Earlier this week, we took a broad look at some Diamondbacks pitchers who showcase strong pitch tandems and troublesome pitch tandems. The basis of this work is the new data available from Baseball Prospectus which tracks a number of items, including release points, how similar (or dissimilar) two distinct pitches look upon release, and how similar (or dissimilar) two distinct pitches break respective to one another. If you’re just jumping in, you may want to refresh your understanding of some key terms from the previous post, including pitch tunneling and the decision point. We’ll continue use these terms as we examine some unique examples.

Today, let’s take a look at some notable pitch pairings. It’s important to remember here that we’re comparing two pitches from a pitcher and examining how they relate to one another. For example, we may want to compare how much Taijuan Walker’s curveball looks like his four-seam fastball to hitters, or how much Jake Barrett’s splitter looks like his four-seamer. Perception is paramount for the hitter as he’s has limited time (approximately 225 milliseconds) to determine if he’ll swing at a pitch and any clue is an asset to the hitter while an absence of clues is a boon for the pitcher. Now to the examples!

Pitch Combinations That Are Working

Zack Greinke’s four-seamer and changeup, slider

Despite very average, or even below-average velocity, Zack Greinke has thrown his four-seamer over 40% of the time over the last three years. It’s a pitch he can locate where he wants to for the most part, and it’s one he uses to get ahead. His changeup looks very similar to the fastball for hitters before the decision point – both pitches are released from similar slots and tunnel very well. After the decision point, they showcase above average break differential, meaning that after the hitter has decided to swing (or not swing), the two pitches have above average separation. This applies to his slider as well, as it’s released similar to the heater and tunnels at an above average rate, then separates more than average, too. Simply put, hitters have a very, very difficult time determining what’s coming at them. Is it a four-seamer? Changeup? Slider? The hitter just can’t determine with much certainty and it shows in Greinke’s long-standing success.

Zack Greinke’s sinker and changeup

Just to add another wrinkle, Greinke throws a sinker that’s been used nearly 20% of the time this spring (though he used it just 5% and 8% of the time in 2015 and 2016, respectively). His changeup looks, again, very similar to the sinker out of his hand as he keeps a similar release point, the pitches tunnel well and breaks significantly more than average. Add this combination to the two above and yeah, Zack Greinke’s prominence makes a ton of sense.

Patrick Corbin’s sinker and slider

We’ve seen this combination retire batter after batter over the last few years, and though Corbin hit a speed bump last season, he’s been solid this spring. He’s back to using the slider over 25% of the time, and while you can’t help but cringe when thinking about his UCL, this combo is worth the trouble. The pitches come out of his hand nearly identically and tunnel very well. At the point at which the hitter has to decide to swing, he simply has little to know idea which of the two pitches are coming. Add in tremendous post-tunnel break and it’s no wonder he gets some silly whiffs.

Archie Bradley’s four-seamer and curveball

These are Bradley’s bread and butter because, well, that’s about all the ingredients he has to work with. Sure, he has some other pitches (sinker, cutter, changeup), but he relies heavily on this combination. Luckily, the combination is working for him as the two pitches are released similarly and have an above average tunneling effect. They have average break after the decision point, but they’re hard enough to distinguish that they can get the job done. As you’ve likely noticed, his curveball isn’t “loopy,” but is rather a hammer that comes out relatively straight, then dives. Because of this, the two pitches, the four-seamer and the curve (which is technically a knuckle-curve), come out looking similar, but have different finishing effects.

Taijuan Walker’s four-seamer and curveball

Walker’s combination is a bit different than Bradley’s above. Taijuan doesn’t quite mimic his release point as well as Bradley (though it’s still in the average range), but the pitches tunnel in an above average way as compared to his peers. Where Walker gains an advantage is the amount of break he gets on the curve as compared to the four-seamer after the decision point. It may be be slightly easier to read out of his hand, but he gets more post-break separation, likely nullifying the effect to some degree. Should he make any gains in the release point department, this combination could take another leap forward for the promising young righty.

Jake Barrett’s four-seamer and splitter, slider

Barrett found some footing last season in the back of the Diamondbacks’ bullpen with some swing-and-miss stuff, notably his splitter and slider. The slider was his foremost secondary offering, but the splitter became another solid look. He does an excellent job of mimicking his four-seam release point when throwing the splitter and the two pitches tunnel very well. He gets average post-tunnel break, suggesting the separation between the two pitches is just okay, though hitters likely have a hard time seeing whether the offering is a fastball or splitter before they’re forced to decide whether or not to swing. The exact same can be said for Barrett’s four-seam fastball and slider, as they look very similar to hitters before the decision point, though have below average separation after hitter’s have made up their mind. He’s perhaps succeeding thanks to some deception rather than relying on raw pitch movement.

Pitch Combinations That Are Not Working

Robbie Ray’s four-seam fastball and changeup, slider and curveball

Let’s think this through: Robbie Ray has a big fastball but struggles to put hitters away. Why is that? He just can’t seem to retire hitters with any kind of efficiency. They seem to foul off or take his secondary pitches rather than swing and miss them. They don’t seem to take them looking either. In short, they don’t really seem to work. So let’s take a look at least one hypothesis: hitters can tell his pitches apart.

