Pitching Analysis Game of the Week: Texas Rangers v. Oakland A's

Normally, in this spot, I do our weekly WPA game of the week. I sit and watch a game on ESPN with my laptop and I score the game on the WPA spreadsheet. I then spend an hour or two after the game putting together a table, a graph, and a writeup about what I got to watch.

But I wanted to try something different today.

Something that has bothered me in "sabermetrics" is that a lot of people settle too easily because they're right. Sure, strikeouts are a great measure of dominance and predictor of future success. But I'd like to be able to dig a little deeper. First of all, how do pitchers strike batters out? Second, how specifically do pitchers strike batters out? Third, are their patterns to pitch selection? And so on and so forth.

So, tonight, when watching the A's and Rangers, instead of scoring the game on the WPA spreadsheet, I scored the game in a notebook. I wrote down the following with every pitch.

SPEED PITCHTYPE RESULT LOCATION

I also kept track of the batters, in order to see if there were any interesting things to pick up there.

I developed a shorthand code, somewhat inspired by Bill James' suggested "pitcher codes" from The Neyer-James Guide to Pitching. So, the first pitch of the night looked like the following:

93 4-seam SL MO

Translated, that means that the first pitch from Vicente Padilla tonight was a 93 mph 4-seam fastball. Jason Kendall, the batter, took the pitch for a strike (SL = strike looking). The location was "Middle Outside," meaning that it was towards the outside corner or further outside and right around the waist.

Indeed, there are numerous criticisms that you can make of this methodology. I'll address the ones that come to mind and I'll write about what I did to combat them.

  1. Determining pitch location is very subjective: this is completely valid. ESPN's K-zone helped a lot with this, but the best I can say is that I don't completely rely on my location indicators.
  2. We can't always tell what the pitch is: For this, I relied on my own knowledge of pitching to some extent, but I also relied on what the announcers said and the velocity of the pitch. I know that Vicente Padilla wasn't throwing 95 mph cutters, so that helps. For Saarloos, it was extremely difficult because his pitches are somewhat indistinguishable. We'll get into this in a bit.
  3. ESPN doesn't always flash the radar gun readings: for these, I put N/A for the pitch-speed. This was the case for approximately 10-12 pitches.
  4. It's just one game: I agree with this; you can't really make full judgments with only one game as data. But we can learn a lot more about tendencies with whatever data we can put together, and that's my goal with this. I'm not trying to make any sweeping conclusions with this project, but I would like to see what we can come up with.
In tonight's game, Vicente Padilla took on Kirk Saarloos. The two pitchers are very different, but I was able to track every single pitch that they threw. We'll start with Padilla.
FB: 4-seam FB: Cutter Curveball Slider Change-up
Freq. - Overall 62 17 14 4 3
Freq. - First Pitch 13 5 8 0 0
Avg. Speed 94.2 89.3 72.7 83.5 76.3
Max. Speed 97 91 75 84 77
Min. Speed 92 86 71 83 76
Strikes - Swinging 3 1 2 0 0
Strikes - Looking 14 2 2 1 0
Balls 22 10 3 2 1
Contact - Foul 9 3 5 1 0
Contact - Fair 14 1 2 0 2

Vicente Padilla's claim to fame might always be that he was one of the players traded for Curt Schilling, but he has a powerful arm. Padilla leans heavily on his 4-seam fastball, which hovers in the mid-90s, normally, but sometimes goes as high as 97 mph. He throws 2 fastballs: a 4-seamer and a cut-fastball (the broadcasters were calling the slower version of the fastball a cutter; I had originally guessed "2-seamer"), and these are the vast majority of the pitches he throws (79% in tonight's game). He threw 24 pitches over 95 mph, and 70 pitches over 90 mph. In short, Padilla throws hard.

The more surprising aspect of Padilla, though, is the slow, sweeping curveball he occassionally breaks out. It's not unhittable; Bobby Crosby hit a single in the 4th inning against the curveball, and Eric Chavez might have also hit one against the curve (although, because it came in at 77 mph, I figured it was the change-up). Most interestingly, though, Padilla threw 8 first-pitch curves in this game, out of the 14 that he threw. It would be interesting to record Padilla's next few starts to see if this is a common theme with him. It could make for an interesting hitting strategy: key in on the curve on the first pitch, and take the pitch if it's not the curve.

If changing speeds is an important attribute for a pitcher, Padilla's fastball and curve are a worthy tandem. Padilla started Mark Kotsay out with a 72 mph curveball that was a called strike. He followed it with a 93 mph heater.

