In this week's post, I’ll run you through my 4 step process for getting started doing pitch design. Along the way I’ll introduce you to some new technology, define some key terms, and provide an example of this plan in action.
Pitch design has become a HOT topic of discussion over the past few years. With so many different pieces of technology, data points, and ways to interpret them – you may have some trouble figuring out where you should start. In the beginning I was handed tons and tons of data to try and figure out what’s good and what’s not. The learning curve associated with that process took me a long time to overcome, but in today’s post I will be sharing with you what that looked like for me so hopefully it can help kick start your process as well.
For starters, let’s go back to when I first found myself face to face with a pitch design project. It was my sophomore year at the University of Iowa, that year we had just installed Trackman and we had been collecting data all fall. There wasn’t a ton out there on the key indicators we should be looking for to determine success, but we had a lot of data to figure that out on our own. In the beginning, we started out small by looking at a single pitch from one pitcher’s arsenal. What made that pitch good or bad? How could we measure that? And what variables could we manipulate in order to see more of those positive results on the field? We had many more questions than we did answers.
As we dug deeper and deeper into this one example, we decided to focus on the metrics that we believed a pitcher had control over. Things like their Spin Axis, Spin Rate, Horizontal Break and Induced Vertical Break were the sure front runners. After tying those metrics to outcomes like soft contact and swing and misses (tracked by our shiny new Trackman), we began to formulate our plan. And as we got better at digging through the copious amounts of data, we were able to turn this into a step by step process for making an impact on the field.
The reason I’m putting together this post is to help you skip past the first few steps on the learning curve. That’s what Simple Sabermetrics is all about, providing a single place of consolidated information for you to turn to as you get started with all of this new technology. Speaking of new technology, let’s first cover some of the key players in this field as well as describing some of the data points they spit out.
This list doesn't include every option on the market today, but should give you a good idea of some of the major players in the game when it comes to pitch design technology.
Trackman – In-game radar tracking system. This software compiles 70+ data points for every pitch that occurs on the game mound. Exporting this information into a spreadsheet is how I learned to dive into it, but my friend Sam will begin taking you through some better ways to dissect that information in a later blog post.
Rapsodo – The portable optic tracking device that syncs up to an iPad application to give you live feedback on any mound you have access to. This is extremely beneficial in the pitch design realm.
Diamond Kinetics Pitch Tracker – The pitch tracking baseball gives you a lot of the same information Rapsodo does, at a fraction of the cost.
Edgertronic – The leading high-speed camera for capturing slow motion footage of pitches being released. Combining the instant feedback from the previous technology with the video footage here makes sure you can get your point across to any athlete.
Most systems have slightly different ways of describing the information that you’re being given, so here I’m going to give you some standard definitions of the terminology you may come across when diving into any of these advanced technologies.
Spin Rate – The measure of how fast a ball is spinning, measured in Revolutions Per Minute (RPM). This has a direct effect on how much each pitch is moving, the higher the spin the more movement you will see.
Spin Axis/Direction (Tilt) - This metric has a lot of names across the various types of technology you will find. The idea is pretty simple, the measure of the direction the pitch is spinning - typically measured as time on the clock. This has a large impact on the way each pitch moves.
Horizontal/Vertical Break - As you’d imagine, this describes the way each pitch moves as compared to a pitch with no spin. It is directly affected by the previous two metrics.
Spin Efficiency & Gyro degree - While these two things are not measuring the exact same thing, they are largely connected. Spin efficiency is the percent of spin aiding in the movement of that pitch. Gyro degree is a similar idea to spin direction, but taking into account that 3rd dimension of movement by tilting the axis front of back.
Release Point Height, Side & Extension - This pitch characteristic measures exactly what you would think it would, exactly where in space each pitch was released. How far off the ground, from the center of the rubber, and down the mound was each pitch released? This is important when you start diving into tunneling.
Now, I’ve given you some brief definitions of each of these new data points. If you click on any of them it will take you to one of my YouTube videos to help show a more in-depth example on how it can be interpreted and applied.
