Smart things players said this year

Talk to the players as much as you can. Read about what they think. They are smart about baseball, and they can tell you things you never thought of before. 

Nobody knows as much about the physical aspect of game play as the men who actually suit up to play it. Knowledge of the mechanics of the game of baseball should inform best practices, even if those insights come in a different form and language from the results we get from empirical research. So talk to the players. I have, and they’ve said some very smart things. 

10) Sam Fuld, Athletics outfielder: "Ever notice that nobody talks about the length of the games when they talk about injuries being up around baseball?"

This one’s simple, and maybe it was just a personal blind spot of mine. But I’d long thought that the length of games was a marketing concern. I want baseball to succeed, but I personally have set aside all the time it takes to watch a baseball game from beginning to end, and I enjoy it. But if longer games means lesser talent on the field because the starting position players are injured more often… that would make me rethink my position. 

9) Adam LaRoche, Nationals first baseman: "You dig in too deep. That’s the worst thing a hitter can do, complicate things in his whole mind. It’s happening so quick. The pitcher has more time. He can sit back on the mound, he can come up with the game plan and execute it."

Sometimes you get the sense that pitchers are more analytical about the game. They’re at least more ready to talk about adjustments they’ve made and the mechanics of throwing the baseball. That might be because of the actual way a plate appearance plays out. The pitcher actually decides what pitch is coming, and the hitter can only try to anticipate. That means the pitcher’s game plan is going to be, by nature, more proactive. That gives them more agency over the outcome, and that has implications for who has more control over every interaction at the plate. We roll our eyes sometimes when hitters call their craft instinctual, but there’s something there. 

8) Jake Odorizzi, Rays pitcher: "[Alex] Cobb’s is more straight down than mine — I have the tilt and the run a little bit.”

The context makes this quote. Odorizzi is talking about his splitter with respect to Alex Cobb’s splitter. He’s pointing out that their movement is different despite the fact that Cobb taught him his splitter grip. Two guys, of similar height and weight, throwing the same grip out of what looks like the same release points… you’d think they’d throw the same pitch, really. But they don’t, and that’s why pitching is so complicated. Turns out, the angle between their head and arm is different, as is the pronation in their hands upon release. Grips are great, grips are cool, and grips are only one little part of the picture.

7) Noah Syndergaard, Mets prospect pitcher: "Right now it’s pretty hard to throw a breaking ball in Vegas. It’s pretty dry and the ball doesn’t break as much, so I’ve moved toward the changeup.

Last year, Jhoulys Chacin admitted that he doesn’t throw his curveball in Colorado, so this quote really isn’t breaking new ground when it comes to curves in high altitude. The rest of the piece is about how competitive young minor league pitchers deal with throwing pitches that aren’t quite ready for the big leagues yet, but this quote tells us a little more. What this quote does do is open a window on the process of developing a pitcher. Las Vegas is one of the most extreme hitters’ parks in minor league baseball, to the point that many of Toronto’s better prospect pitchers never pitched there. Perhaps the Mets knew that Syndergaard could use some work on his changeup. And that the uber-competitive young man might never throw it if his big fastball and strong curve were working just fine as they were. By the end of that piece, you realize that the interaction between the front office and their prospects is minimal, but important. This move could have worked out really poorly for the Mets, but instead their young pitcher just got better. 

6) Joe Panik, Giants second baseman: "I’ve been learning to continue my fastball mentality and swing as if it’s a fastball — if it’s a breaking ball, say with no strikes or one strike, just keep that fastball mentality and swing through it. Then when you get to two strikes, it’s a whole new mentality.”

This all stemmed from something Marco Scutaro said in 2013 — "I probably lead the league in bad contact, too." This newest version of Marco Scutaro wants to make a lot of contact, too, but maybe that’s a little bit more important to him with two strikes. We saw that two-strike approach pay dividends in the playoffs, and his team appreciates him for it. But if we see more power from him in the future, it might be because he’s missing some balls on purpose. Because, as he says, if you swing thinking it’s a fastball, and then adjust down to a breaking ball, you’re likely to make poor contact that won’t have a good outcome. Sometimes missing is better.

