Cubs Rotation Boasts Four of Five Most Valuable Pitches in Baseball

It’s been pretty well established by now that the Cubs did not suck in 2016. Sure, there were moments when it looked as though they’d stumbled. On the whole, though, I think we can agree that they were a decent ballclub. That’s evident in the names we see as finalists for various awards, appearances on late-night and daytime talk shows, and, oh yeah, the World Series championship.

But in double-checking some information about Kyle Hendricks, I found an esoteric little wrinkle that I wanted to share with my tiny little corner of the world. Hendricks was just named Pitcher of the Year by his MLBPA peers, which got me looking over something I’d written back in March about his changeup. That led me to FanGraphs to see just where that particular pitch ended up in terms of value for the season.

As a quick primer, pitch value seeks to measure the number of runs a given offering has saved. This is achieved by measuring changes in run expectancy from one count to another, which I suppose brings up more questions from those who aren’t familiar with that concept. For better context, here’s an excerpt from FanGraph’s explanation of the metric:

Essentially, there is an average run expectancy for each count (0-0, 0-1. 1-0, etc) and the change from from one to the other is the run value we use to create the pitch value. For example, if we start in a 0-0 count we begin at a perfectly average 0.0 run value (because all PA start as an average PA) and then the run expectancy of a 1-0 count is 0.04, meaning the value of taking that pitch for the hitter was +0.04 and -0.04 for the pitcher. If the next pitch is a strike, the run expectancy of a 1-1 count is about -0.02, so the batter gets -0.06 and the pitcher gets +0.06 from moving from the +0.04 world to the -0.02 world. Those run values are attached to the type of pitch thrown in each case, so if both were fastballs, the total wFB would be -0.02 for this at bat so far. Or -1.00 wFB/C, when scaling to 100 fastballs.

Now imagine it’s a 1-1 count and the run value sits at -0.02. If the batter singles, the run value of that single is roughly 0.45, which means they will get a +0.47 for that pitch and the pitcher will get a -0.47 for that pitch. This brings the total for the three pitches (assuming all fastballs) +0.45 for the hitter and -0.45 for the pitcher. If the first two pitchers were fastballs and the third was a changeup, the wFB would be -0.02 and +0.47 wCH for the hitter.

Because pitchers all utilize their various offerings at different rates, there’s also a standardized measure of value that looks at runs saved per 100 pitches. This can be used to better judge secondary pitches or those thrown by relievers, who naturally don’t have as large a total sample size as a starter. Does that all make sense? We’re really just trying to look at what pitches were best at preventing runs, which is really the key to success.

Okay, back to Hendricks, whose change saved 21.1 runs this season. That’s 5.8 runs more than second place, David Price, and nearly as many as fourth (Jeremy Hellickson – 11.5) and fifth (Rick Porcello – 10.0) combined. In fact, only 10 pitchers in all of baseball saved as many runs with the changeup as the gap between Hendricks and Price. The spread isn’t as wide when we standardize the values, but Hendricks is still atop the leaderboard with 2.71 runs per 100 pitches.

An interesting, and perhaps totally useless, factoid here is that Drew Pomeranz (2.64) came in second in standardized value, while Rick Porcello (2.42) and David Price (1.86) sit fifth and sixth. That’s a lot of change in Boston.

While I had been specifically looking for info on Hendricks, I naturally stumbled across something else. The chart defaults to fastball value, which makes sense, so I noticed Jake Arrieta’s name at the top there. Despite struggling with his command a bit more than last year, Arrieta saved 32.2 runs with his fastball. That’s over two more runs more than J.A. Happ (30.1) and more than three times the runs-saved total of 19th-place Marco Estrada (10.6).

Arrieta had the most valuable fastball according to standardized metrics as well, boasting 1.58 runs saved per 100 pitches. Happ and Jose Quintana each tallied 1.35, and that trio led a group of only six pitchers who were over 0.95.

My curiosity piqued, I clicked on the slider header to see how that stacked up. Lo and behold, John Lackey’s name jumped to the top. His 25.1 runs saved with the slidepiece edged out the late Jose Fernandez (24.3) and saw him as one of only three pitchers (Chris Archer – 20.6) to save more than 20 runs. Continuing the trend, Lackey led the league in standardized value with 3.63 runs saved per 100 pitches.

Surely, I figured, things would be different when I checked on the cutter. Nope, there’s Jon Lester (who I still like to call “Jawny Lestah” with an obnoxious New England accent) leading the way with 18.4 runs saved. Only two other pitchers (Adam Wainwright -17.7; Corey Kluber 17.4) saved more than 5.7 runs with their respective cutters on the season, which is pretty impressive.

The established trend of leading in standardized value was broken up on this one, though, as Lester’s 2.52 ranked third behind Jose Quintana (2.59) and Yordano Ventura (14.15). The latter number is pretty crazy and more a product of Ventura utilizing the cutter so infrequently. In fact, PitchF/X shows that it makes up only 1.7% of his overall pitch mix. Still, Lester’s cutter was clearly one of the best in baseball.

Only the list of curveball values saw no Cubs at the top, with Lester (4.0, 1.00) ranked 11th overall and ninth in standardized value. Oh well, guess you can’t win ’em all.

So the takeaway here is that it’s pretty crazy that each of the Cubs’ top starters led the league in value of four separate pitches. Or is it crazy? With very rare exception, some form of fastball is going to comprise a majority of a pitcher’s repertoire. Then you go to the secondaries like the change, slider, and cutter. In the cases in question, those pitches all represent the given pitcher’s primary auxiliary offering.

Which means each Cubs starter simply had the “best” secondary stuff (or primary in Arrieta’s case) in baseball, right? I mean, you could make that argument if you want to, but a heaping helping of credit needs to be ladled out to the defense playing behind these guys. There’s no denying that having perhaps the best defense of all time behind you is going to help run expectancy over time.

I don’t mean to take away from what the pitchers accomplished in their own right, rather to point out that when you pair excellent pitching with elite defense you get really good results. It’s a symbiotic or synergistic relationship in which each helps the other and improves the results over what either would achieve on its own. That’s pretty cool and I think it’d be a good thing for them to do it again next year.

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