Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What they're working with

We (baseball nerds) all know that Lincecum, Greinke and many other pitchers are phenomenal at their craft. That is why they start on opening day and are most often aptly called the ‘Ace.’ The question we answer with this is who. We often also address the why. Why is Lincecum so good? He strikes out a ton of batters, doesn’t give up many home runs, he has ridiculous hair. Wait, that doesn’t belong here. I think a question that we probably don’t ask very often is how. How does Tim Lincecum dominate hitters? Well, I would like to set out to determine how he, Greinke, Halladay and a host of other Ace’s outsmart, over power and decimate opposing hitters. It’s pretty easy for me to explain how Lincecum does it, but that’s because I get to watch him pitch every fifth day. Others (the east coast, for example) don’t get that opportunity. Likewise, I don’t often get to watch Roy Halladay or Zack Greinke pitch and thus don’t have a real understanding of how they use their golden arms to dismantle batting orders. I simply want to see what each of them is working with.

I only looked at data for 2009 so I apologize. It would probably be more useful to look at data over a longer period of time in order to get a larger sample size and capture some players that were either injured in 2009 or had off years. Johan Santana, Brandon Webb and Ben Sheets quickly come to mind. I didn’t, but you’re welcome to go look for yourself at FanGraphs. I also didn’t look at relievers. Strangely enough, what got me started with all this madness was thinking about how often Mariano Rivera throws his cutter (about 90% of the time) and how dominant that pitch (and he) is.

I looked at “Pitch Type Linear Weights” on FanGraphs to determine who had the best of each pitch type in 2009. The information on FanGraphs uses linear weights by count and event and segments the data by pitch type, essentially determining how many runs above or below average each pitch type is for each player. I chose to use the cumulative values rather than the values per 100 pitches. I then made a list of the top 5 for each pitch, and added all of their pitch type values to determine the total cumulative value of their repertoire. Clayton Kershaw had the best fastball at 30 cumulative runs above average. The young Athletic Brett Anderson had the best slider at 22.2 runs above average. The best cutter (reminder, for starting pitchers, sorry Rivera) went to Bay Area local kid Scott Feldman of the Rangers with 25.9. The best curve went to Wandy Rodriguez with 23.9. The best change-up went to the Freak with a staggering 35 runs above average and the best splitter went to Dan Haren with 9 runs above average.

Nearly every single pitcher (Ace) I would have expected to see on such a list showed up. The top 5 pitches by pitch had top starter’s Lincecum, Greinke, Cain, Carpenter, Kershaw, Anderson, Wainwright, Haren, Halladay, Sabathia, King Felix, Hamels, Zambrano and Braden Looper. What the hell? Looper has a pretty decent splitter and everything else he throws up there is garbage. Moving on…there were a few exceptions. A few pitchers didn’t quite make it to the top 5 of each pitch such as Justin Verlander, Josh Johnson, Ubaldo Jimenez, John Lackey, Cliff Lee, Josh Becket and Jon Lester. This information did seem to support the fact that dominating pitchers typically have at least 1 stellar pitch they can consistently go to. In some cases, they have 2 or more outstanding pitches. On top of their bread and butter, they also almost always have a total of at least 3 above average pitches.

Tim Lincecum:* The Freak works with 4 above average pitches. His fastball is well above average, his slider is slightly above average and his curve is above average as well. What sets him apart is his change-up. Lincecum’s change-up was 35 runs above average in 2009 which is virtually unparalleled. It allows him to post a split in which he’s nearly if not as effective versus left handed hitters and strikes them out with even greater frequency than righties.  It is often that change-up that will make or break a right handed pitcher at the major league level to neutralize left handed hitters.  In Lincecum's case, a lack of that pitch wouldn't break him, but I do think it's the pitch that makes him. It’s his bread and butter.

*I'll obviously spend a little more time commenting on his repertoire.  I'm a Giants fan, and he's my guy.

Zack Greinke: Zack Attack works 4 pitches. His curve is slightly above average and his change-up slightly below. What sets him apart is that he while can throw each of those pitches to keep hitters honest, his slider and fastball (ranked 3rd and 4th best) are quite brilliant. While few pitchers are capable of throwing 1 extremely dominant pitch, Greinke has 2.

Chris Carpenter: Carpenter has a very similar repertoire to Greinke. His fastball is excellent and so is his slider (though neither quite as good as Greinke). However, Carpenter also carries a well above average curveball which really gives him 3 excellent pitches. His change-up, while not great, is workable at slightly below average.

Javier Vasquez: Vasquez uses a well above average change and fastball. Additionally, his curveball is top notch and he has an above average slide-piece. Not bad. Four above average pitches and a dominant (top 3) curve.

Dan Haren: Haren is unique in that most of what he throws is hard. His 2009 splitter was tops. In addition to it, though, he also had the second best cutter and a well above average heater. His soft(er) pitch is a curveball that is also slightly above average.

C.C. Sabathia: C.C. uses the second best change-up, a well above average heater and above average slider. Oh, and he’s left handed which never hurts.

Felix Hernandez: The King works with an excellent fastball (4th best), a solid well above average change and above average curve and slider, he’s another 4 pitch pitcher.

Justin Verlander: Verlander has a stupendous fastball (which just misses the top 5 list), above average curve and change as well as a below average slider.

Roy Halladay: Halladay has one of the elite cutters in the league and a well above average curve. His fastball is solidly above average and his change is just about average. He is the artist of the bunch.

Clayton Kershaw: Kershaw is a very rare player in that he has a blazing fastball from the left side. He’s an Ace in the making. His fastball was 30 runs above average, tops in 2009. He also uses his above average curve and slider along with a below average change-up that has room for improvement.

The following is the list of the very best total 2009 repertoires for MLB, the AL and NL, as well as the results of the Cy Young vote:

MLB                              NL                                   AL

1- Lincecum (55.1)        1- Lincecum (55.1)       1- Greinke (45.8)
2- Carpentar (49.6)       2- Carpenter (49.6)      2- Sabathia (37.2)
3- Greinke (45.8)          3- Vasquez (43.6)         3- Hernandez (36.1)
4- Vasquez (43.6)          4- Haren (38.2)            4- Verlander (30.6)
5- Haren (38.2)             5- Kershaw (38)           5- Halladay (29.5)
6- Kershaw (38)
7- Sabathia (37.2)
8- J. Johnson (36.4)
9- Hernandez (36.1)
10- Jimenez (34.9)

Cy Young Vote                NL                            AL

                                         1- Lincecum              1- Greinke
                                         2- Carpenter             2- Hernandez
                                         3- Wainwright           3- Verlander
                                         4- Vasquez                4- Sabathia
                                         5- Haren                   5- Halladay

As you can see, if you wanted to select the top 5 vote getters in the AL and NL for Cy Young, you could have done so by analyzing their repertoire and ranking them top to bottom. 9 of the 10 players ended up on both lists, and the two Cy Young winners were the AL pitcher and NL pitcher with the best repertoires in their respective leagues. Tim Lincecum had the best overall repertoire and best overall pitch in the major leagues in 2009.

The next time you are checking out a game in which one of these dazzling starters is toeing the rubber, perhaps you can reflect back on this and have a slightly better understanding of just how they are working hitters successfully. Although, keep in mind that pitchers often reinvent themselves and often times they will have varying success with a particular pitch year to year. For example, in 2008 Tim Lincecum’s most dominating pitch was his 2-seam fastball. It wasn’t until mid-season that Lincecum truly began to harness his outstanding change-up in 2008. The two pitches essentially flip-flopped; his change-up became his #1 pitch and his heater #2 in 2009.

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