Roenis Elias and Predictable Pitches

In a recent Quick Looks article on Roenis Elias, I said the following:

I couldn’t tell exactly what was different in his motion, but I seemed to be able to tell the [curve] was coming.

Commenter, Balthazar, then stated:

That is a very interesting observation on Elias somehow telegraphing his breaking pitch. Now that you mention it, I almost recall the same feeling watching him. Part of it was pitch count patterns and situations. The catcher definitely seemed to call for the curve in fairly obvious situations. Part of the effect may then be that the situation cues the observer as much as the motion; the situation called for a curve, and by gum he threw one

Well, two observations exist with on his curve and after looking at the data, we both are probably right.

Starting with a little background on Elias. He attacks hitters with a fastballs, curve and change. For ground balls, all his pitches are above average. The change is the only pitch above average by swinging strikes while the curve is adequate. The pitches work together to give him a barely above average ground-ball rate and a strikeouts rate at 7.9/9 K/9 in his first major league season. The biggest issue he had to deal with was his walks which were at 3.5 BB/9. All the preceding information led to and ERA and ERA estimators around 4.00.

One of the possible reasons for the high walk rate was his inability to throw his change (34% Zone%) and curve (37% Zone%) for strikes. If a hitter knows his breaking ball is coming, they are likely to lay off the pitch and let it go for a ball.

I will start by looking to see if Elias had a pattern depending on the pitch count and situation. Here is how often he throws his pitches according to

Holy curveball usage … at least against left handed hitters. Once he gets ahead in the count, he is throwing his curve over two thirds of the time. Elias just throws curves and fastballs to left handers and all three pitches to right handers. I could see how predictability was on my mind. Now time to see if hitters may recognize the curve.

Elias approaches different handed hitters from two arm slots. He is closer to first base when throwing to left handed hitters than when throwing to right handed hitters.

It is tough to get a good handle on if his release points are noticeably different from the above image. Here are his common pitches by average release point and handedness. For comparison, I have added Jon Lester’s release points. Additionally, I would like to keep the viewing area 1 ft by 1 ft, but Elias’s release point map needs more room than one foot, so I tried to expand it accordingly.

Elias’s release points are all over the place. Against right handed hitters his curve and change are off by almost half a foot. The difference between the two pitches to lefties is almost five inches (.4 ft). Compare those values to Lester who only gets on top of his curve.

Additionally, it is import to make pitches look the same to the hitter for the first 20 feet. Jon Roegle recently look at this very subject at the Hardball Times. Even though Elias pitches started at different spots, maybe they come together to look the same. And NO. Again here is a 1 ft by 1 ft window to show where his pitches are compared to each other at 20 feet.

Elias’s pitches are still apart, especially to lefties, while Lester’s pitches are in one tight grouping.

I could see how hitters and people watching the game could guess and tell when Elias is going to throw a curve ball. He is really predictable against left handed hitters by only using his curve when ahead in the count. Additionally, his pitches are released from different arm positions and all have different paths to the hitter. For Elias to take the next step as a pitcher, he needs to change his consistencies around – become more consistent with all his release points and less consistent with the pitches he uses.


Thanks to Harry Pavlidis for help with the tunnel equation.

Jeff, one of the authors of the fantasy baseball guide,The Process, writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won three FSWA Awards including on for his MASH series. In his first two seasons in Tout Wars, he's won the H2H league and mixed auction league. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.

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So Jeff, thanks for the follow-up, really interesting to see the release point data. For sure, Elias threw the curve with two-strikes and ahead generally, that was what stood out for me watching.

The thing is, I have the sense that was as much the club’s preference as Elias’. With rookie pitchers in the last few years in Seattle I have had the sense that a pitching plan was tightly imposed for several guys. Maybe too tightly to the point of being detrimental, i.e. count and location tendencies. I don’t know whether this is Seattle’s pitching coach (probably) or an org move, but the catcher certainly isn’t being given a lot of latitude, there is definitely A Plan to adhere to for Paxton, Elias, and Walker for instance. Felix Hernandez and Iwakuma are highly experienced, and there seems much more flexibility in their pitching plans.

Elias didn’t give up too much hard contact on the curve whereas hitters hit his FB pretty well, so in a situation where a hitter is sitting FB is may not be the worst thing in the world to go to the secondary pitch, although less obviously so. I am concerned, though, about Elias tipping his pitches with that much difference in release points. Good isolation of that here, and I’ll be looking next year to see what improvements Roenis makes.