The latest buzzwords are “Effective” and “Velocity.” Effective velocity (EV) is the quantification of the intuitive concept that some pitches seem faster (or slower) to hitters than they actually are if measured by a radar gun. Carlos Peña explains it in this video.
A more detailed explanation of the theory developed by Perry Husband can be found here. The article is worth reading in its entirety. Bottom line,
[T]here is an imaginary stripe that runs diagonally across the strike zone, from the batter’s feet to shoulder level in the opposite batter’s box, where a pitch’s EV equals its actual speed. Husband calls this the Zero Line. He calculated that for every 6 inches the ball moves closer to the hitter from that line, it picks up 2.75 EV mph; for every 6 inches it moves away, it loses an equivalent amount. This gives strikes thrown at identical speeds on a given horizontal plane about a 6-mph fluctuation in reactionary speed from one end of the strike zone to the other. Add vertical differences into the equation and that spread can easily double, all for pitches that are thrown at the same actual speed.
Think about this for a second. An 86 mph slider could appear to the hitter as 92 mph. Great, right? The problem is that if a hitter is geared up for a 94 mph fastball he could hit the slider “by accident” and make good contact. And good contact is a problem.
What Husband found was that if pitchers can vary the EV by 6 mph or more, hitters’ ability to make contact drops precipitously, even major league hitters, even the best major league hitters.
When sequences contained the right spreads, hard-hit balls were reduced by 23 percent. He also found that every key stat he studied — batting average, well-hit average (measuring hard-hit balls), home-run percentage and swing-and-miss percentage — peaked at exactly 90 EV mph. As soon as the EV from one pitch to the next deviated by the magic 6 mph or more, hitters’ success across the entire stat line tumbled.
The blink of an eye is 300 to 400 milliseconds, or about 1/3 of a second. Hitters have to be faster than than that to catch up with a 95 mph fastball. That’s why Husband posits that a lot of contact happens by “accident,” that is, when the pitcher makes a mistake. The mistake is putting the ball in a location and with an Effective Velocity that the hitter’s eye is prepared for.
Which brings us to the topic of the present post. Stephen Strasburg ranked 42nd among starting pitchers in “hard hit” rate, at 14.1%. In a recent ESPN article, Tony Blengino posits that Stephen Strasburg will not reach his true potential until he improves the management of his contact rate, meaning fewer line drives and more weak grounders or infield popups. Because Strasburg is a great strikeout artist, he doesn’t have to be elite at managing contact. If he just got to average, and kept the elite K/BB ratio, he could be holding a Cy Young trophy. Blengino concludes,
What does Strasburg need to do to get there? It might seem like oversimplification, but he must improve his command within the zone. Control and command are two very different things. Strasburg is quite good at avoiding walks, but he has a knack for finding the fat part of the bat. A bit more sink on his two-seamer would help, as would better location of his four-seamer, particularly up in the zone. As lethal as his fastball and curve appear to be in a vacuum, they were actually about league-average offerings in 2014, pitch value-wise, due to the damage he allowed on them. His changeup, once a developing third offering, is now his true out pitch.
The individual data on “hard hit” balls is not easily available, but we can examine the results of Strasburg’s pitch selection and execution. Let’s take Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS. Strasburg faced 25 batters. Eight got hits, one walked and one was hit by a pitch (WHIP 1.80). As you can see from the table below, this was not a typical Strasburg start. (One of the runs he gave up was “unearned” due to a passed ball, so the MLAP’s* ERA was 51% higher than his. I’ll discuss this at-bat in detail later). All of the hits were singles.
*MLAP – Mythical League Average Pitcher
The leadoff hitter was Gregor Blanco, a left-handed hitter.
Stras threw Pitch 1 at 96.9 mph on the Zero Line. Pitch 2 is a little less than 18 inches outside of the ZL, so would have an EV of about 91 mph, fooling Blanco. Pitch 3 was 98.3 mph on the Zero Line. Blanco is now on a 1-2 count and will “expand the zone.” Expanding the zone is when accidents happen. Pitch 4 was a sinker at 97.9 mph with an EV of 95.3. (I am using calculations similar to this article, 2.6 RV for each 0.5 ft of distance.) Looking at Blanco’s heat map with two strikes, you can see why an accident could have happened. But it didn’t. Routine flyout to center.
Up came another lefty, Joe Panik. Stras threw two sinkers, the second at 97.2 mph right on the Zero Line, right in Panik’s wheelhouse. Result: line drive to deep center. It could have been trouble, but Denard Span handled it.
Next up, Buster Posey.
