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Cooper: Teams That Draft For Current Trends Will Soon Be Chasing Ancient History

Gerrit Cole Stevenryangetty
(Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

If you are a pilot, you have to watch out for pilot-induced oscillation (usually known as a PIO).

A PIO happens when a pilot ends up out of sync with a slow-reacting airplane. The plane’s nose pitches down towards the Earth, so the pilot reacts and pulls the control stick to lift the nose of the plane up. But because of the delay in the plane reacting to the control input, the pilot ends up over-correcting. The pilot holds the control stick back longer than was necessary, and the plane shifts from pitching down to pitching up. The pilot pushes the stick forward, ends up over-correcting again, and the plane pitches down further than it did the first time. What started as a minor up-and-down movement can soon turn into a crash-inducing series of massive over-corrections.

It’s tough to realize, but sometimes a pilot is better off just neutralizing the control stick and letting the plane stabilize itself. The pilot is reacting to what they are seeing, but they are doing so not realizing that by the time they react, the situation has already changed.

As the 2021 MLB Draft arrives, I can’t help but think that some MLB teams may be getting ready to succumb to their own version of PIO. Teams are reacting as best they can to the current state of baseball, but they are picking players who won’t make the majors until 2024-2026 (in the case of college players) and 2026-2028 (in the case of many high school players).

If you select players who seem perfect for the game in 2021, you may find out those players are not such a perfect fit years down the road.

Right now in the draft, teams are looking for pitchers with fastballs with carry (high induced vertical break numbers) up in the zone. Ideally, a shorter pitcher or one with a lower release point is more appealing as well, as that pitcher’s fastball will enter the strike zone on a flatter (and more unusual) plane than a taller/more over-the-top pitcher.

That all makes sense, and the results are quite apparent—the pitchers with the most above-average vertical movement on their four-seamers in 2020 included Walker Buehler, Trevor Bauer, Gerrit Cole, Liam Hendriks and Shane Bieber. Having elite “rise” on your fastball is an excellent path to success.

(Yes. It's worth noting that the fastball doesn’t actually rise. It actually sinks less than what hitters expect, creating the optical illusion of a rising fastball.)

Having rare pitch characteristics of any sort helps forge a pathway to likely success. But what if you’re not elite? Well, that’s where this gets trickier.

If a team prioritizes vertical fastball movement when setting up its draft board, is it in danger of chasing a characteristic that may be less valuable by the time these current draftees reach the majors?

If you’re talking about the first round, teams are selecting from the best available pitchers, ones who check almost all the boxes of what teams are looking for in a pitcher. But with a 20-round draft, much of the draft is focused on selecting players who have clear strengths and weaknesses.

Baseball is a game of constant moves and counter moves. If you’re trying to catch up to the current trend, you’re likely a step or two behind where the game is going. You’re pulling on the stick to try to keep the plane from crashing into the ground, but you don’t realize the nose of the plane is already on its way to a pitch-up stall.

A decade ago, teams were enamored with finding over-the-top pitchers who could throw sinkers, generate downward plane on their fastball and, by extension, create plenty of ground balls. (At the time, the Kansas City Royals’ doctrine of emphasizing four-seam fastballs and 12-to-6 curveballs drew plenty of criticism for being outdated).

Teams were chasing pitchers with elite ground ball rates who could keep the ball on the ground and be efficient at working deeper into games as they pitched to contact.

If you’re relatively new to baseball, that all may sound quaint, but there was a time when that seemed a viable strategy. Not all that long ago, the Pirates were among early movers on the trend to sink the ball down in the zone, create plenty of ground balls and shift the defense into optimal spots to turn those ground balls into outs.

For a period of time, it worked. But like everything in baseball, there was a quick reaction. Justin Turner, Marlon Byrd, J.D. Martinez and soon hundreds of other hitters adjusted their swings to become comfortable mashing sinkers down in the zone.

Elite sinkerballers like Dallas Keuchel didn’t have to change much--if you’re at the best of almost anything in baseball, you can have success. But for the Doug Fisters of the world, the changes of the game were much more jarring.

So pitchers had to counterattack by throwing above those swings by elevating their fastballs in and above the strike zone.

A team that emphasized drafting tall sinkerballers early in the 2010s was building an excellent DVD collection just as the world turned to high definition streaming.

The average height of a fastball sat at 2.56 feet above the plate at the beginning of the PitchFX era in 2008. And year after year it dropped as teams adapted to the new trend. The peak of the sinker era was 2015. That year fastball height bottomed out at 2.46 feet above the plate. Since then, it’s steadily risen again. Last year it was back to where it was in 2008, and this year it’s gone a tick higher (to 2.57 feet) marking the highest average fastball height since the statistic was first measured.

So teams are having success with pitchers who can elevate their fastballs.

But the counter moves to this have already begun. Where teams have been teaching hitters how to lift balls low in the zone for home runs, clever teams are now working with hitters on flatter, shorter swings that can ensure they can handle the now heavier doses of fastballs up.

The chart below shows the percentage of four-seam fastballs in the top third of the strike zone and balls above the strike zone as compared to sinking fastballs in the bottom third of the strike zone and balls below the zone. Both are measured as a percentage of total pitches.

A hitter who is looking for balls low in the zone to lift may be waiting quite a while for a pitch to his liking. At the same time, hitters are seeing a steady stream of fastballs at the letters. This doesn’t mean that fastballs up in the zone are going to soon turn into easy pickings for hitters—95-plus mph at eye level coming out of a pitcher’s hand is always both a tempting target to swing at and a hard one to hit.

But the more hitters see anything, the easier it becomes for them to adapt to it. Visual processing relies on extrapolating where a hitter expects a pitch to end up from what the batter sees in the first part of the pitch’s path to the plate.

A pitch with rare vertical movement is effective in part because the hitter expects it will cross the plate at a lower point than it does. But if more and more pitchers are generating more vertical movement, what once was somewhat unusual becomes average and it becomes part of a hitters’ expected visual extrapolation.

The evolution of the MLB game largely eliminated hitters who couldn’t catch up to 95 mph over the past 10 to 15 years. Hitters who are easy pickings for elevated fastballs are likely finding their MLB chances dwindling as the league shifts in that direction as well.

But the hitters who can handle elevated fastballs will thrive, and natural selection will mean the next generation of hitters will be even more equipped to handle the strategies that create success now.

That doesn’t mean that the next sinker ball era is right around the corner. It just means that where the game sits now is sure to be different five years from now and even more so in a decade.

Think back to Moneyball. Yes, there was a time when hitters with high on-base percentages were undervalued. But before long, the industry as a whole caught up. Then teams chasing high OBP hitters found that on the free agent market those players were much costlier to acquire than they had been just a few years before.

If teams are chasing vertical movement that is created by artificial means through foreign substances that aren’t policed in amateur ball, they run an even further risk of chasing a trend just as MLB begins to enforce restrictions against getting extra sticky grip help.

A team picking out draftees based on the best characteristics for the current game may find itself chasing something that will be ancient history by the time the 2021 draft class arrives in the majors.

And if you are picking players for the attributes everyone is looking for in the draft, you’re going to be picking from among a group of players that is quickly flying off draft boards. So to get a pitcher with impressive vertical movement on their fastball, teams may have to settle on picking pitchers with less velocity, or less durability, or less command.

The smarter teams are figuring out the next trend. Projecting what the game will look like 5 to 10 years out is never easy, but those who can make a well-educated guess can reap plenty of benefits, and they’ll be picking players in the draft who may be overlooked and under-appreciated by other teams.

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