As compared to his four-seamer, Ray’s changeup and slider differentiate at the release point more so than average, meaning they’re released from different slots (as compared to the average pitcher). His curve is released with average differentiation. From the release point, he’s not hiding any of these offerings well. In terms of tunneling, his changeup and curveball are less similar to his four-seamer than those of his peers, while his slider tunnels averagely. With these two bases covered, it’s clear that the offerings aren’t particularly well disguised before the hitter has to choose to swing or not, suggesting that they may be picking these secondaries up as compared to his four-seamer. Piling on, the post-tunnel break of all three secondaries is below average when following his four-seamer, meaning they are perhaps easier to make contact with as the hitter is trying to make contact with these secondary offerings.

While trying to avoid the bias of what we’ve seen from Ray and just lean on the information at hand, the two things seem to mesh unfortunately well. While control and command are issues and Ray’s raw stuff isn’t necessarily tremendous (outside of the heater), he doesn’t appear to be doing himself any favors in terms of disguising his pitches or separating them after the hitter has made up his mind. Simply put, they’re just not being fooled. Of note, his secondary pitches don’t look much, if any, better when compared to his sinker rather than his four-seamer, so there’s no easy fix here.

Braden Shipley’s four-seamer and changeup

The recently reassigned Braden Shipley made an up and mostly down debut last season and will begin his 2017 campaign in Reno. Throughout his minor league time, scouts liked his changeup, but it doesn’t seem to have fared particularly well when thrown off of his four-seam fastball. His release point varies more than average, tunnels less than average, and he’s getting substandard break past the decision point. How much this is impacted by his purposefully detuned fastball is intriguing as Shipley can touch 96mph seemingly on command, but often sits closer to 90-91mph. Of note, the changeup pairs more favorably with his sinker at present.

Enrique Burgos‘ four-seamer and slider

Like Jake Barrett, Burgos was thrust into a more vital role in the Diamondbacks’ bullpen last season when the team traded Brad Ziegler and Tyler Clippard. The trial by fire came with mixed results, as at times Burgos looked dominant and others looked hapless. So it goes with young pitchers, especially when they’re so reliant on a two-pitch combination that they struggle to command. In terms of variability, Burgos releases his slider differently than his four-seamer with an above-average gap. The pitches tunnel less than average and he’s getting less than average post-tunnel break. Put this all together and it’s clear that his fastball and slider look different to hitters as he’s not camouflaging them well. Both offering can still get swings and misses, but if they were better disguised, perhaps they could take a step forward.

Closing Thoughts

There are a ton of dynamics at play when we talk about the batter-pitcher relationship. Pitchers have their strengths and so do hitters. Game situations matter, umpires matter, and as we’ve seen plenty of, the catcher behind the dish matters. But how well distinct pitches play off one another matters, too, and that’s what we’re looking at here. If the team and it’s pitchers and catchers are aware of some of these trends, it may impact on how games are called and pitches are sequenced. It’s not as if pitchers and catchers haven’t been aware of these things — but now that they’re being measure publicly (they may have been previously measured privately) we may see some adjustments in repertoires and how they’re used. If so, that could be a boon to the club as they look for a smarter approach.

7 Responses to Sequencing Matters: Which D-backs Pitches are Fooling Hitters?

  1. Puneet says:

    Would you happen to know of any examples of pitchers in Robbie’s situation? I don’t know how hard it would be for him to change his release points of pitches to be more similar, but it feels like you guys basically identified exactly why Robbie’s pitches get fouled off a ton.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      Great question! Unfortunately, I haven’t gone through to identify other pitchers and their traits. It was easy enough to pull some averages, but with hundreds of pitchers to sort through, it would be a bit tough to really find some comparable guys. This is a good thing to dig for, however, so perhaps I can revisit…

      • Puneet says:

        I’m grateful for whatever you end up finding in the future! The analysis from you guys is like an oasis in a desert when it comes to answering why certain things happen the way they do in baseball, and how hopefully our favorite MLB team can make the good things happen more and the bad things happen less.

  2. Larry Person says:

    Ray is an enigma. He’s a success, and a failure. In this analysis, he can neither repeat his release point slot from pitch type to pitch type, nor tunnel his various pitches consistently, nor produce above average post-decision point break differentiation. So he fails in this analysis. He also fails to keep his pitch count down, so he can’t go deep into games. He also fails to keep a decent ERA, and fails to win more games than he loses. And yet, he succeeds in striking out 218 hitters in 174.1 innings. So does he succeed in fooling hitters in some other, non-analyzed way, or does he simply over-power hitters 218 times in a season?

  3. Larry Person says:

    To follow up…Ray fails to be efficient while at the same time succeeds in striking out very high numbers of hitters. Your analysis explains his failure. Can these same numbers explain his success?

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