Starters' Pitch Movement

by on January 25, 2013 @ 11:52:28 PDT


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By Stephen Nickrand

Tampa Bay Rays SP Alex Cobb
Order the fresh Cobb

The implementation of the PITCHf/x system in the 2006 MLB playoffs and 2007 MLB regular season has allowed for the systematic collection of pitch velocity and movement.

While this data can add more to our analytical toolbox, the analysis of it is still an evolving process.

After all, pitch movement by itself doesn't really tell us much. The effectiveness of pitch movement varies by pitch type. It also differs based on the handedness of the batter.

Likewise, the amount of pitch movement does not have the same effectiveness for every pitch. For example, a small, late break of a slider might be just as or more effective than one with more movement.

In addition, some pitches benefit more from vertical movement than they do from horizontal movement.

Pitch movement, velocity, and location all play key roles in the success of a pitch.

That said, let's dig a little deeper to see which starting pitchers had the most movement on their pitches in 2012. We'll also look at those who increased their pitch movement the most in 2012 vs. 2011.

Here are the SP who showed the most aggregate movement on their pitches in 2012, calculated by adding together their weighted horizontal and vertical movement (in inches) by pitch type:

Pitch Movement 2012

*Min 40 IP

Name League Weighted H+V
Moore, Matt AL 17.4
Gonzalez, Gio NL 15.8
Lilly, Ted NL 15.3
Saunders, Joe FA 14.7
Price, David AL 14.5
Holland, Derek AL 14.5
Rodriguez, Wandy AL 14.4
Medlen, Kris NL 14.4
Detwiler, Ross NL 14.3
Happ, J.A. AL 14.3
Lee, Cliff NL 14.2
Griffin, A.J. AL 14.2
Arrieta, Jake AL 14.2
Miley, Wade NL 14.1
Estrada, Marco NL 14
Hamels, Cole NL 13.9
Richard, Clayton NL 13.9
Sanchez, Jonathan FA 13.8
Capuano, Chris NL 13.8
Doubront, Felix AL 13.8
Hughes, Phil AL 13.8
Kennedy, Ian NL 13.8
Verlander, Justin AL 13.7
Harrison, Matt AL 13.7
Chen, Wei-Yin AL 13.7
Delgado, Randall NL 13.6
Colon, Bartolo AL 13.5
Bedard, Erik AL 13.4
Blackley, Travis AL 13.3
Vargas, Jason AL 13.3
Harvey, Matt NL 13.2
Strasburg, Stephen NL 13.2
Wolf, Randy FA 13.2
Phelps, David AL 13.1
Corbin, Patrick NL 13.1
Stults, Eric NL 13.1
Milone, Tommy AL 13

While this list by itself doesn't tell us much, it does highlight the upside of guys like SP Matt Moore, Tampa Bay and SP Jake Arrieta, Baltimore, young pitchers offer both pitch movement and velocity.

Most pitchers maintain consistent aggregate pitch movement from year-to-year.

Here are outliers whose pitch movement changed significantly in 2012:

Pitch Movement 2012 vs. 2011

*Min 40 IP 2011, 2012


Name League 2011 2012 Diff
Richard, Clayton NL 11.4 13.9 2.4
Hammel, Jason AL 10.5 12.4 1.9
Cook, Aaron AL 7.5 9.3 1.8
Cobb, Alex AL 11 12.8 1.8
Arrieta, Jake AL 12.5 14.2 1.6
Karstens, Jeff NL 11.4 12.9 1.5
Lester, Jon AL 12.6 11.1 1.5
Kershaw, Clayton NL 10.5 11.9 1.3
Lilly, Ted NL 14 15.3 1.3
Leake, Mike NL 8.2 9.5 1.3
Lewis, Colby AL 11.2 12.5 1.3
LeBlanc, Wade NL 11.2 12.4 1.2
Saunders, Joe FA 13.6 14.7 1.1
Hughes, Phil AL 13.8 12.8 1
Hamels, Cole NL 12.9 13.9 1
Sanchez, Jonathan FA 12.9 13.8 1


