Long: Pitching backward: Spin that curveball

From Jeff Long at Baseball Prospectus on July 23, 2015:

In late June, [Jeff] Luhnow and his brain trust gathered in the general manager’s box at Minute Maid Park in Houston to watch a 27-year-old pitcher whom they consider an indicator of what their process can yield. Collin McHugh was plucked from the scrap heap last December after bouncing between the Colorado Rockies and their Triple-A affiliate. – Extreme Moneyball

This was the world’s introduction to a story that has mesmerized the statistics-inclined baseball world since it was revealed 11 months ago. It’s a story of statistics, of innovation, of dedication to valuing the undervalued, and of persevering in the face of doubt from contemporaries and fans alike. Pitch spin has quickly become a hot topic among researchers across the sabermetric landscape. The methodology described in the Bloomberg article quoted above has spawned several attempts at replication, which, while valuable, are flawed because of the data limitations caused by traditional PITCHf/x outputs. New data sources give us the tools we need to properly replicate the Astros’ methodology.

Statcast puts analyses like the ones the Astros are reported to have done within the grasp of fans and analysts like us.

The Astros’ analysts noticed that McHugh had a world-class curveball. Most curves spin at about 1,500 times per minute; McHugh’s spins 2,000 times. The more spin, the more the ball moves during the pitch—and the more likely batters are to miss it. Houston snapped him up. “We identified him as someone whose surface statistics might not indicate his true value,” says David Stearns, the team’s 29-year-old assistant general manager.” – Extreme Moneyball

The Astros tweaked McHugh’s approach, tasking him with throwing fewer sinkers and more high fastballs. They encouraged him to use his high-spinning curveball, and taught him one weird trick to get MLB hitters out that professional hitting coaches hated them for sharing. They used data, insight, and coaching to turn a scrap-heap player into a highly productive major-league starter.

McHugh was worth 4.3 DRA-based WARP last season, and has already accumulated another 1.1 wins this year. Considering the little risk the club incurred to pick up McHugh and it’s safe to slide this one into Luhnow’s win column.

Read the full article here: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=27012

Originally published: July 23, 2015. Last Updated: July 23, 2015.