Exploring new ways to watch and understand baseball is one of the many reasons why the game has always remained fresh to me. It’s the same reason that I decided to start a blog and even write about baseball in January of all things. That’s dedication, folks. But, of all the newly developed tools that can be used to analyze the game, PITCHf/x is one of the most promising. At it’s most basic form, PITCHf/x is a camera system that has been installed in most ballparks around the league. The system allows us to track the exact flight path of pitches. There’s a fantastic primer on PITCHf/x here that explains things better than I can if you’re new to the idea.
PITCHf/x allows us to see just how much a Josh Beckett curveball breaks or how fast the average Felix Hernandez fastball is. The system enables us to more precisely track pitches without just the use of our eyeballs and a radar gun. Fascinating stuff. The technology, as most new technologies are, is still growing and isn’t without it’s faults — not all ballparks track pitches, strange data pops up sometimes, possible camera bias in some parks, and a few other things — but through the system we’re given new powers of observation when it comes to pitching. 2007 was the first full season for the system, it was first introduced in the 2006 playoffs, and it should only continue to improve and be more valid and reliable.
The task of extracting PITCHf/x data can be an arduous process. It involves pulling the actual XML data from the MLB.com website, plugging it into a spreadsheet program, and then charting the pitches out to a graph. That’s a lot of work and it’s probably something that’s beyond most of our scopes right now. Thankfully, Josh Kalk, has created the most renowned resource on the internet for easily searchable PITCHf/x data. He created the ‘PITCHf/x tool‘ and ‘PITCHf/x Player Cards‘ on his website that allow us to search the PITCHf/x data and plot it out onto graphs by break and location.
Remember that when dealing with the PITCHf/x dataset, not all parks had the cameras installed. Essentially, we’re seeing just a fraction of the total pitches that each pitcher threw in ’07. The dataset might be incomplete, but it captured a little less than 1/4 of all pitches thrown in ’07, that’s a pretty large amount and should give us at least a glimpse into how each pitcher faired. Ideally, in the coming years the dataset will become more thorough and complete.
Today’s article is going to look at Barry Zito. It’ll be the first in a series of articles that examine the starting rotation pitchers — Zito, Cain, Lincecum, Lowry, Correia (or whoever wins the 5th starters job) — and I might do analysis of key bullpen members depending on how well these articles turn out. The starters have the advantage of throwing more pitchers — and remember, PITCHf/x didn’t collect all of them — so they should be more valid and reliable than the relievers, who tend to throw fewer pitches, and thus have less chance to be tracked fully at this point in time with the system. For example, PITCHf/x tracked 1,353 different pitches thrown by Barry Zito, as compared to just 250 pitches from Steve Kline. I’ll feel the most confident with the larger sample sizes.
Money, it’s a gas…
I thought Zito was fitting to analyze as the first pitcher for these articles. Probably because when he first signed the range of emotions ran far and wide among Giants fans. He’d been a star in the Oakland rotation since 2001 when he won 17 games and posted a 3.49 ERA. The very-next-year, Zito won 23 games and a Cy Young, an eccentric star was born. Known for his oddball antics and knee-bending curve, Zito went on to pitch, in total, 7 seasons in Oaktown to win 102 games, an average of 14.5 games per year. He was a proven winner, what’s not to like?
Before the ’07 season the Giants, looking to make a FA splash, made Barry Zito the richest pitcher in MLB history when they signed him to a 7 year $126M contract. This terrified skeptical fans. Huge contracts rarely worked out for pitchers — Denny Neagle, Mike Hampton are good examples — and Zito’s peripherals looked to be sliding down a hill. Fast. Most noted, his declining K% — which had dropped from 22.7% in his Cy Young ’01, to 15.9% in ’06 — and rising BB%. Add in reports of lost velocity for a pitcher that never threw particularly hard in the first place and you can still feel the pandemonium.
Zito came to the NL with big expectations placed on him by Giants fans. I think that some fans believed that they might be getting the ’01-vintage Zito and were shocked when Zito finished the first half with a 4.90 ERA. I admit, I was shocked too. I knew Zito wasn’t striking out guys like he once did and his walk-rate was increasing, but I assumed that the move to the NL, would only help his cause. He would be facing a pitcher most of the time instead of a DH and that should help Zito’s numbers. He was also going to a pitcher-friendly home ballpark in Mays Field. At worst, I thought he would be good for the first 3-4 years of the deal before having to make serious adjustments to his pitching game. It seems that we all guessed wrong on Zito’s time frame. Zito rebounded a bit in the 2nd half, posting a 4.11 ERA to finish the year with a 4.53 ERA. It was Zito’s first year that his ERA+ failed to meet or exceed 100. Zito looked like a very expensive close-to-league-average pitcher.
