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

Another rotational turn passes, and the Cubs went 4-1 once again. For those of you keeping track at home, the turn-by-turn team records thus far are 4-1, 4-1, 3-2 and 4-1. Certainly, credit for the team’s early season success extends well beyond the starting pitching, but to get through 20 games without having a single outing of less than five innings should have a lasting positive effect.

The historical dominance of Jake Arrieta had yet another memorable chapter written, as he achieved transcendence on a beautiful Thursday night at Wrigley Field. Jon Lester and Jason Hammel weren’t far behind, offering dominant outings en route to wins. Only John Lackey failed to keep the Cubs in the game, while Kyle Hendricks was lifted for a pinch-hitter after throwing five innings in a tight contest. The move paved the way for Adam Warren to throw two scoreless innings; the first time all season a Cubs’ reliever has made a multi-inning appearance.

 Jake Arrieta (April 21st, vs. Cincinnati Reds)
Result: 9 IP, W, 0 ER, 0 H, 6 K, 4 BB, 119 pitches
Season: 4-0, .87 ERA, 4.33 K/BB, 2.82 FIP


Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Sinker 79 66.39% 95.20 -7.81 -16.09 -3.28 6.61
Change 3 2.52% 88.85 -8.01 -27.82 -3.82 6.39
Slider 23 19.33% 89.13 4.13 -29.94 -3.41 6.54
Curve 14 11.76% 81.76 5.85 -51.84 -3.26 6.56



The 24th consecutive quality start—two short of Bob Gibson’s record 26—for Arrieta ended up being so much more. For the second time in his last 11 starts, the opposition failed in their every effort against him to perform the most rudimentary of baseball tasks—to hit the ball and reach base safely. Nine innings of scoreless baseball also ran his scoreless innings streak at home to 48; the longest ever at Wrigley, and the second longest of all time. His seemingly unthinkable H/9 of 5.9 last season currently looks bloated, as this start dropped his current mark to below 4.4. His ERA dropped to 0.87 on the season; almost certainly an unsustainable number due for regression, but an achievement nonetheless. I mentioned last week that after seeing him live for the first time, it finally felt appropriate to say we were witnessing an all-time great, and I reiterate that statement today in light of this performance. With a combination of velocity, command and movement that is nearly unparalleled, this is unlikely to be the last start from Arrieta that generates seven different pieces on BP-Wrigleyville. It cannot be emphasized enough: Young and old alike, enjoy these moments from Arrieta. You may never witness anything like it ever again.

The stuff Arrieta possessed was shockingly similar to his last start, as the movement and velocity ratings were nearly identical across the board. He collected 52 SNIPs, besting his season-best total of 50 in the start I witnessed against Colorado. He generated 12 whiffs en route to six strikeouts, a surprisingly low number for an Arrieta complete game. He also walked four batters, his highest total since he allowed six in a loss to the Indians on June 16th last season. Arrieta himself suggested he “felt off” in his pregame warm-up session, and that manifested in sub-par command:

It must be highly unusual for such an iconic start to include 23 pitches more than six inches outside of the zone, and certainly so considering the supreme command Arrieta has exhibited the last few years. However, the lack of precise control didn’t hold him back, as his path to success was primarily due to weak contact. Only one Reds’ batter generated exit velocity greater than 97 mph, when Eugenio Suarez harmlessly grounded out (103 mph) to Anthony Rizzo in the very first inning. The closest Cincinnati came to registering a hit was in the third, when Zack Cozart hit a ground ball to Kris Bryant’s right at third base. Bryant made an excellent pick and throw, which Rizzo dug out to record what appeared to be just another innocuous out. Upon analyzing the replay, it appears as if Cozart was running somewhat half-heartedly after Bryant made the pick, perhaps assuming he’d be thrown out by more than he was. History is a funny thing, as a dose of Respect-90 from Cozart may have led to this being just-another-dominant-start by Arrieta, rather than something to be remembered:

