Tales of the curve: an analysis of Erik Bedard

Baltimore Orioles ace Erik Bedard had a breakout season in 2007 before being sidelined at the end of August with an injury to his oblique muscle. Prior to his final start, he was receiving strong Cy Young Award consideration with a 13-4 record, a 2.97 ERA, and a league-leading 218 strikeouts and only 135 hits and 52 walks allowed in 176 innings. (His last start, pitching injured, resulted in final season numbers a little worse than these I’ve listed.) Compare his 2007 numbers to his previous career-best season in 2006, when he finished 15-11, with a 3.76 ERA and 171 strikeouts against 196 hits and 69 walks in 194 1/3 innings, and it’s clear he stepped up his game in 2007. How did he do it?
Unfortunately we don’t have any PITCHf/x data from the 2006 regular season, but we can use the PITCHf/x microscope to take a look at what Bedard did in 2007 (in the 701 pitches for which we have detailed data). What does Erik Bedard throw? Let’s take a look at his repertoire by graphing the speed of his pitches versus the direction they break.

Bedard Pitch Speed vs. Spin Force Angle
Bedard has four pitches, as best I can tell. His famous erstwhile pitching coach will tell you he throws four different types of fastballs, but I can only see a four-seamer and a cutter. Either he throws the sinker and the “comebacker” infrequently, if at all, in game action, or they move too similarly to the four-seamer for me to differentiate them using this data.
I mentioned already that Bedard pitched with an injured oblique muscle in his final start of the year on August 26. Most of the fastballs and cutters with a speed below 90 mph were recorded in that start. He averages just over 93 mph on his four-seam fastball and 92 mph on his cut fastball. In his August 26 start, those clocked at 89 and 88 mph, respectively.
When healthy, his four-seam fastball runs 92-95 mph and breaks away from a right-hander by about 7-11 inches. The four-seamer is one his two primary pitches to right-handed hitters; he throws it 34% of the time. Against lefties, it’s his third pitch, used only 23% of the time.
His cut fastball runs 90-94 mph and breaks away from a right-hander by about 2-6 inches. The cutter is his primary pitch to lefties, used almost half the time (45%); against righties, it’s his third pitch, used 24% of the time.
Bedard also throws an occasional 80-83 mph changeup, almost exclusively to lefties (7%). Probably his best pitch is a 76-80 mph curveball, which he uses equally to righties (35%) and to lefties (32%).
Let’s take a look at how all his pitches move, including the effect of gravity in addition to spin-induced deflection.

Bedard Vertical vs. Horizontal Pitch Deflection
The slower pitches like the curveball and changeup drop more because gravity has longer to act on them.
I thought it might also be interesting to show something more in line with what I believe the hitter perceives as the “late break” on a pitch, the deflection of the pitch due to both spin and gravity in the last quarter-second before it crosses the plate. Thanks go to Tom Tango for this idea.
Bedard Late Break
This seems to give a more realistic guess at how a hitter might perceive the drop on a curveball compared to a fastball.
Let’s take a look at how Erik Bedard mixes his pitches in different ball-strike counts.
Bedard Pitch Mix by Count
We can see that he uses his cutter more often early in the count or when he falls behind and his four-seam fastball more often with two strikes. He uses his curveball equally across almost all counts, except for avoiding it on 3-0 and 3-1 and showing some preference for it on 2-1 and 3-2 counts. His changeup shows up mostly on 0-1 and 1-1 counts; he throws it to righthanders 20% of the time on those two counts and only 3% of the time on other counts.
Here’s a table showing the details by count.

Count Fastball Cutter Changeup Curveball Total
0-0 54 62 4 62 182
0-1 20 26 21 33 100
0-2 27 10 0 15 52
1-0 16 22 4 22 64
1-1 18 20 9 23 70
1-2 35 8 1 24 68
2-0 5 10 0 4 19
2-1 11 5 3 20 39
2-2 24 11 0 25 60
3-0 0 4 0 0 4
3-1 8 8 0 1 17
3-2 4 8 0 14 26
Ahead 82 44 22 72 220
Even 96 93 13 110 312
Behind 44 57 7 61 169
0 strikes 75 98 8 88 269
1 strike 57 59 33 77 226
2 strikes 90 37 1 78 206
Ball 0-1 170 148 39 179 536
Ball 2-3 52 46 3 64 165
Total 222 194 42 243 701

Now, letís examine where in the zone Bedard throws his pitches and what results he gets with them.

LHH Ball CStrk Foul SStrk InPlay Avg BABIP SLG HR
Fastball 0.48 0.16 0.16 0.03 0.16 0.600 0.600 0.600 0.000
Cutter 0.26 0.30 0.20 0.11 0.13 0.250 0.000 1.000 0.250
Changeup 1.00
Curveball 0.36 0.09 0.20 0.16 0.18 0.250 0.250 0.625 0.000
RHH Ball CStrk Foul SStrk InPlay Avg BABIP SLG HR
Fastball 0.35 0.20 0.21 0.08 0.16 0.258 0.233 0.419 0.032
Cutter 0.34 0.26 0.24 0.02 0.15 0.300 0.263 0.500 0.050
Changeup 0.54 0.05 0.12 0.02 0.27 0.273 0.200 0.636 0.091
Curveball 0.34 0.18 0.16 0.21 0.11 0.227 0.227 0.318 0.000
Lg. Avg. Ball CStrk Foul SStrk InPlay Avg BABIP SLG HR
Fastball 0.36 0.19 0.19 0.06 0.19 0.330 0.304 0.521 0.037
Cutter
Changeup 0.40 0.11 0.14 0.13 0.21 0.319 0.295 0.502 0.035
Curveball 0.40 0.19 0.13 0.11 0.16 0.310 0.290 0.471 0.029