On to his PITCHf/x data.
The Devil’s in The Details
The first plot that we’ll review is the amount of break on Zito’s pitches.
Vertical break — up and down — is defined on the Z-axis and horizontal break — left to ride — is defined on the X-axis. The plot’s vantage point is if you were right behind home plate, where a catcher or umpire might sit. Negative break on the Z-axis heads downward. Negative break on the X-axis goes into a RHH and positive break goes away from that same RHH.
The curveball has always been Zito’s signature pitch and from the plot, it still looks to be breaking quite nicely. The average break on his curveball was -11.45 inches. The average Zito curve was in the low-70′s, the PITCHf/x system has it at an average of 71.82mph. To get that nice big break, Zito has the throw the ball slower. You can see how big the break separation from Zito’s curve and all his other offerings are. No other pitch that Zito throws breaks even remotely as much as his curveball does.
The break plot shows a nice clustering of Zito’s fastball and changeup which remain pretty close. Also, the slider, which Zito rarely throws — only 70 were detected by PITCHf/x — is in the general area of break with the fastball and changeup. Zito’s change breaks away from the RHH while his slider breaks slightly into a RHH.
I have to admit, I was a little surprised to see the average velocity on Zito’s fastball was 86mph. I expected it to be closer in the 84-85mph range, I remember Zito lobbing quite a few low-80′s fastballs in ’07. Even with Zito’s decreased velocity, he gets good speed separation from his fastball and curveball, around 14mph between the two. I still expect that the loss of 4-5mph on Zito’s fastball has allowed hitters to sit back on the breaking stuff and hack away fastballs.
Let’s take a look at the velocity and number of pitches thrown for each of Zito’s four pitches.
TYPE INITIAL SPEED (MPH) NUMBER THROWN Fastball 86.01 789 Curve 71.82 208 Slider 79.47 70 Change 73.94 286
Remember that this is just the sample of the pitches tracked by PITCHf/x — less than 1/4 of all pitches thrown — so the actual numbers could be a little different but it gives us some insight to what Zito threw and how hard he threw it. Zito threw the fastball — like most pitchers — most of the time. The fastball was thrown 58.31% of the time when Zito was pitching under PITCHf/x. I was expecting the curve to come in at #2, Zito has generally been thought of as a fastball + curveball pitcher, but the change was thrown more than the curveball. The change was thrown 21.1% of the time and the curveball and slider were thrown 15.3% and 5.1% respectively.
The data backs up my memories of watching Zito pitch this past year. The curve was still there but I thought he threw the changeup an awful lot. Is it possible that Zito changed his pitching style some over the course of the season? It’s possible that he wasn’t having much luck with the curve and as the season progressed, started to throw the changeup more in an effort to get more swing-throughs. Even though it’s rarely been advertised as a strength, I considered Zito’s change to be a pretty good pitch for him in ’07.
Thankfully, PITCHf/x let’s us see how many swings-and-misses batters took on each of Zito’s 4 pitches.
Here’s the percentages on strikes swinging. The better the pitch, the more swing-throughs it should generate.
TYPE STRIKES SWINING% Fastball 4.5% Curve 10.5% Change 13.6% Slider 14.2%
The fastball faired the worst out of his four offerings for strikes swining. This seems about right because Zito’s breaking stuff is even more important now that his fastball isn’t as speedy as it used to be. Furthermore, in my studies of PITCHf/x, most pitchers don’t get a lot of strikes swinging with their fastball. Take for example Josh Beckett who throws in the mid-to-upper 90′s. You’d expect that he’d blow Zito away when it came to strikes swinging with the fastball? His strikes swinging for fastball’s was 6.6%. The difference between a Zito and Beckett fastball is more apparent if you add in foul/foul tip’s to their totals. Beckett jumps to a 6% lead over Zito, but both of them are in the 20% neighbourhood. Zito in the low 20′s and Beckett in the mid-20′s. For Zito, and I think most pitchers — I need to do a study on this — the fastball generated the most foul/foul tip’s which is also important in its own way because it’s counted as a strike, unless there is 2 strikes of course.
All three of Zito’s offspeed offerings got the most swing-throughs. You’ll notice the slider had the highest percentage at 14.2% but the sample size is so low — just 70 thrown and mostly all to LHH’s — that I can’t take it seriously. Zito threw 62 of his 70 sliders to LHH’s, probably in an effort to keep them honest. The slider should break away from a LHH when thrown by Zito.
The changeup was the best pitch for strikes swinging for Barry Zito in ’07. You can see why he threw more of them than his curveball. The change got 3% more strikes swinging than the curve did and it’s very possible that Zito has changed his style of pitching in ’07. Either before the season started or as the season went along. Hopefully, the change occurred over the 2nd half when his ERA was much better. Zito did talk some about making adjustments to the National League so it’s believable that he’s throwing the changeup more in the National League.
