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Fixing the Rockies, a data driven approach: Part 4, pitching changes

Now that we’ve talked about a new way to pitch, here’s how to implement changes

Fixing the Rockies, a data driven approach: Part 1
Fixing the Rockies, a data driven approach: Part 2
Fixing the Rockies, a data driven approach: Part 3

Who’s starting?

The last post addressed some of the macro-factors the Rockies can do to address some problems with pitching. Now, let’s look at some of the players for whom these solutions may be most relevant.

For the pitchers I’m going to be talking about pitch design. We are just going to be looking which pitches are good and bad, and which ones can be fixed/paired better.

To do this I’ll be looking at Statcast data and how much a pitch moves compared to the average MLB pitch of the same type. This gives us an idea if the pitch is good or bad. However, we are also going to pair this with the spin rates of each of the pitches. Sometimes a guy will have great spin that would create a ton of movement but the spin efficiency is low. While this isn’t exactly how it works, if a guy has a high spin but low movement, we can suggest a slight grip change and probably produce better movement. All is easier said than done, but we are trying to make improvements informed by data. If you want to know more about the science of pitch design and pitch axis Driveline has you covered.

Tyler Anderson

Tyler’s fastball has slightly above average rise and spin rate. It isn’t overpowering but it isn’t terrible. His main weapon is his cutter. This pitch has some elite spin and a well above average movement profile. This is a pretty great pitch and has a different look that the fastball. He doesn’t throw a slider. Instead his breaking pitches are a circle change and a curveball.

Unlike the fastball and cutter, these are not good pitches. The curveball doesn’t drop as much as an average curveball and also has no horizontal movement. For having great spin on his cutter, he has below average spin on the curveball. Because a curveball needs to be a strikeout capable pitch, I’d probably abandon it.

The circle change is significantly worse. It does have a 10 mph difference between the fastball, but it neither drops or runs. It is really just flat. That’s mostly because he spins it too fast. You want a lower spin on a changeup so that it drops off the table, but Anderson’s doesn’t.

Anderson is a great candidate for a splitter. Having a cutter-slider combo is nice because they look very similar but the differences in movement come at the last second. It’s hard for a hitter to adapt to them. A slider would also be a good pitch, but I think a more natural switch would be swapping out the changeup for a splitter. He’ll get a strikeout pitch that drops off the table that also looks like the cutter and moves slightly in the horizontal direction.

The curveball might be something to pull out at some point, but I like the 3 pitch mix of a fastball, elite cutter, and splitter. If that splitter can get a few more strikeouts, he’d be a much improved pitcher from the one that now has to nibble and throws a terrible changeup 25% of the time.

Kyle Freeland

Freeland has a fastball with below average movement and average spin. He can locate it pretty well, he was just a big loser of the Bud Black ball down narrative this season. Basically his pitches all gained more movement this season from last year. As a result, the fastballs he was trying to get down started creeping up from an increased Magnus effect.

The slider is also a bit below average, but he also can locate it well. Same story goes for the changeup. This 3 pitch mix is something that can absolutely sustain him if he starts throwing the fastball up while pairing it with the slider/changeup down. And I don’t mean up over the plate —I mean above the hands.

Freeland should never throw another curveball as long as he lives. I have no problem saying that Freeland objectively has the worst curveball in all of baseball. Some guys may have little vertical movement because they have large horizontal movement or vice versa. Everyone is different and different release positions have different results. Freeland’s curveball ranks 2nd to last in vertical movement (last place moves more than average horizontally), and he ranks 2nd to last in horizontal movement. This is the worst pitch on the Rockies staff.

Kyle is another candidate for a splitter. Freeland normally works by spotting his pitches well and getting weak contact. He doesn’t have a strikeout pitch. While this can be done, it is rare for a pitcher to have long term success without a wipeout pitch. His slider and changeup aren’t bad, but they also don’t move enough to cause a swing and miss. The slider in particular doesn’t seem to have a lot of deception. Rather than a late bite it moves gradually to the plate. Adding a splitter would be give him a strikeout pitch over the changeup that could give him more than just weak contact.

Jeff Hoffman

Hoffman has excellent spin on a 4 seam fastball that has great running action and he can throw at 99 mph. In addition, he also has a curveball with above average spin and break. Finally he also has a changeup with excellent drop that averages 10 mph lower than his fastball.

Fans might point to his high ERA and say he is a failed baseball player, but I think he’s just getting started. He has almost the exact same makeup of another starter who previously struggled but has now become one of the best pitchers in the game: Gerrit Cole.

Hoffman has a similar arm action, can throw almost as hard, has a hammer of a 12-6 curveball that actually moves more than Cole’s. But he has been using his pitches all wrong ever since he got to Colorado.

Cole, upon being traded to the Astros was sat down in a room, told to abandon his sinker, throw his fastball up, and throw his curveball more. This is the exact conversation that needs to happen with Hoffman. Just to demonstrate to you how throwing his fastball up would help, here is a video of Cole getting to 300 strikeouts this season. Just look how many strikeouts he gets up in the zone above the hands. The other strikeouts come by throwing a hard breaking ball down.

