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Tommy Hanson, His 6/28 Start, and Pitch FX

Please welcome Graham MacAree to the BtB community.  He's one of the managers of Lookout Landing, SBN's Mariners blog and has accepted the challenge of writing about baseball using saber principles without using a lot of numbers.  Let's see how well he's done in his BtB debut... (Hint: quite well.)

Why: I'm pretty interested in whether proper use of pitch FX tools can supplement (or act as a substitute for) detailed scouting reports. We've seen a few teams move in this direction over the past year, so obviously some think it can be done, but I'd like to run through an analysis of a start using pitch FX and compare what I find to the conclusions of the scouts. The problem is, of course, that I watch enough baseball to have seen most of MLB's notable starters pitch in game situations, so I generally have a pretty good idea of what they throw, how hard they throw it, and the relative effectiveness of each of their pitches. Fortunately, in putative Braves ace Tommy Hanson, we have a perfect case study in someone I've both never seen before and have access to scouting reports on. I'm going to have a look at his last start against Boston, play with pitch FX, and then after I'm done go through the scouting report available in BP's 2009 Prospect Handbook and see if there are any significant differences. With all the preamble out of the way... let's dive in.

Tommy Hanson is a rookie 22 year old right handed pitcher, playing in the National League for the Atlanta Braves. Widely regarded as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, Hanson got clobbered in his first start against Milwaukee but has since bounced back, allowing just two runs to cross the plate in his next four games. On the 28th, he shut down a very hard hitting lineup when he threw six two-hit innings against the Boston Red Sox. But how did he do it? What did he throw?

One of the great tools pitch FX gives us is the velocity and 'break' of each pitch in the x (left and right, from the catcher's perspective) and z (up and down) directions. Break is a somewhat tricky concept to wrap your head around, as it refers to the deviation of a specific pitch from the path of a ball thrown with no spin, i.e. a pitch with no forces other than gravity and air resistance acting upon it. This leads to un-intuitive results like fastballs having an 'upwards' break, due to their backspin, and as a result the actual numbers involved are not particularly useful. When they are plotted, however, we suddenly have a way of distinguishing what pitches were thrown, as different grips will tend to cluster in different areas on a break x/z graph. The other thing we can do to make different pitch types more obvious is to mark velocity on the graph, allowing us to distinguish between pitches which move in the same way but at different speeds. Below is a graph showing the movement on Tommy Hanson's pitches on Sunday, with velocity of each pitch shown using colour.

That looks to me like four distinct pitches: a fastball, two different breaking balls, and a changeup. The fastballs are obvious - they're the ones going fast. They've got some cutting action on right-handers but not very much sink to them. Hiding amidst all the fastballs are two lonely changeups, each thrown around 10 mph slower than their speedier cousins.I haven't seen many pitchers whose changeups move in exactly the same way as their heaters, but hey, there you go. Surprising result #1. I wonder whether having fastball movement would make the changeup more effective at disrupting timing, because otherwise it seems like it would be fairly hittable. That leaves two breaking pitches, and the one with more vertical break is going to be a curveball (the purple cluster located bottom right), with lots of mid-low 80s sliders up and to the left. Gameday's pitch identification algorithm did a good job identifying fastballs and changeups but mixed up the curves and sliders up a lot, which is a good reminder not to put too much faith in it.

So with these four pitches identified, it's time to look at where Hanson threw them. The graph below is from the catcher's perspective, so left is inside to right handed batters and right is away. Pitch types are per my identification, not MLB's

Well that's not a lot of strikes. The first thing that jumps out here is just how many pitches missed the zone, generally in the direction that they break in. Sliders were missing down and right, fastballs up and left. Assumedly the sliders were being used as a strikeout pitch and were left off the plate to bait hitters into chasing, but the lack of fastball command is pretty alarming. The two changeups he threw were nowhere near the zone, but he did much better with the curveball. One thing a graph like this misses is the handedness of a batter. A pitcher's gameplan will never be the same for both right and left handed hitters, and therefore an overall graph doesn't tell the whole story.

vs. LHB vs. RHB

So it looks like Hanson is currently terrified of major league lefties. Considering the lineup he faced, it's not hard to imagine why. J.D. Drew and David Ortiz aren't exactly the most fun guys to face, but when presented with the Native American version of Reggie Willits Hanson still refused to put anything over the plate. Away, away, away with the fastball. Basically the only time he came inside on a leftie was with the slider, and I'm not entirely sure that that was on purpose. Given that it's probably the single most useful pitch to throw to opposite handed batters, it's a little bit surprising that Hanson stayed away from the changeup, but there were plenty of curves thrown in. Avoiding anything inside against lefties is a habit of pitchers, especially young ones, so it's not like this is a particularly unique situation.

Against right handers Hanson was around the strike zone far more often, hitting it with the majority of his fastballs, sliders, and curveballs. The lone changeup he threw to ended up in the dirt, but it was one of only 18 pitches thrown to righties that wasn't at least a borderline strike. Considering the pitch distribution, I'm inclined to say that Hanson's control was much much better than it looks on the overall chart, but it does seem like he was pitching scared against lefties. The command looks like it needs some work - there were too many fastballs and sliders right down the pipe against right handed batters. But those were just the pitch types; let's take a look at what became of said pitches. I should point out that in the following three graphs, I define swinging strikes as including foul tips, and contact strikes as fouls plus balls in play.

