The Oakland Athletics are an organization that has found itself bargain shopping thanks to its small-market status. General manager Billy Beane has done an admirable job fielding competitive teams and, despite a shaky start to the 2016 season, he has found another diamond in the rough. Ian York uses PITCHf/x to understand how Oakland Athletics starter Rich Hill has beat Father Time and put up some of the best numbers in MLB.
Rich Hill is in his 12th year in the majors, but for most of those years he’s been mediocre, injured, or both. However, in his four starts for the Boston Red Sox in 2015, he looked like a very good starting pitcher, and the Oakland Athletics offered him a 1-year, $6M contract on the basis of those starts. So far, the contract is looking like money well spent for the Athletics; with an ERA of 2.39 (ERA+ of 161), Hill has been by far their best starter.
Hill throws the same pitches as many major-league starters – four-seam fastball (“FF”, according to PITCHf/x), two-seam fastball (“FT”), changeup (“CH”), slider (“SL”), and curve (“CU”) – but he uses them very differently from most. Here is his pitch usage in the 11 games he has pitched in 2015 and 2016:
Almost all pitchers use the curve as a secondary pitch; few throw it more than 15-20% of the time. In 2015, Hill was throwing his curve and “slider” (more on that in a moment) 43.1% of the time, and in 2016 he has doubled down on that – throwing 51.9% breaking pitches.
What I call Hill’s “slider” here is actually more like most pitchers’ curves. Most pitchers throw their slider in the mid- to upper 80s; Hill throws it in the upper 70s/low 80s. However, Hill clearly does throw two different types of curves, based on speed and break:
I have manually re-classified these pitches into the clusters they seem to naturally fall into, and I needed a name for the cluster of pitches-that-are-faster-than-most-curves-but-still-break-a-lot; “slider” seemed as close as any. In any case, it seems possible that the “slider” was an experiment that Hill tried in his first few games of the season but that he has since dropped from his repertoire.
Hill has thrown 296 curves and 62 “sliders” so far this year. The only pitcher to throw more curves is Aaron Nola, with 312; only two other pitchers (Collin McHugh and Jose Quintana) have thrown more than 200.
Hill’s curve is a truly exceptional pitch. If we look at how his curve compares to that of other left-handed pitchers this year (only looking at those who have thrown at least 50 curves this season), he has more break than all but one pitcher. Hill is the red dot in these charts:
He has by far the most horizontal break, and only one left-handed pitcher has more vertical movement – some guy named Clayton Kershaw.
(As an aside, Kershaw’s curve should be buried at a crossroads with a stake through its heart. I don’t understand how it’s possible for a pitch to have that much vertical movement with virtually no horizontal movement.)
Hill has been a very effective pitcher, he throws a high number of curves, and his curves have exceptional movement. His curve must be extraordinarily effective, then, right? In fact, while his curve is a decent, solid pitch, it’s his fastball that has been extraordinarily effective this season. Hill’s curve has yielded 6.4 total bases per 100 pitches (TB/100) this year; a perfectly good number, a little better than Zack Grienke’s or Jordan Zimmermann’s, but his four-seam fastball has given up just 3.0 TB/100. FanGraphs rates Hill’s fastball as 9th-best in baseball, with his curve ranking 37th of 101 pitchers.
The fastball is a good pitch on its own, in the low 90s with plenty of movement, and it does a good job of targeting the edges of the strike zone. On top of that, Hill’s curve probably makes his fastball better. Both pitches come in toward the batter high in or above the strike zone, but the curve then drops down into the middle or bottom of the zone, while the fastball stays up. Unlike many pitchers, whose curves drop out of the strike zone, Hill’s often stay in the zone so that batters can’t simply lay off them, but have to decide where the pitches are going to end up.
Hill’s renaissance can be credited at least partly to the Red Sox director of pitching analysis and development Brian Bannister, who identified Hill’s curve as a potentially unique weapon and encouraged him to use it as an unconventional primary pitch. Baseball in 2016 has plenty of young studs throwing 99-mph fastballs; it’s nice to see a 36-year-old journeyman thriving, at least for now, on a 75-mph curve.
Ian York uses the PITCHf/x to monitor the strike zone, highlights great performances, monitors league-wide trends and tracks the performances of some interesting young hitters.
Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.
All data compiled from PITCHfx and Baseball-Reference.com.