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Tired but strong: Old pitchers and new pitching data

New metrics confirm what we've long suspected: Veteran pitchers rely on deception to stick around once their velocity has waned.

MLB: New York Mets at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We may be living in the End Times, but at least we have Baseball Prospectus’s new pitching data. And what glorious data it is: The stat folks at BP have concocted ways to measure pitch “tunneling” (i.e. how similar or different a pitcher’s pitches look/move at the release point, the “tunnel” point, and home plate) and pitch sequencing, and the data is already begetting new ways to evaluate and analyze pitchers and their respective arsenals. We finally know if the Greg Maddux comp so many people hang on Kyle Hendricks is appropriate. Across the baseball writing community, many are already playing with and manipulating the data in inventive ways, but there was one thing that struck me about the leaderboards in particular that I believe deserves further analysis.

There’s a hell of a lot of old dudes!

We love old pitchers. They’re weird, they often have unique personalities, they’ve long lost any semblance of good “stuff” in the traditional sense. It’s why Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey and Jamie Moyer and Mark Buehrle captivate us — they have no business being competent major-league pitchers anymore, but there they are, twirling six shutout innings on any given day from April through September. So when I saw that Colon was one of the best at tunneling his pitches, I had to dig into the data.

First, some definitions. I encourage you — no, I implore you — to read the introductions to both pitch tunneling and sequencing at BP, so as to familiarize yourself with the data and its components, if you haven’t already. They begin with three measurements that measure the difference between pitch locations at, respectively, the release point, the tunnel point, and home plate, and from there they derive ratios that tell us a variety of things. For example, we can now know which pitchers are great at “late break”, which would mean their tunnel differential is small (their pitches look the same at that crucial moment a batter must decide to swing) but their plate differential is large relative to their tunnel differential. Read those pieces and play around with the sortable stats. It’s fun.

That’s where I began. I looked at all seasons of available data, going back to 2008, filtered for those pitchers with over 2,000 pitch pairs in a season, and ranked the pitchers by their tunnel differentials and their break-to-tunnel ratios. The goal was to figure out who was the best at clustering their pitches at the tunnel point and who was the best at creating large differences between their pitches at the tunnel point and at home plate. The results were equal parts funny and revelatory.