Arrieta’s pitch-selection was something to behold, as he threw 79 two-seam fastballs—a 66 percent usage rate, easily his highest of the season—and completely abandoned the four-seamer. His 19 percent usage of the slider matched his lowest total of the season; the same rate as his first start in which I suggested he was intentionally pitching to contact. The 119 pitches needed to complete the no-no was his highest total of the year by 19 pitches. I was a proponent of pulling Arrieta after six innings and 85 pitches, but Joe Maddon said postgame that you should never interfere with someone’s greatness, and mentioned that they had agreed with the pitching staff that pitch counts would go out the window in the event of a chase for a no-hitter. This is an approach I fundamentally disagree with, as multiple Cubs’ starters noticeably wore down towards the end of last season. Further, the bullpen has been under-utilized thus far, and the middle-relievers could have used the work. The opinion I hold is certainly unpopular, but I believe 119 pitches is simply too many—no matter the situation—to keep starting pitchers fresh as the team strives towards the ultimate goal.

Jon Lester (April 22nd, vs. Cincinnati Reds)
Result: 7 IP, W, 1 ER, 5 H, 4 K, 1 BB, 100 pitches
Season: 2-1, 1.98 ERA, 4.60 K/BB, 3.37 FIP


Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 48 48.00% 93.63 5.49 -13.98 2.63 5.71
Sinker 14 14.00% 92.58 8.72 -22.23 2.69 5.64
Change 3 3.00% 87.16 8.58 -25.39 2.68 5.66
Curve 13 13.00% 76.45 -4.91 -47.72 2.66 5.72
Cutter 22 22.00% 90.00 0.06 -22.77 2.68 5.68



This was yet another stellar outing from Lester, whose brilliant season thus far seems to be getting lost in the hype of Arrieta’s efforts. He has yet to allow more than three earned runs in an outing, registering quality starts every time out. His ERA fell beneath 2.00 with this start, and his K/BB sits at a very healthy 4.60. He may not be the ace of the staff, but he certainly pitched like one through his first four starts.

Two weeks ago we discussed a bizarre outing in which Lester’s command appeared to totally leave him. His command improved markedly last week, but this start was an example of Lester’s trademark control at its very best. Let’s take a look at the two heat maps to visualize the improvement:

April 22nd start:                                           April 11th start:

CaptureCapture 2


The difference is pretty striking, as the most recent start leans heavily to the low and inside corner (against a righty), with the hottest areas barely within the strike zone. His map from two starts ago tells a different story, with the prevalence of groupings showing up right around thigh-high, and distinctly within the zone. The width of target area also tells a story of his improved command, as the horizontal diameter of the map from his most recent start shrunk considerably.

We also noted from his start on April 11th that his velocity was down considerably, but crept back up last week. This outing, Lester took it up yet another notch, averaging over 93 mph on his four-seam fastball, easily the highest of any start this year. It’s an excellent sign to see him rounding into form, as his velocity is trending up while his command improves. It is likely there are more excellent starts for Lester right around the corner.

Lester’s pitch usages are very consistent, though we have seen a steady increase his usage of the four-seam fastball, mostly at the expense of his changeup. His curveball usage has also trended up, and it’s likely for a good cause as he hasn’t allowed a hit on the pitch all season:

Game Fourseam Sinker Change Curve Cutter
CHN@ANA (4/5/16) 33 14 9 10 27
CIN@CHN (4/11/16) 35 20 8 12 27
COL@CHN (4/17/16) 42 11 4 15 27
CHN@CIN (4/22/16) 48 14 3 13 22

John Lackey (April 23rd, vs. Cincinnati Reds)
Result: 5 2/3 IP, L, 6 ER, 7 H, 5 K, 1 BB, 95 pitches
Season: 3-1, 4.97 ERA, 4.50 K/BB, 3.20 FIP


Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 40 42.11% 93.06 -4.22 -15.19 -2.60 6.36
Sinker 22 23.16% 92.99 -9.62 -22.12 -2.81 5.99
Change 9 9.47% 86.36 -9.38 -27.52 -2.34 6.37
Slider 16 16.84% 84.24 3.06 -35.12 -2.33 6.40
Curve 8 8.42% 79.97 4.87 -47.11 -2.37 6.50



