Velocity and Location Data Part 1: MLB Starters

I’ve always thought that we need to be more specific when we scout pitchers. I am guilty of it as well, as we have seen that just a 1 MPH difference in velocity is a big deal. So when scouting reports say that a pitcher throws 90-93 MPH or 90-95 MPH, this isn’t always all that helpful. Are the 90 MPH pitches in the majority? How often does the pitcher hit 95 MPH? When using Pitch F/X data to evaluate pitchers,“we” almost exclusively look at average velocity.

However, when scouting pitchers, “we” usually use ranges, many times lazy ones and put a lot of focus on what the pitcher maxes out at, or touches. There seems to still be a big disconnect from how we evaluate minor league players and how we evaluate major league players sabermetrically. This is one of the reasons that I love Mark Anderson‘s scouting reports on pitchers. He uses much more specific velocity ranges, looking at about the minimum, maximum, and average velocities of each pitcher’s fastball. I have written quite a bit on the correlation between velocity and success, but I decided I wanted to take a broader look that included location. In this 3 part series, I will look at how the qualified starters in the Majors pitch when it comes to location (and their results and frequency broken down by fastball velocity), a similar look at Japanese Pitchers, and then a look at a MLB draft prospect using the findings in the first two posts.

First, I wanted to look at all the “qualified” starters in the Majors, and see where they, especially the successful ones, locate their pitches in the strike zone. I also wanted to see the effect of velocity on pitch location (that is, do the higher velocity pitchers usually throw it high, etc. Glenn DuPaul did at Beyond the Boxscore did an excellent job of looking at high fastballs and how they get more whiffs). So using FanGraphs leaderboards, I included the average fastball velocity for each qualified starter in 2012. For location, I used Brooks Baseball/Baseball Prospectus’ Pitch F/X Pitcher’s profiles, and inputted the data from each location in to the spreadsheet.

For each pitcher, I “normalized” the strike zone for each pitcher’s handedness (changing everything to a comparison by percentage to league average). I looked at each pitcher’s Frequency (denoted by the small f) and TAV (the maps themselves have this option) of the hitters at that location (denoted by the small t) for each part of the strike zone. I only looked at pitches in the strike zone and obviously this is all pitches, and not just fastballs. Jeff Zimmerman and others have done some really cool research on Edge %, showing that pitches thrown on the “edge” of the strike zone lead to a smaller BABIP. I hope this comparative look will provide more insight into this. So here is the spreadsheet of the results (directions are the direction from behind the plate, so Upper Right would be the zone closest to the left-handed hitter’s head).

