Baseballs Tradition: A Love-hate Relationship

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.

59 thoughts on “Baseballs Tradition: A Love-hate Relationship

  1. bad ass.

    good theories.

    do you look at pitch f/x at all? you can get a good view of the last 10 feet in pitch fx maps/graphs.

  2. this is the best analysis i have seen on this blog. awesome!

    i love to hear an intelligent explanation of things that we struggle to explain, i.e. why Happ is so good, when his “stuff” doesn’t project his results. my guess is bastardo has a similar uptick in perceived velo, but i won’t ask. it also might explain why carasco struggles. really great stuff schwim!

    on question is, can a pitcher change his mechanics to help this? or is that really hard to do?

  3. great breakdown and analysis. as a person who never played baseball at a high level, this really helped my understanding of pitchers. it was nice to see someone finally put a number on the deception everyone keeps talking about with Happ’s fastball. keep up the great work!

  4. Dude you go metric system?

    I have gotten into pitch F/X data this year provided on MLB Gameday. That would probably be of interest to you if you are getting this analytical with stuff. It has a ton of info on pitch spin/movement/release and resultant velo

  5. Interesting stuff Mike. I know quite a few people are working with the pitchfx data. It’ll be interesting to see what if anything comes of it.

  6. pitch f/x is great. it really helps with the release point paragraph, but it still does not give the hundredths of a second the batter can pick up the ball, which to me is very important.

  7. Not a frequent poster, but this was an awesome post!

    Just wanted to say I throroughly enjoyed reading it, thanks!

  8. Good point about the pitch F/X not accounting for deception. The perceived velo idea (empirical scale to measure deception) is pretty damn intriguing

    My observations about a lof of deceptive LHP is that the things in their motion that would make them have a higher PV….”tall” front side, land foot closed/left of straight to home plate…and going to affect a guy’s ability to repeat his motion from pitch to pitch, and thus his command. Especially say, to the inside corner vs RHB

    So I am thinking that if extend your study of guys with higher PV than gun readings, you may find that it is really rare to find guys who have both great deception and great command/control

  9. Michael:

    I am positively stunned by the depth of your analysis and your writing abilities. I will ask you specific questions (if I have any) through your e-mail address.

    However, if you are just experimenting with historical Schwimlocity values (a Bill James project if ever there was one) and have access to historical game footage, take a look at Sid Fernandez and Jim Deshaies (very similar to Happ’s deliver and trajectory). I am telling you, that Fernandez was an historical freak. I don’t ever recall him hitting 90 on the gun (he was usually at 87 or 88), but the perceived velocity or “Schwimlocity” was close to 100 MPH. Part of this was that he threw “uphill” – it was truly a rising fastball, making it that much harder to hit. Nobody could hit that damned fastball and, even though he had no sharp breaking pitch, he had a looping curveball that started out at the same trajectory as the fastball, but broke right into the strike zone. Fernandez was often out of shape, lacked substantial control and had very little stamina, but, at his peak, he was totally unstoppable for 6 or 7 innings.

  10. wow. this is awesome. its like brian bannister, but smarter and probably better at pitching. keep it up, schwim.

  11. This is a phenomenal article. With each entry, I get more and more impressed with your knowledge of the game. It’s awesome to hear how much film you watch to become a true student of the game. Michael Schwimer you are the man. I’m going to the Reading game tonight and hope to hear an announcement about your call-up.

  12. David Cone once said that he would rather throw a pitch that he had 100% confidence in but was only 50% the right type pitch at the time than throw a pitch that was 100% the correct type of pitch but of which he had only 50% confidence. When Kyle Kendrick was called up in 07, 1/3 of the way through the season from AA he had full confidence in his a sinker ball and was a 10 game winner who started in post season with votes for the Rookie of the Year. But when he was forced to develope the change up in 08 he lost his sinker ball command and is still trying to throw the change up effectively until recently at AAA. You are so right the mental part of pitching is so important.

  13. Just to point out:

    Billl James’ best known commentary and analysis is on performance, results, and comparative results for the purpose of determining value and projecting future performance.

    What Schwim is doing is quantifying pitcher characterisitcs, which is another side of the entire scouting picture. This can also be used to establish value and project future performance.

    But you have to use both. Schwim’s method provides a mental image and a principle showing why and how a pitcher is sussesful or not. James’ stats show actual game results over extended periods.

