Not an Article about Pitching at Altitude
This entry was supposed to be about how pitches moved and behaved at different altitudes. I briefly wrote about differences in pitch movement for a Weekend Blog in May and I was planning to revisit the topic when there were more stadiums supplying the data. After the All-Star break, several new stadiums went on-line with the pitch f/x system, including Chase Field in Arizona, the stadium with the second highest elevation in baseball, and I thought I was in business. I examined how pitches moved at Chase Field (or Turner Field, the third highest stadium in baseball) compared with how they moved at parks closes to sea level, such as Petco, Safeco or McAfee, but I found virtually no changes in how pitches moved at the different altitudes. This didn't seem right intuitively and it wasn't.
To make a long story short, I had forgotten to account for the distance traveled by the ball. MLB.com has varied the distance they begin tracking the pitch, called y0, and although it appears to have recently stabilized around 50 feet, it began the season at 55 feet and after June 4th varied from 40-55 feet depending on the game. Needless to say, where the pitch is initially picked up is going to make a huge difference on the distance it breaks and after going back and looking at my results again, I didn't have enough pitchers who had the same y0 value at both a high-altitude and low-altitude park. That pretty much shot the column idea, so this post turned into a catch-all, with some updates and cool graphs that I haven't had a chance to post yet.
Despite not writing about differences due to altitude, I wanted to share two conflicting results I got when looking at altitude differences. The first result is about Rich Hill. Curveballs are thought to be very adversely affected by the high altitude at Coors Field and while Hill hasn't made a start in Colorado, he did start at Turner Field in Atlanta, which is roughly 945 feet above sea-level. Comparing Hill's start in Atlanta to a start he made at sea level in San Diego, his curveball broke 12 inches down in San Diego, but only 8 inches down in Atlanta. All of his pitch types dropped roughly 3 inches more in San Diego compared to Atlanta. It makes sense that balls thrown in the higher altitude would tend to "hang" more and not break as much. However, a pair of starts by Noah Lowry makes it seem like this isn't the case. Lowry has made a start in both Coors Field and Petco Park, but all of his pitches had a bigger drop at Coors. This is the opposite of what is expected and I have no idea what could be causing it, other than possibly something technical. I'd still like to revisit this topic in the future, but it might end up being more complicated than just waiting for more data.
This is a pitch chart for Justin Verlander's start on 6/23 at Atlanta. The chart is remarkable for several reasons and I've been trying to come up with an excuse to use it for more than a month. One thing you need to know to appreciate the graph is that the initial tracking point for the pitches in the game was 40 feet from home, and his fastball is still averaging 95 MPH. Even when the initial point is 55 feet from home, which is where my most pitches were tracked from, very few pitchers are able to throw 95 MPH. Another cool feature on the graph is the mess of points around 75-85 MPH. Verlander's change-up and curveball both travel the almost exactly same speed, but they move in completely opposite directions. Not only does the hitter need to recognize a speed difference between Verlander's pitches, but he then has to react very quickly to hit the fastball or try to identify which off speed pitch is coming.
Not many pitchers have a graph this "clean", with no pitches thrown in a 10 MPH range. (81-91 MPH) Josh Beckett has a similarly "clean" graph, making me think that could be a trait of power pitchers who consistently throw their fastball hard, instead of occasionally taking something off of it. This graph is a very obvious example of Verlander's pitches, but even looking at other starts he has made in pitch f/x equipped stadiums, the "clean" pattern remains the same.
This chart is for Franklin Morales of the Colorado Rockies system. Morales is another young, hard throwing pitcher, this time a left-hander with a big curve. His curve has similar vertical movement compared with Rich Hill's curve, although Hill gets more horizontal movement away from LHH. There's a huge difference between pitching in an exhibition game against other minor leaguers and pitching in the majors and I'm not saying that Morales is going to be as good as Hill or Buchholz will be as good as Verlander, only that some of their pitches look similar right now. I don't know how movement on pitches translates from the minors to the majors, if there could be something like MLEs for movement, but wild speculation about prospects is always fun.
These graphs show the Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), broken up by batter/pitcher splits. I ran these in one of my first posts and had been updating them every couple of weeks since then. As a reminder, they are from the catcher's perspective, so the right hand side of the graph is inside for a LHH. For the most part, they've stayed pretty constant for the duration, but there are a couple of changes of note. In the RHH/RHP graph, the middle of the strike zone now has the highest BABIP, which wasn't the case the first time I showed the graphs. Another interesting note is the difference between the BABIP on high-inside and outside pitches. This is particularly noticeable for LHH against LHP, but all hitters have a higher BABIP on high-outside pitches compared with high-inside pitches. This connects with Perry Husband's invention of "Effective Velocity", a theory on hitting and pitching. He writes why certain pitches are tougher to hit than others, and if you click on his name and go to the bottom of that page, there is a graphic explaining it. He found that, everything else being equal, a fastball thrown high and inside looks 4 MPH faster than the same pitch thrown outside. The MPH difference isn't the only thing that goes into hitting a ball solidly, but it is interesting to think about. I'm not sure where he came up with the 4 MPH, but Husband's philosophy makes intuitive sense. In order to hit an inside pitch, the hitter needs to react quicker and meet the ball in front of the plate, leaving less reaction time, which serves the same purpose as an increase in MPH. It's interesting when two people arrive at similar conclusions using different processes.
Also, I haven't done this yet, but it would be interesting to see what these breakdowns look like using the strike-zone as it is actually called by umpires.
That's it for this entry. I promise that next time I have a good idea for an article, I'll make sure all the data are correct before I do the research and start writing.
Update: 11:20 AM- I fixed the BABIP charts that John mentions in his comment.