Change Is Good?

Michael Fulmer will throw any pitch in any count, especially to righties. (via Rick Briggs)

Changing eye levels. Changing speeds. Changing mechanics. Starting pitchers have to do something to stem the rate of batted balls leaving the yard this season. Do four early success stories hold the solution?

Players learn early on in their pro careers — if not even earlier — that baseball is a game of adjustments. And this year in the major leagues, we may get to see one of the broadest to happen in a long while. Because hitting is literally on the upswing.

Big league batters are hitting homers at a record pace. How bad for pitchers is it? The specter of PED suspicion looms large again. Last month, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci laid out his case for why this is so, using Pirates outfielder Starling Marte’s 80-game suspension in April as a hook.

But at the end of his story, Verducci listed some startling numbers that really tell the story of at least the first half of this season. There’s this all-or-nothing hitting approach taking the league by storm. From that article:

  • Home runs per game per team are at an all-time high (1.19), while the rate of hits per game (8.50) is at its lowest level in the 45 years since the adoption of the DH.

Read that again: even with home runs flying out in record numbers, there are fewer hits in a baseball game today than at any point in almost half a century.

  • Home runs per game in April jumped 11.9 percent from last April—and a whopping 29.2 percent increase from April 2015.
  • The surge has happened quickly: home runs are up 38 percent since 2014. If the current pace continues, the year-by-year rise in home runs since 2014 will look like this: 2014: 4,186; 2015: 4,909; 2016: 5,610; 2017: 5,785.
  • There will be more home runs hit this year than the 1974 and ’75 seasons combined.
  • If it seems to you as if tape-measure home runs are becoming routine, you’re right. The number of home runs hit at least 450 feet, as measured by Statcast, is on pace to be up 31 percent in just two years.
2015  123
2016  136
2017 161*
SOURCE: Statcast/Sports Illustrated

Finally, Verducci cites a shift in hitting philosophy having to do with the swing plane. Putting a good swing on the ball no longer means swinging down to produce a relatively level swing resulting in hard ground balls and line drives. It means swinging with a little loft to put the bat on the same plane as the pitch, driving the ball up over the pervasive infield shift.

Some of this has to do with new statistical tools available to everyone, hitters included. As Neil Greenberg laid out in his Washington Post story here, Statcast has shown hitters that the launch angle of the ball off the bat is kind of a big deal. Hitters now know that they want to hit the ball at a 25- to 35-degree angle.

A couple of things on this. First, this is nothing new. Hall-of-Fame hitting savant Ted Williams made that very case in his 1971 tome, The Science of Hitting. Google it, along with noted upper-cutter Kris Bryant’s name, and you’ll find a 2016 New York Times article in which Bryant’s father, Mike, a private hitting coach in Las Vegas, says much of his philosophy is based on that book. Here’s a brief excerpt included in that NYT piece:

When the ball is on the ground, it puts a greater burden on the fielders; things can happen. But if you get the ball into the air with power, you have the gift to produce the most important hit in baseball — the home run. More important is that you hit consistently with authority.

Just a few days after his PEDs article, Verducci wrote an article about the resurgence of the curveball. Perhaps not coincidentally, the team with the best record in baseball, the Houston Astros, has a starting rotation that makes heavy use of the curveball. It might not look that way when you search leaderboards on FanGraphs, but keep in mind that Lance McCullers’ curve is classified as a knuckle curve. Houston’s rotation also includes the season’s first two American League pitchers of the month, Dallas Keuchel (April) and McCullers (May).

If starters are going to stop the Josh Donaldson’s of the world from teeing off on their pitches, is the solution to simply to get the ball moving vertically to make it impossible for hitters to “plane-up” the ball?

Let’s take a look at a few pitchers who are doing well this season to see if it’s just that simple.

The Baby Ace: Lance McCullers, Houston Astros

Two-and-a-half seasons into his big league career, McCullers remains an enigma. His talent is tantalizing when he pitches, but he’s been injured often enough that Astros skipper A.J. Hinch and the front office must hold their collective breath every time the right-hander takes the mound.

After a 22-start big league debut in 2015, McCullers managed just 14 starts last season and has already landed on the 10-day disabled list this season with lower-back discomfort. But man, can he pitch. Through the right-hander’s first 13 starts of 2017, only his rotation mate, Dallas Keuchel, had allowed fewer hits among starters who’d made at least 200 pitches. And McCullers’ GO/FO ratio was among the best in baseball.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

As mentioned above, McCullers succeeds with a highly effective curveball. It drops about six inches from hand to plate, but what makes the pitch exceptional is its velocity. At around 86 mph on average, it’s the hardest-thrown bender in baseball right now, according to PITCHf/x. He’s thrown it almost twice as much as any other pitch in his arsenal to this point, and more than a third of the swings it generates are whiffs.

Oh, and both his other pitches are pretty good, too — both pitches generate more ground balls than average. The curve is the key, however, and it’s hard to blame McCullers’ for riding that pitch for as long as he can. The uppercut can’t connect. A scant 12 percent of his curveballs are lifted to the outfield. Even fewer (0.37%) clear the outfield fence.