Tunneling Leaderboards

# YEAR LVL NAME PITCHPAIRS Tunnel Differential Break:Tunnel
# YEAR LVL NAME PITCHPAIRS Tunnel Differential Break:Tunnel
1 2009 mlb Derek Lowe 2325 0.6858 0.1152
2 2008 mlb Derek Lowe 2142 0.7047 0.1013
3 2010 mlb Roberto Hernandez 2408 0.7145 0.142
4 2012 mlb R.a. Dickey 2418 0.7169 0.2912
5 2014 mlb Bartolo Colon 2152 0.719 0.1611
6 2013 mlb Bartolo Colon 2007 0.721 0.146
7 2016 mlb Bartolo Colon 2048 0.7267 0.1536
8 2014 mlb Phil Hughes 2172 0.7293 0.3342
9 2013 mlb Derek Holland 2384 0.7329 0.2244
10 2010 mlb Josh Johnson 2225 0.7393 0.2399
11 2010 mlb Derek Lowe 2280 0.7425 0.126
12 2008 mlb Aaron Harang 2143 0.7433 0.239
13 2011 mlb Chris Capuano 2135 0.7434 0.2184
14 2014 mlb John Lackey 2238 0.7441 0.2792
15 2011 mlb Roberto Hernandez 2167 0.7457 0.1409
16 2014 mlb R.a. Dickey 2580 0.747 0.2836
17 2014 mlb Wade Miley 2273 0.7493 0.196
18 2015 mlb Jacob Degrom 2212 0.7493 0.2408
19 2010 mlb Jason Vargas 2186 0.7502 0.2265
20 2013 mlb R.a. Dickey 2555 0.7511 0.2845
21 2011 mlb Mike Pelfrey 2325 0.7514 0.2077
22 2013 mlb Mark Buehrle 2412 0.7515 0.2333
23 2016 mlb Ian Kennedy 2550 0.7516 0.3537
24 2011 mlb Roy Halladay 2521 0.752 0.2945
25 2010 mlb Randy Wells 2215 0.7529 0.2109
26 2009 mlb Livan Hernandez 2145 0.7533 0.2819
27 2012 mlb Dan Haren 2087 0.7547 0.1962
28 2016 mlb Noah Syndergaard 2161 0.755 0.2578
29 2009 mlb John Lannan 2209 0.7562 0.2881
30 2008 mlb Cc Sabathia 2546 0.7591 0.2958
31 2011 mlb Dan Haren 2779 0.7598 0.1842
32 2016 mlb Jose Fernandez 2177 0.7598 0.2683
33 2014 mlb Aaron Harang 2484 0.7603 0.3048
34 2015 mlb R.a. Dickey 2373 0.7609 0.2553
35 2013 mlb Wade Miley 2379 0.7615 0.2033
36 2011 mlb R.a. Dickey 2245 0.7617 0.2733
37 2012 mlb Wade Miley 2189 0.7619 0.2186
38 2009 mlb Max Scherzer 2243 0.7625 0.221
39 2015 mlb Kyle Hendricks 2045 0.7642 0.1633
40 2014 mlb Jordan Zimmermann 2111 0.7648 0.2764
41 2014 mlb Lance Lynn 2579 0.7656 0.2125
42 2010 mlb Mike Pelfrey 2515 0.7659 0.2002
43 2015 mlb Dallas Keuchel 2566 0.7664 0.2412
44 2014 mlb Dallas Keuchel 2197 0.7664 0.2386
45 2013 mlb Dan Haren 2056 0.7667 0.1683
46 2009 mlb Roy Halladay 2411 0.7673 0.259
47 2009 mlb Zach Duke 2144 0.7681 0.3767
48 2014 mlb Mike Leake 2239 0.7683 0.2431
49 2011 mlb Mark Buehrle 2274 0.7692 0.2836
50 2016 mlb Jake Odorizzi 2520 0.7695 0.2558

(Republished with permission from BP. This will take you back to the leaderboards so you can play with them yourself!)

All our old friends make the list. There’s a litany of command and control pitchers, sinkerballers and soft-tossers, many of whom sport the wisdom and wit of advanced age. It seems to confirm the old hypothesis that pitchers who rely on their velocity and stuff for success often can’t adapt when they lose those two things, but pitchers who have lived outside the strike zone for fear of being clobbered are well adjusted to succeed into their 40s.

However, this isn’t particularly compelling by itself, despite its novelty, so let’s pick a few of these pitchers and take a look at their repertoires and keys to success.

The first pitcher on the list is Derek Lowe, who lived and died by his remarkably heavy sinker. Lowe is quietly one of the better pitchers of his generation, so it’s no surprise that he had a long career, but a quick glance at his Baseball-Reference page would obfuscate that. Lowe accrued 57 DRA-based WARP, but only 33 bWAR and 41 fWAR. His 2005-2011 stretch (his age 32-38 seasons), he averaged 5 WARP — he was clearly very good in his advanced age. Per Brooks Baseball, Lowe averaged 88-90 on his sinker in 2009, a pitch he threw 70 percent of the time. He complemented that pitch with a slider, and rarely used his changeup and cutter. That season, Lowe got 56 percent groundballs and struck out a mere 13 percent of hitters.

What makes Lowe an interesting case is his almost complete lack of “post-tunnel” break; Lowe’s pitches pretty much always looked the same. They were closely clustered at the tunnel point, and didn’t move a whole lot in between that point and home plate. His plate differential — how far apart his pitches are at home plate — is the smallest of any pitcher within the parameters, which means that Lowe always threw to the same spot. This is borne out in his zone profile:

Lowe pounded the area at the bottom and below the zone. What’s integral to his success is that he got many of those calls: Lowe also led all pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched in his Called Strikes Above Average, with a 3.35 percent CSAA. That was good enough to best second-place pitcher Andy Pettite by a half a point, and more than double that of seventh-place pitcher Mark Beuhrle. What we have is the epitome of the wizened command pitcher, who is able to hit their spots with precision, get their called strikes on pitches outside the zone, and make their pitches look nearly identical so as to confuse the hitter.

