Doing More With Less

A part of the allure of Greg Maddux was how he was able to post an above-league average K/9 during the prime years of his career despite not having the velocity of many of his peers. He was the epitome of sacrificing velocity for movement and location in a time when pitchers were observed peeking over their shoulder to the scoreboard to see what they hit on the in-park radar gun.

Thomas Boswell encapsulated Maddux rather well in repeating an anecdote from a time the two spent together in the early 90’s:

One day I sat a dozen feet behind Maddux’s catcher as three Braves pitchers, all in a row, did their throwing sessions side-by-side. Lefty Steve Avery made his catcher’s glove explode with noise from his 95-mph fastball. His curve looked like it broke a foot-and-a-half. He was terrifying. Yet I could barely tell the difference between Greg’s pitches. Was that a slider, a changeup, a two-seam or four-seam fastball? Maddux certainly looked better than most college pitchers, but not much. Nothing was scary.

Afterward, I asked him how it went, how he felt, everything except “Is your arm okay?” He picked up the tone. With a cocked grin, like a Mad Dog whose table scrap doesn’t taste quite right, he said, “That’s all I got.”

Maddux, while frustrating batters and fascinating fans, made it cool again to be a pitcher that got results without relying upon velocity. In a time when teams are consistently on the hunt for pitching, those who find pitchers who can miss bats with sequencing, location, and deception

The league-wide strikeout percentage (K%) was 19.8% in 2013 while the average fastball velocity (FBv) was 91.7 mph. Batters swung and missed at 9.3% of the pitches thrown, with an overall contact rate of 87.0% and a Z-Contact% of 79.5%. Pitchers who are toughest on batters tend to strike them out frequently by generating frequent swings and misses and limiting both overall contact as well as contact within the strike zone.  There were several examples of pitchers (min 100 IP) in 2013 that were able to achieve above-average results in each area despite a FBv < 90.0.

There were six pitchers who exceeded the league-wide K%:

Name K%
Marco Estrada 23.10%
Hisashi Iwakuma 21.40%
Dan Haren 21.10%
Ryan Dempster 20.80%
Erik Bedard 20.80%
A.J. Griffin 20.80%

There were ten pitchers who exceeded the league-wide SwStr%:

Name SwStr%
Kris Medlen 11.00%
Marco Estrada 10.90%
Hisashi Iwakuma 10.30%
Chris Capuano 10.10%
Carlos Villanueva 10.00%
Jered Weaver 9.90%
Ryan Dempster 9.80%
Joe Blanton 9.60%
R.A. Dickey 9.40%
Dillon Gee 9.40%

There were 36 pitchers whose Contact% was below the league average; these were the ten best:

Name Contact%
Marco Estrada 76.50%
Kris Medlen 76.90%
Carlos Villanueva 77.00%
Ryan Dempster 77.30%
Chris Capuano 77.70%
Jered Weaver 77.80%
Hisashi Iwakuma 79.00%
Dallas Keuchel 79.10%
Joe Blanton 79.80%
Tim Hudson 79.90%

No pitcher whose FBv <90.0 was able to post an above-average Z-Contact% these were the ten best efforts:

Name Z-Contact%
Jered Weaver 82.50%
Marco Estrada 83.60%
R.A. Dickey 84.10%
Ryan Dempster 84.80%
Kris Medlen 84.90%
Erik Bedard 85.00%
Carlos Villanueva 85.30%
A.J. Griffin 85.50%
Chris Capuano 85.70%
John Danks 85.70%

Seeing names such as Hisashi Iwakuma, Kris Medlen, and Jered Weaver on those lists is likely not surprising given their recent track record. However, seeing Marco Estrada first or second on all four lists likely is.

Estrada was drafted and developed by the Washington Nationals, before he was waived and then claimed by Milwaukee in 2010. Throughout his three seasons in Milwaukee, he has retired 24% of the batters he has faced via the strikeout while limiting batters to a .239 batting average and a .296 wOBA. The issue with Estrada has been his extreme flyball tendencies leave him susceptible to home runs as 48 of the 437 flyballs in play off Estrada have become home runs. That computes to a 11.0% home run to flyball ratio, well within league-average range.

2013 was no exception as he permitted a career-high 19 home runs despite throwing 250 fewer pitches and permitting 15 fewer flyballs than he had in 2012. Yet, most of his home runs came in the first month of the season as he allowed an astounding ten home runs in the first month of the season. Once he put April behind him, Estrada’s 2013 season was noticeably improved.

April 0.367 22.7% 4.58
ROS 0.257 7.80% 3.59

His efforts did not go unnoticed by skipper Ron Roenicke.

“Marco has pitched in the second half the way we thought he would all year,” Milwaukee Manager Ron Roenicke told the Journal Sentinel. “We’ll see if he can maintain that through a season. We’ll certainly go into spring training with the thought that he can do it.

“That was a great way for him to finish the season. He gets strikeouts with the fastball, he gets strikeouts with the breaking ball, he gets strikeouts with the change-up. When he’s on like that, he can really go through lineups.”

The changeup stood out in 2013 as Estrada was able to sequence it better and increased his usage of it against right-handed batters. He threw 261 changeups to right-handed batters from 2011-2012, but threw 218 in 2013 against them. The willingness to use the pitch more frequently to same-handed batters led to better overall outcomes from the pitch.

Season Pitches wOBA HR BA BABIP K
2011 339 0.308 4 0.230 0.271 27
2012 396 0.303 5 0.239 0.267 26
2013 488 0.201 3 0.176 0.234 51

Estrada is often lumped into the same boat as former Brewer pitcher Dave Bush since both pitchers threw with below league-average velocity while having issues keeping the ball in the ballpark. That is an unfair comparison because Bush walked a finer line while pitching because he did not miss enough bats.