Stras got Posey to a two-strike count, Posey having fouled off Pitches 1 and 3. Pitch 3 was a curve at 83.5 mph, with EV of about 78.2, and Pitch 4’s EV was about 81. You might think Stras had Posey all slowed down, and set up, for a sinker at 98 mph. Posey thought so too: he was ready for Pitch 5. It didn’t go far enough, and Nats fans said, “Whew!”
In the second inning, Stras got Pablo Sandoval with a changeup after two fastballs.Hunter Pence singled on the second of two almost identical pitches. Even though the EV of Pitch 2 was almost 103 (97.5 + 5.2), Pence fouled it off. That should have warned Stras he could catch up with the next one. And he did.
Stras used his changeup to induce a foulout from Brandon Belt and a swinging strikeout from Brandon Crawford. The third inning was not as pretty. Like a lot of lefties, Travis Ishikawa goes for the low outside pitch. Stras obliged. Again, although the EV of Stras’ sinker was over 100, even No. 8 major-league hitters can sometimes get them and Ishikawa did, for a clean single. Jake Peavey bunted Ishikawa to second base (after a replay-review reversal of the play) and landed on first base himself. Blanco tried to bunt him over to third, but popped out on a Strasburg changeup. Panik came up with runners on 1st and 2nd.
Pitch No. 2 (a 96.2 mph sinker) bounced off Wilson Ramos‘ glove, and the runners advanced. Strasburg’s fielders were not doing him any favors in this inning. No. 4 (a changeup right on the black) should have been a good pitch by EV. No. 3 was an inside fastball with an EV of about 99.8. The changeup at 89.7 mph broke horizontally away from the hitter, slowing the EV to about 81. But Panik got it for a single and a run scored. You have to wonder if Stras was getting predictable, using the changeup several times for his out pitch. The announcer noted that this changeup had no vertical movement but simply sailed across the horizontal plane
Strasburg minimized the damage by inducing Posey to hit into a doubleplay. He was in trouble again in the fourth inning. Sandoval singled on an 0-2 count. Stras threw three pitches with roughly the same velocity, location and break. It’s not too surprising the Panda got a good swing on the third one. Not a good sequence from the EV point of view.
|Pitch Statistics as coded by PITCH INFO|
|Pitch Type||Velo (Max)||H-Break||V-Break||Count||Strikes / %||Swings / %||Whiffs / %||BIP (No Out)||SNIPs / %||LWTS|
|FA (Fastball)||96.6 (96.7)||-7.33||6.84||2||2 / 100.0%||2 / 100.0%||0 / 0.0%||1 (1)||1 / 100.0%||-0.55|
|SI (Sinker)||95.7 (95.7)||-8.92||7.34||1||1 / 100.0%||0 / 0.0%||0 / 0.0%||0 (0)||1 / 100.0%||0.08|
|Pitch classifications provided by PITCH INFO.|
Belt fouled off two fastballs (No. 2 and 3) and a changeup (No. 4), then ignored No. 5. You can see that the EV of the three changeups is within the six mph range, not enough differential. Again, Stras’ changeup didn’t fool Belt. Stras slowed up Crawford’s bat with two outside sinkers (Nos. 3 and 4). Crawford fouled off No. 4 (EV about 90). Then he tried an 82 mph curve, but it dropped only about seven inches, so I’d fault the execution and the pitch selection. Stras needs more than eight mph of differential if he’s going to hang curves.
In the fifth inning, Stras walked Blanco on four pitches, got Panik to ground out, and then hit Posey on an 0-2 count. He struck Sandoval out on four fastballs, which goes to show you hitting ain’t easy.
Belt and Crawford came up in the sixth inning, both singling. Belt reached a low outside fastball. Crawford grabbed a sinker that wasn’t that much different than the previous changeup in either location or velocity. At that point, with Stras at 89 pitches, Matt Williams called on Jerry Blevins, who dispatched two lefties and the pitcher.
Conclusion. The tenets of Effective Velocity place more emphasis on velocity and location than on pitch variety and “movement.” It seems clear to me from the above examples that Strasburg could have benefitted from EV-type sequencing, and in a couple of cases he pitched “backwards,” allowing the hitter to speed up or slow down his bat before the next pitch.
In theory, a pitcher could throw all cutters and, if there were enough differential and correct sequencing, he’d be unhittable. Oh, wait…gotta check if anyone’s looked at Mo from an EV point of view.
Originally published on Rose’s blog, Lady and the Nats.
Next post: BttP Podcast: Ep 11 – Russell A. Carleton
Previous post: Season Preview Series, Part 16: Blue Jays in a Box (Shipping Container?)