It won't come as a huge shock to you that in general, batters laid off pitches outside the zone, that there was more contact in the zone, and that the umpires were generally pretty good at calling strikes, with only three completely egregious calls over Hanson's body of work. What does come as a bit of a shock is the fact that Hanson somehow managed induce ten swinging strikes while only striking out two batters. Running a ~10% swinging strike rate is a great way to rack up strikeouts, and the fact that Hanson didn't get very many is indicative on some bad luck on the distribution (or maybe batters changed approach when facing a two strike count, or his approached changed. I have no idea). Thirty-two balls over six innings is about right for two walks, though. Let's see if Hanson's fear of lefties was justified...

vs. LHB vs. RHB

Lefties get screwed a lot on strike calls away, and Hanson was gifted with a few borderline called strikes. He only threw three pitches to a lefthander that I would regard as a definite called strike all game, and the umpire took two of those away, so that probably even things out. He did do a pretty good job of getting batters to chase, however, with his fastball and slider drawing two out-of-zone swinging strikes apiece. His curveball didn't seem that effective against lefthanders - he threw it five times, three of them for balls, one for a called strike, and a batter made contact once. The fact that lefties were making contact with pitches well outside probably drew some weak balls in play, which are even better than swinging strikes.

Against right handers Hanson enjoyed an occasionally expanded strike zone, with one called strike possibly the result of an umpire becoming temporarily insane. Although his fastball and slider were swing-and-miss pitches, righties were no more fooled by the curveball than left handers. Again, Hanson threw five curves, and this time four of them were hit while the other was a called strike. It's interesting that three of Hanson's five swinging strikes to righties were right down the middle, and I'd guess that it might be the result of having the pitcher bat (I probably shouldn't have been in such a hurry to delete the 'opposing batter' column whilst cleaning up the data). Throwing only fifteen balls to right-handed batters is also fairly impressive. Let's now take a closer look at the contact strikes, going straight to the by-batter-handedness graphs.

vs. LHB vs. RHB

The left handers did not do particularly well against pitches outside, which is no big surprise. I have to assume that the one his on a pitch nearly in the opposing batter's box was a bloop single to left field, which is hardly a recipe for doing a lot of damage. The pitching outside seemed to work, ridiculous BABIP questions aside. Hanson's movement and velocity on the fastball/slider combination seem to be enough to help get him out of mistakes, with elevated fastballs down the middle fouled off not once, but twice. The two sliders he threw down and in, which is normally asking for trouble against lefties were likewise fouled off. If any of those had been well hit the ballgame could have been very different.

I can't think of anything interesting to say about the right-handed graph apart from both balls in play that didn't result in outs came on sliders. In fact, everything put in play and not resulting in an out: the two singles and an error - was the result of a breaking pitch. I'd chalk that up to fluke, however: the slider missed enough bats and drew enough fouls on mistake pitches that I'd be comfortable calling it a legitimate plus pitch. Hanson's start probably wasn't as good as it looked, just in terms of BABIP. You can cite weak grounders as a partial counterargument, but he's not going to get this lucky again while only striking out two in six innings. Fortunately for Hanson, he's probably not going to pitch this well over six innings without getting more strikeouts either, which will help mitigate the effects of a BABIP regression.

The last thing I want to look at is velocity; specifically how well it held up over his start. Below is Hanson's fastball velocity plotted against his fastball count:

As you can see, Hanson started off in the mid-90s but drifted down into the low 90s as the start wore on, even dropping to around 89 towards the very end. The trend is pretty clear, but the drop in velocity isn't severe enough that stamina is a major concern, any more so than it is for any young pitcher. What is obvious is that Hanson is not some sort of supernatural workhorse who's able to keep pumping in 94+ fastballs in the 7th inning and beyond. If you had the inclination (I don't right now), you could graph break by slider/curve count and see if you could spot any trends in movement throughout the course of the game.

Let's summarise what we've got out of the pitch FX data for this game:

  • Hanson has four pitches: fastball, changeup, slider, curve
  • Fastball sits in the mid-low 90s, has a lot of cutting motion
  • Curveball is a slow loopy thing with some horizontal break
  • His changeup has the same movement as his fastball with a 10 mph speed differential
  • Hanson stayed away aginst lefties, resulting in a lot of balls, but attacked righties.
  • Relies on fastball/slider, while neglecting changeup
  • Control is ok/good, command needs work
  • Umpires have a weird strike zone for left handed batters
  • Both the fastball and the slider are legit strikeout pitches
  • Hanson was unlucky not to get more Ks
  • Hanson was lucky not to allow more hits on balls in play
  • Stamina isn't bad, but isn't great

For the last part of this post, I'll compare the above bullets to BA's post-2008 scouting report. I got the pitches right, which is always a relief, and identified his top pitches correctly as the slider and the fastball. BA mentioned the cutting motion on his fastball, which was pretty pronounced in this game, and probably contributed to the lack of hits. Moving fastballs are reallllly hard to make solid contact with. I didn't get enough data on the changeup to make any guesses as to how useful it might be, but I thought far less of his curve than BA did, with them calling it a legitimate plus pitch while I noted that it seemed very hittable (they also like his change). Control was noted as an occasional problem, but in this game it looked pretty good, and it'll have been something he's been working on over the winter and spring. One thing I didn't look at which they brought up is his release point on various pitches being very similar, enhancing his ability to deceive his opponents.

All in all, I'd say that's pretty good for only 'scouting' one game. My differences with BA are minimal and could easily have been caused by a pitch being off that day, etc. Getting a few games analysed with pitch FX seems like a great supplement to traditional scouting, and could also be used to confirm what people are writing about young pitchers if you don't get to see them pitch in the majors live.