Statcast Detective: Top High-Ball Pitchers

In 2018, Dave Sheinin wrote about a hitting change in Major League baseball. More hitters, he said, were becoming “becoming launch-angle disciples.”

More batters are focusing not only on hitting the ball hard, but hitting the ball high into the air. The average launch angle — the angle at which the ball flies after being hit — rose from 10.5 degrees in 2015 to 11.5 degrees in 2016.

Dave Sheinin — https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/sports/mlb-launch-angles-story/

To counter that change, pitchers responded by throwing “fewer sinkers, fewer low pitches, more breaking balls, more four-seam fastballs, more high pitches.”

Their pitches were elevating.

Using Statcast Search, I first investigated how many pitches in 2019 were in the upper portion of the Attack Zones. The graphic below from baseballsavant.com shows the nine zones in the “high-ball” area, zones 11-13, 21-23, and 31-33. All are above the heart zone, which is lavender-colored. The heart zone pictures the heart of the plate.

The first question to be researched is From 2017 to 2019, how many pitches were thrown in the “high-ball” area?

To answer it, these Statcast Settings were used:

  • Player Type: Pitcher
  • Group By: League and Year
  • Attack Zones: 11, 12, 13, 21, 22, 23, 31, 32, 33
  • Season: 2017, 2018, 2019
  • Season Type: Regular
YearPitchesTotalPitch %
1League201912300373247316.8
2League201811594472119016.1
3League201711111272124315.4
https://tinyurl.com/yb4mbtvk

Since 2017, the percentage of high-ball pitches increased from 15.4% to 16.8% as the number increased by 11,891. An unexpected result is that the total number of pitches also increased from 2017 to 2019 by 11,230, but that is a topic for another post.

Throwing balls high has its risks.

Sheinen’s article includes this Bud Black quote:

“It’s still dangerous throwing the ball up in the zone. That hasn’t changed,” said Colorado Rockies Manager Bud Black, a former pitcher. “You have to throw it at the right height. If you throw it too high they’ll take it [for a ball], but if you miss it low, they’ll crush it. It isn’t for everybody. There are pitchers whose style and stuff allows them to pitch up there, guys we identify as highball pitchers, and we encourage them.”

That led to the second question: In 2019 which pitchers took that risk the most and what were the results?

Revised Statcast Search Settings

  • Player Type: Pitcher
  • Group By: Player Name
  • Attack Zones: 11, 12, 13, 21, 22, 23, 31, 32, 33
  • Season: 2019
  • Season Type: Regular

Here are the top 10 pitchers in 2019 ordered by number of high-ball pitches they threw.

PlayerPitchesTotalPitch %
Trevor Bauer875368723.7
Gerrit Cole869336225.8
Jake Odorizzi826278729.6
Rick Porcello793296026.8
Steven Matz745270227.6
Justin Verlander745344821.6
Caleb Smith743266127.9
Reynaldo Lopez708316322.4
Jacob deGrom699329721.2
Jordan Lyles698245628.4
Source: baseballsavent.com

Minnesota Twins starter Jake Odorizzi led the Top 10 in high-ball percent, nudging 30%. Last season, he also had his personal bests in won-lost percentage (.682), strikeouts per nine innings (10.1), and wins (15). Surprisingly, his 2019 Pitch % of 29.6% was not his career high. In 2017 with the Rays it was 30.3%; however, his won-lost record was 10-8, so just keeping pitching high may not have been the main cause of his increased success in 2019. But that too is a topic for another post’s investigation.

Given that in 2019 Odorizzi’s improved by 114% the number of games he won in the previous season, did the other members of the Top 10 experience a similar gain?

Eight of the Top 10 won more games in 2019 than in 2018, Trevor Bauer failing to match his 2018 win total by one game though he started six more games, a league switch likely the cause. He had a winning record with the Indians, but then a losing one with the Reds. In addition, Rick Porcello had three fewer wins in 2019 though starting only one fewer games.

