A couple of years ago, Jose Bautista had some advice for Marcus Stroman. “He said I should screw with my timing more,” the Jays’ right-handed pitcher told me a couple weeks back. Maybe you’ve seen him employ the strategy this year. It’s a fun and makes watching him more interesting. The effect it has on his ability to prevent runs is less obvious, though.
First, let’s get a sense of Stroman’s “normal” delivery. Here, for example, is the second pitch of his most recent start:
Going back to the first pitch of that start, however, we see something a bit different:
That’s just the first two pitches of the game, mind you. Over the course of his start against the Yankees, the right-hander mostly used the quicker version seen here, but he also varied how long he stayed on his back leg and how long he held the ball, generally playing with his pace to make the batter less comfortable.
If something like this seems familiar, it’s because we’ve seen it before — most notably and recently with Johnny Cueto. It seems to work for the Giants hurler, who has many version of what is known as The Rocking Chair.
For Stroman, the multiple looks have lead to slightly longer times between pitches but also a wider variance in the amount of time between pitches. Here, because of how Pace is calculated on the site, I’ve taken his average time per plate appearance and divided it by pitches thrown and throws to first. Then I’ve taken the standard deviation of those times to show that he’s changing it up more often this year.
|Season||Pace||Standard Deviation of Times to Plate|
Your first instinct might be that this has a detrimental effect on command. Not only is there no relationship between the standard deviation of pace and walk rate — the best proxy for command I can throw into this calculation right now — but the player himself has seen no deterioration in his walk, home-run, or heart-of-the-plate rates this year. In fact, most of those numbers are at or near career bests.
“I didn’t feel comfortable enough, strong enough in my core to do to it on the past,” admitted the player. After tearing his ACL in 2015, much of his focus has been on getting back to where he once was. This offseason was the first during which he could focus in that area, and he’s seeing a benefit. “Now my command is great with it and I will pause to get back into my mechanics,” he said.
It’s a fun story, but it’s hard to find a direct relationship between varied delivery times and any specific outcomes. Using numbers back to 2014, I couldn’t relate standard deviations of times to the plate and any outcomes in a significant manner.
Perhaps 2017’s leader should give us a hint as to why there might need to be more exploration on the matter. No pitcher this year has varied his times to the plate as much as Michael Pineda. And yet, watch a Michael Pineda start, and there aren’t many different deliveries. You will, however, see him walk around, sweat, wipe his brow, stand around the mound, and then finally stand on the rubber. That affects the variance in time between pitches but does little to alter the actual timing of his delivery.
Going slowly has its benefits. Rob Arthur at FiveThirtyEight showed a small positive effect between a slower pace and velocity, and that makes some sense physically. It allows a pitcher more time to recover between pitches. There’s some evidence that a slower pace is good for injury reasons, too. Our own Dr. Mike Sonne detailed how forcefully cutting down the time between pitches could have a negative impact on pitcher health outcomes.
And varying the pitches is tough on the hitter, even if we can’t express the effects in numbers just yet. Just last year, Josh Donaldson admitted that quick-pitching pitchers were upsetting his timing and pushing the limits of the rule book:
“Pitchers are not trying to deceive runners any more with their balks, they are trying to deceive hitters,” Donaldson said. “With guys like myself, guys like Jose Bautista, guys that have leg kicks, movement in their swing, more than any other area, all that timing, this, that, hold, quick pitch, they’re all trying to do something to mess our timing up.”
It makes sense when put this way, but we’ll still need better data to make a strong link between Stroman’s new approach and his results this year. For now, let’s just appreciate the Rocking Chair, and how crazy it is that he can still find the zone when he’s shimmying on the mound like that.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.