Hopefully this post can keep your minds off the trade deadline for a little bit.
What I enjoy most about baseball is the tradition that is so much a part of the game. For example, sitting in the bullpen and watching a father point out things on the field to his 5 year old son, while they eat their hotdogs is awesome. It takes me back to my childhood, and the nights I spent with my dad at Camden Yards and Yankee Stadium. The feeling I get now when I remember those games and the passion we shared are indescribable. The stories he told me about the games he had been to a generation ago fascinated me. Baseball has changed from his generation to mine, but the respect and the tradition of baseball as family entertainment has remained intact. I believe that as long as baseball exists, so too will its glorious traditions.
What I enjoy least about baseball is its tradition. What I mean by that its culture is resistant to changing with the times . For example, few industries have fallen further behind the technological curve than baseball. The more baseball people you talk to about changing the game for the better the more you hear, “we do things this way because that is the way it was done before me. It worked then and it will work now.” The problem is technology has changed our ability to analyze performance Science has proven that the mechanics used in the 1970s are likely to be detrimental to your health. We have more access to innovative cameras so we can dissect everything down to the millisecond, but we do not use that information effectively. It all starts from the very beginning with scouting.
Many of you asked questions about the scouting process so I will spend a few paragraphs on this subject.
The first time a professional team sees a player is through its scouts. Each professional team has dozens of scouts that cover the entire world. These scouts will see a player and send in a scouting report on that player. The scouting report will read something like this, (Note: for the sake of this column I will be talking about pitchers, not position players, because I am not as familiar with that side) “6 feet 4 inches, 212lbs, right handed, fastball 88-92, slider 76-80, change up 80-82, has good feel for all pitches, can command his fastball, has good deception, has good downward angle on pitches, competes well, projects to be back end rotation or long relief guy. (Note: scouts would use the 20-80 scale, but I did not want to go into that at this time). There are well over 1,000 pitchers that fall into this mold, but only a small few will end up making it to the big leagues, and scouts really have no idea which select few out of this group will make it.
(Note: I am aware that in the past ten or so years some people, most notably Bill James, has tried to create statistical categories that objectively reflect how a player is actually performing. Sabermetrics is the first piece of baseballs statistical revolution, but most of its new stats (FIP, OPS, BsR etc) are simply a combination of old stats. My vision is to move one step closer by creating brand new stats based on the results that technology and innovative cameras can provide.)
One reason they do not know who will make it to the show is because the scouting report above tells you about 5% of what this pitcher actually brings to the table. The scouting reports use descriptive terms like, “has good deception”, instead of quantitative numerical facts that can easily be compared to other pitchers. Deception, as it pertains to pitching, can be broken down into 2 sections, speed and late movement. Speed deception is simply making something look faster than it really is. This can be quantified by using 2 factors. First, how close the ball is released from home plate. The closer you release it the faster the pitch will appear. Second, how many hundredths of a second the hitter can see the ball from when you first show it to him to the release point. The less time you show him the ball the faster the pitch appears. (Note: I have watched hundreds of pitchers on film, the average is about 20 hundredths of a second, the best time I have ever seen on film is 6.5 hundredths of a second). If you take both of those and combine it with the speed of the actual pitch (radar gun reading) you now have the ingredients for a statistic that shows perceived velocity. If you ever hear an announcer who says, “his fastball just jumps on hitters” or “his ball comes out of nowhere” they are talking about the same thing, perceived velocity. What would you think is more beneficial for a team to know, how hard a pitch is thrown? Or how hard the hitter perceives the pitch is thrown? As my UVA pitching coach says, “Hitters don’t swing at what they see, they swing at what they think they see.”
