While I don’t have incontrovertible proof — such as, say, a DNA test — I doubt anyone would dispute my claim that Kyle Barraclough and Arodys Vizcaino are different people. Their individuality becomes less defined, however, if we reduce their identities to professional baseball players, although their shared vocation is merely the genesis of the blurring together of these two men.
Yes, both our subjects fit a familiar archetype — flame-throwing righties with wipeout sliders who fail to develop a feel for a changeup and are fated for the bullpen — but it’s deeper than that. You see, on paper, Barraclough and Vizcaino are ostensibly twins. They have the same arsenal:
Barraclough vs. Vizcaino — pitch mix
|FB Effective velocity||95.6||96.8|
And, in many regards, the same outcomes:
Barraclough vs. Vizcaino — outcomes
Their tremendous velocities and extreme reliance on just two pitches — both use their fastballs and sliders over 96 percent of the time — are givens, but the walk, whiff, ground ball, and infield-flyball rates are marvelously homologous. So why, then, do the results paint a picture of two vastly different pitchers?
Barraclough vs. Vizcaino — results
|IP||72 2/3||38 2/3|
Sure, I hear you, and you’re right — this very well may be indicative of the small sample size variance that relievers are susceptible to. After all, Vizcaino’s WHIP in 2016 (1.63) eclipsed his 2015 ERA (1.60); he was very good in the not-too-distant past. But outside of the 33 2⁄3 innings Vizcaino tossed two years ago, he’s been only slightly better than replacement level, posting a 4.57 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, and an 11.7 percent K-BB rate over 61 innings; that performance is valued at 0.3 fWAR.
Barraclough, by contrast, has been a model of consistency, putting up ERAs of 2.59 and 2.85 in his two major-league campaigns. Looking at their bodies of work, Barraclough has been worth twice as much as Vizcaino in just 21⁄3 more innings — 2.2 WAR in 97 IP compared to 1.1 WAR in 942⁄3 IP.
If I’ve done my job right, you’re scratching your head inquisitively. Maybe said scratching has given you the idea that one of these pitchers is more adept at handling opposite-handed hitters — probably Barraclough, because of his slight edge in changeup use. It’s a sound theory, but these guys performed almost identically against lefties, with Vizcaino posting a .274 wOBA and Barraclough, a .279.
So what’s the source of the disparity? Again, we’re toiling in small samples, but with so much information at our fingertips with which to evaluate pitchers, I think we can peel away at the layers here, until we find that the common — and perhaps overused — designations “thrower” and “pitcher” apply to these seemingly identical relievers.
A pitcher, in theory, is more refined. They tend to have a better idea of where the ball is going and may trade a bit of velocity for the better command. And while no one would accuse Barraclough of being the second coming of Greg Maddux, Barraclough’s CSAA (called strikes above average) on the year was a satisfactory 0.33 percent, placing him 154th in a sample of 439 pitchers who threw at least 30 innings. Looking at the same sample, there are 406 other names before Vizcaino — and his -1.31 percent CSAA — appears. In other words, his command stunk.
Now let’s compare how Barraclough and Vizcaino opened up plate appearances in 2016, because who wants to see just one stat and be done?
Barraclough vs. Vizcaino — 0-0 counts
As two-pitch pitchers, Barraclough and Vizcaino are already working from a deficit, so to speak, in how unpredictable they can be — and predictability is not something too many pitchers can get away with. It’s a pretty simple notion that a hurler puts himself at a disadvantage once he begins to diminish the variance in velocity, location, and movement a hitter has to be prepared for.
Vizcaino trails Barraclough in all of these regards in 0-0 counts, becoming too fastball-centric, while failing to branch out location-wise.
Knowing this, we shouldn’t be surprised that Vizcaino allowed an .847 OPS in 0-0 counts while Barraclough stifled hitters to a measly .417 OPS. But with regards to their slider usage, the divergence in their predictability in 0-0 counts carried over into hitter’s counts as well.
Approach in hitter’s counts
From this data, one could reasonably attribute Barraclough’s willingness to throw sliders when he’s not ahead to better command of the pitch — though this is not necessarily the case.
Their sliders produced results so similar in these scenarios that it’s probably safe to infer that when these two pitchers needed to throw their sliders for strikes, they were uniformly skilled. But Vizcaino’s lack of diversity becomes a bit more maddening still when we consider the in-zone swinging strike percentages of each of these guys’ sliders.
Slider whiff tendencies
Maddening: In 2016, 264 pitchers threw at least 50 sliders in the zone. Among those pitchers, Vizcaino’s slider’s in-zone whiff rate of 21.7-percent ranks fifth, trailing only Edwin Diaz, Clayton Kershaw, Aroldis Chapman, and Mark Lowe. What’s more is that because of his propensity to rely on his fastball early in the count and when behind, Vizcaino doubled up on his fastball much more often than did Barraclough.
