their sliders than Gray. He also ranks in the top 20 in vertical movement. The pitch breaks a ridiculous 205% more than average, which is tops in baseball. Now we’re really seeing spin efficiency.
Interestingly, Garrett and Robert Stephenson rank second and third, respectively, in baseball in SwStr% with the slider. Stephenson has seen an increase of more than two inches in vertical movement thanks to an uptick in spin rate and efficiency. However, neither has above average movement. Both owe the credit to effective pitch tunneling, which deceives hitters into believing the fastball is coming until it’s too late. With Stephenson’s 3D chart, we can see the fastball and slider are on nearly the same vertical plane at the point when the batter has to commit to the pitch (the purple dots). If they read fastball at the recognition point (yellow dots) and get the slider instead, they’re going to be way out in front of it. (Click to enlarge the photo or play around with the 3D pitch visualizer here.)
We can clearly see movement isn’t everything for a slider, but it doesn’t hurt either.
Mahle is the lone Reds pitcher who throws a splitter, and it doesn’t have particularly impressive drop. It has only a 15.8 SwStr% and 11.9 Chase%, but it’s been effective at generating ground balls (59.3%). Mahle doesn’t seem to have a great feel for the new pitch yet. He’s left it in the heart of the plate 23.7% of the time, fourth-highest among pitchers with at least 25 splitters. The goal of a splitter is to keep the ball down, and the right-hander hasn’t done that consistently, likely due to a combination of shaky command and mediocre movement.
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