“Not missing bats and big impact” could have been a mantra of the starting five, or at least a bestselling bumper sticker for a select number of the fan base, which thrives on the pessimism.
The evidence of the staff’s lack of strikeouts is clear to anyone who does a cursory search of Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference. However, one telling stat that does not show up on the regular sites is the “well-hit average” which ESPNtrumedia carries. This statistic measures how well-struck a ball was and is an indication of whether a pitcher is able to keep hitters from shooting rockets all over the field. In 2013, major league pitchers carried a well-hit average of .164 while the league’s best staff in this category, the Pittsburgh Pirates, maintained a season low of .141. On the opposite end of the spectrum was the Minnesota Twins, who carried a girthy .194 well-hit average.
One reason behind this obliteration could involve the staff’s approach.
It should come as no surprise to those who watched any of the Twins pitchers last year and kept an eye on the radar gun readings that the speed numbers did not impress anyone. The Twins starters averaged 90 on their fastball. Just a tick below them was the Atlanta Braves’ staff that averaged 89.9 with the cheese. Yet, unlike the Twins, the Braves’ staff held a pristine .150 well-hit average – the fifth-best in the game last year. So the pitching woes cannot be entirely explained simply by lack of velocity – but it could possibly be explained by the lack of velocity in critical locations.
Graham Goldbeck, a data analyst from Sportsvision (the company that runs the F/X systems – Pitch, Hit and Field), has culled through the 600,000-odd ball-in-play results captured by the Hit F/X technology and shared some of his findings with the SABR conference this past March. What Goldbeck found was that the vast majority of home run contact is produced out in front of the plate. Intuitively, Goldbeck’s findings found that fastball contact occurs later in the zone while off-speed contact happens further in front.
Strategically, pitchers typically locate their off-speed and breaking balls most often on the lower-half or outside of the strike zone to avoid the type of contact that would result in souvenirs (save for the occasional get-me-over curves). Be it because they were attempting to pump strikes or simply because they failed to spot their secondary offerings (as seemed the case with Scott Diamond and Vance Worley) the Minnesota Twins allowed a league-high .461 slugging percentage on “soft” pitches (those that average 81-mph).
Below is the velocity heat map for the entire major leagues, the well-hit average-leading Pittsburgh Pirates and, finally, the Twins, with the worst well-hit average in the game.
What you see with the Twins’ velocity heat map is that a high percentage of the “slow” offerings (curves, changes, etc as indicated by the green coloring), are falling in the middle of the zone. This, when considered in conjunction with Goldbeck’s findings, is some dangerous living.
One metric that examines, at a glance, how frequently a pitcher is in or out of the zone with a pitch is ESPNtrumedia’s “Paint” statistic. Basically, paint will measure the shortest distance in inches from a pitch to the edge of the strike zone (in any direction). On average, MLB pitchers keep their “slow” offerings approximately one inch outside of the zone. Pittsburgh’s staff – led by breaking ball enthusiasts in AJ Burnett and Francisco Liriano – threw their soft pitches an inch-and-a-half away from the zone (-1.6). Meanwhile the Twins starters threw their soft offerings less than an inch away (-0.9). This means that a significant portion of these pitches were located in a very hittable region.
As the Twins attempt to fix the rotation this winter, a key component of that could be identifying talent which has different approach than last year’s staff had. Namely, pitchers able to keep their “soft” pitches out of the middle of the zone. Those available include the likes of Ervin Santana and Scott Kazmir – both of whom attack the strike zone with their fastball and supplement it with below-the-zone breaking pitches. On the other hand, pitchers like Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes tend to allow their “soft” offerings to hang up in the zone, leading to above-average well-hit averages in 2013.