Authors: Richard Cosgrove and Shashwat Chitnis
The game of baseball is changing as teams are now using data analytics to develop successful baseball franchises. It came to the mainstream with the 2002 Oakland A’s but now has grown all throughout baseball. There seems to be a correlation between success and emphasis on analytics as shown by the recent success of the Houston Astros. Player Development is one of the many ingredients that teams are using analytics to strive in. The Houston Astros have brought in technology from Blast into their organization to develop hitters in metrics such as – bat speed, swing path, time to contact and attack angle. While a variety of other teams have also used technology to develop pitchers in areas such as pitch design using Rapsodo and Edgertronic cameras. Individual players have been taking data-driven approaches during the offseason. Two of Driveline’s professional clients include Trevor Bauer and Adam Ottavino.
Bauer developed a split-change this past offseason which lowered his ERA from 2017 (4.19) to 2018 (2.21) and being put in talk for Cy Young. While Adam Ottavino developed a cutter improving his ERA from 2017 (5.06) to 2018 (2.43) and becoming one of the most consistent bullpen arms of the year. More teams are bringing this practice into player development as pitchers are becoming more effective due to it. One of the last teams falling behind in this modernization of baseball is the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles are coming off a franchise-worst 115 loses and have gone into a full rebuild. One glaring reason for why they have gotten to this point in their struggle to develop players. It has been evident on the mound. Pitchers who struggled in Baltimore include Kevin Gausman and Jake Arrieta. These two pitchers were not able to reach their full potential in an Orioles uniform but found success with other clubs. There has been a resistance to modernize like the rest of MLB.
Some of the recently popular metrics that teams are looking for in pitchers are spin rate and velocity. Statcast is able to track a pitchers spin rate. Teams value spin rate because it allows for them to gather data on where they would be most effective in the zone and their effectiveness in off-speed pitches. For example, one of the reasons that Houston signed Charlie Morton was because they saw his potential due to his high spin rate. This is not the only case with Houston. In the past two years, Houston’s pitchers have averaged the highest spin rate in all of baseball. Six out of the eight top teams on the chart were all in the postseason this year. Baltimore ranks 19th. The Orioles’ player development department would benefit from valuing spin rate in the development of pitchers which would increase productivity.
Tanner Scott is a pitcher would benefit from using spin rate to his advantage. In 2018, Tanner finished with an ERA of 5.40. However, he does have an upside with the high spin rate on his slider and fastball. Scott has a slider with a spin rate of 2663 Revolutions Per Minute (RPM). Driveline Baseball has a created a measurement to evaluate pitchers referred to as Bauer Units. This is calculated by taking Spin Rate (RPM) and dividing it by Velocity (MPH). This helps pitchers better attack hitters based on what part of the zone their pitches are most effective. The average Bauer Unit is 24. Anything above average shows that pitchers should pitch middle/up in the zone due to the lack of drop towards the plate. While below average shows that pitchers should be pitching middle/low in the zone. Having an average Bauer Unit of 24, that pitcher should look into developing a two-seam fastball (O’Connell). The measurement of Bauer units has not yet been adopted by Major League Baseball.
The Orioles are in a position to where they can build Tanner Scott into being a formidable force on the mound based off his Bauer Unit. Scott’s average fastball has a velocity of 97 mph with a spin rate of 2420 that equates to a Bauer Unit of 24.9. While his slider has an average velocity of 88.7 with a spin rate of 2663 with a Bauer Unit of 30.02. Based on these numbers, his slider has a high spin rate to include an above average Bauer Unit which means that the pitch has a lot of movement on it. The slider has been his bread and butter, 2018 stats prove this as hitters hit .155 against it with a whiff percentage of 55%. While hitters have a .368 average against his fastball. Scott would benefit from a fastball that compliments his slider opposed to the one he is throwing now, on top of using his slider more. With an above average Bauer Unit on his fastball at 24.9, he should be throwing his fastball middle to up in the zone because the increase in spin means more Magnus Force meaning the ball will drop less over the course of the plate (Driveline).
Scott threw a majority of his pitches down in the zone this past season. He threw 59.26% of his pitches down in the zone compared to up. Aroldis Chapman has a similar fastball Bauer Unit of 25.27. Chapman has established himself as one of the top relievers in all of Major League Baseball with fastballs being thrown at 100+ mph from the left side which is very similar to Tanner Scott. While also having a slider that has a similar Bauer Unit of 28.67 to Scott. In 2018, Chapman had a 2.45 ERA that is more than half of Scott. That saves a team more than 2.95 runs per game. Chapman throws more pitches up in the zone compared to Scott. Chapman threw 45.7% of his pitches down in the zone, that is a 13.56% decrease in pitches down compared to Scott. Despite both having a similar spin rate to velocity ratio, Chapman is more successful because he is able to use his fastball as an out pitch compared to Scott. Chapman (K%) chart also supports the success that he has had throwing up in the zone. By using the top of the zone, he is inducing more swing and misses.