Name League 2011 2012 Diff
Chatwood, Tyler NL 13.8 9.3 -4.5
Wood, Travis NL 13.9 10.6 -3.3
Cecil, Brett AL 11 8.4 -2.6
Zambrano, Carlos NL 12 9.5 -2.4
Britton, Zach AL 14.1 12.1 -2
Price, David AL 16.5 14.5 -2
Francis, Jeff NL 13.4 11.5 -1.9
Verlander, Justin AL 15.6 13.7 -1.9
Marcum, Shaun NL 9.6 7.8 -1.8
Zito, Barry NL 12.9 11.2 -1.7
Maholm, Paul NL 11.4 9.7 -1.7
Duensing, Brian AL 14.5 12.9 -1.6
Hernandez, Felix AL 10 8.4 -1.6
Harrison, Matt AL 15.3 13.7 -1.6
McDonald, James NL 13.3 11.7 -1.6
Niese, Jon NL 12.4 10.9 -1.5
Santana, Ervin AL 9.2 7.7 -1.5

We did not find that an increase or decrease in pitch movement was correlated with a change in k/9 or bb/9.

SP whose pitch movement increased in 2012 posted an average 6.8 k/9 that season. Their average k/9 in 2011 was also 6.8.

Same goes for bb/9. Those with increased pitch movement in 2012 maintained the same bb/9 (2.7) as they had in 2011.

Guys whose pitch movement decreased in 2012 did not show significant deviations from the k/9 and bb/9 they posted in the prior season.

Next, let's break down pitch movement by pitch type to see if there are individual pitch type correlations to k/9 and bb/9.

We looked at weighted horizontal and vertical pitch movement by pitch type over the last three seasons and found the following correlations (see pitch type key below data):

2010-12 Horizontal Movement (Correlation Coefficient)

Pitch Type K/9 BB/9
FA +0.18 +0.18
FT -0.04 -0.05
FC -0.05 -0.1
SL +0.09 +0.12
CU +0.11 -0.12
CH -0.09 -0.07

2010-12 Vertical Movement (Correlation Coefficient)

Pitch Type K/9 BB/9
FA +0.33 0.18
FT +0.01 -0.04
FC -0.04 -0.10
SL +0.04 +0.02
CU +0.16 -0.04
CH -0.11 -0.03

Pitch Abbreviations

FA = Four-Seam Fastball
FT = Two-Seam Fastball
FC = Cut Fastball
SL = Slider
CU = Curveball
CH = Changeup

This data confirms that pitch movement by pitch type also does not have a strong correlation with a SP's k/9 or bb/9.

The strongest correlation exists between four-seam fastball vertical movement and k/9.

Nevertheless, looking at pitch movement in combination with other factors like pitch velocity may yield more interesting results.

For now, here's a closer look at several noteworthy SP from each league.

American League

Jake Arrieta, Orioles, will be written off in many 2013 drafts. At age 26, many owners will view him as a failed prospect. Don't follow suit. He was victimized by a 55% strand rate and 15% HR/F in 2012. His base skills with BAL were near-elite: 8.6 k/9, 2.7 bb/9, 44% GB%, 102 BPV. He also gets nice horizontal movement on his curveball and significant vertical movement on his four-seam fastball and curveball. In addition to increasing his pitch movement significantly in 2012, he also added one mph to his fastball velocity in 2012, which increased to 93.4 mph. Arrieta will carry a ton of profit potential heading into 2013.

Alex Cobb, Rays, had a 4.03 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 2012. Nice numbers, but not exactly ones that will make him a prime target in a lot of leagues in 2013. That said, his skills suggest that he has a lot more potential than what he showed on the surface last season: 7.0 k/9, 2.6 bb/9, 59% GB%, 92 BPV. He threw his curveball more frequently in 2012 and added three inches more movement to it that season. Amazingly, he induced a 76% GB% on his curveball in 2012. There's a great shot that Cobb will post a sub-4.00 ERA in 2013.

