How the Top MLB Pitchers are Winning in the Launch Angle Era

Written By: Dave Shinskie

The game of baseball has changed in the last 3-4 years in both hitting and pitching due to recent advances in technology.  We aren’t in the “Dead Ball Era” or the “Live Ball Era” or the “Steroid Era”, we are in the StatCast Era.  Launch angle, exit velocity, spin rate and basically any other variable you can think of, have been researched, measured, and studied the past few years. The questions asked by everyone is how do you increase and maximize all these different measurements? How do create more spin rate on a pitch? How do you create the optimal launch angle and exit velocity? Those questions are researched and tested every day here at Baseball Rebellion. I was recently thinking about a great question that has come up the last two years with the home run totals rising: “How do think pitchers can combat launch angle and all these home runs being hit?” In 2015, 4909 home runs were hit. In, 2016 that number jumped to 5610. And in 2017, a ridiculous 6105 home runs were hit! The only time in history we have seen more than 5500 home runs or more was 1999/2000, the height of the “Steroid Era”.

The question of, “How can a pitcher can attack a ‘launch angle focused’ hitter?” is extremely hard to answer with just one variable. When searching for an answer by looking at video and numbers I found myself asking more questions and going down a rabbit hole. The problem with the video analysis was that there are so many pitchers that all seem to have different mechanics that are successful, so it is difficult to say it mechanical.  The problem with the numbers was even harder to pinpoint due to the fact that there are guys with a high spin rate on their pitches that have trouble combating hitters with good launch angle swings, as well as low spin rate guys that have great success with getting ground balls and visa-versa. So it’s tough to put a finger on one solid answer to the question. What can pitchers combat the new era of hitters and their ability to create better launch angle with exit velocity?  The answer, it turns out, was simpler than I thought.

The only way to combat hitters doing damage with home runs and extra-base hits is understanding your identity as a pitcher and executing that your pitches within that identity. I will break down three different pitchers: Bartolo Colon, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer. I will explain why they are having success so far this year (and throughout their career) by looking at what type of pitcher each is. We will go through the different types of pitches they throw, the location of the pitches, and how they are so effective with three totally different approaches and deliveries.

Bartolo Colon

Bartolo Colon is having a great year so far with the Texas Rangers. Colon throws four different pitches. Even though he is almost 45 years old, in his outing on April 15th against the Houston Astro’s he averaged 91.3mph which was tracked by StatCast. Bartolo threw 7 perfect innings until he gave a walk and a hit in the 8th. He lives on his two-seam fastball, throwing 67 times out of 96 pitches in that game.  This combination of fastballs makes up nearly 90% of Colon’s pitches, but he also throws a changeup to left-handed hitters and an effective slider.

 

 

Pitching to his strengths and locating those strengths is what makes Colon so effective. He loves to spot pitches at any location but his “bread & butter” is away to righties and inside to lefties  This approach keeps walks to a minimum but leads to more batted balls so he relies on his fielders.  Bartolo avoids damage by throwing middle too low in the zone the with movement.  By having been in the league for so long, he has ingrained an approach to hitters like no one else. Greg Maddox was similar in this way. Colon is able to locate on the edge of the zone to get a hitter to swing at balls just out of the zone and sometimes picking up strikes on the black.  Most importantly he knows his strengths and when he misses, it is out of the zone with movement to get weak contact.  Colon has developed his 2-seam fastball (a “fastball” with movement) over time and since he doesn’t have the ability to blow guys away like he used to. Colon relies on knowing his delivery and trusting the movement/location of his 2-seam to get guys out.

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw is said to be the best pitcher on planet earth. He is 30 years old and has 3 Cy Young Awards and an MVP under his belt. His career era is just a 2.35 and has more strikeouts then innings pitched. On the Baseball Rebellion podcast, we interviewed Alex Wood, the fellow teammate of Clayton Kershaw; he referred to Kershaw as the “hardest worker he has ever seen”. Wood spoke about how some people work has hard as Kershaw on some days but none matched his day in and day out work ethic. Kershaw had a 12 strikeout game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 15, 2018. Below is the 3D visualization of his all his pitches on that day.