To me Hoffman is Cole. A former top prospect with elite stuff being used incorrectly. I’ve heard suggestions to trade him since he’s failed as a major leaguer, but that would be the worst thing the Rockies could do. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeff Luhnow (GM of Astros) has given the Rockies a few calls about Hoffman. If the Rockies trade Hoffman to any analytics focused team, within one season he’ll be a Cy Young contender.

Antonio Senzatela

Senzatela doesn’t have much going for him. In previous seasons he really only had one pitch: his fastball. In fact he still only has one pitch. Upon first look, his fastball doesn’t look good. It ranks as one of the worst rising fastball in all of baseball and it is thrown at an average velocity. Upon second look it’s much worse. The pitch also ranks as one of the lowest spin fastballs in the MLB. That means it isn’t just a adjustment of spin axis for him, the pitch just isn’t that good. The commentators have talked about it being a plus pitch, but I can’t find any number to back that up. It’s very hittable.

The team has tried to give him a secondary pitch, but that hasn’t really worked out. The curveball may not be as bad as Freeland’s (no one’s is), but it has very little movement compared to average and tragically little spin.

The worst pitch is definitely the changeup the team tried to give him this year. It has the same spin rate as his fastball, doesn’t drop, and he can’t throw it for a strike. Other than it being slower than the fastball, there is really nothing here.

Several guys on the Rockies have gone to Driveline to work on their pitches and design new ones. I’d recommend doing something like that for Senzatela, except he already did that! There he got his best pitch, which is a league average slider.

The thing is, he just doesn’t seem to have the raw ingredients of a successful major league pitcher. He started with one pitch that wasn’t very good, and he hasn’t really found anything else that works. At the moment we don’t know how to increase spin rate, so it looks like he’s stuck as a mediocre pitcher with a very low ceiling. The only possibility I can think of is giving him a splitter because his spin rate is so low. But you can’t throw only a splitter and slider. There needs to be something else.

There is just nothing to suggest Senzatela will be a successful major leaguer. This, of course, really sucks. He’s a hard worker who has a huge desire to improve, but I’m not confident it can be done.

Bryan Shaw

This man has had his share of boos at Coors, but his underlying pitches are pretty fantastic. Shaw is also included in the group that went to Driveline this offseason.

The main pitch is a cutter. It has average spin and above average lateral break. He’s able to locate it well and gets a very high percentage of groundballs (51%) with it.

He also has a slider which has excellent spin and elite movement in both the vertical and horizontal directions. This is plus pitch that he really needs to throw more than 9% of the time.

He has an average curveball and below average changeup but as a relief pitcher, there is really no need for these pitches. Here’s the main reason I like him: of the veteran relievers, Shaw’s the only one to actually improve at Coors Field this year. If he throws his slider more, I think there are good things yet to come from Shaw.

Jake McGee

McGee is another pitcher who went to Driveline this season and is another pitcher who only had one pitch his whole career.

His whole life he has thrown nothing but a fastball. At some point int 2018 he tried throwing a few sliders in games and almost all of them ended up in the seats. Unfortunately ,just like Senzatela, he doesn’t even have a good fastball. It has below average spin and movement, average velocity, and he still doesn’t have anything else to throw.

He now throws the slider more and it is better than last season, but it still has no horizontal movement.

Just like Senzatela, it doesn’t look like there is much to improve here. Now we are in a position where he can’t pitch at home, costs way too much money, and has below average pitches with nothing to keep hitters guessing.

I’d try to find a trade if possible. The contract is expensive but his numbers are good enough and there are teams looking for relief help. don’t worry about the quality of the trade, getting almost nothing in return would be just fine. Even if the Rockies have to eat a small part of the contract it would still be worth it to move him.

Wade Davis

Davis’s repertoire is pretty good. He has an elite cutter and a curveball with a ton of movement. His problem is that he walks guys at an extremely high rate.

While his walk rate was sky high for 2019, he hasn’t demonstrated the ability to throw strikes for his whole career. If you’ve seen him pitch at all the last 2 seasons you’ll know what I’m taking about. I have no clue where the ball is going. Almost none of his pitches are actually in the strike zone. He hasn’t thrown more than 40% of his pitches in the strike zone since 2016. His walk rate has always been high his whole career and is only climbing.

While he was great on the road, his walk rate was actually higher on the road this season. Maybe this is the crazy mind game he likes to play with hitters, but it seems to me that guys only get out because they want to swing.

Davis is owed so much money that I don’t think anyone would take him even if you do cite his road splits. Someone might take it because it is only a 1-year deal at this point, but I’m not so sure. We can probably use him on the road, but it still seems like dumb luck at best. Moving him would free up enough money to give someone like Trevor an extension or go grab Yasmani Grandal. Until then, leave him in the dugout in Denver.