    One interesting exercise is to study cases where these two ways of analyzing contradict. Moyer is a positive and puzzling example, so you have to say that his exquisite command of his pitches and his intelligent, experienced pitch sequences make a huge difference.

    Then there are the cases where Shwimlocity is off the charts, but the consistent performance over time is not there. (Carrasco?) Then you have to suspect some other factor is in play, such as the idea that Carrasco gets in trouble and does not stay composed and limit the damage.

    So there are two theories and putting them in play to understand a player can suggest potential third areas of analysis that gives the whole picture.

    My sense is that the third area includes control/command, pitching smart (both sequence and knowing the hitter), and composure (consistently maximizing your physical abilities on a high pct of pitches).

    Great job on bringing in a lot of thought-provoking material, Schwim.

  14. Really fantastic work, again.

    Two thoughts:

    1) I’d hate to compete against Schwimmer in a fantasy league (and I’m curious whether or not he’s played in any)

    2) With this kind of insight, he’s going to have two potential career paths in professional baseball, and without in any way disparaging his mound work, the second could be more interesting and rewarding than the first.

  15. Great great column. Keep them coming!

    Again, thanks to James for getting Michael to do these. PP has really taken off as a site these last few years.

  16. This is a great write up, and i do agree that mental toughness is an absolute must for big league success. How many times do we hear the term “million dollar arm, ten cent head”? I suspect the guy with the million dollar head is going to have much more success in the long run.

    As far as tracking pitch movement and schwimocity, it’s probably tough for scouts to track this type of thing at the High School/Junior College level with limited access to the needed video

  17. yea i know this column was long, sorry, but i can go on rants all day long about pitching

  18. I love the post.

    I don’t know how fast Wakefield’s fastball is, probably in the 70s. But after seeing 38 straight knuckleballs, its funny to watch hitters try to get around on it. Luis Tiant made a very good career out of deception. His involved turning his back to the hitter during his windup, looking out to CF, reading the scoreboard or whatever, jerking his head around, thrusting his eyes to the sky, uncoiling and delivering his pitch. It was hard to watch on TV, let alone try to hit the darn thing.

    At 6’8″, you can practically hand the ball to the catcher. It must be hard on those hitters.

  19. Great post. I know I don’t comment as much on this kind of post as I do on the major league posts, but that’s just because I don’t have as much to contribute. It’s this kind of post that keeps me coming back; the major league bull*** fests are entertaining in their own way, but I could get that fix elsewhere. 🙂

  20. I’ll chime in with another comment about Schwimer’s writing ability and knowledge of the game. This is one of the best columns I’ve ever read on pitching. Congrats. I really hope you/he is able to work out the stats. And thank you for explaining Happ.

  21. Hey Schwim,@ first you seemed like a nice guy and i was pulling for you to make the show!but it seem’s to me that you are a great dude and you will be successful @ what ever comes your way! See ya in Reading

  22. Mike
    I will see Frannie tonight and will direct her to this post. She is so proud of you. Nice work. Give my best to your roommate.

  23. I love how statistical analysis is permeating throughout baseball. Reading this and Bannister’s post demonstrates how parsing the numbers and then using the results can make you a better pitchers which is awesome.

  24. BTW, I previously used to post as “Joe”, but it seems there is another Joe on the boards, so I will use “JoeDE” from now on.

  25. No need to apologize for long posts, we all love them!

    Seriously, this is one of the best pieces of statistical thinking I’ve read by anybody. I’ve never thought about any of these things, and they all seem so logical. You definitely have a future in a front office, although hopefully it’s only after a nice long playing career. We’re all rooting for ya.

  26. Schwim, this is great. Where did you go to school. Your english teachers should be proud of you.

    No offense, but the problem with pitchers is that they break down more easily than hitters. This is why I dont want to clean out the farm for 1 1/3 years of Halliday.

    If you had a Schwim measurement for durability then you’d really have domething !

  27. Hi there Michael. I’m a journalist–not a baseball journalist, but the boring kind–and I think that this is probably one of the best written and most insightful columns I have ever read on the subject of pitching. If you haven’t already discovered him–and I’m sure, given your love of the game, you probably have–you might enjoy reading some of the journalism of Pat Jordan, a minor league pitcher who became one of the greats, in my opinion, in the world of magazine sports writing. What Jordan has in his best pieces in an insight into areas that, for most fans, are unknowable–the mentality of pitching, what it takes to succeed, and, more importantly, how easy it is to fail. If baseball doesn’t work out for you, I hope you keep with the writing–the world can always use more Pat Jordans. That is, if you don’t make your millions from Schimlocity.