One of the teams that have used spin rate to their advantage is the Houston Astros. Not only are they an analytic team, but they also have turned into one of the most successful franchises in baseball. One prime example is when Houston traded for Ryan Pressley, Pressley has a high fastball spin rate. Pressly was a reliable reliever for the Minnesota Twins, but Houston turned him into shutdown pitcher, only giving up two earned runs the entire 2nd half of the season. In his seasons in Minnesota, achieving a career ERA of 3.75. In the season since coming to Houston, Pressly finished the year with a 0.77 era and has since led the Astros to the playoffs in a high leverage role. They took his Bauer Unit of 26.78 which indicates he will have more success throwing it up in the zone and used that to his advantage as shown below (Provided by Petriello).
Fastball rate: 49% with Twins, 35% with Astros
Curveball rate: 25% with Twins, 37% with Astros
High fastball rate: 36% with Twins, 43% with Astros
Another weakness that Scott has, is his repertoire of pitches. He only uses a fastball and slider. In order to be more effective against hitters, he needs to be able to develop a better array of pitches that get hitters off balance. Scott needs to have pitches that come out of his hand looking like a fastball but then changes direction. He needs to develop another pitch that can be thrown down in the zone like a sinker, splitter, or changeup. A prime example of another hard-throwing lefty who is similar to Scott is Felipe Vazquez. Vazquez has an average fastball of 98 mph (Scott 97 mph) with a Bauer Unit of 26.06 (Scott 24.9). Very similar fastballs while both also throwing sliders with Bauer Units of above 30 (Vazquez 31.67) (Scott 30.02). The difference between Vazquez’s success (2.83 career ERA) and Scott’s (5.56 career ERA) is that Vazquez uses the top of the zone more due to his high spin rate, but also has to do with the fact that Vazquez has a changeup to go along with his fastball and slider. Scott’s fastball batting average against on his fastball is .368. Despite having similar fastballs, Vazquez only gets hits at .286, a drop off from Vazquez because he is able to use his other pitches to get outs. Although, .286 is still high. He has success because he is able to use his slider and changeup more than his fastball. Adding this pitch to Scotts’ toolbox will allow him will decrease his use of his fastball which is relatively not effective. Scott would benefit from Edgertronic cameras to assist with designing a changeup or splitter. The use of the camera would allow him to work on his arm slot consistency which would make him more similar to Vazquez.
Vazquez’s changeup tunnels his fastball but then drops off. Tunneling pitches like this cause hitters to be off balance. Scott should strive to develop a changeup to have a Bauer Unit of about 22 which is similar to Vazquez. This will allow him to have a pitch that he could throw up in the zone (fastball) and down (changeup) in the zone. His slider will be able to come to his swing and miss pitch. By doing this with Scott, the Orioles will now have a “Felipe Vazquez” for roughly $3 million less. After working with Scott to develop this pitch, the Orioles need to bring him back in the role that he had in 2017 for the Bowie Baysox. Pitching 3 innings every 5th day. This would allow him to work on his new off-speed pitch and new fastball approach while also working on his mechanics. Tanner is a hard-throwing lefty but he struggles at times throwing strikes. In 2018, he walked a batter every 1.9 innings, which is an alarming rate. The Orioles could see benefit from sending him down to Triple-A Norfolk to work out those kinks and his new approach on the mound. Once he proves he has mastered his new pitches and fastball, we should see him pitching at Camden Yards. The three-inning starts, worked for Scott in 2017, as he finished that year with a 2.22 ERA and being selected to MLB’s Futures Game. But the next season in 2018, Baltimore sent him back to the bullpen setting him up for that unsuccessful season of a 5.40 ERA. If Baltimore sends him back into that role with an addition with one pitch and better utilizing his fastball, he will bloom into that prospect he was projected to be in the big leagues.
As Mike Elias, former Astros assistant GM now takes the helm as the new Orioles GM, the future seems to be bright. As Elias oversaw scouting and player development while in Houston. He was very successful in those roles, rebuilding one of the worst organizations in baseball (2012) to now one of the best, he now plans to do the same in Baltimore. The beginning of that rebuild has already started with Elias bringing on former Houston sabermetric analyst; Sig Mejdal. Just as Mejdal did in Houston with the “Nerd Cave”, he will build an analytical department from scratch to produce a winning organization. Mejdal will be able to analysis players unlike Baltimore has before; using analytics to find/develop undervalued players despite what the gut feeling might be. Elias and Mejdal will be able to take the “Cardinal Way” they learned in St. Louis and the player development practices used to rebuild Houston to start a new chapter in Charm City.