What Makes An Ace: Snakes Edition

Last offseason, Tom Tango and the geniuses over Baseball Savant created Statcast Swing Take, a metric that computes a player’s production by analyzing his contributions in different zones of the plate.

This metric helps determine how much value a player contributes to his team’s offense by swinging or taking at a certain pitch.

Simply put, swinging at a pitch can be a good idea or a poor one. Let’s say, Mike Trout swings at a pitch thrown right down the middle of the plate. Objectively speaking, that’s a tremendous decision. However, if the following pitch is located four inches to the right, Trout probably shouldn’t offer at that delivery.

That’s the intention of Statcast Swing Take. Its function to reward hitters by swinging at good pitches and taking bad ones.

Statcast Swing Take consists of four different graphics: a Zone Profile, Pitch Frequency circles, a Swing/Take percentage chart, and a Run Value graph.

A player’s performance in Statcast Swing Take is calculated by using “Runs.” Baseball Prospectus describes it as “number of runs to score from a particular event based on historical context”.

For an example, here’s Jacob deGrom’s Swing/Take chart from 2020.

His Zone Profile, located on the left, is a graphic that splits the plate into four different “Attack Zones”.

  • The Heart Zone is located in the middle of the plate. In 2020, pitchers have thrown 26% of their pitches here.
  • The Shadow Zone surrounds The Heart Zone. This zone “shadows” the strike zone. In 2020, 42% of pitches have been located here.
  • The Chase Zone encloses The Shadow Zone. Pitchers looking to induce “chases” from opposing batters throw here often; 23% of 2020’s pitches have thrown here.
  • The Waste Zone is the final of the four zones. Although only nine percent of 2020’s pitches land here, it’s still Alfredo Griffin’s favorite zone, for whatever reason.

The Zone Profile helps us visualize how many runs deGrom’s permitted in each zone in 2020, as well as the overall amount of runs he’s posted. Quick reminder that pitchers receive negative runs for outcomes beneficial towards their final line, so the lower the number, the better the pitcher has been.

Located to the right of his Zone Profile is a Pitch Frequency chart, which displays the amount of times deGrom’s throwing to a certain zone, along with the league-average marks.

His Swing/Take Percentage chart, which is located to the right of the Pitch Frequency chart, shows how often a pitcher induces swings and takes in each zone.

The final graphic is deGrom’s Run Value chart. This shows how a player’s Swing/Take tendencies impact the final overall Run Value calculation. For example, we see that deGrom’s induced -16 Runs on swings in The Shadow Zone, compared to +1 Runs on takes in that same region.

Ideally, as a pitcher, you want negative values in all four of the Attack Zones. Over the last two years, zero starting pitchers have accomplished that feat.

It’s extremely difficult to do and even without fully understanding algorithms behind the metric, it makes logical sense. Even the best hurlers on the planet find it difficult to succeed in every location at the plate. Even deGods like deGrom.

So instead of studying all four zones, I decided to look at the two most prevalent areas: The Heart Zone and The Shadow Zone.

So far in 2020, there have been nine starting pitchers that have posted a -6 Run Value or better in the Heart Zone and a -10 Run Value or better in the Shadow Zone. As of September 13th, these hurlers have run up a combined 2.20 ERA this season.

Many of baseball’s top hurlers, including Shane Bieber (Justin’s long-lost and less musically-inclined brother) appear on this list.

Then there’s Zac Gallen. He’s not exactly a household name, but based on his 2020 performance, he might be soon.

Gallen entered the season on the heels of a solid 2019 campaign, his first MLB season. Splitting the season between Miami and Arizona, he posted 2.61/3.61 ERA/FIP over 80 innings. Since he wasn’t considered a can’t-miss prospect, many pundits weren’t too high on him entering into the year.

That perception on Gallen has drastically changed over the last couple of months.

This season, he’s vaulted himself into Cy Young conversation with an incredible start that’s seen him shatter decades-old records. After his seven-inning outing on September 2nd, Gallen became the first pitcher in Major-League history to permit three runs or fewer in his first 23 starts.

Recent blowup against the Mariners aside, he’s been everything Arizona could’ve hoped for.

Although he doesn’t have overpowering stuff, he’s able to generate outs, thanks to a Swing/Take Profile that ranks as one of baseball’s best.

The Great Pyramid of Giza, The Colossus of Rhodes, The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, The Lighthouse of Alexandria, The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, The Statue of Zeus at Olympia, The Temple of Artemis and Zac Gallen’s Swing/Take chart. The Eight Wonders of the World.

He’s graded extremely well by Tango’s Swing/Take charts. As mentioned before, he’s only one of the nine starting pitchers in the Majors this season to post a -6 Run Value in the Heart Zone and and a -10 Run Value in the Shadow Zone.

His Swing/Take profile shows that he’s able to succeed by pitching around the plate, a trait that many hurlers don’t posses.

Many pitchers throw late-breaking pitches and are able to induce a profusion of swings-and-misses, owning to the late movement. One second, it’s going right down the pipe. The next, it’s near your knees. And boom, that’s strike three; you’re headed back to the dugout, in disbelief you hacked at a pitch an inch away from the dirt.

Gallen’s the opposite. He attacks you. Although he hits the Heart Zone six percent less than the average MLB hurler, he makes up for that with an increased rate in the Shadow Zone. He’s going to throw it by the plate and more often than not, he’s going to get the best of you.

Among pitchers with 300 pitches this season, Gallen’s .246 wOBA on pitches located inside the strike zone ranks as the 13th best mark in the game.

Although he doesn’t have overpowering stuff, he’s able to generate outs thanks an analytically-friendly arsenal.

Fangraphs’ Michael Augustine explored his repertoire over the offseason and noted that his fastball-curveball combo can create an effective spin mirror, if and only if he creates an approximate 165-degree separation.

This season, Gallen’s worked on the tilt on his curveball, resulting a 158˚ degree separation between his fastball and curveball, per Brooks Baseball.

I can waste an entire day looking at that GIF.

The thing is, his fastball-curve duo isn’t the best aspect of his arsenal. That distinction goes to his changeup, a devastating pitch that’s induced a 42.2% whiff percentage this season. Thrown at a 79.1% spin efficiency, Gallen has paired it well with his fastball-curve duo en route to a nice 3.15 ERA (69 ERA-)

In the words of Larry David, “Pretty pretty good”.

These trio of offerings, in addition to his excellent Heart and Shadow Zone numbers, has helped Gallen develop into one of baseball’s rising stars. He’s not on many people’s radar, but considering his production this season, he should be.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

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