We’ve gotten some of the general information out of the way, let’s talk about this process. In a previous blog post, Adam Schuck talked about the Test/Retest Method – a lot of those concepts can be applied here. But to save you all from repetition, we are going to focus on the 4 steps I believe are most useful in implementing proper pitch design plans.
STEP 1: Evaluation
Before you can begin to create a plan for an athlete, you need to gather an ample amount of data to make your decisions. This could be a single bullpen, a few bullpens, or a whole season worth of information depending on the level you’re at. For me, I like to give new athletes a couple weeks to settle into their new spot while providing them with some clarity on what numbers may end up being important to them.
While gathering this information, start asking questions and taking notes. What does the guy feel most comfortable with? What is their best secondary pitch? Have they expressed any interest in improving any of their pitches? All of these things can lead you in the right direction before you even begin to put your nose in any excel spreadsheets. The goal here is simply to sit back and watch in order to find out what each pitcher is made of so you can continue on to create a plan that helps them get better.
STEP 2: Planning
After you feel as though you’ve gathered enough information on each guy, now you have to put in some work behind the scenes to put together a plan. You now have the data you’ve been looking for on each guy, you’ve been around them enough to feel out what they believe their strengths and weaknesses are – so it’s time to get to work.
If you’re working at the D1 or professional level, you’re going to have enough data to make some pretty solid decisions. You most likely have years of data on some of your guys and the decisions can be made solely off of the information you’ve collected. But if you’re somewhere else, you may need to go the extra mile to feel confident in your decisions. A great way to go about planning at any level is to compare each of your athlete’s to big leaguers. By checking out websites such as Brooks Baseball, you can see some of the same pitch characteristics that you’re working with your athletes on. Find someone who has some similar pitch profiles to the athlete you’re analyzing and compare and contrast some similarities and differences. They’re the best in the world, so attempting to replicate their pitch movement profiles should make sense.
This part of the process is a lot of the work done off the field at home or in the office. But you want to make sure that what you’re going to bring the athlete is backed by good information in order to truly turn each athlete into their best selves. It’s important to set quantifiable goals at this time, so when you start training with an athlete you have a clear destination for each of your sessions.
Personally, I like to focus on the aspects an athlete can control. That includes each pitch's spin profile, velocity, and arm slot. Altering any of those factors will take time, but for the most part these are three of the things your pitcher has complete control over on the mound. The better your systems are for collecting and analyzing data, the easier this step becomes. For some insight on this, check out Sam’s blog on making Data Driven Decisions.
STEP 3: Implementation
Now the fun part begins, you finally get to put your homework to the test. The pitch profile goals you’ve put together are backed by your research and it’s time to take it to the mound. Each athlete is going to be different, some like video, some like the data, and some like none of the above. But that doesn’t alter what your goals may be, lean on what the athlete enjoys and use the data and video to steer the athlete in the right direction. At the end of the day, all of this technology is a tool for getting your guys better – not the end all be all.
This period can take 1 day, a week, or a month of throwing to nail down. Oftentimes you’ll be doing a lot of trial and error. As you get into a rhythm of doing this again and again you will notice certain trends that can be fixed with certain queues. The goal here is to find your target metrics you set in the planning phase. When doing this make sure that the pitch design session is the only focus of your bullpen. It’s difficult to teach yourself a new pitch while attempting to find the zone or execute your other pitches.
You’ll stay in this phase until the athlete hits the target metrics you’ve set for them. It may happen sporadically at first, but remember to always be collecting as much video and data as you can. Even if the athlete isn’t looking at it in between every pitch, you never know when you’ll have a breakthrough.
If you spend weeks without seeing the results you're looking for, the movement profile could not match what the athlete is capable of. For example, a sidearm pitcher is going to have a tough time throwing a true 12/6 curveball - so make sure you do your homework before attempting to bring new ideas to an athlete.
