Exploring the 2020 NL Cy Young
When learning how to make players better, taking a look at what the best of the best do really well is always a good place to start. In this post contributor Adam Schuck dives into the past season's NL Cy Young Award Winner's arsenal.
In last week’s YouTube video, we explored an example of high spin vs low spin pitchers using Trevor Bauer and Kyle Hendricks. Similar to this week's video detailing Shane Bieber’s dominant 2020, we are going to do a deeper dive into the numbers hoping to discover the process behind Bauer’s 2020 Cy Young winning season with a lot of help from Baseball Savant.
Above you can see a traditional stats breakdown of Bauer’s last three seasons. In 2018 Bauer was up for a Cy Young award and lost a close race while 2019 showed a significant regression as he transitioned from Cleveland to Cincinnati. His 2020 season was highlighted by a dominant 12.33 K/9, a much improved 2.1 BB/9, and 2.5 WAR.
Diving into a more process oriented approach, hopefully we can start to see what led to the improvements made in the 2020 season. The first thing that sticks out to me is that Bauer improved or maintained nearly every stat in this rankings page except one, Fastball velocity (actually decreased). Despite maintaining a league average Exit Velocity and Hard Hit %, Bauer managed to significantly improve all his expected stats (xstats).
In an era where velocity is often king, I was shocked to see such a sharp uptick everywhere else despite a decline in FB velo. Regardless, Bauer showed a much improved ability to miss bats and limit damaging contact.
Great, he improved all these stats, but how? Let’s go through a couple things I value:
Were any pitches added/dropped?
What is the frequency of which you are using those pitches?
Are there any mechanical changes? (ie. shorter arm path, mound positioning, etc)
Are you throwing to your optimal location?
How good are you at throwing to your optimal location?
Are all your pitches moving the same?
Bauer is well known for his pitch design process in the offseason, something that is certainly reflected in his diverse arsenal. In 2019 Bauer’s arsenal featured:
Pretty much everything but the kitchen sink and a little Yu Darvish-esque. In 2020, he committed to almost fully dropping the Changeup (3 pitches) while keeping the rest of the arsenal. Alright cool, he kept things pretty similar, but did the situations he used those pitches change? Yes, they did.
Fastball usage and 2-Strike options remained pretty consistent from year to year, but we saw some changes in off-speed usage. To LHB we saw a steady increase in Cutter usage and to RHB we saw a steady decrease in Cutter usage with an uptick in Slider usage.
When looking at video I prefer to work from the start of the delivery up to release as what happens in the early stages often directly affects what happens in the later stages. Unless anyone has some biomechanics reports they’d love to send our way, this section is probably going to be the most subjective portion of today’s blog via some high tech 2D video analysis.
The first thing that sticks out to me is a bit of a different leg lift and drift. In 2019, Bauer’s lift was a bit more calm and seemingly enabled him to get into his back hip adequately. In 2020, his lift was a bit more aggressive and led him to create some forward momentum down the mound into a much deeper backside hinge. After the stride phase, Bauer seems pretty similar to his 2019 self with his signature short arm action and active glove side.
Often when pitchers add some forward momentum of the COM (center of mass), an increase in fastball velo is close behind. However, Bauer’s average fastball velocity actually decreased in 2020. Although the velocity was a bit lower, the performance and command was much better. So was this a positive change overall? Honestly, not sure. You’d usually never want to see velocity decline, but if it’s going to help you win the Cy Young then you must be doing something right.
Next up is location. Where is he throwing each of his pitches most often and are these the optimal locations for him? Below are the most common locations for each of his most frequently thrown pitches. Red is most common while blue is most rare. We can see a definite trend of Fastballs up and glove side while the rest of the pitches are focused more around down and glove side.
Below are where those same pitches are most frequently whiffed at. As you can see, there is a ton of overlap between the two plots meaning Bauer is frequently throwing his pitches in locations that limit damage.
Surprisingly, the location plots for all pitches and for all whiffs looked identical in 2019 despite Bauer being significantly less effective and earning significantly more walks. From these plots, it doesn’t seem like overall location or his ability to pitch to his most effective spots for Bauer changed significantly from 2019 to 2020.
Bauer’s arsenal is well known as one of the most diverse in all of baseball. Comparing to other pitchers with similar velocities, he is #1 in Fastball ride, #1 in Curveball depth, #3 in Slider Sweep, and #1 in Cutter ride. That’s a whole lot of movement!
In Bauer’s primary pitches (Fastball, Curve, Slider, Cutter) there was no noticeable change in any movement profile. So, from 2019 to 2020 his pitches moved very similarly at similar velocities and they were thrown to very similar locations. But, they performed incredibly differently. Why?
Honestly, there are quite a few more similarities between Bauer’s 2019 and 2020 seasons than I expected given the vastly different outcomes when I started this dive. Could it have been luck and the shortened season? Maybe. Could it have been a commonly debated increase in spin rate? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions there.
Our findings so far today lead me to believe that a large part of the success behind Bauer’s 2020 season was optimal pitch utilization and sequencing given so many similarities between the two seasons in other areas. I think Bauer and his team of analysts have found a successful pitch arsenal, Bauer has trained enough to be able to consistently hit his best locations, and now he’s figured out a utilization plan that works best for him.