(Note: I do not want to give away my exact mathematical formula because it is still a work in progress and I would like to gain ownership of that stat. Can you imagine turning on ESPN 3 years from now and hearing Peter Gammons announce, “The trade between the Phillies and the Angels has come to a screeching halt because the Phillies want prospect Jon Smith instead of Bill Thompson because his Schwimlocity is 4mph better.” You have to admit, Schwimlocity has a nice ring to it)
Late movement deception is also easy to quantify with high tech equipment and geometry, I call it the last 10 feet theory. After a pitcher has released the ball, the ball takes a certain path to the plate. If you stop the tape 10 feet before the ball has reached home plate, you can use geometry to figure out its projected location as it goes across home plate. However many centimeters the ball actually ends up away from its projected location, is considered late movement deception. Obviously, the further away from its projected location the more deception you will have. The best example of this is Mariano Rivera. Before the last 10 feet, Mariano Rivera’s ball appears to be straight and heading down the middle. Over the last 10 feet, it breaks to the corner of the plate, and hitters have no time to react because the hitter decides where he is going to swing when the ball is about 25-35 feet away from them.
Often time’s hitters will hit a ground ball and come back into the dugout baffled because they thought they should have crushed that particular pitch. When in actuality, that pitch dropped a couple of centimeters in the last 10 feet and they could not pick it up, which causes the ground ball instead of the double in the gap.
This is why I think it is better to throw a sharp slider then a big curveball. Sharp sliders stay straight until the last 20 or so feet and then break hard down and away from a righty. (Think Zack Greinke, Joba Chamberlin, and Brad Lidge) Whereas a big curveball starts breaking about 40 feet away from the plate, which is easier for a hitter to pick up and project where the pitch will end up. A great example of both of these principles is Phil Hughes. When he came into the Yankees rotation as a starter he featured a huge curveball that was able to fool hitters the first time through the lineup, but as hitters got used to him, he started to get hit hard. This year, he came back to the Yankees as a reliever featuring a sharp slider instead of the big curve and has had much more success. Barry Zito is another great example of no matter how much a curveball breaks, hitters will eventually catch up to it because of how early it begins to break.
Going back to the descriptive vs quantitative scouting reports, the term “good downward angle” can be replaced by measurement. If you take the height, at release point, from the part of the mound the ball is over you have a quantitative downhill measurement. Obviously, the higher you release the ball from the mound, the more downward angle you have.
All of the theories I have mentioned in this column are known by everyone that has played the game but to this point they have not been quantified. Everyone can tell from a batter’s reaction if a pitcher has good deception or not, but when it comes to scouting hundreds of thousands of players across the globe, I believe it is close to impossible to effectively compare them without raw numbers. This would also be beneficial at the highest level when looking at pitchers’ values. For example, I have dissected JA Happ on film and the perceived velocity on his fastball is between 94-96MPH, but his actual radar gun velocity is 88-92MPH. (Note: Please do not ask me about anyone else’s PV because most pitchers are lower than their radar gun readings, and I do not want to lower any of my teammates stock, just in case anyone important is reading this.)
It is important to note that even with all this quantitative data we would still know only about a third of what a pitcher brings to the table. How a pitcher mixes his pitches and the sequences he uses is vital to keeping hitters off balance. Jamie Moyer’s radar gun readings on his fastball are from 79-84, and his PV is 79-81, but he does such a good job of throwing his change-up that hitters can be fooled by his fastball. (Note: There is also a deception factor here but I have yet to find a quantitative way to measure it.)
The mentality of pitchers is incredibly relevant; I believe it makes up over half of what a pitcher brings to the table. I think the best way to figure out a pitcher’s mental toughness is to see how he reacts to failure. The most important outing a pitcher has is the outing after a bad outing. Traditional player development wants to see top pitching prospects do well at every level, so they keep young pitchers at lower levels regardless of the results they get. The philosophy is they want that pitcher to continue to succeed to build his confidence so he is ready for the MLB. I disagree. I think good prospects should be rushed in the minor leagues for the sole purpose of getting them to fail. The more a pitcher fails the more a pitcher learns. There is an unwritten rule in player development that you do not want to send a top prospect down levels, because that demotion could be detrimental to his psyche and he might never be the same. My view is, if he can’t handle being sent down then he sure as hell can’t handle failure, and if he can’t handle failure then he will not ever make it as a major league pitcher. I realize this is a radical view that will never be endorsed by the majority, and I also realize that the people making those decisions have been around the game for a lot longer than I have, so I am sure they know more about this then me. Nevertheless, this is my view, and it might be the view of an impatient 23 year old who has played a grand total of 1 year in professional baseball, and whose opinions about the game change daily. But as of July 28, 2009 this is where I stand.