NameVelocityfUpper LeftfUpper MiddlefUpper RightfMiddle LeftfMiddle MiddlefMiddle RightfLower LeftfLower MiddlefLower RighttUpper LefttUpper MiddletUpper RighttMiddle LefttMiddle MiddletMiddle RighttLower LefttLower MiddletLower Right
Jordan Zimmerman93.8114.94110.37111.01113.28120.57110.6992.797.7499.13927312995741149310897
Bruce Chen87.3119.04113.19101.08110.69113.9191.33105.2285.5676.07116128847911310510911188
Clayton Kershaw93142.75142.04108.7119.71112.4679.01103.0586.4166.15799690958185947281
R.A. Dickey83106.57115.47100.41120.26111.24103.5798.89106.08102.54889882929110510388102
Cliff Lee91.7114.48117.22113.79108.59109.76110.91100.01103.4696.82859079849388107103103
James Mcdonald91.8135.07123.43103.67103.56109.1986.6492.6596.3182.621069889108105779210395
Ricky Nolasco90.196.92110.6898.9101.73108.57113.1594.31104.28108.4310996979699113116129116
Jon Niese90.594.9100.79106.81115.94107.21100.7122.48108.1880.56117101117110961069591100
Phil Hughes92121.21129.89128.2699.53107.19113.2387.792.1977.5111590989910191106107111
Matt Cain91.1118.88117.08125.99104.69106.43100.0989.4587.0680.4678841119191909092108
Luke Hochevar92.695.9194.9982.1398.75106.3496.96104.29113.88112.84106881059910110898105121
Ervin Santana91.783.6695.3395.1594.71106.16103.26100.49119.46120.3513210310191100106116117104
Justin Masterson92.894.3998.9391.03108.06106.13106.95104.69111.74109.21103105799199931149698
Anibal Sanchez91.5117.9114.1296.2898.36106.0595.3384.08104.96115.251169989101103112919691
Wei-Yin Chen91120.15116.9998.9391.71105.4592.2297.9195.8997.031071031238913490917473
Madison Bumgarner90.893.65111.72105.84118.2105.2496.97109.4898.1785.95699613187106939110798
Matt Moore94.1104.47107.5108.7697.1105.1399.64109.98108.1280.53856177109821371089983
Josh Beckett91.2121.12112.39104.44109.61105.07103.2787.4393.5696.96851057510010296899991
Cole Hamels90.9110.85104.7294.02102.89105101.793.45100.6294.8699111111989191929478
Edwin Jackson93.4110.09109.3185.5111.0310579.13113.72115.3791.531151091021159510710410785
Tim Lincecum90.4123.39122.1497.52109.85104.7175.93108.7695.5970.568093991008299988594
Chris Sale91.386.62103.3102.6291.89104.4113.599.56119.3198.64104948910385849910465
Ivan Nova92.8119.13123.1294.2997.74103.6297.6894.5999.1198.66108103116951131401089994
Ubaldo Jimenez92.5113.82117.55101.5599.71103.694.5196.93103.3795.627610194891051059485107
Gavin Floyd91.5129.07111.82119.02101.63103.34102.2678.4591.4998.831031099610210910311089106
Lance Lynn92.797.17116.87101.17107.19103.16111.57103.1490.7583.048577627812272115122117
Max Scherzer94.27667.4349.91121.25102.9192.24126.59127.895.621574654102119841079284
Matt Harrison92.496.399.28104.7989.61102.85103.6584.7699.9117.71051001151139610411110594
Clayton Richard90.684.3594.74106.1787.28102.76117.6497.73107.05113.2495901248311492112103113
C.J. Wilson91.689.5187.7895.5388.27102.58109.25106.66117.01105.919393909283100949772
Tim Hudson8981.971.368.24100.56102.1987.84112.92112.67119.698098921059492858585
Ryan Dempster89.6102.44113113.1685.81101.71105.4679.0591.2598.571031121141059811210410199
Trevor Cahill89.790.5681.9577.79100.48101.5398117.58116.62105.5936190118110771029771
Joe Blanton90.291.994.32106.24101.49101.27105.69107.9890.68102.0510013012010710911710210384
Yu Darvish92.6110.6987.9561.7697.56100.8885.05105.9126.593.479456818983799411391
Paul Maholm87.883.7986.1285.3393.79100.84103.12103.97114.93114.91102107961061059111410298
Derek Holland92.6113.49120.56105.5107.13100.4690.04101.698.0886.7210912192100105113119109111
Bud Norris91.999.5883.8287.3787.45100.1296.1499.75110.45119.68121100114102103113110101108
Johnny Cueto92.594.7895.73101.07100.1499.9699.26102.198.3283.1591951068710210310299109
Homer Bailey92.495.88105.41106.6891.899.88112.7891.84110.02102.3106869810810511412211690
Jake Peavy90.788.8992.62114.2695.3799.62110.9102.5989.85102.246890103100978896109103
