Recently, I’ve been scrutinizing this idea of quantifying pitch sequencing. But before we even attempt to determine a numerical value for this pitching concept, we need to know what the heck it is we are trying to measure. So what exactly is pitch sequencing? In its simplest form, it’s the art of mixing pitches, changing speeds and locations, varying the hitter’s eye level and disturbing his timing at the plate. Semi-easily put, but much less easily quantified. On-field decision making is often a product of circumstance. Do pitchers deviate locations and speeds based on game situation and the pending risk-reward trade-off? Certainly. In favorable counts with the bases empty, pitcher-catcher batteries have more room for error. Conversely, when the leverage is highest, it’s assumed that taking more risks would be the road less traveled. But who are we to confidently say what a pitcher’s intentions are, or where his intentions should be?
Insert Perry Husband and his calibrated theory to pitching, an approach he termed Effective Velocity (EV). EV is unconventional in that it ignores standard velocity and instead institutes a perceived velocity based on the batter’s reaction time. Here is a quick snip it and visualization from Jason Turbow’s profound piece on Husband’s theory:
Effective Velocity is made up of six tenets, some of which are commonsense and already utilized by successful pitchers at the game’s highest levels, others so complex that even major league coaches have difficulty grasping them. It starts with the idea that all pitches are not equal—even those that appear to be identical on the radar gun.
It hinges on response time. Husband’s model is based on the arc of hitters’ swings, and the understanding that bats must move farther to reach pitches on the inner part of the plate than on the outside edge. Put another way, a batter can hit an outside fastball as it crosses the plate, but to make solid contact with an inside fastball, he must reach it much sooner—up to 2 feet in front of the plate—which requires the hitter to move the bat a greater distance in less time. With this detail in mind, it makes sense to build an approach based not on a pitch’s radar speed, but how quickly the man standing in the batter’s box can react to it.
There is an imaginary stripe that runs diagonally across the strike zone, from the batter’s feet to shoulder level in the opposite batter’s box, where a pitch’s EV equals its actual speed. Husband calls this the Zero Line. He calculated that for every 6 inches the ball moves closer to the hitter from that line, it picks up 2.75 EV mph; for every 6 inches it moves away, it loses an equivalent amount. This gives strikes thrown at identical speeds on a given horizontal plane about a 6-mph fluctuation in reactionary speed from one end of the strike zone to the other. Add vertical differences into the equation and that spread can easily double, all for pitches that are thrown at the same actual speed.
In an era dominated by flashy statistics, highlight-reel plays and fantasy production, the common fan thrives on data that is easily accessible and what makes for the best storylines. EV is the exact opposite of that. It isn’t nearly as sexy as seeing 95-plus flash on the radar gun or a 12-6 curve fall off the table. But not all pitchers are blessed with blazing velocity or a put-away breaking ball. And some of those who are, are still searching for the next competitive advantage. EV is a quantifiable tactic that allows us to gauge which pitchers deploy this schematic approach when they toe the rubber, and which pitchers do not. It helps bridge the gap of identifying the key components of what makes a pitcher effective. And it’s not just a matter of committing to this philosophy, there’s a matter of executing it: locating and commanding pitches, and deviating between fastballs, breaking balls and off-speed pitches at different levels of the zone to throw off the hitter’s timing and balance. Execution is much bigger than the idea itself.
I decided to take Husband’s concept a step further by calculating the actual EV for every pitch of the 2014 and 2015 seasons, based on speed and location relative to the zero line. Then, I found the change in EV from one pitch to the next, leaving an empty value for the first pitch of every plate appearance. Pitchers who utilize this principle can effectively manipulate the perceived velocity gap between two subsequent pitches, and that’s precisely what we are trying to examine—the change in EV from one pitch to the next. In a vacuum, one would believe pitchers who regularly have a greater change in EV would see better results due to wider variance in the hitter’s timing mechanism. Well, “better results” is a little vague for my taste, so let’s look at the different aspects of pitching and see which ones benefit most from exploiting EV. The interactive plot below includes pitchers who threw at least 150 innings this season and allows you to select the metric to measure up with change in EV.
Of pitchers who hit the 150-inning mark, average change in EV had the strongest correlation with whiff rate (0.25), strikeouts per nine (0.20), strikeout rate (0.19) and soft hit percentage (0.18), and showed the strongest inverse relationship with contact rate (-0.25). Seemingly, pitchers who take the mound with this strategy in mind tend to draw more whiffs and weaker contact.
Here’s how the 2014 and 2015 change in EV leaderboard shook out:
Back-to-back years of top five finishes for Trevor Bauer, Collin McHugh and Jered Weaver. Coincidence? I doubt it. The year-to-year correlation of the 61 pitchers who threw at least 150 innings in 2014 and 2015 was 0.81. In other words, average change in EV is quite stable from season to season for rotation work horses.