Some bullet points from watching the game and recording the pitches:

  • It looks like the book on Marco Scutaro is to pitch him away. Padilla threw 15 pitches to Scutaro, and not one was inside.
  • Jason Kendall was fed a steady diet of fastballs and cutters. He saw 12 pitches from Padilla, and not one was slower than 89 mph.
  • Vicente Padilla started all three of Mark Kotsay's plate appearances with curveballs. Kotsay took the curve the first time and fouled it off the next two.
  • After Eric Chavez's RBI single in the 5th inning, the pitching coach came out to give Vicente Padilla a visit. He followed this with perhaps his nastiest curveball of the day, a 73 mph curveball that Bobby Kielty swung through.
Padilla looks very good out there, but he still gave up 3 runs in 6 innings. The A's did have to scrounge for their runs and scored a couple on weak grounders that brought in runners from scoring position: those much-maligned productive outs. Overall, Padilla was very impressive

What of his counterpart, Kirk Saarloos?

FB: Sinker FB: Straight Slider Curveball Change-up
Freq. - Overall 80 2 21 4 2
Freq. - First Pitch 22 0 9 1 0
Avg. Speed 87.0 88.0 82.8 79.5 82.5
Max. Speed 90 88 84 80 84
Min. Speed 83 88 80 79 81
Strikes - Swinging 4 0 2 0 0
Strikes - Looking 10 0 1 0 0
Balls 35 2 8 3 1
Contact - Foul 17 0 3 0 0
Contact - Fair 14 0 7 1 1

Determining pitch-type from Saarloos is extraordinarily difficult. Basically, every one of his pitches has a downward break, and, accordingly, he's one of the game's most pronounced groundball pitchers. My method of using the speed to verify the pitch was not as easy with Saarloos as it was with Padilla; while Saarloos also changes speeds, it's only within a very, very small range. This box plot, courtesy of Shodor.org, shows a key difference between Padilla and Saarloos.

The box plot is not entirely necessary, but it does illustrate the point. Saarloos' range was from 79 mph to 90 mph. Here's one selection of 11 pitches from Kirk Saarloos' 2nd inning:

87 mph
87 mph
87 mph
84 mph
89 mph
88 mph
88 mph
88 mph
89 mph
85 mph
87 mph

There are a lot of stretches where it is like that. I suppose you can survive, even at that consistency, provided that your location is impeccable. He nibbled against a tough lineup and walked a bunch of guys, but when he missed his spots, it was usually out of the strikezone. Except once. Jason Botts crushed his first major league home run off of an 88 mph sinker that got far too much of the plate and missed Kendall's target. This accounted for 3 runs. Otherwise? Saarloos was pretty solid, especially considering that he walked seven guys, which was a career high.

The point is that Saarloos isn't really able to keep hitters honest. If you watched the game with someone and said that you'd bet them a dollar on every pitch that Saarloos would throw between 86 and 88 mph, you would have made money tonight. Over half of his pitches were in that 3 mph range. I'm a novice in this, but it seems like the pitcher is far too predictable. And Kirk Saarloos is no Mariano Rivera, whose stuff is so good that you can't hit it even though you know what is coming.

All things considered, Saarloos is a pretty solid guy to have around; he's certainly above "replacement level" and he's better than a handful of the league's fifth starters. But the A's will be happy when Harden and Loaiza return.

Here are some quick observations on the Rangers' bats and Saarloos' pitching style.

  • An old Scouting Notebook I have notes, "Saarloos has been compared to one of his role models, Greg Maddux. He has the same approaching, with an 86-MPH sinker that he used to set up a daring changeup." I did not see that change-up much at all. I don't think that Jon Miller or Joe Morgan mentioned it very often, either. What happened?
  • Saarloos did an excellent job handling the hot Gary Matthews, Jr, who went 0-3. He rarely came inside against Matthews.
  • Saarloos threw just two straight fastballs on the day.
  • The go-ahead run scored against Saarloos on a pitch way out of the strikezone that Ian Kinsler somehow put in play. It went about 40 feet up the first base line and scored a run with the bases loaded.
One other point on the day: Scott Feldman, Texas' sidearming young right-hander, was consistently in the low-90s with his fastball. He looked tough in relief.

Stepping back from the actual game, it's worth noting that Texas has opened up a 3 game lead on the AL West. That's not very big, but we're past that "45 games" threshold that people like to talk about, and it's certainly interesting.

Feel free to provide feedback, advice, criticism, etc. I'm always open to suggestions.

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