It was another uneven start for Lackey, a theme that is defining an up-and-down first month of the season for him. This outing started well enough, as Lackey retired the first nine batters, including three strikeouts. However, an inability to find the lower third of the strike zone eventually caught up with him, as he threw 19 pitches in the middle-third of the zone, and just six in the bottom-third. Furthering the complications, he followed a trend similar to his other outings, he began to run into trouble in the fourth as his velocity diminished:

Coming into the season, an inability to pitch into and beyond the sixth inning was a serious concern for Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, but Lackey’s waning velocity by inning has shifted the troubling attention his way instead:

Inning Fourseam Sinker Change Slider Curve
1 93.44 94.04 87.13 85.04 80.14
2 91.94 92.93 0.00 84.44 77.96
3 92.89 92.48 85.91 83.74 80.52
4 92.16 91.64 84.91 84.17 80.39
5 91.68 91.99 85.38 84.19 79.84
6 91.80 92.16 86.06 84.22 78.28
7 91.66 90.71 82.75 83.85 78.08

The effects of his diminished velocity by inning are more than just anecdotal, as the sixth and seventh innings have cost Lackey effective starts on two separate occasions this year. Maddon will have to seriously consider using his quick hook  from last year on Lackey if he continues to be unable to hold velocity through the fifth and sixth innings. On this day, Maddon was one out too late, as Lackey gave up a three-run home run Eugenio Suarez, just one out shy of completing six inning and a quality start. Check out his results by inning this season:

1st inning 4 4 4 9.00 20 16 4 5 2 0 1 3 4 0.313 0.400 0.625 1.025
2nd inning 4 4 1 2.25 14 13 1 1 0 0 1 1 5 0.077 0.143 0.308 0.451
3rd inning 4 4 2 4.50 15 13 2 3 0 1 0 1 4 0.231 0.267 0.385 0.651
4th inning 4 4 2 4.50 15 15 2 4 2 0 0 0 4 0.267 0.267 0.400 0.667
5th inning 4 4 0 0.00 15 15 0 3 2 0 0 0 5 0.200 0.200 0.333 0.533
6th inning 4 3.2 4 9.82 15 14 3 6 0 0 1 1 3 0.429 0.467 0.643 1.110
7th inning 2 1.2 1 5.40 8 8 1 3 0 1 0 0 2 0.375 0.375 0.625 1.000

Jason Hammel (April 24th, vs. Cincinnati Reds)
Result: 6 IP, W, 0 ER, 3 H, 7 K, 2 BB, 96 pitches
Season: 3-0, .75 ERA, 2.44 K/BB, 2.50 FIP


Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 24 25.00% 94.00 -4.33 -13.77 -2.14 6.54
Sinker 26 27.08% 93.70 -8.39 -17.48 -2.16 6.53
Slider 39 40.63% 86.28 3.11 -34.29 -2.13 6.62
Curve 7 7.29% 78.55 7.75 -52.86 -2.16 6.46



Between the beard, enhanced velocity and impressive results, Jason Hammel seems to resemble Arrieta more every day. In four starts this season, he has thrown exactly six innings in each, while allowing one run or less. This version featured 10 whiffs and 52 SNIPs, the latter total a season high by a whopping 13 strikes. 47 of his 96 pitches ended up at or below the bottom-third of the zone, a continuance of the excellent command we’ve seen from him in the season’s first month. He didn’t generate any popups in this start, but the 17 pitches located in the upper-inner quadrants suggest he understands the importance of changing the batters’ eye-level, and possibly inducing an easy out via the popup in the progress.

