A few weeks ago, I found myself in a discussion on Twitter with Scott Mitchell of TSN and Keegan Matheson of Baseball Toronto about Chris Tillman, a player some of us liked as a potential bounceback candidate. The idea that came to me from that discussion was that if they did sign him, he would appear to fit very neatly into a mold of pitchers that this front office likes to acquire: pitchers with some outlier aspect to their fastball. The Blue Jays did not sign Tillman, of course. They signed Jaime Garcia instead. But it just so happens that Garcia is an even better example of this potential target group. As a result, I had to check to see if my hypothesis passes the smell test.
In order to check whether my theory actually fits with the reality of pitchers the Jays have targeted and signed, I’m going to focus only on pitchers acquired in the offseason. The specific needs of a club during the season are impacted by so many things, and the market is so much smaller, that it’s hard to target a specific type of player. I’m also going to focus only on pitchers signed to major-league contracts.
Given those parameters, we end up with this list of pitchers:
Let’s first focus on the starting pitchers.
I’ve gone into detail on this a few times in the past (most notably here), but J.A. Happ gets more vertical break difference between his twoseamer and fourseamer than any other starter in baseball who throws at least 500 of each in a season. If you drop that threshold down to 50 last year, he finished — you guessed it — number one on that list as well. In fact, the only pitchers who even finished ahead of him at that threshold in either of the last two years are Vincent Velasquez of the Phillies, who just meets the minimums, and Marcus Stroman of these very Toronto Blue Jays. Happ also uses them quite effectively, throwing both pitches over 25 percent of the time in 2017.
As with J.A. Happ, I have written about Marco Estrada many times. The most significant point across most of my work, and the thing that comes up so often that anybody reading this should be fully aware of it by now, is that Marco Estrada’s fastball fights gravity at a higher rate than any other pitcher in the major leagues. Last year, Estrada’s fastball “rose” by 13.23” on average. Clayton Kershaw was second at 11.89”. In 2016, Estrada’s fastball “rose” by 13.06”. The now-a-reliever Chris Young, the only other pitcher at all like Estrada, was second at 12.52”, and Clayton Kershaw was once again next at 12.06”. So we’re talking about a fastball that fights gravity by at least an inch over the next best starter, let alone the average fastball. If that’s not an outlier, I’m not sure what is.
Finally, we get to the newest acquisition.
About a month ago, inspired by J.A. Happ, I wrote a piece looking at the break variances of a group of pitchers across baseball who throw a high percentage of fastballs. The idea was to see if I could identify pitchers who should be changing their two and fourseam mix to increase effectiveness. I created the following chart:
For a full page version of the above if you don’t feel like scrolling as much, click here.
The sheet above is sorted by overall break difference, across the two axes, between the sinker and the fourseamer. The conclusion of the original piece was basically that Vincent Velasquez needs a new pitching coach, but near the top of that spreadsheet, just behind Trevor Williams of the Pirates, we see Jaime Garcia — whose 6.4” of break is second in all of baseball.
Garcia’s high ranking on the list is mostly thanks to a ridiculous 5.5” of horizontal break difference between the two offerings. This is second in the major leagues to the White Sox’ Dylan Covey at 5.8”. But unlike Covey, Garcia also gets an additional 3.3” of vertical break between his two fastballs. This helps not only with missing bats, but also with generating groundballs and popups.
So we have an outlier fastball in terms of movement across the two planes, but there’s even more deception than the information above makes it seem. As mentioned before, Trevor Williams gets slightly more overall break difference (by a mere 0.1”) than Garcia. However, Williams’ two offerings have a velocity difference of 2.4 mph. That’s fine, but now consider Jaime Garcia’s velocity difference between his two offerings: 0.0 mph. He throws the two pitches at exactly the same speed, making it very hard to differentiate between them until it’s too late.
