Where Nastiness and Effectiveness Diverge

Opening night was quite disappointing as a Nationals fan. Our collection of neighbors sat distanced and outdoors, Soto was out due to a false positive, and to top it off the skies opened up sending us scrambling. It was the first of many losses in 2020.

As the last few stragglers left the gathering, I marveled at the pitching matchup before me. While Scherzer-Cole had not disappointed with the plentiful strikeouts, Dustin May and Johnny Cueto entertained in a different way. Cueto danced about while May unleashed two-seamers with demonic movement.

Arguably the most visually appealing pitch in baseball, it is no wonder May’s primary offering was a frequent feature on Twitter. The nastiness translated well. “Gingergaard” posted a 2.57 ERA over 56 innings pitched en route to fifth place in NL Rookie of the Year and a World Series title.

He may well be destined for stardom, but I still think there is work to be done. The hurler’s ERA was impressive yet perhaps fluky. Looking at the rates he was allowing walks, strikeouts, and home runs, it appears his ERA should have been between 4 and 4.6. Of course the sample size was limited, but Dustin May’s surface statistics only tell a half truth. Ironically, his mesmerizing two-seam fastball may be the root to his shortcomings.

As I said in my previous article, the goal of sinkers/two-seamers is to induce weak contact, not induce whiffs. This held true with May’s, but even relative to league average sinkers it struggled. Not only was it not getting whiffs, it was getting knocked around too. He was getting lucky on balls in play shielding the potential issue (.327 wOBAcon vs .395 xwOBAcon), but this was more likely due to pitcher-friendly ballparks and a strong defense behind him. He is a good pitcher, but his sinker might need some work before he ascends to ace status.

Your eyes are not deceiving you – May’s arsenal is still crazy. That amount of movement and velocity makes for a deadly combo. Location is always a factor, but I think there is a disconnect in how we (as fans) perceive the game. In large part, we get one lens on pitching: the generic view from centerfield glaring over the pitcher’s right shoulder. Some angles are toward third base, some are more symmetrical, but this is what the fan’s pallet is shaped from.

The asymmetry means the camera is usually more aligned with the throwing tunnel of right-handed pitchers as opposed to left-handed pitchers. This angle also makes run and drop easier to see than pitches with good ride. Especially in today’s era of upper-cut swings, this is where what you see and what is effective separate. Fastballs with elite ride have dominated this era of baseball and yet our eyes are only trained to appreciate the digits of a radar gun when analyzing a fastball.

A few years ago, I found Sean Doolittle to be the most confusing pitcher in the MLB. He dominated lineups throwing his four seam fastballs nearly 90% of the time. They knew what was coming and just could not find a way to do damage against it. Sure, he was averaging 94-95 miles per hour and locating well, but there was something missing from the equation.

As detailed in this interview above with Dan Kolko, the real reason Doolittle’s fastball was so unhittable was because he managed to produce a true 6-12 spin axis. The sheer amount of backspin he was getting on the ball gave hitters the illusion the pitch was rising. Baseballsavant confirms this notion saying his fastball was rising 3.5-4 inches more than similar fastballs throughout his prime. Spotting this on TV broadcasts is a challenge, but hitters will attest it is easy to see from the batter’s box, just not easy to hit.

Obviously Sean Doolittle has regressed in the past few years – injuries tend to do that – but he speaks to a breed of visually under-appreciated pitchers. The Rays have built elite bullpens by acquiring players like Nick Anderson, Colin Poche, and Emilio Pagan with riding fastballs. Dustin May’s fastball is still good, but its appeal to the eye overstates its true effectiveness.

Considering tools like Synergy provide broadcast footage for international scouting, there may be a whole crop of players being overlooked because they have Doolittle’s fastball and not May’s. This is the true value of ball tracking systems like Hawk-Eye and Yakkertech – it makes the analysis of pitch movement quick and objective. Scouts don’t need to step into the batter’s box, just know how to interpret the data.

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