A former colleague of mine, Dan Weigel, wrote a phenomenal piece last year that analyzed Bauer’s usage of EV, and Eno Sarris documented Bauer’s scientific approach to pitching earlier this season. Most would consider him to be the Godfather of this pitching philosophy as he’s advertised himself as an EV advocate. But instead of doubling down on Bauer’s tactics, I decided to turn my attention to another, may we say lesser-known, user of this on-mound strategy, Collin McHugh.
McHugh isn’t a flame thrower by any stretch of the imagination, sitting around 91 mph with his four-seamer and 88-89 with his cutter. But he does boast a wicked secondary pitch in his curveball and has shown time and again that he has great command. Despite sitting below-average in fastball velocity, his four-seamer generates an awful high number of swings and misses—most likely a product of his EV-style of pitching.
Below are two zone profiles of McHugh’s breaking balls and off-speed pitches since joining the Astros in 2014. On the left is his usage against lefties, where you can see the zero line painted diagonally across the zone with almost all of his pitches falling beneath it. To the right is his usage against righties. While the line isn’t painted as clearly here, you can still see he applies the same strategy versus right-handed hitters. His fastball usage is more variable than his curveball and change-up as he tends to scatter the zone dependent on the situation.
For those who are interested, I’ll leave you with a walk-through of the EV theory through the lens of McHugh squaring off against the New York Yankees on August 26, 2015. Note that the strikezone plots are from the catcher’s vantage point.
1st Inning: Collin McHugh vs. Brian McCann
|CU||In play, out(s)||73.8||70.8||18.8|
With one on and two out in the 1st, McHugh leads off with a fastball off the plate. He follows it up with a get-me-over curve down and away to even up the count 1-1. Not convinced McCann has fully adjusted to the looping curve, he spins another hook on his third pitch so McCann’s timing is certainly set below 70 mph. Sure enough, McHugh comes back with the heater up in the zone, changing EV by 24.3 mph. McCann fouls it off, setting the count at two a piece. McHugh then rolls back-to-back cutters in on the hands of McCann. That’s three straight pitches hard and in, with McCann getting wood on two of them—implying that McCann’s timing is likely synced near the 90 mph threshold. My guess is you know what’s coming next. McHugh pulls the string on a 3-2 curveball away, changing EV by 18.8 mph and getting McCann to pop out to second.
2nd Inning: Collin McHugh vs. Chase Headley
McHugh opens up the 2nd inning with a fastball away, painting the black on Headley. He then goes cutter up on the zero line followed by a cutter up and in, assuring Headley’s timing is cued in on anything 90-plus. With a 1-2 count, he throws a nasty curve below the zone trying to get Headley to bite, but Headley picks it up and holds off despite a 26.5 mph difference in EV. McHugh then goes back to the four-seamer in on the plate, just north of the zero line, showing a change in EV of 24.4 mph. Headley goes down swinging after back-to-back pitches with a totaling change in EV of 50.9 mph—Effective Velocity at it’s finest. Throughout the five-pitch at-bat, McHugh deviated his EV by an average of 14.7 mph.
3rd Inning: Collin McHugh vs. Brett Gardner
In the bottom of the 3rd, McHugh starts off with a fastball above the belt that Gardy can’t quite catch up to. He follows up the heat with a filthy spinner at the bottom of the zone, appearing 68.9 mph to the hitter and landing right at the knees. Again, McHugh sends the 0-2 offering well below the zone trying to get the hitter to chase a curveball in the dirt. Gardner resists the temptation. McHugh purposefully showed curveball-curveball with EV’s of 68.9 and 70.9, so you know what’s on deck. He goes back to the put-away heater high in the zone, registering at 95.6 mph of perceived velocity and varying Gardner’s eye level beyond what he can handle. Twice in three opportunities, McHugh changed EV by more than 21 mph, and maintained an average change in EV of 16.9 mph during the at-bat.
6th Inning: Collin McHugh vs. Chase Headley
With a man on third and two away in the 6th, McHugh starts Headley off with a curveball in the dirt for a swing and miss. After what seems like a 67.4 mph hook, McHugh comes back with a cutter in on Headley’s hands for another swinging strike, yielding a 24.8 mph change in EV. Up 0-2, McHugh raises a cut fastball above the zone, knowing if Headley doesn’t chase here (no pun intended), he’ll be setup to fall back on his spinner low and away. And McHugh does exactly that, but Headley shows good plate discipline and holds off again regardless of the 26.6 mph difference in EV. Then, McHugh goes cutter-cutter up and away, getting Headley to go down looking on a 3-2 pitch that paints the corner. Over the course of the six-pitch at-bat, McHugh averaged a 14.9 mph change in EV, 3.7 mph above his mark for the season.
**All of the video used in this piece was obtained here.