Out of 527 recorded pitch pairs, Vizcaino threw back-to-back fastballs 221 times (41.9 percent), whereas Barraclough offered just 335 couplings of fastballs out of a total 1,024 pairs (32.7 percent). So despite Vizcaino’s fastball possessing the league’s fifth-highest velocity, as well as featuring plus horizontal and vertical movement, his heater played down, succumbing to a slightly higher than league average 90.7 mph exit velocity (Barraclough’s fastball was hit at 89.7 mph on average).
If you’re not persuaded that hitters could really sit dead-red on Vizcaino, mull this over: Across MLB, fastballs thrown in excess of 97 mph were pulled just 21.0 percent of the time. Vizcaino’s fastball — which, again, averaged 98.1 mph — was pulled 42.6 percent of the time.
I’m also not at all convinced that hitters can’t pick up on Vizcaino’s pitches. In the early cocking stage of his delivery, his arm swing is so dramatic that I’d wager some hitters can see the ball.
It all happens very fast, but since a lot of hitters claim to be able to see a knuckle curve coming because the pitcher’s index finger’s knuckle is up, they may be able to pick-up on Vizcaino’s slider early on, since his grip does at least appear to be particularly telegraphing. Though this is, admittedly, a bit of conjecture on my part.
Now while I’m a staunch supporter of pitching backward, especially for two-pitch pitchers, I understand it can’t be a comprehensive approach; at some point there would be diminishing returns. But you can probably guess that I believe Vizcaino would benefit from adopting a more liberal approach to slider usage — perhaps something more akin to Barraclough’s tendencies. Backing this theory are some count-specific results Vizcaino produced in 2016:
(Called strikes + whiffs + foul balls)/total pitches
|Even (1-1, 2-2, 3-2)||44.4%||56.3%|
I’ve left out BABIP due to the minuscule sample sizes, but overall, the pitches performed as you’d expect; his slider allowed an exit velocity of 87.4 mph, and his fastball allowing the aforementioned 90.7-mph exit velocity.
Backing up just a bit now, I’m guessing most of you noticed that in the table depicting the in-zone and overall whiff rates for each of these pitcher’s sliders, Barraclough makes up considerable ground on Vizcaino in the overall column. A peek at their Z-minus-O-Swing rate (that’s in-zone swings minus outside-the-zone swings) shows that Barraclough is far more dominant at inducing poor swings.
|STD deviation from mean||0.79||-0.51|
Arodys’ O-Swing mark was actually the higher of these two guys, but Barraclough’s less-predictable pitch mix led to hitters offering at his in-zone pitches much less often — he had a 59.1 percent Z-Swing rate, compared to 67.9 percent for Vizcaino. This indicated that hitters are much less likely to swing at a slider first pitch or when they’re ahead.
I know I’ve kind of bludgeoned you with this predictability angle, so before we wrap this up, let’s discuss deception. To many people, that term might mean a funky delivery or an extreme arm angle, but thanks to Baseball Prospectus’ new tunneling data, we’re more cognizant than ever of:
- the deceitful nature of similar release points between pitch types.
- late movement, which is referred to as post-tunnel break, which, according to BP, is the point in a pitch’s flight where a hitter must decide whether to swing (23.8” or 175 milliseconds from contact).
My colleague, Chris Anders, fantastically and comprehensively highlighted Barraclough’s (intentional!) tunneling artistry, showing that he is above-average with regards to release point consistency across pitch types, and also features truly elite post-tunnel break.
Vizcaino, meanwhile, features above-average post-tunnel break, but his release point differential is such that Pat Venditte’s release points are closer — and I’m talking about comparing his right-handed to left-handed release points. I’m exaggerating, of course, but take a look for yourself; the difference is stark.
|Pitch Pair||Release diff||Percentile||Post-tunnel break||Percentile||Sample Size|
|Pitch Pair||Release diff||Percentile||Post-tunnel break||Percentile||Sample Size|
I don’t expect Vizcaino to pull in the gap on his release point differential between pitches as his arm action simply does not lend itself to repeat-ability; but he may not have to become so precise in order to improve his classification as a “thrower” to a “pitcher”.
On “pure stuff,” Vizcaino probably has the edge on Barraclough — though it may be because of his stuff that he’s less evolved as a pitcher. A small tweak with regards to how and when he uses his slider may be enough to bump his performance up to Barraclough levels, at which point, tunneling data or, like, a DNA test, may be the only way to differentiate these guys.