Cole Hamels’ Cutter, Graphically

Friend of the blog and fellow esports enthusiast Dan Brooks (@BrooksBaseball) has owned and operated the go-to site for Pitch F/X data for quite some time. Over this off-season, he somehow managed to make some significant improvements to his site. There’s even more data and you are able to permute the data to your heart’s content. During the season, Brooks Baseball will be a must-have in your browser’s bookmarks, right next to Baseball Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and FanGraphs.

To get a feel for the usefulness of the data, I wanted to investigate Cole Hamels‘ spike in ground balls from 2010 to 2011, when he induced them at a 45 and 52 percent rate, respectively. On Hamels’ player card, you can see the chart pictured to the right, one of many such charts.

The cluster of red dots are Hamels’ cut fastballs and the cluster of black dots are his four-seam fastballs. The chart shows that his cutter has more concentrated horizontal movement and less “rise”. You can see the difference in the following two animated .gifs.

Four-seam fastball

Cut Fastball

The cut fastball is a pitch Hamels added in 2010, but it took him a while to get a feel for it. Brooks Baseball shows us that Hamels threw the cutter for a ball 39 percent of the time in 2010, but only 33 percent of the time last year. Additionally, the rate at which he induced ground balls with the pitch changed as well, from 41 of 88 in 2010 (47%) to 91 of 147 (62%) in 2011.

Not only did Hamels increase his use of the cutter last season from 14 percent to 21 percent, but he threw it lower and further away from the middle of the plate. These heat maps, courtesy ESPN Stats & Info, show us the location of his cutters to left-handed hitters in 2010 and 2011.

Obviously, as you go lower and further away from the hitter, the likelihood of a ground ball being hit increases and the quality of contact decreases. As a result, Hamels improved his ground ball rate, and his fly ball rate changed in that he doubled the rate at which he induced infield pop-ups (six percent in 2010 to 12 percent last year) and deflated his HR/FB rate by about five percent.

Hamels set a career-low with a 2.79 ERA last season, partially due to a .255 BABIP. Some — not all — of that is explained by the refinement of his cut fastball, particularly against left-handed hitters. His 2.96 xFIP against lefties was his best since 2007. If Hamels can continue to expertly utilize his cut fastball, then he should be able to maintain a lower-than-expected BABIP going forward. Don’t forget, the cutter is not even Hamels’ best pitch — that honor goes to his change-up, arguably the best in baseball. These two pitches make him plenty valuable not just to the Phillies, but to many other teams praying he will be eligible for free agency after the season.

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6 comments

  1. Dan K.

    February 27, 2012 12:25 PM

    I remember back in 2007 I talked to my dad about Hamels’ changeup and how unfair it was to hitters. He commented that Johan Santana had the best changeup in baseball and I told him to just wait and Hamels would supplant him.

    Score one for me.

    Also, this (comment from the article linked above): “CircleChange11 says:
    February 15, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    This is my favorite thread of the year.

    I’d say more, but I’m a little choked up.

    72% strike rate on a changeup. That is what I refer to as “F***ing with hitters”. Seriously, you are challenging them with something that both of you know they can’t hit.”

  2. LTG

    February 27, 2012 05:20 PM

    The Pitch f/x graph is confusing me. Doesn’t it say that the 4-seamer on average has both more vertical and more horizontal movement? What do you mean by concentrated movement?

  3. Bill Baer

    February 27, 2012 05:27 PM

    By “concentrated movement”, I meant that there wasn’t as much of a spread compared to the four-seam fastballs.

    Yes, the four-seam fastball has more horizontal and vertical movement.

    Here is a good article explaining how to read the charts:

    www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2009/4/17/841366/understanding-pitch-f-x-graphs

    In a movement graph, we don’t care about where a pitch actually ended up, but instead care about how it got there. Our point of view is again from the catcher’s eyes and the axes are again horizontal and vertical, but this time they represent change in location due to spin, not absolute location. Change in location compares a pitch’s actual final location at the front of the plate to where physics equations would have expected it to end up given no spin at all (and no knuckling effects).

  4. joshfortunatus

    February 29, 2012 09:44 AM

    I’d say that Hamels always was a frontline starter but his HR rate always seemed to dampen his chances of being truly elite (or in the same class as Halladay and Lee). I agree his cutter is a contributor to his success last year but he also walked fewer and got a ton more groundballs. I guess it’s tough to say right now that these groundball and HR rates will become commonplace going forward but if he hits free agency, he could see a bigger contract than CC.

    Also, I see that you used xFIP, which I’m not a huge fan of. What do you think of xFIP regressing on a per player basis? Different pitchers give up different home run rates over their career so why not base the HR component of xFIP off of a dynamic HR rate? You could call it caFIP (Crashburn Alley FIP).

  5. LTG

    February 29, 2012 09:46 AM

    “I was talking [to our coaches] today,” Manuel said Monday. “We’re going to do more bunting sessions. We’re going to get [Shane Victorino] and Jimmy [Rollins] and [Juan] Pierre and [Michael] Martinez. … If Victorino bunted 15-20 times a year and got both of the corners up, the balls he slices and hits hard, there are more ground balls that go through the infield.”

    Discuss.

  6. PrairiePhilsFan

    February 29, 2012 11:57 AM

    Great Post. Love this kind of info…

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