Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Slowing It Down

Pitching, Yes Pitching
The pitcher's mound is 10 inches from the ground, 18 feet in diameter, and 60 feet 6 inches away from home plate.  No game can begin without the man standing 10 inches higher than the rest of the players winding up (that's a fitting phrase), and propelling himself forward towards the other half of the battery squatting behind home plate.  What happens next is too variable to predict, but provides every anticipatory spectator a fleeting moment of excitement.  Poetic rhetoric aside, the pitcher's mound, often dubbed the bump, matters little in comparison to the men who stand atop it.  I've written about pitching and pitchers before, but it fascinates me more than any other topic in sports, thus prepare yourselves for another round of "let's talk pitching".  

All Shapes and Sizes, The Young and the Old
Angels RHP Jered Weaver
One man stands 6 foot and weighs approximately 197 pounds, while the other measures 6 foot 7 inches tall with a slender frame of 205 pounds.  One has 4 Cy Young Awards and the other a Twitter account.  If one were to look at Greg Maddux and Jered Weaver side-by-side, it might be difficult to comprehend that these two men not only both play(ed) professional baseball, but represent two of the best pitchers to do so.  Weaver looks like a typical California kid.  With long dirty blonde hair, a wiry frame, and an odd delivery that looks like he is attempted to fold himself into two, the righty looks like the perfect fit for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. 
In comparison, Greg Maddux, one of baseball's all-time greatest pitchers, does not compare physically to Jered Weaver.  Maddux, a Texan, looks simultaneously bullish and boyish, a combination perfect for a star pitcher in the Major Leagues.   

The Great Greg Maddux
If appearance constitutes only one of the numerous contrasts between Maddux and Weaver, the second is that Maddux retired from Major League Baseball in 2008 while Weaver began his career in 2006.  Third, Maddux and Weaver never played for the same organization, and neither pitcher has ever been linked to one another in any professional manner.  This is where the dissimilarities between the two pitchers stops.  In fact, to underline the similarities, both even have brother's, Jeff Weaver and Mike Maddux, who have previously been or are currently involved in Major League Baseball.  

Nonetheless, why have I chosen, what seems like two random pitchers, to compare and contrast.  While watching a recent performance by Jered Weaver, I noticed a significant difference in his velocity from his first few seasons in the Majors.  Weaver came up in 2006 throwing consistently in the low 90's, often touching 94 mph.  Check out Weaver's career velocity chart, courtesy of
As you can see, Weaver's fastball could never be considered blazing, but the recent trend shows a true dip in his velocity.  In 2011 and thus far in 2012, Weaver rarely heaves his fastball at speeds above 90 mph, let alone the consistent 91-93mph clip he displayed in 2007 and 2008.  What caused Weaver's drop in velocity, and more importantly, how has he remained so dominant despite less zip on his most used pitch?  

The answer is simple, Weaver has adjusted his style and simultaneously matured as a pitcher.  Weaver's change in pitching style reminded me of the other subject of this piece, Greg Maddux.  Maddux, known by most as a control pitcher.  He never utilized high velocities to overpower hitters, but instead used deception, creativity, and pinpoint control to make hitters' lives miserable.  While other legends like Roger Clemens, Steve Carlton, and Randy Johnson went the more conventional rout of getting hitters out with mid to high 90's fastballs, Maddux learned early on that, in order to not become an average pitcher, he had to do something else to compensate for his lack of speed.  It seems as though Jered Weaver may be following in the footsteps of the great Greg Maddux.  

Before we delve further into the velocity discussion, let's compare the two pitchers a bit more.  First, since Weaver has only been pitching for 7 seasons, I only looked at Maddux's first 7 full seasons(1987-1993) as well.  Over his first 7 seasons, Jered Weaver has compiled a 29.4 fWAR, 30.1 rWAR, and 21 WARP (I mention all three types of calculating WAR because each one is a bit different).  From 1987-1993 Greg Maddux spotted a 37.1 fWAR, 30.1 rWAR, and 21.7 WARP.  If we look at WAR/season we see that Maddux, probably due to his outstanding defense, as well as his greater propensity for obtaining ground balls, has an edge.  As a fly-ball pitcher, Weaver benefits from a steller trio of defensive outfielders, Mike Trout, Torii Hunter, and Peter Bourjos.  
For the record, in order to perform these calculations, I doubled Weaver's current WAR numbers from 2012 (the league is at the midpoint of the season and I'm assuming Weaver will remain consistent).  Here are some other numbers to consider: 
Maddux's ability to keep the ball on the ground keeps his HR/9 numbers low.  Weaver does not use the ground ball as well, but keeps batters from reaching base by compiling more strikeouts and fewer walks per 9 innings.  In addition, Maddux' average batting average against vs. left-handed batters from 87' to 93' was .264, while Weaver has put up a .238 average vs. left-handed hitters.  Weaver and Maddux produce outs in different ways because their style of pitching is different, but both yield ace-like results.

