In the the second of (what is now but was not intended to be) a series of posts about the differences in pitchers under former St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and current St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux, I will look at the difference in pitch movement between the 2017 and 2019 teams. The first thing to look at below is a graph in gif form that changes from 2017 to 2018 to 2019, showing pitch movement for St. Louis Cardinals pitchers. It shows all pitch types for all pitchers, but only for individual pitches in which the pitcher in question threw it at least 50 times in that season. The graph plots how many inches each pitch moves - the vertical movement is on the y-axis (where it makes sense to be) and is measured with gravity while the horizontal movement of their average offering is on the y-axis.
Side note: this graph does not show you which direction pitches move - rather it shows how far it moves. Just for reference, for a right-handed pitcher, this graph is absolutely correct in direction the pitch would move based on the view from the catcher. For a left-handed pitcher, this is the flip (or the reflection across the y-axis) of what their pitch would look like coming in, based on all pitches starting at (0,0) if this were a coordinate plane. Alright, I'm done with the geometry, I think. Carry on.
The first thing that jumps out to me is the difference between the sinkers (SI) and the changeups (CH) from 2017 to 2019. In 2017, SI and CH had very similar vertical breaks, with the CH having slightly more. They also had very similar horizontal breaks, with the SI have slightly more. In 2019, however, they seem to be a bit more inter-mixed to me. The CH and SI seem to have similar horizontal movement, but the CH just break more vertically.
Going clockwise around our gif, the four-seamers (4sm) have very slight movement on our graph. Nothing really to write home about. They had a few more pitchers get outliers at the top that suggest a higher spin rate, but the overall spin rate of the team on 4sm jumped by just 30 rpm and they're mostly in the same location. They actually seem to be moving less horizontally if anything. Having guys that throw less SI and more 4sm, that makes a bit of sense.
The St. Louis Cardinals had one significant outlier with the slider (SL) on the 2017 graph. Most pitchers had a drop of 20-40 inches and a break of 0-10 inches to their glove side (away from a same-handed batter) in 2017 by their SL. In 2019, it seems to me that more pitchers threw SL that are in the 30-40 inch drop range while also breaking slightly further towards their glove side. That would suggest to me harder, tighter sliders with higher spin (without me knowing what angle of spin is being used). In fact, the 2019 Cardinals threw SL 1.5 mph harder and with over 90 rpm more spin.
Similarly, the curveballs (CU) thrown by the 2019 staff were 0.5 mph faster, but with over 150 rpm more spin! It is quite clear that the CU, despite coming faster, had a significantly higher amount of vertical break in 2019 than 2017. Regarding horizontal movement, they were about the same, but on a curveball, you're looking to change the eye level of a hitter significantly.
Let's take a look at some of those outliers from 2017.
The first outlier at which I would like to take a look from 2017 is in the four-seam fastball category. As you can see, the one at the very top with the least vertical movement (most rise), is from none other than Trevor Rosenthal.
Another way to look at these is not just by raw movement in inches, but by their vertical and horizontal movement vs. league average. What that does is compares players league-wide within 2 mph either way of their individual pitch type to theirs and then see how much their pitch breaks in comparison to those.
For example, Rosenthal's 2017 4sm averaged 98.5 mph, 9.8 inches of vertical sink, and 6.7 inches of horizontal sink. We would compare that to all 4sm fastballs between 96.5 and 100.5 mph to see if Rosie's break was more or less than those. The reason behind that is you want to compare pitches that have similar time to break as opposed to comparing a Jordan Hicks fastball to an Adam Wainwright fastball. Now back to Rosie...
Trevor Rosenthal's 4sm vertical break was 1.4 inches more than average. It broke about 12% more than others of it's ilk. However, Rosenthal had 1.7 inches less break horizontally, which was 20% less than league average.
To the far right of our graph, we've got Tyler Lyons' slider. Look at that horizontal movement in comparison with the other sliders. That's typically what we call a wipe out slider, no?
If we look at this compared to league average, we have to take into account that Lyons averaged 80.1 mph on the radar gun. So we'd compare that to all of the other sliders thrown between 78.1 and 82.1 mph league-wide. While Lyons only had 0.8 inches better than league average drop on his slider, which still looks like it was as much raw drop as anyone else on the team had, but the sweep on his breaking ball (the horizontal movement) was 10.3 inches better than league average for similar sliders!!! That's nearly one foot better than average. Incredible. That was actually the most break (vertical or horizontal) that any Cardinals pitcher in 2017 had above average on any individual pitch type. Remember, that doesn't mean that this was the best pitch of 2017 for the Cardinals, necessarily. Here's an example of that slider (albeit from 2018 because MLB Advanced Media only has games from 2018-19 free to the public) in slow motion to better see the break on that pitch.
Interestingly enough, both of the aforementioned players are no longer on the St. Louis Cardinals for one reason or another.
When it comes to the curveball at the bottom of the graph, with the most drop on the MLB club, it must belong to none other than Adam Wainwright, still a Cardinal - and a Cardinal great at that.
