I’m going to come right out and say this is another FanGraphs article about batter pace. That is, the average amount of seconds between each pitch thrown to the batter, as determined by PITCHf/x time stamps. I haven’t gone to this well in a while, and I know it doesn’t appeal to everyone, since pace doesn’t mean much when it comes to determining future or present performance. Pace is a peripheral detail, and while I personally occasionally find it fascinating, you’re free to leave now. I’m not misleading you about what’s to follow.
Go to the batter leaderboards and sort them by pace, in descending order. Or don’t, and let me tell you what you’ll find anyway. You’ll find Carlos Pena at No. 1, which isn’t unusual, because Pena has always taken forever. Then you’ll find Troy Tulowitzki, then Kelly Shoppach, then Robinson Cano, then Travis Hafner. These are some pretty different players, and it’s hard to know on the surface what to make of this. But one of these things is unusual. Historically, these have been four slower-than-average hitters. Also, there’s Tulowitzki.
I think the last thing I wrote about Tulowitzki here was in the pre-season positional power rankings, when he shined as the greatest shortstop in baseball. He’s done little to prove that assertion false; Tulo, this year, has stayed healthy, and Tulo, this year, has been virtually unstoppable. He’s both hit the crap out of the ball and fielded the crap out of the ball, with the end result being one of the league’s most valuable players. Tulowitzki helps, in large part, keep the Rockies afloat.
Now then, as you might imagine, pace is a pretty stable stat. You can think of it as kind of a signature figure, in that players have their own paces. It’s different with nobody on base than with runners on — and it changes based on the pitcher. But over a big enough sample, pace stays steady. I pulled all batters who batted at least 100 times in both 2012 and 2013. The correlation of their season-to-season paces comes out to .83. That’s strong, and only Luke Scott‘s pace has changed by more than three seconds. And only Scott’s pace has decreased by more than two seconds.
We have reliable PITCHf/x data going back to 2008, which means we have reliable pace data going back to 2008, too. For many players over the years, you wouldn’t expect to see much of a pace change. But one might happen to look to the Tulowitzki example. This season, Tulowitzki has a pace of 28 seconds. That’s the second-highest pace in the league. In 2008, he had a pace of 20.5 seconds. It’s been climbing ever since.
So far, we can find 147 players who batted at least 100 times in both 2008 and 2013. The correlation of their paces is .68 — weaker than the correlation between 2013 and 2012, but still strong, especially considering how much time it’s been. Nobody’s pace has decreased by two seconds. Tulowitzki’s pace has increased by 7.5 seconds. The second-biggest increase belongs to Chris Young, at 4.2. Pace is an indicator of something, and in between all the pitches, for Troy Tulowitzki, something has changed. And it’s been pretty dramatic.
Here’s what that 2008 versus 2013 pace data looks like, in image form:
You shouldn’t have any trouble spotting the Tulowitzki point. It’s the one that doesn’t at all fit the invisible line. And for another graph, let’s check out Tulowitzki against the league average over the years:
Once upon a time, Tulowitzki was pitched to faster than average. Now he’s in the running for the slowest overall pace, and I’ve been looking at this for several weeks. Tulowitzki hasn’t sped up.
What’s been going on with Tulowitzki? All we can do is try to observe him on video, and unfortunately the MLB.tv archives aren’t available for 2008, when his pace was the fastest. But we can find some video for 2009, when Tulowitzki’s pace was still more than five seconds faster than it is today. In 2009, he was pitched to about a second slower than average. Now the gap’s at five-and-a-half seconds. Let’s start by looking at Tulowitzki with nobody on base in an at-bat from 2009:
Now Tulowitzki with nobody on base, from last weekend:
Earlier, Tulowitzki left his batting gloves alone. He stomped one time in the box with his right foot, instead of two times. He took three steps back, instead of four. There are little differences, and while one pitch isn’t representative of a whole season, players usually don’t change up how they behave in between pitches. They tend to have a steady routine.
Now Tulowitzki, with a runner on in 2009:
Tulowitzki, with a runner on in an at-bat, from last weekend:
In 2009, again, the batting gloves are untouched. I cut off the 2013 .gif before the broadcast introduced a graphic that remained on the air for several seconds. All of this dialogue was easily spoken in between consecutive pitches to Tulowitzki:
Announcer No. 1: Well, a recipe for longballs. This is very interesting. Look at these numbers. The Rockies at 82 home runs, the most in the National League, that’s not a surprise. The Padres, though, allowing the second-most, they play their home games at Petco where every game is two to one it seems like. I know they moved the fence in but just a little bit.
Announcer No. 2: Yeah, I mean it shouldn’t be that big a difference.
Announcer No. 1: The other wild thing about that stat — as Tulowitzki takes a strike…
Screenshots might be of additional assistance. Tulowitzki, in 2009 and 2013:
In the bottom image, he’s on the grass. He’s not just outside of the batter’s box, he’s half outside the whole circle. No, this isn’t definitive proof that Tulowitzki has changed his between-pitch routine. We’d need to look at a lot more pitches. But when you take this and combine it with the pace data, I don’t know what other conclusion one might reach. Tulowitzki has slowed down every year, and it’s not just because of the pitchers. It’s not just because he’s improved: Tulowitzki was outstanding in 2007 and he was an MVP candidate in 2009. It’s not about deeper counts, because Tulowitzki’s average pitches per plate appearance has hardly changed. Tulowitzki is taking more time between pitches, and pitchers can do only so much about it. They can’t hurry the batter back into the box, and a guy who has a routine will usually be allowed to go about that routine.
It’s not weird that Tulowitzki is slow. It’s not weird that he steps way back, or that he takes practice swings, or that he messes with his batting gloves. Lots of batters have their own individual quirks, and no one can forget Nomar Garciaparra. What’s weird is Tulowitzki has changed so much as a major leaguer. The change wasn’t sudden, but it’s been building — steadily — for years. All that makes you wonder if Tulowitzki could get even slower. It’s like he’s been adding an additional thing each year, slowing the pace further and further. I don’t know how that starts. or if it’s conscious, but the evidence suggests that once something is a part of Tulowitzki’s routine. It doesn’t go away.
It’s all habit, or superstition. I would’ve guessed that these things would have been embedded by the time a guy was promoted to the bigs. By that point he would’ve already had years to get a system down. I would’ve guessed Tulowitzki had a system in college and in the minors. I’m sure he did, but it’s changed, all in one direction. And that’s surprising, because it’s weird. It doesn’t matter, and Tulowitzki’s fantastic and people like him, but change is curious no matter the larger significance. Something has gotten into Tulowitzki’s head. He might not even realize it, but relative to six years ago, Tulowitzki is being pitched 37% slower. I’d say that doesn’t happen by accident, but maybe it does.
Somebody should ask Tulowitzki about this. Maybe he’d have an explanation. Or maybe it’d be more interesting if he didn’t.
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