Drew Pomeranz, Now With 50% More Pitches

I think we all love the idea of a hitter being taught by Barry Bonds, or a pitcher being taught by Pedro Martinez. It’s because we can’t help but imagine those icons might in some way be able to convey their baseballing essence. In reality, it doesn’t work like that. Pedro wasn’t Pedro because of some career lesson; he was Pedro because he simply threw his pitches better than anyone else, and the things that allowed him to do that are particular to him. You can’t teach your own personality, you can’t teach your own feel, and you can’t teach your own instincts. You can teach mechanics. It doesn’t require a star to teach mechanics.

Have you ever heard of Travis Higgs? No offense to Travis Higgs, but, no, probably not. Higgs has never made it to the major leagues. He was never a hot-shot prospect. He hasn’t been involved in any kind of high-profile scandal that I know about. To my own brain, Travis Higgs might as well be someone named, I don’t know, Reginald Beanbottom. Higgs has never meant anything to me. But he’s meant an awful lot to Drew Pomeranz. In a way, Higgs is partially responsible for turning Pomeranz into a complete starting pitcher.

As you know by now, for Pomeranz, it’s been a breakout season. He was sold by the A’s on the cheap, and then in spring training with the Padres, he had to fight to earn a role in the rotation. Since winning that job, Pomeranz has thrived. He’s coming up now in various trade rumors. He’s an All-Star! The A’s seem to love trading All-Stars.

I’ve written about Pomeranz once this year. It was in the middle of May, and I liked most of what I was seeing. That being said, back then, Pomeranz still looked like a two-pitch pitcher. He was doing well with his fastball and curve, but after putting in work in the spring, he hadn’t shown many cutters or changeups. A year ago, Pomeranz didn’t throw any cutters. Through May 11, he’d thrown 4% cutters. Not enough for me to care very much.

I was reading about Pomeranz on Tuesday. That’s when I saw something I didn’t expect. To pull from John Perotto:

The Athletics, along with many scouts from other teams, felt Pomeranz profiled better as a reliever because he had just two pitches he could count on: his fastball and curveball. However, he learned a cut fastball just before the beginning of spring training to give him a third effective offering after struggling with the changeup throughout his career.

“It’s made all the difference in the world,” Pomeranz said.

That passage sent me back into the data. And, yeah, Pomeranz has been evolving on the fly. Through May 11, over seven starts, Pomeranz threw 4% cutters. Since May 18, over 10 starts, he’s thrown 19% cutters. Almost right after I wrote about him, Pomeranz fully introduced his third pitch, having become sufficiently comfortable with it in throwing sessions. No longer might we consider Pomeranz a two-pitch pitcher. He has three pitches he’ll use in any count, and they cover three distinct levels of speed.

You hear a lot about guys trying new pitches in spring. That’s when you’re supposed to try new pitches. Mostly, they don’t go anywhere. Earlier, I myself was greatly interested in Garrett Richards learning a changeup. Pomeranz learned a cutter, and it’s stuck. It’s gotten better, even. And about that name from before — Pomeranz got here almost on a fluke.

PEORIA, Ariz. — Drew Pomeranz was simply going through his offseason routine, playing catch with former Minor League teammate Travis Higgs. The circumstances were the same as any other throwing session — only this time, Pomeranz noticed something strange about Higgs’ tosses: They had some serious late movement.

“I just asked, ‘What was that?'” Pomeranz said. “He showed me the grip and where to apply the pressure.”

Higgs provided the details, and Pomeranz applied the major-league ability. He has a cutter, now, that he throws about a fifth of the time. Now, since May 18, Pomeranz hasn’t generated better results than he had through May 11. But, through May 11, he was insanely good, and he was bound to regress. Pomeranz has remained effective, he’s become more efficient, and maybe most remarkably, he’s chopped about five ticks off his average opponent exit velocity. In the early going, in terms of exit velocity allowed, Pomeranz ranked in the 12th percentile. Since May 18, he’s ranked in the 92nd percentile. He’s mostly avoided quality contact, and that’s exactly how a cutter is supposed to function.

Real quick, let’s look at some plots from Texas Leaguers. These show Pomeranz’s pitches by horizontal and vertical movement, with 2015 on the left and 2016 on the right.

pomeranz-new-pitches

The new pitch in the middle couldn’t be more obvious. It fills in a whale of a gap, and, don’t worry about those pitch classifications. They’re automated, and they’re wrong. That new cluster is the cutter group. It’s in between the fastball and curveball in velocity, and it’s in between the fastball and curveball in break.

Now we’ll draw from Baseball Savant. This time, I want to show you how Pomeranz’s locations have changed this year as he’s folded in the cutter. Here is how he’s pitched lefties:

pomeranz-lefties

Basically, he’s moved more away, covering the outer edge. And, more importantly, here’s how he’s pitched righties:

pomeranz-righties

Where Pomeranz used to leave a number of pitches up and over the middle, he’s moved a bit more down and in. Pomeranz commands the cutter well to his glove side, and that’s where you see him jamming hitters. That’s where the worse contact comes from. To say nothing of having to protect against a third weapon. Adding a pitch makes everything better. Want to know a fun fact? His third time through the order this season, Pomeranz has yielded a paltry .328 OPS. That’s the best mark in baseball by more than 100 points. He’s made it harder to sit on certain pitches, as well as certain locations.

Here’s Pomeranz using a cutter to get back in a count:

Here’s Pomeranz using a cutter to get a quick out against a lefty:

It works. Of course it doesn’t work all of the time, and of course there are going to be mistakes, but this development is far more good than bad. James Paxton is a lefty who’s credited some of his improvement to a better cutter. CC Sabathia is a lefty who’s credited some of his improvement to a better cutter. And Drew Pomeranz is a lefty who’s credited some of his improvement to a better cutter. It’s not the only thing that’s made a difference, since Pomeranz was already succeeding before the cutter was unleashed, but now Pomeranz looks whole. He has three pitches, three speeds, and three movements. As previously skeptical scouts examine the trade options in advance of the deadline, they see a Pomeranz who’s taken one huge leap forward.

That’s always an obnoxious way to finish something like this — this player on a bad team has improved, so now they can trade him. It’s no fun losing good players. But then, it is certainly fun getting good players. Pomeranz is lined up to get more than that for which he was gotten.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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dandizo
5 years ago

I’m just using the statistics that are readily available on Fangraph. They split DP’s season into 4 segments – Mar/Apr, May, June, and July. If you look wOBA, FIP, and xFIP, the first 3 segments are reasonably similar, although June has the worst numbers in the 3 categories. Only for 14 innings in July has DP been insanely good, and that may be a sample size issue. There’s clearly been a change in DP’s pitching selections since May 18, but it’s not clear to me that there has been a change in the results of his pitching. If Jeff could show pre and post May 18 wOBA, FIP, xFIP, it would be easier to evaluate the improvement.