Friday, December 13, 2013

By Robert Cunningham, Staff Writer - 

Angels-Relevant PITCH f/x Data

Originally when the idea of retaining Jason Vargas was being discussed on near the end of the 2013 season, I postulated that it would be more cost-affordable for the Angels to simply let Vargas sign elsewhere and trade for a young, cost-controlled left-handed starting pitcher of similar capability rather than spending the money on Jason.

This happened in the Angels trade for Skaggs and Santiago but I wanted to see which one of them, if either, was a Vargas-equivalent type pitcher (you should start to see where this is going). As I dived deeper into the FanGraphs PITCH f/x data I became quite fascinated with some of the information I saw, particularly regarding Hector Santiago.

Below is some raw pitcher data of starting pitching innings from 2011-2013. It should be noted that sample size is an issue, in particular, for Corbin, Santiago, and especially Skaggs in regards to total innings pitched and total pitch count per individual pitch.

Take their numbers with a grain of salt as they could be skewed and inconsistent with their Minor League track record. However, the data is still quite interesting, in my opinion, especially Santiago’s pitch selection and the movement on some of his secondary pitches that he doesn’t utilize as much.

So first we’ll start off with some basic player comparisons. I selected these left-handed pitchers on a whim simply because they either did pitch for us (Vargas), currently pitch for us (Wilson), or were considered and/or acquired in our recent trade with Arizona (Miley, Corbin, and Skaggs) and Chicago (Santiago):

As you can see Santiago and Skaggs, in particular, haven’t pitched a lot of innings so that should be taken into consideration when looking at this data. You most certainly have already noted the yellow highlights as I think the comparison between Vargas and Santiago is equitable in this discussion.

Here is a pitch usage table:

For those of you who are more visually inclined here are some graphs of the same information:


So to continue with the growing Hector Santiago focus you’ll notice that he mainly throws a four-seam fastball, a sinker, and a changeup. However, he does also feature a cutter, slider, curveball, and screwball, all of which are developing pitches that he doesn’t throw on a regular basis.

As we press on here is each pitchers average velocity per pitch as shown in the table below:

For those of you who “like to watch” here is the same information in graphical form:

As a reminder of how a left-handed pitcher generally throws to the plate, here is a generic graph of left-handed pitch locations from the point of view of the catcher:

You’ll notice that the sinker and screwball are not shown above. The sinker generally acts like a two-seam or four-seam fastball (and is often confused as such). The screwball is a rare pitch and Santiago has been incorporating it in his outings. The screwball acts in a funny manner as described by Santiago himself in a FanGraphs interview from Nov. 16, 2012 by David Laurila:

“Last year, my screwball was the reason I had crazy success and got called up to the big leagues. It was like they fell in love with it. It’s a great pitch that can trick hitters. I can have hitters off-balance and sometimes I‘ll even fool umpires. It will be coming like a right-handed curveball with a mix of left-handed changeup in there. It will be 12-to-6 with a circle changeup dive, down and away.”

“I grip it like a two-seam changeup. I put my middle finger and my ring finger right on top of the seams to be able to pull them through. I’ll try to get over the top of it, just like you would a curveball, if you‘re throwing a curveball 12-to-6. It’s just the opposite way. It’s like a curveball reversed. I get on top of it, and try to be inside of it as much as I can. When I was tossing it to Miranda, he said I had a perfect arm slot. I’m high three-quarters, which gives me a good chance to get on top of the ball.

“It’s similar to a changeup and the only way I can see a hitter picking it up is if I slow my arm down. From the times I’ve thrown it, I’ve seen people kind of fall forward on it and not even see it coming. There’s a big difference in velocity. There’s almost a 20 mph difference between my fastball and my screwball.”

The screwball is an interesting offering from Santiago in that it has even sharper horizontal movement than his changeup (about an extra 1 inch) but comes in about 7 mph slower making left-handed hitters get through their swing plane further and creating weaker line drive or groundball contact. Of course right-handed hitters would see the ball tail away and down getting it off the end of the bat thus creating similar poor contact.

So how much horizontal movement do these pitchers actually create with their pitch repertoires?

Below is the average horizontal movement, in inches, for each pitcher and each of their featured pitches:

A positive number indicates, using the generic left-handed pitching graph, above, that the ball moves to the right off of the vertical centerline. A negative number means it moves to the left off of the centerline. Zero would be on the centerline itself.

