Pitching Progress: An Effort in Finding Incremental Gains, Vol. II

Last week, I noted that my favorite thing about baseball was that it reminded me of a living, breathing and dependable dog. This week, my favorite truism regarding the game is that even though the results are the same—as in, the Cubs went 4-1 during the second turn through the rotation, equaling the success of the first—the path to get there can be vastly different.

There wasn’t a dominant outing from a Cubs starting pitcher this go-round, but they did manage to each log quality starts; each needing 102 pitches or less to do so. This consistency has to be Joe Maddon’s dream, as the bullpen has stayed thoroughly rested through the season’s first two weeks. The longer the Cubs’ starting pitching throws with such efficiency, the better their chances for success are late in the season. This is especially true for Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel, and the early returns are positive. Let’s take a closer look at the results from each performance.

Jake Arrieta (April 10th, vs. Arizona Diamondbacks)
Result: 7 IP, W, 3 ER, 8 H, 6 K, 0 BB, 99 pitches
Season: 2-0, 1.93 ERA, 12.00 K/BB, 3.74 FIP


Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Sinker 59 59.60% 94.96 -7.68 -15.39 -3.04 6.49
Change 5 5.05% 88.11 -9.25 -28.51 -3.45 6.26
Slider 29 29.29% 90.47 3.44 -24.71 -3.12 6.39
Curve 6 6.06% 82.47 5.83 -50.26 -2.98 6.46



The first and most obvious observation is that Arrieta’s trademark command betrayed him during this outing, as he left 29 pitches in the middle and upper quadrants of the strike zone, and 24 in the middle-third of the zone. His lack of command did not appear to be compensation for a lack of velocity, as his 95 mph average on his sinker falls squarely into his normal range. The numbers bear out that each of his two-seam fastball and changeup actually gained a bit of vertical movement from his first start, but his slider had two inches fewer of horizontal break, indicating that his breaking stuff was flatter and lacked its typical bite this time around.

The pitch-selection offers some interesting tidbits, as Arrieta went to his curveball six times in the first two innings, and then abandoned it from thereon out. He also threw his signature slider 29 times, a significant jump from his total of just 17 in his first start. He didn’t throw a single four-seam fastball, instead relying solely on the sinker. He bumped his changeup usage up to five, which sported the ridiculous biting action it featured previously, but again lacked the pinpoint command. It’s exciting to see him use the changeup more often, and it’ll be important to follow whether he can maintain the vicious movement.

Writing up a “poor” Arrieta start is intriguing, because even when the quality of his ‘stuff’ is clearly inferior, his results remain acceptable or better. It’s not that his arsenal was specifically poor—he still generated 47 SNIPs—it’s just that it wasn’t the inhuman mastery we have become accustomed to witnessing. It is a testament to him that even his lesser efforts end up tallying yet another quality start—his 22nd in a row, four short of Bob Gibson’s record of 26—and it cannot be ignored that this is largely due to not walking any of his opponents. He gave up as many home runs in this start (two) as he had allowed combined during his quality start streak, but managed to limit the damage by refusing to surrender free passes. His eye-popping strikeout-to-walk ratio is likely unsustainable, but it is an excellent indicator of sharpness in the early going nonetheless.

Jon Lester (April 11th, vs. Cincinnati Reds)
Result: 6 IP, ND, 3 ER, 8 H, 5 K, 2 BB, 102 pitches
Season: 1-0, 2.77 ERA, 4.50 K/BB, 2.83 FIP


Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 35 34.31% 91.40 5.72 -12.25 2.70 5.83
Sinker 20 19.61% 90.65 9.23 -21.46 2.67 5.76
Change 8 7.84% 85.24 11.24 -24.26 2.70 5.84
Curve 12 11.76% 75.54 -5.17 -47.72 2.69 5.85
Cutter 27 26.47% 88.33 -0.16 -21.77 2.71 5.82



