Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fast or Faster?

Predictably, Sir Strasburg kept the Danny Almonte vs. Little Leaguers act going today, tossing five more scoreless frames against some hopelessly outclassed dupes from the Double-A level. It'll be interesting to see his progress once he reaches Triple-A, where the talent is less intriguing but the competition is more seasoned. For now, however, Strasburg is the german shepherd of the dog park, brushing off all comers with not only ease but near disinterest. (Or at least that's how the game reports read.)

Consequently, the dispatches from the bush league stops focus on fine-tuning. So sayeth Teh Rizz:
"He's doing the things he needs to do to progress to the next level. You can see from the stretch he's gathering himself a little more, and not losing any velocity, which is something we were worried about. He's about 1.24, 1.25 [seconds to home plate], which is where we want him to be."

Interesting quote; a timely one too, no pun intended.

Take another look at that second sentence. Rizzo talks about Strasburg not losing any velocity while pitching from the stretch, which was apparently a concern within the organization, and not without reason. According to a common estimate, the typical pitcher loses 2-3 miles per hour from his fastball while pitching in the stretch.

Just yesterday, however, the Hardball Times published a mini-study challenging such an estimate and claiming instead that pitchers do not tend to lose any appreciable fastball velocity when pitching from the stretch. Specifically, the researcher, Mike Fast (again, no pun intended), concluded that "[a] pitcher's fastball speed turns out to be almost identical with runners on base [i.e., presumably pitching from the stretch] as compared to his average fastball speed with the bases empty." Fast's factfinding is apparently corroborated by those biomechanical types who give Will Carroll the tingly-tingly, as reportedly there are "clinically insignificant differences in ball velocity" between observed wind-up and stretch fastball deliveries.

It is at this point, then, that we reach the blogger's Rubicon. To put it in a slightly less pretentious manner, is Rizzo full of crap? Can we use these studies to say so?

I'm not sure I'd take much a big leap on this one, for two reasons.

1) Mike Rizzo is perfect, every move he's made as GM of our Washington Nationals has been solid gold, and he knows all.

2) Fast's study (and apparently the other biomechanical study) doesn't account for which pitchers use the slide-step from the stretch and which pitchers don't.

It is commonly accepted that use of the slide-step causes decreased velocity (the most famous example being Mitch Williams). Maybe that's a myth that Fast can disprove, too. I don't know. But it does bring us full-circle.

The topic of Ubaldo Jimenez's apparent reliance on pitching from the stretch during his recent no-hitter led to Rob Neyer's reference to the conventional wisdom that pitching from the stretch shaves off some velocity, which led to Fast's study apparently refuting the conventional wisdom. In other words, sabermetrics at work. The only problem is that Jimenez, like most Rockies pitchers under Bob Apodaca's tutelege, apparently uses the slide-step. (Of course, if Jimenez was beginning innings from the stretch, I don't know if he'd be using the slide-step in that circumstance, but whatever.)

I don't know precisely what to make of this. I'll readily concede that I can't give you a list of pitchers who use the slide-step and those who don't. Some pitching coaches, like Apodoca, stress it; some, like Don Cooper of the White Sox, abhor it. I sincerely doubt I'm capable of sorting the issue out and reconciling it with Fast's study. His study seems to indicate, across the board, no meaningful difference in fastball velocity when the bases are empty (windup) and when there are runners on base (stretch). The latter sample would include pitchers who use the slide-step. And, while the resulting presumption would be that pitchers from the stretch (including those using the side-step) must be putting more stress on their arms in order to maintain that uniform fastball velocity, the biomechanical experimentation dudes apparently don't believe this is actually the case. So you tell me.

Anyway, we return now to Rizzo's quote -- which, wouldn't you know it, involves the slide-step. Strasburg is registering "about 1.24, 1.25 [seconds to home plate]," Rizzo told Dave Sheinin of the Post, "which is where we want him to be." Strasburg's work from the stretch seems to be a major point of emphasis at this early stage of his development, as Jon Heyman of Sports Illustrated recently reported:

While down in the minors, there are just a few nuances Strasburg needs to work on, and most of them involve how to handle baserunners and pitching from the stretch, things that weren't really concerns at San Diego State[.] Rizzo said Strasburg is actually a tad quick to the plate with runners on (in the 1.0 range), and they don't want him losing a mile or two off his fastball with the slide-step type delivery he's using.

(I snipped Heyman's mouthbreathing reference to a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model; don't put him and Dan Patrick in a room together, I suppose.)

The issue here actually seems to be slowing Strasburg's delivery down a touch while in the stretch, which for all we know could have a slightly positive effect on his velocity. (For posterity, here's some footage of Strasburg's stretch delivery, circa late February, shot by a vanguard of the new media.) But, as Rizzo states today, they know that Strasburg's refinements haven't caused him to lose any velocity. Whether any of this would, as a general matter, have a discernible effect on his fastball velocity from the stretch is up for debate, I suppose, although every pitcher is unique in his own way.

But we can be reasonably confident that Strasburg is pitching pretty freakin' fast regardless.


  • How much of Mike Rizzo's comments were also meant as justication for sending Strasberg down for "seasoning" and/or saving big bucks by delaying the start of his service time?

    By Anonymous Dana Gunnison, at 4/22/2010 3:06 AM  

  • Geeze, what a read. I admire the research, and yeah, kind of agree with Dana. Makes me wonder, too, if Heyward's fast start puts a little more pressure on Rizz.

    Anyway, not a lot of in-depth analysis here, just Strasburgisms... Like Tebowisms, except better. Enjoy.

    By Anonymous Robbie, at 4/22/2010 11:36 AM  

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