Talk to a few Cubs about advanced stats and you’ll get a mixed bag of responses. Quiet appraisal from Luis Valbuena. Internalization and response from Jeff Samardzija. “NERRRRRRDD” yelled jokingly at the correspondent by Darwin Barney. But one the most remarkable turnaround stories in the clubhouse, Kevin Gregg had an equally nerdy response to the numbers: “Mechanical change.”
After what seems like a lifetime with iffy control (10.2% walk rate career), the 35-year-old has his walk rate below league average for the first time in six years. You can’t point to first strike rate (55.6%, 60.3% league average) or zone percentage (40.1%, 45.4% is average) — even though the two have varying degrees of influence on walk rate anyway. You can’t point to pitching mix, since he’s throwing more split-fingers and sliders, and those have worse strike rates than fastballs. You can call it a small sample, but he’s almost two-thirds of the way to last year’s innings total and he’s almost halved his walk rate.
And dismissing the new walk rate ignores a simple fact. Kevin Gregg has made a change to the way he sets up. “My feet got a lot wider. I went from three or four inches apart to where now my feet are outside my shoulders,” Gregg said. When prodded if that meant he was lower, he re-emphasized that it was wider, not lower. “It’s a biomechanical thing: being wider allows your hips to open up, and allows you go get into your front foot better,” he answered.
As I promised the reliever, it’s time to go to the video tape. On second thought, let’s spare the world GIFs of a pitcher setting up and use old-fashioned still images. 2012 is on the left, 2013 on the right, both games in New York to keep the camera angles consistent.
It’s fairly impossible to get a view of a pitcher’s feet when they’re setting up, even when you’ve got size 15 honkers like Kevin Gregg does. The camera doesn’t care. But along the way, if you went looking, you’d find that Gregg is also pitching exclusively from the stretch this year. So this new mechanical change — which does seems to produce a ready position that then requires less energy to continue into his motion — might be more repeatable. He doesn’t have to learn two different ways to set up in this new fashion, just one.
In any case, the reliever says this new position offers him “balance” and “mobility.” It’s not easy to see how different it is, but his stride is smaller since his foot is further towards home plate, and the whole thing seems to take less energy. Check out the full delivery in video (2012 and 2013) and you may see what Gregg is talking about. Even if the peripherals are not completely supportive, it’s worth mentioning that the ball rate on his fastball is down from around 40% over the last three years to about 33% this year.
And all it took was a wider base. What nerdery.
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