It has about 7.5 more inches of vertical break than anyone else on the team and has 4.5 inches of vertical break more than the average pitcher in the majors that throws a curve between 65.6 and 69.6 miles per hour.
Not only that, but Waino's 2017 curves averaged 5.4 inches more horizontal break than the league average as well, giving him nearly half a foot more in that direction. While we have continued to watch that curve over the last two years, it's always fun to see more of those, so here ya go! (This one is recycled from the 2019 season and our PITCH MADNESS bracket we put out months ago.)
Another outlier is the only splitter on the list. You see, the Cardinals employed a young man named Matt Bowman a few seasons ago and he threw a splitter rather than a straight change up.
You can compare this teal dot of Bowman's to the green change ups above and to the left of it. It is obviously the outlier offspeed pitch, by quite a bit - along with Carlos Martinez's change up on the far left side. Now, I'm highlighting Bowman's because of the severe vertical movement of the pitch, which drops over 2 inches more than other splitters of his kind. Who knows, maybe 40 years ago he could have been a closer for a different Cardinals team?
Aside: Then again, if you look at the below comparison, he probably couldn't be. Those numbers are all "+" stats so they are in comparison with league. Notice how Sutter struck out 40-50% more than the league average pitcher, whereas Bowman doesn't even strike people out at a league average rate. He also walks people at a closer rate to league average and allows a batting average closer to league average. None of those are traits you want in a closer. Yes, I get that.
Okay, back to a Bowman splitter so you can see how much it drops - slowed down for effect.
Let's take a closer look at the 2019 pitches, now.
The first thing that pops out to me is that many of the curveballs now have the type of vertical break that Wainwright had in 2017. While Adam Wainwright's still has the ridiculous horizontal break (see the blue dot in the very bottom left corner of the image) others have caught up in the movement that I believe matters more (vertical).
For this grouping of 4sm fastballs, I want to do a comparison. Tyler Webb (the red dot furthest to the right) and Daniel Ponce de Leon (the red dot furthest to the left) have about the same vertical break (or rise) on their four-seam fastballs, but they have significantly different break on those pitches. Here are the two of them throwing that pitch, let's compare.
On the left is Daniel Ponce de Leon (PDL) throwing his four-seam fastball up in the zone. It looks like it's coming up (and potentially in) to Colin Moran out of PDL's hand. However, the pitch breaks to the up and away quadrant of the zone due to the movement of the pitch the way PDL throws it. Meanwhile, on the right side is Tyler Webb throwing his four-seam fastball lower in the zone. He is pitching to lefty Corey Dickerson and throws a very straight fastball that ends up about where it looks like it should when released from his hand. cardinalsgifs helped me out with these two more complicated gifs (so a huge nod of thanks to him for that!) and he slowed them down and added trails so you can see the differences in break on the two sets of pitches, including this fastball comparison above (and the change up comparison we'll do below). You should be able to see an exaggerated differences in break when viewing the trails on these two pitches.
The other huge comparison I wanted to do was between Genesis Cabrera's change up and Carlos Martinez's change up. Since we looked at horizontal break above, I wanted to compare some vertical break as well and these two pitchers' change ups have a vast difference (about a foot difference) in vertical break compared to league average.
Cabrera only throws his 0.3 mph harder on average. You'd think there should not be a huge difference in break between the two pitches. However, here's where they end up on the pitch movement chart - but I zoomed in to strip away all of the other pitches and only look at actual break vs league avearge on their change ups alone.
Carlos Martinez's change up is at the very bottom of the graph and Genesis Cabrera's is at the very top. This graph might seem a bit backwards. You see, zero inches of break is average. A positive number is "rise" on the pitch (not upward movement, but higher than you would expect for that change up to go) and a negative number shows "break" (or downward movement).
Look at that little Bugs Bunny hop on that 88 mph change up by Martinez! Oh man that's fun. That reminds me of watching Joakim Soria when I first moved here to Kansas City. Cabrera's comes in at the same speed, but with less break on it (vertically) he can catch that bottom corner instead of missing it low - with no bunny hop on it.
One last thing I would like to note about the 2019 pitch movement chart is that the sliders are much more closely clumped together. I find that very interesting because 1) it shows that Mike Maddux might have a bit of a type that he likes to see out of his pitchers, 2) there is still quite a bit of difference there with over 10 inches (vs average) difference in horizontal break and over half a foot of vertical break (vs average) difference, and 3) as I talked about in my previous article comparing pitchers under Mike Maddux and Derek Lilliquist, the consistency of the increased amount of sliders was quite incredible. Maybe this is a reason why.
Is the pitch movement difference between 2017 and 2019 a byproduct of the pitchers available? A byproduct of the time? A byproduct of the pitching coach?
I don't have a definitive answer to that, but maybe as we continue to watch Mike Maddux and the Cardinals' current crop of pitchers grow with each other, we will have a better idea. Let's hope that we get to see rather than discuss sooner rather than later.
As always, thanks for reading.
*thanks to cardinalsgifs and Baseball Savant and Fangraphs for their help, as always