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Understanding pitch design: an introduction

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The way we understand pitching has changed, and it is about to change again.

Wild Card Round - New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game One Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

It used to be that pitching was well understood. Establish that fastball, use both sides of the plate, change speeds, etc. You would often hear the same things being said by a former Hall of Famer in a national broadcast booth and a coach at your local little league. These ideas were often not based on anything substantive. Not that a pitcher shouldn’t, say, command their pitches or change speeds, but often these dogmatic approaches to pitching were arbitrarily passed down from generation to generation. This is referred to as conventional wisdom. And as in many fields of study, the conventional wisdom is often wrong.

While baseball in a macro sense is unrecognizable from even just a few decades ago, going through several phases of Moneyball since the original Moneyball era, pitching especially has gone through its own revolutions. Starting with the rise of online pitching gurus like the late Dick Mills and Paul Reddick in the mid 2000’s, they helped break the cycle of conventional wisdom, giving credibility to outside voices and eventually paving the way for modern pitching factories such as Driveline Baseball. These boutique baseball facilities are not only producing professional talent at an unprecedented rate, and they are becoming leaders in the race for information. Because of it the talent they provide doesn’t come just in the form of players.

For as long as baseball has been around, it has been fascinated with knowing how hard pitchers throw. When you saw a pitcher hit 100 mph on a Sunday night ESPN broadcast (often the only broadcast that showed it up until relatively recently), it was a big deal. Today, every team has at least one pitcher who can reach back for triple digits. One team even boasts of having ‘A Whole Stable of Guys That Can Throw 98.’ The point is, once the advantage of higher velocity became became measurable, the baseball world learned how to mass produce high octane ball throwers all the way down to the amateur level.

But as the years have gone on, more things have become measurable, and more teams have been able to capitalize on new competitive advantages. Thanks to the publicly available data on websites like Baseball Savant which provides Statcast data to anyone with interest and internet access, we all had a front row seat to the spin rate revolution, led by teams such as the Houston Astros. Since the birth of Statcast in 2015, newer metrics have furthered our understanding on how pitches move, and more importantly, how pitchers make them move. These are the two aspects I will be diving into in this series of posts.

From spin rate to spin efficiency to pitch tunneling to spin mirroring to the newest buzz term ‘Seam-Shifted Wake’ and everything in between, pitchers are gaining more and more new tools to create pitches to more effectively attack hitters. But unlike in the past, these pitches are not the result of guesswork—they are meticulously designed using a cornucopia of different concepts. While some pitchers can make successful big league careers by mastering one or two of these concepts, others are learning how they all work in tandem—using tools that give feedback in real time.

It’s one thing to look at a player’s stat page and deduce things like ‘they added spin and they’re getting more swings and misses,’ or ‘they’re throwing this pitch more and it’s been giving them better results.’ Even a good baseball analyst is often seeing the same things that you see. It’s another thing, however, to understand how pitchers make these changes, and what goes into deciding which tools are better suited for them to take advantage of than others. By the end of this series, I hope to accomplish a few things: One, to document the evolution of pitch design. Two, to provide an understanding of the different concepts that go into pitch design, and finally, to provide some sense of the direction of pitch design. I hope you’ll come along this journey with me.