For those of you that enjoy the visuals:

One of the first things that caught my eye (and remember sample size could be an issue but I don’t think it is as the number of changeups in the sample is about 560) is the similarity between Vargas’ and Santiago’s horizontal changeup plane break.

A 10.9 inch and 10.2 inch horizontal plane break is pretty good. In fact looking at absolute values (positive or negative break) of horizontal changeup plane breaks Vargas has the 3rd highest horizontal plane break for a changeup over the 2011-2013 timeframe (minimum 100 IP). Santiago is tied for 7th highest out of that same group.

Note: Interestingly enough, Santiago’s former rotation mate, Chris Sale, is ranked 1st in left-handed horizontal slider break. It actually begs the question of whether or not Santiago improved/learned from Sale. Daniel Hudson, who was non-tendered by the Diamondbacks recently, is tied with Santiago in 7th place for highest absolute changeup plane break. Notably Santiago’s former rotation mate, Chris Sale, is tied for 1st in changeup horizontal plane break.

Another interesting thing that caught my eye was the 11.3 inch horizontal plane break of Santiago’s screwball. It breaks even further in on left-handed hitters than his changeup.

Considering the fact that Santiago is the only starting pitcher, over the 2011-2013 timeframe (minimum 100 IP), that has even thrown a screwball, it is safe to say he is ranked 1st overall.

Also of interest is the horizontal plane break on Santiago’s curveball, sinker, cutter, and slider. Now the sample sizes are not as strong on the curveball, cutter, and in particular the slider. The sample size for the curveball is about 200 pitches, the cutter 135 pitches, and for the slider about 43 pitches, so you are forewarned (maybe you’ll need more than one grain of salt?).

The horizontal break on Santiago’s curveball is a very respectable -4.7 inches. Just looking at the other five names on the list, you can clearly see that only Wilson is in the same ballpark at -3.9 inches.

In fact if you look at all left-handed starters in the 2011-2013 timeframe with a minimum of 100 IP, Santiago’s horizontal curveball break is ranked 13th overall. Of course curveballs are known more for their vertical movement but it is interesting nevertheless.

In addition to the horizontal movement on those pitches, Santiago’s sinker has an average of 9.7 inches of horizontal break, giving him a solid weapon, when combined with the four-seam fastball and changeup, against left-handed hitters. It should be noted that Santiago’s sinker, among left-handed starters, is ranked 5th in largest horizontal break. In terms of absolute horizontal break among all starters, in the noted timeframe, he is ranked 7th overall.

Santiago’s cutter has very little horizontal movement (0.8 inches) and would, by itself, not necessarily be a quality offering but coming out of his hand it looks like a fastball which can possibly fool hitters into swinging a hair to early and find the cutter arriving almost 5 inches further towards the middle of the strike zone, potentially creating, for a left-handed hitter, a hit to the left side of the field rather than up the middle.

Finally, Santiago’s slider is interesting despite the very small sample size. Hector’s slider averaged -4.2 inches of horizontal break. Comparing it to the five other pitchers on the list you can immediately see that his horizontal slider break is significantly better. In fact out of all left-handed starters in the 2011-2013 timeframe with a minimum of 100 IP, Santiago’s horizontal slider break is ranked 2nd  overall.

So we’ve established that Santiago’s sinker and changeup have some of the best horizontal breaks in baseball (which, for Hector, is good against left-handed hitters). Additionally, in small sample size, his screwball, curveball, and slider also are among the league leaders in horizontal break.

We know this information but what about the vertical component of Santiago’s pitches? How do they compare to other established big league pitchers and does the comparison to Vargas and others still hold water?

Below is the vertical plane break of the same set of not-so-random left-handed pitchers I selected:

So the same thing applies here as it did above for the horizontal movement. A positive number indicates, using the generic left-handed pitching graph, above, that the ball moves up off of the horizontal centerline. A negative number means it moves down off of the centerline. Zero would be on the centerline itself.

Again for those of you who are numbers-challenged:

The thing I immediately wanted to examine was the comparison of Vargas’ and Santiago’s vertical changeup movement. Vargas does have a little over an inch more of positive vertical movement but they are pretty close.

