Early in the baseball season, I’m always checking the statistical leaderboards to see who sticks out. Sometimes it’s a batter with an incredible ISO (Thames), a hitter with a laughably low BABIP (Schimpf), or in this case, a pitcher whose swinging-strike percentage sits significantly higher than his career mark (Samardzija). While we’re only a few weeks into the season and the simple reasoning that small sample sizes shouldn’t be trusted looms large, occasionally a player makes a change that draws my interest. In Jeff Samardzija’s case, dating back to the last few months of the 2016 season, he’s undergone a noticeable modification in his pitch peripherals.
Pitchers are always making adjustments. Adding in new pitches, subtracting some from their mix, or altering a pitch to complement the rest of their offerings. While it shouldn’t come as a surprise when a pitcher does tweak a pitch, it stands out when the results are as drastic as Samardjiza’s. Let’s take a look at Jeff’s horizontal pitch movement for three of his most-used pitches dating back to the start of the 2016 season to see if anything jumps out.
Nothing crazy happening here, other than a slight shift in the movement of his slider. It went from breaking away from righties, to not breaking at all. A difference of about an inch or two which can certainly add up under the right context. Now, for the vertical movement.
Over the course of the 2016 season, the continued refining of the slider is quite apparent. Consistently, month over month, the pitch featured less vertical movement than before. This mix of pitches starts to form around July to August of last year, and takes a huge step forward in 2017. The difference in vertical break between the three currently sits at less than an inch and a half.
Think about that from a batter’s perspective. Three pitches, all coming in with comparable downward break, yet two will feature severe break in on a right-handed hitter (sinker and splitter) and one won’t break in at all (slider). The batter is left guessing about which lateral direction the pitch will go in its final moments before crossing the plate. Previously, with a noticeable difference in vertical movement, the hitter had a better idea of what pitch was coming in. He could see the drop associated with a slider, leading to a more confident prediction of how the pitch would break. While the sinker is thrown harder, around 93, compared to the slider and splitter, both around 85-87, the combination of the three seems to have thrown hitters for a loop, as evidenced by the stark increase in whiffs.
Notice how, starting in August of 2016, the splitter features a huge up-tick in whiffs. This was right when Samardzija was altering the vertical movement of the three to mask their identities. By this season, when the three became even closer in nature, the whiffs skyrocketed. The batter’s utter confusion in trying to classify each offering results in more whiffs.
Samardzija certainly seems to be onto something here. Again, while this is a small sample, it makes me wonder about usefulness of quantifying pitches individually by their velocity and movement. Before, his slider featured more movement, yet Jeff’s cumulative whiffs were lower overall. Once he changed the pitch to look more his like other offerings, the results improved. Perhaps a more holistic approach is necessary when we look at a pitcher’s individual pitch performance. How effective a pitcher’s repertoire appears is more than a sum of its parts, as seen in Samardzija’s recent changes.
Just what are the Yankees getting at when they acquire Dustin Ackley, Aaron Hicks, and Starlin Castro within a few months of each other? The group would seemingly not have much in common other than perhaps age, but the Yankees have found a group of players with similar attributes that should benefit them nicely.
Ackley, 28 next season, Hicks, 26 next season, and Castro, 26 next season represent a “youth movement” for New York, as they attempt to distance themselves from the burdens of the Mark Teixerias of their roster. Given their closeness in age, let’s look at how they should be expected to perform in the coming years when examining their batted-ball-direction aging curves.
Hicks and Castro appear to be heading into their peak pull performance in terms of home run + fly ball distance. Ackley on the other hand, looks like he’s attempting to stave off the effects of age. Let’s look at how different handedness affects hitters throughout their careers.
Here again, we see Castro and Hicks as right-handers are at their prime for pulling the ball in terms of batted-ball distance. Ackley looks like he’ll decline gradually up until about 32 when the average distance really takes a dive. However, both of these charts simply describe the distance at which these three can be expected to hit the ball. It doesn’t take into account how likely they are to pull the ball, or their results on fly balls over the last couple of seasons.
(Fly ball distance is unavailable for Hicks in 2014, and in 2015 only accounts for his left-handedness. Since he’s presumably hitting mostly right-handed for New York next season, I didn’t include the info.)
All three saw an uptick in their likelihood to pull the ball, with Ackley and Hicks seeing a substantial increase in how hard they hit fly balls. Ackley’s distance soared to 293 on fly balls yet was mostly unnoticed due to Safeco’s hampering effect on left-handed hitters. Hicks meanwhile, played in the not-so-friendly Target Field which isn’t exactly a hitter’s paradise either. Both should benefit from the move to the more hitter-welcoming Yankee Stadium next year. The Yankees may have noticed that both were showing solid skills yet the results were difficult to achieve in said environments, so they saw an opportunity to swoop in and pluck them.
Castro, on the other hand, pulled the ball slightly more while seeing a dip in Hard Hit% on fly balls, and a drop in distance. If he, along with Hicks, can continue to increase their ability to pull the ball, and combine it with the increase in distance associated with pulled fly balls, the outcomes should look much nicer on paper.
It seems as if the Yankees have found a beneficial meeting of aging curves, players who are pulling the ball more often, and teams who might not have quite the use for these players as New York. If all three can at a minimum come close to last year’s skills in terms of hitting fly balls, the Yankees have a trio of players who match their stadium perfectly.
(The graphs used in this post are sourced from http://www.hardballtimes.com/how-batted-ball-distance-ages/)