Jason Hammel, Orioles, added a two-seam fastball to his arsenal in 2012 and rode it to big gains. It showed less horizontal movement than average for that pitch among RHP, but did feature slightly more vertical movement than average. His average fastball velocity of 93.6 mph also helped to fuel his breakout campaign. As batters become familiar with his two-seam fastball, he'll need to prove that it can continue to be an effective pitch for him. Off-season knee surgery also makes him a health risk. Expect some regression in 2013, but he'll still have value.

Matt Moore, Rays, had the most aggregate movement on his pitches in 2012, and it wasn't even close. His changeup had the most horizontal movement among SP who threw a changeup at least 10% of the time. His missing piece is control. If he can build upon the control improvement he displayed late in 2012 (3.9 bb/9 in second half vs. 4.3 bb/9 in first half), Moore could bust out with a 3.00 ERA.

Chris Sale, White Sox, saw his fastball velocity dive in 2012 as he transitioned to a full-time SP role, but his horizontal pitch movement was one of the best in the game. His horizontal slider movement was the highest of any LHP SP with at least 60 IP. Only Moore got more horizontal movement on his changeup than Sale among LHP. And only Derek Holland, Rangers and Chris Capuano, Dodgers got more horizontal movement on their four-seam fastball than Sale among left-handed starters. If he can maintain the excellent control he showed for most of 2012 and stay healthy, Sale will remain a Cy Young candidate in 2013.

National League

Ross Detwiler, Nationals, posted a 3.40 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 2012 even though his base skills (56 BPV) were far from stellar. A 27% BABIP and 75% strand rate helped, as did a GB% spike from 43% to 51%. His GB% spike can be attributed to the large amount of horizontal movement he gets on his sinker, a pitch that he gets more horizontal movement on than any other SP in MLB. He had a 39% GB% on his sinker in 2011 vs. a 54% GB% against it in 2012. While regression may seem a likely scenario for Detwiler in 2013, note that his fastball velocity has increased for two seasons and now sits at 92.7 mph. This, combined with two years of k/9 growth and more effective use of his sinker, gives hope that he'll be able to sustain a sub-4.00 ERA.

Marco Estrada, Brewers, emerged last season as a dominant SP in spite of not having elite raw stuff. His pitch movement gives an explanation for how he was able to deceive batters. The vertical pitch movement on his four-seam fastball was one of the best in MLB among SP with at least 100 IP. This allowed him to generate strikeouts on that pitch even though he had a pedestrian 90 mph average fastball velocity. With surging skill trends and a mid-3.00s xERA, Estrada has the profile to post another sub-4.00 ERA in 2013 if he can continue to generate significant movement on his fastball.

Matt Harvey, Mets, was extremely impressive in his MLB debut with in 2012, both on the surface (2.73 ERA, 1.15 WHIP) and beneath it (10.6 k/9, 3.9 bb/9, 101 BPV). His raw stuff was elite too (95 mph average fastball velocity). While he threw his fastball 65% of the time, his toolbox suggests he has more than one effective pitch. His changeup had one of the highest levels of horizontal movement of any changeup in the game in 2012. In addition, he was able to rack up strikeouts at a high rate on his fastball, slider, and changeup. He's still green so patience is needed, but Harvey remains a premium growth stock.

Kris Medlen, Braves, had three pitches that he used effectively as strikeout pitches in 2012: four-seam fastball, changeup, curveball. His changeup generated plenty of horizontal movement, and his fastball and curveball showed good movement too. Having a top-tier changeup and two additional good pitches kept hitters off balance and enabled him to rack up strikeouts even with an average 90 mph fastball. He has nowhere to go but down after he was the game's best starting pitcher in the second half of 2012, but a 3.00-3.50 ERA will be well within reach.

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