Every pitch in the game of baseball is a measure of body control and consistency. Across the sport, coaches and evaluators oftentimes talk about the results of a certain play, but not all the small details that went into attaining that result. On the mound, releasing the ball a split second off can be the difference between striking the batter out and seeing the ball fly over the outfield wall. Being able to find a consistent and repeatable release point is paramount to a pitcher’s success. While a pitcher’s stuff (velocity and movement) is what might get a player noticed and even drafted, being able to command that stuff gets a player to the major leagues.
With that being said, the difference between control and command must be addressed. Control is a pitcher’s ability to throw strikes, while command is the pitcher’s ability to hit a specific target. For example, if a catcher calls for a fastball, sets up on the outer part of the plate and a pitcher is able to throw the ball somewhere in the zone 8/10 times, it would be correct to say the pitcher has solid control. If that same catcher sets up in that same spot and the pitcher is able to hit exactly where he set up more often than not, that is a pitcher with great command.
Why is pitcher release point so important?
Release point is the driving factor behind pitch location. If the pitcher opens up and releases the ball early, the ball will have high, arm side run. If the release is late, often times that will lead to a pitch glove side and low. If the pitcher is on time and his release point is correct, in theory, that will result in hitting the desired location.
Release points vary between pitchers because of differing arm slots as well as physical stature. Just because two pitchers release the ball from different points, that does not make one more effective than the other; the key is consistency.
Pitchers are constantly undergoing refinements to their release point, oftentimes without realizing. All the changes pitchers make to their windup, timing, etc., result in slight alterations to their release point. While release point is arguably the most important part of pitching, it is not commonplace to see it addressed directly from a coach or blogger- mostly because it is the result of the combination of other factors.
One player you can look towards to see success in a refined release point would be St. Louis Cardinals right-hander, Miles Mikolas. For a starting pitcher, Mikolas always threw hard and had above average stuff. He produced solid numbers at the minor league level and in his first 32.1 innings in the major leagues in 2012 with the Padres. Nonetheless, after posting a 6.44 ERA with Texas Rangers in 2014, he ended up having to sign with the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League to continue his baseball career.
During his original tenure in Major League Baseball, Mikolas struggled due to his inability to miss barrels to go along with high walk rates. In Japan, Mikolas dominated, resulting in a return stateside.
So far, in his second go around in Major League Baseball, Mikolas has refined his release point which has resulted in less walks and more whiffs.
Since the last time Mikolas took a big-league mound, his release point shifted 0.738 feet towards a right-handed hitter and 0.024 feet up. The most impressive part about it is not how the point shifted, rather how well he is able to repeat his 2018 release. At the time of the study, Mikolas had thrown 949 pitches in 2018 compared to the 931 that he threw in 2014, yet the release point radius is far smaller due to the fact that he is more consistent with his release.
This has led to his walk rates of 4.18 (2012) and 2.83 (2014) per nine innings dropping to 0.81 per nine innings in 2018, showing that he has used improved release point consistency to better his control. The refined release point, also made his stuff play up leading to more missed bats.
Before 2018, Mikolas has never had a pitch that would be considered above average by the standards of a major league pitcher. This is due to the fact that many of the pitches he threw were either too far outside the zone to chase or he grooved them so it is easier for a batter to hit. Mikolas’ fastball grooved rate fell from 7.76% in 2014 to 6.97% to 2018 and his changeup grooved rate fell precipitously from 8.14% in 2014 to 1.67% in 2018. This drop in grooved rate is one of the few indicators that we have signaling that his command is improved. He is no longer making as many mistakes over the middle of the plate like he once was.
In 2018, Mikolas now has three pitches that are at least 2.5 runs above average. While his fastball and curveball made the cut, the slider has stolen the show. His slider is currently 7.8 runs above average, good for 6th best in the majors.
Not coincidentally, the slider saw one of the more extreme release point alterations in his entire arsenal. The pitch’s release point went 0.05 feet up and 0.84 towards a right-handed hitter which is the second biggest difference in release point behind his curveball at 0.87 feet.
How does this compare to the rest of baseball?
The poster boy for release point at the major league level is Josh Hader. His remarkable consistency has made Hader nearly un-hittable in 2018. All of his four pitches coming out of one singular location has given opposing batters fits.
Source: Baseball Savant
His release is so consistent that no matter the pitch, they all look the same until they are right on top of the batter – a concept known as pitch tunneling. Pitch tunneling is a term that refers to two separate pitches traveling down the exact same track until the batter must make a decision whether to swing or not, at which point they break in different directions. Hader’s fastball and slider are released from the exact same point, causing them to travel together, looking identical until the slider breaks off and the fastball continues by the batter. Hader’s work on this has led to a strikeout rate that is through the roof.
It would be incorrect to say that release point is the only factor that makes a pitcher effective or ineffective. Many other factors such as stuff, pitch calling, composure, luck, etc., come into play every single time a pitcher toes the rubber. Yet, release point is the ultimate measure of body control for a pitcher. Many coaches mention release point briefly but go on to talk about mechanics or timing. The result of being on time as a pitcher and having solid mechanics is releasing the ball at the desired point. Every pitcher is able to do that once, yet being able to repeat a certain release point time and again is a skill that only a handful of elite athletes can pull off.