Location, Location, Location
I still believe that Zito’s #1 problem is that his control has slipped over the past few years. First, take a look at his BB%’s since he became a full-time starter in 2001.
YEAR BB% 2001 8.8% 2002 8.3% 2003 9.1% 2004 8.7% 2005 9.3% 2006 10.4% 2007 9.7%
Since 2001, Zito has gradually increased his BB% towards 9-10%. League average BB% tends to be higher in the AL because of the DH. Anything under 5% for BB% is terrific and anything over 11% is approaching trouble. Zito was getting close to that dreaded 11% mark in ’06 and while he did lower his BB% 0.7% in ’07 with the Giants, the league switch had to play into that some. Zito didn’t have to face a DH in the NL and it was his first time through the league. I’ll be interested to see if his BB% rises, lowers, or stays the same in ’08.
I believe that Zito’s biggest control problem is his fastball control. Out of all pitches he threw — not counting the slider because of such a small sample size tracked by PITCHf/x — the fastball was thrown for a ball the most. When Zito threw a fastball, 42.7% of the time it went for a ball. The fastball for all pitchers is key. It sets up everything else they’ve got. Out of all his pitches, Zito threw the fastball the most and had the most trouble throwing it for strikes. A common picture of ’07 was that Zito would constantly miss high with his fastball. Let’s check PITCHf/x for the location on all of his fastballs that were called balls.
Missing low with the fastball isn’t such a terrible thing, it’s harder to get elevated because of it’s height and thus, less likely to get knocked over the wall. Our memories turn out to be correct with Zito and his fastball control. There’s a large group of fastballs that were called balls up in the zone. With Zito, who doesn’t throw hard — remember an average of 86mph on his heater — he cannot afford to keep the ball up in the zone like that.
Check out another plot showing HR locations on fastballs thrown by Zito.
Up in the zone or where 86mph fastballs go to die.
6 of the 8 HR’s on the fastball — which was the largest amount of home runs given up by any of Zito’s 4 pitches — were up in the zone. Zito just can’t keep throwing his fastball up in the zone, he’s going to get punished.
Because of the limited availability of the PITCHf/x data, we can’t really do a year-to-year analysis and see how Zito is throwing this year, on a plot, compared to his years in Oakland. Hopefully, the PITCHf/x system will continue to grow so that one day we can do that very thing. But, from this 1-year analsysis, I think we can learn a few things about what’s holding Zito back.
For the positive, Zito is still getting great break on his curveball. The big break on the curveball helps to separate his other pitches from the hook and to change the batter’s viewpoint. The curve is still a pretty good pitch for Zito, though it might have taken a back-seat to the changeup. Both the change and curve produced the first and second most swing-throughs for Zito.
His loss of velocity isn’t helping matters. When Zito first came up, the scouting reports on his fastball ranged from 90-92mph, by 2007 he’s down in the mid-80′s. A big question is, how much more velocity will Zito lose? He doesn’t have the command of a Tom Glavine or Greg Maddux to live in the mid-80′s. Zito is going to have to adapt to having less velocity. If that means throwing even more breaking stuff, I’m not certain, but he’s going to have to make some changes.
To me, the velocity is passable, you’d like him to be around 90mph more than 86mph but it all starts with control of the fastball. Like I stated above, pitchers like Maddux and Glavine have shown that you don’t have to be a hard-thrower if you’re hitting your spots. Zito struggled mightily with his fastball in ’07, throwing 42.7% of them for balls and often up in the zone. I didn’t catch Zito much when he played for the A’s but it’s possible that when he had more velocity he pitched up in the zone like he’s doing now. Anyone care to comment on that? Once again, how nice it would be to have PITCHf/x data from that year. We know that Zito has to be aware of his loss of velocity because he was tinkering with a new wind-up in last year’s Spring Training. Maybe instead of trying to add more velocity, he should focus on keep his fastball down more?
2008 will be a statement year for Zito. He can no longer play the “adjusting to the league” card and he’s going into the year with the same catcher as last. He’s faced most of the hitters before so he should “have a book” on them. It’s going to be up to Barry Zito on how well he pitches in ’08 but if his future depends on him becoming more of a control pitcher, at least with his fastball, I’m not sure that’s going to be a very bright future, given his mediocre control over his career.
One thing’s for sure, he’ll still be stinking rich and a hot topic for Giants’ fans.
Best of luck in ’08, Barry.
On Deck: The next PITCHf/x article will be on Mr. Unfortunate himself, Matt Cain. Stay tuned.