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

This week saw another turn through the rotation, and another winning record for the Cubs (3-2). Despite the team’s results ending up one win short of the first two turns, this week actually represented the best efforts by Cubs’ starters, with four of the five allowing one earned run or fewer. The streak of consecutive starts with six innings or more pitched ended at 14, with Kyle Hendricks falling two outs short of the mark with his effort in a rain-soaked game in St. Louis. There has been discussion of Joe Maddon departing from the preseason plan for his pitching staff—and I admit I’ve questioned this myself at times while watching games—but the fact remains that pitch-count totals for Cubs’ starters this season have remained low; with only Jake Arrieta eclipsing the 100-pitch mark this week.

There are many exciting factoids that could be pointed out in the early part of the season, with runs-allowed and run-differential being among the most stark. However, what’s been on my mind this week is the apparently bullet-proof nature of the staff. Staff ace Arrieta is a physical specimen; chiseled enough to model underwear. Jon Lester has a long history of 200+ inning seasons, and the health of his shoulder is one of the main reasons Theo Epstein felt comfortable handing him a massive six-year contract. John Lackey has recovered successfully from Tommy John surgery in 2012, recording 189 innings or more in every season since. Jason Hammel—likely the most vulnerable starter of the group—rededicated himself to fitness and health over the offseason, emulating Arrieta’s approach. Kyle Hendricks throws like a prototypical high school coach throwing batting practice for 60 straight years (in a good way). Point is, the early results have been spectacular, and while we can’t expect them to continue at quite this torrid of a pace, it’s a strong possibility this group of five absorbs a huge percentage of the starts for the Cubs this year. That is a very good thing, to say the least.

 Jake Arrieta (April 16th, vs. Colorado Rockies)
Result: 8 IP, W, 0 ER, 5 H, 8 K, 1 BB, 100 pitches
Season: 3-0, 1.23 ERA, 10.00 K/BB, 2.63 FIP


Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 7 7.00% 95.14 -4.97 -12.40 -3.13 6.64
Sinker 56 56.00% 94.37 -7.29 -16.80 -3.17 6.57
Change 1 1.00% 88.19 -8.10 -25.28 -3.49 6.54
Slider 26 26.00% 89.18 4.54 -29.68 -3.32 6.45
Curve 10 10.00% 81.63 6.54 -54.57 -3.15 6.49


Observations: For this first time in my life, my observations of Arrieta came in person. For all of the transcendent greatness I’d witnessed on television, taking in his work on a picturesque Saturday at Wrigley cemented an idea in my mind: we’re watching an all-time great unfold before our very eyes; this run is something we’ll tell our children about.

Sitting in the stands can sometimes alter your ability to analyze a game, especially in regards to pitching performances. It didn’t feel this way at all on this day, as Rockies’ hitters didn’t stand a chance from the very beginning. Swings were off-balance, contact was soft and pitches taken were done so tentatively. To watch Arrieta, you’d think he was throwing a side bullpen session—his effort exerted was so minimal. Truly, I’ve never seen anything like it.

The numbers bear out what I witnessed firsthand: He generated 15 whiffs and 50 SNIPs; both totals his highest of any start during the young season. I am pleased to see the return of his four-seam fastball, as the slightly harder and flatter pitch that extends his arsenal just enough to separate a batters attention from the two-seamer, increasing his deception in turn. He also went to the curveball 10 times—another season high—which is an exciting development considering the four additional inches of vertical break he achieved from his previous start. His slider was as sharp as a Cutco knife, generating an additional five inches of vertical break, and one inch of horizontal cut. His sinker also showed an additional 1.5 inches of vertical snap, indicating every pitch in his arsenal was moving more sharply than his previous outing, a start in which his command was not sharp.

Now, about that command. Remember last week when I mentioned his usually pinpoint control failing him? Well, he corrected that in a big way with this outing. He threw just 17 pitches in the middle portion of the zone this week; down from 24 last week. 39 pitches found the strike zone this week, compared to 47 last start. Let’s take a brief look at the pitch plots from his last two starts:

The reduction of pitches thrown in the middle quadrant of the zone is striking, as is the tightness of pitch-groupings on or just off the corners in his latest start. It is the combination of the aforementioned stuff he had, and also the command shown above that generates the whiffs, SNIPs and weak contact he achieved against Colorado. It’s almost as if the combined uptick was priming the pump for something special to happen in his next outing…