Similar in style, but with one key difference, is Colon, who inhabits the fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-place spots on our initial list. While he can still dial up his four-seamer into the low 90s, Colon prefers to ride his 88-mile-per-hour sinker, which he throws over 60 percent of the time. Unlike Lowe, Colon rarely throws his secondary pitches, an eccentricity oft marveled at and analyzed. Also unlike Lowe, Colon throws a lot of pitches in the zone. Take this zone profile from 2016:

That’s not the profile of a nibbler like Lowe. Colon works inside and outside, rather than up and down, and it seems to work for him. If you look at all the seasons for which there is data (since 2008), Colon has the second-, third-, and fourth-highest seasons in Called Strike Probability (CS Prob), all above 55 percent. For comparison, Lowe, in his 2009 season, was the second-least likely pitcher with 100 innings to get called strikes, behind only Doug Davis. Conversely, Colon ranked only 19th in CSAA in 2016, 39th in 2014, and tied for 55th in 2013, the three seasons ranked in our tunneling table.

Lowe is the sinkerball master; Colon is the soft-tossing zone-pounder; but there’s at least one more archetype who appears on this list, and that’s the proverbial “crafty lefty.” Who better, then, to examine, than Mark Buehrle, who wore that title perhaps better than any pitcher of the 2000s?

Buehrle’s peak is the only of these three pitchers that occurred in the traditional age window. Colon and Lowe each experienced a second peak late in their careers, while Buehrle had a more normal age curve. Still, the lefty was effective into his mid-30s, and his showing on the tunnel differential rankings (five in the top 100) is no accident.

In the nine seasons available on Brooks, Buehrle never once sported an average fastball velocity above 90. By his age-29 season in 2008, he was at 87, and by the end of his career, he sat at 84. What makes Buehrle different than the other two pitchers I’ve profiled, other than his handedness, is his pitch mix. He threw his four-seam and sinker less than 50 percent of the time combined most seasons, preferring to use his cutter and changeup 20-30 percent each, with a curveball deployed less than 10 percent of the time. Part of this is a function of his handedness, of course: Buehrle can’t get away with only fastballs to righties, due to both the speed of the pitch and the angle at which it comes to the plate.

As a result of his varied repertoire, Buehrle is squarely in the middle of the park in break-to-tunnel ratio. Lowe throws only two pitches meant to look as similar as possible until as late as possible. Colon throws almost exclusively fastballs. Buehrle’s curve, cutter, and changeup all move in different ways, making his pitches at the plate look much different. What’s exceptional about Buehrle is that his pitches do look similar at the tunnel point — and therein lies his deception. His pitches actually break a moderate amount between the tunnel point and home plate.

Buehrle’s success also depended on his ability to get more called strikes outside of the zone than the average pitcher. Take, for example, his strong 2014 season, for which he earned an All-Star nod. That year, Buehrle was fourth among pitchers with 100 innings in CSAA, at 1.56 percent. In his good years, the story is the same. His lower CSAA in 2015 was one factor in his poor performance that season, the final year of his career. Buehrle couldn’t get the calls, and so he called it quits.

These are three extreme cases. One must pitch extremely, in one way or another, to make a living on the mound into one’s twilight athletic years, however, and we’ve looked at three pitchers who excelled in one thing common to all — clustering their pitches at the tunnel point — but had little in common beyond that. I think it’s instructive; perhaps we can now put pitchers into some common buckets more accurately and with more confidence than before. This is only a starting point, though, as the progenitors of this data will tell you.

So go! You, like these pitchers, may be made weak by time and fate, but you are strong in will to strive, to seek, to find... and not to yield to even the most patient hitter.