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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).

[table id=27 /]

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.