This was a bit of a strange outing for Lester, as he threw just 37 pitches that ended up in the strike zone, and frankly many of the pitches that didn’t register in the zone weren’t very close. Take a look:

By my count he threw 34 pitches greater than six inches outside the zone, while generating just two swings on those pitches. In short, Lester was wild, but managed to walk just two batters. Despite the walks and eight hits allowed, he surrendered just two runs, thanks to allowing just one extra-base hit (a solo home run to Hamilton) while no one was on base. The two biggest reasons for his relative success—despite an inability to throw strikes—was the fantastic movement he still generated on both his four-seam fastball and changeup, and his wildness mostly being appropriated to the bottom portion of the zone. While he generated just six whiffs, he induced 23 foul balls, indicating the movement of his pitches was outstanding, limiting the opponents ability to square them up.

Lester’s pitch-mix was virtually identical to his first start, with only his sinker seeing significantly more usage (20 times compared to 14) this time around. There is a bit of oddity with the movement of his cutter, as it stayed on a nearly perfectly flat horizontal plane, but broke sharply downward like a splitter. It seems clear that Lester had little idea where or how his pitches were going to move, but boy did they move!

We should keep an eye on Lester’s velocity as he progresses, as in this outing both his two-seam and four-seam fastballs lost about 1.5 mph from his first start. The exceptional movement he enjoyed could point towards Lester simply gripping the ball tighter—thus diminishing his velocity—but the darker possibility is that this is just another indicator of the downward trend in his velocity as he ages.

John Lackey (April 13th, vs. Cincinnati Reds)
Result: 6 2/3 IP, W, 2 ER, 6 H, 7 K, 3 BB, 90 pitches
Season: 2-0, 5.68 ERA, 2.75 K/BB, 4.64 FIP


Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 44 50.00% 90.85 -3.87 -16.15 -2.63 6.32
Sinker 16 18.18% 90.81 -9.27 -22.97 -2.69 5.93
Slider 24 27.27% 83.13 3.40 -37.62 -2.33 6.39
Curve 4 4.55% 76.81 5.88 -48.30 -2.41 6.58



This outing was exactly what the Cubs pay Lackey to do: pound the bottom of the zone and generate ground ball outs. He was especially effective in this manner with his slider, throwing the pitch 24 times, generating four whiffs and three ground ball outs, while not allowing a single baserunner.

Contrary to his first outing, Lackey relied on his four-seam fastball with much greater regularity than his two-seam, more than doubling his total of 19 to 44. His slider usage was nearly identical, as was the movement of all of his pitches. Lackey knows exactly who he is as a pitcher, it’s simply a matter of executing pitches where he wants them. Compare the above location chart to his first start, as it tells you everything you need to know about when he is effective, and when he is not.

Similar to Lester, Lackey’s velocity saw a drop of over 2 mph on average. Could this just be the result of each pitcher simply having a little extra adrenaline for his first start? Perhaps, or it could be an indicator of preservation for a long season. Take a look at Lackey’s velocity chart for his second start:

In the first inning, he touched 94 mph, before settling in and trending downward throughout his start and topping out around 92 mph in the latter innings. This isn’t necessarily a problem, however, as Lackey’s path to success mirrors the old real estate idiom: location, location, location. As long as Lackey maintains fastball velocity at or above 90 mph, putting the ball where he wants it should lead to a reasonable amount of success.

Jason Hammel (April 14th, vs. Cincinnatti Reds)
Result: 6 IP, W, 0 ER, 4 H, 3 K, 4 BB, 88 pitches
Season: 1-0, 0.75 ERA, 1.28 K/BB, 3.63 FIP


Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 39 44.32% 91.26 -3.87 -14.91 -2.01 6.47
Sinker 16 18.18% 91.83 -8.48 -19.11 -2.01 6.44
Slider 21 23.86% 83.59 4.26 -37.49 -2.04 6.53
Curve 12 13.64% 76.35 6.75 -56.19 -2.01 6.38



