If you follow my New Arms of the Week series at Beyond the Box Score, you’re already aware of my mild obsession with fresh PITCHf/x data. Fresh, as in “we haven’t seen that guy before.” Well over 100 pitchers made their major league debuts in 2009, and I reviewed most of them at some point. I spent some additional time this off-season updating the pitch classifications for each 2009 rookie. There are a few good stories lurking about in the data, so let’s dive in.
Bringing the heat
Starting with the obvious, the hard stuff. The pitch speeds I’m using are measured when the ball is 55 feet from the back of home plate—a very close estimate of speed at release. The list, as you’d expect, is dominated by relievers.
Best average fastball (mph), 2009 debuts – relievers
Rodriguez made his debut for the A’s, throwing a few innings of relief in September The distant runner up may be Boston’s closer before too long. Bard could’ve made this list twice, as both his two- and four-seam fastballs broke the 98 mph mark. I only kept his two-seam variety (four-seam was 98.1, but that should flip once we get past these small rookie-sized samples). Joaquin’s another four-seam/two-seam artist, with his two-seamer (96.7) also hanging around near the top five. Brian Wilson won’t be the only flamethrower in the Giant’s bullpen in 2010. Texas’ Feliz may have had the most hyped rookie fastball, but not the fastest. The second Giant on the list makes it with his two-seamer. Again, as sample sizes grow, Runzler’s four-seamer (95.3) should float to the top of the speed list.
Some of these rookies are taking the slow-and-easy approach to pitching. You don’t need to bring the heat to succeed, but these guys are sure to raise questions throwing like this.
Slowest average fastball (mph), 2009 debuts
Davidson made his debut for the Angels in 2009. He is a soft-tossing lefty, but he’s also a side-armer. Taylor, of the Marlins, has actually been compared to Jamie Moyer as he truly is a soft-tossing, left-handed starter. Manuel won’t be confused for Bard anytime soon (although the Sox prospect is also right-handed). Jones makes the list with his two-seam fastball and his four-seamer isn’t much hotter (87.6). Jones was traded from Boston to Florida in the Jeremy Hermida deal. Maloney is another Moyer prototype. He made seven starts in the majors in 2009, but probably won’t find much space in future Reds rotations with their bevy of top pitching prospects.
Made you miss
Whiff rate, something to consider two ways—with fastballs getting their own look. While I ignored sample size issues with the fastball speeds above, I set a cut-off of 75 pitches thrown for the remaining metrics. Still a very small sample size.
Highest whiff rate (misses/swings), 2009 debuts
Vazquez looks like he’ll be part of the Arizona bullpen for the next few years, and he was a regular there in 2009. Figaro cracked the Tigers’ roster for a handful of appearances, including three starts. He struggled, but at least he’s got this nasty slider going for him. Gregerson carried a solid work-load for the Padres, and came close to making the ground ball rate list (below) with his sinker. Medlen is easy to overlook, courtesy of his fellow-Brave rookie Tommy Hanson, but he could find himself in the back of their rotation over the next few years. Gervacio edges out Bard for the fifth spot, and it’s not his only appearance in this article—he looked impressive in limited work for Houston in 2009, but should see more action in 2010.
Those were some impressive whiff rates, but here are some impressive fastball whiff rates.
Highest fastball whiff rate (misses/swings), 2009 debuts
I wasn’t kidding about Gervacio being impressive. To miss that many bats with a fastball is just nuts, small sample and everything. Bailey, who threw 703 four-seamers (compared to Gervacio’s 80 for this list) is even more impressive. And he did win Rookie of the Year, natch. Bard makes the list with his four-seamer—his two-seamer (which ranked on the fastball list) had a whiff rate below .08 as he threw that to contact. Nice bag of tricks, Mr. Bard. Kilby’s rate, while impressive, continues our march away from the stratosphere occupied by Gervacio and Bailey. Kilby made his debut for Oakland as a lefty swingman, and he was successful in the limited work. Jhoulys (not Gustavo) Chacin edged out the Cubs’ Esmailin Caridad for the last spot on this list. Chacin looked a little rough in his first outings for the Rockies, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s given a good hard look this Spring.
