A lot of being a great pitcher is related to being different or not average, like having a very low or high spin rate on a fastball. That trend is obvious with a certain pitcher; Tyler Rogers of the San Francisco Giants. As many of you know, Rogers is a submarine pitcher and has an average release height of 1.13 feet, the next lowest height was 10.2 inches higher from Adam Cimber. That odd release gave him an okay 4.50 ERA this past year, but his xERA of 3.28 and xwOBA of .270, both in the 79th percentile, suggest that he was unlucky. Here is a video of Rogers throwing a curveball:
Here’s a fastball:
Seeing this odd throwing motion wanted me to take a deep dive to see what makes him successful with the pitch, the low slot is definitely part of it, but I wanted to see how he utilizes his arsenal.
I first wanted to discuss what his pitches are and the shape of them. He throws a fastball and curveball, however, with his odd release point, the spin of those two pitches are very different compared to a typical pitcher’s fastball and curveball. His fastball has a spin axis of 328 degrees, which is near the 5 on the clock; this would be a similar spin as a left-handed curveball! Rogers is able to induce 1948 RPMs of spin on the pitch with a spin efficiency of 73.5, and, according to Brooks Baseball, it has -7.81 inches of drop and horizontal movement of 1.79 inches to the right from the pitcher’s perspective. Also, this pitch is not thrown hard, with an average velocity of 82 MPH. All of this has lead to a good pitch, it doesn’t generate a lot of whiffs, with a 19% whiff%, but hitters hit it to the ground as it has an average launch angle of -12 degrees, a wOBA of .256, and an xwOBA of .218. The pitch is utilized 64% of the time and would be a great pitch to use when a double play is needed. To better understand how this pitch looks, here is a picture of the spin of the ball from Baseball Cloud’s BallR:
As you can now easily see, it looks very similar to a lefty’s curveball. This pitch is so nasty that the spin actually induces drop, not rise as a fastball!
Meanwhile, his curveball spin is similar to that of a left-handed fastball at 131 degrees or about 10:30 on the clock. It has a spin rate of 2278 RPMs and 74.2% of that spin is used efficiently. The pitch sweeps across 7.63 inches to the left and rides 5.82 inches, which is obviously odd for a curveball. Batters swing and miss at this pitch more often than the fastball at 30.3%, they do have more success with this pitch though, as a wOBA of .317 and an xwOBA of .299 was produced in 2020. Here’s his curveball in BallR:
Again, now seeing this spin visually, it is easier to see that Rogers is almost throwing a very slow fastball, as it has about the same spin as one and only goes 71 MPH. Finally for an overall look at how his pitches move, here is a scatter chart from Brooks Baseball (Catcher’s perspective):
As you can see, Brooks Baseball labels Rogers’ two pitchers as a sinker and a slider, however, Baseball Savant labels them as a four-seamer and curveball, so that’s what I will use for this article. The movement on this chart is the same as we talked about earlier, his curveball has a little bit of hop and his fastball falls off the table.
Now with the movement profile out of the way, let’s move on to how he utilizes those pitches to have success!
Rogers’ pitches are nasty, but that doesn’t matter if you don’t hit your spots. I decided to make some heat maps to see where he throws his pitches most often, so to start, let’s take a peek at his fastball heatmaps against righties and lefties:
Looking here, you can see that they are both most typically thrown down in the zone, especially against righties. This makes sense as his fastball drops and should play down. Again, this pitch is somewhat similar to a curveball, so it makes sense that he tends to throw it low in the zone.
For Rogers’ curveball, as we stated earlier, it is like a fastball, so it should be thrown up in the zone. Here is what he does with it:
Against lefties, Rogers actually throws his curveball down and in, which is not good, but against righties, he throws it higher and into hitters. Even though I feel that he should be throwing this pitch high, Rogers is such a unique pitcher that getting the numbers on where he should be throwing would be very helpful.