Though Hammel threw just 33 pitches in the strike zone, his zone profile leaves me feeling giddy. 42 of his 88 offerings ended up at or below the lower-third of the zone, and 18 of the remaining 46 ended in the upper and inner portion of the profile, an indicator of his desire to generate popups (he forced two) along with his normal ample supply of grounders. While the four walks allowed are atypical for Hammel—and he’d prefer to curtail the total—his pitch chart suggests that though his command left a bit to be desired, his movement was effective enough to generate 11 whiffs and and 17 foul balls:

Hammel’s pitch-selection was interesting, as he threw 39 four-seam fastballs compared to just 16 of the two-seam variety. For a noted sinkerball pitcher, this raised some eyebrows, and sure enough after the game he equated it to a miscommunication with catcher Miguel Montero. In the same article, Sahadev Sharma pointed out that his left on-base rate of 93 percent is bound to come down (and he’s correct), but this should in turn be accompanied by Hammel’s 14 percent walk rate decreasing substantially as well, hopefully counteracting some of the negative effect of a lesser rate of stranding runners.

It is pleasing to see Hammel have success while increasing his fastball usage (54 this week compared to 40 last week), while decreasing his slider usage (21 this start, 31 in his previous). If he can continue this, it should lower the wear and tear on his arm, and improve his stamina throughout the season. However, he did state that he battled back stiffness after running the bases following his double, which is something to monitor closely as this has been an issue in the past.

Kyle Hendricks (April 15th, vs. Colorado Rockies)
Result: 6 IP, L, 2 ER, 7 H, 5 K, 0 BB, 85 pitches
Season: 1-1, 2.84 ERA, 10.00 K/BB, 2.04 FIP


Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 13 15.85% 87.75 -2.16 -18.60 -2.64 6.22
Sinker 50 60.98% 87.53 -6.84 -25.72 -2.55 6.25
Change 15 18.29% 79.80 -4.38 -32.20 -2.69 6.18
Curve 4 4.88% 77.94 6.55 -45.69 -2.54 6.22



Quite simply, this performance by Hendricks was much better than the negative final tally may indicate. The efficiency of needing just 85 pitches to complete six innings is noteworthy, and highlights the road map to success for the Dartmouth graduate. He got there by throwing 68 (!) of his 85 pitches for strikes, eliminating waste (and baserunners) at every opportunity. His zone profile is a thing of beauty, as he threw 22 pitches into the bottom-third of the zone, and just four into the top-third. The results followed, as Colorado managed just seven singles and no extra-base hits.

Hendricks went to his four-seam fastball 13 times, a huge jump from the three times he offered it in his first start. He suffered a nearly 2 mph drop in velocity on the pitch, but this was accompanied by much greater command of the pitch. All-in-all, the pitch-chart and efficiency suggest that the loss of velocity was sacrificed intentionally to gain command, as he chose to attack the aggressive Rockies lineup with location, rather than velocity. It’s hard to argue with the approach, as keeping baserunners to a minimum and limiting flyballs against the boom-or-bust Colorado offense makes tremendous sense.

Overall, Maddon and the Cubs’ staff have to be very pleased with what they have seen from their fifth starter. Two starts, two quality starts, 10 strikeouts against just a single walk. Despite the loss in this outing, you really couldn’t ask for much more out of Kyle Hendricks.

Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports.

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1 comment on “Pitching Progress: An Effort in Finding Incremental Gains, Vol. II”


So Kyle Hendricks went to Dartmouth? INCONCEIVABLE!

These articles are my favorite installments here and are a large reason why you are my favorite writer on the site. I feel like student in class when I read these things, and I always walk away having learned something new. Keep up the great work, and I hope this is going to be a weekly installment!

Lastly – did I read that right? Hammel has the best movement on his curveball out of everyone on the rotation? I think we need to start trending on Hollandsworth’s tagline, ‘The Hammel Hammer’. His curveball really has looked sick so far this year.

Keep up the awesome work. I always set aside time when I can really focus to read these articles and I’m always impressed with the content!

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