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.
(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.