Say you are the parent of a 14 year old pitcher and you want to explore the world of pitch design. You have seen the “smart baseball” ads and are curious about them, but what could you do with that information if you had it? I’m glad you asked.
First off, I am a fan of this accessible technology. Here are links to the two models I know of, the Diamond Kinetics Pitchtracker and the Pitchlogic Baseball. Their price points are quite different but I think they both have excellent value.These baseballs produce a lot of information, but we will focus on just the most important metrics. These are:
- Tilt (or spin direction)
- Efficiency (or gyro angle)
Together these lead to horizontal and vertical break, which are a measure of how much the ball’s path deviates from the direction you throw it. The first thing these devices can tell you is who you are as a pitcher. What is your arm slot? Do you spin the ball efficiently (or true, or without gyro)? Do you spin the ball fast for your current velocity? The answers to these questions can set you on the path to improve the metrics that you believe are undesirable and/or to find ways to mitigate weaknesses.
Velocity is self-explanatory. While this has not always been the case, the current conventional wisdom is that velocity is king and trumps everything else. I am not smart enough to argue that point. While there are aging pitchers that are successful with lower velocity, it is also clear they would never have become Major Leaguers without the velocity. There are very rare cases of pitchers that never threw hard. They are outliers (although very interesting ones) and are probably not what you want to aim for.
Revolutions per minute (RPM) is also self-explanatory. More spin usually means more movement on the pitch. Over the last ten years, it has become apparent that high spin is directly related to good pitch outcomes for most pitches (splitters and knuckleballs being an exception). Interestingly, it has also become clear that pitch speed divided by RPM (called Bauer units) tends to be constant for a pitcher’s fastball. The harder you throw it, the more it spins, and that ratio is a result of the pitcher’s anatomy and is difficult to improve (without sticky stuff). Breaking pitch spin rate can be improved through grip and release changes.
Tilt is the direction that spin makes the ball break expressed on a clock face in time units from the pitcher’s point of view. A RHP side-armer has a tilt of 3:00 on a fastball. A RHP or LHP over the top pitcher has tilt of 12:00. As implied, for the most part, fastball tilt is dictated by arm slot. There are exceptions to this (Josh Hader’s tilt is much closer to 12:00 than his low arm slot would suggest due to the way he holds his wrist). Generally and ideally, the tilt of a curve ball is 6 hours different than one’s fastball, which is to say it breaks in the opposite direction due to topspin. Chageups ideally have a tilt closer to 9:00 (LHP) or 3:00 (RHP) than the same pitcher’s fastball.
Efficiency, active spin and gyro are three words (and two numbers) describing the same thing. Efficiency and active spin are two terms for the same thing and comes from the fact that efficient spin makes the ball break. As efficiency goes up, gyro goes down. Perfectly efficient (100%) spin is often described as “true”. If you imagine a 12:00 over-the-top fastball, 100% efficiency (and 0 gyro) means the left and right pole of the ball are the same distance from home plate. Imagine a rod shoved through the ball that it spins around, like a globe. The rod is perpendicular to the direction of flight for an efficient pitch. I made a youtube video explaining this:
At the other extreme is a 0% efficient pitch, or 90º of gyro. This pitch spins like a football with the rod pointing in the same direction as the ball travels.
Real pitches cover the full spectrum from 0 to 100% efficiency. What I have found with most kids, especially young ones, is that their fastball has a lot of gyro (low efficiency). This is often described as “cutting the ball”. The result of this is a ball that does not move much due to spin. For a high arm slot pitcher, the ball will not carry well and will have a pronounced hump in its travel. Generally, this is undesirable and there are tools (such as Clean Fuego) to train for higher efficiency.
If a pitcher throws fastballs or changeups close to 100% efficiency, the break metrics on the smart ball are likely correct. If they throw 85%-95%, there is a chance that seam effects are important and the actual break can be substantially different than reported.
For breaking pitches, efficiency is very important. For curve balls, high efficiency is desirable (making the ball break more). Young pitchers struggle to throw efficient curve balls and the smart balls are an excellent way to check the effect of a grip and release on the resultant spin. In the old days, one could only eye-ball the pitch path to guess if the spin was better or worse.
For sliders, efficiency is often very low. Many sliders spin like a football, and these do not break very much. They can still be effective because a batter mistakes them for a fastball and is surprised by a slower pitch that breaks much less. We are seeing an increase in the number of sliders that have relatively high efficiency (about 60%) and generate a lot of horizontal break. Again, for a young pitcher, it is important to know whether their pitch behaves more like a curveball or slider and to use it appropriately.
I have found, using a smart baseball, that for an individual, more gyro on a breaking pitch usually results in higher velocity. Exactly the opposite tends to be true for fastballs.
What does all this mean? Pitchers with tilt near 12:00, and high spin rates with high efficiency will have success with fastballs high in the zone. Pitchers with lower slots and high efficiency will have a fastball with a lot of side to side movement and due to lack of carry may play better lower in the zone. Low efficiency fastballs are seldom effective high in the zone.