Big Data, the Shift, & the Cutter

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xray-delta has commented on the close association of sports and statistics, especially baseball (Moneyball: Who Knew Brad Pitt was a Statistician? Fun with numbers, NFL-styleBrilliant Analysis of Mariano Rivera’s Pitches). Few areas of life, never mind sports, are as well-measured and chronicled as is American baseball. In his occasional articles for USA Today, Paul White does a nice job of bringing together the analytics that often reveals a deeper process at work in the sport of baseball. For example, he recently wrote about the current dominance of pitching and defense over hitters.

David Ortiz got a pretty significant hit last week. It’s debatable whether the single was more newsworthy for breaking up Yu Darvish’s no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth inning or because it eluded the Texas Rangers’ exaggerated defensive shift.

“It’s the thing they’ve created to get in power hitters’ heads,” Ortiz says. “That’s changing the whole game.”

He’s not alone — nor are the exotic defensive alignments the only thing dramatically altering the way baseball is played and measured. You don’t have to be a power hitter to look at your statistics and gulp. Big data and bigger arms are conspiring to make most batters’ lives miserable.

Major leaguers are striking out in more than 20% of their plate appearances. That has never happened for a full season, though this would be the ninth consecutive season the rate has increased. If today’s overall .251 batting average and .318 on-base percentage last through the season, they would be the lowest since 1972, and the current home run rate of 0.90 per game would be the lowest since 1993.

But the statistics that measure tendencies are perhaps more telling than the traditional ones. Players are swinging and missing more often than they have in a decade, and chasing more pitches out of the strike zone than ever. And when they hit the ball, more often it goes exactly where a fielder is standing, no matter how unconventional his positioning might seem.

“The technology people put all their elbow grease into getting the hitters out,” Baltimore Orioles general manager Dan Duquette says. “They measure everything. All the tendencies are cataloged. The video resources, the aggregation of the data and the proliferation of the technology make it more challenging for the hitter.” Two decades ago, Duquette was ridiculed in the Boston news media for hiring a statistical analyst while he was the Red Sox GM. Now, everybody has numbers crunchers looking for the next edge as voraciously as hitters are seeking ways to recoup their lost statistics.

The Houston Astros have a director of decision sciences. Moneyball was merely a brief stop on what is now a runaway train. Yet in the best-selling book and subsequent movie, it was all about unearthing undervalued offensive players. While today’s data revolution, along with drug testing, ostensibly touches pitchers and hitters, the men with the bats seem more adversely affected.

As last season’s Biogenesis scandal showed, doping remains a part of the game, though it’s undeniable that stringent testing has thinned the ranks of the chemically enhanced. But hitters know it’s not just less chemistry and more math working against them.

“It’s amazing. I’ve never seen pitching this good,” says Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun, a former MVP and one of 13 players suspended in the Biogenesis flap. “Everybody is throwing two-seamers, cutters, splits, very few four-seamers. It seems like everybody, all these young guys, are throwing 95 mph. That velocity gives you room for errors, and that’s why you’re seeing so many strikeouts. I miss the 88-mph guys.”

The uptick in velocity is not a figment of Braun’s imagination. The average major league fastball was under 90 mph in 2002, the first year for which data are available. It crossed the 90-mph threshold in 2004 and worked its way to a new high of 91.7 last season. “If you’re not throwing 93 and up, you’re not in a big-league bullpen unless you’re some kind of specialist, like a sidearmer,” Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Neil Walker says.

But wait, there’s more. “You have wipeout pitches — like the splitter,” Walker says, referring to a split-finger fastball. “They speed up your bat,” Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy says. “When they’re throwing harder, you almost feel like you have to cheat a little bit. That exposes you to the off-speed stuff. More guys are learning how to throw cutters.”

Indeed, the cut fastball made famous by retired New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the game’s fastest-growing pitch. As an effective tool, it’s still limited to a select few who can consistently execute the lateral movement that differentiates it from a straighter fastball. Ten years ago, 1% of pitches in the majors were cutters, according to FanGraphs.com. The rate has been a steady 5.7% or 5.8% since 2011, when use of the cutter jumped more than 21% over the previous year.

That also coincides with increases over the same period in ground balls (a byproduct of not making solid contact) and swings at pitches outside the strike zone (a result of hitters being fooled). In 2004, players swung at 16.6% of pitches outside of the strike zone. In the decade since, it has steadily climbed and nearly doubled: Hitters swung at 31% of pitches outside the zone in 2013.



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