And finally, just to finish off the starters nicely, a quick paragraph on the two drafted starters that were here when Shapiro and Atkins showed up:
As mentioned above, Marcus Stroman actually finished ahead of J.A. Happ with his vertical fastball break in 2016. But he functions as an even greater fastball outlier when you include his cutter. I went into more depth on this topic here, but Stroman was the only pitcher in baseball with at least 6″ of total break between all three offerings, with hitters needing to cover a triangular area of 20.7″ when facing him. With a velocity difference of just 3 mph, no other pitcher in baseball could say that. As for Aaron Sanchez, he can be summed up in one sentence: The only pitcher who threw his sinker harder with more horizontal break last year was Alex Meyer of the Angels. If you drop the threshold to just 50 pitches, rookie sensation Luis Castillo also makes the list, leaving us with only two pitchers who threw harder with more run than Sanchez.
Clearly, then, the Blue Jays have a rotation full of pitchers with outlier fastballs or fastball mixes.
I’m going to only very briefly touch on the relievers, because this matters far more in the rotation than in the bullpen, as in the rotation you are facing hitters multiple times. That said, it still plays up in individual at-bats, so the relievers are worth a mention here.
First up was Drew Storen. This was a trade that made sense to just about everybody: Storen had a track record and Ben Revere was superfluous. Looking deeper, though, it would seem like Storen also fits the pattern we’ve established.
While it’s not the fastball alone like the starters listed above, Storen had elite horizontal break difference between his fastball and his slider. Here is the list of pitchers that finished ahead of Storen entering 2016:
Storen’s 17.54” was behind only three pitchers, two of whom were under contract to teams who weren’t about to trade them and one of whom is a lefty who occasionally struggles to throw strikes.
And since he’s right there on the list above, Joe Smith seems to require very little explanation, but I will add some more information anyway. Thanks to his submarine delivery, his sinker in 2016 got -1.79” of vertical movement, which was the fourth lowest among righthanded relievers.
However, 2016 was a down year for Smith statistically thanks to a hamstring injury. The year prior, the submariner had finished third among righthanders in most sink, but had also posted the third highest difference in vertical break between his fourseam and twoseam fastballs – something that had disappeared in 2016. In 2017, he was back in third among righties in sink but also with the same vertical break difference as the seasons prior to 2016. So in addition to outlier sink, not only did Smith have elite horizontal break difference between fastball and slider, but also between his two fastballs.
I’ll sum up the last three relievers in bullet point form because of their minimal impact:
– J.P. Howell’s twoseamer had the eighth-most sink among lefthanded relievers at 2.15”, and the lowest among pitchers who throw overhand.
– The number of lefties who threw harder and had more horizontal break difference between their two fastballs than Franklin Morales in 2015: one. (That one lefty was Sam Freeman, a successful reliever for the Braves.)
– I couldn’t find much in the way of outliers for Gavin Floyd, but it’s also very hard to separate his break data across his starting and relieving roles.
If you’re wondering why any of this would matter, and why a team would make a concerted effort to pick up this type of pitcher, the answer lies in how hitters perceive a pitch. The documentary “Fastball” goes into this in depth (and with better science than I can provide), but hitters do not track the entire path of a fastball. The pitch moves too fast for the eye to process. As such, the brain essentially creates a “most likely trajectory” based on what it has seen already in the moment, heavily influenced by what it has seen in the past.
By having your ball do things differently than other pitchers, you are going to have the ball end up in a slightly different spot than the perceived trajectory. This makes it more likely to miss bats or create soft contact. That’s how Jaime Garcia ended up with a lower xwOBA on his sinker than Clayton Kershaw, and how Marco Estrada gets strikeouts with 89-mph fastballs at the letters.
So are the Blue Jays doing this on purpose? Of our data set of eight pitchers, seven acquisitions had notable outlier aspects to their fastballs, or at least in the case of Storen, his fastball relative to his breaking ball. While it’s impossible to say for certain if this is an intentional pattern by the Blue Jays, it’s at least something of a trend, and one I’m going to keep monitoring going forward. And most importantly, if it is on purpose, it’s possible that the Blue Jays have discovered a new market inefficiency, as all of these pitchers have come very cheap.
Very cool, Messrs. Atkins and Shapiro.
Lead Photo © Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sport
Movement data courtesy of Brooks Baseball