Heat. Smoke. Velocity. Stuff. Gas. Cheese.
I’m sure there are other words to describe our beloved “fireballers” (see, there’s another one). Pitchers who throw at high speeds are treated like fine china — see Stephen Strasburg in the 2012 postseason. I’m guilty of falling victim to the allure of a 98-mph fastball, regardless of its location. We love it, and, frankly, we’d like to see more of it. Major League Baseball has created a setting in which if a pitcher doesn’t break 90 mph with his fastball, he’s considered a “finesse” pitcher, or even a “soft-tosser” if left-handed. We love strikeouts, especially when a power pitcher blows a fastball by a hitter. But why?
Matt Harvey was stellar in 2015. He’s not so good anymore. Why do teams keep giving him second chances? Mostly because he throws hard.
However, it’s not entirely our fault. After reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, I began to understand why this happens. It shows how you can overcome cognitive bias, but in order to do so, you have to understand which one of your “thought systems” is making that decision for you. He explains that each human being has essentially two modes of thought.
System 1 – fast, instinctive, and emotional (gut feeling)
System 2 – slower, more logical (critical thinking)
Theo Epstein is a great example of extensive System 2 thinking. It’s well known he an early pioneer of implementing sabermetrics into the front office, but what’s not often discussed is his extensive mental scouting and character analysis.
When Epstein was with the Red Sox, he partnered with a Cambridge-based company called NeuroScouting back in 2010. There, he had his players test their mental skills by essentially playing a video game analyzing their inhibitory control. An example would be, could they recognize the spin of a curveball that was going to be out of the strike zone and check their swing? Drafting Mookie Betts was a byproduct of this analysis, as he scored nearly 100% on every test, which prompted the Red Sox to move him up higher on their draft board. With the Chicago Cubs, Epstein made all of his scouts write an essay on each player to make their case on why the team should draft that player. Part of this essay not only included advanced statistics and regression theory, but also the player’s character. Each scout conducted interviews with the player’s teachers, coaches, teammates, friends, girlfriend, and ex-girlfriends (perhaps most important). This type of essay, written by one of the Cubs’ top scouts, was one of the biggest reasons why the club wanted Kyle Hendricks (39th-round draft pick) in the Ryan Dempster trade back in 2012.
Obviously most teams do similar analysis, but perhaps not enough. The “stuff” activates their System 1. Here are a two very different outcomes from the two modes of thought.
System 1: Mark Appel (1st overall pick in 2013 draft)
Power pitcher Mark Appel was taken No. 1 overall by the Houston Astros in the 2013 draft, only to retire from baseball five years later without throwing a single pitch in the major leagues. Here’s the draft report on Appel from 2013, courtesy of Sporting News:
“Appel has ace stuff, though. A mid-90s fastball and command of his secondary pitches, particularly his changeup, make him the most polished pitcher in this draft. In his senior year at Stanford, Appel showed a willingness to pitch aggressively (i.e. inside) and scouts like that he can keep his velocity deep into games.”
However, an early 2013 draft report from FanGraphs’ Kyle Boddy posed a key question in regards the power pitcher’s issues.
“If you have a 96-98 mph heater but can’t reliably command it, do you really have it at all?”
Appel did have a few injuries, and he was never able to find success while in the minor leagues, posting a career 5.06 ERA along with a 1.52 WHIP.
System 2: Mark Buehrle (38th-round pick in 1998 draft)
Mark Buehrle was a “finesse lefty” from St. Charles, Missouri. In his 15-year career, he won 214 games with a career ERA of 3.81 in the American League. He accomplished this while consistently throwing in the mid-80s with a slightly-above-average cutter and changeup. Oh yeah, he also threw a no-hitter, a perfect game, and was the ace on the 2005 Chicago White Sox championship team. Here’s a revisited analysis of Buehrle coming out of the minor leagues, courtesy of this 2013 SB Nation piece:
“I remember thinking that Buehrle was a fluke of some kind and that in the long run he would be an average pitcher, at best. He didn’t throw that hard, and his strikeout rate was very low. Usually, even a successful finesse pitcher still has a decent strikeout rate. I was convinced that the hitters would eventually catch up with him and figure out how to beat him.
They never did.”
I want to make it clear that I’m certainly not demonizing power pitchers. I’m simply suggesting that if you find yourself becoming enamored with a guy who consistently throws in the mid-90s, as we usually do, dive a little deeper into his BABIP, FIP, mental skills, and character.
You might discover something much more interesting about him — or possibly yourself.
John works as a Social Media Manager by day and a baseball writer by night. He has a B.A. in sports broadcasting and Masters in Communications. He lives in Los Angeles where performs improv and writes comedy. John is a graduate of the Second City writing program in Chicago as well iO Chicago, the Annoyance, and Upright Citizens Brigade in LA.