It is so close that I have to think that Jerry Dipoto and his analytics team, upon learning how similar Santiago’s changeup was to Vargas, knew that Santiago would be one of their trade targets so that they could potentially replicate Jason’s production at about 1/20th of the price.

Beyond the potential for a plus changeup you can clearly see that Santiago’s sinker has above average vertical movement as well and actually ranks 12th overall out of all starters in the 2011-2013 timeframe that pitched at least 100 IP. This is probably the main reason he throws it over 1/3rd of the time in his starts to date.

Also you can see his screwball, as compared to his changeup, falls another 4 inches helping to create eye level separation for the hitter, all while coming in 7 mph slower. This could be a useful put-away strikeout weapon against right-handed hitters as the ball tails out low and away. It can also jam left-handed hitters on the hands, especially if he uses it sparingly against them.

Santiago’s curveball is probably a useful tool against left-handed hitters simply because unlike other pitchers curveballs, his actually has a significant horizontal tailing action away from lefties. However, as a weapon against right-handed hitters, Santiago would best be served using his slider more often in the future.

Hector’s slider is the pitch, along with the screwball, that I can see the Angels encouraging him to work on and use more moving forward. If the PITCH f/x data is to be believed, based on the small sample size, his slider actually has more vertical dive than his curveball with about the same amount of horizontal break.

Hector’s slider has some real potential in it as an above average offering that could, when combined with his four-seam, sinker, changeup, and developing screwball, push Santiago’s pitching profile to a higher level than that of a back-end rotation piece.

Not only would the slider help make him death to left-handed hitters (due to the solid horizontal break) it would give him a third pitch to go with his sinker and changeup against right-handers.

The 15 mph velocity differential as compared to his fastball would be a possible put-away pitch against righties. Even mixing in the occasional cut fastball against right-handed hitters would cause increased chaos amongst opposing hitters.

Below is an approximate graph of Hector Santiago’s pitch locations from the point of view of the catcher:

Although we have been discussing Santiago, because I find his horizontal and vertical plane break movement fascinating, we should also point out that Tyler Skaggs has some tremendous vertical movement on his four-seam and two-seam fastballs as well as his curveball. He should enjoy future success against right-handed hitters strictly based on that three-pitch repertoire alone.

So finally I’d like to show which pitch or pitches, over the 2011-2013 timeframe, has been the bread and butter for each of the pitchers in this analysis. Below are the weighted values for each pitcher and their respective pitches:

Again the same principal applies: Positive means the pitcher enjoyed some measure of success while negative means the pitch was more hittable (anything around 20 is considered really good and vice-versa if it is negative).

One more time for those who like pretty pictures:

The large red bar shows you how good of a changeup Vargas threw over the last two seasons. It really is his bread and butter pitch which he needed because the rest of his repertoire was quite hittable.

Additionally Corbin, Santiago and Skaggs values should be taken with the aforementioned grain of salt. Some of these pitches haven’t been throw very much and are still in a development stage in terms of use. That is the caveat to the Linear Weight values as each pitcher can throw a pitch a lot more often than another.

Considering his current high three-pitch usage of his four-seam fastball, sinker, and changeup it becomes pretty clear why Santiago has enjoyed more success against left-handed hitters so far in his short career (Batting Average Against = .219, although it is higher as a starter).

In the near future I expect the Angels will encourage Hector to work on his screwball and slider. If he masters those pitches, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him develop his curveball more as well. The real key I think will be the slider. If he can improve its consistency and use, it will become another weapon that he can use against all hitters, especially right-handed hitters.

So let me be clear where Hector Santiago is at this point in time: He is, at best, a back-end rotation candidate in the same vein as Jason Vargas in terms of what value he can bring to the team right now.

However the points, outlined in this article, point to some hidden potential that the Angels obviously saw in Hector. It is up to the Angels and Hector Santiago to try and tease out what the PITCH f/x data is hinting at which is the potential for an improved version of Santiago if he can consistently develop and use more of his secondary offerings.

We’ll see what happens and I think the Angels looked at Santiago as a possible diamond in the rough that, with the right tools and polish, can become more than just a #4/#5 type innings eater (which is quite useful by itself). There is more potential here but it may take time to develop it into a more useful result.

Love to hear what you think!

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