Player20182019
Trevor Bauer12-611-13
Gerrit Cole15-520-5
Jake Odorizzi7-1015-7
Rick Porcello17-714-12
Steven Matz5-1111-10
Justin Verlander16-921-6
Caleb Smith5-610-11
Reynaldo Lopez7-1010-15
Jacob deGrom10-911-8
Jordan Lyles3-412-8
Won-Lost records for Top 10 high-ball pitchers in 2019

To be continued

Cano’s swing could be lowering his batting average

It’s being written that Mets second baseman Robinson Cano is not as good a hitter as he has been in the past. Here is some evidence that supports that assertion:

  • He never had an OBP under .300. His previous low was .305 in 2008. In 2019 it is .277. His lowest batting average was .271 in 2008. This season he is hitting .228.
  • His lowest slugging percentage was .410 in 2008. This season, it is .369.
  • His OPS is .646. He never before had an OPS below .700.

Is that evidence sufficient for someone to conclude that Cano is not the same hitter he was in previous seasons? Not yet.

Cano could be unlucky.

His xBA (Expected Batting Average) for 2019 is .268, 40 points higher than his actual batting average; however, that is under his prior season low of .271 in 2008.

In addition, this season, his BABIP is .270 (43 for 159). Fewer batted balls are resulting in hits. Only twice before (2008 and 2017) in his 15 seasons playing in the majors did he have a BABIP below .300.

Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is a statistic which measures how often non-home run batted balls (often called ‘balls in play’) fall for hits.

FanGraphs

“A ball is ‘in play” when the plate appearance ends in something other than a strikeout, walk, hit batter, catcher’s interference, sacrifice bunt, or home run,” according to FanGraphs.

The 2019 League average BABIP is .296, so Cano’s is 26 points or about 10 percent less than it.

Is he just having back luck this year? No. Cano is having trouble at the plate with balls he is not putting into play.

  • His K/PA ratio of .195 is the highest in his career. For his career, it is .126. Plus, his K% is 19.2%, the highest one in the last five seasons.
  • His HR/PA ratio of .018 is the lowest of his career, and this is in a season when so many homers are being that the reason why is under investigation. For his career, it is .035.
  • His BB/K ratio of .302 is his lowest since 2005. For his career, it is .522.

Is he still making solid contact? “The harder a ball is hit, the more likely it is to fall in for a hit,” according to FanGraphs. When Cano is hitting the ball, his average Exit Velocity of 90.6 mph is close to his average of of 90.8 mph from 2015 to today; however, his Hard Hit % is on the decline even though.

A hard-hit ball is one hit with an exit velocity of 95 mph. This season he has hard hit 72 balls, ranking him 114th in MLB.

Source: Baseball Savant

He is having the most trouble hitting off-speed pitches hard.

Source: Baseball Savant

Other significant changes are these: (1) His GB% is the highest it has been since 2015, and (2) his average Launch Angle is the lowest it has been since 2015.

Source: Baseball Savant

Further, since 2018 he is getting much less loft on breaking pitches, and since 2016, the loft he is getting on fastballs has shown a steady decline.

Source: Baseball Savant

Given that his exit velocity has not slowed, could his launch angle drop be intentional?

In 2019, 52.1% of his batted balls were ground balls. His batting average on ground balls is .165 (14 for 85) where the League average is .240 or 75 points higher. In comparison, his batting average on fly balls is .222 — the League average is .302, and on line drives it is .574 where the League’s is .630.

The table below presents Cano’s batting average by launch angle.

Launch AngleAverage
>= 30°.083
20° to 30°.381
10° to 20°.692
0° to 10°.444
<= 0°.108
<= -10°.044

When he is either swinging down or with an attack angle above 30°, Cano is barely hitting .100 at best. Therefore, if he reduces the number of times he swings downward and tries to keep his launch angle within the 0° to 30° range, he should see improvement in his batting average. However, until his batting average starts rising it could help him, pressure-wise, if he bats lower in the order.