Jon Lester (April 17th, vs. Colorado Rockies)
Result: 7 1/3 IP, L, 1 ER, 4 H, 10 K, 2 BB, 99 pitches
Season: 1-1, 2.21 ERA, 4.75 K/BB, 3.03 FIP


Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 42 42.42% 92.50 5.41 -13.02 2.78 5.76
Sinker 11 11.11% 91.27 9.54 -22.32 2.80 5.69
Change 4 4.04% 85.06 9.65 -25.45 2.74 5.71
Curve 15 15.15% 75.18 -6.58 -49.42 2.73 5.80
Cutter 27 27.27% 89.12 0.63 -22.44 2.81 5.73


Observations: Before anything else, we have to start with a comparative pitch-plot to Lester’s last start:

When Lester missed this week, he missed very close to the zone; matching Arrieta’s 50 SNIPs and generating 14 whiffs. He also reduced his pitches in the zone from 37 to 27, living on the edges and generating whiffs and foul balls. In one start, he went from very wild to having excellent command, and outstanding results followed right along with it, despite suffering the loss.

Lester’s pitch-mix is remarkably consistent start to start. It’s clear he has a plan to attack hitters, and he’s going to stick with that plan no matter what. This outing saw a significant increase in vertical break for all five of his pitches, while maintaining similar horizontal break. Similar to Arrieta, the combination of improved command and sharper downward break significantly improved his success rate against hitters.

Last week we discussed Lester’s diminished velocity as a cause for concern, and it’s comforting to see him gain the 1.5 mph back to his fastball this week. It’s also encouraging to see such consistency with his velocity throughout his start this week, with little noticeable drop off after his first few pitches:

 John Lackey (April 18th, vs. St. Louis Cardinals)
Result: 7 IP, W, 0 ER, 4 H, 11 K, 1 BB, 91 pitches
Season: 3-0, 3.66 ERA, 4.40 K/BB, 2.88 FIP


Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 33 36.26% 93.05 -3.29 -16.67 -2.19 6.00
Sinker 16 17.58% 93.08 -8.91 -25.08 -2.51 5.57
Change 9 9.89% 85.79 -8.20 -28.68 -2.01 6.02
Slider 19 20.88% 84.84 3.01 -37.47 -1.93 6.14
Curve 14 15.38% 79.83 5.62 -47.00 -2.21 6.41


Observations: Far and away his best start of the young season, Lackey’s third start featured outstanding control and utterly dominant stuff. He generated 25 whiffs—by far a season high—and 54 SNIPs. He needed just 91 pitches to finish seven innings; an impressive number considering he punched out 11 Cardinal hitters. He added about three inches of downward snap on his sinker, while the rest of his movement statistics stayed nearly static from his effective previous outing. Generating such a tremendous quantity of SNIPs while throwing 40 pitches beneath the zone suggests his movement and deception were top notch.

Though the outcomes were similar, the responsibility of this pitch-mix excites me. After neglecting his changeup last outing, Lackey threw the pitch nine times this time out. He also threw his curve 14 times, a significant jump from the four he threw last week. The additions were offset by reducing the use of his four-seam fastball and slider; the latter of which fell significantly for the second consecutive week.

Last week we discussed a concerning drop in velocity, and an inability to sustain consistent effective speeds through the later innings. He corrected the average velocity issue this week, averaging over 93 mph—and touching 95—on both his four-seam and two-seam fastballs. This was a 2.5 mph jump from his last start, and an obvious example of hugely improved stuff that led to the healthy strikeout total. His per-inning velocity still gives me a bit of pause, as he was once again unable to sustain the same strength through the middle innings, seeing a significant drop around the 65-pitch mark for the second-consecutive start. His baseline velocity was strong enough this game to get away with it, but that will not always be the case:

Jason Hammel (April 19th, vs. St. Louis Cardinals)
Result: 6 IP, W, 1 ER, 5 H, 6 K, 0 BB, 84 pitches
Season: 2-0, 1.00 ERA, 2.14 K/BB, 2.70 FIP


Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 17 20.24% 93.05 -3.61 -15.01 -2.15 6.41
Sinker 31 36.90% 93.04 -7.86 -19.26 -2.19 6.35
Change 4 4.76% 85.36 -8.80 -29.50 -2.28 6.16
Slider 14 16.67% 85.18 3.63 -35.32 -2.14 6.48
Curve 18 21.43% 77.72 7.35 -53.31 -2.22 6.30


Observations: Another outing, another efficient effort by Hammel. This version looked remarkably similar to his last start, with 41 pitches at or below the bottom of the zone (compared to 42 last week). He once again looked to work inside and up, generating another three popups. It may not seem like much, but his ability to generate popups this season has been consistently better than last year, and could be a telling indicator of his success. Hammel didn’t have fantastic swing-and-miss stuff in this one—he generated just seven whiffs—bit his command was as sharp as we’ve seen in some time, as he did not allow a walk as he consistently hit his spots.