STEP 4: Replication
This is the most important step of them all. The ability to replicate what you’ve worked so hard to gain. The last thing you want is to get an athlete to a point where you feel confident in the pitches new grip and movement profile only to have the athlete ditch it the first time things aren’t going well with it on game day. Repeating this pitch over and over until it becomes a habit is crucial to the long-term success of your programming. But it’s unrealistic to simply throw this one pitch over and over again while forgetting about your other pitches. In a game, you’ll have to go back and forth between all of your pitches and execute to certain locations – it’s more stressful than your controlled pitch design sessions.
So as you become more comfortable with the new pitch, begin to challenge the athletes by putting together different sequences they need to execute in their bullpens. See where the new pitch is strong and where the profile may fade towards the old pitch. Once they have a good feel for that, it’s time to push them out a little bit on their own. Take away the data and the video and see if they can tell you when the pitch is working and when it’s not. Let them figure out how to fight back to the right profile. When they’re out on the mound on game day they won’t have any data or video to help them, so make sure they can feel and see the difference without all of that stuff in your controlled environment.
THIS PROCESS IN ACTION
Before we wrap things up here, let me take you through a brief example of this plan in action. Let’s imagine we are working with a solid collegiate pitcher. After being on the mound 2 or 3 times we’ve gathered enough information to have a good idea of the type of pitcher he is. Our pitcher claims his best secondary pitch is his curveball - and he throws a 4-Seam Fastball, Changeup and a Slider as well. We are satisfied with the way the Fastball and Changeup move, but the slider profile has some negative induced vertical break making it appear to have similar movement to the curveball.
You can see what this would look like on our horizontal and vertical movement plot. While the movement profiles are not identical, the slight similarities take away from how good that slider could be. So we’ve collected and analyzed our data, and we’ve determined our pitch design goal is to reduce the amount of vertical break we are seeing on the slider. Now it is time to get to work implementing our changes with the athlete on the mound.
Step one is to talk with the athlete and explain why you are looking to make these changes. He already noted that his curveball is his best secondary, so he will most likely be willing to tinker with the slider.
Then we have to work on queueing him to the new pitch profile we would like. This could be a number of things including different pitch grips, wrist angles, or simply different thoughts at release such as, “Throw through it more like a fastball, and let the grip do the work”. We compare our results from each new attempt with the data to see if we are getting closer or further from our goals, and adjust from there. I’ve found in my time that over exaggerating the release thought can help the athlete get to the result quicker.
After we’ve achieved our new movement profile over a few different sessions, now it’s time to put that new pitch to the test. Can he go back and forth between the fastball and new slider, what about the curveball and new slider? When does the pitch lean more towards its old ways and can the athlete determine that on their own? You want to make sure the athlete is comfortable with the new pitch before he uses it in competition.
Of course this example skips over any hours of research you need to do, and the weeks of planning bullpens to get the new pitch implemented - but hopefully this gives you a better idea of what this process looks like in action.
WRAPPING IT UP
The goal of this article isn’t to give you all of the answers, it’s to inspire you to craft a process that works for you. The resources I’ve linked throughout the article should help give you a better understanding of all of the confusing twists and turns you can run into when first getting into this stuff. Trust me, I’ve been there. The 4 step process I’ve described here is ever evolving, and although it will always work on paper you will need to adjust certain things based on your circumstances.
The important part in any of this is being able to rely on the data to make better informed decisions. The ability to set measurable and attainable goals is key in the ability to help get athlete’s to the next level. Use this post as a guide to develop your own process – and feel free to share them with me in the comments down below.
Marsh, Joe. “Basics of Pitch Design Using Rapsodo.” Driveline Baseball Blog, 2017. https://www.drivelinebaseball.com/2017/04/basics-pitch-design-using-rapsodo/
Simple Sabermetrics. “My 4 Step Pitch Design Process: How to Make Pitchers Better” 2019.
Simple Sabermetrics. “ In-Depth Pitch Design Tutorial: Analysis and Implementation Techniques” 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpultqwZgOg&t=196s