Yes, of course, ground ball rate, one of my favorite things. This list includes two splitters and three sinkers (two-seam fastballs).
Highest ground ball rate, 2009 debuts
Carrasco went to Cleveland in the Cliff Lee deal. This may be the lone bright spot of his first stint in the major leagues. Lopez is an Astros prospect who fared better in the Arizona Fall League than in his late season call-up. Fister, at 6’8″ tall, made a few trips around the Mariners’ rotation in 2009 and may have secured a spot for 2010 in the process. Belisario became a key part of the Dodgers’ bullpen, and made his way onto the post-season roster. Romero made 29 starts for the Blue Jays and figures into their future plans, with the future being now.
Look, in the sky
Now that Candlestick is closed, pop-ups are nearly sure outs. They’re also a sign of hitters being over-powered (in some cases), so it might tell us something about the pitch. All the leaders here are four-seam fastballs, which is to be expected when it comes to finding infield flies.
Highest pop-up rate, 2009 debuts
This one, I confess, is a bit of surprise. Feliz we know throws smoke, and Hudson is no slouch (94.0 mph). The rest are not exactly hard throwers. Ni and Zavada averaged under 90, and Uehara under 88.
Ni signed out of Taiwan and spent the beginning of 2009 in Toledo. He went from the Chinese league, to Triple-A to the majors in a matter of months. He’s an interesting southpaw, and should be part oft he Detroit bullpen in 2010. Uehara was another international rookie, but seven years older than Ni with extensive experience in Japan. I suspect the Orioles will want more out of him than the 12 starts he made in his first season. Zavada may be better known for his mustache, but he locked down a job in the Diamondbacks’ bullpen and should be back in the same role. Hudson, just 22, is an exciting prospect for the White Sox. A 2008 draft choice, Hudson has chewed up the minor leagues with K:BB in excess for 4:1, more than a strikeout per nine innings and an ERA of just 2.65 in 217 total innings in the minor leagues. He started 2009 in Single-A Kannapolis and made the show in September. He’s one to watch.
Last, but not least, the art of throwing strikes. Or at least throwing in the strike zone. Using a two-foot wide plate, and individual strike zone tops and bottoms (based on hitters’ individual averages, not a single game), the following pitches thrown by rookies were the best at hitting the zone. Again, all fastballs.
Highest in-zone rate, 2009 debuts
A small surprise is in the velocity—all five of these fastballs are thrown in the 90s, with Thayer and Hawksworth cracking 93, and Kelley 94. Hawksworth’s fastball is the only two-seamer on this list, which isn’t a surprise. With the extra movement, it’s a harder pitch to control than a four-seam fastball.
Daley was in the Colorado bullpen most of 2009, but his numbers there, and in the minors, are solid but not spectacular for a reliever. Bergesen emerged as a member of the Baltimore rotation and put together a decent season, despite a lack of strikeouts. We’ll see how much he regresses from that 3.43 ERA/mirage. Thayer has been a decent late-inning reliever in the minor leagues, but he’s already 29 and doesn’t look like someone the Rays will turn to with any regularity. Kelley is career reliever from the Mariners who could continue to work for Seattle in middle relief in 2010 after making 41 appearances there in 2009. Hawksworth may have a shot to start in St. Louis in 2010. Used as a reliever in 2009, he’s been a starter in the minors, finally finding success in his third stint in Triple-A in 2009. We’ll make that shot a long shot, but he should get stretched out in camp before moving back to the bullpen.
Not done with the rookies
Next time around, I’ll go deeper into the level-by-level batted-ball data from minor league pitchers, using many of these rookies as case studies.
References & Resources
PITCHf/x data from MLBAM and SportVision
Pitch classifications by the author