The league average information comes from John Walsh’s article, and I’ve adapted his format in presenting this information. His pitch types probably don’t correspond exactly to mine since he lumps sinkers and cutters in with four-seam fastballs and splitters in with changeups. I believe it’s still helpful to use his league-wide information for comparison since I haven’t established a league-wide baseline on my own yet.
Bedard Fastball Location
With the four-seam fastball, Bedard mostly works the outside part of the plate, especially to lefties but also to righties. To lefties, he mostly stays up or away with the fastball, out of the strike zone, and when he does get in the zone, he doesn’t have very good results, although the sample size is small. Against righties, he gets very good results with the fastball, holding them to a .233 BABIP and a .419 slugging percentage.
Bedard Cutter Location
With the cut fastball, Bedard works away from lefties and gets a lot of called strikes and not much good contact, although two cutters in the middle of the zone did go for home runs. Against righties, he’s all around the zone with the cut fastball, and his results aren’t quite as outstanding. He gets a few more foul balls and a lot less swinging strikes, but overall his results with the cutter are still pretty good against righties.
Bedard Changeup Location
Erik Bedard threw one changeup to a lefty, Lyle Overbay, out of the 701 pitches in our data set, and that resulted in a fly ball out. To righties he works the changeup down and away, mostly out of the strike zone. When he gets it in the zone, they make contact. The changeup looks like Bedard’s weakest pitch.
Bedard Curveball Location
Bedard throws the curveball down and away to lefties, and he generates a lot of swings with it–foul balls, swings and misses, and balls in play. Against righties he also works down and away but isn’t afraid to throw it in the zone. He gets a lot of swings and misses and when the ball is put in play, it’s hit weakly (.227 AVG and .318 SLG). The curveball is a great pitch for Bedard; no wonder he throws it so much.
I wanted to add a note at the end here about which pitches Bedard used to get his strikeouts. We have PITCHf/x data for 50 of his 221 strikeouts. Of those 50 K’s, 22 of them came on the fastball, 21 on the curveball, and 7 on the cutter. That lines up pretty well, percentage-wise, with his pitch mix with two strikes on the hitter.
Hopefully, we’ve learned a little about how Bedard dominated hitters in 2007–a strong fastball/cutter combo and an outstanding curveball. His changeup could use improvement, but it’s his fourth pitch, so that’s really a small complaint. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain the strong performance in 2008 as well as whether he will be doing so as part of the Orioles or on a different team.

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10 Responses to Tales of the curve: an analysis of Erik Bedard

  1. studes says:

    Great graphics, Mike. That’s the first time I’ve seen the “target” graph with speeds added in. Great way to present the data.

  2. Ryne Crabb says:

    Great work Mike! Another interesting read

  3. According to the Bill James 2008 Handbook, Bedard led all A.L. pitchers by throwing 33.9 % curveballs.

  4. John Walsh says:

    Nice work, as usual. I’m curious about how you distinguish between the FB and cutter. It’s not obvious from the first plot that there is a clear separation between the two. (If you removed the color-coding, I’d be hard pressed to say where to draw the line between cutter and FB.)
    Is there something in the data that allows you to separate them or did you rely on scouting reports or both?
    Whatever the case, it looks like your classification is a good one, since Bedard does not use the two pitches in the same way, as can be seen in the RHB/LHB comparisons.

  5. Mike Fast says:

    Thanks, John. In order to distinguish the cutter from what is presumably a four-seam fastball, I looked at the data on a game-by-game basis. Within each game, there are two separate clusters of fastballs. For a few games this distinction is tough to make, but for most games it is fairly clear.
    For example, here is the spin deflection graph with the pitches from his June 21 start indicated by the black triangles:
    http://mvn.com/mlb-stats/files/2008/01/bedard_vertical_vs_horizontal_spin_deflection.jpg
    (I used Alan Nathan’s new equations to find the Magnus force contribution to the pfx_x and pfx_z values, so what’s presented in that graph is slightly modified from the pfx_x and pfx_z values in the original data, but the cutter/four-seamer distinction should translate to the original data in a similar fashion.)
    You can see the same thing in the speed vs. spin deflection angle graph:
    http://mvn.com/mlb-stats/files/2008/01/bedard_speed_vs_spin_force_june21.jpg.
    The scouting reports served as a confirmation of what I thought I saw in the data.

  6. John Walsh says:

    Very interesting. It looks like considering starts individually is a big help in pitch ID.
    Dammit!

  7. John Beamer says:

    It could be that the data is noisy because of errors between starts (either change of park or the system resetting between home stands) …. so in fact we don’t need to consider individual starts but fix the data!

  8. Mike Fast says:

    John B., I think you are correct. I wish I knew how to even begin tackling that.
    There are definitely park and air density effects in play, and I think Josh Kalk has done a good job laying out how to tackle those, but I have a feeling there’s more going on than that. I’ve played around with some of the air density and park stuff and not felt like I was getting the data to behave well yet.
    Maybe, since I have detailed data on Beckett, Smoltz, and Bedard, and they all displayed this effect, if I could just figure out how to make the right adjustments to the data for them, I could discover something with more general application.

  9. Niall says:

    Interesting read.
    Something must be wrong if he threw 206 pitches with 2 strikes but had 218 k’s.

  10. Mike Fast says:

    Niall, we don’t have PITCHf/x data for all of Bedard’s starts. Because Baltimore never installed a PITCHf/x camera system, we only have data for Bedard road games in stadiums where a system was installed, which amounts to 701 of his 2942 total pitches on the season.
    Sorry, I should have noted that in the article. I’ve worked with this data set long enough now that some things seem obvious to me about it that are not actually obvious.

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