Source: FanGraphsMarco Estrada, Dave Bush

Estrada has an ability to miss bats due to being able to throw three pitches, to both righties and lefties, for strikes. While his flyball tendencies will always leave him susceptible to home runs, his command of his pitches and his improving control should help limit his amount of baserunners. The recent addition of Matt Garza clouds Estrada’s future as he must now compete for the final two spots in the rotation with the likes of Wily Peralta, Tyler Thornburg, Johnny Hellweg, and Will Smith. The improvements he made last season in  how he approached batters should certainly give him an advantage over the younger pitchers in the group.

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19 Responses to “Doing More With Less”

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  1. RC says:

    You don’t need velocity when the strike zone is 4 feet wide.

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  2. Bobby Marko says:

    Lifelong braves fan and game watcher. Lucky to have spent as many hours as I did right up close the tv watching Maddux’s pitches zip this way and that. Taping them, slow-motioning the pitches for location, intention, etc.

    I have a question/comment about “stuff”. Maddux is always described as not having great stuff, doing more with less, strategizing at-bats, game-plans, etc. That mythology helps to explain a bit of what what Maddux so effective, but it’s misleading (just like Maddux).

    What do we mean by stuff? Is it simply a substitute for power? Is it simply the complimentary converse of “command”? Command is certainly the best word to describe the result of where his pitches ended up. But I’ve thrown enough baseballs in my life to know that his ability to omni-direct nearly any pitch from the same arm angle and speed requires tremendous hand-and-wrist strength and specificity. How is that not also “stuff”? I think of stuff as the particular pitchers assets and how his mastery of them compares to other pitchers trying to do the same kinds of things, particularly those things that are difficult to do to a baseball (i.e., 1) throw it fast; 2) throw it where you want to; 3) make it move). From that perspective, Maddux didn’t overcome average stuff. He had fantastic stuff.

    But that mythology helped him, I guess. He certainly never missed an opportunity to encourage others in their underestimation of him.

    Maybe this is just a syntax discrepancy. But if stuff is just power, we already have a word for it (velocity).

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    • coldseat says:

      stuff is raw ability and w/o refinement, command, sequencing. A good way to think of it is if the pitcher told you what he was going to throw beforehand….if you still have trouble hitting it, that’s “good stuff.” This applies to all pitch types.

      If a batter was told the pitch type and location before a Maddox pitch, he’d have a better chance of hitting that v. a Randy Johnson FB, a Nolan Ryan yacker, or a JR Richards slider. e.g. Maddox didn’t have great stuff but “just” was a master pitcher.

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  3. Dees says:

    The idea that Maddux didn’t have stuff is just so overplayed. He had a pure 80 change and 80 command. I think most people mean that he didn’t have velocity, which is another thing entirely.

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    • Anon21 says:

      What’s the difference between “stuff” and “velocity” in the context of a fastball? (In the case of other pitches, I think I’ve got some idea—break/movement, deceptive similarity to the fastball, etc.).

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      • Dees says:

        If you sort by pitch value per hundred, the top three for the fastball are Matt Harvey, Clayton Kershaw, and Cliff Lee. One of these things is not like the others.

        Cliff Lee has a pretty great fastball without elite velocity; some of the factors in this are movement (he’s in the top ten in both vertical and horizontal break), deception, interaction with other pitches, etc. On the flip side you have a guy like Jeff Samardzija, who has elite velocity, but a below average pitch value for his fastball.

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      • The Foils says:


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  4. Oh, Beepy says:

    The paragraph right after the quote about Maddux is unfinished.

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  5. grandbranyan says:

    Marco Estrada is so overlooked that he isn’t even mentioned in the comments section of an article about him.

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  6. Cidron says:

    When we are talking about Maddux, we always mention his lack of velocity. Granted that is half the story. But, we more often than not, forget to mention that he is also one of the games great students. He watched endless hours of game video, and spent endless hours in the dugout analyzing hitters. He did this more than any of his peers. Even at the top of his game, he didn’t relax. He went out and learned even more.

    And he was able to convert that study and knowledge into execution.

    Knowing something, and Doing something. He was able to do both equally.

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  7. Tim says:

    Yet I could barely tell the difference between Greg’s pitches. Was that a slider, a changeup, a two-seam or four-seam fastball?

    Seems like a guy like that would be pretty hard to hit.

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  8. David Berg says:

    AFAIK, “stuff” = velocity and/or sharpness of movement. A straight 100 mph is great stuff, 90 with late heavy sink is great stuff, 94 with decent sink is great stuff. A young K-Rod’s slurve, which looked like it broke twice, is great stuff.

    Through his prime, Maddux succeeded in part due to great stuff, particularly a diving change and running sinker.

    Sometime between 1998 and 2003, his pitches lost their sharpness. After that, he was simply doing more with less.

    I always wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t pitched through that rib injury in ’98 without missing a start. Strange to say about a guy with 355 wins, but I’ll post a before & after comp.

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    • David Berg says:

      25 starts before 8/12/98:
      1.53 ERA, 7.75 innings per start
      1.1 BB/9, 7.0 K/9, 0.28 HR/9
      opp .204/.236/.266

      25 starts from 8/12/98 on:
      4.11 ERA, 6.57 innings per start
      2.1 BB/9, 6.5 K/9, 0.93 HR/9
      opp .294 / .336 / .431

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