When first examining the data, I began to hypothesize that Jered Weaver, pending health status, could end up with a similar career to Maddux.  Now, after some serious thought my prediction has changed.  I now see Weaver as a pitcher who will most-likely come close but not match the iconic level attained by Maddux. Nonethless, both pitchers figured something out about velocity that few other pitcher have done.  Often times, it is control, pitch selection, and dedication to one's craft that exceed the value of a 95 MPH fastball.  

Circle Change Up Grip
When Greg Maddux began his career in the Major Leagues, his fastball was consistently clocked between 90-92 MPH, but over the next 7 seasons his fastball would more readily be clocked between 88-90 mph.  While the speed of his fastball changed, so did his use of two other pitches.  First, Maddux mastered the circle changeup.  The ball is held against the palm of the hand, thus creating a drop in speed.  Due to the circular grip applied with the thumb and pointer finger, the pitch tends to move inside to righty's and away from lefty's (if the changeup is thrown by a lefty pitcher the movements are the exact opposite).  The most important part of a change up is to have similar arm speed to a fastball, in order to use the difference in velocity to trick the hitter.  Check out this pitch f/x data from an April 7th, 2008 start by Maddux.

The fastballs and change ups all show similar vertical and horizontal movement.  By keeping the movement similar, Maddux continued to fool hitters with a change up despite the fact that neither pitch topped 85 MPH.  It is worth noting that as Maddux's career progressed he threw the straighter four-seam fastball far less, in favor of fastballs that had increase vertical and horizontal movement.

Weaver, like Maddux, may not throw more than 90 MPH, but he has found other ways to keep runners off base.  Weaver's average curveball velocity in 2012 has been 71.5 MPH, slower than many Major League curves.  He throws the hook with incredible 12-6 action creating a huge looping motion that a hitter has extreme difficulty timing.  In addition, Weaver has increased, yes I said increased, the velocity of his slider.  The slider, unlike the curveball, has greater velocity and a harsher break.  With the increase in speed, Weaver keeps hitters even more off balanced than before.  Finally, to complete the pitching comparison between Maddux and Weaver, both pitchers developed a sneaky pitch called a tailing fastball.

Tailing Fastball Grip
Often called a come-back fastball, the tailing fastball, when thrown by a right-handed pitcher, moves from left to right.  Greg Maddux made this pitch famous.  In fact his most famous influence on pitching may be concentrated in this area.  Maddux used the tailing fastball to freeze left-handed hitters who usually feast on fastballs thrown in the mid to high 80's.  He did so by starting the pitch as a ball on the inside and having it move laterally to catch the inside corner as the ball crossed the plate.  Currently, numerous right-handed pitchers, who do not throw overpowering fastballs, utilize the tailing fastball to jam or often strike out left-handed hitters.  According to pitch f/x, Weaver did not throw a tailing fastball for the first 4 seasons of his career.  In 2010 he began throwing the pitch 17.4 percent of the time, which became 19.1% in 2011, and finally in 2012 Weaver's tailing fastball made up 29.0% of his pitches.  

In conclusion, Jered Weaver is not a clone of Greg Maddux, in appearance or as a pitcher.  On the other hand, the two have some parallels, especially similar pitching styles that have made them great pitchers.  According to, Greg Maddux ranks as the 5th best pitcher in baseball history. These rankings are based on fan voting, but at the very least, they give you a decent perspective as to where Maddux might truly rank.  On the same list, Jered Weaver comes in at #284.  I will reiterate that while I do not think Jered Weaver will become the next Greg Maddux, but he has used similar philosophies of pitching, specific tweaks, to enhance his craft and keep him in the annual discussion of Cy Young candidates.  

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