The Change: Who’s Suppressing Exit Velocity Better?

We’re in the midst of a new frontier in pitching analysis. With Statcast giving us the exit velocity on batted balls, we can now test our theories about balls in play for pitchers. It’s long been thought that pitchers have little control over the ball in play, but recent research has begun to show that maybe pitchers have a little more to say about the ball once it leaves the bat than we thought before.

It’s a little scary, because we don’t have years and years of data to make sure that what we’re looking at is sticky, year-to-year. But we do have some idea of the meaningfulness of exit velocity for pitchers. It looks like something that can change rapidly, but is still meaningful in small samples. That’s probably because it speaks well to true talent, but true talent can change quickly for pitchers, because they can make an adjustment that changes their effectiveness completely. That makes the stat cool but also hard to use.

Also, it’s possible that the things that pitchers do to suppress exit velo are perhaps more subject to slight changes in your mechanics than the things they do to strike players out. For example, Rob Arthur outlined the factors as being “getting ahead in the count, low pitch velocity, low vertical pitch location, and precise horizontal pitch location.” Sounds like exit velo is a proxy for command, and we’ve seen what a little tweak to mechanics can do to command when we looked recently at Aaron Nola.

Still, we can look at the leaders for the year in exit velocity. Those pitchers may have better numbers than their strikeouts and walks suggest, and might be more believable than we thought. And we can also look at the guys that have improved the most over the last month and a half. Maybe they’ve made an adjustment!

First: the leaders for the year.

Starters With The Lowest Average Exit Velocity
Player BiP Exit Velo
Kenta Maeda 221 85.8
Scott Kazmir 231 86.1
CC Sabathia 209 86.3
Johnny Cueto 299 86.5
Kyle Hendricks 223 86.9
Collin McHugh 252 87.0
Felix Hernandez 160 87.0
Clayton Kershaw 256 87.1
Rich Hill 158 87.2
Jake Arrieta 235 87.3
Aaron Nola 240 87.3
SOURCE: Statcast
Starting pitcher, minimum 150 balls in play

There aren’t too many surprises on the list at first glance. By strikeouts minus walks, at least, most of this list are above average. Kyle Hendricks and Aaron Nola are one-two on the called strikes per pitch leaderboard. Johnny Cueto is a perennial leader in getting to strike two. Clayton Kershaw is the first name on any pitcher’s tongue when I ask about command. Rich Hill and Collin McHugh throw tons of curveballs, which arrive low in the zone, low in velocity. Perhaps there is one big surprise.

CC Sabathia
The Yankee’s big lefty has the worst walk rate of his career, but he’s cut his recently rampant homer rate. And now he’s showing up here as suppressing exit velo. Those things seem related. And they’re probably best related to the fact that he recently gave up on his four-seamer and replaced it entirely with cutters. Given what we know about suppressing exit velo, we shouldn’t be surprised about the following heat maps, which show that he can command his cutter better (on the right) and throw it down the zone more than the four-seam (on the left). Looks like we can maybe believe CC’s new home run rate, which makes him usable in any league.


Here are the guys that have improved the most since May 18:

Starters Who Have Improved Their Exit Velo the Most
Player Results Exit Velo Late Exit Velo Early Diff
Jerad Eickhoff 143 86.8 93 -6.2
Michael Fulmer 113 87.1 92.3 -5.2
Drew Pomeranz 125 86.7 91.2 -4.5
Zach Davies 113 86.5 90.9 -4.4
Mike Pelfrey 153 88.3 91.7 -3.4
Johnny Cueto 160 84.9 88.3 -3.4
Julio Teheran 142 88.2 91.6 -3.4
Matt Shoemaker 133 87.2 90.5 -3.3
Nate Karns 118 88.4 91.7 -3.3
Kyle Hendricks 134 85.6 88.8 -3.2
SOURCE: Statcast
Starting pitcher, minimum 100 balls in play since May 18

The list has a few commonalities, in terms of actual names (Cueto, Hendricks) as well as archetypes. Replacing Rich Hill on the first list is Drew Pomeranz, who is basically Rich Hill but younger. Michael Fulmer proves he should be owned in all leagues because he excels in ways conventional (velocity, elite slider) and unconventional (suppressing exit velo). Nate Karns still has the potential to be that kind of pitcher, but he’s been put in the pen, so now’s only a good time to buy him in the deepest dynasty leagues. Matt Shoemaker’s recent decision to throw the splitter nearly half the time is working out better than it did for Nathan Eovaldi, making that switch an easy one to make.

After all that, there are still two names that deserve to be highlighted for their recent work in this department.

Jerad Eickhoff
Last year, Eickhoff had a top 20 curveball among starters (by whiff rate), which makes sense, because it’s his best pitch. What might surprise people is that he also had a top five slider by whiff rate. He’d thrown it less than the other top sliders, though, so maybe it made sense to wait and see. We waited, and we didn’t see the slider at the beginning of this year. The slider came back in mid May, and since then, Eickhoff has a 2.57 ERA with better strikeout and walk rates — and improved exit velocity. Don’t start him in Coors, since Coors kills curvebals, but after that he’s a mid-rotation starter in all leagues.

Zach Davies
Good command of a sinker, and a plus changeup, and that was enough to get Davies some attention in the Spring. But the Brewers starter rarely cracks 90 with the fastball and nearly gave up a run per inning in April, so we looked the other way. Since May began, he has a 3.29 ERA, and that’s despite a 1.4 homers per nine number that’s a bit disconcerting. Still, with exit velocity, his mix and lower velocity count as positives. He’s recently throwing his cutter, four-seam, and change more, which means his mix is more diverse. Perhaps, instead of getting worse, as his projections suggest, Davies is in the midst of getting better. He’s certainly a deep league option.

Again, launch angle is important, and we’ll bring that in as we get more comfortable with this type of analysis. But lower exit velocity is a good thing on almost all balls in play, and these pitchers have some skill in that area. It’s probably the thing we call “command.”

We hoped you liked reading The Change: Who’s Suppressing Exit Velocity Better? by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Still holding out hope for Nola? I just traded Joe Ross for him in a redraft before Ross hit the DL.