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In The Age Of Velocity, Should MLB Teams Be Placing More Emphasis On Command?

Wes Johnson Jeffwheelerstartribune
(Photo by Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

For so long, evaluators, fans and even pitchers sneaking glances at their radar gun readings on stadium scoreboards have been focused on velocity—and for good reason.

With rising velocity generally comes the ability to miss more bats and more margin for error. To be drafted in the early rounds today, a pitcher generally has to be able to reach the mid 90s with his fastball.

For righthanders, sitting 90 mph or higher is a prerequisite for first-round consideration. Some high school lefties are granted leniency, but only if they sit in the high 80s and project to reach the 90s as they develop.

A look at the major league average velocity is telling. PITCHf/x entered the lexicon in 2008, and in that season the average major league fastball was 91.7 mph, according to FanGraphs. Last season it was 93.7, per FanGraphs, the highest on record.

In the modern era, major league clubs have often prized velocity and hoped pitchers will learn how to pitch and learn how to command the ball. But what if teams have it backward in this era of velocity-adding, weighted-ball routines and pitch-design sessions that can optimize pitch shape? What if the most difficult skill to improve—and the rarest and most crucial building block—is command and not velocity?

Eno Sarris of the The Athletic has long dug into data to analyze pitchers. He believes some teams are beginning to place a greater premium on command.

“It’s my opinion that command is more innate and we had it backward for so long, where we bought velocity and hoped they would improve their command,” Sarris said. “I kind of think a Driveline-type situation should give you a good pipeline of relievers because it’s kind of a stuff-based program: ‘We’re going to increase the velocity. We’re going to shape these pitches.’

“But I know some teams, including the Mariners, are making a bet that command is innate, and we can shape the pitches and have them throw harder and give them better stuff.”

Sarris is intrigued with Mariners prospect righthanders Logan Gilbert and George Kirby, first-round picks out of college in 2018 and 2019, who have exhibited excellent command.

The most dramatic success story related to this kind of philosophy of drafting command and building upon it is in Cleveland. The Indians’ 2016 draft was in part a bet on strike-throwing college arms. The class has produced a trio of righthanders, Shane Bieber (fourth round), Aaron Civale (third) and Zach Plesac (12th), that forms the backbone of the club’s 2021 rotation.

All three pitchers threw in the upper 80s to low 90s in college and all have added velocity and either sharpened or created new breaking pitches to become crucial rotation arms. All three rated as having above-average command by the index metric Command+, where 100 is average, used by Sarris. It’s a measure STATS Perform developed by employing their staff to judge intent and execution of pitch location.

Cleveland’s vice president of baseball operations Brad Grant told FiveThirtyEight.com last year that the trio “could have been somewhat undervalued by the industry because they didn’t throw as hard . . . But what they did have is that they all were extremely good athletes. All of them had very good control. All of them had very good deliveries. If you have that side already, it’s easier to add to the fastball or develop pitches.”

There is some evidence those aspects are easier to develop. Velocity and strikeouts have increased every year since 2008, when pitch-tracking was installed in every major league park. Breaking pitches are moving more than ever due to more spin and increasingly better pitch design thanks to high-speed cameras and Rapsodo devices. The average curveball had 6.9 inches of vertical break when adjusting for gravity last year, a pitch-tracking era record. While pitches are traveling faster and moving more, command has not changed much throughout history.

In 1940, the walk rate was 8.6% of all batters. In 1960 it was 8.8%. In 1980 it sat at 8.2%. In the three full seasons from 2017 to 2019, the major league walk rate was 8.5%.

Of course, control and command are not quite the same, hence efforts like Command+. More granularly, the percent of two- and four-seam fastballs thrown within the strike zone has ranged between 52% to 53% in the Statcast era, which is 2015 to present.

TAKING COMMAND

Eno Sarris of The Athletic incorporates the metric Command+ to rank major league pitchers for fantasy league utility. STATS Perform developed Command+, an index where 100 is average, by employing their staff to judge intent and execution of pitch location. The following 12 pitchers all demonstrated command at least 15% better than league average in 2020.

PitcherCommand+
Michael Piñeda120
Zach Davies120
Aaron Nola119
Trevor Williams119
Zac Gallen117
Cole Hamels116
Merrill Kelly116
Ljay Newsome116
Trent Thornton116
Kyle Hendricks115
Jameson Taillon115
Zach Eflin115

In looking at individual cases of command-first success stories, D-backs ace Zac Gallen is an example of a prospect who threw in the low 90s as an amateur but has since added velocity and sharpened breaking pitches. He had built off his elite command—he owns a 117 Command+ rating—to break out as a true difference-maker.

