Let’s talk about release points. Are you ready to talk about release points? Of course you are — there’s no preparation necessary. If you’re on FanGraphs, there’s no becoming more ready than you already are. Good news!
Among all the things PITCHf/x keeps track of, release point is one of them. Or should I say, two of them; the system tracks both horizontal release point and vertical release point. For our purposes here, we’ll focus on the horizontal release point tracking. On this scale, which is shown in units of feet, 0 corresponds to the middle of the pitching rubber. A negative number means the ball was released more toward the third-base side, and a positive number means the ball was released more toward the first-base side.
Right-handed pitchers have negative horizontal release points. Their arms, after all, hang off from the sides of their bodies, nearer to third base than first. Left-handed pitchers are just the opposite. With side-armers, you’ll see extreme release points, three or four feet from the middle of the rubber. Occasionally you get someone even more extreme than that. A more ordinary pitcher will have a release point separated from the middle by a foot or two. This is only a little bit interesting, but let’s get into some information. Last year’s Brewers were mostly right-handed. Let’s examine those same Brewers.
Baseball Savant has an option to let you keep track of release points. I searched for information on the team level, for just right-handed pitchers. I had to set a cutoff somewhere, so I selected -1 feet. I wanted to find the rate of pitches thrown by each team’s righties, with a horizontal release point no more than one foot to the third-base side of the middle of the mound.
Last year’s overall league average was about 18%. The top five teams:
- Brewers, 53%
- Diamondbacks, 35%
- Blue Jays, 32%
- Indians, 30%
- A’s, 29%
Not only did the Brewers finish in first — the margin is enormous. Between first and second, there’s a gap of 18 percentage points. That’s bigger than the gap between second and 13th place. One way to have an extreme release point is to let go of the ball really far from the middle of the rubber. Another way is to come over the top. The Brewers, as a team, averaged an unusual amount of right-handed pitches thrown more or less straight on.
On the individual level, there were 126 righties who threw at least 1,000 pitches. I sorted them by the same criteria — release points no further than -1 feet from the center of the mound. The Brewers wound up with five of the top 26 rates. At 66%, Marco Estrada. At 68%, Wily Peralta. At 76%, Jimmy Nelson. At 80%, Yovani Gallardo. And at 84%, Kyle Lohse. I’ll note that former Brewer John Axford is way up there at 99%. Possibly, this is a coincidence. Or also possibly, this is intentional, something that’s taught within the organization. Evidence suggests the Brewers might prefer right-handed pitchers who stand toward the first-base side of the rubber, and throw mostly overhand.
It doesn’t apply to everybody. Mike Fiers, for example, is more normal. And the Brewers ditched Estrada. They ditched Gallardo and Axford. Maybe this was a passing thing, or maybe not, and we’ll just have to see what the pitchers look like in the season and seasons to come.
With Gallardo, I want to take a deeper look. He’s almost as extreme as they come. While I know he finished behind Lohse in the paragraph above, there’s a good reason for that, and, we’ll get there.
I decided to look at all righties in the PITCHf/x era, spanning 2008 – 2014. I broke it down to individual seasons, and I set a tiny minimum of 50 pitches thrown, because release point isn’t the kind of thing that requires a big sample size to stabilize. Before, I looked for the rate of pitches thrown no further than a foot to the third-base side. This time I kicked it up: I looked for the rate of pitches thrown somewhere on the first-base side. So, these are righties, letting go of the ball over the left half of the mound.
The highest rates:
- 2008 Hideo Nomo, 100%
- 2014 Yovani Gallardo, 60%
- 2012 Yovani Gallardo, 58%
- 2011 Jeff Manship, 47%
- 2010 Trevor Hoffman, 46%
- 2013 Yovani Gallardo, 46%
- 2011 Jose Arredondo, 44%
- 2009 Trevor Hoffman, 33%
For 2014, specifically, there’s Gallardo at 60%, and then in second place, there’s Mat Latos, at 18%. It’s a big, big separation. Here, the five highest average release points:
- 2008 Hideo Nomo, 0.67 feet toward first base
- 2012 Yovani Gallardo, 0.17
- 2011 Jose Arredondo, 0.00
- 2014 Yovani Gallardo, -0.02
- 2011 Jeff Manship, -0.08
Here’s the thing about Gallardo: already, you can see he’s unusual. But he’s shown even more extreme release points. Brooks Baseball shows that Gallardo went through a little phase:
During the 2013 season, Gallardo moved from the first-base side to the third-base side. During the 2014 season, Gallardo moved back. That shift pulled down his averages, and here are some helpful visuals:
Gallardo, earlier 2013
Gallardo, later 2014
In 2012, Gallardo averaged a release point 0.17 feet toward first base. In 2013, before changing sides, that average jumped to 0.35. During the shifted period, the average sunk to -1.07. Then, after moving back, Gallardo averaged 0.34. It’s not quite Hideo Nomo, but it’s about as close as it gets. And that captures only the very end of Nomo’s career, when he threw 110 mostly terrible pitches. Here’s a clip of Nomo, earlier:
At release, it’s very similar. Nomo was an extreme pitcher in several ways — in this one way, Gallardo is almost a perfect match.
Gallardo has used release points almost no righty has matched. For a time, he shifted away from that release point, but then he went back. The delivery didn’t change, but the position on the rubber did, so the angle did, and the strategy did, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s all part of the release-point coordinates. Another interesting pitcher to look at is Trevor Hoffman — Hoffman showed similar release points, against righties. He shifted on the rubber against lefties.
Hoffman vs. righty
Hoffman vs. lefty
Hoffman isn’t the only pitcher to have shown different release points depending on the handedness of the hitter, but it is an uncommon trait. It’s also more demanding of the pitcher, because he has to be able to locate from two different pitching angles. Suffice to say, I think Hoffman was good enough. Some pitchers aren’t.
The big sweeping conclusion here is: hey, how about that? How about those Brewers? How about that Gallardo? The Brewers last year were extreme, maybe on purpose. Didn’t make them awesome; just made them different. We’ll see what 2015 is like. And Gallardo is a rare breed, in his arm angle and his placement on the rubber. Hardly any righties on record have released the ball from a similar area. Presumably, this has helped to control Gallardo’s platoon splits. You figure it would make him better against lefties, although it could also make him worse against righties. He doesn’t work like Trevor Hoffman. Probably won’t.
As far as I’m concerned, Gallardo’s extremity is interesting enough. I’m not sure it has to mean anything — it’s just weird, and weird is of note for weirdness’ sake. Baseball hasn’t had a Hideo Nomo since he announced his retirement. Gallardo isn’t Nomo v2.0, but if you just take a few glances and think of them side by side, they might be more similar than Nomo and anyone else.
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.