Earlier this week I discussed how you can use Statcast data to evaluate hitters. Today I am taking a look at pitchers with the same idea in mind. Many of the same discussions from the first piece can be mirrored here for pitchers. Launch Angle and Exit Velocity are useful tools for evaluating contact management. Barrels and xwOBA can help to show how much damage a pitcher allows on their contact. However, the bigger issue with respect to evaluating pitchers is that we still do not know how repeatable contact management is. While there does exist some level of skill baked into contact management, it is not something that can entirely be proven.
Thus, we need to take all of the findings of this data with a grain of salt. Until we have a better understanding of things we cannot claim that just because Emilio Pagan ran the lowest xwOBA in the MLB last season it is a skill he will continue to show. Aaron Civale is a popular sleeper mainly on the back of his league-leading Barrels per Batted Ball number. While that is incredible, our knowledge of pitching and contact management does not allow us to say he will show that same elite contact avoidance in 2020. However, this does not mean that there is no value in Statcast data for pitchers.
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StatCast Metrics for Pitchers
For pitchers, the utility of Statcast comes down to the ability to evaluate individual pitches. The Statcast era has really opened up the idea of pitch design and made it much more mainstream. Every idiot with a computer and video camera thinks they can build a pitcher in a lab. The biggest piece, in my opinion, to come out of this is the spin rate. Plain and simple spin rate is how quickly a ball is spinning in RPMs. High and low spin varies significantly by pitch type but for fastballs, higher spin rates tend to lead to more vertical movement. Smart teams like the Astros have been targeting high spin rate fastball pitchers. These pitches “rise” much more than expected and can lead to more swings and misses than a similar velocity low spin fastball.
As a whole, there is no correlation between speed and spin rate but within pitchers there exists a very significant trend. Bauer Units (BU) is a term coined by Driveline that looks at the Spin related to Velocity (Spin Rate/Velocity) and helps to compare pitchers across different velocity bands. This can help to show fastballs with the potential to play-up if used correctly. For me, if I see a pitcher is excelling with the use of his fastball, I will go to the Statcast numbers and look at two things. First, I want to see if there is a change in the spin rate. If there does exist a change, I look to see if he has modified where he locates the pitch. As a whole, fastballs up in the zone produce more Whiffs but for high spin rate fastballs, the impact of locating up is even more important.
For other pitch types, similar ideas exist. Higher spin rate breaking pitches tend to be more effective at generating swings and misses and big changes can be signs of a new grip that can lend support to changes in performance. While many of the more progressive teams are already preaching this information, slowly more teams will be getting on board. The Reds hired the Driveline founder which should lead them into a change in philosophy. Keep an eye on any changes their pitchers make. Additionally, the Orioles targeted Brandon Bailey in the Rule 5 Draft, a notorious high spin pitcher from the Astros organization. While his stuff does not jump off the screen, he has potential if he uses his pitches properly. Expect the Orioles to make similar moves going forward as their GM is an ex-Astros Front Office member.
Pitch movement data and spin rate data are not exactly new to the game and the public. However, in my experience, Statcast made this data much more accessible and much easier to digest/analyze. It is now much easier to see how particular pitches move and to an extent, it is easier to see what that movement means. As I stated above, vertical movement, especially with fastballs, is all the rage. It makes logical sense, while horizontal movement is more visually pleasing, if you imagine a swing plane, vertical movement has a greater impact on whiffs. As a bat enters the zone, a ball that moves horizontally can potentially stay on the same plane as the bat. While this will lead to less than ideal contact, it is still contacted. However, vertical movement can move the pitch entirely out of the bat path.
This is an extreme simplification and misses some other important information, but overall it is something I like to look at when evaluating pitchers. Baseball Savant has a pitch movement leaderboard. This is one of my favorite portions of the site. For each pitch, you can see how an individual pitcher’s pitch compares movement wise to a similar MLB pitch. For their purposes, they define similar as +/- 2 MPH and +/- 0.5 feet of extension and release. Atop the fastball vertical movement leaderboard, you see Colin Poche and Sean Doolittle. Both arms are known for their elite rising fastballs and Doolittle has essentially built a career on the pitch. This is a great tool that can help you to see if there is a reason a particular pitch is so successful. Hitters are creatures of habit and if you can trick their eyes and brains by creating more movement than expected then you are winning.
Once again this is just barely scraping the surface of how to use Statcast data to evaluate pitchers. There is so much more incredible information that can be found on the site and I feel like I learn something new every day I go to use it. The best part of the Statcast data and Statcast team is that they are constantly experimenting to develop new metrics and new ways to evaluate players. The is nowhere to go but up in terms of the utility of this incredible information.
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