Another encouraging sign from Hammel is the steady increase in his velocity. He averaged 94 mph on his four-seam fastball in this start, a speed he hasn’t held consistently since 2012:

Game Fourseam Sinker Change Slider Curve
CHN@ARI (4/8/16) 91.75 92.17 84.48 84.40 76.84
CIN@CHN (4/14/16) 91.26 91.83 0.00 83.59 76.35
CHN@SLN (4/19/16) 93.05 93.04 85.36 85.18 77.72
CHN@CIN (4/24/16) 94.00 93.70 0.00 86.28 78.55

Combining his higher velocity with the sharpest curveball on the team has been an effective mix, though his increased reliance on the slider is reason for pause. Furthering the resemblance to Arrieta, an uncanny ability to repeat his mechanics should give you some hope for Hammel to sustain his outstanding results. Evidence of this is found in the impressive lack of variance (highlighted above) in his horizontal and vertical release points, meaning the batter sees every pitch released in nearly identical fashion.

The only slight stain on Hammel’s early results is a relative lack of efficiency, as his 2.44 K/BB rate is well below his 2015 mark of 4.30, but actually does fall in line with his career mark of 2.45. Look for Hammel to continue pitching to contact, while making more of a concerted effort to limit free passes.

Kyle Hendricks (April 26th, vs. Milwaukee Brewers)
Result: 5 IP, ND, 1 ER, 2 H, 4 K, 1 BB, 69 pitches
Season: 1-2, 3.52 ERA, 4.75 K/BB, 2.53 FIP


Pitch Type Count Freq Velo (mph) pfx HMov (in.) pfx VMov (in.) H. Rel (ft.) V. Rel (ft.)
Fourseam 13 18.84% 87.92 -1.47 -19.28 -2.63 6.23
Sinker 47 68.12% 87.50 -6.55 -25.61 -2.49 6.28
Change 8 11.59% 80.40 -2.00 -29.79 -2.55 6.23
Curve 1 1.45% 78.21 6.18 -47.26 -2.47 6.17



On what was a cold and windy day in Chicago, Hendricks fought through the tough conditions to have one of his better outings of the season. He threw five very efficient innings—allowing just three baserunners—and likely would have remained in the game had a prime pinch-hit opportunity not forced Maddon’s hand to remove him. Hendricks’s vertical release point was consistently 2-3 inches higher than it was in his previous start, indicating he made an effort to get on top of his pitches to keep the ball down and generate ground balls. His pitch plot appreciated the approach:

Hendricks abused the lower outside portion of the zone, and when he came inside to a righty, he was predominantly off the plate. However, fortune did smile on him, as the one bit of really loud contact he gave up was to Chris Carter, who crushed a belt-high fastball to the tune of an 108 mph exit velocity. Fortunately for Hendricks, this also came with a -16 degree launch angle, which allowed it to be a relatively harmless single into center field:

It’s a little bit surprising to see Hendricks’ changeup usage trend downward, as his 11 percent rate in this start was by far his lowest of the season. The main beneficiary of his lower usage of the change is the four-seam fastball, which he threw at a nearly 19 percent clip, a surprising leap from the three percent he threw it in his first outing:

Game Fourseam Sinker Curve Change
CHN@ARI (4/9/16) 3.03 74.75 4.04 18.18
COL@CHN (4/15/16) 15.85 60.98 4.88 18.29
CHN@SLN (4/20/16) 15.63 60.94 6.25 17.19
MIL@CHN (4/26/16) 18.84 68.12 1.45 11.59

On the other hand, a quick glance at opponents batting average against may give us an indication why this is happening:

Game Fourseam Sinker Change Curve
CHN@ARI (4/9/16) 0.000 0.071 0.429 0.000
COL@CHN (4/15/16) 0.000 0.353 0.167 0.000
CHN@SLN (4/20/16) 0.000 0.385 0.000 0.000
MIL@CHN (4/26/16) 0.000 0.167 0.000 0.000

In 39 deliveries this season, batters have failed to get a hit against Hendricks’s four-seam fastball. This gives us a good idea why his confidence is growing in the pitch, and perhaps why he’s leaning towards the four-seamer more often as opposed to his two-seam fastball and changeup. I find this encouraging, but tend to believe that if the pendulum swings too far and results in him abandoning his changeup and overusing his four-seam fastball, opponents will begin to adjust and start taking advantage.

Lead photo courtesy Jasen Vinlove—USA Today Sports.

Related Articles

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username