This winter, I had a conversation with Sam Fuld, who is currently the Major League Player Information Coordinator with the Phillies. He was on his way back from a Type-1 diabetes camp he runs in partnership with the University of South Florida, and prepping for spring training. We talked about everything baseball from how he wished he kept it simpler in his playing career to finding better ways to practice to using different pitcher types as models for defensive positioning. But one part of the conversation keeps floating to the forefront of my mind.
Every year, we’re treated to players who seem to come out of nowhere to produce like stars. Just last year, Patrick Corbin tweaked his breaking balls and became nearly unhittable. Brandon Nimmo became so productive by adding power to his on-base ability that the Mets couldn’t find any more reasons not to play him. In 2017, the Yankees saw Luis Severino become an ace as his slider evolved and Aaron Judge produce power that matched his colossal size. Jose Ramirez created runs 50% better than ever in 2016 and has maintained that production after being previously evaluated by many to be a utility man or bench bat at best.
Now these guys are adamantly among the the most productive in the game. In the seasons before they broke out, they combined for 4.1 fWAR. Most of that was from Corbin, who was a perfectly fine pitcher, if not a household name. In their breakout years, they combined for 29.4 wins. As a group, they went from inspiring bathroom breaks to awe, seemingly overnight.
It can be easy to have that impression about players because we have a tendency to equate “Major Leagues” with “finished product.” It’s a reasonable enough assumption — after all, how often does one reach the pinnacle of their profession and then get drastically better? The thing about that thought, though, is it assumes that peaks are static. Realistically, “player development doesn’t stop. It’s not a minor league thing,” Fuld says.
The sentiment becomes easier to appreciate when remembering how more data seems to flow into baseball decision-making every day. But it’s important to distinguish the role that data has. Just existing doesn’t mean it’s going to jumpstart progress. Talking about it doesn’t mean it’s going to be applied correctly. Buying into it doesn’t mean you know exactly what’s going to happen, because “for every action, there is often some sort of unintended consequence,” tells Fuld. He continued:
“[I]f we’re trying to get someone to throw his dominant slider more often, maybe throwing it more will make him lose feel for one of his other pitches. Or if we tell a hitter that he should look for fastballs in the lower half of the zone because that’s where he does most of his damage, this might make him more susceptible to breaking balls down out of the zone because that’s where his sights have changed to.
Let’s stick with the pitching angle here, and look at Nick Pivetta’s 2018 to get a practical understanding of what Fuld is saying. Pivetta came into the year with some helium and ultimately produced nearly three wins, but had ups and downs as his walk and strikeout rates fluctuated.
Pivetta’s got a diverse arsenal. Each of the last two years shows us he has three legitimate offerings and at least a couple show-me pitches. The big difference is how he traded four-seamers for other pitches in 2018, mainly his curve. That’s because his curveball is really good. It has a ton of tumble due to having spin that’s better than 90% of Major Leaguers. He knows how to keep his wrist locked and wrapped around the ball when snapping it off, leading to lots of useful spin that creates drop. So throw it more! Throw it early! Throw it whenever! Great things will happen!
Or rather, great things could happen.
The top image is the vertical drop on Pivetta’s breaking balls in 2018. His curveball continued to tumble hard, sometimes having as much as 10.5 inches of drop. His slider was a tighter pitch, with up to about two-and-a-half inches of drop.
The bottom image is the horizontal break on the same pitches. Each tended to move to his glove side, between seven and nine inches for his curve and between three and six for his slider.
Overall, the different movement on the pitches kept them distinct. But there’s one thing from the images above that we haven’t talked about — that maroon line, which sparked into existence in July and grew through the end of the year. It’s labeled here by Brooks Baseball as a cutter. It took on roughly the tight vertical and glove-side movement of his slider, but was off by a couple inches for each. It was also about four mph faster. It was awkward.
Pitch classification systems aren’t always in unilateral agreement over what a pitcher actually throws, but Baseball Savant didn’t even register Pivetta as throwing any cutters last year. Between that, the extremely low usage, its sudden July “introduction,” and the new reliance on his curve, it’s possible he was just throwing bad sliders. He could’ve lost the feel for it as the season waged on — an unintended consequence of leaning more heavily on his best pitch. For 2019, one of the biggest things that could help Pivetta continue to make progress could be keeping his pitches distinct so he’s more comfortable in his approach and execution.
Pivetta’s breaking balls may offer one peek into what Fuld was describing about unintended consequences. It’s impossible to know exactly what to expect from any given tweak, even when pursuing what the data says makes the most sense to do in order to be better.
There are other difficulties in continuing player development at the Major League level. Fuld refers to one as “threading the needle” — ultimately, understanding that “Player X can handle a little more than Player Y” when it comes to absorbing and processing all the data the team has about their game. Not everyone will be Justin Verlander upon arriving in Houston, and not everyone needs to be.
Fuld also detailed something that’s perhaps more important than understanding what a given player can handle, though. It’s critical to “create awareness for players that there are resources that can help them.” In other words, be present, but don’t be effusive. Build a relationship that starts with an open door and allows players to make the choice to seek what they can handle to enhance their game, instead of sliding it toward them from across a table in a meeting, with no context or plan.
Baseball rewards those who are confident and eats up those who are not. No one reaches the Major Leagues by accident, which makes it much easier for players to be risk-averse. But those who are willing to wade into unknown waters in the pursuit of progress, and be confident enough to navigate them? They can be stars.
WAR from FanGraphs. Pitch mix and movement data from Brooks Baseball. Feature photo Eric Hartline/USA Today Sports