His pitch-mix returned to normal this week, as he apparently worked out the communication issues he had with Miguel Montero in his previous start. It’s worth considering that even though Hammel went back to his trademark sinker, he didn’t throw any of his pitches more than 36 percent of the time, which should help keep hitters guessing and off-balance at the plate. His curve continues to be excellent—it generates the most downward spike of any Cubs’ starter—and his confidence with the pitch appears to be growing as he featured it 18 times this start.

There must have been something in the water in St. Louis, as Hammel enjoyed the same spike in velocity as Lackey, adding an additional 2 mph to his fastball. Also similar to Lackey, Hammel’s velocity faded hard as he reached 60 pitches, highlighting the need for efficient pitch-totals in the early innings. In future outings, if you begin to see pitch counts in the high-teens or higher in the early innings, you can bet that Hammel won’t maintain effectiveness into the later innings as his velocity wanes:

Kyle Hendricks (April 20th, vs. St. Louis Cardinals)
Result: 5 1/3 IP, L, 4 ER, 7 H, 5 K, 2 BB, 84 pitches
Season: 1-2, 4.00 ERA, 5.00 K/BB, 2.59 FIP


Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 10 15.63% 87.89 -1.40 -18.90 -2.26 6.04
Sinker 39 60.94% 87.48 -5.57 -25.45 -2.15 6.08
Change 11 17.19% 80.30 -2.32 -31.71 -2.23 6.00
Curve 4 6.25% 78.64 6.22 -47.90 -2.34 6.00


Observations: The line between success and failure for Hendricks is razor thin, and this was highlighted in the first inning of his outing against St. Louis. After giving up an unconventional double to Stephen Piscotty, Hendricks delivered this pitch to Matt Holliday:


A pitcher with an excellent combination of movement and velocity—like Arrieta—may get away with this pitch, but Hendricks simply cannot throw a thigh-high, 87-mph fastball on the inner third of the plate without expecting to get it hammered. Roll the tape:

Sure enough, Holliday blasted it out to left field to give the Cardinals an early 2-0 lead. He would give up another two runs in the second inning, before settling down and getting through 5 1/3 innings, despite lacking his typical command. Last week, we mentioned that he threw 68 of his 85 pitches for strikes. This week, his total strike count in 84 pitches was just 51, resulting in two walks and decreased efficiency. It’s also notable that he threw 22 pitches into the bottom-third of the zone last week, while this week he registered just four. That’s the rub with Hendricks, it is imperative that he lives in the very bottom portion of the zone (to limit hard contact), but he cannot afford to miss below the zone, lest it lead to walks which his profile simply cannot afford.

He generated just 28 SNIPs this outing, a huge drop from the 45 he generated the previous outing. So, why was he suddenly unable to generate whiffs, foul balls and taken strikes? The answer is a significant reduction in horizontal break on all four of his pitches, leading to a lack of deception to hitters. It’s interesting to note that Hendricks’ release point was consistently 2-3 inches lower this start compared to his previous start, perhaps an indication he wasn’t getting on top of his pitches and driving through the finish to generate lateral movement.

There appeared to be a malfunction in the PITCHf/x data in the first inning of Hendricks’ start (which is why the pitch counts tally incorrectly), but in general he followed the same approach as his previous starts. For his next start, pay attention to whether Hendricks is consistently in the bottom part of the zone, or whether he’s consistently beneath the zone. This will be a telling indicator of what his eventual performance may be, as his velocity simply does not allow for success when free-passes are being granted.

Lead photo courtesy Jeff Curry—USA Today Sports.

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2 comments on “Pitching Progress: An Effort in Finding Incremental Gains, Vol. III”

Bill Thomson

What is “SNIP”? Strikes ? Innings Pitched?

Isaac Bennett

Strikes Not In Play. Looking, swinging, fouled off. Anything that adds a strike that isn’t put in play. I like it as an indicator of the quality of stuff a pitcher has on a given day.

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