Adam Wainwright89.977.35102.3108.9586.2199118.3498.5987.87128.23829010311810297879697
Joe Saunders89.480.3884.0793.3882.4698.98109.8889.65104.36123.64981109411510692100101107
Jeremy Guthrie92.596.9387.6590.56105.9698.8890.12107.24104.4194.8121110110931069998101110
Jered Weaver8894.8595.7796.89106.2698.7598.65106.5991.98101.361001051019110174939283
Ricky Romero91.391.22109.6211196.6898.5496.1497.6798.9101.82106106137978511297100106
Wandy Rodriguez89.486.6189.63105.0190.8298.19102.5698.49105.75112.13938999921019296112116
Rick Porcello92.3109.6989.0588.58116.0398.1889.1113.7793.5183.161009680115104971019291
Bronson Arroyo86.3101.7899.37104.6396.8498.07110.3496.2790.9799.431131109111011589108113103
James Shields9289.7588.5185.48109.3497.6992.2127.07115.6387.9111411512494104101101108110
Mat Latos92.798.45115.3130.3379.5197.66115.8176.2392.79106.998110210211391106869065
David Price95.599.3996.22103.7999.2296.87115.5685.6296.56102.438410190909490979385
Justin Verlander94.794.04112.92119.879396.78103.79101.388.4984.598711286927395748290
Jeff Samardzija95.1114.33117.6496.4493.5196.485.76104.05111.6495.12875510610410399898999
Ian Kennedy89.2108109.58100.84110.3796.3698.89105.73108.4497.729399909710010111811190
Jarrod Parker92.4118.2496.2876.18104.496.2771.41110.07104104.35124107327311366829869
Tommy Hanson89.691.75102.8699.0597.4596.17120.1681.295.89110.8694100116821078111311669
Felix Hernandez92.4118.0289.8965.94119.7596.176.41122.19111.6395.85921021219093109819887
Scott Diamond89.384.7582.8578.5899.3895.84104.3597.16113.25135.9314414494958178139108108
Edinson Volquez93.495.2190.2475.37101.6195.6984.48116.71110.26108.461061131271188696968485
Chris Capuano86.790.385.7179.8397.7195.3295.69115.99120.43114.037610397126111116107102116
CC Sabathia92.496.6387.54102.5186.3694.95110.2890.16100.26117.749510398929396859890
Gio Gonzalez93.388.2683.7589.3581.9394.94110.0591.5699.47117.628811782107751061009883
Aaron Harang89.583.3113.66142.4580.0994.65119.2579.0392.27102.76132106122103103111132113102
Lucas Harrell92.277.0877.0586.9594.1494.44100.37124.2898.9393.9106527512393791058792
Jason Vargas87.886.4970.4986.94105.1994.35106.7793.2499.67129.999013798116109109829289
Henderson Alvarez92.898.3668.2360.85122.4394.0882.34133.9130.2111.2410015517388123951079783
Hiroki Kuroda91.394.1194.6119.0798.2693.77102.2298.3886.0681.81001099397108951019996
Clay Buchholz92.2103.3493.53106.1798.193.69102.37103.1990.9795.7482112949312198809786
Wade Miley91.168.5772.1285.9177.493.48111.46102.45121.71136.547469908310211911397117
Dan Haren88.584.7188.296.3290.6392.45111.1790.81105.15114.47112881151041109995101113
Kyle Lohse89.674.6780.13114.5478.3691.93119.5796.1694.11121.382109108901011289195103
Josh Johnson92.871.248595.6596.4790.84103.62108.8101.37107.38989312989968510010080
A.J. Burnett92.371.248595.6596.4790.84103.62108.8101.37107.38989312989968510010080
Barry Zito83.7125.17107.62125.2100.8390.8396.0583.3372.7278.779112295106861089712290
Mike Minor90.395.2578.2795.4194.4589.48110.5782.6789.32107.9108115731089010212913486
Jeremy Hellickson91.371.2169.479.9695.6889.1886.75133.56108.52101.95129112728786909910886
Zach Greinke92.389.1775.9886.7599.4588.0796.34111.02113.86111.5499104939710210710610696
Jake Westbrook90.461.915868.5697.9888.0586.51137.49126.46114.2114178135989812410295109
Ryan Vogelsong90.773.3194.7695.2788.3987.47106.82108.0687.9799.375901187410972118110109
Mike Leake89.552.376.57101.4185.4286.84118.9298.97109.58120.8477946884113109106146101
Jon Lester92102.1593.0383.74103.8386.3291.5998.4192.19105.71106989792100991059783
Yovani Gallardo91.783.7590.93110.0481.4786.19102.91100.2190.18105.599510811198106112989894
Tommy Milone87.469.0148.2357.2690.584.2595.21110.72121.9124.3411483557811214177100152
Mark Buehrle84.9122.2889.4893.8295.5578.25100.9176.0575.35105.45117120961181101049710695

