Curiosity Might Kill the Home-Run Spike

The Brewers’ Jared Hughes is the type of pitcher who’s endangered.

When Hughes was one of the more effective relievers in baseball for the Pirates from 2013 to -15, he relied on one pitch — a sinker — that he threw time after time in the lower part of the strike zone. Over the last year-plus, however, two important trends in the game have conspired against Hughes. For starters, the strike zone shrunk for the first time in the PITCHf/x era last season, according to Jon Rogele’s research. Worse, it shrunk in one particular area, down, where Hughes likes to pitch. Jeff Sullivan found that the zone continued to contract in spring training. The other trend is that more and more hitters have gone in search of fly balls, adjusting their swing planes to become more effective at lifting pitches down in the zone.

FanGraphs resident Alex Stumpf explored some of the challenges facing Hughes, and pitchers like him, last week. Hughes, entering his second year of arbitration, was released by the Pirates this spring. Last season, he posted a career-worst 4.68 FIP and a career-worst ground-ball rate of 57.9%. (His career rate is 60.9%.) He has a 4.79 ERA, 4.51 FIP, and 58.9% ground-ball rate to date this season.

In part because he’s endangered, Hughes has also become curious. He’s become interested in finding ways to attack hitters, to evolve, to identify advancements that might allow him to remain successful. Perhaps a cure for the home-run surge is for pitchers to react, like Hughes, with curiosity, to explore the resources available.

As noted on Friday, launch angles on pitches in the lower third and below the zone have improved from 4.6 degrees in 2015 to 5.3 degrees this season. Batters are doing more slugging damage there. In 2015, 0.18% of pitches in the lower third or below the zone went for home runs. Last season, it inched up to 0.22%. This season, the rate stands at 0.24%, according to Statcast data.

It appeared at one point as though the most popular counterpunch to the uppercut swing would be an increase of elevated four-seam fastballs. But we’re not seeing more teams follow the Tampa Bay model. In fact, according to Baseball Savant data, we’ve seen fewer four-seam fastballs thrown in the upper third of the zone and higher this year: an 8.8% rate this season compared to 9.9% in 2016 and 9.8% in 2015. Pitches down and below the zone have inched up from 35.7% in 2015 to 39.3% this season, according to Statcast’s detailed search. Jeff Sullivan wrote about the missing elevated fastballs last week.

Wrote Sullivan:

You’d think that teams would be demonstrating more of a willingness to explore the upper part of the strike zone. After all, the bulk of the recent home-run increase has come lower within the box. …But on the team level, you expect to find more signal. You expect to find even more still when you examine the league overall. Overall, the high fastballs haven’t surged, not yet. Perhaps they still will. Perhaps the hitters need to do a better job of forcing it.

Perhaps it’s curiosity — or a lack of it — that has been an element in the surge of home runs per fly ball (HR/FB). Perhaps too many pitchers haven’t been sufficiently curious to understand why batters are more often homering and, consequently, too slow to develop effective counterpunches. Moreover, there’s also the fact that few pitchers have ever been taught to “pitch up” in the zone. Perhaps battling that conventional wisdom will take some time, and that lag has allowed hitters to gain an advantage.

But conversations that Hughes and others have had in the Brewers’ bullpen are evidence that the home-run surge is grabbing pitchers’ attention in a serious way.

Hughes has always been one of the kindest people in the game. He was a favorite of the media when I was on the Pirates beat with the Tribune-Review. That hasn’t changed. I don’t know if he’s the nicest person in the world, but he’s likely in the upper one percentile. What’s changed over time, however, is that Hughes is more and more interested in the data.

In the visiting clubhouse of PNC Park earlier this month, Hughes asked me what web sites I use for research. I told him FanGraphs, of course. But I also walked him through the Statcast search tools at Baseball Savant on his phone in the Brewers clubhouse. He said it was exactly what he was looking for. Hughes is more and more interested in finding answers to his questions.

Hughes watches most games from the left-center, where the home bullpen at Miller Park is located. And it’s there that the conversation has changed to something far different than what you think might be being said after having read Ball Four.

“There is more talk in the bullpen than ever before,” said Hughes of Statcast and other data tools. “I’m probably spurring a lot of it on, but there is more talk about that stuff. We’ll just be watching guys hit and someone will offer up, ‘Hey, did you know this guy has one of the highest launch angles?’ And then we all kind of share information of why we think that is.”

Hughes uses the in-house video and data tools the Brewers make available to their players. But he’s also interested in all the information he can find on his phone or tablet outside the clubhouse. Interestingly, Hughes said the advanced meetings the Brewers hold — and this is an analytically friendly organization — don’t go as deep into details as he would like or specific enough to an extreme ground-ball pitcher like Hughes.

“Overall, in the official-scouting-report meeting, sure there’s a little bit of stuff like that, but it’s not there yet,” Hughes said. “But guys are looking into it.”

Hughes has begun investing more of his own time in finding hitter weaknesses.

“So if you look at some hitters who have really good launch angles, they don’t hit many ground balls or hit less than 50% ground balls, then it’s like ‘OK, where down in the zone does that hitter really have an ability to hit it into the air?’” Hughes said. “You avoid that spot. You go to the spot where the ground ball is.

“Say a catcher calls a two-seamer, arm side. Well, I want to know exactly where that pitch needs to be arm side to get it on the ground, where that batter has a better chance to hit it on the ground… It’s evolved over the last two years were I started looking more into it. It’s helped me a lot.”

If more and more hitters are trying to elevate the ball — and Hughes believes they are — then there must be a hole opening in their swings. And Hughes is working on develop new strategies — which he declined to reveal — to attack those locations, though to begin this season Hughes is throwing even more of pitches in the lower third of the zone and below. (Hughes’ sinker has begun to get classified as a four-seamer, but he said the pitch is still a sinker, that it’s just being misidentified.)

Still, he insists he’s looking for a way up. That could be tricky with a below-average spin-rate, though.

“If your swing is geared to the lower pitch, there might be something else there you can’t get to. In my opinion, every swing, every approach, there is a way to get a hitter out,” Hughes said. “The thing is, if I can find a way to have a strength up, to find something to go to up there if I think I need it. [And] I think I do.”

Pitchers still dictate the action. And Hughes, now curious, now armed with information, believes he’s better able to figure out how to get hitters out, how to punch back. And if more and more pitchers follow Hughes, if more and more pitchers drill deeper, perhaps scoring and home runs will decline and more pitches will be up in the zone.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Monsignor Martinez
6 years ago

When I got hitting lessons some 10-15 years back, I was always told never to lower the bat head, as I would whiff by swinging underneath pitches in the upper part of the zone. Now that players are doing this, I’m wondering if pitchers could elevate some of their pitches to induce more whiffs.