 

What I see in these pictures is Clayton’s consistent ability to locate down in the zone. Kershaw didn’t use his changeup in this start. I think mainly because he didn’t need it. He got ahead of the hitter early in the count and stayed ahead. He stuck to the slider and curve which he obviously threw more to the right-handed batters. He threw 31 sliders to righties and 30 fastballs. Getting ahead of both lefties and righties with the fastball is important to Clayton’s success. Kershaw is able to use his fastball early in the count because of his ability to effectively locate it. His ability to start counts 0-1 or 0-2 with a deftly located fastball puts hitters into a vulnerable position, which leads to more swings and misses on sliders and curveballs outside of the zone.  If you drew a line across the knees of the hitter, most of his pitches whether, a fastball, curveball, or slider are on or below that line.  Like Bartolo Colon does with his 2 seam fastball, Kershaw throws his slider and curve low in the zone but his misses are below the target instead of left and right. Missing low in the zone with off-speed pitchers, instead of left, right, or high means that the hitter isn’t able to elevate as easily.  This is why Kershaw’s slider is so effective. The closer aa pitch gets to home plate the less reaction time a hitter has to decide to swing. So starting his slider low, allows it to drop out of the zone just before the batter swings.

On a side note, Kershaw did recently allow a home run in that game on a fastball that was 90mph and down in the zone. The batter was Paul Goldschmidt, an all-star the last 5 years who hit 36 home runs in 2017. What I am trying to say is that the hitters are good too. Understanding this fact is part of why Clayton Kershaw is great, he refuses to allow home runs and hard-hit balls which rarely happen, get in his head. He sticks to what he is great at and constantly rehearsing it every rep every day.

Max Scherzer

Watching Max Scherzer pitch is one some of the best drama on TV. He is by far the most intense pitcher in the Big League. Dereck Dietrich of the Miami Marlins told us “Scherzer is the best pitcher he has faced in the Big Leagues, by far”. The intimidation factor, along with a repertoire of “nasty” stuff, is what gives the advantage to Scherzer over a hitter. I feel like Max Scherzer is the Luke Kuechly of baseball. He is like Clark Kent off the field but Superman on the diamond. Like Kershaw, not many players in the MLB out work Scherzer or have the mental toughness he has. I like listening to his interviews on Twitter and ESPN to hear his outtakes on subjects and his performances.  He recently had an 11 strikeout game and only gave up one hit to the Colorado Rockies on April 14th. Below are the 3D images of all his pitches to righties and lefties.

 

Scherzer threw 103 pitches in that game,  74 of them being fastballs which is about 71% of the time.  His average velocity on his four-seam fastball was 95.2mph which he likes to locate outside to righties and up in the zone to lefties. He likes to locate here when he is in ahead in the count and when he thinks he can overpower a batter.  As you can see in the pictures above, he likes to stay soft in and hard away to right-handed batters and soft away and hard into left-handed batters. This way he can stay ahead of the hitter mentally by starting with a pitch he is comfortable with and having them think about what is coming next. Once he has them guessing it too late. The next thing you know the fastball is by them and they are sitting down with another K for Max Scherzer.   He spreads out his pitches but primarily stays on the shadow of the strike zone. This prohibits batters from making solid contact. A combination of intent, determination, and persistence to dominate is what makes Max Schzerer so intimidating. Along with nasty stuff and the ability to repeat it every game.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I see three pitchers with very different pitches types and styles. Bartolo Colon, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer all have different strategies to combat good hitters elevating the ball to do damage. Whether it is using a moving 2-seam fastball, hard-spinning slider, or a 95+ 4-seam fastball. They all have a few things in common. First, work ethic on and off the field whether it is physical or mental. Secondly, they all turn their preparation into execution on a daily basis. This allows them to stay in the moment on the field to miss pitches less and in better stops.  And finally, and I think most importantly for the issue of combating “Launch Angle hitters”, all three have an identity with their pitches. They know what pitches work for them, in what situation they work and in what location in/out of the zone they belong.  They are consistently able to get outs by understanding their game and what makes them the best!  I hope I shed some light on why all three of these guys are able to dominate and limit home runs, despite all having different styles.