Sarris noted that Reds righthander Tyler Mahle is an excellent command pitcher who enjoyed a career-best year last summer, thanks in part to learning a cutter. Cincinnati hired Driveline founder Kyle Boddy to lead their organization’s pitching development.

Sarris cited Brewers ace Brandon Woodruff, whose Command+ is 111, as another example. At Mississippi State, Woodruff sat between 89-92 mph in most outings. His fastball has increased in speed each year in the majors, reaching a career-high average of 96.5 mph last season.

Cubs ace Kyle Hendricks and his 115 Command+ has consistently scored as one of the game’s top command pitchers. While Hendricks’ fastball has averaged under 88 mph in each of the last three seasons, he’s been able to increase his strikeout and swinging-strike rates each of those seasons. He has relied more upon an improving breaking ball, a curveball that added 1.4 inches of break last year—an 18% improvement in vertical movement.

Tarik Skubal (Rich Schultz Getty)1213730007

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Command is also important this season because of the likely workload restrictions and innings reductions many pitchers will face and the possible uptick in injuries. Sarris said command correlates to longer outings and improved health outcomes.

“When I say innate, I mean harder to change. That’s the way I would say it,” Sarris said of command. “At the major league level, (if you alter mechanics) you are changing something your body has learned for a really long time.”

Conversely, one American League executive noted that, historically, command improves over time while stuff tends to decline. It’s true that command generally improves during a career, and velocity typically declines, but those command improvements are often modest.

A National League scout said command “will always be one of the most important aspects of evaluating pitching, and that hasn’t changed” and that command plays into “pitchability, and that often comes with more experience, setting up hitters, knowing where to miss.”

The AL official conceded that because command and intent are more difficult to measure—especially when evaluating players or prospects in different organizations—it is more difficult to create an effective feedback loop in training.

Perhaps only time and experience can improve command. But some teams are trying to accelerate the process.

This spring at the Twins’ spring complex in Fort Myers, Fla., big league pitching coach Wes Johnson had pitchers step on an unusual pitching mound at the complex for a command training session. The mound is fitted with force plates more commonly found in golf training.

Johnson has always experimented. As a college coach he was testing weighted balls in 2004, when few considered them an effective training tool in baseball. While he has helped develop velocity in arms, he has become more and more interested in creating a better method for command training.

“It’s got to come back in more,” Johnson said of command.

Johnson often goes outside of baseball to other sports for inspiration. Last year, he became more and more interested in golf, and the processes and technology modern golfers are using to improve their skills. He was interested in how they used TrackMan data on spin to optimize ball flight, but he was fascinated by how they were employing force plates—which measure balance and weight transfer—to improve their accuracy. He thought this could be used to help train command.

“To generate that kind of club-head speed, and to hit to an area consistently, you have to be extremely stable all throughout the body,” Johnson said. “So not that we’ve gotten away from the weight room, but we’ve created a lot of guys who have really good arms but whose bodies are not stable enough to create a directional movement, to get close to a repeatable delivery.”

Force plates could be part of an improved feedback loop to teach command. For example, Twins pitchers are learning where they are off-balance in their deliveries this spring. They are also learning that they often have different amounts of force for different pitches.

“We are able to tell them how important it is to see the same force on each pitch,” Johnson said.

The psychological aspect of developing command is particularly tricky. Johnson is also trying to borrow from the performance mindsets of elite golfers, a sport he sees having a lot of carryover to pitching. Like a golfer, pitchers are dictating the action: the ball’s speed, movement and location. Something that he found interesting is golfer Dustin Johnson typically only plays a fade—a shot hit to the open side of his stance—off the tee. That’s true of many pros. He has mastered that shot. He only worries about playing, generally, the right side of the golf course.

Learning that brought Johnson back to how often he has marveled at Bieber’s ability to command the ball to his glove side of the plate. This spring, the Twins are telling some of their pitchers to focus on only the half of the plate they command best. The idea, Johnson said, is it should create confidence, which manifests itself in more efficient movement patterns. He’s already seen immediate improvement in Twins’ camp this spring.

“One of our guys (last week), we were trying to get him to go up in the zone a bit. His carry is really good,” Johnson recalled. “We’re sitting there . . . and he’s just missing at the top of the zone. It’s not even competitive.”

Johnson then asked the pitcher to think about only targeting half of the plate. All of the sudden he started pounding the strike zone. The change cost the pitcher some vertical movement, but Johnson said the accuracy improvement was worth the tradeoff.

While that’s just one anecdotal snapshot from one camp, perhaps just as there have been breakthroughs in adding velocity and shaping breaking pitches, there will be better command programs that will enable pitchers to harness the ever improving stuff.

Until then, when teams are evaluating players and development plans, they might consider bumping down the high-velocity, low-control arms and moving up the command artists who could be able to add some speed and shape a breaking ball. Maybe they can build those arms into something special.

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