Recently in the baseball analytics world, people have been talking about vertical approach angle. Vertical approach angle, or VAA for short, just means the angle at which the ball is moving up or down when it crosses home plate. Nobody has an upward VAA, this may only happen when a pitch is sailed and it is still going up when it crosses the plate.
Now, why is this important when talking about Rogers? Hitters swing up at about 8 degrees in the majors, so avoiding that VAA would be beneficial for pitchers as their pitches won’t be on the same plane as a hitter’s swing. Pitchers want to have their pitches be as close as possible to 0 degrees and flat when it crosses home plate or very far away so it is going straight down. This leads to hitters having to be more perfect on their timing with the pitch.
One of the things about VAA, though, is that it is location-based. If a pitch is thrown up in the zone, it is going to have a flatter VAA compared to a pitch that is thrown down. This is also a reason why normal fastballs are effective up in the zone and breaking pitches are effective down.
With Rogers throwing almost from the ground, his pitches have to start going up every time he throws them and then they get pulled back down to a negative VAA by gravity. So, you can probably assume that his VAA is very flat. However, there is no public data on VAAs on each pitch, so to get these numbers, I reached out to Ethan Moore, who wrote a good article about VAA here. According to him, the average VAA on Rogers’ curveball is -3.01 degrees and the average on his fastball is -3.77 degrees. They are both flatter than the average hitter’s attack angle of 8 degrees.
These are just the averages, if he throws the pitches higher, they’ll be closer to 0, so his curveball’s VAA on a pitch at the top of the zone will actually be higher than -3.01! So to maximize the effect that VAA has on hitters, we should assume that Rogers should throw both of his pitches up in the zone. But if a pitcher had an average VAA of -10, for example, then a pitcher should throw that pitch down in the zone since it will be far off of the plane of a batters swing path, this is why breaking balls up are so dangerous.
To see exactly where Rogers should throw his pitches, I made two heat maps, both based on xwOBA for his fastball and curveball. We will start with his curveball, so here it is:
You can see on the key, the more blue means the better the performance, and the more red means the worse the performance. As we predicted, Rogers performs better at the top of the zone, and as you go down, he starts to get crushed. In those red areas, his VAA is probably close to on plane with the attack angle of a hitter’s swing. But in the yellow areas, the pitch comes in so flat that hitters swing underneath the ball to swing and miss, create a pop-up, or a lazy flyball.
Also, Rogers performs much better on the left side of the zone because that is the direction that his curveball goes, it would ride away from righties and into lefties. He doesn’t throw the curveball very high this past year, and it ended up being an average to above-average pitch, throwing to those locations in yellow could give him much more success.
Now, let’s move on to the fastball:
Again, it seems as though Rogers performs better on pitches up in the zone, however, there is a little circle of yellow in the bottom right corner, I believe that this is also due to the movement of the pitch since it sinks and slides to the right. This would lead to lefties tapping the ball on the end of their bats or whiffing and righties getting the ball on their handles to produce a ground ball to third. If I were Rogers, I would stay away from throwing the pitch low and to the left and up and to the right.
Looking at our heatmaps from earlier on his fastball, he doesn’t throw many pitches down and to the right or up and to the left. His fastball was already good in 2020, but if he could hit these locations more often, he could be even better.
Rogers is just an absurd pitcher. He wasn’t elite in 2020, but his abnormalities definitely give hitters a different look and give Rogers the potential to be one of the best relievers in baseball. The rising curveball is nasty and his fastball drops off the table at the very last moment, creating a deadly pitch.
The heat maps based on his pitch also show how VAA can change where a pitch performs at its best, if it has a flat VAA, throw the pitch up, if it is steep, throw it down. If pitchers can follow that to figure out where their pitches play, they may end up performing better.
In this instance with Rogers, he is so different than everybody else that if he throws his curveball up, he will have much more success with the pitch by generating weak contact and whiffs, the same thing goes for his fastball. This again shows that being average with pitching can put a guy in a bad spot. If a pitcher is above or below average with their VAA, spin rate, or release point, they will have an easier path to success.
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