5) Corey Kluber, Indians pitcher: “All of that other stuff plays off the fastball, if you’re not consistent with the fastball, none of that other stuff is going to be as good … I was getting hit around and was having trouble working consistently down in the zone … I hardly ever throw the four-seamer any more.

My interviews with pitchers are littered with new pitches and ditched pitches and altered grips, but when Kluber said he dropped the four-seam, it seemed more drastic. How can you ditch the fastball you’ve been throwing your whole life? Turns out, it’s happening often around baseball. This year alone, Tanner Roark and Jesse Chavez told me similar stories about their fastball decisions. And Roger Craig confirmed it on the phone recently: pitchers are now using sinkers and cutters as primary fastballs more than they ever did in his day. "Nothing’s straight anymore," said the legendary pitching coach and one of the masters of the splitfinger, one of the bendiest pitches ever. What that means for strikeout rates and arm health is a much harder question to answer. 

4) Sam Fuld: "Now when we get scouting reports, we get fastball, cutter, sinker — I wonder if we get to the point now where ‘riseball’ will be a unique pitch. It would be helpful, I don’t think it gets talked about enough. It’s the anti-sinker."

And now we might even have a fourth kind of fastball worth tracking in the riseball. There’s at least preliminary evidence that fastballs with great ‘ride’ or ‘rise’ — fastballs that don’t drop like other pitches — lead to more pop-ups. Since the infield fly is an out over 99% of the time, that’s an interesting development. Many of the pitchers that succeed despite lower velocity readings — like Jered Weaver, Phil Hughes, and Chris Young — show up on this list of riseballers. As Chris Young has said before, quantifying deception may be the next big finding for a front office somewhere. Being able to figure out whose funk will play up may lead to more discoveries like Yusmeiro Petit and his Invisiball.  

3) John Jaso, Athletics catcher: "When I first got hit, it was nausea and a headache for five straight days. That kind of went away, because I wasn’t catching for a while because we hit a string of lefties. All of a sudden, we hit a string of righties and I was catching a lot and all of a sudden all of my symptoms — I’d been playing through this for a while, I had been foggy and all that through this whole thing — all of a sudden my symptoms just skyrocketed. Irritability, fogginess. I was keeping to myself. I was just playing through it, playoff push. It ramped up and I could not do it any more. Catching-wise especially. I couldn’t react. I couldn’t see the ball sometimes.

Ask Jaso now, and he’ll admit playing through his concussion was one of the dumber things he’s done. But admitting it is smart. By admitting it, especially in the detail that he did, he showed younger players what not to do. It seems reasonable, to try and play through pain for a team that’s desperate for offense and fighting to make the postseason. Almost admirable. But then you get to the last line. Imagine ignoring an ailment to the point that you couldn’t see a 98 mph fastball coming towards you. That should scare any young catcher straight. Be honest about your symptoms, and get the care you need. 

2) Brandon Moss, Athletics outfielder: "I get close to the plate, because people think I want the ball in, but it’s really so that the pitch away becomes middle, and it’s like a heart of the zone pitch. I hit in way better than I hit away, so I trust myself on the inside pitch and I make the outside pitch middle." 

If, after reading Adam LaRoche’s quote above, you were wondering how a hitter might best use sabermetric thought and tools to his advantage, then Brandon Moss is happy to oblige (with the salty language of the clubhouse). Not everything he says lines up perfectly with what the advanced stats say, but he’s obviously in tune with his heat maps and tendencies. And that allows him to best take advantage of his skillset. Just make the outside pitch middle indeed.

1) Chris Young, Mariners pitcher:  “You can look across the board and see that pitching up can be just as effective as pitching down, maybe moreso. Hitting is cyclical. Hitters are very good low ball hitters now.”

This quote spawned a new appreciation for pitching high in the zone among many. Watching Madison Bumgarner (a self-avowed high-fastball aficionado) go high, higher, highest on Salvador Perez in the final at-bat of the World Series felt like the period on the sentence: the high fastball is starting to come back. Just look at Jeff Sullivan’s research on high fastballs — hitters are having a harder time with elevated heat now. Perhaps it’s due to power being down across baseball (the consequences of a poorly placed high fastball may be less dire), or perhaps it really is about how hitters are being taught (Sean Doolittle thought that dropping the barrel on the ball was the default swing now) — either way, it looks like the Chris Young had his eye on a developing trend.