The Astros Pitchers Are Still Tinkering

I’ve recently started taking golf lessons again. It’s the first time I’ve taken them in almost a decade, and in that 10 years I’ve developed a lot of bad habits. My shoulders over-rotate, my left knee collapses on the backswing, I release my wrists too early. I’m a mess, really. And working with a professional has shown me just how I got from being pretty good at something to fairly poor at it over 10 years.

It’s about creating a repeatable motion, really. Consistency is key. I can hit some dandy shots, but those are occurring less frequently. Inconsistency between rounds turn into inconsistency between holes turns into inconsistency between swings. Success comes from not only creating a good motion, but a dependable one. And getting there involves a long road of minor adjustments.

This didn’t start out as an Astros post. Technically, this started as a post about golf, but you know what I mean. I didn’t sit down to research the Astros at the outset. I was fiddling with PitchF/X numbers looking to see how pitchers were changing their positions on the rubber compared to last year. With some help from Jeff Zimmerman, I found the difference between x0 positions — essentially the horizontal position in feet where the PitchF/X cameras first pick up the ball. I sorted by the absolute difference, so that righties and lefties could be compared equally. Here’s how the top 30 shook out:

Name 2013 Release (ft.) 2014 Release (ft.) Difference
Esmil Rogers -2.15 -0.81 1.34
Sam Freeman 2.20 0.94 -1.26
Alex Wood 1.80 0.73 -1.08
Brian Flynn 2.15 3.21 1.06
Phillippe Aumont -3.52 -2.49 1.03
Jose Cisnero -2.44 -1.51 0.93
Jeff Samardzija -1.97 -2.89 -0.92
Tommy Milone 2.93 2.02 -0.91
CC Sabathia 2.07 1.17 -0.90
Jerome Williams -2.40 -1.50 0.90
George Kontos -0.98 -1.81 -0.83
Chris Leroux -2.90 -2.08 0.82
Jeff Beliveau 1.77 2.58 0.81
Jeurys Familia -1.96 -1.15 0.81
Mike Fiers -1.28 -2.06 -0.77
Jarred Cosart -2.15 -1.40 0.75
Kevin Chapman 2.01 1.25 -0.75
Collin McHugh -1.96 -1.21 0.75
Vance Worley -2.09 -2.82 -0.73
Brandon Workman -2.32 -1.61 0.71
Edwin Jackson -1.91 -2.60 -0.69
Hector Noesi -2.53 -1.84 0.69
Josh Wall -1.73 -2.42 -0.69
David Carpenter -3.02 -2.36 0.66
Xavier Cedeno 2.15 1.51 -0.64
Josh Zeid -1.59 -0.96 0.64
Ramon Ramirez -1.02 -0.39 0.63
Garrett Richards -2.33 -1.74 0.60
Kevin Gausman -1.60 -2.20 -0.59
Randall Delgado -1.56 -0.97 0.59

(So this needs to be read with the idea of 0 in mind. “Negative” movement means movement to the left. Positive means movement right. Basically, just picture a scatter plot with 0 right in the middle, like the one below. It’s not meant to be insulting. I just get turned around sometimes when thinking about this stuff.)


For the most part, these all seem like guys that would be tinkering — guys one would expect to try some new things. Samardzija seems like an odd one, considering his past successes. Alex Wood was pretty good last year, too, but is still very young and could be trying things out.

But something jumps out here. Six of the top 30 mound movers in 2014 are Houston Astros. Jose Cisnero hasn’t thrown a major-league pitch in a while, and Kevin Chapman just came back up. Perhaps some sample-size filters are in order, but it seems reasonable to assume that changes like this were worked on either in Spring Training or in the minors. I can’t imagine a pitcher deciding to just change things up for the heck of it when the make it to the big leagues. Regardless of the time spent in the majors, these are most likely changes that were instilled a while back.

Twenty percent of these pitchers belong to the same team, which seems abnormal. Even Jerome Williams, a veteran hurler, started shifting over a little bit. This could be pure coincidence, but I don’t see it that way. To me, this looks like a systematic shift for a group of pitchers who needed some fine tuning. Unfortunately, illicit Googling of the Internet did not come up with any quotes or news stories to substantiate my claim. A little video analysis did reveal something beyond the numbers however.

Remember, the x0 variable doesn’t look at feet or body position. It just looks at the ball. So while it can pick up movement on the rubber, like for Jarred Cosart:


Kevin Chapman’s change appears to come from a slight rotation of the shoulders before delivery (lines to approximate mound, as it didn’t pick up very well in the video):


Much has been made of Collin McHugh’s successes this season, and he appears on this list as well. The angles are a little funny here, but there seems to be a shift in his body position, as he seems to be a bit more upright in 2014.


This causes the arm side to shift a little to the right and a little up. And the scatter plots show that his slider has certainly seen an uptick in vertical position and all his pitches have slid to the right.


(Plots courtesy of

The Astros are tied for the highest number of pitchers used in games (23) and rank tenth lowest in weighted pitcher age (28.1). These are the Astros we know and talk about. Grab a group of young guys and see if you can turn them into something (Jerome Williams not withstanding). It’s been working for McHugh, it’s been working for Dallas Keuchel (who also moved a quarter of a foot this season). The coaching staff has ideas for making their pitchers better and they don’t seem to be afraid to fiddle with a significant group at once. Jose Cisnero might not turn into anything. Kevin Chapman may end up being serviceable at best. But enough meddling might produce another Keuchel or McHugh. Or at least prop up a guy long enough to make him trade bait. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to try. With so much information available to teams these days, sometimes you can’t wait to get lucky. You have to try and create your own luck.

David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.

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9 years ago

Some unsolicited advice on how to hit a golf ball consistently: Learn how to hit solid chips. Get a good youtube video, set the ball back in your stance, hands forward and hit those small swing chips until they’re automatic. Go from a pitching wedge all the way down to a 5 or 6 iron, using the same swing. You’ll hit the 6 iron 120 yards without even trying, because you are getting good contact. Then do everything the same, but crank your swing back to about a 2/3 to 3/4 backswing, but keep the contact the same.

Good contact is the key. Just like a baseball swing, your wrists should be cocked through contact. Don’t release them until the ball’s gone.