Thursday, April 24, 2008

Pitch f/x and Colorado

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the percentages of pitch types thrown by the top pitchers in baseball. I was going to do a similar post about the pitch types seen by the top hitters when I got sidetracked by a portion of the research that I was doing.

I was combining the types of fastballs that the hitters had seen (normal fastball, sinker, and cutter) to get a sense of which hitters had seen the most off-speed pitches when I found that Matt Holliday's numbers stuck out like a sore thumb. 70.62% of all pitches that Holliday saw last year were fastballs, sinkers or cutters. I was comparing the top 20 homerun hitters last year and the next five highest results were:

2) Ken Griffey, Jr. - 63.9%
3) Ryan Braun - 63.69%
4) Adam Dunn - 62.16%
5) Lance Berkman - 62.09%
6) Carlos Lee - 62.01%

Aside from Holliday's 70.62%, the rest of the top 20 were fairly evenly distributed between 50.23% (Ryan Howard) and those listed above. So I wondered if this anomaly extended to other hitters for the Rockies - here are the percentages for the top eight Rockies hitters by at bats in 2007:

1) Matt Holliday - 70.62%
2) Troy Tulowitzki - 63.23%
3) Garrett Atkins - 64.37%
4) Todd Helton - 65.48%
5) Brad Hawpe - 65.16%
6) Kaz Matsui - 65.93%
7) Yorvit Torrealba - 59.68%
8) Wily Tavarez - 68.47%

Except for Torrealba and Tulowitzki, all eight are higher than any of the top 20 homerun hitters from last year. I then looked up the league average, and the percentage was 60.85. It is clear, then, that the Rockies are seeing a significantly larger amount of fastballs than the rest of the league.

I then turned to the Rockies pitchers, to see if they were throwing a larger percentage of fastballs than the league average. Here is the top five Rockies pitchers, as ranked by innings pitched in 2007:

1) Jeff Francis - 57.49%
2) Aaron Cook - 52.38%
3) Josh Fogg - 61.99%
4) Jason Hirsch - 56.85%
5) Taylor Buchholz - 60.87%

Only Josh Fogg threw more than the league average and he barely threw 1% more than the average. Interestingly, though, except for Taylor Buchholz (who only throws fastballs and sliders), the Rockies pitchers did not throw more breaking balls. Jeff Francis, Josh Fogg and Jason Hirsch relied on the changeup, while Aaron Cook threw the splitter as his primary second offering. The league average for changeups is 12.84% and Francis, Fogg and Hirsch threw 28.54%, 25.28% and 22.6% respectively (Aaron Cook threw 22.71% splitters compared with a 2.18% league average).

The conclusion we can draw from this is that the commonly-held belief that breaking pitches are less effective at altitude, whether it is scientifically accurate or not, has taken hold in major league baseball. The Rockies response to that belief, however, is different from that of the rest of the league. The Rockies pitchers do not throw more fastballs in response, they throw more changeups. I can't say whether this response is calculated or not. Perhaps the Rockies came to this conclusion and acquired and developed pitchers with good changeups or perhaps the Rockies stumbled into this response.

The real question is whether the strategy works, and by the numbers it certainly appears to. There was a lot of publicity about how the humidor in Colorado was keeping the scoring down and while that may be true, that should be true for the home team as well as the visiting team. This difference in strategic reactions to the belief that breaking pitches are ineffective at altitude should show up in the home and away splits for the offense and pitching of the Rockies.

At home last year the Rockies scored 478 runs, or about 25% more than they scored on the road. The Rockies gave up 396 runs at home last year, which is only 9% more than they gave up on the road last year. It is unsurprising that the Rockies pitchers would cope with the park effects of their home park better than their opposition, even without a different strategy, but it hardly seems reasonable that "home cooking" could account for a 16% difference.

There has been a lot of research into park factors and the development of park-neutral statistics. What those numbers don't take into account, however, is that some of those factors are impacted by the way teams construct their rosters and design strategies to make the unique aspects of their parks work in their favor. In Colorado's case, it certainly appears that they are addressing the aspects of Coors Field in better ways than their opposition, which gives them an advantage.

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