  28. Wow this was spectacular

    OK Mike you coin the term , ill handle the T-shirts
    “Chicks dig the Schwimlocity ”

    PS..has michael even given up a hit since starting to blog here???

  29. It’s decided. In order to keep his torrid pace going, Michael must continue to blog regularly on this site. Baseball tradition and superstition demand no less!

  30. This was a fascinating read.

    “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.”

    I suppose that would favor a 6’5 guy like yourself, huh? Seriously though you may be onto something here.

  31. In regards to your failure comment BRAVO. So much flack has been given about rushing players. Sparky Anderson used to say he hated it when a player had too much success early because they came to think the game is easy. Tough is tough and a china doll is a china doll ;you are right best to find out early.

  32. ****yea i know this column was long, sorry, but i can go on rants all day long about pitching****

    To clarify, I definitely wasn’t complaining.

  33. I just wanted to add that I agree with everyone on how well written and enjoyable this and all your posts are. Just from youre writing, it seems like you have the intelligence to help you succeed, Harrisburg Husker’s proverbial “million dollar head”

  34. thank you mike for saying what ive been saying about sabremetrics. it is an old set of measearments with modern terminology. its not wrong but its been there as long as bb. connie mack saying shoot that boy hits a lot of groung balls is the same thing as bill james using a pletora of abbreviations.

  35. The phillies insider has jumped on the Schwimwagon word for word.
    (Michael Schwimer is a right-handed reliever with the Clearwater Threshers, drafted in the 14th round a year ago out of the University of Virginia. He writes a weekly blog on the site. Today, he provided Phillies Insider with an inside look at Pedro Martinez. Pedro’s start yesterday in Clearwater was cut short by rain (1.1 innings, 1 hit, 1 hit batter, 1 strikeout).

    As a 23-year-old pitcher with 1 year of professional baseball experi

  36. Wahoowa Schwim!

    I think you’re on to something here with the Schwimlocity, especially the reaction time readings – I’ve often wondered why we don’t hear commentators talk about this instead of radar guns. After all, Randy Johnson’s 95mph is different from Tom Gordon’s mph, as he’s a foot taller and therefore his release point is probably 5% closer to home plate, this 5% less reaction time.

    You could start by measuring the difference in release point by player height, then adjust the gun readings by the difference from the median pitcher release point (as measured by size.) I think this would lead to 5-10% adjustments in velocity, or further tweaks to your PV.

  37. Hey Schwim would love to know how dom brown was feeling hearing his name in trade rumors?it must be avery hard time for a prospect hearing he may have to pick up and go..but i am just curious if Dom was sweating or not

  38. Don’t believe everything your dad told you about all of those games back in the day when Sparky Lyle, CF Hunter and the dinasaurs roamed the Stadium!

    Seriously I watch almost every Yanks game on TV or hear it on XM and I have never heard an explanation for Phil Hughes’ emergence as a lock down reliever, except “confidence”, which is completely circular, of course. Thanks for that, Michael.

  39. Stats are cool but I’m very much interested in the history and atmosphere in baseball.

    I like your perspective of family and the passion of being a fan. I always remember how much my mom loved Manny Trillo, or how angry my dad was when I used my Mike Schmidt signed baseball to throw into one of those netted bounce back things, I remember my college days on the porch listening to the phillies on the radio with my roommates.

    Baseball is a timepiece we measure history by.

    On a personal and very happy note, my wife just gave birth to our first child, a girl named Daphne on 7/23. (Buehle’s perfect game. a perfect game for a perfect baby… baseball is a timepiece)

    Hey Schwim, what team did you follow growing up? And what’s it like for players who all grow up fans of a team to play for another team. I know chasing a dream trumps anything else but, as a lifelong Phillies fan, if I were playing for a rival of the phillies I would be conflicted at times.

  40. Forgot to add this, total agree about the failing aspect. Many of the top prospects have been the best player at everything their entire life and never had to experience the lows in sports. How they deal with failure goes a long way the final development. We’ve seen quite a few pitchers who never learned to deal with failure/adversity.

  41. phil
    Please let me advise you to read the book “Stengel” . Casey’s history covered such a long path. Very funny he was a man who had everything worth having.

  42. If you could develop a virtual reality software program based on your stats to simulate each pitcher and have MLB’ers try to simulate hitting his pitches, think of the money you could make. You could have the operator choose which pitches he throws each time and have the hitter use a real bat.

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