Now, if McCullers can only stay off the DL for the rest of the season …

The Sophomore: Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers

The reigning American League Rookie of the Year has the lowest HR/9 rate in the majors by quite a bit, which certainly helped put him among the top 10 pitchers in FIP. He also ranked among the 25 best starters at keeping the ball in the yard last year, finishing with an 0.9 HR/9 average.

The just-add-vertical-movement theory is blown up here, because Fulmer throws relatively flat pitches. While he throws his four-seamer and sinker in the mid-90s, both pitches have less-than-average vertical movement. His hard change-up doesn’t move very much, either. Only his low-90s slider has better-than average movement.

Perhaps the key to Fulmer’s success has as more to do with his confidence in every pitch he throws than anything else. Right-handers in particular get a steady diet of everything, in every count. He relies a little bit more on the four-seamer against lefties. When a hitter has no idea which pitch he’ll see, even a little vertical movement can keep those uppercuts at bay.

The Perennial Ace: Chris Sale, Red Sox

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sale, who is on track to have one of his best seasons, if only because he’s his usual All-Star self, but also for a team that can play deep into October. None of his pitches are particularly dramatic vertical movers. His four-seamer does have some sink to it, but his three-quarters arm angle produces pitches with good horizontal movement. Oh, and he slings his four-seamer up in the mid-90s. That always helps.

Interestingly, his four-seamer has more than twice as much vertical movement as his sinker does. Perhaps that’s why the sinker, which he throws in the low 90s, is his least-used pitch this season.

Overall, however, Sale is using all his pitches equally, which is a switch. Last year, he threw the four-seamer nearly 45 percent of the time. This year, it’s under 30 percent. Maybe it’s the sweeping action of his pitches that avoid the sweet spots of upper cutting bats. Or maybe it’s his all-elbows-and-knees delivery that hides the ball well.

Maybe it’s all of that. The bottom line is Sale made six of his first 11 Red Sox starts at Fenway and he’s averaging a stingy 0.67 HR/9. And his FIP is nearly one run below his ERA!

The Oddball: Jason Vargas, Kansas City Royals

The pitcher sandwiched between Keuchel and McCullers for third in the major league ERA rankings is none other than Vargas, the 12-year veteran on his fifth team and sporting a 4-plus ERA (and FIP) entering this season. Through his first 14 starts in 2017, Vargas has a 2.27 ERA. His 3.21 FIP isn’t too shabby, either.

Steamer projections have Vargas finishing with a 4.37 FIP this season, and he still may. But as an American, it’s my God-given right to root for the underdog and dig for any sign that he’ll beat his pedestrian projections. Is it — fingers crossed — because of the vertical movement on his pitches? Nope.

In late April, Kansas City Star beat writer Jesse Newell wrote about Vargas’ early season dominance, citing a change the left-hander made with his release point as the reason for his surprising — and so far, sustained — success. The key portion of that article:

… the data also shows he is releasing his pitches roughly 2 inches more toward first base this season compared to last year while using more of a slinging style. While this feels like something minor … it seems like this adjustment has helped bring out the absolute best in his change-up. According to Pitchf/x data, Vargas’ change-up has a 3-inch shift this season in horizontal movement, breaking further toward his arm side.

Vargas’ change has a lot of backspin on it, which tends to generate more fly balls. But hitters just can’t seem to get all of it. The left-hander’s HR/9 rate is comfortably under 1.00 nearly halfway through the season.

Only two other pitchers — Marco Estrada and Jeremy Hellickson — have thrown the change-up more often this year, but that doesn’t seem to matter in Vargas’ case. When hitters swing at it — which they do more than half the time — more than 40 percent of those swings come up empty. Only Johnny Cueto, Sale and Danny Salazar have a better swing-and-miss rate on their change-ups.

Here is the part of the article where I wish I could write that it’s the change-up — not vertical or even horizontal pitch movement — that’s the key to major league pitchers fighting back. All four 2017 success stories highlighted above have that pitch in common. They each throw it more than the average starter and they each get more whiffs from it than most of their peers.

Remember that part above about the change-up being a “feel” pitch hurlers can have a difficult time getting a handle on? Look at all the other big change-up practitioners. Anderson’s FIP is an even and very bloated 5.00. Hellickson’s 5.81 FIP is fifth-worst in all of baseball. Even Cueto, with his 3.81 FIP, isn’t having a particularly great first half.

So this overriding adjustment by pitchers may not be coming at all. Or it may be coming but we just don’t see it yet. The only thing that is pretty clear right now is that they have to do something. Because when Eric Sogard gets called up and promptly goes deep with authority, you know things aren’t going great for your profession.

References & Resources

Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.
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5 years ago

Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your blog?

5 years ago

I would think that high cheese would be tough to hit for someone who has an upward swing. The dropped back shoulder, the bat not being level in the strike zone for very long? Maybe if more arm-pit high pitches were called strikes then hitters would have to go back to a more level swing. I don’t know, I’m just a fan. But this all or nothing baseball is not as exciting to watch.

5 years ago

Overall, however, Sale is using all his pitches equally, which is a switch. Last year, he threw the four-seamer nearly 45 percent of the time.

5 years ago

Vargas’ change has a lot of backspin on it, which tends to generate more fly balls. But hitters just can’t seem to get all of it. The left-hander’s HR/9 rate is comfortably under 1.00 nearly halfway through the season.