The average velocity of the qualified pitchers was right at 91 MPH. Interestingly, the average Upper Left Frequency was 97.3 (%), Upper Middle Frequency was 97.06, and Upper Right Frequency was 97.07. Since this is normalized, it seems like qualified starters are a little less likely to throw the ball high in the strike zone compared to other pitchers. If we consider the survivor bias to be good (that is, pitchers that get to throw qualified amount of innings get to throw that many innings because they are good, not just because of their contracts, that may or may not still be comparative to their present value), then perhaps, like common wisdom states, putting the ball high in the zone is not a good thing.

Of course, this is why we looked at TAV as well. Upper Left TAV was 99.44 (everything is in percentage, with 100 being average) for the qualified pitchers, and Upper Middle TAV was 100.38, while Upper Right TAV was 99.21. So while the qualified pitchers may throw the ball up in the strike zone less, they aren’t anymore successful when they do so. What about pitches down the middle? Middle Left Frequency was 98.94 for the qualified pitchers, Middle Middle 99.05, and Middle Right 100.62. So the results there are negligible, but they did seem to throw the ball low more often, with a 101.5 frequency on the lower left portion, 102.31 on the lower middle, 102.15 on the lower right. So it seems clear that qualified pitchers do throw the ball down the middle about as much as relievers and non qualified starters, but they are more likely to throw the ball lower in the zone more than other pitchers, and less likely to throw the ball high in the zone.

Let’s break down the tendencies by velocity and see if we can see a pattern in approach (I find it a little funny that the two Cy Young winners were the qualified starter who threw the hardest, and the qualified starter who threw the softest).

93 MPH +: 103.95 fUpper Left, 103.74 fUpper Middle, 94.87 fUpper Right, 103.16 fMiddle Left,102.68 fMiddle Middle, 96.04 fMiddle Right, 104.53 Lower Left, 104.19 fLower Middle, 94.12 fLower Right.

I thought a lot of this could be explained by the top velocity pitchers being right-handed heavy, and they are just working arm side. However, 4 of the 10 are lefties, and the numbers are normalized by hand anyway.

How about them by TAV? Upper Left: 98, Upper Middle: 88.3, Upper Right: 94.3. Middle Left: 102.7, Middle Middle: 88.2, Middle Right: 101.3, Lower Left: 96.2, Lower Middle: 92.4, Lower Right: 87.2.

The best velocity pitchers were pretty good almost everywhere, but they were especially good when they located the ball in the upper middle part of the strike zone, and the lower right.

Let’s break each MPH group down, but more simply (just avoid the mess above)

92-92.8 MPH: Least Frequent: Upper Right (93.34 %). Most Frequent: Lower Left (104.51 %)

Best TAV: Lower Right (94.6%). Worst TAV: Middle Middle (102.68 %)

91-91.9 MPH: Most Frequent: Upper Right (103.05 %). Least Frequent: Middle Left (96.43 %)

Best TAV: Lower Right (94.69 %). Worst TAV: Upper Left (102.13 %)

90-90.9 MPH: Most Frequent: Lower Left (105.24 %). Least Frequent: Upper Left (92.3 %)

Best TAV: Upper Left (94). Worst TAV: Upper Right (111.64 %)

88-88.9 MPH: Most Frequent: Lower Right (113.79 %). Least Frequent: Upper Left (85.26 %).

Best TAV: Middle Right (95.93 %). Worst TAV: Lower Middle (105.29 %).

Sub-88 MPH: Most Frequent: Lower Right (105.06 %). Least Frequent: Upper Middle (90.63 %)

Best TAV: Upper Right (88.22 %). Worst TAV: Upper Middle (112 %)

A few observations, the harder a pitcher threw, the more likely they were to throw the ball high. There really wasn’t much order in which pitchers had the most success on pitches down the middle though (other than the elite velocity pitchers having a lot of success down the middle). Pitchers that threw softer were a little more likely to keep the ball out of the middle middle portion of the plate though.It also seemed that the softer a pitcher threw, the more extreme his TAV zones were. That is, they had extremely bad zones, along with extremely good ones, while the harder throwers were more balanced when it came to TAV zones.

I also wanted to look at pitchers that attacked one zone quite frequently. That is, did pitchers that favored one spot much more than average struggle in that spot because they were too predictable? So I looked at the 10 pitchers with the highest percentage in a location, and then looked at their normalized TAVs there.

Upper Left: 99.1

Upper Middle: 93.1

Upper Right: 101.4

Middle Left: 101.6

Middle Middle: 94.4

Middle Right: 98.9

Lower Left: 99.5

Lower Middle: 101.4

Lower Right: 106.3

Not extremely significant results there, the worst being pitchers who threw to the lower right of the strike zone, and the best being the ones that throw in the upper middle of the zone. I find it humorous just how successful the pitchers that threw the most pitches down the middle were, especially since the 10 pitchers that threw the least amount of pitches (by percentage, normalized by league average obviously) down the middle had a 102.6 Normalized TAV down the middle. It seems that pitchers who threw it down the middle, or high for that matter, are ones that know they can get away with it. Pitchers who throw it low seem to be sinkerballer types without great stuff for the most part, and this is why they struggled more (at least that is my working theory).

Tomorrow, we will look at data from the NBP in Japan and see if the results tell us anything different (or the same), and the next day we will look at a MLB draft prospect using these lenses.