How To Search For Breakout Pitchers


David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Max Scherzer became a star in 2013.  But how?  Can we quantify why he was so successful?  Is there something we can learn from Scherzer and use it to identify the next breakout pitchers?

While Scherzer improved in a lot of areas, one of his big weaknesses in 2012 was ineffectiveness against lefties.  Take a look at how he fared in 2012 and in 2013 against left handed batters.

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So what fueled this improvement?  One factor was that Scherzer added a curve ball to his repertoire.  A curve ball that was very effective against left-handed batters.  He didn’t throw it to right handed batters.  But you can see he threw it roughtly 10-15% of the time to left-handers.

So why was it so effective?  For two reasons.  First, from a probability standpoint, it becomes a lot more difficult for a hitter to anticipate which pitch is coming when a pitcher adds another option.  Scherzer really only had two pitches he threw to lefties prior to 2013; a fastball and a changeup.  Mix in a viable third pitch, and it’s much more difficult on a hitter.  Second, the curveball added another velocity to the mix as well.  So not only did Scherzer’s pitches have different behaviors, the pitch could come in at 77 MPH, 85 MPH, or 94 MPH.

How Can We Look for Other Pitchers Who Added Pitches?

One of the great things about evaluating pitchers is that we have a lot of incredible information available to us (at least for one more season). We can use information about pitches and a pitcher’s approach to investigate if a breakout is likely.

I wrote a three part series during the 2013 season on how to perform a search for pitchers throwing new pitches or that are using a new pitch mix.  The Cliffs Notes version is that one can use Fangraphs’ nifty sortable PITCHf/x leaderboard and Microsoft Excel, to compare pitch mixtures between two points in time.

For example, you could run a comparison of a pitcher’s mix from the first half of a given season to the second half of the year.  This would turn up pitchers who used a new mix or a new pitch for only part of the year.  The next step is to look up the effectiveness of pitch(es) being thrown more often.  After you’ve performed these tasks, anyone you have identified could be a breakout candidate in the next season.  The thinking is they likely had less than half the year using the new pitch repertoire, and will be prepared for a full season of the new and effective pitch mix.

You Can Do This

Here are pieces in the three part series, “Use PITCH f/x Data to Identify Potential Breakout Pitchers:

  1. Part I (accompanying video)
  2. Part II
  3. Part III (mostly contains results applicable to the 2013 season, but you can see an example Excel file of the end results)

You’ll want to have some familiarity with Microsoft Excel (or other spreadsheet applications).